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Conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas: A Visual Explainer

  • A Ukrainian service member walks along fighting positions on the contact line near the town of Avdiivka in Donetsk, on 13 February 2021.

    REUTERS/Oleksandr Klymenko

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The armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine started in 2014. It has since killed over 14,000 people. The war pits Ukrainian government forces against Russia-backed separatists for control over much of the two heavily industrialised regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, also known as Donbas. Fierce battles in 2014-2015 ended with one third of the regions' territory, its most urbanised part, in the hands of the self-described Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Between September 2014 and February 2015, Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany signed several iterations of the so-called Minsk agreements, which eventually stopped the forward movement of troops and reduced fighting significantly. But the agreements were never implemented, and the fighting has transformed into a trench war, with roughly 75,000 troops facing off along a 420-km-long front line cutting through densely populated areas. The war has ruined the area's economy and heavy industries, forced millions to relocate and turned the conflict zone into one of the world’s most mine-contaminated areas.

This visual explainer shows both the growing human cost of the war and the relationships between diplomatic efforts at de-escalation and patterns of fighting and loss of life.

Mapping Casualties

REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Our two interactive heat maps show military fatalities and civilian casualties (deaths and injuries), broken down by month, and according to the location at which the incident occurred. Maps are centered on the combat zone – the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, divided along community boundaries. Both maps illustrate how the war's impact stretches far beyond military positions.

Fatalities by Community (Combatants and Civilians)

Combatant & Civilian Fatalities type:

All

Date

Combatant & Civilian Fatalities per Community

Civilian Casualties by Community

Civilian Casualties type:

All

Date

Civilian Casualties per Community

Some months see heavier fighting, and more deaths and injuries than others. Geographically, casualties tend to be concentrated where the sides are especially close to key infrastructure, to each other, or both. You can hover over the heat map and click on individual communities to get a sense of how casualties fluctuate over time, and where they occur most often. 

Civilian casualty data in this heat map includes those killed and injured by live fire – in artillery or mortar strikes, or by bullet wounds from rifles or heavy machine guns. It also includes victims of landmines or explosive remnants of war, as well as those who died of natural causes queuing at checkpoints to cross into or from Ukrainian government-controlled territory.[fn]

A Breakdown of Casualties by Category and Cause

SPUTNIK/Sergey Averin

Combatant Fatalities by Cause

Shelling and Negotiations

Armed Forces of Ukraine/ANADOLU AGENCY/Anadolu Agency via AFP

The intensity of the fighting differs from month to month. Our way to measure it is to rely on numbers of explosions as recorded by the Special Monitoring Mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE SMM) on a daily basis. The SMM is the only international observer mission allowed to collect information from all sides, and its data, while incomplete, is the best available.

To illustrate the correlation between diplomatic efforts and the dynamics of warfare, we provide the dates of ceasefire recommitments, overlaid on this chart showing the rise and decline of explosions over time. The number of reported explosions often decreases after ceasefires, only to rise again in the absence of a durable settlement.

 

Methodology & Terminology

Sergey Averin/Sputnik/Sputnik via AFP

Methodology

Crisis Group has prepared three major datasets on the conflict to support this visual explainer: 

  1. A dataset of casualties that includes a dozen variables (age, gender, cause of death/injury, home region, etc.); 
     
  2. The daily number of explosions in the conflict zone, as reported by the OSCE SMM;
     
  3. A timeline of important political, military and international developments related to the conflict, which we plan to publish as the project evolves. 
     

Crisis Group sourced this data from open sources in Ukraine and Russia from 2020 onward. Sources for the Visual Explainer include: 

  • OSCE and UN reports;
     
  • Ukrainian military press releases;
     
  • Russian and Ukrainian official statements and online media; 
     
  • Statements by de facto authorities; 
     
  • Social media reports (groups on Vkontakte, Facebook, etc.).
     

We faced a number of limitations in tallying casualties. There is no unified source for casualties resulting from this conflict. While international organisations provide concrete, triangulated data on civilian casualties and the Ukrainian government issues detailed statements about its reported military losses, statements from de facto officials are patchy. In many cases, Crisis Group has sought to triangulate data using social media posts or to gather more information through communications with private citizens. 

Information about conflict victims is often politicised. It is likely that some non-combat casualties among fighters on both sides are sometimes reported as combat casualties, whether by officials or de facto officials, or by media. In cases where there is no information regarding location or cause of death or injury, we do not include the incident in our infographic. When we are faced with conflicting accounts regarding whether a soldier’s death or injury occurred in combat, we list the cause as “other”. Finally, military and de facto officials sometimes do not disclose the location and cause of military deaths. When tallying fatalities among Russian-backed armed groups, Crisis Group only includes those for which we could find at least one additional source. 

Sources reporting on combat casualties among the armed groups often use the word “обстрел”, a broad term that is usually translated from Russian as “shelling”, but which can in fact refer to artillery, small arms and light weapons fire. It is therefore possible we have overestimated the number of armed group fatalities caused by shelling. Furthermore, use of the term “обстрел” may in some cases indicate other causes of death, such as friendly fire or incidents related to unsafe handling of weapons. 

Crisis Group draws on the OSCE SMM daily reports for its data on the number of explosions. While the SMM also collects data on small arms fire, we have for now not included this in our graphs. Our focus at this time is on documenting major spikes in fighting that involve the use of larger caliber weapons. Explosions recorded by the OSCE are also the most reliable indicator of combat dynamics available from open sources, with the added advantage that both sides use the same indicators, counting the number of shells (mortars and artillery) fired by the other side.

Terminology

Contact line: the 420km+ strip of land that divides the warring parties, shown on our maps as it was at the start of 2020. This has not changed much since 2015. 

Donbas conflict zone: the parts of the Ukrainian oblasts (regions) of Donetsk and Luhansk held by Russia-backed separatists, as well as those parts of Donetsk and Luhansk adjacent to the contact line that are controlled by the Ukrainian government

Civilian casualties: civilians who have been killed and injured in the conflict zone in circumstances directly resulting from the war. This includes those killed and injured by live fire, as well as those whose deaths or injuries result from mines or explosive remnants of war, regardless of whether they occur near the contact line or not. It also includes those who die of health-related causes while queuing to cross the contact line. Conditions at crossing points are often suboptimal, and civilians waiting to cross may lack adequate shelter, rest facilities and medical services. Our main sources for civilian casualty data are the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission, the OSCE SMM and local media. 

Military fatalities: combat fatalities, on either warring side. Our data includes only those killed by live fire, mines and explosive devices. Crisis Group has excluded data on those wounded in action due to the complex and incomplete nature of the data, but we hope to add more on this topic in the future. 

Shelling: an incident generally involving artillery or mortar fire. Crisis Group attributes casualties to this category when victims are reported to have suffered shrapnel injuries, or when other information about the circumstances of the death or injury suggests it resulted from shelliing.

Small arms: a category that includes weapons ranging from rifles to heavy machine guns. Casualties are placed in this category if sources indicate that the person suffered a gunshot injury. 

Drone attack: an incident typically involving an improvised combat drone, constructed by attaching ammunition or a grenade to a commercial unmanned aerial vehicle.