Seth J Frantzman

Ukraine’s slow war of attrition still rumbles on

Ukraine's slow war of attrition still rumbles on
Text settings

Towns on Ukraine's ceasefire line are marking three years since some were retaken by government forces from pro-Russian separatists. But there is little cause for celebration: houses in Marinka, Krasnogorovka and Avdiivka bear the scars of war. Some of these scars are recent, including a large house with nine apartments that was destroyed in shelling in late July.

The war in eastern Ukraine is a forgotten conflict in many ways. It is talked about as “frozen” or “hidden” yet there is little recognition that the fight is still rumbling on. Unlike Bosnia or the border between Georgia and the breakaway statelets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, eastern Ukraine witnesses dozens of exchanges of fire a day. Visiting the front line for several days makes it clear just how active this conflict still is.

In early July, Theresa May and Boris Johnson met with Ukraine's Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman at a summit in London designed to show continued western support for Kiev. “Delivering Ukraine’s ambitious reform agenda is not just good for Ukraine but good for the whole of Europe,” Boris reassured his guests. The Foreign Secretary also said the UK was at the forefront of sending a British military training mission to aid Ukraine’s armed forces.

The US is even more deeply involved in the Ukrainian imbroglio. Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016, was closely linked to Ukraine’s former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. An article in Bloomberg published in May noted that “in the decade before he worked for Trump, Manafort’s efforts did for Moscow what its finest minds had failed to do: help get a pro-Russian candidate installed in Kiev.”

The deep connections that the 2014 Ukraine crises had to the West and Moscow are now at the heart of the continued suspicion overshadowing relations. The Zapad military exercise in September in Belarus is being closely watched by NATO countries and neighbours over fears that it is more than just a military drill. In early August, Ukraine participated in a NATO exercise in Georgia called Noble Partner. Troops from the UK, Germany, Turkey, Slovenia and Armenia all took part.

This is why what happens today on the ceasefire line in the Donbas matters. With more than 10,000 killed in the conflict so far, the border between the Ukraine army and the separatists is at the heart of the West’s conflict with Moscow. Ukraine is trying to become part of the EU and NATO. It wants to refurbish its army along NATO lines. Speaking to commentators and officials in Kiev it is clear that they feel the country has turned the corner on reforms and that the war has enabled the country to set a clear national agenda.

However, the soldiers on the ground are still seeing action almost every day. This includes larger calibre ordinance, such as 120 mm mortars, being fired - a clear violation of the agreements signed in Minsk in February 2015 between Ukraine and Russia. The separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk, where millions of people still reside, show no sign of seeking peace or being willing to allow the Ukrainian government to return to these areas. Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, will not be returned to Ukraine. At the moment therefore it seems this is a slow war of attrition. Ukrainians argue this it is also a drain on Russia’s economy because Russia is close to the separatists. But the war is fought on Ukrainian soil and it is taking its toll on civilians and military personnel. For now, this low level conflict shows no sign of stopping any time soon.