The Interpreter

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Ukraine Liveblog Day 20: A Military Standoff

Yesterday, Russian troops advanced north of Crimea, taking new territory and digging in along the southern border of the mainland. A wall of troops, APCs, and landmines, now lay between mainland Ukraine the the Crimean peninsula. More Russian troops have flooded Crimea, and there are signs of even more deployments on the peninsula. The Ukrainian military is also mobilizing in response to the crisis.

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

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


0507 GMT: Ukrainskaya Pravda has reported more details on the detention and abduction of two cars of journalists and AutoMaiden activists which we covered earlier today. According to the account of a Glavkom reporter whose first name only is given as “Aleksei” who was released after inspection at a checkpoint, there were a lot of military people and unidentified persons in army uniforms on the scene, known as “little green men” in the local idiom. Aleksei said that there were also representatives of Berkut, the former Ukrainian riot police, and “Crimea self-defense” groups.

In one car, there were two women from AutoMaidan, the protest organized by drivers on the model of EuroMaidan. Aleksei said the women had been delivering letters for Ukrainian soldiers along with food and Ukrainian flags, and these items were thrown out of the car. He said that it appeared that the women had been beaten, that their hands were tied, and they were crying. They were driven away to an unknown destination, and contact with them was lost at 16:00.

Ukrainskaya Pravda then later learned that Ekaterina Butko and Oleksandra Ryazantseva were taken to a Berkut camp. According to AutoMaidan representatives, the “Crimean self-defense” is ready to release them, but Berkut has not consented. AutoMaidan subsequently reported that the two women were taken to the Russian Federation Black Sea Fleet Headquarters in Sevastopol, and that Oleksandra’s parents were notified.

Meanwhile, the people in the other car, a Jeep Wrangler with the license AE 9115 EV disappeared: freelance photocorrespondent Oles (last name not known), one other journalist and another female photojournalist. The driver’s wife, Ekaterina Abiyeva, reports that her husband, Evgeniy Rakhno, had been detained at the checkpoint in Perekop:

“He was driving a group of three journalists. Two of them were from Glavkom. At Perekop, they were stopped, they turned the car upsdie down, found cameras, threw them on the ground. Then took them away to an unknown destination. There is no connection with them now.”

According to a report from EuroMaidan SOS, the three journalists were detained in Armyansk by the Berkut riot police and were then take to the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) in Sevastopol. The SBU press center has explained that the SBU building in Sevastpol was seized by separatists who had gone over to the side of the new self-proclaimed government of Sergei Aksyonov in the Crimea. “The new leadership does not work in that building,” the Ukrainian SBU explained.


0238 GMT: “Armed Russian extremists” attacked the Sevastopol radio post which is used to track the situation on the sea, TSN reported, citing the Ukrainian State Border Service. (Note that the photo that accompanies this TSN story is in fact taken by Baz Ratner for Reuters of another earlier incident in the Crimea.) Here is a translation by The Interpreter of an excerpt:

“During the storm armed Russian extremists in army and civilian clothing smashed the entrance doors and broke into the building. They dismantled radio equipment and disabled the communications cables,” say the border guards.

“Ukrainian border guards are faithful to their oath and to the Ukrainian people, and will not leave their divisions and will not give to the aggressors the system to control the border of Ukraine,” said the Border Service.

Later the investigative news site sled.net.ua reported that about 30 armed Russian military had seized the Black Sea department of the Ukrainian State Border Service.

Subsequently sled.net.ua reported at 14:17 today that 25 armed Dagestanis in civilian clothing were brought in to relieve the original occupiers. But the picture labelled “Dagestanis” used to illustrate that news was in fact taken from a June 2012 article in Izvestiya about a riot in the town of Demyanovo.

Neither report has been confirmed.



0134 GMT: Former political prisoner and businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky travelled to Ukraine this weekend. Today, after meeting with a number of people in the new government in Kiev, he spoke on Maidan Square. A full translation of his remarks follows:

Glory to the people of the new democratic Ukraine!

[Crowd: Russia, arise! Russia, arise!]

Yesterday, with my Ukrainian friends, I was on Maidan at night. We talked to a lot of people here. Russian propaganda, as always, is lying. There are no fascists or Nazis — that is, to be more precise, there are no more of them than there are on the streets of Moscow or St. Petersburg.

There are normal guys here. Russians, Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars. There are my peers, Afghan war veterans.

These are wonderful people who have defended their freedom. I wish them all success and all the very best.

I have been told and shown what the government did here. It did it with the consent of the Russian government. More than 100 have been murdered. More than 3,000 to 5,000 have been wounded. I saw those shields made out of plywood with which people defended themselves from snipers’ bullets. I wanted to cry. It was horrible.

[Crowd: Applause]

That’s not my government. I want you to know: there is a completely different Russia.

[Crowd: Applause. Russia, arise! Russia, arise!]

There are people who, despite arrests, despite the long years that they will have to spend in prison, did go out in these last days to anti-war rallies in Moscow. There are people for whom friendship between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples is more important their their own freedom.

[Crowd: Thank you! Thank you!]

I believe that both Russia and Ukraine have one common European path for development. I wish you success. [In Ukrainian] Fight, prevail, God will help you. Thank you.

[Crowd: Good guy! Good guy!]



0124 GMT: A good round-up of all the attacks on the press in Ukraine in the last three weeks, with links to reports going back to November 2013, has been made by Voice of America.

AFP has reported
the beating of Ukrainian Channel 5 reporters; the beating of Inter and STB reporters; and the seizure of equipment from the AP.

“Pro-Russian militia in Crimea have often been confrontational with Ukrainian and international journalists, whom they accuse of working for foreign powers against Moscow,” AFP noted.

Above, footage of an attack uploaded to YouTube by multiple users shows a local pro-Russian “self-defense” group beating cameramen on the scene. The attack followed the take-over of a Ukrainian base by Russian soldiers. Dylan Byers reported on his Politico blog that Ukrainian and Russian officers were discussing the terms of a truce when the local pro-Russian militia attacked the reporters.


0112 GMT: President Obama will meet with Ukrainian Minister Arseniy Yatsenyk of Ukraine at the White House on March 12, whitehouse.gov reports.


Photo by Olga Rudenko, demonstrator in Dneptropetrovsk. Sign says: "Putin, Hands off or you'll push up your toes"
Photo by Olga Rudenko, demonstrator in Dneptropetrovsk. Sign says: “Putin, Hands off or you’ll push up your toes”

2328 GMT: Dueling protests in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk today show that for now, the pro-Kiev forces can muster more people at their rallies than the pro-Moscow activists, but the ability of independent media to cover the facts on the ground is constantly threatened. Kyiv Post reports:

Some 3,000 protesters gathered on March 9 in the center of the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk to celebrate the 200th anniversary of national hero Taras Shevchenko’s birth and to protest Russian military aggression in Crimea.

Just two blocks away, a pro-Russian rally thrown by Sevastopol-based Russian Block and local Alliance of Soviet Officers took place. Standing next to the grey, Soviet-style building of Opera Theater, some 1,000 people chanted “Russia!” and “Referendum!” Some 30 minutes after the rally began at noon, the cameramen and reporter of 1+1, one of the TV channels that were loyal to EuroMaidan, were brusquely chased out of the crowd.


2316 GMT: A billboard we reported earlier in Sevastopol advertising the hastily-called 16 March Referendum in the Crimea is getting a lot of attention and further commentary:

Translation: @varlamov All means are fair in war. RT @GraniTweet Nothing like this billboard for the referendum in Sevastopol.



2203 GMT: Anticipating the Russian storming of their base today, Ukrainian naval authorities were able to get their aircraft back to the mainland last week. A YouTube uploaded 5 March by lavrik1 shows “evacuation” of helicopters from Novofedorivka.

“Combat helicopters and planes from the 10th Saksi Naval Aviation Brigade of the Ukrainian Navy at Novofedorivka flew back to the mainland so as not to enable Russian Federation military to seize them,” said Vladislav Seleznyov, head of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s media center in the Crimea, investigator.org.ua reported. As Seleznyov said on 5 March:

“Today while the Russians, after the usual verbal pressure and mental attack and head-butting, were resting and drinking tea, the brigade’s aircraft was lifted to the sky — the air transport, naval helicopters and Be-12 flying boats flew to the reserve air field,” he said on his Facebook page, Interfax Ukraine reported. Seleznyov added that the aircraft had already arrived at its temporary location.


2051 GMT: Ukrainskaya Pravda is now reporting that the Ukrainian airbase at Novofedorivka, which was stormed earlier today, is now under Russian control. The paper cites a statement by Vladislav Seleznev, the head of the defence ministry’s Crimean media centre. According to Seleznev, the base was seized after around 80 Russian soldiers, accompanied by 40-50 unknowns in civilian clothing, took over the airfield and established gun positions along the runway, rendering the airfield unusable. We do not yet know what has happened to the Ukrainian troops stationed on site.


2027 GMT: Here is a video, uploaded today, showing officers from the besieged 174th air-defence missile brigade in Sevastopol, who say they have been under attack by snipers during the night. The officer, who expresses shock that the Russians would open fire on them, points to a location he describes as a sniper position and then shows bullet holes in their command vehicle. He says that 8 shots were fired during the night.


1910 GMT: Censor.net reports on an arson attack on a Tatar home in Crimea. On the night of March 7/8, unknown arsonists set fire to a hotel and two cars belonging to representatives of the Tatar community.

Photo: Censor.net.ua
Photo: Censor.net.ua

A security guard alerted firefighters and then tried to tackle the blaze himself, but power was soon cut off, shutting down water pumps. Although the nearest fire station is only 800 metres away from the site of the attack, firefighters took half an hour to arrive, by which time, there was little left to save. The hotel owner made no comments regarding his suspicions, saying that it was a matter for the police to deal with, and that the Crimean Tatars will not respond to any provocations. Fear amongst the Crimean Tatar community has been rising following reports of Tatar houses being marked with crosses by pro-Russian activists.


1750 GMT:According to Ukrainskaya Pravda two groups of Ukrainian journalists and activists have been detained by unidentified, unformed fighers at the border between Kherson oblast and Crimea. The two women were then driven off to an unknown destination in the Crimea in a white Citroen car with a Ukrainian registration (AK 4646 CE).

According to a journalist who witnessed the abduction, the men forced the women to kneel before leading them off. He added that his colleagues phones are not responding. A second group of journalists was detained, among them the journalist from Glavkom, who said that he was robbed of all his cash, but then released.

Ukrainiskaya Pravda has identified three of the kidnapped women. Two, Yekaterina Butko and Oleksandra Ryazantseva, were Automaidan activists. Ryazantseva has a tattoo comemmorating the dead of the Maidan movement, with the text: “Heaven’s Hundred 19.01 – 21.0.2014″. Hundreds, or Sotnia refers to the brigades formed by Maidan activists. According to the Glavkom journalist, the unidentified men noticed this tattoo when they stopped her, and commented: “You have a hundred? Today there’ll be 102.”

According to Euromaidan SOS, the other abducted woman is Alena Mksimenko, a journalist for Tyzhden. No contact has been made with her either.


1718 GMT: Ukrainskaya Pravda reports that Russian forces have stormed another Ukrainian airbase in Crimea. 4 trucks carrying Russian soldiers arrived at the Novofedorivka air base in the Saki area. Vladislav Seleznev, an officer at the defence ministry’s Crimean media centre, reported that:

“There are a pair of Mi-24 helicopters circling in the sky above the aerodrome, and about a dozen civilian cars trying to enter the grounds of the airbase from the surrounding villages.”

The commander of the Saki Marine Aviation Brigade is currently engaged in negotiations.


1639 GMT: The separatist authorities in Crimea are apparently presenting the choice in the referendum due on March 16 as one between Russia and Nazism.
Photo: @cyber100ua
Photo: @cyber100ua

The text on the billboard reads “On March 16 we choose between [Nazi Crimea] or [Russian Crimea]. This fits with Russian presentations of the Maidan movement in Ukraine as a neo-Nazi manifestation. The choice suggested on this poster does not, however, conform to what the referendum will actually ask voters. As noted below, the referendum only asks whether citizens wish to declare independence from Ukraine, or join the Russian Federation immediately.


1632 GMT: According to a statement on the official website of the UDAR party, their leader, Vitaly Klitschko, has been asked by police and local authorities in Donetsk to refrain from appearing at a rally for the unity of Ukraine. UDAR reports that the authorities warn the politician and former heavyweight boxing champion not attend so to avoid provoking “the excesses of aggressive pro-Russian activists”.


1616 GMT: The BBC reports that pro-Ukrainian demonstrators have been attacked by pro-Russian activists in Sevastopol. At a rally to celebrate the date of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko’s birth, scuffles broke out between a crowd waving Ukrainian flags, and their pro-Russian opponents. One Russian protester was kicked to the ground. In response, pro-Russian activists attacked the pro-Ukrainians. A car was attacked and the driver dragged out and beaten. Another protester is shown being attacked by a large group, amongst them a Cossack using a whip. The BBC’s Ben Brown also reports that he and other journalists were threatened by the pro-Russians, and forced to flee the scene.


1517 GMT: Reuters reports that Tony Blinken, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, has declared that the United States will not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea, regardless of the outcome of the March 16 referendum:

“First, if there is an annexation of Crimea, a referendum that moves Crimea from Ukraine to Russia, we won’t recognize it, nor will most of the world,” Blinken said.

“Second, the pressure that we’ve already exerted in coordination with our partners and allies will go up. The president made it very clear in announcing our sanctions, as did the Europeans the other day, that this is the first step and we’ve put in place a very flexible and very tough mechanism to increase the pressure, to increase the sanctions.”

The referendum, due in a week’s time, will be of little value in determining the level of support amongst Crimeans towards absorption by Russia, even if the poll is conducted fairly, in spite of the military occupation and partisan paramilitary groups roaming the peninsular. The referendum ballot itself, as published by the Crimean Rada, offers only two choices for voters:

Do you support joining Crimea with the Russian Federation as a subject of Russian Federation?

Or:

Do you support restoration of 1992 Crimean Constitution and Crimea’s status as a part of Ukraine?

An independent Crimean state, would of course be a de facto Russian province anyway, and the separatist leadership has made their desire to reunite with the Russian Federation clear. It is also worth reminding readers that a referendum to join Russia would be a one-off event. As of the law signed into effect by President Putin on Janurary 11 this year, spreading separatist views within the Russian Federation is now punishable by up to 5 years in prison.


1446 GMT: Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, and he stands behind the legitimacy of the Crimean parliament:

In a statement, the Kremlin said Mr Putin “underlined in particular that the steps taken by Crimea’s legitimate authorities are based on international law and aimed at guaranteeing the legitimate interests of the peninsula’s population”.

The Kremlin also said that Mr Putin discussed the lack of action by Kiev “to limit the rampant behaviour of ultra-nationalists and radical forces in the capital and in many regions”.

It said the three leaders “exchanged points of view on what the international community could do to normalise” the situation in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the Russian news agency has more on efforts to bring the Ukrainian forces in Crimea under control:


1439 GMT: The Russians are not alone. Vice News reports that veterans from the Serbian war, who have experience fighting in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, are now in Crimea in order to support the Russian efforts to annex Crimea. Vice News also talks to the commander of a Ukrainian air defense base that was attacked two nights ago:


1436 GMT: Dueling rallies in parts of Crimea today:

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1425 GMT: With tensions continuing to mount, Ukraine’s acting Defence Minister Ihor Tenyukh says that there are no plans to send the Ukrainian military to Crimea.

“No movements, no departures for Crimea by the armed forces are foreseen. They are doing their routine work which the armed have always had,” he said.

The Ministry of Defence says says all that is happening is training missions, but in the last few days troops have been mobilizing from bases in west, south, and north Ukraine, and anti-aircraft missiles have been spotted in north Ukraine.