Since declaring independence in 1991, Ukraine has formed a buffer separating East and West – torn between NATO and the Russian Federation. In 2013 this divide reached a tipping point, sparking months of violent pro-EU protests, the annexation of Crimea by Russian forces, and a Russian-backed Separatists insurgency.
With a government in disarray, lacking an effective military and fearing invasion the people of Ukraine took up arms to defend their nation.
Tens of thousands flocked to the front lines, forming pro-Ukranian militia groups, sparking an all-out war with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern state of Donbas.
Five years later, after having claimed over 13,000 lives and left 1.5 million internally displaced, the war drags on. The fighting has reduced, compared to the all-out combat of 2014 and ’15.
Both sides are in a deadlock, exhausted by war but having sacrificed too much to lay down their weapons altogether. Still daily exchanges or mortar and small-arms fire continue to rock the 400km-network of trenches and foxholes, where thousands are trapped in the crossfire.
As of October 1, 2019, Ukraine is preparing for what may be its most dangerous operation – an attempt to negotiate peace. Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky was elected earlier this year on the promise of ending the conflict, with a new perspective that pushed his popularity throughout the war-torn and impoverished east.
Earlier this month, Zelensky announced that he had signed the internationally proposed Steinmeier Formula and would start withdrawing troops from the region.
Not all are in support of the decision. Thousands of nationalists have taken to the streets of Kiev, outraged at the ‘capitulation’ to the separatist insurgency. These protests reflect a very real danger embedded within Ukranian society – capable of reigniting the war.
The recruitment of Ukraine’s self-defence militia groups, in lieu of a substantial regular army, saw thousands of Ukrainians voluntarily leaving their families and careers to fight for their nation’s sovereignty.
When the government regained its footing, it said militias would be officially integrated into the military – allowing greater accountability and control over this previously unregulated fighting forces.
Today only a fraction of the independent militias remain, and the new government takes a far less supportive position on their lawless involvement in combat. The official stance on the war is changing, but that of active militia fighters, and many ex-militiamen within the regular army, remains the same. One which they have already proved their willingness to die for.
Zelenky’s proposed accommodation of separatist forces could spur a migration of soldiers back into militia groups – a sentiment reflected by my own friends serving in the national army.
In fact, his bid for peace has led to an increase in the intensity of the fighting, proof of the ideological rift between the Ukrainians in parliament and those in the trenches.
Still, beyond the unwavering radical nationalism of many soldiers lies another, more subtle but equally dangerous condition. For thousands of men on the frontlines, the war is now the primary driving force in their lives.
Half a decade of voluntary fighting cemented the conflict as an all-encompassing aspect of their personal identity. The prospect of civilian life, let alone under the conditions of ‘surrender’, is unimaginable.
The re-grouping of militia forces is a serious potential pitfall on Ukraine’s road to peace. Fueled by passionate nationalism, and sitting upon a stockpile of Cold War-era weapons, Donbas is fragile at best. The future of Ukraine lies in the restless hands of its young militia-men as much as of its parliament.
All photos by Samuel Eder.
Samuel Eder is a photo-journalist currently documenting life on the frontlines of Ukraine’s war in Donbas.