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Western powers blame Russian president Vladimir Putin for starting the conflict by illegally annexing Crimea in — the first appropriation of European territory since the second world war — providing the catalyst for Russian-backed separatists to seize the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Lugansk.
While Mr Putin says Crimea has always been part of Russia, his actions in Ukraine are seen as part of a growing charge sheet that includes US election meddling , military intervention to back the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the nerve agent attack on a former Russian double agent in the British cathedral city of Salisbury.
Bound by the terms of the Minsk ceasefire agreements, both sides are barred from using air strikes, tanks and heavy weaponry. This has created the conditions for an attritional land war which marks a throwback to another age, where soldiers fight in trenches with shells, grenades and sniper fire.
Consequently, the death toll continues to rise. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitors the conflict, in August said that a total of 30 civilians had been killed on both sides so far this year. The Ukrainian army says 80 of its soldiers have died over the same period. There are no signs of a resolution in sight.
Before the war, this road was one of the symbols of Ukrainian economic progress, built primarily for the European football championships. Now it forms part of the front line. As the highway nears Avdiivka, about 20km from the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, it becomes too treacherous to continue. Access to the city can only be made via bumpy back roads. Yet daytime in Avdiivka can be deceptively calm.
For most of the world, the war in Ukraine is forgotten
Parents stroll the streets with young children while a group of pensioners has set up an impromptu market in the centre, selling milk and other produce. In the distance, occasional gunfire can be heard along with the deep boom of shelling. Will this continue another 20 years?
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Much of the fighting in Avdiivka takes place in an industrial area on the outskirts of the city, where troops on both sides are well dug in. Pavel, a bearded and battle-hardened year-old Ukrainian soldier, says the nature of the war has changed. The shortest distance between our positions is 70m to 80m, you can see their eyes. Eduard Basurin, deputy commander of the 20,strong Donetsk-based separatist forces, denies the claim.
Getting a clear picture of life on the other side of the war is difficult. At a civilian crossing point at Maiorska near the separatist-held city of Horlivka, a dozen cars are queueing to cross into the DPR. The International Committee of the Red Cross said 1m crossings take place at points like this every month, which close periodically when fighting flares up. Waiting in her car, Horlivka resident Svetlana explained that she often makes the journey to the Ukrainian-controlled side with her father, Nikolay, to collect his pension and buy produce, some of which is cheaper there.
Everything was fine. Living standards are bad, infrastructure is heavily damaged. Gas, electricity and water are hard to come by. For his part, Mr Basurin, the separatist commander, blames a Ukrainian blockade for these economic woes. In Ukrainian-controlled areas, the authorities are not only trying to repel a Russian-backed enemy, they are also having to win the hearts and minds of Russian speakers.
In the opening phases of the war , Ukrainian forces were hampered by a lack of combat training and rusting Soviet equipment.
The weapons are seen by military analysts as a game-changer in the event of an all-out assault by Russian-backed forces. Before testing the Stugnas, troops launched a series of Soviet-era weapons including Shturm and Fagot missiles, demonstrating clearly the handicaps they faced in the initial stages of the conflict. Some rockets failed to launch. One fell off the side of an armoured vehicle while another misfired, smashing into the ground and leaving a training trench in flames.
Q&A: Russia Attacks Ukraine Again. How Should Ukraine, NATO, and the West Respond?
A ceasefire in the embattled areas of eastern and southwestern Ukraine was declared Friday. The second thing Putin is after "is the historical notion of New Russia. Putin is bringing this up now not only as a way to create a connection to Crimea," Hillis says, but also "to leave the Ukrainian state divided and fractured and to create a psychological impact as well. The pro-Russian forces that had pushed along the coast of Ukraine, however, are just the latest in a line of invaders, occupiers, and settlers from ancient times to the present who have tried to occupy this strategic stretch.
A Ukrainian soldier rests as he patrols territory close to a Ukrainian checkpoint near the town of Gorlovka.
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Fighting was reportedly still ongoing in the city of Mariupol hours after a ceasefire was declared Friday. For centuries it was a no-man's-land. And in between them was this kind of vast cordon of steppeland or what we would call prairie. It was also "flat and easy to conquer," adds the University of Chicago's Hillis.
As a result, after that it was a borderland for many centuries between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.
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The area was called the Wild Fields "essentially because it was, well, a big field," she explains. The region had this mythology around it as this place of freedom and lawlessness, the borderland of empires. By the 18th century, however, Russia had won much of the territory—including Crimea—for itself, and the term "Wild Field" was largely replaced with "Novorossiya.
Russia Understands Ukraine’s Geopolitical Importance but Does the West? - Atlantic Council
But controlling the southern coastal territory isn't the only way to access Crimea from mainland Russia. The Nazis tried to build a bridge over the Kerch Strait but only got so far before the Russians advanced on Crimea in A bridge would also allow the German 17th Army to get thousands of tons of supplies along southern routes deeper into the mainland. But the Nazis only got so far before the Russians advanced on Crimea in But the winter and the icy strait took their toll on the hastily finished bridge, says Bennett.
Armed militiamen from the pro-Russian Donetsk People's Republic pose proudly during Ninth of May celebrations in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.
The separatist forces are party to a ceasefire signed Friday in the Belarusian city of Minsk. Now Putin must figure out how to traverse the strait. Earlier this year, the day after Crimea was officially annexed, Putin called for a new rail and road bridge. Speaking from Crimea's port city of Sevastopol, Gennady Basov, head of the Russian Bloc political party, says his people would support any pro-Russian forces or plans that would forge a link to the mainland—whether from Ukraine's coast or from Russian territory. If they were to make it all the way to Crimea, we would welcome that.
As for a bridge linking Crimea to the mainland, Basov tells National Geographic: "Kerch—yes, it's planned. Crimchani [Crimeans] want it.