Around 4:30 Friday morning, Ukraine began a military operation targeted against the pro-Russian separatists who were holed up buildings they had seized in Slovyansk, a city of around 125,000 people in the Dontesk region of eastern Ukraine.
Reportedly, as the conflict began, at least two helicopters were downed, and at least two Ukrainian soldiers were killed. Another, injured in the crash, is reportedly being held hostage by the separatists. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has reported that the insurgents suffered “many” losses.
Today’s operation was Ukrainian military’s first major offensive against the separatist insurgents, who have seized buildings and hostages and dominated Slovyansk’s city center. After a day of fighting, the city is now eerily quiet, one reporter tells me by phone. The evening cool has settled in, and a light rain is falling.
“You cannot see anything [from the combat],” he says. “You can only just here a few shots — a queue of shots, a series of shots from Kalashnikovs and something more serious. . . . I don’t want to create an atmosphere of a Resident Evil movie, but nonetheless, most of the shops are closed, and most of them don’t have bread inside, because it’s a food of first aid, and people buy it because — yeah, I think it’s kind of a panic.”
“For today, the situation is changing from minute to minute,” he says.
The reporter, who does multimedia for an international European tabloid, speaks to me on the condition that I don’t use his name; in recent weeks, separatist militiamen have kidnapped journalists in Slovyansk, and some, like 24-year-old Sergiy Lefter, remain unaccounted for. Earlier today, the separatists detained and then released television crews from CBS and Sky News. “I’m really concerned,” the reporter says.
As we spoke, the Ukrainian military was claiming it now controls of nine of the major checkpoints and some of the major railways leading into the city. The separatists still control the city center of Slovyansk.
“Sometimes it looks funny, because it’s difficult to tell who’s blocking whom,” the reporter in Slovyansk says. “The Ukrainian army is blocking the exit from the city, but local citizens are blocking the Ukrainian army — so at the end of the day, the road is blocked.”
Earlier, he tells me, he saw “not many,” but “rather big” numbers of families attempting to flee the city, many of them with children in tow. Now, large numbers of Slovyansk residents “are staying at home and trying not to show their faces on the street.”
“I think that really, most of the population is just afraid and kind of concerned about everything,” he says. “I don’t know if I can call it neutrality, but they are concerned about everything, about both sides, because their peaceful city is not peaceful anymore.”
Today has indeed been frightening. The media has reported that the separatists used sophisticated weaponry, possibly supplied by the Russians, including grenade launchers and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, to shoot down Ukrainian helicopters. There are credible reasons to suspect the insurgents have been organized and aided by covert Russian troops, and the potential for escalation is significant. The reporter I speak to says he believes he saw Russian troops in Slovyansk a few days ago, though, he says, “I cannot say something for sure right now.”
Meanwhile, the Russian media, which is popular in eastern Ukraine but which runs Putin’s propaganda, has claimed that Ukraine is using military force against its own people. It has also claimed that the Ukrainian military cooperated with ultranationalist radicals in its offensive in Slovyansk. (The reporter I to said claims about neo-Nazi and fascist involvement were “false.” “It’s fake, it’s not true,” he says.)
Vladmir Putin has already threatened that a military response could trigger “a catastrophe” for Ukraine, and he says he reserves his right to intervene. Earlier today, Putin said Ukraine’s military offensive “effectively destroys” the already eroded agreement reached in Geneva.
The reporter I spoke with said it was impossible to estimate how many of Slovyansk’s residents support secession to Russia.
“It’s really difficult to say, because many people [here] are not pro-Ukrainian, but they’re also not pro-separatist or pro-Russian,” he says.
“If we make our [judgment] according only to what we see, we will say the population is against the Ukrainian Army,” he reports, given the Russian flags in city center and the vocal aggression of the pro-Russian separatists.
But for most residents of Slovyansk, the reporter says, “the question which is important for them is, ‘Will the Ukrainian army try to enter the city in general or will it not? Will it enter or not?’ They are not asking about, ‘Do [the Ukrainian soldiers] have enough power to retake buildings or not.’ They are just concerned about their homes, because buildings are in the center of the city, and people and buildings and homes of their people are in the way of the Ukrainian army, and that’s why they’re concerned about their homes, their lives.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center.