A war which started as an uprising in reaction to the pro-democratic Maidan Revolution in 2013 has turned into a stale, yet bloody, stand-off between bored and disengaged armed forces.
Simply put, the war in Ukraine is complicated.
Ukrainian armed forces find themselves in a stand-off against what the Ukrainian government considers illegal armed formations, loyal to the pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk – the areas of Eastern Ukraine where the entirety of this conflict takes place, otherwise known as the Donbas region.
So far the war has resulted in the deaths of over ten thousand people and created over 1.5 million ‘internally displaced people’, refugees in their own country.
After two official ceasefires negotiated in Minsk, there is still artillery and high-calibre arms fire every day, and the death toll continues to rise, albeit slower than before.
Several trips to the Avdiivka area, on the edge of the destroyed Donetsk Airport, have shown me, first-hand, how the conflict’s status-quo is affecting those involved, both civilian and military.
Civilians are stuck in limbo in what is known as the ‘grey zone’, where they depend on either side to provide food, water and access to amenities.
Pensioners living either side of the front line are forced to wait in queues of up to 16 hours to cross de-facto borders to collect pensions. Families and key infrastructure have been divided across two warring sides.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has negotiated with both sides to prevent them from targeting key infrastructure, like water treatment facilities for example, but there are still instances of these key facilities being hit.
The ICRC works on both sides of the front, and is officially non-declared in that it has relationships with both authorities and is, officially, in support of neither.
Milan Bogetic, spokesperson of the ICRC in Ukraine, told UNILAD:
Our office in Ukraine was originally very small – only one or two people. Now it is the eighth-largest delegation in the world.
We are currently focusing on the issue of unidentified remains and locating missing persons. We also have a team of psychologists in Severodonetsk who provide counselling to those affected.
We provide technical assistance to those fixing property after damage from fighting, and we are providing short-term aid kits, including food and water, for those who are in danger of being cut off from local amenities.
Soldiers on the Ukrainian side remain bored and poorly equipped – they’re rarely able to return fire when fired upon. The army supplies food and water only, while vital supplies and goods are brought by civil society volunteers, all of whom do so out of love for their country and their defenders.
A Ukrainian soldier, using the nom-de-guerre ‘Doc’, explained to us:
We’re living under Minsk [ceasefire accords] but we still have soldiers here who can’t sleep because of the fire from [separatist] tanks. But I will be here until the end.
He’s not alone in this desire to see the conflict through to its resolution, with others having signed contracts with the army ‘until the end of military operations’.
Back in spring 2014, armed groups of pro-Russian separatists occupied Ukrainian government buildings and quickly formed the Peoples’ Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Russia has consistently denied its involvement from the outset, but the sudden appearance of complex weapon systems and propaganda materials suggests otherwise. This includes the Buk missile-launch system that was used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on 17 July 2014.
While this is disputed, the separatist forces certainly managed, very quickly, to take over weapons and machinery stockpiled by the Ukrainian police, interior ministry and armed forces.
With the government in Ukraine in disarray – reeling from the violent end to the Maidan revolution and the annexation of Crimea – the separatist forces took over large swathes of territory in the Eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk.
In an attempt to legitimise these new ‘states’ the separatists held referendums in both of their territories on the status of the region. The results, which were criticised internationally, returned huge majorities in favour of independence from Ukraine.
So far the only state to officially recognise the regions as independent states has been South Ossetia, an unofficial Russian enclave, itself recognised as part of Georgia by the United Nations.
With the separatists in a stronger position, the first round of ceasefire agreements were negotiated in Minsk in September 2014. They were meant to stem the fighting, as both sides were obliged to remove their heavy weaponry and tanks from the front line.
The first Minsk accords served to only strengthen the separatist side, with Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitors and other news agencies regularly observing ceasefire violations. Though denied, there were countless reports of Russian re-enforcements arriving in the area to strengthen the separatist side.
Vlad*, a soldier with the 128th Mechanized Brigade, told UNILAD:
This whole war could have been over, two years ago. The Minsk accords are bullshit – we stick to them, and they carry on shooting.
Following the agreement’s signing, a bloody battle for Donetsk airport broke out, with both sides accusing each other of ceasefire violations. The airport, newly renovated for the Euro 2012 football tournament, was completely ruined in the process.
A handful of Ukrainian soldiers held on to the airport for several months, and were confronted by hundreds of separatist and Russian tanks and troops. The soldiers, despite their ultimate defeat, gained the nickname ‘cyborgs’ for their apparent super-human strength.
With the first round of Minsk accords seen as an abject failure, a second round of peace accords were negotiated and signed in early 2015. Almost two years later, there has been little to stem the daily fighting, though the actual territorial changes have since become minor, and less frequent.
What’s left today is a complex situation where the country remains at war with the breakaway Republics in the East, with continuous casualties and, geographically, very little change. Territory is rarely exchanged, though espionage and sabotage operations still take place.
Dr Taras Kuzio, non-resident fellow at the Centre for Transatlantic Relations at John’s Hopkins University, and author of Putin’s War Against Ukraine, thinks the conflict will continue for the foreseeable future, with the blame lying solely at the feet of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Donbas [war] is not a frozen conflict – it is an on-going war that claims civilian and military fatalities daily.
If Putin decides to no longer provide a security guarantee to its proxy states in the Donbas; if Russia no longer threatened to invade, the two Russian proxy ‘statelets’ would disintegrate from internal weakness and Ukrainian forces.
Of course, Russia and its proxies deny the ceasefire violations – each side blames each other. Russian manipulation of the truth has been at work in Eastern Ukraine for many years.
Nevertheless, Ukraine is fatigued, while for those in Europe the conflict barely registers, and is often overshadowed by domestic political turmoil.
*Name has been changed.