Behind the front lines of the conflict in Ukraine
Despite calls for a political solution, the conflict between Ukraine and Russia has grown increasingly bloody in recent weeks as Russian forces and weaponry pour across the border, threatening to turn the battle for control of eastern Ukraine’s rebel-held cities into all-out war.
The separatist conflict has killed hundreds in the last few weeks, bringing the death count to more than 5,000 soldiers and civilians since the Ukrainian crisis began last March, when Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine following the pro-Western uprising that ousted Russia-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. The United States and NATO have blamed Russia for orchestrating the violence in the Donbass region, a charge denied by Moscow despite substantial evidence that Russia is providing rebels with military support including troops and heavy weaponry.
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“There are Russian forces in Ukraine. And Russia backs the separatists with equipment and we have seen a substantial increase in the flow of equipment from Russia to the separatists in Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a press conference and statement Monday. ”In recent weeks, Russia has supplied hundreds of pieces of advanced equipment, including rocket systems, heavy artillery, tanks, armored vehicles and electronic warfare systems.” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said last week that Russia had 9,000 troops inside Ukraine, Reuters reported.
The accusations – and mounting economic sanctions against Russia – did not appear to faze President Vladimir Putin, who has countered by alleging a “foreign NATO legion” is fighting alongside Ukrainian forces, a claim Stoltenberg dismissed as “nonsense.” Other Russian officials have been equally bellicose: Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin was quoted by the Interfax news agency as calling a Ukrainian offensive last week to reclaim the Donetsk International Airport a “strategic mistake” and warning that further military operations “may lead to irreversible consequences for Ukrainian statehood.”
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly called on Moscow to abide by the 12-point Minsk agreement both parties agreed to in September, which would decentralize power in the embattled Donbass and implement a bilateral ceasefire. But the peace plan collapsed in January following the separatist takeover of the Donetsk airport and the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which Ukrainian officials say did not violate the terms of the agreement. Pro-Russian separatists responded last week by expanding their offensive south to the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, threatening to connect rebel territories in the Donbass with Russian-controlled Crimea.
“On our side, we won’t make an effort to talk about a cease-fire,” Donetsk People’s Republic rebel leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko said in comments carried by Russian news agencies and published by The New York Times. “Now we’re going to watch how Kiev reacts. Kiev doesn’t understand that we can attack in three directions at once.”
Photojournalist Manu Brabo has been documenting the Ukrainian conflict from behind the scenes, photographing Ukrainian troops during military training as they prepare to head to the front lines – as well as the funerals for those soldiers who never make it home.