Lost in the Headlines: The Coming Hell for Eastern Ukrainians

A woman walks past Ukrainian government soldiers from battalion "Donbass" guarding an entrance of a shop in village Mariinka
A woman walks past Ukrainian government soldiers from battalion "Donbass" guarding an entrance of a shop in village Mariinka near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014. The Red Cross will lead an international humanitarian aid operation into Ukraine’s conflict-stricken province of Luhansk with assistance from Russia, the European Union and the United States, Ukraine said Monday.(AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Articles about the war in Ukraine invariably cite the over 4,800 casualties and one million displaced persons reported by the UN. That number, as horrible as it is, is just a small percentage of the humanitarian suffering that continues to unfold on the ground. Lost in the headlines are the three million eastern Ukrainians in Donetsk and Luhansk (Donbass), who are currently living in the midst of brutal winter conditions without access to food, fuel, electricity, or money, and who are seemingly forgotten by all involved parties.

The people of Donbass are trapped in a geopolitical limbo that is swiftly turning into hell. According to Amnesty International and the UN, eastern Ukraine is on the verge of humanitarian disaster. Much of Donbass' infrastructure, including the power grids and coal mines, has been destroyed by indiscriminate shelling by both rebel and Kiev forces; Kiev's decision to freeze pension payments and ATM operations left many without the means to purchase food; and humanitarian convoys carrying aid into the region have been blocked by pro-Kiev battalions or appropriated by their rebel counterparts.

Any hope of aid coming from Russia or from the warlords in charge of the self-proclaimed "people's republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk is unrealistic: the Russian-backed thugs have shown an aptitude for shelling, not governing. Kiev -- which is receiving billions in aid from Western nations, including the U.S. - isn't much better. As Newsweek reported after speaking with Kyiv Post editor Max Tucker, "the attitude in Kiev and much of the rest of the Ukraine is that this increasing humanitarian crisis in the East is not their concern." The sentiment was echoed by Hennady Moskal, Kiev-appointed governor of Luhansk, who quipped, "don't underestimate our babushki...they supported these armed, illegal bandits, and they can rise again and toss them out." Mr. Moskal is essentially saying that the elderly people of Donbass - who are the most at risk for starvation and hypothermia - brought this upon themselves, and they should solve their own problem.

Much of the Cold War was defined by use of humanitarian rhetoric which masked a cynical geopolitical game underneath. The Ukraine Freedom and Support Act passed by Congress last month calls on the White House to assist Kiev with aid for displaced persons as well as work with international organizations to distribute that aid. Its passage was an unequivocal statement of America's support for Ukraine. Unfortunately, the Ukrainians who need that support the most are the three million eastern Ukrainians who are trying to survive a lethal winter and whose plight has yet to be noticed -- or addressed -- in any meaningful manner.

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