4 Sep 2014

‘Tell them please don’t think that Putin will stop at Ukraine’

All day long I’ve been watching Ukrainian armour retreat west. Tanks churned up the surface of the main road, leaving furrows in the tarmac. Scores of armoured personnel carriers, troop trucks and fuel bowsers, flying the turquoise-blue and yellow national flag, headed away from the Russian border.

“Our commanders are no good,” said Oleg, an English speaking member of the Kiev battalion, who was a lawyer in the Ukrainian capital before the war started in March. “I joined because I love my country but today we were told to retreat.” He, like others, is a volunteer in a privately funded battalion formed to back up the professional soldiers.

Enthusiasm, however, counts for little in the face of what Vladimir Putin reminded us the other day is “one of the world’s leading nuclear powers.”

Russia is one of the world’s most powerful conventional militaries too, as the soldiers camped at Dmitrivska, some 25 kilometres from the border, found in the early hours of this morning when four Smerch rockets slammed in, one hitting their sleeping quarters, another their ammunition store. Both were still in flames when we arrived a few hours later. The soldiers were packing up what remained and driving their trucks away. The Smerch is a Russian-made multiple rocket launcher with a 70 kilometre range. When I asked if it might have been the separatist rebels not the Russians firing the soldiers laughed. The rebels don’t have equipment like that.

We drove north to the tactical base at Orikhove, looking for a commander we could interview, but before we arrived we saw the trucks leaving – the base was being dismantled. A group of soldiers came up to talk – none would go on camera but all wanted to say how angry they were with their own government and with Nato.

“We should stay and fight,” said one. “The Russian sent Su 24s aircraft over and we tried to shoot them down but we failed. We need help.”


“We would have destroyed the rebels long ago if our government hadn’t hesitated,” said another.

They were convinced that the Russian “humanitarian convoy” sent to Luhansk, just 35 kilometres away, last week had been full of military supplies.

“Before that the rebels would shoot twice with artillery and we would respond four times. But after that they had endless artillery and we couldn’t even put our heads up.”

I asked if they had a message for Nato leaders meeting in Wales.

An older man with a slim, tanned face and a moustache leaned over the others from behind.

“Tell them please don’t think that Putin will stop at Ukraine. Remember, Hitler didn’t stop at Poland.”

We watched as the last few tank transporters and trucks moved down the hill, the weary, dispirited soldiers on top waving as they went past until the dust enveloped the convoy obscuring them from view.

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