Time for a 'Lousy' Peace in Ukraine

The Donbas War has deepened and intensified divisions in Ukraine. The longer it drags on, the less likely a political reconciliation becomes.

President Obama should deny Congress’s appeal to send deadly force arms to Ukraine. Such an action would be neither in the national interests of the United States, nor of Ukraine itself.

Ukrainians and Russians often use the old saying that a lousy peace is better than the best of wars. If the geopolitical considerations of this conflict are weighted with its real human costs for Ukraine, the truth of this becomes clear.

The costs in lost lives and social strife of a military victory over the separatists are too high for Ukraine to bear. The war has claimed the lives of 6,000 citizens at a bare minimum, and displaced more than a million people within Ukraine and possibly as many without. It has torn open ideological and social divisions that have plagued the country since independence, and which after 10 months of brutal fighting are beginning to look unsurmountable.

In this intense wartime atmosphere, Ukraine’s democratic institutions are suffering. Opposition to the government’s conduct of the war and the economic crisis are often equated with treason or inciting domestic unrest. Government control over the information sphere is tightening as never before. The national economy is in a deep crisis, with massive inflation pushing average incomes down to $150 a month. The conflict in the Donbas is drawing energy away from the fundamental political reforms that millions of Ukrainians called for during the Euromaidan movement. Instead of a new kind of governing, Ukraine is descending into a familiar struggle between oligarchic clans.

In facing down the separatist threat, the Ukrainian army, National Guard and privately organized volunteer battalions have conducted sustained artillery shelling of rebel-held towns, resulting in numerous lost lives. The continuous shelling of Donetsk, Luhansk and other Donbas towns has at times resembled collective punishment.

Local activists from the city of Lisichansk showed me videos and photos of the aftermath of Ukrainian artillery attacks in July that drove the separatists from the city. A ten story apartment building is a charred ruin, with the central “stack” of apartments collapsed into rubble.

An elderly man showed the numerous shrapnel he collected in his garden and pried out of the walls of his shattered house when he emerged from his root cellar after the shelling.  It should be noted that these activists are supporters of a united Ukraine, who did not side with the separatists when they controlled their city.

Today they are doing great work to aid the thousands of refugees that have flooded into their city from the front lines. But they cannot help but ask – why was this done to us? Is this really the only way? And they consider with dread the prospects of renewed fighting.

Recognizing the terrible collateral damage of Ukraine’s campaign against the separatists does not in any way turn the latter into some kind of heroes. Their shelling of Mariupol, Kramatorsk, Artemivsk, Debaltseve, Avdeevka and other Ukrainian-held towns shows that they have no qualms with using the same brutal tactics. One refugee related how the rebels shelled her village relentlessly throughout the summer, despite the fact that the Ukrainian National Guard detachment had deliberately moved out of the town so as not to draw fire on it.

Other refugees who fled from the “Luhansk People’s Republic” to Kharkiv told me how they were denied exit by the rebels, who wish to keep a human buffer between themselves and the Ukrainian army. They were forced to sneak into government-held territory on foot, using a map of unmined fields leaked to them by a sympathetic rebel.

But what I hear more and more often are stories from people who feel stranded between two warring sides. Many have had their homes shelled by both sides as their towns are alternately “occupied” and “liberated.” They may be patriots of Ukraine or they may be sympathetic to Russia, but they are all exhausted by the violence and cannot understand why the tough decisions that would end the fighting are not being made.

A resumption of armed hostilities in the Donbas means more of this hell. That is 100 percent certain. Many of these towns will again become the grounds for artillery duels and it is likely that new territories will come under fire. Maybe this would be worth it if there was real hope that an offensive with U.S. arms would be the decisive battle of the war. However, that is a very doubtful assertion considering Russia’s determination not to see “its side” defeated.

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