Ukrainian authorities struggle to win favor after rebel withdrawal from Slovyansk


Ukrainian government troops pose for a photo in front of a sign that reads “Slovyansk” after heavy fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian troops just outside Slovyansk. (Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press)

— Ukraine’s government trumpeted the rebels’ recent retreat from this key crossroad town as a major victory in its months-long battle against insurgents in the east.

But as Slovyansk’s residents clean up the rubble from destroyed homes and businesses, triumph is far from people’s minds. The fighting appears nowhere near being over; central authority is largely absent; and many of this nation’s long-felt divisions are deeper than ever.

Police are barely present in Slovyansk, and senior security officials say that they are unsure who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city. The rebels have moved on to the much larger city of Donetsk, with its nearly 1 million people, posing an even larger challenge to a disorganized army.

Meanwhile, the same skepticism about the government in Kiev that made Slovyansk a fertile ground for separatists is as present as ever.

“The Ukrainian army can’t aim properly,” said Ilya Lazarenko, 25, who was trying to salvage food from what used to be the kitchen in his once-elegant home at an intersection near Slovyansk. The top floor had been blown away, leaving scraps of the metal roof creaking in the wind, a casualty of poor targeting by government artillery, he said.

“They could have been more careful,’’ he said.

The pro-Russian separatists had held several government buildings in Slovyansk since mid-April in what became the centerpiece of the rebel uprising in this heavily culturally Russian region. The February ouster of Russian-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych only deepened fears in eastern Ukraine that ethnic Russians would be targeted with discrimination or worse, and the flames were fanned by Russian state-backed media, which depicted Ukraine’s new pro-European rulers as neo-Nazis.

The rebel retreat on July 5 ignited boasts from Ukrainian security officials that the central government had gained the upper hand. But progress has quickly stalled, and the prospect of urban warfare now looms as the battleground has shifted to Donetsk.

A massive rebel rocket strike on Ukrainian soldiers near the Russian border on Friday killed 19 and wounded almost 100, underscoring the rebels’ continued ability to inflict major damage on government troops. An additional five soldiers were killed Saturday, according to a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Andriy Lysenko, Interfax reported. Ukrainian army checkpoints had been shelled 17 times over the past 24 hours, he said.

Many in Slovyansk say that they welcome peace but that the Ukrainian military’s tactics give them scant hope about the future.

“Those guys from the West, the army, they came here, destroyed everything, and now they’ve gone on to Donetsk,” said Ivan Lishunov, 63, a retired military officer who one recent afternoon was sitting in front of a shuttered coffee shop, looking over an intersection where many buildings had chunks blown away by rocket fire.

“Why are we fighting this war?” he said, adding that separatists also were at fault for Slovyansk’s troubles. “Maybe we understand things differently in the east and west, but we’re one country.”

In Donetsk, Ukrainian forces are faced with the choice of using airstrikes and artillery bombardment — a step that could destroy much of the city — or of guerrilla warfare in the streets, which would be a major challenge for the poorly trained and ill-equipped security forces.

“The main goal of the Ukrainian army is to bring panic to civilians,” a top Donetsk rebel leader, Alexander Borodai, said Saturday at a news conference in Donetsk. A day earlier, he said that “several hundred thousand” residents may be relocated from the city in the coming days. He and other leaders have said that they are well-prepared to continue fighting from their newly-fortified command posts.

Trains leaving Donetsk are sold out days in advance, officials say, and local news Web sites on Saturday published detailed information about emergency routes out of the occupied city.

Even the city’s elected mayor, Alexander Lukyanchenko, appears to have left Donetsk after studiously avoiding taking sides in the conflict and remaining during its months of occupation. His Web site said Saturday that he had gone to Kiev the previous day to meet with new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and that they “discussed measures to avoid bloodshed, avoiding the use of air power and heavy artillery in order to prevent casualties and the destruction of essential communal services.”

To traverse the rolling countryside between Slovyansk and Donetsk is to gain a visceral understanding about the rebels’ knowledge of local back roads, which is in contrast to the posture of the security forces dispatched from Kiev.

The Ukrainian army has set up many checkpoints on the main roads, where glowering men in incomplete uniforms — and occasionally flip-flops — check passports and make cursory inspections of car trunks. But the checkpoints are easy to bypass via rutted country roads that go through fields of sunflowers and tiny villages, including one route that creeps up on what appears to be the major Ukrainian military emplacement in the area and where dozens of heavy rocket launchers, tanks and other heavy artillery are dug in and ready for a fight.

Most of the country routes are studded with undamaged rebel fortifications, signaling how well the separatists had dug in and the local support for them. When government security forces were deployed after separatists seized government buildings in April, local residents surrounded the police and military units and forced them into an embarrassing defeat.

Harried government workers in the city’s administration building say they are doing their best, hampered by the fact that many of them, like other residents, fled during the fighting. Fewer than a third of Slovyansk’s residents are still in the city, said Denis Bigunov, who works in the city’s Internal Affairs Department. And the separatists who turned offices into barracks and barricaded themselves behind barriers of thick file folders have left behind what Bigunov called a “legal mess” that will leave the city struggling to keep track of property ownership and claims.

“The administration is completely destroyed,” he said. “The files, all the seals, they’re all over the place.”

One senior security official who visited Slovyansk from Kiev this week said that a representative from the Federal Ministry of Emergency Situations was nominally leading the reconstruction efforts.

But “we’re trying to figure out ourselves” who possesses actual authority in the town, the security official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. The city’s elected mayor, Nelli Shtepa, is now under arrest after repeatedly switching sides between the government and separatists before disappearing into rebel custody.

“The government just shows up and counts the number of holes in the buildings, nothing more,’’ said Viktoria, 24, a resident of Slovyansk who declined to give her last name because she feared retribution from both sides. The apartment she shared with her husband was destroyed, as was her workplace, she said, and they are unsure whether they will ever return.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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