Ukraine at war: What needs to be done for the reintegration of the occupied territories
The war in Ukraine is far from over. But to reintegraate the occupied territories, first steps need to be done now. Germany's history teaches a good lesson for this.

Text and photos: Natalie Gryvnyak

Connected but divided: Evgeniy and Vladimir 33 and 36-year-old brothers, are both from the Lugansk region and have many things in common. Both studied at the local University. Both were supporters of the Ukrainian army as volunteers. They bought ammunition during the heat of the war between Ukraine and separatists in the eastern regions of Ukraine  backed by Russia.

Both still have hopes that the uncontrolled territories of Donbas and Crimea would become factual Ukrainian territories again. Since the war broke out in 2014, they are controlled by the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) or ORDLO.

Opposite sides

However, nowadays they live on opposite sides of the separation. The older brother Vladimir used to live in Kyiv until 2017, before he moved to Cyprus.

Evgeniy lives in the village Dmitriyvka in the Donetsk region, one of the places of heated battles in 2014 and 2015. “In the beginning of the war I moved to Ukraine, but it was hard economically. Neither I had a long-term-accommodation nor work; life was hard. Thus I have returned back out of hopelessness,” says Evgeniy. He found work as a small entrepreneur keeping 20 hectares of land where in order to support his family, he cultivates vegetables . “Yet, if something would change, with great pleasure we (my family) would return back to Ukraine. But the main point is that it should happen safely,” he adds.

A complex topic

Reintegration and reunification of the Ukrainian territories is a complex and multilayered topic. It is based on many factors with various possible scenarios in future. For 7 years already the war between the governmental forces and the separatists supported by Russia is neither close to an end nor there are no new developments as to the occupied and annexed territories. There were several prisoners’ swaps and several initiatives implemented both on educational and social levels, to ease the tension. At the same time, no serious steps or unified and well discussed strategy has been formed in relations to Donbas and Crimea.

Nevertheless, such a strategy is crucial for the success of the long-term process that Ukraine is facing in terms of reintegration and thus a stable, strong, and unified Ukraine, an outpost of Europe. European Union needs successful European country on its borders. Probably, this process will take years, and includes first of all the end of the war. Other important aspects are the trust of the population in the occupied territories in the Ukrainian government and the return of territories. Although an end of the war is not foreseeable despite several attempts to implement a ceasefire, dialogue, and approximation through the Minsk protocol, first steps should be made now with clear strategic perspectives. In other cases the situation will only worsen, and the time will be lost.

Positive signals

One of the positive signals in this sphere is that the Ukrainian civil society is very open to the topic and active in the discussions and control over the situation with Minsk agreements and reintegration proposals. The government is reacting and themselves have strengthened their positions on reintegration. One example are the expanding the tasks of the Representation of the President of Ukraine in Crimea. Following the recommendations on reintegration issues published by the Human rights center “Zmina”, authorities have created the Ministry of Reintegration of the temporarily Occupied Territories – as it has been agreed in the Reanimation Package of Reforms Coalition event on June 5, 2020.

Some steps forward are also seen by activists working in uncontrolled territories and war torn territories of Donbas. “There are some positive tendencies and initiatives: two new crossing points were constructed between Ukraine and ORDLO, yet they still are not working mostly, because of the uncontrolled territories’ self proclaimed government. There are 20 million UAH (573,000 euros) in the budget for 2021 for those families, who lost their homes. It is only for Ukrainian controlled territories, still it is a small step. In one of the prosperous initiatives – youngsters from non-controlled territories were allowed to enter Ukrainian universities even without accepted high school certificates and even national entry test,” says Evgeniy Kaplin, head of the humanitarian NGO “Proliska”, which describes such initiatives as crucial for a successful reintegration of people living in ORDLO areas currently; if expanded. “Those kids have chosen Ukrainian universities instead of Russian ones and those ones in uncontrolled areas, and I think 90 percent of them afterwards will remain in Ukraine”.

A marathon over a long time

Even though some steps were made yet they are not enough: “All these years we have been saying slogans ‘Crimea is Ukraine’, ’Donbass is Ukraine’ and these are very correct slogans but they are little supported by real actions,” says Oleksandra Matviychuk, chairman of the Board of the Center for Civil Liberties and adds: “It is a marathon over a long time, and for this it is important to carry out radical economic and legal reforms.” Additionally, the main problem for any success of a united Ukraine is that the war still goes on even during the so-called “truce”. People are being wounded and killed on a daily basis and Minsk agreements are without effective impact.

It will be extremely hard to do anything significant, up until the Russian government will stop military and  information support to ORDLO groups and would leave its army and weaponry away from those territories. The same goes to the territorial jurisdiction over Crimea. The other choice is the military solution to the situation to start reintegration of territories:

 First of all, the war needs to end. There are two battles. One of the territories and one for the minds of people. Without the will of Russia, forced by the international community or by military actions, I don’t see any perspectives that these territories will become Ukrainian. On the occupied territories of Donbas, Russia is a major player that has implemented ruble currency zone, it supplies those territories with gas, oil, money and weapons. Yet if to talk as to the battle for minds of people and their safe reintegration back into Ukrainian community, than we can start now with economic perspectives, so that people would want to move back to Ukraine and remain there.

Evgeniy Kaplin


Small incomes as biggest problems

Like self-entrepreneur Evgeniy from Dmitriyvka, there are many people in the occupied territories that support Ukraine, but are dependent economically on the territory. There are also others, who support an affiliation to Russia and the non-recognized ORDLO formations. Sometimes willingly, sometimes out of fear or being economically dependent like Evgeniy. “One of the main factors here is the economical one. It is accommodation. Out of a big wave of IDPs that moved to Ukraine in 2014 and 2015, many have returned back” stresses Evgeniy Kaplin from the humanitarian mission. “The one million people, who have remained in Ukraine, had at least some money to start over; less financially stable people were forced to go back, and now 80 percent of the ORDLO population consists of people with small income”.

Problems and what can be done

  • Economical

More than 3,5 million people remain in uncontrolled areas of Donbas and 2,5 million in Crimea. Most do not have the means to move to Ukraine without accommodation or job opportunities. Especially for the many pensioners, who need to renew their permission to cross the checkpoints. This is necessary, because they can only collect their pensions on territories controlled by governmental forces. Such travel can take up to a full day due to intense checks and long waiting lines at the banks.

Evgeniy Kaplin with Mariya Garpinich.
Evgeniy Kaplin with Mariya Garpinich.

As pensions in Ukraine are very low at an average of 1769 UAH (~51 Euro), some are forced to make Russian passports in order to receive additional pension from the occupied areas. Many cannot afford to rent accommodation in Ukraine. One of the solutions was proposed as to housing loans. Experts claim that even with reduced percent many can’t take them without initial capital “Bank loans could be taken by those people that have some starting capital. Those who don’t can’t take them,” says Evgeniy Kaplin.

Evgeniy Kaplin helps people in the village of Muratovo, Lugansk region rafter fires in October 2020.
  • Political

When it comes to the reintegration process of the uncontrolled territory, there are still many problems with the effective coordination among the various structures of the Ukrainian government. Additionally, there is lack of any unified and strong position inside Ukrainian politics regarding the Minsk agreements or any other alternatives. This leads to an absence of a clear unified plan and a strategy for reintegrating the lost territories. “It is important to carry out radical economic and legal reforms in the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government. We need to build effective democratic institutions that are independent of political influence,” thinks Oleksandra Matviychuk. Though, there are some advances and successes like the creation the Ministry of Reintegration of Occupied Territories.

  • Extended process

The European Union is a crucial ally of Ukraine for international pressure on the separatists and their supporters and economic aid. When developing a successful policy of reintegration, Ukraine can use the experience of other European countries: in particular Germany. The country has not only supported Ukraine financially and politically in the past. Further, it shares some similarities as to the people’s division. “Reintegration shouldn’t harm Ukraine, it should only reinforce it” says Stefan Melle, head of the German NGO Deutsch-russischer Austausch (German-Russian Exchange, DRA), prominent expert and journalist on Eastern European issues. He was born in Eastern Germany with his family also being divided between West and East. His opinions on reintegration are based on personal experience:

My family was mixed but it was good to share perspectives. It is very important to save this channel of communication that will lay a good foundation for the future.
Stefan Melle

Deutsch-russischer Austausch

Melle is convinced that Ukraine can benefit from the experience of Germany after its reunion in 1989. One example he mentions are university students, who could become carriers of opinions and communication links into occupied territories.

“Some events can happen quickly like the fall of Berlin Wall, yet it doesn’t mean that the process will stop on this. For 30 years we have been fighting for mutual understanding. At first in the 90s it was problematic, yet it becomes better,” says Melle.

Stefan Melle points out several advices to be taken as an experience for Ukraine:

Independent consultation
Governments should include public, NGOs and media consultants and take their opinions into account. Such consultants should be independent.
Building bridges
There should be a communication between people in Ukraine, including communication bridges with people living in the occupied territories.
It is also important to save the contacts that already exist.
Territorial integrity
Ukraine needs to return its territories first, to restore its territorial integrity. Yet alienation is big and can continue for a long time.
Common history
It is important to have a common history, and that common future is possible. Germany made a stress on this, and it was successful.
Open discussions
Discussion of what has happened during the conflict should be very open. We need to understand that there are people there and they were moving in the different direction and we need to be open and understand their fears
Transitional justice
Communication around transitional justice should be very precise, to ensure that people understand who will face trials for committing crimes, and who will fall under amnesty.
Social payments
There should be a need for proper communications and discussions of social payments.
Successes needed
We need to create successful economy in Ukraine, culturally and educationally – so that people would like to come there. Especially close to the red line.
International community
The International community should continue supporting Ukraine, to stand firmly on the position that Russia has illegally annexed Crimea, in violation of international law.
Accepting differences
For 7 years people in the occupied territories have been living in different reality, in the conditions of no freedom of speech, under the influence of Russian propaganda. There are mental differences, different interpretation of history, stereotypes and fears that can become serious obstacles for creating unified Ukrainian identity. It might be useful not to erase differences but to accept them, with understanding that it is possible to live in one society with differences. Ukrainian society can develop balanced reintegration policy where national Ukrainian identity ‘I am Ukrainian’ will not exclude regional identity ‘I am from Donbas’.
Careful wording
Authorities should be careful and balanced in choosing ambassadors and speakers and be careful with words when speaking with and about people living in the occupied territories.
At one table
Communication at one table between independent civil society organizations from Ukraine and Russia can be helpful and could reinforce dialogue as to Donbas.
  • Social

Another important social factor is the change of demographics. Vladimir, the brother who now lives on Cyprus, draws a parallel on the example of the North Cyprus. This part of the Eastern Mediterranean island has been annexed 50 years ago by Turkey: “Turkey is changing its populations, it is the same problem like Russia is doing in Crimea. Fewer and fewer remain ties with Cyprus. It is less happening in Eastern Ukraine, due to the costs and less possibilities. People are loosing ties with Ukraine.”

This issue is an important topic that needs to be raised on the international level, agrees Stefan Melle: “This is a crime in relations to Ukraine and to people that were forced to move from those territories. The international community should continue supporting Ukraine and to stand firmly on the position that Russia has illegally annexed Crimea, and has been occupying Donbas, through the self-proclaimed ‘republics’.”

  • Legal

For the moment, the Ukrainian government has not passed the Bill 2689 developed by human rights activists. In the draft they intend to harmonize national legislation with international criminal and international humanitarian law. “Until now, Ukraine is not responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes are written in a way, that it is simply impossible to apply them in practice. We have only two convictions for war crimes. And this is a direct path to impunity,” says Oleksandra Matviychuk from the Board of the Center for Civil Liberties.

People in the occupied territories need to trust Ukraine and need to be given legal certainty. Who can be held under amnesty rights, who won’t be charged and who will be convicted? “I know of many cases, in which for example an ordinary employee of a gas station is convinced for some reason after the occupation he will be imprisoned, because he works at a station that illegal armed groups have taken from the rightful owner. Such people need to be given legal guarantees, in order to deprive Russia of the opportunity to institutionalize their fears,” continues Matviychuk. The same applies to civil servants like teachers or doctors. According to Evgeniy Kaplin Many are forced to enter NGO’s that are declared as terrorist groups by the Ukrainian government such as “Mir Luganshiny”. However, this does not necessarily mean that they are supporting them. “I know personally several teachers that teach Ukrainian in the occupied Gorlovka, who were forced to become members of the NGO – and then were arrested when crossing borders to receive pensions” adds Yevgeniy Kaplin. There cannot be reintegration without procedural clearance for such people.

Another important topic to rise are those people, who are held captive and imprisoned in the non-controlled territories. In his recently published book, the former prisoner of the notorious “Izoliatsiia“ (Isolation) facility, a former factory where insulation was produced, in Donetsk, Stanislav Aseev, reveals that there are not only Ukrainian soldiers or citizens imprisoned, but also those who reside on occupied territories that have already received Russian or DPR/LPR passports and even those who are from their own military formations. “Those who are citizens of DPR are being punished even harder than those captured for a possible swap. They are literally breaking them. They remain often invalids both mentally and physically for sure,” said Aseev in one of the interviews.

People there are imprisoned in the state of fear with minimal freedom of rights. Thus, it is important to provide them an alternative. “In addition to the war-torn infrastructure, routine, family ties et cetera, people need to rebuild their faith that the law exists,” concludes Matviychuk. She brings up several additional issues, which need to be mentioned: “All these years the Kremlin has been trying to use the fate of illegally imprisoned people to blackmail Ukraine, in order to obtain political concessions. We need to make strategic changes like an access of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the closure of the secret prison “Isolation”, the cessation of torture and ill-treatment of people.”

Oleksandra Matviychuk, head of the board of “Center for Civil Liberties”
  • Communication

The biggest problem for people separated by the demilitarized zone is the lack of proper communication channels in combination with massive propaganda. Vladimir is trying to provide his mother an access to digital media to inform her on the news. But many cannot find other media than those controlled by Russia controlled: “We lack truthful information on the occupied territories. There is twisted information in Ukraine as well, and it creates a massive problem. Russia has an ideological system which infiltrates the minds of people in the uncontrolled territories.”
Indeed, the level of trust to Russian media is high with the absence of proper presence of the Ukrainian point of view. So Ukrainian journalists and the Ukrainian government should be ready to reply to propaganda with facts, and consequently reply to misused information. Then, people need to be able to receive it online, upon their arrival to Ukraine or through their relatives and friends.

In addition, more steps should be implemented to transmit Ukrainian channels and spread out Ukrainian information online. Good suggestions were given by the International Media Academy in Berlin during the course on how to destroy the world of occupation and to restore historical justice. In particular: “As the experience of Germany shows, never lose hope for reunification. In the reunited country people need to be prepared to meet as equals; mass media need to present people with different points of view”.

People in occupied territories also have rights, and Ukrainians should be open-minded to hear them and to establish a dialogue. In the occupied territories people can have different opinions. And all those opinions should be considered. Discussions about what has happened during the conflict should be very open, as people on different sides can experience the happenings in different ways. There is a need to understand, that there are human beings living in the occupied territories and they were moving in a different direction. People living in areas controlled by the government need to be sympathetic and understand their fears.

On the governmental level, there is a need to communicate that those people are needed by Ukraine and belong to it. “People who now live in the occupied areas of Donbas should have the same right as other citizens of Ukraine. We understand there are limitations now, but non-discriminative policies are required, as well as the openness to people. There should be communication between people in Ukraine, including communication bridges with people living in the occupied territory. It is also important to save those contacts that already exist. In addition, it is important to communicate common history and possible common future,” suggests Stefan Melle. “Germany made a stress on this, and it was altogether successful”.

The minister for the reintegration of occupied territories, Oleksiy Reznikov supports the proper establishment of a dialogue: “Ukrainians, who are prisoners of the occupation regime, fear us. And we fear them. We would need to go through a difficult path of national dialogue, in order to restore trust.” He is planning that the safe reintegration will take 25 years.

This article has been created with support of the International Media Academy (Berlin).