Article by Matthew Osche
A soldier of the Ukrainian military rests the back end of an RPG on his shoulder and trains the weapon’s sights on a small outpost harboring pro-Russian separatists. The soldier is hidden amidst the disheveled remains of a small house. On his right side, an empty doorframe stands resolute amid a pile of rubble containing fragments of concrete slabs, shattered glass and splintered wood.
To his left lies an even larger pile, this one comprised of various ammunition crates and more bazookas. The soldier adjusts his stance, one leg behind him and one in front propped atop the rubble. He closes his left eye and pulls the trigger on his RPG to a thundering echo that consumes the felled home.
After nearly 4 years of combat, albeit small-scale, war has ravaged eastern Ukraine. Physical combat first ensued in June of 2014 after months of mounting tensions that began in November of 2013 when the cabinet of then president, Viktor Yanukovych, decided to increase trading ties with Russia, an action that ran directly counter to the government’s original plan to increase trading with EU nations. Protests broke out, eventually to grow from the initial 100,000 protesters to over 800,000 strong.
As protests became violent in January, the Ukrainian parliament established an anti-protest law, significantly restricting the rights of Ukrainians to assemble. After protesters attacked government offices in the West, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned and the parliament retracted the recent law regarding protests.
The violence continued, however, and escalated until 88 Ukrainians were killed in a span of two days in Kiev. Two days after the massacre had ended, President Yanukovych disappeared following his signing of a comprise deal with opposition leaders. Following the president’s disappearance, the protests continued to grow until protesters overrun several administrative offices.
By the end of February, the protests had spread to other parts of Ukraine. On February 28, armed pro-Russian separatists overtook government offices in the capital of the Ukrainian island region, Crimea. The attack was likely the result of a parliamentary vote (that was later overturned) to remove Russian as an official language of the Ukraine.
The conflict in Crimea then prompted the Russian military to send forces into Crimea in order to “protect Russian interests.” On March 16 of that same year, a referendum was held in Crimea to determine whether or not the region would secede to Russia. After the vote yielded a result of 97% support for secession (a result that was likely fabricated), Putin officially signed for the absorption of the region on March 18.
Sparks of secession also flared up in eastern Ukraine as separatists in the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk claimed independence. After separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down a Ukrainian military plane, Russia’s parliament authorized Russian troops to fight in the Ukraine, thus officially beginning the War of Donbass (the region in eastern Ukraine where most of the fighting has taken place).
The war, which technically is a war between the Russian backed states Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) against the Ukrainian government, has been catastrophic.
Despite the “Minsk Agreement” of 2015 between Russia and the Ukraine that declared terms of peace between the two nations, and a plan to grant special constitutional rights to separatist-held territory as well as reinstate the seceded territories into Ukraine, war has continued to rage at the expense of the Ukrainian people.
Today, the struggle consists of daily small-scale battles that generally begin around 8:30 in the morning. The combat is typically comprised of short but vicious exchanges between infantry soldiers using sniper rifles, carbines, and grenade launchers.
It is not uncommon for artillery battles mixed with tank combat to erupt during the night. Countless mines have been planted along roads and amid the many fields that characterize the area, the mines posing a threat to not only soldiers, but civilians too.
The frontline is a 250-mile border that crosses through the south-eastern Donbass region, a once industrial powerhouse for coal mines and steel plants that has now become something of a rustbelt. So far, the armed conflict has taken the lives of over 10,000 people, one third of which are civilian casualties. In addition to the deaths, over 1.7 million Ukrainians have been displaced.
“After three and a half years, we are sadly further from resolution than ever,” said Alexander Hug, the principal deputy chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine.
OSCE is the multinational corporation tasked with reporting on the cease-fire. According to Hug, OSCE has seen less implementation of the peace agreement and more violence since the agreement was made in 2015. Hug stated that the sides “are not closer to ending the violence. They are, in fact, further away than ever…The end seems not in sight”.
Feature Image Credit: Sasha Maksymenko