On Saturday, two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and sixteen more were wounded in attacks by pro-Russian rebels. Despite the latest, and eleventh, ceasefire having come into effect on the 20th of February, a state of conflict continues to exist. The rebels have in turn accused government forces of ignoring the truce, and are blaming them for the death of one of their fighters.
All this is pointing to a worrying increase in violence. International monitors from the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) commented on the situation, noting that in the past seven days they have “recorded double the number of ceasefire violations” in comparison to the previous week. They also reported that in the government-held city of Mariupol, several of their cars were nearly struck by mortar shells. Though nobody was injured in this event, it, along with the attacks on Saturday, show signs of escalating tensions in Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine has left 9,640 dead, according to UN estimates, and a further 1.1 million people have been displaced by the violence. Tensions began in 2013, with a series of protests in Kiev against the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. These resulted, not only, in the overthrow of his government, but a state of instability, which was exploited by Russia in March of 2014 when troops took control of the Crimea, shortly before formally annexing it in a disputed referendum. This, in turn, led to increased ethnic tensions within Ukraine and a proclamation of independence by pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region. Since then, a period of conflict and instability has existed in the east of Ukraine. Neither side has made any effective gains since early 2015, meaning that the war has become a ‘frozen conflict’ of sorts: a war in which no heavy fighting is currently occurring, but has yet to be brought to an end through peace treaties. Incidents like what occurred on Saturday show that this conflict has every chance of ‘thawing’ into open fighting once more.
Such a possibility has grave consequences, not only for the people of east Ukraine, but for surrounding regions, too. This was tragically demonstrated in 2014 with Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down by pro-Russian separatists, killing all 298 people on board. The answer is to bring the conflict to a proper conclusion, but when so many peace measures have been attempted already, it is difficult to know what to try next. Even if the attacks on Saturday do not escalate the situation, a seemingly more benign event could do so. The Eurovision Song Contest, due to take place in Kiev this May, is likely to be surrounded by controversy. Despite calls from MPs to boycott the event, Russia announced on Monday that it had chosen Julia Samoylova as its candidate, an artist who controversially performed in the Crimea following its annexation. This fact has not gone unnoticed by Ukrainian officials, with one, Anton Gerashchenko of the Interior Ministry, suggesting that she could only perform if she “doesn’t publicly announce her support for the annexation of Crimea and aggression against Ukraine.”
Given that something as innocent as a singing contest risks heightening tensions in Ukraine, it is difficult to think of what could be done to diffuse the situation. However, there is one possible solution that may help. In 2016, NATO sent four battalions to eastern Europe, in order to deter Russian aggression. Such troops should not be used for military force, as that would only escalate the conflict. NATO does have the right idea, though. For instance, by firmly establishing a presence in eastern Europe without getting directly involved, they can send out a message that they will not tolerate ceasefire violations. This will not be enough to bring the conflict in Ukraine to an effective conclusion, but it will hopefully lessen the likelihood of attacks like those, which took place on Saturday, and in doing so, reduce the chances of an escalation in violence.
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