Show of force in eastern Ukraine

On 15 April Ukrainian government forces started clearing out pro-Russian separatist strongholds in eastern Ukraine. Tensions are very high as both government forces and pro-Russia separatists stage rival shows of power. On 14 April acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov ordered Ukrainian armed forces to regain control over the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine after pro-Russia protesters started occupying government buildings starting 6 April.  


In the early hours of 6 April pro-Russian protesters started occupying government buildings in Kharkiv, Luhanks and Donetsk, demanding referendums to be held on joining Russia. Pro-Russian activists in Donetsk proclaimed independence from Kyiv, turning the demonstrators into separatists. In the hours and days that followed, more cities in the Donetsk region were taken by Pro-Russian activists, forcing the government in Kyiv to react.

In an attempt to quell the deepening crisis, acting Prime Minister Aseniy Yatsenyuk told regional leaders in Donetsk he was committed to devolving more powers to Ukraine’s regions, on 11 April. A day before, acting President Turchynov offered an amnesty for all separatists who laid down their arms. On 13 April Yatsenyuk announced that the Interior and Defense ministries ‘are implementing an operational response plan’, to regain regional control. Turchynov gave separatists until the early hours of 14 April until he was to undertake a ‘large-scale anti-terrorist operation’.

The government in Kyiv, the NATO and the US, accuse Russia of staging a Crimea-style intervention. Turchynov stated on 13 April ‘We’re not going to allow Russia to repeat the Crimean scenario in Ukraine’s east’ and announced the use of force against separatists. Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned Ukraine not to use military force, ‘We decisively condemn attempts to use brute force against protesters and activists […] we are particularly indignant about the criminal order to use the army to put down the protest’. Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, unsuccessfully asked the UN Security Council to condemn Ukrainian suppression of the ‘protests’ on Sunday 13 April.

On 15 April Kyiv confirmed the deployment of troops outside the eastern city of Slavyansk in an attempt to repel separatists forces. A gunfight broke out at the separatist-held local airport of Kramatorsk, just outside Slavyansk, killing four insurgents. The commander of the Ukrainian forces, General Vasily Krutov, confirmed that government forces had seized the airfield. General Krutov said he would destroy the separatists and ‘foreign invaders’ and said a new deadline would be too humane.

Ukraine’s state security forces said the suppression of separatists was also in progress in Slavyansk and other cities, though there was no immediate evidence of action. As Ukrainian forces started moving towards other separatist-held strongholds they came across more pro-Russia protesters. General Krutov was jostled and manhandled by furious locals, demanding him to leave. A local resident was caught saying: ‘I think Donbass should be an independent country allied with Russia […] My homeland is the Soviet Union. We just need to chop off the rotten west of Ukraine and we’ll be fine’.

After capturing the nearby airfield, government forces started moving on Kramatorsk. After a while six Ukrainian renegade tanks left the city and headed for Slavyansk. Ukrainian forces have not responded to these latest difficulties but they are flexing their muscles, sending in low flying aircraft in a show of power.

International diplomacy

On 17 April a crisis meeting will take place in Geneva between Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the US about the escalating crisis in Ukraine. In a telephone call to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded the UN condemns the Ukrainian repression moves. The US supported strong support for Kyiv and said Ukraine had to respond to the armed groups.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced on 16 April that NATO will bolster its forces in eastern Europe in response to the seizure of Ukrainian armed vehicles by separatists. He said: ‘You will see deployments at sea, in the air, on land to take place immediately – that means in days’. NATO is trying to pressure Russia not let Russian troops enter Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government had been seeking to reassert its control slowly and without bloodshed before the talks tomorrow, but have encountered stiffer opposition than expected. The situation in eastern Ukraine is at risk of spiraling out of control as events continue to unfold.

Sources: Radio Free Europe, Reuters, Russia Today, The Guardian I, The Guardian II, The Guardian III.


Author: Koen Migchelbrink

Photo: Bloomberg

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