Following a day and night of the heaviest and most sustained assault by Ukrainian government forces to date, the pro-Russia separatist movement finds itself facing an emboldened and resolute national leadership.
With Sunday’s election of billionaire Petro Poroshenko to the presidency, Kiev has received grudging and tentatively positive diplomatic overtures from Russia.
But with evidence that irregulars are continuing to pour into Ukraine from Russia, it remains unclear whether the Kremlin is encouraging fighters whose attack Monday on the Donetsk International Airport showed their increasing aggression.
What is certain is that the Ukrainian government’s anti-insurgent operation has been kicked into a higher gear, with the military unleashing fighter jets, helicopter gunships and heavy artillery.
Government opponents insist they have taken up arms to defend eastern Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population and have appealed to Moscow for assistance. Kiev condemns the insurgents as “terrorists” bent on tearing the country apart.
Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko said 40 people, including two civilians, were killed in fighting after government troops thwarted a rebel attempt to seize the airport, Ukraine’s second-largest.
After being squeezed out of the airport following hours of intense fighting, insurgents called in several hundred reinforcements. Many were from a unit calling itself the Vostok — or East — Battalion, which Donetsk People’s Republic representatives have said includes combatants from Russia’s North Caucasus.
Later, Ukrainian forces pounded rebel positions, forcing the fighters to retreat in disarray. One overturned truck down the road from the airport showed signs of having struck a tree at high speed.
In an emergency address Tuesday, the Donetsk mayor warned residents to stay indoors, but also gave assurances that government troops would not push into the city center.
Others nearby spoke angrily about the unrest gripping the city — fury that could intensify as what is increasingly looking like an outright military conflict picks up pace.
After Poroshenko claimed victory in the election, hopes were raised of a push for unification in the deeply divided nation. He has vowed to negotiate a peaceful end to the insurgency.
But he also compared the separatists to lawless “Somali pirates” and promised he would stop them from sowing more chaos.
The billionaire candy magnate and politician is known for his even-handed and pragmatic rhetoric, and he has supported building strong ties with Europe, but also stressed the importance of mending relations with Moscow.
President Barack Obama, who spoke with Poroshenko by phone Tuesday, plans to meet him while in Europe June 3-6, the White House said. Obama offered him the United States’ full support to unify Ukraine, it added.
Poroshenko, who has not yet been sworn in, pending official confirmation of the results, said his first step as president would be to visit the troubled east. He said he hoped Russia would support his efforts to bring stability, and that he wanted to hold talks with Moscow.