Ukraine’s anti-terror operation undone by villagers
Armoured vehicles taken by pro-Russian gunmen and blocked by angry civilians
Villagers talk with Ukrainian soldiers yesterday as they gather at a railway to stop Ukrainian tanks moving towards the airport. The start of what the Ukrainian government has called a military operation stalled when six armoured personnel carriers were seized. Photograph: Mauricio Lima/The New York Times
The young Ukrainian paratrooper, Roman, lay back on the warm green metal of his vehicle, shielded his eyes from the sun and took a slurp of thick ice cream.
Lounging around him on top of the armoured personnel carrier (APC), his comrades unwrapped more vanilla-flavoured cones, peeled bananas and gratefully accepted other gifts from residents of the quiet town in which they had arrived soon after dawn.
The paratroopers were trapped in Pchyolkino, by locals who would not let them go any further, but were happy to feed them while persuading them to forget Kiev’s orders and join anti-government protesters.
“It’s not those lads’ fault that they’re here,” said Anzhelika, one of about 150 Pchyolkino residents who surrounded a group of APCs as they tried to move through the town to the nearby Kramatorsk airbase.
“We want them to join the people and not obey criminal orders from the fascist junta in Kiev. They are hungry and scared – they clearly don’t want to fight,” she said, as the paratroopers smoked and ate and looked out over the crowd to sun-dappled fields full of apricot and cherry blossom.
“Early this morning we got calls from neighbouring areas telling us that these guys were coming towards us,” said Vladislav, Anzhelika’s husband. “We came out to meet them, and they fired over our heads in warning. But more and more people came out. Now they’re going nowhere.”
He pulled out his mobile phone and showed photographs of a Ukrainian fighter jet buzzing Pchyolkino – a neglected but leafy town near the larger rust-belt cities of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. “It nearly took the tops off the poplar trees,” Vladislav said. “They were trying to deafen us, intimidate us. But it won’t work. We didn’t like the new authorities before but now there is no way back – they deployed the army against the people. We won’t forgive that.”
Eastern Ukraine was the stronghold of former president Viktor Yanukovich – who was born near the regional capital, Donetsk – and the Regions Party, both of which were forced from power by a protest movement centred on Kiev and western Ukraine.
Russia opposed the revolution and quickly annexed Crimea from Ukraine in response, and now Kiev accuses Moscow’s agents of helping disaffected locals seize official buildings in several towns and cities across the east.
“Whose tanks are they? Ukrainian, not Russian,” said Andrei, another local man, as a Ukrainian attack helicopter chattered low overhead. “Kiev is interfering here, not Russia. And do you see any terrorists here? Apparently we are all terrorists and separatists. It’s nonsense. We want peace and stability, that’s all.”
As the sun moved over Pchyolkino, the grass around the armoured personnel carriers’ caterpillar tracks glinted more brightly with empty bottles. Some men and women shouted abuse at the young soldiers, who cradled Kalashnikov rifles.
“We’re alright,” said Roman, explaining that his unit was from Dnepropetrovsk, about 250km to the west. “But it would be nice to go home.”
With nightfall would come tiredness and drunkenness and greater danger of violence from the crowd. An officer climbed on to one of the vehicles and promised that paratroopers would never be used against civilians. “Then why did you come here?” screamed one woman, half-sobbing. “I ask you to let us leave the way we came, and go back to our base,” said the officer. “Leave your vehicles and weapons first!” shouted one man.
Later, representatives of the pro-Moscow protesters’ self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic agreed with the officer to let the paratroopers depart with their vehicles if they first handed over the firing pins of their weapons. Many locals objected, however, and the standoff was unresolved as night fell. It was the latest humiliation for Ukraine’s army. Having offered no resistance to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, supporters of the new Kiev government hoped to see the military act firmly in the east.
Lack of unity
But its “anti-terrorist operation” in Donetsk region has only exposed the poor equipment, training and morale of Ukraine’s armed forces, and highlighted a lack of unity in the country that could now be its undoing. About 30 minutes up the road from Pchyolkino, pro-Russian gunmen in Slovyansk showed off six armoured personnel carriers taken from Ukrainian paratroopers whom they claimed had surrendered in Kramatorsk. The masked men piled on to one of them and, after stalling once, lurched out into the road for a celebratory tour of the town. In Pchyolkino, meanwhile, the paratroopers thanked bemused locals for the food and asked for one more favour – a can of engine oil to revive a crippled carrier.