Ukrainian army “could take Luhansk by Independence Day”

Ukraine Map and Flag

(Business New Europe – bne.eu – Graham Stack in Stannitsa Luhanska – August 22, 2014) The city of Luhansk, a centre of the Russian-backed insurgency in East Ukraine, could fall to Ukrainian government forces in the next few days, the commander of an army battalion moving up on the strategically crucial north-eastern flank of the city tells bne.

The commanding officer of a frontline battalion told bne the city of Luhansk, a major centre of the Russian-backed insurgency across the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine, could fall to Ukrainian government forces in the next 4-5 days. “Perhaps we could take the town by Independence Day [August 24] in time to parade, but of course this is not my decision,” said the commanding officer of the Ukrainian army’s 13th battalion, Oleksandr, who preferred not to give his last name for security reasons. Ukraine’s Independence day August 24 marks the failure of a pro-Soviet putsch attempt in Moscow in August 1991, that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the birth of independent Ukraine later that year.

The fall of Luhansk would be the most important government victory since the start of the government’s so-called “anti-terrorist” campaign against the Donbass insurgency launched in June. Luhansk, a city of over 400,000, is the second largest population centre held by Russian-backed rebels, and since May the seat of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic, a self-proclaimed breakaway state. According to opinion polls, Luhansk, nestling on the border to Russia, is Ukraine’s most pro-Russian region outside of the Crimean Peninsula annexed by Russian in March.

The capture of Stannitsa Luhanska, less than 10 kilometers from the outskirts of Luhansk, now tightens Kyiv’s stranglehold on the city. Crucial road and rail connections between Luhansk and Russia pass through Stannitsa Luhanska, and were used by the rebels’ Russian backers to move supplies from the border to Luhansk. “So this now cuts off their oxygen supply,” said Oleksandr. But he pointed out that there was still much work to be done to secure Stannitsa Luhanska itself, with the rebels holding high ground overlooking the town and still using it to shell Ukrainian forces. bne saw special force units out combing the surrounding area for rebel hideouts.

Spokesman for Ukraine’s armed forces, Oleksandr Lysenko stated August 20 that Ukrainian army units now also control a police station within Luhansk city boundaries.

Russian guns

Oleksandr said that a major threat to his positions now was shelling from out of Russian territory. “We man a post right next to the border and hear their artillery working, and can see the muzzle flashes.” The Russian border is only around 15 kilometers from the battalion’s main positions. “Russian drones fly overhead regularly,” Oleksandr added. The battalion’s base camp was hit by a volley of land-land Grad missiles 5 days before bne visited, and some tents visibly ripped by shrapnel were still standing.

Ukrainian forces elsewhere in Luhansk reported seizing armed personnel carriers carrying Russian documentation August 21, suggesting they had been supplied from across the border, although this could not be independently confirmed.

Oleksandr said that many of the remaining rebels appeared to be also from Russia, including from the North Caucasus, fighting as mercenaries. In contrast, except for Oleksandr and two other career army officers, the men of the 13th battalion were all recruited from Chernigov, a Central Ukrainian region north of Kyiv, and owe their fighting spirit to their regional identity, he said. While formally all the men in the battalion were called up to serve in the army, there was de facto no enforcement of Ukraine’s universal mobilisation announced in May, meaning those who did show up for army service are effectively patriotically minded volunteers.

“Some of them had never held a weapon in their hands before May, and all they received before start of operations was 15 days training,” a staff officer of the 13th Battalion who preferred not to be named, told bne. Casualties have nevertheless been surprisingly low, with only two dead and 10 wounded out of around 500, the staff officer said, a fact he attributed to his commander’s skill.

Less than delighted.

Suggesting that post-conflict reconciliation between Kyiv and Donbass will be an uphill struggle, in the town of Stannitsa Luhanska itself the mostly elderly residents venturing onto the streets were less than delighted about the Ukrainian army’s presence, after four days of armed confrontation over the town culminating in its capture. “How are we supposed to live now?” said Tatiana Nikolaevna, a 58 year old pensioner, trying in vain to sell her garden produce on the street. “For two months pensions haven’t been paid, and now nothing is being delivered to the shops, except bread. And we can’t get to Luhansk anymore to sell out fruit and vegetables.

“Everything was peaceful here before the army came, the rebels were hardly present here,” added Tatiana. “All we want is peace, to live out our lives in peace,” she said emotionally. Tatiana and other villagers accused the Ukrainian forces of having shelled the town before its capture, causing dozens of casualties and fatalities, although there is still no official figure. “Three were buried yesterday [August 20] alone,” she said.

Extensive damage to buildings in the town showed that shells had fallen in built-up areas, but 13th Battalion soldiers denied any shelling of the town. “We do not use artillery against areas where civilians dwell,” the battalion’s commander Oleksandr said. “This was the work of the separatists and Russian forces,” he added. “However much you tell that [that rebels and Russians are responsible for shelling of built up areas] to the locals, they don’t believe you,” complained Volodymr, a soldier patrolling the streets of Stannitsa Luhanska. Locals living outside the town for their part claimed to have seen the Ukrainian forces firing mortars into the town as the attack on the separatists started.

At the local hospital, staff are also angry at government soldiers residing in the building. “They are spreading dirt and litter even in the surgical department,” said Larissa Suvorova, a staff nurse. Another nurse called Larissa, who preferred not to give her second name, said that the government forces were firing mortars from within the hospital environs at the rebel positions, but this was denied by soldiers at the hospital questioned by bne.

Hospital staff spoke of around 20 in-patients, all civilians, being treated for wounds received during the fighting, some of them in a severe condition. “We have no electricity, no medicines, no bandages, no water,” Suvorova complained. “But in fact we have had no medicines for twenty years, ever since the Soviet Union collapsed, and this is why Donbass has risen up.”