Kiev’s military faced off with protesters in east Ukraine on Wednesday to sort out their differences…and found none. Soldiers appeared reluctant to go into battle against anti-government activists.
When Ukrainian Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) entered downtown Kramatorsk as part of Kiev’s military operation against anti-government protesters in the east of the country, they were stopped in their tracks, surrounded by crowds of local residents.
One YouTube video of what happened next shows a woman coming to a soldier with the reproach: “You are the army, you must protect the people.”
“We are not going to shoot, we weren’t even going to,” is the soldier’s reply.
Similar conversations could be heard at each of several APCs which entered the city, with locals promising to defend their neighbors, in case the soldiers start a military operation.
Military vehicles parked in downtown Kramatorsk have turned into hotspots for political discussion, with people beside the vehicles trying to get their views through to people on top of the tanks.
Another video features the Kramatorsk crowds loudly chanting “Army with the people” and applauding the soldiers as they were leaving their APCs.
“Guys, we are with you! You are great!” women are heard yelling to the vacating soldiers.
Six Ukrainian military vehicles in Kramatorsk actually switched sides and began flying Russian flags on Wednesday.
Around 60 crew members of Ukrainian armored vehicles sent to Kramatorsk for carrying out the military operation against anti-government protesters, have switched sides and joined the local self-defense squads, according to RIA Novosti, citing the self-defense leadership.
— RT (@RT_com) April 16, 2014
“We’ve seen here, that these are neither separatists nor terrorists, but ordinary local residents, with whom we are not going to go to battle,” one of the defected soldiers said.
All of the troops who decided to side with the self-defense come from the Dnepropetrovsk region, neighboring with the Donetsk one.
This YouTube video shows an encounter where some of the Ukrainian military vehicles raise Russian flags, while others raise the flags of the Donetsk People’s Republic that the supporters of federalization want to establish. The crowd reacted with loud cheers.
A video was later posted on YouTube of Ukrainian blocked by Kramatorsk residents at the local Malotaranovka railway crossing. The video does not show how many vehicles are in the convoy, but the author of the post suggests there are 15 of them.
Vladimir, a resident of Kramatorsk who witnessed the events, told RT in a phone call that a clear majority of the soldiers who arrived at Kramatorsk in armored vehicles were “boys of only 18-20 years old, with their heads freshly shaved as they had just entered military service.”
Immediately after the column of armored vehicles was blocked near the local market, local residents surrounded the column with a human chain, but did nothing more, Vladimir said.
“Both sides were simply standing there and smoking, waiting for God-knows-what. Then the local militia came to the scene, and asked the locals to step back and started negotiations. The soldiers were asked if they would like to surrender. They thought a little bit – and agreed,” Vladimir said.
The soldiers and civilians started fraternizing very quickly and soon were joking about “coming for a visit without weapons next time.” Many of the soldiers put on St. George’s ribbons, the traditional Russian emblem used to commemorate the Soviet Union’s fight against Nazism in World War II.
The tanks have already been driven away to a safe place by the local militia, the witness said.
Vladimir said that Kramatorsk was not under siege, but he confirmed that there were armed checkpoints throughout the city. Military helicopters have been flying over the city since Tuesday, when there were clashes at the local airport. The local Internet connection is extremely unstable and mobile networks has been functioning only intermittently over the last few days, he said.
Tuesday, when the military operation against anti-government protesters in the east was launched, was not as peaceful.
According to activists, four people were killed and two others injured when troops seized an airfield in Kramatorsk, which had earlier been controlled by protesters.