Ukrainian forces have raised their national flag over a police station in the city of Luhansk that was for months under rebel control, Kyiv said yesterday (17 August), in what could be a breakthrough in Ukraine’s efforts to crush pro-Moscow separatists.
Ukrainian officials said, however, the rebels were fighting a desperate rearguard action to hold on to Luhansk – which is their supply route into neighbouring Russia – and that the flow of weapons and fighters from Russia had accelerated.
The foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany held a meeting in Berlin on the crisis, with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier saying afterwards they would report back to their leaders and possibly agree today or tomorrow on how to continue talks.
“The aim remains to bring about a ceasefire in Ukraine and to prevent future victims,” Steinmeier said.
“It was a difficult discussion, but I believe and I hope that we made progress on some points,” he told reporters.
Russia denies helping the rebels, and accuses Kyiv, backed by the West, of triggering a humanitarian crisis through indiscriminate use of force against Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine who reject the Ukrainian government’s rule.
Andriy Lysenko, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said government forces fought separatists in Luhansk on Saturday and took control of the Zhovtneviy neighbourhood police station.
“They raised the state flag over it,” Lysenko said.
Separatist officials in Luhansk could not be reached by telephone, and a separatist spokeswoman in Donetsk, the other rebel strong-hold, said she had no information about Luhansk.
A photograph posted on Twitter appeared to show a Ukrainian flag on the front of the police station, but it could not be independently verified.
If confirmed, the taking of the police station is significant, because for several months, Luhansk has been a rebel redoubt where Kyiv’s writ has not run. Separatists still control sections of the border linking Luhansk region to Russia.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced another military success, saying his forces had recaptured a railway junction at Yasynuvata, north of Donetsk, which he said had “strategic significance”.
The four-month-old conflict in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east has reached a critical phase, with Kyiv and Western governments watching nervously to see if Russia will intervene in support of the increasingly besieged rebels.
The rebels responded with defiant rhetoric and fighting.
Ukrainian authorities said on Sunday the separatists shot down a Ukrainian warplane.
On Saturday, Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said rebels were in the process of receiving some 150 armoured vehicles, including 30 tanks, and 1,200 fighters trained in Russia. He said they planned to launch a major counter-offensive.
“They are joining at the most crucial moment,” he said in a video recorded on Friday.
The assertion that the fighters were trained in Russia is awkward for Moscow, which has repeatedly denied allegations from Kyiv and its Western allies that it is providing material support to separatist fighters.
“We have repeatedly said that we don’t supply any equipment there,” said Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Ukraine crisis has dragged relations between Russia and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War and set off a round of trade restrictions that are hurting struggling economies in both Russia and Europe.
Adding to the tensions, Russia and Ukraine have been at loggerheads for days over a convoy of 280 Russian trucks carrying water, food and medicine.
It was dispatched by Moscow bound for eastern Ukraine, but has been parked up for several days in Russia near the border.
Kyiv has said the convoy could be a Trojan Horse for Russia to get weapons to the rebels, a notion that Moscow has dismissed as absurd. It said the aid is desperately needed by civilians left without water and power and under constant bombardment from the Ukrainian advance.
After days of wrangling between Kyiv and Moscow, there were signs of movement on Sunday.
Sixteen trucks separated from the main convoy and drove into a Russian bus depot near a border crossing into Ukraine, a Reuters cameraman said from the scene.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said that Russian and Ukrainian officials had agreed that the cargo could be inspected but had yet to agree on security arrangements.
Ukrainian officials have painted a picture of a separatist force that is on the run and starting to panic – though rebel fighters Reuters reporters have spoken to in Donetsk say they are determined to stand firm.
In the past week, three senior rebel leaders have been removed from their posts, pointing to mounting disagreement over how to turn the tide of the fighting back in their favour.
The fighting has taken a heavy human toll.
The United Nations said this month that an estimated 2,086 people, including civilians and combatants, had been killed in the conflict. That figure nearly doubled since the end of July, when Ukrainian forces stepped up their offensive.
In Donetsk, which like Luhansk is now ringed by Kyiv’s forces, artillery fire has struck apartment buildings, killing and wounding residents, according to Reuters reporters. Officials in Kyiv deny they are firing heavy weapons at residential areas.
Meeting in Brussels on Friday (15 August) EU foreign affairs ministers expressed their concern at the worsening crisis in Eastern Ukraine and its humanitarian impact on the civilian population.
Ministers expressed their support to the sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and independence of Ukraine. The Council called on the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the United States and the OSCE to join the EU in finding a political, sustainable solution to this crisis.
The Council encouraged the continuation of inclusive and comprehensive reforms in Ukraine.
The Council welcomed the United Nations-led Preliminary Response Plan for Ukraine as well as the European Commission's decision to allocate an additional €2.5 million to meet the most urgent needs. The Council also called on all parties to support and facilitate without delay the work of international humanitarian organisations, in accordance with international humanitarian law and principles.
The EU calls upon all states and actors in the region to ensure immediate, safe and unrestricted access to the crash site of MH17; those directly and indirectly responsible for downing of MH17 should be held accountable and brought to justice as soon as possible.
The EU noted that the grounds for the imposition of restrictive measures against the Russian Federation remain valid, and regrets the Russian Federation's announcement of measures targeting imports of certain agricultural products originating in the EU. An extraordinary meeting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council has been convened for early September to assess the impact of these measures and the appropriate response.
The Council welcomed the ongoing process on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and supported the Commission's efforts to facilitate a resumption of the negotiations between Ukraine and Russia on the conditions of gas supply.
The crisis in Ukraine erupted after its former President Viktor Yanukovich cancelled plans to sign trade and political pacts with the EU in November 2013 and instead sought closer ties with Russia, triggering protests that turned bloody and drove him from power.
Moscow annexed Crimea in March following a referendum staged after Russian forces established control over the Black Sea peninsula in the biggest East-West crisis since the Cold War.
Pro-Russian militants control buildings in more than ten towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their uprising on 6 April. On 11 May pro-Moscow rebels declared a resounding victory in a referendum in Donetsk and Luhansk, which the West called illegal and illegitimate.
Kyiv says Moscow has provoked the rebellion and allowed fighters and heavy weapons to cross the border with impunity. It has struggled to reassert control over the eastern frontier, recapturing border positions from rebels.
The fighting has escalated sharply in recent days after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered on 1 July an assault on separatists.