In the Borderlands of War of Eastern Ukraine. Making Borders by Mapping Needs and Social Practices

An overview of recent academic and NGO expertise on life along the contact line

by Sophie Lambroschini, Centre Marc Bloch (Berlin)

©OSCE/Edward Crowther

The photo above depicts an unexploded PG-7L grenade lying by a rural road in the buffer zone separating Ukrainian military from rebel troops in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Local villagers lined up beer, lemonade and vodka bottles a few meters ahead of the grenade as a rather bootless warning to drivers of the impending danger, conveying also the absurdity of this officially named “buffer” and “security” zone, in the borderlands of a war where Russian-backed separatists oppose the Ukrainian government, causing over 10,000 deaths and displacing at least 1.6 million civilians since April 2014.

In effect, a 15-km wide heavy artillery exclusion zone on each side of the frontline was to serve, in a follow-up to the Minsk I ceasefire agreement in September 2014, as a demilitarized zone. Among the hard to estimate 200,000-350,000 people living within 15 km of the frontline on the government-controlled side (GCA), 4,700 children live in settlements that are shelled at least twice a week, a recent UNICEF report concludes[1]. The total population (including separatist territories) along the contact line may reach 2 million[2], considering the demographic density on rebel-held territories, in particular the city of Donetsk. This strip of land has become the third largest mine contaminated stretch of land in the world, according to the 2018 Humanitarian Needs Overview Report by the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)[3]. It is a borderland of war where people live, work, travel, go to school[4], making and transforming borders through their everyday lives. Non-governmental organizations engaged locally attempt to map the lives along these borders, as scholars develop their own reflection on what borders mean.

Eckert, Denis. “Contested, Fuzzy, or Stable: the Borders of Ukraine” [5]

Buffer zone? “Borderlands of war” would be a more fitting name.

The narrower 10-km zone straddling the frontline means extreme living conditions, often under fire:  the state power of local administrative authorities is far and in between on the government-controlled side, shelling can occur on a daily basis endangering local residents and the life-essential infrastructure they depend upon, such as water and electricity supply from the Siverski Donets river, safe roads to reach schools, hospitals and markets. Sometimes, children cross over from separatist to government-controlled territories to reach their schools through mine-contaminated backroads to avoid long hours at checkpoints.

Making these borderlands of the war safe and livable, by retrieving un-exploded devices and repairing the damage done to houses, schools and communication lines is the result of painstaking local ad hoc negotiation between people on the ground such as representatives of Ukrainian, Russian, and rebel military, local authorities on both sides, humanitarian aid workers, informal business or political figures acting as mediators, and representatives of the OSCE mission. The Joint Centre for Control and Co-ordination (JCCC), a joint mechanism to ensure the implementation of the Minsk ceasefire agreements, housed at a salt mine sanatorium in Soledar, has been instrumental. At the JCCC, Russian and Ukrainian officers worked until recently in joint shifts to collaboratively implement ceasefires and “windows of silence” for maintenance crews to repair vital civilian infrastructure[6].

Making borders

So, in the nit and grit of war, it appears that actors on the ground are making and unmaking borders between Government-controlled (GCA) and non-government controlled (NGCA) areas, “softening” them at times through trans-border activities: technicians repairing cut power lines, aid volunteers or NGO workers distributing water, food, villagers providing care and remittances to family left “on the other side”, even the Ukrainian border guards filtering some 30,000 daily transits at five checkpoints, reaching about 1 million crossings a month. Locals move between occupied and unoccupied Ukraine for work, social benefits and pensions, medical and family reasons in long lines that can last for many hours, generating in turn new social spaces revolving around immediate needs (toilets, trade, water, medical attention). The Voda Donbasa water utility company whose infrastructure provides not only water but also power and heating on both sides of the frontline to millions of residents, is regularly damaged, as the UN WASH program records, requiring coordinated intervention in order for technicians to make repairs.  Nine employees of Voda Donbasa were killed last year while attempting to repair installations, since most of the water pipes, canals, water treatment plants, dangerous chlorine reserves, and filtering stations are located within the “buffer” zone[7] and exposed to shelling[8].

Separation creating new geographies of daily life

The REACH Initiative[9] approached these actors-based dynamics from a humanitarian aid perspective. In order to support humanitarian planning REACH assessed the needs and vulnerabilities with regard to access to basic services through a micro-level investigation of daily practices in settlements inside the buffer zone, within 5 km of the line of contact in Government Controlled Areas (GCA). Drawing on interviews collected in the spring of 2017 in 100 settlements along the 500 km Line of contact, investigators asked locals how the war had affected their livelihoods: what were their greatest problems with regard to health, education, income? How did the border with the separatist region disrupt the networks spanning daily lives? What lifelines were cut off, and how had they adapted to these new situations?

Responses are depicted visually by the mapping of both pre-war and current networks for selling and buying produce at the markets, visiting hospitals, accessing banks and schools, as well as by district[10].They vividly reflect how the war in Eastern Ukraine has affected geographies of practices. For example, farmers living in government-controlled areas near the Contact line have all but given up selling their produce (tomatoes, milk, honey) at markets in Donetsk, Yasynuvata, Luhansk and now travel more kilometers to smaller outlets further north and west or not at all when the fields are polluted by mines and various weapons that failed to detonate (explosive remnants of the war or ERW).

Pre-Conflict and Current Network for Selling Produce. REACH, Area based assessment, Situation Overview, 2017

A recent series of crises: from geographic to mental borders

Several crises between Kyiv and separatist forces in 2017 involved mechanisms of “bordering” or the hardening of existent borders. In the early months  of 2017, an initially grassroots initiative by Ukrainian vigilante groups claiming to fight “blood trade” with the “aggressor”, blocked railroad lines and bridges crossing the frontline to stop imports of coal from rebel controlled-territories into Ukraine. In spring, separatist officials nationalized Ukrainian-owned industries that operated on rebel-held territory. In December, the withdrawal by Russia of its officers serving in shifts at the Soledar JCCC, cut off a vector for communication with separatist forces on the ground, weakened existing trans-border mediating mechanisms. Indeed, all these events appear to further calcify existing separations. This “hardening” of borders on the ground echoes those of the mind, as warnings by commentators of the increasing alienation of Ukrainians living under separatist authority and of a race against time to “keep” them identifying socially and culturally with Ukraine.

Scholars also note the need to track new types of border practices

At the Berlin-based Centre Marc Bloch where I work, geographers and social scientists have, already for many years considered borders, including Ukraine’s, from a dynamic perspective through the 2011-2016 Phantom Borders project. Last year, geographer Denis Eckert and I attempted to define what was actually meant by the line or border separating Ukrainian and rebel-controlled territories by working our way through the semantics used to describe this new reality of war: what and where is the Line of contact? What is the grey zone or the “danger zone”, how and by whom are they represented on maps? We found that the line was a about as undefinable as the conflict itself, often described, somewhat vacuously, as a “hybrid” war. Indeed, the Minsk negotiations never achieved an officially delineated armistice boundary, the Line of contact serving merely as an approximate baseline for the retreat of heavy weaponry. In face of official void, a community of mapmakers developed their own collaborative cartography of the conflict line, using the web mapping service OpenStreetMaps. Denis Eckert then pushed his research further by establishing a minute catalogue of legal and historical statuses of Ukraine’s state borders, revealing a variety of regimes, from EU monitored borders with self-proclaimed Transnistria, to an expedited beaconing of the Belarus-Ukrainian border in the aftermath of the Ukrainian-Russian crisis[11]. Ukraine’s border appears to echo T. Nail’s hypothesis of de-multiplying border regimes.

Beyond Ukraine

The Vienna-based scholar Tatiana Zhurzhenko has systematized the conceptual distinctions of what borders, frontiers and the like can be and how they connect with identifications in Ukraine. These increasingly complex borders echo French historian Sabine Dullin’s analysis of Soviet-era borders as “thick borders”, spaces of complex social and state interactions. In a recent edition of the  Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies, dedicated to post-Soviet borders, the journal’s editors describe borders as “boundaries [that] are, in fact, living entities and producers of social dynamics”. Looking at how Post-Soviet borders, rooted in past and contemporary conflicts, they observe the formation of “problematic boundaries [that] have become the external borders of the European Union”[12]. The Ukrainian example is one in a recent spur of interest by scholars and field experts for how to look at border from new perspectives, reflecting philosopher Thomas Nail’s paradoxical assumption that in a globalized world there have never been as many types of borders as today.





[1] UNICEF. 2017. “The Children of the Contact Line in East Ukraine”.



[4] See the field notes by French sociologist Ioulia Shukan, documenting everyday practices in the zone around the contact line:

[5] Eckert, Denis. “Contested, Fuzzy, or Stable: the Borders of Ukraine”, Map,


[7] See map:


[9] REACH is a joint initiative of IMPACT, its sister-organization ACTED, and the United Nations Operational Satellite Applications Program (UNOSAT). REACH was created in 2010 to facilitate the development of information tools and products that enhance the humanitarian community’s decision-making and planning capacity. All REACH activities are conducted in support of and within the framework of inter-agency aid coordination mechanisms.

[10] See maps and assessments:

[11] Eckert, Denis. 2018. “Les frontières de l’Ukraine ou les contours incertains d’un Etat européen, L’Espace Politique. 2018. To be published shortly.





Dullin, Sabine. La frontière épaisse: Aux origines des politiques soviétiques, 1920 –1940. Paris: Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2014.

Eckert, Denis, Lambroschini, Sophie. “La ligne de démarcation entre séparatistes du Donbass et reste de l’Ukraine – M@ppemonde.” n.d. accessed February 1, 2018.

Nail, Thomas. 2016. Theory of the Border. Oxford University Press.

Zhurzhenko, Tatiana. 2014. Borderlands into Bordered Lands: Geopolitics of Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine. Columbia University Press.

coll. “Issue 18 | 2017 Defining and Defending Borders in the Post-Soviet Space.” The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies:

UNICEF. 2017. “The Children of the Contact Line in East Ukraine”.

UN OCHA. 2017. “2018 Humanitarian Response Needs Overview”.



About the author

Sophie Lambroschini is an associate doctoral researcher at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin since October 2015. She lived and worked in Russia (1994-2004) and in Ukraine (2005-2015).  In 2014, she published “Les Ukrainiens” (ed. Henry Dougier). Later this month she will defend her PhD dissertation in slavic studies at the University Paris-Nanterre on a history of the financial Cold War and its post-Soviet legacy.

Citation: Sophie Lambroschini, In the borderlands of war of eastern Ukraine. Making borders by mapping needs and social practices, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.02.2018,

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Editorial Board (2018, 7. Februar). In the Borderlands of War of Eastern Ukraine. Making Borders by Mapping Needs and Social Practices. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 22. Februar 2024, von

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