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A destroyed armored personnel carrier BMP-2, which presumably came from Russia, is pictured on a road near Starobesheve, controlled by separatists, in eastern Ukraine, Oct. 2, 2014. Maria Tsvetkova / Reuters
The burnt-out remains of dozens of tanks and armored vehicles in fields near this small village bear witness to the ferocity of a battle that turned the tide of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Most of the tanks were used by the government forces routed in August near Horbatenko, 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, a defeat so demoralizing that days later Kiev agreed a cease-fire with pro-Russian separatists.
But among the debris journalists found the blackened carcasses of what military experts have since identified as two Russian army tanks, supporting statements by Kiev and the West that the rebels were backed by troops and equipment sent by Moscow.
Moscow denies the accusations though the rebels had been on the brink of defeat until late August, when the Ukrainian government says they received an injection of soldiers and weapons from Russia.
Photographs of the two badly damaged tanks, one of which had lost its turret, were shown to four independent military experts, who said they were of a type used exclusively by the Russian army.
At least one, they agreed, was a T-72BM — a Russian-made modification of a well known Soviet tank. This version of the tank, they said, is not known to have been exported.
“It is operated by the Russian Army in large numbers, but crucially it is not known to have been exported or operated outside of Russia,” Joseph Dempsey, a military analyst for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote in late August when a tank like that was discovered on grainy footage of rebel convoy.
“The presence of this variant in Ukraine therefore strongly supports the contention that Russia is supplying arms to separatist forces,” Dempsey said.
Such remarks clearly undermine Russian denials of direct involvement in the conflict in Ukraine to ensure Moscow maintains some influence and make governing Ukraine difficult as Kiev charts a Westward political and economic course.
The military experts shown photographs of the two tanks said the second was either the same as the first, a T-72BM, or a slightly different model, a T-72B1.
More conclusive recognition is difficult because of the extent of the damage.
The Soviet-made T-72B1, Dempsey said, is not believed to be in active service in Ukraine, making it almost impossible that the separatists captured it in battle.
Ukraine’s Security Council, which groups the country’s top political, defense and security chiefs, said in June the separatists were using T-72 tanks that could not have been captured from the Ukrainian army.
Kiev also said in late August that Russian forces had entered Ukraine and occupied Starobeshevo, five kilometers (three miles) from Horbatenko.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for more details of the decisive battles that followed soon afterwards but Ukrainian soldiers caught in the battles say they were quickly overcome.
Alexei Koshelenko, who said he was captured on Aug. 24-25 near the town of Ilovaysk, said: “We were hit by [multiple rocket launcher] Grads and after that the troops just swept us away. We were completely defeated within 20 minutes. Many of us were killed, others are missing.”
“They were Russians,” he said after being released with other prisoners of war. Referring to a city 300 kilometers (200 miles) northeast of Moscow, he said: “They said they were an airborne assault battalion from Kostroma.”
The accounts of residents of Horbatenko, a village of a few dozen inhabitants which overlooks the fields that became the battlefield, also challenge Russia’s denials of direct intervention.
Valentina Ivanovna, 75, said she was slightly wounded by shrapnel when fighting became fierce in late August.
“We saw an armored convoy coming down here,” she said. “They had white circles on the armor and white flags but whose troops they were we don’t know.”
Neither the rebels nor the Ukrainian forces have white circles as their permanent recognized emblem. But another local resident, who gave her name only as Nina for fear of retribution, said she had been told the meaning of the white circles in conversations with passing soldiers who identified themselves as Russian.
“One of them told me: white circles mean this is Russians,” she said. “He came to the last house for some water to drink and I asked how you can tell the difference between a Ukrainian or Russian. He said that if it’s us, there are white circles on the tanks.”
The two damaged tanks were too badly burned to have any recognizable insignia but a destroyed Soviet-made BMP-2 armored personnel carrier a few hundred meters away also bore a white circle on its broken turret.
Residents of areas on the Ukrainian side of the border with Russia also reported seeing armored convoys marked by white circles on Aug. 26.
Two days later Reuters spotted an armored convoy with the same insignia on the Russian side of the border.
At the end of August, Ukraine accused Russian troops of crossing the border. To support the accusations, it released videotaped interviews with Russian paratroopers captured by Ukrainian forces in a village 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Horbatenko.
They said they served in the 98th division based in the town of Ivanovo in central Russia.
President Vladimir Putin said he believed they had lost their way and crossed the unmarked segment of the border unintentionally. The captured paratroopers were later sent back to Russia.
Anti-tank missiles fired near where the tanks were destroyed also appear to have originated in Russia because various used parts of Kornet anti-tank guided missiles were left there.
Photographs of the missile parts were shown to three military experts and two of them said Ukraine does not have anti-tank guided missiles of this type.
“The presence of the Kornet ATGM is noteworthy and while it has been exported widely by Russia this list does not include Ukraine. As such, it further supports Russian involvement,” the International Institute for Strategic Studies said.
Trenches near the tanks also provided what appeared to be more evidence of foreign troops — numerous empty boxes of ready-to-eat meals that are used by the Russian army. Each box contains meals for one day.
One reporter counted 124 packages of field rations with “not for sale” labels and notes that they were produced for the Russian Defense Ministry.
A spokeswoman for Voentorg, the company in Russia that produces such meals for the Russian Defense Ministry, confirmed they cannot be sold.
About 50 empty bottles of mineral water around the tanks bore labels identifying them as being produced in Russia’s Ivanovo province, the region where the division of the Russian paratroopers captured in August is based.
Although Moscow has denied any direct involvement in the conflict, graves have been found in Russia with the remains of Russian servicemen who relatives, friends and human rights activists say were killed in Ukraine.
Moscow and the rebels have said that any acting servicemen from Russia were volunteers. Asked about the presence of Russian arms and field rations in Ukraine a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry said: “We have the answer and it has been given multiple times.”
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry did not reply to a request for information about the losses near Starobeshevo.
Irakly Alasania added that country will never bow to the Russians … to a ‘dictate’ from Russia on what is better for Georgia.
Georgia will defy any Russian pressure not to host a NATO training centre on its territory or to strengthen its ties with the West, according to the country’s Defense Minister.
Defense Minister says Georgia needs stability to develop the economy.
Ukrainian soldiers attend a mass funeral ceremony near Zaporizhzhya on October 1 to bury unidentified members of pro-Ukrainian military forces who were killed in fighting in the country’s east.
Bohdana Kostiuk reporting,
What priority should a country give to retrieving, identifying, and burying its war dead?
Ask Yaroslav Zhylkin, the head of Ukraine’s casualty-recovery efforts, and he’ll begin with an anecdote about the U.S. response when two American soldiers went missing in Afghanistan in 2006.
More than 8,000 soldiers and a group of forensic scientists, he says, were involved in that search.
In Ukraine, by contrast, a single group of 30 volunteers has assumed responsibility for retrieving fighters killed in battle in the eastern Donbas region.
The group — dubbed Black Tulip after the cargo plane tasked with shipping the bodies of soldiers killed during the Soviet war in Afghanistan — began its work on September 3.
Since then, they’ve found and evacuated the remains of more than 150 Ukrainian soldiers who died fighting in the government’s so-called Antiterrorist Operation (ATO) against pro-Russian rebels in parts of the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
“We’ve gone through 10 districts and excavated remains from more than 30 graves, including 11 mass graves,” said Zhylkin, who runs the National Memory Union, an NGO overseeing the Black Tulip mission and other efforts to connect families with soldiers and volunteer fighters who have gone missing in the war.
“We also gathered the remains of crew members who were burned to death in military equipment,” Zhylkin noted grimly. He paused before adding, “It’s worth emphasizing that our mission is run exclusively by volunteers.”
In an undeclared war comprising numerous armed groups with frequently differing agendas, the task of retrieving bodies left on the battlefield is both complicated and dangerous.
Zhylkin notes that Black Tulip volunteers are frequently forced to comb through fields controlled by separatists and dotted with mines and unexploded shells.
Even the dead soldiers represent a risk, as they are often laid with booby-trapped grenades set to detonate once the bodies are touched.
Still, Zhylkin says Black Tulip has cooperated with separatists themselves, who have occasionally approached the group for help finding their dead fighters as well. The volunteers don’t turn anyone away.
“Nobody’s fighting with the dead,” Zhylkin says.
In addition to the danger, the group faces substantial costs. Each of the group’s missions into the ATO zone costs approximately 40,000 hryvnia ($3,000), an amount mostly bankrolled by the volunteers themselves.
“The lion’s share of the mission is self-financed,” says Yaroslav Tynchenko, the deputy director of Ukraine’s National Military History Museum, who volunteers with the Black Tulip mission. “We mainly pay for all our own gasoline and transportation.”
Additional necessities, like refrigerated trucks, are provided by charities. The group gets no direct funding from the government.
All recovered bodies are turned over to Ukrainian Army command, ideally for identification and return to families for burial. But recent weeks have seen an increasing number of mass burials for fighters who remain unidentified, including an October 17 funeral outside Dnipropetrovsk for 21 unknown soldiers killed in action.
As the country’s morgues fill to capacity with war dead, military officials have been forced to bury many unnamed soldiers rather than wait for the possibility of eventual identification.
Black Tulip workers say the lack of identification tags among ATO fighters has proven one of the toughest challenges in their work.
Volunteer brigades and National Guard battalions, which make up a substantial part of Ukraine’s current fighting force, do not consistently receive ID tags before being sent into battle.
Black Tulip workers say they have called on high-ranking government officials to provide dog tags and otherwise aid in casualty-recovery efforts.
Defense Ministry official Oleksiy Nazdrachev says the ministry has already earmarked 3 million hryvnia ($232,000) for the production of ID tags to be distributed to all army soldiers, National Guard members, and volunteer fighters.
For Zhylkin, the change can’t come too soon. He says the remains of hundreds of fighters have yet to be cleared from the battlefields of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. More than 3,600 fighters and civilians have been killed in Ukraine in the past six months.
Pope Francis meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a private audience at the Vatican, on Nov. 25, 2013. © AFP PHOTO POOL / CLAUDIO PERI
Thomas L. Friedman, OP-ED COLUMNIST
Reading the papers these days I find that the two world leaders who stir the most passion in me are Pope Francis and Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia.
One is everything you’d want in a leader, the other everything you wouldn’t want. One holds sway over 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, the other over nine time zones. One keeps surprising us with his capacity for empathy, the other by how much he has become a first-class jerk and thug. But neither can be ignored and both have an outsized influence on the world today.
First, the pope. At a time when so many leaders around the world are looking to promote their political fortunes by exploiting grievances and fault lines, we have a pope asking his flock to do something hard, something outside their comfort zone, pushing them to be more inclusive of gays and divorced people.
Yes, Francis was rebuffed by conservative bishops at a recent Vatican synod when he asked them to embrace the notion that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” adding, “are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?”
But, as an editorial in this paper noted: “The very fact that Francis ordered church leaders to address these challenges seems a landmark in Vatican history.” The pope asked that rejected language be published for all to see, while also cautioning against “hostile inflexibility — that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God.”
“Hostile inflexibility?” Whose leadership does that describe? Look at Putin’s recent behavior: His military was indirectly involved in downing a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine and his K.G.B. has not only been trying to take a bite out of Ukraine but is nibbling on Estonia, Georgia and Moldova, all under the guise of protecting “Russian speakers.”
I opposed NATO expansion because I believed that there are few global problems that we can solve without the help of Russia. By expanding NATO at the end of the Cold War, when Russia was weak, we helped to cultivate a politics there that would one day be very receptive to Putin’s message that the West is ganging up on Russia. But, that said, the message is a lie. The West has no intention of bringing Ukraine into NATO. And please raise your hand if you think the European Union plans to invade Russia.
Yet Putin just exploits these fears for two reasons. First, he has a huge chip on his shoulder — no, excuse me; he has a whole lumberyard there — of resentment that Russia is no longer the global power it once was. But rather than make Russia great again by tapping its creative people — empowering them with education, the rule of law and consensual politics to realize their full potential — he has opted for the shortcut of tapping his oil and gas wells and seizing power from his people.
And instead of creating a Russia that is an example to its neighbors, he relies on the brute force that his oil and gas can still buy him. While he rails against NATO, he is really afraid of European Union expansion — that Ukrainians would rather embrace the E.U. market and democracy rules than their historical ties to Russia because they know that through the E.U. they can realize potentials that would never be possible with Russia.
By seizing Crimea and stoking up nationalism, Putin was not protecting Russia from NATO. He was protecting himself from the viruses of E.U. accountability and transparency, which, if they took hold in Ukraine, could spread to Moscow, undermining his kleptocracy.
Normally, I wouldn’t care, but when the world is dividing between zones of order and disorder, and the world of order needs to be collaborating to stem and reverse disorder, the fact that Putin is stoking disorder on Russia’s borders, and not collaborating to promote order in the Middle East, is a real problem. What’s more worrying is that the country he threatens most is Russia. If things go bad there — and its economy is already sagging under Western sanctions — the world of disorder will get a lot bigger.
That is why Putin’s leadership matters, and so does the pope’s. I’m focused on Putin because I think he is making the world a worse place for bad reasons, when he could make a difference in Europe and the Middle East with just an ounce more decency and collaboration. America, too, has plenty to learn from the pope’s humility, but say what you will, we’re still focused on trying to strengthen the global commons, whether by protecting people from jihadists in Iraq or fighting Ebola in Africa. We could do more. Putin needs to do a lot more.
“The best leaders don’t set timid and selfish goals that are easy to meet but instead set bold and inclusive goals that are hard to achieve,” remarked Timothy Shriver, the chairman of the Special Olympics, who has just written a book on leadership, “Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most.” “We’re all looking for ways to make sense of a world without a center, but we’ll only find that in people who lead with authentic humility and reckless generosity.”
Remnants of a misfired Uragan cluster munition rocket lying in a field in territory controlled by the Ukrainian government near Novomykhailivka, Ukraine on Oct. 14. © 2014 Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch
Oksana Grytsenko reporting,
Human Rights Watch, an influential human rights watchdog, claimed in its report on Oct. 20 that Ukraine forces have used banned and dangerous cluster bombs in its war against Russian-backed separatists in the east.
The allegations were swiftly denied by the Ukrainian government, but the charges — along with earlier allegations of indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the Donbas — may harm to country’s image in the West.
But experts say the criticism will not change Ukraine’s war methods since the nation has limited options.
Cluster bombs, when exploding, eject cluster bomblets over the area equal to a football field. They are designed to kill all the people within their reach and damage vehicles. Cluster bombs also often don’t explode and become dangerous land mines, threatening civilians in populated areas.
Human Rights Watch indicated that its experts documented at least 12 incidents in various areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, where the cluster munition was applied, killing at least six and injuring dozens of people.
Human Rights Watch has found evidence that both sides in Russia’s war against Ukraine are using dangerous cluster bombs, banned under international treaty by many nations, but not in Ukraine or Russia.
Ole Solvang, senior researcher of Human Rights Watch, said that sides of the conflict use basically the same weapons, so it’s often hard to determine from which side the rockets with cluster bombs came.
“But for several attacks in Donetsk in early October we have very strong evidence that it was the Ukrainian armed forces,” he said in the report. Sovlang added that the use of these weapons in populated areas could be considered as “violation of the laws of war and may amount to war crimes.”
In one of these cases on Oct. 2, the cluster bombs killed in Donetsk Laurent DuPasquier, a Swiss national and worker of International Committee of the Red Cross, the report said. After thorough examination of the impact craters and interviewing the eyewitnesses, the experts of Human Rights Watch found it all pointed the direction of the Ukrainian forces located to the southwest of the city.
But Andriy Lysenko, spokesman of National Security and Defense Council, claimed that Human Rights Watch were deceived by separatist insurgents as Ukraine doesn’t use any banned weapon. “For the period of anti-terrorist operation the Ukrainian troops didn’t use any kind of weapons banned by international treaties. This includes use of cluster bombs,” Lysenko told the press briefing on Oct. 21.
Lysenko added that on Oct. 13 the Ukrainian soldiers found in the village of Yevhenivka of Donetsk Oblast four unexploded cluster bombs fired by separatists from Urahan multiple rocket launchers. “Why nobody is paying attention to these facts?” he asked.
Human Rights Watch, however, claimed in their report that they had evidence that separatists used cluster bombs as well. But it added that “violations of the laws of war by one party to the conflict do not justify violations by the other party.”
Ukraine wasn’t one of 114 countries that signed the treaty to ban use of cluster munition. These kinds of weapons are also not by banned for the use by the United States, Russia and Israel. So Human Rights Watch called on Ukraine as well as Russian, another party of the conflict, to abandon use of cluster munitions.
Valery Chaly, deputy head of the Presidential Administration, said he didn’t know about any facts that the Ukrainian forces used cluster bombs and all the reports need to be thoroughly investigated. But the Ukrainian authorities in most cases don’t have access to these areas to hold investigation. “How can we investigate on that is we don’t have closed border?” Chaly emotionally said.
On Oct. 20, Amnesty International, one more prominent human rights watchdog, accused the Ukrainian fighters along with rebels of extra-judicial executions, whose level, however was far below the reports by Russia propaganda.
Four dead bodies were found in mass grave near the town of Makeyevka in Donetsk Oblast. These people were killed in Aug. 16-Sept. 22, when this territory was under control of the Ukrainian forces. One of them was recognized as Mykyta Kolomiytsev, who assisted the troops of self-proclaimed Donets People’s Republic guarding their checkpoint. His relatives claimed he never participated in fights. His mother said that soldiers who arrested him “broke the door, were shooting inside of the house and these soldiers had the emblem of battalion Dnipro 1,” Tetiana Mazur, head of Amnesty International mission in Ukraine told the press conference.
“The Ukrainian authorities should guarantee the law enforcement bodies would be able to investigate illegal arrests, tortures, killings regardless of who committed them,” she added.
When working in the embattled east, the Kyiv Post numerously witnessed cases of misdeeds committed by the Ukrainian fighters, including intimidation, the beating of civilians and the hijacking of their cars.
The Kyiv Post also saw parts of shells near the school and houses in Donetsk on July 21 that were fired to the city from territory controlled by the Ukrainian army. At least three people were killed as a result of that attack. The representative of Human Rights Watch, who examined the Kyiv Post photos, confirmed these shells were fired by Grad multiple rocket launchers, which the Ukrainian army constantly denied to use in the residential areas.
Vyacheslav Tseluiko, expert of Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, said that while there’s no conventions that ban use of Grad and these weapons are now widely applied by both parties of the eastern war. At the same time the cluster munitions fired by Uragan and Smerch multiple rocket launcher systems are very efficient to combat the insurgents as they cover the bigger territory.
Tseluiko believes that Ukraine’s image could suffer if the report that it uses cluster bombs is proven. The country could promise to minimize the use of cluster bombs but, in reality, still needs to use them because of limited supplies and types of weapons within its arsenal.
“When the victory is at stake they (the Ukrainian forces) could hardly make choice in favor of good image,” he said.
(Kyiv Post staff writer Oksana Grytsenko can be reached at email@example.com).