What Does 2016 Hold for Ukraine?

This post originally appeared on the Early Warning Project’s blog.

In the last few months of 2015, Christine Mehta traveled to Ukraine several times as part of a delegation tasked with assessing Ukraine’s forensic capacity and political willingness to investigate human rights violations related to the conflict, such as torture, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, and enforced disappearances. “Forensic capacity” means the technical expertise and equipment to collect, preserve, and analyze medical or scientific evidence in a criminal case. Also part of the mission was to explore damage to medical facilities and disruption of health care delivery to citizens affected by the conflict, including internally displaced persons.

Nearly two years ago, Ukraine’s winter of revolution was melting into an unsteady spring.

As the Ukraine crisis moved into 2015, the Early Warning Project put the formerly stable country in the top 20 on its at-risk countries list. The Project identifies countries at risk of new mass atrocities, in particular government violence against its own people. The Project’s hypothesis is that mass atrocities – namely mass killing of civilians – can be detected early, and policy makers can act to save lives. An outbreak of armed conflict in 2014 catapulted Ukraine into the Project’s ranks of countries most at risk of perpetrating a mass killing against its own citizens.

The Ukrainian conflict has killed an estimated 9,098 individuals and injured 20,732 more. It is unknown how many civilians or servicemen are included in the overall estimate, as bodies are still waiting on the battlefields in Donetsk and Luhansk to be recovered and identified. The question going forward into 2016 for Ukraine is: how many more will die?

Since the latest ceasefire was reaffirmed on September 1, 2015, deaths and injuries decreased as both the government and the separatists began removing heavy weaponry from the frontlines. However, despite the ceasefire, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (OHCHR) recorded 47 civilian deaths and 131 injuries from August 16 to November 15, 2015. The breakdown of the rule of law in eastern Ukraine—a consequence of the conflict—also has resulted in human rights and humanitarian law violations being perpetrated by both sides, particularly arbitrary detentions or reports of extrajudicial killings of civilians accused of being opposition or state sympathizers or informants.

Risks to Ukrainian citizens are primarily an indirect consequence of war: collateral damage, damaged infrastructure—including to housing and medical facilities—and lack of medicines, especially for those suffering from terminal illnesses such as tuberculosis and cancer. Counterterrorism operations by Ukrainian security forces pose another threat to civilians still residing in Ukraine’s east, as the government attempts to root out pro-Russian sympathizers. With the current government continuing to tumble in popularity, political destabilization in Kyiv is a high risk, and there remains a danger that the ceasefire will dissolve altogether, resulting in more fighting in the east. This will only result in increased civilian deaths as the country’s infrastructure in Donetsk and Luhansk, and the surrounding provinces, struggles to recover from two years of destructive conflict.

The threats affecting populations in the east differ from those affecting the west. In the east, most active combat occurred in government-designated “Anti-Terror Operations Zones,” or contiguous areas surrounding the Line of Contact on the western side of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (provinces).

The population in ATO zones suffers from continued counterterrorism operations that reports from groups like Amnesty International and the Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights say have resulted in arbitrary detention, torture, and other ill-treatment. Threats from armed groups in Donetsk and Luhansk include torture, extrajudicial and summary killings, and arbitrary detention. Devastated infrastructure, including of medical facilities, and lack of medical supplies, militarization, and restricted freedom of movement are also major concerns for those still residing in ATO zones.

The de facto authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk continue to block western humanitarian aid organizations from delivering medical supplies and drugs, according to several international humanitarian organizations based in Kyiv. According to several doctors with access to Donetsk, and the director of one international humanitarian organization, medical supplies were blocked specifically because of the separatist authorities’ need to create revenue for their financially-strapped Republics by selling Russian-manufactured drugs at inflated prices, rather than distributing aid free of cost. I have not been able to independently verify this claim, but it is worth noting that the separatist authorities have struggled to identify and tap possible income streams.

As winter wears on, international and domestic groups involved in resettling internally displaced persons in Kyiv are concerned that more of the displaced, and those residing in the east, will suffer illness, injury, and death due to lack of basic necessities, including adequate housing, food, medicines, and heat. The UNHCR estimates that 800,000 people are living in eastern Ukraine in “difficult and dangerous conditions,” without reliable access to safe housing, supplies, and heat. While these poor conditions already make survival for the young, elderly, and ill difficult, another outbreak of fighting will result in a further deterioration of conditions for Ukrainians living in the east and in displacement camps along the “line of contact.”

In the west, there are fewer visible signs of the conflict. In fact, Kyiv’s cobblestone streets host markets and street musicians on a daily basis, and young people populate the city’s nightclubs on the weekends, with few external indicators that they fear further upheaval. As in many countries where conflict is entrenched, the instability becomes normal, and life goes on. Despite the relative normalcy of daily life in western Ukraine, however, conflict has inflamed jingoistic rhetoric.

Deepening schisms between the growing Ukrainian nationalist movement and Ukrainian institutions and communities culturally akin to Russia, such as the Orthodox Church, are polarizing Ukraine – and contributing to public tolerance for inflammatory speech by Ukrainian nationalists against Russian-speaking, or Russian-sympathizing, Ukrainians. While the Ukrainian nationalist party, the Right Sector, only held two seats in Parliament after the 2014 election, its influence over public opinion is strong due to its reputation as the “revolutionary party” that liberated Ukraine from Russian influence. Ukrainian nationalism is rising in popularity as Ukrainians become increasingly disillusioned with the current government, led by Petro Poroshenko, which they feel has failed to deliver, or even commit to, the demands made by protesters in 2013.

A legacy of deep distrust towards government that dates back to the days of Soviet rule is still pervasive in both eastern and western Ukraine. That legacy is fueling the popularity of the Right Sector, which was originally a paramilitary confederation in Maidan Square, where its “self-defense groups” fought against riot police in 2013.

On December 4, 2015, my colleague and I arrived in Ukraine for the second time. On the way into Kyiv from the airport, we chatted with the cab driver. “There will most definitely be another Maidan,” the driver said. According to the driver, the current government is still controlled by the same set of oligarchs that controlled the government ousted in 2014. He had little faith in Ukrainian and European Union leaders’ commitment to implement the reforms needed to root out corruption in the country’s creaky, bureaucratic institutions.

The driver’s skepticism is common, but passionately contradicted by a growing group of reformers comprised of civil society activists, lawyers, and some government officials driving the seemingly Sisyphean task of replacing the old guard with the new. Roman Romanov, the director of the human rights and justice program at the International Renaissance Foundation, a Ukrainian civil society group based in Kyiv, told us that while he fears more conflict and the power of corruption, he has never seen the kind of fervor for reform that is currently galvanizing Ukraine. “Everything is about creating new. Everything is on the table for change,” he said.

However, the reformists may become a beleaguered minority – with little power to maintain the current fragile stability in order to keep the government institutions reforming, and root out corruption. For the time being, the odds are in their favor, but they all know their luck could change.

As the government has known since the Right Sector’s formation in 2013, the volunteer battalions and their right-wing ideology are one of the greatest threats to Ukraine’s current administration, as well as its greatest defense against military aggression in the east. The volunteer battalions are key in supporting counterterrorism operations in ATO zones, as well as the State Security Service of Ukraine (the intelligence branch of the Ministry of Internal Affairs). Allegations of arbitrary detention and torture while in detention have been rampant in connection with the volunteer battalions, presenting the government with a dilemma: how to reign in the battalions.

Despite the allegations of abuse, Ukrainians in Kyiv still widely support the volunteers as the harbingers and defenders of democracy and Ukrainian nationalism. Homes and offices are decorated with the flags of the battalions, and businesses set up donation bins for the public to finance the volunteer fighters. Although hostilities have de-escalated dramatically since September 2015, the battalions have not been disbanded, nor have they been effectively brought under the command and control of the Ukrainian government.

If the volunteer battalions and right-wing political parties prompt a coup, the violence that will ensue can only spell disaster for those struggling to survive in the country’s damaged battle zones.

Unfortunately for Ukraine, it is likely that 2016 will witness more fighting, either through an uprising from the Ukrainian far right, another outbreak in the east, or both. Ukraine’s defense budget has ballooned since 2014, with the 2016 budget slated to total nearly four billion USD. In keeping with the analysis of local observers, Ukraine appears to be gearing up for continued military engagement, presumably with Russia.

The fear of instability and more war is ever-present in Ukraine, and the long-term consequences, especially for the displaced and chronically ill in the ATO zones, could be severe. When Ukraine once again thaws from its long winter, an outbreak of hostilities will significantly threaten civilian safety, as further fighting strains ruined and compromised infrastructure, the authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk continue to block humanitarian aid from international organizations, and the use of heavy weapons puts civilians at risk of indiscriminate shelling and firing. The worst outcome for 2016 would be an uprising provoked by the Right Sector, an event that would unravel even the current semblance of political structure, and thus accountability, with little hope of recovery or a peaceful settlement of the conflict in the east. The best safeguard for preserving stability, and safety for vulnerable populations, is for the Ukrainian government to implement reforms and deliver on its promises to Maidan protesters—effectively deflating the ire, and power, of Ukraine’s nationalists.

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