Dovzhanskiy, Ukraine – Dozens of spent bullet cartridges strewn across pavement scarred by the tracks of armored vehicles. A café and auto body shop blown to bits, their bricks and mortar reduced to rubble. The letters that make up the name of this country – Ukraine – hanging by a thread from atop the Dovzhanskiy border crossing here 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 pro-Russian rebels on July 1.
President Petro Poroshenko called the operation to recover the Dovzhanskiy border crossing the “first victory” after the restart of Ukraine’s campaign to quash the separatist uprising in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. 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.
A hole from a large caliber bullet on a barrier near the border crossing
Firmly in control on July 2, border guards worked to repair what they could at the border crossing and built up barricades with sandbags in front of two armored vehicles, the barrels of their machineguns aimed toward the rebels who had retreated to a checkpoint some 21 kilometers down the highway.
A border guard who asked that his name not be used in this story to ensure his safety gave the Kyiv Post a tour of the crumbling border crossing, pointing out damage to guard shacks and special machines used to check vehicles passing from Ukraine to Russia.
Due to the damage and the ongoing fight against the rebels, the Dovzhanskiy border crossing would remain closed indefinitely – as well as every other border crossing in Luhansk Oblast, he said. The Kyiv Post could not confirm that all other border crossings were closed.
“You’re not going to walk across, drive across, fly across. There is no way you're going across,” he explained to them.
He and his fellow guards reclaimed the border post just after 11 a.m. on July 1, he said, explaining that the gunfight that ensued when they rolled up in armored vehicles was “intense.” The large casings scattered around, the blown-out windows of surrounding buildings and the bullet-riddled guardrails along the highway appeared to prove his account.
Despite the ferocity of the clash, no Ukrainian government fighters suffered injuries, nor were any killed, the border guard said, adding that he couldn’t speak for the rebels. However, days earlier one of their armored vehicles drove over a landmine that exploded beneath it, wounding “several” servicemen, he said.
Two hundred Ukrainian servicemen and law enforcement personnel have been killed and 619 wounded in eastern Ukraine since the anti-terrorist operation began in April, the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council said on July 2.
Ukrainian servicemen and armored vehicles guard the Dovzhanskiy border crossing. About 21 kilometers down the highway is a rebel checkpoint, and beyond that rebel territory.
Following the border guards’ seizure of the border crossing, a minesweeper found some 35 landmines planted by the rebels, according to the border guard who spoke with the Kyiv Post. He swiped through photographs taken with his smartphone of the landmines, as well as other improvised explosives abandoned by the rebels during the gunfight.
The rebels also left crates of Molotov cocktails when they fled, the border guard said, pointing to one such crate.
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 them by Ukrainian forces on June 30. She said no one was injured when the missiles struck the earth surrounding their position.
Ukrainian forces have been seen transporting heavy artillery, including Grad rocket systems, to the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. But the rebels, too, have been seen transporting the rocket systems, which are known for being deadly and inaccurate.
As Natasha was speaking, several muffled explosions were heard from somewhere nearby, which she said were more Grad missiles.
“Hear that? Those are Grads,” she said. The sound was punctuated by sporadic bursts of gunfire that echoed through the rolling steppe.
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.