Russia troops pulling back, says US, but Ukraine still in danger
Kiev: Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders are moving back toward Moscow, but there are still “danger signs”, US Secretary of State John Kerry says.
“There is evidence of Russians crossing over, trained personnel from Chechnya trained in Russia, who’ve come across to stir things up, to engage in fighting,” the top US diplomat told PBS television.
The White House, meanwhile, expressed concern that pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine were using advanced weapons “from the outside” after they shot down an army helicopter, killing 14 soldiers including a general. The downing of the aircraft came amid escalating clashes between Kiev’s forces and separatists in the eastern part of the country, following the weekend election win of oligarch Petro Poroshenko.
The Mi-8 helicopter gunship was shot out of the sky with a sophisticated surface-to-air missile.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said weapons collected at Donetsk’s airport after the rebels were forced out by airstrikes and a paratroop assault had been brought in from Russia.”Serial numbers, year of production, specific models . . . I am publishing this photograph as proof of the aggression of the Putin regime,” Mr Avakov wrote on his Facebook page.
Though he is unlikely to be inaugurated before June 7, Mr Poroshenko will have an opportunity to meet Mr Putin when both attend commemorations of the 70th anniversary of “D-Day” landings in Normandy on June 6. On June 3, Mr Poroshenko is also expected to have talks with US President Barack Obama in Warsaw.
The president-elect has said he needs just hours to stem the unrest in the nation’s easternmost regions. The separatists 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 greying 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.
If separatists are not killed or captured in firefights, they flee before popping up elsewhere, sometimes within hours.
“These tactics split government forces and make manoeuvres trickier – the separatists are exploiting our weaknesses,” said Mykola Sungurovskyi, head of military programs at the Razumkov Centre in Kiev. “Poroshenko is too optimistic. Even under favourable 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.
Dmitry, a separatist in charge of a checkpoint 20 minutes north-west 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.
Whatever their composition, the outfits are growing, making time of the essence if Ukraine is to remain whole, according to Svitlana, a resident of Mariupol, 40 kilometres 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 for fear of her safety.
“They’re strengthening their positions every day,” Svetlana said in an interview. “First they got an armoured personnel carrier, then they took a crane and brought concrete blocks. If something’s not done we may lose the city.”
The White House also voiced concern for a team of Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers being held by separatists in the city of Slaviansk, saying their detention was “unacceptable” and that they “should be released immediately”.
Separatists confirmed that they detained the four observers, who have been missing since Monday.