New Front Opens in Battle Over Ukraine

May 02, 2014 at 5:39 PM ET

Overnight Ukrainian military and police forces launched a large-scale assault to reclaim eastern parts of the country, attacking pro-Russia separatists with armored vehicles, helicopters and ground troops. While Ukrainian forces managed to take control of separatist checkpoints, armed rebels shot down two Ukrainian helicopters, killing at least one crew member. Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov would say only that “many” pro-Russian insurgents were killed, wounded and arrested in the fighting.

This video shows one of the downed helicopters emitting smoke in the eastern city of Sloviansk:

For the past several weeks, the chief battles with rebel groups have taken place in eastern cities such as Donetsk, Kharkiv and Sloviansk. But some of the worst fighting happened Thursday and Friday in the previously tranquil port city of Odessa, on the Black Sea.

Protesters holding a march for Ukrainian unity in Odessa clashed with pro-Russian activists, leading civilians to try to reclaim the city’s administrative building from insurgents. During the ensuing fighting, both sides were seen lobbing flash grenades and Molotov cocktails. Journalist Howard Amos has been tweeting from the front lines in Odessa:

The fighting spilled over to the city’s rebel-occupied Trade Union building, where a fire broke out that killed at least 38 people.

May 1, or May Day, was marked by several rallies across Ukraine as well as in Moscow. The Russian rallies drew hundreds of thousands of people, many of them cheering Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea. Marchers held up signs that read, “I’m proud of my country” and “Let’s go to Crimea for vacation.”

Russian heads of state, for their part, could soon be heading to the country’s new peninsula. On May 9, or Victory Day—when the Nazis capitulated to the Soviets in World War II—President Putin may visit Sevastopol, a major port city in Crimea. Multiple reports suggest that pro-Russian separatists view May 9 as a day of heavy fighting, but the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has already moved to defuse potential clashes, detaining militants who were planning explosions for May 9 in the eastern cities of Kharkiv in Mykolaiv.

In Washington, D.C., President Obama delivered remarks on Ukraine Friday afternoon after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The two Western leaders again warned of stronger economic sanctions if Russia continues to support the separatists.

Back in Odessa, right-wing Ukrainian militias appear to be readying for a showdown with local rebels. On Friday, the Ukrainian ultranationalist group Pravy Sektor announced the mobilization of its forces in the city.