How a grocery dispute led to artillery strikes in Ukraine

HRANITNE, Ukraine – Artillery shells fired by Russian-backed separatists screamed in this small town deep in the plains of eastern Ukrai...

HRANITNE, Ukraine – Artillery shells fired by Russian-backed separatists screamed in this small town deep in the plains of eastern Ukraine, shearing tree branches, digging craters, detonating six houses and killing a Ukrainian soldier.

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

Curled up in a bunker, the Ukrainian commander, Major Oleksandr Sak, called for a counterattack of a sophisticated new weapon in Ukraine’s arsenal, a Turkish made 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.

Across the border, Russia has sent jets. The next day, Russian tanks mounted on wagons roared towards the Ukrainian border. Diplomacy in Berlin, Moscow and Washington has shifted into high gear.

The sudden outbreak of hostilities last month underscored the tenuous nature of the ceasefire that exists along the 279-mile front of the war in Ukraine. He triggered a new round of threatening warnings from Moscow and underscored President Vladimir V. Putin’s willingness to escalate what is called a hybrid conflict, a mix of military and other means to create disruption, especially by 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 may make the grave mistake of attempting to resuscitate what it undertook in 2014 when it amassed forces along the border, crossed into sovereign Ukrainian territory and did so claiming falsely that it was provoked, ”Secretary of State Antony said. J. Blinken told reporters in Washington Last week.

The battle also came at an increasingly volatile time in the conflict. This fall, advertising satellite photos and videos posted on social media showed that Russian armored vehicles had massed near the Ukrainian border; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky estimated the build-up 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 possesses 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 indicated in the past week that the drone attack was a Ukrainian escalation, warranting 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, Putin responded with criticizing the United States for supporting the drone strike, as 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 don’t let us relax,” he said. “Well let them know we’re not relaxing. ”

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

“We will never allow our historic territories and the people close to us who live there to be used against Russia,” he wrote.

Piracy, electoral interference, energy policy and a recent migration crisis on the border between Belarus and Poland have all strained ties between the West and Russia. But nowhere are the tensions more evident than in this conflict zone which crosses villages and farmland, where opposing soldiers clash – one side supported by the United States, the other by Russia -.

Russia intervened militarily in Ukraine after street demonstrators overthrew a pro-Russian Ukrainian president in 2014. Moscow sent soldiers wearing ski masks and unmarked uniforms to the Crimean Peninsula, stoking rebellion in the Crimean Peninsula. is in two separatist enclaves, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

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

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

In most places along the front, a few hundred meters separate two lines of trenches. But in some regions, 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 “gray zone”. Residents must cross the Ukrainian trench line to shop and send their children to school, protected by a precarious truce. The inhabitants are aware of the danger, but are too poor to move around.

“It’s scary,” Oleksandr Petukhov, a retiree, said as he passed the last checkpoint one 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 peek over the sandbagged parapets as shoppers cross the bridge.

The problems started about a month ago when separatists closed a checkpoint on their side – where local residents also went for shopping – for unclear reasons, possibly as a precaution against coronaviruses.

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

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

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

The separatists interpreted it differently – 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.

Throughout the night and until the next morning, a separatist unit with 122-millimeter artillery guns fired at Ukrainian forces in what is known as a fire and scooter maneuver intended to bypass the counterattacks of the ‘enemy.

In total, the separatists fired around 120 rounds at the new, unfinished bridge, but every shot was missed. Instead, they hit neighboring houses, destroying one with such force that it appeared upside down, 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 while maneuvering and because civilians were in danger, although none were hit. .

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

Most military analysts say the outbreaks of violence in Ukraine are more a pretext for strategic saber strikes than a cause. But those are sparks in an already dangerous world, and the West remains on high alert this week as Russia takes an increasingly belligerent stance towards Ukraine.

When the fighting in Hranitne subsided, the villagers came out with at least one small victory: they finally got their groceries.

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

Primary school teacher Tatyana Yefesko said she enjoyed the childbirth. But that was hardly a long-term solution.

“Any little push 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.

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Newsrust - US Top News: How a grocery dispute led to artillery strikes in Ukraine
How a grocery dispute led to artillery strikes in Ukraine
Newsrust - US Top News
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