Two Ukrainian government helicopters were shot down on Friday as the Ukrainian government began a crackdown on pro-Russian separatists in an attempt to restore stability to the country. One of the helicopters was shot down by a surface-to-air-missile, something the Ukrainian government believes demonstrates that Russia is supplying weapons to the separatists. One pro-Russian fighter was supposedly killed in the first offensive. The Kremlin has criticized the offensive, saying it demonstrates Ukraine is not serious about peace.
Two Ukrainian helicopters were shot down Friday as Ukraine launched its first major offensive against the pro-Russia forces that have seized government buildings in the east. The Kremlin said Kiev’s move against the insurgents “destroyed” hopes for peace in the region.
Fighting broke out around dawn near Slovyansk, a city 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the Russian border that has become the focus of the armed insurgency against Ukraine’s interim government. Two helicopter crew were killed in the crashes, both sides said, and a pro-Russia militiaman was reported killed.
One of the helicopters was hit by a surface-to-air missile, the Ukrainian Security Service said, adding that the sophisticated weapon undercut Russia’s claims the city was simply under the control of armed locals. The agency said its forces were fighting “highly skilled foreign military men” in Slovyansk.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said the offensive “effectively destroyed the last hope for the implementation of the Geneva agreements” that aimed to defuse the crisis. A day earlier Putin warned Ukraine not to move against the insurgents and said it should withdraw its military from eastern and southern regions.
Ukraine, a nation of 46 million, is deeply divided between those in the west who favor closer ties with Europe and many Russian-speakers in the east who look toward Moscow.
Ukraine has accused Russia of backing the insurgents who have seized government buildings in 10 eastern cities and fears that Moscow is seeking a pretext to invade; Russia has already stationed tens of thousands of troops in areas near the Ukrainian border.
Russian troops backed separatists in Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March, then annexed the region after a referendum called for secession.
A deal in Geneva last month aimed to get those who had seized government buildings in Ukraine to leave and calm down the tensions that have prompted the United States and the European Union to slap Russia with sanctions for its actions in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov admitted earlier this week that the central government had lost control of the east, and said some government troops and police there were “either helping or cooperating with terrorist organizations.” He said efforts should be focused on preventing the instability from spreading to other parts of the country.