Ukraine: On the front line of Europe's forgotten war

A burial ceremony for Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the Donetsk People's Republic, takes place at the Donetskoye More cemetery in Donetsk. Zakharchenko was killed in a blast at the Separ cafe on August 31, 2018. 
Valentin Sprinchak | TASS | Getty Images
A burial ceremony for Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the Donetsk People's Republic, takes place at the Donetskoye More cemetery in Donetsk. Zakharchenko was killed in a blast at the Separ cafe on August 31, 2018. 

Staring straight ahead, Anton Akastyolov describes what it feels like to be fighting on the frontline of Russia's proxy war with the west. "Every day you think about death," the 23-year-old Ukrainian private says, standing in a shattered residential block on the edge of the eastern city of Avdiivka.

This is Europe's forgotten war, a conflict that has claimed more than 10,000 lives, almost one-third of them civilians, during the past four years, making it the bloodiest in Europe since the Balkans in the 1990s and one of the longest-running in almost a century.

Western powers blame Russian president Vladimir Putin for starting the conflict by illegally annexing Crimea in 2014 — the first appropriation of European territory since the second world war — providing the catalyst for Russian-backed separatists to seize the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Lugansk.

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While Mr Putin says Crimea has always been part of Russia, his actions in Ukraine are seen as part of a growing charge sheet that includes US election meddling, military intervention to back the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the nerve agent attack on a former Russian double agent in the British cathedral city of Salisbury.

"In their hope to recreate what they view is a great Russia again, they are pushing forward west into Europe," says Lieutenant General Serhiy Nayev, the commander of Ukraine's joint forces. "Russia has no interest in bringing down the temperature, not with the western world, not with Ukraine."

So while the war has reached stalemate, it still smoulders.

Bound by the terms of the 2015 Minsk ceasefire agreements, both sides are barred from using air strikes, tanks and heavy weaponry. This has created the conditions for an attritional land war which marks a throwback to another age, where soldiers fight in trenches with shells, grenades and sniper fire. Consequently, the death toll continues to rise. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitors the conflict, in August said that a total of 30 civilians had been killed on both sides so far this year. The Ukrainian army says 80 of its soldiers have died over the same period.

There are no signs of a resolution in sight. The war was barely on the agenda at the Helsinki summit between US president Donald Trump and Mr Putin in July. And despite attempts by the US and its allies to modernize and arm Ukraine's 200,000-strong military forces, people in Avdiivka feel abandoned by the west.

"They don't care," says Lyubov Kolesova, a resident whose 28-year-old son went missing in the early days of the war. "If you don't live here, you won't understand."

Ukraine's highway 20 cuts through seemingly endless fields of sunflowers, making it feel more like the south of France than Europe's borderlands with Russia. Before the war, this road was one of the symbols of Ukrainian economic progress, built primarily for the 2012 European football championships.

Now it forms part of the front line. As the highway nears Avdiivka, about 20km (12.5 mi) from the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, it becomes too treacherous to continue. Access to the city can only be made via bumpy back roads.

Yet daytime in Avdiivka can be deceptively calm. Parents stroll the streets with young children while a group of pensioners has set up an impromptu market in the center, selling milk and other produce.

But the war is never far away.

In the distance, occasional gunfire can be heard along with the deep boom of shelling. At the entrance to their Soviet-built flats on Semashko Street, Galya, 51, asks: "How much longer must we endure this? It's been five years already. Will this continue another 20 years?"

Much of the fighting in Avdiivka takes place in an industrial area on the outskirts of the city, where troops on both sides are well dug in. Pavel, a bearded and battle-hardened 45-year-old Ukrainian soldier, says the nature of the war has changed.

"Instead of the heavy weaponry we have snipers, which can be even more dangerous because you relax a bit," he says. "Then a bullet hits your head."

Clutching his Kalashnikov rifle, which looks like a relic from the 1970s, his comrade Artur says: "The faster you move, the longer you live. The shortest distance between our positions is 70m to 80m, you can see their eyes."

Sometimes, he says, they are so close to the enemy he can hear the distinct accents of opponents from "Russia, South Ossetia and Chechnya".

His account backs claims — denied by Moscow — that Ukraine's army is facing a hybrid force of Russian soldiers and local separatist militants under command from the Kremlin. "They created the military forces . . . [do] not make any mistake about it, the forces in the east are 100 percent commanded by Russia," says Kurt Volker, the US special envoy to Ukraine.

Eduard Basurin, deputy commander of the 20,000-strong Donetsk-based separatist forces, denies the claim. "Imagine if the Russian army were here. I think that the war would unfold differently," he says. "Those that talk about this don't provide facts to uphold them."

Getting a clear picture of life on the other side of the war is difficult. Officials from the Russian-backed Donetsk People's Republic — which is not internationally recognized — declined access to the Financial Times to report from the territory, but people from the DPR regularly cross the front line.

At a civilian crossing point at Maiorska near the separatist-held city of Horlivka, a dozen cars are queueing to cross into the DPR. The International Committee of the Red Cross said 1m crossings take place at points like this every month, which close periodically when fighting flares up.

Waiting in her car, Horlivka resident Svetlana explained that she often makes the journey to the Ukrainian-controlled side with her father, Nikolay, to collect his pension and buy produce, some of which is cheaper there.

"Everyone there on that side also wants this war to end," Svetlana says, gesturing towards the Russian-backed territories. Her father adds: "We lived in peace and understanding before. Everything was fine."

Underscoring dangers in the region that extend far from the front lines, Alexander Zakharchenko, self-declared leader of the DPR-based separatist militants, was last week killed by an improvised explosive at a Donetsk café. Russia rushed to blame Ukraine for orchestrating the "terrorist act", while officials in the capital Kiev denied involvement, insisting turf wars and infighting within what they describe as the "Russian-occupied" region was to blame.

Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor of the OSCE mission to Ukraine, who visited Donetsk in early August, says: "If you go to districts in Donetsk, close to the contact line or the destroyed airport, life is very difficult. Living standards are bad, infrastructure is heavily damaged. Gas, electricity and water are hard to come by."

For his part, Mr Basurin, the separatist commander, blames a Ukrainian blockade for these economic woes. "We are trying to revive the economy," he says.

In Ukrainian-controlled areas, the authorities are not only trying to repel a Russian-backed enemy, they are also having to win the hearts and minds of Russian speakers. With this in mind, the army and other state institutions have blocked Russian television, and they visit kindergartens and schools to promote "patriotic teachings".

"Battling with Russia is difficult as objectively it's a bigger country with more military might," says Major General Oleksandr Golodnyuk, visiting a kindergarten in the village of Ivanivske. "But winning the minds of our people is a battle within our grasp that must be won."

In the opening phases of the war, Ukrainian forces were hampered by a lack of combat training and rusting Soviet equipment. They were also paralyzed by another throwback to the cold war era: a top down command structure which caused the army's middle ranks to freeze when their opponents used electronic warfare to jam communications.

Since then, the US and other western powers have been working to modernize Ukraine's forces — including more than $1bn in financial support and the Trump administration's move in March to provide 210 tank-busting Javelin missiles.

The weapons are seen by military analysts as a game-changer in the event of an all-out assault by Russian-backed forces. Lt Gen Nayev says western backing is necessary if Ukraine is to resist the Russian threat on Europe's doorstep, but added that his own troops have already been transformed.

The general, an imposing figure who commanded troops in the bloody battle for Donetsk airport in 2014, has come to a military training ground near the eastern city of Pokrovsk to watch soldiers test Ukraine's homemade answer to the Javelin — the Stugna.

He says Ukraine's forces are now "not only capable but ready" to repel Russian-backed separatists, which he claims have [over] 400 tanks — more than the UK. Before testing the Stugnas, troops launched a series of Soviet-era weapons including Shturm and Fagot missiles, demonstrating clearly the handicaps they faced in the initial stages of the conflict.

Some rockets failed to launch. One fell off the side of an armored vehicle while another misfired, smashing into the ground and leaving a training trench in flames. If this was a deliberate display of ineptitude, it felt a dangerous one. The Stugnas, meanwhile, hit the target four times out of four, prompting a howl of delight from Lt Gen Nayev. "Yes! You see . . . Ukraine made," he shouted.

Newer equipment is filtering through, but some on the front line still complain of having to fight with Kalashnikovs older than themselves. One soldier revealed he and his fellow fighters had made a Javelin copy out of wood to fool the enemy.

For Ukraine's western partners, the hope is that such improvisation will soon be a thing of the past, with its armed forces set to meet Nato standards on everything from governance to training and equipment.

To help Kiev achieve this, a group of more than 200 US trainers is based at Yavoriv, a vast military complex near Ukraine's border with Poland. Here senior US soldiers, such as Staff Sergeant Jamah Figaro, instruct Ukrainian officers on how to train their troops. "They are very motivated," Sgt Figaro says. "It's their country. They are trying to get their land back."

Sgt Figaro says the US is also learning from their Ukrainian counterparts.

"The US army was [used to] operating in contingencies like Iraq and Afghanistan," he says, referring to offensive wars in which the US dominated the airspace. "[It's] nothing similar to what the Ukrainians are facing, this [trench warfare] is like a more near-peer fight they are fighting.

"We haven't seen something like that since world war two," he adds.

In Kiev, more than 700km from the eastern war zone, Stanislav Fedorchuk raises his hand and places it tenderly on a picture of his friend Yuriy Matushcak. Nicknamed "the wind", Matushcak died at the battle of Ilovaisk, a big defeat for Ukrainian forces, in August 2014.

His face is now one of hundreds on the outer wall of St Michael's monastery in the capital, a reminder to those passing by on a balmy Sunday evening that this is a country at war.

"We were waiting one year to know if he had died or not. We had no body," says Mr Fedorchuk, adding that his remains were later found and buried with other fallen soldiers. Mr Fedorchuk fled Donetsk in 2014 and is one of an estimated 1.5m people displaced by the conflict.

As the war rumbles into its fifth year, the prospect of a military or diplomatic solution looks remote. The US and other western powers want Russian forces to leave Ukraine, but Mr Putin shows no sign of changing his approach. The US national security adviser John Bolton recently declared that when it comes to Ukraine, Washington and Moscow are going to "have to agree to disagree".

The US has stepped up sanctions and the UK is pushing for more diplomatic action. Still, Lt Gen Nayev urges the west to wake up to the threat from Russia and even draws comparisons with 1930s appeasement. "We saw how this shameful appeasement brought upon world war two," he says.

Back in Avdiivka, private Akastyolov struggles to find the words to sum up the future he and his country face. "Tell them we will win," an army press officer prompts.

The young private rolls his eyes, saying, after a few seconds: "I don't know if we will win."

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