Ukraine Live Day 369: Kiev Braces For Full-Scale Separatist Attack On Mariupol

February 21, 2015

Yesterday’s live coverage of the Ukraine conflict can be found here. An archive of our liveblogs can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs.

For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

For the latest summary of evidence surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 see our separate article: Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?

Kiev Braces For Full-Scale Separatist Attack On Mariupol

The Ukrainian government has warned that a full-scale military attack could be launched by Russian-supported insurgents against the coastal town of Mariupol in the coming days. RFE/RL reports:

Kyiv said on February 21 pro-Russian separatists are building up forces and weapons in southeastern Ukraine near the coast of the Sea of Azov, and that Ukrainian government forces are bracing for the possibility of a Russian-backed attack on the port city of Mariupol.

Ukraine’s military issued the statement on February 21, a day after it accused Russia of sending more tanks, troops, and heavy artillery toward the rebel-held town of Novoazovsk just to the east of government-controlled Mariupol.

Reuters reports that the Ukrainian military is seeing increased separatist activity in Novoazovsk, to the east of Mariupol, near a key border crossing where Russian troops and armor invaded in August:

Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko did not refer specifically to the movement of Russian tanks and troops but said the separatists, who Kiev says are supported by Russian weapons and fighters, were conducting sabotage and intelligence operations round the clock to test government defenses.

“The adversary is carrying out a build-up of military equipment, weapons and fighters in the Mariupol area with the aim of a possible offensive on it,” Lysenko told journalists.

“They are sending out small sabotage groups out almost every night. We can see the activities of the enemy around Novoazovsk where military hardware, fighters and ammunition are being amassed,” he said.

The Ukrainian military is reporting that fighting is ongoing across multiple regions of Ukraine:

We have been reporting on our Russia Update about an anti-Ukrainian rally today in Moscow, one which is being supported by the government and is being heralded as standing against the “coup” that ousted then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. 

The Guardian reports that Viktor Yanukvych has vowed to return to Ukraine. Is it a coincidence that there is increased military activity near Mariupol? The Guardian reports:

Tank and artillery battles have raged over the past two weeks near Mariupol after Ukrainian troops began what Poroshenko called a “counter-offensive” to take the village of Shirokyne.

According to Kiev-based military analyst Alexei Melnik, the move was meant to push rebel artillery out of range of the city after an attack in January killed 30.

At 3am on Saturday, rebel forces conducted large reconnaissance raids on Shirokyne, spokesman Anatoly Stelmakh said.

The organisation Defence of Mariupol later said on its Facebook page that one Ukrainian soldier had been killed and another wounded in Shirokyne after rebels fired mortars and grenades.

Why are Russian-backed forces concentrating on Mariupol? It is both strategically and economically important, and is the first city Russia would need to retake if it ever hopes to create a land bridge to Crimea.

But as today’s “anti-Maidan” rally in Russia proves, Putin needs the new Ukrainian government in Kiev to fail just as much, or perhaps more, than he needs the separatists in eastern Ukraine to succeed: 

James Miller