Ukraine Town Bears Scars of Russian Offensive That Turned Tide in Conflict

Carlotta Gall, The New York Times

ILOVAISK, Ukraine - Burned-out tanks, troop carriers and trucksstill lie strewn on the roads and fields all around this town. Thebody of a Ukrainian soldier hangs doubled over an electric wire,flung up like a doll when his tank exploded. The charred corpse ofanother soldier lies inside the hull of the tank, a thirdputrifying torso is tangled in machinery on the road.

It is vivid, if horrifying, evidence of what was a devastating offensivemounted by Russian artillery units at the end of August thatsmashed the government forces, breaking what had been a relentlessadvance that had seemed on the verge of crushing the pro-Russianuprising in the country's southeast. Days later, Ukraine agreed toa cease-fire cementing the rebels' holdon the region.

In a matter of five days, beginning on Aug. 28, the previouslyill-equipped and inept rebels, backed or led by regular Russiantroops and artillery, obliterated almost every Ukrainian positionin a 20-square-mile area around this town.

Under withering and highly accurate artillery fire, entireUkrainian units were virtually wiped out, hundreds of men werekilled or wounded, and 250 were taken prisoner, according to rebelcommanders. Scores of wounded have filled Ukrainian hospitals, andnearly 100 vehicles were destroyed, some in the fields andvillages, others on the roads.

Signs of a panicked, haphazard retreat line the roads around thetown. The twisted remnants of burned-out troop carriers and otherarmored vehicles appear every few miles.

South of Ilovaisk, a large military camp at a dairy farm showsevidence of similarly devastating artillery strikes. Assortedvehicles, trucks and armored personnel carriers, including acommand vehicle with communications antenna, were destroyed.Craters from artillery fire pockmarked the fields.

It was a stunningturnaround, engineered in Moscow and carried out by regular Russiantroops in what amounted to an invasion, NATO and the Ukrainiangovernment have said.

After the attack,the rebel forces, who just days before had been facing defeat andcomplaining about a lack of support from Moscow, could be seendriving around the countryside in triumph. Rebel fighters, dressedin camouflage fatigues and carrying automatic rifles, operatedcheckpoints on the roads and once again control this town and itssurroundings.

Ukrainian forces hadmade steady progress through the summer, pushing the rebels out ofseveral areas and threatening their center of power, the regionalcapital of Donetsk. They attacked Ilovaisk on Aug. 7 and within aweek or so had seized the western part of the town and set up abase in a school building, School No. 14, and in the residentialstreets around it.

As the soldiers occupied the neighborhood, Victoriaand Alexei Babyi fled with their two small children, taping theword DETI, which means children, on the windshield of the car andtying a white sheet to the side mirror.

"We spent a week inthe basement, and then we left," said Mrs. Babyi, 28, who with herhusband had returned to their trashed house to pick up clothes andother possessions. "There were many Ukrainian checkpoints andmilitary equipment. Planes were flying, and they were bombing theDonetsk checkpoints, and Grad rockets were falling."

As the end of August approached, the rebels still held half ofthe town, but they were almost surrounded and had a single supplyroute open to the northeast. But under a barrage of artillery,rebel and Ukrainian commanders say, the balance rapidly shifted.The rebel commander in the town, who goes by the nickname Givi -his real name is Mikhail Tolstykh - described three weeks of heavyfighting leading up to the counterattack.

It was a "massiveoffensive," Commander Tolstykh said. Heavy artillery positionedabout 12 miles away opened up on the Ukrainian forces in support,he said.

ilovaisk nyt local

Vasiliy Goncharov looked at hisdestroyed home. CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times

Ukrainian soldiersdescribed wave after wave of artillery strikes across the region.Border guards in the south said they were hit even earlier, on thenight of Aug. 23, and forced to abandon their positions.

"The Russian Army isvery good," said a soldier in one of Ukraine's volunteer battalionsfarther south, who gave only his nickname, Panzer. "They don't takerisks. They see us and bomb in a square. They bomb everything inthat square, our positions, a village, homes, everything. We can donothing; we don't have artillery."

The Ukrainian Army does have some tanks andartillery, but the forces around Ilovaisk, a mixture of army unitsand lightly armed volunteer units, seem to have been poorlydefended.

On Aug. 29, surrounded and under increasing pressure,the men of the Donbass battalion, who had set up headquarters inIlovaisk's School No. 14, tried to break out in a convoy.

Semyon Semyonchenko,the commander of the battalion, who had been wounded earlier, wrotea real-time chronicle of the fighting on his Facebook page from hishospital bed. He complained that his men had not received anyreinforcements. Then, as they pulled out, the convoy wasambushed.

"Now they arefighting, we need help immediately," he wrote. "I can only help andpray that the best sons of Ukraine will survive."

In the village ofNovo Ekaterinovo, where the corpses of Ukrainian soldiers lay amidthe wreckage, residents said a cannon placed on a hilltop abovetheir homes hit Ukrainian vehicles as they retreated along the roadover a period of three days.

"I feel sorry forthose men, they are also young lads," a village woman said.

"They are ourenemies," replied a rebel soldier who gave only his first name,Yarik, and who accompanied journalists to the area.

But there was littledoubt about the effectiveness of the Russian intervention. "Itreally changed the situation. It gives us more power and the beliefthat everything will be good for us," said Commander Tolstykh inIlovaisk. "It showed us that we are one, all the people of theDonetsk republic, and that we are united."

Few people inIlovaisk dared believe that the fighting was over, however. Thetown is still without electricity, gas and water.

"We cannot talk ofsecurity. We have no idea of who is going to come back. We don'tknow if it is over," Mrs. Babyi said.

Источник: https://en.censor.net.ua/r302002