The tide may be turning in the conflict in Ukraine. Over the weekend, government forces recaptured several towns in the east from pro-Russian fighters, including the key rebel stronghold of Sloviansk.
“I think this is a very important turnaround for the Ukrainian military,” said the BBC’s Olexiy Solohubenko, who has just returned from a reporting trip to the battle-torn region.
“What they did this time not only take back several towns, including the town of Sloviansk – a very iconic location for pro-Russian rebels – but also force quite a number of rebels … basically to flee. . “
Solohubenko says the Ukrainian military will now likely push towards two major regional centers: Luhansk and Donetsk. But he believes that the takeover of Donetsk will be a serious military challenge for the army.
“Sloviansk was a city of 100,000 inhabitants. Donetsk is over a million, ”says Solohubenko. “It’s a very big place. So when I say “militarily”, it’s a major turnaround, it’s not the end of the story yet. “
Support for pro-Russian rebels in these large eastern cities is unclear now. The BBC reporter notes that a rally held this weekend in Donetsk drew several thousand rebel supporters. But, he says, those numbers are pale compared to numbers seen at rallies in recent months.
“The main concern is not so much the possible attack – [Donetsk citizens] do not believe that there will be a massive strike by Ukrainian forces against the city – but lawlessness and lack of security in the city, ”Solohubenko said.
Ukrainian military officials say they intend to blockade the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk until rebel forces lay down their arms and surrender.
“It means a situation similar to what happened in Sloviansk,” says Solohubenko, “I think they said peaceful civilians could leave and they would open the corridors to them. The rebels had a choice between surrendering their weapons and surrendering. or take an earlier proposal from Ukrainian President Poroshenko to leave and visit Russia.
Yet for civilians wishing to flee the region, leaving the city might not be so easy, suggests Solohubenko. It would have been almost impossible to buy train tickets out of town and some of the bridges around Donetsk were destroyed.
“The options are very, very limited for civilians to leave,” Solohubenko explains.
When asked if Ukraine will be unified soon, the BBC reporter replied that he thought so, with a caveat.
“But I don’t think it will ever be the same again,” he said. “If you look at the logic of what President Putin wanted to achieve just seven months ago…
“As a result of the annexation of Crimea and what was happening in eastern Ukraine … I think the result is the opposite. Ukraine is more patriotic, more nationalistic … and it’s much more anti-Russian. “