The Best of the Worst: What 2016 Was Like for Donbas
9 January, 2017

Despite the ongoing conflict in Donbas, the number of attacks in eastern Ukraine was reduced in the last year. Negotiations about the situation in Donbas are ongoing at different levels. Still, the process of returning prisoners is slow and difficult. However, 2016 was not the worst of the last couple of years. Hromadske.East prepared an article on the 5 key trends of the year 2016.

Reduced Shelling in Eastern Ukraine

The first provision of the Minsk agreement on comprehensive ceasefire was partially fulfilled. Of course, the comprehensive ceasefire hasn’t been reached totally, but there is no intense fighting now. In 2016, losses were not as severe as they were in the previous two years. Ukraine lost no territories.

Fighting for the industrial zone of Avdiivka in July, shelling of villages near Mariupol in the fall, and escalation of the conflict in Svitlodarsk arc in June and December are among the key events of 2016. Overall, the Armed Forces of Ukraine lost no territories in eastern Ukraine in the year 2016. In the area of​​ Svitlodarsk arc, soldiers even managed to go farther and consolidate their positions.

According to the information of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (as of December 2016), 211 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in 2016.

The figure 211 refers to combat losses – soldiers killed during shelling or attacks.

The number of non-combat losses (as a result of occasional disturbances at mines, accidents, suicide, illness, etc.) was 256 in 2016.

In comparison, during only one month of 2015, 136 Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 331 were injured. This is the official data from the General Staff on the battle for Debaltseve in 2015 (January 15, 2015 – February 18, 2015).

According to the OSCE special monitoring mission in Ukraine, 83 civilians were killed and 305 were injured in Donbas in 2016.

At the same time, according to the National Police of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, 13 civilians were killed as a result of shelling and stepping on mines. It’s important to note that police only collect information in the Ukrainian government-controlled territory.

In comparison, during 6 months in2015 (February 16 – August 16), according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 165 civilians were killed and 410 were injured in eastern Ukraine. This figure refers to both controlled and uncontrolled territory.

Disengagement of Forces and Hardware

Disengagement of forces and hardware along the contact line and in two identified areas happened in 2016 as a result of signing the Framework Agreement on September 21, 2016.

Disengagement of forces and hardware in the first area near the Petrivske village in the Donetsk region happened in October 2016 and near the Zolote village in the Luhansk region in November 2016.

Disengagement of forces and hardware didn’t happen in Stanytsya Luhanska, which was identified as the third area of disengagement when signing the Framework Agreement.

Another four demilitarization areas were mentioned by the participants of the trilateral contact group from the Ukrainian side after negotiations in Minsk.

Debaltseve, which is in the Donetsk region, remains occupied. But according to the Minsk agreements, this territory has to be controlled by Ukraine. That’s why Ukrainian negotiators emphasize and insist Debaltseve to be the next area of disengagement of forces and hardware in eastern Ukraine.

The next three areas also remain occupied. Among them--Sakhanka, Kumachove, and Komsomolske. All of them are in the Donetsk region. According to negotiators, disengagement of forces and hardware should take place in these areas and they should be liberated.

The Framework Agreement signed in 2016 is a document on disengagement of forces and hardware and total demilitarization from both sides in certain areas. The established area of disengagement is 2 kilometers from the identified zone. In such a way, safe zones of 4 square kilometers each can be created. The main condition for disengagement of forces and hardware is a 7-day comprehensive ceasefire.

The Attempts to Exchange Prisoners

Prisoner exchange on an "all-for-all" basis, which was discussed by negotiators from both sides in Minsk in 2016, hasn’t happened yet.

According to the Security Service of Ukraine, 17 prisoners were released in the year 2016. Among the most recent are Olga Svorak, a journalist from Ivano-Frankivsk, and Anzhelika Presnyakova, a judge from Mariupol. Both of them spent 7 months in captivity and were accused of spying for the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Negotiators from the Ukrainian side in Minsk confirmed the whereabouts of 58 prisoners and requested their exchange. 52 of them are in the Donetsk region and 6 are in the Luhansk region.

Instead, representatives of the self-proclaimed "republics" say they are ready to release 47 people from their side if Ukraine releases 690 people.

Also, there are proposals to exchange prisoners with the self-proclaimed "DPR" on a "41 for 494" basis and with the "LPR" on a "196 for 6" basis.

Prisoners including Ivan Bezyazykov, who is now on trial for the betrayal of the state, Vladimir Zhemchugova, who was helping the Armed Forces of Ukraine and was undermining infrastructure in the occupied territories, Yuriy Suprun, a UN employee, Mariya Varfolomeyeva, a Luhansk journalist, Taras Kolodiy, the last of the "cyborgs" who was held captive, were all released last year.

By the end of the year, Ukraine freed 15 prisoners and handed them over at the Mayorske checkpoint to the representatives of the self-proclaimed "republics" on December 30th. Among them were 9 men and 6 women. As reported by the representatives of the Ukrainian side, it was a "gesture of goodwill."

 Humanitarian Issue

The topic of electricity and water supply from government controlled areas to occupied territories of Donbas, in particular whether to cut it or not, was a widely discussed topic in 2016. At the end of the year, it was discussed even more frequently.

Because of debts to the "Luhansk Energy Association" company, 600 thousand people in the occupied territories of the Luhansk region can be cut off from their water supply. This information is provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which helped pay debts of the enterprises until December 1 to save the water supply in the uncontrolled territories of the Luhansk region. But after December 1, they stopped doing that.

The total debt to "Luhansk Energy Association" amounts to 6 billion UAH (0.2 billion USD). 1.2 of 6 billion UAH is owed by water supply companies located in the territory of the self-proclaimed "LPR".

The debt of Alchevsk Iron and Steel Works and DTEK "Sverdlovskantratsyt", which physically remain in the occupied territories but are re-registered in the Ukrainian government-controlled area, amounts to 1.35 billion UAH.

Ukrainian Lysychansk and Popasna water supply companies together owe 0.24 billion UAH.

Debts of the local population in the uncontrolled territories of the Luhansk region amount to 800 million UAH.

Changes of Leadership in the Self-Proclaimed “Republics”

So-called “changes of leadership,” coup attempts were happening in the self-proclaimed “republics” in 2016. There was an attempt to remove from power and kill the head of the self-proclaimed “LPR” Igor Plotnitsky (an explosive device was put under the car).

In the self-proclaimed "LPR," five people were removed from office, four people were arrested for "fraud," Gennady Tsypkalov, a so-called "prime minister" of the self-proclaimed “LPR,” according to the local media, committed suicide.

Changes of leadership began in the self-proclaimed “DPR” as well. At the end of the year, 4 people were removed from office, almost one-by-one. Arsen Pavlov, known as “Motorola,” was assassinated. However, in the self-proclaimed “DPR,” they consider his death in the elevator to be a sabotage operation carried out by the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Ukrainian intelligence also reported that according to their information, both so-called leaders of the self-proclaimed "DPR" and "LPR" Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky were completely suspended from military leadership in the occupied territories.