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Interview: In Eastern Ukraine, 'Too Many Troops Willing To Fire'

A militant fighting for Russia-backed separatist forces aims his weapon near the town of Avdiyivka, outside Donetsk,.
A militant fighting for Russia-backed separatist forces aims his weapon near the town of Avdiyivka, outside Donetsk,.

Violations of a fragile internationally brokered cease-fire between government forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine are at their highest level in months. Paul Quinn-Judge, a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group who just returned from the demarcation line that separates the two sides, attributes the volatile situation to the numbers and proximity of troops along the line of separation, and their willingness to fire on one another.

RFE/RL: The current situation in eastern Ukraine looks like it's neither peace nor war. What is your assessment of the state of the conflict?

Paul Quinn-Judge: I think the situation right now is very disturbing. I think we've seen a gradual decline and deterioration of the cease-fire probably since the beginning of this year. As you remember, it started off quite well in September when it finally got going, but violations are becoming greater on both sides. My feeling right now is that the only reason that we as journalists and the public as well are not hearing so much about the situation in the east is that neither Moscow nor Kyiv has any interest in publicizing the fact that there are daily skirmishes along the front line. There are almost certainly people dying every day on the front line -- military people, and unfortunately, still, rather a lot of civilians as far as we can make out. So I think it's going into a very disturbing negative trajectory

Paul Quinn-Judge
Paul Quinn-Judge

RFE/RL: Do you think that the situation in eastern Ukraine is on its way to becoming a frozen conflict?

Quinn-Judge: No, I think there are a lot of people who are complacently predicting in Europe, and Ukraine, and in Russia that we're heading for a frozen conflict. As you know, I've just been traveling along the line of separation, and what strikes me is any assumption that we are heading for a frozen conflict is for the moment, premature. One of the big problems with the line of separation is that it doesn't really separate anything. Troops are facing each other across very short distances in places like Avdiyivka, where it's maybe 50 meters. Therefore the risks of something eventually going out of control cannot be excluded. I'm not saying it's going to happen, I am saying we have too many troops on both sides of the border who are willing to fire at each other and retaliate for what they consider to be an attack by the other side. I think the situation is very volatile for that reason. And also, it is very disturbing to see so many people living directly on the line of separation, living often literally next door to the troops and therefore who are very frequently in the line of fire themselves.

RFE/RL: Is that what caused the incident earlier this week, when at least four civilians were killed in Olenivka?

Quinn-Judge: Well I think it is horrible, I think it's a tragedy, and this is going to happen as long as we have so many troops in close proximity to each other along the line of separation. In this case it was obviously artillery, or at least heavy mortars that killed the civilians. But I think at the moment the situation can degenerate at any point, and as usual, as we've seen so often in any war, people who suffer most are the civilians.

RFE/RL: The OSCE monitoring mission issued a report saying that the fire came from the "west-south-west" direction, but did not blame either side. What do you make of the OSCE's wording?

Quinn-Judge: Frankly, it doesn't worry me too much because you and I and anybody else who is interested can pick up a map and look at it [Editor's Note: Ukrainian troops are positioned west-south-west of the spot where the shelling occurred.] What the mission is trying to do is to some degree get in the way of whichever side is trying to fire and making sure at the very least that this is reported and registered later. I've no doubt that the OSCE is going to report back to the relevant governments about this particular tragedy and other ones like it. So, you know, they could be a little more daring in the language, but that's really not their job. Their job is to -- as much as possible -- get in the way of the potential warring sides and register violations on either side.

RFE/RL: What do you think about the prospects of resolving this conflict? Which direction do you think it is going to go?

Quinn-Judge: I don't like to make predictions. What is clear is that the Ukrainian army is much more self-confident and probably much more competent and better-led on the front line than it was a year ago. There are young officers; they seem educated, they know their job. They also understand that if they tried to move forward very far, that that would invite a Russian response, not just a separatist response. I think the separatist military also is well aware that they are no longer any match for the Ukrainian army, but they depend on Russia to enforce and to support their side. At the moment it's a deadlock, and all the while, at some point, some leader in Moscow or elsewhere will decide that he has to show to the world who is really tough, who is really 'krutoy' ['cool and tough' in Russian] and it always worries me. At the moment we have a military stagnation where far too many people are dying and I'm sure we will see many more incidents like this week's death of civilians close to the front.

Interview conducted by RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent Rostislav Khotin.
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    Rostyslav Khotin

    Rostyslav Khotin is a senior editor with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. He has previously worked as a correspondent for Reuters in Kyiv, at the BBC World Service in London, and as a correspondent for the "1+1" TV channel and the UNIAN agency in Brussels.

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