The End of the Donbas?

As Ukrainian army units battle it out with Putin’s terrorist commandos in eastern Ukraine, we should remember that, regardless of the outcome, the Donbas is probably dead. That may be good news for some and bad news for others, but the bottom line is that this uniquely regressive Ukrainian-Russian rustbelt region will never be the same.

Putin’s terrorists—both homegrown and imported from Russia—will almost certainly be defeated by forces loyal to Kyiv. Terrorists and separatists usually lose, especially under steppe-like conditions in which guerrillas do not thrive, and there’s no reason to think that Putin’s commandos will have any different fate from that of their counterparts in other countries. The only question is: how long will it take for their defeat to be final? For the longer it takes, the more unalterably different—and ruined—will the Donbas become.

As one resident of Donetsk recently wrote in a blog post:

No one believes that the people who live here are needed by anybody. We’ve been cast off, and Donetsk has become a cage, a prison, from which one can still escape if one abandons everything—apartment, property, work, hopes and plans for the future—so as to survive, which is the most important thing. Everyone understands that this will go on for a long time. That things will get very, very bad. That many will die. Just as the city will die.

Such words as terror, violence, and instability barely convey the reality of what living in a protracted war zone must be like for the residents of the Donbas. As violence becomes part of the fabric of everyday reality, physical survival becomes the average citizen’s primary, and perhaps only, concern. Compounding that concern is a collapsing economy. As stores close, plants and factories shut their gates, goods become scarce, and prices skyrocket, the black market booms, unemployment goes through the roof, wages aren’t paid, and crime takes off. People who long for normality will run: ethnic Ukrainians will probably head for Ukraine; ethnic Russians will head for Russia. The young, the talented, and the rich will be the first to go. The old, the weary, and the poor will be the last.

In the words of the Donetsk blogger:

Almost no one wants to leave, but everyone understands that flight will be necessary, because the city is doomed. No one believes in a happy or quick end. Neither do I…. Those who could flee have already left. Some people have evacuated their families from Donetsk. Many are getting ready to leave. Those who stay will be people who simply cannot leave. Or who still believe that things won’t be as bad as they are now.

Already, some 10,000 to 15,000 residents of Donetsk (population 982,000) appear to have fled; in Slovyansk (population 130,000), the site of widespread terrorist predations and heavy fighting, the number may be as high as 50,000. After the water supply was disrupted in early June in five cities—Druzhkivka, Dzerzhinsk, Kostyantynivka, Kramatorsk, and Slovyansk—the flow of refugees from them is sure to increase.

As infrastructure decays and people flee, institutions cease to function. Universities, research centers, the media, and other forms of intellectual activity will dry up as a result of the brain drain. Existing political and business elites will also disappear. The Party of Regions and the Communists—two political forces that have defined the Donbas and been defined by it—will become irrelevant as society unravels. Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, could easily lose his shirt—and his clout.

The longer the fighting takes, the more likely will Donetsk and Luhansk provinces come to resemble a Hobbesian state of nature. As Thomas Hobbes put it:

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

When the dust finally settles, democratic Ukraine will have to deal with a de-industrialized, depopulated, and de-modernized region. Under such conditions, all talk of federalism, decentralization, and language rights will sound quaint to people who want only to live.

How many refugees will return? Probably not too many. And how many of the survivors will be capable of engaging in entrepreneurship, innovation, and self-rule? Perhaps even fewer. How many lives will have been destroyed by Putin’s terrorist schemes? How many livelihoods? You can be sure that neither he nor his Western fans care or are counting.

Amid this possible doom and gloom, there may be a sliver of a silver lining. Putin’s criminality will have also destroyed the Soviet-era institutions, the Soviet-era mentality and political culture, and the Soviet-era economy that have conspired for decades to retard the Donbas’s integration into the modern world. Ironically, by destroying the Donbas, Russia’s neo-fascist dictator may pave the way for the Donbas’s eventual revival as an integral part of a thriving Ukrainian democratic state. The Donbas could stop being a problem for Kyiv precisely because, thanks to Putin, it could stop being.

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