Written by Nikolaus von Twickel
The security situation continued to deteriorate, with violence centered around the city of Horlivka in the Donetsk region. The separatists in the neighbouring Luhansk region blamed Ukraine for amysterious explosion that destroyed an important bridge. Meanwhile, the “DNR” was hit by a shortage of cash and, reportedly, fuel.
Rising death toll in Donbass
Mortar and artillery attacks on both sides of the “Line of Contact” resulted in rising casualties. The OSCE Monitoring Mission said on May 21 that it recorded 7,700 ceasefire violations in the previous week, the highest number this year.
The situation was especially tense in and around Horlivka, which borders the “Contact Line” to the north and west. Fighting increased sharply earlier this month, when Ukrainian troops moved into Chyhari, a small settlement located between both sides’ frontline positions in Pivdenne (Yuzhnoe in Russian) just west of the city.
By May 21 the situation in the city got so bad that Horlivka’s separatist-appointed mayor, Ivan Prikhodko, denied rumours of an evacuation because of an imminent Ukrainian invasion.
On the same day, the separatist Donetsk “People’s Republic” chief military spokesman, Eduard Basurin, admitted that government forces had captured three separatist fighters north of Horlivka. One day later he claimed that the Ukrainian military had aborted plans to take the city after failing to take higher positions in the area of Chyhari (see also Newsletter 29).
A May 23 report in Russia’s Kommersant newspaper quoted Ukrainian sources as saying that the government forces were keen to cut of Russian supplies for the separatists, take Horlivka and move forward into separatist-held Yenakiive and Debatseve. However, there were no signs of a major Ukrainian offensive and government forces have previously moved into more advantageous positions in the so-called grey zone without overstepping the actual Line of Contact (defined in the Minsk Agreement).
Russian state media suggested that the Ukrainian advance was meant to coincide with a frontline visit of US special representative Kurt Volker, while Denis Pushilin, a leader of the Donetsk separatists, claimed that Ukraine wanted an escalation before and during the football World Cup, which kicks off on June 14.
There has also been speculation linking the escalation to Russian media reports about the imminent resignation of Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s point man for eastern Ukraine who is thought to closely oversee the “People’s Republics”. However, no staff changes have been announced so far in President Vladimir Putin’s administration and Surkov was in charge on May 18 when he took part in talks between Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Sochi.
Mysterious bridge collapse
Another worrying incident took place early on May 21, when a mysterious explosion destroyed a key bridge near Khrustalnyi (formerly Krasnyi Luch) inside the Luhansk “People’s Republic”. The collapsed bridge severed both the main road between Luhansk and Donetsk and the underlying railway, which connects the separatist-held rail hub Debaltseve with Russia.
Curiously, the “LNR” official media first reported just a collapse without mentioning foul play. Only late in the evening, almost 20 hours after the 2am collapse, did the State Security “Ministry” put out a statement saying that two explosions had occurred (one was a grenade targeting the rail tracks) and blaming a “terrorist subversion” (without mentioning Ukraine).
The OSCE Monitoring Mission the next day recorded three witnesses as saying that they heard an explosion from the bridge’s direction.
The separatists routinely blame Ukrainian agents for explosions, assassinations and other violence in the areas they control. However, the site of the bridge outside Khrustalnyi is nowhere near the Line of Contact, meaning that a Ukrainian commando would have travelled far into separatist-held territory.
Reports of shortages of fuel and cash
Well before the bridge collapse, social media posts from both Luhansk and Donetsk showed long lines of cars outside filling stations. Reports said that that petrol and diesel was either very expensive or completely unavailable.
In Donetsk, meanwhile, the separatists admitted on May 24 that cash machines weren’t working, blaming the glitch on “maintenance works”. However, Ukrainian reports said that the machines had stopped working already two days earlier.
The first ATMs appeared in Donetsk in the summer 2015, shortly after the “DNR” had switched from the Ukrainian hryvna to the Russian rouble. Most observers assume that both “People’s Republics” do not generate enough income for self-sufficiency and remain financially dependent on Moscow. Payments from Russia to Donetsk and Luhansk are thought to be officially routed via South Ossetia (see Newsletter 22).
Schoolchildren killed and injured by hand grenades
Two bloody accidents in the Donetsk Region with hand grenades within a few days highlighted the dangers of proliferating small arms in the conflict zone. First, on May 22, one teenager was killed and three more were injured when a grenade exploded while they were driving back from school in a bus in separatist-held Debaltseve. The “DNR” military said that the grenade had been in the rucksack of one of the children before it exploded.
Relatives of the victims interviewed by the OSCE Monitoring mission said that “someone on the bus was handling an object when the explosion occurred”.
Three days later, two children aged 10 and 11 were injured in the neighbouring city of Horlivka when they were playing with hand grenades, according to separatist authorities.
No reaction to MH17 investigation
International media attention for eastern Ukraine picked up last week because of the interim report published May 24 by the international investigation team into the 2014 crash of the Malaysia Airline flight MH17 and the subsequent report by the international analyst team Bellingcat, both of which contained fresh accusations against Russia.
While the investigation team said that the BUK missile system, which brought down the Boeing 777, killing all 298 people on board, came from Russia, Bellingcat identified the commander responsible for the fatal shooting as Oleg Ivannikov, an officer of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, who curiously had served as South Ossetia’s Defence minister from 2006 to 2008.