As temperatures plummeted at the end of 2015, the second winter of the war in eastern Ukraine looked different from its first. Moscow’s attention had shifted to its bombing campaign in Syria; gone were the large-scale offensives from Russian-backed rebels. Instead, the warring sides dug into their trenches, firing on each other across no-man’s land and engaging in the occasional skirmish.
A Christmas truce quelled the renewed wave of rocket and mortar attacks which had erupted at the start of November. Fighting, however, picked up again soon into the new year. The war’s official death toll passed 9,000 lives and the stalemate seemed as stubborn as ever.
Mariupol, December 20, 2015 - Members of the Ukrainian militia Azov gather in Mariupol to unveil a new monument depicting Grand Prince of Kiev Svyatoslav. © Pierre Crom / Getty Images
By mid-December, the snows finally arrived, blanketing the frontline that encircles Donetsk's western and northern outskirts. Artillery attacks by night and small-arms fire by day shook the neighbouring village of Opytne, home to the platoons of Ukraine’s 93rd Brigade and a handful of civilians. Further east, a man guarding the icy ruins of Luhansk’s destroyed airport reported that the bodies of hundreds of soldiers were still lying in the surrounding area, the scene of heavy fighting in the summer of 2014.
Donetskyi, December 26, 2015 - Olga from Stakhanov, a member of Russian-backed Prizrak (Ghost) brigade, portrayed in an abandoned house on the frontline. © Pierre Crom / Getty Images
As Ukraine approached the climax of its systematic decommunisation, stripping municipalities of any vestige of the Soviet Union, separatists continued to consolidate their self-proclaimed republics, forging a new identity with all the badges of statehood – slogans, standards and symbols. Authorities in government-held Slovyansk removed the town’s Lenin statue and dumped it at a dog shelter. In Mariupol, following the removal of the port city's own Lenin, the far-right Azov Battalion held a huge march to mark the unveiling of a new monument to the medieval Slavic ruler, Prince Svyatoslav.
Zholobok, December 28, 2015 - A member of the Russian-backed Prizrak brigade patrols the frontline. © Pierre Crom
Even as the war slipped down the international agenda, big questions remained unanswered. In April, The Netherlands agreed to hold a referendum on an EU agreement for closer ties with Ukraine. Dutch eurosceptics fear that the deal foreshadows Ukraine's EU membership. They claim this would cost taxpayers billions of euros and warn of an influx of Ukrainian immigrants. In the rival Yes camp, key figures in the ruling Dutch coalition have branded No campaigners “friends of Putin”. Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted Ukrainian president, triggered the Maidan street protests when he pulled back from signing the EU Association Agreement in November 2013. The move to hold the upcoming referendum reflects the wider anti-establishment mood sweeping across Europe and threatens to derail the EU’s policy of integrating with Ukraine.
Luhansk, January 02, 2016 - The Russian Night Wolves motor gang gives a family winter show on their base. © Pierre Crom / Getty Images
Away from such high-level political wrangling, a humanitarian crisis loomed in the east at the onset of winter. NGO access to rebel-held territory remained erratic, devastated infrastructure blighted frontline communities, and the most vulnerable civilians were torn between spending what little they had on food, medicine or soaring utility bills to keep warm.
Avdiivka, January 08, 2016 - A Ukrainian serviceman stands guard in a trench on the frontline. © Pierre Crom / Getty Images
Conditions in the rebel-held town of Pervomaisk were desperate. Sporadic shelling continued to strike around this desolate town, which had borne the brunt of catastrophic barrages the previous winter. Civilians endured chronic shortages and hardship; many buildings still stood ruined. The elderly were forced to collect water from a central point, while black market medicine was openly on sale in nearby Donetskyi village. Behind the flag-waving, vitriolic politics and slew of digital propaganda, it was clear: the reality on the ground was telling a very different story. There now remains a profound rift and terrible dearth.