Ukraine crisis: 'It's extraordinary that in 2014 there is a state which seems to want to recreate an empire' says Ukrainian intelligence officer who can decide fate of east Ukraine
A senior Ukrainian intelligence officer tells Kim Sengupta in Kramatorsk about the battle to convince civilians in the east of the country that their future lies with Kiev – not Moscow
The smoke and flames from the debris had just cleared and an investigation was about to begin on how militant separatists had managed to destroy a helicopter-gunship inside the supposedly secure Kramatorsk airport.
Colonel Yulia was trying to piece together details of the attack, while anxiously waiting for news about the injured pilot. “What,” she wondered, “would the rest of the day bring?” What it brought was the seizure of a team of observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) by gunmen in neighbouring Slovyansk; the claim that the city’s mayor had been involved in the torture and murder of a local politician; another shooting at a checkpoint; the takeover of another government building. The narrative of the steady decline of the east of the country into violent strife.
Colonel Yulia, whose surname is withheld for security reasons, is part of the military force sent by the Kiev administration to retake towns and cities across the region which had passed under the control of militants, the Peoples’ Republic of Donetsk. As a senior officer in the SBU, the intelligence service, she has a key role in the mission which will decide the future of Ukraine.
Her immediate feeling on the day was one of relief: “All three members of crew got out, the pilot was injured in the shoulder but he managed to turn the helicopter so missiles would not hit the buildings if they were accidentally fired. We have civilians living here – families with children. And I am glad the explosion which followed did not lead to injuries or deaths.”
But Colonel Yulia, who has been in the army for more than 20 years, is well aware of the difficulties of the task ahead. “We have a powerful neighbour, which has huge resources and wants to destabilise our country, the Russians are working to a plan. The Russians are here, we also know of some of the places where they are based; that is the reality”, she told The Independent. “At the same time, we are not sure about the loyalty of the local police. Some of them are for us, others are against us, and some are just waiting to see what happens. This, of course, causes a lot of problems.
“We also have to face the fact that the government has not been very good in putting its message over. The other side has been very busy putting out their message. It is propaganda, but it has been working. They have created a myth, a lot of it through the use of the social network, which has been effective.”
One aspect of this has been injecting into the public the fear of the Right Sector, an ultra-nationalist group which had hitherto been known for the violence of its language rather than its actions. The separatists had held these “fascists” and “agents of the illegal Kiev junta” being responsible for a string of killings.
Colonel Yulia was initially surprised by the effect. “When we first came here, local people were actually asking us whether we were members of the Right Sector,” she said. “As a member of the armed forces, we are not allowed to be members of political organisations. I have my own views about extremists as a private citizen.
“What the Right Sector says actually helps Moscow, and the separatists here can use that to make people afraid. We have no evidence of links between extremist organisations and the Russians but, interestingly, you can see examples of these types of operations, using such groups, in old counter-terrorist manuals of the KGB in the USSR.”
The Ukrainian forces are based at Kramatorsk airport, which was taken with the use of attack helicopters. There were early setbacks: an attempt by the commander of the force, General Vasily Krutov, to do a walkabout among a crowd gathered outside ended with him being jostled, punched, having his hat knocked off and scrambling to get back behind the wire. The following day seven armoured personnel carriers were lost to the militants, who paraded them, bedecked with Russian flags, through Kramatorsk and Slovyansk,
The reverses undoubtedly affected the morale and logistics of the operation, with the troops stuck inside the airport and the militants increasingly owning the ground, with checkpoints set up on main roads. But now the troops have begun to set up roadblocks on routes into Slovyansk, which had become a strategic and symbolic centre for the militants, one the Kiev government would dearly like to capture. Gen Krutov, however, is being careful: a hard core of the secessionist fighters are well trained; there are stockpiles of weapons and taking back the government buildings and police station is likely to be a bloody and messy affair.
There is also deep apprehension that a major urban assault, with the likelihood of high casualties, would give the Kremlin the reason, or pretext, depending on one’s point of view, to intervene. Vladimir Putin has already warned of “consequences” of such action, the Russians are continuing to carry out exercises across the border.
Ukrainian intelligence officer Colonel Yuliya
“I find it extraordinary, don’t you, that we are in 2014 [and] there is a state which seems to want to extend its territory, recreate an empire,” Colonel Yulia said. “It is so much against recent history, certainly in Europe, which has been about reconciliation and co-operation, the forming of trading blocs, creating a political framework which would avoid the use of force.
“But many of us feel there has been a failure of statesmanship, on both sides. During a previous confrontation in Crimea, the Alphas [anti-terrorist special forces] of Ukraine and the Russian Black Sea Fleet faced each other. At that time, the situation was defused by the political leadership in both countries. This time it seems the leaders don’t have the willingness to do so.
“Maybe this thing can still be resolved. Some people have taken part in violent protests because, in cases, they have been given vodka to do so. I get the feeling that most civilians around here just want the armed militants to go away. They don’t want to see fighting – all the damage that will do.”
There has been a small shift in public attitudes; a weariness about roadblocks and traffic queues, masked men with guns taking part in criminality under the guise of political action. The increasingly autocratic behaviour of Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the newly installed pro-Moscow mayor in Slovyansk, has added to the disillusionment.
Protest checkpoints still abound, however, and one is on the road into the civil side of Kramatorsk airport. During my first meeting with Colonel Yulia, a few days before, a man from there came up to remonstrate about the presence of the troops. She was courteous and there was an amicable parting, with a promise from me that I would listen to the pickets’ side of the story.
The protester was polite, in contrast to the harangue directed a little while earlier to soldiers under the Colonel’s command. Did her being female make the difference?
“Valentin Nalivaychenko, the head of SBU, made a decision a while ago to look at gender breakdown within the organisation. I would like to think that those women who hold higher ranks do so on merit,” she said.
“I also think that if one makes an effort to listen to people, they may not use violence to express their grievances. It gives us a chance to explain why we are here [and] assure them that we will not be shooting at civilians – we are here to face external aggression. Maybe there should have been more talking in the past.”
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