LUHANSK, Ukraine — Pro-Russian insurgents dislodged government troops from three bases in eastern Ukraine, a new blow to the beleaguered armed forces as the president-elect promised new initiatives Wednesday to help end the mutiny in the country’s industrial heartland.
Petro Poroshenko, speaking in Warsaw after meeting with President Barack Obama and other Western leaders, rejected a call from Ukraine’s interim authorities to introduce martial law in the restive east. Poroshenko said he would seek to pacify the region with an offer of amnesty and a promise of early regional elections.
The move follows nearly two months of fighting in the region, where pro-Russia rebels have seized government buildings, declared two sprawling provinces independent and fought government forces.
Poroshenko’s offer, expected to be detailed in his inaugural address on Saturday, came as the Ukrainian troops suffered a series of humiliating setbacks on Wednesday.
After hours of fighting in which six militants were killed and three Ukrainian servicemen were injured, the National Guard forces ran out of ammunition and had to leave their base near the eastern city of Luhansk.
Also Wednesday, rebels seized a border guard base on the city’s outskirts following a nearly two-day-long siege and forced guards out of another base in the nearby town of Sverdlovsk on the Russian border. The guards there were granted a safe exit and left with their weapons.
A rebel fighter who gave only his first name, Andrei, said they want to create a “humanitarian corridor” that would allow civilians to flee to Russia to escape the fighting.
The setbacks highlighted the ineffectiveness of Ukraine’s badly trained and cash-starved armed forces, which also have been plagued by bad communication and poor supply lines.
Ukraine’s provisional authorities have blamed the recent military failures on pro-Russia former President Viktor Yanukovych, claiming that his corrupt government starved soldiers of resources and training.
The fund shortage is so desperate that the Defence Ministry had to set up a charity account to support the armed forces while volunteers across the country have been buying provisions for the soldiers.
Obama, in Warsaw for a celebration on the 25th anniversary of Poland’s first partially free election, praised Poroshenko for reaching out to the east, while offering $5 million in new aid for Ukraine’s military — for equipment that could help in the fight against the insurgents.
The White House said the aid would include, for the first time, body armour and night-vision goggles for the use of troops. The United States already has provided ready-to-eat meals and money for medical supplies and other non-lethal assistance, including clothing, sleeping bags and generators.
Many Ukrainian units in the east are manned by poorly-trained conscripts, who come from the region and appear reluctant to engage the rebels.
In the skirmishes overnight into Wednesday, Alexei Toporov, a spokesman for the insurgents in Luhansk, said the guards were fleeing, and the insurgents did not try to detain them.
“We released them and let them go home, we impeded nobody,” he said. “They left their weapons, and this base is now coming under the control of the Luhansk People’s Republic.”
An Associated Press reporter saw pro-Russian militia carrying crates of ammunition and explosives out of the base on Wednesday and driving away in border guards’ cars. Ukraine’s Border Guard Service said that the troops from that outpost had been evacuated to unspecified “safe locations.”
The fighting in the east has escalated following the May 25 presidential vote won by Poroshenko, with rebels launching an attack on a major airport, shooting down a government helicopter, and besieging a number of military bases.
Trying to regain the initiative, Ukrainian troops on Tuesday launched an offensive against pro-Russian insurgents in Slovyansk, a city that sits on a strategic highway about 90 kilometres (55 miles) north of Donetsk, the largest city in the east. Vladislav Seleznyov, a government spokesman for the anti-rebel operation, said two government soldiers were killed and 42 injured in daylong fighting. Seleznyov put the death toll of the rebels at 300, but the insurgents rejected his claim.
In Kyiv, Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov — who will hand over to Poroshenko on Saturday — asked Ukraine’s Security and Defence Council late Tuesday to consider imposing martial law in parts of eastern Ukraine in a bid to stabilize the situation.
Poroshenko dismissed that idea, saying that it would not serve peace efforts in the east.
Speaking in English, Poroshenko said he will use his inauguration to make a proposal to restore law, order and peace. It would include a wide amnesty, and the “creation of the conditions for early local elections,” as part of efforts to reform Ukraine’s local administrations.
Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin will be among many world leaders in France this week to attend events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II.
There were no immediate plans for the two leaders to meet there, Poroshenko said, while adding: “Everything is possible.”
Asked if he’s ready to meet with Poroshenko in Normandy, Putin said in an interview with French media that was broadcast Wednesday that “I don’t plan to evade anyone.”
“I think Mr. Poroshenko, who has no blood on his hands so far, has a unique chance to halt this punitive operation now and start a dialogue with people in southeastern Ukraine.” Putin said.
He said that he’s also ready to meet with Obama despite sharp U.S.-Russian differences over Ukraine. “I am always ready for dialogue, and I think that dialogue is the best way to bridge any gaps,” he said.
Putin accused the West of triggering the Ukrainian crisis by backing the ouster of Yanukovych, and again denied Ukrainian and Western claims that Russia has sent its agents to foment the mutiny in eastern Ukraine. “There are no armed forces, no Russian ’instructors’ in southeastern Ukraine. There never have been.”