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Ukraine's Mystery Battle: Hunting for Truths Across an Elastic Border

VICE News went to investigate what really happened in Starohnativka last week. Ukraine claims to have captured new ground while rebels say "nothing happened" — and many people don't believe either version.
Photo by Jack Crosbie

The dynamic of claim and counter-claim between the opposing forces in eastern Ukraine is nothing new. From social media posts to ministerial press releases, the conflict is as much a war of words as it is of bombs and bullets. But an incident last week was the subject of such bold and wildly conflicting claims from both the rebels in Donetsk and the government in Kiev that they cast more doubt than certainty over the events they described.


According to Kiev, in the early hours of August 10, the front line around the small town of Starohnativka was subjected to a sustained pre-dawn attack from hundreds of pro-Russia fighters, supported by tanks, heavy artillery, and APC-borne troops. Ukraine accused the rebels of carrying out the heaviest shelling in six months and branded it "a dangerous indication" of imminent conflict. International monitors from OSCE observed a significant increase in ceasefire violations around the town and President Petro Poroshenko was even reported to have summoned an emergency defense meeting.

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Amid mixed reports of multiple fatalities, Ukraine claimed that pro-Kiev forces launched a counterattack and seized strategic rebel positions — a ringing assertion of the first territorial gains made by the government since the February ceasefire deal was signed in Minsk.

But top brass in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) gave a starkly different story. According to them, it was all quiet on the eastern front. Edward Basurin, DNR deputy defense minister, denied that a rebel attack had happened, and insisted the DNR had not broken the ceasefire. He accused Ukraine of making up the story.

As stalemate, trench warfare, and consolidation of the de facto border increasingly typify a crumbling ceasefire, the alleged offensive last week could represent a hint of violence to come.


VICE News traveled to the front line round Starohnativka in the aftermath to find out exactly what had happened. There, soldiers, medics, and civilians on either side of the divide accused their respective governments of lying and challenged both official versions.

A Ukrainian soldier listens to his radio in the early evening at a front-line position near Starohnativka, the site of a major battle on August 10. Or was it? Photo by Jack Crosbie

The road to Starohnativka, situated just 20 miles from the Russian border, passes through sleepy hamlets and fields of sunflowers and corn — a pleasant hinterland halfway between Donetsk and the industrialized port city of Mariupol. Save for the odd bunker and trench system, and thud of shellfire, the scene presents a rural idyll, almost a cliché of pastoral Ukraine.

Beyond the main checkpoint lay the town, the stronghold of the 72nd mechanized brigade. It was a jumble of concrete and weeds, seemingly devoid of civilian life. A group of volunteer medics were resting at a former Soviet children's camp, now commandeered for their living quarters. Three trained doctors and around 20 paramedics spend their days here waiting to treat casualties, and their nights on mats laid out on the bare, cement floor.

While a few lounged in the shade to escape the intense, afternoon sun, others sat on ammunition crates, sipping black coffee as they gazed over the scrubland which separated them from the front line.

'Our troops didn't take any new land. Perhaps the officials at the ministry see better than we do.'

"Too many children remain in these villages. We don't understand why their parents don't take them away," Odesseet, a father in his 40s with a quick smile, but weary eyes, told VICE News. "We desperately need more medical transports," added Larissa Khorbachanka, 23. "Two were destroyed by mines on Monday, leaving us just a few vehicles."


The medics were the first of many on the front line to deride the Ukrainian Defense Ministry's statement that government troops had seized "key heights" and pushed the rebels back "two or three kilometers."

Olena Maksymenko, 27, a volunteer paramedic from Kiev who also serves as the medical unit's press officer, told VICE News: "They said we took new territory from the separatists but it's not true. Our troops did move forward but they pulled back soon afterwards.

"The Defense Ministry just wants to show a nice situation for the people back home. But it wasn't pretty. Three men died from Right Sector [a paramilitary group which fights for Ukraine] and four from the army. One guy died as we treated him — he didn't stand a chance."

A member of the Hospitaliers battalion sleeps on an empty gurney parked on the grass outside the battalion's HQ. Photo by Jack Crosbie

Back on the main road towards the front, Anatoli, a 40-year-old sergeant, cradled an assault rifle as he described the attack. "The battle began in the early hours of Monday and finished at around 11am before intensifying again after lunch," he said. "It was heavy — Grad missiles, multi-caliber shells, and surveillance drones."

Again pouring cold water on Kiev's claims that new ground had been captured, he added: "We moved forward to Novolaspa [a village trapped between both front lines]. But we saw a group of tanks there so we pulled back to our original positions."

Anatoli went on to accuse Kiev and Europe of abandoning Ukrainian troops and demanded more weapons. "Our guns aren't good enough to fight back with," he said. "Our weapons are old Soviet models. Our anti-tank guns are from the 1970s. We want new and better weapons from Europe but they are too scared — everyone there wants to avoid war with Russia.


"Kiev is not interested in winning this war. Where is their patriotism? The rich people who rule us there can leave anytime to go to Europe. Only the true fighters are here. This conflict only harms the poor and benefits the rich."

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A pensioner who gave her name as Pelakhina rested in the shade. She had refused to flee the town; for her the details of the battle were of little consequence. "They were fighting but I don't care what day it was," she said. "I'm 84 years old. I'm not interested in any of this. I just live one day at a time."

Away from the town center, a cadre of civilian contractors were building a fresh network of trenches at Ukraine's frontline positions. Their boss, Vladimir Bardesh, also insisted that no new ground had been permanently taken. "Sure, some of our soldiers moved forward but they didn't stay there for long," he said. "Nothing has changed."

His words chimed with multiple witnesses: this is an elastic front line which, apparently, had stretched forward on Monday, only to snap back several hours later.

The construction contractors have a living tent where they eat and rest during the day, but the canvas is often shredded by shrapnel in the night, forcing them to sleep in the network of narrow trenches around the base. Photo by Jack Crosbie

Further north, beneath a setting sun, as incoming and outgoing shellfire echoed along either side of the darkening valley, a group of pro-Kiev soldiers waited in an abandoned farm for nightfall. One played with a pack of dogs near a gutted barn, its roof destroyed by a rocket. A few pigs snuffled in an adjoining shed and the silhouettes of a shepherd and his flock rose above the skyline in a neighboring field.


Their commander, Major Alexander Chirya, described Monday's battle. "It was unusually loud — shelling and shooting all night. We spent it underground in a shelter." Why didn't they return fire? He let out a hollow laugh: "With AK47s against Grads?"

When asked about Kiev's claims that Ukraine had seized rebel positions, he replied with a wry smile: "Our troops didn't take any new land. Perhaps the officials at the ministry see better than we do. That news certainly about new territory sounds good to me — I'd be glad if it were true."

'Nobody knows what's real but people believe the rumors and it makes them afraid'

Two days later, VICE News was in rebel-held territory, close to the devastated villages of Novolaspa and Bila Kam'yanka, northwest of Starohnativka. The war's kaleidoscope of colors had twisted to replace Ukraine's blue-and-yellow standard with a multitude of DNR and Novorossiya flags, as soldiers proudly displayed Russian insignia on their uniforms. From the breakaway enclave, government­-held Ukraine stretched into the distance.

At the foot of a gently sloping valley, a group of rebels stood around smoking in a small outpost by a meandering waterway. Shells and mortar rounds exploded nearby but the men barely registered the blasts. Spetz, their commander, rejected the DNR's official claims that "everything was calm" on Monday.

"Here we are defending our land from Ukraine — everyday it's a big fight," said the commander, who oversees a unit of around 40 men who often engage in special reconnaissance missions.


"We didn't leave our positions. The only time that happens is when we use the landscape to our advantage and sneak behind the enemy. We like partisan war," he said.

"Nothing has changed — the same villages as before are controlled by Ukraine and DNR."

Yurii shows photos of medical operations on casualties of Monday's battle. Photo by Jack Crosbie

Later, at a nearby forward base, a grizzled lieutenant with a bushy beard told VICE News about the battle which his superiors claimed had never happened. He gave his name as Thor. "I believe in in the old gods," he explained.

All the pro-Russia soldiers we spoke to denied that they had suffered any fatalities, despite reports in Ukraine of more than 130 killed. Thor, however, undermined the official line and was the first rebel to acknowledge a death toll among the separatists. "Ukraine used anti-tank weapons, howitzers, and mortars," he said. "A Grad destroyed the house of a commander, a man called Khandros. It killed him, his wife, and another woman.

"We answered with anti-tank fire, heavy machine guns, and RPGs. But we still don't have enough weapons. We really want to take the whole of Donbass — it's our homeland." He quickly added: "We don't intend to go any further."

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A variety of accounts haunt the aftermath of last Monday's attack around the remote town of Starohnativka, but they all point to the certainty that this was the scene of a significant battle, hidden beyond the opaque barricades of numerous military checkpoints. The fight was far greater than what has become normal along the ossified front of the war in eastern Ukraine. While the stalemate was briefly ruptured, the lines of hostility were not redrawn.


Men and women on the ground confirmed Ukraine's official death toll of seven — four from the military and national guard, and three from the Right Sector militia. The true extent of the loss of life among the Russian-backed separatist army, however, will almost certainly remain buried. The victims' families, in whatever corner of the former Soviet Union they live, will be among the only individuals to learn which men died that day.

Anti-Russian graffiti covers an old Soviet metal sculpture. Photo by Jack Crosbie

The difficulty of pinpointing fact amid the smoke and mirrors of misinformation was highlighted again in nearby Komsomolskoe. An atmosphere of paranoia, suspense, and uncertainty pervaded the small town. The local mayor is said to have ordered the remaining populace to prepare their basements, ahead of what many people there view as a likely offensive.

Rebels along this stretch of the front said they expected Ukraine to strike on the symbolic day of August 24 — the country's Independence Day commemorating secession from the USSR in 1991. But civilians in Komsomolskoe believe an attack could come earlier.

A female shopkeeper in her 40s said the town was awash with rumors but no one knew the source. "Someone says that somebody heard from some DNR soldier on some checkpoint that we should be ready because something or other is going to happen," she said in good humor, with a hint of exasperation.

"Nobody knows what's real but people believe the rumors and it makes them afraid. People are asking me to give them boxes from the shop so they can stock up their basements. One person says the attack will be on the 17th, another says the 18th or 19th, others say the 24th.

"Everybody here knows something but no one knows the truth."

Follow Jack Losh on Twitter: @jacklosh