Off to an Unquiet Eastern Front

25 Jun


By William Risch

On June 23, Kyiv sent over 500 men off to the battlefields of eastern Ukraine.  Outside the city well over 400 soldiers, including at least one woman, swore solemn oaths to the Donbas Battalion, a paramilitary unit led by Donbas native Semen Semenchenko.  On Sofia Square in central Kyiv, I witnessed the swearing-in ceremony for soldiers of the Azov Battalion under Andriy Belitsky, leader of the right-wing political organization Social-National Assembly (SNA).  Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs has employed both battalions to fight pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.  Today’s recruits left for the front right after the ceremonies were over.

Azov Battalion’s swearing-in ceremony took place in front of the city’s monument to Bohdan Khmelntysky, a Ukrainian Cossack leader whose rebellion against the Poles in the mid-seventeenth century has been called a Ukrainian war of national liberation.  The latter-day Cossacks standing beneath him, fighting a new war of liberation, were men mostly in their twenties, yet some were in their thirties, forties, and even fifties.  Most of them were from eastern Ukraine, including cities like Luhansk and Donetsk.  They stood at stiff, somewhat nervous attention as a defiant Khmelnytsky brandished a mace from a mounted horse above them.  Dressed in green camouflage, these men’s faces were hidden under black masks, but I could tell their ages from their eyes.  While a few betrayed heavy wrinkles, most had the wandering eyes of men who had just left their teens and were fumbling their way through adulthood.

Before the new recruits took their oath, the crowd began greeting them with slogans, pleas, prayers, and tears.  A short elderly pensioner with dyed black hair led a group of women her age in a set of chants familiar to Maidan protestors these past seven months.  “Glory to Ukraine!” she yelled at the top of her lungs.  “Glory to the heroes!” chanted the crowd.  “Glory to the nation!” she cried out.  “Death to the enemies!” responded the crowd.  “Ukraine!” she chanted.  “Above all!” replied the crowd.  As this grandmother repeated these chants, I saw women her age shaking their fists as they burst out with “Death to the enemies!”

These chants, which came from the faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) led by Stepan Bandera during World War II, have taken on new meanings recently.  Earlier aimed at Poles, Jews, Russians, Germans, Soviets, and fellow Ukrainians, they were deployed against former President Viktor Yanukovych and his regime during the Euromaidan protests last fall and winter.  They were hurled at police forces who had kidnapped, tortured, and killed protestors.  Now they are war calls against Russian-led forces in the east.

The ceremony had disturbing symbols connected with Ukraine’s far right.  As the battalion’s new recruits quickly marched across Sofia Square to the Khmelnytsky Monument, they carried the SNA banner, which has a symbol resembling a neo-Nazi Wolfsangel rune.  A journalist friend noted racist tattoos on the arms of unmasked SNA activists present.  Yet these symbols seemed secondary to a war against foreign aggression that was affecting everyone in the crowd.

“Come back, guys!” pleaded one elderly woman in Russian.  A woman in her twenties yelled out, “Your future wife’s waiting for you here!  Come back!”  “Stay safe!” called out others.  Girlfriends were crying.  Grandfathers were crying.  Mothers were crying.  “The flowers of the nation, the best!” said one grandmother to her friend.

After the crowd had sung the national anthem and the men had taken their oaths, elderly women started impromptu political debates.  They bemoaned the traitors who had let the army fall apart.  They singled out incompetent and corrupt officials for failed anti-terrorist operations in Ukraine’s east.  They shared their loathing for Viktor Medvedchuk, a former Yanukovych ally recently appointed intermediary in peace talks between the Ukrainian government, the separatists of the People’s Republic of Donetsk (DNR) and the People’s Republic of Luhansk (LNR), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and Russia. And they damned the “traitors” of the Maidan.

Dozens of journalists rushed toward the men to take photos and get interviews.  I tried to speak with two men standing in formation – both in their early thirties – but they told me they were not allowed to speak to the press “until later.”  However, leaders of their group, also masked, did speak to reporters.  One of them, a Soviet army veteran in his fifties, assured me that the men were in “high spirits” and that they had sufficient training.  Another man, probably in his thirties, told a television reporter that many of their supplies and equipment had been donated.  When asked about negotiations and a possible truce, he retorted, “There’s no truce!  You hear me!?  No truce!”

Donbass3There were plenty of photo-ops that afternoon.  A little girl, about four years old, offered the troops a box of Roshen chocolate bars, produced by the company President Petro Petroshenko owns.  A crowd of photographers tried to get the best shot of her holding up these candy bars in front of an unmasked man in black posing with a rifle.  Journalists took photos of battalion members embracing their girlfriends, wives, and fiancées just before they were to board the two busses waiting for them.

I managed to speak with the mother of one of the departing soldiers.  Not shedding a tear, remaining calm all the way through the ceremony, she told me simply, “We have to defend our homeland, and that’s it!”  Still, she asked that her name not be mentioned.  “In wartime, it’s better to be anonymous,” she said, smiling.  As the men boarded the busses, I saw her engaging in small talk, apparently with her daughter-in-law, who told her that she had tried to make her husband a farewell cake with red-and-black icing (the colors of the OUN flag), but the red turned out pink.

Amid the banter, the tears, the silent pauses between friends, the long embraces with lovers, and the haggling over Maidan politics among the elderly, no one wanted to talk about what was coming next.  The general mood suggested that negotiations were an illusion and that war was on, but no one wanted to predict what Russia plans on doing.  Still, one bystander told a commander that if Chechen fighters from Russia engaged in all-out war, many of the men there would not come back.

The rain that had briefly let up for the ceremony was back on again as the busses started leaving, accompanied by the singing of the Ukrainian national anthem by a dozen people, mostly elderly men and women.  The small talk and laughter exchanged between soldiers and the crowd had pushed back the air of uncertainty, but I couldn’t stop crying when I went to get coffee afterward.  Very soon, what had happened on Sofiia Square could become either one more chapter in these young men’s lives, or their last.  It all depends on how brutal the war on Ukraine’s eastern front becomes.

William Risch, associate professor of history at Georgia College, is author of The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv (Harvard University Press, 2011). He’s currently volunteering at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center.

Ukraine’s Refugees

24 Jun

One of the hidden aspects of the crisis in Ukraine is the growing number of refugees internally displaced and fleeing to Russia. This is a growing crisis that has mostly been ignored by the western press besides a few notable exceptions. Fighting and lawlessness in the Donetsk and Lugansk is driving people from their homes. As Alec Luhn states in a report for the Guardian:

Appalling conditions in rebel-held towns have caused thousands to flee. The exodus from Slavyansk gathered pace when Ukrainian army shelling intensified at the end of May, with most residents going to the nearby city of Svyatogorsk were they are dependent on the goodwill of locals for housing and food. About 15,000 to 20,000 refugees from Slavyansk have arrived in the city since the end of May, according to mayor Alexander Dzyuba.

Svyatogorsk monastery – one of the holiest Russian Orthodox sites in eastern Ukraine – has been housing as many as 500 Slavyansk inhabitants each day, said one monk. The displaced people receive one meal a day and live in tight quarters. Women and children live three to a room in the female section, while men live seven to a room with only a few feet between each bed. Laundry and clothing hung from lines above the cots.

Several old recreational compounds in the area have also been taking in displaced people. Volunteers hand out limited portions of donated food, much of it from residents in the eastern city of Kharkiv and from the company Bravo, at the Cafe Pyramid, said volunteer Yelena Laskova.

Given the continual dispersal of people, hard and fast numbers are difficult. In late May, the UNHCR estimated that there were 17,500 internally displaced persons in Ukraine, 11,000 of which were from Crimea. About a third of them are children.


There seems to be little official assistance for these people from the Ukrainian government. A report in the New Republic on internally displaced Ukrainians says:

Here in Kiev, the thousands of refugees who have fled eastern Ukraine are invisible. It’s impossible to spot them on the streets: They don’t live in UN tents, or stand in lines for subsidized meals. They look just like everybody else. Legally, they do not exist—after all, it should be impossible to be a refugee in one’s own country.

. . .

The Ukrainian parliament has taken some steps to ensure that refugees have access to basic social services and shelter. For instance, a new law regarding the rights of displaced persons helped thousands of refugees from Crimea—the vast majority of whom are Crimean Tatars—settle in other parts of Ukraine.

But those who have fled eastern Ukraine can’t turn to the government for help. If the Rada were to vote on a bill helping displaced persons from within Ukraine’s borders, it might be taken as a sign that Kiev has lost control over eastern Ukraine once and for all. So refugees from the east must count on friends or strangers for help.

Many are finding their way across the border into Russia. The Russian government counts almost 30,000 registered refugees in Russia scattered among ten regions along the nation’s western borderlands and Crimea. So far the Russian government has set up 60 displacement centers. “Of this number,” states a report in Moskovskii komsomolets, “16346 people are housed by relatives or friends, the remaining 12773, who don’t have housing, remain in open Ministry of Emergency Situations’ (MChS) temporary accommodation centers. Among them are 5381 children.” The unofficial numbers are undoubtedly higher.

Giving some recognition to the crisis, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe chief Lamberto Zannier visited one refugee camp in Rostov-na-Donu in mid-June. This is the response he got from the crowd:


Here are some voices from refugees a Slon correspondent recorded in Rostov:

Evgenii Sheremet, Slavyansk

. . .

My wife is really afraid, but I didn’t want to leave. What finally made us? We took our oldest child to the clinic for a medical examination. When we finished we were no more than 50 meters away and at that moment a shell fell, punched a hole in the wall, and the windows were blown out.

The city is destroyed. They say that Semenovka, which is a suburban district, doesn’t exist anymore. Shells fall everywhere, and people are injured by them. One woman came home from work, a shell hit a residential section, and the woman was killed by shrapnel. Another man [was killed] right next door to his house. I saw these myself. Another woman [died] after a fragment was buried under her shoulder blade; she walked for fifteen meters leaving a trail of blood.

. . .

We’ll probably stay in Russia and get citizenship. There’s nothing to return to; we’ve told all of this to journalists. Our government is killing us, peaceful people. Under Yanukovych we lived poorly, but there was stability. There was work. Salaries, of course, were small. You could pay for electricity and gas, and a little leftover for food and clothing.

Oksana Smorodinova, Slavyansk

We decided to leave when they bombed our school, kindergarten and hospital. I witnessed it—a big hole in the hospital, glass flew everywhere.

What does the move look like? Women, who record where you want to go, sit in several places in town. They called me offering options: Slavyanogorsk, Kharkov, and Odessa. The executive committee of the Communist Party also gave suggestions. Normalcy is reached in the end.

We were against the Maidan because it wanted to cut us of Russia. How do you cut the ties of every other family here? They say that Yanukovych was corrupt and stole. Well what about what the current government has stolen? They are no less wealthy. Poroshenko, Tyagibok, Yanseniuk, Tymoshenko—they’re a band of brothers.

. . .

I called home yesterday and they say that they’re bombing Slavyansk from the air. The factory Khimprom a barrel of sulfur exploded. They also say that a plane was shot down over the city. It fell near Krasnyi Liman. There’s no cell service or electricity.

Natalia Ozhogina, Lugansk

We live on the outskirts of the city in the village of Mirnyi. On June 2 we were woken at four in the morning by the noise. The fighting and explosions were constant—kaboom-boom! It would become silent for five minutes and they would begin anew. At six in the morning a plane flew overhead and the roar was frightening. My 11 year-old jumped up and ran around the room crying, “Mama don’t phone anywhere, they will find us and bomb us!”

All of this occurred several hundred meters from us. We went down to the cellar and sat there all morning, and the fighting didn’t stop. Then my mother went out to the street and said that she saw twenty armed separatists. The battle was coming closer. We called our coordinator who organized the dispatch of people from town and he said, “Go to the center!” We went there and everything was quiet.

They notified us that they were sending us to Russia, but didn’t say where. The separatists said, “The National Guard has surrounded the city but where looking for a safe passage.” They put us in a dormitory for the night and psychologists from the Red Cross examined the children.

We quickly left the following day. The bus trip to the border was accompanied by armed separatists.

. . .

We has a sea of people at the referendum, I’ve never seen that with earlier elections. At first we wanted to simply hold a referendum and see later where it will take us. Then we advocated for the federalization of Ukraine. Many worried about splitting the country. The [country] doesn’t exist. For me personally the integrity of the state no longer has value. I’m in favor of our Novorossiia to become permanent and further develop. This turning point occurred when war came to us.

These experiences make the recent ceasefire and potential negotiations to end the conflict so significant. Only an end to the fighting can stem the tide of refugees and allow people to pick up the remains of their lives.

Those Alleged Three Russian Tanks

15 Jun

The media is abuzz with claims that Russia has sent three T-64 tanks over the border in Ukraine. Reports the Wall Street Journal:

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization provided satellite imagery Saturday that appeared to reinforce Ukrainian and U.S. claims that Russian tanks had crossed into Ukraine in recent days.

On Thursday, senior Ukrainian officials, including President Petro Poroshenko,accused Russia of allowing tanks and heavy artillery to cross into Ukraine in what could be a significant escalation of the conflict.

. . .

Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said Thursday that a “column” of armored vehicles had crossed from Russia through border-control points controlled by separatists near the village of Dyakove in eastern Ukraine. He said three tanks went to the town of Snizhne, about 25 miles from Dyakove, one vehicle stayed at the border and two headed toward Horlivka.

The newly released images, which come from open sources including commercial satellite contractor DigitalGlobe Inc  and from videos posted on YouTube, were provided by a NATO military official. Most of the images are grainy and it is difficult to independently verify the details provided by the official.

Did Russia really send three tanks? Mark Galeotti has a good post questioning the whole incident, but concludes with uncertainty. I’m with him on that. But to further cast doubt on the appearance of Russian tanks, here’s a news item from Svobodnaya pressa from June 10 that claims that separatists in Lugansk seized three T-64s from the Ukrainian military:

In Lugansk three T-64 tanks were seized from Ukrainian forces. One of them successfully crossed the border at the crossing “Dolzhansk” on the border with Russia . . . The permission to cross the border into the Lugansk People’s Republic was given by representatives of the local police, who surrendered to the separatists.”

Another report from June 9 states:

According to Russian and Ukrainian media, citing reports from representatives from the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic, three T-64 Ukrainian tanks have fallen under their control.

It was reported that as a result of a drawn out battle in Lugansk, which lasted a day, Ukrainian forces were forced to retreat and abandon some heavy equipment and weapons, including three T-64 tanks.

Could these be the tanks everyone is talking about? Could be.

“This is Not My War” – A Voice From Slavyansk

10 Jun

self-defense squad member In Slavyansk

Translation and introduction by William Risch.

A friend of the Facebook group, Euromaidan News in English, sent this report from Sloviansk, Ukraine, the scene of fierce fighting between pro-Ukrainian and pro-separatist forces. As with this person’s previous report, posted in May, I have withheld the names of the author and translator.  I have changed transliterations of place names from Russian to Ukrainian. 

“This is Not My War”

We had to get out of Sloviansk. It’s too dangerous. We were spending the nights in the basement of our apartment building, it was too damp. It’s just terrible. War is war, what can I say? We fled the city to save our lives. As for our possessions—we left them behind and what will be will be. At least our family is together. When people flee Sloviansk, their apartments are occupied by the so-called separatists/“home guard,” and then probably the National Guard will come in, and…who knows what will happen. Now both sides—the separatists and the National Guard—are just grabbing men, giving them guns, and telling them, “Go, fight!” Who are they supposed to shoot—their own people? The home guard (separatists) are our people, and the National Guardsmen are our people. It’s a civil war, and it is awful.

The Ukrainian National Guard isn’t “storming” Sloviansk, they are bombing it—from airplanes, helicopters. They say they are targeting checkpoints and the like, but in actuality they are bombing the entire city. The terrorists take shelter, and the ones who suffer in the bombings are the elderly, women, and children. There have been a rash of premature births.

The Ukrainian National Guard is firing on the city with high caliber cannons, as well as from helicopters. A shell landed in a 9-story apartment building in the city last week. Four people died and many were injured, and every single window in the building was shattered. Lots of buildings in the city have been damaged like this from the bombings. For example, another 14-story residential building was damaged. Shells hit the 7th, 11th and 12th floors. A shell also fell on the roof of the central polyclinic, but didn’t explode. Shells landed in the pedagogical university and the dormitory, causing deaths and injuries. A janitor was killed and one student had her arm ripped off from shrapnel. Shells also landed in the children’s hospital but thank God no one was injured. It seems like they are just bombing indiscriminately.

Yesterday Krasnyi Liman was bombed. A guy I know had a shell land right in his living room, and his apartment was obliterated. In a residential apartment building. Krasnyi Liman has a really important railway station—the hospital at the railway station was bombed and a machinist was killed, a bunch of bystanders, the head doctor, and others. The National Guard tried to blame the separatists for it, but there have never been any separatist-terrorists in Krasnyi Liman—they are all in Sloviansk. I know a guy who works at the hospital—he said the Guard came into the hospital, searched for patients who had battle wounds, and shot them. Without any arrests, investigations, or anything. The National Guard did that. In Sviatohirsk there are cannons—those kind that can fire 15-20 kilometers—positioned on top of a hill pointing in the direction of Krasnyi Liman. They’ve been firing on Krasnyi Liman, and everybody there is living in basements, just like everyone in Sloviansk has been. Why did they do this to Krasnyi Liman? It’s a tourist town of 50,000 people where no terrorists have been stationed.

If they can do this to Krasnyi Liman, God only knows what they will do to Sloviansk. They aren’t storming the city. Battles are carried out on the outskirts of the city. Otherwise, it is bombing, bombing, bombing. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. The government announced that the “active phase” of anti-terrorist operations was starting, and then they just started bombing. They haven’t stormed the city yet. Maybe a peaceful solution will be found. But think about it—if the military enters the city, and captures it, a lot of innocent civilians are going to be killed in the process. Snipers have been killing civilians already. A little girl was shot. There are a lot of guys from Pravyi Sektor in the National Guard. They caught one sniper and asked him why he was shooting at children in the city. He answered, “You all only have five days left anyway.” People have decided they have nothing more to lose, so their attitude to the war is changing accordingly. Like the father of that little girl who was shot by a sniper—if earlier this wasn’t his war, now he has something to fight for. He won’t fight for the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR)—who is that? What is that? Dear DNR, what are your programs, what are your political views? These are just some armed guys who took power, there is no loyalty to them among the populace. And the other side is throwing bombs at us.

We are worried that they will impose the draft. It would be okay if the National Guard was reliable. But there are a lot of new recruits who joined up just recently after there was a big amnesty of 26,000 prison inmates—a bunch of those former inmates have joined the Guard. Including those who were imprisoned for hard crimes—they’ve been given guns and enlisted in the Guard. We are worried there will be more looting in the city—there’s already looting and it might get worse.

It is really a shame that our own military is doing this. Of course they don’t want to admit it, and they blame the separatists. The separatists say it is the National Guard, and the National Guard says it is the separatists. How do you know what’s true? But as for those bombings I described, I saw them with my own eyes, across the street. I could see who was bombing, and it was the National Guard. Sloviansk is surrounded by 15,000 national troops. Things have reached the boiling point. I see that both sides are lying. Both sides are lying about the number of casualties. The morgue in Sloviansk is overflowing. They are burying bodies in swamps, wrapping them up and throwing them in the lake—it’s awful.

Sloviansk is now without running water. The waterlines were damaged in the bombing. Where we are staying now, in a nearby town, the water was also cut off. We’re getting water from another house’s well. I guess we’ll bathe in the river, at least its summertime. And there is no food left in the stores. There’s been no bread for a long time, and now the stores are out of almost everything else. There are no shipments in, because the Donetsk Region has been completely cut off and isolated from the Kharkiv Region and all others.

Right now Sloviansk is totally closed—you can’t get in or out. Those who stayed there are stuck now. It is the same in nearby towns—you are stuck wherever you are now. People can’t get in or out of Donetsk, either. (By the way, the other day the burned bodies of two Arab university students were found in Donetsk—we don’t know who did that or why.) They say the Ukrainian borders are closed now, too—women and children can cross the border but men are turned back. Maybe it’s because they are getting ready to impose the draft, I don’t know. Who are we supposed to fight? Who? This is not my war. I’m for a united Ukraine. My children were born in Ukraine. Sure, I was born in the USSR, but my children were born here, in Ukraine. Everything I have is here, in Ukraine.

The kids are suffering, of course. There were no graduation ceremonies or parties this year, nothing like that. Final exams were suspended.

There are some programs helping evacuees, and helping people evacuate from Sloviansk—the International Renaissance Foundation, for example. A few weeks ago, when the first attempts to evacuate people were made, women and children boarded the busses to evacuate, and they were attacked by gunfire. People have become cannon fodder. It doesn’t benefit the home guard for people to evacuate. And the only ones who can evacuate are those who have money. The trains from Sloviansk aren’t running. Because of the war the prices have risen 1.5 times. The banks are working, but only informally—if you know somebody you can call them up and get service through the back door of the bank. We’ll see how long we can afford to rent this little house we are staying in now. People’s pensions and salaries have been frozen, and all social payments. We got our April paychecks but nothing after that. We’re just living on what we had put away.

I thought I would go back to the city—I wanted to relocate my family here and go back. But the checkpoints were under fire; the outer ring is controlled by the National Guard, and the inner ring is controlled by the “terrorists-separatists-home guard,” however you want to call them. The National Guard let me through fine, but the separatists started shooting warning shots in the air and turned me back. I’m a local! It is really too dangerous to travel anywhere.

It’s hard to get to sleep at night, not knowing what the next day holds in store. I never could have imagined these horrors could happen here.



Israelis in the Donetsk People’s Republic?

4 Jun


“For weeks,” a recent New York Times article begins, “rumors have flown about the foreign fighters involved in the deepening conflict in Ukraine’s troubled east, each one stranger than the last: mercenaries from an American company, Blackwater; Russian special forces; and even Chechen soldiers of fortune.” You might be able to add Israelis to that list according to reports. writes that the so-called Aliya battalion of Russian-Israelis has arrived in the Donetsk People’s Republic. “Today a group from Israel joined with our militia. It’s called the Alyia battalion which was formed in 2002 from immigrants to Israel from veterans from the Red Army and CIS countries,” says Donetsk’s deputy people’s governor Pavel Gubarev.  “They protect settlements in the occupied territories and promptly sent 20 highly trained fighters to Slavyansk with experience in the Soviet and Israeli armies, and in two weeks are ready to bring 200 soldiers to fight the Nazis.”

News that Aliya was going to Donetsk emerged in early May when Izvestia ran an interview with its commander, Roman Ratner. “I want to state outright that this is a private initiative. We have no relations with the Israeli government, and it doesn’t support us in any way. This is a personal affair for each fighter—as their concern for fascism. Members of our battalion are concerned about the events in Ukraine, especially after the tragedy in Odessa.”

According to Ratner, Aliya includes former paratroopers, special forces, snipers, canine handlers, medics and other specialists. They promise to serve as peacekeepers—in the name of the Donetsk Republic—to “force [both sides] to peace.” Or in the words of Avigdor Eskin, a right-wing Russian-Israeli, who has often spoken about the “fascist junta” in Kyiv in Russian and Israeli media and initiated the plan to send Aliya to Ukraine, “The battalion will be present so the Banderovtsy can’t burn people alive.”