KIEV, Ukraine — Separatist rebels retreated Monday from positions in eastern Ukraine, apparently blowing up bridges, and began building barricades in the two largest cities, Donetsk and Luhansk, in anticipation of a final stand against advancing government troops.
While separatist leaders have complained bitterly about being sold out by their allies in Moscow, Ukrainian officials said Monday that they had succeeded in sealing the previously porous border with Russia, stopping the influx of new weapons and fighters.
The action Monday came after a series of surprising successes by Ukraine’s underequipped and underfunded military, which in recent days has driven the rebels from some strongholds that were seized early in the three-month rebellion. It has accomplished this without encountering strong resistance or a reaction from Moscow.
Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, called off a cease-fire last week and vowed to defeat the rebels on the battlefield. But that has raised the prospect of protracted and bloody urban warfare with significant civilian casualties.
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, who warned last week that he would not stand by while the safety of Russians was endangered, did not comment on the deteriorating situation. That was left to the foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who complained about damage to civilian areas but mentioned nothing about possible military action. The Kremlin appears to have taken that option off the table, in favor of a negotiated settlement that might install close allies of Russia as the governors of Donetsk and Luhansk.
“A quick end to the bloodshed is in our common interest,” Lavrov said at a news conference in Sofia, Bulgaria. “We believe that there can be no excuses, pretexts for postponing the immediate end of the shooting, as a result of which more peaceful civilians suffer, the outflow of refugees multiplies and civilian infrastructure is destroyed.”
In an apparent bid to slow the oncoming troops, the pro-Russian insurgents blew up two bridges on the road to Donetsk from Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, two long-occupied provincial cities where rebels were ousted over the weekend.
At the same time, Ukrainian officials said their troops were setting up blockades to isolate separatists. “The points of access to these cities are being blocked so that militants are not delivered weapons or manpower or other resources,” Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said at a briefing in Kiev.