Illustration photo. Image by Ukrinform
August 29 is a day of commemoration of the victims of the Ilovaisk tragedy in Ukraine. Two years ago, Ukrainian forces attempted to take the city Ilovaisk in Donetsk Oblast from the pro-Russian forces. In mid- August 2014, they were encircled by troops of the Russian Federation. Ukrainian forces fought until agreements on their escape from encirclement were not reached with Russia. After that, the Ukrainian soldiers were cruelly shot by Russians despite agreements on creating a “green corridor” for their withdrawal.
The official number of the killed is 366, wounded — 429, missing — 158, and 128 were taken captive. However, this data is related only to the period when the column of Ukrainian soldiers was shot at in the “green corridor” and do not take into consideration the whole period of the battles for Ilovaisk. But even the number of victims of only the corridor is not final – the soldiers who had been there say that the number of victims was higher than officially recognized.
Two years later, the investigation on the tragedy is still ongoing. On the 29 August 2016, relatives of the soldiers killed near Ilovaisk came to the building of the General Prosecutors office in Kyiv to demand a faster investigation of the tragedy.
What happened in August 2014
On 5 August 2014, commanders of volunteer battalions gathered at a meeting with then deputy head of the Dnipropetrovsk city council Henadiy Korban. At the meeting, Andriy Bileckiy (leader of “Azov” volunteer battalion), Andriy Filonenko (Shakhtarsk), Yuriy Bereza (Dnipro-1), Semen Semenchenko (Donbas), the general Ruslan Homchak, and the journalist Yuriy Butusov were present. According to analysis by Petr i Mazepa, Korban motivated the commanders to go to Ilovaisk, where the illegal pro-Russian forces were noticed. Later, Korban told the media that it was just a consultative meeting.
The abovementioned battalions went to Ilovaisk. They were joined by the battalions “Myrotvorets,” “Ivano Frankivsk,” “Kherson,” “Svitiaz,” and 39th and 40th brigades of the territorial defense. Also they were supported by the 51st and 28th separate mechanized brigade and a company task group of the 93rd brigade.
It turned out that there was a much larger amount of pro-Russian forces than was initially estimated. Ukrainian forces experienced losses after the first battles. The battalions “Azov” and “Shakhtarsk” left the area.
On 24 August 2014, information came in that a column of unmarked hardware (later it was confirmed that it belonged to Russian forces) was noticed near Ilovaisk. They were attacked by Ukrainian forces. Then, 10 paratroopers of the Russian regular army were taken captive.
The active phase of warfare happened on August 25-26. Further shelling from the side of pro-Russian militants and Russian forces continued. Ukrainian soldiers ran out of ammunition. The commanders of the battalions demanded the headquarters of the Anti Terrorist Operation to order a withdrawal from the area. The headquarters was planning to de-block the encircled battalions. The task became more complicated due to the lack of supportive forces and the aggravation of the situation in the Luhansk direction. The operation was planned on the 1-2 of September 2014. However, the commanders continued to demand to leave the area, not wanting to fight being surrounded by the enemy forces.
Because of the resistance of the Ukrainian forces, Russian troops experienced significant losses. For the Russian Federation, it was disadvantageous to openly fight on the territory of another state. So the Russian president Vladimir Putin addressed Russian-backed forces in the media to stop the fire and let the Ukrainian forces leave. Russian and Ukrainian headquarters agreed on a withdrawal of forces from Ilovaisk. However, the Russians changed conditions several times.
Finally, the escape was planned on 29 August, at 6 AM. Even this last agreement was not implemented in time. Later it turned that Russian forces were delaying the operation to retrench on the road for the escape of the Ukrainian troops.
The escape started at 8:15. Ukrainian forces left the first road of blocking relatively calmly. However, at the second one they were met by fire. They could have resisted at the areas where Russian soldiers had not manage to entrench themselves, but at the positions where they stood, the Ukrainian forces were simply massacred.
A part of Ukrainian soldiers were taken captive. According to the agreements of the general staffs of Ukraine and Russia, a group of people went to the side of the so-called “Donetsk Peoples Republic” (“DNR”) to take away wounded and killed. At the “DNR” checkpoint they were disarmed. The commander of the group Ihor Palahniuk took the risk to come to the so-called “Minister of Defence of DNR.” The agreements were confirmed. And the group started to take away the wounded and killed. The operation of releasing captive soldiers lasted several months.
Memories of a commander
Before the second anniversary of the tragedy Viacheslav Vlasenko (callsign Filin), as he says de facto commander of the battalion “Donbas,” the one which suffered and fought the most in Ilovaisk, published his memories of the operation.
They were saying “Keep strong! Help is coming…”
They were saying “Keep strong! Help is coming…”
Vlasenko describes the operation on seizing of the eastern part of the city at August 19 as “incompetently planned.” Sergeant Kostyanchuk (callsign Bishut) was appointed as the head of this operation. However, Vlasenko writes, Bishut did not have military education and was weak at organizing battles. “While the operation was being conducted, Semenchenko disappeared altogether. Bishut was repeatedly trying to find him by the radio station. Then Bishut disappeared as well. The results of the operation were catastrophic. One-third of the group was killed or severely wounded.”
Commander Filin recollects that attacks of the enemy were ongoing, however Ukrainian battalions were answering them successfully:
“Unfortunately the tragedy of escape when hundreds were killed has shadowed the heroism and strength of our soldiers, which they demonstrated during the defense of the city.”
However, the lack of provision and ammunition demoralized a part of soldiers from the Ukrainian forces in Ilovaisk. The commander goes on, saying that during these battles many officials from the National Guard and the General Staff of the Anti Terrorist Operation were contacting him by mobile phone. They were saying “Keep strong! Help is coming…”
ÄBut we were not just waiting, we were fighting…T hen the General Lieutenant Khomchak reached me by the secret connection and said that the head is planning to hold the event on withdrawing us from the encircling atAugust 28 or 29. He also said that large artillery forces and aviation will be involved in covering us. The enemy promised to create a “green corridor” for us. It was promised, but was hard to believe. However, there were no choice.”
Still, the soldiers started to collect hardware for withdrawal and were planning the directions for escape. “We had hope that our side will gave captive Russian paratroopers and we will be able to go through the ‘green corridor,’” wrote the commander.
At the next call, Khomchak told Vlasenko that Russians demand the withdrawal without hardware.
Vlasenko as other commanders refused to implement the demand and were ready to go through if needed.
As Vlasenko described, during the escape by the “green corridor,” their forces were attacked with mortars. He himself went another 1700 meters, but there was an ambush. He gave the information on that by the radio station, but it was busy as everyone was trying to inform that they were under shelling. It was impossible to give orders.
Then the car of the commander was hit. They went to the field. It was under shelling all the time. The squad was encircled there for about a night. Vlasenko had a satellite connection with Semenchenko and told him what has happened. “The further actions of Semenchenko were unclear for me. He contacted soldiers who were defending at Krasnoselske by phone and told them that I had already escaped the ‘cauldron’ and that I am already in Kurakhovo.” In the morning the squad of the hit car met other soldiers. Contacting the commanders of the Anti-Terrorist Operation, Vlasenko was told to wait for the Red Cross cars the next day with which it would have been possible to escape from the encirclement. However, they met Russian forces first. They were taken captive. Luckily, Vlasenko was not recognized as a commander. Later, he was interrogated by the FSB employees. After that Vlasenko and his comrades were taken to the Red Cross. In fact, it were cars of volunteers with painted red crosses.
“Evaluating my actions, I think that I would not be able to act differently. And there were no people who wanted to replace me. Very few wanted to take responsibility for lives of hundreds of people in the initially losing situation. I do not search for who is guilty. I knew what I was going to face when decided to go to the war as a military volunteer,” summarized Vlasenko.
Who is guilty?
Ukrainian military say that they have enough evidence to prove that the Russian Federation is guilty of the Ilovaisk tragedy, said the Donbas battalion soldier Dmitriy Kulish:
“We have all the evidence. Aerial imageries, the data from which side large-caliber shells fall, from with hardware it were sent, the date on what type they had.”
However, according to the soldier, the investigation is delayed by the “fifth column” in Ukraine:
“In 2014, spies who were working not for Ukraine’s interest were sent to all institutions of power. Our minister of defense was a citizen of Russia. Also we know who was the head of the Security Services and where he had gone.”
Ex-MP Andriy Senchenko who headed the temporary commission of Verkhovna Rada on the investigation of the Ilovaisk tragedy says that during these two years it was working under constant pressure. He is confident that the pressure goes on as there are guilty not only among military commanders but among the political commanders too.
According to Senchenko, the majority of manipulations with the investigation are connected to numbers of losses. Usually, only the number of losses during the escape of the so-called “cauldron” are named. According to him, the Ministry of Defense is trying to hush up the information about two attempts of de blocking, because then Ukrainian soldiers were sent for death.
“Most probably it was a criminal PR-step, as society was pressuring the military and political commanders of the state, demanding to make at least some decisions. They (the military commanders) had to imitate attempts on de-blocking. And the price for it was peoples lives,” said Senchenko.
According to the temporary commission, more than 1,000 people died during the attempts to take the city, from getting out of the encirclement, and from the wounds in hospitals. Senchenko is confident that there would be much fewer victims if the head of the General Staff Viktor Muzhenko took into account messages about the invasion of the Russian troops.
Viktor Muzhenko in his turn points out that the main reason (after Russian invasion) of the tragedy is the disorganized and disconnected actions of the battalions. Also according to him, the volunteer battalions did not always coordinate their actions with the general commanders of the operation.
The Russian side
Whoever is responsible for the tragedy in Ukraine, the fact of a Russian invasion to the territory of Ukraine near Berestove and its cruel actions during the Ilovaisk operation are undeniable. Six months after the events, the Ukraineatwar blog released an investigation based on new Google Earth images, which showed evidence of Russian hardware crossing the border with Ukraine, reconstructing the events.
The images show the camping sites on the territory of Russia with Grads and it is suspected that with the BUK air defense system.
There are more similar camps on the map.
If we follow the tracks from it to Ukraine, we will see one big track (follow the red tracks) and then their division into smaller ones.
And here is how Russian troops shot at Ukrainian positions on the map:
The blue line shows how the Ukrainian units were retreating. To get there they had already been fired on with artillery many times.
When they (inside the blue area) arrived at this position, they were attacked from the side and from behind by an overwhelming Russian force (yellow arrow).
The small yellow arrow indicates that attacks via that side must also have been taken place, but it can not be seen, because that road is a hard road and the September satellite image ends there.
Also, this year another investigation by Ukraineatwar revealed the massive Russian invasion east of Maryninvka, a village in the Donetsk Oblast close to the Russian border. At the end of 2014, Tyzhden.ua published an article, with the author Yaroslav Tynchenko calling Marynivka a strategic mistake with fatal results. He pointed out that Ukrainian commanders’ inaction in the area of Saur-Mohyla led to the Ilovaisk tragedy later.