SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — The young Ukrainian national guardsman standing at the checkpoint just outside this former rebel stronghold nervously scanned the faces of the car full of foreign journalists, and contemplated if he should let them pass.
“No one said you guys were coming. I’m not sure how you got into the city,” the guardsman said, as the men in the car got out so he could search the vehicle for weapons or suspected pro-Russian militiamen trying to escape.
The anxious soldier had good reason to be on edge. Just a few days ago, the place where his three-man checkpoint now stood was in the hands of pro-Russian militants, who had held the city of 120,000 for almost three months as a strategic center of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.
Before manning this checkpoint, Roman, who did not want to give his surname, said he had been stationed about 2 miles away at Ukrainian military Block Post 1, called the “Fish Farm” because of its location next to an aquaculture center.
About 10 days ago, rebel tanks rolled up in the middle of the night and opened fire. The Ukrainian side lost four men in the surprise attack — three paratroopers and one national guardsman. That deadly attack was before Ukraine’s battle against pro-Russian separatists made a pivotal turn last week, when it recaptured the rebel centers of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. Since then, more rebel-held cities have fallen, and the Ukrainian forces have narrowed their encirclement of the separatists they say are funded and supported by the Kremlin.
But even though the Ukrainian government appears to have gained some momentum, the worst may be yet to come in the battle for the east. The next phase of Ukraine’s fight against the anti-government insurgency will be critical, and it could involve deadly and destructive urban battles, most analysts say.
On some levels it has already begun. On Friday, 23 Ukrainian troops and border guards were killed in an intense rebel missile attack on a government post near the Russian border in the Luhansk region. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry reported that the rebels had fired on the Ukrainian post with Grad missiles, a Russian-made artillery system typically launched from a military truck bed.
But it is the major city of Donetsk that is the main focus. When the rebels fled Slovyansk, thousands of them headed south into Donetsk, a city with a population of about 1 million. There the rebels have regrouped and are now digging in to prepare for a siege by the Ukrainian forces. They are patrolling Donetsk’s streets with automatic weapons and living in university dormitories, hospital wards and apartments left behind by residents who have fled the war. Many of the city’s once bustling central cafés and shops are either empty or out of business, thanks to a lack of customers.
Ukraine’s government now faces a choice on how to end the insurgency if it pursues the military option: use more heavy shelling, as in Slovyansk, or engage in an urban guerrilla war in the center of Ukraine’s fourth-largest city.
“Either they play to their strengths and use long-range firepower and blast the city apart, resulting in inevitable civilian casualties, or they do it street by street, and we’re going to see a lot of body bags on the TV news,” said Mark Galeotti, a Russian security expert and professor at New York University. “It’s not an easy decision.”
The Ukrainian government’s antiterrorist operation thus far has tried to surround the separatists' territory, secure the border with Russia and cut off the rebels’ supply of weapons, volunteer mercenary fighters and funding, said Oleksiy Melnyk, a security expert at the Razumkov Center, a think tank in Kiev.
In Slovyansk, the tactic entailed heavy artillery shelling against rebel posts and bases, which were often located in and around civilian complexes. In the end the shelling worked, albeit with a heavy cost to civilian apartment buildings, which were left with deep scars of war after mortar rounds made gaping holes in the concrete structures. The rebels eventually left as loyalty for the separatists waned under the pressure of the bombardment, and as the city’s infrastructure fell apart with no water, electricity or food supplies.
But Donetsk could be different. The self-declared leader of the pro-Russian militants, Igor Girkin, a Russian citizen who goes by the nom de guerre Strelkov, has said his troops are prepared to fight the enemy until the end to prevent Ukrainian forces from entering the city.
Their daily attacks on Ukrainian posts and bases continue. Earlier this week, they attacked bridges leading into Donetsk to stop government troops from advancing, and they tried to recapture the government-controlled regional airport.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has ruled out more cease-fires or talks unless the pro-Russian militias agree to lay down their weapons. He has promised that there would be no airstrikes against the city of Donetsk, an option both Galeotti and Melnyk said might be difficult to avoid, given the government’s other options.
Perhaps the most unknown variable is what Russia, which Kiev and its Western supporters accuse of supporting the eastern Ukrainian insurgency, will do next in the crisis. Russian support — either through diplomatic pressure or direct logistical help — has been difficult to measure or predict.
In recent days, the Kremlin has backpedaled from the pro-Russian separatists, despite rebel leader Strelkov’s public pleas for support from Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Russia has also not ruled out the possibility of sending in “peacekeeping forces” to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians being attacked by Kiev. Some analysts said this could come in the form of Russia’s air force, which could launch strikes to eliminate Ukraine’s own ability to use artillery to bomb the rebel-held areas.
“There is still a high possibility of a Russian incursion into the east,” said Anton Mikhnenko, the editor of Ukrainian Defense Review. “If it does, of course Kiev will not be able to win.”
But some believe there are still shreds of hope that peace can be found in the bloody conflict, Galeotti said.
Poroshenko has been firm about not negotiating with those he calls “terrorists,” but he has said he is willing to talk about amnesty to those separatists who have not committed any crimes.
If the separatists can been persuaded to lay down their weapons, Poroshenko has agreed to allow some sort of greater autonomy for the region, which could help reincorporate those eastern Ukrainians who feel disassociated with Kiev’s new Western stance.
“The odds are stacked against peace, but let’s not assume it’s not possible yet,” Galeotti said.