On Thursday, a kindergarten was hit in an area controlled by Ukraine, less than 5 km from the front line. On Friday and Saturday, the Ukrainian authorities reported another escalation of shelling with heavy weapons, prohibited by the Minsk agreements, from a distance of 50 kilometers from the front lines.
Ukrainian authorities say there were 60 ceasefire violations on Thursday, many with heavy weapons.
The leaders of the two pro-Russian breakaway regions – who call themselves the People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk – claimed that the Ukrainians were planning a major military offensive in the region. On Friday, they organized mass evacuations of civilians to Russia, while ordering the men to stay and take up arms.
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly denied the existence of such plans. On Friday, the head of Ukraine’s National Security Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said: “There is a great danger that representatives of the Russian Federation who are there will provoke certain things. They can do things that have nothing to do with our military.”
Danilov did not provide evidence but added: “We can’t say exactly what they will do – whether they blow up buses with people scheduled to be evacuated to the Rostov region, or blow up homes – we don’t. ‘I don’t know.'”
Danilov spoke only hours after a mysterious explosion occurred in a car owned by a senior official in the city of Donetsk, near the headquarters of the separatists.
District leader Dennis Bushlin described it as an act of terrorism. But Ukrainian authorities and Western officials said it was a staged provocation – perhaps intended to justify Russian intervention.
After a relative calm for much of this year, the “line of communication” has been more active in the past few days – the future of Ukraine’s breakaway regions becoming entangled in a much wider range of Russian grievances and demands.
What is the modern history of Donbass?
War broke out in 2014 after Russian-backed rebels seized government buildings in towns and cities in eastern Ukraine. Heavy fighting left parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Donbass in the hands of Russian-backed separatists. Russia also annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, in a move that drew global condemnation.
The separatist-controlled areas of Donbas became known as the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). The Ukrainian government in Kiev asserts that the two regions are in fact under Russian occupation. The unilaterally declared republics are not recognized by any government, including Russia. The Ukrainian government refuses to speak directly with either of the two breakaway republics.
The 2015 Minsk II agreement led to a shaky ceasefire, and the conflict settled into a steady war along the line of communication separating the Ukrainian government and separatist-held areas. The Minsk Agreements (named after the capital of Belarus where they were concluded) prohibit heavy weapons near the line of contact.
The language surrounding the conflict is deeply politicized. The Ukrainian government calls the separatist forces “invaders” and “occupiers”. Russian media describe the separatist forces as “militias” and assert that they are locally defending themselves against the Kiev government.
More than 14,000 people have died in the conflict in Donbass since 2014. Ukraine says 1.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes, most residing in Donbass regions still under Ukrainian control and about 200,000 people resettled in the wider Kiev region.
How Putin ignited the conflict?
The separatists in the Donbass gained significant support from Moscow. Russia maintains that it has no soldiers on the ground there, but US, NATO and Ukraine officials say the Russian government is supplying the separatists, providing them with advisory and intelligence support, and integrating its own officers into their ranks.
And this week, Russia’s parliament recommended that the Kremlin formally recognize parts of the LPR and DPR as independent states, another escalation of rhetoric that US officials say is evidence that Putin does not intend to abide by the Minsk agreement.
Speaking on Wednesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine “will not stop until we liberate our lands in Donbass, Crimea, until Russia pays for all the damage it has done in Ukraine.”
Putin has long accused Ukraine of violating the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine, and has said it is Russia’s right to intervene militarily to protect them.
On Wednesday, Putin claimed that a “genocide” had been committed in the Donbass. His claims are not new, but the timing worries Western policymakers, who fear a repeat of the 2008 conflict in Georgia.
By invoking genocide this week, Putin was echoing Russia’s false claim that Georgia committed genocide against civilians in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia in August 2008. During that brief conflict, Russia launched a large-scale military incursion that went deep into Georgian territory.
What is happening in Donbass now?
On Saturday, people from separatist-held areas began responding to the evacuation order, leaving in buses across the Russian border. Russian authorities promised them shelter and compensation – while Russian state media covered every aspect and segregation of the limited mass immigration – with the clear message that people were leaving by the thousands for fear of Ukrainian aggression.
As of early Saturday, Russian news agencies reported that about 10,000 people had already crossed the border. Russian authorities say they are ready for up to 900,000 people to arrive, although the separatist leadership has ordered the men to stay behind and take up arms and have announced a general mobilization.
As in 2014, the Donbass region is now a crucible of East-West conflict, between Putin’s campaign to reassert control – the weakening of the Ukrainian state – and Ukrainians’ growing aspiration to join the fold of European democracies.
CNN’s Tamara Keblawi writes from Lviv, Ukraine; Nathan Hodge from Moscow; and Ivana Kutsova from Kiev, Ukraine. Anastasia Horpinchenko and Kara Fox contributed to this report.
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