Four Years And Counting: Conflict In Donbass

As the conflict in eastern Ukraine enters the fourth year, violence and disruption continue to affect the lives of the 600,000 people living either side of the ‘contact line’, of which one-sixth are children. Whilst the majority of the low-intensity conflict between Ukraine’s military and Russian-backed separatists plays out in the most eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk – collectively the Donbass – the UN Ukraine branch estimates that in 2018 a total of 4.4 million civilians are suffering as a consequence of the stalemate. Despite the 2014 war having transitioned into a low-intensity conflict in the last 10 days, two Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 20 wounded, with over 80 Russian proxy attacks. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) reported that on the 6th-7th of February alone there were 2,160 explosions reported, resulting in 3 child casualties suffering shrapnel-related injuries, as well as gunfire damage to civilian residential property. Despite a consistent lack of coverage by mainstream media outlets violence continues to ravage Donbass.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OHCA) February report stated that “The ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine is one of the deadliest in Europe since the Second World War.” To date, the Council on Foreign Affairs has put the fatality count at 10,303 with 3,000 of those being civilians and approximately 22,400 casualties. The conflict has further resulted in the disappearance of up to 2,000 people and the internal displacement of 1.6 million people with “little prospect for social-cohesion or return,” according to UN Ukraine. Harry Kamian, US mission to the OSCE, expressed frustration this week stating that “While we have an agreed-upon path to a peaceful outcome in the form of the Minsk agreements, progress towards this worthy goal remains elusive.” Such sentiment is understandable given that the OSCE SMM recorded 401,336 ceasefire violations in 2017.

The prolonged conflict in Donbass is a devastation for the people both sides of the ‘contact line’ and the Ukrainian society at large. Continued and persistent use of weaponry, including mortars, grenade launchers, heavy machine guns and small arms is the greatest impediment to the immediate safety of civilians. However, the area is home to a series of complex and historical identity factors that intersect with the competing interests of Russia and Ukraine, making peace more elusive. Nevertheless, it is achievable to maintain a reduced level of violence that does not so greatly affect the quality of life to the current extent. Refraining from targeting critical infrastructure including water supply, medical and educational facilities are examples of such measures. Distribution channels for food and medical supplies, as well as travel checkpoints between government and non-government areas, need also be improved and respected by both parties.

The current conflict in Donbass resulted from the popular challenging of Ukraine’s position vis-a-vis the West and Russia. Following President Yanukovych’s suppression of the ‘Euromaiden’ revolution in February 2014, pro-Russian protests broke out in eastern Ukraine, triggering a creeping annexation of Crimea by Russia, which cited the need to protect ethnic Russians in the area. Protests in the Donbass evolved into an armed conflict between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian anti-terrorist forces. An unstable peace process commenced in September 2014 with the Minsk Protocol ceasefire that failed, later replaced by the Minsk Agreement in February 2015. The Minsk Accords have by no means been adhered to.

A permanent ceasefire is imperative for the restoration of peace and stability in the region as well as in the international system, as the conflict places great tension on the relationships between NATO members and Russia. At this stage, though a ‘diplomatic’ solution (e.g. UN peacekeepers) may prove challenging, further militarization (e.g. offensive NATO support) of the conflict must be avoided as it will only produce a counter-reaction from Russia. However, whilst the complexity of the conflict in Donbass reduces the likelihood of such peace in the short-term, it is imperative that both sides take the steps to mitigate the suffering and disruption citizens of the area are currently Donbasenduring.