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Members of a Ukrainian militia walk past a house riddled with shrapnel. Credit Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times.
Andrew E. Kramer, The New York Times.
PISKY, Ukraine — Since a cease-fire was declared in eastern Ukraine on Sept. 5, nearly 1,000 soldiers and civilians have died in a grinding conflict with rebel separatists that is being waged largely out of sight. That is almost a quarter of the 4,317 killed since April and an average of 13 a day, the United Nations estimates.
Over the same three-month period, the Ukrainian military says it has recorded 3,412 rebel cease-fire violations, while separatist fighters regularly accuse Ukrainian forces of shelling the region’s biggest city, Donetsk, killing civilians. And Russia has continued to build up the rebel forces, sending in troops, military vehicles and heavy weapons, including what Ukraine says was a convoy of 85 vehicles this week carrying heavy armor, fighters and ammunition.
All this has made for a nervous few months for the Ukrainian soldiers in the village of Pisky, who endure almost constant shelling, sniper fire and raiding parties from the rebel separatists only a mile away on the front lines of a confrontation that carries the potential, at almost any moment, of exploding into a hot new theater in a revived Cold War.
The front zigzags through a glum tableau of abandoned houses, muddy fields and trash-strewn streets, where all but a few retired people have long since fled. The two sides are only about a mile apart, so close that they can see each other’s positions through a high-powered periscope.
On a recent visit to the Ukrainian side, gunfire broke out near the abandoned house where a soldier calling himself Simferopol and his mates in the all-volunteer Dnipro-1 pro-Ukrainian militia were stationed.
As bullets whistled over a nearby fence, walkie-talkies started crackling.
“Look to your 3 o’clock.”
“I don’t see anything.”
Eventually, they gave up, as they often do, unable to ascertain the origin of the shooting. Another Ukrainian unit reported later that it was test-firing a gun, though it was unclear whether this was the same incident.
All the same, after some time, the Ukrainians decided to send off a return volley of mortars, shot in the direction of Donetsk.
“If you cannot see clearly what is happening, you shoot, to ease your soul,” said Simferopol, who took his nickname from his hometown on the Crimean Peninsula, which he left after Russia annexed the territory in March. He was unsure of the purpose of this firing, or where the next bullets might come from. “I’m not really a professional,” he said. “I used to sell Tupperware.”
Simferopol and Ukrainian paramilitary and regular army soldiers deployed in the village say they are fighting defensively, noting that, despite their efforts, rebel lines have been creeping forward.
And yet, the Ukrainian forces regularly fire mortars and artillery toward the separatist lines.
“They shoot at us to remind us they are still there,” Simferopol said of cease-fire violations that run into the dozens of incidents daily. “And then we shoot at them, to remind them we are still here.”
The two sides may seem dug in, but the rebels have advanced several hundred yards since the cease-fire declaration.
In an interview, Zhora, a commander in the Vostok battalion, a pro-Russian, separatist militia, said he had success in “expanding the lines,” and this was necessary to better defend the flanks of a position that the rebels held before the cease-fire, but was vulnerable for jutting into the Ukrainian zone. The position had been under attack.
“We moved ahead,” he said, in an interview at his headquarters, where dozens of empty, green wooden boxes for artillery shells were stacked in a parking lot. “We had no left or right flank. What we did was smooth out the line.”
Pro-Russian soldiers deny receiving aid from Russia, and yet a proliferation of ammunition, howitzers, new uniforms and high-caliber sniper rifles on their side tells a different story.
However enfeebled and impoverished the Ukrainian Army, rebel fighters who were on the ropes in the summer before a Russian incursion could hardly be pushing an entrenched regular army equipped with artillery and tanks without state sponsorship.
Both Simferopol and Zhora say they are fighting to win back their home territory from the other side, but the similarities end there.
A Russian flag adorns Zhora’s headquarters in a warehouse, while graffiti saying “This Is Ukraine” is scrawled on the abandoned house that is Simferopol’s temporary home.
As the pro-Russian line is flush with the city of Donetsk, stray shots by the Ukrainian artillery regularly land in outlying districts of the city. In Pisky, rebel shelling is a menace to the Ukrainian soldiers but few civilians, since most have left the village.
The only residents to be found were a retired couple, Ivan and Lyubov Siderov, who live in their root cellar in the buffer zone between the two armies and stayed on because “we have a cow, we have a reason to stay.”
They trade milk for bread with the soldiers, and emerge from the cellar only to do chores, and in this way hope to survive until one or the other side wins.
One of the Ukrainian paramilitary soldiers, who uses the nickname Zloy, or Angry, said he was motivated by what he saw as a Russian attempt to oppress Ukrainians, and not for the first time.
“Russia oppresses us and not only for six months in this war, but for centuries, from the time of Peter the Great,” he said. “There were Cossacks who went to Moscow and kneeled and bowed, and there were those who did not. I’m one of those types.”
With the Russian buildup on the other side, nerves are fraying, particularly in light of a catastrophic defeat for Ukrainian volunteers in the town of Ilovaisk last summer.
There, as here, volunteers fueled by heady patriotism headed for the thickest part of the fight, ahead of the Ukrainian Army. But a Russian advance then pushed the Ukrainian regulars off a road protecting the retreat, and at least a hundred paramilitary soldiers were killed and hundreds more captured.
“What can we do, a soldier just lives through the day,” said Grigory V. Matiash, a 22-year-old from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, who volunteered after participating in last winter’s protest in Independence Square.
Such fatalism is understandable in a surreal war zone where boredom is relieved only by deadly attacks, and the sound of .50-caliber sniper fire — first the snap of an incoming bullet, then a boom a moment later — has become background noise.
The separatists and the Ukrainians alike send artillery controllers to spot the flashes of outgoing artillery, and correct answering fire. While in a sense defensive, as the spotters are intended to silence the other side’s guns, their activities only escalate the small-arms firing, as each side tries to shoot the other’s observers, using infrared scopes.
Also, the Ukrainians sometimes shoot randomly in the direction of their enemy’s lines, something they call “prophylactic fire,” to keep heads down.
After the sun goes down, Pisky becomes an even scarier place, as the buffer zone of abandoned houses becomes a no-man’s land of constant skirmishes between nighttime patrols sent out by both sides.
“Our guys die, and their families suffer,” said one of the Ukrainian fighters, a former Pentecostal preacher who uses the nickname Padre. “There are widows and orphans. And our government doesn’t want to declare war. We are at war with Russia. Nobody wants to say it, but this is a real war.”
Little Green Men, a nickname for Russian personnel operating in unmarked uniforms that Western military officials gave them after appearance in Crimea. Yevgeny Razumny / Vedomosti.
When Russians crossed the border to fight with rebels in eastern Ukraine earlier this year, Moscow said the soldiers had not been deployed but had gone on their own vacation time.
When Estonia was the victim of a cyber attack in 2007 and blamed Moscow, the Kremlin responded that it could not always control patriotic Russian hackers.
Western strategists who built their defenses to counter a massive invasion, nuclear missiles or terrorism are still trying to work out how to cope with this sort of threat that disrupts and destabilizes from behind a mask of deniability.
After soldiers without insignia took control in Crimea last March, Western military officials developed their own nickname for Russian personnel operating in unmarked uniforms or in plainclothes: Little Green Men.
NATO is considering how to counter such “ambiguous warfare” techniques should President Vladimir Putin try something similar in the Baltic member states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
It has deployed some U.S. and allied tanks and planes there to signal NATO’s commitment to defend all its members with force and is considering bolstering police there, perhaps with officers from Nordic states, to help detect any Russian infiltration.
Effective Russian Strategy
Military experts say Russia’s unconventional strategy on its western flank, especially in non-NATO member Ukraine, is proving remarkably effective, and it has recently been combined with a global show of force on a scale not seen since the Cold War.
Russian warships probed the limits of Australian territorial waters before the G20 summit in Brisbane this month and Moscow said nuclear bomber patrols which have been overflying western Europe would now reach as far as the Gulf of Mexico.
Russia’s underlying point, Western analysts say, is clear: as it reasserts its influence over countries on its borders, it is reminding the West of how cataclysmic the consequences could be if military force were used to stop them.
“Putin is taking the measure of the West’s willingness to keep exerting pressure on Ukraine,” said Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
Many officials and experts say privately that both the West and the government in Kiev ultimately will have to accept greater federalism and a Russian influence in eastern Ukraine.
The issue will then be whether Putin interprets it as a sign of weakness and a green light to consider similar tactics against NATO members like the Baltic states.
Evolving Western Strategy
“It’s not quite a new Cold War, but it’s a very different situation to where we were a few years ago,” said Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official and now senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security. “I don’t think we’ve yet formulated a proper strategy for dealing with that.”
The West’s biggest response to Moscow’s actions has been financial sanctions on Russian firms and individuals and the new, if limited, military deployments in eastern Europe. Further measures are now being discussed in NATO meetings.
U.S. Supreme Allied Commander Philip Breedlove makes clear covert infiltration by Russia could draw a military response under Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, which sees an attack on one member as an attack on the alliance as a whole.
“If we see these actions taking place in a NATO nation and we are able to attribute them to an aggressor nation, that is Article 5. Now, it is a military response,” he said in an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt earlier this year.
The emphasis for NATO in Europe, home to more than half the world’s atomic weapons, remains detecting any Russian initiatives early and responding firmly to avert any risk of actual war.
“What you have to remember is that there is simply no option for a conventional war with Russia,” said one former official on condition of anonymity. “It is either unconventional like this or it is likely to become something much worse.”
Alexander J. Motyl, World Affairs Journal.
Should Ukraine embark on a “hybrid war” against the Donbas enclave controlled by Russia and its proxies? One of Ukraine’s best military analysts, Yuri Butusov, the Russian-speaking editor of the Censor.net website, effectively argues that the answer is yes.
Hybrid war is the term analysts apply to what many believe is Russia’s new way of war-making in southeastern Ukraine, one that employs a variety of means—propaganda, subversion, outright aggression, support for proxies, and the like—while remaining undeclared or denied.
Butusov believes that the recent G20 summit in Australia confronted Russia’s illegitimately elected president, Vladimir Putin, with a “new reality of world politics” and “an anti-Putin front.” Butusov is therefore “99 percent certain” that Russia will refrain from attacking Ukraine, because Putin now understands that “any further escalation” will result in “new packets of sanctions much more quickly. And Russia is already paralyzed by the drop in world prices for raw materials.”
Moreover, Ukraine’s current focus on an exclusively defensive strategy isn’t sustainable in the long run. “We cannot,” writes Butusov, “construct rows of trenches and fill them with soldiers along the whole line of the front.” As a result, the Russian militants are always able to take the initiative, strike unexpectedly wherever they want to, and inflict casualties on the Ukrainian army. Such attrition is both demoralizing and destabilizing.
Butusov therefore suggests that Kyiv change its tactics—from playing defense to playing offense, but with “a scalpel.” Ukraine needs a “new concept of military activities.”
It is imperative that quick-response strike forces be created on the basis of existing formations and that systematic work be conducted toward liquidating the knots of resistance and the units of the adversary. Our defense should be proactive. The enemy should not remain in peace. We need a war of diversionary groups, howitzers and mortars, large armored units, and well-defended convoys.
In a word, Butusov is recommending that Ukraine adopt hit-and-run tactics against the Russian proxies, engage in surgical strikes against strategic targets, both on the front line and in the occupied Donbas, and thereby force the terrorists to dig in, anticipate, and lose the initiative. Ukraine’s offensive actions would therefore mirror Russia’s hybrid war. Ukrainian “little green men” and diversionary units would strike at vulnerable targets in the rear, while lightly armed commandoes enjoying the support of mobile artillery units would harass the Russians and their proxies along the whole length of the front.
Here are the two key elements of Butusov’s plan:
- We can drive out the Russian Federation from the Donbas, but for that we need to conduct a genuine war—without flags, without PR, without advertising. Without any large attacks or maneuvers. Instead, locally, surgically, and fatally.
- There should be one goal of the war: to inflict maximum casualties on the armies of the occupiers.
First, Kyiv would neither discuss what it is up to nor admit to having a Ukrainian military presence behind enemy lines. Like Moscow, Kyiv would adamantly insist that the attacks are being launched by local resistance to the proxies. Second, the goal of the offensive would not be to win back territory—at least not immediately—but to impose unacceptable casualties on Putin’s forces.
Would Butusov’s plan work? It’s obviously premised on the inability or unwillingness of Putin to launch a full-scale attack on Ukraine. If he does not or cannot, Ukraine’s hands are free. If he does, hit-and-run tactics may still be useful, but Ukraine’s primary task would then be to defend its territory. As I’ve written many times, we have no idea what Putin will or will not do. In that case, either you may agree with Butusov or you may not.
But there would be two ancillary advantages to Butusov’s strategy. First, localized strikes would not offer Russia the option of claiming that it must launch a full-scale attack in response to a Ukrainian offensive. Since Ukraine would purposely eschew “large attacks or maneuvers,” Russia would be placed in the same position Ukraine has been in for much of 2014: continually facing small-scale attacks that, individually, never quite merited a massive response.
Second, thanks to Kyiv’s cut-off of government subsidies, social unrest in the Donbas enclave has noticeably increased, with locals demanding that the proxies provide them with money and goods. The unrest is sure to intensify as the temperatures drop in the months ahead. Butusov’s plan would both build on and contribute to such unrest. Seen in this light, disrupting separatist rule behind the lines could turn out to be the best way of weakening separatist forces on the front lines.
A Ukrainian soldier reloads his weapon in front of an armored personnel carrier in Donetsk Oblast on Nov. 24. © Anastasia Vlasova.
DZERZHINSK, Ukraine – Spoil tips rise as high as mountains above the horizon where, not far across the field, pro-Kremlin insurgents are amassing troops with more heavy weaponry and fighters coming from Russia.
Ukrainian soldiers of the 57th brigade at checkpoints around Dzerzhinsk, a small city near insurgent-held Horlivka in Donetsk Oblast, say a separatist offensive is imminent but they have little at their disposal to withstand it. They feel abandoned by the state, which they say has left them in the middle of nowhere in an open field without any means of survival.
Olexiy Dmytrashkovsky, a spokesman for the Ukrainian government’s anti-terrorist operation’s headquarters, dismissed these reports as false. He said by phone that the soldiers in Dzerzhinsk were sufficiently supplied with food and clothing by the army. Dmytrashkovsky said, however, that inspectors would be sent to Dzerzhinsk to check the situation.
Several soldiers said that they were unhappy with both political and military leadership, but did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“The whole General Staff should be fired,” one of them said. “And (President Petro) Poroshenko is the biggest disappointment in the whole post-Maidan period.”
He described Poroshenko’s Sept. 5 Minsk cease-fire deal as a disaster that allowed insurgents to build huge fortifications and to prepare for an offensive. A second soldier agreed, saying that they were not allowed to shoot back when they were shelled by separatists despite the cease-fire.
“(Russians) have brought so much equipment that sooner or later it has to be used,” the first soldier said. Apart from supplying weapons, Russia is moving in more and more fighters.
Given their professionalism, those on the front-line are likely to be Russian regular troops, as opposed to mercenaries, the first soldier said. He added that he had seen signs of infighting between local insurgents and Russian troops, which had been apparently shooting at each other.
The second soldier said that his unit had killed a Russian fighter with an Omsk paratroopers shoulder patch, a Chechen fighter and a man with Berkut riot police insignia when they approached a Ukrainian checkpoint.
But Ukrainian forces have few weapons to resist an assault by Russian and insurgent troops and badly need heavy military equipment and an infrared camera, the first soldier said. “We are like blind kittens at night without a camera,” he said.
The first soldier also said that the Defense Ministry had supplied almost no food and no clothing, and most of what they had had been given to them by volunteers. He added that his unit resembled a gang of 20th century anarchist leader Nestor Makhno because they wore ragtag clothing, as opposed to regular military uniforms.
Holes in summer pants, dilapidated boots and no socks used to be a common sight at Ukrainian checkpoints surrounding Dzerzhinsk, say volunteers who supply the army. They also say that soldiers did not have enough underwear and lacked binoculars before volunteers supplied them.
The first soldier said the situation contrasted sharply with the Interior Ministry’s National Guard, which is supplied relatively well. “Compared with the National Guard, we’re like a stepchild or ugly duckling,” he said.
The Mistral-class assault warship Sevastopol (L), the second of two mammoth Mistral helicopter carriers, is docked on Nov. 21, 2014 near the Russian training ship, Smolny (R), in the western French port of Saint-Nazaire after being taken overnight from its dry dock. © AFP
France suspended indefinitely on Tuesday delivery of the first of two Mistral helicopter carrier warships to Russia, citing conflict in eastern Ukraine where the West accuses Moscow of fomenting separatism.
Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov told RIA news agency Russia would not for now pursue claims against France over non-delivery, but expected the contract to be fulfilled.
“We are satisfied with everything, it’s the French who are not satisfied. We will wait patiently,” Borisov was quoted as saying. “Everything is laid down in the contract, we will act in accordance with the letter of the contract as all civilized people do.”
France has been under pressure for months from its Western allies to scrap the 1.2 billion euro ($1.58 billion) contract, but faces potential compensation claims if it breaches terms. Suspension of contracts is a sensitive issue at a time when France is finalizing other military deals.
“The President of the Republic considers that the situation in the east of Ukraine still does not permit the delivery of the first BPC (helicopter carrying and command vessel),” said a statement from President Francois Hollande’s office.
“He has therefore decided that it is appropriate to suspend, until further notice, examination of the request for the necessary authorization to export the first BCP to the Russian Federation.”
An aerial view shows the Mistral-class helicopter carrier Vladivostok constructed for Russia at the STX Les Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard site in the port of Montoir-de-Bretagne near Saint Nazaire, western France, September 22, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/STEPHANE MAHE
The United Nations says over 4,300 people have been killed in a pro-Russian separatist insurrection in eastern Ukraine which the West says Moscow has promoted. Russia for its part denies any involvement but accuses the Ukrainian military of using indiscriminate violence against civilians.