Civilians Caught in the Crossfire in Eastern Ukraine

22 Jul


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

2 Jul

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?

27 Jun

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.

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.