All Eyes Turn to Donetsk As Ukrainian Military Advances

When pro-Russian rebels first appeared in eastern Ukraine, the attempt by the country’s armed forces to rebuff them was something of a farce. Angry civilians blocked tanks trying to traverse fields and every day seemed to bring news of yet another Ukrainian army unit’s capture by rebels. Three months later, in what amounts to a ...

GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images
GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images
GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

When pro-Russian rebels first appeared in eastern Ukraine, the attempt by the country's armed forces to rebuff them was something of a farce. Angry civilians blocked tanks trying to traverse fields and every day seemed to bring news of yet another Ukrainian army unit's capture by rebels. Three months later, in what amounts to a stunning turnaround, the much-belittled Ukrainian army is suddenly racking up victories.

On Saturday, Ukrainian forces retook the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, which had been under the control of pro-Russian rebels for weeks. The following day, the Ukrainian army took the city of Druzhkovka and the town of Artyomovsk. Kiev's forces appear to be closing in on the strategic rebel-held cities of Lugansk and Donetsk. Ukrainian officials say that their forces are encircling Donetsk -- the capital of a self-declared and short-lived pro-Russian republic -- ahead of what could be a decisive turning point in the three-month crisis.

That looming confrontation is being chronicled on social media, which provide a front-row seat of sorts for the military buildup. Below, footage captured by a dashboard camera shows columns of Ukrainian tanks and artillery massing by the village of Karlivka, approximately 10 miles from Donetsk.

When pro-Russian rebels first appeared in eastern Ukraine, the attempt by the country’s armed forces to rebuff them was something of a farce. Angry civilians blocked tanks trying to traverse fields and every day seemed to bring news of yet another Ukrainian army unit’s capture by rebels. Three months later, in what amounts to a stunning turnaround, the much-belittled Ukrainian army is suddenly racking up victories.

On Saturday, Ukrainian forces retook the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, which had been under the control of pro-Russian rebels for weeks. The following day, the Ukrainian army took the city of Druzhkovka and the town of Artyomovsk. Kiev’s forces appear to be closing in on the strategic rebel-held cities of Lugansk and Donetsk. Ukrainian officials say that their forces are encircling Donetsk — the capital of a self-declared and short-lived pro-Russian republic — ahead of what could be a decisive turning point in the three-month crisis.

That looming confrontation is being chronicled on social media, which provide a front-row seat of sorts for the military buildup. Below, footage captured by a dashboard camera shows columns of Ukrainian tanks and artillery massing by the village of Karlivka, approximately 10 miles from Donetsk.

As the Ukrainian army continues its advance toward the city, rebels are beginning to take steps to stall the army’s advancement. On Sunday, three bridges on the way into the city of Donetsk were blown up, making it harder for the Ukrainian military to reach the city. Eyewitness reports cited by the Associated Press describe men dressed in camouflage often worn by pro-Russian rebels leaving the scene after a bridge explosion near the village of Novobakhmutivka.

With government forces now taking positions outside of Donetsk, a video posted Sunday shows Dymytro Yarosh, the leader of Right Sector, the right-wing Ukrainian nationalist group, giving a pep talk to members of his group. When the fighting in the east began, many Right Sector members joined the Ukrainian National Guard, which has supported the Ukrainian army in its offensive. It’s unclear, however, whether Right Sector was actually all that important to the recent successes.

In the video, Yarosh, dressed in military fatigues and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle, talks to a group of armed men with Right Sector patches sewn onto their uniforms. Yarosh discusses the lack of ammunition that he and his team have been given and goes on to add that they will be used as a reconnaissance force in the coming operation.

The Ukrainian army is also fighting rebels at the city of Lugansk, and the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported Sunday that rebels from the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic have exchanged mortar and artillery fire with Ukrainian army forces outside the city. Similarly, a citizen video posted from Lugansk on Sunday shows rockets being fired from the city.

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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