The simmering standoff in eastern Ukraine exploded in heavy fighting early Tuesday, with ground assaults and air bombardments by government forces throughout the region, including heavy artillery shelling around the rebel-controlled city of Slovyansk.
The fighting broke out shortly after President Petro Poroshenko declared an end to a 10-day cease-fire and ordered government forces to renew their effort to quash the pro-Russian separatist insurrection in the east.
Poroshenko’s announcement, in a nationally televised statement after midnight local time, came after two days of conference calls with the leaders of Russia, France and Germany that failed to yield concrete steps toward a peace agreement. On Friday, European leaders issued an ultimatum to Russia, demanding it do more to end the violence caused by the rebels in eastern Ukraine. But attacks on government forces continued.
At least 27 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in clashes with rebels since Poroshenko announced the unilateral cease-fire on June 20, and he had come under heavy political pressure to resume military action and to cut off negotiations with the rebels, whom the government and many Ukrainians regard as terrorists. Many Ukrainians also disapproved of Poroshenko’s discussions with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who is widely reviled after the invasion and annexation of Crimea earlier this year.
There were reports of heavy shooting and bombardments all across eastern Ukraine on Tuesday, with civilian casualties. In the city of Kramatorsk, four people were killed when a minibus was hit by artillery fire, Ukrainian news agencies reported.
In a strategic victory for the government, Ukrainian forces retook control of a border checkpoint at Dolzhanksy in the Luhansk region, one of three important border crossings with Russia that had been seized by rebels. European leaders demanded Friday that the three crossings be surrendered to Ukrainian authorities.
Poroshenko issued a statement congratulating his troops for reclaiming the border checkpoint. Ukrainian officials said troops had cleared 20 explosive devices that had been set at the border post, and 15 more from surrounding roads.
As the fighting intensified, officials said there were scattered interruptions of bus and train service across the region.
Overnight, there were reports that two explosions damaged railroad lines in the east. A television tower serving the besieged city of Slovyansk was also destroyed by artillery fire. Photographs posted on the Internet showed the metal lattice of the tower reduced to a tangled pile of rubble.
The resumption of military operations was cheered by many supporters of the Kiev government, who had begun to despair that negotiations were not being conducted in good faith, particularly by Putin, and that Ukraine was at risk of losing the eastern region of Donbass, just as it lost the Crimean peninsula.
Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of the Institute of World Policy, a research organization in Kiev, said that by engaging in protracted talks, even as soldiers continued to be killed, Poroshenko had failed to live up to campaign promises that he would not negotiate with terrorists and that he would swiftly crush the insurrection.
“He was elected as a crisis manager, not as a diplomat, and even before elections he said that anti-terror operations should last hours not days or months or weeks,” Getmanchuk said in an interview. “People liked it and people thought he would be very decisive and he would resolve the problem within a couple of days, maximum weeks.”
Getmanchuk added, “When he declared the unilateral cease-fire, many people were very disappointed and extremely frustrated because they didn’t want him to start negotiating with terrorists, with separatists and with Putin, because Ukrainians think it is not effective to negotiate.”
Putin, in a speech to diplomats in Moscow on Tuesday, said that he and other leaders had sought to persuade Poroshenko to continue the cease-fire during the conference call Monday but that the Ukrainian leader had chosen war over peace and would now bear responsibility for the outcome.
While Putin reiterated his pledge to defend Russian-speaking people wherever they live, he did not threaten any imminent military force or announce any redeployment of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border, as he has in other instances when tensions flared.
“Unfortunately, President Poroshenko has resolved to resume military action,” Putin said. “We failed - when I say ‘we,’ I mean my colleagues in Europe and myself - we failed to convince him that the road to a secure, stable and inviolable peace cannot lie through war.”
Putin added, “Now he has taken the full responsibility for this, and not only military responsibility, but also political.”
In his speech, Putin called the economic sanctions by the West against Russia “blackmail,” and said that the West had precipitated Russia’s actions in Crimea by blithely ignoring Russia’s interests for years.
“I would like to stress that what happened in Ukraine was the climax of the negative tendencies in international affairs that had been building up for years,” Putin said. “We have long been warning about this, and unfortunately, our predictions came true.”
Dmytro Tymchuk, a military analyst close to the Ukrainian government, praised Poroshenko’s decision to end the cease-fire, saying that the one-sided adherence to the truce by the Ukrainian military had only strengthened rebel forces, allowing them to rearm and regroup.
“Every day the truce, whatever its political significance, provided tangible reinforcement to the terrorists from a military point of view,” Tymchuk wrote on Facebook, adding, “A longer truce period would give terrorists a chance to drastically increase their combat readiness.”
Tymchuk said government forces had begun pounding rebels shortly after receiving Poroshenko’s new orders. “Air and artillery strikes are being carried out against all sites where there are terrorist strongholds and groups of terrorists are located,” he wrote.
In Kiev, the parliament speaker, Oleksandr Turchynov, confirmed that Ukrainian forces were once again on the offensive against insurgents.
“The active phase of the counterterrorism operation resumed in the morning,” he said, opening the day’s session. “Our armed forces are striking the bases and strongholds of the terrorists.”
Turchynov also said that parliament was prepared to consider a request by Poroshenko to impose a state of emergency in the east, but that such a move toward martial law could be made only by the president.
In addition to the domestic political pressure, Poroshenko’s decision to call off the cease-fire reflected his conclusion that Russia was not genuinely working to bring the rebel forces under control, even as Putin participated in conference calls with other leaders and issued statements in support of a peace process.
Poroshenko’s decision also seemed to reflect a lack of confidence by the Ukrainian government that its European allies would follow through on threats of additional economic sanctions against Russia.
European leaders had issued a series of demands of Russia on Friday, and had set Monday as a deadline for tangible results, including that rebel forces relinquish control of the three border crossings. On Sunday and Monday, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France held lengthy conference calls.
But with no sign of progress - and with no indication from the Europeans that they were prepared to proceed with new sanctions - Poroshenko met with his national security team Monday night and emerged resolute that the Ukrainian military go back on the offensive.
The United States and its NATO allies have accused Russia of sending tanks, artillery and other weapons to the rebels, and of allowing fighters from Russia to cross the border to join rebel militias. Some rebel leaders had demanded a complete withdrawal of government troops from eastern Ukraine as a precondition for formal peace negotiations.
Putin and other senior Russian leaders have repeatedly blamed the government in Kiev for the violence in the east. They said that the former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted illegally in a coup, and insisted that the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east have been under threat.
In Russia’s first comment on the ending of the cease-fire, the foreign ministry on Tuesday said Poroshenko’s decision had undermined the personal diplomatic efforts of the four heads of state and suggested that Poroshenko had been pressured by his Western allies to end the cease-fire.
In a statement, the foreign ministry said, “This step by Kiev is very regrettable.”
In addition to asserting that the West had pressured Poroshenko to end the cease-fire, the ministry again described the rebel activity in eastern Ukraine as the actions of political protesters.
“We are urging yet again to stop using Ukraine as a loose coin in geopolitical games and to stop imposing a criminal line for the forceful suppression of protests,” it said.
Russia said peace negotiations should resume immediately and blamed the Ukrainian government for the failure of previous talks. “We are convinced that the efforts to put the situation back on the negotiation track should be continued, including urgent meeting of the contact group,” the ministry said. “We will assist this in every way.”
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