Eastern Ukraine in limbo as ‘invisible war’ takes its toll

The Australian, 30/9:

“I sometimes think if we’re just going to be stuck here like this, we should just use paintball instead of live ammunition. Probably it’s ­because I’m older but I think a bit differently to the other guys here. About all the nationalism and so on, I think there’s nothing more important than human life. You don’t give it in order to take it back. It’s another story if you haven’t a choice, of course.”


“Hammer” is a volunteer with the Donbass battalion of Ukraine’s government forces. It is an hour after dawn, at a frontline position on the edge of the town of Mar­inka, close to the border with Russia. The enemy, pro-Moscow “sep­ar­atists”, are 200m away, holed up in a disused stable.

Exchanges of fire begin every evening at nightfall. Small arms fire, light machineguns, some rocket-propelled grenades and self-propelled grenades, too. In ­between, the fighters exchange abuse with the pitch black and surreal humour that seems to accompany this war in eastern Europe.

It’s not a game, though. Every so often someone is wounded or killed. But there are no significant manoeuvres. There is, after all, a “ceasefire” in place, signed in Minsk on February 11, 2015.

This is eastern Europe’s invisible war, a conflict between Ukraine and Russia that churns on largely unnoticed by the outside world. A conflict frozen in time but far from over.

The Donbass volunteers spend their days cleaning their weapons, sleeping, looking for food and waiting. Perhaps some day the order will come to take the red stable on the other side of the scrubland. The younger men, “Sniper” and “Gypsy” and “Marbeley” (Ukrainian militiamen and soldiers all go by nicknames), are unanimous that it could be achieved without difficulty.

But behind the positions of the “separatists” awaits the army of Vladimir Putin, an entirely different proposition. The order to move forward for either side is unlikely to come anytime soon.

A Ukrainian soldier in the largely Russian-speaking Donetsk region. Picture: Jonathan Spyer
A Ukrainian soldier in the largely Russian-speaking Donetsk region. Picture: Jonathan Spyer

A few hours away, in the capital, Kiev, restaurants and bars are open. Business is flourishing. Only the presence of a few exhausted-looking off-duty soldiers up from the ATO (anti-terror operation, the preferred Ukrainian government term for the combat area) ­indicates anything out of the ordinary. The seeming normality is ­deceptive. On Ukrainian Independence Day, August 24, an explosion near government head­quarters in central Kiev injured two people. In late June, a car bomb killed military intelligence colonel Maksim Shapoval. Every so often, the war offers a reminder of its existence.

At least 120 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the Donbass region this year, according to official figures, along with an unknown number of their enemies. Civilians, too, are caught up in the crossfire. More than 10,000 have died in the conflict since 2014: Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers, separatist fighters, Russian regular soldiers and civilians. More than two million people have been made homeless.

This brutal non-war is the ­unwanted child of the Ukrainian Maidan revolution of 2013-14. The display of people power that toppled the Moscow-supported government of Victor Yanukovych in February 2014 triggered the Russian seizure of the Crimean peninsula the following month.

Pro-Russian agitation then began in the largely Russian-speaking provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbass region. A former Russian intelligence officer, Igor Gurkin, known as “Strelkov” (the Shooter), played a central role in organising it.

Armed pro-Russian insurgent groups appeared and seized the state administration buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk, proclaiming independent republics. A bitter fight ensued in which Ukrainian government forces and militias succeeded in largely clawing back the areas seized by the insurgents. But with victory in sight, the undeclared entry of regular Russian forces, including airborne units and heavy armour, prevented the destruction of the newly proclaimed “people’s republics”. And there they remain, under the dominion of Russian separatists.

A ceasefire was declared on September 5, 2014, after negotiations in Minsk. Violations of the ceasefire began almost immediately. Additional Russian troops and heavy equipment crossed into Ukraine in November. A second ceasefire was signed in Minsk in February 2015, after some territorial gains by both sides. Observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe observe the maintenance of Minsk II. Fighters on both sides take care not to shoot when the OSCE are about. A “grey zone” of disputed areas whose possession was unresolved by the Minsk protocol remains. The war consists of the contest for these areas.

US Secretary of Defence James Mattis, in Kiev a few weeks ago, signalled his support for increased US assistance, including weapons, for the Ukrainian army in Donbass. Javelin anti-tank weapons, and perhaps anti-aircraft systems, are top of the wish list for the ragged soldiers along the 400km frontline.

Mattis’s visit was the second high-profile trip to Ukraine by a senior US official in recent months. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in the country pledging his support in July. Legislation for the provision of defensive ­lethal weapons has made its way to the White House but has not yet been signed. In the meantime, on the fighting lines, things remain locked in place.

The Russians at the outset ­expected to be greeted with enthus­iasm by the largely Russian-speaking population of eastern Ukraine. This did not happen. A project for a new state to be called “Novorossiya” was briefly put into motion. This was to ­include not only Donetsk and Luhansk but the entire area from ­Odessa in the south to Kharkiv in the north.

Little remains of Russia’s ambitions. A bleak and ­restricted existence is the reality for those living in the area controlled by the Russians and the “separatists”. Western journalists are not allowed into the people’s republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. But conversations with internally displaced people paint a picture of chaos, warlordism and dysfunction.

In a community centre in Kiev, Albert, a 78-year-old retired mechanical engineer from Luhansk, tells Inquirer that the separatists consist of bandit groups who behave with impunity towards the property of the local people. His wife, Ludmila (the couple prefer not to give their family name), says she is afraid to speak openly about the situation in ­Luhansk because the family still owns an apartment in the area and the de facto authorities have begun confiscation of empty properties.

The couple describe a difficult situation in which provision of water and electricity are only partial and armed men and tanks are frequently seen on the streets. “The roads are ruined by the tank tracks,” Albert tells us. “Before, there was only one tank in Luhansk, at the war memorial. Things have changed.” He is old enough to remember World War II. Its most crucial ground actions were fought along these rolling landscapes of eastern Ukraine and western Russia. After a peaceful life in the shadow of that war, another conflict has cast its gloom.

For civilians still living close to the front line, the war is a constant presence, and a constant danger. In Krasnogorovka, by the ruins of her house, we meet Svetlana Voilova, 53, who worked in a candy factory in Donetsk before the war. The house was destroyed by heavy artillery fire two weeks earlier. Svetlana had been visiting her mother in hospital. All her possessions are gone, she says. The entire building, which had contained nine apartments, was destroyed in the shelling and subsequent fire. One old man died. He had been the only other resident. The rest had already fled. There was nothing left.

“Every day is Russian roulette,” says Alina Kosse, of Marinka. The first front-line positions of the Ukrainian forces are 2km from her house: “Just a day ago rounds fell on the area and these rounds have come into my wall and garden.”

Yet despite it all, civilians have begun to return to front-line Marinka. “A lot of people left but now people have begun to come back. They pay huge rents in other parts of Ukraine, so they are coming back because they spend their money, at least here they have a roof over their heads and a yard to grow crops to survive.”

But what about Minsk II? And the ceasefire? Kosse is amused and dismissive. “The ceasefire is there just to reassure people but it doesn’t reassure us. We hear the sounds of the ‘ceasefire’ every night.”

There are no confirmed numbers for the remaining population in the so-called Donestsk and ­Luhansk people’s republics. But Gyorgy Tuka, Deputy Minister for the Occupied Areas in the Ukrainian government, tells Inquirer that 1.6 million people have left for areas controlled by the Ukrainian government since the outbreak of the conflict. An unknown number have also left for Russia. A disproportionate number of those who remain are pensioners and other vulnerable people.

A Ukrainian soldier deployed in the Donetsk region. Picture: Jonathan Spyer
A Ukrainian soldier deployed in the Donetsk region. Picture: Jonathan Spyer

According to a report in the ­independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, of one million ­inhabitants of Donetsk city, 250,000 are pensioners. The economy, once a central hub, has contracted by two-thirds, according to the Ukrainian central bank. ­Retailers and financial services have largely disappeared.

Moscow is paying a continuing price for its incursion into Ukraine. On June 20 this year, the US Treasury Department voted to increase sanctions, none of which is showing any sign of producing a more pliant Russian response.

Rather, Moscow’s latest actions appear to point towards greater linking of Donbass to the Russian economy, while avoiding any formal annexation.

The Ukrainian fighters are a mixed bunch. The 2013-14 period was a revolutionary moment in Ukrainian society and like other such periods, it drew in many new people to military and political ­activity. The Ukrainian army, underfunded and riddled with corruption, was woefully ill-prepared for the challenges of war when it came in 2014. Hastily assembled volunteer militias consequently played an important role in stemming the advance of the separatists and then facing the Russian regulars.

Some of these militiamen were recruited directly from groups of activists who had taken part in the protests of the EuroMaidan, with demands for closer European integration, and in particular from far right groups of Ukrainian nationalists, who formed a significant presence in the square protests. Other formations emerged from existing nationalist groups.

The ideology of the volunteer groups varied. Clearly far right and sometimes neo-Nazi influences were present in some. Others ­adhered to a more mainstream Ukrainian nationalism.

But while the militia groups ­received a great deal of media coverage, they now play a reduced role. The most significant of them, including the Donbass and Azov battalions, have been incorporated into regular military structures in accordance with Ukraine’s National Guard Law. Today both these forces maintain about 1000 fighters in Donbass, where they are under the command of the army. A single formation, the Pravy Sector (right sector), continues to operate as an independent element on the front line.

The fighters of the volunteer battalions clearly take no special pleasure in their transformation from mobile forces to defenders of a static line. “In essence, a frozen conflict,” says Casper, a section commander in the Donbass battalion, pronouncing the words with a studied contempt, as we meet at a position just behind the front lines. He is sitting shirtless in the small courtyard in front of the house where his section is stationed. The left side of his body is covered in burn marks.

Later, in haunted tones, he will tell us of the fight at Debaltseve, in February 2015, when the Donbass battalion was trapped for a month in an enclosure by Russian forces. “Twenty-five men dead from a company of 80,” he says, and produces a film on his phone of the eventual evacuation of the unit. Here are the same faces of his section, standing next to tanks, in the freezing February cold. “Sniper”, with his ginger beard, and “Marbeley”, named after a character from Soviet children’s tales.

The experience does not seem to have diluted the Donbass men’s energies for the fight. They retain the freewheeling feel of a volunteer militia — heavy metal and hardcore punk music blasts from a sound system, unit graffiti lining the walls.

The reduction of the military role of these volunteer battalions has led some of them to turn towards politics, seeking to transform themselves into activist political parties. This is leading to concerns among civilian activists, who fear the implications the ­arrival of militarised politics could have for Ukraine’s fledgling democracy.

There is particular concern regarding the Azov battalion because of the far right agenda it espouses. Olga Reshetilova, a civilian activist from the independent Media Initiative for Human Rights, tells Inquirer those battalions that have remained outside of the formal military structures have become private armies that engage in illegal activities. Reshetilova points to the close links between Azov and Ukraine’s Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov.

Nazar Kravchenko, one of the leaders of Azov’s newly formed political party, the National Corps, dismisses these concerns. He describes Ukraine as engaged in a “hybrid war” with Russia, and asserts that this makes necessary the type of “activist” politics his movement espouses.

He notes the movement has a network of 10,000 activists and describes a strategy of direct action against “political manifestations of pro-separatist sentiment” and “anti-Ukrainian actions”.

But the political manifestations of the volunteers are small and lacking in resources. The nationalist candidate in the May 2014 presidential elections, Dmitro Yaros, secured only 0.7 per cent of the total votes cast.

Many Ukrainians seem to have been happy to have the nationalists around when there was a foreign incursion to be repelled, while having no desire to be governed by them.

“Ukrainians don’t want to be led by extremists,” a young man in Kiev tells me.

So where is all this heading? The answer, it appears, is towards more of the same.

Any dreams of a large, powerful Russian-speaking new state in east Ukraine must surely now be gone. The war has served to crystallise a greater sense of Ukrainian identity among Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population. There will be no “Novorossiya”.

But there will be no return of Donetsk and Luhansk to Kiev’s control an time soon, either. Even the improved levels of US support currently under debate would be far from sufficient to break the deadlock.

In the meantime, Moscow has no intention of abandoning its new fiefdoms. It has made itself a vital partner in any discussion of Ukraine’s political future.

The maintenance of frozen conflicts as tools of diplomacy and political influence is a familiar part of the Russian playbook — in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and now also in the vital arenas of Ukraine and perhaps even Syria.

This is the judicious and relatively low-cost means by which Moscow projects influence and ensures insecurity around its border regions.

In eastern Ukraine, the sounds of the ceasefire — small arms fire, mortars, lightmachine guns and artillery — look set to continue to be heard.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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1 Response to Eastern Ukraine in limbo as ‘invisible war’ takes its toll

  1. Jonathan Karmi says:

    Putin is pathetic. The Russian economy is a mess and he spends its resources on dumb military adventures from which Russia gains very little. People think he’s smart, but he’s just a petty, Russian nationalist thug.

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