Ukraine’s Deadly New Normal
This morning saw Russian-backed fighters in the city of Donetsk once again firing salvos of Grad rockets at Ukrainian positions.
Both sides in the conflict are reporting high numbers of daily ceasefire violations, with Kiev claiming 63 over the last 24 hours and the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) accusing Ukrainian forces of firing more than 400 rounds in 68 attacks.
A key problem in reporting on Ukraine is that this is nothing new, and the world seems to have largely stopped paying attention to the danger. The situation is dire, but in fact the rate of fighting comes in waves, with troughs and spikes every few days, making it harder to write alarming headlines for fear of “crying wolf.”
Coverage of the conflict on a daily basis is suffering from two key problems.
First there is war fatigue – increasing disinterest in the regular and routine occurrence of what would once have been shocking. A war in Europe in which soldiers and civilians are wounded or killed every week is now entering a second year of daily, repetitive horror.
Secondly there has been a terrible impoverishment in sources over the last year and half. Back in the summer of 2014, at the height of the period often referred to as “the Russian invasion,” not only were there dozens of reporters, both Ukrainian and foreign, roving the Donbass and filing reports, but there was also a great wealth of stories, video and photographic evidence relayed by local fighters and civilians.
Now the reporters have largely left as the world’s attention has shifted elsewhere. The volunteer fighters, who shared vital information by social media in the early stages, have stopped posting, either because their units came under stricter control and regulation, or they realized the danger of communicating from the front line.
Whereas in June, 2014, it was possible to track a convoy of Russian tanks all the way from the border to Donetsk, there is almost no footage today, bar that released by media offices on either side. With paramilitaries or even Russian regular forces now in control of the eastern settlements, it is likely too dangerous to publish militarily sensitive material.
This means we don’t see very many videos like this any more:
So instead, we have to rely on three main sources, in addition to the reduced number of journalists’ reports from the front: the military press offices of either side, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM), and social media reports which have become scarcer.
To get a general picture of the rate of fighting, we need reliable and consistent data on the daily totals of ceasefire violations. These cannot be provided by the OSCE, who only reports from locations at which the SMM is deployed, nor can they be discerned from Twitter and VKontakte claims. The Ukrainian military, however, releases their data every day.
Here is a chart of the number of attacks the Ukrainian military claims to have suffered every day for the last few weeks:
Before continuing, there are several things that should be acknowledged.
Reports from the OSCE indicate that the Ukrainian military has sometimes under-reported the total number of ceasefire violations or minimized their nature. For example, there have been at least two days so far this year on which the SMM observed the use of Grad rockets, but no mention was made by the ATO (Anti-Terrorism Operation) Press Centre – the official press outlet for the Ukrainian military operation in the Donbass.
Nor does the stated number of “attacks” necessarily give a clear impression of the intensity of the violence seen on any given day.
For instance, on February 3, the ATO Press Centre reported 55 attacks over the previous 24 hours, but also claimed that more than 250 mortar rounds had been fired over that period. The next day, more than 150 shells were reported to have fallen on just one village – Zaytsevo outside Gorlovka, with 54 attacks across the front line.
While the Ukrainian military reported 55 attacks over the course of February 22, and the DNR claimed 19, the OSCE SMM observed 794 “ceasefire violations” in the Donetsk region, including 312 explosions heard in Donetsk city centre over a 15 hour period.
That said, if a general trend can be read from the official Ukrainian statistics, it is that the fighting is indeed coming in waves and remains, over the course of the year so far, at a relatively constant level.
While fighting remains constant around the separatist-held cities of Donetsk and Gorlovka, and to a lesser extent government-controlled Mariupol, there are surges in violence at varying areas of the front every few days. One week we see a resurgence of attacks in the Lugansk region, the next on the banks of the river Kalmius, southeast of Donetsk. Russian-backed forces appear to be probing or testing the Ukrainians rather than attempting any major breakthrough.
But it would be very dangerous to associate the lack of dynamism with a “frozen conflict.”
The new normal level of fighting is proving deadly, to both soldiers and civilians. Just yesterday, Kiev announced a shocking total of 14 soldiers wounded and three killed in just 24 hours and at least four civilians have been wounded in the last week. Over the last 30 days, Kiev has reported 12 servicemen killed and 50 wounded. Of those, at least three were killed and 16 wounded by landmines or tripwires.
Talks are currently under once again in Minsk, and the latest announcement, that a deal has been reached to stop military exercises near the front line, is a hollow gesture when rockets and mortar shells continue to fly every day.
Implementation of the political portions of the Minsk agreements can, of course, only follow an actual ceasefire. What we see at the moment is not necessarily indicative of any upcoming offensive, but the current level of “routine” violence is not something Ukraine, or the civilian population on the front line, can afford to endure indefinitely as Russia continues to pour ammunition and supplies into the Donbass.