Ukraine’s Meat Grinder Is Back in Business

The latest bloody fighting in eastern Ukraine shows that talk of a “frozen conflict” is premature.

GettyImages-464313130 crop
GettyImages-464313130 crop

The one bright spot in the otherwise largely unimplemented February 2015 Minsk peace agreement was a ceasefire that ended full-scale fighting between Ukrainian forces and Moscow-backed, pro-Russian rebels who seized parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on the Ukrainian-Russian border almost two years ago.

The ceasefire took over six months to gain traction, but eventually sharply reduced the casualty rate of a war that has so far killed about 10,000 people, both soldiers and civilians. Exchanges of fire, usually small arms, have never completely ceased, of course.

But heavy fighting has broken out, and continues today, in one small but important segment of the 500 km line of separation between the two sides. There is no clear indication of how the fighting started -- whether one of the sides is trying to send a warning to the other, or test their response. It is just as likely as that local sniping gradually and imperceptibly turned into a local battle.

The one bright spot in the otherwise largely unimplemented February 2015 Minsk peace agreement was a ceasefire that ended full-scale fighting between Ukrainian forces and Moscow-backed, pro-Russian rebels who seized parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on the Ukrainian-Russian border almost two years ago.

The ceasefire took over six months to gain traction, but eventually sharply reduced the casualty rate of a war that has so far killed about 10,000 people, both soldiers and civilians. Exchanges of fire, usually small arms, have never completely ceased, of course.

But heavy fighting has broken out, and continues today, in one small but important segment of the 500 km line of separation between the two sides. There is no clear indication of how the fighting started — whether one of the sides is trying to send a warning to the other, or test their response. It is just as likely as that local sniping gradually and imperceptibly turned into a local battle.

Neither side publishes comprehensive casualty figures. But supporters of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) say 90 of their troops have been killed and over 200 wounded in fighting that has been building in intensity over the past month. The toll is unlikely to be complete, as several separatist units are engaged in combat, and the figure is already rising. Both sides appear increasingly to be using heavy artillery and sometimes tanks — weaponry that should have been withdrawn from the front line months ago. No casualty figures have emerged from the Ukrainian side.

The most intense combat is taking place in three loosely linked areas: on the edge of the Ukrainian-controlled industrial town of Avdiivka, home to one of Europe’s large coke and chemical plants, owned by the Donbas oligarch Rinat Akhmetov; the major railway junction of Yasinovata; and Horlivka (Gorlovka in Russian), both controlled by the DNR.

The bloodshed may not portend a major offensive by either side, and top leaders show no inclination to resume full hostilities. Instead, it seems to be a sharp escalation in a steady war of attrition. Both sides are chipping away at the opposing forward positions, maneuvering for slightly better lines of fire or infiltration paths through the so-called grey zone, the thin sliver of land that divides the warring parties.

Last year one separatist commander coined a term for such bloody, little-reported engagements that are even more inconclusive and futile than ever. He called them “the meat grinder.”

Before the ceasefire, there were several decisive battles in which the separatists were backed by large units of the Russian regular army. Russian officers now command the separatist militias directly, but have so far strictly forbidden any offensive movement. Many Ukrainian officers are chafing at similar restrictions from their commanders. Officials in Kiev often predict privately that the war will ultimately have to be solved by a military offensive, but most feel that this is several years away.

Grim determination to fight to the death over a small piece of territory is not new or unique to either of the warring parties. Commentators on both sides draw parallels between the current fighting and the murderous, ultimately useless battle for the ruins of the Donetsk international airport in 2014-15. Hundreds were killed, and to this day those who were there have difficulty explain why they were fighting.

“Political ego,” said one Ukrainian officer who fought there: a matter of state dignity. “To straighten the defense line around Donetsk city,” said a separatist officer. The separatists’ Russian backers probably wanted to gain valuable combat experience: the Ukrainian officer quoted above believes that he was facing, among others, an elite Russian counter-terror team, Vympel. The airport ruins are still on the front line.

Ultimately, however, if the fighting has any significance, it should act as a wake-up call for the many diplomats and government leaders in Europe, the U.S., Ukraine, and Russia who calmly predict — or more likely hope — that the military confrontation in the east will gradually settle into a frozen conflict. The men with the guns — of whom there are far too many facing each other along the line of separation — may have different ideas.

In the photo, Ukrainian soldiers unload bodies of soldiers killed in Debaltsevo on February 24, 2015 at a checkpoint near Horlivka.

Photo credit: ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images

Paul Quinn-Judge is Senior Ukraine and Russia Adviser at International Crisis Group, the independent conflict-prevention organization, and is based in Kiev. His career as a foreign correspondent included 16 years in Moscow.

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