DOVZHANSKIY BORDER CROSSING, Ukraine – Dozens of spent bullet casings are strewn across pavement scarred by the tracks of armored vehicles. A café and an auto body shop are blown to bits, their bricks and mortar reduced to rubble. The letters that make up the name of this country – Ukraine – are hanging by a thread from atop the Dovzhanskiy border crossing on the frontier with Russia in far eastern Luhansk Oblast.
This was the scene on July 2, a day after Ukrainian government forces reclaimed the critical checkpoint at the country’s border with Russia, following a fierce firefight with Kremlin-backed rebels on July 1.
President Petro Poroshenko called the operation to recover the Dovzhanskiy border crossing the “first victory” after he announced the restart of Ukraine’s campaign to quash the separatist uprising in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts on July 1.
In fact, it was perhaps the military’s biggest achievement in recent days – maybe weeks – as the crossing is believed to have been a route for the transport of rebel reinforcements from Russia to Ukraine. And it came with no casualties to Ukrainian servicemen or civilians. It is not known whether rebel fighters suffered injuries or died in the fight.
But elsewhere, Ukraine’s anti-terrorist operation, now nearly three months old, has enjoyed much less success.
For weeks Ukrainian forces have bombarded the separatist bastion of Sloviansk in Donetsk Oblast with small arms, mortars and heavy artillery.
In doing so they say they have “liquidated” hundreds of rebel fighters (though dozens is more likely, based on the Kyiv Post’s observations). But the battle here and elsewhere in Ukraine’s two eastern provinces has come at a steep price.
There have been more than 200 civilian casualties, including at least 15 children, in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. More than 200 Ukrainian servicemen have also been killed.
Tens of thousands have been displaced. Speaking with several of them in nearby Sviatohirsk, where about 15,000 have fled, no one voiced support for the government’s military campaign, even those who said they do not approve of the Kremlin-backed separatists. Most of them, however, admitted that they were leaning toward the insurgents’ side, raising the question of how well Ukrainian forces would be received in the east.
Elsewhere, the stories are similarly tragic.
On July 2, shells hit the village of Stanytsya Luhanska in Luhansk Oblast, killing as many as 12 civilians, including a five-year-old boy, according to Russian state media and rebel fighters the Kyiv Post spoke with.
A 200-meter stretch of homes was destroyed and the mangled bodies of residents scattered around the area, which was marked with four-foot-wide craters from the shells. Locals and rebels allege Ukrainian fighter jets carried out an airstrike. Kyiv says it had no planes in the area on July 2.
Earlier this week in Kramatorsk, some 10 kilometers south, five civilians were killed when a mortar exploded near a passenger bus.
Witnesses and rebel fighters told the Kyiv Post the shell came from the position of Ukrainian forces, who they blamed for the deaths. A spokesperson for the Ukrainian anti-terrorist operation denied that government servicemen had fired on the bus, saying that responsibility rested with the rebels.
A man covers the body of a July 2 victim of the Russian-backed war in Ukraine’s east. Locals say the man was killed by an air strike from Ukrainian forces in Luhansk Oblast’s Stanytsya Luhanska. Ukrainian officials deny air strikes in the area. More than 400 people – including at least 200 civilians and 200 members of the Ukrainian military – have been killed since April.
Then-Defense Minister Mykhailo Koval said the armed forces are banned from using rockets and artillery near residential areas. He said the event in Kramatorsk was “a rebel provocation” and an attempt to discredit the Ukrainian army.
“The armed forces of Ukraine and National Guard are banned from employing rocket artillery in residential areas,” he said in Kyiv on July 3.
Addressing the incidents during his press conference on July 3, Koval denied claims against Ukrainian forces in Luhansk Oblast, adding that there was no military action there.
While the Kyiv Post did not see or hear any planes flying overhead in several hours spent in Luhansk Oblast on July 2, Ukrainian forces were present at ground locations within striking distance of the shelled villages.
Moreover, Koval’s comments conflict with what the Kyiv Post has seen over the course of several weeks in eastern Ukraine and what a video released on July 2 by Ukraine’s Military TV purports to show: heavy weapons are being fired in the direction of residential areas.
Koval was dismissed by Poroshenko on July 3 and replaced by 46-year-old Valeriy Heletey, a former police officer and chief of security for ex- President Viktor Yushchenko.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a warning to Ukraine on July 2, citing the rise of civilian casualties in the country’s war-torn eastern regions, demanding that the government reinstate a ceasefire abandoned by Poroshenko on July 1 and stop the military offensive.
“Again we resolutely demand that the Ukrainian authorities — provided they are still able to evaluate sensibly the consequences of the criminal policy they conduct — to stop shelling peaceful cities and villages in their own country, to return to a real ceasefire in order to save human lives,” the Foreign Ministry said.
The insurgents also have been seen using heavy weapons. And to provoke the Ukrainian forces, they have launched mortars from within cities’ limits, and even from the courtyards of apartment buildings, including that of Yelena Laskova, 19, a second-year university student from Sloviansk, who was studying Ukrainian language and literature before evacuating the city on May 29.
She told the Kyiv Post on June 26 that rebels had fired several mortars from that position. In return, Ukrainian forces fired nearby, nearly hitting her while she walked to work.
Over the course of two months, Kyiv Post reporters have witnessed Ukrainian and insurgent fighters firing heavy weapons, including mortars and howitzers – weapons that are notoriously inaccurate – toward their targets.
More recently, both have reportedly used Grad missiles to attack. At a rebel block post in Dyakovskiy, 21 kilometers west on the same highway as the Dovzhanskiy border crossing, a woman named Natasha, who declined to give her last name, showed the Kyiv Post a pile of twisted rocket remains she claimed were Grad missiles fired at the post by Ukrainian forces on June 30.
Witnesses say they have seen Ukrainian forces transporting Grad rocket systems into the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
But the rebels, too, have been seen in possession of BM-21 Grad artillery rocket launchers, which are not known for their precision. On July 3, Andriy Lysenko, a spokesperson for the National Security and Defense Council, said Ukraine forces had captured the Grad system with which rebels shelled Stanytsya Luhanska.
“International organizations, in particular the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, should be involved, he said.
“We do not have to justify our actions all the time,” he said. “But we must show the world the face of the terrorists, behind the backs of which, after such bloody acts of provocation, Russian President Vladimir Putin gleefully rubs his little hands.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action. The content is independent of these organizations and is solely the responsibility of the Kyiv Post.