The war in Donbas
Well it looks like Putin’s generals are now fully committed to Plan B: Less regime change in Kiev for now, more focus on taking control of Donbas. A few days ago, reports started coming in that Russia began a full on assault along the frontline there, including hitting targets near Kramatorsk, Izyum, Slavyansk… These names might not mean much to people, but these small cities were the focus of fierce fighting back in the summer of 2014 — fighting that pitted the Ukrainian military and various oligarch-funded, Maidan-aligned paramilitary forces vs east Ukrainian separatist forces, which were being backed by Russia with both weapons and men.
It was a bloody conflict that leveled a big part of that region. And significant part of it involved Ukrainians shelling and killing Ukrainians civilians to “liberate” them from “evil Russians terrorists.” Now it’s the Russia military doing the shelling and killing, invading to “liberate” Ukrainians from “NATO Nazis” and “the Satanic West.” People here just can’t catch a break.
I remember these places because I drove through all of them — from Kharkov to the frontline and back — in September 2014, not long after separatist forces got kicked out of those towns. I was on a reporting trip. Don’t ask me how, but I managed to sweet talk myself into joining a private resupply mission that was delivering basic goods to several military checkpoints and bases on the Ukrainian side of the frontline. A few weeks earlier, I had tried doing something similar but from the Russian side of the border northeast of Rostov.
I wrote about it back then. Rereading that article now, it feels like it could have been written today with a few minor changes. Just goes to show you that the roots of this conflict go deeper than just a few months. There’s been a war going on here for years. But Putin chose to massively escalate the thing, changing something that localized and what still be in theory called a Ukrainian civil war — where America and Russia were fully committed to backing different sides — into something a lot more one sided. No gray area any more here: the Russian Federation is itself now directly waging a war on Ukraine, shelling big cities, bringing in troops and tanks, and killing civilians deep inside the country.
All this made me think of something a good friend of mine — an American journalist who had lived for years and years in Moscow, and who was reporting on the separatist insurgency in east Ukraine back in 2014 — said about the situation back when I was there that summer and autumn. He thought that the early insurgency, when people were taking over Ukrainian government buildings and police stations in east Ukraine, was mostly whipped up by the shady Russian security types. It had some local support but that it wouldn’t happened without Russia getting involved. He saw it as Russia’s attempt to stir things up, a kind of answer to the western-backed Maidan uprising. But even he changed his opinion on the matter when the Ukrainian military itself sent in tanks and started shelling and bombing their own Ukrainian citizens in the east as part of what Petro Poroshenko’s administration cynically started calling the “anti-terrorist operation.” As he saw it, the conflict went from being a mostly astroturfed uprising to being much more real. And anyway, when the government started shelling its own people, the point is moot, he said. And it was hard to argue against that logic: Who’s gonna be for their own government, when this same government bombs you and calls it liberation? Now we got the same thing going on — except its the Russian government doing it, killing Ukrainians and destroying their cities and their future to “liberate” them.
It’s bleak as hell and probably the dumbest fucking thing that Putin could possibly do, if his goal is to convince the people of Ukraine that it’s in their interests to join his glorious “Russkiy Mir.” He’s doing the opposite: he’s creating a Ukraine that will loathe Russia with a passion for generations to come…but that’s something we’ve talked quite a bit about here already.
Anyway, the article I wrote from those cities back then has since disappeared off the Internet — the mag where I used to work has long been out of business. So I figured I’d repost it here.
Refugees, neo-Nazis, and super patriots: Heading into the Ukrainian war zone
By Yasha Levine
Sep 25, 2014 • Pando Daily
CHUGUYEV, UKRAINE — It's just before noon on August 29 when we pull into a dilapidated military depot filled with Ukrainian armor, sitting just south of Kharkov and a couple of hours north of the rebel breakaway People's Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk.
I can count nine green Soviet-era APCs — the kind with six wheels, small turrets and sharp angular noses — parked between two rows of crumbling single-story garages. Two mechanics are tinkering with one of them, swearing loudly and trying to figure out how to modify a machine gun mount with a quick release latch.
The mood here can best be described as sullen. There is a group of soldiers milling around a hundred feet away. Some are squatting in silence, others smoking and chatting. Two soldiers are complaining about poor cell reception in the war zone. “It doesn’t matter if it’s KievStar or MTS, I can't catch a signal.”
I'm here tagging along with a private/volunteer resupply group as it makes its weekly run from Kharkov to Ukrainian army bases in the war zone. The trip is organized by a non-profit called Peace and Order that's backed by a group of local pro-EU minigarchs, who have taken it upon themselves to provide Ukraine’s bankrupt and moth-eaten armed forces with basic equipment and provisions.
Today, the truck — a generic white GAZelle — is carrying about a ton of goods. Most of the stuff could be mistaken for humanitarian aid and not military supplies. There are about 500 kilos worth of medical goods — IVs, saline drips, bandages and various meds. The other 500 kilos are a mishmash: canned meat, pasta, shaving cream, cigarettes, Bic razors, uniforms, boots, socks, underwear, belts, a single generator, mineral water and a dozen knife holsters.
When our truck pulled into the military base, we were mobbed by a group of soldiers who all asked for the one thing that wasn't in the truck: warm clothes.
"No, nothing warm today," said Oleg, the guy in charge of this supply run.
The only thing he had for them were bundles of basic black leather army boots and light cotton uniforms, which offered little protection from the autumn rains and sudden cold snap that hit eastern Ukraine. Oleg promised to start bringing winter clothes soon, but that could take weeks or longer, and was of little consolation to the soldiers. They had to make do with some cheap cigarettes that Oleg handed out as treats.