"Everything was agreed and signed in Minsk," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, moments before he pushed for new sanctions against Russia. What was agreed and signed in Minsk was a September ceasefire meant to end nearly five months of fighting between Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian rebels, during which 2,600 people died.
Since then, the fighting has raged on, intensifying at certain points beyond its pre-ceasefire zenith. Just one month after the ceasefire, a United Nations report placed the death toll at 3,700, including a large number of civilians killed by indiscriminate shelling from both sides. Deadly attacks on public transportation, enforced disappearances, and the increasing presence of Russian soldiers have become regular features in the landscape.
On Friday, nearly five months after the ceasefire, the United Nations issued a cautiously conservative estimate of 5,000 dead in less than a year of fighting. With enough rote recitation, death tolls simply become muzak in a story like this. But the past few days have placed the crisis on the brink of becoming an all-out war.
“In just nine days, between 13 and 21 January, at least 262 people were killed due to the hostilities," a spokesman for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said. "That is an average of at least 29 people killed per day. This has been the most deadly period since the declaration of a ceasefire on 5 September.”
This includes two mass-casualty shellings of city buses in Donetsk—Ukraine's fifth-largest city and a major battleground between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian forces. Earlier this week, the Ukrainian army withdrew from the Donetsk airport after weeks of bitter fighting for control of it. The airport, a sleek and modern point of interest just a year ago, had been reduced to near-rubble as the fighting wore on.
"Nonetheless," The New York Times noted, "it has retained high symbolic value in the continuing hostilities as the government’s last toehold in the city, the largest in the contested territory of southeastern Ukraine."
Even with the escalating death, the conversation about the international sanctions against Russia seems to obscure the ongoing violence of the crisis. As the Russian ruble gets squeezed, a certain and persistent tendency toward self-congratulation has taken hold of the narrative and the focus. Meanwhile, Ukraine's economy is also in complete tatters. The Economist laid out the country's dire-sounding 2014:
GDP shrank by nearly a tenth. The currency, the hryvnia, fell by more than 50 percent. As the cost of imports rose, inflation jumped, from 1 percent a year ago to 25 percent. In a desperate attempt to prop up the currency, the central bank has been throwing cash at the markets: Ukraine’s foreign-exchange reserves have fallen from more than $16 billion in the middle of 2014 to less than $7 billion. Debt repayments of at least $10 billion, gas-import bills and a lifeless banking sector mean that Ukraine will probably need $20 billion in external support to survive 2015.
After winning the battle for the Donetsk airport, Alexander Zakharchenko, the self-styled leader of the rebel fighters in the city, threatened to continue the advance. "We will attack to the border of Donetsk Region, but if I see threats from other directions, we will liquidate them,” Zakharchenko said.
In a statement to Bloomberg, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier implored the two sides to recommit to the ceasefire, characterizing the moment as “what may be the last chance for a peaceful solution.”
By Friday evening, the Associated Press reported that the pro-Russian rebels had rejected a peace deal and would launch a new assault on Ukrainian forces.