Syria has once again captured the world’s attention, casting a long shadow over the ongoing war in Ukraine. But does the shift in international attention necessarily mean flagging hostilities?
In short: probably not.
In early 2014, Ukraine’s east fell into turmoil after a wave of demonstrations hit the main square of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Known as the Euromaidan, the eventual violence that took place there was at least in part a response to then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the E.U. Association Agreement in November 2013.
This agreement would distance Ukraine from Russia, a nation with which Ukraine has close historical and physical ties. With this agreement, Ukraine would inch ever closer to the European Union — a move that divided many in the country and abroad, eventually pushing Ukraine to war.
Yanukovych fled to Russia in March 2014 after his efforts to quell protests using snipers enflamed the situation. That same month, ‘self-defense’ militias formed in the east striving to form Novorossiya (New Russia), and the situation escalated into an armed conflict. As one pro-Russia volunteer fighter described the mission to Gawker, “We are fighting for a Russian world.” For these militants, this is a “historical mission” to restore the Imperial Russian borders, noted Sergei Baryshnikov, Rector of Donetsk University.
Since the conflict’s start, the European Union and the United States have backed Ukraine, providing non-lethal military support such as training, equipment and financial support for the country’s collapsing economy. As Moscow sees things, Russian ‘volunteers’ are fighting in Ukraine to ‘defend’ Russian speakers from Kiev’s ‘fascist junta,’ side by side with the armies of the self-proclaimed republics in Lugansk and Donetsk.
Over the year and a half that the armed conflict has raged, nearly 8,000 people have died. Approximately 1.5 million people have been displaced by the war – escaping to Russia, Europe and other parts of Ukraine. Here’s a glimpse of what the conflict looks like today:
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Azovets campers sharpen their aim with target practice using air-rifles. The camp was organized and run by a family from the now-occupied territory of Lugansk. Daily Mail
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The anatomy of the Kalashnikov and its assembly is one lesson given at Camp AzovetsDaily Mail
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For drills, campers carry wooden guns to learn how to properly hold a weapon while in battle. Daily Mail
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A counselor poses with one of the Azovets campers. The Kyiv Post overheard a kid whisper to his friend, "I want that this war will end and we will kill all the Russians." Daily Mail
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Campers gather to take group photo in front of a banner that reads, “The idea is in the nation; the power is in you!”Daily Mail
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A counselor teaches hand-to-hand combat on the beach. “I’ve been here only for three days, but I’ve realized that it’s not a camp where you just play games. We’re getting military training here,” one camper told the Kyiv Post. Daily Mail
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Camp Azovets members take a fieldtrip to the training facility of the ultra-right Azov battalion. The Wolfsangel, a symbol used by the SS, can be seen on Azov’s flag waving in the background. The United States has been barred from training Azov members due to the battalion’s openly espousal of Nazi ideology and symbols. Daily Mail
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A lesson in gun safety: “Do you know what would happen if you kept your fingers on the trigger? If it were a real gun, you could kill your comrades. So, don’t do it!” –Kyiv Post Daily Mail
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Members of the Sheikh Mansur battalion made up of Chechens fighting for Ukraine in the east. "We believe in God, so we don't need armored vests," told a Chechen commander in conservation with a New York Times reporter. VK
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The Sheikh Mansur battalion stands in Shirokino in the Donetsk oblast. The group has a page on the Russian social media website VK and often shares pictures from which the faces are cut out to hide their identity. Three Islamic battalions from Chechnya, Uzbekistan, the Balkans and Crimea fight on the Ukrainian side given tacit approval for by the government. VK
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As a paramilitary group, the Cossacks do not follow direct orders from Moscow. Soldiers from their ranks have declared the destruction of the state of Ukraine as their goal. A soldier by the nickname of the Bogeyman said, “Write this down: There is no such thing as Ukraine. There are only the Russian borderlands, and the fact they became known as Ukraine after the [Bolshevik] Revolution, well, we intend to correct that mistake.” TIME
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Cossack soldiers are easily recognized from their traditional headwear known as the Papakha. This man is also sporting the ribbon of St. George showing his allegiance to Russia. TIME
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A pro-Russian Cossack rebel demonstrates his horse riding skills in Makeevka, Donetsk. The Cossacks had hoped to create autonomous republics of their own where they could set up traditional communities based on their own laws and practices. They controlled three towns in the Lugansk oblast where they installed laws such as public whippings for stealing. The Guardian
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A blockade went up mid-September at Chongar preventing the importation of food and other goods into Crimea from Ukraine. Three highways were cordoned off by Tatars, a major ethic group in Crimea, and the right wing nationalist group Pravy Sektor. Considering Crimea receives only 5% of its supplies from Ukraine the efforts seem more symbolic than practical. Kyiv Post
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Blockaders set up road spikes to keep cargo trucks from passing while allowing passenger cars to go through. USA Today
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Donald Trump addressed the 12th annual Yalta European Strategy conference, this year being held in Kiev due to the Russian occupation of Crimea. In his speech, Trump revealed zero strategies on how to handle the conflict and repeatedly referred to Ukraine as “The Ukraine” – seen as a very Soviet iteration of the country’s name. Kyiv Post
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Muslim Cherberloevky, leader of the Chechen Battalion in the name of Sheikh Mansur, pointing to Allah up above sits with leader of the ultra-nationalist militia Pravy Sektor, Dmytro Yarosh, to discuss strategy over tea. A number of factions from different geographic regions and identities have coalesced around similar interests – bringing Ukrainian nationalists together with Chechen Islamists.
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Denis Pushilin, Chairman of the Donetsk People’s Republic, heads a roundtable discussion entitled “Paths of Integration for Donbass into Russia” attended by a male-dominated panel of international “independent” experts from Serbia to Poland. The talk was hosted in the capital of the Lugansk People’s Republic.Absolut TV
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The discomfort is palpable in Paris. French President Francois Hollande meets with President of the Russian Federation Vladimir V. Putin to discuss the situation in Ukraine on October 2, 2015. Unfortunately, the new developments in Syria with Russia launching aerial attacks on “terrorists” overshadowed all else.Yahoo
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Putin brings the hammer down on the West in a speech delivered at the United Nations on September 28, scathingly questioning his anonymous addressee, “Do you realize what you’ve done?,” referring to the vacuum of power left in Libya in the aftermath of the NATO intervention to dethrone Muammar Gaddafi — all while keeping mum on his own intervening. Newsweek
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Off the battlefield the tensions have played out in interesting ways. Two recent gastronomic incidents highlight the micro-level aggressions of war. On October 1, a Ukrainian ambassador deliberately spilled hot coffee on the Vice-Premier of Crimea Dmitri Polonski at a meeting of the OSCE in Poland in a sign of protest against the occupation of the peninsula. Another scandal occurred when Vladimir Putin and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi tasted a 1775 vintage wine in Crimea causing outrage in Ukraine.
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Pallbearers of the Cossack “Ghost” battalion carry their former leader, Aleksey Mozgovoi, through a crowd of around 600 that gathered in commemoration. He was shot in May near Alchevsk in Lugansk. It is speculated that he was assassinated by members of the Lugansk People’s Republic army. Dozens of other Cossacks have been picked off in ambushes and assassinations throughout the year. The LNR's army has disarmed the Cossacks and urged them to integrate into the army or disembark. Cossack leader Nikolai Kozitsyn fled the country due to the embitterment of LNR-Cossack relations. The Washington Times
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Three Ukrainian policemen were killed when a grenade was thrown into the wall of guards formed around the parliament building in Kiev. More than a hundred were injured in the attack. The Guardian
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With a Hadoken-esque move out of Street Fighter, a Svoboda party supporter voices his discontent with parliament’s appeasement to the rebels in the east with new legislation that would give the Donbass more autonomy. The Wall Street Journal
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Fearless in the face of state power, a protestor shoots a torrent of pepper spray at the masked men guarding the disquieted nationalists from storming the building. Newsweek
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Officers dressed in riot gear disperse from the rising smoke from tear gas that was being hurled back and forth by both sides. The New York Times
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Firemen inspect the ruins of a building shelled in August’s shelling in Donetsk between the Ukrainian Army and the Donetsk People’s Republic. The Daily Star
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A woman walks around her house in Donetsk, which was damaged by shelling. Reuters
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Teary-eyed, a man stands among the destruction of his home in Donetsk. Reuters
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A Ukrainian soldier in Donetsk checks on a house freshly damaged by shelling. CNN
On October 2, French President Francois Hollande hosted the latest talks between Russian and Ukrainian leaders in Paris to discuss options for a peace accord, which would end the violence in eastern Ukraine. Yet, Russia’s military expansion in Syria led the discussion away from the topic at hand.
September's General Assembly at the United Nations passed with awkward tensions: Russian diplomats played hooky during Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's speech and President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin attempted to regain a place on the world-stage by lambasting the United States, albeit without dropping any names, in an accusatory diatribe against US foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa.
In the days approaching the Assembly, focus shifted from Russia's involvement in Ukraine to Syria. This wasn't only a reaction to Russia's deployment of troops and military buildup in Syria but to a welcomed lull in fighting in Ukraine's east. September 11 witnessed the first day with no incidence of shelling in 18 months, and has rekindled hopes that an end to the conflict is possible and near.
Just in early August, Denis Pushilin, Donetsk People's Republic Chairman, threatened Ukraine with a “big war” if it did not fully implement the Minsk agreement, signed in September 2014 and February 2015. The second accord, penned in the capital of Belarus by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko, would extend greater autonomy to the eastern oblasts of Lugansk and Donetsk and consider asylum for separatist fighters. It also called for an immediate bilateral ceasefire, which failed.
The breakout of artillery fire, the heaviest since the signing of the ceasefire, brought Europe's leaders back together in late August to reaffirm their commitment to the accord. At a meeting of European leaders on Ukraine's Independence Day, Merkel insisted that EU leaders were there “to implement the Minsk Deal, not to call it into question.”
As Moscow has no appetite for absorbing the Donbass like it did with Crimea, rebel leaders are weighing their options: to continue holding a stalemate position in the frozen conflict or reintegrate into Ukraine in hopes that Kiev capitulates to some of the rebels’ demands. The Minsk negotiations are “an opportunity for us through political, peaceful means, and without arms to return Ukraine and integrate it onto the path the Donbass has taken,” Pushilin said at a conference.
Integration on the Donbass's (the regional name for the Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts) terms has translated into problems for the country's nationalists. On August 31, Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, passed the first reading of legislation that would grant more autonomy to the east. A massive protest of nearly 1,000 demonstrators opposed to the bill erupted outside of the legislative headquarters. Three men died and more than 140 were injured, mostly security officers, from a grenade said to be lofted into the crowd by a member of the right-wing nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party. Ukraine's general prosecutor says the attack could be classified as terrorism.
Even if a resolution to the armed conflict comes about, Russia will remain in perpetual struggle with the West.
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Donald Trump doesn’t get embarrassed, even while everyone else is cringing. Speaking obnoxiously loud and in spurts waiting for translation, The Donald finds the key to the crisis in Putin’s lack of respect for US President Barak Obama:
VICE’s series, Russian Roulette, has well over a hundred dispatches. A careful viewing from the beginning gives a great overview of the crisis in Ukraine:
Drone footage of the protests in front of Ukraine’s parliament building on August 31, 2015: