DONETSK, Ukraine — The new pro-Moscow leader in the breakaway republic of Donetsk bragged openly today that Russia has strengthened his besieged rebel forces with men, armored vehicles and tanks. His boast would appear to confirm Ukrainian claims that the Kremlin is stepping up backing for the insurgents, defying the West with a dangerous escalation of the conflict Russian President Vladimir Putin said midweek he hoped would end soon.
Alexander Zaharchenko, who was appointed “prime minister” of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic earlier this week, told The Daily Beast that the rebels have received reinforcements from across the border, and specified in an interview with Russian radio station that “1,200 men trained in Russia have joined his force and that separatists have received also 120 armored personnel carriers and 30 tanks.”
It remains unclear whether this was the military column British reporters saw crossing the border at the dead of night Thursday near Izvarino, or whether this was a separate column. The “humanitarian” convoy that has attracted international attention does not appear to have been directly involved.
Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko told British leader David Cameron in a phone call Friday that Ukrainian artillery had opened up on the Russian column seen crossing on Thursday night and that a large part of it had been destroyed. Ukraine’s Security Council spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, told reporters in Kiev that reconnaissance units had followed the column setting up an artillery ambush for it. Kremlin officials deny they dispatched any column across the border on Thursday, slamming the allegation as fantasy.
Separatist leaders here scoff at Kiev’s claims of an ambush.
For weeks, Ukrainian security officials have been reporting daily Russian incursions across the border and have been insisting that arms supplies and fighters are being sent to Ukraine’s two eastern-most regions in a bid to maintain the separatist insurgency. Independent verification of Kiev’s accusations is rare and confirmation by rebel leaders is rarer still, adding to the significance of Zaharchenko’s boast.
He first told a handful of reporters, including The Daily Beast, about the reinforcements late Friday and repeated his claim in a radio interview today with Russia’s Ekho Moskvy.
And more reinforcements may be on their way. According to locals near Izvarino contacted by phone, another 80 military vehicles, including 50 armored personnel carriers, are lined up poised to cross into Ukraine.
The reinforcements claimed by Zaharchenko may go someway to explain the apparent confidence still being projected by insurgent fighters, who have been on the back foot for weeks now in the face of Ukraine’s sustained counter-insurgency operation.
Ukrainian forces have taken back a swathe of territory once controlled by the pro-Moscow separatists – officials say three-quarters of what was once held by the rebels has been recovered, including large towns such as Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, once the headquarters of suspected Russian military intelligence officer Igor Strelkov, who quit as the rebels’ military commander this week in what some analysts thought was a sign of disarray in rebel ranks.
But in recent days there has been a growing swagger to rebel fighters in Donetsk, even if they remain twitchy under the barrage of Ukrainian government artillery shelling. Zaharchenko on Friday night projected defiance rather than bravado, no doubt buoyed by the Moscow-sent materiel and fighters.
The going certainly has got much harder for Ukrainian forces as they try to tighten security nooses around the large separatist-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
And despite the claims of Kiev officials they are making progress, the assault appears to have stalled, at least around Donetsk, where government units made up of regular soldiers and volunteers are relying on Grad rocket strikes and artillery shelling to shift rebels and undermine their morale.
That tactic doesn’t seem to be working—except to knock down the morale of Donetsk residents, who are terrified of the Grad strikes. On Thursday the multiple-launch rockets (successors to what once were called Stalin Organs), reached deep into the city and struck a shopping center and another downtown district reportedly killing four people and wounding several others.
Ukraine officials claim the rebels are firing off the rockets themselves for propaganda purposes in order to put the blame on Kiev. But both sides appear less than discriminating about where they are firing, and combatants from both sides operate in residential areas, mixing in with civilians. So it is not surprising that strikes are going astray. The ordnance being used is old and far from accurate. A strike on Wednesday night that hit a southeastern district of Donetsk and hit several homes appears to have had as its target a nearby military college occupied by rebels.
The shelling isn’t helping to move government forces forwards significantly. For more than a week fighters from the volunteer Dnipro Battalion have failed to advance and establish control of the village of Pisky on the western edge of the city. On Thursday, government fighters there appeared downhearted, having suffered reversals and a sustained mortar-led counter-attack by separatists, which left several (the fighters wouldn’t say exactly how many) dead.
The company commander had also been badly wounded, they said, as they hunkered down under a highway overpass.
“The situation is bad,” 28-year-old former accountant and Donetsk native Victor told me. “It has been a bad day for us. … They have been moving positions and firing mortars all over the place. It is very dangerous here—a mortar fell close to where you are standing now.”
The bearded volunteer, wearing an over-sized black flack jacket, said rebel resistance had stiffened. “They have been reinforced,” he mused. His friend, 30-year-old Artyom, nodded in agreement. But he added: “We must move forward. I am fighting for my country and my history and my son.”
Similarly in Avdiivka, an outlying town close to the airport and train station of Donetsk, there has been no progress forward by Ukrainian forces since they took back the town from separatists on July 30, 17 days ago. There a Ukrainian regular told The Daily Beast they were coming under frequent mortar fire from rebel positions.
Government forces have failed after weeks of intense fighting to subjugate separatists holed up in the town of Horlivka, although three days ago officials claimed they had seized control of a stretch of the highway between Horlivka and Donetsk.
What creeping advances the government has been able to make on some fronts are being matched by setbacks. Kiev officials had claimed they had managed to cut the H21 highway linking Donetsk to the Russian border but on Friday locals say they saw nine Russian tanks without markings clanking down the road.