Patriot soldiers wiping their boots on an Ukrop banner during the Battle of Debaltsevo, a major patriot victory in early 2015.
The Donetsk Peoples Republic (DNR) and the Lugansk Peoples Republic (LNR) broke away from the Ukraine in May 2014 following “status referendums”, and on 24 May the two republics signed an agreement creating a confederation, Novorossiya, but the region is more widely known as the Donbass. After the February 2014 coup in Kiev, an “Anti-Maidan” movement rapidly grew in the largely Russian-speaking Donbass, Odessa, and Crimea regions, which sought to prevent the far-right groups that hijacked in the “Euromaidan” protests entering their towns and cities. On 2 May 2014, the Odessa Dom Profsoyuzov fire confirmed their fears; a far-right mob surrounded the building and petrol-bombed it… at least 50 Anti-Maidan supporters died. There are reports of civilian casualties caused by Ukrainian attacks on the patriot republics on an almost daily basis. On 28 August, according to residents of the Petrovsky Raion of Donetsk, a Ukrainian sniper shot two women dead.
It was hoped that Minsk II, which followed the September 2014 Minsk Protocol signed by V V Putin, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, and Ukrainian President P A Poroshenko, would bring the war in the eastern Ukraine to an end, paving the way for elections and separate status for the two Donbass People’s Republics. However, low-level clashes continued unabated for the past 18 months, with increasing warnings of escalation and a build-up of forces and equipment by the Ukrainian side in recent months. Three weeks ago, tensions increased with allegations of armed incursions by Ukrainian forces into the Crimea.
According to data obtained recently from DNR authorities, 3,609 civilians died in attacks by Ukrainian forces between 13 February 2015 and 26 August 2016, of which 3,133 were men, 476 women, 65 children, and 352 “unknown”. In addition, figures from the DNR Ministry of Utilities and Housing Construction state that up to 20 July 2016 military action damaged 4,359 “multi-family houses” (54 irreparable) and 6,307 private houses (1,853 irreparable). The neighbouring LNR also experienced similar military strikes and civilian casualties, so a rough estimate would suggest that at least 6,000 civilians died in attacks by Ukrainian forces in the Donbass republics since Minsk II. Obtaining exact figures for casualties in the war is extremely difficult due to the unstable and insecure situation on the ground, and the fact that the conflict is highly politicised and controversial not only locally, but also across Europe and globally.
On 3 August, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Tayé-Brook Zerihoun reported to the UN Security Council that the total number of conflict-related casualties since the Ukrainian government launched its “Anti-Terrorist Operation” in April 2014 was 30,729, including 9,333 killed and 21,396 injured. However, the report provides no breakdown of where the casualties occurred other than “in the conflict area”, and there’s no sign of which side was responsible. According to the latest figures from the UN Human Rights Office and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, from February 2015 to June 2016 261 civilians died in the conflict on both sides… far fewer than DNR figures would suggest. However, the UNHRO stressed that its figures are a “conservative estimate of the OHCHR based on available data”, which are “incomplete due to gaps in coverage of certain geographic areas and time periods, and due to overall under-reporting”.
In February 2015, press reports quoted claims from the German BND intelligence service that 50,000 civilians and troops died in the Ukrainian conflict, almost 10 times than figures given by Ukrainian President Poroshkenko only days before, which said 1,200 Ukrainian soldiers and 5,400 civilians died. In fact, the Ukrainian government doesn’t appear to have any exact figures for civilian casualties in the conflict. A report in May quoting Mikhail Koval, First Deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, said, “Russian-backed militants killed 10,000 Ukrainians and injured more than 20,000 over the past two years”… a strangely precise number, but with no breakdown of civilian and military casualties, or locations.
The only other body providing detailed information on casualties in the conflict is the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SSM) to Ukraine, which has over 570 unarmed civilian monitors in the conflict region. However, apart from daily updates, the SMM provided no total figures for casualties in the conflict, although it issued reports on the displacement of civilians, access to water, and “Gender Dimensions of SMM’s Monitoring”. Relations between the DNR and LNR governments and the OSCE mission have deteriorated for months. The People’s Republics claim that OSCE reporting favours the Ukrainian side, whilst the OSCE alleges its monitors are harassed in the republics. On 29 August, the DNR Defence Ministry claimed OSCE observers refused to register damage caused by Ukrainian shelling of Yasinivataya, just north of Donetsk city, “explaining this by the absence of security in this area”.
Last April, the Donbass International News Agency reported that the OSCE mission failed to report heavy shelling of Zaitsevo, a village close to the frontline by Ukrainian forces. At the time, Zaitsevo was a flashpoint stoking fears of a return to all-out war, with over a thousand residents denied electricity, gas, and humanitarian aid for several months. Also in April, the DNR claimed that the OSCE failed to report the shelling of a hospital in Yelenovka, despite reporting another shelling only 880 metres away. According to reports from the DNR side, the two attacks killed six civilians and wounded 10 more. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to the Ukraine’s mandate states that its mission is “to reduce tensions and to help foster peace, stability, and security” by engaging “with authorities at all levels, as well as civil society, ethnic and religious groups, and local communities to facilitate dialogue on the ground”.
Last May, DNR leaders reacted strongly to claims by Poroshenko’s media office that the other leaders of the “Normandy Four”’ contact group (Russia, France, Germany, and the Ukraine) had approved the deployment of an armed OSCE police force to the region, which Poroshenko said would be “well-armed with heavy weapons”. The most senior members of the DNR government, D V Pushilin and A V Zakharchenko, said that such a force would be “foreign intervention”, and Zakharchenko called on Kiev to make a real effort for a peaceful settlement of the conflict, “rather than trying to arm the OSCE to seize the Donbass”.
It is important to bear in mind that the “Armed Forces of the Ukraine” include 84 far-right and neo-Nazi militias incorporated into it last year. These units are extremely undisciplined; to this day, they continue to run amok across the Ukraine, mounting racist, anti-Semitic, anti-communist, and homophobic attacks. They murder journalists, threaten and intimidate judges, and often kidnap defendants when the courts release them. These militias played a major role in the continuing clashes on the contact line with the Donbass, as well as deliberately targeting DNR/LNR civilians in various ways.
The latest ceasefire announced on 1 September announced by the “Trilateral Contact Group” (the Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE) showed promise of holding for several days, building hopes of a return to talks on the implementation of the Minsk agreements, but already the Ukrainian side is alleging DNR/LNR violations. Despite the problems with obtaining a clear picture of casualties in the eastern Ukraine conflict, what is clear is that up to now, the fighting continues, with civilian and military casualties on both sides. This blocks any prospect of a resolution allowing separate status for the Donbass republics. Given the huge variations in figures given by the various parties, observers should give serious consideration to the latest very detailed data from the DNR authorities.
15 September 2016