Here’s a question worth pondering. When is a war not a war? Answer: When it’s in eastern Ukraine.
It’s hard to recall when last the conflict between Ukrainian forces and separatist rebels in the east of the country made news headlines. It’s hard also to believe that this war, and it is a war, is now in its fifth year.
There are still of course those politicians and diplomats who refer to the situation as a ‘crisis.’ It’s as if by using the word ‘war’ they fear exacerbating things. Or then again perhaps, it makes it easier for them to bury their heads in the sand in the vain hope the hostilities will somehow miraculously run their course and disappear.
The stark reality though is that there is no sign whatsoever of that happening. Indeed only this week,Alexander Hug, the deputy chief of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s monitoring mission in Ukraine (OSCE-SMM), described the latest ceasefire violations and fighting as the “worst we have seen so far this year”.
There is simply no avoiding the fact that this is a nasty little war in Europe’s backyard, low intensity maybe, but one that refuses to go away and still poses the clear and present danger of escalating.
Just these past days that very risk was highlighted with news that the United States had made a recent delivery of US Javelin antitank missiles to Ukrainian government forces. This was something of course for which Ukraine’s pro-European President Petro Poroshenko, has repeatedly lobbied.
Meanwhile those American military officials responsible for putting together a package of assistance for Ukraine have been at pains to stress the importance of Javelin in giving Ukraine’s armed forces a needed boost in its conflict with Russia.
Not surprisingly this latest arms supply is unlikely to go down well in Moscow.
The Kremlin will almost certainly view the delivery as a message of direct support for Ukraine from Western powers. Which leaves us once again with a ratcheting up of tensions while civilians continue to bear the brunt of the violence on the ground.
Stewart McDonald MP for Glasgow South and SNP spokesman for Defence has only just returned from a parliamentary fact finding mission in the region at the invitation of the Ukrainian Ambassador. He feels the time is long overdue for the conflict to be recognised for what it is.
“It’s an occupation of a part of the territory of a sovereign nation by another, and not some sort of ‘Ukrainian civil war’. The ambiguity of language has allowed the Kremlin to escape the level of scrutiny and censure it should normally on such an issue,” Mr McDonald says.
This is all a far cry from when I first went to eastern Ukraine back in 2014 and met pro-Moscow separatist supporters manning barricades in the city of Donetsk. Back then it was hard to imagine that almost five years on that same city and ‘oblast’ or province, would be known as the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), and receive the level of military and materiel support it now does from Russia.
Back then too when I arrived at the city’s airport it was a glistening hub of steel and glass, specially built for the UEFA Euro 2012 of which Donetsk was a venue. Today though that same airport lies levelled by the fighting. Across the region ruined houses, shell craters and deserted streets are testimony to a conflict that has killed more than 10,300 people and left millions of civilians displaced from their homes.
Right now close to 3.5 million people caught up in the conflict in eastern Ukraine urgently need humanitarian aid. Whole communities meanwhile live under the constant threat of artillery and gunfire, mines, and unexploded ordnance and now face growing food insecurity and outbreaks of diseases like TB.
Children in particular have been affected, the conflict taking a devastating toll on the education system, destroying and damaging hundreds of schools and forcing 200,000 girls and boys to learn in militarised environments.
All this is taking place in Europe, but there is barely a flicker of news interest and at best lethargic and uncertain diplomatic efforts at bringing peace.
After speaking with politicians and civil society activists, Mr McDonald believes the war has dropped off the radar for a number of reasons.
“The conflict is an unwelcome reminder that Europe is not as peaceful as it would like to think, and in the UK context, it’s difficult trying to explain that people are dying on a weekly basis to get into a club that the UK is intent on leaving,” he says.
The MP believes Ukraine is not only on the frontline of a military conflict, but also an ideological one, between the concepts of liberal democracy and authoritarianism.
“It has many problems, including around corruption and human rights, but needs to be nurtured on its journey, because if Ukraine falls, the frontline will move into Europe, via Hungary and Poland,” Mr McDonald attests.
For now the Minsk accords, concluded between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany in 2015 in an effort to dampen the fighting, mean little to those civilians caught in the crossfire of this conflict.
So many of the provisions of the Minsk agreements, including pardoning separatists, and organising elections or ensuring the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine is given ‘special status’ are still considered by most Ukrainian leaders as being too much of a concession for them to undertake while Ukraine’s international borders are violated by Russia.
Writing in the Kyiv Post this week, Mr Hug, the deputy chief of the OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine, described how for the past four years eastern Ukraine has been a place apart, a place of contradictions.
“This contradiction is everywhere along the contact line, with armed men killing men, women and children ostensibly to save and protect those same men, women and children,” he observed. For now that killing goes on and Europe, shamefully, remains largely silent.