The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

War in eastern Ukraine now seems a distant storm to Kiev

A metal silhouette of a girl with a balloon, dotted with bullet holes, is on display in Kiev, Ukraine, as part of an installation called “The War is Nearby,” by Oles Kromplyas, a volunteer soldier and documentary filmmaker.
A metal silhouette of a girl with a balloon, dotted with bullet holes, is on display in Kiev, Ukraine, as part of an installation called “The War is Nearby,” by Oles Kromplyas, a volunteer soldier and documentary filmmaker. (Ovsyannikova Yulia/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)
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KIEV, Ukraine — The war between government forces and Kremlin-backed separatists — and, by all indications, actual Kremlin troops — in Eastern Ukraine is only a six-hour train ride from the country’s capital, but for some Ukrainians, it might as well be in another universe.

Though it has entered its fifth year, with no end in sight, Europe’s only active conflict has dropped from the headlines, inside Ukraine and abroad. In Kiev, residents have other matters to occupy them, now that summer has finally arrived, the street cafes are overflowing, and life seems to become slower with each degree the temperature rises.

But activists such as Oles Kromplyas, a photographer who fought in the east with the Azov far-right volunteer battalion, are trying to refocus people’s attention.

This month, Kromplyas unveiled a project to — maybe not so gently — remind Kiev’s inhabitants of a conflict that has killed at least 10,300 people and displaced close to 2 million. Entitled “The War Is Near,” life-size silhouettes, made from metal sheeting perforated with bullet holes, have sprung up amid the summer strollers in some of Kiev’s most scenic parks and squares. The human cutouts include a small girl with pigtails and a balloon, a fashionable young woman holding a purse and a small dog, and a young couple in an affectionate embrace.

“I wanted to install [the silhouettes] where people gather, in unexpected places,” Kromplyas said. “To shock and surprise them and make them think about the war.”

And yet, in some ways, Kromplyas’ project seems not to bring the war closer but to underscore its distance; the metal objects may become just more clutter on the capital’s crowded streets. At the same time, the exhibition highlights the indifference that some Ukrainians hold for their war-torn fellow citizens in the east. The blank forms represent not so much individuals but nameless, faceless victims.

What started in spring 2014 with large pitched battles and a fluid front line has settled into static trenches and armed positions that almost recalls World War I, with sniper fire, mines and heavy artillery accounting for most of the death toll (which, of course, is infinitesimal compared with the casualties of the global war of a century ago). The Moscow-backed rebels control two “people’s republics” covering territory roughly the size of New Jersey. Cease-fires intermittently take hold but always disintegrate over time.

Recent weeks have witnessed another sharp escalation, with almost daily military and civilian casualties. Among the dead was Darya Kazemirova, a 15-year-old girl killed when a shell exploded in the yard in front of her house.

There have been some changes in the circumstances surrounding the war, but nothing to alter its basic calculus. Ukrainian authorities recently reclassified their name for the conflict as a “Joint Forces Operation,” instead of an “anti-terrorist operation,” and officially placed full responsibility on Russia for the carnage and destruction.

The United States, the European Union and the Ukrainian government are conducting parallel peace negotiations with Moscow. None, however, has produced a breakthrough — though the sides have agreed to prisoner exchanges — and a proposal to introduce international peacekeepers into the conflict zone remains on paper.

Perhaps the greatest shift has been in the Trump administration’s announcement that it was reversing Obama policy and would sell Javelin antitank missiles to the Ukrainian military. These reportedly will be stored away from the front line in central Ukraine and used only in case of an all-out separatist assault.

Meanwhile, the war grinds on, with no sign that the bloodletting could end anytime soon.

The stalemate — one commentator describes it as “a war of exhaustion” — poses a quandary for Ukrainian officials: How to maintain hope and a feeling of urgency amid a conflict in which no solution appears immediately feasible.

To be sure, the perception that Ukraine has been invaded by a foreign army and is fighting for its very existence motivates many. But the longer the fighting goes on, the more remote the conflict seems. And this remoteness creates a gulf between those caught in the crossfire — the people represented by Kromplyas’s bullet-ridden silhouettes — and those living in the peaceful rest of the country.

Ukraine, as it has sometimes been portrayed, is not a “divided society,” with a Russian-speaking east sympathetic to Moscow and a Ukrainian-speaking center and west looking toward Europe. In fact, the conflict has in some ways helped unify the country. Support of NATO and the European Union has increased, while polls indicate that a majority of residents, even in the two breakaway eastern regions, want to keep the country together.

But there are nevertheless sharp social, economic and political differences between the industrial, hardscrabble Donbas region, where the fighting is raging, and the rest of the country. The war has helped aggravate these differences. Many Ukrainians have long regarded the Donbas population as a separate society, with questionable political loyalties.

“From the outset [of the conflict], there has always been an ambivalence toward the people [in the east],” said one humanitarian official from a Western nation, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “And I think there’s been this narrative that has been stoked up, labeling all the people there on the other side of the contact line as separatists, terrorists, or if not that, then they’re supporting that line.”

This ambivalence has translated into a harder line among some politicians toward the eastern Ukrainians. Last year, members of the Samopomich (Self-Help) political party joined forces with volunteer battalion combatants to block all major transport arteries and significantly reduce trade with the breakaway territories.

“We need to limit financial relations with them,” said Yegor Soboliev, a prominent Samopomich member. “We should put on Putin the whole burden of occupying our land.”

Others, however, see in this an effort purely to attract votes. “A lot of political parties, in a cynical way, understand that the population in the Donbas in general, and especially in the noncontrolled areas, are not their voters,” said Vyacheslav Likhachev of Vostok SOS, a nongovernmental organization providing aid to people in the east.

“And to have more support from Ukrainian society here, they can make some radical statements or even legal initiatives, just to show that they are more patriotic than the government,” he added.

But the war will end, eventually. And then the question looms of what will happen next.

The government has published a “reintegration plan,” but critics say this fails to provide a clear road map of what reunification actually would entail.

“They talk more about the territory than actually the people — this whole line of getting back the territory,” the Western humanitarian official said. “But sometimes it seems that the people aren’t really part of that package.”

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