Violence surges in eastern Ukraine amid reports of Russian involvement

The OSCE has reported nearly 3,000 explosions near the contact line, marking a notable increase in ceasefire violations. A new investigative report revealed Russian artillery attacks in 2014, undermining Moscow's claims.

Following multiple attempts to end hostilities in the nearly 3-year-old conflict, eastern Ukraine this week witnessed a surge in violence between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian forces.

Observers witnessed a "sharp increase" in the number of ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine since mid-December, Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM), told DW on Thursday.

"The SMM recorded 2,900 explosions between the evenings of the 18th and 19th of December. The majority of ceasefire violations were recorded in the areas around Svitlodarsk and Debaltseve," Hug said. "Other known hotspots along the contact line remained active."

He cited several reasons for the recent escalation in violence, including both parties of the conflict failing to withdraw weapons that are in violation of the ceasefire agreement commonly known as Minsk II.

"Last week, we recorded a 300 percent increase in use of weapons proscribed by the Minsk agreements. Many of these weapons should have been removed 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) and more from each side of the contact line," Hug told DW.

"Another reason is that positions of sides are too close to each other or that the sides move towards each other, which results in constant tensions. This often translates into violent flare-ups. The sides need to disengage," he added.

Nearly 10,000 people have been killed and 23,000 injured in eastern Ukraine since the conflict erupted in 2014 in the wake of former President Viktor Yanukovych's ouster, prompted by pro-Europe protests in the nation's capital.

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Russia's illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula fueled the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, heightening tensions between pro-Russia separatists and government forces. More than 500,000 children have been affected by the conflict, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

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Caught in the crossfire

Every evening, the shelling begins around sunset. The front lines near Donetsk see nightly mortar and machine gun fire as the conflict between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists’ rages on. Caught in the crossfire are many elderly civilians who are too impoverished to go elsewhere. Ivan Polansky, above, surveys the damage on his home in Zhovanka.

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‘Waiting for a shell’

Residents of Zhovanka in the so-called ‘gray zone,’ a thin strip of land separating warring militaries, line up to see a visiting doctor. Medics hold pop-up clinics in the town once a week. "Each day, you are waiting for the shell to land on your house and you never know when it’s going to come," said local resident Ludmila Studerikove.

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Without electricity and heating

Zhovanka was once home to 1,000 people, but the number has dwindled to about 200 since the war began in mid-2014. It has been three months since residents have had electricity and gas. "Sometimes I’m so scared that I lay in bed at night and just shake,” Studerikove said. “My husband stays by my side and holds my hand."

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Nowhere else to go

Olexander Voroshkov, program coordinator for the regional charity SOS Kramatorsk, said residents continue to live in half-destroyed homes with leaky roofs, even through the winters, because rent in nearby Ukrainian cities has skyrocketed since the beginning of the conflict. "Rents in Kramatorsk are now similar to those in Kiev, but the salaries are much lower than in Kiev," Voroshkov said.

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Reliance on humanitarian aid

Women line up to receive medicine and multivitamins in Zhovanka. Food and humanitarian supplies are delivered to the town by charity organizations, as crossing checkpoints sometimes requires people to wait more than a day in line. "We had everything; we had fresh air, nature. It was very nice here. Now we just have the cold," said local resident Vera Sharovarova.

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Adapting to DNR frontlines

Vera Anoshyna, left, speaks with neighbors in Spartak, a town in what is now the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). Anoshyna said she has done her best to adapt to the conflict. "If you don’t have water, you find it," she said. "If you don’t have electricity, you find a solution. But you never know where the next bomb will land."

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Six broken ribs

Svetlana Zavadenko stands before her home in Spartak. She was injured when the walls collapsed after several mortars exploded in her yard. Neighbors had to dig Zavadenko out of the rubble and she was sent to the hospital with six broken ribs and a ruptured liver. She smokes “Minsk” brand cigarettes and laughs when asked what she thinks about the war.

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'We lost hope'

Zavadenko recovered from her injuries and lives alone with several pets. Spartak has not had electricity, gas, or water services since 2014, so she uses a grill to cook her food. For firewood, she goes to an abandoned furniture factory nearby and collects plywood. "Last winter we thought [the war] would finish, but now, honestly, we lost hope," she said.

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Possibility of a drawdown

Damage from shelling on the outskirts of Donetsk. Despite past failures in deescalating the war, a new ceasefire may be in sight after an October peace summit in Berlin, where Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he was ready to end hostilities in eastern Ukraine and would withdraw troops from the region.

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'We lost too many soldiers to stop now'

Even if both sides agree on a ceasefire, they will face opposition from their militaries, who claim their sacrifices were too heavy to simply put down their weapons. "We lost too many soldiers to stop now," said Vladimir Parkhamovich, colonel of the 81st Airmobile Brigade in the Ukrainian military. "If they give us an order [to stop] we’ll consider them traitors."

Armed conflict

In a report published in November by the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Office of the Prosecutor said it would continue to gather evidence in relation to more than 800 crimes committed in eastern Ukraine.

The ICC prosecutor's office, charged with investigating and bringing international crimes to justice, including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression, said Kyiv accepted its jurisdiction in 2015 for crimes committed since February 2014, despite Ukraine not being a signatory to the Rome Statute.

Since the beginning of the conflict, Ukraine has accused Moscow of supporting the rebel movement, claiming that it has deployed servicemen and launched attacks in a bid to bolster the separatists in the eastern regions, including downing one of its aircraft.

"In mid-July, the Russian Federation accused Ukraine's armed forces of shelling the Russian border town of Donetsk. Ukraine itself claimed that rockets fired at Ukrainian military positions over several days in July and August 2014 had been launched from positions in the Russian federation, and that the Russian Air Force had shot down a Ukrainian military aircraft on 16 July 2014," the ICC report said.

However, the alleged Russian incursion had been largely overshadowed the following day by the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over the conflict-affected region by a Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missile, leaving 298 people dead.

'Acts of war'

Digital forensics group Bellingcat on Wednesday published an investigative report showing that "artillery units of the Russian Armed Forces fired attacks on at least 149 separate occasions against Ukraine in the summer of 2014."

Bellingcat traced 408 artillery target sites inside Ukraine "within range of Russian artillery systems" with a trajectory crossing the Ukraine-Russia border, including 127 of them within three kilometers (1.8 miles) of Russia's border.

"In total, as evidenced by the number of impact craters, thousands of artillery projectiles were fired by the Russian military on targets inside Ukraine in the summer of 2014," the report said.

"Due to frequency, spatial distribution and scale of the artillery attacks considered in this report, it is impossible to consider these attacks as merely accidents or as the actions of rogue units. These attacks can only therefore be considered as acts of war by the Russian Federation against Ukraine," it added.

In 2015, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, dismissed claims of the country's involvement in the conflict, stating that its forces had not entered Ukraine.

"In regard to the question of whether or not our troops are in Ukraine, I'll say directly and definitely that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine," Putin said during an annual press conference in 2015.

However, Putin's claim has been undermined by several investigative reports, including the significant increase in medals awarded to Russian servicemen for "Distinction in Combat" at the beginning of 2015, before Moscow's entrance into the Syrian conflict.

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From KGB to Kremlin

Putin joined the KGB, the former Soviet Union's security agency, in 1975. In the 1980s he undertook his first foreign posting as a KGB agent to Dresden, Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Putin returned to Russia and entered Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin. When Yeltsin announced that he wanted Putin as his successor, the way was paved for him to become prime minister.

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First presidency

On his appointment, Putin was virtually unknown to the general public. This changed when in August 1999 armed men from Chechnya invaded the neighboring Russian territory of Dagestan. President Yeltsin appointed ex-KGB officer Putin to bring Chechnya back under the central government's control. On New Year's Eve, Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned and named Putin as acting president.

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Tough guy in the media

During an exhibition hockey game in Sochi, Putin’s team won 18-6, with the president scoring eight goals.

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Limited freedom of speech

A protester wears a tape over his mouth reading "Putin" during an opposition rally. In 2013 the Kremlin announced that the state-owned news agency, RIA Novosti, was to be restructured and placed under the control of a pro-Kremlin figure known for his extreme anti-Western views. Reporters without Borders ranked Russia as 148 in its list of 178 countries in terms of press freedom.

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Putin's Image: A man of action

Putin's image as a man of action, boosted by his having been a KGB spy, has long been part of his appeal in Russia. It is carefully maintained by means of photos where he is seen bare-chested on horseback, or tossing opponents onto a judo mat. In Russia, Putin has earned praise for restoring stability but has also been accused of authoritarianism.

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Stifling democracy

When President Putin's United Russia party won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in 2007, critics described the vote as neither free nor democratic. Dozens were detained as riot police broke up protests by demonstrators accusing President Putin of stifling democracy. In this rally the poster reads: "Thank you, no!"

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Orchestrated events

In Sevastopol, Crimea, Putin looks through the window of a research bathyscaphe in the waters of the Black Sea. This dive in a mini-submarine was only one of his adventurous stunts; he has also been seen tranquilizing wild tigers and flying with endangered cranes. It was also aimed at cementing his image as an adventurer, and demonstrating his control of the annexed territory of Crimea.