DONETSK, Ukraine—Deep in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) on Ukraine’s eastern fringe, crumbling statues of Lenin were guarding a century-old coal mine, testifying to a former master who had begun encroaching again. A high-pitched bell sounded, signaling the end of the night shift, and a precarious cage brought exhausted, soot-faced workers to the surface. The sudden glare of daylight made the miners squint. “These men are finally working honestly,” the mine’s chief engineer, Andrei Popovchenko, told me. “Under Ukraine, things were corrupt and illegal. Taxes were stolen.” We were walking around the Udarnik mine in Snizhne, which lies east of the city of Donetsk, close to the Russian border.
More than a year into the war between forces loyal to the Ukrainian government in Kiev and pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine, the formerly 460-strong staff at Udarnik had dwindled by around half. (The mine’s name means “shock worker,” a prestigious Stalin-era title for an employee whose production exceeded quotas.) Many of the miners had fled the violence; 12 had gone to fight on the side of the rebels, Popovchenko said. “We’re holding places for them, just as we would for a woman on maternity leave,” he told me with a wry laugh. Udarnik’s modest monthly production of 3,700 tons of coal would be sold “internally” within the DPR. “Why sell to Ukraine when we need to help our own people?” he asked. Much to the chagrin of officials in Kiev, Ukraine still receives the bulk of its coal—a resource necessary for about 40 percent of the country’s electricity production—from the rebel-controlled east.
This division between what natives of the Donetsk region now call “Ukraine” and their own statelet of the DPR, carved out by separatists last May and recognized by no one else, appears to be solidifying. Separatist-held areas—which before the war were home to around 4.5 million people—are still hurting from the Ukrainian government’s move last November to halt payments for pensions and public services in the region. The gulf appeared to widen further last week, when Ukraine’s parliament took a step toward changing the constitution to devolve more powers from the central government to the country’s eastern regions, as part of a ceasefire agreement signed in February in Minsk. But in eastern Ukraine itself, the move to decentralize power seemed almost irrelevant.