We Didn’t Start the Fire

Separatist forces may be using arson to gain tactical advantage in wildfire-prone eastern Ukraine

Fire following a shelling in non-government controlled territory. (Source: YouTube)

This week, Ukrainian officials accused Russian-led separatists of purposefully starting fires in residential areas, forests, and fields in the Donbas to disrupt Ukrainian military activities. In particular, the Press Center of Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) claimed Russian-led separatist forces used incendiary weapons near Mariupol, leading to significant fires and creating a smoke screen preventing accurate Ukrainian counterattacks. On August 22, the ATO Press Center described the fires as instances of arson:

Deliberate arson — the new weapon of terrorists (…)
In the so-called “grey zone,” a lot of dead wood and dry grass has accumulated. Using the east wind, which always blows toward our positions, the enemy used tracer bullets or mortar flares to try and ignite the fields in front of our posts. After starting the fire near the VSU [Armed Forces of Ukraine] observation posts, sniper pairs began to “work,” and they carried out random fire with small arms. The enemy’s goal was obvious — to destroy the front edge of our defense system of engineering obstacles, minefields, and so on. And they also wanted to inflict maximum damage to the front defense lines, and to reveal and unmask our new firing points and positions. Also, while the fire was burning, the enemy tried to identify control points and commanders.

Have separatists really been using arson as a military tactic, and what are the dangers of doing so in the hot, dry Ukrainian summer?

Summer fires in Ukraine

There is a significant potential for wildfires in eastern Ukraine due to weather conditions, ongoing fighting along the front lines, and intentional agricultural fires that can get out of control. This week, Ukraine’s Emergency Service continued to hold in effect the highest level of fire hazard warning (Class 5, or “extreme”) throughout the Donbas, including in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, due to conditions in the area.

In the past week alone, wildfires burned across eastern Ukraine — not just the fire east of Mariupol that the ATO Press Center described as arson targeted at the Ukrainian military position.

Translation: “Photo from Schastia from A. Zaytseve on VK. The forest is burning. Today.”
Translation: “Novoazovsk area, 18 August”
Translation: “#Avdiivka, around 2:40pm ‘burning in the forest area behind the RSU’”

Away from the front lines, there have also been wildfires blazing in government-controlled Kharkiv and in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

Video of a wildfire at night in Kharkiv.
Drone footage of fires in Rostov (Russia) on August 21.

Who started the fire?

While there are certainly wildfires started by military activity — whether intentional or not — it is difficult to assign blame to a military force for starting the fires in and around Ukraine without expert analysis at the burn sites. Some fires may not be related at all to the ongoing conflict. For example, some local people, especially in Ukraine and Russia, use controlled fires in agricultural areas in the summer in order to, as NASA states in a recent post, “return nutrients to the soil and to clear the ground of unwanted plants.”

Three weeks ago, NASA published a map showing instances of wildfire that had occurred in Eastern Europe and in the Balkans on March 28, 2017. The map indicates a strong concentration of agricultural fires — which most often take place in the spring and late summer — in eastern Ukraine and western Russia.

NASA map of fires, from March 28, 2017, published on August 4, 2017, with a great number of agricultural fires in Ukraine and Russia. (Source: NASA.gov)

However, even without expert analysis at the site of the fires, it is clear that a number of the fires in both government-controlled and non-government-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine are the direct result of military activity — mainly shelling — conducted by both sides of the conflict. Whether this shelling was meant to start a fire is a different question, but over the past two weeks there have been cases of large fires starting immediately after reported shelling.

In two cases in the government-controlled town of Zaitseve, located just north of the Russian-led separatist stronghold Horlivka, shelling started large wildfires that affected residential areas. On August 16, Ukraine’s 128th Separate Mountain Brigade claimed that while the Red Cross (ICRC) was distributing humanitarian aid, Russian-led separatist forces had conducted artillery shelling near Zaitseve and had thereby caused a fire.

Representatives from the Ukrainian side of the STsKK (Joint Control and Coordination Center — JCCC) previously agreed on a ceasefire regime for the transfer of humanitarian aid to civilians in occupied territory. However, already by lunch, the regular troops of the occupying country opened fire on civilian houses, which started a fire. The enemy fired an RPG on Ukrainian soldiers who were rushing to extinguish the fire.

Several days later, the Ukrainian military again accused Russian-led separatists of starting a fire. The separatists had conducted shelling near Zaitseve, leading to a number of residential houses burning down.

However, it is not only Russian-led separatist forces starting fires. Throughout August, a number of fires have been raging in non-government-controlled territory near Donetsk as a result of Ukrainian shelling. In footage published by the Emergency Services of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR), firefighters rush to put out a house fire after a nearby shelling. While they are putting out the fire, small arms fire can be heard nearby.

While there is visible damage from small arms fire on the fire trucks, it is unclear if the emergency service workers were being intentionally targeted by the small arms fire. Regardless, the footage of the incident shows the constant threats faced by both first responders and civilians on the front lines: the threats not only of devastating fires, but also of artillery and small arms fire.

Relief on the way?

Similar to the online outpouring of generosity from Ukrainians to a family in Avdiivka who died from a separatist shelling (described by @DFRLab here), there have been digital mobilizations of support for those affected by recent wildfires across the Donbas, including in Luhansk Oblast.

“On August 22, the Emergency Services of the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) announced that 107 civilian homes had been destroyed in the previous few days, due to the 185 wildfires raging in the area. The civil organization “Peace to Lugashchina” used the social media platform VKontakte to gather donations and assistance for those affected by the wildfires, looking both for volunteers to help on the ground and for donations of essential goods for affected families.

Even without the daily shelling across eastern Ukraine, wildfires are a serious issue for Ukraine. Nearly every year there are major fires across the country, including in the irradiated areas of Chernobyl. When even a cigarette butt can start a major wildfire, an artillery duel near a town with an understaffed emergency service department leads to the situation we are seeing now, with hundreds of homes destroyed or damaged from unnecessary and uncontrolled fires.

Even worse, if the Ukrainian ATO Press Center’s claims are true — that is, if Russian-led separatist forces have indeed intentionally started fires as a means to attaining a tactical advantage — those who suffer the most may not be the opposing military forces, but may instead be the civilians and the firefighters working on both sides of the front lines.


Follow the latest Minsk II violations via the @DFRLab’s #MinskMonitor.

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