Artillery price

How a grocery dispute led to artillery strikes in Ukraine

HRANITNE, Ukraine — Artillery shells fired by Russian-backed separatists have reached this small town deep in the plains of eastern Ukraine, cutting tree branches, digging craters, exploding six houses and killing a Ukrainian soldier.

It was an all-too-common response to the smallest of provocations – a dispute over groceries for around 100 people living in the buffer zone between separatists and Ukrainian government forces. But in the outbreak state of the Ukrainian War, minor episodes can turn into full-fledged battles.

Cowering in a bunker, Ukrainian commander Major Oleksandr Sak called for a counterattack from a sophisticated new weapon in Ukraine’s arsenal, a Turkish manufacturing Bayraktar TB2 armed drone.

First deployed in combat by Ukraine and supplied by a member country of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the drone struck a howitzer operated by the separatists. Things quickly escalated.

On the other side of the border, Russia has sent jet planes. The next day Russian tanks mounted on wagons rumbled towards the Ukrainian border. Diplomacy in Berlin, Moscow and Washington is shifting into high gear.

The sudden escalation of hostilities last month underscored the tenuous nature of the ceasefire that exists along the 279-mile front of the war in Ukraine. It triggered a new set of ominous warnings from Moscow and underscored President Vladimir V. Putin’s willingness to escalate what is known as a hybrid conflict, a mixture of military and other means to create disruption – including exploiting humanitarian crises like the current one on the Polish-Belarusian border.

The drone strike in Hranitne has also raised fears in Western capitals that Russia is using the fighting as a pretext for further intervention in Ukraine, potentially dragging the United States and Europe into a new phase of the conflict.

“Our concern is that Russia could make the grave mistake of trying to rehash what it undertook in 2014 when it gathered forces along the border, entered sovereign Ukrainian territory, and did so in falsely claiming it was provoked,” Secretary of State Antony said. J.Blinken told reporters in Washington Last week.

The battle came at an increasingly volatile time in the conflict. This fall, commercial satellite pictures and videos posted on social media showed that Russian armored vehicles had massed near the Ukrainian border; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky estimated the reinforcement at 100,000 troops. And Russian rhetoric towards Ukraine has hardened.

Amid this heightened tension, the drone strike in particular has become a flashpoint for the Kremlin. Alarmed that Ukraine possessed this highly effective new military capability, Russia called the strike a destabilizing act that violated the ceasefire agreement reached in 2015.

Mr Putin has twice in the past week called the drone attack a Ukrainian escalation, justifying a possible Russian response. He raised the issue during a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Asked on Saturday about Washington’s accusations that Russia was massing troops on the Ukrainian border, Mr Putin replied with criticize the United States for supporting the drone strikeas well as for conducting a naval exercise in the Black Sea, which he called a “serious challenge” for Russia.

“A feeling is created that they just won’t let us relax,” he said. “Well, let them know we’re not relaxing.”

Mr. Putin has long made clear that he sees Ukraine as inseparable from Russia. In July, he publishes a article describing this doctrine, describing Russia and Ukraine as “essentially” a country divided by Western interference in the post-Soviet period, an apparent justification for Russian-Ukrainian unification. Russia has already annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

“We will never allow our historic territories and our relatives living there to be used against Russia,” he wrote.

Hacking, election interference, energy policy and a recent migration crisis on the Belarus-Poland border have all strained ties between the West and Russia. But nowhere are the tensions more apparent than in this conflict zone that runs through villages and farmland, where opposing soldiers clash – one side backed by the United States, the other by Russia.

Russia intervened militarily in Ukraine after street protesters toppled a pro-Russian Ukrainian president in 2014. Moscow sent soldiers wearing ski masks and unmarked uniforms to the Crimean peninsula, stoking rebellion in the is in two breakaway enclaves, the people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. .

The front line in war is sometimes called a new Berlin wall, a dividing line in today’s geopolitics. It is a strange realm of half-abandoned towns, fields and forests.

It is also a powder keg that requires only a match to trigger new hostilities. At the end of October, the buffer zone near Hranitne provided one.

In most places along the front, only a few hundred meters separate two lines of trenches. But in some areas, including Hranitne, the gap widens to a few kilometers and people live between the two armies, in a no man’s land known in Ukraine as the “grey zone”. Residents must cross the Ukrainian trench line to do their shopping and send their children to school, protected by an uneasy truce. The inhabitants are aware of the danger, but are too poor to move.

“It’s scary,” said Oleksandr Petukhov, a pensioner as he walked through the last checkpoint on a recent day with a bag of cheese and eggs. “It’s a ridiculous situation.”

In Hranitne, the access point for shopping on the Ukrainian side is a footbridge over the Kalmius River, a slow flow of inky green water. Ukrainian soldiers peer over sandbag parapets as shoppers cross the bridge.

The unrest began about a month ago when separatists closed a checkpoint on their side – where local residents also traveled for shopping – for unclear reasons, possibly as a coronavirus precaution.

In response, on October 25, Volodymyr Vesyolkin, the administrator of Hranitne, a position akin to mayor, led a contingent of a dozen soldiers across the gateway. On the same day, the army laid concrete blocks for a new bridge about 700 meters away which would be accessible to vehicles.

Its motive, Mr. Vesyolkin said, was humanitarian: to ensure residents access for purchases and deliveries of coal for winter heating.

“How can he violate anything? Mr. Vesyolkin said in an interview. “It’s our village. These are our people. They walk several kilometers to do their shopping.

The separatists interpreted it otherwise – as a land grab – and soon their artillery shells filled the air.

Even Ukrainian military officers admit that a misperception was possible. “Maybe they thought we would send heavy weapons” across the new bridge, Major Sak said.

During the night and the following morning, a separatist unit with 122 millimeter artillery guns fired on Ukrainian forces in what is known as a fire-and-scooter maneuver intended to evade enemy counterattacks .

In total, the separatists fired around 120 rounds at the unfinished new bridge, but every shot missed. They instead hit neighboring houses, destroying one with such force that it appeared to be overturned, with a pile of cinder blocks covering the street.

Major Sak said he called for the drone attack because it was the only weapon that could hit enemy artillery on maneuvers and because civilians were in danger, although none were hit .

“Only modern weapons allow us to stop Russia’s aggression,” he said in an interview.

Most military analysts say the eruptions in Ukraine are more of a pretext for strategic attacks than a cause. But these are sparks in an already dangerous world, and the West remains on high alert this week as Russia takes an increasingly belligerent stance toward Ukraine.

When the fighting in Hranitne died down, the villagers emerged with at least one small victory: they finally got their supplies.

Two days after the drone attack, the separatists opened their checkpoint, allowing the Red Cross to deliver 50-pound boxes of food to every house. The boxes contained rice, sugar, sunflower oil, macaroni, flour and boxes of meat and fish.

Tatyana Yefesko, an elementary school teacher, said she enjoyed the delivery. But it was not a long-term solution.

“Any small outbreak could turn into a big war,” she said. “Everyone asks, ‘Why did this happen? Who needs this? I do not know. But history shows us that every great war started with something small.

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Hranitne, Ukraine.