Putin Takes Off the Gloves in Eastern Ukraine

Battered and besieged, Kiev's troops are just trying to survive to fight another day.

KOMSOMOLSKE, Ukraine — The column of Ukrainian infantry fighting vehicles, trucks, and an aging tank had been traveling west in retreat across the wilting sunflower fields near Novozaryevka in eastern Ukraine when separatist rebels struck it suddenly with fearsome power. Fifteen vehicles were frozen in place, nose to tail. Eleven were burned out, reduced to charred black husks. The tank's turret was dismembered from its chassis. Dry pasta was scattered across the ground along with rounds of ammunition. Another two fighting vehicles stood abandoned in a field down the road.

Locals who were looting parts for personal use and sale (15 cents for a kilogram of "black metal," $4.50 for a kilogram of copper) had placed six charred bodies of Ukrainian soldiers behind a windbreak several dozen yards away so the stench wouldn't disrupt their work. Near the corpses lay the fragments of several mortar shells, a Ukrainian military ID, and a bloodstained wallet holding black-and-white photos of one hapless soldier's parents. A military source confirmed that the attack came from a Grad multiple rocket launcher firing incendiary rounds, a weapon that has been used to deadly effect by both sides.

"We used to all be together, but not anymore," said Ruslan, a soot-stained local in a threadbare Spurs jersey, as he gestured at the blackened remains of the government forces.

The convoy's demise is yet another loss in Kiev's struggle with rebels who have reportedly been receiving ever more arms and fighters from Russia. Residents said the attack took place Aug. 26, the same day a furious-looking President Petro Poroshenko shook hands with his grinning Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, before fruitless peace talks in Belarus.

In the week since the ineffective peace talks began, government troops, who had previously been making steady gains against the pro-Russian forces, have suffered a string of defeats. Kiev has blamed the rebels' resurgence on an invasion of Russian troops brazenly moving across Ukraine's eastern border.

In a phone call last week with Jose Manuel Barroso, the outgoing president of the European Commission, Putin said, "If I want I'll take Kiev in two weeks." The routing of Ukraine's army at the hands of Russian-backed rebels suggests that Putin's words ring true, even if they were undiplomatic.

On Aug. 27, rebel forces -- one local told me they were backed by Russian troops and armor -- seized the southern coastal town of Novoazovsk, near the border with Russia, opening a front in an area that had previously been peaceful. Also last week, rebels took back from government forces Savur-Mohyla, a strategically important hill to the east of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine's biggest city. Two Ukrainian commanders were among the casualties in the struggle for the strategic summit, which is topped by a destroyed monument to the Soviet soldiers who died fighting Germans there.

Ukrainian forces also retreated from the airport near the rebel stronghold of Luhansk on Sept. 1, while fighting was reported at the government-held airport in Donetsk. At least 50 pro-government volunteer fighters have been killed -- some sources suggest the actual number is closer to 200 -- in the town of Ilovaisk, a town southeast of Donetsk where hundreds of fighters have been surrounded by pro-Russian forces for more than 10 days.

On Monday night, Sept. 1, I counted 12 ambulances in Starobesheve, a small town near the border with Russia, waiting to extricate Ukrainian soldiers trapped in the town. Putin had called for a humanitarian corridor to allow troops to leave the town alive. Government forces have fled all towns in the Starobesheve district, according to the Ukrainian publication Vesti Reporter. Journalists in the area reported that pro-Russian forces were operating in the strategically placed cities of Volnovakha and Telmanove, which had been under Kiev's control until just days earlier.

Even Ukrainian government officials seem ready to admit that their forces have turned on their heels. Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey said in a statement on Facebook on Monday that Kiev's "anti-terrorist operation" to take back the east is over and that the government is now focusing on defending from a Russian invasion.

The burned-out husks of the convoy in Komsomolske were part of the retreat. A military source not authorized to speak to the press told me that the convoy had been withdrawing from Ilovaisk when pro-Russian forces hit it with mortar fire and then "finished it off with Grads."

Residents of Komsomolske, a town located between Starobesheve and Novozaryevka, said that government forces had withdrawn from the area on Sunday. Nearby fighting has left the town without electricity. Even though the school year started on Monday, children stayed home.

A Komsomolske policeman who would identify himself only as "Major" said government soldiers arrived on Aug. 28, after rebel shelling around the city killed two civilians. The soldiers set up a headquarters in the local police station. A shootout was heard that night, he said.

"They didn't know anything, judging by how they dug their trenches," Major said. "We told them the town's in a hollow, that they would get shot up."

In the following days, trucks and fighting vehicles began passing through Komsomolske, heading south from Starobesheve and Ilovaisk. On Sunday the last troops left the town, residents said. A man named Sergei showed videos of a Ukrainian fighting vehicle and a convoy of troop transport trucks passing through the town.

A group of supermarket employees who were boarding up their shop on Monday said National Guard soldiers had looted it on their way out of Komsomolske. "[The soldiers] said, 'Why aren't you taking anything? There's a sale today,'" a store employee named Nadezhda said. "I told them I don't take part in such sales."

But Raisa Petrovna, a pensioner from Komsomolske, said the troops had been in poor shape. "The soldiers here were small kids. I felt sorry for them," she said. "I bought them bread because they were hungry. That's the state of our army."

Petrovna called on both Putin and Poroshenko to end the fighting, but as she was speaking, a woman in a nearby apartment yelled from her window, "We love Russia!"

Eastern Ukraine is littered with abandoned Ukrainian military vehicles. The government troops abandoned two broken fighting vehicles in Komsomolske. Rebels managed to start one up and drove it off, but the other has become an impromptu playground for local kids.

The turning tide against Kiev has coincided with evidence of Russian troops operating in Ukraine. Last week, 10 Russian paratroopers were captured on the Ukrainian side of the border. (Moscow claimed, implausibly, that they had simply gotten lost.) And secretive funerals were held for soldiers from Russia's Pskov region who were reportedly killed in Ukraine. Kiev and NATO have reported that more and more Russian arms are being brought across the porous border.

But according to a rebel commander in Novoazovsk who goes by the nom de guerre "SWAT," the pro-Russian forces' sudden military successes were thanks to a counterattack that was a month in planning. And the fact remains that the rebels still enjoy the support of many residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

"People are afraid to speak out because it's unclear who will be in charge here tomorrow," Major said in Novozaryevka. "But 90 percent are for the Donetsk People's Republic," he added, citing a May referendum in which many residents voted to declare independence from Ukraine.

As if to back up his words, Major took two boxes' worth of unexploded ammunition from the wrecked fighting vehicles to downtown Komsomolske, where burly local men took them into an apartment building near the abandoned fighting vehicle turned playground. A few minutes later, a group of scruffy rebel fighters pulled up in an appropriated ambulance, loaded the ammunition into it, and drove away.



All Tusk and No Teeth

The appointment of Poland's prime minister, Donald Tusk, as EU chief is a strong indication of collective intent toward Russian aggression. But will the new Italian foreign policy boss undermine him?

WARSAW, Poland — Back in spring, as Russia was annexing Crimea, Poland's prime minister, Donald Tusk, sounded the alarm bells for the rest of Europe, suggesting that it was unclear "whether children in Poland will go to school on September 1st at all." On Monday, Sept. 1, Polish children did indeed return to school after their summer vacation. But 1,000 miles east, in Ukraine's Donbass region, fewer than half of schools opened for the start of the new school year.

This weekend, as the conflict in Ukraine escalated even further, Tusk was named to one of the European Union's top jobs -- president of the European Council, or European leaders' decision-making club. That same evening, on Aug. 30 at an EU summit in Brussels, European leaders chose Federica Mogherini, known for her soft stance toward Russia, as the EU's foreign-policy chief, raising eyebrows about the message this sends about the bloc's stance on Ukraine.

The summit came at the end of a frantic week that involved a meeting of the Russian and Ukrainian presidents in Minsk, Belarus; the creeping advance of Russian forces into Ukraine; and an emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Council (NATO's main political decision-making body) on Aug. 29. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke at the EU summit the following day, and once the top jobs had been allocated, European leaders moved on to discuss further sanctions against Moscow. The talks lasted past midnight Brussels time, but the leaders failed to reach an agreement. Mogherini has since announced that a decision will be made this Friday, Sept. 5.

Tusk's appointment has drawn comparisons to the papacy -- partly due to the opaque manner in which the head of the European Council is chosen but, more symbolically, because of how high he has risen in international affairs. "To be honest, with the exception of John Paul II, no Polish man has ever assumed such high office," Pawel Swieboda, the head of demosEuropa, a think tank in Warsaw, told Reuters.

Choosing a Pole for the job 25 years after the fall of communism in Europe has "great symbolic meaning," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a speech to the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, on Sept. 1. Tusk himself has called his appointment "a huge opportunity to introduce this Eastern and Central European energy" into European affairs. Some Poles rounded off Saturday with a toast to Tusk's health, though, in downtown Warsaw, people were more excited about Poland's victory over Serbia in the opening game of the volleyball world championship in the city's National Stadium.

Things almost turned out differently. Tusk had been discussed as a possible candidate for months, but he was reluctant to accept the position, afraid that things would crash and burn at home if he left for Brussels. His departure is expected to cause an earthquake in Polish politics, where his center-right Civic Platform party, which has been trailing in the polls, faces parliamentary elections in 2015 (if not sooner). Poland's "Waitergate" wiretapping scandal this summer, involving top Polish officials, has not helped.

But at this moment, Europe needs Tusk more than Poland needs him -- which may have been what ultimately convinced him to take the job. In the days before the summit, the stars aligned in Tusk's favor, helped by a surprising endorsement by David Cameron, the British prime minister. (The catch: He expects Tusk to support his plans to reform the EU.)

Tusk, 57, is a sensible, pro-European figure who, in his seven years as Poland's prime minister, has won the respect of his peers in Europe and beyond. He enjoys playing soccer in his free time and has a sense of humor, which can be seen in this clip of him singing the Beatles' "Hey Jude" to draw attention to a government campaign. Unlike his polyglot (but otherwise lackluster) predecessor as head of the European Council, Belgium's Herman Van Rompuy, foreign languages are not Tusk's strongest point. "Nothing is good enough for Europe, including my English today," he admitted at the press conference the evening he was chosen. "I will polish my English," he added with a smile, promising to be ready by the time he starts the job in December.

Readers will likely be more familiar with Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland's already-polished, Western-educated foreign minister, who has been praised for his engagement with Ukraine. Speaking on Polish radio last week, he condemned Russian "aggression," which has created the most serious security crisis in Europe in decades. In a powerful Slate article, also last week, his wife, Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian, drew parallels with September 1939, when Poland was invaded from both the east and the west.

The EU foreign-policy job seemed tailor-made for Sikorski, but it ended up going to Mogherini, the Italian foreign minister, who was previously secretary of the parliamentary defense committee. As a center-left politician and woman, the 41-year-old fitted Brussels' staffing arithmetic (as it stands, there will be a dramatic gender imbalance in the next European Commission). But her lack of foreign policy experience -- she has only held her current job since February -- suggests that European leaders have once again shirked choosing a heavyweight for the job. Catherine Ashton, who currently has the job, had been derided as a lightweight from the start (despite her unexpected role in the nuclear deal with Iran last December). Since the Maidan protest last winter, her statements voicing that she is "gravely concerned" about events in Ukraine have become a joke in Kiev.

More worrying, given the current crisis, is Mogherini's attitude towards Russia. She previously backed South Stream, a controversial Russian pipeline that would circumvent Ukraine to bring gas to southeastern Europe, saying it would be good for Italy's energy security. Her visit to Moscow in July, apparently intended to show her interest in events in the east, backfired, confirming the widespread view in the EU's eastern member states that she is "pro-Kremlin oriented", as Lithuania's president, Dalia Grybauskaite, put it.

Southern Europe is traditionally less concerned about events to the EU's east -- unlike countries like Poland and Lithuania, which have long been calling for stronger EU engagement in the region. Fortunately, there is Tusk. As the Kremlin started flexing its muscles this spring, Tusk put security at the center of the Polish political debate. He has called for heightened NATO presence in the region and, in March, drew up a plan for a European energy union. "Excessive dependence on Russian energy makes Europe weak," he wrote in an article in the Financial Times outlining his proposals. But, reluctant to damage relations with Russia, they were met with limited interest in other European capitals. Tusk's hope now may be that a Pole will get the EU's top energy job, with rumors in Warsaw now that Elzbieta Bienkowska, Poland's deputy prime minister, might become the European commissioner for energy.

"There's a joke going round the corridors of Brussels that Tusk's appointment will be the biggest sanction against Russia," Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine's foreign minister, tweeted. "Although I prefer the word ‘challenge," he added.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out between Tusk and Mogherini -- who, after all, has the foreign policy portfolio. Tusk will have a mound of other things on his hands, including a dire economic situation and keeping Britain in the EU. With a tight agenda, limited formal powers, and a gaggle of 28 national leaders in the room, it is unclear how much Tusk will be able to do for Ukraine.

The clue may lie in looking at who backed Tusk. Like Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker, who got another one of the top EU's jobs, the presidency of the European Commission, the union's executive arm, Tusk was endorsed by Germany's Merkel. Over the years, the two veteran leaders have made Polish-German relations closer than they ever have been before. But things have become less rosy in recent months amid Berlin's cautious reaction to events in the east, even prompting concerns that Germany has been trying to marginalize Poland in the Ukraine crisis negotiations. Sikorski, who played a key role in helping broker a deal between then-president Viktor Yanukovych and the Ukrainian opposition at the height of the Maidan protests in February, was noticeably absent from talks between the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine in Berlin this summer, to which he was not invited.

Ironically, Tusk and Sikorski are also the ones who worked hard to improve Poland's relations with Russia after they came to power in 2007. Tusk's firm response to the crisis in Ukraine temporarily boosted his ratings this spring. At the same time, he has shied away from the Russophobic rhetoric of the Kaczynski twins, who were in power before Tusk's party won the elections in 2007. President Lech Kaczynski's death in a plane crash near the Russian city of Smolensk in 2010, continues to fan the flame of conspiracy theories about Moscow's involvement in the accident. Now Tusk's departure for Brussels may turn out to be a gift for his political arch-rival, the conservative Jaroslaw Kaczynski -- the other twin. Still, Kaczy?ski's Law and Justice party, which is leading in the polls , has done surprisingly little to take advantage of the current geopolitical situation as of yet. Struggling to compete with Tusk's party on foreign policy, it has focused on diverting the debate back to domestic issues.

So far, Tusk has said that the key thing will be for him and Mogherini to formulate a "brave but not radical" response to the situation in Ukraine. "We share this point of view," he added.

Despite the negative press she has received, there are signs that Mogherini may be learning quickly (or at least taking care not to offend Poland and Lithuania. Tomasz Bielecki, the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza's Brussels correspondent, has pointed out that she may not be as bad as she is thought to be -- or, at very least, that she has a good knowledge of the geography of eastern Ukraine and events in Kiev. Speaking in front of EU lawmakers in the European parliament on Sept. 2, Mogherini described the situation in Ukraine as "a time of complete darkness" and said that the EU would decide on a new package of sanctions against Russia -- targeting sectors including defense, dual-use goods, and finance -- on Friday. The EU-Russia strategic partnership with is over, she emphasized, "and that was Moscow's choice."

But which of the Polish-Italian duo will actually hold the reins, and how far west Russian forces will have advanced by the time Tusk starts his job on Dec. 1, remains an open question.