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The Donbas Rebels in Their Own Words

April 12, 2014, started out as just another typical day for the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk. At 9 a.m., a dark green truck surrounded by several dozen fighters wearing masks drove up to the local police station. The armed strangers took a rope that was attached to the truck and tied it to a […]
The Donbas Rebels in Their Own Words

April 12, 2014, started out as just another typical day for the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk. At 9 a.m., a dark green truck surrounded by several dozen fighters wearing masks drove up to the local police station. The armed strangers took a rope that was attached to the truck and tied it to a metal grid covering one of the police station’s windows. Within seconds, the truck drove off at full speed, ripping the grid completely off.

Having eliminated this obstacle, the fighters smashed in the window with their rifles and began entering the building one by one. Shots were heard from inside. At the same time, several fighters climbed onto a canopy above the police station’s entrance. Seizing a Ukrainian flag that was hoisted there, they threw it to the ground and triumphantly raised a Russian tricolor in its place.

Thus began the Battle for Slavyansk, the opening shot in the Donbas War that has resulted in over 14,000 dead and many more displaced since 2014. The conflict entered a new, deadlier phase on February 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow would launch a so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine under the pretext of defending the Russian-speaking population of the Donbas. Although the final outcome has yet to be determined, the past month of heavy fighting in Ukraine has already caused destruction on a scale not seen in Europe since the end of World War II.

Surprisingly, very little has been written about the Battle of Slavyansk in English despite its historical significance. In Russia, however, a number of books about the clash have been published in recent years. Perhaps the most prominent of them is 85 Days in Slavyansk by Alexander Zhuchkovsky, a volunteer from St. Petersburg who fought in the battle alongside the pro-Russian rebels. Relying on his personal experiences and interviews with other direct participants, Zhuchkovsky provides a rare insider’s look at how the battle unfolded, who exactly were the pro-Russians rebels, and their complicated relationship with Moscow.

The story of the Battle of Slavyansk begins with Igor Girkin, better known by his nom de guerre “Strelkov,” a former colonel in Russia’s military and Federal Security Service (FSB). Born in Moscow in December 1970 and initially trained as a historian, Strelkov gained his first battlefield experience as a volunteer in Transnistria and Bosnia in 1992–93. He later fought in both the First and Second Chechen Wars. Strelkov retired from the FSB in 2013, but claims to have played an active role during Russia’s annexation of Crimea the following year.

Although Strelkov only became a household name in Russia following Slavyansk, he was already well known within a narrow circle of veterans and journalists. During his spare time, Strelkov often penned articles for nationalist newspapers and helped organize reenactments of famous battles from Russian history. Ideologically, Strelkov was an avid monarchist who called for a new union between Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

In early April 2014, while Strelkov was still in Crimea, a wave of pro-Russian demonstrations swept over eastern Ukraine. Inspired by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and hoping to capitalize on its momentum, a group of local activists reached out to Strelkov for help in transforming the protest movement into an armed uprising. As Zhuchkovsky explains, the plan for Strelkov and his associates was to occupy government buildings, unite local residents around them, and prepare the ground for the arrival of Russian troops—in other words, the Crimean scenario.

Every uprising needs a flashpoint and Slavyansk was soon chosen as the ideal choice for this particular one. Like in much of the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, the population of Slavyansk exhibited strong pro-Russian sympathies. The city was small enough to be quickly taken by several dozen fighters, but also large enough to serve as a key transportation hub. Finally, Slavyansk was geographically well positioned to serve as a “shield” for the major industrial cities of Donetsk and Lugansk, which in the long run would become the political centers of the Donbas rebellion.

One obvious question emerges: Who was behind Strelkov’s expedition to Slavyansk? Zhuchkovsky admits that he does not have a definitive answer and reveals that Strelkov was, unsurprisingly, reluctant to elaborate on the issue during their interview. Zhuchkovsy proposes the following explanation: In the absence of a definitive decision by the Kremlin on what to do next with Ukraine, some elements of Russia’s elite were willing to help Strelkov test the waters in the Donbas.

On the night of April 12, Strelkov and 52 volunteers that he had recruited in Crimea arrived in Russia’s Rostov region, near the border with Ukraine. After leaving their documents behind on the Russian side of the border, the fighters crossed into the Donbas on foot, where they met up with local activists who had prepared transportation for them. By morning, they had arrived in Slavyansk. As Strelkov had anticipated, local police surrendered after a brief exchange of gunfire.

During the first two weeks after the capture of Slavyansk, very little actual fighting took place. Zhuchkovsky writes that when the Ukrainian government sent its 25th Airborne Brigade to the city, the rebels were able to disarm the unit without firing a shot. For their part, the rebels avoided attacking Ukrainian military checkpoints.

This relative lull came to an end on May 2, when the Ukrainian military attempted a frontal assault on Slavyansk with the help of hundreds of soldiers and dozens of armored vehicles and combat aviation. Although the Ukrainians succeeded in seizing a strategic height near Slavyansk, the rebels managed to repel the offensive on the city itself.

Zhuchkvosky argues that a major reason why this initial assault failed was because Ukrainian troops showed excessive caution, fearing that the positions in Slavyansk were being manned by elite, undercover Russian Spetsnaz units. “In fact, at each of these positions, there were between three and ten poorly armed militiamen who would have been easily dispersed in a real attempt to break through with armored vehicles,” he writes.

According to Zhuchkovsky, the Slavyansk militia consisted predominantly of Donbas locals, with a significant number of Russian volunteers as well (the ratio moved from 90:10 to 70:30 as the battle went on). At its peak, the Slavyansk garrison numbered around 2,500 fighters. Ideologically, they were all over the map. Whereas the Russian volunteers tended to be Orthodox Christian monarchists like Strelkov, most of the Donbas locals harbored nostalgia for Soviet-era socialism.

“A significant number of the Slavyansk militiamen are men of age,” Zhuchkovsky writes, quoting a Donbas pro-Russian activist. “They wanted revenge for the treason of 1991, for the robbery of the 90s, for the elections of no choice, for the government dancing to the American tune, for the years of Ukrainization. For them, it was probably their last attempt, their last opportunity to fight for the country they lost in 1991.”

Despite their early successes on the battlefield, Strelkov’s forces lacked the necessary manpower and weaponry to conduct any serious offensive operations beyond the occasional ambush or counterattack. This problem was compounded by the absence of a central command among the rebels. Zhuchkovsky explained that although a significant number of Russian volunteers and weapons crossed into the Donbas during the late spring and early summer of 2014, only a small percentage made their way to Slavyansk since they were quickly scooped up by other local commanders. Strelkov’s forces also lacked proper communications equipment, forcing them to rely on short-range radio devices and even mobile phones.

However, their main predicament was that contrary to Strelkov’s expectations, Russian military help did not appear to be on the way. At first, there were some signs that the situation in the Donbas would evolve along the Crimean scenario. On April 24, Russia kicked off large-scale exercises near the Ukrainian border, sparking hopes among the rebels that Moscow was preparing to intervene. Less than a month later, however, the drills came to a close and Russian troops returned to their barracks.

At the same time, Putin publicly urged the rebels to postpone a referendum scheduled for May 11 that would decide whether the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts would secede from Ukraine. Despite this request, the rebels went ahead with the referendum as planned and declared independence. The following day, Strelkov, in his new capacity as “defense minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, issued a formal appeal to Moscow for Russian military help. That request went unanswered.

Following Ukraine’s election on May 25, Russia recognized Petro Poroshenko as the new president of Ukraine, a decision that Zhuchkovsky says many rebels regarded as a “heavy psychological blow.” Exactly one month later, the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, canceled a resolution that it had adopted prior to Crimea authorizing Putin to use Russian military force on the territory of Ukraine.

While the Kremlin signaled that it had no plans of sending troops to the Donbas, the Ukrainian military switched its strategy from attempting to storm Slavyansk to besieging it. Over the course of May and June, Ukrainian forces captured the settlements surrounding Slavyansk one by one from the vastly outnumbered rebels. At the same time, Ukrainian artillery bombarded the city, cutting off its water, food, and electricity supplies. By the time July rolled around, Slavyansk was almost completely surrounded.

“The militiamen often won local victories and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy, with many still hoping for Russian support,” Zhuchkhovsky writes. “But the mood was already fatal. The fighters lived each day waiting for the enemy’s attack, waiting for the opportunity to give a final and decisive battle, in which the entire garrison could heroically die defending Slavyansk.”

That anticipated final showdown never came. Although Strelkov had vowed for months to hold onto Slavyansk till the very end, he suddenly reversed course on July 4, ordering his fighters to prepare for an imminent withdrawal from the city. Around midnight the following day, Strelkov and his troops abandoned Slavyansk under the cover of darkness and headed towards Donetsk. The Battle of Slavyansk had finally ended after nearly three months of grueling fighting.

In the weeks after the fall of Slavyansk, Strelkov was removed from his command position among the rebels and forced to return to Moscow. Between September 2014 and February 2015, Germany and France helped broker two peace deals known as the Minsk accords, which sought to reincorporate the Donbas into Ukraine as an autonomous region. The Kremlin eagerly backed the initiative, seeing it as a way of preventing Ukraine from joining NATO in the long run.

Although the Minsk accords helped reduce the scale of the fighting, disputes over their implementation derailed efforts to end the war. Over the subsequent seven years, the Donbas remained a frozen war zone in which both sides frequently exchanged gunfire and artillery salvos, but made little territorial gains. This fragile stalemate finally broke down on February 24, when Russia launched a full-scale military offensive into Ukraine.

Moscow soon discovered that much has changed since the Slavyansk days. Back in 2014, Ukraine’s military heavily relied on Soviet-era weaponry and counted only 140,000 troops, just 6,000 of which were combat ready. Since then, Ukraine increased the size of its armed forces to 255,000 active duty personnel and 900,000 reservists, received billions of dollars in Western arms and equipment, began training with NATO militaries, and erected a dense network of fortifications along the frontline in the Donbas. No less significantly, the pro-Russian political forces in eastern Ukraine that seemed poised for a breakthrough in 2014 had almost completely disappeared by 2022.

One of the voices that predicted that Russia would face a tough fight in Ukraine was none other than Strelkov. In various interviews and public appearances, he warned that the Ukrainian military would put up stiff resistance and that Russia needed to be prepared for a major shift in public opinion that had taken place in Ukraine since 2014. At the same time, Strelkov argued that Russia needed to do everything possible to secure a swift victory, since a prolonged conflict increased the likelihood that NATO countries would provide substantial military support to Ukraine.

Six weeks into its campaign, Russia was forced to withdraw its troops from northern Ukraine, instead redeploying them for a renewed offensive in the eastern part of the country. With Russian and Ukrainian forces preparing for a major showdown that will determine the fate of the Donbas, a new battle for Slavyansk is on the horizon. Only this time Ukrainian soldiers will be the ones on the defensive, fighting to prevent the city from being encircled by a larger Russian force. If 2014 is any indicator of what to expect, then the battle will likely be long and grueling.

One can only feel sympathy for the people of Slavyansk. For the second time in eight years, war has come knocking on their door. 

Dimitri A. Simes has written for the National Interest and Nikkei Asia, and was a 2020 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.

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