MARIUPOL, Ukraine— For more than two years, Ukraine’s military has been fighting a ground war against a combined force of pro-Russian separatists and Russian regulars in the Donbas, Ukraine’s embattled southeastern territory.
As Ukraine prepares for the 25th anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union this Wednesday, the ongoing war in the Donbas highlights how the post-Soviet country is still fighting to establish its freedom from Russian vassalage.
“The dream of Ukrainian independence existed in the USSR, but we couldn’t talk about it,” Kovbel Vasyl Vasyliyovych, a 62-year-old Ukrainian soldier, told The Daily Signal. “The environment was one in which you only tried to survive. You didn’t express yourself. I feel like now I can finally express sentiments that I’ve had bottled up inside me my whole life.”
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The war in Ukraine is a bizarre, paradoxical fusion of antiquated fighting methods with modern technology. It is a trench warfare battle, where heavy artillery is fired every day and drones orbit overhead. Small units engage each other in no man’s land, but there are no serious attempts to take new ground. The war is static, governed in its intensity by the terms of the Minsk II cease-fire. It’s like two boxers sparring at half speed, sparing themselves for the main event.
It has been nearly 100 years since the Russian Civil War began, sparking events that led to the consolidation of Ukraine into the Soviet Union—a loss of independence that lasted until Aug. 24, 1991. Today, many Ukrainian soldiers say they are still fighting for Ukraine’s independence from Moscow.
“The separatists are the weapons of the Russians,” Borys Antonovich Melnyk, a 75-year-old Ukrainian volunteer soldier and Red Army veteran, said in an interview.
“They were turned by Russian propaganda against Ukraine,” Melnyk said. “They are Russia’s weapons. They are the weapons, not the reasons. This is not only a war against the separatists, this is a war against Russia.”
It has also been about 100 years since combat airpower made its debut over the trenches in World War I. Today, Ukraine’s air force now sits on the ground while its soldiers dodge artillery and tank shots.
And despite the front lines ending on the Sea of Azov, there is no naval component to the war, either.
The last major offensive in the war was in February 2015. In the days after the signing of the second cease-fire, known as Minsk II, combined Russian-separatist forces sacked the strategic rail hub town of Debaltseve, seizing it from Ukrainian government control.
Since the Debaltseve battle, periodic upticks in violence predictably spur flurries of media speculation about whether a major Russian offensive is looming. Yet, the war has not changed in any meaningful way in more than a year and a half. No significant territory has changed hands, and the opposing camps have made scant progress toward achieving a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
And periodic spats between Kyiv and Moscow, such as the Aug. 10 border skirmishes in Crimea, underscore how the conflict retains the potential to quickly spiral into something much worse.
Today, U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence sources estimate the combined Russian-separatist army has about 45,000 troops inside Ukrainian territory, with about 45,000 more Russian soldiers staged in Russia along the western border with Ukraine. Russia also has about 45,000 military personnel stationed inside occupied Crimea. Ukraine has deployed about 100,000 soldiers to its eastern territories.
“The Russian people are not the enemy,” Vasyliyovych said. “Half of my relatives and friends live in Russia. It’s a political war. The Soviet propaganda is still there. And [Russian President Vladimir] Putin still uses it the same way as they did in the USSR.”
Ad Hoc War
The Ukrainian army’s 92nd Brigade is hunkered down in trenches and in the basements of abandoned homes scattered throughout the artillery-blasted ruins of the village of Pisky, on the outskirts of the separatist-controlled Donetsk airport in eastern Ukraine.
Squads of Ukrainian soldiers on patrol carry at least one radio among them. The radio, usually an off-the-shelf Motorola, is their advance warning system for incoming artillery.
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