Betsy Gidwitx Reports







(Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Kyiv}


A Visit in April 2015



The writer visited four Jewish population centers in Ukraine between April 15 and May 1, 2015.  She entered the country in Dnipropetrovsk, using that city as base for ten days while also visiting Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia in the eastern part of the country.  She concluded her visit in the capital city of Kyiv.


Ukraine is somewhat smaller in size than the American state of Texas.  It shares borders with seven other countries: Russia to its north, east, and south (Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014); Belarus to its north; Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary to its west; and Romania and Moldova to its southwest.  Russia-backed military forces currently occupy Luhansk, Donetsk, and surrounding territory.

Map:  Retrieved July 5, 2015.



Ukraine remains mired in the crisis that erupted in late November 2013, when as many as 2,000 protestors gathered on Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Ukr.) in central Kyiv in response to a decision by the then Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukhovych to suspend preparation for concluding an association agreement with the European Union.  The Maidan uprising peaked on February 19-20, 2014, when well-armed snipers atop nearby buildings shot at demonstrators, killing more than 100 individuals.  Anti-government protests continued.  Yanukhovych fled the country shortly thereafter, obtaining asylum in Russia.  Barely one week later, Russian troops deployed at strategic locations in Crimea, purportedly at the request of Mr. Yanukhovych.


Beginning in early March, pro-Russian separatist demonstrators began to occupy state and municipal buildings in Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, and several other points in eastern regions of the country.  Although local residents were among the militants, the instigators are believed to have been Russians who crossed the porous border between the two countries.  The separatists were repelled in Kharkiv, but continue to control Luhansk, Donetsk, and adjacent areas.  Crimea remains under Russian control.


Those who sympathize with Russia assert that Ukraine has simply, and justly, returned to its historic division between Russian and Ukrainian influence.  In this assessment, the eastern and southern portions of Ukraine have long been oriented toward Russia, and the central and western areas have closer ties to central Europe.  However, the Russia-partisans fail to understand that the rapid succession of events during the last few years have created a new sense of Ukrainian national identity that is visible even in Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Zaporizhzhya oblasts.[1]


The place of Ukrainian language in everyday life has been greatly strengthened in recent years by mandated school instruction, re-quired usage in public signage and other measures.  Addition-ally, the Russian assault on Ukrainian sovereignty has rein-forced Ukrainian patriotism, thus enhancing the appeal of Ukrain-ian as the dominant tongue.


Map: graphicdetail/2015/06/ukraine-graphics. 


Retrieved July 13, 2015.




Some residents of eastern regions, as well as the seaport city of Odesa and its environs, may desire more robust commercial relations with Russia and the maintenance of strong ties with family and friends in Russia.  However, a yearning for enhanced links with Russia does not void the conviction of many that the preferred path for Ukraine is one of independence and a general pro-Western direction.  The sense of Western orientation is particularly strong among the youth and young adult segments of the population, that is, those who are most comfortable in use of the Internet and who are more likely to speak a western language (in addition to Ukrainian and Russian) than are middle-aged and older Ukrainians.  Additionally, some Ukrainians have been influenced by neighboring countries, particularly Poland, that were dominated by the Soviet Union for almost 50 years during the post-World War II period and have subsequently assumed a strong Western orientation.


Notwithstanding the conclusion of a second Minsk agreement[2] on February 11, 2015, fighting between Ukraine and units sympathetic to Russia continued in the Donbas area during the writer's visit in April and has persisted since then.  Volunteer groups throughout Ukraine had mobilized in support of the Ukrainian defense effort, gathering equipment and other provisions (such as bulletproof vests, computers, and medical supplies).[3]  Although reports of draft evasion were widespread, the writer also encountered a number of men of post-draft age who had registered with the reserves.


This booth in central Kharkiv, a city close to the Russian border, is manned by volunteers seeking donations for the Ukrainian armed forces.  To its side is a sandbagged defense point.  Both the collection booths and defense points are common in eastern Ukraine, an area in which many residents, both Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking, feel threatened by Russia.


Photo: the writer.



In addition to the continuing separatist occupation of portions of eastern Ukraine, forces sympathetic to Russia also mounted occasional small-scale terrorist attacks in Kyiv, Odesa, and Kharkiv.    Frequently in the form of small bombs, the targets usually were transportation links or volunteer humanitarian and/or military assistance organizations.  Although some human casualties did occur, the intent appeared to be intimidation, rather than massive loss of life.  However, Ukrainians with whom the writer spoke seemed defiant in the face of these and other Russian or Russian-instigated attacks.


Economic distress was pervasive throughout the country, a situation that pre-dated the Russian invasion and seemed to intensify almost with each passing day.  Too much of the economy has been based on heavy industry deriving from extensive mineral resources in the eastern segment of the country; much of this manufactured output is obsolescent, in part because it is dependent upon cumbersome and politically sensitive Soviet-era supply chain linkages.  Further, oligarchic interests and massive corruption deter and distort economic development.  Investment, both local and foreign, also is discouraged by ever higher taxes as the government seeks to generate revenue.  Local health, safety, and labor standards remain far below western requirements and impede Ukrainian accession to international trade agreements, as do irregular accounting and banking practices.


Inflation continues to climb, particularly on imported goods such as medicines, as the Ukrainian hryvnia decreases in value against foreign currencies.  Although Ukraine is attempting to diversify its fuel sources, it remains dependent upon Russia for energy and thus vulnerable to supply disruptions for reasons of political or economic blackmail.


Yet in the midst of all of this gloom, observers point to Ukraine's rich farmlands and its historic role as the "breadbasket of Europe."  The black earth of Ukrainian steppes, along with a favorable climate, create conditions well suited to the growth of various agricultural crops, especially certain critical grains.  A modest food-processing industry has arisen.  However, Ukrainian agriculture development is constrained by inadequacies in financing, infrastructure, agricultural engineering, regulation, and customs control, as well as protective agriculture policies in other countries.


Of great interest to many of the young adults with whom the writer spoke is a rapidly developing technology sector that already supports a significant outsourcing base for software and hardware manufacturers in other countries.[4]  Ukraine also is developing its own innovation industry, designing and manufacturing new products in several business disciplines.  Obstacles to further progress in information technology are many, including a weak legal system, corruption, irregular IT education standards across the country,[5]  and emigration of skilled specialists who can obtain more lucrative positions in other countries.


Compounding economic distress is the movement of internally displaced people from Crimea and eastern Ukraine.   Although no precise figures exist, a consensus has developed that about two million people have fled their homes in response to occupation and continuing violence in these areas.  The Ukrainian government has failed to develop an effective response to the issue of migrants.  Although some have fled the country and have re-settled in Russia, Israel, or elsewhere, approximately 1.4 million IDP's remained in Ukraine as of July 2015.[6]  A large number are unemployed and lack permanent housing.  Non-governmental organizations, both international and local grassroots groups, attempt to provide essential aid, but the situation of IDP's persists as a serious problem for Ukraine and shows little sign of abating in the near future.



[1]  An oblast is a governing unit with authority similar to that of a state or county in the United States.  It usually bears the name of the largest city in its area.

[2] The Minsk Protocol of September 5, 2014, was signed in Minsk by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, and both the Donetsk and Luhansk "people's republics" (DNR and LNR respectively).   The protocol was intended to bring about an immediate ceasefire.  However, fighting continued.  A second Minsk agreement, overseen by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, was signed on February 11, 2015; it was intended to revive the original protocol.

"Donbas" is a popular term referring to the Donets River basin, a region that includes Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in Ukraine, as well as Rostov oblast in neighboring Russia.  Its definition is understood to include coal and iron mines in the area and the heavy industry that developed from these deposits.

[3]  See pages 15 and 25 for reports of the writer's discussions with two such support groups, in Dnipropetrovsk and Kyiv respectively.

[4] Less admirably, Ukraine also is a center of international computer fraud.  Ukrainians are among the most active international cyber criminals, obtaining information and funds through unauthorized access to private, commercial, or government computer systems. 

[5]  The writer was informed by several individuals providing advanced technology to the Ukrainian defense forces that some soldiers and officers were ill-prepared to use it effectively.

[6] Retrieved August 24, 2015.  Most statistics about the Ukrainian population cited in this report derive from The World Factbook.

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