Country Risk

Ukrainian troops face demonstrations as they near Russian border

23 March 2014
Ukraine has been moving armour and conducting military exercises close to its border with Russia. Source: PA Photos

Road convoys and trains moving Ukrainian troops into positions along the sensitive eastern border have faced a campaign of obstruction by pro-Russia civilians over the eight days.

In Ukraine's most eastern province, Lugansk, civilians blockaded a troop train carrying 14 BMP-2 armoured fighting vehicles and a number of T-64 main battle tanks (MBTs). Social media footage of the incident on 16 March showed a crowd of hundreds of civilians moving large pieces of scrap metal to block the train track.

The same day, further south near the city of Donetsk, another large crowd of civilians driving cars flying large Russian flags were filmed blocking a road convoy of some 14 flatbed trucks carrying eight BMD-2 airborne armoured vehicles of the 25th Airborne Brigade. The Ukrainian troops eventually turned their convoy around. Later in the week, the same unit was filmed by the BBC leaving a field near the Russian border after protests by local farmers. The commander of the 25th Airborne Brigade, Colonel Yuriy Sodol, told the UK news organisation on 18 March that one of his sub-units had been blockaded by demonstrators but two others had managed to reach their designated positions.

Despite the protests and blockades, the Ukrainian military build-up in Donetsk and Lugansk districts continued up to 21 March in an attempt to counter a concentration of Russian forces across the border. News and social media reported showed two troop trains moving through Lugansk, heading to the Russian border. One carried six T-64 tanks, 16 BMP-2s and five other armoured vehicles and the second train was loaded with more than five 2S3 152mm self-propelled howitzers.

On 17 March, Ukraine Border Guards announced that its crossing posts along the Russian border in Donetsk district were blockaded by groups of civilians, although they eventually relented after negotiations.

In a news broadcast on the Russia Today channel, protestors harassing the Ukrainian troop movements were described as "self-defence groups" - a similar term used for the para-military groups that assisted Russian forces on Crimea over the past three weeks. However, as yet no images of these groups in carrying fire arms in eastern Ukraine have appeared in news media or social media coverage.

Both Donetsk and Lugansk have been a hot bed of unrest against the new government in Kiev, with civilian administration buildings in both cities being seized by pro-Russian protestors since the start of the crisis over the Crimea at the end of February. Ukrainian para-military riot police eventually cleared the buildings and restored pro-Kiev local administrations, with a number of the leaders of pro-Russian groups being arrested.

Two civilians were killed during disturbances in Donetsk on 14 March. According to news media reports from the town, the local administration buildings have now been fortified with barbed wire and secured by riot police. On 17 and 19 March additional riot police were deployed in the town. More than 5,000 pro-Russian demonstrators marched into central Donetsk on 22 March demanding a referendum on joining the Russian Federation.

Ukraine's Border Guard announced that up to 19 March they had turned around 7,100 Russian citizens at its eastern border, "after they failed to confirm the purpose of travel" leading to suspicions that they were possibly involved in "extremist activity".

Speaking at a German Marshall Fund think-tank event in Brussels on 23 March, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Philip Breedlove highlighted the threat to Eastern Ukraine and Moldova's Trans-Dniester region. "The [Russian] force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizeable and very, very ready," said Breedlove. "There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Trans-Dniester if the decision was made to do that and that is very worrisome. Russia is acting much more like an adversary than a partner."

An undisclosed number of Ukrainian tanks of the 17th Armoured Brigade were destroyed in an as yet unexplained explosion in the units garrison in the eastern Ukrainian town of Kryvyi Rih, according to the country's Ministry of Defence.

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