Ukrainian troops now control two-thirds of the country’s Donbas region, a top Ukrainian security official says, nine days after they resumed their counter-offensive against Russian-backed insurgents. Ukraine’s military “will continue to tighten the containment” of the separatist militias, and will support local civilian populations in pressing militia units to disband and send their Russian fighters back to Russia, said Andriy Parubiy, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.
“Our plan will include both blocking the terrorists within the zones that they hold, and supporting the local people,” Parubiy said in an online discussion moderated by the Atlantic Council’s Damon Wilson. “We already have seen situations in which local residents have been asking the terrorists to get out of their neighborhoods, and thus dismantling the terrorists’ strongholds by themselves.” Ukrainian officials say they have been working to elaborate a plan to defeat the separatist militias without making a frontal assault on the densely populated provincial capitals, Luhansk and Donetsk, where they are now concentrating as they retreat. The separatist fighters, who at their peak numbered perhaps 50,000, now have fewer than the 20,000 combatants they claim to be assembling in Donetsk, the Donbas region’s largest city, Parubiy said.
Nine days after resuming their counter-offensive against the Russian-backed militias, Ukrainian troops have established control at all road crossings of the Ukrainian-Russian border, blocking any further supply of tanks, armored vehicles or supply convoys to the separatist fighters, Parubiy said. Still, terrorists are trying to bring weapons, ammunition and reinforcements over the hills, through the forests and across the Sivertskyi Donets River,” which forms the border east of the city of Luhansk, he said. While Ukrainian troops are trying to shut down these off-road supply routes, “we believe that smaller groups are still getting across the border.”
New Evidence of Russia’s Sponsorship of War in Ukraine
The separatist militia’s chaotic retreat this week from the Ukrainian army assault on their former military headquarters at Slaviansk has produced more clear evidence of Russia’s role in sponsoring the war, Parubiy said. Ukrainian troops have recovered weapons manufactured in Russia and separatist leaders this week disputed openly with their backers in Moscow this week over whether the amounts and types of weapons sent from Russia were sufficient, even posting videos of their arguments on YouTube.
“In their public quarrels, the terrorists have started to expose even the numbers and specific details of the weaponry that the Russian side has sent to them,” Parubiy said.
“Today, [Russian army Col. Igor] Girkin, the so-called minister of defense of this so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, who escaped from Slaviansk, gave a TV interview in which he was blaming the local population for failing to join the terrorists,” Parubiy said. Girkin “said openly that they are ready to pay 8,000 hryvnia, about $700, to anyone who would like to join” – another sign of the separatists’ weak support among Donbas residents, and their consequent dependence on Russian ultra-nationalist fighters and mercenaries.
Startling evidence of the separatists’ role as a Russian government proxy force is that the militias have handed over their most prominent prisoner from the war – Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko – to Russian government custody. A separatist militia in Luhansk province captured Savchenko last month, and displayed her in a videotaped interrogation of her posted to YouTube on June 19.
“Right now, Ms. Savchenko is located in sovereign Russian territory, and this is clear, hard proof of how close is the cooperation between the terrorists fighting in Ukraine and the Russian government. She was captured by the terrorists … near the city of Luhansk,” said Parubiy. “This is Ukrainian territory. How did she get to Russian sovereign territory?”
Among the highlights of Parubiy’s discussion were these:
- On Kyiv’s military strategy against the separatists: “Definitely, we will advance. Every day, our containment belt around the territories that unfortunately are still held by the terrorists will become tighter and tighter. Today, Ukrainian forces control thirteen out of eighteen districts of Donetsk province and ten out of eighteen districts of Luhansk province. Every day, more cities are coming under Ukrainian control.”
- On Russian infiltration of Ukraine’s border: “The Ukrainian government for more than ten years has been asking Russia to join in demarcating the border on the ground, and Russia has been using excuses to avoid this. … So much of the actual border remains unprotected.” In June, “insurgents managed to take control of several border-crossing points on the frontier with Russia.” During the unilateral Ukrainian cease-fire in the conflict declared by President Poroshenko from June 20 to June 30, “the terrorists used those days to bring in tanks and special forces fighters.” After Poroshenko cancelled the truce, the Ukrainian military quickly “re-took control of the vast majority of the border” with Russia. “The Ukrainian military now has established checkpoints on all the main roads, which previously have been used for the re-supply of the terrorists with personnel, technical equipment and weapons, including tanks.” Ukrainian forces have destroyed “most of these tanks and this heavy equipment that was trafficked into Ukraine during that time.” Still, terrorists are trying to bring in their supplies over the hills, through the forests and across the Sivertskyi Donets River,” which forms the border east of the city of Luhansk. While Ukrainian troops are trying to shut down these off-road supply routes, “we believe that smaller groups are still getting across the border.”
- On rehabilitating towns damaged by the fighting: “The key task of the Ukrainian government now is to restore order and a normal course of life in the territories that were under the control” of the insurgents.” Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko visited Slaviansk yesterday (July 8), and both military and civil agencies are working to restore electricity, train service and other basic needs.
- On the revival of Ukraine’s armed forces: “Ukraine’s army, national guard and border security force are in a much better condition than when we had our previous online conversation (on March 27).” Russian President Vladimir Putin, encouraged policies by Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych that contributed to the hollowing out of Ukraine’s military and intelligence services. Putin “didn’t think Ukrainians would be able to rebuild our military and intel services right in the middle of fight for our own land.” During the crisis, Ukraine has improved the leadership of its forces and the cooperation among the various branches of its military and intelligence services. “During the [June 20 to 30] cease-fire, we were able to regroup our troops and re-draw our plans, and as soon as the truce ended, we implemented them.”
- On the dispersion of the Russian-backed separatist militias: “They exaggerate the numbers of people they have fighting under their control. … In general, we estimate that the total forces of the terrorists … reached 50,000 people. A portion of these have fled following the Ukrainian military’s recapture of Slaviansk,” and “are trying to get back into Russian territory.” Even with these defections, the insurgents “still are a big threat to Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity. They are well trained and well equipped, but the number they are citing of 20,000” fighters in the city of Donetsk “is a big exaggeration.”
- On infighting among the separatist forces. “The internal divisions among the separatists are deepening. … One of the issues is the funds controlled by Girkin – actually, a big amount of money provided to him by Moscow.” Other separatist leaders in Donbas have issued a deadline, demanding that Girkin return that money to the common funds of the rebel movement. “Different factions are competing for leadership of the whole movement,” and armed confrontations have been reported between rival groups. “Many of them [separatist faction leaders] are going to Moscow and trying to speak to Putin directly, [each trying] to show him that he is Putin’s most reliable ally and will fight for him better than the others. … They are seeking bigger political influence and a greater amount of the money flowing from Russia” for the war.
- On Russian border guards' collaboration in arming the separatist uprising. The reinforcement of separatist forces that was seen during the June 20 to 30 truce, including the passage of tanks or of truckloads of heavily armed men driving into Ukraine at formal border crossings, “cannot be done without the coordination of high-ranking Russian officials,” Parubiy said. “Does Russia control its border or not? Certainly, they do. ... My big question is: How do Russian tanks, Russian BTRs [armored personnel carriers], heavy Russian trucks fully packed with Russian terrorists – how do they cross the Russian border into Ukraine? Is this a sign that Putin is unable to control his border guards? Maybe Putin is completely helpless in his own country?” Russia’s claims that the insurgency is a spontaneous uprising of Ukrainians “is 100 percent propaganda – a Goebbels-type propaganda.”
- On the potential effect of Western economic sanctions on Russia. “We do deeply believe that the third stage of sanctions [meaning broad sanctions against entire sectors of Russia’s economy] is the means that may heavily influence Putin. Putin is spending extreme amounts of money in Europe in order to influence European politicians, in order to show that he has no connection to what is happening in Ukraine. He wants to show it as an internal Ukrainian issue, and to avoid the third stage of sanctions from happening. He wants to divide Europe … and the United States. He understands that strength lies in unity. … If we don’t stop Putin right now, here in Ukraine, … ‘Girkins’ will appear in Kazakhstan, in Belarus, in the Baltics.”
- On international support received by Ukraine so far. “The help we have received from our partners has been food rations and bulletproof vests. I want to express our gratitude to the United States for providing us with food rations as well as bulletproof vests. This is really important for our soldiers. We do need modern helmets, we need modern communications equipment, and high-precision weaponry. But anyway, let me again express gratitude for the help of our partners. ... I have one other important message. … The whole Ukraine is crowd-funding support for the citizens of areas taken [by the insurgents] as well as for our soldiers on the front line. It shows us that Ukraine is united, and the support of Ukrainian citizens and their solidarity is, to my mind the biggest weapon we have. ... If you would like Europe to be peaceful, let’s stop Putin together.”