Harriet Salem in Sloviansk and Donetsk -
With Kyiv's renewed anti-terrorism operation to rid the east of the pro-Russian separatists again descending into farce and US Secretary of State John Kerry accusing Russia of "distraction, deception and destabilisation", the April 17 deal to defuse the crisis in Ukraine looks dead in all but name.
In a televised address on April 24, Kerry urged Moscow to take actions to disarm and disperse the armed separatists that have seized buildings and towns in the east of Ukraine – groups he said there was clear evidence to show were armed, trained and financed by Moscow.
"Not a single Russian official has publicly gone on television in Ukraine and called on the separatists to support the Geneva agreement, to support the stand-down, to give up their weapons and get out of the Ukrainian buildings," Kerry said.
By contrast, Kerry praised the interim government in Kyiv, which he said had honoured the agreement struck in Geneva between Ukraine, Russia, the EU and US on April 17 that planned a way out of the crisis.
With the east descending into violence and thuggery as the four-way Geneva de-escalation agreement began collapsing over the Easter weekend, Kyiv felt forced to launch a counter-terror assault on April 24 in its second bid to wrest back control of the rebel-held pockets of the east of the country. A previous attempt to oust the rebels was halted on April 16 when the resource-starved Ukrainian army was repelled by the separatists. Two Ukrainian APC convoys were either captured by, or surrendered to, the rebels controlling the region.
Recent examples of the escalation lawlessness across the region includes the kidnap of prominent US journalist Simon Ostrovsky by Moscow-aligned militia, and the torture and murder of pro-Ukrainian councillor Volodymyr Rybak.
However, as evening fell on April 24 in separatist-held Sloviansk, an industrial city in eastern Ukraine, a smouldering barricade on the city’s outskirts was all that Kyiv had to show for its high-profile anti-terrorism operation.
On the morning of April 24, the Ukrainian military established a checkpoint on the outskirts of Sloviansk and pushed a convoy of at least 10 APCs towards a barricade on the northwest of the city. But following a brief exchange of fire, the assault was quickly repelled when the pro-Russia militia set fire to a tyre barricade under attack.
Kyiv’s Interior Ministry claimed up to five separatists were killed in the attack, but the rebels have only listed one seriously injured and one dead – 20-year-old Aleksandr Lubenets. Another man is reportedly in hospital with serious injuries but "will live".
The attack has fuelled anger amongst the separatists who claim Kyiv's government is "fascist". Standing on the smouldering barricades, the pistol-packing 35-year-old militia commander, Yevgeniy, vowed to avenge the assault. “We will line the road with their dead bodies,” the camouflage clad fighter told bne.
In a bid to keep the local population calm, Ukrainain helicopters scattered thousands of “survival guides” over Sloviansk and nearby Kramatorsk warning citizens that “Russian terrorists” were operating in the area, and providing instructions on how to save lives. Both the government in Kyiv and the rebels' leaders ordered schools and all but non-essential businesses to close.
Lack of support
Ukraine’s east has been rocked by unrest since the new administration took power in February following the flight of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. After the annexation in March of the Crimean peninsula by Russia, Moscow-aligned separatists seized control of state administration and security services in at least 10 town and cities in Ukraine's southeast. Both Sloviansk and Kramatorsk are entirely under the control of armed gunmen, with checkpoints and barricades ringing the perimeters of the cities.
Surveys of public opinion from Ukraine’s southeast show the militia’s guerrilla tactics do not enjoy strong support across the region. A recent poll by Kyiv Institute for Social Research found less than 30% of the local population support the occupation of state buildings by armed men. However, in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the rebel’s heartland, suspicion of the West and Kyiv is strong.
The new government in Kyiv and its western allies have accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest in a bid to justify Russian military intervention in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladmir Putin, in a response to the April 24 counter-terror operation, warned that: “If the current regime in Kiev have really begun to use the army against the country’s population then it is, without any doubt, a very serious crime against their people."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has repeatedly warned that if the Ukrainian government uses force to regain control over the country's east, Russia will be forced to intervene. Following the launch of the counter-terrorism operation on April 24, Russian forces have begun performing a new wave of military exercises in the border regions. More than 40,000 Russian troops have amassed on Ukraine’s eastern border for the past six weeks.
By the time sun set on Sloviansk on April 24, the Ukrainian forces were hunkered down behind their newly established checkpoint in Hlyboka Makatykha, 15 kilometres from the barricade. Some media were reporting official sources as saying the operation had been halted due to growing concerns that a Russia invasion was imminent.
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