The global crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has been acutely felt in eastern Ukraine, where the line of contact between government-controlled territory and regions held by Russia-backed separatist formations has become even more complicated than usual.
The measures introduced by Kyiv and the separatists to control the coronavirus have exacerbated the humanitarian situation near the contact line in the Donbas, but have had little effect on the military situation.
The fighting continues.
On March 23, the Russia-backed separatist group that calls itself the Luhansk People's Republic (LNR) suspended the operation of the only pedestrian checkpoint through the contact line at Stanytsya Luhanska.
And while the so-called LNR and the other Russia-backed separatist group known as the Donetsk People's Republic have shut themselves off from the rest of Ukraine, the border with Russia remains open.
On the morning of March 23, the Russian government excluded residents of these separatist-held areas from the list of foreigners prohibited from entering the country until May 1, thus indirectly equating them with Russian citizens.
On March 18, Denis Pushilin, the self-proclaimed head of the separatists in Donetsk, announced that all residents of the region had two days to return home, after which the "border with Ukraine" would be closed.
The separatist formation in the Luhansk region took similar action on March 21.
And starting March 21, all vehicle checkpoints on the line of contact in the Donetsk region – which are in fact the only vehicle crossing points along the entire line of contact -- were closed by the self-proclaimed separatist formation.
On March 16, Kyiv introduced a quarantine throughout the country in connection with the coronavirus pandemic and imposed a special regime for crossing the line of contact that was allowed only for urgent cases related to work, visiting relatives, for studies, or for medical treatment.
Until now, about half a million pensioners from the occupied territories regularly crossed the contact line into government-controlled areas. All of them received a state pension, which was equivalent to about $100 per month. That meant a cash flow of about $50 million per month, and a whole infrastructure was developed near the contact line to serve these pensioners: bus services, pharmacies, supermarkets, and ATMs. The money was spent in stores and at markets on separatist-held territory, providing a crucial economic boost.
Due to the crisis, the Ukrainian government decided to abolish the mandatory verification of pensioners once every 60 days in separatist-held areas for the duration of the quarantine and for 30 days after it.
On behalf of the state-owned Oshchadbank, SMS messages were sent to worried pensioners, explaining that their pensions would be transferred to their bank cards. But how the elderly would withdraw their money from these cards without going across checkpoints to ATMs on the government-controlled side remains unanswered.
There is still no functioning banking system in the separatist-held territories where they live, and it is possible to pay with cards only for purchases on the Internet, the delivery of which to these territories will also be partially interrupted.
So far, there have been no COVID-19 cases officially registered in the separatist regions.
According to separatist media, Russia has sent humanitarian aid, including Russian-made tests for the coronavirus.
In the Donetsk region, both urban and intercity transport is operating as usual, and long-distance buses to Russian cities are still running.
Less than 15 percent of those living in the separatist-controlled areas have already received Russian citizenship. However, self-proclaimed officials in Donetsk anticipate a new wave of “passportization” brought on by the difficulties presented by Kyiv’s anti-coronavirus measures.
On March 11, at a meeting of the Tripartite Contact Group in Minsk, the opening of two more vehicle checkpoints in eastern Ukraine was discussed, as was another exchange of prisoners. But a follow-up meeting will not take place on March 25 in Minsk as had been scheduled, due to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, military operations continue, with fighting reported in the northern and western suburbs of Donetsk between Horlivka and Toretsk.