For two and a half months Roman, a sergeant in Ukraine’s 58th mechanised brigade, has been counting the days that his section gets away without taking casualties. It’s not many, he says.
“Usually there’s two days out of every week when no one gets hit, then it kicks off again,” said the section commander, who asked not to give his full name. “But there hasn’t been a single day since we arrived when we haven’t been shot at, shelled, or mortared.”
Dug into a warren of trenches, machine-gun nests, and bombed out houses on the outskirts of Avdiivka, an industrial town just north of the city of Donetsk, Sgt Roman’s 20 man section and the Russian backed separatists 300 yards to the east are locked in a violent attritional battle in what officials in Kiev, Moscow, and Western capitals still insist is a “ceasefire.”
Ukrainian military servicemen control their position during a ceasefire outside Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine
Ukrainian military servicemen control their position during a ceasefire outside Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine CREDIT:
The strain on their faces and voices is palpable, as is a weary frustration at fighting a war that they say has been forgotten both at home and abroad. “Even when we go home, no one wants to talk about it. They’re sick of it. The world’s sick of it,” he said, to murmurs of agreement from his men. “The Russians did their pre-planned move to distract attention in Syria, and the world bought it.”
War broke out in eastern Ukraine in April 2014, when Russian-backed separatists seized control of a number of towns across eastern Ukraine and declared independence.
That summer the Ukrainian army, backed by irregular volunteer battalions, recaptured the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk and moved to encircle Donetsk, the defacto separatist capital.
Two decisive Russian military interventions (which Moscow still publicly denies) then reversed Ukrainian gains, and resulted in a peace agreement at talks between Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, in Minsk in February 2015.
However, although there have been no major offensive operations by either side since, the effect of the Minsk agreements has been simply to slow, rather than end, the war.
A recent surge in violence in the past few weeks led the OSCE to warn last week that the entire truce is in danger. And nor is just soldiers who are dying.
In the early hours of last Wednesday, two shells fell amongst vehicles near a separatist check point just south of Donetsk, killing four civilians including a pregnant woman. Both sides blamed one another for the attack. Observers from the OSCE’s special monitoring mission who attended the scene said crater analysis indicated two 122 mm artillery shells - banned under the ceasefire agreement - had been fired from a west-south-westerly direction.
While the mission explicitly refrains from assigning blame for such incidents, that is the direction of Ukrainian-controlled territory.
The shelling was the worst single incident of civilian casualties in months, and has raised fears of an all-out return to violence across the front.
The OSCE warned on Thursday accused both sides of “blatant disregard of the Minsk agreements” and warned that the entire peace process could unravel unless the combatants took “visible and decisive action” to deescalate.
""Armed violence in eastern Ukraine has once again reached worrying levels,” said Ertugrul Apakan, the chief OSCE monitor said.
Publicly, Russian, Ukrainian, and Western officials all insist there is no alternative to the Minsk agreement.
That deal envisages a settlement in which the separatists would allow Ukraine to retake control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and its border with Russia.
In exchange, Mr Poroshenko promised to grant both regions a “special status” with devolved powers, amend the country’s constitution, and grant an amnesty to rebel fighters. None of those concessions is politically acceptable to the Ukrainian public or parliament, however, meaning Mr Poroshenko is effectively powerless to deliver on them.
Russian officials claim that Mr Poroshenko deliberately signed up to undeliverable conditions. Mr Poroshenko’s defenders point out that Mr Putin, whose army was busy encircling and crushing Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve during the February 2015 talks, was effectively holding a gun to his head. Either way, the reality a is a deadlock that could last years or even decades, according to Balasz Jarabik, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment who specialises in Ukrainian affairs.
“Ukraine continues to argue that security measures come first, but the Russians continue to argue that until there is political willingness in Kiev they will not reduce the (military) pressure,” he said.
For ordinary people, the slow freezing of the conflict means a strange normality of non-peace, in which military checkpoints and the occasional sound of shelling have merged into day-to-day routines.
Civilians regularly cross the lines from one side to another, while battles of attrition rumble on just a few miles away. It is not, as the horrific shelling at the final separatist checkpoint south of Donetsk showed, without risk.
Some of the area’s vast industrial enterprises, including Avdiivka’s massive coking plant, continue to operate despite repeatedly taking shell fire over the past two years.
In Slavyansk, the town 60 miles north of Donetsk where the war arguably started and which was recaptured by the Ukrainians in 2014, locals have become accustomed to using an army pontoon bridge across the river instead of a demolished bridge.
That doesn’t mean reconstruction efforts have left everyone impressed. A poster in one badly shelled out Slavyansk suburb, which still looks as if 2014’s fighting ended yesterday, bitterly calls out Mr Poroshenko for his “empty promises” of reconstruction.
Meanwhile, in Donetsk and Luhansk the separatists and their Russian backers are busy state building. Street parades are being planned for May 11, the anniversary of a separatist-organised referendum on secession and now the Donetsk People’s Republic’s “independence day,” and separatist radio stations broadcast a mixture of easy listening music, listeners’ birthday messages, and propaganda across the line of contact.
For the soldiers back in Avdiivka, the “frozen” Minsk agreement means a nightly struggle for control of an industrial estate in no man’s land that is more about local tactical superiority than about grand strategy.
“We’re not going to give up an inch of Ukraine, and the people over there, or their leaders, want their Russia-dependent ‘autonomy,’” said Vitaly Ponomarenko, a senior sergeant in a position overlooking the contested industrial estate. “You have to have talks, but I don’t honestly see how it stops.”
“I’m here because if I wasn’t they’d send some 18 year old kid who doesn’t know anything, and he’d end up dead straight away,” added Roman, the section leader, as afternoon turned to evening and the machine gun and mortar fire in no man’s land intensified. “That’s my motivation.”