The fields around Grabova and Debaltseve became the focus of international attention as the crash site of Flight MH17. But along the roads leading to the villages are reminders, on the scarred landscape, of another casualty of Ukraine’s civil war which will have a huge impact in the coming months – the coal mines that have been closed down.
An energy crisis, started when Vladimir Putin cut off the gas from Russia, has been severely exacerbated by the disruption of coal supplies. This country is facing the prospect of the grimmest of winters; the threat of cities starved of fuel for heating and delivery of food while, at the same time, facing artillery and air strikes.
Europe has experienced winter conflicts since the Second World War. But while the population of Sarajevo during the siege in the early 1990s was around 430,000, there are more than one million people living in Donetsk alone, along with 440,000 in Luhansk, and, on the edge of the battlezone, 1.43 million in Kharkiv, although the flight of some residents will have slightly reduced the figures.
Cities not directly affected by the fighting, such as the capital Kiev and Lviv in the west, will also be in General Winter’s frontline. Numbers of inhabitants have swollen to three million and 800,000, respectively, as internal refuges arrive from the east and Crimea.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
The Ukrainian government admits that it does not have enough fuel to heat homes and keep factories running through the winter. And the crisis comes with an economy already in meltdown. It was expected to contract by 7 per cent, but Valeria Gontareva, head of the National Bank of Ukraine, warned at the weekend that the real figure is likely to be 10 per cent. Exports to Russia, a key market, will fall by 35 per cent, she added; meanwhile the currency, the hryvnia, has depreciated by 50 per cent against the dollar in the past nine months.
After Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in a dispute over unpaid bills, Kiev sought to replace the shortfall through “reverse flows”, taking Russian gas from countries such as Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. But Gazprom, Russia’s state gas company, has complained over the practice, denouncing it as “ a semi fraudulent mechanism” and threatened to reduce exports to these states so that none is left to send on to Ukraine.
Speaking at the Yalta international conference, held in Kiev this year after the annexation of Crimea by the Kremlin, Ukraine’s Energy Minister, Yuriy Prodan, accused Russia of “blatantly using gas as a political tool”. To survive the winter, he added, “rather unpopular measures, including administrative ones aimed at reducing energy consumption, will have to be taken”.
The cutting of coal stocks has been a blow. Ukraine is Europe’s second-largest producer: but more than half of its 115 mines have stopped operating and output has plummeted. The Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said : “The mines have been bombed, so there’s no production of thermal coal; without supplies to power plants, there are problems with electricity and heating. It’s obvious the situation in the winter is going to be very difficult.”
Oleg Tsarev, a former presidential candidate who is now a separatist leader wanted by the Kiev government for treason, agrees with Mr Yatsenyuk that what happens in the winter will be of crucial interest. “I expect major upheavals for Ukraine ahead: most importantly, how will it handle the winter, the cold , the economic crisis that is now arriving in Ukraine?”
The regions seeking to break away, Donetsk and Luhansk, will escape this problem, Mr Tsarev and his allies believe. Russia has pipelines into the region and talks over cheap deals have already begun. But nothing can be guaranteed at a time of strife: power stations in Donetsk have been hit a number of times recently by Ukrainian government fire, leading to electricity and water being cut off, and supplies remain vulnerable to sabotage.
At the port of Mariupol, which has been under repeated attacks by rebel forces backed by Russian armour, members of the Azov Battalion, one of a number of oligarch-funded private armies fighting for Kiev, claim they have plans for the pipelines. “In normal times, blowing up a pipeline would be terrorism; but here we are fighting terrorists and if their Russian masters are using gas supplies as a weapon, surely it is justified,” maintained Denys, a former laboratory technician from Kharkiv, who joined the force four months ago. “If they make the rest of the country suffer, then the territory controlled by the terrorists should suffer as well.”
His comrade Grigory, a former teacher from Kiev, was not sure: “It will only make ordinary Ukrainians suffer, the DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic] heads will have their own fuel and generators. It seems to me the only winners out of this winter will be the Russians. They always win in winter, don’t they?”
The closure of the mines has left many unemployed in the Grabova region. Nicolai Anasenko, lost his job of 24 years in the pits and does not think he will find steady work again while the conflict continues: “We had legal mines here and illegal mines, almost all of them have been shut down because of the fighting. I was a foreman at the end, the money was not bad, now the only thing I can do is help out in farms.
“Everyone around here is very worried about what’s going to happen this winter, I am not sure the east will be any better off than the rest of the country. Our fathers, mothers, grandparents went through this in the winters of the war against the Nazis. We are a hard people; and we’ll have to be hard this winter.”