Ukraine crisis: Poroshenko sends defiant message to pro-Russian separatists, but he reigns over a divided empire

Kim Sengupta was in Mariupol for Petro Poroshenko’s defiant message to the pro-Russian separatists who have torn Ukraine in two. But just 63 miles away, the opposition’s rally in Donetsk showed the scale of the task to unite the country

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Petro Poroshenko was in Mariupol on Monday declaring its people were the leaders in fighting separatist aggression; at the same time a rally was taking place in Donetsk celebrating victory against “fascist” aggression.

A tale of two cities just 63 miles from each other: but a world apart on what the future should hold for Ukraine. President Poroshenko was keen to stress that his government had negotiated the release in the past four days of 1,200 prisoners who had been held by the rebels. The number of attacks by them had also fallen, he pointed out, although he added that the enemy had begun shelling checkpoints on the outskirts after finding out that he intended to visit. “They thought they would frighten me, but no one is afraid of them,” he tweeted.

There was, however, relatively little shelling on Monday and the separatists must have had earlier knowledge of the President’s movement than his own soldiers, the vast majority of whom did not know of his presence until he had arrived. Most say they are fearful of the enemy’s newly-acquired modern weaponry which has been supplied by Russia, according to the Kiev government.

Both sides in the civil war, however, hold that a ceasefire signed in the Belarus capital, Minsk, last week remains in place overall, despite a number of breaches. Colonel Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security Council, said no serviceman had been killed in the past day, and rebel forces had stopped using heavy artillery and were only using mortar and rifle fire. “That’s a big achievement,” he said. “We understand that the ceasefire imposes some discipline to our enemies.” The separatist authorities in Donetsk cancelled a press conference in which they were supposed to chart violations by Kiev.

Video: Poroshenko visits Mariupol

But a permanent political settlement remains a far more daunting task, and, without that, the expectations are that the truce will fail and the bloodshed, which has claimed 3,000 lives so far, will resume.

The leaders of the two people’s republics in the east have been eager to maintain that the deal agreed in  Minsk would not stop them from seeking to break away from the control of Kiev. “We intend to continue our policy of detachment”, declared Igor Polotinsky of Luhansk; for Alexander Zakharenko of Donetsk, “our aim remains the same, not to be ruled by the regime in Kiev”.28-rally-AFP-Getty.jpg

Both had been emboldened by fast and resounding victories on the battlefield. In contrast, Ukrainian forces who had themselves been carrying out a successful offensive, recapturing towns and cities, reaching the gates of Donetsk and Luhansk, have appeared stunned and dispirited by the sudden reversal of fortune.

There was some surprise that the signing of the Minsk accord by the separatists had not been delayed until after they had captured Mariupol, which would have given the Kremlin the control of the Azov Sea coastline and a corridor to Crimea.

Taking the port may have been bloody, but, judging by the comparative strengths of the two forces, could have been achieved. As it is, a heavy artillery barrage on Saturday night, lasting five hours, spread panic in the city with talk of Russian tanks on the streets. The rebels’ Twitter account announced that they were “taking Mariupol”. Some Ukrainian officials believe that the reason the “people’s militias” and the “volunteers” from Russian forces are, at present, prepared to taunt but not storm through is because Vladimir Putin does not want them to do so at the moment.

 “The terrorists can intimidate us with the heavy artillery and tanks, they know our forces haven’t got such weapons” said a member of Mariupol city council. “Putin wants to remind us that he can take this place if he wants to. Of course we are on the defensive; we have to be careful about security all the time”.

The theme in Mr Poroshenko’s meetings with steel workers, volunteers and soldiers was “this is our land, we will not give it up for anyone” and “we are fighting to defend the integrity of our territory”. But, at the same time, he said “it is impossible to win the conflict by military means, the more we increase the pressure, the more Russian troops are on our territory”.

Mr Poroshenko is facing rising internal political pressure himself, with the accusation that the Minsk agreement was a betrayal of the country. Yulia Tymoshenko, his defeated rival in the presidential election, maintained it was “extremely dangerous”. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk dismissed proposals put forward by Mr Putin, the framework for the deal, as deceitful.

Mr Yatsenyuk wants to impose martial law in the Donbas if the ceasefire fails. But Kiev simply does not have the forces to impose it. In Mariupol, the Dnepr Battalion, a private army bankrolled by the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, has departed after suffering heavy losses. Another private force, the Azov Battalion, has also lost members and complains that the government has failed in its promise of providing heavy weaponry.

Ukrainian forces have abandoned positions around Luhansk and Donetsk. There were no sign of Ukrainian forces much beyond the eastern edge of Mariupol yesterday while Mr Poroshenko paid his visit. But, on the road to Novoazovsk, separatist troops were dug in.

On Monday, as President Poroshenko was repeatedly forced to deny at a press conference that his government had irrevocably lost swathes of the country, Mr Zakharenko of the Donetsk People’s Republic was in an expansive mood. He would, he said, like an “addition to the Minsk protocol, an acknowledgment of our independence. “After all” he added “ it’ll only be taking the reality into account.”