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May 2, 2014 | 16:22 GMT

Ukraine Resumes Operations Against Separatists

Ukraine Resumes Operations Against Separatists
(GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Military and diplomatic factors have created significant obstacles for Kiev in its attempts to regain control of eastern Ukraine, but domestic politics have pressured the government to restart operations and reject Russia's demands. Circumstances dictate that Ukrainian forces attempt to systematically clear occupied buildings in eastern cities, a proposition both difficult and costly in terms of time and human life. Meanwhile, the Russian government is warning that a political solution will no longer be possible if Kiev continues to press a military solution.

With presidential elections scheduled for May 25, the interim government — dominated by the Fatherland party — is under growing pressure to show that it can defend Ukraine's territorial integrity. Fatherland's presidential candidate, Yulia Timoshenko, is falling behind in the polls, and success against the eastern separatists could boost the Fatherland party's domestic standing.

Ukrainian security forces resumed operations against separatists in the east in the early morning of May 2, particularly in the city of Slovyansk, which has been firmly under separatist control since mid-April. There are also unconfirmed reports that Ukrainian forces are blocking all entrances to Kramatorsk and that a fight has ensued between separatists and Kiev's troops. These details have not been corroborated, and Slovyansk and Kramatorsk are close enough together — separated by about 12 kilometers (7 miles) — that any operations in the area could encompass both cities.

At the start of the operation, Ukrainian forces from the Interior Ministry, army and national guard moved into position near Slovyansk, where they have been working to isolate what appears to be the core (and westernmost) position of the most skilled pro-Russian separatists.

The operation has not been without losses for Kiev. Ukraine's Defense Ministry confirmed that two Mi-24 helicopters were shot down with what are believed to be man-portable air defense systems, stating that at least two crewmen were killed, with more wounded. A video has emerged that allegedly shows separatists taking a wounded man, claimed to be a Ukrainian pilot, into custody. Ukrainian forces detained four separatists at an unspecified checkpoint near Slovyansk on suspicion of involvement in bringing down the aircraft. There have been no details of any weapons being seized.

The ongoing operation seems to be limited to the outskirts of Slovyansk and peripheral checkpoints. The Ukrainian military appears to be trying to further isolate Slovyansk from its supporters, potentially setting the conditions to move into the city and root out all opposition. Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook page that rail lines would be blocked and road traffic would be kept to a minimum as part of the effort to isolate Slovyansk.

Clearing Slovyansk is a significant task. The seperatists have revealed that they are armed with at least some advanced materiel, potentially surface-to-air missiles, which could limit the use of Ukrainian combat aviation for close air support to ground troops. Kiev must also assume that the separatists have some anti-armor capability. They are also known to be in possession of a handful of infantry fighting vehicles that were taken from Ukrainian forces.

In light of these factors, Ukrainian forces will have to conduct a mainly dismounted urban clearing operation through the occupied buildings and areas of the city. This type of fighting — in large part designed to limit collateral damage — favors the established defender and can be expected to be costly in both time and lives.

Eastern Ukraine

Eastern Ukraine

Elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, separatists controlled government buildings in 15 cities as of May 1, including Luhansk and Donetsk. By May 2, however, separatists had reportedly left at least one building in Luhansk after talks with Ukrainian forces. The only other building that separatists have forfeited thus far was in Kharkiv in April.

In response to the resumption of operations, the Russian Foreign Ministry reiterated its earlier demands for the Ukrainian government to stop its activities in the region. Russia has answered previous operations with military exercises on the border and threats to intervene if necessary. Meanwhile, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said the renewed fighting was ruining the last hopes to execute the Geneva agreement. Russia has called for Kiev to begin talks with the separatists, and Putin sent a special envoy, Vladimir Lukin, to the region May 1 to help facilitate the release of international military observers who are being held by separatists in Slovyansk. (The presence of hostages is another complication for any operation that tries to retake the entire city of Slovyansk.)

The separatists are preparing for a referendum on independence on May 11. With the presidential race underway the Fatherland party is under pressure to act now that Timoshenko is trailing in the polls behind Petro Poroshenko, who publicly supports a more assertive stance toward the eastern separatists. The Ukrainian interim government will continue to struggle to balance the tactical challenges ahead, and a growing threat from Russia, with domestic political priorities.

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