Ukraine crisis: Leaders talk about peace but in Mariupol, Luhansk and Donetsk, the reality looks more like war

Even the troops seem unsure about whether or not they are still fighting – or what happens next


There was artillery shelling, tank fire and gun battles, retreating soldiers and reports of warships putting out to sea, but, amid all the strife, there were also signs of a truce as Ukraine’s bitter civil war moved towards a defining phase.

Speaking at the Nato summit in Wales where the conflict in his country, and Russia’s role in it, has taken centre stage, President Petro Poroshenko said he will order a ceasefire if the framework for a deal is agreed in meetings due to be held today. This was followed by leaders of two separatist people’s republics, Alexander Zakharenko of Donetsk and Igor Plotinsky of Luhansk, also declaring they were ready to follow suit.

But even as the leaders talked about possible peace, there were violent developments taking place.

Firefights were followed by an advance by the rebels towards Mariupol, a port and a vital strategic point, and government forces retreated from positions around Luhansk, which they had laid siege to for weeks. They also abandoned some checkpoints to the south of Donetsk, the main rebel centre in the east. But, at the same time, artillery rounds were fired into Donetsk, the main separatist stronghold: a barrage the previous day had left the city without water.


The rapid movements on the ground could be attempts to maximize gain before a ceasefire following the talks at the Belarus capital, Minsk. But a failure to achieve a deal leaves the military balance in favour of the rebels. Kiev and the West have repeatedly accused the Kremlin of backing them with weapons and, in their recent advance, Russian troops.


The capture of Mariupol would complete a land corridor to Crimea and leave Russia in control of the Azov Sea coastline. Today there were clashes to the east of the city with some artillery rounds hitting homes in outer suburbs. Ukrainian troops took up defensive positions with some commanders saying they expected an attempt to take over the city, while others dismissed the prospect of a full assault.

Serhiy Taruta, the Kiev-appointed governor of Donetsk region, who was forced to flee to Mariupol after Donetsk was taken over by separatists, stated: “We are fighting to repel the DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic), Russia and whoever else wants to come here”. But, he wanted to stress: “We are hoping for a ceasefire, talks and resolution of all unresolved issues within a sovereign Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military claimed that two Russian frigates were on the Azov Sea heading towards Mariupol, but they had not been sighted by nightfall. What was seen further along the coast a few days ago was a Ukrainian coast guard vessel on fire, with no clear indication of what had happened.

The confusion and fog of this civil war was evident among Ukrainian soldiers. Some, at a checkpoint towards Mariupol, said they had been asked to reinforce the defences of the port. But more than a few were bemused by the actions of their political masters. “We are told we must defend our land, we’ll do so gladly” said a chief sergeant. “But we also hear that there will be a deal with the terrorists which will mean that we have to withdraw from this land, which is a part of Ukraine. So we do not know what is going on. I just hope we are not asked to retreat.”

Some of his comrades, however, already appeared to be in the process of retreating. A Channel 4 television news team discovered a column heading away from Novoaidor, 60km east of Luhansk. Rebel forces from the city had, meanwhile, broken out to recapture a number of crossing points.

A number of Ukrainian positions south of Donetsk were unmanned. At one checkpoint 90km away, the prevailing feeling, again, was that troops were being let down, by their government, by the West, by Nato.

“I have been a soldier for just five months. I joined because I wanted to defend my country from the criminals sent by Putin,” said Mykhailo, a former teacher told The Independent. He had spent almost the same number of months at the Maidan protests in Kiev which brought down the government of Viktor Yanukovych.

“We were fighting for democracy in the Maidan. We had plenty of encouragement from America, England, from Germany. But where are they now when the Russians come to bring back the Soviet Union. Where’s Nato? They are having a meeting? Well they have done nothing while our government is being forced to negotiate with the criminals. Are they so foolish that they think the Russians will just stop with this part of Ukraine?”

Near the checkpoint a red-and-black flag of Right Sector, a right-wing nationalist group which has become the object of hatred among Russian-speakers, fluttered in the wind. “I do not know who that belongs to,” shrugged Mykhailo, who has the rank of Senior Soldier. “I am certainly not a member. Anyway, the right-wing parties did badly at our elections. At least there was a vote. There will be no votes if the Russians take over: that is why we need to fight.”

But for many civilians caught up in the unrelenting rounds of killings, the overwhelming craving was for peace. The walls of 64-year-old Katarina Anisimova’s home in Donetsk have large cracks from ordnance which had been landing regularly in the neighbourhood. “This house was painted by Aleksandr, this is him.” She held out a photograph of her 33-year-old son. “He was killed walking across the street by rockets, a month ago.” Who was doing the firing? “They say it is the fascists, the Right Sector, I don’t know. But we want this to stop; if they are talking they must put an end to this. Have you seen what they have done to Donetsk? They are killing this city as they killed my son.”

The bustling metropolis with a population of more than a million is now a place of emptiness. Shops, businesses, cafes and restaurants are largely shut. There are old bloodstains on the pavements outside Mrs Anisimova’s home; the small number of civilians around hurry off to their homes as dusk falls. The nights belong to the camouflaged gunmen of the separatist movement driving around to the sound of shelling.

They, too, want to continue the fight. “Why should we stop now we are winning?” Leonid Golovkin, 23, was genuinely puzzled. “They thought they were going to crush us. Now those in Kiev, the junta, just want to get time to get more weapons. That is what Poroshenko is doing now, trying to get weapons and mercenaries from Nato. Even if they agree something, it’s not going to last. Too much blood has been shed – people will want revenge.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn