Eastern Ukraine: A new, bloody chapter

By mid-afternoon the snow was still red. Faene, a 61-year-old mother of five, had died in the morning.

The bloodied blanket that had covered her lifeless body, discarded in the bushes.

Earlier, Faene’s 24-year-old daughter had crouched by the corpse, frozen by raw shock.

Nearby, the snow was blackened from the blast.

She had so nearly reached the house where her young daughter lives with her husband.

“Who is dying, and for what?” said Russian-born Galina Nikolaivina, whose son is married to Faene’s daughter.

Bewilderment is almost universal among those stuck in eastern Ukraine’s never-ending nightmare of war.

What’s changed?

The battle near Avdiivka is the worst escalation in violence in two years.

We saw evidence of indiscriminate shelling by Russian-backed separatists in the city. Charred craters scattered through the neighbourhood on the edge of the city, where Faene was killed.

Several homes had been hit.

We also witnessed intense activity by the Ukrainian army: an artillery gun, driven through the same neighbourhood; tanks parked by a block of flats, with selfie-taking soldiers primed for battle.

The separatists claim, and Russian media reports, that there have been civilian casualties on that side too.

Ukraine says it is at war with Russia. Russia says it’s never been involved in the war, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

The truth is somewhere in between.

The wider picture

Such a significant flare-up in violence, less than a month after Donald Trump took charge of the White House, feels more than coincidental.

The new US president has constantly mooted his desire to “get along” with Russian’s Vladimir Putin.

And when responding to the latest violence in Avdiivka there has been a clear change of tone from the Obama days.

The US state department said it still supported Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

But gone is any blame on Russia for failing to rein the separatist forces in.

One theory: Russia has something to gain

So it could be that the separatists feel emboldened. Or that Russia wants to further destabilise Ukraine with the hope of a Russia-friendly government taking power again, some time in the future.

Protesters in Kiev, who were outraged about corruption, overthrew Ukraine’s last Moscow-leaning leader, Viktor Yanukovych, who had turned his back on closer ties with the European Union.

Then Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. And groups in the east, backed by Russia, and comprised of many Russians seized control and started to declare their independence.

And then the war, which continues now, began.

Today Russia still tries to mask its involvement with the separatists.

But its influence over their leaders is clear.

Another theory: Ukraine is pushing the agenda

It is also possible that Ukraine, whose military has been rebuilt and reorganised, and is nothing like the skeletal structure it was at the beginning of the conflict, feels confident enough to go on the offensive.

The conflict in the easterly Donbass region has been largely forgotten by the world, eclipsed by events elsewhere.

The battle around Avdiivka has raised the war’s profile on the international agenda.

And then there is Ukraine’s clear frustration with attempts to reach some form of political settlement for the Donbass, under the so-called Minsk process.

The deal, signed between Russia and Ukraine in the Belarusian capital, once in late 2014 and again in early 2015, has only really helped to contain the fighting.

In meetings with several top Ukrainian government officials towards the end of last year, I was assured about Ukraine’s commitment to the agreement.

But there was also an undertone of frustration.

Ukraine has been under pressure from its French and German allies. But at the same time, Kiev alleges that in private talks, Russia is dismissive and sometimes uninterested about the finer points of the deal. Russia claims the opposite is true.

Ukraine amid the uncertainty

Ukraine also knows the international picture is not sailing in its favour.

Soon, the US might not be the only once unflinching ally to change tack.

Two top French presidential contenders, Marine Le Pen and Francois Fillon, would like relations to improve with Russia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of Kiev’s most solid friends, faces her voters in September.

Britain remains a committed Ukrainian ally. But its ability to rally its European Union partners, when it is leaving the club, has been greatly diminished.

In early 2017, the world is a more uncertain place.

So, too, is the situation in eastern Ukraine.

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