A Voice for All: Two Sides of the Donbas Trade Blockade

The economic blockade on territories beyond the control of Ukraine has now held for a month, and is gradually becoming a key factor in Ukrainian politics. After shutting down railway communications, the blockade raised a number of questions in society about the country’s energy independence, enrichment schemes in East Ukraine, and the fate of people who depend on trade.

The economic blockade on territories beyond the control of Ukraine, held by the “Staff of the Blockade on Trade with Occupiers,” has been going on now for a month, and is gradually becoming a key factor in Ukrainian politics. After shutting down railway communications – which provided Ukrainian TPSs (thermal power stations) and CGPs (cogeneration plants) with strategic and important resource (anthracite coal from Donbas mines) – the blockade raised a number of questions in society about the country’s energy independence, enrichment schemes existing in the East of Ukraine, and the fate of the people dependent on trade, who will be (and are) primarily affected.

Further, as of December 15th, only the state railway monopolist “Ukrzaliznytsya” announced a 53.3 million hryvnias profit shortfall, and politicians began to seriously discuss the possibility of the energy sector’s collapse if coal supplies aren’t restored in the near future. At an extraordinary meeting, the Ukrainian government declared a state of emergency in the national energy sector. Meanwhile, according to officials there is only enough coal left for 40 days.

But who really has the advantage in the economic blockade in Donbas? Will the blockade help to stop the war, or will it start a third Maidan? Or will it hit people living on both sides of the demarcation line? We discussed these issues with Olya Volina, a participant of the blockade, and Pavel Lysyanskiy, a human rights activist and organiser of the “Headquarters for Unblocking Railway Communication in Luhansk and Donetsk regions.”

It is has been a month since Olya was in Kyiv. She left the capital and moved into a military tent on the border of the Donetsk region, which is controlled by Ukraine. Having been an active participant in the anarchist movement and protests during the Maidan, Olya joined demobilised volunteer battalions, soldiers and members of ATO veterans’ organisations to take part in the trade blockade in Donbas’  uncontrolled areas.

Blocked railway car near Bakhmut, Donetsk Region. Photo courtesy of Reproduced with permission.

So far, the trade block participants have blocked three railway branches – two in the Donetsk region and one in Luhansk. And on February 16th  a roadblock was set up, blocking the way to Luhansk. According to reports of blockade participants, within 4 weeks they have stopped 20,160 railway cars on the Hirske-Zolote branch in Luhansk region. And in a shorter period of time, they have halted 12, 000 railway cars in the Bachmuth area, as well as 37,440 railway cars near the Kryvyi Torets station.

Olya said that they had imposed the blockade for only one purpose: to free Ukrainian soldiers held captive by unrecognised LPR and DPR rebels (an exchange that recently has nearly ceased entirely). She considers this to be the same means by which fighters from the Donbas Battalion, captured near Ilovaisk, were freed in December 2014. The fighters were released 10 days after the route blockade in the Myrna Dolyna area, although insurgents refused to exchange their militants using official exchange schemes. Thus, the beginning of the trade blockade was triggered by the failure to fulfil an ultimatum demanding immediate exchange of hostages on an “all for all” basis.

They imposed the blockade for only one purpose: to free Ukrainian soldiers held captive by unrecognised rebels.

But already after the first several days of the blockade,  Olya states that many changed their minds concerning the purpose of it, which she attributes to the documents with which they had to contend: “When we started to dig into documents and all these “permissions” of The Security Service of Ukraine (CBU), and discovered what exactly was transported there, we realised that the war could be brought to the end! It can’t be finished in two weeks or two months. It may take half a year, or it may be a whole year, I don’t know. But the war could be over simply by cutting them (LPR/DPR) off our money.” Due to the absence of the law, “On Temporarily Occupied Territories,” and to Ukraine’s refusal to recognise the status of occupied regions (as with the case of the Crimea), trade permits are being entirely handled by the Security Service of Ukraine. And since the end of 2015, about 62,000 permissions were given for the import of goods into the DPR/LPR, and about 35,000 permissions were issued for the export.

“They transport coal, timber, concrete, building materials, metal, salt, acids…  Whatever you want. In addition to industrial products, they bring textiles, footwear, food, grain. We also found out that Ukraine delivered safety fuse, gunpowder, springs, spare parts for locomotives and cars, detonators. Thus, Ukraine provides occupied territories with parts for weapons, which are then used to kill our own people,” Olya states. Moreover, she does not exclude the possibility that Ukraine may also smuggle full-fledged weapons out of the country, not just the materials needed for their manufacture.

Blocked railway cars with coal in Donetsk. cc

Olya Volina believes that refusing to supply anthracite coal (an essential for the work of Ukrainian TPSs and CGPs) is a key element that could lead to the war’s end. Without this element, DPR/LPR would have nothing with which to pressure Ukraine, and the Kremlin wouldn’t need them. She thinks that the responsibility for possible power and heating cut-offs should be shifted to  government functionaries and oligarchs. They were the ones who, for the last three years, have failed to modernise the facilities, in addition to failing to provide opportunities with other types of coal. At the moment she thinks it’s necessary for the oligarchs to cut off the power and heating at their villas, not to accuse the blockade participants of an energy catastrophe. Those resources could instead be used to supply the regions that need them, or spent on modernisation. “Go to Koncha Zaspa and see the palaces there for yourself. They are heated. The embankments, the saunas, the churches. Is it just? Is it energy efficient? Maybe they could use a little less heating?” Switching the TPSs/CGPs to natural gas (cleaner, but a much more expensive source of energy) could be another solution. Giving up natural gas has been national program for the last few years in order to reduce the energy dependence on Russia.

Human life is more important than warmth. I don’t care if I’m cold, if some factories stop, I want to stop this war.

Despite the accusations that the Donbas blockade is profitable for unrecognised republics, and will only bring economic loss to Ukraine, Olya thinks it couldn’t get any worse after three years of war. “We couldn’t hurt ourselves more with this blockade. Not in any way. What could be worse than 10,000 dead on Ukraine’s side of this war? It’s true, some people could be cut off from power and heating, but there is also a moral, ethical side. Human life is more important than warmth. I don’t care if I’m cold, if some factories stop, if Ukraine is left with no profit from metal exports. I want to stop this war.”

Olya also sees two other ways for the blockade to develop, both of which she likes. In the first, the blockade will grow and finally (and completely) sever the economic ties between Ukraine and uncontrolled territories. In this case, with no economic resources and being incapable of supporting a normal way of life in the region, governments of the unrecognised LPR and DPR will face mass protests and eventually fall under their pressure. The war could be ended.

But such a scenario would need support, or at least non-intrusion from the government. According to their recent statements, there is none of that. But yet another second scenario is much more probable. Says Olya, “the second way is that they will use force to get us out of here. Then there will be a Maidan. There will be unrest and a slightly different conversation with the government. If the government will use force against war veterans who risked their lives for them, the people won’t forgive them”.

Not everyone shares the same optimism about the outcome of the blockade. Pavel Lysyanskiy is known in the region as a human rights and union activist who has fought for worker’s rights. His role in defending worker’s rights led to worker’s representatives to turn to him, when the blockade put them on the edge of survival. Thus in early February, the creation of the “Headquarters on Unblocking Railway Traffic in Lugansk and Donetsk regions” (note that Lysyanskiy consciously avoids using the name “Anti-Blockade Headquarters,” emphasising the wish to engage in a dialogue with the blockade participants, was announced in the beginning of February (Lysyanskiy consciously avoids the name “anti-blockade headquarters,” stressing the desire to engage in a dialogue with blockade participants). “Headquarters” represents those whose voices aren’t heard in the political struggle dealing with the trading blockade – factory workers and inhabitants who at-risk of losing their jobs and being left without power and heating. “We were not created to raise people, lead them, and break the blockade. This is a place for dialogue and representation on both sides of the conflict.”

Local residents of the town Nikolaevka, in the Luhansk Region, demonstrating against the trade blockade. Photos courtesy of Reproduced with permission.

As Lysyanskiy highlights, the “Headquarters” today include representatives of 12 plants, among those workers of the Kurdiumovsk clay factory (where 400 people could lose their jobs); Slovyansk and Schastya TPSs; railway workers; and Nikolayevka city community representatives, whose lives directly depend upon the work of the power station. As for the whole region, Lysyanskiy thinks that tens, hundreds or even thousands of people could be affected.

The blockade will seriously affect people on the other side of the demarcation line as well. First of all, it will affect the miners who produce type A coal. They have no state subsidies and depend on sales completely. Lack of sales serves as another reason to mobilise these people into rebel units. “Notorious ataman Kozitsyn came there using the blockade message to enroll the workers in the separatist army. Two years of war have passed, the most zealous have already laid their heads down, and people have become smarter. Nobody is eager to get to the front line. So they are using this message to manipulate people.”

Two years of war have passed, people have become smarter; nobody is eager to get to the front line, so they are using this message to manipulate people.

Ukraine depends on anthracite, and all the mines which produce it are on the other side of the conflict. It’s impossible to modernise all the TPSs and CGPs momentarily. Ukraine has to buy the coal somewhere. Blocking the railway supply from Donbas will only lead to more complicated schemes. For example, that same coal will come from the Russian side via companies registered in Poland. Companies that work with coal supply from unrecognised republics underwent re-registration in Ukraine and are working within the framework of Ukrainian law.

The main goal, according to Lysyanskiy, is to establish dialogue between all the sides. So far, however, attempts to talk have failed. The first talk took place during a protest of Nikolayevka residents at the “redoubt of Bogdan” (Gorskoe-Zolotoe, Luhansk region). People asked for some of the coal to be allowed through the separation line for the needs of Slovyansk TPS (the enterprise around which Nikolayevka was built) in the first place, but an agreement could not be reached. The second time, blockade participants came there on their own, and 10 minutes before the start of a press conference in Lysychansk where representatives of Ukrainian Railways, the Kurdiumov Factory, and Slovyansk TPS were in attendance, about thirty men about 30 men in camouflage in Chevrons (of the Donbas battalion) entered the room. The air at the conference was tense. The audience kept accusing the conference participants of treason. And after the event,  says, a campaign for discrediting him has started.

Press conference in Lisichansk, on unblocking the railways and communications in Donetsk and Luhansk. In top photo, Pavel Lysyanskiy is in the middle, and in the bottom photo he is on the left. Photos courtesy of Reproduced with permission.

He received multiple threats on social media and someone tried to hack his account until Facebook blocked it because of unusual traffic. Few regional newspapers published articles claiming that he was aligned with criminals. “I was getting about 30-40 texts an hour, some stating that I am going to be killed or hanged. Mostly from bots. I was told that this kind of campaign costs about 100,000 hryvnas. Moreover, they made a nice move, analyzed my activities, how many assassination attempts I survived, and understood that one more attack will just make me into some kind of local hero. So they chose a different method: They took my photos with opposition politicians and wrote that I am running “titushki” [hired thugs]. Though I have to admit that none of the serious media agreed to post these things.”

While Pavel Lysyanskiy is not denying that there are honest people taking part in the blockade, he still sees the project of the latter as a deliberately political one. “Have you seen Ukrainian MPs, anywhere, defending people for the sake of helping them? I made a visit to the meeting with the railway workers in Bakhmut and saw four parliament members from the ‘Samopomich Party’ there. Did they come there as volunteers? They don’t give a fuck about what is going on in Donbas, and they don’t care about the people that are living there. The people who elect them are in Lviv and they are just trying to mobilise after all the scandals that have occurred in Lviv.”

Lysyanskiy assures that the problems can be solved in three different ways. The first option is the government using force to unblock railway traffic. The second option consists of local people forcing the unblock themselves. He argues that we can already see how some opposition politicians are calling for locals to form territorial battalions that will be able to guarantee the safety of the Donbas population. But Lysyanskiy cautions against using force, and thus is left with only one option: to negotiate. And negotiation will only work if everyone is heard.


Sergey Movchan
Sergey Movchan is a left-wing activist, anarchist, and correspondent for Political Critique Ukraine (“Політична критика»).