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.
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.