Ukraine battles a humanitarian crisis on two fronts — the Donbass conflict and COVID-19

Last week, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo met virtually with the UN Security Council to mark the fifth anniversary of the Minsk II agreement, which sought to end the fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists. While DiCarlo welcomed the success of the truce that came of a July 2020 ceasefire, she said the situation between the two forces was, “no substitute for meaningful progress.”

Last June, both sides of the conflict agreed to a ceasefire in the conflict that has dominated Eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region since 2014. In the past six years, nearly 14,000 people have died in the conflict, which has devastated the relationship between Moscow and Kyiv. Fighting in the Donbass region is one aspect of the greater Russo-Ukrainian War that has devolved in the aftermath of Ukraine’s 2014 revolution and the Ukrainian Euromaidan movement; at the time, thousands of Russian-backed separatists took to the streets in historic anti-government protests.

These demonstrations in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were then followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea. During the annexation, Russia engaged in a military intervention into the Crimean Peninsula, a move that was largely condemned by the international community and considered a flagrant violation of international law and territorial integrity agreements.

In addition to the ceasefire enforced since July 2020, the UN has also called for a global ceasefire amid the COVID-19 pandemic. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed the world’s governments to focus on the collective fight against the coronavirus. According to a UN press release, a ceasefire would also “create opportunities for life-saving aid, open windows for diplomacy, and bring hope to people suffering in conflict zones who are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic.”

In Ukraine, COVID-19 is a particular concern for the conflict’s frontlines. President Volodymyr Zelensky faces three challenges: the conflict with Russia, a domestic agenda of reform and tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. And in Ukraine’s conflict areas, the pandemic has shutdown frontline crossing points, affected frontline economic prosperity, and has infected the public at disproportionate rates. The UN Development Program reported that COVID-19 is pushing Ukraine toward its worst recession in decades but has also adversely impacted citizens of conflict areas. The report found that damaged water supplies from shelling, a lack of running water for sanitation purposes and extreme poverty have all contributed to the devastation resulting from the pandemic.

The UN reports that more than 3.4 million civilians — primarily elderly individuals and women — are in need of sustained humanitarian assistance. It’s clear that the situation in the Donbass region is a humanitarian issue, with public health crises and security challenges posing the greatest threat.

A World Health Organization report found that the burden of working in this tricky environment has largely fallen on humanitarian workers. One individual, Aron Kassahun Aregay, joined the WHO Ukraine Office in late 2019 and is currently in charge of information management and health cluster responses in the eastern conflict areas. Aregay told the WHO that, “the challenges [he] witnessed in Ukraine were somewhat different from what [he] had experienced in other settings.”

The unique challenges facing the region are largely driven by the lack of access to essential health services and a failure of public health infrastructure in this emergency setting. The WHO reports that the health system in the country was already in a fragile state before the onset of COVID-19, health facilities and infrastructure had already been neglected for years as a result of faulty political leadership and many healthcare workers had left the region.

Additionally, on a five-day visit to Ukraine by the International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer, the ICRC reported that the cumulative effects of the conflict have exacerbated humanitarian needs. In particular, water, electricity and gas installations remain particularly vulnerable, despite the ICRC investing over $17 million in water supply companies in the region.

The pandemic has undoubtedly introduced greater challenges at Ukraine’s frontlines. And the ongoing ceasefire is not an easy victory to be celebrated. DiCarlo said that a recent increase in security skirmishes along the border separating government-controlled territory and separatist-held territory exhibits a dangerous trend.

While the ongoing truce has led to the release and exchange of detainees and the reduction of rights violations, an OSCE special monitoring mission in the country reports that adherence to the truce has weakened over time.

OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine Chief Halit Cevik said the organization observed both sides of the contact line with heavy weapons and military positions in civilian areas. Additionally, though the parties agreed to open two additional checkpoints to facilitate increased aid delivery, both areas remain closed. Essentially, Cevik found that political progress was needed to, “underpin security” in the region and that the fragile ceasefire deeply depends on the, “political will,” of the negotiating parties.

And recently, the situation in the region has come under even more scrutiny as the United States and the European Union accused Russia of blocking any opportunities for solution to the conflict. After remarks from DiCarlo during the meeting, Chief U.S. Negotiator in the UN Security Council Rodney Hunter issued a warning to Russia to stop its aggression in Ukraine and end its occupation in Crimea, especially in light of commitments under the Minsk agreements. Meanwhile, European members of the UN Security Council have also condemned the ongoing instability in the Donbass.

Ukraine and its Western allies continue to accuse Putin of sending its military and weapons to support separatist, though Moscow has denied these claims. Regardless of any recent progress as a result of the standstill, UN officials are rightfully concerned about a “risk of backsliding.” This risk is great and since 1.5 million people have already been displaced as a result of the conflict, what can occur with escalation poses even greater potential human security problems.

Concerningly, humanitarian access to the region has been severely restricted since freedom of movement and delivery of aid faces challenges related to tension at the border and the pandemic. Though the ceasefire in the region continues to hold — creating the longest lull in active fighting since 2014 — the region still faces uncertainty.

This window of time presents an opportunity for potential breakthroughs in peacebuilding in the region that can dramatically improve the lives of those suffering under the pandemic and the conflict; however, with accusations of Russia being unwilling to seek a solution, the situation remains bleak. Without the opening of crossing points and open dialogue along the contact line, the crises facing Eastern Ukraine grow larger each day.

Until a peaceful solution is sought after or negotiations open back up, humanitarian assistance will be unable to make its way to the people who need it most.

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