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Surreal Video Footage Documents Ukrainian Military Operation

Just when you thought the Ukrainian conflict couldn't get more surreal, a video surfaced on  social media Friday that appears to show a Ukrainian helicopter pilot captured by pro-Russia militiamen who claim to have captured him after he had been wounded and abandoned by his colleagues in a field (obviously, a dubious claim). In the two-minute video, he appears gravely wounded and has been bandaged using a parachute. A man examining his injuries says he urgently needs to be transported the emergency room.

The video was released by an anti-government, pro-Russian YouTube account during a spate of fighting the near the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk. Kiev launched the operation as part of what appears to be a last-ditch effort to prevent the region from falling into the hands of pro-Russian fighters. Earlier this week, Ukraine's acting president conceded that his troops were helpless to control those anti-government militants. On Friday, Ukraine's armed forces attempted to recover some of their lost dignity, launching a military operation to reclaim control of government buildings in the city and evict rebels from a loose ring of checkpoints on the main roads leading into Slovyansk.

It's not clear if the operation will succeed. Ukrainian forces have regained some territory, but at least two of its helicopter have been shot down. One thing is clear, however: the fighting, much of which was captured on social media, makes for some riveting, if depressing, footage.

As the operation played out, video surfaced claiming to show a missile being fired at a helicopter near Slovyansk. The video in some ways raises more questions than it answers. The spread of such weapons terrifies Western officials -- who worry that terrorists might one day use them to shoot down civilian airplanes -- and their use in Ukraine would seem to suggest that Russia is providing highly advanced weaponry to its proxies in Ukraine. At this point, their use remains unconfirmed. 

Several videos also surfaced of Ukrainian attack helicopters circling Slovyansk. Here, one can be seen firing a rocket at an unseen position:

Ukrainian authorities also announced that they made arrests associated with the use of portable anti-aircraft missiles. Here, at a checkpoint near Slovyansk, four pro-Russian militants can be seen after being arrested on the suspicion of using MANPADS against Ukrainian helicopters.

 

Here's additional video of helicopters circling Slovyansk: 

Residents near Slovyansk tried to halt the advance of Ukrainian forces, who in this video appear to be firing their weapons in the air to clear the crowd. It doesn't go very well:

Elsewhere in the region, a similar scene played out. Here, pro-Russian separatists, seen in the distance at the right, block the road connecting Kramatorsk and Slavyansk, preventing the Ukrainian national guard from moving forward:

With Ukrainian soldiers having surrounded Slovyansk, images streamed out of the region showing them setting up barricades. 

Inside Slovyansk, pro-Russian militants remain. They can be distinguished by the yellow-and-red ribbons.

More pro-Russian separatists in action:

Meanwhile, in the southern port city of Odessa, a city some observers consider a possible next flashpoint in the crisis, tensions between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian protesters erupted into clashes Friday. According to Reuters, one man was shot dead. 

Here, an inter-generational effort during the Odessa clashes.

The Odessa police said in a statement that protesters had thrown gas bombs, stones from the pavement and "explosive devices."

The fighting in eastern Ukraine could drag on for days and get even worse if Moscow uses it as an excuse to invade. If today is any indication, YouTube may provide a front-row seat. 

Thanks to our colleague Christian Caryl for the assistance in translating from the Russian.

STR/AFP/Getty Images; GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

IGOR KOVALENKO/EPA

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May Day Celebrations Recall the Glory of the Soviet Union

A spectre of Russian domination is haunting Eastern Europe, and on this year's May Day, the traditional workers' parades in Russia and eastern Ukraine carried a distinct whiff of nostalgia for the glory days of the Soviet Union.

This year, the Moscow parade was held in the city's legendary Red Square, an old symbol of Soviet power, for the first time since the fall of the USSR in 1991. But the estimated crowd of 100,000 people that gathered there were celebrating more than just the achievements of the country's workers. Alongside the typical labor banners -- "Peace, Labor, May" -- marchers held signs indicating their support for the country's powerful president. "Putin is right," some read. Other placards mocked the Ukrainian government for being unable to prevent Russia from conquering and annexing Crimea: "Let's go to Crimea for vacation," according to the Associated Press.  

Putin participated in the event by awarding the "Hero of Labor" medal, a Soviet-era honor he reinstated last year, to a teacher, an Olympic coach, a farmer and museum director and oil company worker. "These people are creating a strong and successful Russia," he said. "They are true, non-fiction heroes." 

According to the Washington Post, there was one small, sad moment of dissent during the Moscow celebrations. In a bold move, seven protesters walked down one of Moscow's boulevards holding a Ukrainian flag and singing the country's national anthem. The video shows their bold protest and subsequent arrest.

By annexing the Crimean peninsula, an old Soviet possession, and proclaiming the need to protect ethnic Russians stranded in former Soviet republics, Putin has helped feed a longing for the Soviet Union, the collapse of which he famously described as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Thursday's Soviet-flavored May Day parades -- and arrests -- provided but the latest example of the way Putin has used the memory of a strong, imperial Soviet Union to his political benefit. May Day marches throughout Europe have long been marked by communist nostalgia, but with Putin apparently attempting to reclaim some of the USSR's old imperial holdings, this year's marches took on a new relevance.

This dynamic also played out in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has been accused by senior American officials of fomenting unrest that has seen armed gunmen seize a series of government buildings and proclaim a series of "people's republics."  On Wednesday, Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine's acting president, admitted that Kiev had effectively lost control of the country's east.

In the eastern city of Donetsk on Thursday, armed gunmen provided another reminder of the Ukrainian government's impotence by by taking over the local prosecutor's office while pro-Russian May Day marches were taking place.

In Kharkiv, another city marked by pro-Russian unrest, the May Day march was smaller than usual but it had a decidedly anti-government tone. "Kharkiv must stand up and fight! We won't be ruled by the junta government in Kiev!" one of the speakers yelled from a stage, according to the Kyiv Post. Another shouted: "Fascists and neo-Nazis are controlling the country!"

The situation in the city is especially tense after an assassination attempt Monday on the city's mayor, Gennady Kernes.

In an ironic twist, the neo-Nazis denounced in Kharkiv were spotted celebrating the holiday not in Kiev but in St. Petersburg, Russia, Putin's hometown. The gathering's official slogans included "Immigrant go home," a reference to migrants who have flooded into the country from neighboring countries.

Maybe these are the Nazis Putin has been looking for.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images