The Ukrainian trenches in Shyrokyne. (Photo: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)
KYIV, Ukraine—On April 2, 1917, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson stood before a joint session of Congress, asking for a declaration of war against Germany so that the world would “be made safe for democracy.”
“Neutrality is no longer feasible or desirable where the peace of the world is involved,” Wilson said.
Four days later, on April 6, 1917, Congress declared war on Germany.
The centennial of the U.S. entering World War I this April 6 also marks the third anniversary of the war in Ukraine. One hundred years later, trench warfare isn’t a thing of the past in Europe; and Russia’s military aggression has dimmed the prospects for long-term peace on the Continent.
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The war in Ukraine began on April 6, 2014. About 10,000 Ukrainians have died so far in the conflict. (Photos: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)
Today, another static, long-distance trench war is ongoing in Europe along the 250 miles of front lines in eastern Ukraine.
Tanks, artillery, machine guns, snipers, land mines, and trenches—the type of warfare in Ukraine today, and the day-to-day life of the soldiers who fight in it, is not altogether different from what American doughboys encountered on the Western Front a century ago; albeit on a much smaller geographic and human scale.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and Moscow’s military brinksmanship has rattled countries across Eastern Europe, turning the region into the most rapidly militarizing region on earth.
“We all know that today, a Europe whole, free, and at peace rises or falls with Ukraine,” Victoria Nuland, then-assistant secretary of state, said in January 2015.
“Ukraine’s front line for freedom is ours as well,” Nuland said.
The Ukraine conflict began on April 6, 2014. Spurred by Russian security agents and special forces troops, two Russian-backed breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine declared their independence from Kyiv during the following weeks.
Ukraine subsequently launched a military operation to counter the advance and take back lost territory. By July 2014, Ukraine had retaken 23 out of 36 districts captured by combined Russian-separatist forces.
Three years and two cease-fires later, the war is ongoing. Ukrainian government troops engage in daily combat against a combined force of pro-Russian separatists and Russian troops.
A February 2015 cease-fire has collapsed. Fighting, including the use of artillery and rockets proscribed by the cease-fire, still occurs daily, as do military and civilian casualties on both sides of the war. About one-third of the conflict’s fatalities have occurred since the cease-fire went into effect.
Last week alone, six Ukrainian troops died in combat, and 39 were wounded in action.
“The intensity of enemy fire remained high throughout the week,” Vilyen Pidgornyy, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, said during an April 3 press briefing in Kyiv.
“Russian proxies actively violated the cease-fire regime both with direct and indirect fire at Ukrainian positions,” Pidgornyy said.
Europe’s only ongoing land war has so far killed about 10,000 Ukrainians—roughly one-third of whom have been civilians, according to United Nations data. In 2017, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has so far recorded 86 civilian casualties, including 16 fatalities.
As the war passes its third anniversary, and the fighting continues its sine wave of waxing and waning violence, a humanitarian disaster looms for civilians caught living in the crossfire.
“Hundreds of thousands of people are living under the perpetual threat of shelling, shooting, and landmines. Their access to basics like food, water, and electrical power has been dramatically curtailed,” Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said during a recent visit to Kyiv.
No Man’s Land
Similar to trench warfare on the Western Front in World War I, soldiers on both sides of the war in Ukraine fight from fixed positions and rarely see their enemy.
At some places, the front line is clearly defined. Trenches line both sides of a no man’s land, which is as narrow as a couple hundred meters in places.
In Shyrokyne, a front-line hot spot at the southern terminus of the front lines on the Sea of Azov, Ukrainian troops recounted to this correspondent how their enemies would crawl up to the Ukrainian trenches in the night and challenge the Ukrainian soldiers to single combat—