It’s been a tough summer for Ukrainian separatists. They finally got some heavy artillery from Russia and promptly shot down a civilian airliner after mistaking it for a military transport from Kyiv. They have had their forces divided and cut off in the eastern provinces as the Ukrainian military has gained the upper hand against their Moscow-supported uprising, while Russians dawdle on the other side of the border. Today, Ukraine accused the pro-Russian separatists of firing on a convoy of civilian refugees, killing women and children attempting to find a safe haven from the fighting in Luhansk:

An unknown number of civilians, including women and children, have been killed in an attack on a caravan of refugees in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, the Ukrainian military said Monday.

The civilians were trying to escape fighting between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian military but were not in an established humanitarian safety corridor when they came under fire, a military representative said.

The civilians were being escorted by the Ukrainian military from the towns of Khryaschuvate and Novosvitlivka when they were attacked at 9:40 a.m. local time (2:40 a.m. ET), the Kiev-recognized Luhansk Regional Government said.

A government representative confirmed that there had been “heavy gunfire” in the area and that the victims had been unable to call for help as mobile phone towers were down.

The rebels answered Kyiv in very familiar terms, to those who followed the Malaysia Air 17 story. The rebels denied that they had the technology to conduct the attack and accused Kyiv of being behind it, all while denying that an attack on a civilian convoy had taken place at all:

A rebel leader denied his forces had the military capability to conduct such an attack, and accused Kiev forces of regularly attacking the area and also using Russian-made Grad missiles.

“The Ukrainians themselves have bombed the road constantly with airplanes and Grads. It seems they’ve now killed more civilians like they’ve been doing for months now. We don’t have the ability to send Grads into that territory,” said Andrei Purgin, deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

Another rebel spokesman denied any civilian convoy had been struck, challenging the Kiev authorities to produce evidence.

Kyiv now says it controls the center of Luhansk, having taken control of the police station seized by rebels months ago. That has pushed the rebels to the brink, as Luhansk is their primary communications route:

Ukrainian forces have raised their national flag over a police station in the city of Luhansk that was for months under rebel control, Kiev said on Sunday, in what could be a breakthrough in Ukraine’s efforts to crush pro-Moscow separatists.

Ukrainian officials said, however, the rebels were fighting a desperate rearguard action to hold on to Luhansk – which is their supply route into neighbouring Russia – and that the flow of weapons and fighters from Russia had accelerated. …

If confirmed, the taking of the police station is significant because Luhansk has for several months been a rebel redoubt where Kiev’s writ has not run. Separatists still control sections of the border linking Luhansk region to Russia.

The news for Ukrainian rebels in Donetsk isn’t much better. Kyiv announced the seizure of small neighboring towns and the encirclement of another important rebel bastion. These advances have broken the morale of rebel leadership, according to multiple reports, and rebels may start trying to fade back into normal life rather than stand against the Ukrainian military:

Officials also said that Ukrainian forces have encircled the town of Horlivka and taken over smaller towns near the contested city of Donetsk. “The settlement points of Malaya Ivanivka and Andrianivka have been fully cleared [of rebels]. The settlement of Alchevsk is now completely isolated. Horlivka is totally blockaded,” a government statement said, according to Reuters. …

The government’s comments suggest it feels it has turned the tide in its fight to regain control of its eastern territory. The rebels do seem to be in some turmoil, according to various media reports. The Guardian writes that three senior rebel leaders have left their posts and the conflict zone in recent days. Both Igor Girkin, known as Strelkov, and Alexander Borodai stepped down from their leadership positions, and Mr. Borodai returned to Moscow, while Mr. Strelkov’s whereabouts are unknown.

The changes in leadership and advance of the Ukrainian Army have caused many rebel fighters to abandon their fight and return to civilian life.

The loss of morale may have to do with the curious lack of response from Russia. Vladimir Putin has been happy to supply weapons and infiltrate forces into eastern Ukraine, but rebels apparently expected Russian troops and columns of Russian armor to rescue them. If that was coming, though, it would have to be very soon, or not at all; Ukraine’s forces are recapturing ground and pushing the rebels into flight, and with that their claim to legitimacy.

Right now, the Russians can’t even get their aid trucks across the Luhansk frontier, although they’re still trying:

A convoy of Russian trucks destined for eastern Ukraine remained stalled near the border here on Monday, as the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany reported that talks in Berlin had yielded no progress toward a cease-fire or a long-term political settlement.

The lack of progress on a diplomatic resolution came as the Ukrainian military continued to press its crackdown on pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine, who now retain an increasingly tenuous hold on the regional capitals of Luhansk and Donetsk, which shares a name with the smaller Russian city where the convoy is now parked. …

With the rebels’ defeat seeming increasingly inevitable, Russia has repeated its demand that President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine order a cease-fire. Speaking to reporters in Berlin on Monday, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, called on the United States and its allies to pressure Kiev to pull back its forces.

Later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that Russia and Ukraine had reached an agreement on transmission of the aid, but not on a cease-fire, and certainly not on a Ukrainian retreat. Nor will they get one, not with the current status of the rebel forces being near collapse and leadership “churning,” as the Christian Science Monitor puts it. Russia appears out of options in this war short of a complete invasion, but the longer they wait, the more obviously an invasion any military incursion will look. Putin gambled on getting eastern Ukraine on the cheap, and it looks like the gamble didn’t pay off. He may just be looking to cut his losses at this point and stay satisfied with annexing Crimea and securing his naval access to the Black Sea port in Sebastopol.