Get Ready, Europe: Is the War Between Russia and Ukraine Back On?
KYIV, Ukraine—Artillery and rockets have been raining down on the front-line town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine since Sunday, leaving 16,000 civilians, including 2,000 children, without heat, electricity, or clean water as temperatures dipped to 20 degrees below zero Celsius, or about minus 4 Fahrenheit.
“[The] recent intensification of hostilities on the contact line in eastern Ukraine has had a very heavy impact on the local population,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement Tuesday. “The weather conditions make the negative impact even more severe.”
Avdiivka is a Ukrainian government-controlled town outside the separatist stronghold of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. About half of the town’s pre-war population of 33,000 have fled since the war began in April 2014.
Of the 16,000 civilians who remain, 2,000 are children, according to Ukrainian officials.
Since Sunday, combat has intensified along the 250-mile-long front lines in the Donbas, Ukraine’s embattled southeastern territory on the Russian border.
Kyiv and Moscow have blamed each other for the spike in violence, exchanging differing narratives as to which side set off the attacks, and for what purposes.
Ukrainian officials say that a combined force of pro-Russian separatists and Russian regulars in eastern Ukraine is deliberately trying to derail the February 2015 cease-fire, called Minsk II. According to one line of thinking, the attacks are a ploy meant to bait Ukraine into a counteroffensive, which Russia can exploit for propaganda purposes.
“Russia and its proxies in Donbas continue to undermine the peaceful process, based on full and good-faith implementation of the Minsk agreements, by pursuing their political objectives through the usual blackmail of the indiscriminate use of force,” Ihor Prokopchuk, permanent representative of Ukraine to the international organizations in Vienna, said during a statement to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Permanent Council in Vienna on Tuesday.
In turn, Moscow and the Donetsk People’s Republic—one of two breakaway territories in east Ukraine—have accused Kyiv of provoking the violence. They claim Ukraine is using the humanitarian crisis to vilify Russia and convince the U.S. and the EU to maintain punitive sanctions against Moscow.
“The essence of what is happening around Avdiivka and already other communities at the engagement line is that Kiev is trying to use combat engagements it has provoked as a reason for completely giving up the Minsk accords,” Yuri Ushakov, a Kremlin aide, told journalists in Moscow on Monday, according to the Russian news site TASS. Kiev is the Russian spelling of Ukraine’s capital city.
The U.S. and the European Union placed sanctions on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, as well as for Moscow’s military interventions in eastern Ukraine.
The U.S., for the moment, is resolutely in Ukraine’s corner.
“Russia and the separatists initiated the violence in Avdiivka,” Kate M. Byrnes, acting deputy chief of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, said in Vienna on Tuesday.
“We call on Russia to stop the violence, honor the cease-fire, withdraw heavy weapons, and end attempts to seize new territory beyond the line of contact,” Byrnes said. “Most of all, Russia and the separatists must demonstrate their willingness to fully abide by the cease-fire, a primary component of the Minsk agreements that they have so often broken.”
According to Ukrainian military reports, as well as civilian accounts from Avdiivka, combined Russian-separatist forces launched an infantry assault on Ukrainian military positions in Avdiivka on Sunday. The Ukrainian military repelled the attack, but artillery and rocket attacks didn’t let up.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Ukrainian forces in Avdiivka were shelled 400 times on Sunday, and 800 times on Monday. On Monday night, combined Russian-separatist forces fired 80 Grad rockets at Ukrainian positions, according to Kyiv.
Eight Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the fighting on Sunday and Monday, and 26 were wounded. The Ukrainian military and humanitarian groups like the Red Cross also reported civilian casualties.
On Sunday, shelling damaged three of the four power lines supplying the Avdiivka Coke Plant. Shelling destroyed the fourth power line on Monday, cutting off all power to the facility.
All power and heating for Avdiivka and its 16,000 remaining residents comes from the coke plant. And so, as temperatures plunged double digits below zero Celsius, Avdiivka went dark and cold.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who was in Germany on a diplomatic trip Monday, cut short his visit to return to Kyiv to address what his staff referred to as a looming “humanitarian disaster.”
Ukrainian officials considered evacuating the civilian population, but as of Wednesday, evacuations were still voluntary. About 80 buses are standing by, ready to evacuate as many as 12,000 people.
On Tuesday night, combined Russian-separatist forces launched another ground assault on Ukrainian positions in and around Avdiivka. Ukrainian forces repelled that attack, as well as another one on Wednesday morning, comprising a 30-man infantry unit supported by indirect fire from BM-21 Grad multiple launch rocket systems, and 152 mm artillery, according to a statement from the Ukrainian military.
Throughout the day Wednesday, calls for a truce have been made, and then promptly violated.
Combined Russian-separatist forces provided a written proposal to the Ukrainian military, calling for a cease-fire in Avdiivka from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., which is about the time it gets dark in east Ukraine in winter.