There was supposed to be a cease-fire over the winter holidays in the Donbas. But the last days of 2016 and the first days of 2017 were marked by regular violations of the supposed truce, with sporadic fighting occurring all along the front of Russia’s war – from Luhansk in the north to the outskirts of Donetsk, and to Mariupol in the south.
The violence comes despite a cease-fire agreement that was supposed to start on Dec. 24. Ukrainian military press officer Leonid Matiuhin said the Christmas cease-fire lasted all of 25 minutes with Russian-backed fighters using 122 millimeter artillery in sporadic gunfire. “Mortars were used several times every day,” he said.
Ukraine says the Avdiivka industrial zone, the Svitlodarsk area and the eastern outskirts of Mariupol remain the most dangerous areas.
Over 400 incidents of shelling were recorded by Ukrainian forces in the first 10 days of the new year alone, with Russian-backed groups reportedly using firearms, heavy artillery, mortars and grenade launchers. Ukrainian positions were also attacked with rocket launchers, as pro-Russian forces used the Grad-21 multiple rocket launcher system, banned under the 2015 Minsk peace agreement.
At least 23 Ukrainian servicemen have been wounded this year and three are missing. December was one of the most deadly with 19 Ukrainians killed in fighting, according to figures provided by journalist Yuriy Butusov. Altogether, more than 10,000 people — mostly civilians — have been killed since the war’s start in April 2014.
Despite 33 months of war, the Donbas frontline has hardly moved an inch. It is expected to stay the same in 2017.
Military experts predict that the low-level fighting will continue as both sides attempt to improve their positions. The conflict will be marked by occasional sorties into enemy territory, small-arms clashes, exchanges of artillery fire and even engagements between armored vehicles, military expert Mykhailo Samus told the Kyiv Post.
“The Donbas war is principally a struggle for key points in the so-called ‘grey area’ – the space between the opposing forces’ positions on the frontline,” Samus said.
“There’s a war for suitable observation points, sniper positions, gun emplacements and for gaps in the enemy’s defenses. It’s a kind of bloody cat-and-mouse game between pro-Russian and Ukrainian combat groups. And an exhausting struggle like this can go on endlessly.”
One example of such low-level warfare came overnight on Jan. 7, when Russian-backed forces made a sortie against Ukrainian positions near Avdiivka in Donetsk Oblast.
“An enemy sabotage group of up to 10 combatants came to within 100 meters of our positions and opened fire,” Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense said in a report of the incident. “Thanks to coordinated efforts by Ukraine’s military servicemen, the attack was repelled and the enemy retreated.”
In another hot spot of fighting – the Svitlodarsk area – Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak said Russian-backed armed groups were making continuous attempts to occupy strategic positions in no man’s land.
“Svitlodarsk is one of those areas in which we had to repel terrorist groups moving forward to assault important positions in the battle zone,” Poltorak said. “We had taken control of heights and positions that enabled us to reduce shelling significantly, to avoid the possibility of the encirclement of our units and the capture of objectives in the grey zone.”
Moscow is not keen on ending the conflict, another military expert, Valentin Badrak, told the Kyiv Post. Hopes for achieving Minsk agreement are coming to an end, given that the Kremlin expects concessions over the Ukraine situation from the incoming U.S. presidential administration, Badrak said.
“The Kremlin’s main task is to demonstrate Ukraine’s inadequacy as a state, to show that there are different political forces in Ukraine that are conducting a civil war,” the expert said. “No wonder that the ceasefire agreement is not being fulfilled.”
A long-running, low-level war is an effective Kremlin tool for controlling and weakening Ukraine. By heating up the conflict, Moscow hopes to block any chance of Ukraine drawing closer to NATO membership, while also provoking social unrest amid economic difficulties and war fatigue, Badrak said. By contrast, Ukraine has a huge interest settling the conflict as quickly as possible, the expert said.
But journalist Stanislav Vasin is skeptical that either side wants peace in 2017.
“The Minsk agreements are by themselves basically a barbed wire fence for 10 or even more years,” Vasin wrote. “The criminal leaders in the occupied territories have already divided up local business. Civilians are addicted to this life, and they stay in line. Those who would not accept this left for Ukrainian-controlled territory. Both sides are making millions by smuggling over the separation line. For Ukrainian politicians, this war is a good excuse for the dire economic situation in the country. For a society that has accepted losing Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk, the war exists mostly in news reports. Nobody in power wants real peace – everybody is satisfied.”