SLOVYANSK, Ukraine – The government trumpeted the rebels’ recent retreat from Slovyansk, a 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 Ukraine’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 salvaging food from what used to be the kitchen in his once-elegant home 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.
A rebel rocket strike on Ukrainian soldiers near the Russian border Friday killed 19 and wounded almost 100, underscoring the rebels’ continued ability to inflict damage on government troops.
An additional five soldiers were killed Saturday, according to a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council Interfax reported. Ukrainian army checkpoints had been shelled 17 times over the past 24 hours, he said.
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.
He and other leaders have said that they are well-prepared to continue fighting from their newly fortified command posts.