The U.S. special envoy for the Ukraine conflict has said 2017 was the deadliest year in the region since the outbreak of violence three years ago, and warned that hostilities are again ratcheting up.
Kurt Volker’s comments on December 19 came as international monitors reported intense shelling overnight near the town of Novoluhanske, part of the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas.
United Nations officials reported eight civilians injured and dozens of homes damaged, with winter temperatures complicating matters.
“A lot of people think that this has somehow turned into a sleepy, frozen conflict and it’s stable and now we have… a ceasefire. It’s a problem but it’s not a crisis,” Ambassador Volker said in a speech at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.
“That’s completely wrong. It is a crisis. This has been the most violent year, 2017, and frankly last night was one of the most violent nights, certainly since February, and possibly this year,” he said.
Ambassador Volker later posted several messages to Twitter, suggesting that just before the “massive escalation” in ceasefire violations, Russia had withdrawn its officers from a coordinating body run jointly with Ukraine that is helping to implement the ceasefire.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation’s (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine later confirmed the Russian side’s withdrawal from the Joint Center for Coordination and Control (JCCC). The OSCE’s confirmation came in a statement valid as of December 18 and published on December 19.
Russia’s withdrawal from the body undermines the OSCE’s operations and is an attempt by the Kremlin to force Kyiv into talks with representatives of the breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, according to Vadym Chernysh, Ukraine’s minister for temporarily occupied territories and internally displaced persons.
“The presence of Russian officers in the JCCC guaranteed, among other things, the safety of the OSCE mission’s staff,” Mr. Chernysh said.
Ambassador Volker also warned that Russia-backed forces were close to seizing a water-treatment plant in the city of Donetsk, and he called for the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the area.
The chief monitor for the OSCE mission said a sharp deterioration in the security situation had seen ceasefire violations reaching levels not recorded since February.
Chief monitor Ertugrul Apakan said on December 19 that the latest escalation showed an established trend “in which a recommitment to the ceasefire by the sides was followed by a steady increase in the level of violence, culminating in fierce fighting.”
His comments came on the heels of warnings from aid agencies over the humanitarian situation in the eastern Donbas region, particularly given a December 18 attack on the government-controlled village of Novoluhanske.
More than 10,300 people have been killed, and more than 1 million displaced, since the conflict erupted in April 2014, pitting Russia-backed separatist fighters against government forces.
Ambassador Volker was appointed earlier this year to try and push forward an agreement reached between Ukraine and Russia, along with France and Germany in February 2015 in the capital of Belarus, Minsk, to end the conflict. But the agreement has gone unfulfilled.
The United States and European Union have pushed Moscow to allow a United Nations peacekeeping force to be deployed in eastern Ukraine, but there are disputes over where the force would be located, and whether it would be allowed to patrol Ukraine’s border with Russia.
Ambassador Volker indicated that no progress had been made in negotiations with Moscow.
Copyright 2017, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036; www.rferl.org (see https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-russia-volker-2017-deadliest-year-spiking-violence/28927525.html).