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A brief history of the Donbas War, in photos American Brendan Hoffman captures eight years of life along the contact line in eastern Ukraine

Source: Meduza

War came to Ukraine’s Donbas region in the spring of 2014, after some residents in the country’s east refused to accept the revolutionary change of power in Kyiv. In April of that year, pro-Russian protesters in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv declared the formation of “people’s republics” independent from Ukraine. Kyiv quickly regained control of Kharkiv, but a full-fledged war broke out in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, with Russia providing explicit and tacit support to the “people’s republics” — including in the form of material and military aid. The “hot” phase of the conflict formally ended with the signing of the Minsk agreements in February 2015, although clashes and shelling continued. For seven years thereafter, the conflict seemed “frozen” — a common phenomenon in global politics. Throughout this period, American photographer Brendan Hoffman captured both civilians and combatants who found themselves on different sides of the conflict. Meduza shares his snapshots here.

Supporters of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) seize the military prosecutor’s office in Donetsk on May 4, 2014. In the preceding weeks, many cities in Eastern Ukraine had come under the control of pro-Russian protesters. In Slovyansk (Donetsk region), a group of about 50 people from Russia seized administrative buildings — they were led by Igor Strelkov (real name: Igor Girkin), the head of security for Russian Orthodox businessman Konstantin Malofeev. The Ukrainian authorities announced the start of an “antiterrorist operation” in the east of the country about a month earlier, on April 7.
The crowd outside the military prosecutor’s office in Donetsk on May 4, 2014. This was one of the last administrative buildings seized by “DNR” supporters. The “people’s republic” proclaimed its independence following a referendum on May 11. At the time, no one recognized it — not even Russia. That said, Moscow’s official line towards the Donbas “republics” was clearly sympathetic.
On May 9, 2014, there was a battle for the local police headquarters in Mariupol. “DNR” militiamen drove Ukrainian National Guard units out of the city, forcing them to leave military equipment behind. One vehicle was towed to the city’s main square and displayed as a trophy.
People killed during the clashes near the police headquarters in Mariupol were buried on May 12. Among them were not only militiamen, but also unarmed protesters from the May 9 rally.
Combatants from the “Donbas” volunteer battalion head to a firing range at a training camp in the Dnipropetrovsk region. In the spring of 2014, similar armed formations appeared in several different parts of Ukraine: some of them supported the independence of the “people’s republics” or their integration into Russia, while others (including the Donbas battalion) wanted to see the eastern regions remain part of Ukraine.
The body of a Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 passenger lying in a field near the village of Hrabove in the Donetsk region. The Boeing 777, which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down by a Buk surface-to-air missile on July 17, 2014. All 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board died; there were no survivors. Dutch investigators concluded that while the missile was fired from territory controlled by the “DNR,” the Buk belonged to the Russian Armed Forces. Russia has categorically denied any involvement in the incident.
Donetsk after the shelling in late July 2014. By this time, “DNR” forces had left Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, and some other cities in the Donetsk region and were concentrated in Donetsk and its immediate vicinity. The Ukrainian Armed Forces never managed to take control of the border with Russia: their advancing units were encircled near Ilovaisk in August. The counterattack by the “DNR” forces involved Russian soldiers (this was explicitly acknowledged Alexander Zakharchenko, the de facto “prime minister” of the self-proclaimed “republic”), who were formally there on leave. As a result, the “DNR” and “LNR” held out. On September 5, representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the D/LNR signed a ceasefire agreement in Minsk, Belarus.
Ukrainian soldiers at their base in Pisky, at the height of fighting for the Donetsk Airport in November 2014.
The settlement of Pisky near the Donetsk Airport (as seen through a trench periscope). The Ukrainian military had maintained control of the airport since the spring of 2014. “DNR” forces repeatedly tried to dislodge them from the airport, but in vain. Intense fighting took place from late August 2014 to late January 2015. Eventually, the airport passed into the hands of the “DNR.” Approximately 1,500 people from both sides were killed fighting for it.
Attitudes toward Lenin monuments became an important indicator of loyalties in the Donbas.
Donetsk, February 3, 2015.
The road from Debaltseve after the retreat of the Ukrainian army. Debaltseve is a city on the border between the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The Ukrainian military sought to hold it to cut off the “DNR” from the “LNR.” However, “DNR” and “LNR” forces — again with the support of Russian soldiers “on leave” — managed to recapture it after heavy fighting in January–February 2015.
Ukrainian soldiers during a prisoner exchange in Novotoshkivske, Luhansk region, on February 21, 2015. This process was outlined in the Minsk II agreement, signed on February 12, 2015, by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the OSCE, and the D/LNR, with the support of the UN Security Council. This package of measures included a ceasefire, as well as political provisions.
A fighter from one the “people’s republics” during a prisoner exchange in Novotoshkivske. Over the seven years after the signing of the Minsk agreements, the ceasefire along the line of contact was violated frequently — with both sides accusing each other violations.
A combatant from the Ukrainian “Dnipro–1” battalion nicknamed Uncle Vova, in the village of Pervomaiskyi (Donetsk region) on March 19, 2015. Ukrainian forces had withdrawn from Donetsk Airport and from Pisky — Pervomaiskyi is the next settlement on the road heading west.
Pishchany Beach in Mariupol. August 2015.
Troitske, Luhansk region, December 11, 2015. Distribution of humanitarian aid delivered by the Red Cross.
Ukrainian soldiers returning from a store to their positions in the village of Pavlopil in the Donetsk region.
Donetsk Airport, March 22, 2016. By this point, the airport had been under the control of the “DNR” for more than a year, but it was still impossible to start rebuilding it.
Avdiivka, Donetsk region, February 1, 2017. Ekaterina Volkova, 60, went to the store, came under fire from “DNR” forces and died. Her daughter Nadezhda found her. Avdiivka was on the frontline and any escalation was fraught with such consequences for its residents.
A Ukrainian tank in Avdiivka, February 2, 2017.
A streetcar in Donetsk, April 21, 2017. Before the conflict began, about a million people lived in the city. Many have left since, but it is still a huge city. The frontline ran along its outskirts.
Harvesting in Berdyanske, a village in the Donetsk region under the de facto control of the “DNR” authorities. June 30, 2018.
Olesya Gadarina with her horse Syoma. Mariupol, December 5, 2018. Behind them is the Azovstal plant. Due to the tense situation in the Sea of Azov, turnover at the port of Mariupol had greatly decreased, so the plant was experiencing great difficulties selling its products.
A Ukrainian soldier in a bunker on the frontline in the town of Shchastya (literal translation “Happiness”), Luhansk region. April 16, 2021. Ceasefire violations had been increasing since late March 2021, as Russia concentrated a thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine.
A Russian coast guard ship in the Sea of Azov (view from a Ukrainian coast guard ship), April 2021. At the time, tensions appeared to be easing and by the end of April, the situation had more or less returned to the status quo. Experts speculated that Russia had massed troops along the Ukrainian border as a show of strength directed at U.S. President Joe Biden ahead of talks with Vladimir Putin.
The town of Mariinka (left) and the village of Hnutove, Donetsk region, were effectively divided by the line of contact after 2015. Local residents have been blown up by mines while working in the fields.
Anti-tank obstacles in the village of Hranitne in the Donetsk region. The Ukrainian army occupied the village in 2014. In 2021, it was here that the Ukrainian side deployed its first Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 armed drones. On February 28, 2022, “DNR” head Denis Pushilin hoisted the “DNR” flag over the Hranitne city hall.
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