Moscow has continued to deny direct involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. But evidence to the contrary continues to mount. NATO says up to 1,000 Russian soldiers have joined the fray and the pro-Russian separatists have made a remarkable turnaround.
In the middle of a field of withered sunflowers stands a man in a white shirt wondering if war or peace will ultimately prevail. His name is Paul Picard and he is the head of the OSCE Observer Mission on the Russian-Ukrainian border in southern Russia.
For weeks now, volunteer fighters, weapons and even heavy military equipment have been trickling into Ukraine through this segment of the border. The soldiers are coming to provide support to pro-Russian separatists in their battle against the Ukrainian military. They’re members of Vladimir Putin’s secret army in Ukraine.
Picard, a Frenchman, is witness each day to the events taking shape along the border, but there’s little he can do to stop them. His mandate with the observer mission is limited to the scope of a few meters inside the border because Russia and the other OSCE member states failed to reach an agreement on anything more extensive. Picard and his 15 staff don’t even have permission to inspect the cars and trucks that are legally crossing the border. Nor do they have the right to stop people who are penetrating the border into the Ukraine through unguarded fields.
One of the border crossings under OSCE observation is located near a city on Russian soil with 50,000 inhabitants. The municipality is surrounded to the north, south and west by Ukrainian territory. Strangely, the city is named Donetsk — the same as the embattled bastion of pro-Russian separatists some 160 kilometers (99 miles) to the west in Ukraine.
For weeks, the Russian Donetsk has also played an important role in the conflict over Ukraine’s future. It has become the hub for Putin’s creeping invasion. Two barracks are located at the edge of the city and 50 military vehicles parked at one of the facilities. Pro-Russian fighters from eastern Ukraine can be seen walking in the city center. They claim they are “here to rest.” A group of Chechens wearing bullet-proof vests and armed with pistols is standing next to their Ladas, which have no license plates.
Just as Picard is giving an interview to Russian television, a military jeep with a Russian license plate and decals of the Russian airborne troops passes by. The men sitting inside wear camouflage and identify themselves to SPIEGEL as rebels. It’s also possible they’re Russian soldiers, or at least that they still were only a few days earlier.
Vacation in a War Zone
But Picard can’t say such things — he needs clear proof first. His reports instead make frequent reference to “people in military uniforms crossing the border in both directions.”
In his interview, Picard states that he and his men, stationed at the border crossings in Donetsk and Gukovo, haven’t observed the delivery of any military equipment to Ukrainian territory. It’s a sentence that will then be broadcast that night on the Russian news. Picard’s observation that this applies only to his OSCE mandate — in other words, “the 40-meter border in Donetsk and the 40-meter (130 foot) border in Gukovo”– is ignored entirely by the Russian propaganda.
As is so much else. The list of deliberate lies that President Vladimir Putin spews about Ukraine to both his people and the world is long and cynical — including his claim that Russian soldiers spotted in Ukraine had either gotten lost or were spending their vacation in the war zone.
Putin’s house of cards, which began teetering last week following numerous reports from observers and also NATO satellite images, holds many risks — not just in terms of foreign policy, but also domestically. The reintegration of Crimea into Russia and Putin’s tough stance against the West may have quickly driven his popularity rating to over 80 percent. But last week, when the first reports emerged of deaths among Russian recruits in Ukraine, the mood began to darken.
The pollster Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), which is considered to have close ties with the Kremlin, even reported that although 57 percent of Russians back providing support to the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, only 5 percent are in favor of an outright invasion. Meanwhile, only 9 percent expressed their support for weapons deliveries to the separatists.
Putin is also lying because fears of war are rooted so deeply in the Russian populace. In the 20th century alone, more than 40 million Russians lost their lives in armed conflict. The exact number is unknown because in Afghanistan and in the two Chechen wars, Moscow has kept casualty numbers classified. But memories of those events are now being evoked in many Russians.
It remains difficult to ascertain whether Putin is using the secret invasion of recent weeks to bolster his position ahead of an EU and NATO summit on Sept. 4, or if he does in fact want to establish a land corridor through eastern Ukraine to Crimea. What is clear, however, is that Putin is willing to use any means at his disposal, including war, to prevent Ukraine from aligning itself more closely with the West. During a visit to a holiday camp for pro-Kremlin youth on Friday, Putin said, “We need to make the Ukrainian authorities start negotiations of real substance” with the insurgents.
A Bad Omen
Such a political course requires soldiers, among other things, to provide support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine. But they are to be kept secret from the international community — and even the troops themselves often know little about their own mission. They are soldiers like Andrey Balobanov from Siberia.
The Russian recruit had just turned 18 when he got conscripted by the military last December. The day he left home, Balobanov welled up in tears. His father embraced him and they consoled each other with vodka. A mirror had shattered on the floor of the family’s simple brick house in Panovo a short time earlier, portending a bad omen for the family.
“It was almost as if Andrey already had a premonition that something terrible would happen,” his father Sergey says today. “He was afraid of the military.”
During the first weeks, Andrey wrote upbeat letters to his family back home. But when his mother congratulated him on the occasion of his birthday in April, his voice seemed strangely distraught. “After that, I didn’t hear his voice again,” says Marina Balabonova. “Until July when he suddenly appeared as a prisoner of war in a Ukrainian video.”
Up to that point, Andrey’s parents had assumed that he had been completing his service in Garrison 65349 near the city of Samara, Russia, along the Volga River. A commanding officer also confirmed this when his parents sought contact with their son. They were informed that, unfortunately, their son was not available to speak. By then, though, he had likely already been sent to Belgorod, a Russian city located not far from the Ukrainian border. That, at least, is what he texted to a friend.
At the beginning of July, an investigator from the provincial capital of Omsk, located 300 kilometers away, paid a visit to the Balobanovs. He told the family that officials were searching for their son, who he claimed had left the troops without leave. By now, Marina and Sergey Balabonov were beside themselves with worry over their son. Andrey’s father then filed a missing persons report with the police in Omsk.
On July 17, the family sent a letter to Vladimir Putin in which they wrote, “Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich, we are asking you to find our son Andrey.” Marina, a saleswoman at “Sundown,” one of the three shops in the 800-resident village, rummages through her son’s room as she tries to find a copy of the letter and gathers photos and documents from the dresser.
“They have to get my Andrey back,” she says. “He was just a normal soldier and Russia claims that it isn’t even waging a war.” She looks fatigued and says she has had rings around her eyes for weeks now. The knowledge that her son may be fighting in a war that doesn’t even officially exist is making it difficult for her to sleep nights.
Last Thursday, the family received a letter from the public prosecutor stating that Andrey has been declared a deserter. The country to which he had pledged his allegiance and that dispatched him on a secret mission is now trying to label him as a traitor. “Our son may be sent to prison for up to five years,” his father says. “But we’re certain that he only wound up in Ukraine under his commander’s orders.”
The Balobanovs also received a letter from the Kremlin indirectly confirming that Andrey is being held as a prisoner of war. The letter states that the matter has been transferred to the Russian Foreign Ministry. “Since then, we’ve been getting calls constantly from people who don’t identify themselves and demand that we not discuss the case with the press,” says Sergey Balobanov.
Attempts at intimidation, lies and propaganda have all been part of Putin’s creeping invasion of Ukraine for weeks. Hundreds of Russian soldiers have reportedly been removed from their units and allegedly sent on maneuvers before receiving orders to go to Ukraine.
In Pskov near the border to Estonia, police a week ago tracked down and harassed journalists trying to cover the burial of two soldiers who, by all appearances, perished in eastern Ukraine. Indeed, the number of instances in which Russian soldiers are dying under unexplained circumstances is growing.
In Kostroma, a city along the Volga, around 25 mothers and fathers stood in front of the barracks demanding to know the whereabouts of their sons.
All serve in Regiment 1065 and there has been no news about them. One woman screamed angrily that her husband had called from the rebel stronghold Donetsk and that people should stop telling lies. “You’re just bringing harm to your sons and your husbands if you start talking about it to the media,” one officer warned the woman in response.
Putin has been deceiving the world since the very beginning of the Ukraine crisis. When asked on March 4 if Russia was thinking about annexing Crimea, he answered, “No, we are not.” But only 14 days later the peninsula’s annexation was celebrated on Red Square.
The Great Rebel Recovery
He also professed to have nothing to do with the armed men wearing uniforms on the streets of Crimea. They are just “local self-defense forces” he said during the press conference in May. “You can go to a store and buy a uniform,” he added. It was a further lie, as the president himself admitted during a televised question-and-answer session on April 17. Of course he sent troops, he said. Without soldiers, “it wouldn’t have been possible to hold the referendum.”
The Kremlin media remained loyal to him throughout. Correspondents for the Putin-friendly Internet portal Lifenews published photos of an injured girl allegedly from the Donbass warzone in eastern Ukraine. The fact is that the picture was taken in the Syrian city of Aleppo.
When Moscow’s soldiers were exposed in Ukraine last week, the state-controlled news agency Ria Novosti wrote merely of a “disadvantageous turn in the propaganda war.” But the question as to whether regular Russian troops are fighting alongside the separatists, or if they are Russian soldiers on vacation, has become largely academic. Recent weeks have shown that Russian soldiers’ covert incursion into Ukraine was planned and organized. Indeed, the separatists would not have survived this long without direct Russian assistance. And without Putin, the dream of “Novorossiya” — the Czarist-era name of a part of eastern Ukraine — would not still be alive. The rebels were simply too weak and too poorly equipped. And the Kremlin was fully aware of their shortcomings.
“To hell! Nobody wants to fight,” said the self-proclaimed Donetsk separatist defense minister, Fyodor Berezin, complained in a mid-August interview. “The Ukrainian army is shooting at the city, people are falling — and only because the men of Donetsk don’t want to go to the front.”
The interview took place six weeks after the first great defeat suffered by the separatists. During the first weekend of July, they were forced to abandon the city of Slovyansk.
The city, located 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Donetsk, had been a separatist stronghold since April and had become symbolic of the rebellion against the government in Kiev. It was there that the separatists named their first “People’s Mayor and was also the site of the movement’s first barricades as they sought to establish self-rule. But when the Ukrainian army and national guard, after significant hesitation, became serious about taking back the city, the rebels were unable to withstand the onslaught and fled to the regional capital of Donetsk.
It was just the beginning of a broad retreat. The rebels were pushed out of numerous northern towns, including the strategically important Kramatorsk. After weeks of bitter fighting, they even lost control of towns on the western fringes of Donetsk, such as Marinka. Shakhtarsk, the important regional capital near the area where the Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down, fell not long later. Several weeks earlier, the separatists had been forced to abandon the coastal city of Mariupol, population 500,000, when the Ukrainian army’s Asov battalion moved in.
The rebels were also faced with a shortage of equipment. The Ukrainian army material the separatists captured early in the conflict had largely been used up and replacement weapons were not forthcoming. By the middle of August, the area controlled by the separatists made up a mere 1 percent of Ukrainian territory. Kiev announced that it would soon take back Donetsk.
At this point, the rebels were clearly overmatched militarily. But that’s not all: The popular uprising they had hoped for failed to materialize. Igor Strelkov, the rebel defense minister at the time, frequently went on a separatist television channel to complain about the lack of volunteers for the “people’s army” saying they needed at least 10,000 more troops. The separatists said they had 18,000 soldiers at the time, against 52,000 regular Ukrainian troops. But observers believe even that number was overly optimistic.
The sudden shift began two weeks ago. It was most obvious in the fight for Ilovaysk, a town of just 16,000, but strategically important because of the rail hub there. The Ukrainian army had tried to take back Ilovaysk on Aug. 10, but was unsuccessful. Eight days later, they tried again.
On August 19 at 5 a.m., the Ukrainian commander there, Semen Semenchenko, announced that his forces controlled two-thirds of the town and that they had managed to advance to the center and plant the Ukrainian flag there. Finally, it seemed, the eastern approach to Donetsk was open.
But suddenly, shells from Russian Grad rocket launchers began raining down on the town, a Russian tank appeared and a deadly street battle broke out. The Ukrainian commander Semenchenko was injured by shrapnel.
One of the fighters described it as a “meat grinder” and “a real slaughter.” Rockets, grenades and tank shells rained down on the Ukrainian troops as they sought cover from sniper fire and volleys from assault weapons. That evening, the Ukrainians pulled back, reporting “heavy losses.”
On August 21, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry announced that losses sustained in Ilovaysk account for a quarter of all casualties suffered by the Ukrainian military since the fighting began. Army leadership once again sent reserves forward but, three days later, new rebel groups encircled them. Since August 25, five Ukrainian battalions have been trapped near Ilovaysk. A similar fate befell a Ukrainian unit near Yasynuvata, a strategically important town near Donetsk.
Semenchenko, the commander of the Donbass battalion, has long been infuriated by Kiev’s claims that the separatists would rapidly “succumb to panic.” The opposite is true, says Semenchenko, because they keep receiving support from Russia while Kiev’s reserves are slowly succumbing to exhaustion. Last week, the Ukrainian military even captured Russian paratroopers near Ilovaysk.
The new “premier” of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, went so far as to admit that the rebels were receiving direct Russian assistance, even if Putin continues to deny it. Speaking to his cabinet, he confirmed that Russia would not leave separatist troops in the lurch “in the decisive moment.”
He went on: “And now I would like to quickly give you a bit of good news. We are receiving significant support — up to 150 pieces of military hardware, 30 of them are tanks and the rest armored vehicles. Plus, 1,200 troops who were trained on Russian territory in recent months.”
Moscow immediately told Zakharchenko to be more discrete and he partially modified his message. But last Thursday, in an interview with Moscow television station Russia 24, he once again spoke of 3,000 to 4,000 volunteers from Russia fighting alongside the rebels, “active troops” among them.
The separatists’ appetite for such a significant degree of candor seems paradoxical at first glance. But it is in the rebels’ interest to pull big brother Russia into the conflict as a guarantee for their own survival.
And they are finding success. Last week, Putin publicly praised the separatists for their “significant successes.” He added that Kiev should finally begin negotiations with “Donbass representatives.”
He likely meant people like Zakharchenko, but they don’t even enjoy much support in Donetsk. And they certainly aren’t Donbass representatives as Putin seems to believe. Still, in an attempt to maintain that illusion, the Russian leader in Donetsk was replaced not long ago by a Ukrainian — a purely tactical move.
But the premier of the Donetsk People’s Republic appears to have lost any interest in negotiations with Kiev. A federalist solution is also no longer attractive, he recently said. The goal now, he revealed, is the complete “independence” of eastern Ukraine. It would be surprising if the claim had not been cleared by Putin first — which would make the Russian president’s demand for negotiations just one more example of his cynicism.
By the end of last week, rebels had gained control of several more villages and towns not far from Novoazovsk, a town of 12,000 which they also hold. They also claimed to have shot down four Ukrainian assault helicopters. On the 120-kilometer road from Novoazovsk and Donetsk, not a single Ukrainian checkpoint could be seen. On Tuesday, the spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security Council claimed that Russian troops had been seen in both Donetsk and Luhansk. On Monday, Ukraine’s military announced that it had withdrawn from the strategically important Luhansk airport after intense battles there over the weekend. The military said they had been fighting a Russian tank battalion near the airport.
Fighters on both sides are preparing themselves for a broad conflict. Rebels said on Friday that they had the port city of Mariupol in their sights. “We will completely take this strategically important city,” said a pro-Russian separatist who uses “Attai” as his nom de guerre. After that, Attai, who is from the Caucasus, would like to march onward to Kiev. To “hang the fascists there from the light posts.”