Last Sunday saw another outbreak of violence take place on Ukraine’s Eastern Front. The outbreak occurred in the industrial town of Avdiivka, which is home to some 16,000 residents. Unfortunately, this is one of many violent outbreaks between Pro-Russian Separatists and Ukrainian loyalists/troops, which has come to define the 33-month long conflict between Russia and Ukraine. While the initial ferocity of violence has not been seen since the outbreak of the war in 2014, the recent outbreak of violence in Avdiivka highlights the ability for the current situation to rapidly descend into devastating violence.
To understand the current conflict one needs to understand the history of Ukraine-Russian relations. Once a part of the USSR, Ukraine became independent in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved. As with most Eastern European countries that were previously a part of the USSR, the domestic populous in Ukraine is split roughly between those who are pro-independence, and those who yearn for Russian re-absorption. The majority of pro-Russia support comes from Ukraine’s east and Crimea. However, there is also significant support within Ukraine to separate itself from Russia and to join institutions like the EU and NATO that define the new liberal world order. With a large proportion of the population having lived through the USSR’s rise, consolidation, and ultimate collapse, domestic opinions go beyond mere personal preferences. Rather, they represent fundamentally different ideologies that are reminiscent of Cold War times.
This polarization of Ukraine’s domestic ideologies is seen when in late 2013 protests started in response to then President Viktor Yanukovych cabinet’s decision to abandon agreements that would create closer trade ties with the EU in favour of a realignment towards increased cooperation with Russia. In response, the Ukrainian government passed anti-protest laws in January 2014, and despite being annulled a week later, fueled further anti-Russian protests. Then, on the 20th of February in Kiev 88 people were killed in 48 hours, marking the worst day of violence in 70 years. Following this, Russian was banned as the official second language of Ukraine, which then prompted pro-Russian gunmen to seize key official buildings in the Crimean capital. On the 16th of March Crimea’s succession referendum on joining Russia is backed by 97% of voters and President Vladimir Putin signed a bill to absorb Crimea on the 18th, which fueled further violence and instability in the region. In June pro-Russian supporters shot down a military plane, killing 49. Then in July, MH17 was tragically shot down, killing 298 civilians from a variety of countries. In response, the EU announced significant sanctions against Russia and the first Minsk Agreement was signed in September 2014 in an effort to stop the pending onslaught of violence. However, by January 2015, the agreement was in tatters as full-scale fighting broke out again. In February 2015, Angela Merkel and François Hollande revived the cease-fire, known as Minsk 2 in an effort to stop the violence and progress towards peace. While Minsk 2 contains a 13-point plan to achieve peace, the agreement is riddled with loose language and the sequencing of many steps is highly convoluted. While the worst of the violence has abated, skirmishes continue to occur along the line of contact and reflect the reality that the simmering status quo is not indicative of peace.
The recent violence in Avdiivka is evidence of how little progress has actually been made for the civilians simply trying to get on with their lives. The industrial village located on the Eastern Front Line is home to some 16,000 residents for whom the sporadic breaking of the ceasefire is commonplace since the inception of the ceasefire. Yet, last week’s violence was most certainly not commonplace and was described by Rory Challands (Reporter for Al-Jazeera) as “…the worst fighting that’s occurred in several months in Eastern Ukraine.” 13 civilians were killed over the 3 days of violence. Worryingly, the outbreak of violence was not limited to small skirmish of soldiers taking pot shots at one another, but rather included the use of artillery strikes, which have devastating effects and signal a potential increase in future fighting ferocity and destruction. Consequentially, a state of emergency has been declared and those who can have started boarding buses.
There are two key reasons why progress in resolving this protracted conflict has been slow. The first is that Ukraine represents an arena for Russia and NATO to square off and engage in geopolitics. Over the last decade, Cold War ideology and sentiment has slowly crept back into Russian society. This sentiment has been propagated and exploited by the government who have positioned themselves as the great defenders of the Russian motherland, which consequentially solidifies their domestic power. Thus, Russia has a motive to take a hardliner approach when dealing with Crimea and areas of Ukraine, which were once formerly a part of the USSR and still contains large numbers of pro-Russian separatists.
The second reason is the involvement of non-state actors in the fighting. While debatable whether Russian troops are or are not still involved in the fighting, it is well understood that pro-separatists are currently engaged in a majority of the skirmishes and outbreaks of violence that now occurs against Ukrainian forces, which are comprised of Ukrainian soldiers and civilian loyalists. The problem with non-state actors involvement in conflicts is their lack of accountability. As they are not recognized state entities, they do not subscribe to the international institutions and norms that states do and, therefore, are not shackled by the traditional forms of restraint that states are. One only needs to look to the horrors of Rwanda, Mogadishu, and the Balkans in the mid 90’s to see the terrifying results when restraint and accountability are lacking in a conflict.
While Ukraine’s conflict has not reached the same level of violence seen in Rwanda and the Balkans, this conflict certainly has similar hallmarks of long-term deep social divides, a current state of conflict and fear, limited government effectiveness, and a variety of state and non-state actors all combining to create an extremely combustible situation. Avdiivka is just one example of the many villages, towns, and cities in the area trying to salvage some form of normality from a situation, which is perhaps best described as being in a state of perpetual peace. Simply put, in the state of perpetual peace, violence is the natural condition, the constant, while peace is the variable and fleeting in nature. Until this simmering status quo is alleviated and active engagement with a solution occurs, perpetual peace will continue to define Eastern Ukraine and all those unlucky enough to reside in the war zone.