Conflict overview

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine began in November 2013, when Ukraine’s President Yanukovych rejected an agreement with the EU in favor of closer relations with Russia. The move sparked protests, which swelled through December, as citizens voiced their disapproval of the move. Tensions escalated and violence emerged as the government took action to stifle protestors. Although the government took steps to assuage protestors, such as eliminating anti-protest laws and releasing those arrested, violence between the government and opposition leaders escalated. On February 22, 2014, President Yanukovych abandoned Kyiv and protestors gained control of government buildings. Parliament appoints Olexander Turchynov as interim president. Parliament also votes to ban Russia as the official second language of Ukraine, causing outrage among millions within Russian-speaking regions.

The move sparked protests among pro-Russian citizens, who initiated uprisings in Crimea, gaining control of government buildings in the capital of Simferopol. During April 2014, pro-Russian groups seized more than a dozen government buildings in eastern Ukraine and called for a referendum on autonomy. The seizures appeared to be far from spontaneous acts. Ukrainian authorities asserted that they were prepared to launch operations to recover the occupied buildings, but quickly showed a lack of capability. 

Russia became involved on March 1, 2014, when Russia’s parliament approved a use of force. Putin justified the intervention as a means to protect Russian interests in a country that was experiencing "violent instability" (although the Euromaidan Movement that unseated Yanukovych was largely nonviolent). On March 16, 2014, a Russia-backed referendum in Crimea, supported by 97% of voters, voted for Crimea’s integration into Russia. This development that sparked international outrage and was widely contested by the international community. Despite pressure from the West, Russia continued its involvement in Ukraine and support for pro-Russian rebels. On March 18, 2014, Russian President Putin signed a bill effectively accepting Crimea into the Russian Federation. Russia now maintains unfettered use of Sevastapol and other crucial bases on the Crimean peninsula, in addition to their shipyards and defense industry. This gives Russia the most powerful fleet on the Black Sea, and Russian Navy Commander Chirkov has stated that Russia will be adding more warships to the existing fleet.

Soon following the annexation of Crimea, pro-Russian protests spread to East Ukraine, where rebels seized government buildings in key cities of Donetsk and Luhansk seeking independence. On May 11, 2014, Donetsk and Luhansk hold a referendum and subsequently declare independence. Ukraine holds elections on May 25, 2014 for the replacement of interim President Turchynov, although due to the ongoing crisis, elections are not held in Crimea or much of the East. Petro Poroshenko wins the presidential election.

On June 25, 2014, Russia officially cancels its March resolution authorizing the use of force in Ukraine, and denies any subsequent contribution of support for rebels in Ukraine. However, the international community largely doubted Russia’s commitment to this policy.

Members of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine examine the MH17 crash site.(OSCE)

Members of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine examine the MH17 crash site.(OSCE)

Substantial violence continued throughout Eastern Ukraine. On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 persons on board. According to US government officials, the BUK SAM system and training responsible for the attack was provided to rebels by Russia. Russia vehemently denies this, instead blaming Ukraine. Days after the shootdown of MH17, two Ukrainian high-performance SU-25 military jets were shot down in the same area. OSCE Special Monitoring Mission staff played a key role in gaining international access to the crash site and facilitating the emergency service personnel recovery of remains, and the work of crash and forensic investigators. 

Satellite images pointing to movement of Russian tanks to eastern Ukraine, Jul

Satellite images pointing to movement of Russian tanks to eastern Ukraine, June 2014 (NATO)

 

In June 2014, Russia began stepping up the supply of heavy material, including tanks and multiple launch rocket systems, to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, as well as providing them with artillery fire support from inside Russia. 

 

 

In August 2014, Ukrainian forces appeared to have regained three-quarters of the area of eastern Ukraine that had been seized by separatists, reportedly pushing into Luhansk and encircling Donetsk.  In response, seeking to preserve the separatist revolt, Russia expanded its involvement in Ukraine, making additional incursions into the border town of Novazovsk, the area near the coastal city of Mariupol and south of Donesk.  NATO Secretary General Rasmussen stated that Russian artillery support has been used against Ukrainian forces from inside Ukraine and from across the border in Russia.

Meanwhile, Russia sent a 280-truck humanitarian aid convoy to Eastern Ukraine in mid-August.  Concerned that the approaching convoy might be a cover for assistance to the separatists, the Ukrainian government insisted on a coordinated process involving International Committee of the Red Cross verification of the contents of the trucks.  After a first group of 32 trucks was inspected by the ICRC on August 22 and allowed to proceed, the arrangement broke down.  The remaining Russian trucks entered Ukraine without access being given to the ICRC or Ukrainian customs officials or border guards, and proceeded to an area controlled by the separatists.  The contents of the trucks remain unknown.

The Minsk Protocol, a ceasefire agreement, was signed in Minsk on September 5, 2014. The agreement included:

  1. Immediate bilateral ceasefire
  2. OSCE to monitor the ceasefire
  3. Decentralization of power in Ukraine (law on special status of Donetsk and Luhansk)
  4. Permanent monitoring at the Ukraine-Russia border and creation of safety zon
  5. Immediately free all hostages and prisoners
  6. Amnesty law for those involved in certain events in Donetsk and Luhansk
  7. Continue dialogue
  8. Humanitarian relief to Donbas
  9. Conduct early elections in Donetsk and Luhansk (in accordance with law on special status granted to Donetsk and luhansk)
  10. Eliminate illegal military stations and equipment in Ukraine
  11. Program for economic development in Donbas
  12. Guarantee security for consultants of ceasefire

The ceasefire was repeatedly violated by both sides but by September 24 NATO reported significant withdrawal of troops.  In addition, President Poroshenko proposed limited self-rule and amnesty elections for a new Ukrainian parliament were held on October 26 but the elections were protested by many in East Ukraine.  Separate parliamentary elections in the Donbas region, made up of the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics, were held in the East on November 2.

By the start of the new year, fighting had resumed to pre-ceasefire intensity.  Rebels gained control of the Donetsk airport on January 22, 2015, and battled fiercely for Debaltseve, a crucial rail hub linking Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukrainian forces worried that complete cession of these key cities would allow rebels the opportunity to resupply, perpetuating the conflict and bolstering their ability to expand.

In January 2015, fighting between the army and the rebels intensified in and around Donesk and Luhansk. On 22 January 2015, Ukrainian forces withdrew from Donesk airport's main terminal, after weeks of bitter fighting. Government forces had been able to shell rebel positions inside nearby Donesk - the largest city held by the militants. There were fears its capture could help the rebels to resupply - allowing munitions, hardware and manpower to be airlifted into the conflict zone but much of the airport suffered considerable destruction. The rebels continued their offensive in February. The fiercest fighting was near the town of Debaltseve, a crucial rail hub linking Donesk and Luhansk, where the rebels tried to surround Ukrainian troops. The military situation created strong incentives for the government in Kiev to reach a ceasefire.

A second ceasefire agreement was reached in Minsk on February 12, 2015, referred to as Minsk II. The full-text can be found here (Russian), or an unofficial English translation can be found here. This agreement consists of goals similar to those outlined in its predecessor:

  1. Immediate bilateral ceasefire, to take effect within three days
  2. Bilateral withdrawal of heavy weapons, to be completed within two weeks
  3. OSCE monitoring
  4. Dialogue on local elections for the separatist-held regions
  5. Complete amnesty for participants in the conflict
  6. “All for all” release of hostages and detainees
  7. Internationally supervised delivery of humanitarian aid
  8. Restoration of full social and economic linkages, including pension payments and banking services, to affected regions
  9. Restoration of full Ukrainian government control of its border, contingent upon a political settlement
  10. Withdrawal of all foreign armed groups, weapons, and mercenaries, monitored by OSCE
  11. Constitutional reform by the end of 2015, including decentralization and permanent special status for the separatist-held regions.

Sporadic fighting persisted, particularly in Debaltseve. Violence ebbed slightly through February and March, as Ukrainian forces and rebels withdrew slowly from the region. In early March, Ukraine and Russia agreed to double the capacity of the present OSCE monitoring mission in the region to promote peace.

Each side has accused the other side of not living up to the terms of the ceasefire.  Ukraine has continued to ask the European countries and the US to continue sanctions on Russia while Russia has called on those same countries to increase pressure on the Kiev government to adhere to the ceasefire conditions.

OSCE head Lamberto Zannier stated in early March that while there were still violations, the ceasefire was broadly holding in eastern Ukraine because neither side was using large artillery systems and in some cases such heavy weapons systems were moved away from the ceasefire line.

However, tensions escalated in April 2015 with an increasing number of ceasefire violations from both sides. This continued through June, when severe fighting broke out in Maryinka and Krasnohorivka, areas just outside of Donetsk. The OSCE notes increasing violations of the ceasefire. Ukraine continues to report that pro-Russian rebels are bolstered substantially by Russia.

Reports in May 2015 suggest that fighting in Donetsk has reverted to pre-ceasefire intensity as the rebels battle for Shirokino, Peski, and surrounding villages. 

In early July 2015, pro-Russian forces in Southeast Ukraine withdrew from the village of Shyrokyne, located near the port city of Mariupol, a significant development due to the town’s strategic location. Separatist forces began retreating unilaterally, although tensions in the town remain high. Demilitarization in the town included militant withdrawals and de-mining observed by the OSCE. Despite this, reports in July point to a substantial increase in fighting in regions of Donetsk, Svitlordarsk, and Horlivka. In August, intensity rose to a level not seen since February, as fighting gradually moved closer to the port of Mariupol.

In late August 2015, the Contact Group negotiated a ceasefire to begin September 1, 2015 to affirm the Minsk II agreement from February. Despite low-intensity violations, the agreement largely holds through September, and Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists agree to withdraw small arms from the line of contact to begin October 3, 2015. Substantial withdrawals from both sides are reported by the OSCE by October 20 in both Donetsk and Luhansk. Meanwhile, local elections in the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk and Luhansk are postponed until February.