Aleppo, Palmyra, Mosul – these Syrian and Iraqi cities made headlines this year. In 2013 and 2014, the war in Syria had still been eclipsed by events in eastern Ukraine, but now it’s the other way round. The fighting in Donbass has virtually disappeared from German and European media.
But people are dying there almost on a daily basis.Ceasefire violationshave become a daily routine. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine delivers ample proof of this, recording a massive 300,000 incidents in 2016 alone. Behind those figures looms Donbass’s awful reality – trench warfare between separatists and the Ukrainian army. The civilian population is caught in the middle – dependent on humanitarian aid, putting up with wrecked buildings and disrupted power, water and gas supplies.
Regular meetings of the Trilateral Minsk Contact Group on Ukraine were supposed to provide improvements. But not a single one of the countless calls for a ceasefire has been adhered to so far. Another attempt has just been made: a Christmas trucehas been in effect since December 24.
Negotiations are also ongoing on high diplomatic levels, in particular within the framework of the so-called Normandy format. Meeting in Berlin in mid-October, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to develop a road map to implement the Minsk Agreement. But it is yet to materialize.
In October 2016, Merkel and Steinmeier hosted Ukraine conflict negotiations in Berlin
The government in Kyiv still remains committed to the Minsk process. Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016, Poroshenko stressed that “Ukraine continues to adhere to a political-diplomatic solution to the situation in Donbass.” “We are a peaceful nation,” he added.
But in front of domestic audiences Poroshenko becomes more hawkish: “Looking into the eyes of our warriors, seeing the skill with which they handle arms and combat equipment, I’m confident of one thing: Ukraine will absolutely win,” he said on “Defender of Ukraine Day” in October.
Tacit territorial gains
Officially, Ukraine says that its troops don’t carry out military offensives. But clearly both sides try to seize control of individual residential areas by means of incursions, with the situation coming to a head on December 18, when heavy fighting erupted on Svitlodarsk bulge, north-west of Debaltsevo. Both sides accused each other of starting hostilities, and five Ukrainian soldiers were killed.
“These are the army’s heaviest losses of the last five months,” said Ukraine’s Defense Ministry spokesperson Andriy Lysenko. On that day alone, the OSCE recorded 2,900 explosions, the majority of them in the vicinity of Debaltsevo and Svitlodarsk.
The Ukrainian side claimed to have achieved territorial gains, with Lysenko telling DW that the army had advanced between one to one-and-a-half kilometers (0.6 to 0.9 miles). “We have conqured three elevations. They are very convenient locations, you can see the town of Horlivka from there. According to the Minsk agreement, that’s Ukrainian territory,” the spokesman added.
Both warring factions have repeatedly approached the line of contact, an area that is supposed to be neutral, according to the Minsk agreement. This is confirmed by OSCE observers. “They erect new positions in the area and approach each other heading for the line of contact,” said the vice-chief of the OSCE Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, Alexander Hug.
Fighting is still ongoing across the country
This problem is also highlighted by the head of the EU Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Elmar Brok. He told DW that, after the withdrawal of heavy weapons, “a gray area has emerged which is now entered by troops.” The area, Brok added, was infiltrated by both sides, “so that the factions approach each other with handguns, resulting in immediate fighting and a rising number of casualties.”
OSCE reports compiled on a daily basis describe how both sides are making territorial gains. On June 15, 2015, for example, the village of Kominternowe, close to Mariupol, was under the control of the Ukrainian government. But on January 14, 2016 the OSCE noted that the village was now under the control of separatists. In turn, the Ukrainian side occupied the village of Vodyane, previously under separatist control.
Lack of will to find a political solution
A cessation of hostilities is nowhere in sight. Even Russia – which supports the separatists – contributes nothing to a solution of the conflict. “I’d even argue that the Russian side is quite comfortable with the current state of affairs, which enables it to keep Ukraine in a dependent relationship,” said Stefan Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).
On the Ukrainian side, however, the analyst does not see any political will to bring the Minsk process forward either. Poroshenko, he said, had neither the interest nor the political credit to fulfill certain parts of the agreement against opposition from inside the political system and society.
Wadym Karasyov supports that argument. The Ukrainian expert said that Poroshenko had many domestic opponents, and was unable to make concessions to the separatists because the opposition would then accuse him of “unpatriotic behavior.” Kyiv had no strategy, resorting to “wait and see” tactics instead. “The conflict, however, cannot be frozen. The fighting on the Svitlodarsk bulge proves that,” said Karasyov.