A scene from Sloviansk following the city's liberation from rebel control by government forces on July 5.
© ATO press center
The Ukrainian army is preparing to dislodge Kremlin-backed separatists from Donetsk and Luhansk, the provincial capitals of two oblasts where 15 percent of Ukraine's population lives. The Interior Ministry's announcement that Kyiv will reassert its authority comes after the recapture by government forces of four cities across the region in recent days.
At a briefing on July 7, advisor to Ukraine’s interior minister Anton Gerashchenko outlined further plans for the government’s anti-terrorist operation and said normal life was returning to liberated Sloviansk, with all necessary services in the city set to resume in due course.
“Whoever remembers Grozny after its liberation by the Russian army, it was nothing more than a desert. Sloviansk, as you can see, is complete and has not been bombed. The people met our soldiers with open arms, crying from happiness,” a visibly confident Gerashchenko said, gesturing to a video showing an aerial view of the city following its recapture.
A video taken from a Ukrainian army helicopter showing Sloviansk after its liberation from rebel control.
According to Gerashchenko, Sloviansk’s railway station and post office will begin operating within 24 hours while supermarkets were being stocked up and food brought in for local inhabitants. Work is also being done to reconnect the water system as soon as possible, he added.
Pictures have been emerging in recent days of supplies arriving in Sloviansk, with volunteers distributing food and medical aid to locals standing in long lines behind the delivery trucks.
All citizens in the town are meanwhile being questioned on their involvement and possible complicity with the actions of rebel forces, Gerashchenko said.
“We turn to those living in surrounding towns and villages to inform us of those they know are taking part in terrorist activities. We will not let one person with blood on their hands go free,” he said.
Gerashchenko said the regional capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk had been cordoned off and all those wanting to leave the cities were being checked for weapons. Peaceful citizens not carrying arms were being allowed to exit freely, he added.
When asked by the Kyiv Post about the inhabitants’ attitude towards advancing army forces, he said not more than 25% of the local population supports the separatists, and assigned responsibility for that minority’s views to “total” Russian propaganda.
“We are working on turning Russian channels off and Ukrainian channels back on across the region. The people’s mood is shifting – they have seen rebels robbing businessmen and witnessed widespread looting by their fighters,” he said, adding that 270 cars have been stolen from showrooms in Donetsk.
The army has reclaimed control of several border crossings, Gerashchenko added, with only a few left to take back.
“The border is under fire-cover, meaning if any kind of military equipment enters from the Russian side our scouts will alert us and we will destroy it from the air or using artillery fire. I think in the next few days this problem will be solved,” he said.
Gerashchenko’s statement comes in the wake of a string of Ukrainian army victories, which has raised morale among the troops and brought a tone of optimism to Ukrainian media coverage. The most symbolic victory in Ukraine's military offensive was the recapture of the rebel stronghold of Sloviansk, which returned to government control on July 5.
Since then Ukrainian forces have reportedly taken three more cities – Druzhkivka, Kramatorsk and Artemivsk – and images have surfaced online of the Ukrainian flag being hosted above the cities’ administration buildings.
Despite their recent losses, the rebels still hold the two regional capitals, where they have regrouped following a series of defeats elsewhere. Thousands have reportedly fled in recent days and weeks from Donetsk, a city with an official population of 1 million people, fearing its transformation into the next flashpoint in the three month-long military conflict. Many local businesses have also closed.
Meanwhile, rebel forces continue to attack government positions. On July 7 separatists blew up three bridges overlooking roads leading into Donetsk, in an apparent attempt to obstruct the army's access to the regional capital.
On the same day nine Ukrainian border guards were killed and 112 injured after a rebel attack, the deputy head of the State Border Service said at a press conference in Kyiv. One person has reportedly been flown to Israel for specialist treatment.
A rally in support of the rebels in central Donetsk on July 6 drew a crowd of around 1,000 people, according to witnesses, a comparatively small proportion of the regional capital’s inhabitants.
"We will begin a real partisan war around the whole perimeter of Donetsk,” Pavel Gubarev, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told the crowd. “We will drown these wretches in blood.” Gubarev however warned that without Russian aid rebel forces are unlikely to succeed.
Speaking on Ukrainian TV, Ukraine’s richest man and Donetsk native Rinat Akhmetov called for the government to exercise restraint in its urban offensive against rebel forces. “Donetsk must not be bombed. Donbas must not be bombed,” he said in an interview with the “Ukraina” TV channel on July 6.
Kyiv Post staff writer Matthew Luxmoore can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @mjluxmoore.