Monthly Archives: August 2014

Russian and rebel forces seen free to advance from border to Ukraine port of Mariupol

Graham Stack in Bezimmine, Ukraine for Business New Europe (www.bne.eu)
August 28, 2014

The forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic – comprising irregular Russian-backed rebels and regular Russian troops – are free to advance from the border town of Novoazovsk to Ukraine’s second largest port of Mariuopol, warn fighters of Ukraine’s irregular Dnipro battalion, which is based in the seaside village of Bezimmine 15 kilometres from Novozovsk.

Fighters of the irregular pro-Kyiv Dnipro battalion told bne that they were on their own against the Russian-backed separatists and what is now accepted also Russian regular forces, which have taken control of the strategically important border town of Novoazovsk, on the Azov sea. Bezimmine, meaning literally “nameless,” is a sleepy seaside village popular among holidaymakers, 15km west of Novaszovsk and around 30km east of Mariuopol. But now it is on the front line of a conflict that is escalating every day.

“We have called for backup from the army in the form of artillery and aviation, but nothing has come,” complained one of around 15 fighters commanding high ground on the eastern outskirts of Bezimmine, looking towards Novoazovsk. Apart from volunteer fighters and National Guard forces reportedly dug in near Bezimmine for around six weeks, no other Ukrainian forces were to be seen on the road between Mariupol and Bezimmine on August 28.

“We were beaten out of Novoazovsk starting Monday [August 25], because of the artillery fire coming from behind the Russian border,” said the fighter with the Dnipro battalion, who declined to be named but said he hailed from Donetsk. “Now we are simply waiting here.”

The group of irregulars had two jeeps, one of which had a heavy machine gun mounted on the back. “All we have here are our automatic guns. Do you think we can stop Russian tanks with them?”

The fighters from the Dnipro battalion questioned by bne said they had not seen Russian soldiers with their own eyes when fighting in Novoazovsk, since they had pulled out due to the artillery fire. But they had accurate reports of a column of over 50 armoured vehicles that had entered Novoazovsk from the Russian side, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery. “They have dug in now their heavy guns around the town,” said the fighter.

One hour later, a salvo of land-land rockets apparently from the direction of Novoazovsk struck positions behind Bezimmine, apparently where Ukraine’s National Guard were dug in. “Donetsk People’s Republic are coming now,” said the pro-Kyiv irregulars, racing through Bezimmine with an improvised anti-tank weapon fixed to the roof of a jeep. The National Guard had pulled out from their positions to defend Mariuopol itself, the irregulars said before themselves racing out of Bezimmine.

Third front?

Ukraine’s Security Council in a statement on August 28 confirmed that Ukraine had lost control of Novoazovsk and other nearby settlements, saying they were now fully under the control of Russian regular forces.

Main roads from Novoazovsk lead east along the Azov coast to Mariuopol and north to the city of Donetsk, currently besieged by Ukrainian forces. Multiple reports spoke of settlements along the Donetsk road coming under control of the Russian-backed forces. “This is the opening of a third front and the risk of encircling Ukrainian forces around Donetsk,” says analyst Dmitro Tymchuk, director of the Centre of Military Political Research.

The easy advance of the rebels and Russian forces towards Donetsk from the South may demoralise Ukrainian forces, who have believed themselves to be close to victory in recent weeks. Russian media claimed August 28 that the Donetsk People’s Republic forces had recaptured from Ukrainian forces the strategically and symbolically important hill of Savur-Mohila south of Donetsk, scene of an epic Second World War battle. Ukrainian media reported August 28 that an entire regular army battalion of 400 mobilised reservists from West Ukraine, fighting in the east, mutinied and set off home with their equipment, saying that two months without leave under constant artillery fire was enough, and they wanted to be replaced. They were stopped in the Central Ukrainian town of Kirovograd and agreed to surrender their armoured vehicles.

Potentially adding to demoralization, Ukrainian investigative journalists reported August 27 that the deputy head of Ukraine’s so-called “anti-terrorist operation” in East Ukraine, Major General Vyacheslav Nazarkin, is the brother of, and possibly in cahoots with, a high-ranking Russian army officer.

The fact that the road to Mariuopol is now open is equally worrying for Ukraine. Mariupol was already briefly itself under control of the Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic until Ukrainian forces entered the town on June 13. A pro-Kyiv demonstration of several hundred was held in the port city August 28, but the city, like most of the surrounding area, is divided roughly equally between those who support the Russian-backed rebels and those supporting Kyiv. The overriding desire on both sides however is for peace and negotiations between the two sides.

Mariuopol is Ukraine’s second largest port city after Odesa, and plays a vital role in an economy dependent on metallurgy, chemicals and arable exports. It is also in itself home to two massive steelworks, Azovstal and MMK. According to military analysts, the Ukrainian stretch of Azov coast may also have strategic significance for the Kremlin in comprising a land bridge from Russia to the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russian in March, but currently only accessible for Russia by sea or air.

People are starting to leave the seaside holiday villages along the Azov coast fearing the advance of Donetsk People’s Republic, but many have nowhere to go – a large number are forced holidaymakers who have found cheap accommodation by the seaside after fleeing their homes for the seaside in Luhansk or Donetsk. “We have no idea where we can go now,” says Dmitry Kolesnichuk, 46, a building worker from Luhansk, renting accommodation in Bezimmine with this wife and children.

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Graham Stack in Schastye, Luhansk, for Business New Europe (www.bne.eu)
August 25, 2014

Ceremonial units paraded in Kyiv to mark Ukraine’s Independence Day on August 24. However, in the town of Schastye – translating as “happiness” – in the Luhansk region, troops fighting Russian-backed rebels expressed discontent at their commanders in the capital, and threatened to march on Kyiv once the fight in the east is over.

Ukraine celebrated the anniversary of its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 by holding an impressive military parade in Kyiv. The celebration came as war is waged in the east in a bid to secure the country’s territorial integrity against Russian-backed rebels. Volunteer forces at the heart of the fighting found no place for themselves in the parade in Kyiv.

“We wanted to march in the [Independence Day] parade so that people in Kyiv would have the chance to honour our fallen comrades. But when we arrived, police cordoned us off and prevented us from joining the ceremony,” said Serhiy Melnichuk. He is the founder and commander of Ukraine’s “Aidar” volunteer battalion, which is at the forefront of the battle against Russian-backed rebels in the Luhansk region.

Aidar was formed in June, after rebels had seized control of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, taking its name from a river that flows through the north of Luhansk. Those committed to fight for Ukrainian control of the region joined the irregular battalion, bringing their own kit and supplies. The government now supplies weaponry and fuel, and the unit is formally subordinate to the interior ministry, but major funds are drawn from public donations.

Aidar celebrated its first victory in its first month of operation in June, when it drove Russian-backed rebels out of Schastye, which sits around 30km to the north of Luhansk. “Happiness” is now its base for Aidar’s ongoing campaign to free the city of Luhansk itself.

The battalion lost six men in the week leading up to Independence Day, but that wasn’t enough to book them a spot in the capital. The parade, broadcast on national TV, instead featured immaculate ceremonial units marching with aplomb to salute President Petro Poroshenko, and a drive-by of state-of-the-art Ukrainian weaponry. The parade also featured prayers for those who had died for political change and national independence this year.

Trojan Horse

Melnichuk expresses particular bitterness that Kyiv had not moved to prevent the recent Russian convoy, comprising over 270 trucks of ostensibly humanitarian aid, from entering besieged Luhansk on August 22. “We now know that the convoy was carrying mortars, machine guns and ammunition and has completely replenished the terrorists’ supplies. Now we are expecting them to launch a counter attack,” he claims.

The International Red Cross had inspected the humanitarian convoy at the Russian-Ukrainian border and found it did not contain any weaponry, according to bne sources. However, Ukraine’s border guards did not clear the Russian column of trucks, causing security services to label its entry into the country a “direct Russian intrusion” into Ukraine. However, apparently under international pressure, Kyiv chose not to risk direct confrontation with Russia.

“This Trojan Horse [the convoy] means now that it will be extremely difficult to close down the terrorists before the weather deteriorates at the start of autumn,” Melnichuk tells bne. “And this is very bad for us, since autumn and winter will make it far more difficult for us to fight. It is vital that we liberate Luhansk before the weather deteriorates, i.e. as soon as possible, and the purpose of the convoy was to stop this. This is the message we tried to convey in Kyiv.”

Russia has said more convoys should be expected in the coming days and weeks. Despite the international controversy, and strong Ukrainian aversion, they may have a precedent in international law, says a bne diplomatic source. Similar such humanitarian convoys have recently entered rebel-held territory Syria, without the assent of Damascus.

Aidar fighters in Schastye, questioned by bne, said they would in future open fire on any convoy if they had the chance. “Politicians in Kyiv might give orders to let it pass, but if we come across it, that is the end of it,” said a fighter from Kharkiv, who declined to be named.

Unhappy in Schastye

Allowing the humanitarian convoy to pass is only one of the failings of Kyiv’s political and military leadership, according to irregular and regular Ukrainian forces in and around Schastye. A fighter with the nom-de-guerre Zola, commanding Aidar in Schastye in Melnichuk’s absence, criticised lack of support for Aidar’s operations on the ground from the regular army units.

“We are storm troopers, i.e. we move up into new territory to take up new positions, and in fact often find ourselves fighting against Russian special forces units. We get good support now from army artillery, this is working well. But what happens is that then the army units that reinforce us to dig in and hold the positions in fact surrender [them], often at the cost of lives, because the generals order them to retreat or they come under a little pressure from the terrorists.”

Professional career soldiers heading to the front through Schastye also criticised the Ukrainian army leadership. “We know that the generals who will be attending the parade [on Independence Day] are corrupt. The general staff is riddled with Russian spies thanks to Yanukovych,” said a sapper from Lviv. A career soldier who served in United Nations peacekeeping operations in Africa, he declined to give his name. Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, has also acknowledged Russian intelligence penetration of Ukraine’s general staff.

“We know this [the presence of traitors in the general staff] because often when we follow a route according to the orders we receive from above, we end up coming under artillery attack from the terrorists,” he continues. “Now we never follow the routes according to orders, and we get through fine, but we see that the route we are supposed to have travelled has been worked over by shells and rockets.

“When this is all over we will march on Kyiv and sort things out there,” he adds.

Some conscripted soldiers serving in Donbass also criticise the army leadership for failure to give leave after serving three months in the field. “We feel we have been abandoned, three months out here under constant shell fire,” said a conscript from central Ukrainian Chernigov serving in the army’s 13th battalion, currently holding the town of Stannitsa Luhanska to the east of Schastye.

“The reason is they are afraid that if we do go back home on leave we will never return,” he said. Many conscripts are de facto volunteers, since the universal mobilisation ordered in May was not enforced, meaning only those who readily agreed to serve were called up. But with those ready to serve already in the field, the army may be unable to replace them without enforcing conscription, which it is reluctant to do for political reasons.

Discontent in Donetsk

Volunteer battalions engaged in heavy fighting in Donetsk region also express fears of betrayal by the country’s political leadership, to whom they may represent a future political threat. The “Donbass” paramilitary battalion under the leadership of Semen Semenchenko appeared to have courageously seized the rebel-held town of Ilovaisk in the Donetsk region on August 18. Ten Donbass fighters have been reported as subsequently killed defending their positions in the town, as army units and other volunteer battalions failed to move up in support.

“What has long been rumoured as [being] in planning is now happening before our eyes:  the volunteer battalions are being put through the meat grinder,” photographer Maks Levin, based with the Donbass battalion, wrote in his Facebook feed on August 22. Ukraine’s “Anti-Terrorist Operation” headquarters for its part said that it ordered other volunteer battalions to move up in support of Donbass, but they failed to do so.

Twelve members of another paramilitary group active in Donetsk, Right Sector, were reported killed on August 13 when their minibus was raked by fire from rebels. Three days later, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Right Sector, Dmitro Yarosh, threatened publicly to pull his men out of fighting in Donbass and to march on Kyiv if criminal cases opened against members of his movement relating to their alleged extremist political activity were not closed. Yarosh later withdrew the threat saying that the criminal investigations had been closed and other demands met.

Ukrainian army “could take Luhansk by Independence Day”

Graham Stack in Stannitsa Luhanska
August 22, 2014
The city of Luhansk, a centre of the Russian-backed insurgency in east Ukraine, could fall to Ukrainian government forces in the next few days, the commander of an army battalion moving up on the strategic north-eastern flank of the city tells bne.

The commanding officer of a frontline battalion said Ukrainian government forces could break resistance in the city in the next 4-5 days. “Perhaps we could take the town by Independence Day [August 24] in time to parade, but of course this is not my decision,” said the leader of the Ukrainian army’s 13th Battalion, Oleksandr, who preferred not to give his last name for security reasons.

Ukraine’s Independence Day is celebrated on August 24. It marks the failure of the putsch in Moscow in 1991, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the birth of independent Ukraine later the same year.

The fall of Luhansk would be the most important government victory since the start of the government’s “anti-terrorist” campaign against the Donbass insurgency launched in June. Luhansk, a city of over 400,000, is the second largest population centre held by Russian-backed rebels, and since May the seat of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic, a self-proclaimed breakaway state. According to opinion polls, Luhansk, nestling on the border to Russia, is Ukraine’s most pro-Russian region outside of the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in March.

The capture of Stannitsa Luhanska, less than 10km from the outskirts of Luhansk, now tightens Kyiv’s stranglehold on the city. Crucial road and rail connections between Luhansk and Russia pass through the town, and were used by the rebels’ Russian backers to move supplies from the border to Luhansk. Spokesman for Ukraine’s armed forces, Oleksandr Lysenko stated on August 20 that Ukrainian army units now also control a police station within Luhansk city boundaries.

“So this now cuts off their oxygen supply,” says Oleksandr. However, he points out that there is still much work to be done to secure Stannitsa Luhanska itself, with the rebels holding high ground overlooking the town and still using it to shell Ukrainian forces. bne saw special force units out combing the surrounding area for rebel hideouts.

Russian guns

The battalion commader adds however that a major threat to his positions now is shelling out of Russian territory. “We man a post right next to the border and hear their artillery working, and can see the muzzle flashes,” he says.

The Russian border is only around 15km away. “Russian drones fly overhead regularly,” Oleksandr adds. The battalion’s base camp was hit by a volley of Grad missiles five days before bne visited, and some tents were ripped by shrapnel but were still standing and in use by the soldiers. Ukrainian forces elsewhere in Luhansk report seizing armed personnel carriers on August 21 that was carrying Russian documentation, suggesting they had been supplied from across the border, although this could not be independently confirmed.

Oleksandr insists many of the remaining rebels appear to be from Russia, including from the North Caucasus, fighting as mercenaries. In contrast, except for Oleksandr and two other career army officers, the men of the 13th battalion are all recruited from Chernigov, a Central Ukrainian region, and owe their fighting spirit to their regional identity, the commander claims. While formally all the men in the battalion were called up to serve in the army, there is no enforcement of Ukraine’s universal mobilisation announced in May, meaning those who did show up for army service are essentially patriotically-minded volunteers.

“Some of them had never held a weapon in their hands before May and all they received before start of operations was 15 days training,” a staff officer of the 13th Battalion who preferred not to be named, told bne. Casualties have nevertheless been surprisingly low, with only 2 dead and 10 wounded out of around 500, the staff officer said, a fact he attributes to his commander’s skill.

“How are we supposed to live?”

However, others in the area are feeling less positive. Suggesting that post-conflict reconciliation between Kyiv and Donbass will be an uphill struggle, the mostly elderly residents venturing onto the streets in Stannitsa Luhanska were less than delighted about the Ukrainian army’s presence, after four days of armed confrontation in the town.

“How are we supposed to live now?” asks Tatiana Nikolaevna, a 58-year-old pensioner, trying in vain to sell her garden produce on the street. “For two months pensions haven’t been paid, and now nothing is being delivered to the shops, except bread. And we can’t get to Luhansk anymore to sell out fruit and vegetables. Everything was peaceful here before the army came, the rebels were hardly present,” she continues. “All we want is to live out our lives in peace.”

Tatiana and other residents accuse the Ukrainian forces of having shelled the town before its capture, causing dozens of casualties and fatalities, although there are no official statistics. “Three were buried yesterday [August 20] alone,” she says.

Extensive damage to buildings in the town showed that shells had fallen in built-up areas, but 13th battalion soldiers deny they shelled the town. “We do not use artillery against areas where civilians dwell,” Oleksandr insists. “This was the work of the separatists and Russian forces.”

“However much you say that [the rebels and Russians are responsible for the shelling] to the locals, they don’t believe you,” complained Volodymr, a soldier patrolling the streets of Stannitsa Luhanska. Meanwhile, locals living outside the town claim to have seen Ukrainian forces firing mortars towards it as the attack on the separatists started.

At the local hospital, staff are also angry at government soldiers residing in the building. “They are spreading dirt and litter, even in the surgical department,” says staff nurse Larissa Suvorova. A colleague with the same first name claims government forces were firing mortars from within the hospital environs at the rebel positions, but this was flatly denied by soldiers at the hospital.

Hospital staff spoke of around 20 in-patients, all civilians, being treated for wounds received during the fighting, some of them in a severe condition. “We have no electricity, no medicines, no bandages, no water,” Suvorova complains. “But in fact we have had no medicines for twenty years, ever since the Soviet Union collapsed, and this is why Donbass has risen up.”