Ukraine Live Day 266: Russian and Separatist Tanks on the Move in Ukraine

November 10, 2014
Armored vehicles in a convoy with APCs flying Russian flags heading west out of Shakhtyorsk. Photo by Simon Ostrovsky

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. An archive of our liveblogs can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.
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For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

For the latest summary of evidence surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 see our separate article: Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?

Below we will be making regular updates so check back often.

Bezler Reported Alive, and to Get ‘Hero of DPR’ Award, But is Strelkov Slighted?

Since reports circulated that Igor Bezler, the notorious Russian army
major-general who led the Russian-backed separatists in Gorlovka, was
assassinated by Russian Federation agents, there has been massive
speculation about what happened to him.

Immediately, his
supporters said he was not dead but just in Moscow, although he had
resigned from his command and would not return to the so-called “Donetsk
People’s Republic”.

The Crimean Russian blogger Colonel Cassad (Boriz Rozhin, editor of Golos Sevastopolya) printed the stories that Bezler is still alive,
but himself has said that a test will be whether “Bes” (“Demon”) as he
was nick-named will show up for an upcoming DPR awards ceremony.

awards have generated a lot of scandal and in-fighting among the
separatists. Letters went out recently to some commanders and even
former commanders (Strelkov was dismissed in August), saying they were
being issued medals with the title “Hero of the DPR” for their service
in the cause of “Novorossiya,” the notional realm for Russians abroad
made up of the southeast of Ukraine and possibly other countries
including Moldova and Belarus.

But then Strelkov said he never
got the letter, and that he wouldn’t accept an award from Aleksandr
Zakharchenko, prime minister of the DPR, in any event.

“I would not accept any awards from a man who has publicly offended
me,” he wrote on his  “secret forum” (an Internet forum on historical
war re-enacments which is hidden from view, but often re-tweeted).

Strelkov said that the title of “Hero of the DPR” would only be
given to Bezler and Aleksandr Boroday, the first prime minister of the
DPR, and not to him.

“Hero of the Soviet Union” was the USSR’s highest award, and the tradition was continued by the Russian Federation.

Yet a copy of the letter over Zakharchenko’s signature — but without the DPR seal —  was published by Colonel Cassad earlier this week from the official DPR website among announcements of decrees.

It informed Strelkov and Boroday of “the state award of the Donetsk
People’s Republic” and the “Gold Star of the Hero” for “great
contribution in the formation, establishment and defense of the Donetsk
People’s Republic and for courage and heroism displayed” 


The award letter was also covered by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti which added that former DPR vice premier Vladimir Antyufeyev would receive the title of “Honorary Citizen of DPR”.

A pro-separatist news site says
that they published the news of the award after seeing it confirmed on the official DPR Today site and RIA Novosti.

But after contacting Strelkov themselves, they also heard from another participant in the “secret forum” named Plokhoi Soldat
(“Bad Soldier”) who said that the decree had attachments which he had
seen, and the award citations in fact didn’t include Strelkov among

Pravdoryb claimed that Strelkov’s name was missing and others saw that it was gone, but now we see it back up again with today’s date as of this writing:

This link has Strelkov’s name in the notice and a further link to the “Documents” section of the site.


Colonel Cassad says that Zakharchenko seems to have disappeared after he
was “elected” on 2 November, and wasn’t currently present in Donetsk
such as to have signed the letters. He commented, “It will be
interesting to see if Bezler shows up for the awards.”

The ceremony does not yet appear to have been announced but is expected soon.

Alarming List of Close Military Encounters Between Russia and the West in 2014

The European Leadership Network has published an alarming list of close encounters between the Russian military and Western military powers in 2014. The report warns that not only did some of these incidents endanger civilian airliners, but many of them came dangerously close to triggering outright military confrontation and/or military casualties.

Here is the Executive Summary:

Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, the intensity and gravity of incidents involving Russian and Western militaries and security agencies has visibly increased. This ELN Policy Brief provides details of almost 40 specific incidents that have occurred over the last eight
months (an interactive map is available here). These events add up to a highly disturbing picture of violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, simulated attack runs and other dangerous actions happening on a regular basis over a very wide geographical area.

Apart from routine or near-routine encounters, the Brief identifies 11 serious incidents of a more aggressive or unusually provocative nature, bringing a higher level risk of escalation. These include harassment of reconnaissance planes, close overflights over warships, and Russian ‘mock bombing raid’ missions. It also singles out 3 high risk incidents which in our view carried a high probability of causing casualties or a direct military confrontation: a narrowly avoided collision between a civilian airliner and Russian surveillance plane, abduction of an Estonian intelligence officer, and a large-scale Swedish ‘submarine hunt’.

Even though direct military confrontation has been avoided so far, the mix of more aggressive Russian posturing and the readiness of Western forces to show resolve increases the risk of unintended escalation and the danger of losing control over events. This Brief therefore makes three main recommendations:

1. The Russian leadership should urgently re-evaluate the costs and risks of continuing its more assertive military posture, and Western diplomacy should be aimed at persuading Russia to move in this direction.

2. All sides should exercise military and political restraint.

3. All sides must improve military-to-military communication and transparency.

To perpetuate a volatile stand-off between a nuclear armed state and a nuclear armed alliance and its partners in the circumstances described in this paper is risky at best. It could prove catastrophic at worst.

A quick look at the interactive map shows that most, but not all, of the incidents occurred near the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, north of Belarus and Ukraine:


The entire report can be read here.

James Miller

Shelling Reported Along Bakhmutka Highway And In Debaltsevo This Morning reports that separatist fighters shelled Ukrainian positions in Debaltsevo and along the Bakhmutka highway in the Lugansk region this morning.

Аccording to the report, at around 7 am (5:00 GMT), the first salvoes from mortars and D-30 howitzers were heard in Kirovsk. This barrage continued for about an hour.

Eyewitnesses told Informator that the militants were firing towards the Bakhmutka highway. According to reports from Debaltsevo residents, Ukrainian positions there came under fire at 8 am.


There are no reports yet on casualties. 

— Pierre Vaux

Pavel Gubarev Returns To Donetsk

Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency reports that Pavel Gubarev, the self-styled ‘people’s governor’ of the Donetsk region, has returned to Donetsk after receiving medical treatment in Russia.

On October 12 it was reported that Gubarev was unconscious in hospital in Rostov-on-Don after being wounded in an apparent assassination attempt.

Gubarev was travelling along the highway from Rostov-on-Don to Donetsk when his car was fired on by unknown assailants, causing it to crash into a pillar. 

TASS reports that a spokesman for Gubarev has told them (translated by The Interpreter):

“He’s been discharged from hospital, arrived in Donetsk and feels fine. He will talk about his career plans in the near future.”

Pierre Vaux

Kiev — Russian-Backed Rebels Attacking ‘In All Directions’

As we have been reporting, there has been a significant amount of Russian tanks and equipment spotted mobilizing toward the front lines in eastern Ukraine. International monitors, local and Western journalists, and local residents are all reporting this movement.

Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council is warning that Ukrainian military positions across eastern Ukraine are under attack.

“In all directions” sounds ominous.

CORRECTION: This video was later determined to have been first uploaded in March 2014,
and the NSDC has mistakenly included it here in their tweet. It is
labeled as having been filmed in in Gorodnya in Chernihiv Region and is
evidently the Ukrainians’ own armored vehicles. As we reported,
there are other convoys of unmarked armored vehicles filmed by AP,
EuroNews, and local reporters which appear to have come from Russia in November.

But note that the word the Ukrainian military is using is “tensed.” One does not get a sense from this briefing that there is a significant uptick in attacks. In fact, those watching live-streaming video from Donetsk, a typical hotspot, notice that it’s perhaps unusually quiet today.

So what does it mean that there is a significant and alarming uptick in the movement of heavy equipment behind the lines, Ukraine says it is under attack from all directions, but there is no heavy fighting? Could the Russian-backed militants be staging for a new offensive and their attacks are testing Ukraine’s military checkpoints?

A curious reader also asked a good question — if the Ukrainian military sees these convoys as a threat, why aren’t they attacking the convoys? There are several answers.

The first is that Ukraine may not have the ability to strike these convoys. These convoys are behind enemy lines, so In order to hit them with artillery Ukraine would need specific intelligence, and likely even drones. The Ukrainian military has perhaps only a handful of drones and they are new additions (by contrast, international observers have spotted significant amounts of drones used on the Russian side of the border, and the Ukrainian military, and the occasional video, suggests that the separatists have drones too). Such attacks would also bring high risk of civilian casualties.

To hit these convoys with airstrikes would be difficult since the Russian military has been supplying advanced anti-aircraft weapons to the separatists, including the Buk which likely shot down MH17, since June. Before the ceasefire it was not unusual to have Ukrainian aircraft shot down in eastern Ukraine.

But perhaps the ultimate reason Ukraine is not striking these aircraft — Ukraine maintains that since they have signed a ceasefire with the Russian-backed separatists, they are only returning fire when they are attacked. A preemptive strike, even one that seems wise to some observers, would violate that ceasefire. Yet according to Kiev, they are the only side abiding by the ceasefire. This is one reason why the entire ceasefire and the Minsk accords are so controversial in Ukraine and may soon be abandoned.

Until then, it seems that Russian tanks and armor are free to move across eastern Ukraine at will. And the international community which is witnessing this phenomenon does not seem willing to prevent this, either.

James Miller

4 Reported Killed By Shelling In Avdeyevka

Novosti Donbassa reports that 4 people were killed by shelling last night in government-held Avdeyevka, to the north of Donetsk Airport.

According to reports gathered from social media, 2 people were killed immediately by shells and another 2 died in hospital. 7 were wounded and are receiving treatment.

Video purportedly showing the aftermath of the attack was uploaded to YouTube today.

The graphic footage shows two bodies lying in the road near what looks like damage to the road surface.

There is not enough in the footage to perform a geolocation but we can not find results for the stills in Google image search.

Pierre Vaux

Militants Reportedly Shoot Businessman’s Family For Failure To Pay Bribe

Novosti Donbassa reports that a businessman and his family were shot by militants on November 8 in the separatist-held town of Shakhtyorsk, south-east of Donetsk.

The news site reports that the story comes from their own sources.

According to the report, at around 22:00, the militants fired at the house of the Galyga family (no first names are given), killing the businessman and his wife, and leaving their daughter critically wounded.

The daughter is now in intensive care.

According to one of Novosti Donbassa‘s sources, the family was attacked because the father had failed to pay a bribe to the militants.

Pierre Vaux

‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ Suspends Prisoner Exchanges Until Next Minsk Meeting

Intefax-Ukraine reports that Aleksandr Zakharchenko the ‘prime minister’ of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), has told journalists that there will be no further exchanges of prisoners between his separatists forces and Ukraine until the next round of talks in Minsk.

Zakharchenko said (translated by The Interpreter):

“The decision has been made not to exchange prisoners without another meeting.”

Interfax-Ukraine notes that Zakharchenko also said that the main task of the Minsk meeting would be to reach an agreement on the exchange of prisoners of war.

Ravil Khalikov, the ‘deputy prime minister’ of the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR), told Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti that the meeting is due for the end of this week.

However Ukrainska Pravda reports that there are also claims that meeting will take place at the end of the month.

The Ukrainian online paper reports, citing RIA Novosti and the ‘Novorossiya’ press centre, that the LNR’s Vladislav Deynevo and the DNR’s Denis Pushilin have been named as the separatists’ representatives for the next Minsk meeting.

Pierre Vaux

Russian and Separatist Tanks on the Move in Ukraine

Last week and over the weekend we noted that the Ukrainian government, NATO, OSCE and Western reporters were reporting increased numbers of military convoys in Ukraine.

Today there are further reports of convoys, some of them clearly from Russia.

T-72s, as seen above, are widely used by the Russian military and, while having been used in the past, are not in service with the Ukrainian armed forces.

To re-cap:

The BBC reported that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said its
observers had seen a column of more than 40 vehicles and heavy guns on a road east from the rebel-held area of Makeyevka (Makiivka). Of these, 19 were “large vehicles towing howitzer artillery systems and “containing
personnel with dark green uniforms without insignia”.

This convoy filmed by a citizen reporter and uploaded to YouTube November 9 could be the same one, as there are a number of Howitzers.

UPDATE: In fact, this video does not relate to the current events of November 2014 as it was made earlier as it was first uploaded in March 2014.

This video uploaded November 9 and labeled “Huge convoy moving toward Donetsk with the militia’s military vehicles and Howitzers” could also be the same convoy.

“Militia” is the term the Russian-backed separatists use to describe their fighters.

This video uploaded November 10 by EuroNews appears to show tanks headed toward Donetsk.

This video uploaded November 8 and labeled “the militia’s tanks 8.11.14” shows T-72B1 tanks.

AP saw a convoy of some 80 unmarked military vehicles on Sunday,
November 9. Three separate columns were seen — one near the main
separatist stronghold of Donetsk and two outside the town of Snizhne, 80
kilometers. The reporters were reluctant to call it a “Russian convoy”
as they could only see unmarked vehicles.

Yet that is how the Russian military typically sends in convoys for
the separatist fighters they are backing — with no license plates,
numbers painted over, and no identifying marks.

AP uploaded this video to YouTube titled “Huge armed rebel convoy in east Ukraine” on November 8:

This video was uploaded November 9 and is labeled “Convoy of DPR militia heads to help Donetsk. Shakhtyorsk. 09.11”

This video was uploaded November 9 and labeled “Meanwhile in Makeyevka…a militia convoy 9.11.2014.”

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick