Democracy Lab

Ukraine Wins a Battle in the East

How Ukrainian forces took back a town controlled by pro-Russian separatists -- and scored a major victory for their country's morale.

In April, pro-Russian gunmen seized power in the industrial city of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine. The separatists succeeded in driving out a local Ukrainian national guard unit and shot the local police chief.

I was there, late last week, to watch a Ukrainian military unit take the city back. The Azov Battalion is a volunteer unit of mainly Russian-speaking Ukrainians from the country's East, where separatist forces supported by Moscow have been trying to wrench territory away from the control of Kiev. Around 200 men from the battalion were joined by soldiers from the Ukrainian army, national guard, and other volunteer units, all adding up to a force of around 400 men coordinated by an army general who heads the government's "anti-terrorist operation" in the Donetsk region.

I joined the battalion two weeks ago, after I discovered that they were preparing to lead the operation to regain control over Mariupol. Until this past Friday, attempts by Kiev's forces to neutralize separatist occupations had failed because of a combination of government ineptness and the fact that many of the pro-Russian forces were better armed and trained than the Ukrainian military.

So that's how I ended up, late last week, in Mariupol Airport, located a few miles outside the city. The airport, which was to serve as our jumping-off point for the final attack, is closed to planes but still in the hands of the Ukrainian military. Our transports, bulky green military trucks of Soviet vintage, parked on the runway as night began to fall. We were issued Ukrainian army rations of appalling tinned meat or fish and tasteless biscuits and then settled down for a few hours of sleep on the cold, hard floors of the airport concourse.

"There's no more fear," Bajda told me. "All of us have thought about it but we're all calm now. We know what might happen. We accept it, and we're ready." Bajda, 23, comes from the eastern city of Kharkiv; he was born in 1991, the year Ukraine became independent from the USSR. He described his parents to me as "average products of the Soviet system," but he grew up feeling an intense sense of allegiance to his country. "There wasn't one great event that sparked it. It just came naturally to me. Now fate has given us a chance to become heroes for Ukraine."

During the EuroMaidan protests in Kiev against then-President Viktor Yanukovych Baijda joined solidarity demonstrations in Kharkiv, some of them numbering as much as 50,000. When Russia annexed Crimea and started stirring up separatist feeling in other parts of the East, he and his friends decided to form their own volunteer battalions. They bought weapons and uniforms with money from donors, and trained in fields, forests, and even building sites.

Since then, though, the men of the battalion had received at least a modicum of proper training from the state. I had watched older battalion members with previous military experience run the younger ones through their paces on a firing range. All the men of the unit learned basic battle tactics, concealment, close combat, and the use of night-vision goggles. Even so, I still had doubts that the battalion was ready for its first battle.

The battalion's officers woke us at 2:30 in the morning, and we assembled near the green military trucks that had brought us to the airport. There was no breakfast or even a hot drink. No one can accuse the Ukrainian military of indulging in needless luxury.

Overnight we were joined by other units, everyone in different uniforms. We wound lengths of sticky orange tape around our arms to identify ourselves as members of the Ukrainian forces. Standing there in the early-morning gloom, we listened to an address from Oleh Lyashko, a right-wing politician who vowed to join the unit in its fight. The Azov Battalion draws many of its volunteers from protesters close to nationalist parties and political organizations. Lyashko, who campaigned to respectable effect in last month's presidential election, is one of the battalion's strongest supporters.

Then we clambered abroad the transports and in the pre-dawn light rumbled off on the five-mile journey to the outskirts of Mariupol. The way was led by what battalion members referred to as their "secret weapon" -- a former garbage truck covered with makeshift armor in the form of hundreds of steel rods welded together on the outside. Thin slits were left open in the windshield for the driver and front passenger. The roof of the truck had been removed and a double-barreled 22-mm anti-aircrat gun was fixed to the floor. It looked like something out of one of the Mad Max films.

Our little convoy of trucks sped down a deserted four-lane highway. In the back of my truck I was in there was no room to sit; we stood on wooden floors, packed tightly together. Normally the men of the battalion joked a lot, but now no one spoke. The faces around me were lost in introspection. I guessed that the fighters were absorbed in thoughts about their families and their own mortality.

The unit boasted an odd assortment of men. Most of the volunteers were young Ukrainians like Bajda, who had battled the security forces of President Viktor Yanukovych during the EuroMaidan protests that ultimately brought down his regime. Because so many of the battalion's members were from eastern Ukraine, they wore balaclava masks to hide their faces; the worry was that harm could come to their families, many of whom live in separatist-controlled areas, if their identities become known. They used false names for the same reason.

A few of the older members had served in the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Some were Ukrainian nationalists who had volunteered to fight on the Georgian side in that country's brief war against Russia in 2008. Some had joined Chechen forces fighting the Russians in the 1990s; during my conversations with them I heard many bitter remarks about the Chechen mercenaries who had been sent across the border by Moscow to bolster the pro-Russian separatists.

There were even a few foreigners in the battalion: three Swedes, a lone Italian, and a dozen or two Russian citizens who claim to oppose the government of Vladimir Putin. None of these men receives pay.

As our convey neared the edge of Mariupol, we found that the separatist forces, alerted by the activity of the night before, had abandoned their barricades of concrete, tires, and barbed wire at the outskirts of the city.

Gazing nervously at the rooftops of buildings lining the road, we drove slowly into the center of the city. The vehicles halted at an intersection next to the city's main hotel. As soon as we jumped down from the back of our trucks, a rocket-propelled grenade blew up a few feet from one of our vehicles, shredding the hand of the men.

Another explosion quickly followed. Gunfire erupted on all sides and we scattered for cover. The group I was with sheltered by a wall opposite the hotel. About 100 yards around the corner from us was what turned out to be the separatists' main defense point, another barricade of barbed wire and concrete.

The firefight that followed lasted for three hours. Once again I experienced that peculiar feeling, common to anyone who's experienced battle, that each and every bullet was aimed at me personally. I stayed with one group throughout, but I know that our drama was repeated in other parts of the town where Ukrainian fighters engaged the separatists.

The battalion commander, a tall bearded man by the name of Andriy Biletsky, was with our group of around 30 men. He shouted orders: Where to take up firing positions. When to advance. Which weapons -- Kalashnikov assault rifles, belt-fed machine guns, grenade launchers -- to fire where and when. Through radio he was updated about the wider picture, coordinating the moves of the battalion's units.

Three times the Mad Max vehicle slid out from side streets, opening a withering fire on the separatist barricades. Members of the battalion darted up the street, firing at the enemy. Other members of the group I was with worked their way toward the separatist positions through the back gardens of buildings. One of them, Serhiy, a former policeman from Crimea who refused to accept Russian authority after Moscow annexed the peninsula, was winged by a bullet that made blood gush from his left temple. After the wound was bandaged, Serhiy rested for 20 minutes, then climbed over the wall again to rejoin the fight.

Slowly our group worked its way up the street towards the barricade. Two of the Azov's men sent four rocket-propelled grenades into a bank building that was also defended by the separatists. Other groups of Ukrainian fighters closed in on the barricade from other sides.

Slowly the sound of gunfire became intermittent and then died down. Everyone carefully worked their way up towards the main barricade. There were some bodies on the streets and the Ukrainian forces reported at least seven separatist fighters had been killed and a dozen captured whilst the rest had fled.

During the fighting the streets had been deserted by civilians but as the Ukrainian forces fanned out people came out to greet them and offering bottles of water. Occasional bursts of gunfire echoed and groups of soldiers investigated.

Lyashko, in black uniform and armed with two pistols, led some of the searches. In one basement they found five separatist gunmen who refused to come out until the Ukrainians threatened to throw a grenade inside. The prisoners were handed over to the police after Lyashko, a member of parliament, told them they would face 15 years in prison if found guilty of terrorism.

"Ukraine needed this victory," Lyashko said. It will have a profound effect on morale. It shows that we can beat the separatists even if Russia is supplying them." Even more importantly, he said, the operation demonstrated that local people had no sympathies with the separatists. "They've seen how this bandit Donetsk People's Republic works - that they are marauders and thieves. People here are welcoming us. Now we need to work with the local population to ensure the separatists don't return."

The joy of victory was tempered in the early hours of the following day when battalion members learned that separatists had downed a Ukrainian military transport landing at an airport in eastern Ukraine, killing all 49 servicemen aboard.

A Ukrainian military source said two Russian-made Igla missiles fired from portable launchers hit the plane. The Ukrainian government accuses the Kremlin of supplying separatists with those missiles as well as large quantities of other equipment -- including three tanks, which NATO satellite surveillance confirmed came from a Russian base in Rostov-on-Don. (One of the Ukrainian volunteers I interviewed, a veteran of the Russian air force, harshly criticized the government's decision to allow a heavily loaded plane to fly over territory controlled by rebels known to have anti-aircraft weapons. "The transports should be used for getting men and equipment closer to the front but not to a conflict zone itself," he told me. "That's madness or treachery."

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko praised the retaking of Mariupol. He temporarily made the city the adminsitrative center of its region as long as Donetsk, the capital, remains in the hands of the separatist leadership.

The deaths of the 49 servicemen aboard the plane made a grisly contrast to the light casualties -- a mere four wounded -- suffered by the forces that recaptured Mariupol. By last Sunday it was clear that despite losing much blood, the most seriously injured battalion member would live.

Nonetheless, the battalion was gripped by the grief that has enveloped the whole country following the downing of the plane. The incident has hardened attitudes against Russia throughout the country. Bohdan, a 23-year-old battalion member from the city of Luhansk, occupied by the same group of pro-Russian fighters who likely downed the plane, said: "I hope that this is the start of the liberation of all the towns taken by the separatists. I want my battalion to be the one to take back my Luhansk from the terrorists."

DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

The Kurdish Are Coming

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters honed their skills fighting for independence from Iraq. Now they are the front line against ISIS.

GOM JALIL, Iraq — The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham's forces are less than a mile away, across the flat, dusty plain dotted with concrete buildings. The militant Sunni group's flags can be seen waving in the distance above a checkpoint that, just days ago, was jointly manned by Iraqi government troops and Kurdish forces. But inside the dilapidated one-story building where Brig. Gen. Mahmoud Ahmed has set up a base, the mood is upbeat.

"Our morale is high," says Ahmed, a chubby, mustachioed veteran of the wars against Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, who now commands the Second Zeravani Battalion, the Kurdish forces responsible for the Kurdish provinces of Erbil and Dohuk. Nearby, a young soldier with his chest crisscrossed by bullet rounds stands watch behind a Russian-made PKM machine gun mounted on a pickup truck. "We are here to defend our land and people with our blood," Ahmed says.

Ahmed and his battalion are Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces that have fought successive Iraqi regimes for nearly half a century in their pursuit of Kurdish rights and independence. In Kurdish, the word means "those who confront death." They are famed for their skills on the battlefield, and Ahmed says they are ready to fight again.

The Peshmerga are the first line of defense on the road between Iraqi Kurdistan's capital, Erbil, and Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, which was overrun on June 9 by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and former loyalists of Saddam's regime who had crossed the desert from Syria. Iraqi security forces abandoned the city after a couple of days of fighting; in the days since, ISIS and other Sunni insurgent groups have taken a number of other towns in Nineveh, Diyala, Anbar, Kirkuk, and Salahaddin provinces.

A few yards from Ahmed's base, an abandoned and damaged armored vehicle belonging to the Iraqi Federal Police stands as a testament to the defeat of the central government's forces at ISIS's hands. The inability of thousands of Iraqi security forces to defend Mosul took many by shock, not least the Peshmerga forces.

The Iraqi security forces were trained by the United States and Britain, and they are better equipped and paid than their Kurdish counterparts. But with Iraqi forces unable to fight in much of the northern part of the country after they surrendered their positions to the Sunni Arab militants, the Peshmerga are now the only force capable, they hope, of pushing ISIS back.

There are over 100,000 Peshmerga fighters, according to Halgurd Hikmat, a senior official at the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)'s Ministry of Peshmerga. They are either veterans of the Kurdish struggle against Saddam's regime or new recruits who have to go through an intensive training that lasts around 50 days. While they are officially under the command of Iraqi Kurdistan's president, Masoud Barzani, in practice they answer to leaders aligned with the competing Kurdish political factions, the Barzani-led Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. But when it comes to protecting Kurdish territory, those forces are united. Nearly 40,000 of the Peshmerga forces divided into 16 battalions are united under the KRG's Peshmerga Ministry. The rest have yet to be unified.  All Peshmerga are now mobilized in the fight against ISIS.

Fighting between ISIS and the Kurds is already under way. Clashes erupted on June 11 between Peshmerga and ISIS fighters in the Kurdish-dominated towns of Sinjar and Zummar in northwestern Nineveh province near the border with Syria, Hikmat told Foreign Policy. Hikmat acknowledged that a number of Kurdish soldiers were killed and injured in the clashes but refused to disclose the number of Peshmerga casualties "so as not to affect our forces' morale."

Kurdish forces also battled militants in the southern parts of the oil-rich, multiethnic province of Kirkuk. Kirkuk has been at the core of Kurds' decades-long conflict with Iraqi governments. The takeover of much of Kirkuk province by Kurds now brings them a step closer to their long-held aspirations for independence. Kurdish officials have said they are not going to let go of Kirkuk as they cannot trust Iraqi forces to provide security for residents there.

And Kirkuk isn't the only strategic gain. Kurds now control the Rabia border crossing between Iraq and Syria and the disputed town of Jalawla in northern Diyala province.

But even before the recent clashes, ISIS and the Kurds had been in conflict. Last week, ISIS suicide bombers blew up local offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party in Diyala and Salahaddin provinces, killing around 50 people and wounding dozens. It also carried out an assault on the headquarters of the Kurdish security forces in Erbil last September, killing at least six people. In Syria, where ISIS has made major gains in that country's civil war, ISIS and the Kurds have been battling for months.

The Peshmerga and the Kurdish Regional Government are concerned about ISIS's dramatic rise -- and fear its tactics and ideology -- but they also see opportunity in the instability. It has offered a unique opportunity for the Kurdistan Regional Government to consolidate its control over large swaths of land labeled by the Iraqi Constitution as "disputed territories" -- land that Kurds have eyed for part of their future independent state.

Iraq's 2005 constitution grants the KRG jurisdiction over the three northeastern provinces of Erbil, Sulaimaniya, and Dohuk. But Kurds also want to lay claim to parts of four other provinces, Nineveh, Kirkuk, Salahaddin, and Diyala, which the government in Baghdad disputes. Most parts of the disputed territories are predominantly Kurdish while others are either dominated by Christians or have a mosaic of Kurds, Turkmens, Arabs, and Christians. But the territorial aspirations go beyond ethnic alignments: The stakes are especially high because those areas hold large reserves of natural resources, particularly oil and natural gas.

When thousands of Iraqi Army and police troops abandoned their posts in the face of ISIS's oncoming, it paved the way for the KRG to swiftly expand and solidify its control over those areas.

"We consider ourselves responsible toward the residents of those areas," said Hikmat. "We have seen this fragile army of [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki. How can we leave the people of those [disputed] areas to an army that cannot even defend its own positions?" he added, summing up a sentiment prevalent among Kurds these days.

But seizing new, oil-rich territory is not the only benefit for the Kurds. The latest attack has shaken the Iraqi political system to its core. It seems like everything is up for grabs now.  Relations between Maliki and the Kurdish government reached an all-time low in May after the KRG decided to begin shipping oil to international markets via Turkey -- without Baghdad's blessing. In response, Maliki cut off the central government's funding for the KRG.

Iraqi leadership convened a meeting on June 11, attended by Maliki, to discuss ways to confront threats from ISIS. Neither the Kurdish president nor prime minister attended the meeting, and only lower-rank officials represented the Kurds. The meeting reportedly ended without producing an agreement.

At the moment, the possibility of joint operations between Iraqi and Kurdish troops against ISIS militants seems slim. But with the danger posed by ISIS becoming more serious by the day, it is not unlikely that the KRG and Baghdad might in the coming weeks or months find common cause.

Unconfirmed reports circulated in Iraqi media alleging that KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani had reached a deal with Maliki in which the KRG will assist the Iraqi Army in the fight against the ISIS, in return for agreement to Kurdish oil sales. But the KRG's spokesperson, Safeen Dizayee, rejected those reports in an official statement.

As the ISIS war rages on, there does not appear to be any deal between the Kurds and Baghdad to jointly take on the group. In a statement shortly after ISIS's capture of Mosul, KRG's Barzani said the Iraqi government had rejected an offer of "security cooperation" from the Kurds before the fall of Mosul.

If the Peshmerga do unite with Iraqi troops, it will strengthen the hand of the weak Iraqi Army. At the moment, however, no deal for cooperation has been struck between the two sides. Most Kurds oppose aiding the Baghdad government and see the current conflict as a sectarian Sunni-Shiite fight between Arabs. For now, the Peshmerga are focused solely on defending their own territory and, when possible, expanding it. Their extensive combat experience and strong discipline mean they might be able to get what they want.

At the Gom Jalil base near Mosul, General Ahmed prepares for battle. He shouts instructions to a disciplined group of young Peshmerga fighters. He appears confident and calm, a battle-tested fighter ready for another round.

"Our plan is not to attack anyone," he says. "But if we are attacked, we will respond with all our force."

SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images