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Ukraine - Conflict in the Donbas: Civilians Hostage to Adversarial Geopolitics

Emmanuel Tronc, Anaïde Nahikian
Published: 
Aug 2020

Since 2014, the war in the Donbas, fueled and sustained by local and regional political priorities, has inflicted a heavy burden of civilian death, injury, displacement, destruction, and lasting trauma. As the conflict continues, the people of Donbas are more isolated than ever from the rest of their country, subjected to discrimination and stigmatization by both the Ukrainian authorities and separatist leaders. Today, a confluence of factors continues to drive conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Triggered by the 2013 Euromaidan protests in Kyiv, the rupture between the post-Maidan Ukrainian government and local elites in the Donbas over aspirations of independence and self-determination highlighted the growing schism between those with Russian-oriented ambitions and those supporting the new Ukrainian regime. As clans, warlords, and oligarchs within Ukraine fight for political influence and financial gain, Russian influence continues to destabilize the Westward-leaning Ukrainian authorities in Kyiv, reinvigorating the enduring geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the West. Humanitarian operations in Eastern Ukraine are also under significant pressure by the separatist authorities. Agencies struggle to bridge the gap between critical needs and their response capacity, while being forced to rely almost exclusively on local organizations. In the process of humanitarian and access negotiations, agencies must guard against the instrumentalization of aid, the blurring of lines between political, military, and relief operations, and an ever-shrinking humanitarian space. What drives this protracted conflict? How have global politics and local agendas contributed to sustaining a “frozen” conflict at the expense of communities and in the interest of asserting nationalist independence at all costs? How have the hopes of local communities in the Donbas withered over time, as they navigate the dissonance in geopolitical rhetoric and their lived reality? What avenues exist for reconciliation and unity amidst this violent divisiveness? This report explores these questions and offers reflections based on more than 250 interviews undertaken during two field visits to Ukraine, in both government and separatist-controlled areas, and one visit to Russia, between November 2019 and January 2020. It also draws on an extensive desk analysis of relevant literature to complement the findings of these interviews and consultations.

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