A ceremony for the remembrance of fallen heroes of the battle at Ilovaisk. Photo: 24tv.ua
In August 2018, Ukraine marks the fourth anniversary of the Ilovaisk battle, the deadliest episode in the country’s modern history.
It was this battle that tipped the scales in the war between Ukrainian pro-government and Russian army detachments and Russian-backed militants in Donbas. Ukraine suffered heavy losses in encirclement and in the fire opened by Russian forces at the humanitarian corridor offering Ukrainian army regiments and volunteer battalions a way to escape. Afterwards, the Ukrainian forces no longer had the initiative and switched from attack to defense. The heavy losses prompted the Ukrainian leadership to sign the first Minsk agreement with the participation of the representatives of the Russian-backed militants.
It was also the first episode of the Donbas war when the international community believed in Russia‘s involvement in this war. However, four years after, the truth about the events of that episode hasn’t become any clearer. And the heroes and the main victims of the episode are facing blame more and more often. The official investigation states that 366 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the battle which took place between 6 August – 3 September 2014. Witnesses say there were many more. In August 2018, the UN published its report related to the violation of human rights during the episode. It already met criticism in Ukraine, mostly for failing to pay proper attention to the role of the Russian Federation during the events.
In the spring of 2014, thousands of ordinary Ukrainians decided to change their life dramatically and depart to the frontline. This was just the beginning of the war in Donbas and these people followed their inner calling to defend their homeland. The direction of the threat was clear – the Russian Federation. The Olympic Games in Sochi had ended victoriously for Russia, and on the wave of euphoria, Russia proceeded to occupy Crimea immediately afterwards. As well, it made use of the unstable situation in Ukraine after the Euromaidan Revolution, fostering a series of rebellions in southeastern Ukraine and channelling in troops and equipment through the uncontrolled parts of the Ukrainian-Russian border.
In late August – early September 2014, the Mechnikov Clinical Regional Hospital in the city of Dnipro, located 250 kilometers from the frontline, was full of injured soldiers. There were soldiers in other hospitals in the city as well. Many got there after the events known as the Ilovaisk cauldron when they directly met with Russian forces on the territory of Ukraine.
“There is a very big difference in hardware. However, even with our poor armament, we will fight back. Because we stand for the truth and they stand for money. If it’s dangerous they run away, because they are for money. They can only give guns to the locals, zombify them, and run away,” this is how Volodymyr Samoilenko, one of Ukrainian soldiers who was injured near Ilovaisk in August 2014 described the situation then.
Volodymyr also told what local civilians were going through:
“Most of all, it’s a pity that civilians have to go through it. There is fear in their eyes. They are crying. They were surprised why civilians were getting shelled. Our [forces] were not shooting at any residential city. I know it for sure. There was no order. They [those who are on the opposite side of the front line] neglect everything.”
About a half of a year after, Volodymyr was killed in another Ukrainian hotspot near Debaltseve.
What happened in Ilovaisk
By August 2014, Ilovaisk was seized by the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR). Ukrainian military commanders ordered their forces to regain control over it. The need for it was then explained by the strategic importance of the city, a railway node which hosted a base of the “DNR” forces. It was also a gate for mercenary fighters from the Russian Federation, as well as for weapons and ammunition from Russia. Last but not least, taking Ilovaisk under control would have helped the Ukrainian forces to seize Donetsk and to break the territory under Russia’s puppet republics in half.
Nevertheless, four years after, one of Ukraine’s commanders denied the high strategic importance of seizing Ilovaisk. Recently, Chief of the General Staff of Ukraine Viktor Muzhenko published a part of his interview for a documentary. In it, he stated that in 2014 there was no necessity to assault Ilovaisk by all means and seizing it was only one of the tactical tasks. If so, then another question emerges: why were so many Ukrainian warriors sent to death near Ilovaisk if the city wasn’t that crucial?
The operation started in August 2014, Ukrainian soldiers complained on the lack of orders from the high commanders.
Read more about the whole operation: Three years after deadliest battle in Donbas, official investigation skims over guilt of Ukrainian command
At the end of August 2014, the Ukrainian units in Ilovaisk became encircled due to a direct invasion of Russian forces. The circle started to close. Ukrainian forces experienced significant losses every day. The trapped Ukrainian warriors were taken captive.
When the information on the actions of Russian regular forces in Ukraine finally became well-known, negotiations with Russians on providing a green corridor for Ukrainian soldiers started. However, they were unreliable.
On the night of 29 August, Russian president Vladimir Putin, who previously denied Russia’s involvement in the conflict, himself appealed to the forces of the so-called “DNR” to organize a green corridor.
By then, the circle had been closed.
In the end, an agreement for a green corridor was reached on the level of the combatants on the ground. Early in the morning of 29 August, Russian paratroopers informed Ukrainians that the rules had changed – the Ukrainian soldiers couldn’t take arms and hardware with them, there would be one column for escape, the route would be identified by the Russians. As it turned out later, the route was laid through pre-arranged ambushes.
When the column gathered for the escape in Mnohopillia, the Russian side started playing for time. The columns were shelled by mortars. They were divided in two and started to move through the identified route but were ambushed. As well, they were shelled from heavy weapons and small arms of different calibers. Their primary target were lorries and buses, to harm the Ukrainian personnel the most.
In one of the columns, a car carrying the injured which was marked with the red cross was the first one to get hit.
The units which managed to get to the village Chervonosilske organized a defense. There was almost no connection with the commanders. The battle in Chervonosilske lasted for 36 hours.
Those who survived the events of that day escaped by foot through corn and sunflower fields by themselves.
Is the UN whitewashing Russia?
The UN report titled “Human rights violations and abuses and international humanitarian law violations committed in the context of the Ilovaisk events in August 2014” was released in August 2018. It claims that during the military events at Ilovaisk, all sides of the conflict perpetrated grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, some of which may be war crimes. The report stresses that the Ukrainian authorities haven’t fully investigated the crimes at Ilovaisk and contains recommendations for all sides of the conflict. An armed conflict can’t be an excuse for crimes and the culprits must be punished, said UN mission to Ukraine representative Volodymyr Scherbov.
The report says that by 31 August at least 366 Ukrainian soldiers were killed. This is the same number given by the investigation conducted by the General Prosecutor’s Office (GPO) in 2017. However, the number of killed Ukrainian soldiers remains contradictory.
The curator of the Kryvbas battalion and MP of Kryviy Rih City Council Mykola Kolesnik says that there are at least a thousand killed; however, it’s often impossible to know for sure:
“If an Ural [a truck] with soldiers was hit directly by a Grad [Soviet rocket launcher], the remains of 30 guys would be in one shovel, it’s impossible to get DNA. In which statistics can we include them? No search groups come to the occupied territories to remove the remains of our soldiers. This question is not raised at Minsk negotiations at all.”
However, if calculating the number of killed Ukrainian soldiers brings up more questions regarding Kyiv’s actions, the UN report was criticized due to other controversial points.
The main of them is the lack of attention to the role of the Russian Federation in the episode. Let’s take a look at the ambivalent statements of the report and how those in Ukraine comment them.
Not enough attention to the presence and the role of the Russian Federation
Let’s take a look at some wording of the report regarding what happened in Ukraine in 2014 (emphasis is ours):
“From early April 2014, OHCHR observed a rapid escalation of violence in eastern Ukraine. Groups of armed men unlawfully seized public buildings, as well as police and security facilities, in cities and towns across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, in a well-organized and coordinated fashion. On 14 April 2014, the Government of Ukraine launched a security operation to re-establish control over territory controlled by armed groups, deploying units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces supported by volunteer battalions. The hostilities with the armed groups, which from April 2014 were bolstered by the influx of foreign fighters, including citizens of the Russian Federation, rapidly escalated to the level of an armed conflict. By the end of July 2014, the armed groups of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ and self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ controlled considerable parts of both regions, including parts of the State border with the Russian Federation.”
“Armed groups” is the most common descriptor which the report gives when talking about those who opposed the Ukrainian forces in 2014.
Ex-defence Minister of Ukraine and reserve colonel Anatoliy Hrytsenko stated that he does not consider the report objective and is confident that it is politically biased.
“I’ll pay tribute to the report: there is an attempt to give more or less objectives evaluations and its clearly said that all the violations which they registered are not systematic. This is a big plus. But look at the recommendations in the end of the report which they give to Ukraine and ‘armed groups,’ as they call the militants in Donbas. The UN has not dared to say even one word towards Russia. Don’t they know that if there was no fact of Russian aggression, there would be no Ilovaisk and Debaltseve? You can’t put the information out of context. From where did the Grads appear? From a supermarket,” Hrytsenko told Glavcom.
Not giving a word to Ukrainian soldiers who went through the Ilovaisk operation
The report is based on the interviews of people from the occupied territories.
Human rights defenders received access to occupied Ilovaisk only in 2016. The report is based on information collected during more than 80 interviews with victims and witnesses. According to the UN representative, the information was cross-checked and verified with the help of several sources, including materials that were provided to the UN mission confidentially.
“The commissars conducted the work on the occupied territories, but not on this side, at least no one has spoken with me. Why haven’t the UN commissars talked with me?” asks the commander of the Donbas battalion Viacheslav Vlasenko.
He goes on saying that the UN attempted to whitewash the actions of the Russian troops and the terrorists of the L/DNR and killings of the Ukrainian forces and volunteer battalions by them:
“I think Moscow had a role in the report. I see in this report an attempt to present the militants as civilians. Yes, there were a lot of Ilovaisk citizens among the militants, they took up arms and started to fight against us. They were not peaceful citizens, it’s not true. Indeed, some civil citizens were killed. But not by the Donbas battalion.”
Ex-commander of the Donbas battalion Anatoliy Vinohrodskyi also stressed that the problem of the report is that the data for it was received two years after the events in Ilovaisk:
“All of us understand clearly that any monitoring missions on the occupied territories can’t work without the control of the FSB [Russia’s Federal Security Service] and MGB [security services of the ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’]. Up to 70% of people who were fighting against the Armed Forces of Ukraine were dressed in civilian clothes. 90% of the report is not true. They interviewed people in a state of extreme stress – during warfare. Ilovaisk was shot at by Grads, Uragans, artillery 6 times a day. It is reflected in the report, but it does not say who was shooting. That is why it says that 80% of buildings were destroyed. But they were destroyed on the territory which was controlled by Ukrainian soldiers because it was we [Ukrainian forces] whom they [the forces controlled by Russia] put under fire. We have the video and photo evidence,” Vinohrodskyi told Radio Svoboda.
Claims that Ukrainian soldiers abused civilians
According to the report, at least 36 civilians were killed. Four out of them could have been killed, others died after shelling. It also says that the sides of the conflict were involved in killing civilians, but this did not carry a mass or systematic nature. Nevertheless, the report states that four civilians were executed, two of them, according to the report, could have been killed by the representatives of volunteer battalions, in particular – the Donbas battalion.
Vinohrodkyi states that the report consists of a lot of inconsistencies:
“The paragraph which says that the fighters of the Donbas and Dnipro-1 battalions were at a checkpoint in Mnogopillia [a village near Ilovaisk] detained someone and put him in a hole – there was no such a thing, there were no soldiers of the Donbas battalion. It were the Armed Forces of Ukraine who were standing on the checkpoint.”
Vlasenko also commented:
“Regarding detaining and torturing civilians. We identified a reconnaissance-sabotage group of terrorists, they had weapons as well as two portable flamethrowers Shmel [Bumblebee] to kill us. They were arrested. Now it turned that, according to the report, they were civilians. Indeed some civilians were killed, but not by the Donbas battalion. On 26 August, a man who was hiding in a school bomb shelter went home for a phone charger. He was killed by a militant bullet. The others also were killed from shellings of the terrorists. I found the wife of this killed man, called the paramedics and ordered to bury him and others in the schoolyard because the air temperature was above +40 C. Then, the terrorists controlled the cemetery. Another killed man was in the area of our units and was detained and questioned regarding what he was doing here and where he lived. He could not answer, which is why he was detained. We planned to give him to Ukrainian Security Services later. However, shooting started from the territory of the Russian Federation. During the assault, he was mortally wounded.”
Vlasenko also described their attitude to other civilians:
“I did not allow any actions against civilians. Moreover, when we got to Ilovaisk on August 19, came to the bomb shelter in the school #14 and found the children and adults who were sitting in water up to their ankles, we came with our heads bowed and arms crossed on our chests. Later we found out that when the militants were retreating, they told them that ‘punishers of the Donbas battalion’ would come and kill everybody. To improve the atmosphere, the guys [from the Donbas battalion] started to pump out water from the basement, bought candies for children and started talking with them. Then the civilians realized that it was safe with us. If you ask them, they will confirm it.”
The report called upon the Ukrainian side to complete the probe into the events at Ilovaisk and to investigate the cases of alleged crimes against civilians by Ukrainian forces mentioned in the report.
So far there is no official answer of the Ukrainian side. Answering the question of a journalist on that Volodymyr Elchenko, the permanent representative of Ukraine in the UN said that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine does not have a ready answer on the UN report, as it addressed other ministries – the Ministry of Defence, Prosecutor General Office and Security Services of Ukraine.
Who is responsible in Ukraine
In its official investigation, Ukraine side puts all the blame on the Russian Federation, ignoring the responsibility of Ukrainian generals and blaming the volunteer battalions for all arbitrary actions.
“I think that the number of claims of Ukraine’s military prosecutor’s office against the Russian military criminals led by the head of the Russian Federation will eventually turn into quality. Maybe, some decisions in our support will be taken. However, not in the nearest future. The base should be worked on,” said Yuriy Butusov, editor-in-chief of the media Censor.net and the member of the commision of the investigation of the Ilovaisk tragedy in 2017, when the investigation has been completed.
At the same time, Butusov repeatedly addresses the issue of the responsibility of Ukrainian generals. On the fourth anniversary of the start of the Ilovaisk operation, he published documents proving that it were Ukrainian generals who gave the orders to start the disastrous endeavour.
“As during these four years the president’s propaganda continued to broadcast lies that the army was not attacking Ilovaisk, ‘the volunteer battalions went by themselves,’ ‘Korban and Kolomoiyskiy sent them [Hennadiy Korban, Dnipro politician and the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyiy]’ and was creating everything to take away from themselves the responsibility for deaths of people, let’s remind them about the documents. These are the originals of the military orders to take Ilovaisk under control which the 40th battalion received. The numbers with codes are given to the military prosecutor’s office…
Viktor Muzhenko was the commander of the Anti-Terrorist Operation on the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts… The case on the events in Ilovaisk is fully investigated, everything is identified.
Unfortunately, since 2016 the case on Ilovaisk lies in the Prosecutor’s General Office without progress. The Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko will not dare to pass it to court because the case would be a real verdict for the military generals.”
Recently, BBC published Muzhenko’s interview in which he again neglected the role of the volunteer battalions, who were the main Ukrainian force fighting and dying in Ilovaisk:
“In 2014 many volunteers [soldiers] were implementing common combat tasks with militaries. But when a military unit received an order, it stands and implements it. Regarding volunteers, in case of a threat, they can leave their positions and will not be responsible.”
The events before, during and after Ilovaisk operation proved that without ordinary Ukrainians joining the military forces in 2014, Ukraine could have hardly defended itself. At the same time, they were the main victims of the Russian aggression on the frontline. So the main question raised by the Ilovaisk events is: who sent those patriots ready to protect Ukraine till the end to their death – and why?