Fighting in Ukraine kills dozens

By C.J. Chivers and Noah Sneider / New York Times News Service

NATO military spending — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a forceful case Friday for European members of NATO to increase their military spending, calling Russia’s intervention in Ukraine a “clarifying moment” for the alliance.

“In recent years, one of the biggest obstacles to alliance investment has been a sense that the end of the Cold War ushered in an end of history, an end to insecurity, at least in Europe, and the end of aggression by nation-states,” Hagel said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “But Russia’s actions in Ukraine shatter that myth.”

Hagel’s comments, referring to Russia’s recent annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine and efforts by pro-Russian forces since then to take control of more of the country, came as violence intensified between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine.

NATO’s Eastern European members have said they are increasingly nervous about Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the alliance’s ability to counter them.

— New York Times News Service

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — Two days after Ukraine’s interim government declared itself all but helpless to control events in the eastern part of the country, Ukrainian military and police forces Friday resumed their effort to retake this rebel-controlled city, forcing armed separatists from the city’s outskirts with armored vehicles, helicopters and ground troops — and seemingly pushing ever closer to a confrontation with Moscow.

The assault began before dawn, and by early morning church bells sounded a general alarm. With helicopters flying along the city’s edge, troops and armored personnel carriers approached the city from multiple sides. The fighting was brief and then sporadic, however, and clashes subsided by early afternoon, before resuming at night.

When movements stopped, the Ukrainian troops had advanced, capturing and holding separatist checkpoints and posting infantry and armored vehicles on a bridge overlooking rail lines by the city’s southern border.

Violence also erupted Friday in the previously calmer port city of Odessa, on the Black Sea, where dozens of people died in a fire related to clashes that broke out between protesters holding a march for Ukrainian unity and pro-Russian activists. The fighting itself left four dead and 12 wounded, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said. Ukrainian and Russian media showed images of buildings and debris burning, fire bombs being assembled and men armed with pistols.

The deaths expand the increasingly violent struggle for control over Ukraine’s Black Sea port, which had been quiet until last week, when seven people were wounded in a roadside bombing.

The government’s actions in Slovyansk drew an immediate and indignant protest from the Kremlin, which said Ukraine had effectively destroyed a plan negotiated last month with the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union intended to de-escalate tensions.

Blaming the authorities in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Dmitry Peskov, told Russian news agencies that “the Kiev regime ordered combat aircraft to fire at civilian towns and villages, launching a punitive operation.”

Moscow repeated its warning that it reserved the right to intervene to protect its interests and Russian-leaning residents of eastern Ukraine. But there were no signs of an imminent move across the border.

Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, speaking in New York, described Ukrainian military operations as “punitive” and said there were English-speaking foreigners among what he called “ultranationalist groups” in Slovyansk. He accused his Western rivals of double standards, noting that while they had called on Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, to exercise restraint, they condoned the use of force by the current leaders in Kiev.

The U.S. ambassador, Samantha Power, accused Russia of spreading lies and described Ukraine’s reaction to Russian provocation as “reasonable.”

“The Ukrainian people and government have embarked on an effort today to reclaim one city in the eastern part of their country,” she said. “Their response is reasonable, it is proportional, and frankly it is what any one of our countries would have done in the face of this threat.”

The Ukrainian army units in Slovyansk did not seem eager to engage the militants fully and appeared to limit their activities for the day to tightening a cordon around the militant stronghold. The city’s center remained under the control of anti-government militias, who manned barricades as streets fell nearly silent ahead of what residents feared could become a general assault.

“They are coming at us from all sides,” said one fighter in camouflage and sneakers, who gave his name as Sergei, and who held a Kalashnikov assault rifle and said he was a veteran of the Soviet Army.

Both the government and the separatist forces said two helicopters were brought down in the fighting, with at least one crew member killed. These reports could not be verified, and hours later the wreckage had not been found by independent observers.

Late at night, the Ukrainian government said two members of an airborne brigade had been killed, apparently in the brief but intense evening clash at the bridge, which by day had been held by airborne troops.

Earlier, as the first round of fighting died down, Ukrainian troops were posted at their newly captured positions in the villages of Bylbasovka and Andreyevka on the city’s perimeter, where residents flocked to argue with them and urge them not to fight.

Much of eastern Ukraine slipped beyond the control of the authorities in Kiev as pro-Russian militants began taking control of a string of official buildings more than three weeks ago. The separatists have also captured a German-led team of military observers affiliated with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Both sides gave competing accounts about the fighting Friday, agreeing only on the unverified claim that at least two Ukrainian helicopters had been hit by ground fire. The Defense Ministry in Kiev said two Mi-24 attack helicopters had been shot down, killing at least two airmen.

The Ukrainian domestic intelligence agency, SBU, said that one helicopter had been brought down with a heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missile and suggested that the presence of such a weapon showed the separatists had outside support.

By night in Ukraine, neither side had shown clear evidence of heat-seeking missiles or downed aircraft, although one pro-Russian television station showed footage of what it said was a captured pilot.

Vyachislav Ponomaryov, the self-appointed mayor of Slovyansk, said four or five members of the city’s anti-government militias had been killed and at least three others wounded. His figures could not be corroborated.