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

Kramatorsk

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.

Read more: G7 leaders pile pressure on Putin with new sanctions
Editorial: Sanctions can still work

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 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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable