Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Monday named the fourth defense minister to the head of the nation’s beleaguered military in eight months and warned troops to expect to spend the winter on the front lines battling Russia-backed separatists.
A pro forma vote of the disbanded parliament set for Tuesday was expected to endorse the nomination of national guard commander Stepan Poltorak to replace Valery Heletey, who resigned Friday amid widespread criticism of his handling of the fighting in eastern Ukraine during his three months in the post.
Poltorak, 49, is a former commander of Interior Ministry troops who holds the rank of colonel general and a doctoral degree.
The change at the top of the military hierarchy, the third since a pro-European rebellion ousted former President Viktor Yanukovich in February, reflects the general disarray afflicting the armed forces. However, it may shield Poroshenko and his political allies from voters’ anger as they go to the polls on Oct. 26 to elect a new parliament.
Ukrainian forces suffered more than 100 deaths in a late-August rout by the pro-Russia separatists in the town of Ilovaisk, just east of the insurgents’ stronghold in Donetsk. The government troops were caught off guard by an invasion of Russian soldiers that cut off the forward units and prompted an entire battalion to retreat.
The defeat at Ilovaisk compelled Poroshenko to accept a cease-fire on Sept. 5 at peace talks in Minsk, Belarus, brokered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Fighting has died down in some of the conflict areas in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, although fierce battles are still raging for control of the Donetsk international airport. The United Nations human rights agency reported last week that at least 331 people had been killed since the cease-fire was declared.
Since the government launched an operation in April to retake territory seized by the separatists earlier this year at least 3,700 people have been killed, many of them civilians caught in the crossfire.
In a speech late Sunday, Poroshenko put the army on notice that troops should expect to remain deployed in eastern Ukraine throughout the winter and promised to provide warm uniforms and heating for their encampments.
“We cannot organize subtropical weather in the trenches, but soldiers must be dressed and heated in winter,” he said, according to the Ukrinform news agency.
At the government’s daily security briefing in Kiev, Col. Andriy Lysenko of the National Security and Defense Council said there were signs that Russian troops were pulling back from the border and out of positions inside Ukraine in the separatist-held areas.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the 17,600 troops along Ukraine’s eastern border to return to their bases, his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists on Sunday.
The Russia-backed separatists, however, continued to attack Ukrainian positions in five areas on Monday, Lysenko said, including the Donetsk airport that has been all but destroyed by five months of artillery exchanges.
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