Newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said cautiously this could be “the beginning of the turning point in the fight against militants”. Don’t make promises you are not sure you can keep.
Pavel Gubarev, the self-proclaimed governor of the Donetsk People’s Republic, told a rally in the city: “We will begin a real partisan war around the whole perimeter of Donetsk. We will drown these wretches (the Ukrainian Army) in blood.” That is standard morale-raising rhetoric in the wake of a military collapse – or, as the rebels call it, a “tactical retreat”.
But Igor Strelkov, the military commander of the rebels in Donetsk province, made a truly revealing comment. Pleading for Russian military intervention on July 3 – five days before his paramilitary forces abandoned Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and other rebel strongholds in the north of the province – he warned Moscow his troops were “losing the will to fight”.
A military commander will never admit such a thing unless his situation is desperate. How desperate became clear on Tuesday last week when Strelkov’s troops all headed south for the relative safety of Donetsk city.
The Ukrainian Army had been shelling them in Sloviansk, but there was no major Ukrainian offensive. The rebel fighters just started pulling out of the city – and those in other rebel-held northern towns followed suit. Strelkov (who is actually a Russian citizen named Igor Girkin) was left scrambling to explain what was happening in terms that made military sense – and he did the best he could.
This may be telling President Poroshenko what he most wants to know: whether or not this week’s events really constitute a “turning point” in the military conflict in eastern Ukraine. The answer appears to be “yes”. The morale of Strelkov’s troops is cracking, as they realise the motherland is not going to send its army into eastern Ukraine to help them out.
There never was mass support for the pro-Russian “revolution” in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. Most people there speak Russian and were worried about where the real revolution in Kiev was taking the country even before Russian propaganda started telling them that “fascists” had seized control of the country. But they didn’t actually want to join Russia.
There were no huge crowds when pro-Russian rebels seized power in the east. Heavily armed groups of masked men just appeared in the streets and took over, declaring they were creating revolutionary regimes to save the people from the “fascists” in Kiev.
Civilians in the east were sufficiently worried about the intentions of the new government in Kiev that they did not come out on the streets to oppose this armed takeover – but they didn’t come out in large numbers to support it either.
So, at the risk of tempting fate, a prediction: the fighting in eastern Ukraine will not go on for months more. The rebel forces will quickly melt away. And President Vladimir Putin has managed to turn Russia’s biggest European neighbour into a permanent enemy.