Fierce fighting in east Ukraine tests leadership in Kyiv

Government security forces faced fierce resistance Monday from pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, while officials in Kyiv say the military is steadily gaining control of the region.  Some observers question whether the government has the military strength or political will to end the conflict.

The hospital in Slovyansk treated many separatists wounded in a battle with Ukrainian forces on Monday that killed a number of fighters on both sides.

The strategy of the Ukrainian forces has been to surround and isolate the separatists stronghold towns of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.  Despite this latest attack by militants, Ukrainian Security Services spokesperson Maryna Ostapenko says things are progressing as planned.

“Now I can say that Kramatorsk is under the control of the anti-terrorist forces, except for the center of town. Separatists there as well as in Slovyansk are still in control of buildings,” said Ostapenko.

The strategy to force the separatists to retreat to their occupied buildings can be effective, says analyst Dmitry Tymchuk with Kyiv’s Center for Military and Political Research.  But he is concerned the Ukrainian forces are spread too thin.

“If they have blocked Slovyansk, I question how tight it is blocked and how effective this area is controlled now. With other areas – for example, Kramatorsk in particular – I have huge questions,” said Tymchuk.

Security spokesperson Ostapenko says that in one recent battle, Ukrainian forces were outnumbered by separatists but still managed to win.

“I can say that during the operation a real fight began. The guys from Ukrainian special forces had to face an opponent that in numbers was twice as big as their group,” she said.

Tymchuk says to succeed, the military must continue to fight in a systematic and sustained manner despite mounting casualties.  And he says this will be a real test of leadership for the government.

“First of all, deal with Slovyansk operation completely, to the end.  After that Kramatorsk, and after that free all occupied areas.  But if Ukrainian forces don’t have enough resources, and here we see that it is not clear if they do or not, in this environment if there is no political will it’s very difficult,” he said.

Kyiv is also sending a national guard unit to Odessa to re-establish control after deadly clashes erupted between pro-Russian activists and supporters of the Ukrainian government.

The Ukrainian government accuses Russia of supporting the separatists to destabilize the country ahead of the planned May 25 elections.  Moscow says Kyiv and the West are provoking the bloodshed.

(Photo montage of Tyurchinov and Yatsenyuk: From original photos by the UN Audiovisual Service and Nato)