Accessibility links

Breaking News

Donetsk Separatists Dig In For Street Fighting

Donetsk, which once had a population of a million, is now noticeably empty, a resident journalist says, and those who remain mostly stay indoors and work from home.
Donetsk, which once had a population of a million, is now noticeably empty, a resident journalist says, and those who remain mostly stay indoors and work from home.

Empty streets, machine-gun nests, and rebels vowing to fight to the end.

That's Donetsk today as separatists turn it into a bastion they hope can withstand any Ukrainian military effort to oust them.

After being pushed out of Slovyansk on July 5, hundreds of pro-Russian fighters have fallen back to Donetsk and dug in for street warfare.

Oleksiy Matsuka, the editor of the Donetsk-based "Novosti Donbassa" news site, says that separatists are setting up positions at key crossroads to rake them with crossfire.

"The separatists are establishing firing positions along the major transport routes and if the Ukrainian Army enters Donetsk, they will shoot at the army right from those firing positions," he says. "People in the neighborhoods are constantly informing the State Security Service and Defense Ministry about the establishment of new firing positions."

He adds that some residents have seen their homes and apartments commandeered for gun emplacements.

Matsuka, whose news site is critical of the separatists, recently moved to an undisclosed location outside the city due to fears for his personal safety.

There are other signs, too, that the separatists are fortifying Donetsk for a major battle.

A pro-Russian separatist from the Vostok Battalion stands in front of T-64 tanks in Donetsk on July 16.
A pro-Russian separatist from the Vostok Battalion stands in front of T-64 tanks in Donetsk on July 16.

Matsuka says the city's asphalt streets are so rutted by tank tracks and the passage of other heavy armored vehicles that driving on them today in an ordinary car requires constant swerves and detours to avoid the potholes. The armored vehicles appear and disappear as they move around the city from one position to another.

Ghost Town

No one knows how many separatists fighters are now in the city, but residents say they have become far more visible than they were before the fall of Slovyansk, some 100 kilometers north of Donetsk.

Before the separatists lost Slovyansk, their presence in Donetsk was largely confined to their headquarters downtown in the regional administration building. Now, while the building still serves as the seat of the self-proclaimed separatist "Donetsk People's Republic," the fighters roam freely throughout the city, traveling in groups of 10 to 15 and heavily armed.

Matsuka says the presence of so many fighters cows those residents who have not fled Donetsk, which once had a population of a million but is now noticeably empty. He says those who remain mostly stay indoors and work from home. Most workplaces and shops have closed and many store windows are boarded over with plywood.

At the same time, Matsuka says, the city's public transportation has virtually ground to a halt, with just half of it still working. Car theft is rampant and the traffic police have quit en masse after four police officers were reportedly shot at point-blank range early in July.

Matsuka says that most of the city's police have long since decamped to Mariupol, some 230 kilometers from Donetsk. He says those policemen who do continue working in the city mostly do so in plainclothes, trying to discreetly maintain order while not challenging the separatists who control the streets.

At night, heavy explosions echo over the rooftops. It is the sound of artillery fire in the suburbs of the city around the airport, the only part of Donetsk that is in the hands of Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian forces ousted separatists from the airport in May after they occupied it immediately following the inauguration of new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, ostensibly to prevent him from coming to Donetsk.

But while the airport was retaken intact, it has since been destroyed by separatist artillery targeting the Ukrainian forces' positions.

"The airport is in a suburb and a 5-kilometer area around it is controlled by the [Ukrainian] National Guard but the separatists shell the airport every day with artillery," Matsuka says. "They place their cannons [in residential areas] several kilometers away from the fenced zone [controlled by the National Guard] and shoot from there."

"Residents in the [adjacent] neighborhoods send us photos and the images are really striking," he adds. "There is laundry hanging on the line and right next to it there is a cannon shelling the airport."

Not Another Slovyansk

As the separatists prepare for a showdown in Donetsk, the big question is whether Kyiv would dare to launch a military operation against it.

"In Slovyansk, the Ukrainian government essentially used its superior firepower, air power, and artillery, to blast the city until the rebels felt they had to withdraw," says Mark Galeotti, a Moscow-based security analyst and New York University professor. "Well, for Donetsk, if the Kyiv forces do actually use artillery that will have major consequences in terms of civilian casualties."

Is the destruction in Slovyansk what awaits Donetsk?
Is the destruction in Slovyansk what awaits Donetsk?

But there is another factor Kyiv must weigh. "If Kyiv's forces want to take Donetsk, they are going to have to go in to do it street by street," Galeotti notes. "That means precisely the kind of messy, scrappy urban combat that favors the defender and is the kind of close fighting that so far the insurgents have proven better at than the government forces."

So far, the Ukrainian government has sought to reassure the population of Donetsk that the city will not become a battleground. The commander of the Ukrainian National Guard, Stepan Poltorak, has stated on Ukrainian television that there are no plans to shell Donetsk.

But the self-described governor of the people's republic, Pavel Gubarev, has shown no signs of showing he would give up the separatists' largest stronghold without a fight. "We will begin a real partisan war around the whole perimeter of Donetsk," Gubarev told a crowd of supporters in Donetsk on July 7 as separatist fighters flowed into the city after being routed from Slovyansk.

"We will drown these wretches in blood."