Ukraine Liveblog Day 13 — Beatings in Kharkiv, Defections in Crimea

March 2, 2014

The threat of a full-scale Russian invasion of mainland Ukraine continues, as John Kerry and Barack Obama both “condemn” Russia’s occupation of Crimea as a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and international law. Meanwhile, in Kharkiv, there is evidence of pro-Russian mobs beating Euromaidan protestors and journalists. Also, the newly appointed head of Ukraine’s Navy has joined with the Moscow-oriented forces in Crimea.

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:


0735 GMT: Two people have died of their wounds as a result of injuries in the storming of the Kharkiv State Administration Building by Russian nationalists on 2 March, ATN.ua reports, citing a medical official.

Dmitry Pilipets, co-organizer of EuroMaidan in Kharkiv, confirmed that the two people who died were members of his movement.


0614 GMT:
In case anyone had any doubts that the Russian attackers of the Kharkiv Region State Administration Building were from Russia, a citizen journalist with the user name “Akvit” on Youtube has provided footage of eight buses parked along the streets of Kharkiv yesterday with Russian Federation license plates. In the video, he reads out the license numbers as he drives along.

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The online news site Glavnoe.ua also published some pictures taken by their reporters of the out-of-town Russians and their local comrades — some of them were aiming guns during the storming of the building. Yesterday RT.com reported that Kharkiv Mayor Kernes had blamed Ukrainian nationalists for shooting during the attack, but reports so far indicate the violence was on the side of both imported and local Russian nationalists. About 90 people were injured in the attack.


0457 GMT:
Photo by Andrei Kamishchev

Photo by Andrei Kamishchev


Andrei Kamishchev, the photojournalist from Simferopol, continues to produce some of the best reporting of the war in his country. As he put it in his own words, “”My observations do not have the purpose of calming passions or smoothing reality.” Take a look at his albums here. We provide a summary translation below:

It is now the fourth day since Russian troops took over his city. Today, Andrei decided to venture out to the marketplace because he needed to buy a stronger lock for his gate. “While it seems to be quiet at night, I decided to take some precautions” — the police have all seemed to have disappeared, he says. While streets are blocked and there are Russian troops deployed around town, he was able to get about without difficulty.

The main square has a few hundred people in “a restrained, permanent rally.” A few people are waving or wearing Russian flags, and the Lenin statue has a home-made sign, “Don’t touch our Leader.” There is a “nice, Bolshevik freak, kind and harmless,” carrying a portrait of Lenin and an old Bolshevik flag. Some burly men standing in front of metal shields with the Russian tricolor are carrying signs expressing support for Sergey Aksyonov, the new leader of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, urging a referendum “which will show the opinion of all those in Crimea.” People are giving interviews to journalists — but also lecturing them about how they see the political situation.

Regarding the scene in the photo above in front of the government building:

“More and more, I have the definite sense that those who are in the background are posing, and those who are in the foreground are demonstrating an exposition….It’s really a painfully similar scene for the third day straight. And all of these so provocatively picturesque weapons hanging high on the chest…Madame Tussauds is taking the day off!”

Indeed, it is a show of strength. Those in the background appear to be Russian Federation soldiers with arms only they could be issued, as we reported earlier. Those in front are wearing the St. George ribbon popular with Russian nationalists in Russia. Kamishchev wonders if the grenade-launchers or flame-flowers hanging on the soldiers’ backs are for show — they seem happy to be photographed — or whether they really are expecting a tank attack. No one has fixed the broken windows from the storming of the government buildings on the night of 26 February by unidentified pro-Russian forces.

The market stalls are calm, with the merchants sitting quietly in place and even reading books. Food is plentiful and winter clothing in good supply — prices have not shot up yet. Cats are peacefully sunning themselves. After rising for a few days, the rate of the hryvnia against the dollar is down. Near the Council of Ministers building, there are checkpoints where only residents of the area are permitted entry.

Kamishchev doesn’t mention anything about reports of an explosion at the Belbek airfield.


2308 GMT: More conflicting reports on what’s happening in Simferopol:

All’s quiet seems to be the consensus from our sources. We may learn more about what happened earlier, but if there were fears of a Russian military assault, for the moment at least that doesn’t seem like it’s happened.


2300 GMT: Preparations for war — the lighting is bad, and we don’t see any identifying markers, and so we can’t tell whether these are Ukrainian military vehicles or Russian ones in Mykolyiv, southern Ukraine (map):

The officers in the streets have the insignias of the Ukrainian Interior ministry. We haven’t gotten a translation yet, but it’s possible that this is a Ukrainian military convoy, and it is being stopped by civilians by mistake.


2245 GMT: It may be becoming academic, but believe it or not there are many people who still argue that the troops that have taken over highways and have surrounded military bases across Crimea are not actually Russian soldiers. One method to tell who the soldiers are is to identify their weapons. Last night we presented evidence that Russian airborne soldiers may be in Crimea. A key clue — a rare sniper rifle used by very few military outfits in the world (see our updates on the matter here).

Today, Redditors have been identifying various weapons seen by Russian soldiers. One note is that the AK-74M is spotted among many of the soldiers, and it is a weapon used by very few militaries (of course, this does not exclude its use my mercenaries). Another weapon used by Russian special forces, the GM-94 Grenade Launcher, is rare among mercenaries because it is so expensive. Other weapons spotted have been custom-outfitted with expensive equipment consistent with what the Russian military uses.

Here is their conclusion: “Conclusion: at the very least, these irregulars are armed by the Russian Federation. More likely, they are VDV / spetsnaz troops -indicated by a degree of weapon customization (optics, rail systems, etc) not usually seen among conscript troops, even special forces units.”

This matches exactly what our expert in Moscow told us last night. See the gallery below:


2232 GMT: More on the reported explosions:

Earlier, many Russian troops were surrounding Ukrainian military bases that refused to surrender. Stating the obvious, unless something has changed, if the Russian troops are storming these bases, it is unlikely that two sound grenades would be enough to do the trick.


2225 GMT: Our staff has a lot of experience covering warzones, so there is a lot of truth to this:

Only one network is reporting gunfire, and some are reporting explosions, while others are reporting sound grenades, but some of the most seasoned war correspondents we know are reporting nothing. It’s very unclear what has happened in Simferopol, but it’s clear that there are a lot of journalists who may not have experienced warzones before, which may be adding to the confusion.

That said, many people have heard loud bangs, including some very seasoned reporters:


2222 GMT: While we’re still tracking reports from Simferopol, it’s worth noting that, as we reported earlier, the Russian media’s stories about a refugee crisis may be pure fiction, and are at the very least incredibly distortions and exaggerations:

Jump to update 2040 for more.


2218 GMT:

But again, this is all unconfirmed, because then we get this:


2210 GMT: Caution – these should be treated as unconfirmed:


2208 GMT: This is really unconfirmed:

Many other journalists however are now reporting that there were two explosions in Simferopol. No idea what they were as of now.


2200 GMT: We’re keeping an eye on reports of explosions.

Meanwhile, RT reports that more Ukrainian military officers have defected:

A number of high ranking Ukrainian officials in Crimea have sworn their allegiance to the autonomous republic of Crimea, as Simferopol pushes for its autonomy from the self-imposed government in Kiev.

The head of the Security Service of Crimea Petyor Zima, Chief of Department of Internal Affairs in the Crimea Sergey Abisov, the head of Service for Emergency Situations Sergei Shakhov and acting Chief of the Border Guards of Crimea Victor Melnichenko all took an oath of allegiance to the people of Crimea.

Earlier rear admiral Denis Berezovsky swore allegiance to the people of Crimea taking control over Crimea’s newly formed Navy.


2155 GMT: The BBC and other journalists are reporting a loud bang in Simferopol, but there is no confirmation as to what that bang may have been:

We’ll keep you posted.


2040 GMT: More spin and distortions from Russian state-owned media:

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2036 GMT: Another report on the arrests in Moscow:

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2022 GMT: Vedomosti, a Russian business daily newspaper, and Censor.net.ua, both report that at least 200 people have been arrested for a peace protest in Moscow.

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2015 GMT: Is Poland really sending tanks and troops to the Ukrainian border? As we noted earlier, these claims are unconfirmed, but this video reportedly shows tanks loaded onto railroad cars today:

The Polish military seems to be admitting that there are tanks on the move, but a spokesperson for the General Staff says that this is just a routine operation.

Are Polish troops on the move to the Ukrainian border? As we noted earlier, if they are that would not be a surprise. Nations typically move forces to the border in response to a crisis in neighboring countries. But with tensions already high, and with a peaceful solution to this crisis being the optimal solution for everyone, including Poland, don’t expect the Polish government to brag about it if they are.


1956 GMT: Yesterday we ran a chart that showed a really important comparison between the economic might of both Russia and Ukraine. Two more graphics that help place this crisis in perspective. The first one comes from RFE/RL:

Our Azerbaijani Service has a handy infographic comparing the militaries of Ukraine and Russia. It’s in Azeri, but the icons make it easy enough to understand.

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The second comes via AlJazeera America:

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1943 GMT: AFP has made this helpful timeline of events in Crimea:

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1938 GMT: David Cameron has announced that, in response to Russian military aggression in Ukraine, UK ministers will not be attending the Sochi Paralympics.

“This cannot be the way to conduct international affairs,” he said shortly before boarding a plane at RAF Northolt in west London.
“Our response is diplomatic and peaceful and it should be. That is our response but it will be a very united diplomatic response and not just from the Western world, I think, but from many other countries in the world and that is something that Russia will have to think hard about.”


1926 GMT: We’ll stress the unconfirmed nature of this report:

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We’ll also caution that it’s not all that surprising. It would be natural for Poland, which shares a border with Ukraine, to react by preparing for any eventualities.


1910 GMT: For those who do not know, The Interpreter is a magazine that follows Russia’s foreign and domestic politics, but we are also a Russian media watchdog with a focus on how the Russian media covers stories. However, both our managing editor James Miller and our editor-in-chief Michael Weiss are Syria experts as well, and have been covering that crisis since it began. So we’re really interested in this claim:

What’s particularly interesting is that we’re not aware of anyone making this claim previous to this, including the Russian media and government. And while there are many foreign Islamists fighting in Syria, we’re also unaware of any Crimean or Ukrainian Islamists fighting in that conflict.

This is, however, the go-to argument for Russian media who wish to discredit an opponent.


1902 GMT: The United states government is now reporting that Russian troops have flooded Crimea today, reinforcing Russian positions there:

The U.S. has tracked “thousands more” Russian troops flowing into Crimea on Sunday to reinforce Russian positions there, a senior U.S. official said.

The official also said there has been no violence involving the Russian troops, and no evidence of shots fired. Few other details of the troop movements were available. Russia has thousands of members of its armed forces already stationed in Crimea.


1856 GMT: Only about 60% of Crimeans are ethnically Russian, and that number is lower elsewhere in Ukraine. But it’s also important to remember that many of those ethnic Russians do not necessarily support Russian military invasion of Crimea, and certainly fewer support Russian control of the rest of Ukraine. More high-profile Russians inside Ukraine are speaking out:

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A major theme on the streets of Kiev today:

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1843 GMT: Yesterday, pro-EU protesters in Kharkiv were beaten by pro-Russian crowds and forced to kneel before the Russian flag. Today, a journalist has reportedly faced the same fate:

A few things to remember about Kharkiv: when the ousted president Viktor Yanukovych first fled Kiev, he reportedly fled to Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, where a conference of the “Ukrainian Front” was being held. The organization is a defiant pro-Russian organization, a collection of Yanukovych’s political opponents, but also an organization of paramilitary muscle designed to defend his interests. At the conference, some of the speakers were calling for the “Soviet Army” to invade Ukraine.

Yesterday, there was evidence that the crowds in Kharkiv were partially made up of Russian nationals who actually live in Russia but had traveled to the city specifically to hold pro-Russian rallies (see more about yesterday’s pro-Russian rally in Kharkiv throughout yesterday’s liveblog). In particular, the man who was photographed raising a Russian flag on Kharkiv’s city hall lives in Moscow and has also been photographed wearing a Nazi uniform (he claims he is a war reenactors, which he very well could be, but he does not deny that he lives in Moscow).

In another city, Donetsk, pro-Russian protests abruptly dispersed after a specific period of time, raising concerns that the crowds were paid to be there. We’ve seen the Russian government pay protesters to participate in rallies inside Russia, and while there is no hard evidence that they are doing this inside Ukraine this past week, it’s becoming clear that Russians who live in Russia are also joining or even instigating protesters in Ukraine.

So while there are absolutely ethnic Russians in Ukraine, and there are absolutely pro-Russian Ukrainians, one has to be concerned about the allegations that the most radical of these crowds is directly led by Russian nationals who don’t live in Ukraine.


1838 GMT: The Russian military takeover could be driving separatists to take over in Crimea, and could force the new government in Kiev to respond to calls for separatism. The Kyiv Post reports:

Russian soldiers already were systematically taking charge of strategic locations on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula on March 1, with estimates of the number of troops or Russian-backed armed forces already on Ukrainian soil ranging from 6,000 and 28,000.

The takeover came as the Crimea’s new pro-Russian prime minister, Sergei Aksenov, called for a referendum on March 30 to allow voters in the 2.2 million-population region to decide whether they want to remain in Ukraine, join Russia or form an independent state.

However, Ukrainian government officials in Kyiv questioned the legitimacy of Aksenov’s appointment and called a referendum on separatism illegal. Meanwhile, Russian officials and ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, deposed on Feb. 22, are questioning the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government.


1827 GMT: Tough words from Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk (translated by The Interpreter):

Poland’s PM Donald Tusk called for “strong pressure” on Russia. The world shall not leave its eyes of the crisis in Ukraine. “This conflict all signs of the type of conflict that can escalate into a war…. a war which would effect all countries of the world.”

A war that would effect “all countries”? A lot of people are wondering if this is hyperbole, or a sage warning.


1815 GMT: There were many rallies and protests all across Ukraine today, with many different messages. For instance, this was the crowd in Dnipropetrovsk, southeast of Kiev, where protesters sang the Ukrainian national anthem as a sign of national unity:

What looks like a smaller crowd tonight in Simferopol:

And this news update from Euro News shows part of the rally in Kiev standing up to Russian military action:


1812 GMT: The Ukrainian military is both cool-headed and defiant in Crimea:


1804 GMT: Ukraine’s naval chief has reportedly defected, and may now be facing high treason charges:

And this is why:

Meanwhile:

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1759 GMT: Russian troops have surrounded several key military installations around Crimea today. LA Times reports:

Hundreds of armed Russians surrounded Kremlin military installations in Crimea, where Moscow leases Soviet-era bases from what is now independent Ukraine. The men, called up from retirement or inactive status with Russia’s Black Sea fleet, sported black-and-orange ribbons celebrating the Soviet victory in World War II or red armbands identifying themselves as “volunteers of the autonomous republic of Crimea.”

But the Ukrainian troops, still answering orders from Kiev, have refused to fold:

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1745 GMT Below is a disturbing video sent to us showing a mob of pro-Russian protestors in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. They’re hauling Euromaidan activists out of a building and kicking, beating them and forcing them to kneel.

Also, the newly appointed chief of the Ukrainian Navy, Denis Berezovsky, has switched sides to the pro-Russian forces now in control of Crimea:

“I swear to execute the orders of the (pro-Russia) commander-in-chief of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea,” Denis Berezovsky said in a televised statement from inside the Crimean headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, adding that he “swears allegiance to the residents of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

Here’s Berezovsky’s televised address announcing his defection:

Berezovsky has just been “dismissed” by the Ukrainian military: