Bloodied Ukraine marks three years of separatist war

Dmitry ZAKS
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Ukraine marks three years since launching a campaign against Russian-backed eastern separatists

Ukraine marks three years since launching a campaign against Russian-backed eastern separatists

A bloodied Ukraine marks three years Thursday since it launched a campaign against Russian-backed eastern separatists that now looks like an interminable conflict whose terms are dictated by the Kremlin.

More than 10,000 people have died in Europe's only war zone in that time -- a figure unimaginable when Kiev was riding the jubilant high of its February 2014 pro-EU revolution in which a self-enriching pro-Kremlin regime was sent fleeing into Russian exile.

But warning signs of Moscow refusing to let Ukraine slip out of its orbit and into the West's arms without a fight emerged almost immediately as Russia swarmed Crimea with troops and then annexed Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula in March 2014.

Armed men wearing no insignia on their uniforms but proclaiming pro-Russian slogans began taking over government buildings across Ukraine's industrial east the following month.

Russia initially denied sending crack soldiers to Crimea and still calls the separatist conflict a "civil war" in which it has played no part.

But Kiev and the West say there is overwhelming evidence showing Moscow has sent troops and weapons across the border throughout the unrest and effectively turned the conflict into an undeclared war between the two ex-Soviet neighbours.

- Rich tycoons, poor Ukraine -

One of Europe's bloodiest crises since the 1990s Balkans wars illustrates how difficult it is for countries once part of the Soviet Union to chart their own course.

More than two years of European efforts to bring peace to the EU's backyard through talks have produced little beyond periodic truces that have always been followed by more violence and death.

Ukraine was already among Europe's poorest states in 2014 due to decades of mismanagement and graft.

The war pushed its blighted economy into a two-year recession that now sees Ukrainians' per capita gross domestic product stand at just a fifth of the European average.

The three years also did little to shake politics loose of the influence of a few tycoons who still play an outsized role in making big policy decisions.

"Reforms face strong pushback from vested interests," the International Monetary Fund warned on April 4 after releasing another tranche of its $17.5 billion (16.5 billion euro) Ukrainian rescue package.

And post-revolution President Petro Poroshenko's dream of applying for EU membership by 2020 and one day joining the NATO military alliance now looks out of reach.

- Poroshenko's promise -

The Ukrainian leader put aside the chocolate empire that made him into a billionaire to emerge as a unifying figure who appeared corruption-free and ready to fulfil the aspirations of the vast crowds of protesters involved in the 2013-2014 street uprising in which more than 100 died.

The political turmoil of early 2014 culminated with his overwhelming victory in a May 25 presidential election.

Poroshenko promised the very next afternoon to put an immediate end to a conflict that was then only a month old.

Ukraine's military campaign "cannot and will not last for two or three months," Poroshenko said in front of flashing cameras of the global media.

"It should last several hours."

But Poroshenko's challenge was taken up immediately by the insurgents. They stormed the main airport in what later became their de facto capital city of Donetsk that same week.

It marked a new and far graver chapter in a war that at its peak saw a dozen or more people killed every day.

- Forever splintered state? -

Currently there appears to be little chance of peace as a plan hammered out by Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France in February 2015 has stalled.

A Western official said Ukraine's heavy-handed ground tactics and overall approach to the Russian-speaking region complicated a reconciliation that could make the country whole again.

Kiev "is not making it easy for the east to be part of Ukraine in some meaningful way," the Western official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Donetsk city resident Arkady agreed.

"It will be hard for us to be one with Ukraine again," 50-year-old Arkady told AFP without revealing his last name for safety reasons.

Analysts also doubt that Putin will change his approach while in power for what may be another seven years.

"As long as the current authorities continue to run Russia, it is hard to see them letting Ukraine go," Lilia Shevtsova of London-based Chatham House think-tank said.