After recapturing Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, government forces secured control of the Donetsk region towns of Artemivsk and Druzhkivka, military officials told President Petro Poroshenko on Sunday. The insurgents are bolstering defenses in Donetsk in preparation for an onslaught, Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said on Twitter.
“There are a lot of tests ahead,” Poroshenko said. The government plans a “complete blockade” of Donetsk and the region’s other main city, Luhansk, that will force rebels to lay down arms, Inter TV cited Mikhailo Koval, deputy head of the National Defense and Security Council, as saying.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has sparked Russia’s tensest showdown with the US and its European allies since the fall of the Berlin Wall a quarter-century ago.
As the insurgents lost ground, Russia urged a renewal of peace talks. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his German and French counterparts on Saturday that a durable cease-fire is needed in the wake of the “sharp deterioration of the situation” and the rising toll on civilians and infrastructure. Poroshenko has promised to continue the offensive.
The rebels had to leave positions in Slovyansk “to save 45,000 civilians still located there,” as well as because of the superiority of government forces, Andrei Purgin, deputy premier of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said by telephone. He said the militants may take part in peace talks with Ukraine’s authorities if Russia and the European Union initiate consultations and act as mediators.
During the retreat on Saturday, the rebels managed to get as much as 90 percent of their fighters and weapons out of Slovyansk, rebel commander Igor Girkin, who identifies himself as Igor Strelkov, said in a video interview with the LifeNews.ru website from Donetsk, a city of about 1 million. Strelkov works for Russian military intelligence, according to the EU, which sanctioned him in April.
“We will continue military actions, and not repeat the mistakes that we made earlier,” he said. “Donetsk is actually relatively strong and much easier to defend than little Slovyansk.”
The rebels have retreated across large swaths of territory in the mainly Russian-speaking border regions. Ukrainian government authorities said on Friday that they controlled almost two-thirds of the country’s eastern districts.
With the blue-and-yellow national flag raised in the separatist strongholds, Ukraine vowed to restore infrastructure and ensure supplies of food and water for the population.
Rebels continue to surrender as government attacks on rebel bases, checkpoints and ammunition dumps inflict significant losses and stoke infighting among the insurgents, Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry in Kiev, said on Sunday, according to Interfax.
While warplanes two days ago bombed insurgent tanks and artillery, aviation won’t be used to strike rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk to avoid civilian casualties in the provincial capitals, where Ukraine plans to dispatch special forces, according to Lysenko.
Poroshenko sent troops to dislodge the separatists after ending a cease-fire on July 1. The president had predicted a new round of international peace talks as early as Saturday, though none has yet been scheduled.
Ukrainian officials say Russia is sending weapons across the frontier and allowing militants to attack border checkpoints from its territory. Russia rejects the “tired and unsubstantiated” accusations that it’s arming insurgents, according to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow.
The Ukrainian president said a cease-fire is only possible after he gets confirmation it will be honored by separatists. Poroshenko has blamed the insurgents for breaking the 10-day truce more than 100 times.
“This is not the final victory, and no time for fireworks,” Poroshenko said. “This is the beginning of a crucial moment in the combat against insurgents.”