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Ukraine: Hard to Put the Genie Back in the Bottle

Whatever Russia does next, the effects of the conflict in east Ukraine will be lasting.
By Daniella Peled

Oliver Carroll, a British journalist who has reported throughout the fighting in eastern Ukraine this year, says the situation there is “taking on the features of a civil war”, and it could take generations to deal with the consequences. He spoke to IWPR editor Daniella Peled about his most recent trip to rebel-held Donetsk, and also about the way Ukrainian media are covering the crisis.

You’ve just returned from Donetsk. What was the situation like there?

I was there during the “quiet regime” – an attempt by both sides to stop the firing. But the shelling ranged from moderately severe to severe, with not much sign of a ceasefire. The fight for the airport was very much on, and not just the airport. I visited Marinka, on the west side of Donetsk – the airport is to the north – and there I visited a bomb shelter in which 40 adults and 12 children had been living for five months.

I found a real insight into the way that war affects people. I spoke to the kids about what they wanted to be when they grew up. Three said they wanted to be war reporters, two wanted to be special forces officers and one wanted to be an aid worker. It shows their limits of their understanding and experience at the moment.

The conflict will ultimately be decided at the global level between [Ukrainian president Petro] Poroshenko, [Russian president Vladimir] Putin and the West. The local people will play a secondary role, but they are the ones who have been really affected. There is a feeling that Ukraine, the international community and Russia have all abandoned the people in Donetsk.

There is no legitimate government in Donetsk of any colour. The job of providing the most vulnerable with services such as food and medicine is down to volunteers – the “Responsible Citizens of Donetsk” formed in June by a coalition of five journalists, politicians and businessmen, all former enemies who got together. They have some support from local businessmen who are fairly controversial, but they will take money from anywhere.

What are the long-term effects of the conflict likely to be?

At the beginning of this conflict, I thought it was stupid of people to talk about civil war when it was a situation provoked by outside forces. Now the people in Donetsk are not only on the edge of starvation, but they’re also being shelled. The children aren’t at fault and even the adults didn’t really understand what they were voting for in the referendum. It’s not an ethnic conflict, but it is taking on the features of a civil war.

Whatever Russia does, that element will remain, and the local vector will remain. The genie will be very difficult to put back in the bottle. As we have seen in previous conflicts, these things take on a life of their own. Ukrainians are fairly tolerant and generally get along, which is the paradox of this artificial war. It will probably take many generations to work through. Whoever manages to own the peace can win this war. That is the big question for both sides.

What are the prospects for peace in the immediate future?

It’s impossible to know Russia’s next moves, but it’s quite possible that they overplayed their hand in Donbas. They want to ensure, first, that Crimea will be a viable economic entity. Donbas will probably stay part of Ukraine, but Russia wants to make it difficult to control – this has always been their strategy – and there are various routes to un-governability without having to absorb or fully support it. The most probable option is a strategy of strangling Kiev by different means, keeping the conflict simmering on other fronts.

There is also the aspect of economic warfare. Ukraine is on the verge of bankruptcy, which is doing Russia’s work for it. Russia doesn’t need to take more territory – the costs would be too high and the consequences would compromise the [August 2014] Minsk agreement. I believe a conversation will continue, with the focus on the airports and electricity station in Lugansk. The next steps will be through jaw-jaw, not war-war.

How are the Ukrainian media dealing with this?

There have been positive and negative developments regarding media freedoms. Unlike other post-Soviet states the Ukrainian media was fairly vibrant and free, with a wide variety of printed press and TV. Now some are really excellent, such as Hromadske TV, which is great. But a lot have not been able to differentiate journalism from patriotic agitation. The language some use is certainly not going to help the resolution of the conflict.

The structures of TV ownership are also very much under oligarchic control with few exceptions, broadcasting very pro-Ukrainian patriotic material. This is understandable in a time of war but it isn’t helpful. The use of the word “terrorist” for instance causes a lot of problems. These issues are something that IWPR programmes in Ukraine are also working on.

This is simply a gift for Ukraine’s opponents. In Donetsk, they think that the rest of Ukraine considers them terrorists. To a certain extent, this may be true, but any hint of hatred and intolerance is spun by the Russian media to a violent and deadly level.

I spoke to a high-level official in May about what the Ukrainian government was doing about countering Russian propaganda. The official seemed to think the only approach was to answer propaganda with propaganda. They don’t realise that they are not as sophisticated as Russia and what they produce doesn’t even look like a half-lie, just like a complete lie. It’s pathetic.

At a press conference with a military spokesman recently, they showed a video of a column of military equipment and said it was a Russian convoy into Donetsk People’s Republic-controlled territory filmed in the last few days. In fact, the convoy was a Ukrainian army one filmed in June. This is the level of sophistication, and of course people see through it.

What do recent moves like the creation of a Ministry of Information Policy, and only allowing embedding journalists to access the front line, say about the current state of media freedom in Ukraine?

The Ministry of Truth, as I call it, is trying to be Orwell but ending up looking like Gogol. It’s slapstick. Obviously the aim is to control information, but the reality is not as bad as it seems. The guy in charge is the former head of the National Guard, which tells you all you need to know. It is an object of ridicule.

There are a lot of misunderstandings. The attempt to ban journalists from travelling to the front line without a military escort is another example of this lack of professionalism. The authorities thought, mistakenly, that this proposal would help protect journalists. I think their primary reason was that they felt the situation was too dangerous for journalists, and then the bonus would be that they could control the flow of information.

What would actually help would be if they could tell the troops on the front line how to treat reporters. They have no idea what to do with journalists. Sometimes it has been easier to report from the Donetsk People’s Republic side.

In any case, the proposal was withdrawn, but it does tell you an awful lot about how the Ukrainian government works. They’re feeling around in the dark, not really knowing what they’re doing.

Oliver Carroll is an independent journalist reporting for publications including Newsweek, Foreign Policy and Republic, and is now also IWPR’s project manager in Ukraine. He was formerly editor-in-chief of Open Democracy Russia and founding editor of Russian Esquire. He was interviewed by IWPR editor Daniella Peled.

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