Ukraine blockade heralds ‘new reality’ in war-torn east

Russian-backed separatists have seized major mines and factories in Donbas region

A worker at the Donetsk Metallurgical Plant in the Donbas region.  Separatist leaders this month seized the mines and metal plants that are the heart of the  region’s economy. Photograph: Viktor Drachev\TASS via Getty Images

A worker at the Donetsk Metallurgical Plant in the Donbas region. Separatist leaders this month seized the mines and metal plants that are the heart of the region’s economy. Photograph: Viktor Drachev\TASS via Getty Images

 

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has banned all cargo from crossing the frontline in the east of the country, saying the blockade would last until Russian-backed militants reversed their recent seizure of major coalmines and factories.

Ukraine is also expected to sanction Kremlin-controlled banks operating in the country, amid reports that their branches in Russia are now accepting passports issued by the separatists as official documents.

Mr Poroshenko said the blockade reflected the “new reality” in eastern Ukraine. It is likely to deepen the isolation of militia-held regions from the rest of the country while increasing their economic dependence on Moscow.

“I propose to the national security and defence council to decide on a temporary, full halt of transport – and not just rail – connections with occupied territory,” Mr Poroshenko said of areas that were seized by Kremlin-backed gunmen in spring 2014.

“Via hundreds of kilometres of the Ukrainian-Russian border that Ukraine does not control, they can easily get whatever they need – from the Russian Federation. ”

Separatist leaders this month seized the mines and metal plants that are the heart of the Donbas region’s economy, many of which were still providing fuel and goods and paying taxes to Ukraine, despite three years of conflict that has killed about 10,000 people.

Blockaders and terrorists

Mr Poroshenko said Russia had ordered the seizures, and he criticised a group of Ukrainian deputies, activists and military veterans who for several weeks have blocked rail tracks across the frontline to halt what they called a “trade in blood” with the separatists. Police have clashed with and arrested protesters in recent days, stoking political tension and cranking up pressure on the government.

“Thanks to the joint actions of the blockaders and the terrorists, Ukraine has lost its enterprises and this, unfortunately, creates a totally new reality,” Mr Poroshenko said.

Ukraine’s government, the European Union and the United States have warned that disruption to coal supply from separatist-held areas could badly damage the country’s industry and economy and trigger blackouts and a spike in unemployment.

Germany, which helped broker a now largely defunct peace agreement for Ukraine in Minsk in 2015, said it was “seriously concerned about increasing partitionist tendencies in eastern Ukraine”.

Boris Gryzlov, a senior Russian negotiator in the conflict, said the cargo stoppage breached Ukraine’s obligations under the Minsk deal and showed the “powerlessness” of Kiev’s leaders before the radicals who staged the informal blockade.