As the crisis over Crimea heated up in 2014, former US President George W. Bush reminisced publicly on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comment to him (privately) that Ukraine ‘isn’t even a country’. Those of us who know the former USSR first-hand intuit Putin’s denigrating remark on a level beyond obvious Great Russian chauvinism: most ex-Soviet states do feel like artificial constructs – bleak, rundown and lacking the common consciousness necessary to the civic and social spirit one associates with a ‘serious country’.

Such was my familiar sensation on first visiting the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. A heavy-industrial metropolis of less than half a million, Mariupol is neither somewhere most Westerners could find on a map, nor atypical among eastern Ukrainian towns. It remains, however, the last credible bastion of defence against a Russian military blitz to establish a land corridor to illegally-annexed Crimea.

My first trip, in October 2014, was months after a battle between government forces and Moscow-backed separatists over control of the vicinity had ended in victory for the pro-Western authorities. Credit was due largely to a ‘battalion’ of irregulars who had taken back key areas in urban guerrilla warfare, but whose emblem – the ‘Wolfsangel’ – bore a more-than-passing resemblance to a swastika.

Amid buildings gutted by fire, I encountered seven people over four days describing themselves as refugees from the rebel-held, self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (DPR) a few miles up coast to the east. Three were university students from Donetsk, packed off to Mariupol by their parents after pro-Russian militants made camp in their apartment blocks. For every one of these internally displaced persons sheltering in Mariupol’s relative safety, more of the city’s residents had left the area altogether. Armed squads in camouflage patrolled the streets, which were desolate during the day, very dark at night. Next to the main theatre, a small billboard proclaimed ‘Mariupol is Ukraine,’ as if reminding residents (95% Russophone in everyday parlance) of their nationality.

In October 2016, after a little over two years of precarious peace, I found life returning. New shops, cafes, restaurants, art galleries and (inevitably) banks were testament to the dogged determination of humans to better their lot even in the most desperate circumstances. All the street lamps were back on at night, and some damaged buildings had been restored, remarkable in a part of the world where condemned structures are so often left as monuments to neglect. Overall, smiles felt normal, and people exhibited a friendly politeness, not necessarily a plentiful commodity in ex-Soviet cities this size.

Mariupol’s straits are still dire, and the region has been physically isolated since the conflict in the east began. Before the consolidation of the militarized border between the DPR and the rest of Ukraine, rail links to Mariupol mostly went through the city of Donetsk. Now there are only two passenger trains, one from Kyiv, the other from the heavy-industrial city of Zaporizhzhya, and these take eighteen and eight hours, respectively, to reach Mariupol. Both consist of old, trundling, very grubby Soviet-era rolling stock, not the new Korean carriages of the ‘Intercity’ lines (built specially for the 2012 UEFA soccer championship), very much the trains of choice in Ukraine. The length of the journey alone deters most would-be visitors (including businesspeople), making attraction of outside investment tortuous at best. Locals say most external financial assistance comes from donor organizations such as the IMF and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), but that even if transportation were operating normally, fear of renewed fighting would put off investors. The main port functions at one-third its capacity. Since its formal annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Russia has exercised total control over the Kerch Straits, through which all shipping to and from the Sea of Azov must go.

The main port functions at one-third its capacity. Chad Nagle

Massive Soviet-era enterprises offer indigenous economic power and employ tens of thousands, but the war’s disruption of ties between regional industrial centres in the Donetsk Basin has forced the city’s enterprises to buy coal and other raw materials from the pro-Moscow puppet-separatists. Ukraine’s richest man, multi-billionaire metals magnate Rinat Akhmetov, had already taken over the major metallurgical plants in Mariupol by the time the war broke out, then found himself scrambling to keep supply channels open between his assets on Ukrainian-controlled territory and resources he once utilized in the occupied territories. Once a close ally of ousted Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, Akhmetov did not openly take sides during the 2014 popular uprisings until it had become clear who would win. Now, the economy and society of Mariupol are largely dependent on this oligarch.

While most people in Mariupol seem fearful of talking politics (especially with an American), they radiate unmistakable dissatisfaction with Mr Akhmetov’s sense of corporate social responsibility. His plants are felt to add to the  major health hazards, as one is periodically reminded depending on which way the wind is blowing (the pollution level in Mariupol is possibly the third highest in the ex-USSR, and the sulphur in the air is unmistakable). The late former director at the enormous Illich Iron & Steel Works is remembered lovingly as a do-gooder who lived in a three-room flat but brought modern infrastructure to areas that had never known it, all since the Soviet Union’s collapse. During his time, locals say, the plant had been under the ownership of ‘the people’. But under Yanukovych, Akhmetov (who famously paid about £140 million for a flat at One Hyde Park in 2011) ‘privatized’ Illich and other key state assets, reportedly by methods which add a new dimension to hostile  takeovers. Now, whole factories stand idle, with thousands laid off.

Akhmetov is committed publicly to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but nevertheless mistrust of him is so deep that outlandish conspiracy theories have taken solid root. Did he perhaps foster war to obtain coal from the separatists at discount prices? Is the port functioning at a fraction of capacity because Akhmetov, in his bid for total control, hinders its operations? Has Mariupol’s modernized international airport been closed since 2014 because Akhmetov actually wants more isolation?

Maybe – in the absence of renewed violence – Akhmetov’s cunning can solve problems in spite of his poor commitment to the principle of diversified ownership. A recent example of ‘resourcefulness’ concerns the Illich plant, originally named after Soviet founder Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (‘Ilyich’ subsequently Ukrainianized to ‘Illich’). Ukraine’s de-communization law of April 2016 requires public institutions to abandon names commemorating Soviet politicians. So the managers renamed the plant after Zot Illich Nekrasov (1908-1990), an academic whose metallurgical theories and processes had been used at Illich for generations. They thus saved ‘rebranding’ costs of around £6 million, a drop in the bucket for penny-pinching Akhmetov. At any rate, ‘the lights are on’ in Mariupol, and based on progress from two years ago, there is hope that, even under Mr Akhmetov’s reputedly ungenerous rule, the region will eventually see itself through current difficulties.

Illich iron & steel works, Ukraine. Chad Nagle
Illich iron & steel works, Ukraine. Chad Nagle

The image of Mariupol-type localities heightens temptations to dismiss the Ukrainian conflict as outside the scope of vital Western interests. The very name ‘Ukraine’ is almost synonymous with domestic financial corruption, while many see Russia – also corrupt, but a great power – as a natural ally in the fight against Islamist terror targeting the West. Since terrorism overshadows all other international security concerns, and solutions are elusive in this part of the world, why not overlook Ukraine’s plight in confronting Russian aggression?

The answer lies less in the nature of Ukrainian society today than in our view of ourselves. Donald Trump has said more than once that, if elected president, he would reconsider sanctions against Russia, and his rise goes strangely against the grain of America’s tradition of siding with the underdog. In the era of ‘executive orders,’ his talk is troubling. Just in case Trump hasn’t outraged enough Americans with his bombast, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a law last month making sanctions relief contingent on Moscow’s implementation of agreed-upon measures to make Ukraine whole again. So even a President Trump would now feel at least a little legal resistance in reversing punitive economic measures, and that is positive.

But the cultural drift is palpable: Putin (with a bit of help from Trump) has hoodwinked many Americans into thinking he’s a principled statesman and resolute crusher of ISIS. The average Putin-admiring Trump supporter shrugs off the idea of rewarding Russia’s theft of territory in Crimea with sanctions relief and has no opinion on Russia transforming the international waterway of the Black Sea into a Russian lake (as it’s already done to the Sea of Azov). The phenomenon is visible across the West. The express pro-Putin leanings of continental Euro-sceptic parties and politicians are eyebrow-raising for what they suggest about collective Western attitudes toward bullying and corruption. The bully is now hailed as hero.

Sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine (to say nothing of Syria) should be both maintained and intensified. One does not have to spend long in Ukraine to conclude that people here would be doing better if not for Russia’s molestation of their homeland. It doesn’t really matter how much the provinces of eastern Ukraine resemble Hampshire or New Hampshire. Only the grimmest, most cynical worldview could see the current situation as the best Ukrainians can do, as if Ukraine’s fate is inextricably bound up with the crude ‘profane tsardom’ now ensconced in Moscow. Westerners must resist being desensitized, either to Russian aggression or to Western demagoguery apologizing for it.

It feels odd, after Brexit, to quote David Cameron. But the big loser of the EU referendum was conspicuous in verbalizing the rationale for punishing Russia over Ukraine. Putin could not, Cameron said, ‘rip up one part of the international rule book while still having access to international markets, international finance, international systems’. Cameron was dead right, of course, and should be given his due as the only prominent world leader to spell out something so obvious it’s astonishing the international community isn’t penalizing Russia far more harshly, and that the coalition of countries imposing the penalty isn’t a lot broader than it is.

Chad Nagle is an attorney living in the Washington, DC area