“When it’s quiet, it’s even a bit frightening,” said a mother named Natasha when I visited a village near the front line last month. Every evening, she said, she makes sure that her children are home by 7:00 p.m. when the shelling starts, regular as clockwork. Natasha and her family live in Maiorsk, which is just half a kilometer from the line of contact dividing Ukrainian forces and the rebels and their Russian military backers.

Thomas de Waal
De Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.
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Natasha said she and her family had decided to stay put so as not to lose their house and jobs. But it’s hardly a normal existence. The windows of her apartment are boarded up. The roof of the village’s municipal building was destroyed by a shell in May. The village has no gas as the line runs from rebel-controlled territory. As we spoke her young son was running around playing with a toy gun fashioned out of wood. Conflict has become part of his life.

The conflict, as the international officials still monitoring and mediating it emphasize, is not sporadic and intermittent, but permanent and ongoing. Since April there has been a new spike in fighting with use of heavy weapons. Officially, there were 81 civilian casualties—19 killed, 62 injured—in the three months mid-February to mid-May. There have been many more since then.

Why the deterioration? Both sides, it seems, have given up on the peace process as the campaigns crank up for Ukraine’s presidential and parliamentary elections next year. That does not mean the Minsk agreements are dead. Something akin to them will undoubtedly form the eventual deal. It means there is no political will to pursue them on either side. And the huge uncertainty about what U.S. policy toward Russia means under Donald Trump does not help. 

The rebels of the two “People’s Republics” and their backers in Moscow have every reason to provoke Ukrainian government forces, knowing they pay a smaller price for doing so. They evidently want to play for time and see if the elections deliver them a more favorable government in Kiev—or indeed chaos that they can exploit.

They even do so while risking environmental catastrophe on the territory they control, such as a potential shutdown of the Donetsk water filtration plant, which is surrounded on all sides by troops and only kept open thanks to heroic work by OSCE monitors.

In Kiev, meanwhile, there is little sign that either President Petro Poroshenko or any of his rivals believe there are votes to be won by pursuing a serious peace process. Peace with Russia is unpopular, but so is bloodshed, which is why the conflict has begun to disappear from Ukrainian television screens.

The international mechanisms, including the talks in Minsk, the Normandy Format, and the bilateral contacts between U.S and Russian envoys, Kurt Volker and Vladislav Surkov, are still functional but are also more or less in waiting mode. International mediators can do only do so much when the parties to the conflict do not wish to engage. As the elections draw near, France, Germany, and the United States are also more heavily focused on Ukraine’s domestic agenda and especially setting up a viable anticorruption court.

The redesignation in the spring of the military campaign as a Joint Forces Operation led by the Ukrainian army has given commanders on the ground more authority—another reason for the increased violence. There have been several reports of the Ukrainian military making small advances in the “grey zone” that separates the two sides of the conflict. In the last week they say they have reestablished full control of Zolote 4, a tiny village. The OSCE monitoring mission reported seeing soldiers and armored personnel carriers near a school and playground. Local residents told the monitors “that they did not feel safe with military presence in the center of the village.” A political objective overrides the humanitarian needs of the local population.

The emphasis on a military strategy reveals the Ukrainian government’s continued lack of a “hearts and minds” strategy for the people in rebel-controlled areas. A vocal minority in the Ukrainian political scene regards these people as “traitors” for having stayed in their homes in places run by the pro-Russian rebels.

This is despite the fact that 40,000 people a day, the majority of them pensioners, cross the line of contact. Many of them want to keep their homes and jobs, but also want to keep their Ukrainian citizenship and accompanying rights.

Incredibly, these people are still facing enormous difficulties in getting the basic rights they are owed as Ukrainian citizens. Displaced people still have limited voting rights, in contravention of the Ukrainian constitution. In order to get birth and death certificates people are still going to court. Most miserable of all is that, so as to get Ukrainian pensions, elderly people must register as internally displaced persons and then prove that they have a permanent address. Of course, many on the other side are too sick or infirm or scared to make the crossing in the first place. None of this is a good advertisement for renewing rule from Kiev.

Here again there is a failure of will in Kiev. Some parts of the government are trying to make it work. Notably, the under-resourced Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories and its minister, Vadym Chernysh, supported by Ukraine’s Western partners, is doing what it can to reach out to the people who say they have been forgotten by Kiev. Several draft laws are stuck in the Rada that would ease the bureaucratic pain of people who cross the line of contact.

Other bits of government are obstructive and stop this happening. “You change one law and forget to change another. Each office and each court has its own solutions,” said one international humanitarian worker.

My conclusion from my trip was that for the foreseeable future we should expect a low-level conflict that destroys lives and undermines willingness to do a deal. But there is a danger that as the politics around the conflict gets more complicated, it could escalate again even further.