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Ukraine Has Won Full Control Over the Port City of Mariupol

Today’s military initiative was as much a political show of feather-preening as it was a significant battle victory.

by Harriet Salem
Jun 13 2014, 9:50pm

Photo by AP/Evgeniy Maloletka

Ukraine’s government regained complete control over Mariupol on Friday after an anti-terror operation it launched in the country’s east two months ago finally broke pro-Russia separatists’ grip on the southeastern port city.

Video footage from inside the city shows Ukrainian forces exchanging gunfire and grenades with rebels manning checkpoints around the city.

Several of the men shown attired in ragtag military gear without insignia are not rebels, but likely members of hastily formed pro-Ukrainian paramilitary groups, such as the Azov Battalion, which is tied to right-wing Ukrainian nationalist politician Oleh Lyashko. The recently formed National Guard was also reportedly involved in the battle.

It is unclear how many people died in today’s clashes, but at least five rebels and two Ukrainian servicemen were reported killed.

The government’s use in the country’s eastern conflict of fighting groups believed to be funded by pro-Kiev oligarchs has fueled distrust among locals.

An assault on separatists in Mariupol in early May that also included fighters from Kiev’s supplementary forces brought armored personnel carriers roaring through the city’s streets as fierce fighting caught civilians in the crossfire, killing at least seven.

After the May attack, Lyashko posted a photo of himself with a bound separatist who had been stripped near-naked. It featured the caption: “Today was a good day — we detained four terrorists. Glory to Ukraine!”

Lyashko, who finished a distant third in the presidential election with about 8 percent of the vote, also claimed that the Azov Battalion was responsible for an offensive on a rebel-held administration building last month that killed two rebels.

Order from chaos: Moscow’s men raise a rebel army in Ukraine’s east. Read more here.

In the aftermath of today’s fierce fighting, police held back angry and curious locals who gathered around the sandbag positions in Mariupol that had until recently been manned by separatists. Bullet-riddled and burnt vehicles, including an armored personnel carrier, were abandoned in the streets.

The strategically important port city, which is famed for steel exportation and lies on a main route toward the Russian border, has changed hands several times since the pro-Russia uprising in eastern Ukraine gained serious momentum in early April.

Today’s military move, however, was as much a political show of feather-preening as it was a significant battle victory.

The attack in May had already brought large segments of the city, where pro-Russia sentiment is much weaker than in other areas of the east, back under government control. Patrols of steel factory workers organized by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, have helped maintain control of those areas.

Poroshenko’s promises of safety and peace ring hollow in eastern Ukraine. Read more here.

Nevertheless, the complete capture of Mariupol has provided the government in Kiev a chance to reassert its authority in the east. Newly inaugurated Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered the Kiev-appointed governor of Donetsk — steel oligarch Sergey Taruta, who had been forced to flee the area — to set up his office in the port city.

The government has also said it has won back control of 75 miles of the border separating rebel-held Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts from Russia. Large segments of Ukraine’s porous eastern border with Russia have been under control of rebel forces for the past week.

The claim comes a day after the government declared that it had destroyed two Russian tanks it said had entered Ukraine with a convoy of military vehicles. However, the precise origin of these vehicles and the destruction of the two tanks have not been independently verified.

In an apparent response to Ukraine’s claims, Russia today declared that two Ukrainian armored vehicles had violated its sovereign borders.

Ukraine says Russian tanks have crossed into the rebel-held east. Read more here.

Besides the squabble over alleged military intrusions, the two countries are also bogged down in angry negotiations over gas prices.

This afternoon, Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk blamed Moscow for wrecking talks over the country’s $1.9 billion debt to Russia for gas.

The price of gas was reduced by Russian company Gazprom in a deal with then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in December, but was hiked back up after the pro-Russia leader was ousted in February.

Russia has threatened to cut off Ukraine’s gas supply if the debt is not paid by Monday.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem