Putin Takes Off the Gloves in Eastern Ukraine

Battered and besieged, Kiev's troops are just trying to survive to fight another day.


KOMSOMOLSKE, Ukraine — The column of Ukrainian infantry fighting vehicles, trucks, and an aging tank had been traveling west in retreat across the wilting sunflower fields near Novozaryevka in eastern Ukraine when separatist rebels struck it suddenly with fearsome power. Fifteen vehicles were frozen in place, nose to tail. Eleven were burned out, reduced to charred black husks. The tank’s turret was dismembered from its chassis. Dry pasta was scattered across the ground along with rounds of ammunition. Another two fighting vehicles stood abandoned in a field down the road.

Locals who were looting parts for personal use and sale (15 cents for a kilogram of "black metal," $4.50 for a kilogram of copper) had placed six charred bodies of Ukrainian soldiers behind a windbreak several dozen yards away so the stench wouldn’t disrupt their work. Near the corpses lay the fragments of several mortar shells, a Ukrainian military ID, and a bloodstained wallet holding black-and-white photos of one hapless soldier’s parents. A military source confirmed that the attack came from a Grad multiple rocket launcher firing incendiary rounds, a weapon that has been used to deadly effect by both sides.

"We used to all be together, but not anymore," said Ruslan, a soot-stained local in a threadbare Spurs jersey, as he gestured at the blackened remains of the government forces.

The convoy’s demise is yet another loss in Kiev’s struggle with rebels who have reportedly been receiving ever more arms and fighters from Russia. Residents said the attack took place Aug. 26, the same day a furious-looking President Petro Poroshenko shook hands with his grinning Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, before fruitless peace talks in Belarus.

In the week since the ineffective peace talks began, government troops, who had previously been making steady gains against the pro-Russian forces, have suffered a string of defeats. Kiev has blamed the rebels’ resurgence on an invasion of Russian troops brazenly moving across Ukraine’s eastern border.

In a phone call last week with Jose Manuel Barroso, the outgoing president of the European Commission, Putin said, "If I want I’ll take Kiev in two weeks." The routing of Ukraine’s army at the hands of Russian-backed rebels suggests that Putin’s words ring true, even if they were undiplomatic.

On Aug. 27, rebel forces — one local told me they were backed by Russian troops and armor — seized the southern coastal town of Novoazovsk, near the border with Russia, opening a front in an area that had previously been peaceful. Also last week, rebels took back from government forces Savur-Mohyla, a strategically important hill to the east of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine’s biggest city. Two Ukrainian commanders were among the casualties in the struggle for the strategic summit, which is topped by a destroyed monument to the Soviet soldiers who died fighting Germans there.

Ukrainian forces also retreated from the airport near the rebel stronghold of Luhansk on Sept. 1, while fighting was reported at the government-held airport in Donetsk. At least 50 pro-government volunteer fighters have been killed — some sources suggest the actual number is closer to 200 — in the town of Ilovaisk, a town southeast of Donetsk where hundreds of fighters have been surrounded by pro-Russian forces for more than 10 days.

On Monday night, Sept. 1, I counted 12 ambulances in Starobesheve, a small town near the border with Russia, waiting to extricate Ukrainian soldiers trapped in the town. Putin had called for a humanitarian corridor to allow troops to leave the town alive. Government forces have fled all towns in the Starobesheve district, according to the Ukrainian publication Vesti Reporter. Journalists in the area reported that pro-Russian forces were operating in the strategically placed cities of Volnovakha and Telmanove, which had been under Kiev’s control until just days earlier.

Even Ukrainian government officials seem ready to admit that their forces have turned on their heels. Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey said in a statement on Facebook on Monday that Kiev’s "anti-terrorist operation" to take back the east is over and that the government is now focusing on defending from a Russian invasion.

The burned-out husks of the convoy in Komsomolske were part of the retreat. A military source not authorized to speak to the press told me that the convoy had been withdrawing from Ilovaisk when pro-Russian forces hit it with mortar fire and then "finished it off with Grads."

Residents of Komsomolske, a town located between Starobesheve and Novozaryevka, said that government forces had withdrawn from the area on Sunday. Nearby fighting has left the town without electricity. Even though the school year started on Monday, children stayed home.

A Komsomolske policeman who would identify himself only as "Major" said government soldiers arrived on Aug. 28, after rebel shelling around the city killed two civilians. The soldiers set up a headquarters in the local police station. A shootout was heard that night, he said.

"They didn’t know anything, judging by how they dug their trenches," Major said. "We told them the town’s in a hollow, that they would get shot up."

In the following days, trucks and fighting vehicles began passing through Komsomolske, heading south from Starobesheve and Ilovaisk. On Sunday the last troops left the town, residents said. A man named Sergei showed videos of a Ukrainian fighting vehicle and a convoy of troop transport trucks passing through the town.

A group of supermarket employees who were boarding up their shop on Monday said National Guard soldiers had looted it on their way out of Komsomolske. "[The soldiers] said, ‘Why aren’t you taking anything? There’s a sale today,’" a store employee named Nadezhda said. "I told them I don’t take part in such sales."

But Raisa Petrovna, a pensioner from Komsomolske, said the troops had been in poor shape. "The soldiers here were small kids. I felt sorry for them," she said. "I bought them bread because they were hungry. That’s the state of our army."

Petrovna called on both Putin and Poroshenko to end the fighting, but as she was speaking, a woman in a nearby apartment yelled from her window, "We love Russia!"

Eastern Ukraine is littered with abandoned Ukrainian military vehicles. The government troops abandoned two broken fighting vehicles in Komsomolske. Rebels managed to start one up and drove it off, but the other has become an impromptu playground for local kids.

The turning tide against Kiev has coincided with evidence of Russian troops operating in Ukraine. Last week, 10 Russian paratroopers were captured on the Ukrainian side of the border. (Moscow claimed, implausibly, that they had simply gotten lost.) And secretive funerals were held for soldiers from Russia’s Pskov region who were reportedly killed in Ukraine. Kiev and NATO have reported that more and more Russian arms are being brought across the porous border.

But according to a rebel commander in Novoazovsk who goes by the nom de guerre "SWAT," the pro-Russian forces’ sudden military successes were thanks to a counterattack that was a month in planning. And the fact remains that the rebels still enjoy the support of many residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

"People are afraid to speak out because it’s unclear who will be in charge here tomorrow," Major said in Novozaryevka. "But 90 percent are for the Donetsk People’s Republic," he added, citing a May referendum in which many residents voted to declare independence from Ukraine.

As if to back up his words, Major took two boxes’ worth of unexploded ammunition from the wrecked fighting vehicles to downtown Komsomolske, where burly local men took them into an apartment building near the abandoned fighting vehicle turned playground. A few minutes later, a group of scruffy rebel fighters pulled up in an appropriated ambulance, loaded the ammunition into it, and drove away.

Alec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist who has written for the Guardian, Politico, Slate, The Nation, the Independent, Vice News, and other publications. Twitter: @asluhn

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