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Yesterday Svoboda’s Andrei Babitsky warned that as the truce dissolves into renewed heavy fighting in Ukraine, the result may be even more brutal war, especially in Donetsk, Ukraine’s 5th largest city. Babitsky speaks with Russian-backed militants who say that if Kiev wants to retake eastern Ukraine, and Donetsk, they’d have to pay a very high price.
Below we have translated an excerpt:
One of the militia officers with whom I managed to speak said that the ATO cannot be successful if the Ukrainian army decides to fight within the boundaries of the city. Here armored vehicles are not effective, which are easy to destroy under the conditions of the city angles, the aviation can’t help very much, either, since the local multi-story buildings are a perfect cover from airstrikes.
“Kiev has two opportunities,” my source said. “Either raze the city to the ground, like Grozny, and only then bring in troops, or gradually fight district by district, suffering giant losses all the while. The first option is impossible due to the reaction of the world community, which will be sharply negative due to the massive loss of the civilian population. The second will provoke opposition inside the country. No matter what Poroshenko chooses, this war will become his grave.”
Babitsky’s predictions are already partially coming true. It is clear that Ukraine’s anti-terror operation is far more intense than it was before the ceasefire. The Ukrainian military is focusing on a broader swath of the country, and it hitting the militants with far more firepower than in the past. Those separatists, however, have burrowed themselves deeply into some of these cities and towns. Ukraine has been hesitant to hit the Russian-backed militants with everything it has got, and that has bought the separatists time to grow far stronger than their weak popular support merits.
Today that has changed. And while a more robust ATO may more quickly free eastern Ukraine from the Russian-backed gunmen who occupy large parts of it, the more intense military action, combined with the guerrilla tactics of the separatists and the months they have had to prepare for this day, it will make life very hard for the civilians who are still trapped in the cities occupied by the insurgents.
Donetsk, Ukraine’s 5th largest city, has once again been rocked by violence today. AP reports:
Panicked residents looked for a safe place to hide Tuesday as Ukrainian troops and pro-Russia separatists fought an hours-long gunbattle in the center of Donetsk, the largest city in eastern Ukraine. Rebels captured the Interior Ministry headquarters there a day after the president said they weren’t serious about peace and ended a cease-fire…
In Donetsk, many streets were deserted and rifle fire rang out as rebels attacked the Interior Ministry’s building. After hours of gunbattles, the rebels took over the compound, leaving the body of a plainclothes police officer outside.
In Kiev, the interior minister said Ukrainian forces had repelled a rebel attack in Donetsk, but that clearly was not the case.
Earlier today Alex Luhn reported on the situation there:
While the Russian foreign ministry was pretty quiet when Russian-backed separatists were shooting down Ukrainian helicopters or shooting up downtown Donetsk over the last few weeks, they are deeply concerned about Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s decision to end the one-sided ceasefire and relaunch the anti-terrorism operation in eastern Ukraine. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told US Secretary of State John Kerry that this new turn could destabilize Ukraine. RFE/RL reports:
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Poroshenko’s decision not to extend the truce started “a new cycle of bloodshed with consequences unpredictable for the Ukrainian state.”
Is this just talk?
One of the aspects that makes today’s military operations in eastern Ukraine unique is that they appear to be far better coordinated, far more expansive, and far more effective that previous iterations. There is now intense fighting in many areas, and each battle has its own goal. Beyond the battles we’ve already reported, Lugansk and a key nearby town, Metalist (map) appear to be another focus for Ukraine’s military operation.
This video reportedly shows the effects of Ukrainian airstrikes near Lugansk today:
The DPR is also reporting intense bombing and shelling in the areas of Metalist and Lugansk, and the Russian media has been reporting widespread civilian evacuations.
But there is widespread damage elsewhere in the country as well.
Dmytro Tymchuk, a Ukrainian arms expert who appears to have contacts within Ukraine’s military, has made an interactive map of the fighting across Ukraine. The map can be see here but here is a screenshot of the latest:
The northernmost hotspot is the Slavyansk/Kramatorsk area. As we’ve been reporting, Kramatorsk, to the south of Slavyansk, appears to be a key target for this new and more robust ATO. But as we can see, the effort appears to be focused on separating Kramatorsk and Slavyansk from the southeastern border between Ukraine and Russia.
In our previous update, we mention a reported Ukrainian military victory at a key checkpoint near the border in this region.
All previous attempts to secure the area behind rebel front lines have resulted in open threats of Russian invasion. Poroshenko may be calling Putin’s bluff to see whether Putin is really committed to militarily supporting the separatists if Ukraine is really committed to stopping Moscow from doing so.
The Ukrainian military has reportedly recaptured a key checkpoint near the southeast border with Russia. Interfax reports (translated by The Interpreter):
“Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko congratulated the Armed Forces and border guards with their first victory after the resumption of the anti-terror operations, which regained control over the Dolzhansky checkpoint [here on our interactive map – The Interpreter]. For several days, the Armed Forces of Ukraine, together with the State Border Service has restored control over of the Dolzhansky checkpoint and restored its work,’ the presidential press service said today.
The press service also noted that sappers had de-mined the checkpoint and adjacent roads, disabling 15 IEDs on the approaching roads and 20 immediately at the checkpoint.
At the exact moment of the ending of the ceasefire yesterday, there were already reports of heavy shelling in Kramatorsk, a strategic town just south of Slavyansk (map), and the home of a key airbase. Today there has been heavy fighting in the town which appears to be in the crosshairs of Ukraine’s newest iteration of the anti-terror op (ATO).
The Guardian has published a must-read report on the fighting in the east. The report is about four hours old:
Clashes were reported around both the Donetsk and Lugansk regions on Tuesday morning. Four people were killed and five wounded when a small bus came under fire in Kramatorsk, local news outlets reported. Photographs from the scene showed a woman’s body lying in the aisle amid broken glass and blood.
Other images published by InfoResist, an analytical group with close ties to the Kiev government, showed gaping holes and destroyed balconies in several residential buildings in Kramatorsk.
Local resident Alexei Sergeyev said he heard periodic shooting and explosions throughout the night, including near the airfield that Ukrainian forces have been using as a staging ground. Sergeyev said he was fleeing the city on Tuesday morning along with many other residents.
“Around 8pm they started shooting from something big, maybe a mortar, maybe a tank, and then during the night there was heavy machine gun firing. It was intense, the windows were shaking,” Sergeyev said.
A video which claims to show the minibus mentioned in the report above (warning, graphic):
This video was taken at a wider angle of more of the same scene at the Lesnoy marketplace by a local stringer for operkor.net. The reporter says one man was injured and taken to the hospital.
Translation: After shelling of the Karachun hills, the television tower fell (updated, photos added).
Translation: Karachun. Fallen tower.
There are reports that the tower was under Ukraine military control and that it was broadcasting Ukrainian TV which is why it was brought down by the rebels. Other local residents say, however, that there had been no electrical power to the tower for the last month.
The ghost of Joseph Stalin returns. A while back the Russian-backed separatists made a video which went viral when they began to repair a “Joseph Stalin 3” World War II era tank that had been turned into a war monument. To the surprise of a lot of people, they actually got the tank running.
Now, the Russian news outlet Gazeta claims that the separatists have used the vehicle to devastating effect (translated by The Interpreter):
Militia on Joseph Stalin-3 Tank Attack Ukrainian Forces
Militia in the city of Konstantinovka attacked the Ukrainian forces’ roadblock in the city of Konstantinovka on a tank from World War II named “Joseph Stalin 3,” RIA Novosti reported, citing a source in the Slavyansk militia.
“Our company from Konstantinovka, using the tank, attacked the roadblock in the village of Ulyanovka,” the source in the militia said.
According to the source, the Ukrainian forces “had at a minimum three killed and three wounded.” There were no causalties on the side of the militia.
In the spring of 2014, militia also removed a tank from its pedestal in the center of Konstantinovka. Later they managed to start up the Joseph Stalin 3 tank.
All of the claims in the article are unconfirmed, and we are not aware of any evidence that proves that the separatists have access to any ammunition for the tank.
There never really was a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, but you’d never know it from listening to the Russian government. First let’s take a look at their latest statements on the announcement that Ukraine will be restarting its anti-terrorism operation. Then let’s take a quick look back to remember how Moscow effectively extorted Kiev into agreeing to a ceasefire in the first place. Lastly, we’ll take a look at how Russia only supports ceasefires when their allies militarily benefit, because this is an old trick that this administration has mastered.
Today, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, waxed quixoticly about the promise of the ceasefire that he says is just being thrown away by the Ukrainian government. The Washington Post reports:
“We think that it is simply impossible to restore peace, justice, law and order in Ukraine without a truce and without starting dialogue,” the chairman of the lower house of Russia’s parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, said on Tuesday, according to the Interfax news service…
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday called for a “full-fledged peace process” as soon as possible, the Foreign Ministry said. Russia is willing to post Ukrainian and international observers in its own border posts along the border with Ukraine, Lavrov said, an apparent effort to satisfy a European demand that separatists hand back Ukrainian border points that they have seized in recent weeks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of murdering Russian journalists to effectively control the media spin (we’ll debunk this claim in a minute) while he condemned the end of the ceasefire, as well as Europe’s actions in Ukraine, and he actually accused Kiev of “blackmail” over the price of gas. RFE/REL reports:
Putin also accused Kyiv of using “blackmail” in negotiations on gas prices, saying Kyiv had demanded a “totally unjustified” price cut for supplies of Russian gas.
And he said “conscientious” consumers and suppliers should not suffer from “the actions of Ukrainian politicians.”
The reality, however, is that despite Lavrov’s desire for a truce, the Russian-backed separatists killed dozens of Ukrainian soldiers, destroyed several armored vehicles, shot down a helicopter, and generally continued to bolster their position. And if we rewind the clock ten days we see that it was actually Russia that forced Ukraine, at the point of ten thousand guns, to accept a false ceasefire in the first place.
As we explained when the ceasefire was announced, the Russian-backed separatists had become increasingly powerful over the last month or so. New separatist weapons, and the loss of government control of the border, sparked Poroshenko to order his forces into a new and much more robust phase of the anti-terrorism operation.
The strengthened ATO was working, as Ukraine had recaptured Mariupol and were closing the noose around several other key separatist positions. But then it was suddenly halted and the ceasefire was announced when a column of Russian armor crossed the border and joined the separatist forces, and Russia was racing tens of thousands of troops, along with tanks and armored vehicles, toward Ukraine’s border. With the threat of invasion imminent, Poroshenko called for a ceasefire. Russia got exactly what they wanted.
We cover some of this phenomenon in our separate article: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Stalemate or Forced Stagnation in Ukraine
At the end of the day, however, this follows a pattern that Putin established in Syria. Russia used its role in international groups like the United Nations to negotiate various deals, ceasefires, and agreements. Those ceasefires were immediately broken by the Assad regime, who used the ceasefires as an opportunity to advance its own military campaigns. Because the news media takes ages to verify stories and doesn’t like to take sides, and because the international community favors long investigations and talking, it took weeks, or months (or really years) for the world to finally recognize that the entire process, orchestrated by Russia, was a sham.
Russia often has opportunities to orchestrate real ceasefires, but for Putin they have just become nearly one-sided pauses in fighting that conveniently boost his allies’ abilities to both win on the ground and win a victory in the international community.
For more on Putin’s actions in Syria read A Russian Plan For Syria Is Two Years Too Late: A brief history of Russia’s defense of Assad.
Last night the 10 day ceasefire, which had already been expanded from 7 days, expired. Afterwards Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko finally held his press conference, after hours of delays while he was in consultation with advisors. The theme of his comments — Ukraine will no longer sit back and let the Russian-backed insurgents attack and gain strength while the Ukrainian military abides by a ceasefire that from the separatists’ side was little more than empty words.
Before Poroshenko spoke we were already seeing evidence of a renewed anti-terror operation (ATO) in eastern Ukrain, particularly in Kramatorsk where unconfirmed videos matched statements from separatist leaders and reports on social media — the town was under attack by Ukrainian military shelling and possibly even airstrikes.
Today there is more evidence of heavy fighting in the east. The New York Times reports:
Dmytro Tymchuk, a military analyst close to the Ukrainian government, praised Mr. Poroshenko’s decision, saying that the one-sided adherence to the cease-fire by the Ukrainian military had only strengthened the rebel forces, allowing them to rearm and regroup.
“Every day the truce, whatever its political significance, provided tangible reinforcement to the terrorists from a military point of new,” Mr. Tymchuk wrote on Facebook, adding, “A longer truce period would give terrorists a chance to drastically increase their combat readiness.”
Mr. Tymchuk said that government forces had begun pounding rebels shortly after receiving Mr. Poroshenko’s new orders. “Air and artillery strikes are being carried out against all sites where there are terrorist strongholds and groups of terrorists are located,” he wrote.