Ukraine: separatists shelling rockets on army base, United States calling for a military solution
Kiev , Ukraine (Reuters + DIPLOMAT.SO) – Separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko will not be present at a summit on east Ukraine this week but his actions will help determine the success or failure of any peace deal.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen in the West as holding the key to peace, Zakharchenko is regarded vital for ensuring Moscow’s decisions are implemented.
The 38-year former mine electrician, who often carries a pistol and knife and usually wears combat fatigues, has been tightening his grip on power since being named prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) last August.
A Donetsk native, he has succeeded where a succession of Russians parachuted in by Moscow failed – by bringing at least a semblance of unity and authority to the ragtag separatists.
“Russia dropped its maximum goal of conquering Ukraine and bringing (ex-President Victor) Yanukovich back to power,” Yuriy Butusov, the Kiev-based editor of the Censor.net Internet portal, said of Zakharchenko’s role.
“Russian operatives were no longer needed, so Moscow wanted a local man with enough influence and skill to unify and coordinate various battalions and their commanders,” said Butusov, who has covered the region since before the conflict began and regularly travels there.
When he took over in the DNR seven months ago, the separatists looked on the verge of defeat by government forces.
Backed by what Kiev and the West said was an injection of Russian troops and weapons, the rebels turned the tide of the conflict and forced Kiev into talks and a ceasefire agreement last September even though the truce never fully took hold.
Moscow denies sending in arms and soldiers. But with Russia’s backing Zakharchenko went on to win an election in November that was not recognized abroad and oversaw a rebel advance last month that pushed back Kiev’s forces.
It was Zakharchenko who in effect declared the ceasefire dead, calling up new troops and saying the separatists would push government troops back to the edge of Donetsk region.
The new hostilities were key to France and Germany launching a peace initiative which resulted in Wednesday’s summit being scheduled in Belarus with the Russian and Ukrainian leaders.
KREMLIN PUPPET OR HIS OWN MAN?
Zakharchenko did not reply to interview requests. He has regularly praised Putin and congratulated him on his 62nd birthday, but has never said he takes orders from him.
Supporters see Zakharchenko as a tough leader they can respect.
Recent Russian television footage showed Zakharchenko continuing to talk to journalists after one of his bodyguards, standing just behind him, appeared to be shot by a sniper.
“We were dodging bullets but he didn’t even flinch,” said a rebel commander who gave his name only as The Ironside.
Zakharchenko rose to prominence when he and other men from Oplot, a street-fighting club, armed with old rifles and machineguns, stormed Donetsk city hall almost a year ago at the start of the rebellion against Kiev’s rule.
He said they were restoring order, but Oplot took over local television transmitters and other property. By mid-2014 he was military commander of Donetsk, using Oplot’s muscle to ensure control of the city.
He forged sometimes tense alliances with other rebel units and was wounded in the arm in battle, earning him a medal from ex-rebel leader Igor Strelkov, who commissioned him as a major. He also won three more medals, which he often wears in public.
As Russian-born leaders including his predecessor Alexander Borodai, Strelkov and deputy prime minister Vladimir Antufeev faded from the scene and left Ukraine, his rise continued.
Promising a better life while campaigning for the November election, in which he was the only major candidate, he said pensions should be “higher than in Poland.”
“Pensioners should have enough to take a safari trip to Australia once a year to shoot kangaroos,” he said.
He also told voters: “We are like the United Arab Emirates. Our region is very rich … the only difference is that they don’t have a war and we do.”
For Kiev and the United States, he is little more than a Kremlin tool.
Samantha Power, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said Zakharchenko’s statements – which he has sometimes reversed after speaking out of turn – failed to hide Moscow was pulling the shots in east Ukraine.
Ukraine rebels attack local military HQ
Rocket strikes in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk on Tuesday hit the headquarters of the military’s operation against Russia-backed separatists and residential areas ahead of a key summit aimed at ending the conflict.
President Petro Poroshenko told Ukraine’s parliament that rebels launched two salvos targeting Kramatorsk.
The first, Poroshenko said, hit the headquarters of the “anti-terrorist operation” in eastern Ukraine, while the second hit residential areas of the city.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Yuri Biryukov wrote on Facebook that two servicemen were killed and nine were injured at the military headquarters.
The Donetsk regional administration reported that seven civilians were killed and 16 wounded, including two children, in the rocket attack that hit residential areas. It also said 10 Ukrainian servicemen were injured when a rocket hit an airfield.
‘People cowering in fear’
VOA’s Daniel Schearf, who is reporting from Kramatorsk, was nearby when the rocket attack occurred.
He tweeted shortly after the incident: “I’m in #Kramatorsk. Was 2km down the road when Grads struck. Crazy loud. People cowering in fear. They hoped the war had finished here.”
Schearf also saw an unexploded rocket in a residential area of Kramatorsk.
Kramatorsk is more than 50 kilometers (30 miles) away from the nearest fighting in Donetsk.
Prior to the attack, Kyiv military spokesmen said at least seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the last 24 hours of fighting in the east of the country.
Much of the violence has occurred in and around Debaltseve, a strategic town that pro-Russian separatists have been trying to pry from Kyiv forces.
Earlier Tuesday, pro-government forces had reported making gains.
The Azov Battalion, a pro-Kyiv volunteer paramilitary group, said via Facebook it had captured several villages during an offensive toward Novoazovsk, a town on the border with Russia.
The upsurge in violence comes as representatives of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France are due to meet in the capital of Belarus on Wednesday to try to come up with a peace deal to end the 10-month conflict that has claimed at least 5,400 lives.
A Ukrainian army colonel said the purpose of the Kramatorsk attacks was to influence the peace process.
“The aim is very simple; the talks in Minsk are starting tomorrow, so somebody is probably looking for arguments to put pressure on Ukraine,” Serhiy Galushko told Reuters.
Meanwhile, Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council, a Kremlin advisory body of top defense and security officials, was quoted Tuesday by a government newspaper (Rossiiskaya Gazeta) as saying the United States is using the situation in Ukraine as a pretext to “contain” Russia.
“The Americans are trying to draw the Russian Federation into an international military conflict, (and) by means of the events in Ukraine to achieve a change in government and ultimately to dismember our country,” it quoted Patrushev as saying.
Patrushev also claimed that what he called a “revival of Nazism” in the Baltic States and Ukraine is happening “with the full connivance of Europe and even at the instigation of the United States.”
On Monday, President Barack Obama said he will await the outcome of the talks before deciding whether to supply Kyiv with lethal defensive weaponry in its fight against the separatists.
Obama spoke in Washington alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He said diplomacy and sanctions remain his preferred methods for ending Russian support for the rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
But he said he had instructed key advisers to examine the plausibility of supplying Kyiv with weaponry, in the event that diplomacy fails to bring peace.
Ukraine leaders insist that such hardware is necessary to offset recent rebel military gains and end the uprising near the Russian border.
For her part, Merkel said she sees no military solution to the conflict, and repeated her insistence on a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Both leaders sought to quell talk of emerging differences in U.S. and European strategies for winning Moscow’s full cooperation in ending the conflict. And both voiced hopes that the Minsk talks will produce favorable results.
Details of those talks have not been disclosed, and it was not clear Monday whether separatist delegates would join Russian, Ukrainian and European envoys in the negotiations.
Last week, the German chancellor and French President Francois Hollande carried a peace proposal to Moscow, where they met with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
That meeting was followed by four-way phone talks that included Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko on Sunday. The quartet agreed to hold face-to-face talks in Minsk.
Hollande, speaking Sunday, said the upcoming talks present “one of the last chances” for reaching peace after nearly a year of fighting in eastern Ukraine.
The French-German plan is based on September’s failed cease-fire, but with more details on timing, according to a senior U.S. State Department official.
In a related development, the European Union decided Monday to delay imposing sanctions on additional Ukrainian separatists and Russians to await the outcome of Wednesday’s four-nation summit.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the EU had agreed on the sanctions, which include asset freezes and travel bans against 19 people, including five Russians, and also target nine organizations, but that a decision to apply them would depend on the situation “on the ground.”
Also Monday, a Ukrainian military spokesman said 1,500 Russian troops and 300 pieces of military equipment, including Grad missile systems, entered Ukraine from Russia over the past three days.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied providing direct support to separatists in the Russian-speaking east and insists that Russian troops fighting alongside rebels are doing so as volunteers.
However, on Tuesday, hundreds of Russian troops started military exercises in southern Russia near the border with Ukraine, in a show of strength before a summit on the Ukraine crisis in the Belarussian capital Minsk, Reuters reported.
News agencies quoted military officials as saying that about 2,000 Russian reconnaissance troops had started large-scale exercises in the southern military district.
Separately, more than 600 soldiers had started training in the southern Crimea peninsula, and in Kamchatka, in Russia’s east, 2,500 soldiers of the Pacific Fleet and joint forces were checked for military readiness.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s parliament voted on Tuesday to approve President Poroshenko’s proposal to dismiss General Prosecutor Vitaliy Yarema.
Deputies, activists and the country’s Western backers have regularly accused the prosecutor’s office of failing to tackle corruption and roll out reforms.For more news and stories, join us on Facebook,Twitter , or contact us through our Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com