Battle for international airport in Ukraine overshadows national elections

posted at 8:41 am on May 27, 2014 by Ed Morrissey

Ukraine elected a new government on Sunday in the face of pro-Russian militia attacks in its east, making billionaire Petro Poroshenko their new head of state. Poroshenko immediately offered an olive branch to the restive Donetsk and Luhansk regions, promising to open talks with Moscow as well. But the last two days showed that the path to reconciliation, both internal and external, will hardly be that simple:

The president-elect of Ukraine, Petro O. Poroshenko, vowed on Monday to restore order in the country’s east, which is besieged by pro-Russian separatist violence, but said he would not negotiate with armed rebels and instead would demand swifter results from a military campaign that has achieved only limited success.

While Mr. Poroshenko has said that he would push for parliamentary elections before the end of the year, on Monday he said he saw no reason for the removal of Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk and other leaders of the interim government, which has been running Ukraine since the toppling of President Viktor F. Yanukovych in February.

Mr. Poroshenko also promised to mend ties with the Kremlin, citing his business connections to Russia as well as his personal relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin, who has promised to respect the Ukrainian election results. …

Mr. Poroshenko’s remarks came as rebels seized the airport in Donetsk. While Ukrainian forces appeared to have forcibly evicted the rebels from the airport later in the day, the fight illustrated the formidable obstacles Mr. Poroshenko faces in trying to stop the country from sliding further into civil war.

The serious nature of the problem with militias in eastern Ukraine became apparent during and after the vote. Armed men attempted to seize control of an international airport in Donetsk, a direct threat not just to Kyiv but also to the region. It took two days for the Ukraine military to push them back:

Pro-Russian rebels who had taken over an international airport in Donetsk have been pushed back, Ukraine’s government says. Violent clashes erupted Monday and Tuesday; at least 35 people have died. …

The violence seems to have centered on the airport but also included several other parts of Donetsk. The city’s hockey arena was set on fire, and fighting also focused on a railway station. There are conflicting accounts of the number of people killed or wounded.

Donetsk mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko is being quoted by several media outlets saying that 38 fighters and two civilians have died in the violence at the airport. But the Kyiv Post says 33 were killed, citing an investigator at a morgue. Reuters reports that a rebel leader told the agency, “From our side, there are more than 50 (dead).”

The leader of the Donetsk militia claims he’s still at the airport, however:

Police said Tuesday morning that all roads to Donetsk’s Sergei Prokofiev International Airport were blocked because of sporadic gunfire. A large overturned military vehicle with its front wheel blown off was lying on a residential road a few miles from the airport.

Denis Pushilin, separatist leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said Tuesday morning that the airport was still under rebel control, the Russian news agency Interfax reported. Pushilin also posted a YouTube video of a news conference at the occupied regional government building late Monday to counter media reports that he had fled.

In Kiev, a military spokesman told reporters that Ukrainian security forces had given another ultimatum to separatists at the Donetsk airport.

“We have posed another ultimatum to them, and if they do not surrender, we will strike them with special weapons. This is one of the proofs we are going to continue the anti-terrorist operation and bring it to its logical end,” a spokesman for the Ukrainian military’s operations in the east, Vladislav Seleznev, told reporters Tuesday. Seleznev said that around 200 pro-Russian militants attacked the airport early Monday.

CNN’ Nick Paton-Walsh calls the seizure of the airport “a bright red line.” That line was actually crossed weeks ago, but this does make it clear that neither side intends on retreating from it in the near future, despite the successful election in Ukraine. The remaining question is whether Russia will intervene against the Ukrainian military now that the election has been held and Poroshenko has embraced diplomacy with Moscow as at least a parallel track. Those pro-Russian separatist militias may end up being even more isolated than they realize.


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In holding the elections Ukraine did what Putin didn’t want to happen. Now their government has legitimacy and can put down these “rebels” (who are in fact plainclothed Russian military).

ConstantineXI on May 27, 2014 at 8:57 AM

Now their government has legitimacy and can put down these “rebels” (who are in fact plainclothed Russian military).

ConstantineXI on May 27, 2014 at 8:57 AM

What legitimacy? A bunch of pro-fascist militants bankrolled and inspired with American tax money threw out a “legitimately elected” president bankrolled and inspired with Russian tax money, and then installed another “legitimately elected” president in an equally rigged election. If I had a brain, I would be *very* wary in choosing allies in that conflict. Also, always remember that Obama took Ukrainian side, that should be all the hint that you need.

Rix on May 27, 2014 at 9:06 AM

Now their government has legitimacy and can put down these “rebels” (who are in fact plainclothed Russian military).

ConstantineXI on May 27, 2014 at 8:57 AM

You may also come to regret your opinion when a “legitimately elected” American government will be putting down “rebels”, possibly yourself including, after declaring them “plainclothed military” of some unrelated country.

Rix on May 27, 2014 at 9:10 AM

They don’t simply have “pro-Russian” forces. They have Russian forces there, in particular units from Chechnya.

PBH on May 27, 2014 at 9:12 AM

Rivaling the mideast for dysfunction.

Bishop on May 27, 2014 at 9:16 AM

They don’t simply have “pro-Russian” forces. They have Russian forces there, in particular units from Chechnya.

PBH on May 27, 2014 at 9:12 AM

It’s no big secret that Russian covert-op troops operate there but you’d be surprised by how much support they have among the locals.

Rix on May 27, 2014 at 9:18 AM

If I had a brain, I would be *very* wary in choosing allies in that conflict. Also, always remember that Obama took Ukrainian side, that should be all the hint that you need.

Nice try Rix, but it’s very clear what side is in our national interest…Russia is not our friend, supporting the Ukrainian government in opposition to the Russians masquerading as rebels supports our long term interests to counterbalance the troubling Russian/Chinese alliance. We have natural allies in the Baltic and with Poland/Hungary that have a real interest in allowing Ukraine to resist a Russian takeover…and as far as Obama’s support for the Ukraine, don’t read too much into that…even a blind squirrel sometimes finds a buried acorn.

ironmarshal on May 27, 2014 at 9:29 AM

There is some support for them, but it’s the overwhelming minority. I am originally from Russia by the way, so I know the situation quite well. And I don’t look at Ukraine through rose-tinted glasses. They are in short a dysfunctional country bordering a failed state. However, look at Crimea. The situation over there has worsened a lot under Russian occupation. Many people who feel cultural ties with Russia in Donetsk and Lugansk are watching and they don’t want anything like that in their cities.

PBH on May 27, 2014 at 9:30 AM

Nice try Rix, but it’s very clear what side is in our national interest…Russia is not our friend, supporting the Ukrainian government in opposition to the Russians masquerading as rebels supports our long term interests to counterbalance the troubling Russian/Chinese alliance. We have natural allies in the Baltic and with Poland/Hungary that have a real interest in allowing Ukraine to resist a Russian takeover…and as far as Obama’s support for the Ukraine, don’t read too much into that…even a blind squirrel sometimes finds a buried acorn.

ironmarshal on May 27, 2014 at 9:29 AM

Ukrainian national interest is to score as much American money as they can, and our national interest is to stay out of another political quagmire. By the way, how does Middle Eastern involvement working out for you so far?

Rix on May 27, 2014 at 9:36 AM

There is some support for them, but it’s the overwhelming minority. I am originally from Russia by the way, so I know the situation quite well. And I don’t look at Ukraine through rose-tinted glasses. They are in short a dysfunctional country bordering a failed state. However, look at Crimea. The situation over there has worsened a lot under Russian occupation. Many people who feel cultural ties with Russia in Donetsk and Lugansk are watching and they don’t want anything like that in their cities.

PBH on May 27, 2014 at 9:30 AM

I wouldn’t be so sure about Russian supporters in the region being a minority. Between Russian governmental-pay shills and “useful idiots” who would support a zombie Hitler if he were against Putin, Russian blogosphere is now a fiery mess of holy wars that has very little to do with the real picture. I mostly rely on what my friends report; I have a few in Crimea but none in Donetsk, so the picture is kinda foggy.

Oh, and by the way, I’m originally from St. Petersburg – no, not the Floridan one.

Rix on May 27, 2014 at 9:41 AM

There are degrees to military involvement. Direct military intervention in this case is simply insane. It’s also counter-productive because Ukraine is a divided country, and politicians from Western and Central Ukraine are sometimes viewed as puppets of the US and Europe. This is mostly propaganda but you don’t want to help reinforce it.

That being said, let me ask you a question. Why do we have State Department? I mean if we simply need to stay out of things, shouldn’t we let the Water Department handle our foreign policy?

PBH on May 27, 2014 at 9:42 AM

The cultural war is real, and “Ukrainian” Ukrainians are to blame as well. However, at some point you gotta ask a couple of yes/no questions. Is it ok to invade a country, conduct obviously fraudulent referendums even if you think the minority has legitimate concerns?

I mean look at Quebec. They almost seceded at some point. You move there, your kids must go to a French-speaking school. I can imagine someone saying what’s up with that – I love m English-language-based culture. We can debate it all we want but we all agree, I hope, that sending troops over there is out of question.

PBH on May 27, 2014 at 9:48 AM

Lately, it looks like the main reason we have State Department is to give worthless political figureheads, such as Condi Rice, Hillary Clinton or John Kerry, the air of adequacy and importance as well as a trampoline for other, juicier offices. Seriously though, it is not the State’s business to spend our money other than representing our country abroad and maintaining reasonable, mutually-profitable trade and cultural agreements. Bribing other countries to act in our interest doesn’t pay – just ask those who worked with Hamid Karzai.

Rix on May 27, 2014 at 9:54 AM

We can debate it all we want but we all agree, I hope, that sending troops over there is out of question.

PBH on May 27, 2014 at 9:48 AM

Well, at least we agree on that. I mean, I might call myself an isolationist but a serious threat to a NATO country, such as Poland or Hungary, or even any Baltic country, would make me support a “hot” military action. But Ukraine? It’s been a Russian background, and corrupt to the core to boot, since the beginning of time.

Rix on May 27, 2014 at 9:58 AM

Ukraine is beginning to look suspiciously like Georgia. The world turns as the stomach churns.

vnvet on May 27, 2014 at 10:00 AM

Ukraine is beginning to look suspiciously like Georgia. The world turns as the stomach churns.

vnvet on May 27, 2014 at 10:00 AM

In Georgia, Putin actually had a valid pretext for invasion after Georgian massacred an entire city, having wrongly assumed to have U.S. State Department’s backing. I’ll credit Russians with limiting that offensive to the area involved, not pushing directly for governmental changes in Georgia, and maintaining all along that they don’t see Georgians as enemies. Contrary, the only pretext Putin had in Ukraine was the not-so-unreasonable belief that he can get away with that.

Rix on May 27, 2014 at 10:09 AM

Ukrainian national interest is to score as much American money as they can, and our national interest is to stay out of another political quagmire. By the way, how does Middle Eastern involvement working out for you so far?

Rix,

You again make a mistake in thinking everyone is unable to discern national interests rather than making realistic case by case decisions. Our national interest is to intervene when it is in fact in our national interest, not simply throw up our hands in frustration and put our heads in the sand. Ukraine meets the litmus test…the Mideast…not so much, a complete waste of time and resources.

ironmarshal on May 27, 2014 at 10:12 AM

Well, at least we agree on that. I mean, I might call myself an isolationist but a serious threat to a NATO country, such as Poland or Hungary, or even any Baltic country, would make me support a “hot” military action. But Ukraine? It’s been a Russian background, and corrupt to the core to boot, since the beginning of time.

I was talking about Russian sending their troops using existing cultural frictions as a pretext. However, of course sending the US troops in should also be out of question. However, targeted sanctions are not.

PBH on May 27, 2014 at 10:23 AM

Our national interest is to intervene when it is in fact in our national interest, not simply throw up our hands in frustration and put our heads in the sand. Ukraine meets the litmus test…the Mideast…not so much, a complete waste of time and resources.

ironmarshal on May 27, 2014 at 10:12 AM

Pray enlighten me how Ukrainian involvement is in our national interest. There are no useful resources there (unless you count slutty blondes), locals are useless as military allies, and we do not enjoy their unambiguous support. All we do there is alienating a wildcard country that has too many ambitions and nuclear warheads.

Rix on May 27, 2014 at 10:41 AM

The US has been saying for years. We support this, we lead in that. Now borders in Europe are moved by force, and few seem to care.

I also can’t help but notice this disconnect between the present situation and the ridiculous Reagan myth perpetrated by many Republicans: Reagan stood up strong and singlehandedly beat the Soviets. How about we do it now? And no, you can’t blame Obama. It’s not like Republicans are much more coherent now.

P.S. To be clear, Reagan was a great President but he didn’t beat anybody.

PBH on May 27, 2014 at 11:01 AM

Allow me to repeat – do not invest yourselves in Ukraine. There are no good sides there. Just the common folk caught between Regional tyrant – Putin and Western Tyrant wanna be – Herr Zilch.

One of the ‘pro-western’ Maydan leaders was recently caught red calling for execution of 8 mill Russians in Ukraine aka genocide.

Do regular Ukrainians feel this way? No! But this is the “pro-western” leadership. There are no good sides there…

Nevsky on May 27, 2014 at 1:15 PM

Between Rix and Nevsky we must have a couple of Russophiles in the audience. Let’s be brutally honest, Russia and China, are expansionist in their nature and natural enemies of the United States. Rix asks,

There are no useful resources there (unless you count slutty blondes), locals are useless as military allies, and we do not enjoy their unambiguous support. All we do there is alienating a wildcard country that has too many ambitions and nuclear warheads

Their main natural resource is their location, if nothing else. They are a useful buffer to Baltics and central Europe. They may be relatively worthless militarily, despite their embrace of their Cossack past, but Poland and Hungary, which have military value to us, need that buffer. They are a thorn in the side of Russia and if they play no other role that would be enough.

You seem much more concerned about alienating that wildcard country than protecting our interests, which are in direct conflict with the wildcard.

And finally, never underestimate the value of slutty blondes as a natural resource.

ironmarshal on May 27, 2014 at 4:16 PM

So Nevsky is a Russophile is supposed to mean that all Russians because he called Bambi a Dictator wanna be?

Or is it because he pointed out the current Maidan crowd has some really bad characters in it [which is likely to come back to bite US on the rear]?

When you start personal attacks, you lost the debate.

P.S.: the word you are looking for is not a ‘Russophile’ which simply meas love of Russians/Russian culture, but Russia [state] apologist. Otherwise it must mean that all the Russians opposed to Putin do not love Russians or Russian Culture.

Nevsky on May 27, 2014 at 5:06 PM