Not surprisingly given the effects of war, conditions for the civilian population in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) are much worse than in Crimea. If the fighting continues, and if Moscow does not undertake a sustained commitment to provide humanitarian relief to the region, those conditions are likely to get much worse over the winter.
The Donbas (understood here to mean Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts) is Ukraine’s most heavily industrialized (particularly coal mining and steel production) region, and, at least until the war, it was also the most densely populated. That is particularly true of the areas controlled by the separatists, which include the region’s two main cities, also called Donetsk (pre-war population of a little over one million) and Luhansk (pre-war population of around 425,000). Kyiv estimates the civilian population in rebel-controlled territories at around three million.
Evidence about living conditions in the conflict zone is limited, in part because of the fighting and in part because the region’s very long borders with Russia and Ukraine proper (some 480 km) make tracking imports – medicine and food, for example – impossible. Nonetheless, it is clear from journalists’ accounts that the civilian population in the DPR/LPR is under great stress.
Analysts in Kyiv estimate that GDP has shrunk by at least a quarter since the beginning of the year. Coal mines, which flood when not properly maintained, have been ruined. Roads, bridges, railroad tracks, power and heating production and distribution facilities, and government, commercial, and residential buildings have been damaged or destroyed. Many businesses have gone bankrupt, and the banking system is no longer operational. Cell phone and internet service has also been interrupted, particularly in the LPR, which has made communication with, and assistance from, friends and family outside the conflict zone, as well as evacuation planning, all the more difficult.
There are also widespread shortages in the region, including shortages of basic necessities such as food, drinking water, and medicine. These shortages have served as justification for the series of “humanitarian convoys” crossing over from Russia. While the full manifest of those convoys is not clear, much of what they have been delivering has clearly been food, medicine, drinking water, and fuel, which has helped alleviate the suffering of civilians but has hardly overcome it.
Local governance has been much more disrupted, and chaotic, than in Crimea, in part because of the war as well as infighting among rebel forces. But it is also the result of the incompetence, economic ignorance, and ideological extremism of many of the region’s new authorities.
Until recently, there was at least some financial support to the region coming from Kyiv. After Russia’s formal annexation of Crimea, Kyiv stopped paying government salaries and pensions to Crimean residents and halted budget subventions to the Crimean government. In the Donbas, however, there was a long period during which Ukrainian government entities continued to function in rebel-held territory. The region’s economy was in freefall, and it was clear that, unlike in Crimea, Moscow was not going to pay pensions, government salaries, or make good on lost savings as the banking system collapsed.
As a result, Kyiv realized that halting the payment of pensions and government salaries, including salaries for teachers and doctors, would make an already extremely difficult situation for local residents even worse. It also wanted to avoid further alienating residents of the region, most of whom blamed Kyiv for war-related civilian causalities. It therefore continued to pay for some salaries, pensions, and government services in areas where it had some writ. And it organized a number of humanitarian relief convoys to the region, and in other instances allowed relief convoys organized by private entities and NGOs to cross as well.
This changed on November 19, when Kyiv announced that it was halting all budgetary transfers to, and state services in, separatist-controlled territory. This included operations by all Ukraine’s state-owned banks, which worsened an already acute cash crunch, as well as postal services. Government employees who relocated to Ukraine proper were to be given new positions, and pensioners who reregistered with local authorities in Ukrainian-controlled areas would have their pensions paid. But those in “Novorossiya” would not, including doctors, nurses, teachers, and university professors. Kyiv also announced new measures tightening passport and security checks along the line of control.
Source: Kyiv Post, Dec. 1: “Passenger trains to Donetsk will continue running but less often”
Nonetheless, Ukrainian authorities also indicated that they would continue to allow people and trade to cross the line of contact, and that although bus and train service, as well as electricity or natural gas deliveries, might be reduced, they would not be blocked. As a result, cars, buses, and trains have continued to carry people and goods from Ukraine proper into rebel-held territory, and Kyiv has continued to deliver critical electricity and natural gas from the national grids.
In fact, trying to keep goods and people from crossing the line of contact would be extremely difficult for Ukraine’s already hard-stretched security forces given the length and porousness of the line of contact. Kyiv could, however, order a halt to bus and train service, which would aggravate supply shortages and further burden the civilian population in the separatist areas. Where Kyiv has most leverage, however, is over the region’s power and heating needs.
As is typical in the Soviet successor states, most municipal heating is provided by boiler stations owned by, and located in, the municipalities themselves. In Luhansk, for example, there were some 130 boiler-houses supplying hot water, including hot water used for heating, to the city’s four administrative districts before the war. Most of those boilers are coal-fired, although some also use natural gas. While they mostly produce hot water, some of the boilers also drive generators that are tied into the electrical grid.
Some of those boilers, and the piping systems for hot water heating and household consumption, have reportedly been damaged or destroyed in the fighting, particularly in Luhansk, but most are still operational and under the control of the separatists. For the most part, then, the main winter heating challenge for the separatists in municipal areas will be to keep those boilers maintained and supplied with fuel, which is made easier by the fact that the region is still producing significant amounts of coal and by the option to truck coal in from Russia if need be.
The boiler stations provide only a portion of the heating needs of the separatist-controlled areas, however, particularly outside of the region’s cities, where many households rely on natural gas. Municipal boiling stations serve an even smaller portion of total electricity needs. Most power, and some hot water for heating, comes from regular power plants, all of which are coal-fired in the Donbas, and all of which, again typically for the former Soviet Union, use heat exchangers to supply hot water and heating to nearby residential, commercial, and municipal buildings.
Ukrainian forces are still in control of most of the Donbas’s cogeneration plants, and the condition of the two that are currently in the hands of the separatists is unclear. The DNR controls the Zuyiv Thermal Power Station (1245 MW capacity, according to Wikipedia) and the Starobesheve Thermal Power Station (1725 MW capacity), both of which are reportedly undamaged (see maps below). But the latter, according to one journalist’s account, had only 54,100 tons of coal as of November 6, whereas winter needs are 400,000 tons monthly. As for the former, I have seen nothing about its fuel situation, but there was a report in The Kyiv Post in June that its water supply had been interrupted by damage to pumps on the Seversky Donets-Donbas Canal.
Unlike the DNR separatists, the rebels in the LNR do not control any power plants, and they have been shelling the Luhansk Power Station (1500 MW capacity), which is located in Schastiye just to the north of Luhansk city (see map). Prior to the war, the station provided Luhansk oblast with some 75 percent of its electricity needs. Currently, the plant can reportedly operate at only 20 percent of capacity, either because of damage or lack of fuel, or perhaps both.
The three other main sources of power for the Donbas – the Vulheriska (3600 MW), Kurakhovka (1482 MW), and Slovyanska power plants (800 MW) – are all under the control of Ukrainian forces. Vulheriska and Kurahhovka are reportedly still operating at full capacity, but Slovyanska was badly damaged during the Ukrainian offensive in June to take the city, and as far as I know it remains off line. Vulheriska and Kurakhovka are also near the front lines – the former is located in Svitlodarsk, to the north of Debaltseve, whereas Kurakhovka is located to the west of Donetsk city, in the town of Kurakhovke. The Ukrainians will certainly fight hard to keep control of these two strategically important sites, and at this point they might well destroy transmission facilities, or possibly even the turbines or boilers, before allowing them to fall into the hands of the separatists.
The upshot of all this is that the separatists are not able to produce enough electricity to meet demand, particularly in Luhansk, where much of the city has been without power for prolonged periods. Continued fighting, adverse weather conditions, and increased demand during shorter daylight hours will make matters worse, and the likely result will be more frequent and prolonged brownouts and blackouts.
Again, Kyiv is in a position to make these problems much worse if it cuts off deliveries. That will be all the more likely if Russia forces blackouts and brownouts across Ukraine’s entire grid by cutting back, or halting, deliveries of coal and natural gas, much of which is used by thermal power plants across the country. The temptation to cut back on electricity to the DPR and LPR will likewise increase if Ukraine’s power system experiences more problems at its nuclear plants, such as the accident that shut down the Zaporizhye Nuclear Power Plant last week.
The DPR and LPR separatists nonetheless have an important advantage over local authorities in Crimea, as they have a border with Russia that makes relief columns from Moscow possible. In the longer run, the border with Russia will also make it easier to integrate the region’s economy into Russia’s. But it will be a very long time, and only after a great deal of money has been spent, before the power system, energy supplies, and railroads and roads are such that the region is no longer dependent on Ukraine proper.
In the meantime, the Donbas has suffered enormously from the war, and restoring its existing infrastructure is going to be extremely costly and time consuming. Even then, its steel, coal mining, and other heavy industries are going to require fuel and other subsidies from Moscow to stay afloat. Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, like Crimea, received more from the Ukrainian federal government than they returned in revenue even before the war. War damage will make them more needy in the future. Assuming Kyiv has lost sovereignty in the region for the foreseeable future, only Moscow will be in a position to meet those needs, which will put more pressure on Moscow’s increasingly strained finances. Not surprisingly, Putin condemned Kyiv’s November 19 decision to halt subventions and government services in the DPR and LPR, characterizing the move as a “de facto economic blockade.”
In fact, Kyiv is in a position, if it choses, to make the local population even more miserable over the coming winter by cutting off or reducing power and natural gas deliveries; by halting train and bus traffic; or by beefing up check points and further interfering with traffic on roads leading into the separatist areas. But that, of course, risks provoking Moscow into escalating its military and economic pressure, which will be the subject of my next Game of Thrones post.