MARINKA, Ukraine — The gray-bearded officer’s summary of the war in eastern Ukraine is terse with weariness.
“We stand in place. We shoot over there, they shoot back from over there,” Mykhailo Gaiduk said. “It’s just burning up time.”
The area that Gaiduk calls “over there” is territory controlled by Russia-backed separatists, where a rebel using the nom de guerre of Chester agrees: “Everybody is tired of this pointless war.”
A cease-fire signed two years ago was supposed to have ended the fighting. So was a cease-fire last year.
A temporary truce called for the beginning of the new school year on Sept. 1 briefly tamped down the fighting — the Ukrainian side reported only one soldier and one rebel were killed Tuesday. But that relative calm is clearly fragile; Ukraine also claimed rebels fired some 90 mortar rounds at troops outside the city of Mariupol, one of the war’s tensest areas.
According to United Nations figures, more than 9,500 people have been killed in the fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that began in April 2014, after Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by street protests and Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula.
The region, which is also known as Donbass, forms Ukraine’s Russian-speaking industrial heartland and many local residents on both sides of the front line are deeply distrustful of the new Ukrainian government’s Western-leaning policies. However, an all-out war didn’t break out there until after the arrival of a large number of troops and heavy weaponry, chiefly believed to be Russian supplies.
Despite the carnage and the weariness of those inflicting it, there’s little expectation it will actually stop anytime soon. Ukraine says it will propose making the start-of-school cease-fire permanent at a meeting of conflict negotiators on Wednesday in Minsk, Belarus. But the word “Minsk” has become nearly synonymous with broken promises and dashed hopes.
The Minsk Protocol of September 2014, signed by Ukraine, Russia and rebel representatives, called for an end to the fighting. That agreement frayed so fast that five months later a new round of negotiations — this time including France and Germany — were held in Minsk.
Although the agreement coming from that meeting had a firmer grip and saw both sides pull back heavy weaponry from the front lines for a time, other provisions weren’t met; attacks resumed and escalated.
Under the Minsk agreements, the two rebel-controlled regions — which call themselves the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics — are to remain part of Ukraine, which disappointed many who sought absorption into Russia or outright independence. But although remaining part of Ukraine, they are to have some powers devolved to them and Ukraine is to conduct regional elections.
However, Ukraine says it will not call elections there until it is allowed full return of control of the Ukraine-Russia border, a concession the rebels are unwilling to give.
The leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, which relies heavily on support from Russia, says straight out that the stalemate is in his interest.
“Time works for us. The Minsk agreement is our great diplomatic victory, the guarantee of our independent status … The Minsk agreement tied Kiev’s hands, and we were given the opportunity to become stronger,” Alexander Zakharchenko recently told journalists.
And in a way it may work in Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s interest too, says analyst Vadim Karasyov.
“War is profitable for both sides. The separatists make money. And Poroshenko can attribute all the problems of (Ukraine’s) economy to the war,” he said.
As awful as the full-scale war was, some on Ukraine’s front lines found it preferable to the seemingly endless grind of today’s smaller clashes.
“In 2014, we suffered losses, but we won, we went ahead. We squeezed them, we beat them, they were afraid of us,” said a Ukrainian sniper who gave his name only as Corporal. “Now we’re bearing the same losses, but standing still.”