A soldier in unmarked military fatigues mans a checkpoint on a bridge leading into the town of Slovyansk in Donetsk Oblast on April 12, the day Russian proxies took over the city. © Konstantyn Chernichkin.
The main picture accompanying this op-ed of the “little green man” wasn’t taken in Crimea during Russia’s annexation of the peninsula and wasn’t shot this week when they again invaded Ukraine with columns of tanks and other hardware.
It was shot when I and a photographer on April 12 were in Slovyansk on a bridge leading into town at a checkpoint manned by armed, masked soldiers wearing matching military fatigues – the same day that Russian proxies took over the town, including its main municipal building, police station and State Security headquarters. The same kind of troops stood guard that day at the SBU, while a video surfaced of a well-organized unit of fighters taking over the local police station that morning. And this was before the government’s military operation had officially launched against the Russian invaders.
These weren’t locals who spontaneously decided to rise up against Kyiv. They came from Russia-occupied Crimea, the SBU had alleged, where they received training and arms for the purpose of militarily expressing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s contempt for Ukraine as a unified people and sovereign nation.
Then led by Russian military intelligence officer Igor Girkin (a.k.a. Strelkov), a group of Russians (see picture below) the following day on April 13 ambushed an SBU counterterrorism team near Sloviansk while it was “conducting redeployment” in preparation for the government’s anti-terrorist operation, according to SBU counterintelligence chief Vitaliy Naida. SBU Capt. Hennadiy Bilichenko was killed, and two SBU colonels and an interior ministry officer were wounded.
Armed Kremlin-backed guerrillas prepare for battle with a Ukrainian Security Service team on the outskirts the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk on April 13, 2014. (AFP/Anatoliy Stepanov).
They were one of the first casualties in Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine.
Also on the same day in Kramatorsk, about 15 kilometers south of Slovyansk, another well-organized unit of over 20 men in matching military fatigues seized the police headquarters after a shootout, Reuters reported.
By April 16 when Oleksandr Turchynov, then acting president of Ukraine, officially launched the counterterrorism campaign against the invading Russian irregulars, Kyiv lost control of nine cities in Donetsk Oblast: Mariupol, Donetsk, Makyivka, Yeanikiyeve, Druzhkivka, Kramatorsk, Sloviansk and Horlivka.
Then the disciplined Russian green men disappeared, leaving behind a mixture of Russian mercenaries and locals fighting beside them.
SBU Capt. Hennadiy Bilichenko of Poltava was one of the first casualties of Russia’s war against Ukraine. He was killed in an ambush on April 13 outside Slovyansk in Donetsk Oblast. (Courtesy)
In April, most of the Russian fighters didn’t have anti-armor weapons. In an SBU video recording (1:32) of Russian military intelligence officer Girkin speaking to his handler in Moscow after the successful ambush, he says: “We repelled the first attack, they ran into our rearguard. They took heavy casualties. We don’t know who we killed, but it was somebody very serious. We can hold on (only) for a few days of fighting, let them (fighters coming via Luhansk) bring more anti-tank weapons. If we had them (anti-armor weapons), we would have driven them all beyond Mozhaisk (a town in Moscow Oblast located on the historic road leading to Smolensk and then to Poland.)”
In the same conversation, the handler tells Girkin he wants his “deputy commander” with a Ukrainian accent to speak to Russia’s Life News to demand the federalization of Ukraine, the election of oblast governors by April 25, and for Ukraine to need at least two-thirds approval from the regions to borrow externally.
Over time, Kyiv’s control of the border area in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts with Russia deteriorated. To secure the regular supply of weapons, armor and troops, Russian elements attacked key crossing areas from both sides of the border. Escalation ensued on July 11, according to National Security and Defense Council spokesperson Col. Andriy Lysenko, when Russia started daily cross-border artillery barrages on Ukrainian positions. They persist to this day.
Kyiv has been reluctant to fire back on Russia for fear of provoking a full-scale invasion where an estimated 20,000 combat-ready soldiers presumably await orders for such an incident.
And when Ukraine started to exercise air superiority, Russia gave its boys on the ground sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons, including radar-guided surface-to-air missile systems known as Buk. Special training is needed to operate these deadly weaponry, one of which was most likely used by Russians to shoot down the Malaysian airliner on July 17, killing all 298 people on board, including 80 children.
According to the latest count, 18 Ukrainian military aircraft have been lost costing the Defense Ministry at least $250 million in losses, according to a calculation by UNIAN.
The arrival of mercenary groups in late May, like the predominantly Chechen Vostok Battalion that replaced the ragtag group of Kremlin-backed separatists in Donetsk, marked another escalation in Russia’s invasion. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry called their presence, including kozak groups – also Russian – “undisguised aggression.”
This summer, Kyiv recovered much lost territory and it looked like all that was left was to take over the provincial capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk, the sizable city of Horlivka, and secure the border area and smaller settlements along the way.
Not wishing to relinquish control and seeing its pipedream of forming breakaway republics in the region crumble, Russia struck back. The Russian green men resurfaced, this time, brazenly en masse accompanied by columns of heavy armor, artillery, and howitzers, among other serious weaponry. Authorities now estimate over 20,000 fighting on the side of Russia in the region.
Fighting has been intense. After all, Ukraine’s forces are dealing with Europe’s largest army that has spent billions over the last decade to modernize its military, with Germany partially assisting. Ukraine since April has lost at least 722 servicemen and 2,625 were wounded, according to the National Security and Defense Council.
I hope that number stops growing soon, but honestly, Ukraine can’t stop Putin on its own without making huge sacrifices and seeing scores more killed in the field of battle. It needs help in all forms. Putin won’t stop until somebody stops him. The time to act is now, and decisively.
(Kyiv Post editor Mark Rachkevych can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).