Why Ukraine Commemorates the Anniversary of the “Ilovaisk Dishonour” with Pathos

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard



On August 29th Ukraine commemorated the National day of memory of the fallen defenders of the country — a strange holiday established by the current authorities in Kiev.


[It should be noted that two of the speakers (one of which is Semen Semenchenko) in the video above speak in the Russian language…]

Formally it is the end date that the battles for Ilovaisk in Donbass, when, as a result of the uncoordinated exit from encirclement, 366 UAF troops and nationalists from volunteer battalions died. On this day grieving over those who died is mixed with the endless justification of local military personnel in the local media, which is difficult for the sane person to listen to.

As experts more than once noted, current Ukraine is some kind of “world behind the looking-glass” where publicly what’s black is said to be white, and in addition people fight over this foaming at the mouth. In a normal state it wouldn’t come across anybody’s mind to celebrate a day of terrible military dishonour. France doesn’t organise mass ceremonies on the day of surrendering Paris to Hitler. In Germany nobody tortures national memory on the day that the Battle of Stalingrad ended. And in modern Russia the day of that the 1996 Khasavyurt Accord were concluded is mentioned with only a short line.

But it’s not like that in Ukraine. Here, at the initiative of the authorities, on the eve of the day of the shameful exit of the UAF from the “Ilovaisk cauldron” everyone speak about this date – from the smallest media to the president. For some reason, it is military officials from the Ministry of Defence – for who it would be better to remain silent – speak about this most of all. Because when they speak one lie follows another, and nobody wants to notice the elementary truth.

The official narrative sounded by the Ukrainian establishment and military sounds like this: at the end of August, 2014 the “troops of the regular army of the Russian Federation” allegedly “intruded” into Ukraine. During heavy fighting, valorous Ukrainian military personnel were for some reason surrounded near Ilovaisk and “suffered considerable losses”. According to the chief military prosecutor Anatoly Matios, 366 Ukrainian soldiers died in the “cauldron”, 429 received wounds, 128 militants were taken prisoner, and 158 were missing.

However, the head of the Investigative Commission on the Ilovaisk tragedy Andrey Senchenko insists that more than 1,000 people died in the “cauldron”. Thus, four years have passed since the tragic events, and the case still hasn’t been brought to court.

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“This was a part of the operation to capture the strategically important city of Yasinovataya – in order to encircle Donetsk. Ilovaisk wasn’t in the plans of the HQ of the ATO. Yasinovataya was taken and handed over to the National Guard. However, the day after our fighters left the city,” said the head of the main operational department of the General Staff of the UAF Sergey Sobolev. “At it is back then that the leadership of the National Guard and the Ministry of Internal Affairs took the initiative concerning Ilovaisk – the UAF was supposed to block the city on the perimeter, and the National Guard was supposed to ‘cleanse’ Ilovaisk of rebels. Since it was not a strategic operation, the HQ of the ATO gave them the green light for this. The head of sector B General Ruslan Khomchak was involved in this operation”.

In turn, the commander-in-chief of the UAF at the time Viktor Muzhenko confirms that “in reality Ilovaisk wasn’t a key problem at that moment”. According to him, the “cauldron” near Lugansk airport, where UAF troops and the Aidar volunteer battalion (of course, also valorous) had been encircled, was twice bigger.

“And this cauldron was more dangerous, because beyond Lugansk the road to Kharkov and Kiev opens. And we had no reserves to deter the Russians. But UAF troops courageously left encirclement, moved to the north, and occupied defense in the direction of Kharkov. And near Ilovaisk there was the danger of the further environment of Mariupol,” said Muzhenko.

To the simple question “why back then didn’t the Russians move further towards Mariupol?”, Muzhenko resourcefully answers: “And they didn’t haven’t the time to close the cauldron. By this moment we created a 2,000 reserve near Mariupol and went for fire contact with the Russians”. In general, it follows from Muzhenko’s words that the UAF succeeded to frighten non-existent “Russians” to death and stop the offensive.

It is clear that listening to all this comforting nonsense is nauseating not only for military personnel, but also for ordinary Ukrainians who are distant from the army. It is quite possible that it is difficult for the leaders of the UAF to talk such nonsense all over the country, but what can be done, since the date obliges them to do this. At the same time no official or representative of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine will tell the truth about this, even if their lives are endangered — it’s like saying: “well, guys, we had a complete mess, we fought disgustingly, we failed one operation after the other, and it is us ourselves who are the reason that hundreds of innocent soldiers died”. Because in this case everyone who directed the actions of the UAF in Ilovaisk should be immediately put in prison.

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The second part of the truth that the Ukrainian establishment persistently ignores is written in black and white in the UN report about Ilovaisk, which the independent local media willingly quotes. The truth is that the leadership of the encircled volunteer battalions for some reason thought that in the conditions of war they themselves can dictate terms to those who encircled them. They perfectly knew that in order to withdraw all their people from the “cauldron” alive and safe, it was necessary to abandon all weapons and come out with their hands raised and with a white flag.

But these “heroic commanders” spat on the conditions that the leaders of the militia laid down to them — and came out from the “cauldron” in tanks, BMPs, and with weapons. As a result, several hundreds of Ukrainian troops died, and representatives of the Ukrainian authorities still try to pin the blame for this “on the uncle” [Russia – ed], which, together with the general celebration of the Day of memory on August 29th, looks like double idiocy.

The Kiev political scientist Aleksey Yakubin tried to explain to the Federal News Agency at least why high-ranking Ukrainian military personnel on the eve of the Day of memory of the tragedy of Ilovaisk speak so pejoratively about this battle.

“In my opinion, here several narratives collide. If we speak about Ilovaisk, then it is the narrative of volunteer battalions and nationalist organisations that created their own legend about what happened there. General Muzhenko and other military personnel in this instance express their version of events, and not that of volunteer battalions: allegedly, it was a secondary direction, not a strategic one, that’s why militants of volunteer battalions were sent there. In addition, Muzhenko tries to add a certain ‘oligarchical’ context to his already weak narrative. In fact, military personnel try to covertly spread this idea – ‘and who controlled and led volunteer battalions? It is the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, who, by the way, now has extremely difficult relations with the authorities’.

These attempts to reinterpret events in Ilovaisk in 2014 mean that this tragedy has been turned into such an extremely politicised topic so much so that different groups in the Ukrainian authorities try to use it against each other. Nevertheless, in the mass consciousness of Ukrainians the ‘Ilovaisk cauldron’ is all the same associated with a crushing military defeat. After all, the Ukrainian media showed the events in Ilovaisk so much, as if it was live coverage. And these same ‘ATO veterans’ very much like to repeat the legend they invented – the authorities deliberately threw the best of the best fighters of the nationalist movement into the deadly ‘cauldron’. Because otherwise they would’ve returned to Kiev and would’ve become a serious threat to the authorities in power. I.e., right-wing radical groups created their own ‘mythology of Ilovaisk’.

In fact, Ukrainian society doesn’t know the fully story when it comes to which of these possibilities concerning the causes of the tragedy is more plausible. Because today there just isn’t an objective and honest ‘third perspective’ on the causes of the tragedy. The military bends their line, trying to shift all the blame onto oligarchs like Kolomoisky. And nationalists blame the president [Ukraine] Petro Poroshenko and the Supreme military command for everything.

At the same time, Ukrainians still haven’t seen any honest investigation into the reasons of those events. And I think that we won’t see one as long as the present authorities are in power. Because here an objective view on those events, horrible for Ukraine, is required, but in the current situation, in fact, nobody needs this.

I personally think that the truth concerning events in Ilovaisk is somewhere in the middle. And I perceive the statements of Muzhenko and other military personnel as a reaction to the fact that in society there is still a mass of questions concerning the ‘Ilovaisk cauldron’. A considerable part of them directly concerns president Poroshenko (who in general promised to ‘finish war in just a few hours’). All of this is superimposed on the ‘offshore scandal’ with his participation, and also on many other unpleasant situations that the head of state managed to get in.

That’s why in anticipation of the future electoral campaign, Poroshenko needs to somehow answer to all this. That’s why Muzhenko and other military personnel were assigned the function of shifting the crosshairs to the oligarchs instead, and in every possible way – even indirectly – to whitewash the president,” considers Aleksey Yakubin.

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