The Death of Ukraine’s Cyborg Army

If the United States is really supporting Ukraine, as President Obama claims, then why are Kiev’s forces getting hammered?

A candle and flowers are layed at a bus stop where 13 people were killed in a trolleybus shelling in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on January 22, 2015. At least 41 people were killed in Ukraine's east on January 22, one of the deadliest days in the separatist war, with a bloody bus shelling in Donetsk as government forces abandoned their defence of the city's strategic airport. In a graphic illustration of the degenerating nine-month conflict, pro-Russian rebels also paraded some 20 captured Ukrainian soldiers through Donetsk and forced them to kneel before enraged locals who threw snowballs and glass at them, some of it from the shattered bus. AFP PHOTO/ ALEKSANDER GAYUK (Photo credit should read ALEKSANDER GAYUK/AFP/Getty Images)

On Tuesday night, in a State of the Union speech that was heavy on domestic policy, President Barack Obama heralded a list of American accomplishments abroad, none more dubious than his claim that America was demonstrating “strength” in its response to the Ukraine crisis. “We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies,” the president optimistically intoned, while dismissing those who had appraised Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea as “a masterful display of strategy and strength.” Rather, said Obama, “it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.”

For Obama to be right, and for America to be successfully leading the way to a free, peaceful, and democratic Ukraine, it stands to reason that Putin would have to be on the back foot and growing less belligerent by the day. Then why is he only ratcheting up his aggression?

In the last 24 hours, the Ukrainian government has lost key front-line positions. This week, Russia has dispatched hundreds of additional soldiers and armored vehicles across the border. In fact, as Obama was addressing Congress, the Ukrainian military was locked in a desperate fight to hold back advancing Russian forces west of Luhansk.

One of the most tragic developments of what is now, undeniably, a Russian-Ukrainian war has unfolded over the last week when more than 400 Ukrainian soldiers were nearly butchered on live, Russian state-controlled television. The group of several hundred Ukrainian volunteers and regular soldiers are known as “Cyborgs” to both their enemies and their supporters, owing to the fact that they’ve somehow managed to withstand wave after wave of separatist attacks since late September. The Kyiv Post describes this mix of Ukrainian regular soldiers and volunteers, some of whom are members of the right-wing Right Sector group, as “indestructible half-men, half-machines.” But perhaps no longer.

On Sunday, Jan. 11, just days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, a mix of Russian soldiers and Russian-backed separatists attacked Donetsk International Airport — or, rather, the rubble-strewn moonscape it has become — with an intense volley of rockets and shells followed closely by an infantry assault. By Jan. 13, the Ukrainian army’s position was so precarious that it did something we’ve not seen it do before: launch Grad rocket strikes less than half a mile in front of its own soldiers’ positions — a dangerous and desperate attempt to knock back advancing enemy columns.

Despite these efforts, by Jan. 14, a mix of Russian troops and Russian-backed separatist fighters had captured part of the airport’s new terminal. The next day, Russian journalists were able to film the fight from inside what remains of that building. Extraordinary drone video footage released on Jan. 16 illustrated the scale of damage to the airport, most of it caused by rockets and artillery, likely the work of the anti-Ukrainian forces as they tried to break the resolve of the Cyborgs.

Still, until this week the Cyborgs had won nearly every battle, casting them in a near-legendary light in Kiev.

While the battle for Donetsk Airport raged, the Russian-backed insurgents were also hitting nearby Ukrainian military positions, making it impossible for Kiev to supply reinforcements to the airport or to evacuate its forces efficiently. The Cyborgs remaining at the front were reporting that they were running out of ammunition and their wounded were bleeding to death. Somehow, however, they managed to launch several counterattacks and maintain partial control of the airport, but by the end of last week it very much looked as if these efforts would end in an Alamo-style massacre. Ukraine was about to lose the most symbolically important battle in the entire war.

It was only after people in Kiev began to protest the government’s lack of support for the Cyborgs that Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, pledged to organize a counterattack. But this week’s military mobilization has accomplished very little. While fighting was reported on the morning of Jan. 21, videos released later in the day appear to show Russian-backed fighters in control of the ruins of the new terminal. In the videos, large sections of the structure appear to have collapsed, and the bodies of dozens of Ukrainian soldiers could be seen. By the evening, Ukrainian media was widely reporting that the airport had fallen.

Beyond Donetsk, the areas where Russia is gaining ground now were the focus of intense fighting last fall, when a cease-fire brokered in Minsk between Kiev and Moscow was supposed to “freeze” the conflict. That cease-fire never happened. As winter set in, there was a shift from active combat operations to a more static war of attrition. Almost every day since the September truce, shelling has been exchanged between Ukrainian and separatist positions along all of these fronts, from Luhansk to Donetsk to Mariupol, resulting in thousands of civilian and military casualties. Now, a significant Russian offensive is once again underway.

Two Ukrainian checkpoints west of Luhansk, on the Bakhmutka highway, have either been overrun or are close to falling to Russian-backed fighters who, according to the Associated Press, are being supported by a significant amount of artillery, tanks, and armored vehicles.

This battle is crucial to Ukraine, and the offensive has been in the works for months.

In the city of Debaltseve — southwest of these positions and situated on the key highway between the separatist capitals of Luhansk and Donetsk — there were attempts made to encircle Ukrainian forces on Sept. 4. To the south, separatists swept across the Russian border at the end of August and captured the coastal town of Novoazovsk. Russian-backed fighters then pressed south along the highway from Donetsk, engaging Ukrainian forces in several large battles, leaving fields littered with charred armor. The road is now completely under separatist control and Russian-backed fighters regularly move west from this line to test Ukrainian positions flanking Mariupol — near Granitnoye, Gnutovo, and Chermalyk. Now, all of these areas are either under near-daily attack or are close to the front lines of the fighting.

According to Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yevhen Perebyinis, the separatists have gained more than 500 square kilometers of Ukrainian territory since the Minsk cease-fire nominally took effect in September. Ukraine now reports that 9,500 Russian troops are inside Ukrainian territory, which has allowed the separatists to control 7 percent of the country and 20 percent of its population.

Meanwhile, the death toll continues to rise. Last week, rockets fired by Russian-backed fighters hit a bus and killed 13 people in Volnovakha. In October, a funeral procession in Ukrainian-held Sartana, just outside Mariupol, was hit by artillery shells, which left seven civilians dead and another 15 wounded. It is now well established that the Russian-backed fighters often launch these rockets from civilian areas, effectively using the people of eastern Ukraine as human shields.

Kiev maintains that it needs precision weapons to effectively — and humanely — defend its territory and repel the separatist onslaught. But its requests to the international community, including to the United States, for drones to better target its artillery have fallen on deaf ears. (The United States says it has supplied Ukraine’s border guards with some lightly armored vehicles, but it’s not clear how Washington thinks these vehicles will stack up against T-72 tanks and other heavy Russian military equipment that are actively being deployed in eastern Ukraine.) Kiev has grounded its air force after Russian-backed separatists shot down multiple fighter jets — and, infamously, one civilian airliner — with advanced anti-aircraft systems like the Strela-10 and Buk.

In August, as the Russian buildup on Ukraine’s borders transitioned into an open invasion, Ukraine began losing significant amounts of territory and was forced to sign a cease-fire in Minsk to stop the bleeding. The United States and Europe said that this ceasefire was the only way forward, but the bleeding never stopped, the Russian-supported militants never stopped fighting, and the responsibility to fight back fell on the shoulders of Ukraine’s loyal Cyborgs.

When the Ukrainian soldiers defending the airport were overwhelmed due to increasing attacks, Kiev had no choice but to launch a counterattack or watch its men die. Now, the airport has fallen, and Ukraine has once again agreed to a new “cease-fire.” Will the fighting stop now? Will the West finally realize that Ukraine cannot resist Vladimir Putin’s invasion on its own?

Because right now it sure doesn’t look like Washington is helping defend Kiev from the bully in Moscow.


James Miller is the managing editor of The Interpreter where he reports on Russia and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @MillerMENA
Pierre Vaux is a writer and translator at The Interpreter.