While Sunday’s elections saw a big step in Ukraine’s path to a better future, one day later the violence in the East was worse than ever. The Ukrainian army, now under new president Petro Poroshenko, appears to have smashed a separatist offensive at Donetsk International Airport, cementing the government’s control of the city’s main link to the outside world. The separatists lost at least 30 men, against no casualties for the army. So how did this happen? Is this a reversal of fortune for the Ukrainian army? And what will change under Ukraine’s new president, the ‘Chocolate King’?
The Ukraine government remembers all too well the loss of Crimea, and how that started with Russian soldiers taking over the airport in Simferopol. So when armed separatists showed up at Donetsk Airport on Monday and stormed the main terminal building, there was no hesitation on the part of the government. There has been a small force of Ukrainian soldiers there since the beginning of the crisis in the city, and instead of surrendering they called in reinforcements.
The Ukrainian army then struck back hard, using helicopters and even airstrikes. One piece of separatist anti-aircraft weaponry was destroyed, and they were forced out of the airport. The army then continued to move towards the city centre, accompanied by paratroopers according to media sources. The street fighting raged for hours in the district between the airport and central train station. The day ended with the government firmly in control of the airport, but with separatists still armed and ready to fight in the area heading towards the station.
There’s no doubt however that this was a heavy blow for the separatists’ militias. Journalists found literal piles of bodies in the local morgue, and a destroyed truck surrounded by blood. The truck, full of militiamen, had apparently been struck by artillery or explosive rounds from a helicopter. The way the Ukrainians went on the attack instead of fading away will also worry the Donetsk People’s Republic. In comparison to the more than a dozen Ukrainian soldiers killed last week, these forces appeared to be much better trained and ready for a fight.
This new aggressiveness will come as good news to the country’s newly elected President, Petro Poroshenko. With over 50% of the vote (excluding Donetsk and Luhansk province, which didn’t vote), the former confectionary oligarch certainly has a mandate to lead. And he has already indicated he will not hesitate to confront the separatists, saying that he will not let Eastern Ukraine “become Somalia” and that the crisis will be tackled “within hours”. With the election behind them, the Ukrainian government has nothing to wait for. A new president has been chosen, and before he can get anything done on the economic quagmire, there is a conflict to be solved.
The question is however, even if the army can defeat the separatists, can they regain the East? With every artillery shell that is fired at Slavyansk and every fighter jet that roars over Donetsk, the people of the region feel more and more under attack by their own government. There were civilian casualties as well on Monday; a woman was caught in crossfire near the train station. On Tuesday the city was quiet, with shops boarded up and people remaining indoors. Rightly or wrongly, if the army comes it too hard it will only drive the people away, alienating those that might otherwise want to remain in Ukraine.
In the end though, there is no other good option. There is no future for the Donetsk People’s Republic. At the moment it’s a city running on inertia, with the police, firefighters and all the rest just doing their jobs. But the so-called government is a disaster of bureaucracy, inefficiency and aggression. Looting and random violence has become an issue, with the new ice hockey stadium being burnt down Tuesday for no apparent reason. Worst of all, the men with guns who now rule are often drunk and prone to attacking anyone who doesn’t support them. I recently heard of a prayer tent a few blocks away from our old home there. It had been staffed throughout this whole crisis by a local pastor who together with many others prayed for peace and for the people who came there every night, as well as cleaning the streets. Last week armed men who had taken offence at the Ukrainian flag on the tent came by, threw the tent into the river, then stole all the equipment the pastors had there. When one of them went to the administration building to ask for it back, he was severely beaten.
With the government offensive likely to step up in the coming days, it remains to be seen how many more separatists are willing to fight to the death to defend this republic.
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