Graham Stack in Stannitsa Luhanska -
The commanding officer of a frontline battalion said Ukrainian government forces could break resistance in the city in the next 4-5 days. “Perhaps we could take the town by Independence Day [August 24] in time to parade, but of course this is not my decision,” said the leader of the Ukrainian army's 13th Battalion, Oleksandr, who preferred not to give his last name for security reasons.
Ukraine's Independence Day is celebrated on August 24. It marks the failure of the putsch in Moscow in 1991, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the birth of independent Ukraine later the same year.
The fall of Luhansk would be the most important government victory since the start of the government's “anti-terrorist” campaign against the Donbass insurgency launched in June. Luhansk, a city of over 400,000, is the second largest population centre held by Russian-backed rebels, and since May the seat of the so-called Luhansk People's Republic, a self-proclaimed breakaway state. According to opinion polls, Luhansk, nestling on the border to Russia, is Ukraine's most pro-Russian region outside of the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in March.
The capture of Stannitsa Luhanska, less than 10km from the outskirts of Luhansk, now tightens Kyiv's stranglehold on the city. Crucial road and rail connections between Luhansk and Russia pass through the town, and were used by the rebels' Russian backers to move supplies from the border to Luhansk. Spokesman for Ukraine's armed forces, Oleksandr Lysenko stated on August 20 that Ukrainian army units now also control a police station within Luhansk city boundaries.
“So this now cuts off their oxygen supply,” says Oleksandr. However, he points out that there is still much work to be done to secure Stannitsa Luhanska itself, with the rebels holding high ground overlooking the town and still using it to shell Ukrainian forces. bne saw special force units out combing the surrounding area for rebel hideouts.
The battalion commader adds however that a major threat to his positions now is shelling out of Russian territory. “We man a post right next to the border and hear their artillery working, and can see the muzzle flashes,” he says.
The Russian border is only around 15km away. “Russian drones fly overhead regularly,” Oleksandr adds. The battalion's base camp was hit by a volley of Grad missiles five days before bne visited, and some tents were ripped by shrapnel but were still standing and in use by the soldiers. Ukrainian forces elsewhere in Luhansk report seizing armed personnel carriers on August 21 that was carrying Russian documentation, suggesting they had been supplied from across the border, although this could not be independently confirmed.
Oleksandr insists many of the remaining rebels appear to be from Russia, including from the North Caucasus, fighting as mercenaries. In contrast, except for Oleksandr and two other career army officers, the men of the 13th battalion are all recruited from Chernigov, a Central Ukrainian region, and owe their fighting spirit to their regional identity, the commander claims. While formally all the men in the battalion were called up to serve in the army, there is no enforcement of Ukraine's universal mobilisation announced in May, meaning those who did show up for army service are essentially patriotically-minded volunteers.
“Some of them had never held a weapon in their hands before May and all they received before start of operations was 15 days training,” a staff officer of the 13th Battalion who preferred not to be named, told bne. Casualties have nevertheless been surprisingly low, with only 2 dead and 10 wounded out of around 500, the staff officer said, a fact he attributes to his commander's skill.
“How are we supposed to live?”
However, others in the area are feeling less positive. Suggesting that post-conflict reconciliation between Kyiv and Donbass will be an uphill struggle, the mostly elderly residents venturing onto the streets in Stannitsa Luhanska were less than delighted about the Ukrainian army's presence, after four days of armed confrontation in the town.
“How are we supposed to live now?” asks Tatiana Nikolaevna, a 58-year-old pensioner, trying in vain to sell her garden produce on the street. “For two months pensions haven't been paid, and now nothing is being delivered to the shops, except bread. And we can't get to Luhansk anymore to sell out fruit and vegetables. Everything was peaceful here before the army came, the rebels were hardly present,” she continues. “All we want is to live out our lives in peace.”
Tatiana and other residents accuse the Ukrainian forces of having shelled the town before its capture, causing dozens of casualties and fatalities, although there are no official statistics. “Three were buried yesterday [August 20] alone,” she says.
Extensive damage to buildings in the town showed that shells had fallen in built-up areas, but 13th battalion soldiers deny they shelled the town. “We do not use artillery against areas where civilians dwell,” Oleksandr insists. “This was the work of the separatists and Russian forces."
"However much you say that [the rebels and Russians are responsible for the shelling] to the locals, they don't believe you,” complained Volodymr, a soldier patrolling the streets of Stannitsa Luhanska. Meanwhile, locals living outside the town claim to have seen Ukrainian forces firing mortars towards it as the attack on the separatists started.
At the local hospital, staff are also angry at government soldiers residing in the building. “They are spreading dirt and litter, even in the surgical department,” says staff nurse Larissa Suvorova. A colleague with the same first name claims government forces were firing mortars from within the hospital environs at the rebel positions, but this was flatly denied by soldiers at the hospital.
Hospital staff spoke of around 20 in-patients, all civilians, being treated for wounds received during the fighting, some of them in a severe condition. “We have no electricity, no medicines, no bandages, no water,” Suvorova complains. “But in fact we have had no medicines for twenty years, ever since the Soviet Union collapsed, and this is why Donbass has risen up.”
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