The Interpreter

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Crimean Tartars and Pro-Russian protesters clash outside the Crimean Parliament

Ukraine Liveblog: Day 10 — Armed Separatists and Yanukovych Are Defiant

Ukraine’s ousted President is in Russia, where he says he is the legitimate leader and he has asked Russia for protection against “extremists.” Armed gunmen have taken over Crimea Parliament in Simferopol. This crisis is far from over.

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see see our latest podcast.

Below, we will be making regular updates throughout the day:


0243 GMT: Meanwhile, Yanukovych has apparently arrived at Rostov-on-Don, courtesy of a Russian air escort.

0232 GMT: And then they were gone? Note: this isn’t the help desk employee (see below), it’s the official spox for the airport talking, who confirmed that 50 armed men stormed the airport but that they left after realizing that Ukrainian paratroopers hadn’t landed in it!

0226 GMT: A “telephone helpdesk employee” at Simferopol airport denies any seizure by armed men:

0221 GMT: Now Sevastopol, too? Russia watcher Kevin Rothrock tweets:

The report referenced above adds that these Russian troops came “disguised” from the Black Sea Fleet garrison from Training Unit 7. This information comes from Ukrainian political scientist Paul Nuss via a “very reliable source”.

0214 GMT: More on Simferopol Airport Siege: Now Lenta is reporting that “up to 150 people in camouflage uniforms with machine guns” and speaking “with a pronounced Russian accent” are responsible for the storming of the Crimean airport. They arrived in four KAMKAZ trucks without license plates, flags or any other markings. We’ll be following developments on this story….

0203 GMT: BREAKING: “50 armed men in military uniforms” have stormed the Simferopol airport in Crimea, according to Interfax and Gazeta.ru. Here’s Interfax’s report:

About 50 people were armed and in the same gear as those who seized the buildings of the Crimean parliament and government on Thursday morning, eyewitnesses told an Interfax-Ukraine correspondent.

And here’s a Facebook-posted image allegedly showing the forces that took the airport:


2122 GMT: More troubling news from Crimea:

 

 

Tomorrow, we expect to be following the story of Crimean self-defense forces, and the return of the now-disbanded Berkut, because these could now be the front-line soldiers of a counterrevolution — or not, but tensions look like they are increasing at the moment, not decreasing.


2056 GMT: The Russian media’s spin of this story doesn’t stop. While Kremlin officials told Financial Times days ago that Russia could invade Crimea, and while Russia’s foreign ministry has indicated that they support Yanukovych as the legitimate leader and they want the opposition to abide by the February 21 agreement, which it seems would mean the removal of the transitional government, somehow it is the western news agencies and governments that are dangerously meddling in the affairs of Ukraine:

 

The article goes on to list statements from Russia’s foreign ministry that effectively brand all of the interim government’s forces as “militants.”

Moscow has urged NATO to refrain from provocative statements on Ukraine and respect its non-bloc status after a chorus of Western politicians said Russia should be “transparent” about its military drills and avoid any steps that could be “misunderstood.”

“When NATO starts giving a consideration the situation in Ukraine, it sends out the wrong signal,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement published on its website on Thursday…

“Militants, who still haven’t surrendered arms and not vacated administrative buildings, announced their intention to ‘bring order’ to all Ukrainian regions,” the Russian ministry said.

The agreement to jointly investigate violence, as well as to form a national unity government “fell into oblivion,” Moscow said. “Instead, as it was announced on [Kiev’s] Maidan ‘a government of winners’ has been established which includes nationalist extremists.”

“But we are ready to cooperate if there is a clear understanding that the cooperation should be honest, and based on an ability to make agreements as well as to fulfil them. And agreements should take into consideration interests of all the Ukrainian people as well as of all Ukraine’s partners,” the ministry’s statement reads.

Because the west is being provocative. After all, it’s not like Russia’s state-owned media outlets are running stories about how the CIA has effectively kidnapped the Ukrainian president and is hiding him away (see previous update below).


1943 GMT: An article titled “Where is Yanukovych?” and subtitled “The Ukrainian President Could Be Hidden by Americans” ran in Rossiiskaya Gazeta (RG), a government-operated newspaper, on Tuesday. The amazing thing is that we now know that Yanukovych is in Russia, and has been there since Tuesday, according to other Russian media outlets. The article is full of distortions. For instance, Yanukovych ” threw the white flag and signed” an agreement with the opposition politicians not after the EU representatives twisted his arm but after he spoke to Vladimir Putin. This is a perfect illustration of the Russian state-owned media’s coverage of the crisis in Ukraine.

Read the translation here: Russian Government Newspaper: “The Ukrainian President Could Be Hidden by Americans”


1844 GMT: Ukraine’s new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk has accused the Yanukovych administration of robbing the country of more than $70 billion over the course of three years:

“About $70 billion has been withdrawn from Ukraine’s financial system to offshore accounts over the last three years. Now it’s clear that they withdrew the funds that were raised as loans under state guarantees and stolen by representatives of the previous government,” he said from the parliament’s rostrum.

Yatseniuk warned that, to overcome the extent of the financial corruption in a nation with only $200 billion in gross national product, tough austerity measures will lie ahead.


1736 GMT: RFE/RL has more on a the Crimean parliament’s move to hold a referendum on increase autonomy on the same day as the new presidential elections:

Parliament in Ukraine’s autonomous Crimean Republic has dismissed the republic’s government and scheduled a vote on the peninsula’s future.

In an extraordinary session Thursday, lawmakers voted that Prime Minister Anatoliy Mohyliov’s government had not performed satisfactorily.

Lawmakers also approved holding a referendum asking whether Crimea’s autonomy from Ukraine’s central government should be strengthened. The referendum asks citizens to vote yes or no on the statement: “The Autonomous Republic of Crimea has state independence and is a part of Ukraine on the basis of agreements and accords.”

The referendum is scheduled for May 25 — the same day that Ukraine’s new authorities have designated for a presidential election to replace Yanukovych.

A quick analysis — the vote does not appear to be a referendum on declaring independence. In other words, it stops short of open revolution against the new government in Kiev. But clearly, in context of everything else that has happened, this is a strong statement from Crimea’s parliament. It also reflects, however, the reality that Russia’s actions, and the amount of public support for independence in Crimea, are still ultimately unknown at this moment.


1718 GMT: How did the media cover Ukraine? What was the role of social media? How is the Ukrainian media changing as this revolution unfolds? How is the Russian media responding? Is the country really on the brink of an east-west civil war, will Russia invade, and what’s the role of the media in what happens next?

In this week’s podcast, Boston College Professor Matt Sienkiewicz and Interpreter Magazine’s managing editor James Miller are joined by Professor Yevhen Fedchenko, Director of the Mohyla school of journalism in Kiev to discuss the crisis in Ukraine.

Click here to open in a new tab and so see links to previous podcasts or simply listen (or download) below:


1625 GMT: The Interpreter’s managing editor James Miller has just gotten off the phone with Professor Yevhen Fedchenko, Director of the Mohyla school of journalism in Kiev (listen to our podcast here). One thing Fedchenko stressed is that the east-west divide in Ukraine is real, but it is also far less pronounced than the Russian media is trying to make it out to be. However, as time has gone on, Russia’s agitprop has helped to stress the ties between east and west.

Ukrainians, however, are fighting back with efforts like this:

 

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This show of solidarity is in response to a similar effort held yesterday in Lviv, in western Ukraine:

 

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1615 GMT: Ousted president Viktro Yanukovych will give a news conference on Russia’s Rostov-on-Don at 1700 local time (1300 GMT) on Friday, according to RT.

Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign ministry has echoed sentiments expressed earlier that Yanukovych is the legitimate leader and the interim government in Kiev has broken its agreement, signed by opposition leaders and Yanukovych on February 21st:

“We call on those foreign partners who originally encouraged the protests of the opposition, initiated and supported the Agreement of February 21, to fully realize their responsibility for its implementation. Statements that this document has already played its role, are not serious,” – the statement of the Russian Ministry reads.

“We note increasingly frequent appeals to Russia from Western countries to cooperate on issues relating to the situation in Ukraine. We suggested this a long time ago, long before the crisis passed over into the hot phase, but at that time it was not quite what our colleagues were disposed to do,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

“Nevertheless, we are open to interaction provided there is clear understanding that this interaction is honest and based not simply on the ability to hold fruitful negotiations but also on the ability to comply with agreements that take account of the interests of the entire Ukrainian people and all partners of Ukraine,” the ministry said.

“The fulfillment of commitments under the Agreement of February 21 would be an important step along that path,” it said. “On the other hand, constant attempts to make changes to agreed measures never have any good results. Nor does refusal to perceive the real situation holistically,” the ministry said.


1610 GMT: This morning armed gunmen took over the Crimean Parliament building and erected Russian flags. However, the head of the parliament’s statements on separatism may be an even louder expression of pro-Russian sentiment:

 

May 25th is the same day as the elections for a new President of Ukraine.


1600 GMT: As we’ve been reporting, the Russian narrative of the Ukrainian revolution is that the protesters in the streets are dominated by neo-Nazis. This sentiment has also been picked up by some western commentators. However, here is another major hole in that theory:

 

Right Sector is a Ukrainian nationalist movement often condemned as having neo-Nazi tenancies. The Right Sector is also arguably the most extreme nationalist group, and nationalist groups constitute only a portion of the opposition. If Right Sector is meeting with Jewish leaders to show it isn’t antisemetic, then the narrative that the revolution is antisemetic has taken another serious blow.

The leader of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress and Moshe Reuven Azman, the Chabad chief Rabbi of Ukraine, have both said that antisemitism is not on the rise and the revolution is not inherently antisemitic.


1444 GMT: Are Russian troop movements in Crimea alarming? Yes. Are they unusual though? This is debatable. One has to understand that for decades the Russian military has had an agreement with Ukraine and Crimea that allows Russia to station a large military base in Sevastopol, which is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. As such, the Russian military has troops stationed in Crimea, has bases in Crimea, and, yes, they occasionally move troops and supplies through Crimea. ITAR-TASS quotes the Russian Defence Ministry as stating that the troop movements inside Crimea have been ordinary drills and procedures that are all in accordance with these agreements.

“Any movement of Black Sea Fleet armoured vehicles has been made in strict compliance with the basic agreements,” the ministry said.

So far, there’s no hard evidence that these statements are wrong (but look at this separate liveblog and our update at 1415 to see the evidence yourself). However, other reports suggest that Russia is walking a fine-line with this otherwise-legitimate excuse. But last night we ran an update that suggested that Russian APC crews were working closely with Crimean self-defence forces to construct roadblocks and checkpoints, which could be easily interpreted as crossing the line.

We see a similar tension with Russia’s emergency, unannounced, large-scale military drills. Russia has a military, and it does drills. But are we supposed to believe that these unannounced drills are unrelated to the crisis in Ukraine?

RT would like us to think so:


1438 GMT: ITAR-TASS reports that a Russian official has suggested that Russia may grant Yanukovych protection, a sentiment mirrored by a high-ranking State Duma member:

“Since president Yanukovych addressed the authorities of the Russian Federation asking to provide his personal protection, I inform you that this petition has been granted on the territory of the Russian Federation,” a source in Russian authorities told Itar-Tass on Thursday.

Yanukovych, as any compatriot and descendant of the USSR, can count on Russian protection, the chairman of Russian Duma commitee on work with compatriots Otari Arshba said Thursday.

“I perceive him (Yanukovych) as a compatriot,” Arshba said. “Each Ukrainian citizen, that is a descendant of the USSR, like any other compatriot can count on Russia’s support and loyalty, including matters of personal safety.”


1434 GMT: RT.com, the Russian state-owned network, has more details on the storming of Crimean Parliament by armed gunmen today:

At around 4am local time on Thursday, an unknown group of people barricaded themselves inside the buildings. According to local officials, those people might have been armed.

The men wore black and orange ribbons, a Russian symbol of the victory in World War II, according to AP. They placed a Russian flag on top of the Council of Ministers.

Journalists who in the morning tried to approach the parliament building had a stun grenade fired at them. RT’s video agency Ruptly filmed the incident.


1415 GMT: The Interpreter’s Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, on her blog Minding Russia, has been following events in Crimea today. She’s been following reports that Russian APCs are on the move in Crimea, though she cautions that the story is not totally confirmed. First, they posted this report from Interfax Ukraine:

APCs Headed Toward Simferopol Turned Back – A convoy of seven APCs without identifiable marks have stopped near the town of Ukromny in Crimea, and then turned around and headed away from Simferopol, obkom.net.ua reports.

An Interfax Ukraine reporter on the scene says:

“The APCs stopped near the traffic police post. The people inside said that that they had a planned training exercise. After talking to the traffic police, they turned around and headed in the opposite direction,” said the Interfax reporter.

 

While Varlamov reports that the APCs were on a training mission, this video shows the vehicles in question and is accompanied by this report:

APCs headed from Feodosiya to Simferopol, says an activist. Road patrol headed toward Simferopol, 6 APCS along the road toward Stepnoye, possibly to the military base near Belogorsk; they were accompanied by a jeep and Volga with a blinking light and Ukrainian flag on the side of the car, the uniform of the soldiers in the APCs look like Russian.


1358 GMT: Meanwhile, the speaker of Crimean parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov, is also talking separatism. On February 20th he that that the parliament could vote for separatism. “It may happen if the country splits. Anyway, the entire situation is heading towards it.” Yesterday, that vote was cancelled or at least postponed. Now, he has made a new statement”

 


1334 GMT: A group of heavily-armed pro-Russian gunmen have stormed the Crimean Parliament building in Simferopol, and have reportedly raised a Russian flag over the building. Aljazeera America reports:

A Reuters correspondent on the scene in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, said the door of the parliament was blockaded from inside by tables and chairs.

Interfax news agency quoted a witness as saying there were about 60 people inside and that they had many weapons. It said no one had been hurt when the buildings were seized.

“I heard gunfire in the night, came down and saw lots of people going in. Some then left. I’m not sure how many are still in there,” a 30-year-old man who gave his name only as Roman told Reuters.

Meanwhile, local leaders in Crimea are calling these armed defense forces the legitimate law enforcement in the region. The Washington Post reports:

“These people adequately fulfilled their duty to the country and have shown themselves to be real men,” said Alexey Chaly, the new head of the Coordinating Council of Sevastopol.

Chaly said the police unit had been “abandoned to the mercy of this rabid pack of Nazis,” a reference to the protesters in Kiev.

“At this difficult time, our city needs decent men who could form the basis of self-defense groups and, in the future, the municipal police. We are ready to provide for them if they join us in our struggle, and to offer safety to their families,” he said in a post on his Facebook page.

Meanwhile, ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is also stoking tensions as he is now somewhere in Russian territory and is maintaining that he is the legitimate leader of the country. He has asked Russia for protection from “extremists.” BBC reports:

“I think that the agreement on the settlement of the crisis in Ukraine, signed by me and leaders of the Ukrainian opposition in the presence of respected Western partners on 21 February 2014, has not been implemented,” Mr Yanukovych was quoted as saying – referring to a deal to install a national unity government and call early polls agreed between Mr Yanukovych and opposition leaders after mediation by EU foreign ministers.

He said he would “fight to the end for the implementation of important compromise agreements to take Ukraine out of deep political crisis”.

Perhaps this morning’s Time Magazine cover says it best:

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