New level of Donbass war. COVID as a weapon against civilians
No shots were heard in the Donbass for more than a month, no people were killed on the front line.
Before the announcement of the ceasefire on July 27, the conflict also collected its victims mainly among the military, – this did not concern civilians much. Almost peaceful life. But has the existence of civilian population of the occupied territory improved over the past six months? – On the contrary, it has worsened. Economically, socially and psychologically.
Moreover, if the hostilities directly affected only a limited number of people living near the confrontation line, closure of the checkpoint on the crossing line under the pretext of combating COVID-19 affected almost all residents of the region, both in the free and in the occupied territories.
So, according to official statistics, on average in 2019, 1.2 million people crossed the line of demarcation in the Donbass inside of a month in both directions. Of these, about 900 thousand people – through the checkpoints of entry and exit in the Donetsk oblast and 300 thousand people – through the only checkpoint in the Luhansk region – Stanytsia Luhanska.
All checkpoints have been closed since March this year. The only checkpoint in the Luhansk oblast has been opened since July. The so-called “DNR” either opened the checkpoint for several days or let a meager number of people in according to special lists…
By and large, about a million residents of the region were deprived of the opportunity to move freely between the government-controlled and non-government-controlled territories. In fact, this has resulted in broken familiesд, loss of work, loss of business communications and resources, deprivation of the opportunity to receive social benefits, termination of friendly, creative and other contacts.
It is interesting that arguing their policy of the “iron curtain” by fear of importing COVID-19 from Ukraine, the occupation administrations not only do not let in, but also do not let out residents, unless they have registration in the free territory and they do not sign a statement that they will not try to return before the end of quarantine.
That is, in fact, segregation is underway in the occupied territory, separation of “friends” from “aliens” registered in the territory controlled by the government. Not just separation, but isolation from each other.
In fact, if the war was fought between combatants earlier, and civilian population suffered from its consequences, but was not its object, then COVID brought the conflict to a new level, – it became a weapon of war against the civilian population.
Moreover, this type of war is not regulated by international legal norms, such as the Vienna or Geneva conventions. This is a weapon that diplomats, lawyers and conflict experts will have to study and introduce into the legal field. Until that happens – everything is allowed!…
Speaking about the impact of COVID on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in Donbass and its consequences for the population, it is necessary to have an idea of the real epidemiological situation in the occupied territory and in the region in general.
Of course, it would be naive to trust the official figures announced by the occupation administrations, but even they show that the policy of isolating its population from Ukraine is absolutely unfounded.
So, according to the “DNR” Ministry of Health, 2114 cases of COVID-19 and 118 deaths were “officially” recognized in CADO as of August 18,. Thus, the death rate from coronavirus in the “republic” reached 5.58%.
This figure is 2.5 times higher than that in the government-controlled territory, where the death rate was 2.24% at that time. There were days when the dynamic death rate in the “DPR” was above the worldwide average (about 5) – 6.22.
The situation in Russia, which occupied the third place in the world in terms of the number of infected at that time, was not much better than in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the occupation authorities let people in the Russian Federation and out almost without restrictions. Although even they admitted that the deadly virus comes from Russia.
So, Dmitriy Dokashenko, who calls himself the “chief state sanitary doctor” of the “LNR”, stated on June 18: “At the moment, more than half (of those identified between June 5-18 – ed.) are imported cases, that is, these are the persons who arrived on the territory of the “republic” from the Russian Federation”.
Thus, the occupation authorities artificially created restrictions on the movement of people to Ukraine, but “did not notice” the objective epidemiological danger from the Russian Federation. Rather, they noticed, but ignored!
That is, despite the real severity of this problem in the occupied territory, COVID-19 was considered by the occupation authorities not as a threat to people’s lives, but primarily, as a tool to achieve their political goals. First of all, this is control over people, as well as forcing the Ukrainian leadership to negotiate directly with the puppet “republics”, which in fact, under the pretext of fighting the coronavirus, took Ukrainian citizens hostage in the occupied territory. Such negotiations would allow Russia to present what is happening in the Donbass as a civil conflict.
A specific and most striking example is the suppression of the strike of miners in the city of Antratsyt in the occupied part of Luhansk oblast.
119 miners of the Komsomolska mine refused to rise to the surface on June 5, demanding payment of the wage arrears. After that, the arrests of miners who were going to join them began in the neighboring mines. According to the Russian media reports, the miners were tortured to give up the names of other members of the labor movement. 22 people were abducted. The pressure of members of the miners’ families began.
The curfew was intensified in Antratsyt during these events, some buses were canceled, entry and exit from the city were prohibited, there were even interruptions in mobile communications and blocking of access to the VKontakte Russian social network. The “authorities” explained these extraordinary measures by the fight against coronavirus.
In addition, coronavirus was used to stimulate residents of the occupied republics to illegally obtain a second, Russian citizenship. Departure to Russia and hence the possibility of working there was opened in early July. Considering that the economic situation in the “republics” themselves is critical and there is no employment opportunity (except for participation in the illegal armed formations), people have to take pot luck in going to work: to Russia, or to Ukraine? So, they receive Russian passports in order to feel more secure in Russia.
The same is with small business, which has lost other opportunities for activity with the closure of the checkpoint, except for those that can be obtained in the Russian Federation.
Even in order to spend several days by the sea, the residents of the “republics” tried to acquire a Russian passport, since its holders were exempted from compulsory observation when entering Crimea. That is, the observation is needed with a Ukrainian passport, or even with the “LNR”-“DNR” passport, but a Russian passport is already considered by the Crimean authorities as a panacea for coronavirus…
It is also interesting that coronavirus was used by occupation authorities of Russia as a tool of ideological and information warfare.
For example, “official” representative of the “DNR People’s Militia Directorate” Dmitry Astrakhan informed the CADO population from TV screens that the virus was “created in Ukrainian laboratories under the supervision of the CIA curators” and that “15 American biological laboratories, the work of which is supervised by the CIA officers, operate on the territory of Ukraine. These laboratories are located in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Mykolaiv, Vinnytsia, Ternopil, Lviv and Uzhhorod”…
That is, occupation authorities recognize the presence of the virus and its danger (can it not be deadly, if it is created in Ukraine, and even under the leadership of the CIA?), but on the other hand, they easily forget about this danger, if they need it.
For example, all local holders of Russian passports were given a free opportunity to travel in an organized manner to the Rostov oblast to participate in a referendum on amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation. With no further observation. Many, indeed, took advantage of such a “freebie” to overstock in Rostov stores at the same time.
In addition, the leaders of the “republics” temporarily canceled their prohibitions on mass events “in connection with the Victory Parade dedicated to the 75th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War” on June 24. According to the OSCE SMM observers, more than 1 000 people and at least 5 000 spectators, who stood along the Artema Street, were involved in this event in Donetsk. Of course, none of them kept the distance and only a few were wearing masks. Even the at-risk veterans who watched the parade from the rostrum actually sat shoulder to shoulder.
Prior to that, on June 6, the Day of the Russian Language was celebrated in CADLO on a large scale…
The attempts of the occupation administrations to reassure school graduates who have lost the opportunity to become applicants to Ukrainian universities because of the closed checkpoints are close to lying about the virus developed in Ukrainian laboratories.
So, after the adoption by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine of amendments to the law on education, which provide for the possibility of children from the occupied territories (and settlements on the contact line) entering Ukrainian universities without passing the external independent testing, the occupiers gave them a purely propaganda interpretation. A certain Eduard Basurin, “Deputy Head of the People’s Militia Directorate of the DNR”, stated on July 3 that the program of preferential admission to Ukrainian universities “could turn into an accusation of separatism for the youth of the Donbass republics”.
According to him, the program operates “to lure out the residents of the republic to the territory controlled by Kyiv by any means with subsequent accusations of crimes against Ukraine and separatism”.
It is curious that concurrently, ideas about the introduction of general conscription and the imminent conscription of young people into the “people’s militia” began to sound in the media of the “republics” at the highest level.
In order to avoid this and having no choice when the checkpoints are closed, the guys began to leave for Russia to enter universities there or simply find some work, – whatever, just to avoid participation in the illegal armed formations, because their opportunity to enter Ukraine would really be risky after that.
Another aspect of the impact of coronavirus on the population, or rather, its use as an excuse to isolate Ukrainians from the occupied territories from Ukraine, is psychological.
The part of the population that supports Ukraine, but lives in CADLO due to the family, economic or other, not ideological, circumstances, felt themselves locked in a ghetto after the checkpoints’ closure. Even the theoretical opportunity to leave was a distraction for people that gave them hope and a sense of the temporality of what was happening. When the lid slammed shut, people began to lose their nerves, they began to demonstrate their civic position and, accordingly, be persecuted for this.
The case with a citizen of Ukraine, a resident of Spain, Yevhenia Yepes-Vinuesa can be an illustration of this. She arrived in Donetsk before quarantine, in December 2019, to visit her acquaintances and resolve a problematic issue with real estate. However, the closure of the checkpoint prevented her from leaving. At the same time, she had a negative attitude towards what was happening in her hometown and the role of Russia in this. The occupation authorities hung Russian flags along the central street of the city before the Day of Russia. Thus, the tricolor appeared on the outer wall of Yevhenia’s apartment. She took it off and threw it into the street. 6 armed people broke into her apartment on June 4 at about 9:30 p.m. and forcibly took Yevhenia away in an unknown direction. Her location was unknown for some time; the police in Donetsk denied its involvement in the incident by phone. Then it turned out that she was detained by officers of the so-called “Ministry of State Security”. Only a wide resonance in the media and reaction of the Ukrainian authorities forced the militants to take Yevhenia to the contact line. Preliminarily, they announced her a ban on entering the “DNR” in the future…
But if it is difficult to deprive people of alternative opportunities in informational and ideological terms in our time of the Internet, then economically, with the blocking of the opportunity to travel to the controlled territory, people really found themselves in a trap.
About 300 thousand pensioners have lost the opportunity to cash out their pensions and buy Ukrainian goods. Payments to miners, “children’s” and other social benefits claimed by those who issued the status of internally displaced persons in the controlled territory were also blocked.
In addition, the departure of labor migrants to work, both to Ukraine and to Russia, has ceased. It also hit the incomes of the remaining small population.
As a result – the already low purchasing power in the “republics” fell to a level beyond which the implosion of the economy began.
However, the lack of buyers is not all the problems for small and medium-sized businesses that coronavirus has brought along. And it is not even about breaking business ties with Ukraine. In order to somehow fill the already meager budgets, the self-proclaimed “authorities” have staged pressure on entrepreneurs in the framework of, allegedly, efforts to fulfill the quarantine restrictions.
The first messages about raids by the “DNR militia” with checks and multimillion-dollar fines for entrepreneurs appeared on social networks already in early April. According to the “data” of the “DNR MIA”, 327 stores were checked and 16 fines for 1.44 million rubles were issued only on April 2-6.
Industrial enterprises of the “republics” found themselves in an even more difficult situation. The lack of demand for metal from industry in the EU countries, paralyzed by strict quarantine, led to a complete shutdown of the Yenakiievr and Makiivka metallurgical plants at the end of March.
The same is with coal. If earlier, coal mined in CADLO was illegally supplied to China, Turkey and Europe through a chain of Russian straw companies, then with the fall in prices for it due to the corona crisis, even the low price no longer provides the occupation administrations with its sale.
That is, the economy of the “republics” actually collapsed against the backdrop of the global crisis. This entails a number of not only social, but also political and geopolitical consequences. In particular, coronavirus has further increased the dependence of CADLO on Russian transfers from the budget.
In turn, this provokes Russia to activate a policy of depopulation in the part of Donbass it occupied, that is, aimed at reducing the population of the region. Moreover, the Russian Federation solves several problems simultaneously in this way:
– the problem of reducing the cost of the maintenance of this territory;
– the problem of destroying a competitive economic cluster of a hostile state;
– making up for the lack of workers for its own economy.
Analysis of the economic indicators of the work of industrial enterprises that have been under the “external management” of Vneshtorgservis since 2017 shows that the policy of complete degradation of CADLO began three years ago. Back at that time, it was obvious that the artificially torn apart single economic complex of the Donbass would not be able to function effectively in CADLO, where the bulk of the region’s industrial enterprises are concentrated, but they turned out to be torn off from the raw material bases and sales markets. At first, separatist leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko tried to oppose Vneshtorgservis, run by the FSB-affiliated oligarch Serhiy Kurchenko. However, the assassination of Zakharchenko opened the way for the appointment of top managers of VTS to the leadership of the “Council of Ministers of the DNR”. This marked the beginning of a purposeful policy of destroying the Donbass industry in general and the coal industry in particular.
A total non-payment to VTS for the products shipped to it by the CADLO enterprises began. Enterprises began to close, cut out, people found themselves out of work, or they quit on their own, unable to survive on the salary they were paid.
At the same time, especially as of late, the occupied cities of Donbass and local communities in social networks are overflowing with announcements of trips from Donetsk and Luhansk to Moscow, Tula, Taganrog, Krasnodar and Rostov.
A rather eloquent explanation of this policy is statement of President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, published by the Russian news agency Interfax on July 3 this year.
“As for the economy, it is quite obvious that with the development of the economy – we already do not have enough, and soon it will be very noticeable – there will not be enough workers. This is becoming a real objective constraint on economic growth in the country. This is one of the serious problems”, – Putin said.
The President of the Russian Federation stressed that this is a state policy! It is clear that Russia is more interested in the influx of Russian-speaking Slavs than immigrants from Central Asia or Islamic countries.
It was the closure of checkpoints with Ukraine and the deterioration of economic situation in CADLO, caused or justified by the pandemic, that strengthened the Russian policy of degradation and depopulation of the Donbass, gradually turning it into a training ground for military competition, where the interests of the civilian population are less and less taken into account.
In turn, this reinforces, as noted in the article of The Washington Post, “growing instability for a region that has been a perpetual flash point for U.S. relations with Moscow”. That is, COVID-19 affects not only the situation directly in the conflict zone, but also the relations between the states involved in resolving the conflict at the geopolitical level.
For example, formal cause for the cancellation of the Normandy Four summit, which was planned to be held in March, was precisely the coronavirus. Negotiations of the Minsk Trilateral Contact Group are also being held in an online format, that is, without the opportunity to look into each other’s eyes.
In addition, “such a catastrophic problem as COVID certainly pushes all other problems back. And we should remember this. If we allow the conflict to recede into the second, third, or fourth place, it can remain only our problem”, – former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Vadym Prystaiko answered the question about the impact of COVID on the world’s attitude to the war in Donbass.
But if the tension between the capitals can take different forms, not necessarily the military one, then the impact of COVID on the work of international structures involved in resolving the conflict directly affects the safety of the local population and combatants. This is even without taking into account the morbidity rate in the AFU and two Russian Army Corps, located on the opposite side of the demarcation line.
So, the pandemic gives a handle to occupation authorities of the “DNR/LNR” to block the work of the OSCE SMM patrols on the territory of CADLO. This was stated by President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky during a meeting with his Swiss counterpart in Sloviansk (Donetsk oblast).
“This is unacceptable when out of 236 OSCE SMM observers who worked in CADLO (before the epidemic began – ed.), only 23 remain. Their number may be reduced to 13 in the near future”, – the president said indignantly.
In addition, blocking the work of the OSCE SMM led to the fact that only 3 SMM cameras were working on the front line in CADLO as of the end of August. And 21 – on the side controlled by the government. For some reason, they “break” from the CADLO side, and there is no way to fix them due to quarantine…
The consequences of using COVID as a tool of influence on the civilian population and non-military pressure on the Ukrainian leadership are the widest: from forcing Kyiv to direct negotiations with Russian puppets to restricting the right of young people to get an education in Ukrainian universities; from the separation of families to the manpower drain and the destruction of economic complex of the Donbass in favor of the Russian Federation.
But the worst thing is that the politicization of COVID leads to a frivolous perception of the virus by people as a dangerous disease. And this frivolous attitude, plus the catastrophic state of medicine in the conflict zone, is literally killing them.
Serhiy Harmash, CRDSP