Tensions

Ukraine's Soldiers at One Post Fight but Want to Go Home


Ukraine's policemen stand guard outside the military base where pro-Russian separatists attacked on April 17 in Mariupol, Ukraine

Photograph by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Ukraine's policemen stand guard outside the military base where pro-Russian separatists attacked on April 17 in Mariupol, Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers who repelled an attack staged by pro-Russian separatists in the southeast city of Mariupol on the night of Wednesday, April 16, are now being lauded as heroes. They are even being offered rewards by the country’s second-richest man. But they appear as angry and frustrated with the Ukrainian government as they are with its opponents.

The separatists, often backed by heavily armed men wearing no insignia, have been seizing government buildings and erecting barricades on main roads across the coal-rich region of Donbass in eastern Ukraine for the past two weeks. Similar events preceded the Russian occupation of Crimea in March. The pro-Western Ukrainian government that came to power after the victory of Kiev’s Independence Square protests in February launched an antiterror operation in the region on Sunday, April 13. But the government has so far failed to change the situation on the ground, while the campaign has exposed the low morale and confused loyalties of the Ukrainian troops.

The compound that houses Interior Troops unit 3057 now has brand-new gates—the old ones were destroyed in the attack. But there are still no windows in the adjacent checkpoint booth now guarded by three soldiers: In the attack, bullets shattered the glass.

The 19-year-old conscripts by the booth wouldn’t give their names, but they did not hesitate to criticize Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov for the government’s decision to extend the soldiers’ service term indefinitely due to unrest in the east of the country.

“Please get this message across—we only gave our oath for a year, and this term expires April 25. We expected to be home with our families by then,” one of the soldiers said. The unit commander could not be reached for comment.

Two in the trio were positioned inside the booth at the time of the attack. The same two spent the winter months in Kiev’s Independence Square, where they were often deployed to link arms and act as a human barrier between riot police and pro-Western protesters. One soldier compared their pro-Russia opponents with the pro-Western protesters. “These pro-Russians here have no idea how to make petrol bombs. They made no damage at all, apart from burnt curtains. Perhaps they used vodka instead of petrol. In Kiev, they threw real stuff at us—they were pros,” he said.

The soldiers appeared to be strongly opposed to the Independence Square movement, which succeeded in ousting President Viktor Yanukovych and forming a new government in February. But they also seemed confused and disoriented after coming under attack by people they saw as allies back at the base.

“I am sure you’ll be now calling these attackers pro-Russians and separatists, as Ukrainian journalists do, while they are simply provocateurs,” said one of the soldiers. But later in the conversation he slipped into calling them pro-Russian several times.

The crowd that attacked his unit was formed near the city administration building now controlled by separatists. A member of the separatist city council, Yury Gizha, said the attack had been prompted by rumors that there were conscripts who weren’t allowed to return home, although their service term was over. Back at the checkpoint, the soldiers denied this version of events: “It’s nonsense. They demanded that we hand weapons to them. Our commander refused, so they started to attack.”

The attack was eventually repelled by gunfire: Three attackers died, and 13 were injured. Later, during the night, Ukrainian special forces mopped up the city, arresting dozens of suspected attackers. The repulsed attack was celebrated as a success for the Ukrainian army in the east after several humiliating incidents, in which the separatists disarmed soldiers and confiscated armored vehicles.

The government of the neighbouring Dnipropetrovsk region, led by Ukraine’s second-richest man, Ihor Kolomoysky, announced on Saturday it would pay 500,000 hryvnya (just under $50,000) to the soldiers who beat back the attack. It was unclear from the announcement, made on Facebook (FB) by Vice Governor Borys Filatov, how this money would be shared.

The same Filatov, who was forced to flee Ukraine out of fear of arrest by the Yanukovych regime during the Independence Square protests, is now pushing for an investigation into the actions of law-enforcement bodies at the time.

The soldiers in Mariupol are still haunted by memories of the Kiev standoff: “You know they keep talking about the dead protesters in Kiev, but did anyone say a single good word about servicemen who were dying there in their dozens?”

Back in Kiev, however, soldiers sent by President Yanukovych to quell the protests are seen as brutes. A tribute to their dead seems extremely unlikely in the current atmosphere.

Ragozin is a Moscow-based contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek.

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