#MinskMonitor: Questions Over Ukrainian Liberation of Village
Zolote-4 is “secured” by Ukrainian forces after prolonged skirmishes, but did they ever lose control?
In one of the few occurrences of territorial change in the war in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian government has claimed to have recaptured the village of Zolote-4, located in the so-called “grey zone” west of Luhansk. In May, Ukraine regained control of a small village in the outskirts of Horlivka in the Donetsk Oblast; the recent maneuvers also mark a Ukrainian consolidation of control in the grey zone in the Luhansk Oblast.
Below, a map courtesy of LiveUAMap with the areas of non-government control shaded red shows the two areas with recent alleged progress from Ukrainian forces. On top in green, the front-line in Zolote is visible just southeast of Zolote-4 (Rodina/Partizanske), while on bottom in yellow, the recent progress of Ukrainian forces northwest of Horlivka is seen near the village of Chyhyri. Click the map to view in detail.
Why All the Zolotes?
The strangely-named village in the Luhansk Oblast of Zolote-4, also called Partizanske and Rodina, is part of a five-village conglomerate merged to create the larger town of Zolote. Ukraine controls four of the five Zolote villages, some of which are named after nearby mines, which include:
- Zolote-1, or Karbonit (Ukrainian-controlled)
- Zolote-2, or Rodina (Ukrainian-controlled)
- Zolote-3, or Stakhanovets (Ukrainian-controlled)
- Zolote-4, or Partizanske (Ukrainian-controlled, also referred to as Rodina)
- Zolote-5, or Maryivka (Russian/separatist-controlled)
Following the second Minsk agreement of February 2015, Zolote was essentially split into three parts: the Ukrainian side, which includes the larger, northwestern portion of the city (Zolote-1), the southeastern portion assigned to the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), which includes Zolote-5, and the so-called “grey zone” in the middle with no explicit territorial control, which included the area in between Zolote-1 and Zolote-5. Zolote-2 and Zolote-4 are, essentially, the same settlement, and are both referred to as Rodina. Civilians living in the grey zone have long been neglected by governments due to the difficulty in reaching them and asserting territorial control, thus they have been the focus of many domestic and international aid organizations.
Even among experts, there is some confusion about which Zolote is which — for example, a 2015 survey of villages in eastern Ukraine commissioned by the German government named Rodina as Zolote-4, and designated Zolote-2 as Karbonit. This difference in designation is not merely an error of unfamiliarity, as the authors of the report visited Zolote during research. However, in 2016, a Ukrainian media outlet used the same designations in the map seen above, in contradiction of the 2015 German report. Adding to confusion, in a recent report, the Kyiv Post visited the area and referred to Zolote-4 as Rodina.
In short, there is confusion even among Ukrainian publications about where one Zolote village ends and the other begins, but nearly all agree that Zolote-4 is the area near the front-line to the northwest of Zolote-5, and is called either Rodina or Partizanske.
Raised Ukrainian Flag Raises Questions
On July 1, Ukrainian volunteer Roman Donik shared a video of a Ukrainian flag being raised in Zolote-4, and a number of Ukrainian soldiers singing the Ukrainian national anthem. Along with this video came a Facebook post from Donik describing how Zolote-4 was firmly in the gray zone, with “no positions” and “no permanent presence of either the military or authorities”.
This video was widely shared and reported on by all major Ukrainian media outlets, and later the Ukrainian Joint Forces Operation Press Office (formerly the Anti-Terrorist Operation Press Center) released an extended video from Zolote-4.
This moment was hailed as a patriotic victory for Ukraine and its armed forces in its ongoing war against Russia and its puppet separatist republics. Headlines from major Ukrainian news outlets proclaimed, following the release of this video, that “The Ukrainian Armed Forces have taken Zolote-4 and raised the Ukrainian flag” and “The Liberation of Zolote-4: A moving video published online shows the raising of the Ukrainian flag.” However, upon further inspection, questions arise over how much of a victory this really was.
We can geolocate this video to a community center or club in central Rodina, which — depending on which source you consult — is either Zolote-2 or Zolote-4. Below, the perspective of the cameraperson in the top-left frame is visualized as a yellow cone in the satellite image, and the building in the bottom-left frame is matched to the one in the satellite image.
While Ukrainian forces may have made real advances in the area, especially in the grey zone to the southeast of the scene of the flag raising, this building has long been under Ukrainian control, and it is a stretch to say that it was truly “recaptured” or “liberated”. Ukrainian journalist and activist Konstantin Reutski posted on Facebook on July 2 that he and others have organized initiatives near this “liberated” building since 2014, and called the flag raising video a “fake”, even noting that there are Ukrainian soldiers nearby, contradicting Roman Donik’s Facebook post:
“Yet another crushing victory from the creators of the ‘Liberation of Katerinovka’. The boys are hanging a flag on the club at Zolote-4. The very same club near which we, along with other volunteer initiatives, have been distributing humanitarian aid to locals. Our soldiers have been located 200 meters away from here for four years. (…) It’s very shameful both for the authors of this fake and for those who are enthusiastically sharing it. I see a growing threat to our stagnant democracy from how our people are eating up this shit with a growing appetite.”
One pro-Ukrainian blogger on Twitter went as far as to call this video “staged,” also citing how Ukrainian activists have been able to freely operate in and around this building that was “recaptured” by Ukrainian forces.
“Attention media! Roman Donik is spreading this staged video of the ‘liberation’ of Zolote-4. I identified the building near where this clip was shot…”
Indeed, the link included in this tweet shows aid being distributed from the Vostok-SOS group in Rodina and the site of the flag raising. A March 2017 blog post from Vostok-SOS describes the situation inside this building, interchangeably referred to as a a club, house of culture, and a community center, where 90 families received humanitarian aid from the group. A quick comparison, following up on the work of @UkraineRightNow, shows common features in both the sight of aid delivery from March 2017 (bottom) and the “liberation” of the building this summer (top).
Vostok-SOS released a blog post last week describing how the area “has been under the control of the Ukrainian Armed Forces since the end of 2014.” However, it was not until 2018 that government officials from the district administration came to the town.
While the Ukrainian military and a number of major media outlets have pointed to Zolote-4 as a significant victory, it is difficult to corroborate this claim when assessing the open source data. Ukrainian civil activists have operated in this town for years, and judging from the account of Vostok-SOS, which has worked extensively in Zolote over the past few years, it is the Ukrainian government that is finally moving into the town after years of existing in limbo in the grey zone. That said, there were likely some legitimate advance from the Ukrainian military on the outskirts of Zolote-4, but the video showing the raising of the Ukrainian flag is a misrepresentation of the significance of these manuevers.
Though the“liberation” of Zolote-4 appears to be more of a public relations maneuver than a military one, there is still real danger for the civilians of living in the mining town. Russian-led forces of the LNR have launched artillery attacks at Zolote-4 and the surrounding area from Zolote-5 this week, damaging a number of residential areas.
Many Ukrainian activists and journalists have been harsh towards the Ukrainian government and military for their exaggerated claim of liberating Zolote-4; however, it is important to note that the regional government is looking to take a more active role in the long-neglected town in the grey zone. With further attention from the Ukrainian government and military, as noted by analyst Nikolaus von Twickel, progress can be made in opening up the nearby Zolote civilian crossing point, easing the burden on the tens of thousands of Ukrainians at the mercy of treacherously long lines.