ODESSA, Ukraine – Ukraine sent an elite national guard unit to re-establish control Monday over the southern port of Odessa, and government troops fought pitched gunbattles with a pro-Russia militia around an eastern city.
The twin moves reflected an apparent escalation of efforts to bring both regions back under Kiev’s control. The possible double loss of Odessa in the southwest and parts of eastern Ukraine could be catastrophic for the new government, leaving the country landlocked, cut off entirely from the Black Sea.
Ukraine already lost a significant part of its coastline in March, when its Black Sea peninsula of Crimea was annexed by Russia.
Gunfire and multiple explosions rang out Monday in and around Slovyansk, a city of 125,000 that has become the focus of the armed insurgency against the new interim government in Kiev.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement that government troops were battling about 800 pro-Russia forces that were using large-caliber weapons and mortars. His agency said four officers were killed and 30 wounded in the fighting.
Pro-Russia militias said at least eight people, both insurgents and local residents, were killed. A militia spokesman three of 10 people admitted with gunshot wounds to a hospital in Slovyansk had died. Five more were killed during fighting in the village of Semenivka.
This nation of 46 million is facing its worst crisis in decades after its Russia-leaning president, who hails from Ukraine’s industrial east, fled to Russia in February following months of street protests. Those eastern regions that favor closer links to Russia are now at odds with Ukraine’s western and central areas, which seek closer ties with Europe and largely support the new interim government in Kiev.
The West has offered billions of dollars in loans to help the Kiev government stave off economic collapse. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Ukraine expects to receive more than $5 billion in May, according to a statement Monday. This includes $3 billion from the International Monetary Fund, $1 billion from the United States and up to 1 billion euros ($1.38 billion) from the European Union.
The goal of the pro-Russia insurgency is ostensibly geared toward pushing for broader autonomy for local regions, but some insurgents do favor seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.
In the last few weeks, pro-Russia forces have stormed and seized government buildings and police stations in a dozen eastern Ukrainian cities. Authorities in Kiev accuse Moscow of backing the insurgents and – since Russia has kept tens of thousands of troops along Ukraine’s eastern border – fear that Russia could try to invade and grab more territory.
For weeks, the Black Sea port of Odessa had remained largely peaceful even as violence erupted across east Ukraine. But 46 people died Friday after riots broke out there between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine groups and a government building was set on fire.
With tears and red roses, pro-Russia activists mourned Monday in Odessa at the funeral of a regional member of parliament, Vyacheslav Markin, who died two days after the fire from his burns. Markin was known for speaking out against the central government in Kiev.
Activists shouted “Hero! Hero!” and vowed to avenge his death.
“Kiev doesn’t control the situation in the country, Kiev controls only one half of Ukraine,” said 32-year-old Dmitry Sheiko, who was wearing the St. George black-and-orange ribbon, a ubiquitous symbol of the pro-Russia protest movement. “Even in Odessa they can’t maintain order, which means that we will restore order ourselves.”
Despite those promises, Odessa remained calm Monday and pro-Russia forces made no attempt to occupy government buildings there. The well-armed, elite national guard unit from Kiev could be seen patrolling the streets. Residents – hurt and angry yet peaceful – gathered around the scorched trade union building to lay flowers and commemorate the victims of the fire.
“This is a tragedy for all of Ukraine,” said Nadezhda Yelenchuk, a 42-year-old schoolteacher. “This is the result of a civil war that has already begun in Ukraine. We need a powerful government that will stop the bloodshed.”
Riots over the weekend brought into question the loyalty of Odessa’s police forces. On Sunday, pro-Russian demonstrators stormed the Odessa police headquarters and freed 67 people who had been detained in the rioting.
Presumably to prevent police from releasing more prisoners, the Interior Ministry said in a statement Monday that 42 others arrested during the rioting were being sent to another region for investigation.
The international community has accused Russia of fomenting the unrest in an attempt to destabilize Ukraine and derail the country’s May 25 presidential elections. Russia, however, has vociferously condemned Ukraine’s security operations in the east and blamed the central government in Kiev for not preventing the Odessa fire.
On Monday, the Russian Foreign Ministry published a 70-page report listing what it described as human rights violations by “ultranationalist, neo-Nazi and extremist forces” in Ukraine. The Kremlin wrote that the ministry report “confirms that … violations of basic human rights in Ukraine have become widespread.”
While Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no public comment on Ukraine since the Odessa fire, several Russian politicians have ramped up their anti-Ukraine rhetoric and Russian state media have referred to the fire as genocide.
In Moscow on Monday, Putin signed into law legislation making it a crime to deny Nazi war crimes or spread deliberately false information about the actions of the Soviet Union during World War II. Those convicted could face up to five years in prison.
The Kremlin has used national pride over the Soviet’s WWII victory to consolidate Russian society behind Putin. These patriotic feelings also have figured in a relentless Kremlin-driven propaganda campaign to denigrate Ukrainian authorities by describing them as fascists and neo-Nazis.
Radovanovic reported from Slovyansk, Ukraine. Laura Mills contributed reporting from Moscow.