DONETSK, UKRAINE — While Ukrainian officials in Kyiv say their military campaign to clear Moscow-backed separatists from Ukraine’s troubled east is proceeding, the operation seems to be stalling amid indecision and fear of provoking Russian retaliation.
Local Ukrainian commanders say their biggest challenge is determining whom to trust among local law-enforcement agencies in the depressed Donbas region, which is at the heart of the pro-Russian militancy.
The military campaign is drawn from Interior Ministry Special Forces units and anti-terrorist squads from Ukraine’s intelligence service, the SBU.
“We think they share information with the separatists,” an SBU colonel in the town of Kramatorsk told VOA.
Despite establishing their own checkpoints, the pro-Kyiv units seem incapable of blocking the insurgents’ movement – and that of the pro-Ukrainian politicians and activists they’ve abducted – across the region.
Slovyansk’s separatist leader and self-proclaimed “mayor,” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, a former Soviet soldier and soap factory owner, told reporters this weekend that his troops were holding dozens of people suspected of being “spies” or “fascists,” many seized from neighboring towns.
OSCE monitors held
That was in addition to the eight military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) taken captive Friday. One was freed Sunday.
Insurgents also captured three Ukrainian security service officers on Sunday and later displayed them to the press stripped to their underpants, bloodied and blind-folded.
Human Rights Watch said Monday that it had documented the kidnapping by Slovyansk gunmen of “more than two dozen people, including journalists, political activists, international military observers.”
The OSCE kidnappings seem to have halted Kyiv’s anti-separatist operations, although Ukrainian officials deny this.
Denis Pushilin, head of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic, passed through at least two pro-Kyiv checkpoints over the weekend while driving 100 kilometers north from Donetsk to Slovyansk to attend a press conference. A day earlier, Ukrainian officials had insisted they’d isolate the town by encircling it with checkpoints.
Pro-Russian checkpoints that had been cleared late last week were back in insurgents’ hands, with camouflaged gunmen and club-wielding youths standing by to protect them. Kyiv officials contend the gunmen are Russian soldiers, which they deny.
Pro-Kyiv anti-terrorist units made no effort to stop separatists from restaffing the barricades or setting up just outside Kramatorsk airport.
Separatists on Monday attacked the pro-Kyiv forces with rocket-propelled grenades, according to Dmytro Tymchuk, coordinator of a military information group. Two Interior Ministry soldiers were wounded in the attack.
A VOA reporter was stopped on Sunday by heavily armed, masked gunmen in combat fatigues while approaching Kramatorsk’s small airport. Pro-Kyiv anti-terrorist units are using it as a base.
During questioning, the reporter witnessed a young couple - who had delivered food to soldiers at the airport - being harangued and then bundled into a blue van. They reportedly were sent to nearby Slovyansk. “They were bandits,” one of the gunmen said.
An SBU officer expressed frustration to VOA, saying Kyiv keeps issuing confusing instructions and shifting on-the-ground strategy, mainly out of fear that a more determined crackdown would lead to casualties. That might provoke Russia to order its massed forces across the border to intervene, as Moscow keeps threatening.
The SBU officer said trying to counter the Moscow-backed separatists was like trying to burst a balloon by squeezing it: “We push in one place and they move somewhere else.”
Separatists have stepped up a campaign targeting local pro-Kyiv politicians.
The mayor of Kharkiv, Hennadiy Kernes, traditionally considered pro-Russia, was shot in the back and critically wounded on Monday.
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, had been the scene of clashes over the weekend between pro-Kyiv soccer fans and pro-Russia supporters. Several people were injured, local authorities said.
The attack on Kharkiv’s mayor came just days after the body of Volodymyr Rybak, a local pro-Kyiv politician, was found in a river near Slovyansk.
Ukrainian authorities blame Ponomaryov and Russian military intelligence officers for the murder.
Ukrainian SBU officials say the Russians decided to kill the politician after he tried to raise the national flag on the municipal building in the town of Horlivka.
Slovyansk’s “people’s mayor” denies the allegation, saying the politician was killed by Ukrainian ultranationalists.