20 years under Putin: a timeline

Thousands of Ukrainian refugees fled to Russia as a result of military operations in the southern and eastern Ukraine. As the Kremlin manipulates the refugees factor in its propaganda campaign against Ukraine, the real scale of the problem remains unclear. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya discusses the current situation.


A temporary tent camp set up for Ukrainian refugees in Rostov region of Russia. Source: Reuters.


The current situation regarding Ukrainian refugees is plagued by three key problems. The first problem is that of information: the available statistics are not accurate enough, and inaccurate or misinterpreted data seriously distort the real picture. There was a strong public response, for example, to a recent UN report that numbered Ukrainian refugees to Russia in excess of 110,000. This number, if it were accurate, would indicate the beginning of a humanitarian disaster. That’s why it’s not surprising that the U.S. State Department has questioned the validity of this information. Obviously, the UN count reflects not the number of refugees, but a broader category of persons moving between the two countries. Indeed, it soon became clear that the UN report referred to those Ukrainians who have crossed the border with Russia in 2014 but have not yet returned home.

Such uncertainty regarding the number of Ukrainian refugees plays into the hands of the Russian authorities, who actively promote the idea that the actions of the new Ukrainian government have fostered ​​lawlessness and mayhem. Russian television plays a major role in this campaign, regularly broadcasting images of the thousands of refugees from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions who are coming to Russia. Adding to these dramatics are statements by pro-Kremlin experts and public figures. For example, according to Pavel Astakhov, the children’s ombudsman under the Russian president, every day 10,000 to 14,000 Ukrainians cross the Russian-Ukrainian border. Astakhov also made a statement about the Ukrainian military firing at a bus transporting children, although this information was subsequently repeatedly refuted by official sources.

However, the official sources do not help much in terms of clarifying the situation. Thus, the latest Ministry of Emergency Situations (EMERCOM) statistics (as of July 14, 2014) show that the number of Ukrainian refugees in temporary accommodation facilities in the Russian regions exceeds 23,000. According to statements by Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets, there are already about 65,000 Ukrainian refugees in Russia. However, if statements by Konstantin Romodanovsky, head of the Russian Federal Migration Service, are true, at the moment there are already 400,000 refugees from Ukraine in the border regions of Russia. Perhaps nobody really knows the true number of Ukrainian refugees in Russia today.

The second problem with the refugees is a humanitarian one. The most complicated situation is in the Rostov region. According to volunteers from the Rostov-based Fraternal Aid organization, since the beginning of the conflict, 5,000 refugees have arrived in the region. Anatoly Kotlyarov, the founder of the organization, told Novaya Gazeta that the first refugees arrived six weeks ago and “became a steady stream…, when [both sides] started to use heavy weapons. Donetsk, Lugansk, Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, Mariupol. . . . These are people who do not care about politics, who do not want to fight, do not want to take up arms, but who happened to be in the war zone, some of them lost friends and relatives.” Many of the refugees hope to get Russian citizenship under a simplified procedure recently established by the Russian president for native Russian speakers. The majority of Ukrainian refugees who have chosen to come to Russia support the Kremlin’s policies, Novaya Gazeta reports.

The subject of refugees is one of the focal points of Kremlin propaganda. The more refugees, the more reasons Moscow has to talk about a pending humanitarian disaster that is Kiev’s fault.

It is interesting that the UN report also cites 54,000 Ukrainians who were forced to leave their homes and move to other regions of Ukraine. According to the Ukrainian authorities, the number of “displaced persons” in Ukraine is much larger—about 120,000. Unsurprisingly, Russian television programs don’t mention these figures, citing the desire to flee from the “fascist junta” that shoots civilians as the main reason for displacement. Russian propaganda is silent about the fact that residents of the eastern regions of Ukraine also oppose separatists and the war they started (with all its consequences), and that many of them are in fact trying to move westward.

In the Ukrainian media, you can find stories of migrants to western regions that tell about the abuse these individuals have suffered from the separatists and about the support for the integrity and independence of Ukraine by the majority of the population of the eastern regions. “Every day the Lviv region accepts up to twenty refugees from the Crimea and eastern Ukraine,” a recent Ukrainian TV spot reported. “Nearly 3,000 people have already made it their second home. Fleeing from terrorists, entire families come over and say that until the situation stabilizes, they will not return home”. According to Ekaterina Ponomareva of the Volunteer Center of Bukovina (Chernivtsi), since early May, the center has helped dozens of families from the east—“mostly those who strongly advocate the unity of Ukraine, organize rallies, or participate in them.”

Ukrainian refugees are also flowing into Europe. According to UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesperson Melissa Fleming, about 750 Ukrainians have applied for refugee status in Poland, Belarus, the Czech Republic, and Romania.

Finally, the third problem regarding the refugees is the political one. The subject of refugees is one of the focal points of Kremlin propaganda. The more refugees, the more reasons Moscow has to talk about a pending humanitarian disaster that is Kiev’s fault. Unfortunately, the Ukrainians who were forced to flee their homes in search of a peaceful life became hostages in a political game started by the Kremlin. Today it is obvious that it’s practically impossible to resolve the Ukrainian conflict peacefully: both those separatists goaded on by Moscow and Kiev have adopted irreconcilable positions. This means that the population of southeastern Ukraine should brace itself for even more difficult times. And perhaps it should be the interests of ordinary residents of the region that should become the basis of the political dialogue surrounding Ukraine.