KIEV, UKRAINE— An overnight attack by pro-Russian separatists on a National Guard base in the southern port of Mariupol has raised a frightening specter in Ukraine. The struggling government now fears that militants instructed by Moscow will increase progressively the level of violence in the country’s restive eastern region testing the loyalty and resolve of Ukraine’s military and security agencies to breaking point.
The assault by 300 militants, who repeatedly attacked the military base, prompted guardsmen to open fire, killing three attackers and wounding 13 others, according to Arsen Avakov, the interior minister. “Given the aggressive nature of the attack on the base, an interior ministry group has been strengthened by Omega special forces. Helicopters have been sent in,” he said.
But the resistance at Mariupol is proving to be the exception when it comes to the Ukrainian military. Pro-Russian separatists seized a column of armored vehicles from Ukrainian soldiers in the city of Kramatorsk on Wednesday. Reports of Ukrainian paratroopers defecting and handing over half-a-dozen carriers without firing a shot have triggered alarm in Kiev, with government officials rejecting eye-witness accounts of the surrender. Ukrainian defense officials say the column was captured with the help of “Russian agents”.
Kiev officials admit they need to move fast to extinguish the growing pro-Russian insurrection in the country’s east but initial offers of reform, including greater decentralization of powers, are having no effect. The decision to dispatch the army is backfiring badly with soldiers expressing their unhappiness with being deployed against civilians, whether or not they are being egged on by Moscow, and supervised and trained by Russian advisors.
Disarray is mounting in the government’s efforts to rollback the Kremlin-backed insurgency, which has seen pro-Russian militants seizing government buildings and police headquarters in a dozen cities in Ukraine’s most populous region, Donetsk Oblast, which is the industrial powerhouse of the country. Disputes in Kiev have erupted over what strategy to pursue amid complaints that the military should not have been deployed in the first place.
Some officials are arguing that the so-called anti-terrorist operation was ill-conceived and implemented without giving serious thought to the morale of Ukrainian soldiers, or the quality and even trustworthiness of their leadership. The precise rules of engagement remain unclear.
The leaders of the Maidan uprising that led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February are fuming at the interim government’s inability to stem the separatist tide, accusing it variously either of incompetence or betrayal. Some ultranationalists are threatening bullishly to take matters into their own hands—a vigilante move that would rile separatists and play into the hands of the Kremlin, which claims Yanukovych’s ouster was the work of fascists and neo-Nazis.
A retired senior officer, now advising the government, admitted to the Daily Beast that the armed forces were struggling. “The army has been poorly managed and neglected for years and the quality of overall leadership is questionable,” he said. “We are sending them into a highly charged and complex situation which is being cleverly manipulated by Moscow.” The advisor asked not to be named.
Ukraine’s interim President, Oleksandr Turchynov, has reacted furiously to the loss of the armored column, lambasting the 25th airborne brigade for “displaying cowardice” and giving up to the enemy. “The unit will be disbanded. And the soldiers who are guilty of this will be held accountable in court,” he said. Exactly what happened with the paratroopers isn’t clear. Some reports say they were disarmed after local separatists blockaded the troop carriers; others suggest that the paratroopers didn’t need much persuading and after they were fed agreed happily to give up their carriers and return to their hometown of Dnipropetrovs’k by bus.
The incident came a day after the military officially began an operation to remove pro-Russian protesters from public buildings across eastern Ukraine. So far, with the exception of regaining control of a small airfield in Kramatorsk, success has been elusive and the mission is fizzling.
The 25th airborne brigade isn’t the only problematic unit.
Danish freelance journalist Johannes Wamberg Andersen said that south of Kramatorsk he saw officers from a Ukrainian military unit consisting of 16 armored vehicles telling residents that they won’t act against local separatists. In another incident, hundreds of locals in Pchyolkino, south of the city of Sloviansk, surrounded a column of 14 Ukrainian military vehicles and along with masked pro-Russian gunmen persuaded the troops to surrender their ammunition and drive off.
The retreats and humiliating withdrawals stand in marked contrast to the confident pledge of retribution by the overall commander, Vasily Krutov, who dismissed the idea of allowing protesters time to vacate government buildings as “too humanitarian.” At the outset of the “anti-terrorist” mission, Krutov acknowledged to reporters that the situation was difficult because “those who planned” the separatist insurgency “are hiding behind human shields.” He promised to do everything to avoid civilian casualties, but “unfortunately casualties do happen in wars.”
For all Krutov’s talk of human shields, the problem facing the government is that the people the troops are confronting aren’t there involuntarily, many are die-hard pro-Russians and the soldiers don’t appear to have the appetite or the policing skills to take them on.
With incidents of retreat increasing, it is becoming easier for local crowds to harangue troops for following the orders of a “fascist regime”, prompting them to turn tail. “These soldiers have not been trained to cope with civil unrest like this,” says a European intelligence official. “Policing isn’t easy for the best-trained armies to pull off and this isn’t a well-trained army. It is demoralized and remains bitter at the lack of leadership shown in Crimea when units for days didn’t receive clear orders from Kiev and were left to fend for themselves.”
While resolve and training may be questionable when it comes to the army, what exactly the Ukrainian intelligence service, the SBU, is up to may be murkier.
SBU anti-terrorist units sent to the east have so far not figured. Those units include the remnants of the elite Alfa team, which is under investigation for alleged involvement in the February 20 sniper killings of 53 Maidan protesters. The SBU by training and history is closely associated with Russia’s FSB intelligence service and while the lights were blazing in its headquarters in central Kiev during the Maidan uprising, nowadays there is little evidence of frenetic daytime activity there and at night only a handful of offices are lit up.