KOMSOMOLSKE, UKRAINE – The town of Komsomolske, to the south east of the rebel stronghold of ukrainian army, has seen two rulers in the last three days.
On Friday, it was in the hands of government forces. By Sunday, it had fallen to the rebels, like many other towns in the region, after the separatists launched a lightning offensive.
“We arrived this morning, there was no fight,” said a rebel nicknamed “Shatun” (a bear awakened from hibernation).
As reporters entered the town, two Ukrainian vehicles could be seen driving away toward the west, the white flag of surrender flapping from their window.
Fighters were tinkering with abandoned Ukrainian armored personnel carriers, seemingly looking for things to do.
In this southeastern part of the war-torn region of Donbass, pro-Russian rebels have consolidated their grip, regaining control of areas either once out of their control or at risk.
The rebel stronghold of Donetsk, just north of Komsomolske, was encircled by Ukrainian forces for a month, but now rebels are lifting away the last roadblocks from the south east of the city.
Kiev sees the hand of Moscow behind the sudden reverse in fortunes for the rebels, although Russia denies being involved.
European Union leaders agreed on Saturday to draw up new economic sanctions against Moscow, a move hailed by the United States, which is planning tighter sanctions of its own and wants to act jointly with Europe.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Sunday for immediate talks on the “statehood” of southern and eastern Ukraine, although his spokesman said this did not mean Moscow now endorsed rebel calls for independence for territory they have seized.
Talks should be held immediately “and not just on technical issues but on the political organization of society and statehood in southeastern Ukraine,” Putin said in an interview with Channel 1 state television, his hair tousled by wind on the shore of a lake.
Moscow, for its part, he said, could not stand aside while people were being shot “almost at point blank.”
Putin’s use of the word “statehood” was interpreted in Western media as implying backing for the rebel demand of independence, something Moscow has so far stopped short of publicly endorsing.
However, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no new endorsement from Moscow for rebel independence. Asked if “New Russia,” a term pro-Moscow rebels use for their territory, should still be part of Ukraine, Peskov said: “Of course.”
“Only Ukraine can reach an agreement with New Russia, taking into account the interests of New Russia, and this is the only way to reach a political settlement.”
The fighters encountered by reporters in the region this weekend were wearing unmarked fatigues that made it impossible to tell either their battalion, their division or who had sent them.
Some wear a strip of white cloth as armband, although that, too, keeps their identity a mystery.
The Soviet-made T-64 assault tanks spotted near Starobesheve had only one number to mark them out, at the back.
One pro-Russia rebel perched on the side of a tank, however, was decisive that the tanks were not taken from the Ukrainians.
“No, they are ours,” he told reporters, before his colleague talked over him, to defer. “Yes, we took them from the Ukrainians,” he added, quickly.
The Kiev-led bombardment of the rebel strongholds has dimmed in the last few days, and now it seems the rebels control of the area between Donetsk, the Russian border in the east and the south, and the territory up to the port city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea.
On Sunday, the Ukrainian security spokesman Andriy Lysenko admitted that the “terrorists and Russian military had tightened their grip” on the area.
In Komsomolske, “Shatun” says his group had let any Ukrainian soldier who wanted to leave, escape.
Sat in an ambulance in the town, three exhausted-looking young Ukraine soldiers, dressed in civilian clothes, say they were injured after their column came under attack.
“We hid for three days in the country, but then the people told us to come to Komsomolske and the DNR (the Donetsk People’s Republic) would let us go,” said one.
In Starobesheve, a 20 minute drive to the north, two rebel fighters who gave the names Durnya and Tarakan are sat on their tank, all smiles.
A few days ago, the rebels found dozens of munitions cases dropped by government troops as they fled.
“Our counter-offensive is confirmed,” said Durnya, a miner from Luhansk who learned to drive a tank in the army 28 years ago, but who has returned to the frontline to fight against his former employer.
On a hill nearby, one yellow and blue flag belonging to some remaining holdouts waves in the wind.
“They know they are surrounded, they are afraid of everything,” he said.
The people on the ground here are left speculating about where the separatists will stop and where might be next to fall.
Near Mariupol, loyalists are reinforcing their trenches with blocks of concrete. The volunteer battalions are still here, but the loyalist forces and armored vehicles needed to defend the port are few and far between.
But the separatist fiefdom of Luhansk, or Donetsk airport, which has been in the hands of the Ukrainian Army since the end of May, could be other targets.
In Donetsk, a huge poster covering a wall at the entrance to the city depicts an image of conquering soldiers.
“The destiny of the Russian people is for history to repeat itself,” it says, above the dates of World War I, World War II, and 2014.