Deadly ambush shakes European peace efforts in Ukraine

Poland rallies EU and Nato, saying Ukraine’s fate to be decided in “days or weeks”

Ukranian military soldiers man a highway checkpoint  near Slovyansk, Ukraine. Photograph: John Moore/Getty

Ukranian military soldiers man a highway checkpoint near Slovyansk, Ukraine. Photograph: John Moore/Getty


Pro-Russian separatist rebels have killed seven Ukrainian soldiers in an ambush, undermining a European bid to broker dialogue between Kiev and restive eastern regions.

Seven servicemen were also wounded in yesterday’s attack near the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where separatists declared independence and appealed to join Russia after holding a disputed referendum on Sunday.

In the deadliest single clash for Ukraine’s military since it was sent into eastern areas, rebels attacked armoured personnel carriers (APCs) with rocket-launchers and fired on troops, security officials said.

On a separatist website, the so-called commander of self-defence forces, Igor Strelkov, said his men had destroyed two army APCs, one truck carrying infantry and one carrying ammunition. He said one rebel had been killed and one injured.

Ukraine claims Strelkov is a Russian military intelligence officer whose real name is Igor Girkin, and accuses Moscow of orchestrating unrest in the neighbouring Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The attack dragged Ukraine closer to civil war, amid rising fury in pro-government central and western regions at rebel actions and perceived Russian meddling, and fear and anger in the east over the state’s “anti-terrorist” operation.

“In the next few days or weeks, the fate of the Ukrainian state will be decided,” said Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, whose country has been at the forefront of efforts to draw Ukraine to the West. “Today, I would mobilise the entire European Union and Nato around the real risk or threat that the Ukrainian state could fall, or at least be subject to a very painful split.”

‘National dialogue’
The attack came hours after German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier met government officials in Kiev and called for “national dialogue under Ukrainian leadership” to resolve a “very threatening” crisis. “I hope this will create the conditions to take a step to bring back occupied territory, disarm armed groups step-by-step and reinstall the authority of the state,” Mr Steinmeier said.

He expressed support for a “road map” to de-escalate the crisis that has been drawn up by the 57-state Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The group – which began life as a cold war-era body to defuse East/West tensions – says Russia broadly backs a plan that focuses on “restraint from violence, disarmament, national dialogue and elections” and envisages “round table” discussions to resolve key issues.

Many in Russian-speaking eastern and southern Ukraine were alarmed by the mass protest movement further west that ousted Donetsk-born president Viktor Yanukovich in February.

They think the new government is hostile to Russian-speakers and wants to sever their close ties with Russia, and many believe reports from Russian state media that Kiev has unleashed mobs of murderous “fascists” on the east.

‘An undeclared war’
Ukraine’s leaders say the Kremlin is fomenting unrest to sabotage May 25th presidential elections, triggering economic collapse in the cash-strapped country and ultimately toppling its reformist pro-western government. “In our eastern regions we have an undeclared war,” defence minister Mikhailo Koval said. “Our neighbouring country unleashed the war . . .”

Ukrainian officials insist they will not deal with “terrorists”, but are ready to meet eastern politicians to discuss de-centralisation of power and special status for the Russian language – which many in western Ukraine, the powerhouse of the recent revolution, consider the language of Soviet occupation.

Kiev and its western allies see Russian and separatist demands for full federalisation of Ukraine as an attempt to make the country ungovernable and to give Moscow undue influence in eastern areas.

Russia has not responded directly to the separatists’ appeal for accession but its foreign ministry yesterday urged the EU and US to press Kiev to discuss “issues of state structure and respect for the rights of regions . . . before the election due on May 25th”.

Moscow’s diplomats also decried the latest EU sanctions on people in Russia and Crimea involved in the Kremlin’s annexation of the peninsula in March. Washington and Brussels have pledged to impose much tougher sanctions on Russia if it continues to destabilise Ukraine and impedes the presidential ballot.

Russia said yesterday it would reject a US request to operate the International Space Station beyond 2020, ban Washington from using Russian rocket engines to launch military satellites, and may suspend the operation of certain GPS satellite navigation facilities on its territory from June.

Kremlin-controlled energy firm Gazprom also demanded Ukraine pay €1.2 billion before June 2nd for the following month’s gas, or face a possible cut-off.