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Ukraine on a roll: The battle for Lysychansk

Ukraine on a roll: The battle for Lysychansk

By Michael Hammerschlag

Kyiv: I reached my friend Andriy Samooborona (of the Maidan self-defense militia) at the front on Sunday, where I didn’t even know he was until his last call 5-6 days ago: “I’m in a battle, can’t talk.” He was out of touch until today, when he went on R&R from the National Guard in Artemivsk, site of the largest weapons depot in Europe. He was relaxing after 10 days straight of heavy fighting: right now for Lysychansk, which he says Ukrainian forces took on Saturday. “They’re still attacking us from some places at the edge of the city (probably with mortars), but we control the whole city… It was heavy fighting – street to street. We (a battalion of 400) lost 5 men, 17 were wounded, and the Seps [separatists] lost 500.” (Maybe he meant 50, but he did repeat it; wildly high body counts have often been claimed by the Ukrainian ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation]). In the 48 hours before 2pm on Sunday, 17 Ukrainian troops were killed.

Lysychansk was the first place in the Donbas region to discover coal in 1710 and the first to mine it in 1795. A picturesque city of 105,000 on a bluff above the Siverskyi Donets River, it is part of a tri-city complex of 350,000 with Sievierodonetsk and Rubizhne (where a Ukrainian column suffered heavy losses in a mass attack on May 22). It was also part of a huge chemical complex with production plants for soda, glass and rubber; an oil refinery; and 5 coal mines. But every plant was closed in the last 14 years through the schemes of corrupt oligarchs (some by Party of Regions head Oleksandr Yefremov), leaving the place destitute and the people desperate. They voted 90% for Yanukovych in 2010, blaming their troubles on Kyiv. It was a major separatist center, more so after the fall of Sloviansk and other cities to Ukrainian forces.

Rebel guerrilla with Kalashnikov PKMS (1000M range) in front of Ukrainian tank crew he might have killed.

Allegedly, many separatists fled on July 22 in commandeered and stolen cars, but enough remained to put up a stiff resistance. “The northern part of the city is 50% destroyed – the city has no electricity, water, or phones,” said Andriy. “We are giving the people food and bread – they have nothing.” Ukrainian forces attacked with two 400 man battalions, 20 tanks, and 100 APCs [Armored Personnel Carriers] (BMPs [БМП: Infantry Fighting Vehicle]) “The APCs saved our life many times. I saw 2 attack jets.” (Probably SU-25’s–4 have already been downed by deadly missile fire, 2 of them after MH17 was shot down). Because of the reluctance to do direct close-quarter fighting, both sides have engaged in distance shelling with mortars, artillery, and rockets. Some are very inaccurate, so civilian losses have mounted, 1130 the UNHCR now says [Ed. note: Probably actually the count by the Human Rights Monitoring Mission of Ukraine (HRMMU).]. With the 350 Ukrainian soldiers dead and perhaps 1500 separatists, fatalities in this ginned up [artificially created] civil war are now nearing 3000. [Ed. note: These statistics are highly debated and numbers reported for civilian deaths may also include soldiers and/or separatists.] Separatists’ anti-tank rounds, captured in Lysychansk.

He speaks respectfully of the rebels: “They are very well led – very good commanders, some of ours aren’t that good, some are drunk. And all the equipment they have is top-notch, new, from Russia. We recovered 2 boxes of Iglas [Russian-made surface-to-air missiles], but they have a lot more of them. They would shoot at us and we would fire back with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], and then they were just in pieces.” Ukrainians found a large arsenal of weapons and ammunition in Lysychansk, the ATO spokesman reported: “A KamAZ truck loaded with missiles for Strela 10 anti-aircraft missile systems, a lot of firearms, mortars, guns… and new-generation sniper rifles manufactured in the Russian Federation.” Strela 10’s are truck mounted heat-seeking missiles (2) with a 3 mile (5km) range and a 1.5 mile (2.3km) altitude, much less than the Buk system (14 mi) that brought down MH17. After 4 years of treason by 4 ex-Russian Ukrainian minister 5th-columnists, who deliberately crippled the military, and its early months of floundering, Russians now have a new respect for Ukrainians. A radio intercept has them saying: “The Ukrainians fight much better – this is not Chechnya, it’s is a full-fledged army… We’ve been battering them every day for 2 weeks and nothing.”

Antyufeyev, new DNR leader from Moscow.

Most Russian Sep leaders are linked to FSB or GRU, Russian intelligence/spy agencies, and have fought in Chechnya, Bosnia, Crimea, and/or Georgia, where ruthless behavior, even atrocities, was the norm. In a sign that Moscow is taking direct control, DNR [Donetsk People’s Republic] head Borodai went to Moscow and returned with a new deputy “Prime Minister”–Vladimir Antyufeyev, the hardened 20 year security chief of the breakaway Moldovan strip known as Trans-Dniester [T-D]. Meanwhile, the last Ukrainian leaders of the Separatists,  Alexander Khodokovsky (who admitted to journalists that they had shot down MH17) and Dennis Pushlin, were forced out. With the new Russian weapons, this seems to be an indication that Putin wants a T-D like frozen conflict in order to bleed Ukraine indefinitely… or it could mean the opposite. Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov) has directly threatened Putin that he could wind up like the deposed tsar if he failed to back the Seps (again in a recent piece by his advisor). A dangerous business, considering Putin’s reaction to other’s meddling in politics (i.e. [Russian oligarch] Khodorkovsky’s 10 years in a cage). If Putin wants to pull the plug on the whole insurgency and remove Strelkov or Borodai, Antyufeyev is the type of person to do it.

The rebels now constitute perhaps 10,000 men. About 60% of them are Russian, estimates Aussie photo-journalist Demjin Doroschenko, who has been everywhere in the area for 3 months. After being taken hostage in the Donetsk Administration Building (and miraculously freed), he went back to the same place to get his Donetsk People’s Republic press badge, which gave him relative immunity. But Strelkov, in a recent post, bemoaned the fact that he could only get 1100 volunteers from the 4.6 million people in Donetsk region (indicating the real depth of support for unification with Russia), so the ratio of Russians may be far higher. Andriy continued: Lysychansk citizens (freed from the robberies and extortion of the rebels), “would come to us and tell us where the Seps were. I went to one house and arrested this guy and asked, ‘Why did you fight us?’ He said, ‘I wanted to fight the Banderites’ (followers of Ukrainian WWII independence fighter and “terrorist” Stepan Bandera).” Andriy snapped back, “I AM a Banderite. Am I shooting you, torturing you? What were you thinking?” The rebel replied ruefully, “I guess I’m stupid”. UNHCR [UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)] lists 812 kidnappings conducted by the separatists, along with ransom demands, torture, and executions.

Donetsk resident being arrested/kidnapped by separatists.

The Ukrainian offensive was continuing with great success, despite a flood of new Russian weapons across the still-open border at Izvaryne. Including more advanced multi-missile systems than the Grads: Tornado and Uragan (“hurricane”) One of the many recent columns had 100 vehicles, the Pentagon said. Another 50 crossed the morning of July 31st and maybe 200-250 more vehicles in the last week–tanks, artillery, APCs, and missile trucks that came through 4 open border crossings. “They were firing at us with Uragan missiles,” said Andriy, referring to a 220mm multi-missile (16) large truck-launched system with a 22 mile (35km) range, and apparently also with rocket and artillery shelling from Russia. A new Russian border artillery fortification is far northwest of Sumy (an oblast north-west of Kharkiv) and another Grad system sits opposite Chernihiv, only 100 miles northeast of Kyiv!! America wheeled out satellite photos showing the rocket launch burns and impacts across the border in Russia– there are dozens of these now. Grads can be pretty fearsome weapons themselves, able to pulverize everything within the range of several US football fields. They killed 23 and 19 Ukrainians on July11th and 13th; another 21 on Jul 31 between Torez and Shakhtarsk [in the Donetsk Oblast]. Both sides have been using these inaccurate unguided rockets. All these missiles have partially negated Ukrainian air power, against which no insurgency could hold out for long. But, since the start of the ATO, Ukrainians have taken back control of 7 of 10 the TV towers controlled by Seps–and they just restarted Ukrainian TV in Lysychansk.

Ukrainian armor devastated by Grad rockets.

Meanwhile, Russia has been socked with new sanctions by the EU and America. More are in the works by the US, UK, Germany, France, and Italy – going after Russian banks (at an estimated cost of $135 billion over 2 years). Their stock market has taken a dive, a Dutch arbitration court awarded a stunning $50 billion to Yukos [Oil Company] shareholders for the Kremlin/Rosneft stealing it after crushing [CEO] Khodorkovsky, Britain restarted a probe on the murder of [former FSB agent and whistleblower] Litvenenko, the MH17 black box showed signs of explosive decompression from a missile strike, and there is a looming palace revolt by Russian oligarchs. Putin rattled nuclear sabres on Sunday [July 27th] (Navy Day), celebrating the building of Russia’s 4th new Borei class ICBM boomer submarine in the Murmansk shipyard. America hasn’t built a new boomer since the 80s, the Trident, which I’ve seen steaming around the Puget Sound – pretty amazing, a ship that could kill 300 million people. Government soldiers have also taken Sievierodonetsk, Debaltseve, the historic monument hill Saur-Mohyla, and they are battling for Pervomaisk and the crucial cities Shakhtarsk and Torez, which would cut the last direct road from Donetsk to Luhansk. This would completely isolate Donetsk, which already has little power, water, mobile service, or money, according to Demjin. Explosions could be heard in the background from fighting at the Donetsk train station: “The rebels are stopping trains from leaving,” Demjin said. They are cutting off escape for anyone without cars, though many have already left. Luhansk is also without power.

Buk Missile System

The cities near the Malaysian Air crash site–Torez, Shakhtarsk, and Snizhne (where the Buk rocket truck was just before it shot down the airliner) – are under heavy Government assault. As is Horlivka, Sep stronghold of notorious leader “Demon” Bezler, who was reportedly behind the MH17 shootdown and the torture and murder of Horlivka city councilman Rybak. Rybak had tried to raise the Ukrainian flag over the council building, along with 2 college students who were accused of being Pravyi Sector [Right Sector]. Their stomachs were slit open before they were dumped in the river. On July 27th Bezler disappeared, by the 28th  Borodai had somehow escaped back to Moscow, and Antyufeyev declared himself acting PM. Girkin gave a rambling Donetsk press conference Monday night [July 28th]. As of Wednesday afternoon [July 30th], Seps, reinforced with shiny Russian gear, are fiercely counterattacking at Saur-Mohyla hill (a strategic Sep shelling spot for months). They are shelling from Snizhne, Torez, and Shakhtarsk with 155mm big guns (6″) and their hundreds of new Russian artillery, rockets, and vehicles, because it’s the lifeline between the cities. “You’ve got to… occupy Krasnodarske. Occupy Shakhtarsk. Cut off their supply. If they get through, it’s good-bye,” Strelkov [Girkin] says to his commander in an intercepted conversation, ordering him to destroy a large Ukrainian Hirne encampment of over 107 vehicles. A large column of Sep vehicles was also rolling just east of Donetsk in Makiyivka. If you wait a few days or weeks in Ukraine, everything is reversed, then redone, then re-reversed–it’s an exhausting phenomenon. Thursday [July 31st] Kyiv declared an open  humanitarian corridor for 10am-4pm daily–for refugees to escape Luhansk – and a day of peace to let investigators check out MH17 site (which they did), but it wasn’t observed by the Seps. There was a devastating Grad missile shelling of Ukrainians near Shakhtarsk on July 31st–21 killed, 20 wounded?–as the Seps followed Strelkov’s orders to prevent Donetsk from being isolated. “They’re being pounded from 4 sides with Grads. They said goodbye.” The Seps proudly posed with the shredded bodies, showing their contemptible callousness.

Then comes the struggle for Donetsk (1 million population and showplace of Ukraine’s richest man: Akhmetov), which if the rebels are as apocalyptic as they promise, could become a hellhole of guerrilla fighting. But, to date, they have always withdrawn rather than fight to the bitter end. Somewhere in the back of their minds, they know this is all a project of the Little Big Man, not something worth dying for. Mercenaries like the adventure and the money, they don’t like dying. Ukrainians, however, are fighting for their homeland against a foreign invasion, and many are fervent patriots. There ARE no fascists, no Nazis, in Kyiv. If America weighed in with some HARM anti-missile (anti-radar) missiles (to destroy Buks and Strelas)… this sad and unnecessary bloodletting could be over in 2 weeks. Taking into account the West’s utter failure to enforce the 1994 Budapest Memorandum–the pledge to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for giving up nuclear weapons (signed by the US, England, and Russia) – it is the least they could do, considering the flood of Russian fighters and weapons. When will any other nation… like… Iran, fall for that pledge again? (Biden did announce $8 million to Ukrainian border guards on Friday, but without more weapons there won’t be any border!)

A Russian tank, in Russia, heading for the Ukrainian border near Izvariyne.

Michael Hammerschlag’s articles ( have appeared in NYT, IHT, Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Yahoo, Hawaii Advertiser; Moscow News, Tribune, Times, and Guardian, Novaya Gazeta; Kyiv Post, Kyiv Weekly, Politics in Ukraine, and Business Ukraine. He’s spent 9 of the last 23 years in Russia and Ukraine, has covered this story since (FULL COVERAGE) November 1st, wrote 2 long articles on the EU Association Agreement and Crimean Invasion for Yahoo, and warned of Ukraine’s loss of Independence in May 2010 after Yanukovych’s election.

Edited for ease of reading by Elizabeth Martin

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