DONETSK, Ukraine, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- Donetsk, Ukraine, hosted a celebratory rally Monday to commemorate the taking of the battered city of Debaltseve by pro-Russian separatists.
It was a sign of high morale on the part of the rebels, whose five-week siege of the battered city in eastern Ukraine, a transportation hub, ended last week with a retreat by Ukrainian troops. Although a cease-fire, widely adhered to except in Debaltseve, was in place, the separatists contended they were surrounded in the city and that the cease-fire applied only to front-line combat.
The Donetsk celebration came on Defender of the Fatherland Day, a Soviet-era holiday honoring military veterans.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued to contend no Russian troops are fighting in Ukraine, members of the Russian regular army were involved in the battle for Debaltseve, Ukrainian and Western governments claim.
The rally in Donetsk's Lenin Square had a Soviet-era feel to it, observers said, as medals were distributed under a banner reading "The people's militia is the reliable defense of the republic."
The celebration came as the United States is considering additional economic sanctions against Russia for what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in London over the weekend, called "an absolutely cynical and brazen process over these last days" in overtaking Debaltseve.
"We're not going to sit there and be part of this kind of extraordinarily craven behavior at the expense of the sovereignty and integrity of a nation," he added, and later said, "In the next few days I anticipate that President Obama will evaluate the choices that are in front of him and will make his decision. If this failure continues, make no mistake, there will be further consequences including consequences that will place added strains on Russia's already troubled economy."
Former British Foreign Secretary William Hague concurred, telling the British Broadcasting Corp. "The costs to Russia over this behavior are mounting and will get even higher. If Russia continues to destabilize Ukraine there will be higher sanctions," he said.