Donbas reconstruction : The West must take the chance

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr looking from a sheltered observation post towards the front line in the eastern Lugansk region on May 27, 2019. Bild: AFP

The undeclared war keeps million residents de facto hostages in their own country. Ukraine’s newly elected president Zelenskyy has made alleviating thir suffering a top priority. Western partners can do a lot to help, and they should immediately. A guest contribution.

          3 Min.

          The highly symbolic visit by European Council President Donald Tusk to Stanista Luhanska, one of the key transit points on the contact line in Ukraine’s Eastern Donbas region, would have been unthinkable just few months ago. Since more than a week, the guns have gone silent in the area and a ceasefire is holding, allowing the population on both sides of the line of contact to start hoping for better living conditions. This is still a fragile achievement. But it reminds the world that Russia’s undeclared war is before all a human tragedy that has claimed more than 13,000 lives, displaced two million Ukrainian citizens, and kept more than three million residents of Donbas – ethnic Ukrainians and Russians alike – de facto hostages in their own country. 

          The newly-elected President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has understood this and rightly made alleviating the suffering of millions of fellow Ukrainians a top priority. After winning 73 percent of the vote, he has a strong mandate to act, telling us in a recent meeting that, “reconstruction cannot wait until the war is over.”

          The President plans to begin with actions in those parts of the region that are under Kyiv’s control. To start healing the wounds, people on both sides of the 500-km contact line (between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-led fighters) need to feel they are welcome in the rest of Ukraine. They deserve the prospect of a decent living, after five years of struggling for survival. 

          Facilitating the movement of tens of thousands of local residents who have no choice but to regularly cross the contact line would help this, not to mention repairing roads and bridges and restoring basic government services. These steps need to be underpinned by a major change in communications strategy to break Russia’s monopoly on information to those living close to the front line. 

          Given the complexity and scale of the problems as well as the deep mistrust on both sides of the contact line, President Zelenskyy can only succeed with full support from the international community. 

          Ukraine’s president’s efforts to promote a stable and lasting ceasefire along the front line – which assumes restraint from the Ukrainian army as well as Russian-led forces – should be supported in the face of domestic criticism. 

          Even before a ceasefire takes hold, Western partners can do a lot to help with Donbas reconstruction. Private local and international investors can be attracted to the region if they see a different attitude from Kyiv and Western capitals. Public-private partnerships, with the support of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development or the World Bank, can make a real difference when it comes to reconstruction of the battle zone and reconnection of the Donbas’s economy to the Ukrainian market. These efforts could be coordinated by an Agency for Donbas Reconstruction, directed by Ukrainian and international partners. Russia could contribute to these efforts if it were prepared to act in good faith as envisaged under Minsk, rather than playing the role of spoiler.

          International donors can also help with funding for local media projects near the front line where official Russian propaganda channels continue to spread disinformation and anti-Ukrainian propaganda to the local population. Ukraine’s major TV channels – all privately held – should also chip in to create a Donbas media fund aimed at providing balanced information to all the citizens of Donbas in both the Ukrainian and Russian languages. 

          Western powers should maintain the pressure on Moscow

          Putting some of these plans into practice will not be easy: they require financial and technical resources that are outside Kyiv’s current capacity. They may also make President Zelenskyy vulnerable to criticism by nationalist groups at home: recent proposals to ease restrictions on goods carried by civilians across the line of contact have been framed by some political opponents as capitulation and treason, rather than as humanitarian gestures to improve the quality of life for Ukrainian citizens suffering under Russian occupation. 

          These measures alone will not end the war. Western powers should maintain the pressure on Moscow until it delivers on its Minsk commitments. But President Zelenskyy’s steps can make a profound difference to Ukraine itself, channeling his unprecedented public support into reconciliation and reconstruction.

          The war in Donbas has raged for half a decade – the longest inter-state conflict on European soil since World War II. The human cost has been intolerable, as has the damage to the international rules-based order established at the end of the Cold War. President Zelenskyy’s election offers a window of opportunity to help the innocent victims of Russia’s aggression to move from barely surviving to having a decent quality of life. The West must not allow this opportunity to pass by. 

          The guest contribution was written by the board of Yalta European Strategy (YES): Alexander Kwasniewski, Carl Bildt, Stephane Fouks, Wolfgang Ischinger, Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Victor Pinchuk.


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