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Refugee-hit Turkey’s new Syrian Kurdish Dilemmas
Refugee-hit Turkey’s new Syrian Kurdish Dilemmas
Visualising the Dynamics of Combat and Negotiations in Donbas
Visualising the Dynamics of Combat and Negotiations in Donbas

Refugee-hit Turkey’s new Syrian Kurdish Dilemmas

ŞENYURT, Turkey: Fleeing from fighting and hunger in north-eastern Syria a year and a half ago, Abdullah’s family found refuge in a crowded refugee camp in Turkey. Nine months later, his three-year-old son Mohammed caught meningitis. Fearing for the health of his other two children, Abdullah rented a room in a mud-brick house here in the small town of Şenyurt, joining the little-seen Kurdish minority among Turkey’s one million Syrian “urban refugees”.

As Mohammed lay immobile, Turkish hospitals tried to treat him. But doctors’ advice was largely unintelligible to Abdullah’s Kurdish- and Arabic-speaking family. Above all, Abdullah felt that the Turkish medicines weren’t good enough. So he returned to the country from which he had escaped, even taking the daily Syrian Airways flight from the northern town of Qamishli to Damascus in search of “stronger” medicine. “At least his eyes are open now”, Abdullah said.

A three-year-old Syrian Kurdish refugee lies paralysed with meningitis in Şenyurt, watched by his family. Following the subsequent intervention of a Turkish journalist, the Turkish government took the boy off for new treatment in a state hospital. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

Abdullah’s journeys are just one of many paradoxes on the eastern end of Turkey’s 911km-long border with Syria. Many stem from Turkey’s conflicted and evolving view of ethnic Kurds, who are the majority on both sides of the frontier here in Mardin province. Some in Turkey challenge the legitimacy of the border itself, which, drawn a century ago by imperial Britain and France, cuts a once united town in half along the railway line – Syria’s al-Darbasiya to the south, Turkey’s Şenyurt to the north. Others believe Turkey would be mad to do anything to open up the border and empower the Syrian Kurds who dominate three cantons south of the border. They believe they have a mortal enemy in the main Syrian Kurdish militia, the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, PYD), the Syrian sister party of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkarane Kurdistan, PKK), which has waged an insurgent war against Ankara for three decades. (For more on the PYD, see Crisis Group’s 8 May report Flight of Icarus: The PYD’s Precarious Rise in Syria.)

Şenyurt represents a compromise between these two positions: little aid ever gets across the Syrian Kurdish sections of the border, but most days Turkish soldiers allow 500-600 Syrians, mostly Kurds, to cross each way between an improvised chicane of sandbags by a railway siding. Just ten metres away flies the flag of the PYD’s first checkpoint. To many Kurds in the region, such normalisation is a glimpse of hope that a peace process sporadically under way since the late 2000s between Turkey and the PKK may be leading to more relaxed policies, not just in Turkey, but also towards the PYD.

Further on inside al-Darbasiya, officials and armed elements loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad remain in their posts. This is the case in most other PYD-dominated towns, adding another layer of complexity for the Turkish government, which has vowed to do everything to see Assad removed from office. But for now such complications – not to mention the turmoil close by in Syria and Iraq – seem a long way from the pleasant tea garden Turkey has arranged for families to sit in while waiting to cross. On the mid-June evening I visited, a pair of young Syrian Arabs wanting to go back home had arrived after the border had closed, and were settling down to spend the evening in the lee of a railway building with a few beers.

As the Syria crisis enters its fourth year, this mix of Syrian Kurds coming and going, politics and ethnic strains make Mardin province an increasingly sensitive part of Turkey’s massive refugee burden. Overall, there are now 220,000 Syrians living in camps and – according to Veysel Dalmaz, Turkey’s “Coordinator Governor” for Syrian refugees – perhaps as many as one million more living in towns. At least one quarter of urban refugees are completely unregistered, and most are outside the scope of humanitarian assistance. Many are very poor. With only 23 per cent of registered refugees being male and over the age of eighteen, and usually much older, the lack of working-age menfolk can be a grave disadvantage for many families.

International experts say the strict security and fencing of refugee camps is normal and vital to protect them from possible predatory behaviour by outsiders. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

One of the camps is in Mardin province, near Midyat. Guiding our group of visitors around the immaculately maintained tents and shipping container-sized metal huts in which refugees live, Governor Dalmaz said Turkey was on a learning curve. At first, he said, Turkey supplied refugees with cooked food, but then realised “it was expensive and unsatisfactory to them”. Instead, it has allowed a system mostly funded by the UN’s World Food Programme to give families 85 lira ($42) every month to buy and cook their own food. “It ended a lot of waste and reduced our costs by 70 per cent of what we spent in the past. It reduced stress, and halved the number of people going to hospital”, Dalmaz said. “It’s a first in the world, and all our 22 camps are run like this now”.

The Midyat camp is set in stony, near-desert hills 50km north of the Syrian border. Unlike similar camps visited by Crisis Group in Hatay at the western end of the border in 2013, in this camp few families said their menfolk were active opposition fighters (see our blog “For now, Turkey Copes Well with Syrian Influx in Hatay Province”). The camp is currently just half-full – it was originally set up for refugees from Syria’s Syriac Christian community, but few stayed in Turkey, and not in camps – and refugees have only minor complaints. Standing in the camp’s neat supermarket, where refugees are able to use their new credit cards to buy food, Ahmed, director of the camp’s 1,000-pupil school, listed just three demands: asphalt on the roads between the tents and containers, to keep down the omnipresent dust; new covering material for the tents; and new clothes for the women and children. One refugee complained that the fresh food on display in the camp shop was “just because you’re visiting”.

Reflecting the shock of lives suddenly turned upside down, other refugees complained that they even wanted more air conditioners. International aid worker Anton Vanzupten, a veteran of far more impoverished African emergencies, explained: “We have to understand it as a question of where they were, and where they are now”. Still, many camp residents were grateful for what they’d got.

“I can work ten days a month in town, and look what I can buy in town, and at half the price of the camp shop”, complained Ali, a refugee who dragged me off to his immaculate tent to show off a fridge full of fresh produce. “Still, the administration of the camp is fine, and my kids like the kindergarten. It’s good”.

Aid workers said the card system only started in this camp in May, and that more competition and control would soon bring prices down.Governor Dalmaz said Ankara needs longer-term policies, as it is unlikely there will be a quick return home for the Syrian refugees. He said he was seeking his government’s official endorsement of refugee school certificates so school graduates can go to Turkish universities. He wants work permits issued “at least temporarily so refugees can get by, not sit around”. Unusually for senior Turkish officials, he also called for more Turkish engagement with international NGOs. “If we can have international NGOs, then let them help! All we need is a roadmap [from Ankara]”, he said. Such ideas are also principal recommendations made by Crisis Group in its 30 April 2014 report The Rising Costs of Turkey’s Syrian Quagmire.

A refugee in Midyat camp shows off his Turkish-supplied tent kitchen in the ancient town of Midyat, a few kilometres from the Midyat camp. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

Few Syrian Kurds go to the camps, and the Midyat camp is nearly entirely Sunni Arab. Most of the few Kurds who did go into camps along the Turkish border left in 2012, as tensions between them and Syrian Arabs rose after fighting between rival ethnic militias broke out in Syria. Another reason is that many Syrian Kurdish refugees have relatives to stay with in Mardin. Mehmet Timurağaoğlu, president of a local NGO platform, reckons about 100,000 urban Syrians, almost all Kurds, are living unregistered new lives in the province, working as field labourers, drivers, shepherds, and in construction. This is more than double the figure estimated for the province by the UN.

Overall, Veysel Ayhan, a humanitarian activist working with the Syrian Kurds who is also president of Ankara’s International Middle East Peace Research Center, estimates that 250,000 of the Syrian refugees in Turkey are Kurds, mostly living in Mardin and other eastern, Kurdish-speaking provinces. Another 200,000 Syrian Kurds have gone to Iraqi Kurdistan, he believes. Normally there are 2-2.5 million Kurds in Syria, 10-15 per cent of the overall population.

Efforts to bring aid to Syrian Kurds in Turkey have lagged behind aid distributions at the western end of the Turkey-Syria border. According to Timurağaoğlu, one promising idea in Mardin is a “twin families” program, 100 local families who have taken responsibility to pay for the welfare of a refugee family each, mostly Kurds helping Kurds. “We’ve managed to set up some schools too, but this is going to go on a long time, and we need more long-term plans”, Mr Timurağaoğlu said. Another new aid effort in the province, designed by Germany’s Welthungerhilfe and funded by the EU’s humanitarian office ECHO, aims to put 40 lira ($20) per person monthly in the pockets of the poorest 8,000 refugees. A family of five would then still only receive a quarter of the minimum amount needed to live, which would at least pay for housing, usually the biggest problem refugees face. Still, it is also only a small step towards financing the overall Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey, where UN emergency programs are only one-third funded, and the outside world has contributed less than one tenth of the $3 billion cost to Ankara.

The Şenyurt home of Turkish nurse Nadire Demircan (R), who has divided up her house and given a large room and access to a toilet to a four-person Syrian refugee family who she’d seen living for three days on the street in town. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

Problems at the eastern end of the Turkey-Syria border could get much worse. Mardin NGO leader Timurağaoğlu said the population in many PYD-dominated Syrian cities over the border had doubled due to internal displacement, and Turkey could be their next destination. Abdulrahman Suleyman, a Syrian Kurdish tribal leader, said the best way for Turkey to pre-empt any new wave of refugees would be to reverse a policy that blocks most cross-border humanitarian aid. “People fled mainly because of a lack of food, medicine and electricity”, he said. A leader of Mardin’s Rojava Initiative, set up to support the Syrian Kurdish areas, said that when they printed 60,000 schoolbooks for the area, Turkish officials refused to let them across border.

This Syrian Kurdish refugee was once a butcher in the northern Syrian town of Tal Tamer, 90km from the Turkish border. He was forced by fighting, dwindling foodstocks and lack of medicine to flee with two of his children. CRISIS GROUP/Hugh Pope

Turkey has only occasionally allowed supplies to pass to Syria’s north east, since the PYD dominates the area and the Syrian government is still present in many ways. Suleyman said that of 79 UN trucks sent over the nearby Nusaybin-Qamishli border gate in March 2014, “not a single truck came to us. It was all sent to [regime-controlled areas like] Banias and Latakia”. Turkey has allowed humanitarian and other aid to cross the border further to the west, even sometimes supplying areas controlled by the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL).

But ISIL’s threatening sweep through the territories south of this stretch of Turkish border this month are changing Ankara’s perceptions. One aid agency says it has been asked to stop supplying ISIL areas, and there are signs of further warming of Turkish perceptions towards the Kurds, especially in Iraq. (As commentator Cengiz Çandar put it in Al-Monitor after Iraqi Kurds advanced this month to take full control of the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, “Only a couple of years ago any Kurdish claim to Kirkuk was a red line for Turkey. Now, Turkey is not only reconciling itself to Kurdish control over Kirkuk, but it is considering it the best option”.) A senior Turkish official hinted to Crisis Group that the on/off talks with the Syrian Kurdish PYD over the past year may result in more open policies towards them, “slowly, slowly”.

Veysel Ayhan, the humanitarian activist working with Mardin’s Syrian Kurds, said it would be in Turkey’s best interest to let humanitarian supplies over to the PYD areas. “We have to get the food to places where the refugee flow is coming from. The PYD areas are currently safe, and there would be no problem [with the Syrian government’s intervening] if the shipments were regular. The refugees might even go back”, he said. “But the area has had almost no aid for three and half years, and right now there’s nothing left there, no food, and maybe 2-3 million people, and those who are now coming are fleeing hunger, not fighting. And if they start moving over the border they won’t just come to Mardin, but will go on to Istanbul and to Europe too”.


The names of the refugees in this story have been changed. Crisis Group would like to thank the Delegation of the European Union in Turkey and the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Office (ECHO) for arranging visits to their projects, partners and beneficiaries in the region.

Boys stay on top of the war memorial complex Savur-Mohyla, damaged in the recent conflict, outside the rebel-held city of Donetsk, Ukraine 8 September 2020. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Visualising the Dynamics of Combat and Negotiations in Donbas

Efforts to bring peace to Ukraine’s Donbas region have been deadlocked for years. The steps the belligerents take to de-escalate violence can save lives, but people still die on the front lines and beyond. Crisis Group’s new visual explainer puts these dynamics in stark relief.

The war in eastern Ukraine began in March 2014. It pits separatists backed by Russia against the Ukrainian government in two industrial regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, which are part of an area known as Donbas. The war was ugliest in its first year, when battles raged for territory and strategic position. Two peace agreements – known as the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 – put an end to the major fighting. They also laid out a roadmap for the reabsorption of the separatist-controlled regions into Ukraine, which calls, among other things, for Kyiv to grant these areas limited self-governing status. Implementation has stalled, however, and in the meantime some 75,000 troops – mostly Ukrainian citizens on both sides – still face off along a 450km front that cleaves Donbas in two. Some 800,000 civilians also live in the line of fire, while several million others reside in areas ridden with mines and unexploded shells. The death toll for the conflict creeps upward nearly every week and is now over 14,000.

Crisis Group’s new interactive feature, “Conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas: A Visual Explainer”, maps both military and civilian casualties and illustrates the links between ceasefires and lulls in combat. It shows that ceasefires work – until they crack under the weight of deadlocked negotiations. It further shows that civilian casualties from live fire clearly correlate with intense combat in urban and suburban areas, falling to almost nil when ceasefires are in place. Civilian casualties from mines, however, do not correlate with whether or not a ceasefire is in place and have lately risen, likely due to increased foot traffic through heavily mined areas.

Taken together, the data presented by this new explainer indicate that in the absence of a durable political solution, if the parties want to honour their stated intent to limit civilian casualties, they should commit to disengagement from high-traffic areas and to comprehensive demining. Both of these steps are hard sells to field commanders, for whom holding territory generally takes precedence. But disengagement is the only way to bring casualty rates reliably down, short of the impractical exercise of relocating civilians away from danger.

Combat Kills Civilians

The geography of the Donbas war all but guarantees civilian casualties. The front, known as the line of separation or line of contact, runs right through what was once the most densely populated part of Ukraine. Its central segments curve around coal mines, coke foundries and steel plants, while the southern and northern ends cut through farmland and picturesque meadows previously used for recreation. Dotting the combat zone on either side of the front are apartment blocks and weekend homes with garden plots. Today, industries are functioning at a fraction of their former capacity. Fields lie fallow, littered with mines and shells, while fighters on both sides have taken over vacation and retirement homes. Most families with the means to do so have left.

But some have stayed. Roughly 200,000 residents remain within 5km of the line of separation on the government-controlled side, while their neighbours just over the trenches number roughly 600,000. Any exchange of fire endangers the lives and disrupts the livelihoods of large numbers of people, a significant portion of them elderly.

Crisis Group’s visual explainer tracks civilian and combatant casualties, differentiating them by cause. It shows, for instance, that the vast majority – roughly 80 per cent – of live-fire (shelling and gunfire) civilian casualties occur in areas controlled by Russian-backed separatists. The ebb and flow of civilian casualties in these areas largely tracks with those of military casualties. The higher civilian casualty rate in non-government-controlled areas is due to the fact that these places are more urban and populous. Users of Crisis Group’s map can see that these casualties are concentrated around the front’s central section near the separatist-controlled cities of Donetsk and Horlivka, but also bleed across the line into the former Donetsk suburb of Mariinka, which Ukrainian government forces hold. Horlivka and the Donetsk suburbs are fairly densely populated. The high civilian casualties there may also be related to the position of combatants: troops on both sides are posted in residential streets or very close to them.

Civilian casualties are heavily concentrated in the most populous, urban areas of the front line, near Donetsk and Horlivka.

In Hirske and Kadiivka districts, where combatant deaths since the start of 2020 have been highest, civilian casualties from live fire also closely track combatant casualties, in that they go up and down in tandem. But civilian casualty numbers are also lower than in Donetsk or Horlivka, likely because most troops are dug in farther away from large towns. Together, the numbers suggest that neither side is trying to hit civilians but also that combatants are not doing all they can to avoid collateral damage.

Ceasefires Save Lives

To assess the impact of ceasefires on casualties, Crisis Group charted the latter over time, noting each ceasefire agreement on a line graph. This simple analysis indicates that whatever else they do, and however short-lived they may be, ceasefires do save lives: each ceasefire is closely correlated with a reduction in casualties, and the stricter its provisions, the fewer the casualties.

Levels of violence in the combat zone drop after ceasefires are in place.

The most recent ceasefire, which had particularly strict provisions, had the greatest effect. Commencing in July 2020, it banned combatants from initiating firefights for any reason and imposed strict limitations on return fire, as well. In the seven months that followed the agreement, combatant fatalities dropped to less than half the number in the seven months prior (82 killed by live fire between January and July 2020, and 36 between August 2020 and February 2021), while civilian deaths and injuries from live fire fell from 50 to 5 in the same period, with almost no civilians hurt from August 2020 to 30 January 2021 (two civilians suffered hearing loss due to an explosion on 12 November). As further evidence of the agreement’s effectiveness, in comments to Ukrainian media and to Crisis Group, front-line dwellers spoke of improved security after it was signed.

Although the visual explainer covers only the period from January 2020 to the present day, data from 2019 tells a similar story. Then, too, a ceasefire went into effect in July. Of the 56 casualties from live fire that UN monitors recorded between 16 May and 15 August 2019, all but one occurred before the ceasefire.

New Casualty Trends

The data breakdown also shows that while both civilian and combatant casualties from heavy weaponry in the past seven months remain lower than before the July 2020 ceasefire, small arms fire during this period accounts for a larger portion of casualties. The use of heavy weaponry like artillery and mortars is prohibited by the Minsk agreements and has in fact declined.

But both sides are still using these weapons on occasion, so the reduction of casualties also suggests that they have been able to better calibrate their fire using drones and other modern equipment in order to lessen collateral damage. Civilian casualties from heavy weapons declined fivefold year-on-year in the first six months of 2021, while casualties from small arms held steady. Combatant casualties from heavy weapons also fell, albeit less dramatically, even as deaths among Ukrainian government troops from small arms – and sniper fire, in particular – have risen from eighteen in 2020 to 24 in 2021 to date. This uptick is consistent with Crisis Group interviews and Ukrainian media reports pointing to increased activity by Russian-backed (and allegedly Russian) snipers.

A breakdown of civilian casualties by cause and type. Casualties from live fire have decreased, while those from mines and explosive objects have increased.

Additionally, as civilian casualties from live fire have fallen in the past year, deaths and injuries from mines and unexploded ordnance have crept up: these accounted for one fourth of casualties in 2020-2021, but doubled year-on-year in the first half of 2021. Throughout the eighteen-month period, the bulk of such casualties have occurred along the banks of the Siversky Donets river, which divides the government-controlled part of the Luhansk region from the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic. The forests through which the river runs are heavily mined but see almost no live fire. More people than usual may be tramping through the forests because economic decline associated with COVID-19 is forcing them to collect firewood for fuel. Many are also fishing in the river for sustenance. Reports also suggest that residents are smuggling food and other goods across the river, which puts them at risk, though it is not clear whether they have stepped up this activity recently or not. Meanwhile, in other areas, the drop-off in live fire may simply mean that residents feel comfortable wandering farther from home, increasing their chances of tripping mines.

Map showing the geographic distribution of mine-related incidents over time. The worst-affected areas flank the Siversky Donets river in Luhansk region.

Why Do Ceasefires Fail?

The July 2020 ceasefire was perhaps the sole diplomatic success in a period otherwise marked by deepening acrimony between the two sides. Throughout 2020 and 2021, the parties undertook a series of tit-for-tat measures that have made the Minsk agreements’ eventual implementation look less and less likely. In June 2020, the parliament in Kyiv passed a decree stating that Ukraine would recognise elections held in areas controlled by Russia-backed separatists only after the government had regained control of the eastern border, contradicting a controversial provision of the agreements. The separatist regions’ de facto authorities retaliated by holding up progress in fulfilling commitments to prisoner exchanges, sectoral military disengagements and enhanced civilian freedom of movement. In September 2020, the sides fell into a bitter dispute over an attempt at joint inspection of troop positions near the city of Horlivka, as well as later efforts to establish a joint mechanism for monitoring ceasefire violations. Three months later, in December, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at his annual press conference that Kyiv had almost given up on the Minsk accords – and promised to increase Moscow’s support for the de facto republics, which also undercut the deal.

From that point onward, violence increased steadily. From August through November 2020, the average day saw fewer than ten explosions along the front, but December saw several days with more than 100, with the total sometimes nearing 200. At least eight combatants were killed that month, followed by another seven in January and 21 in February. April 2021 was the deadliest month for combatants since January 2020, with 22 fatalities on both sides combined.

Combat casualties declined in the first months of the July 2020 ceasefire.

That month, Russia massed troops near Ukraine’s border in numbers not seen since 2015, when its forces had helped wage a series of devastating battles on Ukrainian soil. It did so on the pretext of a spike in ceasefire violations at the front, although the separatists it backed were just as responsible as Ukrainian forces for the infractions.

Increasing violence does suggest ... that when peace talks lose momentum, both parties see diminishing incentives to exercise restraint

Moscow’s troop build-up was likely about geopolitical signalling rather than a prelude to a possible incursion. But if, on this occasion, violence in Donbas provided the Kremlin with a convenient, if dubious, alibi for its aggressive behaviour, it does not follow that every uptick in fighting stems from a particular side’s pursuit of political goals. Increasing violence does suggest, however, that when peace talks lose momentum, both parties see diminishing incentives to exercise restraint. As a Ukrainian commander told Crisis Group in 2020, the army needs to either fight or disengage: along the Donbas front lines, troops can hold their fire for only so long in the absence of steps toward peace. Yet, as the April scare demonstrates, any escalation at the front risks handing Moscow an excuse to further threaten Kyiv.

Obstacles to Protecting Civilians

Both sides claim to be defending the lives of their Ukrainian compatriots, suggesting that they should be motivated to agree to better protect civilians. In practice, however, things are not so simple, and military calculations generally prevail over humanitarian concerns.

Separatist leaders have shown themselves more than willing to use civilian casualties for propaganda purposes. Noting that the de facto republics’ constituents make up the majority of live-fire casualties, they cite the numbers of dead and wounded as proof of Kyiv’s villainy. They have also been known to spread highly dubious reports of civilian deaths, possibly to garner greater support from their patrons in Moscow. For example, in April 2021, as Russia was deploying troops to areas bordering Ukraine, they announced that a Ukrainian drone strike had killed a five-year-old boy in a Donetsk suburb. In fact, the boy had died some 15km from the front, out of the Ukrainian drones’ range, possibly by setting off an unexploded shell he found in his yard. (Indeed, Crisis Group data shows that 75 per cent of incidents in which children were killed or injured by unexploded ordnance in 2020-2021 occurred in separatist-held areas, pointing to a genuine problem that de facto authorities should confront.) Meanwhile, de facto officials tend to be unwilling to admit that shooting from positions in areas like the Donetsk suburbs can provoke return fire and lead to civilian deaths. They have baulked at suggestions that they move their troops to keep locals out of the line of fire.

On the other side, public figures in government-controlled Ukraine sometimes overlook or minimise the problem of civilian casualties from live fire. Losses among civilians frequently do not make it into Ukrainian news reports, partly due to journalists’ lack of access to reliable sources in areas across the line; media tends to focus on the heroism of government troops. Some Ukrainians sticking up for the military imply that civilians, particularly in the separatist-controlled areas, are themselves to blame for their fate, having stubbornly remained in their homes while soldiers, as the troops’ defenders see it, are risking life and limb for a greater cause. “Do you think we didn’t have grandmothers when we went off to die? Maybe these are people, but they are not citizens”, a renowned veteran told Crisis Group in 2019, while expressing frustration at President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s promises to wind down combat in Donbas.

Efforts to limit civilian casualties through stricter ceasefire provisions have also triggered backlash against Ukrainian officials. In mid-2019, Kyiv proposed a ban on return fire. President Zelenskyy’s press secretary defended the proposal, arguing that when government troops shoot back at opponents positioned in populated areas, “our people die, our Ukrainians”. Opposition politicians accused Kyiv of ignoring the imperatives of fighting an invading force; high-ranking military personnel accused the press secretary of defamation, activists said she was echoing Russian propaganda and Ukraine’s prosecutor general summoned her for questioning on the grounds that she was assisting the enemy. The proposal was dropped for the time being, and the sides struck a more lenient agreement. But that 2019 agreement proved weaker, shorter-lived and less clearly beneficial for civilians than the one that followed in 2020, which did integrate a ban on return fire. If avoiding the issue of return fire may have short-term tactical and political benefits, the consequences of doing so deepen resentment among civilians on both sides and only make Kyiv’s climb toward reintegrating its lost territories steeper.

What to Do

The steps that would save lives are evident but difficult. Crisis Group has in the past recommended pursuing mutual disengagement in areas of high civilian traffic. Demining would also help. But international observers with knowledge of the negotiations say combatants are unlikely to disengage from high-traffic areas – which happen to be where the worst fighting of 2014-2015 occurred, as both sides consider them strategically and symbolically significant – without a comprehensive peace settlement. Nor do specialists think that either side – particularly not the de facto republics – will pursue demining as long as fighting continues.

As neither disengagement nor demining is likely, and neither military will move the trenches away from inhabited areas, a few Kyiv lawmakers have proposed relocating inhabitants of those areas as a way to save civilian lives. The idea has many downsides, among them its impracticability in the highly populated non-government-controlled areas. In government-controlled Ukraine, it may be more feasible, and perhaps more acceptable to the population. According to aid workers and staff at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe ceasefire monitoring mission, more front-line dwellers are seeking to move away than in previous years. Those who stayed to be closer to loved ones on the other side of the line of separation can no longer see them anyway, due to COVID-19 restrictions, even as lockdowns have deepened the economic woes of cities and towns along the front.

The two sides will need to decide that costs of a simmering conflict outweigh the risks of compromise

In any case, none of these measures – disengagement, demining, or relocation – will bring the region the peace that it truly needs. For peace to come, the two sides will need to decide that costs of a simmering conflict outweigh the risks of compromise and an imperfect solution. Crisis Group has developed the visual explainer to illustrate the costs both sides are incurring, as well as the unpredictability and volatility of military activity at the Donbas front lines. The explainer also demonstrates that diplomacy – including that aimed at ceasefires – reduces the level of combat and saves lives. Breaking ceasefires, conversely, gives no one an advantage. In 2020-2021, a period during which a ceasefire was instituted and then fell apart, the two sides appear to have suffered a comparable number of deaths – 146 among the separatists and 112 in the Ukrainian army. Collapsed ceasefires favour neither side; they just lead to a bloodier stalemate.