DONETSK, Ukraine -- Renewed heavy fighting suggests that Russia has abandoned any pretence of sticking to the Minsk peace deal.
Amid the rubble of eastern Ukraine lie traces of life before the war: a pair of broken sunglasses, a stuffed pink unicorn, a roll of undeveloped film.
In Dokuchaievsk, south of Donetsk, where a rocket recently ripped into an apartment block, a lonely dog, Virma, sits by the rubble, paws shaking.
Virma’s owner, like the other 5,100 people killed in Ukraine since last April, will not be back.
Despite hopes that the conflict was edging towards resolution, Ukraine’s war has entered its deadliest period since a nominal ceasefire halted a Russian-led advance in September.
Dokuchaievsk is just one of many small towns and cities caught up in the latest violence.
The ceasefire unravelled when rebel forces renewed their siege of Donetsk airport.
President Petro Poroshenko threatened to “hit the rebels in the teeth”; the rebels’ leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, promised to attack Kiev’s troops until he reached “the borders of the former Donetsk region.”
But mostly both sides hit civilians, fighting at a distance with heavy artillery.
In the nine days to January 21st, at least 262 people were killed in eastern Ukraine, an average of 29 a day.
A rocket strike on a bus killed 12 civilians in Ukrainian-controlled Volnovakha on January 13th; nine days later another 13 were killed in Donetsk.
On January 24th a barrage of Grad rockets fired from rebel-held territory into Mariupol, a port, killed another 30.
As media attention shifted south to Mariupol, separatist forces pushed north.
Their main target was Debaltseve, which sits between the rebel capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk, and is already surrounded on three sides.
Under heavy shelling, residents have begun fleeing.
Several thousand Ukrainian troops, along with stores of equipment, reportedly remain entrenched.
Government soldiers at the base insist they can hold the line, despite taking heavy casualties.
Rebels say they have nearly closed the Ukrainians’ only exit route and are trapping them in a “cauldron”.
It could boil over any day.
Beyond Debaltseve, rebel troops also hope to capture Avdeyevka, near Donetsk, and Schastye, north of Luhansk.
Their movements are driven by both military and economic imperatives.
Straightening out the front line will improve defensive positions, and allow forces from Luhansk and Donetsk to join up.
Avdeyevka has a coke-making plant essential to Ukraine’s steel industry; Schastye has a power station used to power Luhansk; Debaltseve has rail links crucial to the coal trade.
Along with the airport, all three places would facilitate the long-term survival of the separatists’ pseudo-state.
Violence has also spilled beyond the Donbas, with saboteurs staging attacks elsewhere in Ukraine.
Separatists “will rise up” in other cities, declares one senior Donetsk rebel.
Ukraine and its Western allies say that Russia is, once again, actively directing the offensive.
NATO intelligence claims that advanced military equipment has been pouring across the border.
Kiev accuses Russia of having 9,000 troops in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow continues baldly to deny its involvement, despite evidence that includes the graves of its own soldiers.
Those who return alive sometimes let details slip.
One man from Russia’s far east who fought as a volunteer at Donetsk airport admitted to local media that the Russian army is present in Donetsk, fighting under the guise of rebels: “They’re just not visible, they work quietly and carefully.”
After their devastating losses last August, Ukraine’s leaders understood that they could not contend with the regular Russian army.
The Minsk peace accords in September were born of that realisation.
Even after the attack on Mariupol, Mr Poroshenko remains publicly committed to a diplomatic solution that seems ever more illusory.
Patience and calm is the message at home.
But many no longer believe that diplomacy can work.
As Sergei Pashinsky, head of the Ukrainian parliament’s national security committee, says, “the hope that the conflict in eastern Ukraine was stabilising, that it could be regulated not with the force of weapons, but with the force of truth and law, has been dispelled.”
Abroad, Mr Poroshenko warns of a continental war, evoking the spectre of Nazism while visiting Auschwitz to rally support against Putin.
Yet he has resisted calls officially to acknowledge that Ukraine is at war.
Some officials fear that putting the country on a war footing would spook Ukraine’s Western creditors, especially the IMF, which recently promised a new loan package.
Others note that martial law would bring restrictions on political and media freedoms.
Instead, Ukraine’s parliament has voted to label Russia as “an aggressor country”.
Ukrainian officials are calling for new sanctions.
A “deeply concerned” Barack Obama has promised to consider all measures “short of military confrontation”.
He could even begin supplying defensive weapons under a power recently given to him by Congress.
But sending weapons Ukraine would also fuel Putin’s feverish talk of Russia being at war with NATO’s foreign legions.
Source: The Economist Europe