Ukraine (2014 – first combat deaths)

Tasneem Jamal Europe

Updated: June 2015



The Conflict at a Glance

Who (are the main combatants): The Ukrainian government has deployed the Ukrainian Armed Forces and volunteer battalions to combat separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine. Separatists are reputed to be receiving military assistance from Russia in the form of personnel and equipment.

What (started the conflict): Pro-western “Euromaidan” demonstrations that began in November 2013 spurred a political shift that saw pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych replaced by pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko in the spring of 2014. In the midst of this transition, Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea. Armed conflict developed in Ukraine’s eastern regions between separatist fighters and the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Despite Russia’s denials, Ukraine and much of the international community have contended that Russia has been supplying personnel and military equipment to separatist groups.

When (has fighting occurred): There were relatively few violent skirmishes during the Euromaidan demonstrations and the annexation of Crimea was also quite calm. Intense fighting began in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the spring of 2014. A ceasefire agreement was reached in February 2015, but remained fragile in May, with a number of violent incidents.

Where (is the conflict taking place): During Euromaidan demonstrations, the conflict was concentrated in large city centres. The annexation of Crimea saw little mobilized protest. Violent confrontation has been concentrated in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which are bordered by Russia and called Novorossiya or New Russia by Russian President Putin.


2015: Intense fighting in January was followed by a peace agreement on February 12 in Minsk, Belarus. Major violations of the agreement began with the separatist capture of Debaltseve on February 18. A second ceasefire agreement came into effect on September 1 and was largely respected by both sides.

Following the Minsk agreement, the Ukrainian government passed a law that granted special status to separatist-held regions only after local elections. In July the government tabled draft constitutional amendments that gave some autonomy to separatist-controlled regions. Separatists declared local elections for October 18 and November 1, but, following an October 2 agreement between Russia and Ukraine, elections were postponed until February 2016.

Russia cut off the gas supply to Ukraine. The Ukrainian government refused to repay a $3-billion loan to Russia.

2014: In late 2013 citizens responded with widespread protests when President Viktor Yanukovych withdrew support for a deal with the European Union in favour of closer economic ties with the Russian Federation. The “Euromaidan” demonstrations, also protesting corruption in the federal government, continued until late February 2014, when Yanukovych was removed from office and an interim government appointed. In March Russia swiftly annexed the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea. In May elections Petro Poroshenko became president. The elections were widely recognized as legal and legitimate by most of the international community, but disputed by Russia. Poroshenko signed the agreement with the EU, but deferred economic measures until 2016. After the annexation of Crimea, separatist movements emerged in several eastern regions of Ukraine, most notably in Donetsk and Luhansk, where violence broke out in the spring. Russia denied direct support of pro-Russian separatists in armed clashes with Ukrainian troops. Several ceasefire agreements were drafted, with limited effect. The UN reported more than 4,700 conflict-related deaths this year.

Type of Conflict

State control
State formation

Parties to the Conflict:

1. Ukrainian Government: President Petro Poroshenko was elected in May 2014. In the spring President Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine during a period of anti-government protests and civil unrest, and was then removed from office by parliament. An interim government called for elections, in which Poroshenko won with a slight majority. The Yanukovych government was accused of profound corruption, a key factor inciting the 2013-2014 protests. While the Yanukovych regime favoured ties with Russia, Poroshenko sought closer ties with the European Union. This seesaw between Russia and the west has been common since independence in 1991.

2. Ukrainian Armed Forces: Significantly smaller than in the Soviet era, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are allotted one per cent of national GDP. Conscription ended in 2013, but was reinstated in 2014 after the onset of fighting in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian Armed forces have been central in combating eastern separatists.

3. Volunteer Battalions: Irregular forces of pro-Ukrainian fighters have conducted most of the ground combat against eastern separatists. They have been joined by foreign volunteers, mainly from Europe, and financially supported by some wealthy Ukrainians. These battalions are directed by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

4. Right Sector: Ideologically right-leaning groups participated in the Euromaidan protests of 2013-2014, and later joined forces in the “Right Sector” movement. These groups played a significant role in the formation of volunteer battalions. Rightist groups do not necessarily support the government’s move to enhance ties with the European Union.  Russia has cited the involvement of far-right groups as justification for Russian involvement in the conflict. The Right Sector formed a political party and leader Dmytro Yarosh ran for president in the May election.


5. Russian Federation: When Euromaidan protests led to the evacuation of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych Russia sent military troops to Crimea. Although he initially denied this, Russian President Vladimir Putin later stated that he had sent troops to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea. After Crimea’s annexation by Russia, further allegations surfaced of Russian military involvement with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Putin has stated that Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine were there independently and were considered members of self-defence groups. Ukrainian authorities accuse Russia of being an aggressor.   

6. Pro-Russian Separatists: Most of the violent conflict has taken place in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where separatist forces have formed militia groups. There are conflicting reports about the presence of Russian troops in the region and among separatist militias.In November 2014 separatists proclaimed independence after elections in Donetsk and Luhansk; these elections were not recognized by the international community.

7. Crimea: It is not clear how Crimeans view annexation by Russia. While there has historically been a strong Russian influence in the region, it is not clear that the referendum held prior to annexation was supported by residents. Although 97 per cent of voters reportedly favoured union with Russia, the referendum was widely criticized as illegal and illegitimate; most members of the international community still recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine.Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia annexed Crimea to protect the rights of ethnic Russians, and Russia has maintained de facto control of the region.When Russian troops took over Ukrainian military bases in Crimea, some local military personnel defected, while others simply gave up their weapons.

Status of Fighting

2015 According to International Crisis Group, fighting in January in eastern Ukraine was the heaviest in months (International Crisis Group). Separatist soldiers forced Ukrainian government troops to retreat from key posts at the Donetsk airport. On February 12 the two sides agreed to a new peace agreement in Minsk, Belarus. The deal called for the removal of heavy weapons from the front lines and the withdrawal of foreign armed factions. The agreement went into effect on February 15, but suffered a major blow three days later, when separatist forces captured the Ukrainian army garrison at Debaltseve.

Although fighting decreased in March, both sides were accused of returning heavy weapons to the front lines after inspections by observers. In April intense fighting broke out near Mariupol and outside Donetsk. On April 13 a Ukrainian army armoured advance was repelled by separatists that were allegedly supported by Russia. Fighting again intensified in May; again, there were indications of Russian involvement. In June a major battle took place around the towns of Maryinka and Krasnohorivka, west of Donetsk. On July 24 the United States announced that it would send military personnel to train Ukrainian troops.

On August 26 the Ukrainian government, Ukrainian separatists, Russia, the EU, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe signed a new ceasefire agreement, which began on September 1. A bilateral meeting between Ukraine and Russia on October 2 produced an agreement that, inter alia, called for the withdrawal of small-calibre weapons from the front lines in eastern Ukraine. On October 5 separatists and Ukrainian military forces began withdrawing all weapons of 100-mm calibre and less. The “contact line” in eastern Ukraine saw skirmishes in November, but fighting generally declined after the September ceasefire.

2014 While the Euromaidan demonstrations were generally peaceful, clashes between protestors and the police, mainly between February 18 and 20, killed 121. After an interim government was installed, these protests largely ceased. At the height of the unrest, Yanukovych temporarily fled to Crimea and then Russia; meanwhile men in camouflage, commonly recognized as Russian troops, appeared in Crimea. Putin initially claimed that they were independent self-defence groups. The Crimea referendum was non-violent; however, since Russian annexation, concerns have been raised about the potential mistreatment and abuse of Tatars in the region.

In early April widespread separatist violence broke out in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. In response, the Ukrainian government, which had reinstated conscription, decided to mobilize 100,000 reservists. Both sides are accused of indiscriminate shelling, putting at risk and killing civilians. It is alleged that both the Ukrainian military and rebel forces have used cluster munitions; neither Ukraine nor Russia has signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions. On July 17 Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was struck down over rebel-controlled territory, killing 298. Responsibility for the strike was widely attributed to the rebels, who denied it. In June a 10-day ceasefire was agreed to. Ukrainian forces resumed fighting at the end of the ceasefire, claiming that rebel forces had been non-compliant. In September representatives of Ukraine, Russia, certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) signed the Minsk Protocol, which included a new ceasefire agreement. However, conflict quickly resumed.

Number of Dead and Displaced

Total: In December 2015 the United Nations Office of the Commissioner of Human Rights reported at least 9,098 conflict deaths between April 2014 and December 2015 (United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, Press Release, 9 December 2015). Russia acknowledged only the presence of Russian volunteers; still, there were reports of mounting Russian deaths. Open Russia estimated that 273 Russian military personnel and volunteers had been killed.

2015: According to the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, at least 4,391 people—civilians, Ukrainian soldiers, and armed groups—were killed in 2015 (United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, Press Release, 9 December 2015, 15 December 2014).

Refugees and IDPs: The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reported at least 1,431,800 internally displaced persons as of August 2015 (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre). The UNHCR estimated that there were 318,786 refugees and 20,754 asylum seekers originating from Ukraine as of June 2015.

2014: The Euromaidan demonstrations resulted in 121 deaths, most in a clash in late February that killed 101 protestors and 17 police. The number of fatalities has risen steadily in the eastern conflict. In 2014 the UN reported more than 4,700 deaths.

Refugees and IDPs: Ukraine has a population of approximately 45 million people. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimated that 1,272,700 people had been internally displaced by conflict as of April 2015. The UN reported that in 2014, 610,413 internally displaced people were identified by Ukraine’s State Emergency Service; the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy reported 823,000 IDPs at the yearend.UN OCHA estimated that 743,014 refugees had left Ukraine by spring 2015.

Official calculations include estimates on the number of Crimeans who have been displaced to other regions of Ukraine. However, since annexation, figures do not include the number of IDPs in Crimea. It is estimated that approximately 19,000 or 20,000 Crimeans were displaced in other regions of Ukraine and an additional 17,000 displaced people were in Crimea. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reported that, while most displacements from eastern Ukraine were a direct result of armed conflict, displacements of many Crimean Tatars were due to “fear or because of threats, intimidation and discrimination on account of their ethnicity or political opinions.”

Political Developments

2015: On February 12 Ukraine and Russia signed a peace agreement in Minsk, Belarus. The accord included clauses mandating permanent special status for certain geographic areas, local elections in eastern Ukraine, and constitutional reform in advance of decentralization. In March the Ukrainian parliament amended the special status law to require local elections before granting special status to separatist areas. Although separatists claimed that this new provision went against the Minsk agreement, it was approved on August 31. In September separatists announced that local elections for separatist areas in eastern Ukraine, the Donetsk People’s Republic, and the Luhansk People’s Republic would take place on October 18 and November 1. Ukrainian President Poroshenko objected to the calling of elections by separatists. Ukraine and Russia met in Paris on October 2 to resolve this issue. On October 6 separatists announced that elections would be delayed until February 2016.

On July 1 Poroshenko introduced constitutional changes that gave separatist-controlled regions some self-determination. Later that month, the Ukrainian parliament sent the proposed changes to the constitutional court for review.

In October local elections President Poroshenko’s ruling coalition retained support in west and central Ukraine, but lost support in the south and east.

The European Union publically demanded that Ukraine speed up reforms to achieve greater economic and political integration with Europe. Poroshenko vowed to meet all conditions for joining the EU within five years (International Crisis Group, 30 April 2015). Separatist Oleg Tsarev introduced the Novorossiya project to create a state from the Russian border to Moldova. Separatists who favoured a coalition of independent people’s republics felt betrayed by the proposal (International Crisis Group, 1 June 2015).

2014: When President Yanukovych fled Ukraine in February, an interim government was appointed, and official elections were scheduled for May. International monitors were present in Ukraine for the election, in which Petro Poroshenko became the new president. Soon after his inauguration, Poroshenko signed the EU Association Agreement, which includes the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA); implementation of the DCFTA was later postponed until 2016. Crimea was annexed by Russia in March 2014 after a referendum that was not recognized by the international community. The UN General Assembly passed Resolution A/RES/68/262, which reaffirmed Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity to include Crimea. Crimea remained under de facto control of the Russian Federation.

In the spring the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk and the People’s Republic of Luhansk also held referenda on self-rule, although the results were not recognized by the Ukrainian government. President Poroshenko had pledged to grant more autonomy to Donetsk and Luhansk, but rescinded the offer after both regions held elections in November that were deemed illegitimate by Ukraine and many western countries. Poroshenko accused Russia of encouraging conflict in Ukraine. Many countries imposed travel bans and economic sanctions on Russia, citing Russia as an aggressor. As conflict escalated, Russian President Putin maintained that Russians fighters in Ukraine were volunteers; he denied supplying weapons to rebel fighters.


Tensions between the Russian Federation and Ukraine are longstanding. In 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine reclaimed independence. Ukraine straddles a divide between Russian and European political systems with western regions largely upholding nationalistic Ukrainian sentiments and eastern regions reflecting a strong Russian identity.

Independence saw the return of many Crimean Tatars, a Muslim ethnic minority with deep roots in Crimea, but whose families had been expelled in 1944. In the 2001 census Tatars accounted for about 12 per cent of the population in Crimea, while most of the rest were people of Russian descent. Crimea was included in Russia from 1783 until 1954, when control over the territory was transferred to Ukraine.

In 2004 Ukraine’s Orange Revolution grew from widespread allegations of corruption and election rigging by pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych. The legitimacy of Yanukovych’s victory was challenged by both Viktor Yushchenko of the opposition and thousands of demonstrators who rallied in Kyiv for nearly a month.Yushchenko won in a new vote in December and became president of Ukraine in January 2005. The December elections displayed a clear divide between Ukraine’s east and west; Although Yushchenko won, support for Yanukovych remained firm among eastern and southern regions of the country.Yanukovych won the 2010 presidential election.

In November 2013 Yanukovich canceled trade talks with the European Union in favour of strengthening ties with Russia. The sudden move away from the Association Agreement, including the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), with the EU was the catalyst for massive protests and demonstrations, referred to as Euromaidan, which took place in Independence Square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, in the capital city of Kyiv.Protests were also motivated by widespread corruption in the country. The movement spread to other cities, despite anti-protest bans.At the height of the violence and collapse of state authority, Yanukovich fled the country.

The Ukrainian Parliament appointed Oleksander Turchynov as interim president. Within days, the 2012 language law that made Russian a second official language was under threat of repeal. International leaders expressed support for the new regime and recognized interim President Turchynov. President Petro Poroshenko was elected and took office in June 2014. Russia and Yanukovych deemed the entire situation a coup.

At the end of February 2014 covert Russian troops began to infiltrate Crimea. Initially there was no display of identifying insignia. The troops began the takeover of strategic locations, including the regional airport and media outlets. In early March the Crimean Parliament organized a status referendum that was widely considered illegal, but recognized by Russia. It was reported that 97 per cent of voters were in favour of joining Russia; Russia then moved to annex Crimea. Since then, there have been reports of abuse and discrimination against Crimean Tatars.

The international community has decried Russian intervention in Ukraine as a violation of internationally accepted principles of sovereignty and non-intervention. President Putin, however, claimed that Russian interventionas to protect ethnic Russians “in the event of a breakdown of law and order” in Ukraine.It is estimated that more than 17 per cent of Ukraine’s population identify as ethnic Russian, with high concentrations in eastern regions. Political analysts have pointed to Russia’s fears of Ukraine’s joining NATO and worries over the future of its Black Sea Fleet based in Crimea as factors in Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.

Concurrent with the annexation of Crimea, unrest was gaining momentum in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. By spring both regions were involved in armed conflict. Separatist groups took control of many cities and strategic infrastructure, such as government buildings. Declarations of independence were made in both Donetsk and Luhansk. Pro-Russian demonstrations in other regions, such as the cities of Karkhiv and Odessa, were suppressed, but Donetsk and Luhansk disintegrated into civil conflict. There are widespread reports that Russia is helping local separatist forces, but Russia denies this.

Arms Sources

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a newly independent Ukraine reduced its military and defence funding, maintaining weapons from the Soviet era. It became a major supplier of arms to Russia, but ended this trade in 2014, with the Russian annexation of Crimea. From 2009 to 2013 Ukraine was the world’s eighth largest arms exporter, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Ukraine has requested military and arms support from the international community to combat separatist fighters in the east amid rising concerns about Russia. While the international community has been reluctant to send arms, the United States, Britain, and Canada have provided non-lethal military equipment. Some external support has come in the form of training programs. In February 2015 the Ukrainian government arranged to buy arms from the United Arab Emirates in a military and technical cooperation agreement. The Ukrainian armed forces had a defence budget of $3.38-billion in 2014 and $3.91-billion in 2015 (The Military Balance, Vol. 116, 204).

There have been widespread allegations that separatist forces were being given weapons by Russia; U.S. and NATO officials reported evidence of cross-border movements of military supplies into Ukraine. Russia has consistently denied these allegations and accused U.S. intelligence services of assisting the Ukrainian government in fighting the separatists. Reports suggest that separatist groups accessed weaponry left behind at military bases and captured weapons in skirmishes.

The Armament Research Services (ARES) suggested that a large quantity of separatists’ weapons could have been acquired from internal stockpiles left over from the Soviet era while pointing out specific weapons produced in Russia that were not known to be part of the Ukrainian arsenal. A number of reports indicate that separatist fighters accessed internal and external arms trafficking networks.

Since the Soviet era, Ukraine had been a major arms supplier to Russia, but has discontinued this trade.

Economic Factors

Both the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Euromaidan demonstrations of 2014 grew out of Ukrainians’ distress over profound governmental corruption. Massive internal corruption contributed to Ukraine’s declining economy, which, in 2015, was smaller than it was at Independence in 1991.

The main catalyst for the Euromaidan demonstrations was President Yanukovych’s abandonment of the EU Association Agreement, which included the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). Instead Yanukovych favoured Russia’s offer to provide $15-billion in loans and significantly reduce gas prices. Shortly after he was elected, President Petro Poroshenko signed the Association Agreement. Russia then threatened to bar imports from Ukraine, claiming DCFTA would adversely affect the Russian economy. In September 2014 the EU deferred implementation of DCFTA until January 2016. In February 2015 Ukraine accepted a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) worth approximately $17-billion.

On May 19 Parliament suspended debt repayments. Negotiations to restructure foreign debt continued. An August 27 deal with international creditors erased 20 per cent of Ukraine’s debt (International Crisis Group).

Ukraine ended the state-controlled arms trade with Russia after the annexations of Crimea in 2014. During the Soviet era, Russia depended on Ukraine for much of its arms manufacturing. Before relations between Russia and Ukraine deteriorated, the arms trade with Russia accounted for a third of Ukraine’s arms sales. In 2014 the Poroshenko government initiated a plan to increase the defence budget from one per cent of GDP in 2013 to five per cent by the year 2020.

After Russia annexed Crimea, many countries imposed economic sanctions on Russia. In 2015 the G20 and EU extended sanctions against Russia until July 2016. Both contended that Russia’s actions in Crimea were illegal, and that Russia had been unlawfully providing eastern separatists with troops and weapons. Russia announced a plan to create a special economic zone within Crimea to encourage direct private business investment. Russia also looked to boost tourism in the region.

Significant fighting persisted in Ukraine’s “industrial heartland” (called Novorossiya or New Russia by Putin) in eastern Ukraine, where a high percentage of residents identify as ethnic Russian. Poroshenko stated that as much as 10 per cent of Ukraine’s industry had been destroyed, while war prevented the operation of a further 25 per cent.

Ukraine historically received energy from Russia on a credit system. In the course of the conflict, Russia increased the price of gas and asked that Ukraine’s gas debt be settled. At the end of October 2014 Russia and Ukraine agreed on a payment plan to clear Ukraine’s debt and on the continuation of Russian gas exports to Ukraine. Russia threatened to cut off Ukraine’s natural gas supply in late February 2015 and did so on November 25 Ukraine declared that it had decided to stop purchasing natural gas from Russia (International Crisis Group). Ukraine also reduced and on occasions cut the power supply to Crimea after its annexation by Russia. Conflict in the east, where most mines are located, disrupted Ukraine’s coal supply.

In 2013 Russia provided Ukraine with a $3-billion loan that Ukraine was unable to repay by the due date of December 20, 2014. In mid-November 2015, Russia offered to extend the payback period for the loan, but Ukraine rejected the proposal. When Ukraine declared that it would not pay back the loan, Russia considered legal action (Reuters).

On December 16, 2015 Ukraine announced that it would suspend trade with Crimea. Moscow then declared that it would end free trade with Ukraine, in anticipation of an EU-Ukraine free trade agreement, scheduled to come into effect on January 1, 2016 (Reuters). On December 24 the Ukrainian parliament imposed a trade embargo on Russia.

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