Ukraine Liveblog Day 101: Helicopter Shot Down Over Slavyansk

May 29, 2014
Smoke rising near Slavyansk this morning. Photo: @ExileUA

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

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An interactive map of the situation:

View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map

For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

Below we will be making regular updates. Be sure to check back often and hit refresh.


Poroshenko Wins Election In a Geographical Landslide

All the votes that were cast have been counted, and Petro Poroshenko has not only won, but has also maintained a majority vote. He will be inaugurated on June 7th. But this map caught our eye:
Civilians Fleeing Fighting In and Around Slavyansk
In his latest dispatch from Ukraine, Simon Ostrovsky interviews civilians who are fleeing from Slavyansk. It is a reminder that most residents of eastern Ukraine are neither particularly pro-EU nor particularly pro-separatist. Most of them would just like to live and go to work without bombs going off.

Interestingly, Ostrovsky also finds Interior Ministry troops on the front lines alongside other units, despite their reputation of being loyal to the ousted Yanukovych regime. One of the soldiers, who otherwise appears reluctant to comment, does admit that his unit is infamous now.
Russian Population Is Decreasing, And That’s Not Changing Soon

On his Window on Eurasia column, Paul Goble describes the bleak prospects of the seemingly promising increase in fertility rates in Russia. Nationalist demographer Anatoly Antonov explains that such optimism, coupled with rising rates of adult male morbidity and mortality and declining access to healthcare, is misplaced. Even with the current level of 1.6 children per woman, the country’s population would still decline.

Read  Russian Population to Fall by Half in 50 Years Even if Recent Fertility Rise Sustained, Moscow Demographer Says.

Militants Reportedly Launch Attacks In Lugansk And Slavyansk is reporting two separate incidents where militants have attacks Ukraine’s military positions. Near Slavyansk, one person was killed and another wounded when “DNR terrorists” reportedly fired on a military convoy near a roadblock established by the ATO (anti-terror op). This video reportedly shows the aftermath, though it’s not terribly helpful:

Meanwhile, near Lugansk, rebels reportedly attacked a National Guard base, hitting a military warehouse, perhaps with an RPG, and causing it to explode. Yesterday there were two other attacks on National Guard bases in this region.
Russian Stock Markets Have Recovered 85% of Their Losses

Russia’s stock market has held another rally today, and is (nearly) at its highest point since the Yanukovych government in Ukraine was toppled. Bloomberg reports:

Gazprom added 1.6 percent and the Micex rose the most since May 19 after Morgan Stanley upgraded the shares on optimism the election of Petro Poroshenko as president of Ukraine will ease tension between the two nations. Poroshenko’s win is an “important step” toward de-escalation in Ukraine and Russian stocks will rise as further steps are made to resolve the standoff, Morgan Stanley said in an e-mailed note.

The chart tells the tale.


While the MICEX is still down 3.67% since the start of the year, it has recovered 85.4% of the value it lost between the fall of the Yanukovych government and its lowest point on March 14, right before the Crimean referendum.

The markets reacted poorly when they believed that Putin was driving Russia towards war. Now Putin is seen by investors as deescalating the crisis. With Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles knocking Ukrainian aircraft out of the sky, and with well-armed separatists still in control of large parts of eastern Ukraine, one has to wonder if Putin is really being rewarded by the markets for being more subtle. If sanctions were designed to halt a major Russian invasion, they may have worked for now, but if sanctions were designed to bring stability to Ukraine, one has to wonder whether deescalation is simply a Pyrrhic victory.

Is Russia Winning or Losing?

In today’s Window on Eurasia column, Paul Goble summarizes a balance sheet on Russia’s losses and gains from the Ukrainian adventure written by Novaya Gazeta’s deputy chief editor Andrey Lipsky. Massive losses in international and regional trust and cooperation have not been offset by gains in territory in the Crimea. Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has led to witch-hunts of critics at home even if propaganda campaigns emphasizing patriotism have boosted Putin’s popularity.

Read Russia’s Wins and Losses in Ukrainian Crisis Up to Now Compared

Well-Armed Pro-Russian Militants Purge Separatist HQ in Donetsk
We’ve been watching a livestream from Donetsk which first showed looters in the Metro store, and then showed members of the Vostok Battalion break down the barricades that had been erected outside the regional administrative building that has been the home of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk Peoples’ Republic’ for months.

Here’s a screenshot from that livestream which shows the barricade and a sign saying “Donbass only with Russia!”


Here’s another screenshot from that livestream showing a fighter in front of their barricade saying that this is the Yugo Vostok (south east) battalion. He gives the cameraman a long explanation about how this isn’t just “Vostok battalion” because “there’s South-East. South. And East. Both!”

He was speaking with a Ukrainian accent and kept reiterating that he was Ukrainian.


More reporting from the scene:

A reminder of how well armed these new arrivals are:
Slavyansk Separatist Leader Massively Exaggerates Ukrainian Casualties

RIA Novosti, the formerly-respectable but recently reorganized Russian state news agency, has published a serious of ridiculous statements from the self-proclaimed ‘Slavyansk People’s Mayor’ that claim that Russian-backed separatists have inflicted massive amounts of casualties in Slavyansk alone:

“According to our information, the Ukrainian army has the following losses and damages: 1,200-1,300 people were killed, eight helicopters, 15 armored transport vehicles, and three [artillery] weapons destroyed. They are suffering huge losses. I’m speaking only about Slaviansk,” Ponomaryov said in an interview with the Latvian radio station Baltkom…

The people’s mayor also noted that the self-defense forces of Slaviansk had lost about 200 people.

“About 200 were killed and 300 wounded,” Ponomaryov specified.
Ponomaryov also mentioned that several civilians died and eight people were wounded yesterday.

The troops involved in the military operation in southeastern Ukraine began firing mortars at Slaviansk Tuesday at around noon local time. Several private homes were razed, including houses in the villages of Andreevka and Sergeevka in the city’s suburbs. Several dozen people were killed.

While we are not sure what the official casualty number is, based on news reporting some have put the number of dead Ukrainian soldiers at 68, nationwide, before today’s downed helicopter that led to the deaths of 14 Ukrainian military. That’s a far cry from 1200-1300 in Slavyansk alone.

Our editor-in-chief, Michael Weiss, put the question to the press attache for the Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations, Yegor Pyvovarov. His response was as clear as it could get:

Michael, stop reading Russian propaganda web pages! Of course, it’s a lie! 

Russian Militants Sieze Control of ‘Donetsk Peoples Republic’ After Looting
We’ve been covering the story of the Vostok Battalion which has taken over the administrative building in Donetsk, the headquarters for the self-declared ‘Donetsk Peoples’ Republic.’ The incident looks a lot like an internal military takeover of separatist operations there. Comments like this tend to lend to that perception:
On the other hand, there really was looting.

Kyiv Post reports:

Marauders looted a Metro Cash & Carry hypermarket located near the Donetsk International Airport sometime after May 26 when management temporarily closed the store for customer and employee safety reasons, Olesya Olenytska, a spokeswoman for the German company’s Ukraine office told the Kyiv Post…

Citing Vkontakte social network messages, reported that the store robbery was carried out overnight on May 29 by members of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, a group that wants to secede from Ukraine.

Law and order is virtually absent in the city where pro-Russian groups have occupied several government buildings. Many in the police force have either joined the Kremlin-backed movement or have quit.

Is Vostok afraid that incidents like this will spoil their relationship with local residents? Or is there more to it?

Separatist Battalion Dismantling Barricades Around Administrative Building in Donetsk
An improbable sight:

Vostok is claiming they were simply conducting a campaign to arrest looters, but clearly there is much more going on — perhaps, as was guessed earlier, a kind of military coup.

But what is the motivation for removing the barricades around the administrative building? One would think that Vostok, a military group, would want to be building barricades instead of taking them down.

A Majority of Dead Separatists Are Russian Nationals

Approximately 50 separatists were killed in Monday’s failed attack on Donetsk airport. As we’ve been reporting, the separatists across the region appear to be using increasingly powerful military-grade weapons, and many shipments of serious firepower have been intercepted on the borders, reportedly coming from both mainland Russia and from Crimea. Yesterday, a report The Interpreter translated claimed to have proof that Russians, and Chechens, were among those killed in Donetsk.

Today, there is proof that the majority of those killed were Russian citizens.

Any suggestion that these separatist gunmen are a home-grown phenomenon is likely just propaganda.

So why are separatists storming their own headquarters today? Many of the pro-Russian civilians are ethnic Russians, but many (and certainly not all) are from Ukraine. Here’s one theory:

And a reminder — these gunmen, members of the “Vostok Battalion,” are extremely well armed.
Russian-Backed Militants Claim They’re Arresting Looters, Not Separatists
A very strange day at the headquarters for the self-proclaimed “Donetsk Peoples’ Republic.” The building has been evacuated as armed militants, part of the “Vostok Battalion,” stormed the headquarters and erected roadblocks outside. Now the separatists militants from Vostok Battallion claim that they are simply arresting looters, not staging a ‘coup.’
It’s not clear what the reality is. An RT reporter initially downplayed the incident.
But even she is now saying it’s not clear what’s happening on the ground. The bottom line — since Sunday’s presidential elections the separatist military seems to be taking a leading role in several cities, particularly in Slavyansk and Donetsk.
Separatists Storming Separatist HQ In Donetsk
More updates on our last story:
Also, a quick note that a video reportedly showing the Ukrainian helicopter being shot down in Slavyansk is old, from Syria. All sides, so far, do agree that a helicopter has been shot down, however (see earlier updates below).
Reports That ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ HQ Is Being Taken Over By ‘Vostok Battalion’

A number of journalists in and around the separatist occupied Regional Administration Building in Donetsk are reporting that fighters from the Vostok Battalion have arrived and appear to be engaged in some sort of confrontation with their fellow separatists from the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’.

The Administration building or ODA has been used as the headquarters of the self-declared ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’. Vostok (East) Battalion appear to be composed, at least in part, of Russian and Chechen fighters, and may well be under separate control. 

Here are tweets from journalists on the scene:

Translation: The Vostok Battalion has surrounded the ODA [Regional Administration Building] in Donetsk to find the looters who ransacked the Metro supermarket

Army General Among 14 Killed On Downed Helicopter

The BBC reports that the outgoing president of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, has confirmed that General Volodymyr Kulchitsky was among 14 killed when separatists shot down a Mi-8 helicopter near Slavyansk this morning. The president also said that the helicopter was shot down using a Russian-made anti-aircraft system. 

Russian-made MANPADS were used to down two Ukrainian helicopters over Slavyansk on May 2.

The report was also tweeted by Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia:

Helicopter Shot Down Over Slavyansk

There are reports this morning that a Ukrainian military helicopter has been shot down over the separatist-occupied town of Slavyansk in the Donetsk region.

Associated Press reported that one of their photographers had witnessed the downing of the helicopter but

“It wasn’t immediately clear what weapons the rebels used to shoot it down, exactly where the helicopter fell or what happened to its crew.”

Novosti Donbassa, a regional news site, provided more coverage of the events in Slavyansk this morning. They report that the downing was reported by both eyewitnesses and separatist radio chatter. Witnesses report a battle under way in the Krasnolimansky area to the north-east of Slavyansk, near the villages of Andreyevka and Chernovy Molochar. Smoke has been seen rising from the scene while an intense fire-fight rages.

Translation: Slavyansk right now May 29 at 11:50 [8:50 GMT].

Arkadiy Babchenko, a Ukrainian journalist, reported on the incident on his Facebook page. Babchenko says that, according to his sources, the helicopter had flown to Karachun hill, a regular scene of fighting where Ukrainian forces are positioned around a TV tower, and unloaded. Shortly after taking off again, the helicopter was shot down.

He writes (translated by The Interpreter): 

It appears they were being tracked. There were two explosions – one in the air, the second during their fall. As far as I can tell there were no survivors. Such shame for the pilots! They were good men. Polite and gracious. A shame.