Continued violence between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine is dashing hopes about last month’s Minsk II cease-fire agreement. February’s terrorist attacks in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and the continued threat of a separatist assault on the strategic port city of Mariupol suggest no real pause in violence anytime soon. But that might not be eastern Ukraine’s biggest problem: the region is now broken. The rise of an ungoverned, violent Donbass—which had a prewar population of six million—is likely to be one of the war’s most important lasting legacies. This grim reality is a problem that few in the West are ready to acknowledge, let alone confront.
The human costs of fighting are obvious: at least 1.5 million people—one out of four residents—have fled the region. Over 6,000 people have been killed according to official numbers, but actual numbers are likely higher. Local infrastructure such as roads, bridges, schools, power stations, sewers, water pipes, and apartment buildings are damaged or have been turned into rubble. Legitimate economic activity in Donbass, once an industrial powerhouse, slowed to a halt as workers fled, electricity supplies became sporadic, and violence made the shipment of goods to Russian and Ukrainian markets impossible. Instability and the rise of criminal groups in the region scared off investors, who are not likely to return. A vast humanitarian crisis is growing, and painfully few resources are being directed toward fixing it.
There are other, less obvious costs of war in the region as well. Administrative bodies in separatist-held regions function poorly, if at all. This is not new, however, as governance in eastern Ukraine has never been efficient, and corruption in local administrative structures is a persistent problem in both Russia and Ukraine. Neither country created transparent and accountable institutions over the past 20 years. Rather, eastern Ukraine has long been ruled by a nexus of political power, business interests, and criminal groups. An important power figure before the war was Ukrainian enjoyed greater authority than many local governors or law enforcement officials. After the conflict erupted, corrupt local institutions collapsed as prewar officials and business leaders fled west or threw in their lot with separatists, leaving the separatist-held territories to devolve into lawlessness.
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