KRAMATORSK, Ukraine—The temperature dropped down to minus 12 C (10.4 F) in eastern Ukraine and continued to fall. On Wednesday afternoon over 200 vehicles packed with colorful plastic bags, suitcases, and exhausted passengers waited on the grimy road in the middle of a windy field to pass through Mariinka checkpoint to the part of the Donetsk region that is under the control of rebel militants.
Some of the people in line had been waiting for longer than eight hours but none of them dared to get out and stretch their legs in the surrounding fields, which are sown with land mines. So they stayed among the armored vehicles and the troop transports full of Ukrainian soldiers and security service offices, waiting, and waiting… to pass through the customs control toward the Russia-backed breakaway territory.
Mines are not the only danger. Militants from the pro-Russian side often fire in the direction of Mariinka checkpoint. The Ukrainian army reported three wounded soldiers on Jan. 25, adding to hundreds of military and civilians killed and injured during the most recent months.
The checkpoint was dangerous, the crossing exhausting but it continued to work, making smugglers richer and corruption critics angrier, but giving a chance to broken communities to connect.
That could change. In a world of rising barriers, this one could get much worse.
The idea being discussed in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, these days is whether to build a real or a virtual wall and seal the 400-kilometer front line with the rebellious half of Donbas.
Maybe that could be done, maybe not—the financial cost alone would be enormous for a solid wall; more land mines and closed checkpoints would be relatively inexpensive. But, in any case, the very idea infuriates Yevgeny Vilinsky, the deputy governor of Donetsk region. The now nearly three-year-old war has killed over 10,000 people. It has left almost 2 million without their homes in Donbas, and it continues to kill dozens every month.
In the town of Mariinka some of the destroyed houses on Oktiabrskaya, Lenin, and Shevchenko streets have been repaired, but a sniper fired at one of the new windows. “It’s as if they are mocking us,” the head of the town’s administration, Alexander Teslia, told The Daily Beast.
On Friday, the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) mission warned about the humanitarian and ecological catastrophe in the conflict-affected areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblast, as both Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed militants fired at water purification stations with Grad rockets and smaller artillery, leaving hundreds of thousands without water in this freezing winter.
What would it mean to put half of them, the half controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, behind the wall?
“We do not even have to build the wall, the no-man’s land along the entire contact line is mined,” Teslia told The Daily Beast, then took a long breath and spoke forcefully: “Would that wall be against old women, somebody’s mothers and children? This is not a border between California and Mexico here, these are families who are part of one people—only idiots could think of that!”
Vilinsky told The Daily Beast the Donbas barrier in any form would be worse than Donald Trump’s wall. The comparison comes to the mind of many Ukrainians these days.
Whether rebel controlled or Kiev controlled, all of the nearly 4 million people in the territory of Donetsk are Ukrainian citizens. To split Donbas officially, on paper, to isolate thousands of pro-Russian people from their pro-Western country would also mean to betray and abandon those, who—Vilinsky is sure—have always stayed faithful to Ukraine.
“Moscow intends to implement a Chechen scenario of total fear, a terrorized, pro-Kremlin society,” the deputy governor told The Daily Beast. “But I am sure we could do better with gradually reintegrating the rebel regions into Ukraine.”
A leading supporter of the plan to isolate the rebel republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, vice speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament Oksana Syroyid, is firmly against soft reintegration for the breakaway territories. Her recently introduced legislation is supported by the Self Reliance Party in the Parliament, which was elected mostly in western regions of Ukraine. Syroyid has pushed for new legislation and insists that Ukrainian oligarchs, billionaires who were mostly from the eastern regions, have to stop supporting the separatists.
Most notable among those mega-rich figures, according to Syroyid, is one Rinat Akhmetov, a billionaire who continued to benefit from producing coal in the rebellious republics and trading his goods both with Russia and Ukraine.
“We have to isolate the territories occupied by our eternal enemy Russia, both economically and politically, by law; we should build a virtual wall, to implement the customs border along this contact line, control all movements and all goods,” Syroyid told The Daily Beast.
Several international organizations including Global Rights Compliance criticized Syroyid’s law for being a blanket provision that, for instance, rendered all paperwork, such as birth, death, and marriage certificates issued by the “occupying power” as null and void.
“In our opinion the draft law is concerning and in many respects breaches Ukraine’s obligations under international law,” Global Rights Compliance said in its opinion about the legislation. Refusal to recognize the rebel documents, it said, violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights.
But the vice speaker insisted it is time for the legislation.
“Look, Putin and Trump underestimate each other, expect they can outsmart each other, but that’s not possible and eventually, soon, there will be a clash between them,” Syroyid predicted in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“That day will be the point where the new global insecurity order begins to take shape, and the world won’t be able to do that without Ukraine, a permanent target for Russia.” Syroid suggested that the line to stop Russia should be in Donbas. “We know Moscow better than any other country in the world, that is where the world can stop Russia.”
Half of the population of the devastated Donetsk region, about 2 million people, lives in what Deputy Governor Vilinsky calls “a black zone.” The residents of the self-proclaimed and Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic have no independent news coverage and no chance to protest against thousands of militia who are armed with tanks, artillery, and multiple rocket launchers.
Donald Bowser, a United Nations Development Program consultant working in the Donetsk sees similarities between the way the Russians handled Chechnya and what they want to do in Ukraine. But he noted, “Donbas is a much bigger territory than any of the post-Soviet separatist republics.”
Bowser has plenty of experience with Ukraine’s social issues and political issues, but he is hopeful based on what he has heard from officials in the Donetsk region, he said. “The governor’s administration in Kramatorsk is genuinely fighting corruption. I believe Velinsky is an honest man,” Bowser told The Daily Beast.
One year before the war began, Vilinsky ordered a survey by Rating Group sociologists to see if Ukraine was ready for European integration.
“To our astonishment, we saw that 69 percent of Donbas population wanted Ukraine to merge with Russia and Belarus in one unified state, and only 30 percent wanted the country’s independence, so the split was obvious long before the war,” Igor Tishenko, a researcher from Rating Group, told The Daily Beast. The sociologist also stressed that the same survey showed that about 90 percent of the region’s population wanted Russian as the state’s second official language.
With what many see as a pro-Russian Donald Trump in the White House, Ukraine is more torn than ever about the future of Donbas.
The debates around what to do in the conflict heated up after one of the country’s famous billionaires, Victor Pinchuk, wrote an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal with the headline: “Ukraine Must Make Painful Compromises for Peace with Russia.”
Pinchuk’s statement was widely criticized, especially by the war veterans and victims of the conflict. Pinchuk’s father-in-law, former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, represented Ukraine in the Trilateral Contact Group talks in Minsk. And some asked whether the oligarch could articulate such an opinion without the approval of the current president, Petro Poroshenko. Others wondered if there had been a deal made by the billionaires about Donbas’s future, without taking public opinion into consideration.
Looking at the way Trump made “the wall” annoucement in United States this week, people wondered what kind of arrangements the new U.S. president might make with Russia, perhaps ceding Crimea and approving a de facto division of the rest of Ukraine.
One parliament member, Mustafa Nayyem, who was one of EuroMaidan revolution leaders in the winter of 2013-2014, wanted to send a message to the U.S. president in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“President Trump should realize that Ukraine will remain a mine field for many years and that if he tries to strike deals behind our backs, there will be a huge civil conflict and that once the Baltic Countries and Poland realize that the U.S. does not support them, they will form a coalition against Russia’s aggression,” warned Nayyem, a strong believer in Ukraine’s chance to win its sovereign rights.
Nayyem’s team together with Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is against losing any part of the territory of Donbas.
“We hope that Trump wants to stick to the Minsk agreement and we need the U.S. to be our mediator during the integration process, which will take years.”
Back in Kramatorsk, officials felt bad about things being decided behind their backs. “We are confident that integration can gradually work, as we saw how young people from occupied Donetsk crossed the contact line and walked many kilometers to see the Ocean Elsy concert in Mariupol; but all the separatist militia who killed our soldiers should be punished,” says Igor Stokoz, another deputy governor of Donetsk region.
Both Stokoz and Vilinsky left their families in Kiev and moved to this region to make a difference in this devastated and still largely pro-Russian part of Ukraine. But they know that painful times are ahead, and that vendettas and lynching may be the dark side of the reintegration process, with thousands of Ukrainians eager to kill those who collaborated with Russia.
Searching for optimism, one might hope that the hellish war that destroyed Donbas would also give Donetsk authorities, Ukrainians and foreign NGOs, volunteers and youth movements a unique chance to turn Donbas into a corruption-free place, transparent and attractive for young people.
On Thursday evening, Kramatorsk students gathered at Vilna Hata (Free House) club, a newly opened hipster center with WiFi, free books, and tea. To fix up their space in the basement of a rundown apartment building, activists in Kramatorsk won a USAID grant.
“We welcome everybody here, no matter what side they were on during the conflict,” says Aleksey Shott, a well-built Vilna Hata host with a friendly smile. “Today we present a new cellphone application telling you about our city’s cultural life.”
Shott, who is 24, never took a single breath in the Soviet Union, but the experience he had with the old empire’s mentality is enough to write a novel. From April 12 to July 5 of 2014 he witnessed battles between separatist and Ukrainian forces right on the streets of his home town.
Shott and his friends, young and creative people with innovative ideas, are the best hope for the kind of Donbas that Vilinsky wants to build in a Ukraine without a wall.
“We now have a unique chance, budget, resources, so I dream that Kramatorsk could become what West Berlin was once for Eastern Berlin,” Velinsky told The Daily Beast. “I have a dream that the graduates of three IDP [internally displaced persons] universities that we now have in Kramatorsk, young professionals, would stay in the Donetsk region and develop it.”