It was a textbook ambush, fighters say, on volunteer militias who’d been practically abandoned by the Ukrainian army that was supposed to support them.
The late August massacre of volunteer troops leaving the strategic town of Ilovaisk through what they’d been promised was a “humanitarian corridor” was one of the bloodiest single episodes so far in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, leaving at least 100 dead. The conflict has now killed at least 2,600 people.
But in the days since, in interviews, volunteer fighters who escaped the bloodbath also described the battle as a turning point — one that revealed the lack of communication and trust between the three dozen volunteer battalions that have sprung up to assist Ukraine’s run-down military and the army leadership, which has been beset by complaints that it has treated the volunteers as cannon fodder.
Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags fly over Mariupol’s burned-out city administration building and at military checkpoints around the city, but at a sport school near a huge metallurgical plant, another symbol is just as prominent: the wolfsangel (“wolf trap”) symbol that was widely used in the Third Reich and has been adopted by neo-Nazi groups.
The Azov Battalion — so named for the Sea of Azov on which this industrial city is located — is one of dozens of volunteer battalions fighting alongside pro-government forces in eastern Ukraine. After separatist troops and armor attacked from the nearby Russian border and took the neighboring town of Novoazovsk, this openly neo-Nazi unit has suddenly found itself defending the city against what Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called a Russian invasion.
When the Kremlin announced that Vladimir Putin would hold a special session of his Security Council on July 22 to discuss the “safeguarding of sovereignty and territorial integrity,” observers around the world wondered what ace the cagey Russian president might have up his sleeve this time.
Since Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was fell from the skies over eastern Ukraine on July 17, Putin has faced increasingly angry calls to end his support for the rebels who are suspected of shooting down the plane. Would he take this opportunity to close the border with Ukraine and cut off the uprising from Russian volunteers and weapons? Or would he react defiantly, perhaps by starting a military operation in response to Ukrainian troops allegedly shelling Russian territory in recent weeks?
One of the first of the various bizarre theories to emerge from the Russian media’s coverage of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 downing was also one of the most outlandish: the Tale of the Spanish Dispatcher.
The night of the disaster, a certain “Carlos,” presenting himself as a Spanish air traffic controller working in Kiev, began Tweeting in Spanishthat Ukrainian jets, rather than separatists on the ground, had shot down the passenger plane. Russian media took the bait: “Spanish dispatcher: Two Ukrainian warplanes were near the Boeing before its disappearance,” read the headline on the Kremlin’s most propagandistic news outlet, Russia Today. Several major news outlets also picked up the story with similar headlines, including state channel Rossiya 24, the Defense Ministry’s Zvezda channel, and popular newspapers like Komsomolskaya Pravda and Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the official mouthpiece of the Russian government.
It isn’t yet dusk, but the sky to the south is darkening with an approaching storm as Denis Dragusevich and Zhenya Kucheryavaya play with their three small boys in a dusty apartment-building playground in Slavyansk. When a loud rumble breaks through the air, their neighbours jokingly wonder if it is “thunder or hail” – a reference to the BM-21 “Hail” rocket launcher that government forces have fired into the city, along with howitzers and mortars.
“The three-year-olds, when the bombing starts, they point to the bathroom. They already know,” Zhenya says, explaining that the familyhides there during the frequent shelling. “In the future, these will be the children of war.”
The Guardian Weekend
On a recent sunny afternoon in Donetsk, Vadim Kerch was holding court in a dark office in the former headquarters of Ukraine’s security service, which has been occupied since last month by a group of rebels who call themselves the Russian Orthodox Army. Kerch is one of their two commanders.
A local resident was appealing to Kerch for help. At the end of May, the man said, armed men claiming to be part of the pro-Russian uprising seized his car in the neighboring city of Makeyevka and then called him asking how much he was willing to pay for its return.
Between answering calls on his cell phone, Kerch told the supplicant to get to the point. One of the half-dozen Kalashnikov-toting rebels grouped in a loose circle around the desk spoke up, noting that at least 46 vehicles had been carjacked in Makeyevka. Finally, Kerch promised to go with the newly appointed “people’s prosecutor” later that day to get the car back.
“Today is full of bullshit rather than war,” he joked.
At the headquarters of the Vostok Battalion on the outskirts of Donetsk, the rebel in command was ordering an attack on 30 Ukrainian soldiers and two fighting vehicles in a nearby town. “Shoot to kill,” he said, speaking with a subordinate over one of three mobile phones he carries. “What negotiations? If they wave a white flag, then of course that’s different.”
The commander, a Russian army veteran – who like all the men in the battalion is known only by a nickname (“Major”) – told his deputies to assemble 40 men and tank-busting weapons. A few minutes later, a soldier ran in with six rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Throughout the day, fighting vehicles and lorries loaded with armed men roared in and out of the base.
It’s a chess showdown quite unlike any other: on one side, arguably the greatest player of all time, Garry Kasparov, former world champion and now Russian exile. On the other, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a Russian multimillionaire perhaps best known for his closeness to dictators such as Bashar al-Assad. That and his claim to have been abducted by aliens.
After officially registering earlier this week, the two are now facing off for the presidency of the World Chess Federation (Fide), which will be decided in August at the World Chess Olympiad in the Arctic city of Tromsø, Norway.
Russia‘s annexation of Crimea has resulted in startling disruption to everyday life, with banks running out of money, prices soaring, and even problems with water supplies.
As the president, Vladimir Putin, flew into the peninsula for the first time since Russia wrested control of Crimea in March for a Victory Day appearance, the huge task of assimilating a region almost the size of Belgium with 2 million people was becoming more and more apparent.
In the runup to the Victory Day celebrations, disgruntled crowds have been standing in line outside banks up and down Crimea. At one Sberbank Russia branch this week a sign on the door announced that all the bank’s branches had been closed.
Angry locals surrounded General Vasily Krutov, yelling questions about what he and his troops were doing in their city.
“We are conducting an anti-terrorist operation,” the senior Ukrainian officer began, but he was interrupted by angry shouts of “What terrorists?”
As the crowd surged towards the airfield entrance in Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine, waving a Russian flag on a long branch, the Ukrainian troops inside unleashed a volley of shots into the air.