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Update on Ukraine’s Donbas, Under Heavy Attack, & What a Peaceful Resolution Could Look Like

Web ExclusiveApril 21, 2022
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Russia now says its main goal in attacking Ukraine is to seize control of the eastern part of the country known as Donbas, with increased attacks on cities there. Thousands of civilians are reportedly trapped. In many areas, the civilians are being supported by Ukrainian volunteers. In an extended conversation, we get an update on the Donbas from Brian Milakovsky, who lived in the Donbas town of Severodonetsk before he evacuated to Croatia in January and is now fundraising for people trying to flee Russian attacks.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

Russia now says its main goal in attacking Ukraine is to seize control of the eastern part of the country, known as Donbas, with increased attacks on cities there. Thousands of civilians are reportedly trapped. In many areas, the civilians are being supported by Ukrainian volunteers.

UKRAINIAN VOLUNTEER 1: I stay here because it’s my home. And we help people, delivering foods, chemistry. And our town just destroying. Voice, no good. I don’t know what to say. I want to move.

UKRAINIAN VOLUNTEER 2: [translated] We have enough medicine, though we face shortages with some pills, the ones we distribute to people taking shelter in bomb shelters and basements. We still have enough pills for patients treated in hospitals.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re continuing our conversation, bringing you Part 2 of our interview, with Brian Milakovsky, an expert in economic recovery in eastern Ukraine, who’s also helping raise funds for evacuations from the Donbas. He’s joining us from Croatia, but, until January, he lived in Severodonetsk in Ukraine, in the Donbas.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, as we talk, continue our conversation about conditions in the Donbas. And if you can explain why this is a contested area, the history of this area? In Part 1, you talked about the utter devastation. In the past, you’ve said what you need in this area, what Ukrainians need, is a lousy peace. What does that mean? You’ve been against U.S. weapons going to Ukraine? Have you changed over these last few years, and particularly since the Russian invasion?

BRIAN MILAKOVSKY: Thanks. Couple of really important questions there. So, beginning, you know, what is the Donbas? Yes, it’s part of, you know, a multiethnic, multilingual Ukraine. It has a mixed identity. But because a very large part of that identity has been people who speak Russian or people who came from all over, first the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, and, you know, many of whom identify ethnically as Russians, I think there’s really been a mistaken impression that especially has informed Russia’s disastrous policies right now, that that makes this space sort of more naturally a part of Russia. It ignores what an incredibly large part of the ethnic mosaic of the Donbas has always been Ukrainian. It ignores that there was significant policy, especially in Soviet times, to try to make a sort of Russian-speaking working class out of all the kinds of people that gathered there, including Ukrainians. And so, partially, this is a result of earlier policy, some of which was very compulsory, to put it mildly.

And, you know, that very mixed identity is just an important part of the Donbas but has really been weaponized, as I said, to emphasize the fact that a significant part of it is people of Russian origin. But I know so many who care about their Ukrainian identity, who are volunteering right now getting their neighbors out of the region. I communicate with them, they communicate with each other, in Russia. It absolutely means — that does not mean — absolutely, that does not mean that they are not Ukrainians in their heart. And I think that that basic reality is so lost on Vladimir Putin and on, unfortunately, very many Russians, including many who for years I’ve been in professional and personal contact with. And that’s what’s so shocking. That’s why this war is going so badly and is so destructive, because in many ways I think they’re lashing out when it turns out that the reality is not what they thought it was.

Regarding your second question, yes, I was a vocal, I would say, war avoider, at all costs, in the early stages of this conflict in 2015, 2017, when I first arrived in the Donbas working on humanitarian work. I really just felt that the sort of Minsk peace created by the Minsk negotiations was the lousy — was the structure to find some lousy peace to avoid going back to the terrible destruction I saw. I arrived just after the heavy fighting ended in the first war in 2014, 2015. And so, I was against, you know, what might sort of rock the boat of that artificial peace, which was very much just sort of a long ceasefire, but in which, as I said earlier, you know, the region was able to slowly begin recovering. The socioeconomic wounds were gradually being healed.

And I was against, you know, U.S. arms. I wrote twice for The National Interest, an American journal, arguing against what I thought might be the beginning of an arms race, regardless of the U.S.’s intentions. The ideological stakes were always so high for Russia that I was really afraid we would not be able to keep up in the resulting arms race.

And then, you know, after many years of structuring my understanding on let’s avoid these escalations, when the sort of ideological ferment in his head reached a peak, Vladimir Putin just started this war. It was not provoked. It truly was not provoked. And at that moment, Ukraine neither had the weapons that might have provoked a big war — well, it was left without the means to really effectively defend itself. And nonetheless we got the big war that people like I, you know, war avoiders, were so afraid of. And that’s really sobering. It’s been very hard for me to accept that.

And I have come to think that right now Ukraine has to fight its way to a negotiated settlement that allows national survival. Russia has telegraphed its intentions to go on this deeply disturbing ideological crusade that they’re already carrying out in occupied territories, to really sort of de-Ukrainianize Ukraine. That term actually comes from Russian state media. They sort of left behind denazification. They said, “That’s not enough. We have to basically recreate these people, reeducate them, violently. Public executions.” You know, with such a violent, I would say, pretty much openly fascistic, messianic goal in the Russian war aims, Ukraine simply has to fight its way to a reasonable end to this war that it can live with.

And for other people like myself on the left who might still be holding to a paradigm of, you know, arms for Ukraine will just prolong this war, I would use the metaphor, the comparison: You know, would we on the left have said that in 1937 to Spanish Republicans? “We don’t want to prolong this war. You know, we think probably the best thing to do is try to hash out a compromise right now with Franco. The worst thing we can do is make this war go on longer.” That wasn’t a normal moral stance for someone on the left back then, and it’s not right now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Brian, you mentioned the Minsk agreements. Could you talk about why those agreements failed, and to what extent you think Ukraine was complicit, and to what extent Russia?

BRIAN MILAKOVSKY: Oh, that’s such a difficult question, that I’ve really grappled with for many years. Essentially, there just was never consensus about what Minsk was supposed to be. Ukraine felt, “OK, we’re going to make certain political concessions to people who live in these areas that are currently under Russian and separatist control.” And they involve, you know, economic relations with Russia, the status of the Russian language, a heightened level, perhaps, of autonomy. And Russia felt, “No, more or less, this means that the so-called people’s republics we have created in Luhansk and Donetsk are reentering the body politic of Ukraine en masse,” including very, very difficult questions that the negotiations never got to, like how much of the heavy artillery that Russia gave them were they going to be able to somehow keep as part of their so-called people’s militia police force. But they were just going to return, you know, en masse into the Ukrainian body politic.

And really, really difficult and painful hashing out of some kind of lousy peace between those variations is probably the only peace we could have gotten out of Minsk, and it never became possible. They were really heavily deadlocked negotiations. And that is a tragedy. Yes, I think that at some point saying that you believed in the Minsk agreements, even though that was the government’s policy in Ukraine, became almost a stigmatized position, because people were so angry at the Russian Federation for continued ceasefire violations, although, as someone living in the east, I just want to say it’s very, very difficult to understand at any given time exactly what was going on on the frontline and how escalation started. There are very many that are quite easily attributable to Russia violations. But, in general, that was a very ambiguous and difficult to understand situation, what was going on on any given day on the front. But a lot of people just felt, “Look, you know, the Russians have not rolled back their war aims. Why should we be sitting down, basically hashing out the peace that they forced on us?” And so, there was a pretty strong social bloc — it included a lot of Ukrainian liberals, a lot of Ukrainian peoples who would self-define as Ukrainian nationalists — who were just against what they saw as sort of a capitulatory process of taking part in Minsk.

Now, the Russians also, as I said, they really believed in inserting Luhansk and Donetsk as the so-called people’s republics back in. I think what they were hoping for was something very similar to what happened at the end of the Yugoslav Wars with Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Russia is able to have a separate foreign policy with Banja Luka in the Republika Srpska part of Bosnia, which it uses in order to try to force the larger overall government of Bosnia to do what Russia wants. Ukraine was really afraid of that kind of situation, that they would not be able to effectively govern with this government within a government foisted back upon them into their body politic.

And I and many Ukrainian experts, people I have worked with for a long time, we — it’s a tragedy that will probably haunt us for a long time, now that we’ve gotten to this horrific Russian invasion, that it never was possible to try to hash out something in the middle, which was always going to be a lousy, pretty unfair, painful, ideologically ambiguous peace for Ukraine. But it just — if it had been a route to avoid further war — of course, we’ll think for years, you know, “What if? What if?” But we do need to understand, if Russia had this much violence under the surface of its policy, this much hatred and ideological madness that we’ve seen in this war, I do wonder: Was that lousy peace ever really available, or was it just a means to get to the same level of coercion and violence that Russia has released onto Ukraine during this invasion?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And finally, Brian, how do you see this ending?

BRIAN MILAKOVSKY: I see this ending with the negotiated settlement. And I think that that’s absolutely the position of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. But as I said, Ukraine has to fight its way to an actual negotiating process with Russia. Russia was imagining a capitulation process, that would then involve some of this really horrifying ideological sort of reshaping of Ukraine — public executions, things like that — that they’ve been bragging about in their public media — in their government-controlled media. And instead of that, Ukraine, by fighting much, much harder and much better than Russia ever thought was possible, because they understood so little about about Ukraine when they launched this invasion, has changed that into something that might be a real negotiations process.

And that’s why I’ve become more supportive of arming Ukraine, significantly more supportive of arming Ukraine than I was before, because they need that ability to fight to an actual — to an actual negotiations process, which I think President Zelensky appears to be ready to put things like NATO membership on the table, because I think he’s so disappointed with NATO as an institution in this situation. He’s become more convinced that Ukraine will always be at it alone, and so needs to — you know, needs to build its future with that in mind, that I think he’ll put some stuff on the table like that, like NATO. I wonder if he’ll put some of the cultural things on the table that are symbolically very important for Russia, very painful for Ukrainians, like the language question, but where the actual realities of Ukrainian life, it being a multilingual country with a Ukrainian-speaking majority but a very large Russian-speaking minority, that perhaps he might look also for some concession there that reflects the realities of Ukraine but also lets Russia feel it got something. But it has to be a real negotiation. And that means Ukraine has to not be a supplicant, but a force that fought its way to the Russians feeling they need to negotiate.

AMY GOODMAN: Brian Milakovsky, I want to thank you for being with us, expert in economic recovery in eastern Ukraine, also helping to raise funds for evacuations from the Donbas. Until January, he lived there in Ukraine, now speaking to us from Croatia. To see Part 1 of our discussion, you can go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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