KIEV, Ukraine — The interim government of Ukraine has called for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council following a dawn attack today by separatists in east Ukraine that left at least 13 soldiers dead and up to 20 wounded. The country’s interim prime minister says he has evidence of Russian involvement in the attack, one of four to take place three days before Ukraine’s presidential elections.
This deadliest assault mounted by armed separatists so far came at a National Guard checkpoint in a village just south of Donetsk near a highway linking east Ukraine’s main city with the southeast port of Mariupol.
Until last week the highway running through agricultural land and a handful of villages was under the control of Ukrainian security forces and there were few signs of separatist encroachment on one of the few smooth, well-maintained main roads in the eastern part of the country, but last week separatists abruptly mounted their own checkpoint on the highway, suggesting they meant to contest the highway.
AP news agency photographers say they saw at least 11 dead soldiers lying in a field or inside a car outside the village of Blahodatne, near the town of Volnovakha. Three charred armored infantry vehicles with their turrets blown off were nearby, suggesting those who carried out the raid were highly proficient and well trained.
The attack highlights the dangers of separatist efforts to upset Sunday’s presidential polls—the first since pro-Western protesters ousted the Moscow-backed government of Donetsk native Viktor Yanukovych. The elections are seen as a crucial step in stabilizing Ukraine and represent a chance to stop the fracturing of the country. But separatists have vowed to stop election voting from taking place in the east of the country.
Speaking to The Daily Beast recently, separatist leader Valery Bolotov in Luhansk, the region neighboring Donetsk, indicated that following a highly controversial secession plebiscite the highest priority for the separatist insurgency was to disrupt the presidential poll. “People in east Ukraine do not want to participate in presidential elections,” said the former paratrooper.
Kiev officials said today that Ukrainian border guards rebuffed an attempted cross-border incursion by dozens of separatists. They also claim a Russian helicopter entered Ukrainian airspace late Wednesday.
“Russia continues to violate its international obligations and principles of international relations…deliberately choosing tactics to further aggravate the situation in Ukraine,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
According to President Oleksandr Turchnyov the soldiers who died today “gave their lives for Ukraine.” He said the separatists attacked with mortars, grenade launchers and automatic weapons.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, saying: “We will provide proof that it is the Russian side that bears responsibility for attempts to escalate the conflict… and to undermine presidential elections.”
Last weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated for the first time that a presidential poll would be a useful first step in resolving the Ukraine crisis—comments that came following conciliatory remarks by election frontrunner Petro Poroshenko, a pro-Western billionaire nicknamed the “chocolate king” for his candy business.
The Kremlin also announced it was starting to pull back an estimated 40,000 troops massed on the border. Earlier this week, NATO and U.S. officials said they could see no evidence of a withdrawal, but today NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen tweeted that military activity along the Ukraine border suggested some forces were starting to pull back, easing Western fears of a Russian intervention.
Ukraine officials told The Daily Beast they have proof, including phone intercepts, that the attacks today were hatched by Russian military intelligence officers Igor Strelkov, a Muscovite whose real name is Ihor Girkin, and Igor Bezler. According to the SBU, Strelkov and Bezler are colonels in Russia’s GRU military service and were in Crimea previously, helping to engineer the annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.
It isn’t clear why the Kremlin should be taking some steps to ease tensions while at the same time not curtailing the activities of Russian intelligence officers in Ukraine.
Some Western diplomats suggest the Kremlin may be losing control of the separatists following its failure so far to agree to requests from separatist leaders for Russia to annex Donetsk and Luhansk much as it did with Crimea. “They might be feeling the Kremlin sees them as expendable and increasing the anarchy puts more pressure on Moscow to intervene,” says a Western Europe official who asked not to be named.
But Ukrainian officials argue the Kremlin sees a disrupted election in the east as strengthening its hand in behind-the-scenes talks. Russia has been pushing for a federalization of Ukraine with eastern oblasts having semi-autonomy, which would make them more easily manipulated by Moscow, according to Kiev.
American and European officials have warned they will impose broader sanctions on Russia than the rounds of pinprick sanctions so far introduced, if the election is derailed.
For the separatists disruption is relatively simple. Earlier this month it took just nine gunmen to seize Donetsk’s main election commission office. Recently, separatists kidnapped the head of the local election commission in the town of Kramatorsk, north of Donetsk—the third election official from the town to be abducted.
Election officials in Donetsk have had to shut down another office they opened after threats from separatists. Ivan Simonovic, U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, says several election officials have been abducted across the east and many threatened.
Ukrainian officials insist the election will proceed in the east, except in the flashpoint town of Slovyansk, a hundred kilometers north of Donetsk. That town is totally controlled by the separatists, but there are plans for residents to vote in the neighboring town of Kramatorsk.
Foreign election advisers have been frustrated for weeks at the Kiev government for not anticipating sufficiently election security challenges, faulting them for not drawing up security plans for the polling stations and ballot-paper storage facilities or protection procedures for local officials.
Under Ukraine election law the police are tasked with providing election security but in the east many have sided with separatists or are not prepared to challenge them. Foreign election advisers were urging the government to amend the law to allow other security services, including the army, to have an election security role but ministers failed to do that. However, they have changed the law to allow soldiers to vote at local polling stations rather than their barracks arguing their presence in the voting queues may help to deter attacks.