POPASNA, EASTERN UKRAINE - Ukraine’s war with Russian-backed separatist rebels in the east of the country is entering its fifth year. Since February, there has been an uptick in fighting along the 450-kilometer contact line.
VOA joined the United States’ Special Envoy for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker, along with U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch on a trip to the frontlines Tuesday to witness first-hand the fallout from the violence, and call the world’s attention to a forgotten conflict.
“It’s important to just see what people are going through and renew the commitment that all of us should have about trying to bring peace, to bring an end to the conflict and a restoration of the territory to Ukrainian control so people can get on with normal lives,” Volker told VOA.
Ukraine’s war with Russian-backed separatist rebels grinds on, away from the global headlines but ever present in the destroyed villages and minefields along the contact zone.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe often record in excess of one thousand ceasefire violations a day, the majority carried out by the Russian-backed rebel forces.
It has been a year since American OSCE monitor Joseph Stone was killed when his vehicle drove over a landmine. The monitors - and the civilians – still face grave dangers every day.
“We’ve seen more heavy weapons on either side of the line, more impacts from the use of these weapons on either side of the line, and an increase in civilian casualties. The biggest risk for civilians is that of being injured by shrapnel, meaning through the use of weapons that should not be used according to the Minsk agreements. And the second biggest category of injury is caused by mines and unexploded ordinance,” the Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE mission in eastern Ukraine told Ambassador Volker on a visit to the forward monitoring base at Popasna, just a few kilometers from the contact line.
Volker has backed a United Nations peacekeeping force in eastern Ukraine but says he has heard nothing from Moscow on the issue since meetings in February. Russian military commanders withdrew in December from a joint Ukrainian-Russian ceasefire monitoring center, known as the Joint Control and Command Center or JCCC, based in the frontline town of Soledar.
“Everyone as a very clear understanding that this conflict is caused by Russia’s intervention, that it is 100 percent Russian command and control, Russian direction of the political activities of the two [rebel] ‘people’s republics’, and so we need Russia to make a fundamental decision for peace. If they want to do that, we are ready to step in and help,” Volker told VOA.
In recent months the U.S. has supplied Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank missile systems, enraging Moscow. Volker says allies have every right to help Ukraine defend its territory.
“It’s really a question of what makes sense, what’s necessary for Ukraine’s self-defenses. Is Ukraine prepared to buy it – or will the U.S. look at things like foreign military financing as we did in the case of Javelins? But this is now treating Ukraine like we would any other normal country.”
In the course of several briefings, Ukrainian commanders repeated demands they have made many times earlier, making it clear to Ambassador Volker that they want more military aid.
At the beginning of May, the Ukrainian government made a key change to the military command structure in the east, switching from an anti-terrorist operation to a Joint Forces Operation, overseen by the Ukrainian military. Kyiv hopes this and other moves will help boost the confidence of U.S. leaders who face concerns by some in Washington about efficacy, training, and rising corruption issues in Ukraine’s military.
“We will defend our territory, and 100 percent we will push the enemy from our territories. And we’re sure of it if you’ll support us,” Major-General Serhiy Nayev, the Ukrainian operation’s commander, told Volker ahead of a closed briefing Tuesday.
There was no announcement from the U.S. diplomat about any promises for more weapons.
Volker’s visit to the frontlines brought some new attention on the conflict, but it has also raised hopes in Ukraine that the United States may offer more support.
Ukraine’s leaders have long been disappointed on that front, and it is not clear if those hopes will be fulfilled this time.