International

Ukraine's Leaky Border With Russia


Ukrainian Army soldiers are seen atop of a bridge while pro-Russian civilians block the road in the village of Andreevka, south of Slavyansk, Ukraine on May 2

Photograph by Manu Brabo/AP Photo

Ukrainian Army soldiers are seen atop of a bridge while pro-Russian civilians block the road in the village of Andreevka, south of Slavyansk, Ukraine on May 2

A real war continues in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian army is fighting against armed groups of pro-Russian separatists, who are supported by volunteers from Russia. These volunteers are constantly crossing the Ukraine-Russia border.

East Ukraine is not like any other Ukrainian region. One hundred and fifty years ago, this land was almost empty and was called “the wild field.” Most of the towns here were built in the late 19th century close to the factories and mines, which sprang up after the tsarist government decided to develop the Donetsk coal basin. Industrialization happened rapidly, and the workers who flocked to these towns for work hailed mostly from the Russian provinces of the Russian Empire. In the Soviet period this phenomenon of industrialization and immigration from Russia became even more pronounced. The Donetsk region ended up having a predominantly Russian population in the towns, while the villages were inhabited by Ukrainian speakers.

In 2014, protesting westerners chased President Viktor Yanukovych and his entourage to Russia, and the Donbass (the common name for the Donetsk and Lugansk regions) rebelled. Residents of pro-Russia eastern Ukraine opposed the idea of a national Ukrainian state that operated completely out of Russia’s geopolitical orbit. Separatists quickly armed themselves, while hundreds of saboteurs and provocateurs with weapons and ammunition entered Ukraine from Russia. The government in Kiev now has little control over the eastern border with Russia.

There is evidence of the presence in Ukraine of Russian sympathizers In one video, filmed by residents of the border town Antracit in the Luhansk region, you can see how the Russian cossacks of the Rostov region in Russia arrive in the town on several trucks, which probably crossed the border. Later the cossacks hung their flag on City Hall.

The Ukrainian-Russian border is now completely open to such groups. Think of a national border in a tense area, such as Ukraine, and you’d probably imagine roadblocks, fences mounted with barbed wire, or a three-meter-tall wall, like the border of Mexico and the U.S. But nothing on the border of Ukraine and Russia in the Luhansk region is similar. The Ukrainian-Russian border in the east today is a poorly controlled strip of land that can be easily crossed.

The Lugansk region shares a few hundred kilometers of border with Russia. In some places, you can cross it as simply as going to your home. The regional center of Milove, for example, is situated quite close to the border and has merged with the Russian settlement Chertkovo. The state border runs right through the streets and courtyards of private houses. People there tell jokes about houses where the kitchen is in Ukraine and the toilet in Russia. A third of the buildings are in Russia, while two-thirds are in Ukraine. Over the 23 years of Ukraine’s independence, no one has solved this problem. The inhabitants still live as if there were no boundary at all. They usually go shopping in Ukrainian shops but prefer buying gasoline on the Russian side. Most people have relations on both sides of the border.

The border runs right through the backyard gardens of the two towns, so if you want to smuggle contraband, you can just throw it to your neighbor’s yard over the fence. Smuggling is the main job for the majority of residents on both sides of the border.

In all the years that have passed since the Ukrainian declaration of independence, Ukraine has not fortified its borders on the east. Russia has always been Ukraine’s partner, and no one could have imagined that one day Russians might attack and take Ukrainian territory. Due to the careless attitude of the Ukrainian authorities, the border was not strengthened, and Ukraine is now paying the price for this carelessness.

Kazansky is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor from eastern Ukraine.

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