By Dmitry Durnev
“There’s a new battalion deployed at the checkpoint,” my companion Igor said. “Look at the massive queue to get into Mariupol. It’ll be like that for three days now, until they learn to check just the big things rather than all the minor stuff.”
Igor knows what he’s talking about. As a minibus taxi driver, he has driven the route from rebel-held Donetsk to Mariupol and back twice a day for the entire duration of the conflict. He has survived bombardment with shells exploding either side of the road, complete closure during the fighting in late August, when he had to take an alternative route along country roads, and much more besides.
When he isn’t driving a minibus, he is a biker – he enjoys taking risks. He likes the money as well, and the Donetsk-Mariupol fare has doubled since July.
Drivers like him are first-hand observers of the war. They get together at the Southern Bus Station in Mariupol to swap stories, and Igor has become an expert commentator on newly-arrived military equipment, new fortifications and fresh Ukrainian reinforcements around Volnovakha, Krasnoarmeysk, Konstantinovka and Mariupol.
I know fair amount about this myself. For instance, I know about Ukrainian defence minister Stepan Poltorak’s recent unannounced tour of army units in Donbas. Ukraine was rapidly preparing to deal with for a new rebel offensive. News that the separatists were building up their military hardware and manpower was reinforced by an understanding among Ukrainian leaders that the Minsk agreement signed in early September was effectively dead. The accord did not, for example, envisage that the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics would hold their own elections on November 2.
There are three factors that have sharpened the sense that full-scale war is imminent in the Donetsk region.
First, both before and after the Ukrainian parliamentary election of October 26 and then ahead of the November 2 rebel election, there was a constant flow of convoys of vehicles coming from the east. The shelling of Donetsk airport increased dramatically, coming from residential areas and targeting most of the airfield perimeter. In the last week, howitzer batteries have lined up along Donetsk’s ring-road, unsettling the last quiet district in the city, Proletarsky. This build-up of manpower and hardware is hardly coincidental, and comes as Ukrainian volunteer units are running painfully short of ammunition.
Second, the rebel units have been bolstered quite a lot of men from Slavyansk and Kramatorsk who left those towns with Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov) in early July in the face of Ukrainian advances. Their families now live in Donetsk’s university hostels and await their return home in triumph. That is taking longer than they expected, though.
Then there are the fresh recruits from Russia – and there are a lot of them. They haven’t yet learned to their cost that people are often killed in war, so they are gung-ho about going into battle. I have heard this first-hand from army medics in the rebel forces, who see a lot of injured soldiers.
The third point is that within its present bounds, the Donetsk People’s Republic or DNR is not a viable economic entity. That is all the more true in light of President Petro Poroshenko’s recent decree effectively imposing an economic blockade on areas the government does not control.
Given all these circumstance, and reports of activity on the ground, everyone was expecting the war to escalate on November 16, while Russian president Vladimir Putin was at the G20 summit in Brisbane
I can even say where the offensives were scheduled to happen – Debaltsevo, Lugansk and Mariupol. Two were supplementary while the main push was to be in the Mariupol area, circling round the city itself and targeting Mangush.
After the offensives failed to materialise, there was, surprisingly enough, a brief lull. In relative terms, of course – artillery fire could still heard in Donetsk itself at night and in some places in the daytime too. Looking out of my apartment window on November 21, I could see a heavy pall of smoke hanging over the airport.
On another note, some structural shifts are taking place within the DNR. A new body, the Central Department for Donbas Reconstruction is playing an increasingly prominent role. Located in a three-story building to the left of the provincial government offices, it coordinates all flows of funding and supplies, and works to rebuild infrastructure in rebel-held areas. Igor Martynov, appointed by DNR leader Alexander Zakharchenko to replace city mayor Alexander Lukyanchenko, is officially styled “Donetsk Administrator” and is beginning to instruct municipal service agencies to articulate their needs more clearly and direct all requests to the central reconstruction department.
“Russia will help us!” Martynov proclaimed in remarks shown on local television on November 20, as he announced the arrival of more Russian aid. The most recent convoy from Russia brought foodstuffs, medicines, building materials and sixty tons of petrol and diesel – enough to keep ambulances, police and urban transport on the move. This is more than just aid – it is a total supply programme that Russia has been forced to undertake to support the unrecognised republic.
I have been planning a trip to Moscow, and some friendly DNR insiders gave me a practical tip-off – not to leave my car in Mariupol. They warned that within the next couple of weeks, Volnavakha and Mariupol could be “sorted out” – meaning captured, of course. I won’t be surprised if they try to do just that.
Dmitry Durnev is editor-in-chief of the MK-Donbass newspaper in Donetsk.