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Ukraine’s Poroshenko dismisses rebel hopes for Donetsk battle

July 9, 2014 at 6:45 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now back to a story that has dominated international headlines for most of this year, the crisis in Ukraine. The country’s previously overwhelmed military has made significant gains recently, but separatists forces are consolidating and digging in.

The NewsHour’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner reports.

MARGARET WARNER: Dressed in military fatigues, a triumphant President Petro Poroshenko visited the eastern city of Slavyansk yesterday, lauding its return to government control.

PRESIDENT PETRO POROSHENKO, Ukraine(through interpreter): Slavyansk was a symbol of terror and violence before. Today, Slavyansk is a symbol of the liberated Donbass.

MARGARET WARNER: Ukrainian forces recaptured Slavyansk over the weekend, and Kramatorsk on Monday, two strongholds of pro-separatist rebels in the country’s industrial Donbass region.

For months, Ukrainian forces had appeared incapable of dealing with the Russian-backed insurgency. But last week, after Poroshenko lifted a unilateral cease-fire, they went on the march.

In liberated Slavyansk, the military removed rebel barricades and handed out food and water to weary residents.

WOMAN (through interpreter): The situation right now, it is hard to believe we have been rescued, that we are home now and we can be Ukrainians again.

MARGARET WARNER: The rebels have fallen back to the regional capital, Donetsk, a city of one million, and still hold buildings in Luhansk, near the Russian border. A rebel commander in Donetsk says his forces will have the advantage in urban warfare if government forces try to move in.

ALEXANDER KHODAKOVSKY, Secretary Chief, Donetsk People’s Republic (through interpreter): Now they are approaching a scenario that is least beneficial to them and most beneficial to us, a war in the city.

MARGARET WARNER: President Poroshenko dismissed that possibility yesterday, saying, there will be no street fighting in Donetsk. Still, the rebels say new separatist recruits are pouring in. On Sunday, thousands rallied in Donetsk.

MAN (through interpreter): I would take up arms tomorrow. And better to die on a barricade than be under the Ukrainian hoof.

MARGARET WARNER: But officials in Kiev claim the military now controls nearly two-thirds of the two regions where rebels had declared independence. They also say they have secured all road border crossings with Russia to try to prevent more Russian equipment and forces from entering.

In Washington today, senators pressed for U.S. new sanctions against Russia. But Assistant Secretary of state Victoria Nuland repeated the administration’s preference to act in concert with the Europeans.

VICTORIA NULAND, Assistant Secretary of State: We are continuing to prepare the next round of sanctions. As we have said repeatedly and as the president has said, these sanctions will be more effective, they will be stronger, if the U.S. and Europe work together.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, as the battlefield balance seems to tips it’s way, the Kiev government is taking a harder line, declaring that any talks on a new cease-fire will begin only when the rebels disarm.