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'Simmering Conflict' In Eastern Ukraine Remains At An Impasse

A Ukrainian serviceman prepares ammunition for the fighting with pro-Russian separatists in Avdiivka, Ukraine last March.
Anatolii Stepanov
AFP/Getty Images
A Ukrainian serviceman prepares ammunition for the fighting with pro-Russian separatists in Avdiivka, Ukraine last March.

The war in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatists has reached an impasse after more than three years of fighting that has claimed more than 10,000 lives and sparked a humanitarian crisis.

Last month, the two sides conducted one of the largest prisoner swaps since the start of the conflict in 2014, representing long-awaited movement in the stalled peace process that began with the 2015 Minsk Accords. That agreement outlined provisions for a cease-fire and other measures to resolve the conflict.

The war, which erupted after the Russian annexation of Crimea, continues to impact U.S. relations with Russia and prompt many Western leaders to question Russian President Vladimir Putin's wider intentions in Eastern Europe.

BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher describes the situation in Ukraine as "a simmering conflict" with no end in sight, characterized by frequent cross-border shelling.

"The front line between the Ukrainian government forces and the Russian-backed rebel forces really hasn't moved substantially over the last few years," he tells Here & Now's Meghna Chakrabarti. "It's still a conflict which is being fought on the ground, but it's not a conflict really that either side seems to think it can win."

The USS Navy destroyer Carney arrived in Ukrainian waters this week as part of American efforts to support the Ukrainian government. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, while the U.S. and Europe have not provided significant military support to Ukraine, the ongoing conflict has damaged the prospects of collaborating with Russia on terrorism, arms control and the Syrian conflict.

In December, the Trump administration announced that it would start sending lethal weapons to Ukraine to support their forces fighting in the eastern part of the country, which sparked criticism from Russia, Fisher says.

"It's pretty rich really coming from the Russians considering it's almost accepted by almost everyone that the Russians are ... providing the support and indeed much of the manpower to the rebels in the eastern part of Ukraine," he says. "On the ground, it's not going to really shift the balance of power, but the Ukrainians are certainly pleased that the Americans have sort of increased their commitment to them."

The Trump administration has sent mixed messages on Russia's role in Ukraine, but in December, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was clear about the U.S. commitment to Ukraine.

"Russia's taking sovereign territory of Ukraine is something that we will never accept," Tillerson said at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE] summit in Vienna. "And we appreciate the strong solidarity of European partners in standing up on behalf of Ukraine to restore their sovereign territory to them."

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has blamed Ukraine for the stalemate in efforts to reach a peace agreement.

"The whole responsibility lies with Ukrainian authorities," he said in his speech at the OSCE.

The United Nations Human Rights Council estimates more than 1.6 million people have been internally displaced by the conflict, and for the nearly 3 million that remain living near the front lines, the humanitarian crisis is increasingly dire.

Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor in Ukraine for OSCE, told NPR last August that those caught in the crossfire are struggling to survive with little power, heat or running water.

"They are not in tanks and in armored vehicles," he said. "They are in their houses, in their beds. They are on the streets and in their gardens and they are fully exposed to these risks, and that has to be acknowledged. It is for them that this should come to an end."

Fisher adds that some European countries also want an end to the fighting, so economic sanctions against Russia can be lifted.

"But so far there's really been no movement in particular from the rebel side or the Russian side towards actually implementing any of those agreements," he says. "There appears at the moment no real road map out of this conflict."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.