War in Ukraine: The hidden conflict

Despite a shaky cease-fire, war in the Donbas region of Ukraine stretches into its third year with no end in sight

A Donbas volunteer named ‘Barmeleh’ after a fictional cartoon character cleans his rifle (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
A Donbas volunteer named ‘Barmeleh’ after a fictional cartoon character cleans his rifle
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
THE TRAIN to eastern Ukraine from Kiev passes through long, flat expanses of land. Sunflower fields abound. As it nears the cease-fire line between Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian separatists, it enters landscapes that were scenes of battles in 2014. Sloviansk, with its Soviet-style stately train station, was fought over from April to July in 2014 between Ukrainian forces and gunmen loyal to the Donetsk People’s Republic. Kramatorsk was also the scene of small battles.
Today, the quiet has returned. But down a near-deserted highway toward Avdivka, checkpoints line the motorway. Men with AK- 47s slung on their shoulders check each car. Non-residents need a reason to be there and foreign journalists must carry a special pink card printed at a Ukrainian army post in Kramatorsk. Three years after the war began and a year and a half after the Minsk II agreements, there is still a low-level conflict going on in the Donbas region of Ukraine. It is a conflict with ramifications across eastern Europe that challenges Washington, the Kremlin and European powers.
The origins of today’s conflict lie in the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Ukrainian journalists, analysts and government insiders all seem to agree that the 2014 protests ‒ what many call a revolution ‒ were a quarter century in the making.
In August 1991, Ukraine declared independence and eventually left the USSR. Since independence, the country has been deeply split, and one of the major splits has been between the mostly Russian-speaking east and the Ukrainian-speaking west. This has translated into politics, with the Communist party still performing well in places such as Crimea and Donetsk in the 1990s.
Those seeking closer bonds with the West, such as former president Leonid Kuchma who sought to draw Ukraine closer to NATO and the EU, were seen as threatening Moscow’s orbit. The Party of the Regions, which Victor Yanukovych came to head, sought to balance the pro-Western policies of Ukraine with a pro-Russian stance, supporting making Russian an official language and following Vladmir Putin’s foreign policy. In 2004, it came in second in the presidential elections. In 2010, Yanukovych became president with 48 percent of the vote. An electoral map shows the absolute dominance the party enjoyed in the region of Donetsk and Luhansk, a precursor of the separatist movement that arose in 2014 when he fled from office during the Maidan protests.
For Ukrainians who supported the protests that year, the conflict represented anger over Yanukovych’s decision to draw away from plans to work toward joining the EU.
Vyacheslav Vlasenko, a commander in the Ukrainian Donbas volunteer battalion, which emerged after the Maidan protests, says 2014 witnessed an attempt by Russia to take control of Ukraine.
“For 24 years, the Russian state prepared to demoralize Ukraine if Ukraine stops to support Russia as an ally,” he says. Sitting in his forward headquarters in Marinka, a town now on the frontline of the battle against pro-Russia separatists, he says Russia infiltrated Ukrainian society. “They cut the army from 850,000 in 1991 to 140,000 in 2014. So, all decision-makers in the army were pro-Russian generals. Yanukovych was a puppet only.” It was a “Russification of the nation” to “divide the country between east and west.”
Like others supportive of the Maidan protests he argues that Russia sought to control Ukraine economically and used oil and gas supplies as a weapon. “Most Ukrainians want a democratic and European state.”
During the chaos of early 2014, pro-Russian Ukrainians briefly took over parts of eastern Ukraine, including those areas I passed through this August, such as Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. Ukrainians say they were joined by outsiders, such as Russian army veteran Igor Girkin. On May 12, 2014, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) were proclaimed, including areas of Ukraine populated by as many as four million people.
Pro-government Ukrainian volunteer units such as the Donbas Battalion and Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) recruited fighters to oppose them and, from April to July 2014, they succeeded in pushing back the separatists, resulting in the Minsk Protocol of September 2014 signed by Ukraine, the Russian Federation and the DPR and LPR.
Vlasenko, who goes by the nickname “Filin” says his men successfully stopped the separatists in 2014. But they were eventually outgunned by what they say were Russian-backed separatists and forced to retreat from tough battles around Ilovaisk.
Sitting in the makeshift quarters of the Donbas Battalion today, 200 meters from separatist positions along the cease-fire line, the men still have tough memories of those days in the fall of 2014. A soldier nicknamed “Sniper” shows video of his men retreating from an encirclement. Over some homemade spirits at night, another soldier, named Casper, says that, of 100 men, 20 were killed in the battle.
“It was a breaking point,” says Filin. “After that, they began discussing ways of solving the conflict.” The “solution” was found again at Minsk, with a round of agreements signed in February 2015 that provided for a cease-fire and static lines of the competing forces.
“The two Minsk agreements… were always doomed to failure,” writes Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform. “First of all, Russia, the real aggressor, continued to pretend that it was a mediator [like France and Germany] rather than a party to the fighting. Second, the parties disagreed on the agreements; as a result, they failed to implement parts of the accords.”
That would have included local elections under Ukrainian law as well as restoration of Ukrainian control of the border. That hasn’t happened.
On the train journey down to the frontline, the television reminds travelers of this. Interspersed with a kind of “Ukrainians Got Talent” show that includes routines of women doing acrobatics or performing on a stripper’s pole, among other delectables, an ad encourages parents to teach their children that Luhansk, Donetsk and Crimea are part of Ukraine. Crimea, which had consistently voted pro-Russian since the 1990s, was annexed by Russia in March of 2014 ‒ an act the international community does not recognize.
AT THE train station in Kramatorsk, members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe saddle up their white SUVs for a day of monitoring the cease-fire. The OSCE is supposed to document violations, which include use of heavy weapons.
In the towns on the cease-fire line, such as Marinka, Krasnagorovka and Avdiivka, the war is ever-present.
Alina Kocce, a local activist who works with youth on art projects, shows off bullets that have landed on her house in recent years. She is a member of the Greek minority in Ukraine whose ancestors came to the country centuries ago. It’s a reminder of this diverse landscape. One town now called Novgorod was named New York in the 19th century when it was founded by Mennonite German immigrants, one of whom had been to the US-version of New York and was surprised by its industry. Kocce’s stately house still sports a Greek flag on the gate. But her life has changed since 2014. Sandbags line windows that face the frontline.
“A lot of people left, but now people have begun to come back,” she says. “During the shelling, the electricity may be cut and it is -20 degrees (Celsius) in the winter. So, in winter 2014, there was shelling for five days and the house was cut from utilities.”
Today, it’s a bit more normal. Banners on the quiet streets of Marinka celebrate three years since the Ukrainian army and the volunteer battalions marched back into town.
Casper, the Donbas Battalion volunteer who has been fighting since 2014, says many of his compatriots are “guys from Donetsk who dream to go there and recapture it. It’s our motherland.”
He says the Minsk agreement is mostly myth, that it is quiet during the day but at nightfall the fighting begins. Clutching his AK-47 with a home-made silencer, he walks down to the frontline post located at the end of what was once a civilian street of simple houses. The Ukrainians have put up a kind of scarecrow in the form of a grim reaper to remind visitors that this is the death zone up ahead. Enemy snipers are at work.
“Against the Russians, we feel real anger,” says Casper. “The enemy has night-vision equipment and they are very good at [using] it. If someone just pokes up from the trenches they receive sniper fire.”
In the distance, the semi-regular crackle of gunfire goes off. The Donbas Battalion volunteers are relaxed. Their guns lay inside the covered sandbagged position. They smoke cigarettes nonstop and point to a house behind the position whose roof has been lathered with mortar fire. A concrete-reinforced bunker is nearby in case of heavy shelling. A few firing slits have been made between the sandbags and the men peer into the coming darkness at a long red house that forms an enemy position. At some point, when it gets dark, the squad radio comes to life with reports that a drone has been spotted overhead. “Get inside,” one of the fighters says. We lumber into the covered part of the trench. “Sometimes they forget to give the all-clear so we sit here a while,” one of the men says in the darkness. “There are Russian volunteers from Degastan and elsewhere, and you can feel it when the professionals come [to the other side of the line],” says Casper.
Propaganda plays a big part in this war. For the Ukrainians, the separatists are mostly made up of Russians wearing fake uniforms. They say there are Chechans on the other side of the line. One squad commander in Avdiivka says Russia sends military cadets to get “training” by fighting in the Donbas.
“Donestk TV propaganda calls us illegal international mercenary bandits… it says we eat children and rape women,” says Casper. The separatists also accuse the Ukrainians of being right-wing fascists. The volunteers sometimes “own” this perception, shouting in German at the separatists. One man even adopted the nickname “Manstein” after the German general Erich von Manstein who participated in key battles in this area, including in Crimea, Kharkov, Stalingrad and at Kursk, which lies to the north of Donetsk. But these nicknames and iconography relating to the Second World War seem as if pushed through a sieve, with only parts of the fascist and Nazi lore having come through to the present.
THE UKRAINIAN volunteers don’t appear to harbor racist animus. On a visit to a local store to pick up cigarettes for a commander, a large man in a yarmulke emerged from the store in fatigues. He said he was a messianic Jew off to Shabbat dinner with his friends from “Right Sektor,” one of the volunteer groups accused of being extreme Right. If he was suffering antisemitism he didn’t seem to indicate it, and his colleague who claimed to be a unit chaplain said they had Muslim Tatar volunteers, as well.
Today’s Ukrainian army is undergoing a process of reform. At a media center in Avdiivka near the cease-fire line, a spokesman for the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” named Anatolii Stelmakh says the war created the conditions for this reform. A 39-year-old veteran of years of service, he served with Ukrainian forces in Iraq and with the UN mission in the Congo.
“We cannot fight using old Soviet standards. We are modernizing ourselves and we want to be as close to NATO standards as possible,” he says.
Part of that also means looking to the US for support. In late July, reports indicated that the US was preparing to send anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, although the final details of the deal were unclear.
“Ukrainians realized that if a full-scale war starts it would be hard to resist Russia and we want to have NATO as an ally in any kind of future war,” says Stelmakh, a lieutenant-colonel.
That means such simple changes as studying English and changing training standards to work with foreign partners. On July 30, Ukrainian forces participated in NATO exercise Noble Partner in Georgia alongside the US, UK, Germany, Turkey, Slovenia, Georgia and Armenia.
But the immediate concern is dealing with the problems at hand on the cease-fire line. There are dozens of exchanges of fire along the line every day and that includes civilian and military casualties. The war has no real end in sight. Filin, the Donbas commander, says the support Ukraine receives may eventually bring Russia to the table. “The hot phase [of the conflict] may stop by the end of the year.”
He argues that Russia spends a lot of money to support the separatists. Even though Donetsk was once a wealthy area with large deposits of coal, its economy has been ruined by the war. Its airport was a scene of vicious fighting and is destroyed. Ukraine also needs support. “That is why we look for help from Israel, the US and elsewhere for lethal weapons.”
However, the high hopes for an end to the conflict should be tempered by the fact that other small republics supported by Russia have survived for years despite privation. Transnistria, a separatist part of Moldova, was created in 1992 with Russian support and was a subject of a recent profile in National Geographic. Russia claimed on August 7 that the United States is “preparing a Moldova force for a likely Transnistria conflict.”
For Russia, support for these allied statelets, including South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, is a key to its foreign policy. The idea that they would suddenly evaporate overnight or be overrun would threaten the Kremlin itself.
Until something changes, thousands of Ukrainians will continue to man their positions along the cease-fire lines and tens of thousands of civilians whose lives were torn apart when the line went through the fields next to their towns will live in the shadow of conflict.
In the garage of the house where Donbas volunteers live near the frontline, the men clean their old AK-47s to be ready at night. They joke and tell tales of the war. War may be hell, but for some of the men on the line, there’s a poetry to it and they will man their posts until the politicians in Kiev decide what to do.