Oleg and his grandmother live in Donbas, a region in eastern Ukraine near the Russia border that is primarily Russian-speaking. The current unrest in that region began in November 2013, when peaceful protests broke out in the nation’s capital after then-president Viktor Yanukovich passed up a European Union trade deal in favor of strengthening ties with Russia. This decision inflamed existing tensions in multicultural Ukraine: many in Kyiv and the western part of the country wished to align themselves with Europe, while others in the Russian-speaking eastern region identified more with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In January 2014, state security forces cracked down violently on the demonstrators in Kyiv. This uprising, which became known as the Maidan Revolution, culminated in the Ukrainian Parliament voting to impeach Yanukovich. The ousted president fled to Russia and Parliament elected an interim president as it prepared for national elections.
Claiming that his impeachment was illegal and that he was still the legitimate leader of Ukraine, Yanukovich requested that Russia intervene militarily to reinstall him. With the support of the Kremlin, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine began a campaign to secede from the country. Ukraine and the international community claim that the separatist uprisings were engineered by Putin’s administration, but Russia denies this.
When separatists in two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, declared independence from Ukraine in referenda that violated the Ukrainian constitution, Russia supplied military aid to these fighters and deployed its own troops. In March 2014 the region along the eastern border erupted into conflict between the Ukrainian military, Russian-backed militants, and Russian troops. According to a team of analysts writing in The Washington Post, “At first it was a skirmish between Ukrainian security forces and local separatist militias, bolstered by Russian mercenaries. But by late 2014, the fighting involved large numbers of troops including Russian army regulars, outfitted with armor and artillery.”
Five years later the conflict in eastern Ukraine rages on, though coverage in Western media outlets has flagged. Since April 2014, 13,000 people have been killed and almost 24,000 injured; a U.N. Human Rights mission estimates that a quarter of the dead have been civilians. Almost two million people have been internally displaced or are at risk in their own homes. The violence also has collateral effects on the surviving residents of Donbas: damaged housing and infrastructure make it difficult to access basic resources such as heat, electricity, clean water and healthcare, not to mention schools and election facilities. The 500-kilometer (310-mile) disputed border of Donbas is controlled by military checkpoints, and there are over one million crossings every month, many by pension-holders who spend hours waiting in line for access to benefits on the government-controlled side.
In September 2014, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia and the self-declared People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk signed the Minsk Agreement, which attempted to quell the fighting. However, by January 2015 the agreement broke down and the violence resumed. In January, Germany and France brokered a second Minsk Agreement with the original signatories: this pact mandated a ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons from frontlines, a prisoner exchange, local elections and humanitarian aid. They also agreed to work toward “socio-economic reintegration of the separatist-held territories.”
Despite these diplomatic peacemaking attempts, the conflict remains at an impasse: as of April 2019 daily violence continues along the border. More than 1.6 million people have been internally displaced by the war, and the nearly three million people who remain near the frontlines face an increasingly dire humanitarian crisis. According to one BBC correspondent on NPR’s Here & Now, “It's still a conflict which is being fought on the ground, but it's not a conflict really that either side seems to think it can win.”
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