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

Donbas

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
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine