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Guns, Lies, and Videotape: The War in Eastern Ukraine Is Back On in Full

After a bloody weekend, the war in eastern Ukraine looks set to escalate.

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CRISIS-POLITICS-MILITARY
Ukrainian soldiers man the frontline outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Debaltseve, Donetsk region, on December 24,2014. A new round of talks aimed at ending a protracted Moscow-backed separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine got underway in the Belarussian capital Minsk, a foreign ministry spokesman said. AFP PHOTO/ SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

After a bloody weekend in eastern Ukraine that left 30 civilians dead and more than 100 wounded, ambassadors from Ukraine and NATO announced that they would hold a special meeting Monday, Jan. 26, to discuss the recent upswing in fighting near the strategic cities of Mariupol and Debaltseve.

The last such meeting of ambassadors from NATO and Ukraine occurred in August, when fighting between Kiev and Russian-backed rebels spiked. By the second week of September, the conflict’s cumulative casualties reached 3,517 deaths and 8,198 injuries. The violence in eastern Ukraine had died down after a Sept. 5 cease-fire agreement, but in recent days the war has returned in full force. NATO said on Saturday that Russian troops were supporting a rebel offensive in eastern Ukraine with sophisticated missiles, rockets, and drones and demanded Moscow halt its support. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that Ukraine's army is a NATO proxy whose aim is to weaken Russia.

On Sunday, rebels attacked government positions along the front line between the separatist strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk. Alexander Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said the rebels planned to encircle Debaltseve, a key town northeast of Donetsk that is currently under the control of government forces.

After a bloody weekend in eastern Ukraine that left 30 civilians dead and more than 100 wounded, ambassadors from Ukraine and NATO announced that they would hold a special meeting Monday, Jan. 26, to discuss the recent upswing in fighting near the strategic cities of Mariupol and Debaltseve.

The last such meeting of ambassadors from NATO and Ukraine occurred in August, when fighting between Kiev and Russian-backed rebels spiked. By the second week of September, the conflict’s cumulative casualties reached 3,517 deaths and 8,198 injuries. The violence in eastern Ukraine had died down after a Sept. 5 cease-fire agreement, but in recent days the war has returned in full force. NATO said on Saturday that Russian troops were supporting a rebel offensive in eastern Ukraine with sophisticated missiles, rockets, and drones and demanded Moscow halt its support. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that Ukraine’s army is a NATO proxy whose aim is to weaken Russia.

On Sunday, rebels attacked government positions along the front line between the separatist strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk. Alexander Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said the rebels planned to encircle Debaltseve, a key town northeast of Donetsk that is currently under the control of government forces.

Fighting escalated on Monday as the rebels launched what Ukrainian military officials are describing as a new and coordinated offensive against their forces. The video below shows an exchange of fire between Ukrainian and rebel fighters outside Debaltseve.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0dpAwlwPAc&w=560&h=315]

The government in Kiev ordered a state of emergency Monday across the two rebel-dominated provinces and placed all Ukrainian territory on high alert. The Ukrainian military said seven of its soldiers had been killed and another 24 wounded in clashes near Debaltseve on Monday.

Russian-backed rebels also bombarded the port city of Mariupol with artillery and Grad rockets on Saturday, catching civilians in the crossfire. Shot from a dashboard cam, the video below shows a man driving and narrowly escaping a Grad rocket attack during the rebel assault.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PD_bwzPbGrA&w=560&h=315]

Other civilians were not so lucky. The video below shows paramedics and first responders arriving in the city shortly after the first bombardment. As they sift through the rubble of fallen buildings, the paramedics come across severely injured and dead civilians. [Warning: The video contains graphic content.]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsfGH8JXprE&w=560&h=315]

“An offensive was launched on Mariupol,” Russia’s RIA Novosti quoted Zakharchenko as saying Saturday. “This will be the best possible monument to all our dead,” Zakharchenko added, while attending a memorial ceremony in Donetsk.

A city of 500,000 on the Sea of Azov, Mariupol serves as a vital port for eastern Ukraine’s steel and grain exports and, if captured by the rebels, could be used to supply separatists with supplies from nearby Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March 2014.

Last week, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Russia had 9,000 troops stationed in his country and demanded their immediate withdrawal. Moscow continues to deny sending troops and weapons into eastern Ukraine.

Photo credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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