Donestsk remains tense despite reported Russian pull-back

Nato says Russians less likely to invade, with many having infiltrated already, but rebel areas could face attack from Kiev's forces in west

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 June, 2014, 5:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

For more than a month, Donetsk has braced for invasion from the east, with tens of thousands of Russian troops massed just over the border and seemingly prepared to overrun this breakaway region of Ukraine.

But confirmation from Nato on Friday that most of those troops had pulled back brought no relief to people in Donetsk: the Russians are already there.

And the invasion may still come - from Ukrainian forces to the west. Acting Ukrainian Defence Minister Mykhilo Koval said military operations in the area would continue "until these regions begin to live normally, until there is peace".

That means taking on a separatist movement that gets more support from Russia by the day, according to the interim government in Kiev, as trucks laden with fighters and weapons rumble across a porous border that is only lightly defended.

Despite president-elect Petro Poroshenko's promise to crush the rebellion in the east and unite his fractured country in hours, even senior Ukrainian officials acknowledge that the armed forces are ill-equipped to counter what some allege amounts to a stealth Russian invasion.

"The problem with the army is that it doesn't have experience conducting a war," said Konstantin Batozsky, an adviser to the governor of Donetsk, who in recent days has taken refuge in Kiev. "For 23 years, we were an absolutely peaceful country."

That peace has been obliterated in recent months.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe announced that a team of international observers had been detained, just days after the abduction of another team.

The first team disappeared last Monday night, and the self-appointed mayor of the rebel-held city of Slavyansk said on Thursday that his forces were holding its four members captive. There was no immediate word on the whereabouts of the five who vanished on Friday in the adjacent region of Luhansk.

Luhansk and Donetsk were declared sovereign republics by separatists after a disputed May 11 vote on self-rule. In both places, rebel forces have taken over government buildings and fought off efforts by security forces to restore state control.

Rebel leaders have called on Russia to invade Ukraine to protect people in the east from their own government. For the moment, that option appears unlikely. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, said two-thirds of Russian troops that had been massed on the border had now withdrawn.

But, he said, enough troops remain to "take action if a political decision is taken. So we continue to call on Russia to stop supporting armed pro-Russian gangs and seal the border so that we don't see arms and fighters crossing into Ukraine."

Kiev estimates that five to seven trucks slip into the country daily with supplies and reinforcements for the rebels.

Russia strenuously denies any role in the infiltration and has said Ukraine's security problems are of its own making. Yet in recent days, the Russian role has grown more conspicuous.

On Thursday, rebel leaders acknowledged that 33 fighters killed in an airport shoot-out with the Ukrainian military were Russian nationals. And early on Friday, a Ukrainian border post in Luhansk faced an unusual assault from inside Russia, as 300 militants gathered on the Russian side and launched an attack, according to the border agency.

On Friday, the Vostok Battalion - a well-trained rebel unit that includes many Russian and Chechen fighters - handed a building they had seized back to civilian leaders. Before departing, Vostok arrested several fighters accused of looting and initiated a clean-up of the trash barricades left after nearly two months of occupancy by the insurgents.