Ukraine says it has made gains against rebels as Russia ‘considers strikes’

Government forces have broken through blockade near rebel-held city of Luhansk, says Ukrainian president
Agence France-Presse | 14 July 2014

Ukrainian troops say they have made gains around one of the main remaining separatist strongholds, as Moscow reportedly weighed up "targeted" cross-border strikes following the alleged deadly shelling of a Russian town.

Ukraine’s western-backed president, Petro Poroshenko, said government forces had managed to break through a blockade by pro-Moscow rebels to reach soldiers camped out at the strategic airport in the insurgent-held bastion of Luhansk.

The industrial hub of 425,000 people is the capital of one of the rebels’ two self-declared "people’s republics" and – along with million-strong Donetsk – now finds itself in the cross-hairs of Kiev’s reinvigorated military push to quash the three-month insurgency tearing apart the former Soviet state.

The defence ministry said on Monday that Ukrainian jets had carried out five air strikes against separatist positions close to Luhansk, but there was no confirmation of rebel claims that Kiev had massed tanks in the outskirts in preparation for a major push into the city.

Local authorities said three people had been killed and 14 wounded in various incidents around the city over the past 24 hours, adding to a bloody weekend that saw one of the highest two-day civilian tolls so far in the conflict, which has now claimed about 550 lives.

Ukraine’s army has also seen its losses spike in recent days after militias – which the west and Kiev allege are being armed by the Kremlin – killed 19 soldiers and wounded 100 more in a multiple-rocket attack late on Friday.

The military losses have profoundly dented emerging hopes in Kiev that its recent string of battlefield successes had finally convinced the rebels to sue for peace.

The conflict risked spiralling even further amid reports that Moscow was considering strikes against Ukrainian positions after a shell allegedly crossed the border and killed a Russian civilian on Sunday.

The well-connected Russian daily Kommersant cited a source close to the Kremlin as saying that Moscow was weighing up "targeted retaliatory strikes", but was not planning any large-scale action.

"Our patience is not limitless," the source said, adding that Russia "knows exactly where they [Ukrainians] are firing from".

Moscow has repeatedly accused Ukrainian forces of shelling across the border but Sunday’s incident saw the first claim of a fatality and the Russian foreign ministry said the incident risked "irreversible consequences".

Kiev has denied that its forces were behind the shelling and on Sunday Poroshenko called on the west to condemn "attacks by Russian soldiers on positions held by Ukrainian servicemen" in a phone conversation with the European council president, Herman van Rompuy.

Poroshenko has previously vowed to kill "hundreds" of gunmen for every lost soldier and ordered an airtight military blockade of Luhansk and Donetsk.

European leaders responded by joining forces with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in an effort to persuade Poroshenko to put the brakes on violence first sparked by the ousting in February of the Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych and fanned by Russia’s subsequent seizure of Crimea.

Hopes of a truce rested on a meeting between Putin and Poroshenko – the second since the Ukrainian president’s May election – that seemed on the cards on the sidelines of the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro.

But the Ukrainian presidency said on Sunday that Poroshenko had been forced to cancel his attendance "considering the situation currently happening in Ukraine".

Putin instead met the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, for talks the Kremlin said had ended with a call on the warring sides to issue "a statement as soon as possible concerning a ceasefire, a prisoner swap, and the return of [international] monitors" to eastern Ukraine.

A German government spokesman said Putin and Merkel had suggested Kiev and the separatists could launch their discussions by video conference.


Kremlin dismisses direct strikes against Ukraine, but debate still rages in Russia
Fred Weir, Correspondent
The Christian Science Monitor | July 14, 2014

Russian leadership is of two minds on how to respond to the ongoing fighting in Ukraine, which crossed the border over the weekend. But ‘surgical strikes’ appear to be off the table.

Two Russian armored personal carriers roll near the border with Ukraine in the Rostov-on-Don region on Sunday. Russia’s foreign ministry said Sunday that a Ukrainian shell hit a town on the Russian border, killing one person and seriously injuring two others. But Ukraine denied firing a shell into Russian territory. Sergei Pivovarov/AP

Moscow — A day after Ukrainian forces allegedly shelled a Russian border village, killing one person, the Kremlin appears to be preparing a tough response.

But "surgical strikes" against Ukrainian military forces deemed responsible for the attacks, as claimed by an anonymous Kremlin official in the major Moscow daily Kommersant? That’s "nonsense," Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said on Monday.

Experts say the conflicting signals coming out of the Kremlin show just how at odds it is with itself over what to do in eastern Ukraine, as conditions deteriorate and ferocious fighting bumps up against the long and relatively open border with Russia.

One faction, they say, advocates direct Russian action to support east Ukraine’s beleaguered rebels – either by imposing a no-fly zone over the embattled region, or through pinpoint attacks on Ukrainian artillery units that are accused of firing on Ukrainian civilians and, occasionally, Russian ones too.

"When Israel reacts to provocations with an all-out attack on Gaza, the world is quite understanding about that," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "But Russia is supposed to sit back and take it? Our investigators have found shell fragments in the village that was attacked, and we know that only Ukrainian forces have artillery of this caliber. Russia is a great power, and it doesn’t have to put up with this sort of thing in its backyard."

The other Kremlin faction, which appears to have the upper hand at the moment, favors caution. They argue that direct Russian intervention would only give Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko the rallying point he wants, and a winning argument for greater Western assistance. Instead, they say, Russia holds most of the cards in any long-term settlement for Ukraine. Moscow can afford to wait as the Poroshenko government muddles through what promises to be a long and bloody counter-insurgency in the country’s east, even as Ukraine careens toward economic implosion.

"The Kremlin does not have a master plan for what to do in Ukraine; it’s mostly reacting to events," says Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank with strong connections to the Russian Foreign Ministry. "The dominant view right now is that we should let Poroshenko reap the consequences of the military campaign he chose to embark on. It’s easy to start a conflict like this, very hard to finish it up."

Mr. Kortunov says that Russia needs to stress its role as a diplomatic player, and as the huge neighbor Ukraine needs to rebuild its shattered economy and reconcile with embittered eastern Ukrainians.

"The pendulum will swing back in Ukraine, perhaps in unexpected ways. Russia can afford to wait," he says.

Kiev denies that its forces shelled the Russian border village Sunday and insists that it was the work of pro-Russian rebels. Ukrainian defense officials warn that Russia is stepping up "provocations" on the frontier, and has been allowing ever more pro-rebel volunteers and military equipment to cross into the embattled territory from Russia. Ukraine’s best-known military expert, Dmitry Tymchuk, predicted on his Facebook page today that all signs point to a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on Tuesday.

"Opinion in Russia is badly split over what to do about this. But so far, despite all the growing pressures, it seems that Putin has decided that the long-term price of intervening directly is too high," says Dmitry Polikanov, vice president of the PIR Center, an independent security think tank in Moscow.

"It’s not just that our relations with the West would be greatly aggravated, it’s also that we can’t really afford the costs of peace-building in eastern Ukraine afterwards," Mr. Polikanov says. "Our best option now is to strengthen the border, and wait to see what will happen next. The ball is in Poroshenko’s court."


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