The helicopter-gunship had been destroyed inside the supposedly secure Kramatorsk airport, a major coup for the separatist militants in the bitter conflict which was to dismember Ukraine, and threatens now to erupt again with devastating consequences.
In the aftermath of the attack on that day eight years ago, Colonel Yulia Laputina organised defences at the base with a bare handful of soldiers and airmen as a hostile mob blocked the entrance, and warnings came that a large group of enemy fighters were on their way.
Negotiating my way past the crowd I found Colonel Laputina, an officer with SBU, the Ukrainian intelligence service, anxiously waiting for news of the injured pilot and piecing together how the attack had taken place. “What,” she wondered, “would the rest of the day bring?”
What the following hours brought was the kidnapping of observers from the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), shooting at a checkpoint, the takeover of a government building and claims of official complicity in the murder of a local politician.
This was all part of a pattern, Col Laputina wanted to point out at the time. “We have a powerful neighbour, which has huge resources and wants to destabilise our country, the Russians are working to a plan. The Russians are here, we also know of the places where they are based; that is the reality,” she said.
“I find it extraordinary, don’t you, that we are in 2014 there is a state which seems to want to recreate an empire. It is so much against recent history, certainly in Europe, which has been about reconciliation and co-operation, of trading blocs, trying for a political framework which would avoid the use of force.”
Now, in January 2022, Russia has massed around 125,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders. The strife which led to the creation of separatist enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk, and claimed 14,000 lives, looms yet again. And Yulia Laputina, who left the intelligence service as a Major-General, is now a defence minister.
Reflecting on what happened in the past and may unfold in the in the future, she told me : “One of the best things that came out of the terrible time in 2014, when Russia invaded us, was that the people showed they were so willing to join our armed forces in defending the country. They tried all kinds of things, including hybrid warfare. But we learned to cope with them, we learned to deal with their hidden operations, we showed we could resist.”
The Minister, who is only the second woman in the Ukrainian military to reach the rank of general, continued: “The situation is very serious now, the international community recognises this and we are very grateful for the support from allies, the US, the UK and others.
“Russia, however, has been trying to destabilise us not only from 2014 but from 1991 when we received the independence. We are part of a old Russian doctrine which sees a sphere of influence from Vladivostock to Lisbon.”
The conflict in the east of the country never really ended despite the Minsk Agreement between Russia and Ukraine, the international Normandy Forum talks, and local ceasefires with regular outbreaks of fighting.
“We are now one of the most experienced armies in the world, we have had so many years of constant conflict forced on us. I can’t think of any other army, certainly in Europe, which has gone through this,” said Gen Laputina.
The Minister has revisited Kramatorsk, now a major administrative and military hub, a number of times since the dramatic days at the airport and she has seen, she says, how the public are resolved in the city to resist an invasion as they are in the rest of the country.
She said : “We are showing that our nation is united. In Ukraine, perhaps unlike some other countries, there isn’t a big division between the military and the civil. In most countries, as we know, they’re separate. But it is much more united here and that is a great strength.”
One of the key strategies of Ukraine in the event of an invasion would be the role of the army reserves, the Territorial Defence Force (TDF), who along with citizen volunteers, can now be found in parks and woods carrying out drills and military exercises in increasing numbers.
Training for the volunteers has been drastically stepped up. Thousands are turning up for exercises, with applications rocketing to join the 12,000 members of the TDF who are scheduled to be absorbed into the ranks of the 250,000-strong military this year.
Russia has been trying to destabilise us not only from 2014 but from 1991
“The volunteer battalions would be of great importance. Even in the worst case scenario, if command and control is badly damaged, if logistics are badly damaged, they can be effective in protecting and liberating our territories, that is what we did in 2014,” said Gen Laputina.
The Minister’s portfolio includes veterans’ affairs – she believes the experienced former service personnel will have an important part to play in what may lie ahead.
“The veterans played a big part in 2014, and they can do so again this time, using their knowledge to train the volunteer battalions and the reserves. They have so much experience, some of them going back to Afghanistan with the Soviet forces,” she said.
“There are more than 400,000 veterans. We need to look after them for all the sacrifices they have made for this country, at the same time I am sure they will be happy to help once again as well.”
The Kremlin, too, know full well the value of mobilising popular opinion, Gen Laputina wanted to point out.
“One key point is that Russia is creating a common enemy for its people, a quantum enemy. They say that an independent Ukraine is a threat to them. We are not a threat, but that is what they try to project,” she said.
One of the demands made by Vladimir Putin to the West is that Ukraine should never join Nato and there should be no interoperability between Nato forces and those of Ukraine. There is also, in Moscow, a view that there should be no further political integration between Ukraine and western Europe.
A military instructor teaches civilians holding wooden replicas of Kalashnikov rifles, as they take part in a training session
(AFP via Getty Images)
“There is a lot of support for joining Nato and the European Union in this country. We will all have to see what happens. I know this has been said many times before, but surely it is up to Nato and the European Union to decide whether we can join, not a third party,” Gen Laputina commented.
The accusations and recriminations, fear and hostility have now come together in a crisis which world powers are now trying to untangle.
“So we have now arrived at this moment in history. Once again we are thankful for the support of our allies. The United States, Britain, the Baltic countries.”, said the Minister.
“We have received anti-tank weapons, we have drones among other items. It is so good the support of our allies, the United States, Britain, the Baltic countries, we lack long-range weapons, but we also know that, at the end of the day, it is up to us defend our country the best we can, as we have done in the past.”