04/08/2015 18:53 BST | Updated 04/08/2016 06:59 BST

As the Blame Game Continues, the Humanitarian Crisis Deepens in Eastern Ukraine


Donetsk desolation via nicovendome55.

Since the end of open hostilities between Russian-backed separatists and government forces in eastern Ukraine, the country's woes have fallen from the headlines to be replaced in recent months by the economic cat and mouse game being played between the EU and Greece. And recently, where Ukraine has made headlines it has been in the economy section along the lines of "if you thought Greece was bad, wait till you hear about Ukraine's debt problems".

The issue at hand being the repayment of part of the $40 billion in loans extended to Ukraine by the IMF and other lenders. Unable to pay, the government in Kiev has been negotiating with their creditors in the hope of securing a writedown of the debt and reduced interest rates. The IMF and ally governments who have lent to Ukraine are adopting a lenient stance given the bigger geopolitical picture: the extenuating circumstance of having just come out of a ravaging war, with much of its industrial heartland now in the hands of rebel forces. Less concerned with the political backdrop of the situation are the private lenders who have dug in their heels and rejected every debt restructuring plan offered by Kiev. A group of creditors led by Franklin Templeton have made what they say are reasonable counter offers, but to many it looks as if the financial vultures are simply after their pound of flesh. On July 31, reports emerged that Franklin Templeton would consider a 5% write-down, a far cry from the 40% requested by Kiev.

This, however, is probably not the biggest story unfolding in Ukraine at the moment, but it does bear an uncanny resemblance to it many ways. Just as in the case of the Kiev government versus the financiers, it is a story about a people having insult added to injury and their access to vital needs cut off by a seemingly uncaring and far away entity. Only in this case that uncaring and far away entity is the government in Kiev itself and the people suffering the punishment are its own citizens in the east of the country. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that some 5 million people are now in need of basic assistance. Faced with Kiev's inaction, civil society groups have sprung up to come to those in need. Restoring Donbass is one such initiative that bands together both volunteers to provide assistance to residents and experts tasked with revamping the East's economy.

This in itself is not Kiev´s fault, but by opting to impose a blockade on goods entering the East the Ukrainian government is making the work of aid agencies much more difficult by slowing down the movement of vital supplies. It is in this respect that Kiev has taken on the worst aspects of those creditors who it decries for threatening to freeze it out of international markets, only with this blockade on its own citizens it is not just credit lines that have frozen up but vital supply lines like medicine for hospitals and refrigerators for morgues. Since last November a blockade on goods arriving in the rebel held regions has prevented residents of the worst affected areas of the war from accessing basic needs such as medical supplies. Elderly residents often living in bombed out buildings without heating have also had their pensions cut off making it even more difficult to access already scarce foodstuffs.

A permit system imposed by Kiev on anyone wanting to enter and leave these regions is only adding to the hardship, causing massive disruption to ordinary people´s lives as they find themselves trapped in limbo waiting to be cleared to return home after making the kind of journey to work or university that until recently had been hassle free.

None of this is doing much to win the hearts and minds of those residents whom Kiev hopes one day to reunite with the rest of the country, rather, it looks as if Kiev is holding them hostage in a standoff with Russia. If anything this plays directly into Russia's hands and they have been quick to capitalise on the situation to drive home their message that Kiev doesn't care about its Russian speaking citizens and is collectively punishing them for expressing their identity. It is turning the Ukraine crisis into the kind of low intensity simmering conflict at which Russia has excelled in other regions of the former USSR like Georgia and Abkhazia. To be sure, Russia's claims to champion eastern Ukraine is even more cynical than Kiev´s as it is clear that their intention is aimed more at destabilising the Ukrainian government than it is at actually supporting its ethnic kin.

If the Ukrainian government want to avoid falling victim to this well established Russian tactic they would do well to stop taking the bait and start living up to their own rhetoric about eastern residents being as valued as Ukrainian citizens as their western counterparts. A good start would be to lift the blockade and reinstate pensions for its most vulnerable people.