In the biggest victory for the Ukrainian army since the invasion of Crimea in February, government forces have retaken the rebel held city of Sloviansk in Eastern Ukraine. The city had been a centre for the separatists for months, and was seen as an important symbol of resistance. On Saturday though, the separatist fighters were forced into a ‘tactical retreat’, which turned into a more general retreat from rebel-held towns back towards Donetsk. So with the Ukrainian army finally booking some success, is this the beginning of a final push? A chance for negotiations? Or a potential spark for a worse conflict?
Sloviansk was one of the first cities to fall to the rebels back in April, and had become a military stronghold for the rebels. As a result, the city has been surrounded by the government for weeks now, and has been suffering under Europe’s first artillery fire of the 21st century. While the separatists fire mortars, the Ukrainian army has been using serious hardware. Civilians have been killed by both sides, and many parts of the city severely damaged.
The fighting had slowed for a few days during a ceasefire, but earlier this week President Poroshenko announced that the government operation would continue. This came as a relief to the Ukrainian army, who were repeatedly hit by separatist fire, yet unable to advance. However, as the army was allowed to resume its full force attack, the morale of the rebels seemed to have been crushed. As they retreated from the shattered town the army raised the Ukrainian flag over city hall.
Despite this being a significant victory for the government, and one that will boost morale, there is still a tremendous struggle ahead for Poroshenko’s army. The separatists have retreated towards Donetsk, and their arsenal of armoured vehicles, artillery, and experienced Russian fighters could make any full on assault very costly. However, the fall of Sloviansk will have hit the separatists’ morale, and many of them must be wondering about the merits of dying for the Donetsk People’s Republic. If they do decide to fight, and deny the army a peaceful victory, the Ukrainian government has a tough choice to make.
One option would be to seize the moment to begin negotiations from a position of strength. This would avoid bloodshed, and make Kyiv’s authority over the east (in whatever form) more legitimate. However, the government may have difficulty finding people to negotiate with. Local separatist politicians have been sidelined to some degree, and the DPR seems to now be led mainly by militias. Just like the Russian fighters in the area, they have nothing to gain by accepting increased autonomy. The good news is that President Putin seems to be more inclined to negotiate an end to the crisis, and his help would be vital.
The other option is of course to throw everything the army has at taking Donetsk by force. They already hold positions at the airport, so flying in more troops is an option. Poroshenko is also under pressure back in Kyiv to take action, and not accept any more humiliations. This would though obviously come at the cost of doing severe damage to the political capital of the East and Ukraine’s fifth biggest city. There is also the danger that increased deaths of civilians will lead Russia to actually step up its involvement. Putin doesn’t back a loser, but it could provide him a pretext to turn the situation around.
No matter what happens, the question of how the Ukrainian government will be received in the east is vital. This video shows women welcoming the Ukrainian soldiers into Sloviansk, and there will be many more like them. The separatists tolerate no support of the Ukrainian government, so most of the government’s supporters stay quietly at home. However, there will also be anger at the destruction wrought by the artillery, and a decent part of the population still sees Poroshenko’s government as illegitimate fascists. What lies ahead is a complex mix of military action and political negotiations. While the separatists will eventually lose the battle without more help from Russia, a merely military solution is not a recipe for long term peace. Not anymore.