Harriet Salem in Slaviansk and Kramatorsk -
The Ukrainian government's military operation to disarm the pro-Russian separatists and take back the seized buildings in the east of the country is in chaos, with soldiers surrendering, abandoning materiel and fleeing in the face of a better organised and more disciplined opposition. This bodes ill for any hoped-for concessions from Russia during the four-way talks between Ukraine, Russia, the US and the EU on the crisis to be held April 17.
Reports that the Ukrainian military had to repel an attempted seizure by Russian rebels of a Ukrainian military base in the southeastern Black Sea city of Mariupol in the early hours of April 17 will have done little to comfort authorities in Kyiv on the eve of the talks.
According to a post by Ukraine's interior minister, Arsen Avakov, at least three separatists were killed in the clashes overnight and many more injured. The fatalities are the first since the government in Kyiv launched an anti-terror operation on April 14 to retake buildings seized by pro-Russian separatists.
Over the last week, pro-Russian militants of murky provenance have seized control of administrative buildings and security apparatuses in cities across eastern Ukraine. The uprising began in Donetsk, but quickly fanned out, with Moscow-aligned militia taking state buildings in several strategically important cities, including Sloviansk, Horlivka and Krasmatorsk. The defection of local law enforcement to the side of the rebels means large pockets of the region have now fallen out of the capital's control.
On April 14, Kyiv launched a long-awaited "anti-terror" operation in a bid to wrest back control of the country's east from the rebels. But just two days later the supposed sting has ended in utter disaster with Ukrainian troops being forced to flee the region
Perched on the edge of his unit's stationary armoured personnel carrier (APC), Vladislav, an 18-year-old solider who has served in Ukraine's army for just nine months, looked exhausted. "I just want to go home," he told bne from his besieged unit's position on the outskirts of Kramatorsk. Part of the supposed Kyiv-led elite military operation in Ukraine's east, Validslav says that he was "told they was just going on a training exercise".
On April 17, the 25th Airborne Brigade's column of 12 APCs and more than 100 men were surrounded by angry locals in Cholkino, a suburb of Sloviansk, a city firmly under the control of pro-Russian rebels, as they headed towards the airport to reinforce security there. Unwilling to open fire, or use force, the unit had little choice but to park up next to a railway line and await further orders. Despite being tagged an "anti-terror" operation, the Ukrainian forces have so far made no attempt to dislodge the rebels from their positions.
During the day the atmosphere was tense but calm, with residents from nearby villages bringing the soldiers food, juice and cigarettes. A local Orthodox priest then arrived on the scene to remonstrate with paratroopers, warning them not to incite violence against their Slavic brothers. "You will have to answer to God if you shoot," he told the paratroopers. Overhead a Ukrainian fighter jet circled; at some points dipping so low that the engine's roar set off car alarms across the neighbourhood.
But as evening fell on April 16 the mob turned nasty, with burly men refusing to move to let the APCs pass, even after the Ukraine's humiliated troops had been disarmed and their withdrawal supposedly negotiated with local rebel chiefs. "Don't let them go, don't trust them – they still have ammunition hidden in their vehicles," screeched one angry Babushka from the crowd.
After several hours of backwards and forwards, the situation was finally resolved by the arrival of the so-called "green men" – balaclava-clad military irregulars with no insignia – who held back the crowd enabling the Ukrainian troops to drift away into the night.
Despite Kyiv's bragging of an elite operation to dislodge the rebels, the disastrous events on April 16 seemed to confirm prior speculation that Ukraine's military, starved of investment for the last decade, is in a state of total disarray. Several of the trapped soldiers expressed their dissatisfaction with Ukraine's new government in Kyiv. "The government don't listen to their people, all they care about it power," grumbled 39-year-old Sergey, who also complained that the funds raised by people on Kyiv's Independence Square, known as Maidan, for the military had not been passed on. "We haven't seen any coin," he told bne. "And my wage is not enough to feed and clothe my family."
In unclear circumstances, another unit of the same brigade also surrendered to pro-Russian rebels somewhere on the outskirts of Kramatorsk. The captured soldiers were held under armed guard in a square in Sloviansk city centre before being shepherded through a cheering crowd onto buses back to their native Dnipropetrovsk
The humiliated unit's confiscated APCs were driven around town by triumphant rebels waving the Russian flag before being parked up in the central square under the guard of what appeared to be "green men". In an eerie echo of Crimea, locals welcomed the irregulars as their saviours and snapped selfies with them in front of the armoured vehicles. Petite Elena Pavlrnko, with red lipstick and matching boots, said that the armed men made her feel much safer walking the streets of her hometown. "This situation is very scary", said the 36-year-old with tears welling in her eyes. "We are very afraid of war here, but when I see these soldiers I feel the protection of a man. I feel much safer now."
"Where are you from?"
Following the day's dramatic events, the balaclava-clad men brazenly carrying Kalashnikov's in the city's centre openly admitted they were not locals, saying that they hailed from Crimea, Kharkiv and other surrounding regions, but denied accusations that they were Russian troops. "We are soldiers of the people. We are from many different places," said Balu, the man seemingly in charge of the tourists with Kalashnikovs in Sloviansk centre. According to Balu the irregulars had a store to a large supply of weaponry. "Anyone who wants to fight for Donbas we have a gun for them, even you" he told bne.
Kyiv and its western allies have accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest in the country's eastern regions. The growing fear is that pattern of seizures in the east, clustered around strategic points such as military bases and transport hubs, is an indication that Moscow is preparing to invade. The accusation is not outlandish; a Putin-backed putsch in Crimea resulted in the southern peninsula's annexation by Russia in March. According to Nato intelligence, more than 40,000 Russian troops have amassed on Ukraine's eastern border over the last month.
The rebels are demanding a referendum to be held on the issue of federalisation, a plan also backed by Moscow, which would benefit from retaining influence over the region without assuming wholesale costs of annexation.
The level of local support for the rebels' movement is hard to gauge. Telephone surveys by local NGOs found 67.5% were against the recent wave of state buildings seizures, but resistance to recent events by those who favour a united Ukraine has been virtually non-existent. There is evidence, however, that many are simply too afraid to speak out. "What are we supposed to do?" asked 36-year-old engineer Alexy from Donetsk, "the power is in the hands of thugs and criminals, if the army can't get rid of them, then there's nothing we can do either."
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