Can Ukraine Win Over Pro-Russian Citizens in the East?

So far, the country’s response to the frozen conflict has been clumsy, draconian and self-defeating—but building homes and schools could be the strategy Kiev needs.
Ukrainian servicemen repair the roof of a kindergarten in the town of Luganskoye in the Donetsk region on September 30, 2015.
04_21_Ukraine_01 Source: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty

On a sunny afternoon in Toretsk, a mining town near the front lines in eastern Ukraine, a small, wiry man in his 60s staggers down a potholed street, playing the accordion and busking for change. He’s unshaven and disheveled, sporting a camouflage cap, baggy sweatpants and a grubby telnyashka —the striped undershirt worn by Soviet and Russian troops. He passes by as I chat with a group of Ukrainian government soldiers on a corner opposite the local barracks. The men eye him with disdain; one tosses him a cigarette, and he drifts off.

Lumpen proletariat ,” says Aleksandr Lubichenko, a Ukrainian military press officer. “He’s an old separatist—I can tell a mile off. Small man, big gun.”

“But he’s only holding an accordion,” I say.

“He’s only holding an accordion now. But give him some money, and the first thing he’ll buy is an AK-47.”

Strained encounters like this are common here in Donbass, Ukraine’s easternmost region on the Russian border. This is the nation’s industrial heartland—a windblown steppe of coal mines and smokestacks that tower over vast fields of sunflowers. For three years, government forces and Russian-backed separatists have been locked in a war that’s killed roughly 10,000 and forced 2 million from their homes. Despite a 2015 peace deal, the two sides continue to trade fire along a 280-mile front line.

The unrest began in March 2014, not long after massive, pro-European demonstrations in Ukraine toppled the authoritarian government of Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin loyalist. In response, Russia seized Crimea and stirred up counterprotests in Donbass. These morphed into a full-fledged insurrection as the Kremlin sent arms, soldiers and intelligence to help separatist forces.

War has turned large swathes of the area into a militarized rust belt full of contested ghost towns, bombed-out factories and flooded mineshafts. But even

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