Guns Of August: Fears Of Full-Scale War Return As Casualties Mount In Ukraine by EurasiaNet

A EurasiaNet Partner Post from: RFE/RL

Maryinka, Ukraine — Framed by a tiny cutout in the fortified bunker, this particular piece of no-man’s land is tinted a blood-reddish orange by the setting summer sun.

It’s hot as hell, and it’s about to get hotter. When the sun goes down, the guns start blazing. And all that separates the men at their triggers is a grassy patch of land the size of a soccer field that is heavily mined. If you’re a Ukrainian soldier here, you don’t need binoculars to observe the enemy — you just look in his direction.

It starts with a single shot from a Kalashnikov: Ziiip. Then another: Ziiip. And three more: Ziiip. Ziiip. Ziiip. Each shot whizzes dangerously closer. In the time it takes to boil an egg, the situation escalates as the rifles are joined by .50-caliber machine guns, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades that explode with hollow thuds against the earth or cottages where the soldiers eat and sleep, showering everything with shrapnel. Within an hour, shells from howitzers and tanks — and eventually surface-to-surface Grad missiles, whose name is Russian for “hail” — begin pummeling the scarred steppe.

Reload. Fire. Repeat

The “disco,” as the soldiers and the few residents left in this forsaken town call it, is in full effect. The relative calm that dawn brings seems a lifetime away. All are at the mercy of the darkness.

This is eastern Ukraine 28 months after the start of a conflict that once seemed unthinkable, and a year and a half after the signing of a second cease-fire deal, known as Minsk 2, that was supposed to bring lasting peace to this war-torn edge of Europe and reintegrate it with the rest of Ukraine.

But the armistice is unraveling fast as fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists has escalated to levels not seen since more furious phases of the conflict in the Donbas — where the separatists hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions — in 2014 and 2015. Casualties, both civilian and military, are mounting.

War Footing

The number of civilian casualties recorded by the United Nations nearly doubled in June to 69, including 12 deaths, and rose again in July, when eight civilians were killed and 65 wounded.

“The escalation of hostilities and the accompanying civilian casualties in eastern Ukraine over the last two months are very worrying,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said on August 3. “Civilians are once again having to flee to improvised bomb shelters in their basements, sometimes overnight, with increasing frequency — the price of the cease-fire violations is too high for the women, men, and children in eastern Ukraine.”

The UN said that 57 percent of those casualties were the result of “mortar fire, cannons, howitzers, and tanks” — weapons banned under the Minsk deal.

When combatants and civilians are included, the toll of deaths documented by the UN Human Rights Office since the outbreak of war in April 2014 had reached 9,553 by July 31.

But the UN says the real number of casualties may be higher, and the International Crisis Group said in a July report that “there is little doubt that the death toll is significantly higher than either side admits.”

The UN has urged all sides to respect the cease-fire provisions, to remove combatants and weapons from civilian areas, and to scrupulously implement the Minsk agreements — successive cease-fire and settlement deals signed in September 2014 and February 2015.

But there are signs of both sides going back to a war footing: Kyiv is on high alert and has deployed special-forces units and battle-hardened battalions to the front, while Russia has reportedly amassed large amounts of military hardware in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula it seized from Ukraine in March 2014.

After the leader of separatists in the Luhansk region, Igor Plotnitsky, was injured in an apparent assassination attempt on August 6, separatists were ordered to be on full combat readiness.

Peace Deal in Jeopardy

“The Minsk agreements have met their end,” Vyacheslav Vlasenko, a commander of government forces who is known as “the Owl,” told RFE/RL. Soldiers in his Donbas Ukraine unit, a volunteer battalion that split off and was brought under the control of the Ukrainian armed forces, nodded in agreement.

They are preparing for what they see as an imminent return to full-scale war — something that is seen as a distinct possibility on both sides of the “demarcation line” in the Donbas.

“The situation remains tense, and at any moment it could break out and escalate into full-fledged clashes,” Denis Pushilin, the leader of separatists in the Donetsk region, warned last week.

Puffing on a cigarette inside his Maryinka operating base, the raspy-voiced Vlasenko leaned over a situation map marked with blue and black ink and traces his finger over the locations where fighting is the heaviest — these days, pretty much everywhere along the narrow frontier that separates his men from the Russia-backed fighters. In Maryinka, it is especially heavy near the bases of two old coal-mine slag heaps nicknamed “crocodile” and “tits” because of their shapes.

To highlight the recent escalation of violence, Vlasenko slid a casualty list for the past 49 days beneath a flickering lamp. It listed: 112 firefights; 45 wounded soldiers, including 19 from shrapnel and three from bullets; 18 troops with contusions; two with traumatic amputations; two with bone fractures; and one crushed to death by debris.

For the Ukrainian Army, July was the deadliest month since August 2015. At least 42 servicemen were killed and 181 wounded, according to statistics provided by Andriy Lysenko, military spokesman for President Petro Poroshenko’s administration.

Some days the casualties were particularly bad. On July 19, Ukraine reported seven soldiers had been killed and 14 injured. On July 24, the military said six more died in clashes. On August 6, three servicemen died and four were wounded.

On the Internet, the Ukrainian military’s daily situation map is lit up by explosion markers up and down the snaking 500-kilometer contact line, indicating pitched battles.

On the ground, unarmed monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) say both sides are violating the cease-fire on a regular basis. The group’s nonpartisan, no-nonsense reports have shown that a steady increase in fighting began in June, with the number of cease-fire violations rising from dozens to hundreds daily and the use of heavy weapons on the front lines becoming more frequent.

The reports also paint a picture of a growing hostility toward members of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) on the part of government troops and separatist fighters. In a July 30 report, the OSCE described members being surrounded by Donetsk separatist fighters who trained their rifles at them while one “made a ‘cut throat’ sign” and took photographs of their vehicles and the drivers. On August 2, a fighter in an unmarked uniform at a known Ukrainian military position chambered a round into his submachine gun, flicked off its safety, put his finger on the trigger, and aimed it at a monitor.

The OSCE mission has faced threats before, and has even had its members kidnapped. It has also faced criticism from both warring sides for not

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