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From ‘frozen’ conflict to full-scale invasion How has eight years of war changed Ukraine’s Donbas? Meduza asks human rights expert Varvara Pakhomenko.
On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, under the pretext of defending two unrecognized, Kremlin-backed “republics” in the country’s east. Before this, since it began in 2014, the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region had waxed and waned, resulting in thousands of casualties on both sides. To find out more about life in the Donbas over the past eight years, Meduza turned to human rights and humanitarian law expert Varvara Pakhomenko, who was part of the UN mission in Ukraine from 2016 to 2018, and went on to work as the country director for Ukraine for the humanitarian organization Geneva Call.
Please note. This interview was conducted on February 28, 2022, and was originally published in Russian on March 2, 2022.
You worked in Ukraine and in the Donbas for many years. Were you expecting this war?
When the “DNR” and “LNR” were recognized [by Russia], the first question raised was: recognized within what borders? Both Donetsk and Luhansk declared that they consider their territory the entire territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, calling these territories “occupied” by Ukraine. They regularly provided weather forecasts for the occupied territories and organized some humanitarian programs for local residents. There was this kind of mirror rhetoric: “You are the occupiers!” — “No, you are the occupiers!”.
So immediately after the “DNR” and “LNR” were recognized, I got the feeling that there would be an escalation in the Donbas.
Then they [Moscow] declared that this recognition [encompassed the entire territory] within the borders of the [Donetsk and Luhansk] regions, and it was clear that, in all likelihood, the “DNR” and “LNR” would move their borders deeper into Ukrainian territory with the support of Russian forces. But things turned out much worse and now there is a full-scale invasion.
It seems to me that no one really expected the war. But what I understood was that, if war ever broke out, then the consequences would be catastrophic for both sides and that this would not be a quick, victorious war.
Why is that?
In recent years I was an employee of a humanitarian organization that worked with the Ukrainian army and law enforcement. We talked to them about international humanitarian law, held training sessions on how to protect the civilian population. I saw the army change, how it became a lot more professional and motivated. All these years they had been internally preparing for war.
They have a lot of experience conducting fighting on the ground. The entire Ukrainian army has been through rotations in the Donbas more than once.
In the Donbas, at the least, they practiced coordination between different security agencies, with the territorial defense, and the local administrations. They created a special military-civilian cooperation force to coordinate with humanitarian organizations and local residents. Since 2017, they’ve started to introduce procedures for implementing the norms of international humanitarian law in the army. Volunteer battalions were integrated into Ukraine’s official security structures, their coordination has improved. They started prosecuting soldiers and volunteers who committed crimes in the Donbas. Not everything was ideal, but in seven years, enormous changes have taken place.
I am not certain that the Russian army has experience in effectively controlling a large territory. We saw how bad the Russian army was at coordinating in Georgia in 2008. After that there was Syria, where many developed their skills. But in Syria it was mainly Russian aircraft and artillery that were active, and not large ground forces.
It’s important to understand that during the eight years of war in the Donbas, Ukraine has felt like a much more united nation than in the previous 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. When I started working in the Donbas, one local resident told me that at first, she thought that no one in the country cared about their war. But when she visited the Lviv region for the first time ever in 2016, she saw, in the very center of the city, a memorial plaque with portraits of the soldiers killed in the Donbas, and she realized that the war had come to every city in the country.
Ukraine’s army is bilingual: in the Donbas those fighting came from both the Russian-speaking and the Ukrainian-speaking regions of the country. The war divided people along different front lines. People lived in different information spaces, and they formed different civic identities. For many in Russia and in Ukraine, it probably came as a surprise that people from the parts of the Donetsk region controlled by Ukraine are also actively helping the Ukrainian army.
You worked in the Donbas during the most intense periods of the conflict. What happened there? How was the front line drawn?
The active phase of hostilities lasted from the end of spring 2014 until February 2015. Those eight-nine months of hostilities caused a significant number of casualties. During that period, troops moved back and forth. There was a battle for Debaltseve, a battle [for Ilovaisk] that became known as the “Ilovaisk Cauldron.” After this hot phase, the front line was fixed and it remained the same up until February 24, 2022.
The “DNR” and “LNR” are not Abkhazia or South Ossetia, which for the most part had historically established ethnic borders. In the Donbas, the borders were drawn where the front line stopped. And the people living on both sides of the front line in the Donbas are exactly the same people. The suburbs of Donetsk, Avdiivka, and Maryinka ended up on the side controlled by Ukraine. Stanytsia Luhanska was a suburb of Luhansk, where vegetables were grown in greenhouses for the Luhansk market. It remained on the side controlled by Ukraine.
If we’re just speaking about the military side of this conflict, the war in the Donbas began with the intervention of Russian paramilitary groups. After the annexation of Crimea [in February–March 2014], in early April 2014, pro-Russian groups seized the SBU [headquarters] in Donetsk and Luhansk. Within a couple of days, these groups joined Igor Girkin’s squad from Crimea and seized government buildings in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.
Kyiv announced the start of an anti-terrorist operation against them. Donetsk and Luhansk were proclaimed “people’s republics.” The fighting escalated further until August . In August, battles broke out in the small town of Ilovaisk in the Donetsk region. By the end of August, the Ukrainian forces were surrounded near Ilovaisk — with the help of troops from Russia, according to the Ukrainian government. Many were captured or died from their wounds. It was then that the first Minsk agreements were signed.
The second Minsk agreements [and] the battles for Debaltseve and Maryinka at the beginning of 2015 basically determined the front line. The so-called “gray zone’” dividing the positions of both sides remained quite wide — from 2–3 to 10–15 kilometers. Tens of thousands of people continued living in this territory: without a municipal administration, without police, without doctors — often without water and electricity. The military was the only authority there.
The Minsk accords were not implemented. From that moment until the summer of 2019, the sides drew closer and closer, often reclaiming each kilometer or several hundred meters, and establishing civilian authority there. And by 2018–2019, they were already very close to each to other, within shooting distance — the line between them was literally 200 meters [wide] (less than 220 yards).
By that time, the number of casualties had decreased significantly. The use of heavy weaponry had almost stopped. If during the first year of the war they used everything from aircraft to artillery and tanks — and it was precisely the use of such weapons that killed the majority of civilians — then later, in 2018–2019, nature of the military action changed: territories along the line of contact were mined. The region turned into one of the most heavily mined in the world, a sniper war began and they used drones.
This was trench warfare, where both sides dug in very deep and controlled the front line from two sides. From time to time there were surges of combat activity, but after the ceasefire, everything calmed down. Civilian casualties in that period were quite low, caused mostly by mines or unexploded ordnance.
In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky came to power with a plan to bring peace to the Donbas and restore economic and humanitarian ties, and there was some progress in the conflict zone It must be said that [at the time] Zelensky was called pro-Russian and was heavily criticized, including by the military. Nevertheless, 70 percent of the population supported his program.
In that period [at the start of Zelensky’s presidency] many humanitarian actions were undertaken — a bridge was rebuilt in Stanytsia Luhanska, to make it easier for people to cross the front line. This was the only checkpoint between the territory of the Luhansk region controlled by Kyiv and the territory Kyiv didn’t control. Hundreds of prisoners [of war] were released in Ukraine, the “DNR” and “LNR,” and Russia. They began to withdraw troops in three pilot zones, as agreed upon in September 2016.
In July 2020, both sides reached a serious ceasefire and over the next five months, there were hardly any casualties. There was very little exchange of fire and hardly any soldiers died. But in spring 2021, things began to escalate again. There were no military dynamics that could have provoked this escalation in the Donbas. The prolonged adherence to the ceasefire demonstrated that both sides were able to coordinate their forces and ensure the implementation of orders.
As such, a theory emerged about a political underpinnings of this escalation — that the hostilities were associated with negotiations. What’s more, something similar may have been seen before. Breakthroughs in negotiations were often followed by an impasse and a deterioration of relations, which often led to an escalation at the front and a large number of casualties: for example, the Battle for Debaltseve took place after the Minsk II agreements. In the summer of 2021, Vladimir Putin met with Joe Biden at the Geneva summit, and after that the situation at the front calmed down again.
Actually, until mid-February 2022, the situation in the Donbas was calmer than before [the] July 2020 [ceasefire].
You said that since 2016, fewer civilians have died. How did people die during this period?
The Donbas is a highly urbanized region. It was Ukraine’s most urbanized region with the highest population. In Donetsk, 90 percent of the population lives in cities. The fighting largely took place in the most urbanized parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The front line ran along the borders between cities. Luhansk and Mariupol were very close to the front. And when there were shellingfrom either side, it was the civilian population that suffered because precision weapons were rarely used.
For example, [both sides] used “Grad” systems [multiple rocket launchers]. In early 2017, I was working in Donetsk when the conflict began to escalate and both sides started using artillery: Avdiivka was hit from the territory of the “DNR” and Donetsk neighborhoods were hit from the Ukrainian side.
What caused this escalation?
Back then I had the sense that there would be another attempt at negotiations. In 2016, there was a lot of progress — both politically and economically. The parties were actively negotiating and it seemed to many that they’d come to some sort of agreement on peaceful co-existence. But in January–February 2017, there was another military escalation. Then came the trade blockade.
Until 2017, the “DNR” and “LNR” continued to be partly integrated into Ukraine’s economy. All of the major enterprises in the Donbas continued to deliver their products to Ukraine. The front line had disrupted industrial chains, but for a long time it was not cut off completely. For example, coal was mined in parts of the Donbas not controlled by Ukraine, and processed in territory under Ukraine’s control. In order for the factories to work, this product had to be moved to Ukraine. And until 2017, that was what happened.
But when the conflict escalated at the beginning of 2017, the authorities in “DNR” and “LNR” announced the nationalization of all enterprises — they were taken out of the hands of Ukrainian businesses and came under the control of “Vneshtorgservis,” a company registered in South Ossetia. After that, economic relations between the “DNR” and “LNR,” and the rest of Ukraine’s territory were halted. It was then understood that the prospects for reintegrating the “DNR” and the “LNR” into Ukraine were even lower, given that the economy held them together.
However, civilians continued to go [across the border] — there were nearly a million crossings on both sides every month.
Who were the people crossing the front line?
Pensioners who continued receiving a pension from Ukraine, students, people who had family in Ukraine, or went there to get medical treatment.
When the pandemic started all contact between the two sides stopped. The “DNR” and “LNR” autorities closed the checkpoints. The official reason was to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But when they reopened, it was only possible to cross with a special permit issued by the “DNR” and “LNR” authorities. Crossings decreased to around ten thousand [a month].
The remaining humanitarian connection between the two sides has almost disappeared in the last two years. People continued crossing over to Ukraine, but mostly by taking a detour — through Russia. They had to enter Rostov region [of Russia] and then re-enter Ukraine through Kharkiv. Before you could get from Donetsk to your relatives’ place in Kramatorsk in 1.5 hours, now it takes 24 to 36 hours.
How many people have been living in the “DNR” and “LNR” since 2014?
There are no accurate statistics, as is the case in all conflicts. Before the start of the conflict in 2014, around seven million people lived in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. If we roughly divide the territory into that which ended up under Ukrainian control and that which came under the control of the “DNR” and “LNR,” then about half of the population remained in these unrecognized “republics.” Of course, there were many who left. I would say that in total, 3 million people [of the 4,1 million that lived in the Donetsk region] lived on territory not controlled by Ukraine.
Are there exact figures on those killed in the conflict zone for the entire period of the conflict, confirmed by international institutions?
According to data from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 13,000 people have died during the conflict, and another 42,000–44,000 were injured. Of these, civilians losses account for around 3,330 of the people killed and 7,000–9,000 of those injured (on both sides of the conflict). The Ukrainian forces have seen around 4,000 killed and 10,000 wounded. Non-State armed groups fighting against Kyiv have suffered 5,700 dead and 13,000–14,000 wounded.
Of those, two thirds were killed, and half were wounded in the first two years of the war. Around 85–90 percent of civilian casualties were caused by mortars, cannons, howitzers, tanks, and multiple rocket launchers. After that period, the number of civilian — and military — casualties steadily decreased with each year.
What was the role of the Minsk accords in this conflict? Why weren’t they implemented?
The first Minsk accords were signed against the backdrop of the Battle for Ilovaisk [in the Donetsk region] — in order to put an end to this fighting. However, by the end of 2014, during the negotiations, the hostilities had started up again and there were battles for control of the Donetsk Airport. The Minsk II agreements were signed against this backdrop, after which there were terrible battles for Debaltseve. In both cases — in Ilovaisk and Debaltseve — the Ukrainian authorities claimed that there was large-scale intervention from Russian troops to support the separatist forces.
The Minsk accords, in both cases signed amid great military pressure on Ukraine, presupposed that Ukraine would commence a political process granting greater autonomy to the Donbas, and there would be a withdrawal of troops and disarmament in the Donbas. However, the sequence of these actions and Russia’s role in them were not stipulated [in the agreements].
Ukraine insisted that it couldn’t conduct status referendums in the Donbas until Russian troops had withdrawn from the region. Because an independent referendum couldn’t be ensured so long as Russia troops were there. Refugees and pro-Ukrainian people couldn’t return to the region. And, under such conditions, a newly formed [regional] government loyal to Russia becoming part of Ukraine would pose a serious threat to the country’s sovereignty.
The Minsk accords reached an impasse. In Kyiv, they understood that they couldn’t agree politically, but a military solution was impossible: it was clear that Donetsk and Luhansk were backed by superior, Russian troops. At a certain point, the “gray” status [of the unrecognized republics] became fixed and the region turned into another “frozen” conflict — like in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The war receded into the background of news coverage in Ukraine. By 2016, people were sitting on the terraces of cafes on Pushkin Boulevard in downtown Donetsk, drinking cocktails and not paying attention to the sound shells.
A large number of refugees left the Donbas, some for Russia, others for Europe. Most of the people who left, some of whom I know personally, started building a life in new places. They understood that there was no way back and that the “gray” status of the “DNR” and “LNR” wouldn’t last for long.
During the first two days of the war, February 24 and 25, there weren’t many civilian casualties. On February 26 though, Ukrainian authorities began reporting hundreds of casualties. What happened?
According the February 27 data from Ukraine’s Health Ministry, there were 350 killed and more than 1,500 wounded among the civilian population. This is almost a tenth of the civilians killed in the Donbas during in the last eight years. Moreover, there isn’t large-scale targeted shelling of civilian areas as yet. Thus far, in the first five days of the war, what we have seen is so-called collateral casualties. They shelled various strategic facilities, dual-use objects like bridges, train stations, and oil depots.
Sooner or later the precision projectiles will run out and with each day “carpet bombing” will be used more and more. In Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, and the Donetsk, and Luhansk regions, the situation is extremely bad. The number of civilian casualties has risen sharply in recent days.
Many have compared what is going on in Ukraine with the wars in the Balkans. Are they similar?
They are similar in the sense that one army is fighting against another that has surrounded its cities. But in the conflict [in the Balkans] neither side had such a large quantity of sophisticated and advanced weapons. I think that what we are seeing in Ukraine is comparable to the battles of World War II.
After World War II, there were fewer and fewer conflicts between states. There were usually some kind of hybrid wars, wars within countries against separatist groups supported by other countries. Both sides in these conflicts had different levels of weaponry at their disposal. What’s happening now, the use of aircraft, artillery, and modern weapons, is a twenty-first century catastrophe.
What’s happening in the Donbas now?
I think that the Donbas will be one of the main victims of this war. I see reports and photographs of border settlements in the Donbas and soon there will be almost nothing left. There are reports that people there are asking for humanitarian corridors so they can escape. They have no food left and the bombing never stops. Whereas people in Kyiv have a little more food stockpiled at home, people in the Donbas are very poor. They usually only have a couple days worth of food. In recent days, Donetsk didn’t have water. It’s very hard for me to hear that the war was declared for the protection of the population of the Donbas and the Russian-speaking population, when the mayor of Kharkiv describes — in Russian — how the city authorities can’t give out bread to people in bomb shelters, because even the trucks carrying bread are being shelled.
If the war continues for a few more days, for a week, there will be a massive humanitarian crisis in all the big cities. There will be problems accessing food and medicine. I have an acquaintance whose family managed to flee Kyiv. She wrote to me about her sister who stayed behind and is sitting in the basement of a maternity hospital waiting to have a cesarean section, and there’s not enough medicine.
Many are leaving Ukraine, but there are also many who stayed. Why is that?
People are leaving for neighboring countries — Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Moldova. More than 520,000 people have already left. Moldova has welcomed more than 40,000 people. For one of the poorest European nations, with a population of 2.6 million, these numbers are huge.
Please note. This interview was conducted on February 28, 2022. According to the UN Refugee Agency, at least 1.3 million people had fled Ukraine at the time of publication.
What is happening at the borders now is just horrible. People are standing in lines for 20–30 hours in order to get out. The number of border guards is limited. They do not have the resources to process all these people.
Ukrainian trains are running nonstop. I read that every hour trains carry away up to 4,000 people. In a way, those that manage to leave are the lucky ones. Evacuating such large cities so fast is impossible. For the sick and the elderly making such a trip is not realistic.
Many civilians didn’t want to leave their cities and made the decision to stay. Some joined the territorial defense. In fact, the territorial defense system has been actively preparing in recent years. Lots of people signed up, received training, and now these people have immediately taken up arms.
Those who didn’t go fight are now helping the military or the civilian population. I see how medical workers have stepped up, how ordinary people have prepared food to deliver to soldiers and civilians. Self-organization was also very strong in Ukraine and after 2014 it got even stronger. And now these civilian organizations that previously organized humanitarian projects have stepped up and are protecting their cities.
Are refugees from the Donbas continuing to cross the border into Russia?
I haven’t seen any messages in recent days. A few days ago [on February 24], I saw an announcement from the “DNR” that said there was no longer any need to send refugees to Russia, since the situation is under control. That seemed very strange to me. I have joined chat groups for residents of Donetsk and Luhansk and every twenty minutes there’s news about shelling and destroyed infrastructure.
Is the Donbas under shelling from both sides?
The line of contact in the Donbas disappeared. Troops are now constantly moving back and forth, from both sides. And they’re shooting in all directions.
Could the hostilities spread to the area along the Russian border?
So far there have been no such cases. Judging by the map of military movements, Russian troops moved deeper into the country from the south, the south-east, the east, the north-east, and the east. The fighting is already taking place far from the state border.
Is there any hope for the negotiation process?
I really hope so, but I don’t know if today’s negotiation [this interview took place on February 28] will be of any help. What I know is that the worst phase of the war is starting: urban battles. This is a nightmare for everyone — for the attacking army and for civilians. There are huge risks when a city is invaded by a foreign army, because many people can fall victim of the hostilities. Before entering the city, [the advancing army] usually covers it in artillery. Going into a hostile, unfamiliar city, soldiers are afraid of everything and may fire on civilians. I keep seeing videos of people throwing Molotov cocktails at soldiers, taking them prisoner, and the authorities are also calling on civilians to take any action necessary to stop military equipment.
International humanitarian law says that soldiers have the right to fire during hostilities, but not on civilians. How can this be enforced when the fighting is taking place in urban areas?
The Geneva Conventions govern how fighting should take place. During wartime, at any time, one can shoot and kill soldiers and people carrying weapons who are taking part in the hostilities, and fire on the military facilities that they occupy. You must never [target] civilian infrastructure. This is a war crime. If battles are happening in cities, it’s difficult to keep track of what’s military and what’s civilian. That’s why civilians are often killed, not by targeted attacks, but accidentally. These are collateral casualties.
International humanitarian law states that soldiers must do everything in their power to avoid or minimize collateral casualties. Above all, [they must] understand what weapon they are using. If battles are taking place in densely populated areas, then they are prohibited from using indiscriminate weapons. It is prohibited to use “Grads” and “Uragans” [multiple rocket launchers] in cities where the soldiers might be located, because there is a very high chance that civilians will be killed. They must refrain from using such weapons, because using them would constitute a war crime. It’s necessary to avoid fighting in cities filled with civilians.
The Ukrainian army and civil authorities are constantly warning people about shelling, telling them to go to bomb shelters immediately. Talking to friends, these words keep coming up: air raid alert, blackout, bomb shelter.
You need to understand that millions of people live in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Donetsk. Four million people live in Kyiv and its suburbs. One and a half million people live in Kharkiv. Up until 2014, Donetsk was city of almost a million people.
It seems that both sides have suffered great losses. How should armies treat prisoners of war and the dead according to the Geneva Conventions?
It is difficult to know the exact number of casualties. In any war, each country tries to exaggerate the losses of the other side and to underreport its own. However, I am following many Telegram channels — Ukrainian ones and channels from the “DNR” and “LNR” and I have never seen so many pictures of bodies and of captured soldiers.
International humanitarian law says that the dead and prisoners of war should be treated with respect. The dead must be identified, where possible, and information about them must be transmitted to the other side and their relatives. And, where possible, [their bodies must] be returned. If prisoners surrendered, then they are no longer fighting and this means they can’t be killed. Prisoners must not be tortured, they must be offered medical help and they must be fed. They can be questioned, but they are only obliged to say their name, date of birth, and personnel number — they aren’t obligated to disclose anything else. They must be held in a safe place and, if possible, transferred to the other side either when the hostilities end, or during a ceasefire, or by special agreement.
And where should they be held?
Ideally in special camps for prisoners of war. But we when we’re talking about the [early] days of a war, there are no such camps yet.
Is it true that an enemy soldier isn’t considered a war criminal?
According to international law, even if that person is fighting under orders, that does not make him a criminal. But if there’s information that he committed war crimes —killed civilians, tortured prisoners, robbed, or looted — then it’s possible not to hand this prisoner over to the enemy and to put them on trial.
Right now, Ukrainian law enforcement agencies have started gathering information about prisoners in a centralized manner. As far as I understand, [they gathering information] about the dead, too.
And where are the bodies of Russian soldiers kept?
For now, nowhere in particular. And this is a problem. It’s not always possible to retrieve the bodies. The fighting hasn’t stopped. For that to happen, there needs to be a ceasefire. Nobody is going to risk their life to run under fire and collect a body — especially the body of an enemy soldier. Even though it shouldn’t make a difference whose body it is — an enemy or one of your own.
If possible, any documents must be collected, and the body must be photographed along with its location, in order to be able to identify the deceased and pass along that information. So that captured and killed soldiers aren’t listed as missing in action, because this is the worst thing for their families.
Translation by Christina Karakepeli
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