SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — Ukraine launched a “counter-terrorist operation” to retake buildings seized by anti-government forces in eastern towns on Tuesday, a move that risks provoking Russian intervention or civil war if blood is shed. By nightfall it was less clear than ever whether Kiev’s central government controlled the province, with one attempt to retake a military airfield sparking wildly conflicting reports and the rest of the occupations left untroubled.
Nor was it apparent whether Kiev’s actions would lead to a wider armed conflict, possibly entailing official Russian intervention, or themselves comprised armed conflict at all. Ukrainian media and a pro-government lawmaker claimed in the early hours of the morning that 10 people were killed in a shootout outside one city, while Russian state TV was flush with reports throughout the afternoon that Kiev’s special forces had killed 11 men in a brutal special operation at the airfield. The only confirmed casualties, however, sustained light wounds during a pseudo-shootout at the airfield in Kramatorsk, which locals said had been under Kiev’s control the entire time.
Few put concrete stock in acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchnyov’s morning announcement that the operation had begun: this was the second time Turchynov had made such an announcement in three days and followed numerous ultimatums his government has issued at various levels and then conspicuously failed to deliver on.
“The aim of these actions is to protect people,” Turchynov said in a statement. “Besides Russian special forces and terrorists, there are hundreds of thousands of innocent Ukrainian people deceived by Russian propaganda, and that is why we will take any needed anti-terrorist actions prudently and responsibly.” Turchnyov indicated a slow rollout for the operation, which he said would be carried out “gradually, responsibly, and prudently.”
Ukraine’s security forces seemed to know that a show of force would be just as important as the use of force itself in restoring confidence in Turchynov’s government. Rowdy protesters in Kiev had picketed state offices on Monday night to decry the loss of Crimea to Russia and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine, going so far as to assault two candidates in next month’s presidential elections, Mikhail Dobkin and Oleg Tsaryov, who have tacit support from Moscow.
Ukrainian interior ministry troops conspicuously gathered at an improvised checkpoint outside the city of Izyum in Kharkiv province, about 25 miles north of Slovyansk, the epicenter of the unrest. BuzzFeed saw at least seven armored personnel carriers, a helicopter, and several buses carrying special forces stationed at a roadblock near the city. Other vehicles, belonging to both interior ministry special forces and the army, were stationed in the woods, officers said. More troops, APCs, tanks, and helicopters joined them later in the day before flying off south, according to reporters at the scene.
Despite a flurry of reports mid-afternoon that Ukrainian troops had entered Slovyansk, the men were nowhere to be seen when protesters there held a town hall meeting on the central square in early evening. Nor was Slovyansk Mayor Nelya Shtepa, who told Ukrainian media from the safety of Donetsk, the provincial capital, that she had fled after successfully pretending to support the separatists and leading the occupation of Slovyansk’s police station on Saturday. That, Shtepa said, was just a ruse to free hostages held by men she said were Russian special forces infiltrating the town; Shtepa, who has close ties to ousted president Viktor Yanukovych’s clan, claimed she had been a double agent and in close contact with Kiev the entire time.
Shtepa was replaced by a group of seemingly local men, including a self-appointed “people’s mayor,” who urged residents not to panic and declared a dry law for the duration of the occupation. (“Well, we can save getting wasted for May 9, then,” a thick-set, mustached man in the crowd muttered, referring to annual Victory Day celebrations.) A few hundred of them then marched off to defend Slovyansk’s airfield, little more than a strip of dirt in a cornfield with no working planes and no fuel, from the impending onslaught. Apart from two helicopters that flew overhead, however, the Ukrainian army was nowhere to be seen.
Most attention focused on the nearby town of Kramatorsk, home to a small military airfield surrounded by a few dozen anti-government protesters since Saturday. Defense ministry officials said Tuesday afternoon that special forces and the army were storming the airfield in Kramatorsk, which fell on Saturday in a wave of building seizures across the Donetsk province near the Russian border.
Locals told BuzzFeed that Ukrainian forces sent three helicopters and two fighter planes to the base while a group of APCs drove in.
Eventually, General Vasily Krutov, a legendary special forces commander put in charge of the operation the day before, emerged alongside Kramatorsk’s mayor to address an angry crowd of several hundred locals, who shoved him and knocked off his hat. Locals said “two or three” people were lightly injured during the standoff when soldiers fired into the air and ground to deter them.
Kiev’s concern may be less the airfield itself — locals claimed the army had never lost control of it, even though it was blocked off for several days — than the perception of what happened there. Officials told Ukrainian media and the crowd that they had beaten back an attack by several dozen “armed terrorists,” though locals adamantly told BuzzFeed that nobody who went to the base from town was armed. Russian state media, meanwhile, was aflush with unsourced claims that 11 local “self-defense” units had died. Some said that the men had been shot by members of Right Sector, a nationalist paramilitary group Moscow claims is the Ukrainian equivalent of a Syrian fundamentalist insurgent cell.
None of this proved to be true, though that didn’t stop Russia’s foreign ministry from rushing out a statement about events at Kramatorsk. “There are already victims,” it said. “Fighting your own people when they stand up for their legal rights is a crime. Nationalist chaos is engulfing Ukraine yet again.”
Any blood shed during the operation risks playing into the hands of Russia, which has reserved the right to send troops to protect Russian-speakers it says are under threat from Kiev. Ukraine and Western governments claim Russia has already sent several spies and disguised special forces to the region, a claim Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said was “absurd.” Apparently reacting to the news — never confirmed — that 10 people had died in a shootout outside Slovyansk overnight, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote that Ukraine was “on the brink of civil war” in a Facebook post, a claim President Vladimir Putin repeated later in the day. “This is very sad,” he continued, adding that the Ukrainian people should be able to choose their own fate in a Moscow-backed referendum on making the country a federation. “Without usurpers, nationalists, and bandits. Without tanks and APCs,” he wrote.