So much for Ukraine's military operation in the east. Both columns of supposedly elite troops and armored vehicles sent to the region surrendered without a fight yesterday in the face of peaceful resistance from civilians, a defeat so humiliating that one Kiev politician tried to pretend it was actually cunning ploy in which the vehicles had opted to fly Russian flags in a clever bid to sail past the crowds. In what the New York Times calls a "tactical error," the vehicles didn't have accompanying crowd-control forces. So the column en route to Slovyansk, unwilling to fire on its own people, was helpless when confronted by drunken, rowdy civilians, backed by well-armed militiamen.
"I am a soldier. I protect the people. I won't shoot you," one soldier said, removing his rifle's magazine. Within minutes the column had surrendered. Militiamen paraded the vehicles into Slovyansk, spun them for the crowd, and parked them under Russian flags. A second column on the outskirts of Kramatorsk had the same problem, eventually striking a deal with the militia to hand over their guns in exchange for passage back the way they had come. Meanwhile and elsewhere:
- Kiev's defense ministry initially refused to acknowledge that its vehicles had been taken, and Fatherland Party leader Sergei Sobolev said it was actually a crafty "guerrilla approach" to infiltrate Slovyansk . It wasn't.
- Residents in Slovyansk , expecting an attack at the hands of Ukrainian forces, tell the Guardian they were surprised—and in some cases relieved—to see the vehicles. "We were very afraid. Now we are reassured. The tanks are here to protect us," one woman said. But another said he was "suspicious" of the masked gunmen. "I'm Ukrainian. This should be Ukrainian territory."
- The gunmen didn't try to hide their allegiance. "I'm Russian," one said.
- Not all confrontations were so bloodless. Three separatists were killed and 13 wounded last night while attacking a Ukrainian national guard headquarters in Mariupol, Reuters reports. "They came here around 8:15pm, demanding that we surrender our weapons and join the people," a police major said. "Then they used a truck to break through the gate."
- A separatist representative described the Mariupol incident as a "peacefully rally," though he admitted that "some people came with Molotov cocktails."
- One Russian news portal is reporting that deposed president Viktor Yanukovych, who is currently living in Russia, will return to eastern Ukraine this weekend.
- All of this is happening as Ukrainian, Western, and Russian diplomats arrive in Geneva for yet another round of emergency talks; Europe and the US are threatening even more sanctions if Russia doesn't back off.