UD. 23 July 2016.  By Iryna Terlecky.

As the death toll in Eastern Ukraine continues to rise, has the world forgotten about Ukraine’s war?

The worst month gets even worse

Attacks on Ukrainian military positions along the front line were bad enough in May and June, but July has seen an even sharper escalation. 

The Ukrainian Crisis Media Centre has reported that on 18 July alone, separatists conducted 78 attacks directed at ATO troop positions over 24 hours. 

Seven Ukrainian troops died in combat and 14 were wounded. 

On 19 July, the number of attacks decreased to 54, no Ukrainian troops were killed, but seven separatists were reported to have been killed. The number of deaths in July stands at over 30 – the highest total for some months.

The Kremlin also seems to be strengthening the supply line to its own and separatist forces. 

Ukrainian intelligence has reported that railway convoys carrying weapons, military equipment, ammunition and fuel were delivered to the northern-eastern part of Donetsk from Russia. 

The convoys include 30 railway platforms with tanks, self-propelled guns, carriages with (Russian) servicemen aboard, fuel materials, and lubricants. 

10 wagons with diesel fuel were sent to Khartsysk, while six tank-wagons with diesel fuel and railway platforms carrying military hardware platforms (two self-propelled guns, three 122mm Grad multiple-launch rocket systems, two armoured personnel carriers) were transported to Ilovaysk (the militant-held town in Donetsk region).

The build-up of weapons – including on the Ukrainian side – has been noted by OSCE observers, but in a recent interview with Unian, Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine Alexander Hug focused on the impact of conflict on civilians. 

“What I can tell you is that Minsk agreements are being continuously violated. The risks at the contact line remain, weapons are not withdrawn, the sides are too close, the fighting continues at a rapid pace. And what is very important to mention … is that the civilians suffer from this conflict severely and continue to die. 

“They can’t go to school properly, they can’t go back to work properly, they can’t visit their friends, families are divided, they get stuck at these crossing areas, and they get injured by the conflict directly and indirectly. 

“In the past few weeks, we have seen several kids being killed indirectly by the conflict. Three of them – from playing with a hand grenade, and two others down in Kominternove… the 6-year-old and a 7-year-old – they played with what appeared to be a power line severed by the fighting. 

“These children have not been targeted directly, we assume. But one thing is certain. They would be still alive as we speak had there been no conflict.”

What do the people think?

As there appears to be no end in sight to hostilities, the mood amongst Ukrainians and residents in the conflict zone appears to be changing. 

On 18 July an extraordinary rally of civilians took place in one of the areas near the front line. 

People were apparently protesting against the separatists establishing artillery detachments in residential quarters of the town. 

Separatists were reported to have broken up the rally, heavily wounding three civilians. 

To prevent further civil unrest and cover up the tragedy, the separatist command broadcast gossip that it was a militant suffering from mental disorder who shot at local inhabitants, who had left their ranks some time ago. 

Meanwhile, the latest opinion survey conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic initiatives Foundation, shows that 47 per cent of Ukrainians are willing to compromise in negotiations to achieve peace in Donbas. 

These compromises do not include elections in Donbas under the current circumstances, nor a “special status” of the region.

In the south and Donbas (where residents were surveyed by telephone), a third of Ukrainians are ready for any compromise. 43 per cent of total respondents oppose holding elections in the temporarily occupied territories; almost as many, 48 per cent – against granting them a special status.

Perhaps significantly, over the last year, the view of residents in Donbas on the introduction of peacekeeping forces has changed significantly. 

Last year, only 16 per cent were for and 68 per cent against, now these figures are 39 per cent and 36 per cent respectively.

Independent journalism under threat

Journalism is a dangerous occupation in both Russia and Ukraine. 

The latest victim is Ukrainska Pravda journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed in a car explosion in Kyiv on the morning of 20 July. 

The car exploded when Sheremet was driving it at 7.45 am in the central part of Kyiv. 

Sheremet, 44, was a Belarusian journalist and TV host who previously worked in Russia as a TV host and journalist before moving to Kyiv around five years ago. 

He supported the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests in Kyiv, publicly condemned Russian aggression against Ukraine and debunked myths about Ukraine made by Russian propaganda. 

Sheremet maintained friendly relations with Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was himself gunned down on 27 February last year near the Kremlin walls, as he walked home with his girlfriend from a restaurant

Prosecutor General Yury Lutsenko reported that based on his information Sheremet was killed as result of a bomb explosion. “This is a murder,” Lutsenko said on his Facebook page.

Ukrainska Pravda reported that Khatia Dekanoidze, Ukraine’s National Police chief, arrived at the spot of the tragedy and said it would be “matter of honour” for her to investigate this case. 

The US and EU called Sheremet’s death an attack on independent media and called on the authorities to bring the murderer to justice swiftly.

President Poroshenko was quick to post on Twitter his suspicions that a ‘foreign hand’ could be detected in the murder, but many commentators condemned his reaction, saying that this was a facile reaction which would not create any impetus for a successful investigation and prosecution. 

Others, including senior research fellow at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, Taras Kuzio, have pointed out that, in spite of brave promises, the murderer of Georgiy Gongadze has never been found and brought to justice, no-one has been prosecuted for the poisoning of President Yushchenko, and the murdered civilians on Maidan are still waiting for justice. 

Lutsenko and the Prosecutor-General’s office are still themselves very much on trial.

MH17 two years on

Many around the world commemorated the second anniversary of the MH17 disaster, as evidence now shows clearly that Russia’s claims that the Ukrainian military shot down the aircraft have been comprehensively debunked. 

A Dutch criminal report is due out later this year. It may identify the Buk’s Russian crew, but is unlikely to point the finger directly at Russia’s president. 

The chances of prosecuting anybody may be slim. Aviation lawyer James Healy-Pratt, who is acting for several of the bereaved families, says: 

“One of the frustrations here is there is real nagging doubt that truth and justice will happen. You are dealing with a country that doesn’t play by the rules.” 

However, Jerry Skinner, who is leading Australian law firm LHD’s compensation claim against Russia and Putin in the European Court of Human Rights, says he is confident of success but admits the case, like that of Lockerbie, may take years. 

The LHD lawsuit is on behalf of 16 victims from Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia, and 33 next of kin. Each claimant is seeking $10 million in damages. 

“Nothing happens in Russia that he doesn’t approve of, therefore vicariously he’s responsible,” Skinner told Reuters in an interview. 

He added that evidence from witnesses, videos, photographs, radar, air traffic control tapes supported his compensation case. 

“… I am confident in saying that it was the Russians who caused this event to occur.” 

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world

Ukraine has been knocked out of the headlines by a series of major events: the UK’s Brexit vote and concerns about whether the new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnston, will maintain the UK’s support for sanctions against Russia; the terrorist tragedy in Nice; the coup attempt in Turkey which raises fears about a new authoritarianist regime in Europe; and the results of the independent investigation which revealed widespread state-sponsored doping in Russia – which may lead to the whole Russian sporting delegation being banned from the Olympics, with the ban on their track and field athletes having been upheld. 

And then there’s Donald Trump, who not only has the distinction of having former Kremlin advisers on his advisory staff, but who raised new fears by saying that his US government would not necessarily support NATO allies such as the Baltic States unless they had ‘fulfilled their obligations to the US’.

We do, indeed, live in uncertain times.

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