These were the latest and the most foreboding signs so far that the vicious confrontation in Ukraine is inexorably sliding into a conflict with grim consequences for the region and beyond.
The attack on Slovyansk does not appear to have been as successful as the Kiev administration had initially claimed. It was, however, a desperate attempt to prevent the east of the country from going the way of Crimea, swallowed by the Kremlin, after a dozen towns and cities have fallen into control of separatists, and with a referendum impending, designed to formalize the division of the country.
Unless there is a climbdown by Kiev, the situation can now only get increasingly bloody. Their forces began the assaults, starting just after dawn, on a series of checkpoints around the city which had become the centre of militant activity in the Donbass region, and the place where observers from the OSCE [Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe] are being held.
TheIndependent could ascertain that three checkpoints – at Cherkeska, Kpmbikorn Plant and Andrievka – were captured, although the Kiev administration had claimed 10 had been taken. However, unlike previous assaults, this time soldiers established their presence on all three and used them to carry out limited forward sorties with armoured personnel carriers (APCs).
Highly significant was the shooting down of the helicopters with the use of surface to air missiles, a sign that the militants' armoury was more extensive than hitherto thought, and a clear inference that weapons had been supplied from across the Russian border.
The Ukrainian defence ministry immediately declared that the use of the missiles was also “proof” that Spetznatz, Russian special forces, had been present on the ground. It said that two Mi-24 gunships were shot down while on a patrol killing two airmen, and that a third, a Mi-8 transporter, was also hit, injuring a serviceman.
Ukraine’s Defence Ministry later said two servicemen were killed on the outskirts of Slovyansk after pro-Russian separatists attacked their position. “Heavy fighting is continuing. The deaths of two Ukrainian soldiers have been confirmed at the current time,” the ministry said in a statement, accusing the separatists of using civilians as human shields.
Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the recently appointed pro-Moscow mayor of the city, said that two aircraft had been brought down and the pilot of one had been captured. Separatist fighters insisted to TheIndependent that some of the troops in Ukrainian uniforms had been heard speaking in English and had carried out manoeuvres in a manner indicating that they were private security contractors. One commander, Leonid Andreiovich, maintained: “They came in SUVs. They were, I think, scouting. They behaved in a different way, more professional. They did not fire back when we fired at them, they did not reveal their positions, then they just disappeared, but then we found their uniforms, they must have changed into civilian clothes.”
A group of fighters produced combat uniforms supposedly abandoned by these mercenaries. One had a UK flag patch on the arm of a camouflage jacket, along with unit marking of a panther’s head. “What is this, how do you explain this,” asked one of the fighters. I pointed out one of his companions was wearing a Manchester United football shirt that and a mercenary was unlikely to wear his national colours. Images of the jacket were later put on YouTube.
Arsen Avakov, interior minister of the acting Ukrainian government, and a voracious chronicler of action in the east of the country on his Facebook page, claimed that half of Slovyansk was now under Kiev’s control. That was not the case at the time – the centre and most of the suburbs seemed calm until late in the afternoon. Fresh defences, however, had been established and fresh batches of armed men appeared from surrounding towns. New attacks, they said, could be expected during the night.
Mr Avakov also claimed that foreign fighters were involved. “It’s a real battle we are waging against professional mercenaries. We are ready to negotiate with protesters and their representatives, but for terrorists and armed separatists there is only punishment.”
Retaking Sloveynsk, with its narrow streets, sizeable arsenal and a hardcore of well trained fighters, would be a difficult business, involving casualties. An element of surprise is unlikely, as the timing of the current operation was leaked to the Russian media in advance.
Vladimir Putin had repeatedly warned that military action by the Ukrainian government which caused civilian casualties may lead to intervention. The Kremlin stated today that further operations would have “catastrophic consequences”. The Russian president’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Kiev of launching a “reprisal raid”.
Around 150 people, many of them women, gathered at Slovyansk’s central square to ask for Mr Putin’s aid. “He is the only hope we have now. The junta [Kiev administration] has now made it clear that they want to attack this city, our homes. How can we defend ourselves?” asked Natalaya Lesintolava, a 48-year-old mother of three children. “They are using helicopters, tanks, how can we fight them? Out self-defence force do not have big weapons. In the past we had asked Russia for weapons. It is too late for that now. Now we need soldiers to defend us, they will just shoot us down of we confront them.”
A confrontation did take place at Andrievka, when around 10 APCs approached the checkpoint from neighbouring Kramatorsk, while a contingent of National Guardsmen, recently raised by the Kiev administration, came from the opposite direction. The barricade was destroyed by the APCs, according to some accounts, or by the protesters themselves, to stop further movements of forces, according to others. Residents poured out of their homes to challenge the soldiers, flying the colours of the airborne forces on their armour, and on a bridge.
“We were caught by surprise, the National Guard came first. Some of us went to talk them, ask them what they were doing here. They promised they would not open fire on the people,” said Vasily Filmerenko. “Then suddenly these tanks [APCs] came from the back, along that track, firing. The National Guards said they were surprised as we were. They didn’t want this to happen; I am not sure I believe them.”
For the next few hours, the crowd, steadily increasing in numbers, demanded to know from the soldiers why they had come. Some were threatening: “You are Ukrainians; this is the Donbass, you are foreigners here. We will fight you and send you back to Ukraine in coffins,” shouted Yuli Wesmorotov. An elderly woman, Martina Sochroinova, came with a Bible: “ I want to pray for you boys; I wish I could talk to your mothers, they must be so worried; why should they have this terrible worry?"
The troops were at first stoical, silent. Eventually there were discussions: “We are here to protect you; we are only here to fight the terrorists, the separatists,” a sergeant tried to explain.
“I am a separatist, do I look like terrorist to you?” asked Mrs Sochroinova. A National Guardsman, Roman, 26, who was already under suspicion after saying he was from Lviv, from the nationalist west of the country, was asked: “Did your father fight against the Nazis?” He did, responded the guardsman: “But I have read some books which show it was the Soviet Union which started the war; a lot of Ukrainians died for nothing.”
Viktor Barasiniov spat into the ground: “This is the type of people they are sending here; how can there not be a fight?”