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Kramatorsk Dispatch: Humiliating Capitulation Dampens Troops' Morale

At a railway crossing near Kramatorsk, local residents block a convoy of Ukrainian military equipment.
On April 15, a Ukrainian army unit lost six armored personnel carriers to pro-Russian militants in the city of Kramatorsk. Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov says the troops will be brought before a court for what he describes as an act of "cowardice."

The separatists blocked the road with cars and demanded that the soldiers switch to their side. Along with the civilian protesters were so-called "little green men," unmarked soldiers believed to be Russian servicemen who are showing up in all the hotspots and commanding operations. These wore masks and had weapons. To avoid an escalation, the soldiers decided to meet the protesters' demands and abandoned their armored vehicles. They didn't hand over their weapons. The armored vehicles were then taken to Slovyansk.

I witnessed a similar incident the same day in the village of Pchelkino, in the southern outskirts of Kramatorsk. Local pro-Russian militants encircled 14 armored personnel carriers from about 3 p.m. until the evening. They said they were afraid the soldiers would hurt them. "Little green men" were present here, too, and were negotiating with Ukrainian troops, who refused to lay downs their arms. The standoff ended after the soldiers agreed to hand over their rifle breeches, a part without which rifles cannot be used.
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Ukrainian troops seem demoralized and unwilling to use force against peaceful civilians blocking their path, although they have authorization to do so. Some servicemen are in a more combative mood and a ready to carry out orders. But the rest simply give in to the increasingly radicalized insurgents.

These soldiers were from Dnipropetrovsk, which is close to Donetsk. Maybe it would have been better sending troops from another region. It might have been easier for them.

The Ukrainian army has been able to recapture several buildings seized by separatists. But Kyiv's new leadership faces an uphill battle to regain control of the east.

The police headquarters in Kramatorsk were recaptured late on April 14. The City Hall building, however, remains in the hands of pro-Russian forces and is heavily barricaded. Ukrainian troops successfully repelled an overnight attack on an army base in Mariupol, killing three pro-Russian militants and injuring more than 10 others. This shows the Ukrainian army still wields some influence.

In Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, the situation is more complex. Separatist have erected barricades and organized check points. Civilians have been handed weapons and although they don't always know how to use them, they walk around with an obvious feeling of power. On April 16, they stopped and searched a bus in which I was traveling. They do virtually what they want.

Over 70 percent of Kramatorsk residents are ethnic Ukrainians, setting it apart from other cities where ethnic Russians are a majority.

Many people in Kramatorsk hold pro-Ukrainian views and condemn the separatist push. Even those who don't actively support authorities in Kyiv disapprove of the chaos that has gripped the city. How can they be happy when they see people who yesterday were their neighbors now patrol the streets touting rifles?
RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg contributed to this report from Prague
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    Levko Stek

    Levko Stek is a multimedia correspondent for Donbas.Realities of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. He joined RFE/RL in 2013, one week before the Maidan protests began, which he exhaustively documented, along with the shoot-down of MH17. He covered Russia's forcible annexation of Crimea and documented some of the most intense fighting during the height of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.