Ukrainian forces withdrew from a key eastern airport on Monday after coming under attack from separatist fighters, allegedly backed by Russian tanks. Now the conflict is threatening to escalate even further, with residents of Mariupol warning that Russian troops are preparing to stage a full-blown attack on the southern city. Russian tanks reportedly arrived in the nearby city of Novoazovsk, Ukraine on August 27, and ever since then Mariupol’s citizens have feared a Russian-led invasion.
Among those sounding the alarms in Mariupol are members of the pro-Ukrainian militia “Hundreds of Soldiers of Christ,” who are fighting for a unified Ukraine and more Christian government leaders. The group is part of the Azov battalion, a paramilitary organization comprised of about 300 mostly far-right Ukrainian activists. The commander of the Soldiers of Christ, Dmytro Linko, told Vocativ via Facebook that as of Sunday, Russian troops were visible 15 kilometers from the front in Mariupol, where locals are digging trenches and preparing for battle. The Russian troops’ presence could not be verified.
Linko expressed frustration that the Ukrainian government hasn’t provided the weapons and funding needed to defend the city from Russian-backed separatists. There can be a new revolution in Ukraine, said Linko, but the Ukrainian government refuses to help facilitate it. He added that Mariupol is a chief front in the battle for a unified Ukraine. “Russians want to take Mariupol, but we must save it,” he said. Mariupol is located in southeastern Ukraine in a region that some pro-Russians consider “New Russia.”
To plan their defense of the city, Mariupol residents and militias are taking to social media, sharing tactics for fighting Russian troops on a closed Facebook group called “New Mariupol.” One user called “Hands Off” (short for “Hands Off Ukraine”) posted an image explaining how to destroy a Russian tank:
Another user posted this announcement for a planned demonstration against Kremlin aggression:
Translated from Russian, it reads: “Urgent! Mariupol! An all-Ukraine demonstration! The region of Mariupol, Kiev, Dnepor, Nikolaev. On September 4, 2014 at 17:00… We’ll gather the whole city, a giant mass of people, to show the world our readiness to protect our city, our Ukraine, and hold a citizen protest against Kremlin aggression and the Kremlin’s project, ‘Novorossiya’!!!”
Linko’s battalion fighters are urgently calling on NATO and the EU to provide their militias with weapons to help fend off Russian forces. The Russian troops are stronger than these militias, Linko said, adding that his fighters don’t have the arms necessary to hold the city.
Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko announced on Monday that Russia has officially launched “direct and undisguised aggression” in Ukraine. Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said the army identified Russian forces to the north and south of Luhansk, where Ukrainian troops retreated from the airport Monday after being attacked by Russian tanks. Ukrainian Minister of Defense Valery Heletey also said Russian troops were now in the eastern city of Donbass.
For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied Russia’s military presence in Ukraine. He said on Monday that the Ukrainian government was responsible for the civilian casualties in Eastern Ukraine because of its refusal to engage in a political dialogue with the pro-Russian separatists.
Poroshenko discussed a peace plan last week with Putin that involves a cease-fire, the release of detainees and the withdrawal of Russian troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border. But Ukrainian activists like Linko have a different agenda. Linko’s militia, along with other freelance militia groups and activists in Mariupol, are prepared to die defending their territory against the rebels.