DONETSK, Ukraine — When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over rebel-held territory, killing all 298 on board, the sheer horror and scale of the tragedy looked certain to alter the conflict in eastern Ukraine irrevocably, or perhaps even end it for good.
But on the ground 10 days later, things seem only to have gotten worse.
About 80 bodies are still out in the fields, somewhere among the sunflowers and wheat and twisted hunks of metal and debris. Thanks to a new Ukrainian offensive, the crash site is now inaccessible to international experts. On Monday, their team turned back for a second day running as fighting intensified in the towns of Shakhtarsk and Torez along the road to it, with Ukraine heralding key strategic gains on either side.
If anything, the crash and the belated arrival of the international team — whose numbers hovered around the single digits until 40 Dutch police officers arrived Sunday — has emboldened Kiev’s offensive against the rebels. The downed plane seems to be a secondary concern. The new flashpoints lie within a cease-fire zone declared by President Petro Poroshenko just last week, which spreads across a 25-mile radius of the crash site, making the wreckage impossible to reach.
Ukraine says it is simply trying to secure the territory for the investigators and not opening fire, but the heavy shelling, flashes of gunfire, and thick clouds of black smoke that BuzzFeed observed in Shakhtarsk on Sunday have put those claims into doubt.
It appears that Poroshenko has gambled that he now has carte blanche internationally to win the war. Securing the route south of the site would cut the rebel stronghold of Donetsk off from the rest of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” — and, by extension, the Russian border, through which Kiev says Moscow is sending supplies and reinforcements.
Ukraine claims that some rebels have already fled to Russia, rather than fight. The self-proclaimed prime minister of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” Alexander Borodai, has left for Moscow to discuss “humanitarian issues.” Igor Bezler, the feared militia officer who commands the men Ukraine say shot down the plane, has disappeared.
Rebels, clearly mindful of the deterrent high-profile foreigners present to a full-on siege of Donetsk, claim Kiev stepped up fighting around the site to prevent the experts getting access. Igor Strelkov, the militia’s enigmatic Russian commander, made a rare public appearance on Monday to claim having driven back government forces in Torez and Shakhtarsk, where Ukraine had sent “an unusual amount of armored vehicles, even for me.” Among the dead on the Ukrainian side, Strelkov said, were several “mercenaries of the negroid race” — implying, as rebels and Russian media have long claimed without evidence, that American hired guns are fighting alongside Kiev’s volunteer brigades.
With international outrage focused against the separatists and Russia over the Malaysian plane, little attention has been paid to reports that Ukrainian forces may be shelling residential areas from Grad rockets. Every evening in Donetsk is peppered by the staccato of the unguided rockets, which rain indiscriminate fire down on wide areas. Three civilians died on Sunday night. Similar casualty figures trickle in daily. Ukraine says the rebels are doing it, and have gone so far as to paint their tanks in Ukrainian colors to discredit Kiev. Human Rights Watch, however, compiled evidence that the rockets were fired from government positions that rebels would have had trouble reaching.
If the tragedy of Flight 17 does spur a swifter conclusion to the fighting, it will do so at the cost of closure for the victims’ families. In the greater calamity of eastern Ukraine — where, according to the United Nations, at least 1,129 civilians have died since April — it is just one of many blips. The shelling gets closer, and life in wartime gets back to normal.
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