This story is over 5 years old.


Ukraine Border Gateway Seized as War-Weary Locals Pray for Peace

Pro-Russian rebels have prised open another gateway in Ukraine’s porous eastern border with Russia.
Photo by Harriet Salem

A Russian flag tied to a barricade flutters in the breeze, trees silhouette against a bold red sunset. Just shy of the border a nine-mile stretch of tank track churned tarmac halts abruptly, giving way to the telltale signs of an artillery attack shrapnel scarred concrete and shattered glass.

Despite the damage the border is still open, a steady trickle of cars pass through the crossing — locals on their way to work or to visit family and friends, others loaded with suitcases and flying white ribbons are refugees heading to Russia.


The Novoazovsk border control post itself is still decorated with the blue and yellow trident of Ukraine, but now it is manned by men in ragtag military fatigues and sleeveless telnyashkas — the iconic striped uniform of the Soviet navy. With automatic weapons slung over their shoulders they check passports and vehicles. White armbands identify them as the pro-Russian insurgent forces that earlier this week pushed a new frontier along this militarily significant slither of land that stretches from Russia down to the Azov coast.

Pro-Russia Fighters Advance West Into Ukraine, as Others Flee for Kiev. Read more here.

Rebel fighter at the Novazovsk border crossing between Ukraine and Russia

The offensive, which has prised open Ukraine's eastern border with Russia at another point and afforded the rebels valuable access to the sea, marks a crashing new crescendo in the Ukraine crisis that has plunged east-west relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War.

Kiev and its western allies, who have long accused Moscow of allowing men and weapons to flow into the rebels across Ukraine's porous eastern border, claim the latest assault received significant support from Russia including at least a thousand ground troops operating inside its neighbors territory.

Exclusive footage of the MH17 aftermath. Watch it here.

But Alexander Demonov, an Area Commander of rebel forces in the new southeast front, said that his men were met with no resistance as they advanced and the Ukrainians simply abandoned their posts.


"The border was empty, no one was here when we arrived, the Ukrainians had run away, we don't know where they went," he said, showing VICE News a row of hastily abandoned beds and a fridge still stuffed with bread and salo — cured fat — as evidence of the abdication.

Nearby the gaping shell-shaped holes in the ceiling of a congregated iron storage unit and shrapnel torn tents, now commandeered by the rebels as a kitchen, explain why the others made such a hasty retreat.

"I understand it's a very sensitive issue since it's so close to the border," said Demonov, categorically denying any Russian involvement in the assault, despite Kiev's claims that Moscow has been complicit in the shelling of several of its border posts from positions inside Russia's borders.

The Russian flag flies on the Ukraine border of Novazovsk seized by pro-Russian forces on August 27th. Area Commander, Alexander Demonov, says the post is now part of the territory of Novorossia.

"Look, the tanks came down this road, the journey takes a day and half, three separate columns have travelled this way, that's fifteen tanks," he explained, pointing at a map and drawing his finger along the road that winds its way down the border.

The columns, which Kiev claims came from Russia and the rebels' claim came from Luhansk, have now scattered across the countryside and along the main highway.

Both the town of Novoazovsk, and the nearby village of Markyna, less than two and half miles from the Russian border, are now firmly under the rebels control with sun-faded T-72 tanks and gunmen flanking the entrances to both.

It's Time to Assign Blame For Everything Happening in Ukraine. Read more here.


Drawing the government forces out by stretching a new front in Ukraine's southeast has proved a successful strategy for the rebels. Caught on the back foot with few men and no artillery to return fire with the government forces were quickly pushed back — from the border all the way to Mariupol, a port city of nearly half a million people, in a matter of twenty-four hours. And now, with Kiev scrambling to reinforce the defenses of the Azov coast, key strategic battles being fought north of the city in Ilovaysk and Starobesheve have also been lost potentially opening it up to an assault from the northern front as well.

But another problem faced by the Ukrainian forces is a lack of support for their presence in the sleepy villages nestled along the border where many residents, most of whom have strong family and economic ties to Russia, are either openly hostile or simply war fatigued.

Shell damage to a storage warehouse on the Ukrainian side of the Novoazovsk border that was seized by rebels on August 27th.

"We expressed our opinion in the referendum, nearly everyone voted and we said we wanted to live in independence," said 27-year-old Tanya, a shop assistant in Roseluxemburg, referencing a rebel-held vote on autonomy earlier this year. The small village, named after a darling of the Soviet era, is near deserted on a hot Sunday afternoon save for a few pigs snuffling around the storefront. "People consider themselves Russian. We're much closer to Russia than Kiev," she said told VICE News, gesturing in the direction of the border. "We live simple lives, we're just hoping that the DNR [Donetsk People's Republic] will come here soon, that everything will stay quiet and we can officially join with Novorossiya."


In Kominternove, a small village now awkwardly on the cusp of the two fluid front lines, the house of Tatyana, a 62-year-old pensioner and grandmother of 12, couldn't look more out of place in a warzone. From every corner of the front garden loom fantastic bottle sculptures of fantasy characters, including a giant teddy bear, the work of her 59-year-old husband an agricultural worker and school janitor.

"I'm happy that they make people passing by smile," the pensioner told VICE News with a kind grin. Who is in control of her village Tatyana can't say, and says she doesn't care. "There's been no fighting here yet but I've seen military vehicles pass by, Ukrainian I think, of course we're very anxious, we just want them to find a common language."

By Sunday afternoon the town of Bezimene — which translates literally from Russian to 'without name'—almost parallel to their village seemed to have also fallen without fight to the rebels. Locals wearing swimsuits and carrying beach gear milled along the main highway near the nameless town, where men in military fatigues had established a new tank position, the blood red rebel flag emblazoned with the blue Saint Andrew's cross flying above it.

Ukraine really wants its militarized dolphins back from Russia. Read more here.

Father Vladimir Riznik leads prayers on Ukraine's front line for peace.

A few kilometers down the road some bemused fighters from the Azov Battalion, one of the volunteer forces bolstering Ukraine's regular troops, took turns peering through a pair of binoculars at big plumes of smoke rising on the horizon. "They've hit a coast guard patrol," remarked one, "We don't know what with exactly, probably artillery."

Further down the road at the Ukrainian checkpoint sitting right next to a high-rise, Soviet-era residential estate on the east of the city, volunteers from Mariupol spent the weekend helping dig trenches, while others gathered on the front line to pray for peace.

Back at the border, despite the mounting international tensions, two teenage boys little younger than some of the fighters roaming the region, stroll casually through the passport control returning from a day working as construction laborers in Russia seemingly indifferent to the change in border personnel. "We just showed our document and came through, like always," they told VICE News.

Watch all of VICE News' dispatches, Russian Roulette here.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem