MOSCOW—The war in eastern Ukraine expanded from the Donetsk region to the outskirts of the strategic port city of Mariupol on Saturday as rockets fell on cars and pedestrians. At least 30 people were killed, including a 15-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy. The attack also wounded about 100 civilians.
The question now is: Who bombed Mariupol? Neither side in the conflict claimed responsibility.
The attack on Mariupol is a major expansion of the conflict. Its capture by rebel forces would help link up the rebellious eastern regions—supported by Moscow—with the Russian-annexed Crimea, allowing Russia’s proxies to push hundreds of kilometers west toward Kiev.
Shortly before the attack, pro-Russian rebels posted two videos online. In one of them, Donetsk locals gathered at a bus station to put flowers in memory of victims killed in mortar fire earlier that week.
In the video, the leader of the Donetsk rebel republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, stood before the crowd and pronounced: “Today an offensive was launched on Mariupol.” The next target would be Dybaltsevo, he said—“God willing”—and that in a couple of days his forces would give the Ukrainian troops a bloody fight, using the Russian word for “boiler.” He was referring to the November 2014 battle in Ilovaisk, which was a massacre of government troops. The crowd applauded wildly; somebody screamed: “Alleluia!”
But later that day, Zakharchenko appeared in a second video. This time he looked upset and sounded less self-confident. This time, the leader of the self-proclaimed republic insisted that Mariupol would be “liberated” without killing civilians. “We are not animals,” the rebel leader insisted. “We are not going to storm Mariupol the same way Kiev does it in Donetsk.”
Zakharchenko also said he did not see any more reasons to negotiate with Kiev, and that his commanders would not agree to move artillery away from the front lines. In his call for an offensive strategy, he also promised to order his commanders not to take any prisoners: “We don’t need any more exchanges,” he said.
During the first few hours after the rocket attack on Mariupol, observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) inspected the area. The OSCE said that projectiles were launched from rebel-held territories, but on Sunday, Russian state Duma deputies—and rebels in Donetsk—denied the results of the investigation. Deputy Leonid Slutskiy said that shooting was “a provocation” by Ukrainian forces before the upcoming meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
“As far as I know the fire came from a GRAD [a multiple launch rocket system.] Our troops don’t have artillery capable of reaching the location of the shelling,” said rebel spokesman Denis Pushilin on Saturday.
Pro-Kremlin analysts were not sure who to blame for the shelling of Mariupol. “OSCE should not be in a hurry to make statements,” Sergei Markov, a member of the lower house of Russia’s Duma, told The Daily Beast. “But even if DNR did shell Mariupol by mistake, 30 victims cannot be compared to Kiev’s deliberate massacre of thousands of people in Luhansk and Donetsk regions.”
Markov also said that when he spoke to the crowd in Donetsk, Zakharchenko could not have been serious.
“What he really wanted to say was that his forces should push Ukrainians at least 50 kilometers away from Donetsk city,” he said.
Yuriy Krupnov, a pro-Kremlin analyst, also commented on rebels’ plans in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Rebels don’t have enough power to take over Mariupol with half a million population.”
Was the Kremlin pushing the rebels to attack more Ukrainian territories? Pro-Kremlin experts insisted that Russian President Vladimir Putin did not intend to support offensive operations in Ukraine right now. That was the reason why Moscow allies like Zakharchenko changed his rhetoric several times a day.
“We have crises in our political power circles,” said Krupnov. “From any point of view, economic or military, we are not ready to move forward.”
Krupnov blamed the Russian business elite for influencing Putin’s decision to stop massive Russian military operations in Ukraine: “We’ve got Crimea, they told him and that’s enough,” Krupnov said of the arguments in the Kremlin.
Krupnov also blamed Washington for bringing “Afghanistan chaos” to Ukraine. He is convinced that the Russian military should have been more active in Donbas back in April.
“Hillary Clinton once said the United States should slow down or prevent our efforts to re-Sovietize the region or promote greater economic integration in Eurasia,” Krupnov said, referring to the then-U.S. Secretary of State’s comments back in 2012. “So if we don’t push now, if don’t integrate at least the south and east of Ukraine, we’ll have to forget all our dreams about a Eurasian Union.”