The never-ending civil war in Eastern Ukraine: an insight interview on its consequences for its citizens

This interview was inspired by the overarching neglect of media on the repercussions of the civil war in Eastern Ukraine on its citizens. Whereas the debate virtually always revolves around the “interests of Russia”, the “enlargement of EU/NATO”, the “Minsk II Agreement”, how many people were killed in the latest round of hostilities, etc., there is very small account directly from those who are affected most, namely Ukrainian citizens who live(d) in Eastern Ukraine. Hence, in this interview a friend of mine tells her story about the time after the Maidan Revolution started. She lived in Luhansk and has therefore experienced much of what we normally only know from the media. Due to confidentiality, her name will not be disclosed. I hope for those who read it, it will provide a perspective on the reality of civil wars.

Hello N. – let us begin our conversation with you. In particular, it would be interesting to hear what is your relationship to Luhansk?

                Yes sure, so I was born in the area of Luhansk and shortly afterwards we moved to the city. There, I basically spent the largest part of my life and lived there for 17 years. I went to the high school and only after finishing I went studying law at the university in Kharkiv until summer 2014. My parents lived in Luhansk and worked as notaries.

How would you describe Luhansk?

                Luhansk is one of the most Eastern cities of Ukraine. It is very industrial, so we have many mines especially in the coal sector. The majority of people is employed in the industrial sector and speaks both Ukrainian and Russian, but Russian is the most important language for daily use. Unfortunately, we also had a high degree on corruption. It is a bit harsh to say but for me it was a bit of a depressive city with little recreational possibilities. A typical post-Soviet town.

Looking at 2014, from your perspective what happened in Luhansk in the crucial months during the Maidan Revolution?

                The revolution itself was a big surprise to us all. After what was going on in Kiev, people began to protest against the Maidan Revolution. People here really thought that the revolution was inspired by the United States and they were afraid being captured by nationalist and oppressed, especially with regards to the Russian language. There were no pro-Maidan protests, only anti-Maidan protests as far as I saw it. The protesters wore as a symbol the Georgian ribbon in order to identify themselves.

The protesters were local people?

                Yes, those were mostly older people, less young people but it was still popular also among them. I am sure that the local authorities supported the protests. The Eastern regions always favored Russian, there is a long-term tradition, especially in Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk. But some of the protestors were also paid. I know from my own experience that some received 300 Hrywnia to wear the Georgian ribbons and hold flags.

Which consequences did the protests have?

          In February/March 2014 the revolution ended. We didn’t expect these developments like that the president flew. And then we saw in television what happened in Crimea that it   became subject to the Russian federation. Then suddenly we saw small groups of people and those grew and started to occupy government buildings. But I don’t know why the local authorities were not able to stop them, they had the capacities. I personally didn’t see foreign elements at that time. There was a growing anti-nationalist mood among the people. Even my mum said that some of their former classmates participated in the capturing of the buildings.

                I went to Kharkiv in the end of March in order to graduate and since then never came back to Luhansk. I was phoning with my mom and heard in the background Ukrainian jets flying over the city. The sentiment against the government in Kiev grew, the more it attacked the occupiers.

So, you stayed in Kharkiv after March 2014?

                I thought I would go back to Luhansk because after my studies I should work there. This is law in the Ukrainian educational system that if you receive financial support from the state due to your results you are expected to work for some time in your professional field. However, regarding the events on the ground this was not possible and after graduation in summer 2014, I went to abroad to teach English.

What happened to your family?

                They stayed during the occupation until summer 2015 but my father had to finish his work earlier as a notary. They chose to go to Kharkiv because it is the closest big city and we knew the city also through my studies. In summer 2015 when I came back from abroad, they had fully relocated in Kharkiv. My father had problems to find a new job and my mum had to start her business as a private notary from scratch. Finding new clients, registration, organizing the archives, in general it was very troublesome. Furthermore, many lawyers fled to Kharkiv and the competition grew there which made it even harder to integrate.

Why was the decision made?

                It was impossible to stay in Luhansk because notaries, both private and state affiliated, could either choose to work for the state or leave. However, working for the LNR as private notary became punishable by national law. Also, the state registry was shut down by the Ukrainian state which is needed for statements like transfer of properties. It stopped existing for the Luhansk region in order to freeze the information on property rights before the occupation. But I honestly don’t know how to come back to the status quo. In fact, if you   decided to stay as a private notary, then you made a lot of money because people travelling between both LNR (Luhansk People’s Republic) and non-occupied territory needed a lot of documents which they organized and signed for them. Furthermore, the competition in Luhansk was much lower.

Have you considered different options?

                We thought a bit if go to Kiev but we decided against it because it was more expensive, more chaotic and we knew more people in Kharkiv.

How did the relocation process took place?

                My family went to Kharkiv several times but they had problems at the separatist customs control to transfer possessions like electronics over the “border”. They were required to show bills that those possessions belonged to them what of course you do not have for everything. Furthermore, you need a special pass from the Ukrainian state now if you want to go to Luhansk. You also have to explain your motives to the authorities. But it is kind of easy to make the pass. They stayed longer than others because they hoped for some political resolution, but then eventually decided to leave in summer 2015.

Coming back to the events in Luhansk, it is often said that foreigners played an important role in the protests – is this true from what you experienced?

                In summer 2014 we saw first soldiers coming from Russia, we saw Russian supplies, and you   saw for the first time these shaky mobile phone videos with Russian tanks crossing the borders. Personally, I only saw in 2014 the outburst of the occupation by local separatist before I went to Kharkiv. However, as my parents stayed longer, they even communicated with some Russians on the street. Many Russian-speakers from non-European descent were there, you could say that from their appearance and dialect. They said they came there to protect Luhansk people from the nationalist government in Kiev. They were largely paid mercenaries. However, also many young locals joined the militias. They saw an opportunity for personal enrichment and did not make a secret out of it. One told my mum directly that “now it’s their turn to rule”.

Did you experience the armed hostilities personally?

                Once I came with my parents to D. [an Ukrainian village] in the end of the summer 2015 where we had one apartment. It was very close to the border between LNR and the non-occupied territory but still on the Ukrainian side. There, I experienced the first time the mutual bombardments between the Ukrainian army and militias from the LNR. This was the first and last time.

So, you arrived in Kharkiv – how was life there?

                We already had an apartment in Kharkiv due to my studies. From this point of view we were better situated than many other IDPs [Internally Displaced People] who also arrived in the city. However, IDPs received social housing, some humanitarian aid like basic medicaments, hygienic materials and other utilities for six months. In order to be eligible for this support, you have to apply every six months to remain in the status as an IDP, if you cannot prove that your housing in the occupied territory was not destroyed. But the support was not much.

Were people helpful?

                We have a close mentality with Kharkiv because it is also a Russian speaking region. But there were also downsides sometimes. For example, my mother’s friend went one time to a market where she wanted to buy fruits. She was undecided what to choose and the local vendor told her that she should be only that picky if she buys a coffin. Then he continued and complained that they [IDPs] are taking their local jobs.  Furthermore some locals sometimes said that people from the occupied territories were source of the current problems. They were the ones who wanted Russia’s help.

                Before the outbreak of the whole conflict there was a negative image of my region. We are workers, doing mostly manual labor, work in mines, are dirty, uneducated, and so on. While these stereotypes were harmless, after everything happened they evolved to be more dangerous. But let me say that what I observe in the past years is that the non-occupied territory of Ukraine becomes more Ukrainian patriotic and accepts IDPs much more.

How did the conflict affect institutions in which you paid taxes, for instance pension funds?

                Actually, not much. In Ukraine we have fixed pensions based on the years of work, the position you occupied and more. From this point of view we are not affected. But people who stayed in the occupied territory are not paid by the Ukrainian government anymore and now receive pensions in Russian Rubles from the local authorities but at a much smaller rate. The exchange rate is lower, before we got 2 Hrywnia for 1 Ruble and they made 3 Hrywnia for 1 Ruble.

Are you content with the reactions of the Ukrainian government towards IDPs?

                Mostly there were some small steps to help IDPs but it was not much and it is a huge bureaucratic hassle if you wanted to relocate. I cannot see particular steps of the Ukrainian government to help us directly but as I said before some people receive social housing and other support.

My last question to you, do you or your family plan to go back to Luhansk at some point in future?

                My parents miss Luhansk but in the current situation we do not perceive a return as a real possibility unfortunately.

Thank you very much for the short interview

                It was a pleasure.

3 thoughts on “The never-ending civil war in Eastern Ukraine: an insight interview on its consequences for its citizens

  1. I understand your argumentation, and calling it an internationalized civil war indeed may be a conceptual solution to the problem. There’s still one problem anyway: unfortunately, the central issue is not regional autonomy, but the functioning and even existence of the Ukrainian state. I definitely understand that this is not presented by the so-called embassies of the DNR/LRN when they organize conferences in English or local languages, but the messages articulated in the Russian and separatist discourses are covered in mottos like “Let’s reach Kyiv and Lviv” and “Ukraine is a fake state and a historical mistake” mean that Ukraine must be destroyed or at least made dysfunctional. This was exactly the message of Putin in April 2014 who said that a large piece of the Ukrainian territory was “Novorossia”. It would be much easies for Ukraine to cope with demands of regional autonomy. Crimea had it at almost all levels with the exception of influence on foreign policy, but this didn’t prevent the annexation. The case of the Donbas is not different. And if Ukraine fully loses control over the whole Donbas, the world can expect further fightings in first Kharkiv, Odesa, Mykolaiv, Dnipro, and eventually in Kyiv Zhytomyr etc. Local Donbas separatists don’t need this, of course. But unfortunately the Kremlin thinks it does.

  2. Dear qqq,
    thank you very much for this valuable comment. Indeed, the question what concretely is a civil war and what not is a controversial issue. According to your argument, civil wars with the military support as observed in Ukraine should not be counted as civil wars. The question is then if there is added benefit to call this phenomenon of violence differently than civil war or if it constitutes some sub-group like “internationalized” civil war. In fact, researchers like Salehyan (2009) showed that in around 50% of cases of what we call civil wars one can observe some form of foreign intervention/support. The question then arises where is the tipping point from which a civil war changes into a militerized interstate dispute (MID). What scope of the foreign intervention is needed and how does the actors have to behave with regards to each other (foreign donor viz a viz rebels)?

    The UN definition is definitely useful for legal purposes but for academic research we typcially have a binary between civil wars and MIDs (although of course several researchers use more fine grained distinctions). I stick to the conceptual definition of the UCDP project ( according to which the following criteria have to be fulfilled (
    1) Armed force
    2) Death threshold of 25 is surpassed
    3) At least two parties: Government and a sub-state actor
    4) The conflict has to be conducted within the territory of one state
    5) An interest incompatability between the state and the opposition, either over government or territory (seccession)

    In Ukraine the government engages against sub-state actors in Donetsk and Luhansk over the question of regional autonomy. The interest incompatabilities existed already before the violence broke out. Russia is in this set-up a secondary party which supports local actors with military equipment and personnel. Yes, it plays a very active role but this alone is not yet sufficient to call the phenomenon a war between Russia and Ukraine.

    In fact, in order to count as a civil war, it does not mean that rebels have to be able to sustain themselves without help. Many civil wars, especially in my main area of interest in Sub-Saharan Africa, were only possible because neighboring countries supported with various means rebels. Nobody calls the Angolan civil war or the civil war in Mozambique a war between Angola/Mozambique vs South Africa, although without the latter the level of violence certainly would not have been possible at all.

    The statement “It’s either a civil war or armed aggression as defined by the UN […]” does not reflect the wider conceptual variety of the phenomenon of violence that we call civil war. The war in Ukraine rather approaches the case of an internationalized civil war than a typical military interstate dispute between two states but this can change due to the dynamics on the ground.


  3. One must really stretch the definition of civil war in order to fit what is going on in Eastern Ukraine under this term. If one calls it a war between citizens of the same state, then one can call even the Second World War a global civil war or whatever, since there were collaborationists in every single state which was invaded by the Nazis. And there certainly are collaborationists in Ukraine, which does not change the fact that there are foreign forces waging war on the Ukrainian territory, and that the war was initiated by the Russian forces – it’s enough to look at what the former commander and Russian officer Girkin-Strelkov said about this already in 2014: “I pressed the hook of war. If our division never crossed the border, it would have ended like in Kharkiv or Odessa.”

    The civil war in Odessa ended in the spring of 2014 with the terrible massacre and lasted weeks, and the only reason why the “civil war” has not ended in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions is that it is not a civil war. The UN coined the term designating what’s going there years ago, it is “aggression” and means “the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations, as set out in this Definition.” There has already been a successful attempt by the Kremlin to depict the annexation of Crimea as a civil conflict and internal Ukrainian matter, but we’ve all seen the Putin’s interview one year later in which he openly spoke about the illegal actions of Russian special forces – just not calling the illegal.

    It’s either a civil war or armed aggression as defined by the UN, and even the interviewed person does not deny the presence of Russian soldiers – and to be more specific, there are irregular, regular and special forces of the Russian Federation, not to mention dozens of war volunteers predominantly from Russia, but also from Spain, Czech Republic, Slovakia and other countries. The human perspective is very important, and the way Ukraine treats IDPs is another horrible story, but one must be cautious about the use of definitions since it creates a false impression.

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