Published May 29. 2014 4:00AM
Donetsk, Ukraine - The Ukrainian government vowed to push ahead Wednesday with military operations against pro-Russian separatists in the embattled east of the country after a big show of strength routing rebels from this city's international airport.
Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine's president-elect, said the "anti-terrorist operation" against the rebels, whom he has likened to Somali pirates, "has finally really begun." In an interview with Germany's Bild newspaper, Poroshenko, 48, said he was in close contact with the Ukrainian interim government in Kiev.
Ukraine's military on Tuesday used Soviet-era fighter jets and attack helicopters to pound rebels and retake Donetsk's Sergei Prokofiev International Airport. The rebels, who said they suffered a heavy loss of life in the two-day operation, had seized the airport, the nation's second-largest, in this eastern city on Monday, a day after Ukraine's presidential and mayoral elections.
Exchanges of machine-gun fire and explosions continued near the airport Wednesday.
Poroshenko, one of Ukraine's richest tycoons, convincingly won the May 25 presidential election in the first round. He said after his victory that he wants to pursue talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, although he accused Russia of instigating the violence in the east.
"Russia's goal was, and is, to keep Ukraine so unstable that we accept everything that the Russians want," Poroshenko said in the interview. "I have no doubt that Putin could, with his direct influence, end the fighting."
Poroshenko said he intended to call on the United States for military supplies and training. He spoke Tuesday to President Barack Obama and was scheduled to meet with him in Europe next week.
In a commencement speech Wednesday at the U.S. Military Academy, Obama used the example of Ukraine to tout his emphasis on multilateral action. For some critics, "working through international institutions like the U.N., or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness," he said. "I think they're wrong."
"In Ukraine, Russia's recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe," Obama said. "But this isn't the Cold War. Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away." Speaking to cadets and top U.S. Army leaders, Obama said the U.S.-led "mobilization of world opinion and institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks."
Welcoming Sunday's presidential vote and noting his conversation with Poroshenko, Obama said: "We don't know how the situation will play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead. But standing with our allies on behalf of international order, working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future - without us firing a shot."
In eastern Ukraine, Donetsk Mayor Aleksandr Lukyanchenko said on his website that the city, capital of a region declared a sovereign republic by separatists after a chaotic referendum on self-rule, was "relatively calm" Wednesday morning.
But in the town of Marinka, about 20 miles west of Donetsk, 11 monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were detained by an unidentified armed group for about seven hours Wednesday after being stopped at a roadblock, OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said.
He said the monitors, including one American, were released Wednesday evening under unclear circumstances and were escorted back to Donetsk. They had been on their way to another part of the country for security reasons, Bociurkiw said.
Four other OSCE monitors are still missing after disappearing near Donetsk on Monday night. The OSCE lost contact with the four - from Estonia, Denmark, Switzerland and Turkey - when they were stopped at a separatist checkpoint, Bociurkiw said.
Denis Pushilin, a leader of the so-called "Donetsk People's Republic," addressed a rally of a few hundred people in Donetsk's Lenin Square on Wednesday, issuing a call to the region's miners to join the separatist fight.
He told the rally that he would not give up, that this was their home. As he spoke, surrounded by bodyguards and wearing a bulletproof vest under his blue suit, a Ukrainian military jet roared in the distance above the city's airport, which remained closed Wednesday.
Pushilin said the rebels would continue to defy Ukrainian ultimatums to lay down their arms. He also said more volunteers-"our brothers"-were coming from friendly regions and states to Donetsk as reinforcements.
"We are not going to leave, and we are not going to surrender. This is our land and our home. We will protect our land and our home," Pushilin said. "We are getting stronger and stronger. "
Asked in a brief interview on Tuesday whether fighters were coming from Chechnya, Pushilin replied that volunteers were coming from all over - "even Europe" - and that no one could stop them from defending the Donetsk People's Republic.
"We are agreed. We will go on to victory," Pushilin said.
Chechnya's regional leader said he had not sent any fighters into eastern Ukraine but that some may have gone themselves on "personal business."
Ramzan Kadyrov took to Instagram on Wednesday to dispute reports of Chechen fighters in Ukraine's separatist movement.
"Ukrainian sources are spreading reports that some 'Chechen units' from Russia have broken into Donetsk. I am officially declaring that this does not correspond to the facts," Kadyrov said on Instagram.
Chechen authorities cannot keep track of every citizen's travel, Kadyrov wrote.
But Kadyrov, a close political ally of Putin's, has already been involved in Ukraine's crisis. Earlier this week, Kadyrov told Russia's Izvestia newspaper that he had personally engineered the release of two Russian journalists who had been held by Ukrainian authorities for more than a week.
Russia's top diplomat has warned Kiev against going any further in its military assault on separatists. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow that any escalation would be a "colossal mistake," according to the Russian news agency Interfax.
Lavrov lashed out Wednesday at unnamed states or actors, who he said are trying to drive a "wedge" through Ukraine. Lavrov warned that Ukraine's crisis is worsening.
"The people are essentially being pushed into the abyss of a fratricidal war," Lavrov said at a meeting in Moscow, according to Interfax.
In the rebel stronghold of Slovyansk, meanwhile, local media reported more shelling Wednesday, as Russian officials appeared to pivot from what was initially a cold, but vaguely conciliatory, response to Poroshenko's election victory, to declaring his authority an outright failure.
"Civil war is underway. Kiev is fighting with its own people," said Leonid Slutsky, a Russian lawmaker who heads the committee dealing with Russian relations with the former Soviet republics. "Poroshenko's arrival has not stopped the violence, but has accelerated the growth of violence and civilian casualties in Donbas," Slutsky said, according to Interfax.
Russia's Foreign Ministry also called on Ukrainian authorities to deliver "immediate humanitarian aid" to eastern Ukraine to cope with the fighting. In Kiev, Ukrainian activists also used social media to call on their compatriots to provide medicine and donations to the eastern military effort.