Sunday, 3 August 2014
Ukraine's Rebels Prepare To Defend Donetsk To The Death
DONETSK, Ukraine -- Government troops close to surrounding rebel capital and cutting it off from its supply lines to the east. The men at the Budennovsky checkpoint say they are ready. For weeks, the group of rebel gunmen has worked like traffic cops, checking vehicles coming in and out of this eastern Ukrainian city. Yet soon, they expect, it will be time to fight: retreating behind cinder blocks and slinking into roadside trenches to mount the final defence of Donetsk, a million-strong metropolis facing imminent attack. "You'll see," says "Metky" (Sharpshooter), 37, a thickset former miner wearing camouflage fatigues and body-builder's gloves and cradling an AK-74 with a grenade launcher fixed underneath. "Tanks don't work in a city. We'll be at every corner, every window. Bang! An RPG, straight down the hatch." Such a battle is hard to imagine in 21st century Europe. Yet it is creeping closer after Ukrainian forces advanced in a classic pincer movement last week to cut off the rebel capital and its vital supply lines through rebel-held territory to the east and - ultimately - to the border with Russia. It is almost four months since separatists in the Russian-dominated Donbass region of eastern Ukraine launched their armed bid for autonomy. Initial victories have slowly been eroded and Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine's pro-western president, has promised to crush the "terrorist" uprising in time for new elections in a matter of months. "In autumn there will be a new parliament that will start on reforms," he said on Friday. Today the territory carved out for the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk "peoples' republics" is shrinking fast as the Ukrainian army makes ground. If government forces can take full control of area around the crash site where Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down on July 17, killing all 298 people on board, they will effectively have encircled Donetsk itself. On Thursday, Igor Girkin, the separatists' Russian military commander, was forced to issue a diktat declaring that Donetsk was officially in a "state of siege". His friend, the "people's governor" Russian Pavel Gubarev, promises a new Stalingrad if Kiev-backed forces move on the city. It may be an idle boast and Ukrainian forces appear to have a great superiority in men and hardware. The rebels probably have no more than 20,000 fighters, mostly in Donetsk. Yet everyone remembers another example: Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in the 1990s. Then, an overconfident Russian army sent columns of tanks into the city, only to see them destroyed by few but nimble rebels firing rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). What's more, in Donbass a flow of weapons and volunteer fighters across the border from Vladimir Putin's Russia, now fixed in a "New Cold War" with the West throughout the former Soviet Union, has so far bolstered the rebel movement The United States, Australia, Britain and other European states believe the Kremlin may have supplied or manned a Buk missile launcher allegedly used to knock down MH17. In a telephone call late to Putin late on Friday, President Barack Obama called on Russia to heed international pressure to defuse the civil war tearing apart Ukraine and expressed his "deep concerns" about Moscow's increased support for the separatists. But at Budennovsky, the men - who give only their noms de guerre - are locals and say they fight for their land, not for Moscow. "Every man has a grenade," says "The Greek", a 31-year old plumber who spent 15 years living on Crete before returning to his native village just outside Donetsk. "When the battle begins no one will allow himself to be taken alive. "If we give up now," he adds, pointing to a row of shabby cottages behind the checkpoint, "the Ukrainian fascists will take our town and all these people here who brought us food, gave their support, will be slaughtered or turned into slaves." Propaganda from Kremlin-controlled television channels has done its work among these fighters, who abound with conspiracy theories. The Ukrainians have set up concentration camps; they are slashing open the corpses of rebels to sell their organs. Yet the men have real cause for grief and anger. One has a son and parents in Torez, one of the towns to the east which the Ukrainian army is pounding with artillery as it attempts to complete their encirclement of Donetsk, at a point close to the MH17 crash site. Hundreds of civilians have been killed or maimed in the conflict. Human Rights Watch said on July 24 that the use of "notoriously imprecise" unguided Grad rockets by Ukrainian government forces in urban areas "may amount to war crimes". Donetsk, particularly its outskirts where rebel defence and artillery units are positioned, is peppered daily by shells. On Friday one ploughed into a road on the western fringe of the city, killing one resident and injuring several in a passing minibus taxi, which was left awash with blood. Earlier in the week, heavy artillery shells - thought to be 130 or 152mm - smashed into a series of apartment blocks in Vetka district, the first time they have hit so close to the city centre, a mile away. On Rosa Luxemburg Street a crowd surveyed the damage: gaping holes ripped in the fifth floor where an elderly lady miraculously escaped injury by going to the lavatory a few moments before the shell exploded in her bedroom. Just down the road, Alexander Dvoryadkin, 66, rushed to the scene when four shells plummeted in front of a 10-storey block leaving craters two-yards wide and spraying asphalt and stones that killing a street cleaner standing in the yard."We almost tripped over his body, it was covered in dirt and debris," said Mr Dvoryadkin. Shells are not the only fear. With wartime comes military law and military justice. Igor Girkin, the Russian rebel commander, also know as Strelkov, has already displayed his relish for brutal solutions. Early in July he and his forces retreated from Slavyansk, a town to the north of Donetsk that was until then the rebels' stronghold. Reporters who sifted through the charred remains of the rebels' Slavyansk headquarters after their flight found a series of court documents signed off by Girkin. They show he ordered the execution of an unemployed welder for stealing two shirts and a pair of trousers. The punishment was based on a Stalin-era martial decree published on June 22nd, 1941. In Donetsk, police have melted away, leaving armed rebels in charge of law and order. One night last week, The Telegraph witnessed a group of militiamen seizing a young woman outside the city's popular BaNaNa restaurant. She cried out in anguish as they wrapped her in packing tape, pushing her into the boot of a car and drove her away.Despite repeated attempts The Telegraph has so far been unable to establish her identity, or her fate. On Mir (Peace) Street in Donetsk, a group of civilians gathers every day outside the former headquarters of the SBU, Ukraine's Security Service, which is now Girkin's base, to plead for the return of detained relatives. At 6pm a rebel official should come out to read a list of the prisoners. Sometimes he appears, sometimes not. On Friday evening, 40 people - mostly women - craned over a line of sandbags at the fortified entrance to the base, shouting to a guard in a vest with an automatic slung over his shoulder. "This is fascism! Give me back my grandson," cried one. Another asked the guard for how long people could be detained. "How should I should know?" said the guard, scratching himself and puffing on a cigarette. "Up to 60 days, I think." "It's the not knowing that kills you," said Marina, 37, a pastry chef with glittery eye shadow, who - like many here - was afraid to give her surname.She thought she knew why her husband, Dmitry, 33, was detained. "He came here himself to sign up as a militiaman," she said. "They gave him one day's training, stuck an automatic in his hand and told him he was off to the front. I said that was madness, and persuaded him to refuse. So they took him away." Others thought their relatives had disappeared into the SBU building for minor infractions like drinking or breaking the loosely-observed 11pm curfew. Lyudmila Maidanova, an elegant older lady in paste earrings and a pressed blouse, said her grandson Sasha, 30, a computer technician, had gone missing without trace from his home three days earlier. "I've been everywhere, this is the only place he could be," she said. Meanwhile, hundreds of people flee the city every day and taxi drivers - on this, at least, a reliable source - estimate that 30 per cent of the population has already gone. On Friday, the rebels' ministry of defence warned it would requisition cars, building materials, food and medical supplies for military use. Streets are deserted and goods are thinning in the shops. "I thought about joining the militia but I've got a mortgage to pay," says Vitalik Cherkashin, 25, a barman at the city's Ramada Hotel."All my friends have left for Russia and Crimea. There's nowhere I could go. The Ukrainians are coming closer and closer." At the hotel, reporters in helmets and flak jackets are the only guests and a notice in the lobby gives advice on what do in case of artillery fire hitting the building. The waiting staff has been cut from 26 to six, and several employees sleep at the hotel to avoid returning home to shell-hit suburbs. "Maybe there's still a way to stop this madness," says Mr Cherkashin. "I don't like the government in Kiev and my roots are Russian but we don't have to live apart. Kiev just needs to treat us like equal citizens." Back at the Budennovsky checkpoint the men see little room left for compromise. "If you told me a year ago that I'd be running around with this Kalashnikov, I'd wouldn't have believed you," says "Dyusa", 39, a car mechanic. "Now I know we'll fight to the last drop of blood. And if the Ukrainians take Donetsk we'll go to the woods. That's the next phase: partisan war."