Global Politics

Firefights in eastern Ukraine suggest the situation there is growing even more grim

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Gleb Garanich/Reuters

A pro-Russian man stands guard at a checkpoint that was left by Ukrainian security force officers near Slovyansk April 24, 2014. Ukrainian forces said they had killed several pro-Russian militants in clashes as they closed in on the separatist-held city of Slovyansk on Thursday.

The tensions in eastern Ukrainian boiled over Thursday in the city of Slovyansk.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

It started when Ukrainian forces launched an operation to force pro-Russian separatists out of occupied buildings. At least two pro-Russian separatists were killed.

Russia responded by calling for new military exercises on its side of the border. So what are the pro-Russian militants thinking? Reporter Jacob Resneck, who is in the city of Slovyansk, attended what he termed a "bizarre" press conference led by the self-proclaimed "people's mayor" of the secessionist movement, Viacheslav Ponomariov.

"He said the Ukrainian forces engaged his men at checkpoints," Resneck said. "He claimed his men are unarmed at the checkpoints and they only reinforce with weapons if they are attacked."

Ponomariov said his men fired back at the Ukrainian forces in self-defense, adding the Ukrainian forces ended up pulling back after the firefight and are now stopped about 500 feet from the checkpoint. Ponomariov refuses to recognize the leaders in Kiev. He calls the officials there a "junta," or a band of criminals. In Ponomariov's eyes, the leaders in Kiev are trying to provoke such firefights in order to give them a pretext for an invasion.

If it comes to that, Ponomariov will fight. His forces are dug in. And the fight is personal. Resneck says an unarmed militia guy stopped him just to inform him the militias were locals.

"He said, 'Look around us. We're not terrorists. We're from here. We're from the next village over,'" he explained. 

Resneck says the biggest problem in the area is a lack of trust. That's why the people in Slovyansk want to control their own destiny. They want autonomy.

As for Kiev, it's not as certain what they want. Resneck says the firefight accomplished little. "So far, all of their anti-terror operations have been disasters," he said. "The last one they launched, a little before Easter, the forces ended up switching sides."

The BBC's Natalia Antelava, who's now in Donetsk, says the Ukrainian government launched the operation to try and reclaim the government buildings. But she has no idea why the forces withdrew before they reclaimed any buildings.

"It seems they are terrified in provoking Russia," she added.

She says Kiev knows it can't win a war with Russia. But it also can't just let people, men like Ponomariov who they consider terrorists, take control of government buildings. Antelava says it seems like Kiev doesn't know what to do.

What we do know is that tensions are escalating in eastern Ukraine. Russia responded with threatening rhetoric, stating very clearly that if firefights continue, they would bring in troops. "Whether it will come to this point or not is anybody's guess," she said. "But it's certainly what people here are anticipating."

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