Ukraine Liveblog Day 196: Ukrainian Navy Under Attack In Azov Sea

September 1, 2014
Two Ukrainian naval ships damaged, possibly by airstrikes, on August 31 | Paweł Pieniążek

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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Russian Foreign Ministry Blasts US OSCE Ambassador for Ukraine Speech

Russia is furious at US Amb. Daniel Baer, the US envoy to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Russian state media is amplifying this outrage.

Today, the Russian Foreign Ministry released this statement (translation by The Interpreter).

We note that the latest impermissible statements by Permanent Representative of the USA to the OSCE D. Baer have been made at a meeting of the Permanent Council of the OSCE on 28 August.

It provokes outrage that the American diplomat, who has repeatedly indulged in odious attacks against Russia, this time crosses all permissible boundaries of diplomatic decency. His fictitious claims were not, as usual, backed up by concrete facts, but were open insults and rudeness directed at our country in abundance.

The unconcealed malice in D. Baer’s statements evidently are related to the military successes of the militia of Novorossiya who in recent days managed to pin down the deadly punitive operation unleashed by Kiev with the reckless support of Washington.

We are expecting that the USA State Department will call upon its permanent representative to change such a style of behavior unbecoming to a diplomat of such a high rank at an OSCE platform, which must not serve as a tribunal for such unfounded and rude attacks, but a place of  mutual respect and constructive conversation on the key problems of European security and development of collective decisions. Otherwise, there will be nothing to talk about with this personage.

The full text of Amb. Baer’s speech can be seen here. In it, the ambassador makes specific charges about the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mr. Chairperson, in recent days, and in the last 24 hours, there have been mounting reports of large numbers of Russian military personnel inside Ukraine, columns of Russian tanks and armored vehicles crossing into southeastern Ukraine from Russia, and a Russian helicopter gunship attack on a Ukrainian border post. These indicate that a new Russian escalation, including a Russia-directed counteroffensive, may be underway in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts [regions]—actions that are in clear violation of international law and OSCE principles and commitments. In addition, Russia continues to supply separatist fighters with tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, and multiple rocket launchers. Russia has fired self-propelled artillery into Ukraine and has further violated Ukrainian territory by crossing over the border to fire. We are aware that Russia has sent its newest air defense systems, including the SA-22, into eastern Ukraine.

Notably, Amb. Baer mentions the SS-22s, which is NATO’s name for the Pantsir-1. As we reported earlier today September 1, a US official has confirmed the use of the Pantsir-S1 in Ukraine, which we as we noted was spotted August 28 in Donetsk.

No doubt Amb. Baer’s apt comparison of Russian actions in Ukraine to the infamous street card game of three-card monte in New York City also outraged Moscow:

Russia’s so-called humanitarian aid will not distract the international community from the substantial and sustained contributions Russia is making to the ongoing violence and destruction in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Colleagues, these days you don’t see it so much, but in the 1980s on many street corners in New York, one could find a man with a card table who would entice naïve passersby to engage in a game—in one version of this game, there was a marble under one of three plastic cups—the hoodlum would move the cups quickly, in front of your eyes, telling you to watch the marble. When he stopped he’d ask which cup it was under—and inevitably the passerby fell for the trick and guessed the wrong one. The Kremlin is playing a hoodlum’s game—sending Potemkin convoys to distract from its egregious actions that are the very cause of humanitarian concerns. Don’t fall for it. Our position remains clear: no Russian personnel, arms, or other materiel—whether labeled humanitarian assistance or anything else—should enter Ukraine without the Ukrainian government’s consent. The government of Ukraine has shown it is committed to providing humanitarian relief with the support of the international community. We have already seen Ukrainian humanitarian aid distributed in communities in Luhansk oblast with the assistance of international humanitarian organizations.  If Moscow really cared about any of the people in Ukraine—including those for whom it proclaims a sense of ethnic solidarity—it would stop using them as pawns and start treating them as persons. The Kremlin has zero credibility on humanitarian issues—but if the Kremlin wants to help, then they should make private phone calls and public statements to instruct the separatists they support and sustain to allow unfettered access to those communities in need so that they can receive humanitarian aid.

Putin is now mentioning “Novorossiya” for the third time — the first time was in a speech about the annexation of Crimea in April; the second was last week in an “appeal to the Novorossiya militia” to create a humanitarian corridor for fleeing Ukrainian troops. There are reports that Russian troops shot and killed Ukrainian soldiers as they attempted to flee, while many were able to escape.

Ukrainian Defence Minister Says Russia Has Lost Hybrid War, Begun Invasion, And Threatened Nuclear Strikes

Interfax-Ukraine reports that Valeriy Heletey, the Ukrainian defence minister, has written on his Facebook page that Russia has lost its “hybrid war” against Ukraine. Instead a conventional war has now begun.

Heletey also said that Russia had, off record, threatened Ukraine with the use of tactical nuclear weapons. 

Interfax-Ukraine reports (translated by The Interpreter):

“Russia has lost its hybrid war in Ukraine. Our armed forces have confidently pushed back the gangs of Russian mercenaries and killed the saboteurs and special forces operatives. That is why the Kremlin has been forced to jump to a full-scale invasion of the Donbass with regular troops. Today we already dealing with divisions and regiments. Tomorrow it might be the corps itself,” wrote the head of the Ministry of Defence on his Facebook page on Monday.

According to him, the operation to liberate eastern Ukraine “from the terrorists” is over. “We urgently need to build up our defence against Russia, which is attempting to not only gain a foothold in areas previously occupied by the terrorists, but also to advance into other areas of Ukraine,” affirms V. Heletey.

He stressed that “a great war has come to Ukraine, the likes of which Europe has not seen since the time of the Second World War,” and also expressed an opinion that the losses “will run not into the hundreds, but the thousands, even tens of thousands.” In addition, the minister said that, according to unofficial channels, the Russian side has threatened several times that “in the event of continued resistance, they are prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons against us.”

V. Heletey also said that, in order to survive, Ukraine needs the “full consolidation of all available forces.” He also described calls for the dismissal of the chief of the General Staff, Viktor Muzhenko, “a Russian provocation,” noting that this head of the Ukrainian General Staff has been “the architect of Ukrainian victories in the east.”

“Were it not for the Russian invasion, we would have completed the active phase of the ATO by early October, liberating the entire area,” said the minister.

Ukrainian Border Service Releases Video Of Burning Patrol Boat

The Ukrainian State Border Service has released video footage filmed as rescuers arrived to inspect the burning remains of one of two coastal patrol cutters struck by Russian forces in an attack yesterday off the coast near Mariupol.

US Senator Menendez Describes Russia’s Actions As Invasion, Supports Arms For Ukraine

The Interpreter‘s editor-in-chief, Michael Weiss, has attended a presser given by US Senator Bob Menendez, the Chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, in Kiev today.

The senator has explicitly described Russia’s actions in south-eastern Ukraine as an invasion and says that he, personally, would support providing arms to Ukraine.

Ukraine Claims Donetsk Airport Still Under Ukrainian Control

Leonid Matyukhin, a press officer for the ATO, has announced that Donetsk Airport is still under the control of Ukrainian forces, despite attacks by Russian-backed separatists.

Novosti Donbassa reports (translated by The Interpreter):

“Donetsk Airport is ours,” he said, commenting on statements by DNR terrorists claiming that some of the Ukrainian soldiers had raised a white flag and decided to leave Donetsk Airport. It was also reported that there had been a fire in the main building of the airport during the night.

Ukrainian Forces Withdraw From Lugansk Airport

The Ukrainian Center for National Security and Defense (SNBO) has announced that Ukrainian forces have withdrawn from Lugansk Airport following attacks by Russian or Russian-backed forces.

Ukrainska Pravda reports that Andrei Lysenko, a spokesman for the SNBO, told reporters today that (translated by The Interpreter):

“Ukrainian troops received the command and orderly retreated from Lugansk Airport and the village of Georgievka, located on the Lugansk-Krasny LuchSnezhnoye road. Considering the precision of the strikes, the shelling is being conducted by professional artillery crews from the Russian armed forces. In addition, a large concentration of Russian forces was located around the regional centre of Lutugino, and on the outskirts of the town of Schastye on the northern bank of the Seversky Donets.”

The SNBO also claimed that 7 Russian tanks had been knocked out in the battle for the airport.

The loss of Lugansk Airport means the loss of the first major airstrip in the conflict so far. The condition of the runways is uncertain, there has been extensive damage to the airport’s infrastructure during the months of fighting. The airport could be used to fly bombing missions from, and even be used to grant a veneer of plausible deniability to Russian Air Force operations with claims that the separatists could be operating from the base.

On a wider strategic level, it now looks like Ukraine has lost a key foothold in the battle for control of the Lugansk region. Ukrainian forces still lie on the western fringes of the region, and to the north of the city. The towns in the Severodonetsk and Lysychansk area are also still under government control. But with the highway from the border at Izvarino to Lugansk now clear of any threat by Ukrainian forces, the Russian supply of weapons and troops into the area can increase even further. Furthermore, the reports of encroachment on Schastye suggest that an invasion is underway across the northern stretch of the Lugansk-Russia border.

At Least Four Tactical Battalions of Russian Federation Armed Forces in Ukraine

Andrey Lysenko, spokesman for the Information Center of the Ukrainian Council for National Security and Defense, said the Russian army is fighting in Ukraine, UNIAN reported (translation by The Interpreter):

According to operational information, there are at least four tactical battalions of the Russian Federation armed forces on the territory of Ukraine.

These battalions are outfitted with armored vehicles and heavy artillery, he said.

He noted that the Russian forces were in the region of Novosvetlovka, Novannovka, and Krasnoye; in the region of Starobeshevo, Novokaterinovka, Kumachevo and Pobeda; and in the area of Shcherbak and Markino.

The ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation] sent to defend the Lugansk Airport from both separatists and Russian soldiers have now been order to leave the airport after a battle.

On Sunday, August 31, Gerashchenko went on a number of TV programs
and wrote on social media his conclusions about what had happened in the
last week:

Last Sunday, August 24, Russian Federation troops
entered Donbass. If there had not been this aggression on the part of
Russia, from their regular army, these events outside of Ilovaisk would
not have happened. However, our battalions of police, who were not
prepared to fight with troops from the regular army of the Russian
Federation, outfitted with tanks, artillery, Grad systems…we could not
oppose them, gripped in the pincer of Russia.

Unfortunately, our guys wound up encircled, all the
negotiations about a humanitarian corridor were blatantly thrown aside
by the Russian Federation, and they began to just shoot our guys, as
they lured them out of Ilovaisk. Some of the guys now are coming out of
the encirclement, some of them were taken captive, we are now in the
process of verifying the lists of those who regrettably are no longer
with us among the living.

Schools Open, But Not In Donbass, Amid Worries About Landmines
At a joint press conference between UNICEF and Ukrainian officials, the start of the school year was discussed. Across much of Ukraine, schools opened today, but not in Russian-occupied territory in Donbass where Ukraine says that more than 900 schools remain closed. 

But both the Ukrainian government and UNICEF have warned of another danger — unexploded ordinance and landmines. Deputy Education Minister Pavlo Polansky warned that the Ukrainian government, in coordination with UNICEF, had been making flyers to warn children of the danger, but Ukraine’s Emergency Services warned that over 16,000 explosive devices have been defused ot detonated, and some of them were even disguised as toys.

No pictures of the defused weapons have been released, though pictures may be released soon and may be available to journalists who contact Emergency Services.

Ukraine Confirms 1 Ship Sank, 1 Damaged, But Denies Jets Conducted Airstrike

Colonel Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, has given a press conference which was attended by The Interpreter. In the conference he said that missiles fired from the shore hit the two Ukrainian Coast Guard Cutters. One of the ships sank and the other was heavily damaged.

Earlier, however, we posted video (which is now being shown by Ukrainian TV news channels) which may show jets conducting an airstrike against one of the ships.

After the conference The Interpreter spoke with Colonel Lysenko. Lysenko explained that Ukrainian ships are equipped with radar and they did not detect any enemy aircraft in the area. Once the ships started to take fire, Lysenko says the sailors moved to the top deck and saw the fire coming from the shore.

He was not able to explain the video which appears to show aircraft in the area. “Perhaps,” he said, Ukrainian aircraft may have been inspecting the damaged ships. 

US Official Confirms That Russian Military Has Sent SA-22 SAM Systems Into Ukraine

A US official has confirmed for The Interpreter that the Russian government has established a de facto no-fly zone in eastern Ukraine which has been reinforced by an “advanced” missile system, the SA-22 (Russian reporting name Pantsir-S1). The Pantsir-S1 carries missiles which have an operational range of 20 kilometers (12 miles) and a maximum flight altitude of 15 kilometers (9.3 mi), but it is also equipped with two 2A38M 30 mm autocannon guns, with a maximum range of 4 kilometers, which excel at chewing up both low flying aircraft (such as helicopters, jets or possibly even cruise missiles) as well ground targets. The official described the weapon as one of the most advanced weapons systems Russia operates.

Last week, The Interpreter posted evidence that a Pantsir-S1 missile system was in Donetsk near the scene of intense fighting. 

Poroshenko Asks For Weapons, Not Soldiers

The Kyiv Post reports that Ukrainian President Poroshenko is requesting “military-technological assistance rather than foreign military personnel,” from key Western allies.

This is exactly what Ben Judah has advocated for in his latest editorial for The New York Times:

Ukraine is being destroyed. The economy is in tatters. The military will not survive a Russian offensive. Ukrainians are taking refuge in romantic nationalism and preparing for partisan warfare. The costs are mounting — continuing to fight will cost thousands of lives — and the liberal dreams of the revolution are drowning in the jingoistic fury and hysteria of war.

A few more months without meaningful Western help and Ukraine will have lost the fighting core of its army — and its infatuation with the West. This will be replaced by a sense of betrayal, and there will be no way for Ukraine’s pro-European liberals to survive the backlash. The far-right extremists now on the fringe will ride into Kiev’s parliament on the lids of the caskets being shipped back from the front. Ukraine will become a ravaged conflict zone: a European Syria, or a hideously enlarged Bosnia.

We cannot let this happen. If we believe that Ukraine will one day become a member of the European Union and NATO, then we should be ready to arm it. We must face the fact that the costs of unlimited European Union and NATO expansion have meant war with Russia by proxy — and then fight the war. Having reignited the hottest moments of the Cold War, we must deal with the consequences of encouraging democratization in Eastern Europe.

Video Suggests Jet Fighters Conducted Airstrike Against Ukraine’s Military
Yesteday, two Ukrainian ships, coast guard patrol ships, were destroyed or at least heavily damaged in the Azov Sea, off the coast of Mariupol. Video (below) clearly shows aircraft moving from right to left after the 1 minute mark, followed by an explosion. The aircraft engines can also be heard:

The video seems to show two ships that are smoking, though only one suffers a major explosion while the video is rolling. The Ukrainian government has confirmed that at least one ship is seriously damaged. RFE/RL reports:

Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said an emergency operation is under way to help rescue crew members.

Lysenko said the vessel is a naval cutter but it is not known how many people were onboard.

The separatist leader Igor Strelkov has taken credit for the attack, however, claiming that “the militia have dealt the enemy their first naval defeat.” and major news agencies are reporting that it was an artillery strike that is responsible for the ships being damaged. However, the video, combined with the fact that the ship was not close to shore, suggests that this was an airstrike, not an artillery strike.

An airstrike would directly implicate the Russian military, and would be the first direct evidence of a Russian airstrike against the Ukrainian military.