Azov and Donbass Battalions have been withdrawn from Shyrokyne, Ukraine. Speculation and rumors surround the move as the situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate on a political and regional level. Kiev has dismissed any rumors, stating that the withdrawal is based on an agreement to create a 30-kilometer buffer zone between Ukrainian militias and pro-Russian separatist forces.

This activity has led many to speculate that the new Pentagon support model for Ukraine is being revised, especially as rhetoric between Moscow and Washington amps up. On 28 July, 2015, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pratt, called Russia’s activities in Ukraine “unpredictable and irresponsible.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin has discouraged the U.S.-led training mission in Ukraine known as Operation Fearless Guardian: “This is a dangerous process. We would push for all foreign and illegal military units to be removed from Ukraine.”

The West and East continue to use Ukraine as a tug-of-war field; general chaos is on the rise as Ukraine continues to reel in its Battalions of Territorial Defense (BTD). One of the measures taken by Kiev to maintain control has been to withdraw volunteer fighters from the contested seaside town of Shyrokyne, in Donetsk Oblast.

BTDs and locals have argued that the removal of the BTDs will allow the conflict zone to be easily seized by pro-Russian separatists and will threaten the industrial hub and port city of Mariupol, which is approximately 23 kilometers away. The BTDs argue that pro-Russian separatists could use the rolling hills in and around Shyrokyne as a tactical advantage for another assault on Mariupol.

Battalion "Donbass" leaves Shyrokyne volunteers in positions replace Marines. Image courtesy of Zhuranlist A.Tsaplienko
Battalion “Donbass” in Mariupol after being replaced by Marines in Shyrokyne. Image courtesy of Zhuranlist A.Tsaplienko

The spokespeople of Donbass and Azov have taken to social media to lodge their complaints with the order. Yevhen Shevchenko, of Donbas Battalion, commented on the Ukrainian Marines who replaced him and his unit: “[They are] young and inexperienced; most of them are on the front line for the first time.”

Andriy Biletsky, politician and former commander of Azov Battalion, stated in a video interview, “If Ukraine is ready to surrender Shyrokyne, then we have to be prepared for the loss of Mariupol too.” He continued by adding further speculation that the move by Kiev was motivated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), stating that Ukraine should not “give in to the dictate of international institutions.”

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Statements such as these and fears rooted in the two previous Battles of Mariupol have left many of the 500,000 (+/-) residents concerned that their city is vulnerable to pro-Russian separatist conquest. These statements have led to some BTD volunteers vowing to stay in Mariupol and residents to stage protests demanding the BTDs remain in position.

A group of protesters rally in Mariupol against the withdraw of BTDs. Image courtesy of 0629.ua
A group of protesters rally in Mariupol against the withdrawal of BTDs. Image courtesy of 0629.ua

Despite these fears, pro-Russian separatist forces have allegedly withdrawn for Shyrokyne on 01 July, 2015. Chairman of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR/DPR) Denis Pushilin released a statement following the alleged withdrawal, claiming the move is “An act of good will and the demonstration of peaceful intentions.”

On 03 July, 2015, Andriy Biletsky, speaking for Azov Battalion, stated that the village was clear of separatist forces. Current reports contradict all of these statements. On 27 July, 2015, a firefight erupted, resulting in the injury of an OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) member caught-up in the engagement. The sudden onset of recent aggression and fighting may be the result of mounting tensions on both sides, as both groups have been sitting at their hilltop positions observing the village since 07 July, 2015, coupled with the sudden order to withdraw.

Kiev has fired back on all the speculatory comments, stating that the move is simply meant to create a 30 kilometer buffer zone as per the 21 July, 2015 deal brokered between the OSCE, Ukraine, and pro-Russian separatists. The deal was intended to bring an end to the hostilities and shelling by removing all artillery, tanks, and weapons over 100mm in size from the region.

Regardless of the 23-kilometer distance between Mariupol and Shyrokyne, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has been attempting to convince residents of Mariupol that their safety will not be compromised by the deal. President Poroshenko has sought to boost the confidence and morale of Mariupol by saying, “We will never give it [Mariupol] up to anyone.” He reinforced this declaration by saying,

“I would like to tell the residents of Mariupol, the president is with you, the armed forces are with you, the best representatives [of the military], including land forces, the Marines, and artillery units—they are with you. The buffer zone does not relate to Mariupol.”

Kiev is confident in its move but has implemented controls by placing its Marines in Shyrokyne on high-alert, and has deployed a quick reaction force to the region in the event of an escalation of hostilities. Nevertheless, residents of Mariupol and BTD volunteers remain concerned, as they and the world have observed that the terms of the Minsk Agreements have been regularly ignored. Russia, who does not call itself a player and does not abide by the rules of Minsk, continues to hide behind their pro-Russian separatist militia. The entire situation is likely to repeat itself again as multiple security events in recent days may lead to an undermining of the agreement.

(Featured image: Volunteers from Azov Battalion pause for a photo in front of a World War II monument. Image courtesy of the author.)