Inside Ukraine, driving north from the Sea of Azov, an appendage of the Black Sea, along rutted country roads that snake parallel to the Russian border, we saw abandoned Ukrainian military encampments and the twisted remains of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other vehicles. The Ukrainian cell phone signal died and our phones picked up the Russian one. Wherever we met rebel soldiers, they joked and chatted. They were relaxed. A cease-fire had been agreed on the day before, on September 5, and along the border there was no reason not to be relaxed. Ukrainian forces had been driven out of here, just as they had in other parts of eastern Ukraine.
When the conflict began this April, the Ukrainians rapidly lost territory to rebel anti-Kiev, pro-Russian forces. In the summer, better organized and reinforced with dozens of battalions of highly motivated volunteers, Ukrainian forces began to take back territory. Their most significant victory was on July 5 when the rebels retreated from their stronghold of Sloviansk. Then the Ukrainians began shelling the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in an effort to drive the rebels out. But their shelling was so inaccurate that hundreds of civilians died, embittering huge numbers of ordinary people. If they were undecided before, many now decided that they hated the government in Kiev.
For the rebels the situation looked dire. And then as August turned to September everything changed again. The Ukrainians claimed that large numbers of regular Russian troops had been ordered to cross the border and help the rebels—over and above small Russian units, which they said had been here before, and volunteers. Reports of casualties began appearing in the Russian press but the Russian government vehemently denied that any of its regular soldiers had entered Ukraine or that artillery in Russia had shelled Ukraine.
I spoke with Sergei Baryshnikov, a pro-rebel political scientist in Donetsk. He is a member of the “parliament” of the Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR as it is known, using its Russian acronym. The DNR, along with the neighboring Luhansk People’s Republic, which was also proclaimed in April, now make up what the rebels are calling Novorossiya (“New Russia”), which they say is a new state carved out of what Baryshnikov calls “the former Ukraine.” The name “New Russia” is meant to refer to the fact that this is what these lands were called in the eighteenth century when they were acquired by Russia.
Baryshnikov is one of the local ideologues of Novorossiya. When I asked him if there were Russian soldiers here, he replied enthusiastically, “Yes, thousands!” Then, presumably remembering that he should be on message, he said that none of them were regular soldiers. When I asked him, however, if there were regular Russian soldiers who had “volunteered” to come, he said that this was the case.These troops, who arrived in the second half of August, completely changed the military situation. The Ukrainians were driven out of the border areas of both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and also of areas on the Sea of Azov. The most crushing and symbolic of defeats came at Ilovaysk, where Ukrainian volunteer battalions were also driven out. They thought that they had made a deal to evacuate but in fact they and other retreating Ukrainian fighters were ambushed in several places. Along a sixteen-mile stretch of road from Ilovaysk to Novokaterinivka I counted sixty-eight military and other vehicles that had been destroyed. In Novokaterinivka the body of a Ukrainian soldier blasted from his tank hung on high-voltage electric cables.
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