Ukraine crisis: Ukrainian troops behave with restraint – and courage when faced with pro-Russian separatists
The prospect of war in Ukraine has edged a little closer, following limited military action on the ground and embellished accounts of what happened from the Kiev administration which were immediately seized on by the Kremlin. As a day of tension and violence was drawing to a close, Russia ordered new major military exercises at the border.
The violence itself was not prolonged. One man was killed and another wounded when Ukrainian armoured personnel carriers (APCs) attacked a separatist checkpoint outside Slovyansk, there were some further injuries in clashes at Mariupol and Artemivsk. But, according to the version disseminated by the caretaker government in the capital, this region had gone through a whirlwind. In an 'anti-terrorist operation'. The number of “terrorists eliminated” had been five in Slovyansk; dozens more were injured when Ukrainian forces supposedly retaken public buildings from “terrorists” at Mariupul who also repelled an assault on a military base by 70 more “terrorists”.
In reality, the only death we could ascertain was that of 22-year-old Aleksandr Lubenec at Slovyansk. At Artemivsk, where the desperate attempted storming of the military base had apparently taken place, the only damage one could see was a broken window and a cracked door. At Mariupul there were no signs Ukrainian forces, the administration building which had been “recaptured” was now surrounded by protesters with those newly installed inside negotiating to get out.
Moscow, which has enough assets, human and electronic, in place in this region to know what was really going on, was outraged with alacrity. Defence minister Sergei Shoigu declared: “If this military machine is not stopped, it will lead to greater numbers of dead and wounded. We are forced to react to such a development of the situation.”
Vladimir Putin had already set the scene earlier by warning : “If the regime in Kiev has begun using the army against the population inside the country, then this is undoubtedly a very serious crime. Of course, this will have consequences for the people who take such decisions, and this also affects our inter-state relations.”
The 'military machine' in the Donbass consists of APCs - limited in number after seven were hijacked by protesters - and a combined total of a few thousand Ministry of Interior police, troops from the airborne division, and some helicopters. None have been used much since they were deployed. Reinforcements, however, including more armour, are reported to be on their way.
Despite the checkpoint attack today, the Ukrainian soldiers had behaved with restraint since they arrived in the region last week. This is not due to cowardice; anyone who saw how the forces besieged for weeks by the Russians, abandoned by their government, behaved in Crimea, would know one thing they do not lack is courage.
However, many had been firm that they did not wish to fire on their fellow citizens. Today Major Vitaly, in charge of the most advanced military checkpoint, freshly set up with APCs on the route from Horlivka approaching Slovyansk, told me: “I do not want to shoot Ukrainians. What we have been doing is talking to the local people, trying to reassure them that we are no here to harm them listen to their complaints”.
Tellingly, he went on to add: “This is something the government should have done. Not only have they failed to do so, they have shown no willingness to do so. it has been left to us soldiers, which is not the way it should be. We don't think there should be any need to fight, let it be sorted out by talking.”
Three men got out of their car and swaggered up, two of them in mismatched combat uniforms. They introduced themselves as soldiers of the Peoples' Republic of Donetsk. Their questioning was aggressive “why have you got the armour here, to protect the Right Sector [an extremist nationalist group] when they attack us?” Asked one man. Major Vitaly shook his head: “Believe me, none of you hate the Right Sector more than I do, we shall defend civilians if they are threatened by these people”. Another of the peoples' army stated, a little uncertainly: “If you cause any problems we are prepared to fight”. The Major nodded and said: “OK, but let's just try to speak to each other first”. Then he added, voice slightly harder: “We will be here, we are not going away.”
Part of the problem, however, has been the voice of one man, relentlessly on his Facebook account, for weeks; the acting interior minister, Arsen Avakov. He had been announcing daily successful 'anti-terrorist' operations in places where absolutely nothing had been happening. Sometimes his announcements may have contributed to unfortunate consequences. The first fatality of the current confrontation came outside Slovyansk, the shooting of a soldier, after the minister had stated that yet another 'anti-terrorist operation' was under way. Most of today's government 'information' came from Mr Abakov and the Interior Ministry.
But real violence, brutal and systematic, has been unfolding here. Vladimir Rybak, a local politician, was buried today. He had been abducted from Horlivka, his home city, after an altercation with separatists who had taken over the police station and city hall. His body, with terrible wounds, had been found floating in the river 80 miles away at Slovyansk.
Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, accused the pro-Moscow militants, describing what happened as the most heinous examples of violence which had affected the east of the country. “The terrorists who effectively took the whole Donetsk region hostage have now gone too far.” He accused the Kremlin of complicity. “These crimes”, he charged, “are being committed with the full support and connivance of the Russian Federation.”
His widow, Elena Rybak, had told The Independent: ”The police told me that they have started a investigation and we will be told the results, I hope that is the case, they may find out very quickly, my husband used to be in the police force himself and he was even thinking of rejoining. I hope they investigate thoroughly.”
Andrei Kryshenko was among the mourners present. He was the police chief at headquarters in Horlivka when it was stormed by militants. I had last seen him being taken into an ambulance with blood pouring from his head. One of the figures in balaclava who had taken over the station thought that he would be released, although he was far from certain.
“I do not come back here much, it's risky, but I felt I should be at Vladimir's funeral, we had known each other for 17 years,” said Mr Kryshenko, his face heavily bruised. “It is nice to see there are so many people here today. But they are afraid to be seen when the separatists carry out their attacks. As a policeman I see a pattern taking shape, we don't really know how it's going to end, but it doesn't look good.”
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