9,160 civilians have died in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine since April 2014, the United Nations reported on Thursday. As recent fighting over the past few weeks between pro-Russian Separatists and pro-Kyiv loyalists has punctured the paper-thin protection of the February 2015 Minsk II ceasefire agreement, East Ukraine again finds itself in the midst of a war it is struggling to end.
The Normandy Four, or the four foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany — the latter two being the mediating powers of the conflict — met on Thursday in Paris to find a solution to the current standoff that has left Eastern Ukraine a bombed-out empty shell of what it once was.
Russian FM Sergei Lavrov maintained the position that it is important for Kyiv to engage in direct dialogue with the Eastern regions of the country, especially with the rebel-held city of Donbass. Mr. Lavrov stated that there has not been progress due to Kyiv’s reluctance to engage in said talks.
He added that the original agreements by the Normandy Four in February 2015 in Minsk are still agreed upon but implementation of the terms — such as local elections in Separatist held Eastern Ukraine — cannot happen as long as Kyiv isn’t abiding.
Ukrainian FM Pavel Klimkin cited security as a main reason for Kyiv’s hesitations. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also announced Thursday that OSCE observers in Eastern Ukraine have recorded violations of the ceasefire in Donetsk and Luhansk, with heavy weaponry in areas forbidden by the Minsk agreement.
Mr. Klimkin stated he has knowledge of weapons hidden in facilities in Donbass, and that Thursday’s meeting was “very difficult” due to the internal standoff amongst the Normandy Four. In the external standoff in between Kyiv and Moscow in Eastern Ukraine, he reiterated Kyiv’s position: “We can’t reach any breakthrough and we have still thousands and thousands of our hostages in Donetsk and Luhansk.”
Sanctioning to Save Ukraine
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama has extended US sanctions on Russia for another year due to its military intervention in Eastern Ukraine. Mr. Obama signed an Executive Order targeting members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and top Russian state companies, making sure that any sort of interaction with the United States is blocked.
The European Union has already extended sanctions on 150 top Russian officials and pro-Russian Separatists in Ukraine, and has frozen assets on 16 officials under former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
The organization is due to renew the broader Russian sanctions this July, while some EU member states have already expressed their decision to drop sanctions on Russia. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced this past Monday that Hungary will not automatically extend these sanctions as Mr. Orban mends Hungarian-Russian relations, and other EU members are predicted to follow suit.
Some states and independent actors have been critical of the sanctioning of Russia, which was already hit hard by the drop in oil prices around the same time as the beginning of the Ukraine conflict. However, Mr. Putin has not stopped the offense in Eastern Ukraine even though Russians have suffered through a tough recession. The US and Western Europe still maintain despite Mr. Putin’s advances that economic sanctions are the proper tool when diplomacy fails, of which diplomatic relations have only worsened as soon as Russia entered another bloody and arduous conflict in recent months: Syria.
The current stalemates in Ukraine and Syria reveal both the precarious nature of conflicts involving Russia as well as the importance of remembering the issue at hand. As stated earlier, in Ukraine, at least 9,160 civilians have died since the conflict began with Russia in April 2014; in Syria, one observer group reports at least 1,015 civilians have died due to Russian bombing since September 2015.
Before Eastern Ukraine is decimated like parts of Syria, more action will need to be taken than further sanctioning. If Moscow is calling for local elections in Eastern Ukraine and Kyiv is calling for security measures, with neither willing to cooperate until both are set in place, then the West will need to start paying equal attention to Ukraine as is being paid to Syria if peace and human rights are truly at the core of their interests.
The Human Aspect to War
Australian photojournalist Bryce Wilson has been embedded in the Donetsk theatre twice since November 2015, photographing the life of the soldiers and civilians in ravaged towns such as Pisky and Mariinka while shedding light on the brutalities of the war and its toll on life.
“My first time I went to Donetsk [in November-December 2015], I was living in Ukrainian front trenches — they were only 500 meters from where the DNR positions were. They’d been dug in, a lot of sand bags,” Bryce told Conflict News in an interview upon returning from his second embed in Eastern Ukraine.
“During my second embed, I visited one of the positions in Pisky itself. They are completely different. It is the Ukrainian soldiers living in old homes that have holes blown in them from Grad rockets and mortars. They are shot at by snipers every day. There are umbrellas over their bed because their roof is always leaking. When you walk inside you can see mice scurrying — it’s surreal. In Pisky as well, I visited a volunteer: a woman in her 50s, through the entire war, even in intense shelling, she continues to save Ukrainian soldiers.”
As of the past few weeks, the town of Mariinka has seen the most intense fighting throughout the conflict, but to little international media attention. Bryce hopes his photos help people understand the violence and destruction that is still happening and is worsening in Ukraine.
“In my experience, it starts off in the same way. Very often, there’s a position just outside of Mariinka called the ‘crocodile.’ It’s kind of a mountain of dirt. This mountain is used by their snipers — three shooters, three spotters, and one guy teaching them — you can see them offering corrections and telling them when they're doing things wrong. They fire into Mariinka every day. You hear a shot, then nothing, then it keeps going. It takes thirty minutes, generally, before the Ukrainians respond.”
He added, “This is in a very constructive way, but certainly there were other times where they seemingly RPG into town for no reason, and then the Ukrainians respond, and it kind of snowballs. It’s every single day, especially between 6 and 9 PM.”
On some of the violence towards civilians he witnessed while embedded, Bryce recalled other moments from the intense fighting in Mariinka, including the surreal moments of normalcy in a war zone.
“In Mariinka, you are living in a town where civilians are living 10 meters from combat positions. There was a woman whose fridge was shot by a 12.7 caliber machine gun during fighting. I have seen automatic grenade launcher fire blow a civilian fence away. Homes, on New Years Eve, were struck by mortar fire. Intense fighting burned down six homes in one night. At the same time, during the lulls in the fighting I have walked with Ukrainian soldiers to the convenience store to buy a bottle of Sprite. There’s a living kind of town with civilians, then 200 meters away there’s people actively trying to kill each other. From where I was I could even see people in the DNR trenches.”
When asked about why they are giving their lives to fight in such a war, Bryce said the soldiers were held mixed reasons and opinions for serving.
“I spoke to Ukrainian soldiers and it’s almost like a split. Some think Poroshenko really is trying for change in Ukraine and he does have goals or dreams of making Ukraine what the people who died in Maidan wanted. On the other hand there are now soldiers who believe that the corruption Yanukovych represented in Ukraine, perhaps is now affecting Poroshenko in the same way. It’s kind of a mixed thing.”
“I talked with one soldier, who said, ‘We are not fighting for Poroshenko, we're fighting for family and friends.’ I think they now have their different political beliefs and they use those to justify why they're fighting. Overall it’s a mix, and it remains to be seen.”
From the corruption and diplomatic tensions in Kyiv to the frontline near Mariinka, Bryce had one last comment for the state of Ukrainian affairs: “Ukraine is in a really fragile place right now and it can teeter either way.”
Erielle Delzer is a Paris-based journalist who focuses on Eurasian affairs for Conflict News. For more articles from Erielle, click here. Follow her on Twitter: @erielledelzer. Questions/Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Bryce Wilson. Follow him on Twitter here: @drjft.
Additional reporting provided by Michael Cruickshank.