Just a week ago, the village of Olenivka was one of the strongholds of Ukraine's army in Donetsk Oblast. But on Sept. 1, Kremlin-backed insurgents drove around it in their shabby cars, after pushing the Ukrainian troops out overnight, local residents said.
The Ukrainian army used Olenivka as a base before attacks on Donetsk, the rebel-controlled provincial capital just 27 kilometers away. But as thousands of Russian troops entered Ukraine's territory in the past week, the army had to cede ground.
- according to Andriy Lysenko, the spokesman for the National Security and Defense Council. They are Donetsk, Amvrosiivka, Starobesheve, Huselshchykove, Novoazovsk and Markine in Donetsk Oblast. In neighboring Luhansk Oblast, they are in Luhansk, Pobeda, Novosvetlovka and Khryashchuvate.
Olenivka was retaken by separatist troops earlier.
Tanks and soldiers without insignia crossed the Ukrainian border from Russia and showed up in Novoazovsk on Aug. 27. Just a day later, NATO released satellite images of Russian troops, armored vehicles and artillery in eastern Ukraine.
Anton Herashchenko, adviser of minister of interior affairs, said to Channel 5 that the first Russian troops arrived in Ukraine on its Aug. 24 Independence Day, and attacked Saur-Mohyla strategic height near Donetsk and Amvrosiivka village near the Russian border.
Apart from strategically important territory, the Russian troops and rebels managed to take over the Luhansk airport, something they could not do for months before, despite controlling the actual city of Luhansk.
This chain of victories inspired Russian President Vladimir Putin so much that he even bragged, in a conversation with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso: “If I want to, I can take Kyiv in two weeks,” Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper reported. Later the Kremlin backtracked on the comment, saying it was taken out of context.
Direct involvement of Russian troops shifted the military conflict in eastern Ukraine from anti-terrorist operation against rebels armed by Russia to a full-scale war against Russia itself, Ukraine’s Minister of Defense Valery Heletey said.
“A big war has come to our house, the kind Europe has not seen since World War II,” Heletey wrote on his Facebook page on Sept. 1. “Unfortunately the losses will be calculated not by the hundreds but by the thousands, even tens of thousands.” More than 2,600 people were killed in eastern Ukraine since the conflict started in mid-April, the United Nations said.
Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and fighters of volunteer battalions were killed, including scores in Ilovaisk, a town in Donetsk region where Ukrainian troops were trapped by the Russian forces and massacred.
On the way to this town on Aug. 19, the Ukrainian servicemen were shelled by multiple rocket launchers across the border from Russia's territory, Vadim, deputy commander of Azov battalion, told the Kyiv Post. He survived the fight.
The Ukrainian commanders negotiated a humanitarian corridor for exiting the trap. It was one of Putin's initiatives. But the Ukrainian column was shelled heavily by Russian tanks along this corridor, losing many who were killed, wounded or captured by the Russians, says Taras Samchuk, a surviving member of 51th army brigade, which was caught in that fire.
Lysenko of the National Defense and Security Council says that Russians use many deceptive tactics. He said in the early hours of Sept. 2, the four trucks with white flags approached a checkpoint in the village of Razdolne. The trucks carried a sign indicating that there were children inside. But instead, armed militants jumped out and attacked the Ukrainian forces.
Russia has also been using white trucks of the so-called humanitarian convoy to bring weapons and supplies to Ukraine's territory, Lysenko said. On the night of Sept. 1, four of such trucks were tracked by the village of Dmytrivka.
There is another new element to the battles in the east: naval combat. Two Ukrainian border guards went missing and seven were wounded when their two patrol boats in the Azov Sea near Mariupol were shelled by rockets on Aug. 30. On the next day Mykola Zhybarev, head of Ukraine’s sea border guard, said the boats were shelled from the land near Bezymenne village, located close to Novoazovsk, currently controlled by the Russians.
It officials acknowledged that there are Russian “volunteers” fighting for Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics. Ukraine considers them terrorist organizations, but Putin has requested statehood for them.
Human rights activists in Moscow say that some 15,000 Russian soldiers have been sent to Ukraine over the past two months, Agence-France Presse reported. Multiple reports suggest that the Russian troops are aiming to capture Mariupol, a strategic Azov Sea port city in southern Donetsk Oblast. The residents have been digging trenches to defend the city as the Russian troops started to go around the city to enter it from an unexpected direction.
In Volnovakha, a sizeable city between Mariupol and the recently captured Olenivka, there were neither rebels nor Ukrainian troops to be found on Sept. 1. But people were feeling anxious and feared a Russian invasion. The local police service raised a Ukrainian flag in the morning, but later decided to remove it just in case.
“I don’t understand any sense of this war,” said Kateryna, 28, an oncologist, who had to flee from Donetsk in June because she lived by the airport, which often became epicenter of heavy fights. Like many refugees, she lives in Volnovakha now.
Kateryna, who worried about her safety and did not give her last name, played with her little son at the playpark on the first day of autumn. “I don’t know when we will go further when Volnovakha gets captured as well,” she says.
Editor’s Note: This article is produced for Kyivpost with support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by NIRAS and BBC Media Action, as well as Ukraine Media Project, managed by Internews and funded by the U.S.Agency for International Development. Kyiv Post+ is a special project covering Russia’s war against Ukraine and the aftermath of the Euromaidan Revolution. Content is solely the responsibility of the Kyiv Post.