Another Forgotten War: The Lack of a Western Response to the Ukrainian Conflict

Soldiers and military equipment on the move in Eastern Ukraine. Photo courtesy of the OSCE.

From accusations that the Kremlin ordered the hacks of the Democratic National Convention servers to condemnations of ruthless Russian airstrikes on rebel-held Aleppo, there is certainly no shortage of foreign affairs conversations revolving around Russia. However, there is one such conversation that Western media has neglected in recent years: the Ukrainian Civil War. Although Russia’s interference in Ukraine was a hot topic in 2014, especially in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, the issue has now faded from the West’s public consciousness despite the problem being far from resolved.

The conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region began near the end of February 2014, shortly after the deposition of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych during the Ukrainian revolution. Since the citizens of Eastern Ukraine largely supported Yanukovych’s close ties to Russia, many of them decried the newly instituted pro-Western provisional government and wanted to separate from Ukraine rather than submit to the new regime. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in mid-March of that year fueled civil unrest in the Donbass region, and with covert Russian military support, separatist rebels began an all-out war with the Ukrainian government. Throughout the remainder of the year, the entire affair was highly publicized: several Western leaders publicly denounced Russian interference in Ukraine, popular news outlets broadcasted daily coverage of the civil war, and many people even speculated that the events in Ukraine could trigger a second Cold War between Russia and the West. In 2014, one would have been hard-pressed to find Americans who were completely oblivious to the Ukrainian crisis.

Today, however, the state of affairs in eastern Ukraine garners little media coverage, and many are unaware of the situation in the region. Regrettably, this lack of awareness is not because peace has been restored to the area—on the contrary, tensions are still running high between the separatists and the Ukrainian army. Although casualties decreased following a February 2015 ceasefire, skirmishes continue to occur throughout the Donbass region, and according to Ukrainian news agencies like Ukraine Today, the ceasefire is still regularly violated. On October 13, 2016, in an article for the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko claimed that the Donbass region had been shelled over 500 times in early October alone, and that separatists possessed military equipment allegedly provided by Russia, including over 700 tanks and 300 rocket launchers.

Even if one discounts the numerous reports of continuing violence on the basis that they come from partisan sources, the daily livelihoods of Eastern Ukrainians are still undeniably disturbed by the conflict. The New York Times has described the Donbass region as a “frozen zone”—an area in which living standards are abysmal, government support virtually nonexistent, and people’s spirits broken. Indeed, in an interview with New Eastern Europe, the region’s residents complained of “lack of work, high prices,” and wearisome administrative obstacles. For example, university diplomas from Donetsk are no longer recognized in the rest of Ukraine, and companies must register in Ukrainian-controlled territory to be allowed to do business outside of separatist-controlled areas. The citizens of the Donbass cannot hope for external aid because the highly distrustful local government often rebuffs any outsiders it perceives as a threat, such as when it expelled Doctors Without Borders for offering psychological counseling to distressed citizens.

Between the extremely precarious ceasefire and the troubled lives of the citizens of the Donbass region, both of which can ultimately be traced back to Russian interference in the region, Western media should have plenty of material for news stories about the Ukrainian Civil War. However, headlines pertaining to the situation are so few and far between that The Guardian has called it “Europe’s forgotten war.” It can be difficult to find a reliable, up-to-date casualty count or a trustworthy description of the ongoing hostilities, as only partisan news sources have consistently reported on them. Furthermore, the civil war has received little to no attention in public foreign affairs discussions, which is perhaps best illustrated by the American presidential debates. Both major party presidential candidates referred to Russia as a threat, with Hillary Clinton discussing its airstrikes in Syria and cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee and Donald Trump bringing up its nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, the continuing Ukrainian crisis, a prime example of the threat Russia can pose to other countries, was hardly mentioned by either candidate.

Given the West’s current indifference to the chaos in the Donbass region, Eastern Ukraine may be doomed to become one of the long-term “frozen zones” too often left in the wake of Russian interventions in its neighboring nations. The New York Times lists Georgia’s regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Moldova’s Transnistria, and Armenia and Azerbaijan’s disputed Nagorno-Karabakh as examples of such “frozen zones,” their sustained instabilities having allowed Russia to exert its influence over various parts of the former Soviet Bloc. Every time the West’s neglect and inaction enables the creation of another “frozen zone,” Russia’s power on the world stage increases. If the West truly wants to curtail Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political power, it must begin by showing its commitment to finding permanent solutions to conflicts like the one in Eastern Ukraine. Continuing the pattern of overlooking such conflicts and letting them become “old news” not only leaves the citizens of the affected areas vulnerable, but also encourages Russia to continue extending its influence in the future.

About Author

Maria Altshuller

Maria Altshuller is a staff writer for the Harvard International Review. She primarily contributes to Soliciting.