DONETSK, Ukraine - Retreating pro-Russian insurgents dug in on Monday in Ukraine’s sprawling industrial hub of Donetsk after government forces scored a string of morale-boosting victories in the bloody battle for the future of the country.
The eastern home of one million mostly Russian speakers has been flooded with convoys carrying hundreds of fighters and scores of anti-aircraft guns from five smaller surrounding cities where Ukrainian flags were flying for the first time in three months. The rebels erected checkpoints along the main roads leading into Donetsk while the centre of the riverbank city itself saw several restaurants and shops shutter their doors.
The separatists’ “tactical retreat” began on Saturday with the fall of their symbolic bastion Slavyansk and continued overnight into Sunday until government forces had reached the very gates of the region’s main metropolis.
Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council deputy head Mykhailo Koval said on Monday that soldiers now intended to complete a “full blockade” of both Donetsk and the neighbouring separatist stronghold Lugansk - both capitals of their own “People’s Republics”.
Koval said the containment of the cities would be followed by “corresponding measures that will force the separatists, the bandits to lay down their arms”. His carefully-worded comments underscored the dilemma facing Western-backed President Petro Poroshenko as he seeks to fulful his May 25 election promise to quickly end Ukraine’s worst crisis since the ex-Soviet state’s independence in 1991.
The conflict has claimed the lives of nearly 500 people and displaced tens of thousands across an economically-vital region that has long viewed the more nationalistic west of Ukraine and Kiev with a mixture of hostility and mistrust.
A Ukrainian shelling campaign of either Donetsk or Lugansk of the type that pulverised parts of Slavyansk would seem unimaginable because of both the inevitable toll and the high probability of an already-fuming Kremlin responding by sending in its troops.
It would also risk throwing the strategic nation of some 45 million into an all-out civil war on the European Union’s eastern edge that would pit Russia against Western powers in a standoff of a scale not even witnessed during the Cold War.
But the rebels have shown few signs of being ready to either sue for peace or engage Kiev in contacts that could lead to a political settlement now being promoted urgently by Germany and France.
A European-mediated round of consultations ended in Kiev on Sunday evening with no tangible progress toward the revival of a truce Poroshenko had abandoned because of unrelenting raids by rebels on July 1.
Separatist leader Denis Pushilin took to Twitter from an undisclosed location on Monday to paint a picture of insurgents on the rebound.
He claimed that his men had killed “tens” of soldiers from the Ukrainian irregular forces’ Azov battalion in the eastern coal mining region of Saur-Mogila and proclaimed this a turning point.
“After massacring the fascists at Saur-Mogila, I understood the words of one of my colleagues: we abandoned Slavyansk to take Kiev,” Pushilin declared.
The Ukrainian military made no mention of any battles being waged around Saur-Mogila in its daily overview of the preceding night’s violence.
The Kiev-backed administration of Lugansk said separately that several people were wounded and buildings damaged when the outskirts of the city of 420,000 were hit by artillery shells.
The surge of optimism in Kiev has only added to already strong pressure on Poroshenko not to bow to pressure from his Western allies and sign another truce with the insurgents.
Poroshenko tore up a 10-day ceasefire last Monday because of unceasing rebel attacks that killed more than 20 soldiers and - according to both Washington and Kiev - allowed the separatists to stock up on new supplies of heavy Russian arms.
Uneasy EU leaders are hoping that a new truce and a Kremlin promise not to meddle can take pressure off the bloc to adopt sweeping sanctions that could damage their own strong energy and financial ties with Russia.
The Organisation for Security Council and Cooperation in Europe said it had mediated new talks in Kiev on Sunday involving the two sides and a Russian envoy that focused on “modalities and the venue of further consultations”. Bu the Vienna-based organisation reported no concrete progress toward a truce.