SLOVYANSK, UKRAINE -- Ukraine's government trumpeted the rebels' recent retreat from this key crossroad town as a major victory in its months-long battle against insurgents in the east.
As Slovyansk's residents clean up the rubble from destroyed homes and businesses, triumph is far from people's minds. The fighting appears nowhere near being over; central authority is largely absent; and many of this nation's long-felt divisions are deeper than ever.
Police are barely present in Slovyansk, and senior security officials say they are unsure who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city. The rebels have moved on to the much larger city of Donetsk, with its nearly one million people, posing an even larger challenge to a disorganized army.
Meanwhile, the same skepticism about the government in Kyiv that made Slovyansk a fertile ground for separatists is as present as ever.
"The Ukrainian army can't aim properly," said Ilya Lazarenko, 25, who was trying to salvage food from what used to be the kitchen in his once-elegant home at an intersection near Slovyansk. The top floor had been blown away, leaving scraps of the metal roof creaking in the wind, a casualty of poor targeting by government artillery, he said.
"They could have been more careful,'' he said.
The pro-Russian separatists had held several government buildings in Slovyansk since mid-April in what became the centerpiece of the rebel uprising in this heavily culturally Russian region. The February ouster of Russian-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych only deepened fears in eastern Ukraine that ethnic Russians would be targeted with discrimination or worse, and the flames were fanned by Russian state-backed media, which depicted Ukraine's new pro-European rulers as neo-Nazis.
The rebel retreat on July 5 ignited boasts from Ukrainian security officials the central government had gained the upper hand, but progress has quickly stalled, and the prospect of urban warfare now looms as the battleground has shifted to Donetsk.
A rebel rocket strike on Ukrainian soldiers near the Russian border on Friday killed 19 and wounded almost 100, underscoring the rebels' continued ability to inflict damage on government troops. An additional five soldiers were killed Saturday, according to a spokesman for Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, Andriy Lysenko, Interfax reported. Ukrainian army checkpoints had been shelled 17 times over the past 24 hours, he said.
Many in Slovyansk say they welcome peace but, the Ukrainian military's tactics give them scant hope about the future.
"Those guys from the west, the army, they came here, destroyed everything, and now they've gone on to Donetsk," said Ivan Lishunov, 63, a retired military officer who one recent afternoon was sitting in front of a shuttered coffee shop, looking over an intersection where many buildings had chunks blown away by rocket fire.
"Why are we fighting this war?" he said, adding separatists also were at fault for Slovyansk's troubles. "Maybe we understand things differently in the east and west, but we're one country."
In Donetsk, Ukrainian forces are faced with the choice of using airstrikes and artillery bombardment -- a step that could destroy much of the city-- or of guerrilla warfare in the streets, which would be a major challenge for the poorly trained and ill-equipped security forces.
"The main goal of the Ukrainian army is to bring panic to civilians," a top Donetsk rebel leader, Alexander Borodai, said Saturday at a news conference in Donetsk. A day earlier, he said "several hundred thousand" residents may be relocated from the city in the coming days. He and other leaders have said that they are well-prepared to continue fighting from their newly-fortified command posts.
Trains leaving Donetsk are sold out days in advance, officials say, and local news websites on Saturday published detailed information about emergency routes out of the occupied city.
-- The Washington Post