Ukraine Liveblog Day 116: Major Government Operation in Mariupol

June 13, 2014
A Ukrainian soldier stands in front of a burnt out BRDM armoured reconnaissance car with the initials of the 'Donetsk People's Republic' on it. Photo: @euromaidan

Yesterday’s liveblog 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.

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


US State Department: Russian Tanks and Grad Rockets Crossed Border

The US State Department has confirmed that Russia has indeed sent both T-64 tanks and Grad rocket launchers across the border. The New York Times reports:

A convoy of three T-64 tanks, several BM-21 “Grad” multiple rocket launchers and other military vehicles crossed the border near the Ukrainian town of Snizhne, State Department officials said. Reports and images of the weapons’ presence circulated on Thursday, but there were conflicting claims about where they had come from.

“This is unacceptable,” said Marie Harf, the deputy State Department spokeswoman. “A failure by Russia to de-escalate this situation will lead to additional costs.”

A Western official said that intelligence about the movement of the tanks and other weapons into Ukraine was shared on Friday with NATO allies.

As we reported earlier there was evidence that the Russian-backed separatists fired Grad rockets earlier, but the weapon malfunctioned (possibly because the crew was inadequately trained) and at least one civilian was killed in the aftermath. We also reported earlier that NATO calls the allegations of Russian armor crossing the border a “serious escalation,” and we analyzed the evidence that tanks may have crossed over from the Russian side of the border into Ukraine.

Headed Toward A Russian Gas Cutoff

Ukraine’s energy minister has called for a new round of talks as Ukraine’s Prime Minister has told his government to start preparing for Russia to cut off Ukraine’s natural gas. RFE/RL reports:

Ukraine has said it is ready to start settling its gas bills if Russia agrees to charge $326 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas for 18 months.

Russia has said its “final price” is $385 per 1,000 cubic meters and threatened to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine if Kyiv does not pay state-controlled Gazprom $1.95 billion by June 16.

Ukraine And Russia Both Claim The Other Has Violated the Border

The head of the Russian FSB press service has released a statement saying a Ukrainian BMP armored vehicle crossed the border today, making it to the Russian town of Millerovo, east of Lugansk (map).

Interestingly, Ukraine claims a Russian Mi-35 helicopter violated Ukrainian airspace today near Kuibysheve (map), which, if true, likely means the helicopter was in the vicinity of Mariupol, a town which was retaken by the Ukrainian ATO earlier today. And it should be mentioned that Ukraine claimed that three tanks crossed over the Russian border yesterday (see updates below).

Eight OSCE Monitors Still Held ‘Hostage’ By Russian-Backed Separatists

The US ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer has made statements that have condemned the holding of OSCE monitors as hostage by separatists in eastern Ukraine:

Mr. Chairman, we remain deeply concerned that separatist forces continue to hold hostage eight OSCE Special Monitoring Mission monitors that they abducted on May 26 and May 29.  That’s two weeks ago today, and 17 days ago today.  We condemn in the strongest possible terms that these monitors were abducted and have remained as hostages for so long.  We call on all OSCE participating States, including Russia, to use their influence to secure the immediate and unconditional release of these monitors, to guarantee the security of the OSCE monitoring teams as they carry out their mandate throughout Ukraine, and to denounce the use of OSCE monitors or observers as hostages.

This past week we witnessed the inauguration of Petro Poroshenko as President of Ukraine.  He was elected following credible, well-run elections praised by international observers, including ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.  President Poroshenko is the first president of Ukraine to win in a first round vote, having collected a majority of votes cast across the country, having come in first in every oblast.  His inauguration represents a unique opportunity to make progress toward a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Ukraine.  Unfortunately, Russia so far has failed to recognize Poroshenko as Ukraine’s president and has continued destabilizing actions in eastern Ukraine, including support for large-scale attacks on Ukrainian government positions, border posts, and convoys in Donetsk and Luhansk regions.  Furthermore, it is evident that heavily armed and organized fighters from Russia, particularly from the regions of Chechnya and North Ossetia, are playing an overt role in the violence.  Today, news reports contain acknowledgment by Russia of material support being channeled to separatists, and news of a visit by the so-called leader of the illegal Donetsk People’s Republic, [Denis] Pushilin, to Moscow.  This is not a revelation, but exposure of yet another lie to be added to the tally.  Such actions subvert every good faith effort at dialogue and call into question the seriousness with which the Russian Federation engages in diplomatic discussions.

Former Russian Government Advisor: Putin’s Actions In Ukraine Aren’t a New Cold War – They’re a Real War

In our Windows on Eurasia
column, Paul Goble provides a summary of the widely-discussed address
of economist and former Russian government advisor Andrey Illarionov at
NATO’s Palriamentary Assembly May 31st. In a speech titled “The Fourth
World War” among the best of his career, Illarionov spells out in 10
theses why Putin’s military action in Ukraine is a real war, not a
return to the Cold War, bearing more resemblance to Soviet invasion of
the Baltic states or even the 1917 Bolshevik coup; it is not a
disruption of good relations which were not as imagined but the
continuation of Moscow’s foreign aggression begun in August 2008 with
the Georgian war.

Putin’s purpose is to divide Europe and the US
over relations with Russia but should be met with a concerted long-term
response, with a particular focus on counter-propaganda.

Read Illarionov’s Ten Theses on Putin’s Aggression in Ukraine

Humanitarian Crisis Growing In Slavyansk

The situation facing civilians who still remain in Slavyansk, effectively the key stronghold of the Russian-backed separatist gunmen, continues to decay. Alec Luhn of The Guardian reports from the city:

Most residents in the besieged city have been without water, electricity and gas for the past week. Food supplies are limited, and grocery stores smell of rotting food from the lack of refrigeration. Dozens of people queue for drinking water.

About 270 people have died in the east of the country since Kiev launched its “anti-terrorist operation” two months ago, Ukraine’s health ministry said on Wednesday. Of those killed, 225 were in Donetsk region, including Slavyansk, where fighting has been heaviest. At least two children have died of shrapnel wounds in Slavyansk this month, according to the health ministry. However, past government estimates have been low, excluding deaths in rebel-held territory.

Appalling conditions in rebel-held towns have caused thousands to flee. The exodus from Slavyansk gathered pace when Ukrainian army shelling intensified at the end of May, with most residents going to the nearby city of Svyatogorsk were they are dependent on the goodwill of locals for housing and food. About 15,000 to 20,000 refugees from Slavyansk have arrived in the city since the end of May, according to mayor Alexander Dzyuba.

NATO Calls Reports Of Russian Tanks In Ukraine a ‘Serious Escalation’
This tweet says it all:

The full statement from NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen:

I am concerned about reports that pro-Russian armed gangs are acquiring heavy weapons from Russia, including Russian tanks. We have seen reports that Russian tanks and other armoured vehicles may have crossed the border into eastern Ukraine. If these reports are confirmed, this would mark a serious escalation of the crisis in eastern Ukraine.

I continue to urge Russia to complete the withdrawal of its military forces on the border with Ukraine, to stop the flow of weapons and fighters across the border, and to exercise its influence among armed separatists to lay down their weapons and renounce violence.  We call on the Russian Federation to meet its Geneva commitments and cooperate with the government of Ukraine as it implements its plans for promoting peace, unity and reform.

The picture in that tweet shows a tank that Ukraine says crossed from Russia into Ukraine yesterday. There are three key questions:

1) Where did the separatists get the tanks?

2) Are they captured Ukrainian tanks, Russian tanks, or tanks from some other source?

3) How did the tanks get to where they are now? Did they pass through Russia or get there with the help of the Russian military?

Yesterday we posted a story that three T-64Bs were captured by Russian-backed separatists near Lugansk. But those vehicles were reportedly captured on or before June 9th. Also, to get from Lugansk to where they were spotted they would have to travel through the military front of Ukraine’s anti-terror operation — unless they traveled north first and traveled through Russia to loop around and re-enter Ukraine west of Rostov-On-Don.

But where did the tanks originally come from? The report we just mentioned was only posted on a single website that we know of, and it is Russian. Another theory was that the the T-64Bs were captured in Crimea. But Ukraine’s military has had checkpoints at the bridges that connect Crimea to mainland Ukraine since long before the annexation. If the tanks are from Crimea, they would have had to be shipped, likely by Russian military transport, to Ukraine (or to Russia and then on to Ukraine). But there’s no evidence (yet) to suggest that this happened.

Throwing a wrench in the works, the Ukrainian military expert Dmitry Tymchuk says all Ukrainian tanks are accounted for but Russia has T-64s in storage (translated by The Interpreter):

According to operational information from Information Resistance, the tanks abandoned by the Donbass terrorists yesterday from Russia were T-64BV tanks (earlier we had indicated, based on preliminary information that these were T-72 tanks, however according to more accurate data these are T-64s.)

Such tanks were in the arsenal of the coastal guard brigades of the Ukrainian Navy in the Crimea. However, according to our information, all Ukrainian T-64BV tanks (41 units) were withdrawn to the mainland of Ukraine.

In addition, according to information from international organizations, at this time, there are T-64BV tanks in Russia. In particular, they were withdrawn from combat use by the Russian army, but are located in the RF Defense Ministry’s warehouses.

In 2013, there were about 2,000 T-64 tanks with various modifications including the T-64BV in vehicle and armaments warehouses in Russia (according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, see The Military Balance 2013).

We have not confirmed that Russia has T-64s in storage. The most likely answer may still be the first one — that these tanks were captured in a recent raid by separatists. But as we’ve pointed out, that still doesn’t explain how they got into southeastern Ukraine without a lot of people noticing.

A New Offer On The Price of Ukraine’s Gas

There may be some progress in the negotiations over Ukraine’s natural gas supply. RFE/RL reports:

The head of Ukraine’s gas company has said that Kyiv may pay some of its overdue payment to Gazprom on June 13 if Russia agrees to charge $326 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas for 18 months.

Naftohaz chief Andrei Kobolev told reporters in Kyiv today that his corporation was “prepared to pay $1.9 billion if we make the deal.”

Kobolev said the price of $326 per 1,000 cubic meters — higher than what Kyiv wants to pay and lower than what Russia demands — was proposed by the European Commission during recent talks.

The problem is that we’ve seen this play before. So far Russia has been unwilling to come down on prices, and Ukraine has been unwilling to pay its debts until that happens. The fact that Kobolev is proposing a compromise, and the fact that he says this is a proposal that was discussed during recent talks, could indicate that progress is being made toward an ultimate solution.

Separatist Fighters Reportedly Fire Grad Rockets And Kill Civilian

Novosti Donbassa reports that separatist fighters have accidentally set fire to their own Grad rocket launcher and destroyed the depot of a vegetable company by mistake in the Donetsk town of Dobropol.

 A comment on a local VKontakte group read (translated by The Interpreter):

“From this area they fired several volleys from both installations towards the town of Dobropol. While firing a salvo, one of the launchers caught fire. Not all the ammunition was fired. Out of the 40 rockets, 14 remain unused, and one of them malfunctioned and fell on a barn near the launch site. They allegedly fired at a Ukrainian checkpoint which is on the outskirts of the town, towards Svyatogorsk. But a mistake was made in the firing adjustments and all of the missiles fell on the Perspektivy vegetable depot, where a woman who worked for the company was seriously injured. Two rockets fell on a neighbouring premises, where a young man who was working as security guard died.”

The Novosti Donbassa report says the area is now cordoned off by the Ukrainian military as the separatists had placed mines around the burnt launcher.

This video shows damage following the firing:

Here are photos from the Novosti Donbassa report of the launcher and the aftermath of the incident, including visible impact craters and the dead security guard.





Video Of Ukraine Military’s Assault on Mariupol
Watch this video carefully. Then try to remember that the rag-tag group of men, fighting in mismatching uniforms and a variety of weapons and using what looks like a garbage truck to assault the enemy are actually Ukrainian soldiers, not separatists.

The Ukrainian military did, however, take over the town and disable separatist armored personnel carriers in the process of the assault. These are likely either National Guard troops or part of the Azov battalion, as Ukrainian regular forces were also engaged in the fight.
Reports That Separatist Tanks Either Broken Down or Destroyed
Ukrainska Pravda reports that Anton Geraschenko, an adviser at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, announced at a press conference (translated by The Interpreter):
These tanks are now near the town of Chasov Yar in the Artyomovsk district of the Donetsk oblast. The are already in a practically un-usable condition. According to our data, these tanks are moving no further because they have broken down.”
The report says that Geraschenko noted that the tanks had likely been midhandled due to the inexperience of their non-professional milita crews.
UNIAN reported that Geraschenko then warned the separatists to abandon the tanks for the sake of their lives as they would soon be destroyed from the air.
According to the MVD the tanks (identified as T-64s) had belonged to the Ukrainian Armed Forces but had been seized during the Russian invasion of Crimea. They were reportedly shipped by sea to the Russian mainland.
Geraschenko said that by using captured Ukrainian tanks, Vladimir Putin was attempting to manipulate international opinion by being able to point out that Russian tanks had not entered Ukrainian territory.

The time of the press conference is not given in either report (both filed at around 10 a.m. GMT). But at 6:22 GMT Dmytro Tymchuk of Information Resistance claimed that 2 of the tanks had been destroyed by Ukrainian forces.

Another video of the tanks convoy in the town of Torez is below:

Major Government Operation in Mariupol

The minister of the interior, Arseniy Avakov, announced on his Facebook page this morning that the ” active phase of the ATO” had begun in Mariupol.

He writes (translated by The Interpreter):

A planned operation is under way to eliminate the fortified terrorist area headed by the crime boss who goes by the name ‘The Chechen’. The area of operations in the centre of Mariupol has been cordoned off.

Units of the Ukrainian National Guard and the Azov and Dnipr-1 special operations units of the Interior Ministry are participating in the operation. Checkpoints around Mariupol are supporting the armed forces. 

The operation began at 4:50 a.m. [1:30 GMT]. It is going according to plan. Successfully. All of the key terrorist points of control have, at this time, been brought under control. A BRDM has been knocked out and terrorist sniper positions have been destroyed. Losses on the terrorists’ side are high. There are no losses on ours – two soldiers have been wounded. 

The operation is continuing.

It is a shame that Mariupol was woken up this morning by gunfire – but the city of the steelworkers must not live and work under the dictatorship of bandits!

At 10:08 (7:08 GMT) Avakov added an update:

11 terrorists have been detained, two explosive devices have been neutralised. A car was seized at a checkpoint trying to break through in the direction of Donetsk. The car was fully loaded with weapons. The situation in the city is stable.

And at 10:34 (7:34 GMT):

The Ukrainian flag is flying over the Mariupol City Council!

Mariupol-based news site posted this photo of National Guard forces on Lenin Street in the city:


This tweet from the Euromaidan Twitter account appears to show the knocked out separatist BRDM armoured reconnaissance car that Avakov described:

Translation: Morning in Mariupol. Glory to Ukraine.

Here are some more photos from 0629 of the events today: