Ukraine crisis: Chaos, confusion and itchy trigger fingers reign in the east as Kiev begins ‘anti-terrorist’ mission

The first 24 hours of the operation has seen Ukrainian APCs flying Russian flags and a general attacked by a crowd for obeying the orders of a 'fascist regime'

Slovyansk

Pavel Nicolaivitch Kurigin was digging in his garden when four men jumped out of a car and opened fire: he ran inside his house and returned with the only weapon available, a crossbow he used for sport. “I wasn't going to let them harm my family, I have young children, I was doing what I could, we had been warned such things may happen”, he said.

The attack by the figures in black combat uniform and balaclavas was aimed at a checkpoint adjoining his land, and those manning it shot back. The gunmen ran off through the woods, and appeared to have been picked up and driven off on a parallel road.

Such is the febrile and tense atmosphere currently in this part of Ukraine that more than 20 vehicles loaded with armed men raced to the scene; some began to fire off their shotguns, hunting rifles and the few Kalashnikovs they held between them, swearing after seeing shadows among the trees.

Two armoured personnel carriers (APCs) had also set off from the city centre. What made them interesting was that they were flying Russian flags; Ukrainian vehicles whose crews are said to have defected to the 'People's Republic of Donetsk'. However, they got lost, went to a wrong checkpoint, and failed to make it to the action.

Fifteen miles away at Kramatorsk, many more APCs, in Ukrainian colours, were lined up next to a railway track, the troops on board surrounded by a crowd which harangued them for obeying the orders of a 'fascist regime', while, at the same time, providing bottles of water on a hot day. Helicopters gunships flew overhead, making increasingly low sorties. At one point the Express train from Moscow rolled by, with both the soldiers and the protestors automatically waving.

This was the chaotic and confusing situation in the east of the country during the first 24 hours of the 'anti-terrorist' mission declared by the Kiev administration. The commander, Vasily Krutov, had presented himself as a bringer of wrath and retribution at a roadside press conference just before it got under way. Asked whether the protestors should not be given more time to withdraw from the public buildings they had occupied across the region, the general, from the security service, declared that would be "too humanitarian". 

He continued: "We are, unfortunately, facing a difficult situation because those who planned it are hiding behind human shields. We will do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties, but unfortunately casualties do happen in wars."

 

I have yet to come across any human shields in this confrontation. The pro-Moscow demonstrators who gather around the seized state buildings may, at times, be bellicose and aggressive, but their presence also appears to be entirely voluntary. It has been Gen Krutov's dignity which has been a temporary casualty in the early hours of the operation. An attempt to personally order the crowd outside Kramastorsk airfield, which had just been taken by Ukrainian forces, to disperse and go home had ended with him being roughly manhandled, punched and having his hat knocked off. The commander was last seen scrabbling to get back behind the wire amid shouts of 'war criminal', 'grab hold' and 'jail him.'

None of the captured sites in a dozen towns and cities had been retaken by nightfall. Instead, pro-Moscow demonstrators took over yet another one, the mayor's office at Donetsk; they had been holding the administrative building in the city for weeks.

Pro-Russian armed men ride on a tank in Slaviansk (EPA) Pro-Russian armed men ride on a tank in Slaviansk (EPA)
In Kramatorsk, an APC of the Ukrainian forces had run over a car near the railway track. The driver, Andrei Victovich, had jumped out just in time. "It was very frightening, I have got bruises", he complained sitting on a bench ten yards from the soldiers and 50 yards from his crushed car. "This just shows the kind of people they are, they just don't care about us, destroying things means nothing to them."

A young policeman was studiously taking down Mr Victovich's account of the incident. What did he intend to do with it? I asked. "I will forward it and then the vehicle will be inspected, but we have to find it first". But surely it was lying just over there. "I meant the military vehicle", explained the officer patiently. Will there be a prosecution? "Maybe, who knows."

Some of the crowd wanted the soldiers sent by the Kiev administration to be prosecuted for treason. "First of all they should not be acting on behalf of an illegal government, they are acting against people who support the genuine government of Viktor Yanukovych that was removed in a coup, I am a history teacher and I know all about coups", declared Yuri Borodinov. "Then they have been shooting on their own people, that is another treacherous act."


Some of the soldiers made a show of taking the magazine out of their assault rifle in a public show they were not about to shoot anyone: this brought cheering from the crowd. However, one in their ranks, Andrei Ivanic wanted to make clear that he had nothing to apologise for. "I am here because I don't want to see my country split up any more, I don't want another Crimea. If we have to fight for that, then I am prepared to fight."

It transpired, however, that Andrei Ivanic had not really been prepared for fighting. He had joined the army only a month ago, at the age of 40, driven by a sense of anger over Crimea. "I haven't been trained at all really", he admitted freely.

Some of Soldat Ivanic's comrades had, apparently, changed sides with up to seven APCs. They were seen in Kramatorsk and then at Slovyansk. Two of the soldiers had said that they were from the 25th airbourne brigade. However, it proved difficult to track them down to inquire further. Three of the vehicles were parked outside the administrative building in Slovyansk. The crew, however, were not available because, according to differing explanations, they were having lunch or resting.

Attempts to reassert control in eastern regions have floundered (Getty) Attempts to reassert control in eastern regions have floundered (Getty)
The Ukrainian Defence Ministry maintained in their Facebook page that the APCs had been seized by 'extremists' and that Russian secret service agents were involved in the plot. But no evidence was offered to back up the allegation. "They are definitely from airborne; they have chosen to join the people" said a protest militia officer dressed in combat uniform and carrying a Kalashnikov, who would only give his nickname in the army, Balo.

He had left the forces 15 years earlier, living since then in Crimea and only just returned to the region two days earlier. The Donbass was different, because people wanted to stay within a federal Ukraine rather than join Russia, he contended. There were murmurs of dissent from the residents of the city gathered around him. "This is no longer the Ukraine we know, it's run by the fascists from the Maidan [the centre of protests in the city which overthrew Mr Yanukovych] " insisted Natalya Ulankova, a 59-year-old retired office manager.

The 'fascists' from the Right Sector, an ultra-nationalist group, were one set of suspects for the attack on the checkpoint. "We are proud to have fought the Nazis in the War here in Donbass, we defeated them, that is why modern fascists hate us," Slavik Grigoriev, a farmer, was convinced. Standing near him, Pyotr Krevchik was doubtful: "These are Ukraine special forces, they are testing our defences. Kiev has sent its soldiers here; that was a mistake, but they can't back down now."

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