New Ukraine humiliation as tanks seized by militia
Ukraine's armed forces and government suffered a public humiliation yesterday after pro-Russian separatists seized six of their armoured personnel vehicles and paraded them through the streets.
Shouts of "Russia! Russia!" from crowds gathered in the rebel-held eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk greeted the vehicles as they drove past the town hall.
They had been seized earlier from Ukrainian troops in Kramatorsk, a 20-minute drive from Slavyansk, having been sent to dislodge an armed rebellion that is quickly consolidating control of the area.
"Let's say we didn't buy them in a shop," said a masked gunman lounging against the side of one of the vehicles.
"We came by them in the course of things, if you know what I mean."
The pro-Russian gunmen showing off their prizes in the town square claimed that the Ukrainian crews had defected.
Other reports suggested they were forced to surrender.
Either way, their presence in the park yesterday afternoon was a propaganda coup for the separatists and an unmitigated humiliation for Ukraine's post-revolutionary government.
About 40 Ukrainian servicemen were put on buses out of town, suggesting that they, at least, had not changed sides.
"They made a decision to give us their vehicles," said a gunman who gave his name only as Vladimir and said he was an army veteran from Donetsk.
A few miles away, another 15 armoured troop carriers full of Ukrainian paratroopers were surrounded and halted by a pro-Russian crowd at Cholkino, a town near an airbase.
As the standoff developed, attack helicopters circled and a Ukrainian air force jet flew so low over the scene that the roar of its engines blew blossom off nearby fruit trees and set off car alarms.
But neither the helicopters nor the repeated fighter passes could do anything.
Faced with a large crowd and reluctant to use force on civilians, the paratroopers had little choice but to park up and await instructions.
In stages, the isolated troops were persuaded first to remove the clips from their rifles, then to surrender the firing pins in their weapons, and finally to give up their ammunition, which was loaded into a truck.
Kiev's interim government is still committed to four-party talks with Russia, the European Union and the United States in Geneva today.
Russia's key demand at the talks is for Ukraine to assume a federal system of government that would grant its eastern regions a much greater degree of autonomy.
Ukrainian leaders have said they are ready to consider devolving powers to the regions, but have denounced full federalisation as a path to Russian annexation by other means. But yesterday's military debacle will make it even more difficult to resist such demands.
NATO has announced that it would send more ships, planes and troops to eastern Europe to reassure allies worried by Russia's annexation of Crimea but shied away from new permanent bases in the east as Poland wanted.
"You will see deployments at sea, in the air, on land to take place immediately, that means within days, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a news conference after NATO ambassadors agreed the measures.
NATO has made clear it will not intervene militarily in Ukraine – which is not a NATO member – despite Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and a build-up of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border.
Meanwhile, inside the city council chamber in Donetsk, the head of housing was reassuring his colleagues about the state of the municipal drains. Outside the door was a less ordinary scene.
Masked men armed with clubs, old shotguns and Kalashnikov assault rifles were standing guard. The city hall did its best to continue business as usual yesterday after pro-Russian separatists occupied the premises. (©Daily Telegraph, London)