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Inside Kiev’s war A look at who is fighting the separatists in Ukraine

Source: Meduza
Photo: Oleksandr Rupeta / NurPhoto / Corbis / Vida Press

On June 16, Minsk hosted another round of talks between the parties monitoring the situation in Ukraine. The talks resumed after fighting broke out in the town of Marinka on June 3, 2015. Since then, the Ukrainian military and the separatists have been accusing each other of constantly breaking the ceasefire. Officially, Kiev has warned the OSCE that separatist forces are staging provocations “in order to force Ukraine to fire.” Meduza asked Kiev-based journalist Ekaterina Sergatskova to explain how the Ukrainian military is faring, who exactly is fighting in the east of the country, and who is helping them.

How many people are fighting for Ukraine?

A little over a year ago, you could say that Ukraine’s army is incapable of countering military aggression, and you would be completely right. This is partly what facilitated a peaceful reunification of Crimea with Russia, without any Ukrainian military response.

But by the time Ukraine’s “Anti-Terrorist Operation” against the separatists in the east of the country took off, the Ukrainian Armed Forces had gained significant strength, mostly thanks to help from volunteers and support from abroad.

By the end of 2014, the number of personnel in the Ukrainian military was supposed to have been cut from 192,000 people (144,000 active duty and 48,000 reserves) to 100,000 people (85,000 and 15,000, respectively). By 2017, the number of active duty personnel was supposed to fall to 75,000. These reforms were initiated in 2012 by the Defense Ministry under President Viktor Yanukovych. But on March 17, 2014, a partial mobilization of conscript-age men was initiated, and within two months, a second wave of conscription began (there have been five waves in total since then). New military formations were created. A year later, on March 5, 2015, deputies of Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, voted to increase the number of serving members in the Armed Forces of Ukraine to 250,000 people. 

Ukrainian soldiers sit atop armored personnel carriers during a ceremonial handover of weapons, military equipment and aircraft to the army on a parade ground near Zhytomyr. January 5, 2015
Photo: Valentin Ogirenko / Reuters / Scanpix

“There are about 50,000 people serving in the conflict zone,” says Vladyslav Seleznyov, press secretary at Ukraine’s General Command. “Slightly fewer are currently on rotation. But the conflict zone is only 5% of Ukraine’s territory. It is also necessary to close the border between Ukraine and Crimea, and there are a host of other points and objectives which need to be defended.”

How much does the war cost?

The defense budget of Ukraine has also increased since the conflict began. In June 2014, it was 20.1 billion hryvnia ($935 million, or about 1.25% of Ukraine’s GDP). But in July, almost 600 million hryvnia (almost $30 million) were allocated on top of that for new weapons and military hardware. In August, while the Ukrainian Army was beginning to be encircled by rebel forces at Ilovaisk, the cabinet took out another 5.9 billion ($275 million) from the reserve fund for military spending. In 2015, the army received an unprecedented budget of 44.6 billion hryvnia (more than $2 billion). This comes out to about 122 million hryvnia ($5.68 million) a day. 

Who is fighting?

Ukraine has seen a number of officials cycle in and out of command over the past year. In February 2014, after the victory of the Euromaidan movement, Oleksandr Turchynov took control of Ukraine’s Armed Forces in his capacity as acting president after the previous president was ousted. Most likely it was Turchinov’s initiative to revive the National Guard, a reserve force which had been disbanded back in 2000 to save money. The National Guard was reestablished on the basis of the Internal Forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs; they are meant to back up police forces and the army at this time of crisis. Turchinov also issued a decree on April 14, 2014 launching the “Anti-Terrorist Operation,” a military operation for countering Ukraine’s separatists in the east.

But Turchynov was in charge only briefly. Following early presidential elections, which were won by Petro Poroshenko, he left his post on June 7, 2014. A month later, only a few days before the rebels retreated from their key positions in a town called Slovyansk in the east, Poroshenko appointed new people to the Ministry of Defense and the General Command of Ukraine’s Armed Forces.

As a result, Valery Heletey became the Minister of Defense. He was 47 years old and previously headed the State Security Administration (Ukraine’s secret service) and Kiev’s bureau on countering organized crime. On July 6, 2014, Heletey made a speech on the central square in newly captured Slovyansk, demonstrating his confidence in future victories. But he didn’t last long in his position as Defense Minister. In September 2014, after Ukrainian forces suffered huge casualties when they were encircled by rebels at a town called Ilovaisk, Heletey came under intense criticism. He was accused of incompetence, dereliction of command during the fighting in Ilovaisk, poor organization of rear-guard security for the Anti-Terrorist Operation, corruption in the army, and attacks on volunteer battalions. In October, Heletey resigned and returned to his old position as the head of the State Security Administration. In a report prepared by the Ukrainian provisional parliamentary committee regarding the events of Ilovaisk, Heletey is identified as one of those responsible for the debacle. Both Heletey and the head of General Command, Viktor Muzhenko, have been charged by Russia’s investigative committee with “Organizing murder, genocide and illegal methods of war in the course of the military conflict in east Ukraine.”

Stepan Poltorak (left) Kiev, March 12 2015
Photo: Oleg Pereverzev / NurPhoto / REX / Vida Press

Right now, the Ukrainian Defense Minister is Stephen Poltorak, a former leader of the National Guard. He is considered to have more experience with military operations than Heletey. When Poltorak was nominated, President Petro Poroshenko emphasized his noteworthy “professional and political positions.”

“For me, your professional and political positions, transparency, your decisive steps in building a system from the ground up, discipline among your forces, and your strong military spirit were all essential,” said Poroshenko. Among the qualities ascribed to Poltorak are abilities to organize supply chains and logistics, as he had been head of the National Guard.

“In the Anti-Terrorist Operation’s National Guard - I’m judging by only the 1st Brigade here - units are equipped properly, there’s a high saturation of communication links. There are no scandals with ammunition procurement. Poltorak was showing me the winter kit in August, and told me that a kit like that has already been procured for each fighter. This is clearly how the president wants supply chains to work in the army. Poltorak obviously takes the rearguard and logistics seriously,” said military journalist Yury Butusov, explaining Poltorak’s appointment.

Following Poltorak’s arrival, a series of military “purges” began. The Minister fired the quartermaster-general for insufficient provision of material resources, and issued a decree increasing disciplinary punishments leaders could face in a host of departments. Recently, Poltorak started an internal investigation into the late payments of wages to soldiers in nine military units. 

Another key figure is Viktor Muzhenko, who oversees the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” in the east of Ukraine. He was appointed by Poroshenko in July of last year. Muzhenko is a controversial figure. In January 2015, while fighting raged in Debaltseve, Muzhenko announced on Ukrainian TV that the Ukrainian army was not fighting regular Russian units. “Right now we have only evidence of private citizens of the Russian Federation and serving soldiers from the Russian army who are members of illegal armed formations. I can also say that the Ukrainian forces are not fighting with regular units from the Russian army,” he said. He also announced on more than one occasion that the situation in Debaltseve was safe and under control, when eyewitnesses – local inhabitants, volunteers and journalists – were all claiming the opposite. “Viktor Muzhenko, the head of Ukraine’s General Command, was feeding the commander-in-chief false information for two straight days, claiming that Logvynove had been seized and we were mopping up, when in reality the enemy had control of the road [into the town]. The lack of resupply seriously limited the tactical options of the Ukrainian forces. The activity of our artillery within the blockade was considerably curtailed. Every day our forces were getting torn to shreds,” wrote Butusov in a Facebook post. He even made a statement to the chief military prosecutor calling for criminal prosecution of Muzhenko on the basis that on January 17, Muzhenko had relieved General Dovgan, the commander of the ATO’s Sector B [the area around Donetsk Airport - ed] from operative planning, “without taking into account intelligence, and without asking for a tactical assessment of the situation from the responsible commanders of the units in the zone around the airport.”

Butusov went on to claim that “Muzhenko ordered soldiers to attack a monastery near the town of Pisky in Donetsk Region by going through a minefield that had been planted earlier by Ukrainian forces. As a result, two soldiers were killed by their own mines, and another ten were wounded,” wrote the journalist.

Muzhenko had been elected deputy in the Zhytomyr regional council on a Party of Regions ticket in 2012, but left the party after the Maidan protests in 2014.

Who are Ukraine’s volunteers and what do they do?

According to Vladyslav Seleznyov, Ukraine’s Armed Forces have considerably matured over the past year. “We remember the complete confusion and indecision of the higher military and political leadership of Ukraine when the ‘little green men’ appeared in Crimea,” the Armed Forces press secretary told Meduza. “This stupor allowed the Russia to seize Crimea bloodlessly. There were questions relating to the lack of preparedness of Ukrainian officers to take up arms and fight. At the start of the aggression in February and March, there were only about 5,000 serving soldiers in units that were combat-ready.” A specialist from General Command links the improval of the Ukrainian Army first and foremost with the fact that a mass volunteer movement has joined the Ministry of Defense.

“Our army was in a dreadful state. Everyone was wearing torn-up body armor and helmets from 1942 – and not everyone had an assault rifle,” remembers David Arakhamiya, the founder and coordinator of the Council of Volunteers of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. The council includes numerous volunteers who have become well-known in Ukraine. Since the spring of last year, many have been providing the Ukrainian army with its essentials. The majority of them them have received awards or medals from the president in gratitude for their work. 

Self-defense volunteer forces undergo military training on a parade ground near Kiev. March 17, 2014
Photo: Yefrem Lukatsky / AP / Scanpix

Volunteers still provide serious assistance to the state in the defense sphere. They buy the army defensive equipment, clothes, first aid kits and food, and fix broken vehicles and equipment.

“Today, thanks to the volunteer sector, we’ve completely filled the demand for helmets and body armor for the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” says Arakhamiya. “Now there is active work underway for creating proper individual first aid kits, close to NATO standards. It took a great deal of effort to get the certification to import the blood-clotting product Quick Clot, which is also used by the US Army. But by the end of summer we plan to meet NATO standards in terms of field uniforms, boots, body armor, kevlar, insulating clothing, and so on. By the fall, we’ll be able to boast that we have a decent field kit, at the level of a central European country, like the Balkans.”

In Arakhamiya’s opinion, about 65% Ukrainian army equipment came from volunteers. The main “sponsor” of the army is considered to be the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, but the most active mid-sized patrons are IT companies and businesspeople from the retail sector. 

Who else is fighting?

Aside from Ukraine’s Armed Forces, volunteer battalions from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the National Guard and Ministry of Defense are also taking part in the fighting. The Donbas Battalion, – founded, but not longer directly led by current Rada deputy Semyon Semenchenko – belongs to the National Guard, which is itself a branch of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The Donbas Battalion suffered the most casualties in the battle for Ilovaisk. The Azov Regiment, which defends the border towns of Mariupol and Shyrokyno, is also in the National Guard. Other special local defense formations take part in operations under the auspices of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. These are the Lviv, Sech, Luhansk, Shtorm Battalions, the Dnipr-1 Regiment, and about 30 other formations. All of these formations were created as volunteer units and are overwhelmingly made up of Maidan activists. Some volunteer battalions are part of the Ministry of Defense – among them are Kievan Rus, Dnipr-2, and Sarmat (out of about 30 formations), but also Aidar, which has been accused of looting, corruption and violence against prisoners.

Field training for the Aidar Battalion in the ATO zone, Luhansk. September 10, 2014
Photo: Sergei Kravchenko / NurPhoto / REX / Vida Press

There are lone Battalions, like the OUN and Right Sector. They don’t belong to any official structure, but coordinate their activities within the framework of the Anti-Terrorist Operation with the leadership of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Defense.

Ukraine’s volunteer ranks include not only native Ukrainians, but also foreign fighters. The Dzhokar Dudayev Battalion, for example, named in honor of the first president of the breakaway Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, is composed of 300 volunteers who lack Ukrainian citizenship. These are primarily Chechens who emigrated from Russia to the west. The battalion was formed in March of last year by the movement “Free Caucasus” in Denmark, and took part in the fighting at Ilovaisk and Debaltseve. There, the the well-known Chechen separatist commander Isa Munayev was killed. After this event, the leadership of the battalion fell to Adam Osmayev, who has been accused of an attempted assassination of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At the same time, there are plenty of foreigners fighting in different battalions. For example, one of the first and most active participants in the Aidar Battalion was a Canadian citizen named Nazar Volynets, and Swedish sniper Mikael Skillt, a man routinely accused of holding typical neo-Nazi views, serves in the Azov Regiment.To allow for the participation of these people in the ATO, the Verkhovna Rada has passed a law permitting them to serve in the AFU without changing citizenship.

According to the current legislation, foreigners can serve only as privates or non-commissioned officers. Foreigners not only directly support Ukraine’s forces by partaking in military operations, they also help as consultants and technical experts. According to Vladyslav Seleznyov, there are currently numerous western programs in Ukraine “directed at strengthening our defense capabilities, concerned with medical training, or teaching personnel how to use, for example, a mobile counter-battery radar. These have demonstrated their effectiveness in the ATO. This aid comes from America, Canada, Europe in the form of experts and instructors. They take no part in the armed conflict, they simply demonstrate and explain how to use equipment.”

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Ekaterina Sergatskova