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Ukraine, which feels closer and closer to the EU, castles in the face of the Russian threat

The little green monster watches with its mouth open, showing a handful of uneven white teeth and an elongated black tongue. “He is a traitor,” says Vova, as he paints a toupee to the green ogre that resembles a plump pickle with tempera. She is nine years old and together with her six-year-old sister Sofia, she goes almost every afternoon to the art classroom of teacher Olha Kitzmaniuk in Márinka, in the Donbas region, a few kilometers from the front line of the war in Eastern Ukraine. . In the room, provided by the school, which has been losing students as the conflict, stalled, has turned years, a handful of children and adolescents, mothers and grandmothers finalize colorful Christmas decorations between canvases that display bouquets of flowers, landscapes, a cat that hugs the moon but also a gloomy still life that shows a shot in the glass of a window.

Some of the children, like Sofia, had not been born when 53-year-old Kitzmaniuk began art lessons as a way to escape – even mentally – from Europe's last war, in which pro-Russian separatists supported politically and economically for the Kremlin they fight against the Ukrainian army. Today, the conflict that is entering its eighth year, has killed some 14,000 people and has driven some two million from their homes is simmering. And although the bombs no longer fall abundantly and lead in Márinka, the artillery fire remains. And it envelops the town in an even gloomier atmosphere. “In this terrifying time we live in, human beings need a little bit of goodness,” says Kitzmaniuk. “We have discovered that this way out is to dedicate oneself to something beautiful, like art. That life does not end in this war ”, comments the teacher.

Olha Kitzmaniuk gives painting classes to some children in the municipality of Márinka, in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Carlos Rosillo

With the concentration of Russian troops along the borders with Ukraine, the speeches of Russian President Vladimir Putin against Kiev and against NATO increasingly furious and the alert calls of Western intelligence agencies about another possible Russian invasion , many analysts now look towards the Donbas war. That conflict is one of the Kremlin's most likely 'doors' to justify another Russian aggression, with the excuse of intervening to 'defend' the around a million Russians who are today in the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, thanks to the generous deliveries of passports by the Russian authorities, or to a Ukrainian citizenry that the head of the Kremlin considers “a single people” along with the Russians, but alienated against Russia because of the West, which has “brainwashed” him, according to Putin .

Since the collapse of the USSR, which has just turned three decades and which divided the Soviet empire and the republics that formed it into independent states, Ukraine has been distancing itself more and more from neighboring Russia and from that architecture of the USSR. The two countries had important economic and political ties for many decades. And although with the independence of Ukraine in the 1990s, some Ukrainian nationalists expressed strong opinions against the political elite in Moscow, the vast majority of the population had a good relationship with Russia – where many had family and friends – and a good number of citizens spoke Russian as their first language.

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That has radically changed since the Kremlin's intervention in Ukraine, with the 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula in a referendum deemed illegal by the international community and held with a military presence on the ground – and prepared by hundreds of unmarked soldiers known as 'green men'— and Moscow's participation in the Donbas conflict, which the Kremlin defines as a “civil war” and to which it denies any involvement despite international reports that detail how Russia has supplied arms and support to the separatists pro-Russians. Putin promotes his idea of ​​'one people' with missiles. And in reality he is responsible for the fact that a large part of the citizenry hates him, hates everything that has to do with him and hates the war ”, remarks Zurab Alasania, journalist.

Access control to the red zone of the front line, near Pisky, in Eastern Ukraine.

Although that “anti-Russia” sentiment that the head of the Kremlin speaks of is rather against his government and the expansionist ideology, imbued by the “syndrome of the lost empire” that marks his policies and that not only makes some observers fear that it will end. for invading Ukraine again but will culminate his legacy with a merger between Russia and Belarus, where his ally, authoritarian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, is increasingly dependent on loans and support from Moscow. “Ukraine still feels weak due to the internal political discourse, but from outside Putin has strengthened it a lot as a country, also its identity; But it is not about nationalism but about the self-identification of the nation as such ”, adds Alasania, who mentions changes that have contributed to this, for example, in education, where the Ukrainian language has been given priority over Russian; just like in public spaces.

That identity that Alasania talks about, who directed the Ukrainian public television, increasingly yearns to be part of the European Union. The country's intention to join NATO is contained in its Constitution – although despite Putin's fears, experts such as Volodimir Fesenko emphasize that the goal is light years away and that the country still has to make many reforms – and there are more and more the citizens who support it. But it was the refusal of Kremlin ally President Victor Yanukovych to sign an association agreement with the EU that triggered the massive mobilizations in Kiev in 2013. Pro-European protests that spread across the country, overthrew Yanukovych in 2013 and led to the intervention of Moscow, the annexation of Crimea, the Donbas war and a wave of international sanctions against Russia. Today, 75% of Ukrainian citizens see their future within the EU, which they perceive as a benchmark for economic prosperity and functional democracy, according to surveys.

Thousands of Ukrainians demonstrate with the EU flag in Kiev, in 2013, to call for a rapprochement with Brussels. SERGEI SUPINSKY

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is determined to define Ukraine as a “failed state”, with puppet NATO governments and riots that are in reality demonstrations, which at some point have triggered political changes that the Russian government fears so much, which is sharpening its policy repressive against the opposition and civil organizations. And the media in its orbit paint it as an ecosystem with extensive neo-Nazi demonstrations, presenting as the majority some nationalist groups that have taken historical combatants against the Soviet Government as referents of patriotism, including some collaborators, points out the Russian political scientist. Nikolai Petrov.

Ukraine, of 41 million inhabitants, with a significant migratory flow to the EU, and a very young democracy, still has a very long way to go before even aspiring to be a candidate, points out a Western diplomat already veteran in Kiev. The former comic actor Volodímir Zelenski swept the 2019 presidential elections with a speech in which he promised to end the war in the East and also eradicate corruption.

In the center, the Ukrainian President, Volodímir Zelenski, together with his Polish counterparts, Andrzej Duda (left), and Lithuanian, Gitanas Nauseda, on December 20. HANDOUT (AFP)

Despite the fact that as soon as he came to power, he made real progress, such as the exchange with Moscow of hundreds of prisoners and the unfreezing of the peace talks with France and Germany, the Ukrainian president has made little progress since then. Zelensky, who has surrounded himself with trusted people from his theater days, has indeed launched a series of reforms aimed at ending endemic corruption and weak governance. But also, says the diplomat, “it has been lost along the way” with controversial judicial control measures.

A case has also been started against former President Petró Porosheko for treason. And the government has enacted an anti-oligarchy law, which aims to remove political power from Ukraine's wealthiest businessmen and prevent them from running the stage behind the scenes. A measure that is well-founded, but one that anti-corruption experts like Daria Kaleniuk fear will also be used to crack down on unloyal business figures. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian economy, which is still struggling to attract foreign investment, contracted by 4.2% last year.

Influence agents

These reforms include new steps to stifle what the Ukrainian authorities consider Russian agents of influence that, like tentacles of the Kremlin, Moscow uses to intervene or destabilize and that experts consider part of its multidisciplinary policy in the post-Soviet space. It has been almost four years since the main Russian social networks have been blocked in Ukraine, also the giant Yandex and its taxi platform. Víktor Medvedchuk, considered the Moscow man in Kiev, well connected with the Kremlin – Putin is his daughter's godfather – is on trial for treason and the television channels linked to the businessman are blocked. “Russia's internal political influence in Ukraine has been drastically weakened,” notes veteran political scientist Volodímir Fesenko, although there is a pro-Russian force in Parliament, the Opposition Platform for Life, one of whose leaders is now under investigation on charges of high treason and having limited strength. And, of course, Crimea and Donbas, which the Kremlin moves as destabilization “dials”, says the analyst.

Pro-Russian separatists at a barricade in the city of Donetsk in April 2014. Alexander KHUDOTEPLY (AFP)

Russia announced this weekend that some 10,000 soldiers who had made maneuvers near the borders with Ukraine – of the around 114,000 estimated by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, including those stationed in Ukraine's Crimean peninsula – were returning to their bases. And Russians and Americans will talk from January 12 in Geneva on Russian proposals for Washington and NATO, which include that the alliance 'uninvite' Ukraine and Georgia. Conversations that the US and the EU hope that, together with the threat of new and harsh sanctions, will end up convincing Putin of the disadvantages of attacking the neighboring country again.

But in Ukraine, 84% of the citizenry believe that Russia will attack at some point, according to data from the Razumkov center. And 24% of the population assures that they would resist “with a weapon in hand” another Russian invasion. There is, however, no atmosphere of tension in Kiev, where the authorities have ordered the inspection and overhauling of basements and facilities that could serve as bomb shelters, and where more and more people are signing up as volunteers for the Forces. Territorial Defense zas to defend the country and they train for combat every weekend. Nor in the East, where citizens struggle to survive in the face of the lack of infrastructure, collapsed and suffocated after almost eight years of war.

Leonid Shcherbakov at his home in Tonenke, Donbas. Carlos Rosillo

In the towns on the line of contact, like Tonenke, the last town before the 'red zone', war is too common, admits Leonid Shcherbakov. A retired bus driver, father of two grown children and grandfather of three granddaughters, he tells over a cup of strong black coffee that he fears more for his wife, nurse, and the rest of his family than for himself. “I am not afraid because this is my land. Ukraine is my land, ”he says. Shcherbakov, with a good-natured look, a man who spends much of his free time taking care of the plants in the garden, pulls out a small carved ax that he has near the door that faces the cold of the night: “If the Russians come I will face to them”.

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