Following a presidential election on Sunday in which Ukrainians overwhelmingly backed the billionaire Petro Poroshenko, the government in Kiev launched a renewed offensive against pro-Russian separatists in the east that killed more than fifty on Tuesday.
Hours after the polls closed Sunday night, the government carried out airstrikes against rebels in the east of Ukraine, near the Russian border, where they have proclaimed two independent states. Helicopters and warplanes attacked the airport of Donetsk, which separatists had seized on Monday, and paratroopers were flown in to root them out.
Separatists in the east of Ukraine called for annexation by neighboring Russia on Monday, a day after staging referendums in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that Westerns countries and authorities in Kiev, the capital, denounced as illegal.
After announcing the results of the vote, Denis Pushilin, a leader of Donetsk’s separatist movement, said the region was an independent state and would appeal to join the Russian Federation. “The people of Donetsk have always been part of the Russian world,” he said. “Based on the will of the people and on the restoration of a historic justice, we ask the Russian Federation to consider the absorption of the Donetsk People’s Republic into the Russian Federation.
According to the separatists, 75 percent of Donetsk’s residents turned out to vote on Sunday, with more than 80 percent voting in favor of secession. In Luhansk, activists claimed more than 96 percent did.
There was no way to verify the results although they defied earlier opinion polls which found support for federalization no higher than 25 percent across the southeast of Ukraine which is home to most of the country’s ethnic Russians and Russian speakers.
Violence escalated in southeastern Ukraine on Friday when separatists shot down two army helicopters in the vicinity of Sloviansk and police said three residents of Odessa were shot dead in altercations between supporters and opponents of the government in Kiev.
According to the separatists in Sloviansk, Ukrainian forces killed three of their fighters and two civilians when they moved into the city early Friday morning. Eight armored personnel carriers were seen cutting off the road on the southern outskirts of the town. Interim president Oleksandr Turchynov, who took over after Viktor Yanukovich was deposed in a popular uprising in February, said all rebel checkpoints were retaken later in the day.
Separatists, who demand a referendum to decide on eastern Ukraine’s future political status and sympathize with neighboring Russia, brought down two helicopters earlier in the day. The Kiev government said two helicopter crew had died and seven servicemen were injured. It saw proof of Russian involvement in the use of missiles to shoot down the gunships. Russia denies its troops are on the ground in Ukraine.
Russia earlier denied sending troops into the Crimea when it was clearly occupying the peninsula. It annexed the territory, which had been part of Ukraine since 1954, following a referendum that showed most Crimeans in favor of joining Russia in March.
Before the annexation of the Crimea, the Russian Senate gave President Vladimir Putin permission to use force in the whole of Ukraine in order to protect the lives of Russian citizens and their “compatriots” there.
Russian troops staged exercises on Ukraine’s eastern frontier last week. The NATO alliance estimates the country has some 40,000 soldiers positioned near the border.
In Odessa, Ukraine’s largest Black Sea port and home to many ethnic Russians, fighting broke out when pro-Russian activists attacked supporters of Ukrainian unity marching through the city. Police said paving stones, petrol bombs and other explosive devices were thrown. Dozens were killed later in the day when a trade union building was set on fire.
Russia started military exercises on Ukraine’s border on Thursday, saying they were a response to NATO’s increased presence in Eastern Europe.
Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu said in Moscow that NATO “war games” in the Baltic states and Poland were “not helping the normalization of the situation” in Ukraine where the central government is battling pro-Russian separatists in the southeast of the country. “We are forced to react to the situation,” he said.
150 American paratroopers arrived in Poland on Wednesday from their base in Italy to conduct joint training exercises. Another 150 are due to be deployed to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania over the coming months. The three former Soviet republics joined NATO in 2004.
Russia’s proposal to federalize Ukraine can hardly be seen as a sincere attempt to solve the crisis in that country. If implemented, such a scheme would almost certainly expand Russian influence into its former satellite state and probably prevent it from deepening relations with the West.
President Vladimir Putin vowed in a television interview on Thursday to “do everything” to help the people of southeast Ukraine “protect their rights and decide on their fate. This is what we are going to fight for.” He reminded viewers that the Russian Senate had given him permission to deploy troops in Ukraine to protect the lives of Russians and Russian speakers there. “But,” he added, “I sincerely hope I will not have to use this right.”
Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine rejected an offer of amnesty from the government in Kiev on Tuesday, raising fears of an armed confrontation that could, in turn, prompt Russia to intervene.
Earlier this week, activists in Luhansk, a city close to the Russian border, occupied a former secret police headquarters there. Another government building was seized in Donetsk, an industrial city further south. In both places, activists said they would lay down their weapons only if the government agreed to call a referendum on the regions’ future status.
With up to 40,000 Russian troops believed to be positioned in the Crimea and on Ukraine’s eastern frontier, it seems possible the country is preparing to expand its intervention in its former satellite state.
Such an incursion could take place without warning because Russia has already deployed the array of military forces needed for such an operation, say officials briefed on the latest American intelligence.
Russia staged massive military exercises near Ukraine’s border on Thursday in what authorities there feared could be a precursor to another attack.
Andriy Parubiy, the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, which advises the country’s president, claimed Russia had deployed more than 80,000 soldiers near the border, along with 270 tanks and 140 combat aircraft. “Ukraine today is facing the threat of a full-scale invasion from various directions,” he said.