Ukraine crisis: Can Kiev gain the upper hand?

Ukrainian Army soldiers line up in front of Pro-Russia civilians who where blocking the road in the Andreevka, Ukraine, 2 May 2014 Image copyright AP
Image caption Ukraine's army has started to move in on pro-Russian militants in eastern towns and cities

Ukrainian government forces have begun to challenge pro-Russian insurgents in the country's east more aggressively - and for the first time are winning back territory.

After vicious battles in and around Kramatorsk, pro-Kiev troops have reportedly recaptured the town's television station and security services building.

Elsewhere in the east, fighting also rages. There are reports of clashes near Andreevka, Kostyantynivka and the rebel base of Sloviansk.

The government seems finally to be taking the battle to the separatists, but can it gain the upper hand?

And eventually, many ask, can this newly muscular campaign unite the country, or will it divide it further and possibly provide a pretext for a Russian invasion?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Several cities in the east and south have become deeply divided as the crisis continues

After all, the pro-Russian gunmen still control towns and official buildings throughout Ukraine's east.

And for each government advance, there are setbacks elsewhere.

Disloyal forces?

In the past 24 hours, pro-Russian militants have stormed the governor's office in Donetsk. In the southern port of Mariupol, they ransacked a bank and the local headquarters of the Fatherland political party, led by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Moreover, locations that previously seemed somewhat stable are now at flashpoint.

The cosmopolitan, usually devil-may-care city of Odessa is today a powder keg, after pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian activists fought a street war on Friday, leaving more than 40 dead.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The deaths in Odessa have become a rallying cry for pro-Russian groups

The majority of these were pro-Russian supporters who perished in a fire in a trade union building.

The clashes underscored the passivity - and possible disloyalty - of Ukraine's police forces, who stood by and watched the mayhem unfold, and, if video footage is to be believed, provided cover for pro-Russian protesters shooting at, and killing, pro-Ukrainians.

But the Odessa events also point to the deepening divisions in Ukrainian society.

Pro-Russian supporters appear to be a minority among the general population. And if materials provided by Ukrainian and Western officials are to be believed, they are being supported and directed from Moscow.

But there is nevertheless a significant subgroup of Ukrainians who back the movement. And many more who seem to be sitting on the fence, or are ready to lend passive support.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Kiev risks alienating civilians if it cracks down hard on separatists

Already, pro-Russian supporters in the east are using revenge for the deaths of their comrades in Odessa as a rallying cry.

Since taking power in February, Ukraine's leaders have faced a damned-if-they-do-damned-if-they-don't dilemma in dealing with the unidentified - but well-equipped - pro-Russian gunmen who first over-ran Crimea and now are steadily spreading their influence through the rest of Ukraine.

If they crack down strongly, they risk killing civilians and local residents who have joined the separatist movement.

Many in the east, though they support Ukrainian unity, view the new government in Kiev with a high level of suspicion, if not outright hostility.

Rivers of blood on the streets of Sloviansk, Donetsk and other towns, with many local boys among the casualties, could raise this sentiment to critical mass.

Will Russia invade?

But if they do nothing, or pursue a cautious approach, then the pro-Moscow separatists will most likely continue their slow march of taking over all of eastern Ukraine (a campaign that has barely halted for one day), seizing hostages and ultimately creating their own separate republic, under the protection of the Kremlin.

Adding to the government's nervousness and uncertainty is the "will they?/won't they?" debate surrounding the prospect of a Russian invasion.

The Kremlin may have already decided a long time ago that it would send troops into Ukraine, and may now be just waiting for the right moment.

However, there is also the prospect that events on the ground are influencing President Vladimir Putin's calculus.

He has threatened Moscow could intervene militarily, if Ukraine's Russian speakers are seen to be threatened. But so far he hasn't announced an invasion.

Full-scale fighting in the east could be what convinces him to pull the trigger, so to speak - or else if the pro-Russian forces begin to lose dramatically.

It is also unclear what, behind closed doors, Western leaders' attitudes are towards Kiev's military campaign, given the risks involved. In public, at least, they defend Kiev's right to restore order within its borders.

All agree the main goal at the moment is to keep Ukraine whole. But it's not clear what policy, if any, can accomplish this.

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