KRAMATORSK, UKRAINE —
For the commander of Ukrainian anti-terrorist units dispatched to this town in the country’s restive east, the challenge facing her is rapidly becoming frustrating. She is expected to restore order to the town without engaging Moscow-backed pro-Russian militants – an action that could provoke Russia to follow through on threats to intervene to protect separatists.
“The situation is very strange,” Col. Yulia said, gesturing to a small checkpoint that a ragtag group of militants has thrown up on the road leading to the town’s small airport. The colonel, who declined to provide her full name, is based there with crack units drawn from the Ukrainian intelligence service, the SBU, and the army.
Yulia said her biggest frustration is not being able to trust the local police. “It is difficult to tell who is with us and who against,” she said. “Most of them are hedging their bets and waiting to see who wins.”
On April 21, separatists, possibly with Russian intelligence operatives directing them, stormed the town’s central police station and kidnapped the police chief. They seized also handguns from the station.
Since then, the police have been inactive, the colonel said, and this rust belt Donbas town 100 kilometers north of Donetsk has been buffeted by a rise in petty crime.
Ukrainian officials claim that Donbas crime bosses have been backing the pro-Russian militancy, hoping to cash in on the anarchy.
Speaking at the entrance to the airport, which is guarded by heavily armed men from the units she commands, Yulia said most of the locals are keen to see the militants leave and frequently appeal to her units to do the job the police should be doing.
The colonel was speaking just two hours before militants attacked the airport, firing a rocket-propelled grenade at a parked military helicopter and hitting the fuel tank. The chopper’s pilot was injured in the explosion, which sent dark plumes of smoke billowing across the airport.
The attack coincided with Ukrainian officials in Kyiv insisting they would continue an anti-terrorist campaign launched Thursday with an assault on a separatist checkpoint on the outskirts of Slovyansk, Kramatorsk’s smaller neighbor. It’s controlled by hardcore pro-Russian militant Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, a mercurial former Soviet military officer and a key figure in the pro-Russian militancy in eastern Ukraine.
Five militants were killed in the early-morning assault on the separatist checkpoint, prompting renewed warnings from Moscow against taking action against Kremlin-backed separatists who are occupying 30 government and police buildings in 10 cities across eastern Ukraine.
In response to the assault, Russia’s defense minister announced Russian forces would embark on new military drills near the border.
But Ukrainian leaders appear to have recalibrated their strategy to defeat pro-Russian separatists, hoping to avoid Russian retaliation.
Instead of confronting hardline separatists head-on in Slovyansk, a town they assess is at the heart of the pro-Russian agitation, Ukrainian leaders are now aiming to isolate them by encircling the town and preventing militants from moving in and out and recruiting and directing others in neighboring cities.
“We have made a decision to fully blockade the city of Slovyansk,” Sergei Pashinsky, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, said in a statement Friday.
Vasyl Krutov, the head of the Ukrainian Security Service’s Anti-Terrorist Center, said Friday that officials had decided not to storm Slovyansk because an assault on the town could lead to high casualties among locals.
Yulia said she and her troops would not fire on unarmed civilians.
“We have explained to them that the SBU and the national army will not shoot at them and that we are here to protect them and Ukraine from foreign aggression,” she said.
She said locals also had expressed fear about violent ultranationalists.
“When we first arrived five days ago, they kept asking us whether we were members of ultranationalist groups like Right Sector,” she said.
Russian officials accuse far-right ultranationalists of being behind the February ouster of Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, whose toppling triggered the current Ukraine crisis. And media outlets controlled by the Kremlin have been claiming that Ukrainian ultranationalists are planning pograms of ethnic Russians.