Terror, Provocations, or Military Exercises? Regional Media on Border Clashes, Prospects for War

August 11, 2016
Russian military vehicles at Kerch train station in occupied Crimea on Saturday. Photo via @AlexKokcharov

Terror, Provocations, or Military Exercises? Regional Media on Border Clashes, Prospects for War

The Russian and Ukrainian media are avidly investigating the claims made by Russia’s Federal Security Service regarding two alleged border clashes, the first on the night of August 6-7 in which an FSB officer was reportedly killed, and the second on August 8, when a Russian soldier was reportedly killed.

Ukrainians Report Border Clash 

Ukraine seems to have made an admission that some kind of incident did occur, but details are not clear. 

According to a statement on the Ukrainian presidential web site, Valeriy Kondratyuk, head of the Ukrainian Defense Minister’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR), has said that “an armed clash with the use of firearms between soldiers of the Russian Federation army and the border service of the Federal Security Service (FSB) has taken place.”

He didn’t provide any details as to when and how the clash occurred, or whether it corresponds to either of the incidents reported by the FSB.

Meanwhile, Viktor Nazrenko of the Ukrainian State Border Service said that four Russian drones had been deployed near Armyansk and the Ukrainian mainland.
Viktor Murzhenko, head of the Ukrainian General Staff called “absurd” the FSB’s accusation regarding the alleged clashes.

Saboteurs — But How Many? 

Slon.ru, an independent Russian news site, has rounded up the various claims and also talked to its own sources, who have described the incidents variously as exercises, the flight of deserters from the Russian army in Crimea, and an attack by saboteurs.

For them, the claims that Russian occupation authorities turned off the Internet and amassed convoys of military vehicles before the alleged clashes stands out as factors calling the official version into question.

Halya Coynash of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group also finds suspicious the shutting down of the Internet and believes the Ukrainian citizen seized after the incident was abducted and not on any sort of mission for Ukrainian intelligence. 

If Russia wanted to make its claims of an attempted Ukrainian terrorist attack on Russian-invaded and occupied Crimea credible, it should not have blocked the last remaining independent Internet sites days before the alleged attack.  Bringing in massive amounts of military hardware prior to the supposed event also seriously lowers plausibility.  

A crackdown on independent Crimean news sites that began August 1 by occupation authorities also begs the question of a Ukrainian-inspired incursion, she says. 

Rossiyskaya Gazeta has claimed that the supposed Ukrainian saboteurs planned to bomb the motorcades of both Crimean and federal officials as they traveled.

The FSB claims that the border incursions were planned by Ukrainian intelligence, and that a Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) agent was among the seven Ukrainians and Russians who have been detained. Yet so far only Yevgeny (Yehgen) Panov, a former ATO volunteer fighter, has been identified,  and friends and family say he was not involved in intelligence except for reconnaissance while he was serving. 
Slon, like RFE/RL and others, found an eyewitness to the incident at the Kalanchak border crossing who supplied further details. Ukrainian singer Vadim Oleynik wrote on his Facebook page on August 7, before the official FSB statement was made:
“At first a Russian Mi-8 helicopter was spotted in the air, then soldiers in trenches and then to top it off a jerk to whom I made a comment after he insulted my girlfriend. Our mood was as bad as it could be… We were in the neutral zone, no one was being let in, the sun burned down relentlessly. Anya and I made a decision to go to Kherson since all three crossings into Crimea were closed. The reason was that several groups of saboteurs penetrated to the territory of Crimea, there were military exercises and the most strange — the computers were broken.

When we arrived in Kherson, we thought long about what to do, go back to Kiev or make another insane attempt and try to cross the checkpoint one more time. The wish to see our parents outweighed possible sober sense to return to the capital, and we dozed at the hotel for a few hours and then went back to the Kalanchak checkpoint. Not foreseeing any trouble, we went through the Ukrainian checkpoint fairly quickly, and went into the neutral territory. There were about 500 meters before Crimea. The only thing that bothered me was that it was suspiciously quiet.

We approached the booth where they check passports, we went inside, and then gunfire broke out… We fell on the floor, hugging each other, and heard over the walkie-talkie that someone had been wounded… It was frightening, my heart pounded, I asked myself whether we’d survive that night… Anya cried… We sat for two hours, and then they took our passports and let us through to the territory of Crimea. We ran for 800 meters until we saw Anya’s father’s car. It was the happiest moment in two days.”

According to unofficial information, one of the Russians killed was commander of a GRU spetsnaz company. Kommersant reported a source that 10 Russian soldiers were wounded, but this wasn’t confirmed.

The pro-Russian Novorossiya news agency claimed that the saboteurs were under cover of Ukrainian military who fired on Russian border guards. Supposedly the Russians didn’t return fire because they say the Ukrainians had tanks on their side aimed at the guard post.

The agency also claimed that Ukraine was drawing armor to the border along with ISIS fighters.

A source in the Crimean power ministries said that one of the groups came by Lake Savash, “they came through the dried salt marshes, like the Red Army soldiers and German troops once too Crimea.” He said that the attack was on a Russian troop unit.

Unusual Foresight

The pro-Russian Crimean blogger Colonel Cassad (Boris Rozhin), writing on August 9 before the FSB announcement was released, also had many details in his story similar to what eventually was the official FSB version of the incidents. He said the FSB fought 20 saboteurs near Armyansk, one of whom was killed and the rest escaped across Lake Savash into the Ukrainian mainland. Supposedly a BTR went into the water and provided support.
Colonel Cassad also had a copy of the notice sent by the occupation’s Interior Minister Abisov dated August 7, saying that five people were being sought after a “serious crime” in Armyansk.

He said the FSB was tipped off to a group of saboteurs with explosives and went to Armyansk, where the saboteurs, who had a bunch of explosives, opened fire on them. His sources said 14 or 15 of the Ukrainians got away, with one killed; there was no news about possible wounded.  He said on the Russian side one was killed and one was wounded. Four (or possibly five) of the “saboteurs” remained at large in Crimea which was the reason for the notice. A cache contained 500 kilograms of TNT and other explosives. 

Colonel Cassad noted wryly that “the official interpretation of this entire story will depend on whether they catch these personages or not.” He said it was reminiscent of a “classic border provocation.”

Russian Army Deserters 

According to another version of the story in the Ukrainian media, the FSB was busy trying to catch armed deserters from the Russian army in Crimea.

Supposedly there was a shootout at the barracks in Armyansk and a group of soldiers escaped with weapons. MP Anton Gerashchenko has said that the border was closed in fact due to the deserters because the Russians feared that they could be “valuable sources of information on the situation in Crimea and the morale of the Russian troops.”

Distractions, Military Exercises 

Former Crimean Tourism Minister Aleksandr Liev said that the incidents were staged to distract Crimeans from social problems as well as justify the drawing of forces to the peninsula.
Former SBU General Mykola Malomuzh believes the border was closed in connection with military exercises. He believes Russia does not want anyone to see the exercises, especially Ukrainians who might travel to the Crimea.

As RFE/RL’s Krym.Realii reports, the occupation authorities may be trying to get Crimeans accustomed to the idea that they essentially live under martial law, and use this situation to crush internal dissent.

As one Russian activist quipped,  “I think everyone understands that this is Ukrainian intelligence trying to help Hillary Clinton become president.”

But How Many Casualties?

Kommersant, a business daily which is increasingly pro-Kremlin, has published an article based on unidentified sources.
In this version of the story, seven armed people in Soviet-style camouflage headed across the Perikop Bay on inflatable boats and landed at Armyansk. They set mines at border posts but were detected by three FSB Vympel spetsnaz a few kilometers from the coast. They called in reinforcements but before they could get there, they exchanged fire with the saboteurs, and one of the FSB was killed. Reportedly two of the saboteurs were killed, although there have been no reports of these losses in Ukraine. The FSB then made five arrests.
Kommersant‘s sources said most of those detained were resident of Crimea, and some had Russian passports, but these could be fake. They detainees said they were officer of the GUR, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate, and said they had been trained as saboteurs and had been sent by Ukrainian intelligence into Crimea. They said they had no plans for terrorist attacks against the Russian-installed leaders of Crimea or at industrial sites but had only planned to disrupt tourism by organizing a series of explosions near resort areas that would not kill any people, but just sow panic. Thus the plan was to “kill tourism,” not people.
A second group, traveling by a different route was to deliver the explosives and other weapons to a cache that the first group would find. While the first group was being detained, news of an incident got into the media on August 7, signaling to the second group that they had to abort the operation and go into hiding. Russian authorities hunted them using ground forces, helicopters, and drones, but came up with nothing at first.
Paratroopers from the 247th Paratroopers’ Storm Regiment of the Airborne Division, which was sent to the north of Crimea to reinforce anti-terrorist operations, were able to find the saboteurs on the night of August 7-8 on the shores of Lake Savash. A firefight broke out in the dark and both sides were said to suffer losses; several paratroopers were wounded, and one was killed when a bullet landed in his neck above his bullet-proof jacket.
The FSB claimed to make other arrests of both Ukrainian and Russian citizens in an “agents’ network” supposedly run by the SBU. President Petro Poroshenko called the claims “fantasies” and “an excuse for the usual threats.” GUR representative Vadim Skibitsky said none of their officers was missing or detained.

According to Kommersant’s sources, Putin has ordered additional troops and armor to the Crimea.

President Vladimir Putin yesterday claimed Ukraine was “moving to the practice of terror” regarding the alleged border incidents, and Kommersant said Putin was viewing the recent attempt to kill Igor Plotnitsky, head of the self-proclaimed “Lugansk People’s Republic” within that context. Plotnitsky survived, and blamed Ukrainian intelligence for the attempted hit. A series of assassinations in the LNR in past years have been blamed on Russia or the LNR itself.

‘People’s Republics’ to Fight Without Russia 

In a long-read article titled “This is War,” published August 8 before the official Russian statement on the incidents, Novaya Gazeta, an independent news site increasingly under pressure from the Kremlin, outlined the reasons for an escalation of the war in Ukraine:
– assassination attempt on the “Lugansk People’s Republic” leader Igor Plotnitsky
– growing intensity of shelling
– increasing rhetoric of “hurrah patriots” in both Russia and Ukraine calling for a “decisive offensive and victory”
– crisis in diplomatic relations between Russia and Ukraine (over Kiev’s rejection of a designated ambassador with a military past)
– rapid loss of popularity of the leadership of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) and “Lugansk “People’s Republic” (LNR) as well as the Kiev leadership; “the fall in ratings is compensated by militancy in conversations in the face of impoverished people.”
– a sense everywhere that disaster is imminent, “a full-scale war in the center of Europe.”
– increased might of Ukrainian Armed Forces and consolidation of armies of LNR and DNR

Novaya Gazeta came to the conclusion after its research an interviews that Russia would not intervene again in the war in Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists would be on their own — and outnumbered by Ukrainian forces:

The “Russian Factor” will not play a significant role in this war: the armed forces of the self-proclaimed republics are almost entirely made up of soldiers and officers with Ukrainian citizenship.

We would have to say that continued reports of the presence of Russian troops and tanks and the massing of armor before the recent border clashes tend to suggest otherwise. The Ukrainian government has given figures of only 40% of the DNR/LNR forces coming from local residents, the rest being made up of Russian soldiers or volunteers.

It’s always possible that the FSB and separatist sources interviewed by Novaya Gazeta are spreading disinformation. The Kremlin may be distancing itself from its wards in the Donbass, as it has done before with sudden personnel changes (such as the removal of Col. Igor Strelkov), but also creating this illusion as in fact they reinforce them.

Rampant Corruption in DNR/LNR 

Sources interviewed within the DNR talked about growing “banditism” and corruption in the “people’s republics” with cross-border smuggling schemes and confiscation of businesses from people who fled the region. Said one Russian intelligence officer who regularly visits the DNR:

“Zakharchenko has simply remained a bandit. The scale of tasks in managing a city of a million, often critical, have not led to a growth in the scale of his personality. He is ineducable. The other day he got drunk and punched a cook in a restaurant in the face. In the morning, without explanations or warnings, he missed a meeting he was supposed to chair, and went to make up and apologize. That’s his level.”
Zakharchenko’s wife has taken over most of the “nationalized” stores in Donetsk. Control over the army is very important for Zakharchenko because without it, he loses his own power and his “family business,” says the source.
The source said Zakharchenko was the one who gave the order to march on Mariupol in January 2015, in an attack in which at least 30 civilians were killed, which was viewed as an “adventure” and an effort to force Russia’s hand and draw both sides into the war so that they could not turn back. It failed, as did his “clumsy, poorly-prepared” offensive on Maryinka last June, which led to more than 30 people killed and 100 wounded.
DNR Defense Minister Kononov, whose nom de guerre is “Tsar,” a former sambo trainer and small businessman is famous for riding across the air strip of the Donetsk Airport with his girlfriend in a tank, provoking the fire of the Ukrainian artillery. This “adrenaline-charged stunt” was the limit of his talents, said the source.
Another source within the DNR command said that many of the “militia” were not defending their homeland so much as taking over cafes, restaurants and hotels to run their own businesses and supply their troops.

Tsar’s brother ran an operation collecting “fees” from drivers on the Donetsk roads his unit was supposed to protect. When his brother’s unit was transferred, Tsar was infuriated because he had been getting a cut of the bribes. So he secretly taped the conversations of the commanders of various units, including their uncensored comments on their leaders, then leaked them, causing some officers to be fired.

Do Russians Get It?

Does Moscow understand how the situation is degrading in the DNR and LNR? One source told a story indicating it did not. An official delegation from Russia came to accompany a humanitarian aid convoy to to Donetsk, headed by an aide to Dmitry Rogozin, the vice premier for defense and space. This aide was planning to offer Zakharchenko an opportunity to start a chain of Russia’s Magnit stores in DNR territory. His local hosts laughed at him, saying that Zakharchenko’s wife already has a monopoly on all the major stores, and would hardly want a competition in the form of a store from Russia. 

The DNR/LNR commanders collected fees to turn POWs over to their relatives, averaging about $10,000; the famous Givi (Mikhail Tolstykh) was among those who “sold” the POWs to desperate families. They even sold the bodies of soldiers killed so their families could bury them decently. The separatist commanders arrested some of their fighters involved in drug and contraband smuggling — some of whom had Russian patrons — but didn’t make a dent in the rampant corruption.

Stories were also told about Russian volunteers coming to the DNR and offering to train people there in artillery adjustment and reconnaissance, although by this time, the DNR had seasoned fighters, and the Russian proposing to train them was only a mechanic and had never served in the army.

After the battle of Debaltsevo, where the Russian-backed separatists suffered many losses but managed to take the town, the DNR became more serious about reforming the army, creating the First and Second Army Corps totally about 30,000 to 32,000 fighters. In theory, they face 90 Ukrainian tactical battalions with about 100,000 people, so technically (without Russian infusions) are outnumbered.

Among the fighters was the private military contractor Wagner, whose job was to battle Ukrainian reconnaissance groups. Reportedly they have now been withdrawn.

The Ukrainian-Russian Face-Off 

The Ukrainian General Staff says there are 13,000 Russian soldiers in the Donbass, and Russia maintains military camps along the border of Ukraine, part of which it controls. With the 13,000 plus others brought in from the border areas, it would seem Russia could take over the whole territory of the Donbass — and it may do that. Whereas at one point, when Col. Strelkov was in command, the Ukrainian army may have defeated the Russian-backed militants, but that time has past.
Even so, the Ukrainian army has learned from its mistakes at Debaltsevo and is stronger now; they have reinforced bunkers for command centers now with communications and not the checkpoints with tires piled up that they had in 2014. The separatists’ intelligence on the Ukrainian Army is that it is insufficiently fed and soldiers are forced to turn to black market activity to survive. These sources also accused the Ukrainian army of collecting “fees” from drivers on roads they control around Maryinka, Avdeyevka and Mariupol.
A brigade commander said that the number of Ukrainian forces at the front line are never as many as officials in Kiev claim, which was 100,000 soldiers and 30,000 support people at the end of May. The commander said the figure was more like 35,000 and thinly deployed. He said the separatists only had 8,000 fighters to counter them.
Summing up all the interviews, Novaya Gazeta said “an offensive by the Ukrainian Armed Forces is quite likely” because there are two points in the Minsk agreement that “can’t be fulfilled” by the separatists: they will not give up control by Russia of the Ukrainian border, on their side, and the Ukrainian leadership will not change the constitution to accommodate the separatists’ demands.

Periodically, the separatist commanders also claim that Ukraine is readying an offensive — and they seem to do this just at the times when they themselves are launching offensives or at least attempting breakthroughs, as they did recently again with Maryinka.

Ukrainians in the western Ukraine and Kiev are “militant” while the often Russian-speaking soldiers are sent from the south and eastern parts of Ukraine adjacent to the war zone. Ukrainians are wary of Minsk because they remember the way the Russians fought the wars in the North Caucasus — they signed the peace agreement in Khasavyurt, but soon built up their armies and decimated the Chechen rebels in the second Chechen war. 

The deputy commander of the DNR/LNRE armies says

“If a strategic operation of the Ukrainian Armed Forces emerges to liberate the Donetsk and Lugansk Regions from rebels, it will not seem trivial. The Ukrainian Army is stronger thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the government and society, and is more organized largely thanks to the aid of allies. But the First and Second Army Corps of the DNR/LNR armies will be on the defensive, and the law of offensive defeat still applies. But most importantly, this is a new bloodshed between seasoned armies, not intending the repeat their past mistakes, extremely motivated (our journalists were convinced of this on each new trip), which have accumulated anger as well as ammunition, and the tension in its way is incomparable to even the hottest battles of 2014-2015; both sides will suffer losses in large numbers.”

He implies there are as many Russian soldiers on the border as Poroshenko claims, calling the figures “manipulated” without refuting them, and says that Russia always had troops there, even under deposed president Viktor Yanukovh. And here, unlike other sources, he disparages the Ukrainian Army’s capacity because of poor command, despite the motivation of volunteer fighters in particular. About 20,000 contract soldiers were due to quit, and only 7,000 had renewed their contracts, says Novaya Gazeta.

The commander admitted that as the DNR/LNR armies professionalied, they ceased their support of Zakharchenko and the “bandit” style of command. But rotation of the troops meant that they were not cohesive. 

Even so, they had obtained certain advantages, including the increased use of drones — which were nonetheless expensive, were lost at times, and required back-up to analyze the data. He concluded:

“I’m sorry, but the 100,000 group of forces that the Ukrainian Armed Forces has put together is not a dog’s dick. If you count our bayonets, the maximum you get is 32,000. And no matter how much we have acquired military science so as to move to another capacity, first we have to have quantity. Our advantage is that the DNR/LNR army is on the defensive. The Ukrainian Army will have to storm us. The law of defensive victory is well known — one to three-four. I don’t envy them, believe me, this isn’t boasting.”
According to polls cited by Novaya Gazeta, 20% of Ukrainians want a quick military victory in the Donbass, down from 30% in March. Those near the front line are the least supportive of a “blitzkrieg.”
A GRU officer interviewed by Novaya Gazeta claimed that NATO was reforming the Ukrainian Army such as to integrate it into its own structures. He believed that the Ukrainians had more combat experience currently than Americans who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, because Ukrainians had more experience fighting under artillery shelling, particularly because the wars have been fought differently. Trainers from NATO countries would have little to offer, but the snipers’ rifles they were supposedly supplying to the Ukrainian Army would give them an advantage. 
Novaya Gazeta concludes that neither side will prevail in the war, but there will be many civilians losses, perhaps as many as tens of thousands, say their sources, making the offensive started by either side a war crime.
While Novaya Gazeta and its sources don’t say this, it’s possible that the claims made by both Russian and separatist sources that the separatists will fight on their own could indicate that Russia is abandoning them to their fate, solving the problem of uncontrollable and corrupt leadership, letting them provoke and harry and Ukrainian army, thus leading to major bloodshed for which the Ukrainian government will be blamed. Then Russia can appear to sue for peace from a weary West and ratify its de-facto control over the territory. 
The incidents on the Crimean border — which Ukraine may be in part admitting to — could serve as a catalyst for such an escalation of war. 

“If Kiev once again attacks us, I can say one thing: let them not complain later as they retreat to Kiev. There will be no Minsk 3,” says Zakharchenko.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick