Conflict & Justice

3 signs that Ukraine’s battle in the east is getting more serious


It's eerily quiet in Donetsk these days.


Dan Peleschuk via Instagram

DONETSK, Ukraine — It’s been in the headlines for weeks, but there are no signs that Ukraine’s violent separatist insurgency is going anywhere.

In fact, it’s only getting worse.

Here are a few of the ways you can tell:


1. The death toll is rising.


Even a few weeks ago, observers were still tallying up single-digit deaths amid skirmishes between government forces and pro-Russian rebels, mostly the results of Kyiv’s “anti-terrorist” operation that until recently hadn’t been going so smoothly.

Not anymore.

Last Thursday, days before the presidential election, an armed separatist group ambushed a Ukrainian army unit in Donetsk, killing at least 14 soldiers in what was likely the single deadliest attack since the uprising began.

Then, hours before President-elect Petro Poroshenko gave a post-election conference on Monday, rebels attempted to seize a key airport in eastern Ukraine. That move provoked a fierce response from the Ukrainian army, which bombarded the separatists with airstrikes and left dozens of pro-Russians dead in the process.

It was Kyiv’s largest military assault to date. In a grizzly detail, it appears many of the injured were killed when they were attacked from the skies while being driven away in a flatbed truck.

Poroshenko has promised a tougher, quicker and more efficient response to what he says are the "terrorists" who've gripped the east.


2. Fighting has reached Donetsk, the regional capital.

(Dan Peleschuk/GlobalPost via Instagram)

The airport rebels attempted to take Monday happened to be in Donetsk, the largest city in the greater region now under siege by the separatists.

Earlier, nearly the only visible presence the rebels enjoyed in this leafy, somewhat cosmopolitan outpost was the occupied and heavily barricaded regional administration building, which serves as the headquarters for the self-declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk.”

And up until now, violence had been mostly restricted to the smaller, mid-sized cities in the region — such as Slovyansk, still the epicenter of the armed movement — where rebels roam unchallenged by authorities.

But this week’s attempted airport seizure, and the assault that followed, marked the first time that armed fighting has broken out here in Donetsk — and all the makings are there for more to come.

More men now appear near the regional administration building, as well as the occupied state security building several blocks away, openly armed, whether with crude pistols or automatic rifles.

On Wednesday, short bursts of what appeared to be heavy automatic weapon fire pummeled through the air near a checkpoint erected in front of the state security building. Passersby nervously sped up their pace.

Rebels were likely shooting at the Ukrainian military fighter jet circling the city, its engine wash sweeping loudly through the center — another new addition to the tense scene in Donetsk.

Separatists now block the main road that leads to the airport. They shooed most journalists away from approaching closer on Wednesday, with some warning of Ukrainian army snipers operating near the scene.


3. Meanwhile, it's eerily quiet around town.

(Dan Peleschuk/GlobalPost via Instagram)

After the burst of violence earlier in the week, Donetsk on Wednesday remained calm but eerily empty.

Many businesses were closed. The streets were noticeably freer of cars, and the pedestrians that typically crowd the city’s picturesque main pedestrian boulevard were far fewer than usual.

The shops that were open during the day hung fliers in their windows announcing they’d be closing early.

That might be because the rebels here have announced an 8 p.m. curfew, and few are likely eager to test their patience.

But it's more likely the sudden violence simply frightened people who are completely unaccustomed to it.

Even a high-traffic branch of McDonald’s in central Donetsk announced it was closed “to ensure the safety of our workers and visitors.”

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