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”.
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.
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
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Ukrainian soldiers from the 'Azov' battalion guard their base in Mariupol, Donetsk
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Children were transferred from orphanages in Donetsk and Makeyevka to escape the fighting between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists
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Ukrainian servicemen captured by pro-Russian separatists sit on the ground as they are assigned to clean a street in Snizhne in the Donetsk region
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A view inside the Youth Culture Centre destroyed by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk
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A woman holds a portrait of her dead son as she speaks during a rally in front of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's office in Kiev
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A boy ascends the stairs of a bomb shelter after the shelling in the Petrovskiy district in Donetsk
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A medic looks at thirty coffins prepared for the funerals of pro-Russian rebels killed during heavy fighting at Donetsk airport, outside a Donetsk morgue
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Relatives mourn near the coffin of Mark Zverev, a taxi driver shot dead during clashes at the Donetsk airport between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russian rebels, during his funeral in the village of Grabari on the outskirts of Donetsk
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Medical workers carry a wounded pro-Russian militant on a stretcher after armed clashes occured between pro-Russian gunmen and Ukrainian troops in Slavyansk
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A member of a newly-formed pro-Russian armed group called the Russian Orthodox Army mans a barricade near Donetsk airport
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Black smoke rises from a shot down Ukrainian Army helicopter outside Slovyansk
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A woman is overcome with emotion as she looks at blood stains and damage around a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
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A local man looks at damage near a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
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A bloodstained icon of Jesus is seen among blood soaked shattered glass atop a wrecked truck near the Donetsk airport
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A family member attends a funeral for Olga Prokhorenko (60) who was killed by shrapnel after Ukrainian government forces shelled their location, during the funeral in Slovyansk
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A woman reacts after seeing the lifeless body of a man killed by shrapnel following a shelling from Ukrainian government forces in Slovyansk
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Pro-Russian militants take position on the roof of the international airport of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
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A woman embraces a pro-Russian separatist from the "East" battalion during a rally in the eastern city of Donetsk
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A Ukrainian helicopter Mi-24 gunship fires its cannons against rebels at the main terminal building of Donetsk international airport
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A pro-Russian gunman changes his position near the airport, outside Donetsk
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A pro-Russian gunman aims his weapon near the airport, outside Donetsk. Ukraine's military launched air strikes against separatists who had taken over the airport in the eastern capital of Donetsk in what appeared to be the most visible operation of the Ukrainian troops since they started a crackdown on insurgents
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Pro-Russians ride on a truck in Donetsk. A convoy of an armored personnel carrier and seven trucks carrying several hundred heavily armed men drove through central Donetsk and gunmen got out of the trucks, stood to attention and gave shots in the air in jubilation as a crowd of several thousand supporters cheered them and chanted: "Heroes!"
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An elderly woman leans against the chest of a pro-Russian gunman in Lenin square in Donetsk
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Pro-Russian militants guard a psychiatric hospital after shell explosions during the fighting between pro-Russian militants and the Ukrainian army, in Semyonovka village, outside Slavyansk
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Ukrainian troops stand guard at a checkpoint on the road near the eastern city of Izum, Donetsk
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Members of the Democratic Alliance party take part in a performance in front of the French embassy in Kiev. Protesters set up a pool with the blood of animals and models of warships in a protest against French plans for the sale of two Mistral helicopter carriers to the Russian Navy
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A man carries a portrait of pro-Russian activist Vadim Hudich, who was killed in a shooting incident at the head of a funeral procession in the eastern Ukranian town of Krasnoarmeisk
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A voter is seen inside a voting booth at a polling station during the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
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Members of a local election commission sort ballots as they start counting votes of referendum on the status of Luhansk region in Luhansk
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Members of a local election commission empty a ballot box as they start counting votes of the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in Donetsk
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Members of a local election commission empty ballot boxes as they start counting votes after a referendum, at a polling station in Lugansk
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Local residents watch as others give first aid to a man who was shot in the leg by Ukranian militia in the village of Krasnoarmisk. Eyewitness said that Ukranian militia tried to stop the referendum voters briefly taking the City Hall of Krasnoarmisk, where unarmed pro-Russian supporters were gathering. Reportedly the Ukranian militia came out out the building and started shooting at the people, killing at least one man and leaving at least two others injured
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Members of a local election commission count votes after a referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members at a polling station in Donetsk
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Voters visit a polling station to take part in the referendum on the status of Donetsk
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An Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) with a Russian flag drives through the center of Slaviansk during the day of referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members in Slavyansk
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A statue of Lenin is placed in front of a pro-Russian barricade on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk
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A feamle veteran (C) sings during 'Victory Day' celebrations in Donetsk
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People stand near the burning Mariupol police station
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Ukrainian soldiers stand guard beside an armoured personnel carrier at a checkpoint in Mariupol. Ukrainian forces seized the rebel-held city hall in the eastern port city of Mariupol, driving out pro-Russian activists, then withdrew, making no attempt to hold onto the building
“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.”Reuse content