Ukraine’s president in waiting says he needs just hours to stem the unrest that’s terrorizing the nation’s easternmost regions. The separatists who’ve been giving government troops the runaround for weeks have other ideas.
“They’d need heavy weapons to dislodge us and they can’t use them without civilian casualties,” said Vadim Ilavaysky, a shaven-headed rebel commander with a graying beard dressed in camouflage fatigues. “This land will never welcome occupiers,” he said in his office in the seized Kramatorsk administration building, where sandbags obscure the windows.
The Donetsk and Luhansk regions have been engulfed by violence that claimed dozens of lives this week and threatens to rip Ukraine apart. After winning election May 25, billionaire chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko said he’d retool a struggling anti-militant operation to seal a rapid victory over separatists emboldened by President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea.
The rebels’ shifting tactics may make his task more difficult in practice. Some of them established city strongholds such as Slovyansk, where the proximity of civilians hinders the advance of government forces. Others move from town to town. If they’re not killed or captured in firefights, they flee before popping up elsewhere, sometimes within hours.
“These tactics split government forces and make maneuvers trickier -- the separatists are exploiting our weaknesses,” said Mykola Sungurovskyi, head of military programs at the Razumkov Center in Kiev. “Poroshenko is too optimistic. Even under favorable conditions, the operation would take a month.”
The rebels set up roadblocks using whatever materials are at hand -- concrete blocks, felled trees and, in Kramatorsk, slot machines, seized as separatists enforce a gambling ban. As Ukrainian forces remove one, another sprouts up nearby.
Dmitry, a separatist in charge of a checkpoint 20 minutes northwest of Donetsk who declined to give his last name, fled his post last week after an assault, only to return the next day. “We aren’t equipped to repel an attack,” he said at a roadblock manned by at least five men with AK-47 rifles.
Deployment at the rebel posts is far from uniform. Some are manned by middle-aged men with old rifles, others are guarded by troops in new camouflage outfits and with grenade launchers.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said “outside” assistance is providing advanced weaponry to the separatists, who used a shoulder-fired missile to down a Mi-8 military helicopter in eastern Ukraine yesterday, killing a general and 13 troops.
Whatever the rebels’ composition, the outfits are growing, making time of the essence if Ukraine is to remain whole, according to Svitlana, a resident of Mariupol, 40 kilometers (24 miles) from the Russian border. While only about 15 separatists seized the mayor’s office, more are arriving, she said, declining to give her last name, fearing for her safety.
“They’re strengthening their positions every day,” Svitlana said in an interview. “First they got an armored personnel carrier, then they took a crane and brought concrete blocks. If something’s not done we may lose the city.”
She’s also worried about the border with Russia, which she calls “porous.” A rebel was killed May 26 in a shootout as trucks carrying militants broke through into Ukraine, the Border Service said. A patrol was attacked last night from the direction of Russia, while guards also stopped three cars, detaining 13 people and confiscating machine guns and sniper rifles, according to a statement on the service’s website.
Fighters from Russia’s Caucasus region are now among the rebel fighters, according to the Defense Ministry.
Poroshenko, a former economy and foreign minister who’s fortune is estimated at $1 billion by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, immediately expressed his discontent at the government’s eastern offensive.
“The efficiency of the anti-terrorist operation will be sharply increased,” he said the day after the vote. “It shouldn’t last for months -- it should take a few hours.”
While Poroshenko hasn’t been sworn in yet, the government may already be taking a tougher stance. Defense Minister Mykhaylo Koval said today that the army is seeking to equip all units with bulletproof vests, while progress has been made clearing some areas of Donetsk and Luhansk of rebels.
An attempt to capture the Donetsk airport on May 26 was met by air strikes from Ukrainian gunships and warplanes, sending black smoke swirling around a terminal building. Later, a truck with as many as 35 militants crashed after coming under attack. More than 30 separatists died in all, while the Interior Ministry says there were no casualties on the government side.
The insurgents aren’t taking the losses lying down, with Ilavaysky, the rebel commander, scoffing at the new president’s bravado.
“Poroshenko tried to solve his problem in Donetsk in a couple of hours and we know where that got him,” he said while studying a stained map of the local air strip. “Does he want to be known as the chocolate rabbit or the bloody rabbit?”