Ukraine rebel offensive targets corridor to Crimea

Last week, as the “ceasefire” (or mild de-escalation) in eastern Ukraine crumbled into dust, so too did the Ukrainian military’s grasp of the highly contested Donetsk Airport, which had become an intense battlefield during the war and a symbol of national resistance against armed Russian interference in the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and affairs.

Today the conflict shifted southward to the Donetsk oblast’s second-largest city, Mariupol, the government’s temporary oblast capital, while the city of Donetsk itself remains in rebel hands. Donetsk rebel commander Alexander Zakharchenko reportedly told Russia’s Interfax news agency “We have started an offensive on Mariupol.”

Mariupol falling to “separatist” forces now could potentially change the balance of the war, which had slowly been tipping toward the Ukrainian nationalist side until the recent setback at the Donetsk airport. Ukrainian military control of Mariupol until now has been a major obstacle to unification of separatist zones and Russian-occupied Crimea, although the agricultural/industrial-centered Zaporizhia Oblast (and a corner of the Kherson Oblast) would also need to be crossed before achieving unification.

Such a development would (by cutting Ukraine off from the Sea of Azov) link Russia by land all the way to Russian-occupied Crimea in a “corridor” or “land bridge,” using the European route E58 highway (see second map below) and covering much of the coastal edge of the territory known in the Imperial Russian period as Novorossiya or “New Russia.”

Novorossiya/New Russia in the Russian Empire in 1897. (Credit: Dim Grits - Wikimedia)

Novorossiya/New Russia in the Russian Empire in 1897. (Credit: Dim Grits – Wikimedia)

That label, in fact, has been widely adopted by Russian-speaking separatists to refer collectively to the rebel-held territories in eastern Ukraine. The historic term resurfaced in an April 17, 2014 televised townhall-style forum held in Russia by President Vladimir Putin.

A land bridge between Crimea (annexed last year by Russia) and the Russian mainland would, by many estimates, dramatically reduce the cost to Russia of holding Crimea while providing services (including electricity, currently purchased from Ukraine!), food, and other vital goods. Currently those only reach Crimea by ferry from a relatively remote corner of Russia, and an actual bridge — which is going to be very expensive — is not expected to open for several more years (if it ever starts being built).

Donetsk Oblast: Novoazovsk and Mariupol on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border. Click to navigate.

Donetsk Oblast: Novoazovsk and Mariupol on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border. Click to navigate.

Previously, back in May, Ukrainian ultra-billionaire Rinat Akhmetov — now slipped to 117 on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people — ejected local separatists from the government buildings they were “occupying” in Mariupol, and sent his own private workers to start cleaning up so local public functions could resume. He took a firm, public stance against independence or annexation to Russia. As a result, that port city on the Sea of Azov coast, was relatively removed from the center of the clashes between separatists and Ukrainian troops sent by Kiev, until late summer.

It has been under threat since the August 27, 2014 invasion of Novoazovsk by at least a thousand unmarked Russian Federation troops and heavy armor vehicles. The highway between the two nearby cities became a contested area until the de-escalation during the “ceasefire” period.

Today, however, the Washington Post reports the Mariupol itself was hit by shelling shortly before the Donetsk rebel commander Zakharchenko’s announcement of the Mariupol offensive:

Zakharchenko later added that the rebels’ intention was to suppress Ukrainian troops to the east of the city, but not to storm Mariupol.

Ukrainian officials had earlier accused pro-Russian rebels of launching a deadly shelling Saturday against Mariupol. The shelling killed 27 civilians and wounded 99, Andrey Fedai of the Mariupol City Council posted on his Facebook page.

Pro-Kiev forces in Mariupol said Saturday on its VKontake page that the shelling had come from rebel-held territory, while Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, said that “at least three Grad systems” — referring to rocket-launchers — were used in the shelling.

 
As usual, the separatist forces blamed the Ukrainian military for the shelling as a self-inflicted act to provoke public opposition to the separatist cause — and denied all claims that it was attacking the city at all.

The US and Ukrainian governments predicted a wider operational objective, implying a Crimea corridor though not stating it explicitly:

“Today’s indiscriminate shelling of Mariupol [is] part of an apparently Russian-backed general offensive in complete violation of Minsk agreements,” U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt tweeted Saturday morning.

 
The recent fighting would appear to signal the end of the de-escalation achieved by the Minsk agreements as fighting ramped up to a level of violence not seen since the period before the agreements:

The United Nations estimated Friday that almost 5,100 people have died in Ukraine since the fighting began last April — 262 in the past nine days before the updated figure was published, making it the deadliest period since this summer, before the Minsk cease-fire agreement was signed.

Russian TV: Thousands of Russians have fought in E. Ukraine this year

After months of increasingly absurd denials that there were Russian Federation citizens fighting in eastern Ukraine, we appear to have confirmation that several thousand have been rotating in and out over the past several months. The admission, however, continued to insist that these Russian fighters were actually retired military veterans and “vacationing” active duty troops:

“There are active soldiers fighting among us who preferred to spend their vacation not on the beach, but with us, among their brothers, who are fighting for their freedom,” Aleksandr Zakharchenko, a rebel commander and the prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said in an interview on Russian state-run television.

Mr. Zakharchenko said that between 3,000 and 4,000 Russians had fought in the separatist ranks since the conflict erupted in the spring.

That assertion evaded the issue of direct Russian involvement by painting the soldiers as volunteers. It suggests, however, that Moscow still seeks to organize and to some extent control a force that could be operated at arm’s length with a backbone of local participation.

Mr. Zakharchenko, who says he has Ukrainian citizenship, took over as prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic this month, replacing Alexandr Borodai, a Russian. Several other Russians who had figured prominently in the rebel ranks, including the military commander Igor Strelkov, have also dropped from sight in recent weeks.

In the interview with the official satellite channel Rossiya 24, Mr. Zakharchenko said that many former professional Russian soldiers had come to Ukraine as volunteers, out of a sense of duty.

“There were about 3,000 or 4,000 of them in our ranks,” Mr. Zakharchenko said. “Many of them have gone home, but the majority have remained here. Unfortunately, some have been killed.”

 
This explanation probably became necessary given the recent capture of uniformed Russian Federation soldiers in Ukraine, plus the mounting number of combat deaths of Russians in Ukraine and the repeated social media slip-up revealing Russian soldiers to be working in Ukraine. The prior explanation has been that any such Russian Federation troops had accidentally crossed the border after becoming lost, which was becoming a pretty hard line to swallow, even for the most credulous observers.

This new admission also may be an effort to deflect some attention from other reports of incursions or invasions. In addition to these so-called volunteers, photos released by NATO today showed what they said were mobile Russian Federation artillery batteries arrayed in “firing position” inside Ukraine. This is an escalation from a month ago when such artillery units were allegedly firing upon Ukrainian military targets from across the Russian border.

Ukraine’s government, NATO, and journalists on the ground also reported seeing heavily armored columns of an estimated 1,000 troops crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border into Novoazovsk on the Sea of Azov coast (see below), as the Ukrainian Army fell back to — and dug in around — Mariupol and Kiev announced the emergency resumption of mandatory conscription.

Donetsk Oblast: Novoazovsk and Mariupol on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border.

Donetsk Oblast: Novoazovsk and Mariupol on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border. Click link to navigate.

See also our freshly updated Ukraine Crisis Map for wider area context.

Suspected Russian forces invade Novoazovsk, Ukraine

Russian troops under separatist flags have reportedly crossed the border into southern Donetsk oblast, in a surprise assault, and forced back Ukrainian troops that had been stationed there. The Russian units, which include tanks and artillery, are believed to be making an offensive against nearby Mariupol (about twenty miles away), the second largest city in the Donetsk Oblast, in an effort to relieve pressure on the besieged rebels in the city of Donetsk, to the north (see second map).

Donetsk Oblast: Novoazovsk and Mariupol on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border. Click to navigate.

Donetsk Oblast: Novoazovsk and Mariupol on the Sea of Azov near the Russian border. Click to navigate.

One wonders whom the Russians believe they are fooling with the false flags. Tons of heavily equipped separatists don’t just spawn in the middle of a town next to the border like some sort of video game trigger at the edge of a map. It looks like there’s about 5 miles of highway from the Russian border to Novoazovsk. It’s not like a vast insurgency has been lying in wait there this whole time.

Update: Aug 28, 2014: Latest reports indicate at least 1,000 Russian Federation troops — still marked as rebels — have entered Ukraine in the Novoazovsk area. No matter who they are, they cannot have arrived there except via Russia, based on the local geography and positions of Ukrainian forces. It is being suggested that Russia may be attempting to seize a “land bridge” to Crimea, to reduce its relative isolation from the Russian mainland. That, however, would require a far more extensive incursion, well outside the Donets Basin area that is in rebellion already.

Mariupol falling to Russian / “separatist” forces now could potentially change the balance of the war, which has slowly been tipping toward the Ukrainian nationalist side. Previously, back in May, Ukrainian ultra-billionaire Rinat Akhmetov ejected (probably actual, local) separatists from the government buildings they were “occupying” in the oblast’s second-largest city, Mariupol, and sent his own private workers to start cleaning up so local public functions could resume. He took a firm, public stance against independence or annexation to Russia. As a result, that port city on the Sea of Azov coast (see map below), has thus far been relatively removed from the center of the clashes between separatists and Ukrainian troops sent by Kiev.

Eastern Ukraine highlighting Donetsk Oblast. Adapted from Arsenal For Democracy's complete 2014 Ukraine crisis map.

Eastern Ukraine highlighting Donetsk Oblast. Adapted from Arsenal For Democracy’s complete 2014 Ukraine crisis map.

Ukraine ultra-billionaire steps in against separatists

Akhmetov_Rinat_LeonidovichWhoomp, there it is. Donetsk’s Man-Who-Owns-Everything, Rinat Akhmetov, finally got off the fence and told some of the separatists to go kick rocks. He ejected them from the government buildings they were “occupying” in the oblast’s second-largest city, Mariupol, and sent his own private workers to start cleaning up so local public functions could resume.

The steel-and-coal magnate is #92 on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people, with a net worth of $12.2 billion. (The next-richest person in Ukraine is #548 and “only” has a net worth of $3.1 billion.)

It remains to be seen if he will take similar action against separatists in other cities of the Donetsk Oblast, such as the city of Donetsk itself. (There are allegations that some of the country’s other oligarchs may now be funding private pro-unity militias against the separatists.) The port city of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov coast (see map below), was relatively removed from the center of the clashes between separatists and troops sent by Kiev.

However, in a video statement, Akhmetov took a very firm stance against independence or annexation to Russia, while backing greater regional autonomy:

Until now, Akhmetov had been notable for his noncommittal stance during the turbulence that has for more than a month gripped the region that is home to his most lucrative industrial assets.

A video statement by the 47-year-old industrialist on Thursday made it clear that his loyalties are not so much with the Kiev government but with his native Donbass – territory that encompasses the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. He called for major constitutional reforms, while preserving a united Ukraine.

“This is when power goes from Kiev to the regions. This is when authorities are not appointed but elected. And this is when local authorities take responsibility for people’s real future,” he said.

Independence or absorption into Russia would spell economic catastrophe for the region, he added.

 
On a related note, the Russian Federation government is, in the words of English-language Russian state media outlet Russia Today, “in no rush to respond to Donetsk People’s Republic plea for accession.” They are moving far more slowly and cautiously in response to the controversial referendum this past week than they did with the one in Crimea, where they wrapped up the seceding region right into the Federation within days. Unlike in Crimea, Russia withdrew support for the eastern referenda before they took place.

Eastern Ukraine highlighting Donetsk Oblast. Adapted from Arsenal For Democracy's complete 2014 Ukraine crisis map.

Eastern Ukraine highlighting Donetsk Oblast. Adapted from Arsenal For Democracy’s complete 2014 Ukraine crisis map.

Ukraine Crisis Map (as of Aug 28, 2014)

Updated Aug 28: To help clarify when you read news, here or elsewhere, on the crisis in Ukraine, below is a map highlighting key regions and cities in Southeastern Ukraine and Crimea, as well as Ukraine’s neighbors and the disputed Russian-held Transdniestria region of Moldova. (November 12, 2014: See also our narrower, updated eastern Ukraine crisis map.)

Click to enlarge. Map created by Bill Humphrey for Arsenal For Democracy. Please link here if re-publishing.

Click to enlarge. Map created by Bill Humphrey for Arsenal For Democracy. Please link here if re-publishing.

August 28, 2014 Update Notes:
– Added Mariupol from our closeup Eastern Ukraine map [link changed, 11/12/14].
– Added Novoazovsk following August 27th Russian invasion.
– Added MH Flight 17 path from our MH Flight 17 crash map.
– Updated key.

May 2, 2014 Update Notes:
– Base map switched from Riwnodennyk’s 2008 Wikimedia map of Eastern Ukraine to Sven Teschke’s Oblast Donezk map from Ukrainian Wikipedia.
– All labels in Roman alphabet use conventional U.S. English transliterations. Cyrillic labeling used only for Russian Imperial-era place names.
– Highlighting for “Novorossiya” territory allusion by Vladmir Putin on April 17, 2014 added. Map already included Putin’s citation of the Russian separatists in Moldova.
– Added Donetsk city and Sloviansk. Odessa, site of May 2 protests, also marked with a blue dot, along with Sevastopol in Russian-occupied Crimea.
– Map key added.