Graham Stack in Kyiv -
Eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian separatist rebels are deploying a small number of tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs), in a move that could escalate the conflict. But this might just be the start: at the heart of rebel-controlled territory lies one of Europe's largest "tank graveyards" – and the rebels are closing in.
Pro-Russian rebels in East Ukraine since early June are in possession of a small number of tanks and APCs, and have deployed them in battle against the Ukrainian military, which under orders from the central government in Kyiv has been trying to restore order in the east for several months. The tanks lack identification marks but bear Ukrainian patterns. Rebel tanks and APCs rolled through Luhansk again in the morning of June 25 in another move that threatens the shaky ceasefire that Kyiv called on June 20.
How much armour the rebels actually have is a matter of dispute, but there are already reports of rebel armour used in battle, and that could alter the balance of forces in the war. “Tanks could be used in built-up urban spaces where there is cover from ATO [anti-terrorist operation] aviation to stop the advance of Ukrainian APCs into towns held by terrorists and to defend occupied buildings,” a spokesman for Ukraine's Security Council tells bne. “But currently they seem to be used mostly to raise morale among the terrorists and the same units are being paraded through Donbass towns serially to create an illusion of numbers.”
The first armed clashes involving rebel tanks were reported in the town of Snizhne on June 12. According to eyewitness reports compiled by Donetsk website Ostro, three rebel tanks entered the rebel-held town of Kramatorsk on June 21-22 and shelled the military aerodrome located there, which is still in the hands of the Ukrainian military. Sightings of rebel armour are increasing in frequency. Ukraine's security council reported a column of five tanks, seven APCs and several army trucks moving through Donetsk region on June 23.
Webcams in rebel-held Luhansk recorded footage of two tanks, five APCs and a number of army trucks rolling through the town in the morning of June 25 – apparently having just crossed from Russia over the border crossing point of Izvarino. This despite Ukrainian claims that Kyiv had restored control over the border and despite claims from the Kremlin it was not supplying the Ukrainian separatists. Fighting was also reported near the border post on the same day. Ukraine's Security Council however maintains the rebel armour is just part of the same "morale-boosting parade" as seen earlier, rather than fresh supplies.
A grave problem
There may be much more to come. One of the best-kept secrets of East Ukraine is the so-called "tank cemetery" – more correctly a "central reserve base for tanks" where decommissioned armour from days of Soviet military might is stored – in the rebel-held town of Artemovsk, which neighbours the embattled towns of the Kramatorsk-Slovyansk agglomeration. Reportedly over 1,000 tanks and APCs are stored on the base, many rusted or obsolete, but enough of which may still be in working condition to pose a major threat to government troops.
As a result, the pro-Russian rebels have been trying unsuccessfully to seize the base since early June. But the base's local guards have been reinforced by Ukrainian special forces with helicopter support, and have until now been able to beat off attacks. The first attack came on the night of June 8-9, together with the shooting and wounding of the division commander Vladimir Chobotok. The last attack took place the night of June 20-21, and was also beaten back. Both attacks are reported to have been small-scale, the second attack apparently involved use of an APC on the rebel side, which however pulled back when Ukrainian helicopters started circling.
Rebels have been putting a different gloss on events. Igor Strelkov, the self-styled “minister of defence of the Donetsk People's Republic”, reported on the first attack on Facebook: “In Artemovsk we managed to come to an arrangement with the commander of the tank base. Now you won't find him any more, and he's not a poor man. This is the reality of the Ukraine armed forces. They are rotten from the top.” Strelkov claimed the rebels had broken out some tanks from the base.
Regarding the second attack on June 20, the United Army of the South-East, an organisation headed by former Ukraine pro-Russia MP Oleg Tsarev, reported: “Now the Donetsk People's Republic controls 250 tanks… Currently, the first tank battalions are being assembled. 250 tanks would be sufficient to create an entire tank division for DNR.” At the same time, bizarrely, Russian state news service RIA Novosti ran news items providing contact details for volunteers to man the tanks.
Yet eyewitness photos posted on the internet belie the claims of any large-scale tank breakout from the Artemovsk base. There may indeed be a sinister logic behind the rebels' larger-than-life claims. According to a spokesman for Ukraine's Security Council, the first tanks deployed by the rebels had been specially shipped from Crimea after the peninsula's annexation to the Russian mainland in March, then brought overland to the Donbass region across Ukraine's porous border. This was all done to give Russia plausible deniability regarding the appearance of tanks among rebel ranks and thus avoid further sanctions. Previously, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied reports that Russia is supplying the rebels with weaponry, saying that “they have nothing that you can't buy in a military hardware shop.”
So if the Kremlin is planning to supply the rebels in Ukraine with serious amounts of armour, the “tank graveyard” at Artemovsk may serve as a useful alibi, allowing Russia to escalate its support for rebels, and nix recent Ukraine successes that have leveraged air, armour and artillery supremacy.
Russia's ability to supply the rebels ultimately depends on the pro-Russian rebels retaining control of the Ukrainian-Russian border. Ukraine's Security Council claimed on June 22 that the border was back under Ukrainian control and closed, but the reports on June 25 of tanks and APCs crossing into Luhansk have exposed this as wishful thinking. “Ukraine must regain control of its border, which it has lost,” German Foreign Minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier told journalists after a meeting with newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on June 24.
But the process of shoring up Ukraine's eastern borders is facing severe financial and equipment shortages. Ukraine's border guards announced on June 25 that Ukrainian businessmen have donated a number of armoured vehicles to the effort, giving border guards a new level of militarisation. The border guards also said they have been strengthened by the acquisition of a number of APCs and a heavy machine gun seized from the rebels. Thus, at least involuntarily, Russia appears to have made a small contribution to fortifying the border.
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