Skip to main content

HFU Newsroom

The War No One Notices in Ukraine

MARINKA, Ukraine — In eastern Ukraine, a low-grade but brutal fight churns on, virtually invisible to the world. For residents of the houses that lie between each side’s positions, in towns like Marinka and Avdiivka, where combat is heaviest, the conflict is a conspicuous and unavoidable part of daily life.

The shooting starts most mornings between 8 and 9, as regularly as an alarm. Sniper rifles and infantry carbines crack, heavy machine guns bark and clustered booms from automatic grenade launchers reverberate across the deadly fields of the Donbas region. At night, heavy artillery and tank battles keep residents inside buildings that offer dubious protection: On May 13, four Ukrainian civilians were killed in government-controlled Avdiivka by an artillery shell fired from separatist-controlled territory.

Land mines litter the paths and fields, placed to inflict death and casualties and to sow fear. In late April, an American man working as a paramedic for a civilian monitoring team was killed and two others were injured when a mine destroyed their vehicle.

The unrelenting fighting is especially hard on the estimated 800,000 civilians who still cling to their homes near or on the front lines, including about 100,000 who live in the so-called gray zone between Ukrainian and Russian-led separatist positions.
“We dread the quiet times,” one woman, a Ukrainian citizen of Marinka living on the front lines, said through an interpreter. “That’s when you know they’re saving up for something really heavy.” This woman had thick metal sheets bolted over her home’s windows, protection from bullets and shrapnel. Between 5,000 and 7,000 people are estimated to live in Marinka. Before the war, Marinka’s population was nearly 10,000.
When Viktor F. Yanukovych, the pro-Russian former president, fled Ukraine for Russia in February 2014 amid violent anti-government protests, few imagined that his departure could lead to this. Within a month, Russia had annexed Crimea and was supporting operatives in Ukraine who led mercenary fighters and separatists, and used conventional Russian weapons like the antiaircraft vehicle that investigators believe destroyed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Ukraine fought back in June of 2014, routing the Russian-supported separatists. Desperate to stave off humiliation, Russia counterattacked, deploying conventional armored and mechanized forces and stopping Ukraine’s Army at Ilovaisk and Debaltseve. Since then, the two sides have faced off along an ad hoc border stretching hundreds of kilometers around the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk.

An estimated 100,000 soldiers and volunteers are dug into sporadic trench lines, desultory garrisons and improvised fighting positions that run along both sides of the conflict — so called because neither government has declared war. Many Ukrainians hoped that a Hillary Clinton victory in last year’s American election would lead to vigorous Western intervention. Donald Trump’s election was mostly met with sorrow and pessimism in Ukraine: His statements during the campaign led Ukrainians to believe that he sympathized with Russian imperial and territorial ambitions. Moscow has been quietly building up conventional military capabilities near Ukraine, perhaps to finally incorporate the breakaway Donbas republics into Russia. President Trump has yet to produce any feasible long-term solutions beyond sending Ukraine modest financial aid — a variation on President Barack Obama’s policy.

That tacit approval of the status quo has allowed the conflict to grow in strength and intensity. Early in the year, Russian-led separatists initiated the largest series of cease-fire violations since early 2015. By mid-March, Ukraine’s government supported a contentious and costly border blockade.

The winter of 2016-17 was hard, made worse by the conflict. A Russian-born woman in her late 70s — who, like most people I spoke with here, asked that her name not be used because of fears of reprisal — lives in an apartment with a concrete floor and walls that bleed warmth. Some winter nights, the temperature hit minus 19 Celsius (minus 2 Fahrenheit) — colder, in fact, with the harsh winds that blow unimpeded across the plains. She said there had not been gas heat available since 2014. In winter, she uses electric space heaters that cost as much as $100 per month to run, though her monthly pension is only about $35.
“I do extra jobs to make enough money to live,” she said in an interview earlier this year. “I sweep the school grounds and grow vegetables.” She has kept a jug of water by her window ever since shrapnel from a rocket caused a rug to catch fire.

Many of those who remain in the war zone are elderly, frail, destitute or too stubborn to move. One woman in her late 80s lives in the battle-torn town of Avdiivka. Her apartment walls are scarred by bullets and shrapnel, and the wallpaper in the living room is black with soot; a stray rocket set her balcony on fire in 2014. She has been reduced to depending on the charity of strangers.

“This war is worse than the last one,” she told me last year, referring to World War II, in which she served for the Soviet Union. “After the hardship of my younger years, I never thought I would see war again, especially as an old woman.”

All told, the conflict has displaced between two million and three and a half million people. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at least 1.6 million Ukrainians moved west toward Ukraine’s capital, Kiev as a result of the fighting. Russia says that 2.6 million Ukrainians moved east. In its report ending March 12, the refugee agency also estimated that from mid-April 2014 to mid-March 2017, at least 9,940 people have been killed and 23,455 wounded.

Border towns like Avdiivka and Marinka hold on, barely. Other places between the lines have it even worse. When I visited Opytne in August 2016, its population was 13, a fraction of what it was before the war, according to residents. Many buildings were abandoned. One smelled like a slaughterhouse. Former municipal buildings had holes in their floors and ceilings. Festive murals of village life were chipped and faded. Centrifuges rusted in a former agricultural lab while birds nested among rotting books and technical manuals in a former library. The few civilians I encountered during that trip lounged outside while an old woman cooked over an open wood fire.

With the not-war in eastern Ukraine now in its fourth year, President Trump has failed to accomplish even the most modest improvement on President Obama’s dismal record managing Russia’s intrusion on Ukrainian territory. While America’s president is distracted by the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, President Vladimir Putin weighs Russia’s options in Ukraine. The ongoing violence, combined with a recent spate of assassinations and assassination attempts in Ukraine, does not bode well for regional stability. If Russia invades, it could precipitate a broader European conflict, and the 800,000 Ukrainian civilians gritting their teeth in the silence between artillery barrages could become eight million.


Powered by Firespring