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Darkest Hour Before Dawn in East Ukraine?

More and more towns caught up in fighting as Ukrainian forces make inroads.
By Dmitry Durnev
  • A Ukrainian army vehicle outside Donetsk. July 9, 2014. (Photo: Alvaro Ybarra Zavala/copyright Getty Images)
    A Ukrainian army vehicle outside Donetsk. July 9, 2014. (Photo: Alvaro Ybarra Zavala/copyright Getty Images)

People in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region are hoping against hope that peace will be restored, if only because they think things cannot get much worse. “The darkest hour is just before the dawn” is a phrase often recited here. 

The Ukrainian military command was hoping to end the war a month ago when its armed forces drove a wedge between the Russian border and the areas held by separatist units. In theory, they should have been unstoppable, since this frontier strip is sparsely populated so artillery and air power could be used without fear of civilian casualties.

What happened, though, was that they came under an artillery barrage fired from inside Russia, making it impossible for them to respond. Second, there was a sharp increase in the amount of Russian-supplied armoured vehicles coming into Ukraine, and also of the hi-tech anti-aircraft systems deployed in Donetsk and Lugansk regions that have brought down numerous Ukrainian aircraft, as well as the Malaysian airliner on Flight MH17.

The great unknown about this conflict remains just how far the Kremlin will go to save the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, how far it is prepared to intervene, and what will be left of the region’s infrastructure at the end of it.

Until the recent intensification of fighting, there were no reports of clashes in Yasinovataya, Avdeyevka, Yenakievo, Khartsyzsk or Mariupol. Even Donetsk had an elected mayor for a time, and still has a civilian municipal administration. The Donbas region’s industrial infrastructure was left alone during the fighting.

Things are different now. Yasinovataya, Gorlovka and Nikitovka – three key rail junctions on routes to the metal industry giants of east Ukraine – are engulfed in conflict, and Yenakievo, Khartsyzsk and Makeyevka are under bombardment. The Avdeyevka Coke and Chemicals Plant, the largest of its kind in Europe, has ground to a halt for a second time because the power stations that supply it have been shelled. Without the coke it produces, the metals plants in Mariupol will shut down, suffering irreversible damage in the process. Power cuts led to shutdowns at two other plants earlier this week – one manufacturing pipes in Khartsyzsk and a metals plant in Yenakievo.

When the Verkhnekalmiuskaya filtration plant near Yasinovataya was hit, it halted water supplies to Donetsk city at a stroke. The chlorination unit last received a fresh supply of chlorine in June.

For the separatist forces, losing control over Debaltsevo and Yasinovataya left them beleaguered in both Donetsk and Gorlovka. They lost a supply route for ammunition, fuel and heavy weaponry coming from Russia. Waging modern warfare is very intensive and needs a steady stream of small-arms, artillery, tank and rocket munitions. That explains why separatist forces launched such desperate attacks – unusual in this conflict – in the hope of recapturing Debaltsevo and Yasinovataya.

At the same time, some areas have got off relatively lightly or even unscathed.

Journalists and other visitors are often surprised at how undamaged Slavyansk’s town centre and railway station are, as is Kramatorsk as a whole. Donets regional governor Sergei Taruta recently said that at his request, the Ukrainian military refrained from firing on the Novokramatorsk engineering plant even though pro-Russia insurgents had deployed weapons in its grounds.

Dmitry Durnev is editor-in-chief of the MK-Donbass newspaper in Donetsk.

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