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by Ian Bateson.
Donetsk airport has remained constantly under fire, despite peace agreements reached in Minsk earlier this month and detailed out on Sept. 19. © Ian Bateson
DONETSK, Ukraine – Thick plumes of black smoke are rising over the Donetsk airport, controlled by the Ukrainian forces. It’s been burning for two days, and shooting has continued in both directions between rebel positions and the army.
Just 400 meters away from the airport, militants of Donetsk People’s Republic, laugh out loud at the idea that there should be a cease-fire in that area, as per Sept. 5 multilateral agreements in Minsk signed by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, OSCE and Donestk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
“Cease-fire? What cease-fire?” said Denis, a DNR fighter stationed just outside the airport.
Ukrainian forces retook the airport in May and since then it has been a fetish object for both sides.There has rarely been a day without fights for the airport despite the fact that it is almost useless since its runway was rendered unusable by heavy shelling.
The airport, however, is located only 9.4 kilometers from the center of Donetsk, making it a powerful symbol of Ukrainian military presence on the edge of the city.
“The enemy is in the middle of the city. We have to get rid of them,” said Denis from the now fortified bridge leading to the airport reconstructed for the Euro 2012 football championship at the cost of more than Hr 3.2 billion.
Ukrainian authorities blame the separatists for violating cease-fire and attempting to take over new ground, despite a new agreement over the weekend, under which both sides are supposed to be withdrawing.
“Yesterday fighters made several attempt to storm our positions in the vicinity,” said spokesman for the Ukrainian Security Council Andriy Lysenko adding that “all attacks were repulsed.”
DNR fighters stationed outside of the airport, however, deny attempting to take the airport and say they simply return fire when fired upon.
“They fire and we return fire in the same volume. If we know the position we return fire immediately. If we don’t, we scout it out with drones first,” said Denis, who declined to give his last name.
So far Ukrainian forces remain determined to defend the Donetsk airport after having pulled out of the Luhansk airport at the beginning of September. They are also in a better position to defend it.
“The Luhansk airport was between Donetsk and Luhansk and surrounded by separatist forces, but the Donetsk airport is at the front of the Ukrainian position,” said military expert Viacheslav Tseluiko.
Under a memorandum agreed to by both the Ukrainian government and the rebels on Sept. 19, a 30km (19-mile) buffer zone is supposed to be created where no heavy artillery would be allowed. If it is followed the protocol would not only mean removing Ukrainian artillery from the Donetsk airport, but also rebel artillery from Donetsk.
For now though fighting continues and separatists outside of the airport say they see no sign of the Ukrainian numbers at the airport decreasing.
“With the ceasefire they are firing less into the city. That is something,” said Denis, referring to Grad rocket strikes that have hit medical facilities and apartment blocks in Donetsk.
‘Cease-fire, what cease-fire?’ as both sides keep shooting in #Donetsk Oblast’s #Debaltseve #CeaseFire
by Christopher J. Miller.
A Ukrainian soldier takes position on an armored personnel carrier on Sept. 21 near the town of Debaltseve in Donetsk Oblast. © AFP
DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine – The home of Zhenya Gorbochov at 56 Vorovskova St. was reduced to rubble last week when a rocket crashed into it, igniting a fire that that burned down what it didn’t immediately destroy. Luckily, he, his wife and mother made it to the basement before it hit. They heard the incoming volley of shells and had just enough time to seek shelter underground.
As he showed the Kyiv Post the charred remains of what was once their home on Sept. 22, another volley of rockets boomed overhead.
But Gorbochov didn’t flinch a muscle. Neither did the few other residents strolling past. The acrid smell of gunpowder hung in the still air on the town’s empty streets, and while a few residents darted to basements, some emerged to casually smoke cigarettes, observe the hubbub and chat up soldiers from Dnipropetrovsk’s 25th airborne brigade.
After enduring more than a month of shelling, Debaltseve residents are used to the sound of artillery fire, though most of them have been forced to spend their days and nights eating canned food in dank basements.
“We live like rats,” Gorbochov, a Ukrainian railways employee who hasn’t worked since trains stopped coming to the city months ago, said when describing their new way of life.
Besides, the shells roaring overhead on Monday were outgoing, from a Ukrainian army position in a field on the northern edge of Debaltseve.
Ukrainian officials said on Sept. 22 that the military was pulling back armor and heavy artillery from the front lines in the government’s six-month battle against separatists in eastern Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to form a “mutually” agreed 30-kilometer buffer zone, as outlined by a nine-point peace protocol hammered out in Minsk late into the night on Sept. 19.
But Kyiv’s soldiers here must have missed the memo.
By afternoon, the rumble of rocket fire from their Grad multiple launch missile systems and howitzers reverberated for more than an hour straight throughout this virtual ghost town, which has been without electricity and running water for more than a month, according to residents.
Ukrainian servicemen man positions with APCs and tanks on Sept. 21 near Debaltseve. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Sept. 21 that Ukraine must be ready to defend itself should its peace deal with Russian-backed separatists fall through. The Kyiv Post witnessed Ukrainian troops firing these weapons on Sept. 22, despite a cease-fire agreement with the separatists signed in Minsk last weekend.
Instead of pulling back like Kyiv promised to do so within 24 hours, artillery was seen and heard firing in a westerly direction toward the separatist stronghold of Horlivka, and south to the heart of the inchoate statelet they call “Novorossiya.”
The Kyiv Post observed some artillery being repositioned but not driven back 15 kilometers as outlined in the Minsk protocol. Otherwise, there was no movement of artillery.
To be fair, Kremlin-backed separatist forces have continued firing at Debaltseve even though they, too, signed the peace deal in Minsk over the weekend, and the preliminary deal there on Sept. 5.
According to Gorbochev and several other residents, the city was bombarded late Sunday by rocket fire. He said seven civilians were injured in the assault. The Kyiv Post could not confirm the information. The city’s police department said three residents had died from rocket fire since Sept. 5.
Sasha, a soldier from the 25th airborne brigade, painted a darker picture in describing the horrific scenes he’s witnessed during his time in Debaltseve. Distraught and apparently drunk, he said “many” of his comrades here had been killed in battle and in surrounding towns, their positions hit by rockets and armored vehicles blown up, since they moved into Debaltseve in early July.
“Those bastards,” he said in describing the separatists before choking up and reaching for a beer bottle tucked in his armored vest. Taking a swig, he muttered something inaudible before walking away, his face in his hands.
Sasha, 64, a city hall employee, said rocket attacks from both sides had occurred daily since the initial Sept. 5 cease-fire agreement.
“Cease-fire? What cease-fire?” he asked rhetorically, gesturing to the roars sounding from the Ukrainian line a mere 300 meters away.
The Debaltseve city government building has been vacant for weeks. A sign that reads “city hall is not working” adorns its front doors, which no longer have glass in their frames. Those and most of the building’s windows were blown out last week when a rocket exploded 20 meters away, leveling one building and blowing out one wall of another nearby.
With little savings and at his age, Alexander, echoing what so many locals have said in cities plagued by war in past months, said he had nowhere to flee, so he is staying put in Debaltseve.
“I’m a pensioner with a dog and a cat and a home here. Where can I go?” he said.
The fact that firing hasn’t ceased after a preliminary cease-fire was agreed upon on during previous meeting in Minsk on Sept. 5 isn’t too surprising. Both sides have been caught violating the ceasefire, but have said their forces were merely taking defensive actions, pointing the finger at the other for shooting first.
NATO’s senior military commander, Gen. Philip Breedlove, said on Sunday the two-week-old cease-fire between Ukraine and the separatists exists “in name only.”
But on Sept. 22, there had been no incoming fire, according to Ukrainian army soldiers and local residents the Kyiv Post interviewed, suggesting that the shelling from the Ukrainian position was offensive fire, ostensibly violating the peace pact.
Among other things, the Minsk deal stipulates that Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitors will observe the two sides’ compliance with the cease-fire after each has pulled back its artillery the agreed 15 kilometers to create the 30 kilometer buffer zone.
Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesperson for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, whose vehicle was seen leaving Debaltseve on Sept. 22, said his monitors have witnessed shelling there and elsewhere in Donetsk Oblast, despite the cease-fire agreement.
“Our monitors witnessed shelling in Donetsk Oblast yesterday in various places… and actually today in Debaltseve,” he told the Kyiv Post by phone. “There was shelling yesterday and there was shelling today. So we haven’t seen a complete cessation of fire.”
Colonel Andriy Lysenko, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told reporters Monday that a decrease in separatist artillery attacks, and the cessation of firing from Russian territory, had allowed the Ukrainian army to pull back.
Still, two Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the past 24 hours, bringing the number of deaths of Ukrainian troops and civilians killed since the initial Sept. 5 ceasefire took effect to 39.
Rebels have also begun withdrawing their heavy artillery, Lysenko added, but it was “not as massive as we had expected.”
Bociurkiw said the OSCE is hoping for immediate de-escalation. “But we did see with our own eyes shelling today and yesterday,” he added.
Not far from the firing line in Debaltseve, Daniel, 11, and Andriy, 12, 6th grade students at nearby School No. 9, visited the Ukrainian army at a checkpoint on the northern edge of town. Under normal circumstances they would be studying mathematics and science. Instead, they say, they are taught how to duck and cover when they hear incoming fire.
“Our teacher shows us how to run to the bomb shelter when the siren sounds,” Daniel, who is excited to celebrate his 12th birthday on Nov. 14, told the Kyiv Post.
The boom of outgoing rocket fire on Monday didn’t seem to faze him, perhaps because his small village on the northern edge of the town hasn’t been shelled recently, he said.
“It’s quiet here, for now,” he added.
Kyiv Post editor Christopher J. Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @ChristopherJM. Staff Writer Oksana Grytsenko contributed to this report.
by Ian Bateson.
Ukrainian forces take their position not far from Luhansk on Aug. 20, 2014. © AFP
When tanks and artillery entered the southern Donetsk Oblast from Russia on Aug. 27 it caught Ukrainian forces off guard, sending shockwaves through Ukraine’s leadership. Resistance quickly crumbled as the advancing forces took Novoazovsk and surrounding villages.
With reports that Russian regulars led the offensive not Russian-supported Ukrainian separatists or volunteers, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk appeared in front of television cameras visibly shaken. “Russian terrorists we can handle, but not the Russian army,” he said before trailing off.
With the new offensive the optimism that existed in July, when Defence Minister Valeriy Heletey said Ukraine would hold a victory march in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, has evaporated. Doubt is growing among both the Ukrainian officials and military experts as to whether Ukraine could win this war.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced intentions to reshuffle the military leadership, but any reshuffle will add to an already confusing situation where civilian and military bodies attempt to coordinate a war effort still referred to as an “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO).
For now an uneasy ceasefire is in place, giving both sides an opportunity to regroup. But if and when massive fire restarts, whoever ends up heading the military effort after the reshuffle will not only have to deal with a situation where Ukrainian forces are on the defensive, but will be under pressure to retake lost territory, and demonstrate a clear strategy that has previously been absent from Ukrainian military operations.
The situation now
“I don’t see any tactics from the Ukrainian side. No tactics to fight the Russian invasion,” said Archil Tsintsadze, a retired Georgian colonel who fought in Abkhazia and former military advisor to the Georgian embassy in Kyiv.
As the armed conflict in Ukraine’s east has continued, Ukraine has come under increasing criticism for not having a clear strategy, and instead simply reacting to events as they happen.
After ending a unilateral ceasefire this summer, Ukrainian forces made rapid advances, taking territory back from Russian-supported separatists, but failed to deliver a coup de grace that could have defeated the separatists. Instead Ukrainian advances pushed separatists into the heavily populated regional centers of Donetsk and Luhansk, complicating fighting that has already seen a high number of civilian casualties.
Before the latest escalation of events on Aug. 27, Ukrainian authorities claimed several times to have successfully encircled separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk, only for it later to become clear that men and equipment were still freely able to get in and out of those areas. But the effort to contain separatists came to an end when a new front was opened in the southern Donetsk Oblast.
“Now it is more or less clear that after the maneuver by separatists or Russians near Mariupol the Ukrainian army doesn’t have the forces to encircle Donetsk and Luhansk anymore,” said independent Russian military expert Alexander Golts.
A map released by the Ukrainian Security Council on Sep. 11 seemed to confirm the new status quo, showing Luhansk, Donetsk, and Novoazovsk, along with a large chunk of surrounding territories, to be solidly connected by territory controlled by Russian-backed forces.
This change means that supply routes to both Donetsk and Luhansk remain open, allowing the separatists to continue receiving reinforcements in manpower and heavy weaponry.
This shift has put Ukraine on the defensive as it not only struggles to hold Mariupol, the second largest city in the southern Donetsk Region, but prepares for further escalations instigated by Russia that could bring fighting to other previously unaffected parts of Ukraine.
“We need to prepare Ukraine’s territory militarily just like Mariupol, creating fortifications and new units. That should be the norm not just for Mariupol, but also for other important cities either bordering Russia or near Crimea Kherson or Donbas. That includes Zaporizhia and Dnipropetrovsk,” said Ukrainian military expert Viacheslav Tseluikov.
Experts, however, point out that if it comes to a full on clash between Russian and Ukrainian forces, despite the superior size of Russia’s army if prepared Ukraine would still have certain advantages.
“Russia is a big country. Their problems don’t stop with Ukraine. They can’t take soldiers away from the Caucasus or the far east. Ukraine can use all of its forces against Russia and Russia can’t use all of its forces against Ukraine,” said Tseluikov.
So far, however, Ukrainian leaders have fallen short of describing hostilities in its east as an outright war and taking the precautions preparing for a war would normally entail.
The organization of the military campaign in the east also shows a failure to make that shift. Military operations in the east are currently coordinated by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Ukraine’s successor to the KGB, rather than the Ministry of Defense.
“When fighting involves Russia regulars that isn’t an anti-terrorist operation but a war, and a war should be led by Ministry of Defense,” said Tseluikov.
It is a sentiment echoed by many in Ukraine’s military circles with a statement released in early September by former military officials and experts calling for a transfer of leadership from the SBU to the Ukrainian armed forces.
What it would take to reclaim Donetsk and Luhansk
If full hostilities resume Ukraine would predominantly be focused on holding the ground, but long term it would be a priority to retake the separatist strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Reasserting control over those cities would not only mean a moral boost for Ukrainian fighters and a boost in the polls for Ukraine’s leaders, but give Ukraine a stronger hand at the negotiating table.
“During negotiations the government can point to that and say despite your rhetoric and propaganda we remained in control of these areas,” said John Gordan a counter-insurgency expert at the US Rand Corporation adding that “allows them to deal from a position of strength.”
When it comes to taking the two cities, however, sufficient and qualified manpower is required if the Ukrainian military do not want to bombard them first. They have previously pledged not to.
“They need to have enough forces to cow the insurgents and intimidate them, but at the same time they don’t want to shoot up an urban area or cause a lot of civilian casualties. And part of that is to have enough force available that the separatists are so awed by that they aren’t going to want to take the risk of taking that on,” said Gordan.
Such tactics spare civilian lives, but are more costly for soldiers and that is a commitment Gordan says officials have to be ready for. Previously when Ukrainian forces were in a stronger position outside of Donetsk and Luhansk there was no evidence to a commitment to that kind of an engagement.
In the end experts generally agree that for any lasting solution Ukraine will have to reach an agreement with Russia. The current ceasefire is a potential basis for a wider peace, but with reported violations of the ceasefire from both sides it is on very shaky footing.
The attack on Novoazovsk made it clear that if Ukraine comes anywhere close to a decisive victory against the separatists, Russia will increase the flow of people and equipment, including opening new fronts, to rebalance the scales.
The most recent change in military balance put pressure on President Poroshenko to conclude a ceasefire, and showed that any negotiations will be on Russia’s terms and guided by Russia – but only unofficially. It is the separatists, not the Kremlin, who will put their signatures on any paper.
But a likelier development for Donbas at the moment is becoming another frozen post-Soviet conflict.
“The Kremlin’s goal is to freeze the conflict and have Donetsk and Luhansk as unrecognized or self-declared territories like Transnistria, South Ossetia, or Abkhazia,” said Golts.
by Brian Bonner.
This handout picture taken and released by Ukrainian presidential press-service on Sept. 11, shows Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (L) welcoming his Estonian counterpart Toomas Hendrik Ilves prior to their meeting in Kiev. © AFP
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Sept. 12 that the nation will win Crimea back from Russia not through military force, but by building a better society than Russia.
“We will win a democratic, economic, liberal competition for the minds of the Crimea people,” Poroshenko told the Yalta European Strategy conference, the 11th annual event sponsored by billionaire Victor Pinchuk. The three-day even is being held in Kyiv this year because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, including Yalta’s Livadia Palace, the traditional venue.
Later, during a question-and-answer session, Poroshenko echoed European Parliament President Martin Schulz’s view that there is “no military solution,” even though it is just such a solution that Russia has been trying to impose on Ukraine since its Feb. 27 invasion of Crimea and subsequent backing of separatists in Ukraine’s eastern regions during the last six months.
Poroshenko called this “one of the most challenging and dangerous periods in the history of Ukraine,” but said that he would try to find a peaceful solution that does not involve “compromise on the territorial integrity” of the nation.
Poroshenko said the same non-military approach – winning the hearts and minds of two million Crimeans – will also work in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine, where Russia is backing a separatist war that has killed more than 3,000 people, including soldiers and civilians.
The president said Ukraine will build an effective, democratic and “not corrupt” state, Poroshenko said. “We will be democratic and we will be free. The standard of freedom in Ukraine outside of the administrative border of Crimea will be much better; this is the only way we can win in the fight for the minds of Crimea.”
Poroshenko praised the European Union decision to impose new economic sanctions today against Russia. “They demonstrate that Ukraine is now their top priority.”
He also said next week is a pivotal one for Ukraine, with a Sept. 16 synchronized approval of the EU-Ukraine association agreement in the European Parliament in Brussels and the Verkhovna Rada in Kyiv. The voting will be broadcast by video link in both capitals, with voting taking place at the same moment.
Poroshenko also signaled he would push for an invitation from the EU for full membership, suggesting it would be “unpolite” for the 28-nation bloc to not make such an offer considering all that Ukraine has been through. Later, he said the EU would not be whole without Ukraine and that, with Ukraine as an EU member, Europea will be “stronger from a security point of view.”
Two days later, on Sept. 18, Poroshenko will address a joint session of the U.S. Congress and meet with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Poroshenko also said that he hopes that NATO grants Ukraine the status as major non-member ally.
“It’s of crucial importance for us,” Poroshenko said. “Our European and trans-Atlantic partners that Ukrainians are not fighting for the territorial independence of Ukraine. It is fighting for global security. We need to introduce a new security structure in this very dangerous world.’
At the same time, Poroshenko said Ukraine will embark on a reform program to end corruption simultaneously to seeking peace with Russia.
“The fight against corruption is absolutely the same importance as the fight for peace. This is like a cancer that has paralyzed Ukraine,” Poroshenko said.
When challenged during a question-and-answer by Dragon Capital head Tomas Fiala on the slow pace of the anti-corruption fight, Poroshenko said that – despite the EuroMaidan Revolution – Ukraine is saddled with the old rules and old parliament. That is why he called for new parliamentary elections on Oct. 26, the president said.
“Investors will come when they feel safe in the country,” Poroshenko said. “The investors are not going to a country that is in a state of war.”
In particular, Poroshenko called for reform of Ukraine’s secretive and corrupt court system to make investment safe.
In his speech, Poroshenko said that Ukrainians are united as never before. “We have no military solution to this crisis,” he said.
“What we have now is absolutely new Ukrainian army, security forces and heroes who demonstrated that even in this difficult times we can effectively defend our values. We are defending our values; and that is why we are stronger than anybody else,” he said.
Poroshenko addressed skeptics about the peace agreement reached in Minsk on Sept. 5. He said the deal can work.
“Only a few of you can believe that we can establish a fragile peace,” he said. “From day to day, more people believe we will be successful in this important way. Even now, not everybody understands the positive thing to have possibility not to receive every night the news about death of Ukrainian solders and civilians, when dozens of Ukrainan heroes are giving their lives. That’s why this is very important for us Ukrainians to be together. We can win only when we will be united.”
The president said that “Ukraine is as united as never before. You can absolutely understand and see that. This is another reason I am proud to be Ukrainian and I am proud to be the president of this beautiful country.”
(Kyiv Post chief editor Brian Bonner can be reached at email@example.com).
by Brian Bonner.
Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, the star of Okean Elzy rock band, scores points with the crowd on Sept. 11 for his pointed criticism of Ukraine’s elites. He was part of an opening panel discussion at billionaire Victor Pinchuk’s annual Yalta European Strategy conference, held in Kyiv this year after Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsual. © Anastasia Vlasova
Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk’s crowd, assembled every year for the Yalta European Strategy, tried to get into the groove at this year’s opening reception on Sept. 11. But everything was off-kilter since, instead of Russian-annexed Crimea, the guests were assembled in Kyiv’s Mystetskyi Arsenal.
Sure, the wine flowed freely and the food was abundant, as usual.
Many guests, including journalists, were eating up and drinking up as Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian member of parliament, author and former journalist, interviewed a panel that included Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, Okean Elzy rock star Syvatoslav “Slava” Vakarchuk and billionaire Sergiy Taruta.
The talk was fairly predictable until Vakarchuk — who is used to charging up audiences with his music — triggered applause by directing pointed criticism at some of the people in the audience for not building a strong Ukrainian state during 23 years of independence.
No, he did not mention any of the elite by name or single out anyone among the hundreds in the crowd.
But, in the audience, ex-President Viktor Yushchenko, host Pinchuk, his wife Elena Pinchuk, Taruta and representatives of various billionaire oligarchs in the crowd — Dmytro Firtash’s man, Boris Krasnyansky, and Rinat Akhmetov’s guy, Jock Mendoza Wilson — might have reason to think he was talking about them.
Speaking to the “rich and influential” people gathered, Vakarchuk asked, in reference to the Kremlin-backed separatist war in the eastern Donbas: “What have you done in these 23 years to prevent the situation we have today?”
He went on to answer his own question by blaming the political elite of the nation for “23 years of doing nothing” for people — not treating them with courtesy, sympathy or dignity, not helping them build prosperous and hopeful lives.
“You are just using these people, using these people, using these people!” he exclaimed.
During the same discussion, Vakarchuk said Ukraine needs to do a better job of countering Kremlin propaganda and he called on the world to impose tough sanctions against Russia. “If you really want to help Ukraine, you need to feel a little pain in order not to feel a big pain later,” he said.
Afterwards, Vakarchuk told me that he is glad to have delivered the scathing criticism and that he planned the remarks.
He still wouldn’t name names, but said he assigns blame for Ukraine’s crisis proportionate to power and influence. “All presidents, all prime ministers, rich people” bear “bigger responsibility” than others for the fate of the nation, he said.
“I don’t have any posts or positions, so I say what I want,” Vakarchuk said. “Right or wrong, at least it’s honest.”
We’ll see how much more honesty will be forthcoming this weekend at Pinchuk’s 11th annual Yalta European Strategy — in Kyiv.
(Kyiv Post chief editor Brian Bonner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).