What Led to This Escalation in Eastern Ukraine?
6 February, 2017

What You Need To Know:
✅ The escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine began on January 29th;
✅ Since January 29th, 18 military personnel were killed in action and 100 were wounded, says Oleksii Makeiev, Political Director at the MFA of Ukraine;
✅ The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission documented 11,000 ceasefire violations last week;
✅ Over the last 24 hours in the Donetsk region, the OSCE SMM registered over 1300 ceasefire violations.

Violations in and around Avidiivka,Donetsk and Yasiivka have been seen more and more during the day, and were increasing until January 31st, 2017.

The OSCE has recorded over 11,000 ceasefire violations in one day; the highest recorded since the beginning of the Minsk Agreements. Towards the end of the week, they recorded less explosions and less usage of heavy weaponry on the contact line, but they agree that the number of weapons used is still far too high.

Over the past 24 hours in the Donetsk region alone, 1300 ceasefire violations have been recorded in Mariupol, the Donetsk Airport, Avdiivka, and Yasynuvata.

Hromadske spoke to Oleksii Makeiev, Political Director at the MFA of Ukraine and Aleksandr Hug, Chief Monitor of the OSCE SMM to Ukraine.

Photo credit: Avdiivka after shelling, Avdiivka, Ukraine, 03/02/2017. HROMADSKE

Christian Borys: The main question everybody is asking - what led to the escalation of the conflict in the eastern Ukraine? What is the government's position on how this came about? Because there was not a relative calm – but enough calm that has been established over the past two years – and that this situation appeared out of nowhere.

Oleksii Makeiev: What we witnessed last week in Avdiivka, Mariupol, and practically on the whole contact line, was one of the worst humanitarian crises since the start of Russian aggression. This is the first time when there are civilian casualties. Since January 29th, we have 18 military personnel killed in action, and 100 wounded. But this time we also have 3 civilians killed, 9 civilians wounded, more than 200 buildings damaged – some of them were totally destroyed, and we have evacuated 249 people, many children. More than 20,000 are left without heating, electricity... What we've heard recently is that our people managed to get the electricity working for the city of Avdiivka.

It's one of the worst humanitarian crises that was made by the Russian Federation, by their occupation forces, and by their proxies.

Photo credit: Humanitarian aid came to Avdiivka, Ukraine, 03/02/2017. HROMADSKE

Nataliya Gumenyuk: What would be your explanation - why has it started now? What is the Ukrainian strategy now?

Oleksii Makeiev: I think the Russians now try to escalate the situation and look at what the reaction of the new American Administration will be, and how the European Union and NATO countries would react to that. We've been using all the diplomatic means we have. On the very first day, we instructed our ambassadors all over the world to explain the situation in the capitals. We've called two meetings of the OSCE, the Council of Europe. The committee of ministers was informed by our permanent representative about the dire situation and the human rights situation in occupied Donbas and Avdiivka. We had two meetings of the United Nations Security Council. The first meeting, under our presidency, was fully devoted to Ukraine.

Nataliya Gumenyuk: In the UN, everybody blames everybody... Ukraine presented facts; the U.S. supported it as well. How would that be effective? It is still not clear - What does Ukraine exactly want at this point? Besides the end of the war and having Ukrainian territories back.

Oleksii Makeiev: Every time we talk to our international partners, what we want is to have Russia out of Ukraine. This is absolutely what our international partners understand. Every single representative in the UN Security Council supported Ukraine, but none of them supported Russia. What we faced this time was Russia’s complete isolation in the UN Security Council. The new permanent representative of the United States Nikki Haley was absolutely backing the Ukrainian position. The UK was unequivocally supporting Ukraine and blamed it all on Russia. Sweden, Japan, Italy... Russia was hoping before that, with the new administration, there would be no blaming--that Russia and the United States together would find the way to push the Ukrainian conflict under the carpet. But they didn't manage to do that. What we saw in the OSCE in Vienna last week, during two Security Council meetings - is that Russia is isolated. This is a good signal, that sanction will be kept until Russia gets out of Donbas and keeps up to their promises and commitments to the Minsk Agreements. The Crimea sanctions will remain until Russia gets out of Crimea. This was the clear position of Nikki Haley.

Photo credit: U.S. condemns 'aggressive actions of Russia, New York, USA / Reuters

Christian Borys: President Trump and President Poroshenko had their first phone call. We saw the readout of it, and I am curious - this war has been going on for such a long time. The US has pledged its support already; Trump seemed to be pledging his support through that statement. What do you anticipate this first year looking like between the two administrations and how do you finally end this conflict? Is there a chance to end this conflict with Trump as president?

Oleksii Makeiev: From the very onset of Russian aggression, we always say to the Russian side, to our international partners that we don't want a military solution; we want a political solution of this conflict. Our administration is now trying to continue the support of the free world against Russian aggression and against the Kremlin. Those important signals that were sent from Washington or Berlin was an absolutely clear message to Putin that there would be no deals at the cost of Ukraine. It's one of the most important messages of this week's discussions in the United Nations Security Council.

Nataliya Gumenyuk: Ukraine lost Debaltseve two years ago. So what exactly does Ukraine want at this point, according to the Minsk Agreements? What would be the actions to move the situation somewhere?

Oleksii Makeiev: The case of Debaltseve has not been forgotten. The Minsk Agreements in September 2014--the line was defined. And after September 2014, the Russians have more than 1,300 square kilometers of our territory. So if we talk about implementing the Minsk Agreement, the first point is ceasefire. We're still waiting for a clear order from the Kremlin to their troops and their proxies to cease the fire, to withdraw their weapons and to stick to the line of  September 19th, 2014. This is the Minsk line, where Debaltseve is under control of the Ukrainian government, a big part of the territory, which is now in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts controlled by the Russians and their proxies should be given back to Ukraine. After having all the security related issues solved, we can go on with the political stuff, economic, and of course, hostages. This is absolutely impossible that so many Ukrainians are kept hostage on the occupied territories. Because this is about people. What is happening now in Avdiivka is also about people. This is not about lines, a Constitution, but about the life of people. What we see in the Russian Federation - they don't care about it.

Christian Borys: But getting Debaltseve back would be about lines, right?

Oleksii Makeiev: This is about the question you asked me - what about Debaltseve? Debaltseve should belong to Ukraine. So the case of this town cannot be forgotten. This is the Russian line to forget about people, ceasing the fire, instead to have the Constitution, more rights to people and then maybe stop the fire. This absolutely perplexed any logic of the Russians. And this is the ground for their propaganda as if Ukrainians don't want to stop the conflict. To stop the conflict one should stop the fire.

Nataliya Gumenyuk: Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is heard in some capitals, had some comments on Ukraine.

Nataliya Gumenyuk:  We are talking to Aleksandr Hug, who is Chief Monitor of the OSCE SMM to Ukraine. He is in Donetsk now. We are trying to summarize this difficult week with numerous reports, quoting some of your reports. What happened this week? How by the end of Sunday would you explain, is the situation calming down or is it still escalated?

Aleksandr Hug: We registered a week ago, on Sunday, in the area of Avdiivka, Donetsk Airport and Yasinyvata. We have seen these violations increasing up to the 31st of January. Our mission registered over 11.000 ceasefire violations on a single day. It’s the highest number we recorded. The ceasefire violations had been reduced and we have seen calmer nights, less explosions. That means less use of heavy weapons. However, the numbers are still too high. Over the past 24 hours in the Donetsk region, we have been registering 13,000 ceasefire violations per day. They are concentrated at three main hotspots, it’s to the south and northeast of Mariupol, in the center around to Donetsk Airport, Avdiivka and Yasinyvata and to the east near Svitlodarsk and Debaltseve.  It’s of course needed that the ceasefire be established in this geographic area. The majority of violations, recorded by our mission, had  occurred.

Christian Borys:  Aleksandr, we talked in Avdiivka two days ago about the intensity of the conflict. At that time, we heard shelling in the background. Two days later, it seems that it got calmer. For the people who don’t follow the conflict closely, how do you explain that type of ability to turn it on and off?
Aleksandr Hug: You are absolutely right that the situation remains high and unpredictable. It’s unpredictable because the rude causes of violence are still present on the contact line. On three hotspots is the presence of heavy weapons on both sides of the conflict. We have seen in our reports, we have seen in the city of Avdiivka and in Donetsk. Just today our patrols were in Kryta Balka near Avdiivka. We have seen T-64 tanks in an area where they shouldn’t be. We have seen a massive amount of these weapons. We see them in the area, where they should have been removed from a long time ago. Furthermore, the proximity of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is far too close and this leads to tension in this area. Numerous battles have been registered and they are still too high.


Photo credit: Alexandr Hug visiting Avdiivka, Ukraine. 31/01/2017. 

Christian Borys: Aleksandr, you mentioned that violations become blatant. They used to try to hide violations and equipment. Now it just seems that with violations, everything is open. They really don’t care if OSCE observers will see them. We saw that in Avdiivka this week. Is this new?

Aleksandr Hug: First of all, it’s important to mention that task of the OSCE mission is to monitor and observe those who had committed violations, and to take measures, to react on these reports. When the mission indicates violations of Minsk, we are going to remove them and to bring more stability and normality to the line. For the past week, we see more weapons in the open, more weapons during daytime. It regularly happens that 11,000 violations occur in a single day from the both sides of the conflict. It’s no wonder that the OSCE special monitoring mission sees more hard weapon and fire violations.
Nataliya Gumenyuk (to Oleksii Makeev): We speak a lot about violations from the separatists and that’s what the Ukrainian government obviously expresses. There are talks and reports by the OSCE, which also say that Ukraine isn’t withdrawing fully to the extent it is supposed to. What would be your answer to that? That is the criticism, which is also coming internationally to Ukraine. As somebody, who tries to be a side, which respects international rules and agreements.
Oleksii Makeiev
: We always stick to our commitments about ceasefire and after recent escalation by the Russians, it’s of course needed that a ceasefire will be established and we start withdrawing the troops. This is also in our interest, but what’s the difference between Russian tactics? We never use our weapons against civilian districts. We avoid shelling civilian districts and populated areas. What this government wants is to stop hostilities and a return to a peaceful life for all the citizens.

Photo credit: SMM OSCE visiting Avdiivka, Ukraine. 31/01/2017. 

Nataliya Gumenyuk (to Aleksandr Hug): We are extremely curious that you are in Donetsk. Of course it’s very difficult for some correspondents—Ukrainian or foreign to be there. What can you say about the situation currently? Do you hear shooting? How much damage to the civilian population?

Aleksandr Hug:  During the brief discussion we had, I over heard from a room where I am sitting now, that there were three explosions in the city. We have seen for a long time that civilians have been affected by long-lasting fighting. The civilians suffer in both cases. There were two civilians killed in Avdiivka and two killed in the city of Donetsk. Both parts suffer equally, but I also have some good news. 

 Photo credit: Donetsk, Ukraine / Reuters

The OSCE special monitoring mission is set now to gain control of both sides to reestablish and reconnect electricity and to provide it to the residents of Avdiivka including water filtration stations. by mid afternoon today these managed to be repaired. These are the things on which everyone should focus on, the humanitarian agenda came first. Any political agenda should have second seat, but however it’s still important. The civilians in this conflict have been suffering far too much on both sides of the line. The OSCE special monitoring mission focused more attention and we’ll make sure that the suffering of the population has been highlighted. We’ll have to make sure that some of the damages can be remedied, at least on a temporary basis. Once again restoring electricity in Avdiivka is a temporary measure and it may be done quickly. At the moment we have an unstable situation. It needs to be changed and can be changed if the Minsk Agreements will be done without a compromise.