Ukraine pulls out troops from town in Luhansk Oblast despite military activity on the front

Entry-exit checkpoint Zolote at the March 2019 failed attempt to open it for pedestrians and vehicles. Photo: State Border Service of Ukraine

Entry-exit checkpoint Zolote at the March 2019 failed attempt to open it for pedestrians and vehicles. Photo: State Border Service of Ukraine 

War in the Donbas

On 29 October in Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast, before the forum “RE:THINK. Invest in Ukraine” kicked off, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko told journalists that at that moment Ukraine was beginning the disengagement of troops in the area of Zolote, Luhansk Oblast. One of the conditions for the pullout is the sustainable ceasefire in the area lasting for at least a week, that’s why Ukraine delayed the process earlier.

“In Zolote, the last fire attack occurred on 17 October, i.e. 10 days ago. Petrivske [Donetsk Oblast] will be next,” stressed the minister.

Previously, intentions to impose the so-called Steinmeier formula and to disengage troops sparked protests in Ukrainian cities since those who took to the streets see this President Zelenskyy’s peacemaking initiatives as steps towards capitulation.

Further on, Zelenskyy has planned a total withdrawal of Ukrainian troops along the entire 400-kilometer frontline.

Is the disengagement really needed and why is it rushed now?

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Rushed disengagement

According to the 29 October morning communiqué by the Joint-Forces Operation Staff,

“On 28 October, armed formations of the Russian Federation and its mercenaries violated the ceasefire regime 16 times.”

Among the weapons used for attacks were 82mm mortars, armaments of the infantry fighting vehicle BMP, various types of grenade launchers, heavy machine guns, and other firearms.

Five such attacks occurred near Zolote-4, one of the settlements comprising the town of Zolote, where reportedly “automatic grenade launchers, RPG [handheld grenade launchers], and small arms including heavy machine guns” were applied. The report stresses that the fire-attacks took place “outside the boundaries of the disengagement area.”

Later, the same press service gave more details, citing the Ukrainian part of the Joint Control and Coordination Center (JCCC), saying that Russia’s formations conducted the five attacks “in the five-kilometer zone near the disengagement area #2 (Zolote-4)” and concluded,

“Despite the readiness of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to disengage force and military equipment at the disengagement area #2, the occupiers show their unwillingness to observe the Minsk accords and undertaken obligations,” the report reads.

However, at noon, just one and a half hours after the JCCC report, Ukraine started pulling out its troops.

The JFO Staff in their Facebook post on the matter said that the process started at 12:00 from both sides and stressed, It became possible because the ceasefire regime was observed throughout the past week.”

This is obviously not true since even the same agency mentioned in its 27 October communique that on 26 October the Russian-hybrid forces fired on Ukrainian positions “near Zolote-4 (within the disengagement area) using heavy machine guns and other small arms.” Moreover, two more attacks engaging grenade launchers and small arms occurred on the same day near the same to-be-demilitarized zone in Luhansk Oblast.

Ukrainian Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov assures that the police are going to continue patrolling the Ukrainian settlements even after the Army will be withdrawn.

The JFO commander Kravchenko in his written replies to RFE/RL questions said that some 30 settlements may find themselves in the gray zone after the planned disengagements, however he also assured that local administrations will remain in towns and the servicemen of the National Police, the National Guard, and the State Border Service will secure the areas.

TV show as an excuse

Amid the anti-capitulation protests, a group of Ukrainian veterans from the Azov regiment arrived in Zolote in early October to stand against the disengagement of the Ukrainian troops from the area, which was initially planned for 7 October but was postponed since the Rusian-hybrid forces violated the ceasefire.

On 26 October, President Zelenkyy visited Zolote. In the morning of the day, phone footage surfaced on social media. It showed Zelenskyy opposing the military volunteers who protested against the disengagement in Zolote.

“Listen, I am the president of the country, I am on my 42nd year, I am not some patsy, I came and told to remove weapons [from Zolote]. And don’t you switch me to the protests,” Zelenskyy said in the phone video which also recorded a shotgun microphone and two large handheld TV cameras near him.

In the evening of the same day, the 1+1 TV channel broadcast a TV segment about Zelenskyy’s visit to Zolote. The footage featured Zelenskyy as a wise peacemaker and local residents who were eager to the shooting stopped and peace to come (read: the Ukrainian troops withdrawn). Various remarks of Zelenskyy addressed to the volunteers were shown in the segment, including the same “leaked” scene now as a professionally edited two-camera footage in TV series style with some shaky camera movements added.

On 28 October, Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that the Kremlin closely followed Zelenskyy’s visit to Zolote and some of his conversations there highlighted “the original source of these problems” implying that the volunteers are the problem which should be resolved.

According to Peskov, Zelenskyy should “force those detachments to obey his own orders, and only then one can talk about the preparations for the disengagement, which, for its part, is an important component of the preparation for holding the [Normandy] summit.”

Russian propaganda has been presenting the Ukrainian military volunteers as warmongers and the Russian state-run media even often cite the fake stories about infighting between the volunteer detachments and Ukrainian regular troops.

Why now?

The only reason why the disengagements are rushed without Russia taking any Donbas-related obligations is to meet the Russian demands for the Normandy Four meeting to take place.

The so-called Normandy Four are meetings of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France to settle peace in Ukraine’s war-torn Donbas region.

Zelenskyy wants direct talks with Putin about the Donbas, however, everything he had in his almost half year presidency was a few phone conversations with the Russian leader.

In his comment, Ukraine’s FM Prystaiko called the ongoing disengagement in Zolote and the upcoming one in Petrivske “one last push to set a Normandy summit in November”:

The German foreign office has welcomed the Zolote disengagement and said the process needs to continue “in other parts of the region”:

The Russian President’s aide Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s handler for the Donbas, welcomed the disengagement in Zolote with almost the same words as Prytaiko.

“If it succeeds in Zolote, one should immediately start similar procedures in Petrivske. After that, not losing momentum, [one should] start preparing for the ‘Normandy summit’ ,” Surkov commented to the Russian news agency TASS.

Commenting to Interfax Ukraine on the Zolote disengagement, President Zelenskyy said, “I hope that the Normandy Format [meeting] has been brought way closer.” According to him, the main purpose of the disengagement is to reduce the possibility to conduct fire attacks while the Normandy meeting itself is another opportunity to impose a ceasefire in the region.

Meanwhile, in the evening of 29 October, another rally against Zelenskyy’s efforts took place in Kyiv near the President’s Office, dubbed “Not one step back”:

One of the organizers of the protest, former MP Denys Levus, said,

“Our only demand is that all risks related to the setback should be considered. Second, the position of the authorities should be transparent enough in this case.”


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