The past, present, and future of the strategic Ukrainian city
The town of Maryinka, located a couple dozen kilometers west of Donetsk, is an under-reported flashpoint in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. The city is mostly controlled by the Ukrainian government, but eastern parts of the city and surrounding areas are under separatist control. The largest single battle since the signing of Minsk II and the separatist takeover of Debaltseve took place in Maryinka in early June 2015, when separatist forces launched an assault on the city.
What is the current situation in Maryinka, and how are civilians — just over 5,000 of them remain, compared to over 10,000 before the war — coping with the turmoil in and around their city? We will examine the past, present, and future of Maryinka through the case studies of digital forensics: a reconstruction of the separatist attack on the city in June 2015, analysis of a video widely shared this week of a Ukrainian attack leading to massive fires, and a look at how citizens publicly discuss the conflict and survive in the city through an online community.
The largest single flashpoint of the Ukrainian conflict after the takeover of Debaltseve was in Maryinka, from June 3–4, 2015. In this battle, the Ukrainian army’s self-reported losses were five soldiers killed and thirty-eight wounded for the first, bloodiest day of the fighting, while the separatists stated they suffered from fourteen fighters killed and eighty-six wounded that day. According to local authorities, two civilians were killed and eight injured. Ukrainian officials reported the separatist attack on Maryinka at 3:24 PM local time on June 3, saying the attack commenced around 4 AM that morning. On the same day, separatist military spokesman Eduard Basurin denied the separatist attack on Maryinka. However, there is ample evidence that the separatist attack on Maryinka did indeed take place.
On 4 June 2015, the OSCE SMM to Ukraine published a spot report detailing separatist preparations for the attack on Maryinka. The report stated the following:
Between 22:30 on 2 June and 05:30 on 3 June, the SMM — positioned in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DNR”)-controlled Tekstilshchik area of Donetsk city (14km east-north-east of Marinka) — made a number of observations. It observed, inter alia, eight tracked armoured vehicles moving west, four of which were main battle tanks (MBT) at 22:30hrs; four MBTs at 23:03hrs; a military-type truck moving west, towing a 122mm artillery piece at 23:45hrs; two T-64 MBTs moving west at 04:30hrs; and a column of one infantry fighting vehicle (BMP-2), three military trucks (one carrying an ZU-23–2 anti-aircraft gun), and two T-72 MBTs, moving west, at 04:50hrs. In addition, the SMM — at the same location — heard approximately 100 outgoing artillery rounds fired from a location 1–5km north-north-west of its position between 04:30 and 04:40hrs; an outgoing salvo of BM-21 multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) Grad rockets fired from a location 1–5km west of its position at 04:55hrs; and, 100 outgoing artillery rounds fired from a location 5km north-north-west of its position.
According to the report, the pro-Russian separatists indeed started the attack on Maryinka in the early hours of June 3.
A pro-separatist media video published on June 3 shows separatist fighters near Maryinka’s boarding school. The long shadows of the objects in the video clearly point west, suggesting the sun is in the east — thus, indicating the video was shot in the early hours. This timing is another indication that separatists did attack Maryinka in the morning, despite claims to the contrary.
In the map below, the camera icon indicates where the photographer is standing, facing northwest — the separatists in the above screenshot are runing towards the wall on the west side of the boarding school, with their long shadows casted westward.
Clearly, separatist forces initiated the attack in the morning of June 3, despite rebuttals from spokesperson Eduard Basurin. This attack did not mark the end of fighting in Maryinka — on the contrary, it was just the beginning of a frozen conflict that continues today.
Ukrainian forces maintained control of the city through the two-day battle in June 2015, but attacks persist to this day with small arms fire and artillery. The dangers extend beyond active fire, as seen in February 2016 when a minivan with five people aboard hit a landmine near the city, killing four civilians.
One significant event recently emerged with a video of members of the Ukrainian “Donbass-Ukraine” battalion of the Ukrainian Armed Forces firing upon separatist positions in Maryinka, starting a large fire. News of this event spread quickly on September 8, 2016 after a member of the battalion shared a video of the fire on Facebook. In comments to the video, the video uploader and battalion member said that the fire came from return fire on separatist ammunition caches and that no civilian housing was burned, as “civilians do not stockpile ammunition.” This claim of no damage to “true” civilian property is difficult to verify, to put it mildly.
Though the video was posted on September 8, the Ukrainian news TSN reported on this event with a video from a different perspective weeks earlier. The video was posted on August 17, and describes events that happened on the previuos day.
Thanks to the distinct shapes of the terrikon (Russian for mine heap, dirt piles, etc.) throughout the region, we can easily verify that the videos were shot in Maryinka. On Panoramio, a photograph shows the same series of terrikon seen in both the TSN and “Donbass-Ukraine” Battalion videos. The photograph shows a panorama of the Petrovsky District of eastern Maryinka, a separatist-controlled area.
The fire appears to be in the area near the Trudovskaya Mine, which is controlled by separatist forces. To find more information about the events of August 16, we can turn to those living through the war through public groups on social media.
Locals in Ukraine, Russia, and other Russian-speaking countries use public groups on the Russian-language social network Vkontakte (VK) to share news. gossip, advertisements, and other bits of information. This phenomenon is no different in war, where the talk often turns to the safety of checkpoints and where fighting is taking place, along with the typical concerns of life in the city. While some news services gaining and maintaining access in warzones, we can go to these groups to find information about life in the city, allowing corroboration or refutation of claims from all sides of the conflict.
The VK group “Maryinka Zona ATO” is a pro-Ukraine community that contains a wealth of witness accounts from locals in Maryinka. On August 16, 2016 — reportedly the day when the Ukrainian attack on separatist positions near the Trudovskaya Mine took place, starting a large fire — we can find a daily summary of notable events, with accompanying time stamps.
16 August 2016
06:30 — quiet in the city
07:30 — quiet
09:25 — quiet
10:20 — quiet
10:33 — booms and gunfire
11:11 — quiet
13:40 — silence
17:49 — silence
19:25 —booms in the direction of the boarding school
19:40 —intense fighting with the use of grenade launchers, mortars, BTRs — boarding school, Novomaryinka, guns.
19:47 — strong booms, black clouds in the sky.
20:15 —Oktyabryaskaya, Telmana, Matrosova —dense gunfire. Something is burning in the direction of Trudovskie.
20:37 —things have gotten a bit quieter, but it’s still quite noisy
20:42 — booms and gunfire, with different intenssity, the same place of action.
20:45 —booms somewhere in the fields between Maryinka and Krasnogorovka
Judging by the transcript, the videos from TSN and the “Donbass-Ukraine” Battalion were likely taken around 8–8:30pm local time, which matches the account from TSN that the video was taken “in the evening” of August 16.
However, this is not the only purpose of local groups, as they also allow coordination of distributing humanitarian aid and a place for locals to express optimism of the future of the city. In one such example, an administrator of the group posted a short poem about the perseverance of eastern Ukraine and those living in it, along with photographs of people who are still trying to maintain a normal life in Maryinka.
8 September 2016
There is the hope, that morning will be good,
And everyone here will firmly believe,
That the city has survived, has withstood the battle.
Donbass, hang in there! We believe in your life!!!
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