Efforts to bring peace to Ukraine’s Donbas region have been deadlocked for years. The steps the belligerents take to de-escalate violence can save lives, but people still die on the front lines and beyond. Crisis Group’s new visual explainer puts these dynamics in stark relief.
The war in eastern Ukraine began in March 2014. It pits separatists backed by Russia against the Ukrainian government in two industrial regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, which are part of an area known as Donbas. The war was ugliest in its first year, when battles raged for territory and strategic position. Two peace agreements – known as the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 – put an end to the major fighting. They also laid out a roadmap for the reabsorption of the separatist-controlled regions into Ukraine, which calls, among other things, for Kyiv to grant these areas limited self-governing status. Implementation has stalled, however, and in the meantime some 75,000 troops – mostly Ukrainian citizens on both sides – still face off along a 450km front that cleaves Donbas in two. Some 800,000 civilians also live in the line of fire, while several million others reside in areas ridden with mines and unexploded shells. The death toll for the conflict creeps upward nearly every week and is now over 14,000.
Crisis Group’s new interactive feature, “Conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas: A Visual Explainer”, maps both military and civilian casualties and illustrates the links between ceasefires and lulls in combat. It shows that ceasefires work – until they crack under the weight of deadlocked negotiations. It further shows that civilian casualties from live fire clearly correlate with intense combat in urban and suburban areas, falling to almost nil when ceasefires are in place. Civilian casualties from mines, however, do not correlate with whether or not a ceasefire is in place and have lately risen, likely due to increased foot traffic through heavily mined areas.
Taken together, the data presented by this new explainer indicate that in the absence of a durable political solution, if the parties want to honour their stated intent to limit civilian casualties, they should commit to disengagement from high-traffic areas and to comprehensive demining. Both of these steps are hard sells to field commanders, for whom holding territory generally takes precedence. But disengagement is the only way to bring casualty rates reliably down, short of the impractical exercise of relocating civilians away from danger.
Combat Kills Civilians
The geography of the Donbas war all but guarantees civilian casualties. The front, known as the line of separation or line of contact, runs right through what was once the most densely populated part of Ukraine. Its central segments curve around coal mines, coke foundries and steel plants, while the southern and northern ends cut through farmland and picturesque meadows previously used for recreation. Dotting the combat zone on either side of the front are apartment blocks and weekend homes with garden plots. Today, industries are functioning at a fraction of their former capacity. Fields lie fallow, littered with mines and shells, while fighters on both sides have taken over vacation and retirement homes. Most families with the means to do so have left.
But some have stayed. Roughly 200,000 residents remain within 5km of the line of separation on the government-controlled side, while their neighbours just over the trenches number roughly 600,000. Any exchange of fire endangers the lives and disrupts the livelihoods of large numbers of people, a significant portion of them elderly.
Crisis Group’s visual explainer tracks civilian and combatant casualties, differentiating them by cause. It shows, for instance, that the vast majority – roughly 80 per cent – of live-fire (shelling and gunfire) civilian casualties occur in areas controlled by Russian-backed separatists. The ebb and flow of civilian casualties in these areas largely tracks with those of military casualties. The higher civilian casualty rate in non-government-controlled areas is due to the fact that these places are more urban and populous. Users of Crisis Group’s map can see that these casualties are concentrated around the front’s central section near the separatist-controlled cities of Donetsk and Horlivka, but also bleed across the line into the former Donetsk suburb of Mariinka, which Ukrainian government forces hold. Horlivka and the Donetsk suburbs are fairly densely populated. The high civilian casualties there may also be related to the position of combatants: troops on both sides are posted in residential streets or very close to them.
The most recent ceasefire, which had particularly strict provisions, had the greatest effect. Commencing in July 2020, it banned combatants from initiating firefights for any reason and imposed strict limitations on return fire, as well. In the seven months that followed the agreement, combatant fatalities dropped to less than half the number in the seven months prior (82 killed by live fire between January and July 2020, and 36 between August 2020 and February 2021), while civilian deaths and injuries from live fire fell from 50 to 5 in the same period, with almost no civilians hurt from August 2020 to 30 January 2021 (two civilians suffered hearing loss due to an explosion on 12 November). As further evidence of the agreement’s effectiveness, in comments to Ukrainian media and to Crisis Group, front-line dwellers spoke of improved security after it was signed.
Although the visual explainer covers only the period from January 2020 to the present day, data from 2019 tells a similar story. Then, too, a ceasefire went into effect in July. Of the 56 casualties from live fire that UN monitors recorded between 16 May and 15 August 2019, all but one occurred before the ceasefire.
New Casualty Trends
The data breakdown also shows that while both civilian and combatant casualties from heavy weaponry in the past seven months remain lower than before the July 2020 ceasefire, small arms fire during this period accounts for a larger portion of casualties. The use of heavy weaponry like artillery and mortars is prohibited by the Minsk agreements and has in fact declined.
But both sides are still using these weapons on occasion, so the reduction of casualties also suggests that they have been able to better calibrate their fire using drones and other modern equipment in order to lessen collateral damage. Civilian casualties from heavy weapons declined fivefold year-on-year in the first six months of 2021, while casualties from small arms held steady. Combatant casualties from heavy weapons also fell, albeit less dramatically, even as deaths among Ukrainian government troops from small arms – and sniper fire, in particular – have risen from eighteen in 2020 to 24 in 2021 to date. This uptick is consistent with Crisis Group interviews and Ukrainian media reports pointing to increased activity by Russian-backed (and allegedly Russian) snipers.
Additionally, as civilian casualties from live fire have fallen in the past year, deaths and injuries from mines and unexploded ordnance have crept up: these accounted for one fourth of casualties in 2020-2021, but doubled year-on-year in the first half of 2021. Throughout the eighteen-month period, the bulk of such casualties have occurred along the banks of the Siversky Donets river, which divides the government-controlled part of the Luhansk region from the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic. The forests through which the river runs are heavily mined but see almost no live fire. More people than usual may be tramping through the forests because economic decline associated with COVID-19 is forcing them to collect firewood for fuel. Many are also fishing in the river for sustenance. Reports also suggest that residents are smuggling food and other goods across the river, which puts them at risk, though it is not clear whether they have stepped up this activity recently or not. Meanwhile, in other areas, the drop-off in live fire may simply mean that residents feel comfortable wandering farther from home, increasing their chances of tripping mines.
That month, Russia massed troops near Ukraine’s border in numbers not seen since 2015, when its forces had helped wage a series of devastating battles on Ukrainian soil. It did so on the pretext of a spike in ceasefire violations at the front, although the separatists it backed were just as responsible as Ukrainian forces for the infractions.
''Increasing violence does suggest ... that when peace talks lose momentum, both parties see diminishing incentives to exercise restraint''
Moscow’s troop build-up was likely about geopolitical signalling rather than a prelude to a possible incursion. But if, on this occasion, violence in Donbas provided the Kremlin with a convenient, if dubious, alibi for its aggressive behaviour, it does not follow that every uptick in fighting stems from a particular side’s pursuit of political goals. Increasing violence does suggest, however, that when peace talks lose momentum, both parties see diminishing incentives to exercise restraint. As a Ukrainian commander told Crisis Group in 2020, the army needs to either fight or disengage: along the Donbas front lines, troops can hold their fire for only so long in the absence of steps toward peace. Yet, as the April scare demonstrates, any escalation at the front risks handing Moscow an excuse to further threaten Kyiv.
Obstacles to Protecting Civilians
Both sides claim to be defending the lives of their Ukrainian compatriots, suggesting that they should be motivated to agree to better protect civilians. In practice, however, things are not so simple, and military calculations generally prevail over humanitarian concerns.
Separatist leaders have shown themselves more than willing to use civilian casualties for propaganda purposes. Noting that the de facto republics’ constituents make up the majority of live-fire casualties, they cite the numbers of dead and wounded as proof of Kyiv’s villainy. They have also been known to spread highly dubious reports of civilian deaths, possibly to garner greater support from their patrons in Moscow. For example, in April 2021, as Russia was deploying troops to areas bordering Ukraine, they announced that a Ukrainian drone strike had killed a five-year-old boy in a Donetsk suburb. In fact, the boy had died some 15km from the front, out of the Ukrainian drones’ range, possibly by setting off an unexploded shell he found in his yard. (Indeed, Crisis Group data shows that 75 per cent of incidents in which children were killed or injured by unexploded ordnance in 2020-2021 occurred in separatist-held areas, pointing to a genuine problem that de facto authorities should confront.) Meanwhile, de facto officials tend to be unwilling to admit that shooting from positions in areas like the Donetsk suburbs can provoke return fire and lead to civilian deaths. They have baulked at suggestions that they move their troops to keep locals out of the line of fire.
On the other side, public figures in government-controlled Ukraine sometimes overlook or minimise the problem of civilian casualties from live fire. Losses among civilians frequently do not make it into Ukrainian news reports, partly due to journalists’ lack of access to reliable sources in areas across the line; media tends to focus on the heroism of government troops. Some Ukrainians sticking up for the military imply that civilians, particularly in the separatist-controlled areas, are themselves to blame for their fate, having stubbornly remained in their homes while soldiers, as the troops’ defenders see it, are risking life and limb for a greater cause. “Do you think we didn’t have grandmothers when we went off to die? Maybe these are people, but they are not citizens”, a renowned veteran told Crisis Group in 2019, while expressing frustration at President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s promises to wind down combat in Donbas.
Efforts to limit civilian casualties through stricter ceasefire provisions have also triggered backlash against Ukrainian officials. In mid-2019, Kyiv proposed a ban on return fire. President Zelenskyy’s press secretary defended the proposal, arguing that when government troops shoot back at opponents positioned in populated areas, “our people die, our Ukrainians”. Opposition politicians accused Kyiv of ignoring the imperatives of fighting an invading force; high-ranking military personnel accused the press secretary of defamation, activists said she was echoing Russian propaganda and Ukraine’s prosecutor general summoned her for questioning on the grounds that she was assisting the enemy. The proposal was dropped for the time being, and the sides struck a more lenient agreement. But that 2019 agreement proved weaker, shorter-lived and less clearly beneficial for civilians than the one that followed in 2020, which did integrate a ban on return fire. If avoiding the issue of return fire may have short-term tactical and political benefits, the consequences of doing so deepen resentment among civilians on both sides and only make Kyiv’s climb toward reintegrating its lost territories steeper.
What to Do
The steps that would save lives are evident but difficult. Crisis Group has in the past recommended pursuing mutual disengagement in areas of high civilian traffic. Demining would also help. But international observers with knowledge of the negotiations say combatants are unlikely to disengage from high-traffic areas – which happen to be where the worst fighting of 2014-2015 occurred, as both sides consider them strategically and symbolically significant – without a comprehensive peace settlement. Nor do specialists think that either side – particularly not the de facto republics – will pursue demining as long as fighting continues.
As neither disengagement nor demining is likely, and neither military will move the trenches away from inhabited areas, a few Kyiv lawmakers have proposed relocating inhabitants of those areas as a way to save civilian lives. The idea has many downsides, among them its impracticability in the highly populated non-government-controlled areas. In government-controlled Ukraine, it may be more feasible, and perhaps more acceptable to the population. According to aid workers and staff at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe ceasefire monitoring mission, more front-line dwellers are seeking to move away than in previous years. Those who stayed to be closer to loved ones on the other side of the line of separation can no longer see them anyway, due to COVID-19 restrictions, even as lockdowns have deepened the economic woes of cities and towns along the front.
''The two sides will need to decide that costs of a simmering conflict outweigh the risks of compromise''
In any case, none of these measures – disengagement, demining, or relocation – will bring the region the peace that it truly needs. For peace to come, the two sides will need to decide that costs of a simmering conflict outweigh the risks of compromise and an imperfect solution. Crisis Group has developed the visual explainer to illustrate the costs both sides are incurring, as well as the unpredictability and volatility of military activity at the Donbas front lines. The explainer also demonstrates that diplomacy – including that aimed at ceasefires – reduces the level of combat and saves lives. Breaking ceasefires, conversely, gives no one an advantage. In 2020-2021, a period during which a ceasefire was instituted and then fell apart, the two sides appear to have suffered a comparable number of deaths – 146 among the separatists and 112 in the Ukrainian army. Collapsed ceasefires favour neither side; they just lead to a bloodier stalemate.