What happened to Ukraine’s border wall against Russia?

Announced in 2014 as a defence border, lack of funds and corruption charges stall building with 15 percent constructed.

Ukrainian border guards patrol the border along Project Wall [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]
Ukrainian border guards patrol the border along Project Wall [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

Kharkiv, Ukraine – A mannequin in a Ukrainian border guard uniform and a green beret low on its forehead is tied to the side rail of a 17-metre-high watchtower, facing Russia. Strong wind rocks the structure. On the ground, border guards patrol the area along a two-metre-high green fence crowned with a barbed wire. 

Back in September 2014, Ukraine’s then Prime Minister Arseniy Petrovych Yatsenyuk announced a plan to fortify Ukraine’s border with Russia. 

Dubbed “Project Wall”, it carried the promise of a new beginning for post-Euromaidan Ukraine, caught in a war with the Russian-backed separatists in Donbas.

A mannequin in a Ukrainian border guard uniform standing on a watch tower [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

But a corruption scandal has put the project under question. So far, just 15 percent of the wall has been built and it is unlikely to be completed by the end of 2018. 

Last August and November, eight people from the border guard and local contractors from Kharkiv were detained on corruption charges.

In February 2018, several servicemen of the border guard, including the deputy of the Kharkiv border detachment and the head of the office of rapid responses, were also arrested. It is yet unconfirmed if their detention was related to Project Wall. 

Splitting neighbours

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the border between Ukraine and Russia has been porous. 

The 2,000km frontier reflected the obscure boundary between the former Soviet republics. Until recently, citizens of both countries could cross the administrative border with internal passports. 

In August 2014, Russia moved artillery into Donbass, eastern Ukraine, according to NATO officials – a move which followed the Euromaidan revolution and the fall of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich. Soon after, Ukraine lost control over 400km of its border. 

The fence was meant to halt the movement of weapons, illegal migration and act as a first line of defence.

The Goptivka border crossing in the Kharkiv region [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

Symbolically, it aimed to mark a split between the neighbours. For post-Maidan Ukrainians, Russia was the source of their country’s ills: corruption, failed institutions and the cynical apathy of the post-Soviet world.

According to official rhetoric, the wall was meant to help Ukraine integrate into western structures, secure visa-free regime with the EU and tighten links with NATO. 

With an allocated $136m, Project Wall became a priority on the government’s agenda. The plan included construction of an electronic border control system, a steel fence, a patrol road and an anti-tank trench running along the border. 

‘Impossible to cross’

The footprint detection strip attached to the flagship part of the fence in the Kharkiv region bears traces of hooves.

According to the press secretary of the local border guard, Oksana Ivanets, they were left by deer, the border’s only violators. 

This part of the border has been impenetrable, Ivanets explains. Motion sensors located at the strip detect objects from 60kg, while the camera surveillance system allows for timely reaction from the command centre.

“It is practically impossible to cross it,” Ivanets says. “Some have tried, but in order to get through you need time.”

The command centre tasked with monitoring the border in the Kharkiv [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

At several points, it became apparent that Ukraine, immersed in recession, could not afford the wall.

Since 2014, only a fraction of planned funding had arrived.

In 2017, allocated funds constituted only 22 percent of the plan. In January that year, the project halted due to lack of funds.

Therefore, beyond 83km of fence and 273km of trenches, what divides Ukraine from Russia is forests and fields.

Last July, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) – an FBI-trained agency tasked with investigating corruption – said it was investigating embezzlement of $3.6m from Project Wall. 

When asked about Project Wall, Ivanets admits the fence is unlikely to protect Ukraine from Russian invasion, but it may help to buy time.

Corruption allegations

“The effectiveness of the anti-tank trench is extremely moderate, it is easy to overcome, especially in the absence of troops at the border,” explains Vyacheslav Tseluyko, a defence expert from Kharkiv.

His assessment of the key element of the project is even bleaker.

“The fence is the most unnecessary and corrupt part of the project. It is expensive and there is no need for it,” he says.

NABU’s investigation found that in some sections, the patrol road was narrower than the contracted three metres and that some money was spent on other purposes, or stolen. It is unclear who was behind the scheme.

“No one could steal the money without the authorities taking notice,” a journalist from Kharkiv Anti-corruption Centre, who wished to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera. 

Following Euromaidan, Ukraine was on a reform path and tackling corruption was one of the government’s main goals. The creation of NABU awoke hopes for greater accountability of the elite.

But NABU has faced pressure. 

On December 7, 2017, the parliamentary agenda included a vote on a bill giving parliament right to dismiss the head of NABU. While the government backed down under Western pressure, there are fears of further attempts to thwart the agency’s independence.

‘A vivid display of Ukrainian politics’

Despite the failure of Project Wall, in May 2017, the EU approved visa-free regime with Ukraine, while in March 2018, NATO granted Ukraine the status of an aspirant country.

But the sense of disillusionment in Ukraine runs deep. 

According to research by Democratic Initiatives foundation, 40 percent of Ukrainians feel that nothing has been done in terms of reforms. Moreover, only 20 percent expressed readiness to join any form of protest, one of the lowest results since the year 2000. 

The pressure on anti-corruption activists has also increased. 

“This month two people from our organisation were beaten up, their ribs broken, head smashed,” the Kharkiv Anti-corruption Centre journalist explained. “It happened in broad daylight on a street.”

The wall is a vivid display of Ukrainian politics, a PR object that can be shown.

Yevgen Shapoval, activist

Institutions tasked with fighting corruption – the prosecutor’s office, courts and the police – are among the least trusted.

The corruption scandal related to Project Wall has brought even more disillusionment. 

“The wall is a vivid display of Ukrainian politics, a PR object that can be shown,” said Yevgen Shapoval, a civic activist and former deputy of Kharkiv city council. “But when you dig deeper, you understand that what they have built is some kind of illusion.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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