Ukrainian Civil War

The Origins of the Donbas War From Below

Guest: Serhiy Kudelia on the local dimensions of the Donbas war.

What’s Going on in Ukraine?


Balazs Jarabik is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on Ukraine and Eastern Europe. His most recent article is “Reform and Resistance: Ukraine’s Selective State.”


Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean,” Thriller, 1982.


Scabic Soldiers on the March

Soldiers from the 53rd Brigade.

Soldiers from the 53rd Brigade.

It’s hard not to notice the plethora of articles once again warning about Russia invading the Baltics. The prospect has come up on a number of occasions over the last two years, and I have to say, I can’t help but have increasing sympathy for RT’s skepticism that the new volley just happens to coincide with the Pentagon budgetary requests. I really hate it when I nod in approval to RT articles. I really do. But that is what happened. So Russia declares the US as a threat, and the US names Russia as a threat. Wonderful. And on and on it goes as military contractors in both countries smile at the prospect of Cold War Part Deux.

But that’s not all.

Leave it to the Atlantic Council to recycle well-worn rhetoric about how talking to the Russians is “counterproductive” and how olive branches “don’t work.” So in terms of solutions we get the ever so wise, “only tightening the noose will” and hackneyed reiterations about the need to send weapons to Ukraine. Yes, because in addition to provoking further conflict is to bet on the fact that “by 2017, [Russia] will go bust, say experts.” Yes, experts like Alexander Motyl who said “Goodbye to Putin” in Foreign Affairs in February 2015 only to say pretty much the same thing again in January 2016? No thank you. David Marples deserves a lot of credit for actually engaging Motyl’s arguments. My instinct is to just roll my eyes so far back that I can see my medulla oblongata.

It’s obvious some experts aren’t heeding Michael Kofman’s “Seven Deadly Sins of Russia Analysis.” I mean, c’mon people, assuming Russia is doomed is deadly sin number frickin’ one! But we didn’t need Kofman to remind us (though it’s nice that he did) to be wary of such “analysis” since the Russia’s imminent collapse trope has been around since the mid-19th century.

But forget about all that. The main problem with all this blustering by all the politicians, analysts, pundits, military, and think tankers is not so much they are wrong, but that they are ultimately playing with other people’s lives. After all it won’t be them or their children who fight their wars. It will be somebody else and somebody else’s children.

It is this context that inspired me to translate the following short article from Hromadske about a group of Ukrainian soldiers at the front in the Donbas. It’s not a great article. Nor is it penetrating information. It’s just a small story about a small group of soldiers trying to make the most out of a bad situation. And like with most armies, while the military, the government, and politicians hold these people up as heroes for the home front, they all force these heroes to unnecessarily live like animals at the battlefront. Well, this group of guys got sick of it.

Scabies, Hunger and Poor Sanitation Force VSU Soldiers March on Nikolaev

In Nikolaev, soldiers sleep practically in the snow and feed themselves with their own money. Many are sick because they haven’t bathed and have begun to contract scabies.

On February 8, soldiers from the 53rd Mechanized Brigade set out marching from the Shirokii Lan firing range in Nikolaev. Forty-six soldiers fed up with the terrible living conditions decided to go to the military prosecutor to complain about their commanders.

The 53rd Brigade has already been at the Skirokii firing range located 30 kilometers from Nikolaev for four days. But the catastrophic situation with food, sleeping accommodations, and hygiene has been around for a long time—since the soldiers withdrew from the ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation) zone to the range in the Dnipropetrovsk region.

In Nikolaev, the soldiers practically sleep on the snow and feed themselves with their own money. Many are sick because they haven’t bathed and have begun to contract scabies. Having not gotten any answers from their command, the soldiers decided to walk to Nikolaev to complain to the military prosecutor’s office about the battalion’s commander, Aleksander Marushchak.

“We got MREs twice a day since February 1st. Today is February 8th. We fed ourselves with our own money and slept on the snow. Half of us sleep on the APC because there isn’t anywhere else to sleep . . . People come here with sciatica and kidney problems and sprawl all out in a tent. A guy is laying there with pneumonia. There are doctors here but you have to get in line, and they might take you to the hospital the next day, or maybe in a week. It is far from certain where they’ll put you if this happens,” says Vitaly Putilin, a gunner in the 8th squadron.

According to him, the last time he bathed was last year on December 25th. And then, only because he paid for a room with his own money for part of the way from Lvov to training. His comrade, the draftee Igor, says that he doesn’t remember the last time they were at the banya.

“Yesterday, we tried to go out and buy firewood on the APC, and the battalion commander told us to also refill it with our own money when we buy the wood. We still don’t have water and melt snow . . . I get that we’re at the frontline but I can’t understand why they’ve mistreated us here for over two months.  People simply can’t take it anymore. Today we found an older chief of staff, and told him—can you at least tell us how much longer do we have to live like this. And he told us to keep quiet . . . We’ve got scabies because we haven’t bathed. They aim for people with white bandages, the itchy type, and so it continues. The scabies already began at Cherkassy firing range, and we haven’t washed since. Look at us.”

A third soldier, also walking to Nikolaev, explains that this is not a one-off rebellion, and has been an urgent problem for a long time.

“Every time we take our demands to command, every time they promise to deal with them, but ultimately they don’t solve anything,” says drafted soldier from the 53rd brigade.

A representative from the military command met the soldiers along the way to the city. He offered to take a few representatives from the brigade to Nikolaev to meet with the prosecutor. The soldiers refused, saying all the participants in the march want to see the prosecutor.

“We are simply asking that they need to provide the conditions as they are written in the Status of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. It clearly spells out there must be a bath at least once a week, and it should be in a banya, not with one machine that heats the water in one and the cold water is in another and with two washtubs we all wash in. All of us! If you want to bathe, you have buy or bring diesel and the water from who knows where, and then you can bathe,” says the gunner Vitaly Putilin.

The result is that the regional administration sent the soldiers a bus half way from range in Nikolaev. It took the soldiers to the city for a meeting with the military prosecutor, in which all the draftees voiced their complaints.



The Ukrainian Left and the Maidan Protests



Volodymyr Ishchenko is a sociologist studying social protests in Ukraine. He is the deputy director of the Center for Social and Labor Research, a member of the editorial board of Commons: Journal for Social Criticism and the LeftEast web-magazine, and a lecturer at the Department of Sociology at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. His is the author of the report The Ukrainian Left During and After the Maidan Protests.

Music: Public Enemy, “Welcome to the Terrordome,” Fear of a Black Planet, 1990.

Treating War Trauma in Ukraine



Roman Torgovitsky, Harvard-trained biomedical scientist, social entrepreneur and founder of the Wounded Warrior Ukraine project, an NGO seeking to provide psychological rehabilitative assistance to Ukrainians affected by the visible and invisible wounds of war. You can donate to the project here.

Music: Black Sabbath, “War Pigs,” Paranoid, 1970.


Podcast: War in the Donbas and Mr. Putin


Here’s the first of a new weekly podcast covering Eurasian politics, society, and history.


Christopher MillerMashable‘s Senior Correspondent covering world news, particularly the post-Soviet space and especially Ukraine. You can read Chris’ reporting from Ukraine here.

Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. She is also the co-author with Clifford Gaddy of the recently released second edition of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.

You can read my review of Mr. Putin here.

Subscribe to the podcast on ITunes!

Civilians Caught in the Crossfire in Eastern Ukraine


The downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, presumably by a separatist surface to air missile, internationalizes a conflict that has already claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians and displaced tens of thousands of people. As we rightly express outrage over MH17, we shouldn’t forget that civilians are caught in the crossfire between the Ukrainian military and separatists. Eastern Ukraine became a tragedy long before MH17 was shot out of the sky. Only now with an international incident perhaps people will pay more attention. What they will find is a warzone in Europe once again.

Civilians are caught in the middle of this warzone. It’s easy to forget this until you read the stories. Here’s one description from the Kyiv Post:

The streets of Donetsk were mostly empty all day, and rebels set up new block posts in the city to control traffic. Residents were seen fleeing from the area around the train station, suitcases in tow. All around, explosions from artillery reverberated, and a dense cloud of black smoke rose from a car factory in the distance.

The courtyard of a residential complex was a warzone marked with craters likely from Grad rockets mere meters from a children’s swingset.

When 31-year-old Vlad Kozlov opened the front door of his flat near Donetsk’s central railway station en route to the institute where he teaches, two pieces of shrapnel from one of the rockets struck him in the legs. Kozlov was taken to a local hospital, but not before leaving sprawling blood stains on the stairs inside his apartment building.

“He is going to have an operation,” said Valentina Nikolayevna, his grandmother. “I hope he won’t become disabled after this.”

Just 50 meters away, another blood stain marked the place where a woman was killed by the same rocket. Her body had been taken away, but her shoes remained at the site.

Sergey, a local resident who refused to give his last name, showed the Kyiv Post a video taken just after the incident of the woman’s mutilated body. “Now I want just to take up a gun myself [and fight Kiev’s forces],” he said.

Complete civilian casualty figures are hard to determine. Numbers come from local medical personnel, eye witnesses, and fact finding missions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). An OSCE report the released on July 20 based on evidence from local doctors estimated that at least 250 civilians have been killed and over 850 wounded in Luhansk in June and July alone. According to a recent OSCE Special Monitoring Mission update, the shelling of Luhansk on July 17-18 left 20 people dead and 150 injured. On July 18-19, according to information the head of the Lugansk city morgue, 29 people had been killed, all of them civilians except one. And about 40 miles from the MH17 crash site, three civilians were killed in the crossfire between the Ukrainian military and rebels. This is only a small glimpse into the continuing carnage.

Both sides have an interest in fudging the numbers, deny firing on civilians, and cast blame on each other. But this misses the point. Like the 298 people who were killed in MN17, many Ukrainian civilians are casualties of a civil war that only promises to get more violent in the coming weeks.


Why We Can’t Let Ukraine Lose the Donbass

By William Risch

Last night, Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, told his nation that they were at war.  The Ukrainian government, after attempting peace talks for several days, was ending its unilateral ceasefire with pro-Russian forces in the Donbass region, which it has been fighting for over two months.  “They have publicly declared their unwillingness to support the peace plan as a whole and particularly the ceasefire,” he said.  “Militants violated the truce for more than a hundred times.” Thus Ukrainian forces, including the army, National Guard, Ministry of Interior forces, and paramilitary battalions have officially renewed the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO).

This time, the ATO promises to be an all-out war.  Since the ceasefire took effect June 20, both Ukrainian and rebel forces have reinforced their positions.  More tanks, rockets, personnel, and supplies from across the Russian border have reached pro-Russian forces.  The Ukrainian online news source Inforesist reported June 30 that separatist Igor Girkin (a.k.a. Strelkov), after complaining for weeks about a lack of support from Russia, had assembled a force capable of seizing Izium, the headquarters of Ukraine’s ATO:  5,000 armed men in Sloviansk and dozens of armored equipment, tanks, and multiple rocket launchers.  Fresh reinforcements have arrived in nearby Krasnyi Liman and Kramatorsk.  Inforesist stressed that Strelkov not only could take Izium, but also advance toward major industrial city of Kharkiv, due to the Ministry of Internal Affairs forces lacking heavy armament.

Facing forces like Strelkov’s, Ukraine’s ATO will cost many lives.  It will make worse a refugee crisis that has already led to at least 27,200 internally displaced persons from eastern Ukraine as of June 27, according to a recent United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report.  The hundreds of military and civilians killed could reach the thousands if air strikes and artillery assaults become even deadlier.

Despite the nightmarish scenario, all-out war looks inevitable.  There is not even one hint that the forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) or the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) even took President Poroshenko’s ceasefire seriously.  During it, their forces killed a total of 27 Ukrainian security forces personnel and wounded 69. DNR and LNR leaders have suggested plans for creating a larger entity, New Russia (Novorossiia), which would incorporate other regions of eastern and southern Ukraine.  On June 26, one of their key supporters – Oleh Tsarev, one of their representatives in peace talks with the Ukrainian government – announced competitions for designing national symbols for Novorossiia and a history textbook for the start of the new school year.

In the face of war, neither the United States nor the European Union can afford to let Ukraine lose the Donbass.  The Budapest Memorandum of 1994, which led to Ukraine giving up its stockpiles of Soviet nuclear weapons, guaranteed that the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America would refrain from using force “against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.”  Over the past few weeks, Russia’s lending separatists advanced weaponry and armed volunteers from across the border has seriously threatened Ukraine’s territorial integrity.  What looked like a local conflict lacking popular support at the beginning of June has turned into a full-scale invasion at the beginning of July.  This invasion and Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea have made a total mockery of the Budapest Memorandum.

Supporting Ukraine’s war for the Donbass does not mean sacrificing the blood and treasure of U.S. or E.U. member forces.  Western countries could send military advisors to train a more effective army (one badly undermined by corruption over the past quarter century).  They could send ammunition.  They could help finance the construction of a more secure border between Russia and Ukraine.  Most importantly, they could support more vigorous economic sanctions against Russia.  The West either must do what it can to support Ukraine’s military effort, or it may have to admit that international borders need to be redrawn and that international guarantees like the Budapest Memorandum are mere scraps of paper.

William Risch is a contributing journalist at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Associate Professor of History at Georgia College.  He is author of The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv (Harvard University Press, 2011).

Ukraine’s Refugees: How Many?

People walk among donated clothes at a former concert hall converted into a center for collecting humanitarian aid for refugees in Donetsk

In my post on Ukraine’s refugees, I anticipated some questioning about the numbers of Ukrainians fleeing to Russia. I cited a MChS estimate of 30,000. It’s hard to pin down just how many people have packed up whatever they could and crossed the border. The Russians have presented various figures. Valentina Matvienko, Russia’s Federal Council speaker, gave an obviously exaggerated number of 500,000 refugees inside Russia! Another news report states that 80,000 have arrived in Rostov province in the last two weeks! Last week Russia’s migration service gave a figure of 80,000.I’ve also read that there are only 25,000 refugees inside Russia. These widely divergent figures are not surprising. After all, presenting the crisis in Ukraine as a humanitarian disaster is in Russia’s interest, as it’s in the interest of Kyiv and its supporters to low ball the numbers to Russia but inflate the number of refugees from Crimea. How much are the Russian figures an exaggeration? Matvinenko figure is preposterous, of course. But the Russian official figure of 80,000 turns out to be closer to the UNHCR’s count.

According to the UNHCR press release:

In Ukraine, UNHCR is seeing a rise in displacement. We now estimate that 54,400 people are internally displaced – 12,000 from Crimea and the rest from the Eastern region. Over the past week, the number of internally displaced increased by over 16,400.

Increases are also being seen in the numbers of Ukrainians in Russia and other countries, although so far only a relatively small number have applied for refugee status. Since the start of the year around 110,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Russia, and 750 have requested asylum in Poland, Belarus, Czech Republic and Romania. Of those in Russia only 9,600 have requested asylum. Most people are seeking other forms of legal stay, often we are told because of concerns about complications or reprisals in case of return to Ukraine.

Arrivals of the past few days are mainly clustered in Rostov-On-Don (12,900 people, including 5,000 children) and Byransk (6,500 people). In Rostov, people are being accommodated in public buildings and some tented camps. In Bryansk the majority are staying with relatives and friends. We have also seen unconfirmed reports of other recent arrivals from the east of Ukraine to Crimea.

110,000! I was taken aback by that number. Granted the vast majority of these people aren’t in refugee camps, but are staying with friends and relatives in Russia. Ukraine’s refugee crisis, both inside Ukraine and Russia is masked by the personal ties many Ukrainian citizens within and outside the country. Nevertheless, the UNHCR’s estimates illustrates that the refugee crisis is real and it’s getting worse.

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