Ukraine Liveblog Day 213: BBC Team Attacked In Russia While Reporting Soldiers’ Deaths

September 18, 2014
Smoke rises near the Lugansk Power Station near Schastye after shelling by Russian-backed forces yesterday. Photo: Vsevolod Filimonenko

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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View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map
For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

For the latest summary of evidence surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 see our separate article: Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?

Below we will be making regular updates so check back often.


Russian Jets Violate Swedish Airspace, 2 Bombers Escorted Away From Latvia

Just moments ago we reported that two Russian Su-24 bombers crossed into Swedish airspace. Now Latvia is reporting that they had to scramble jets to escort two Su-24s back into Russian territory:

Latvian Public Broadcasting reports:

NATO Baltic Air Police (BAP) jets took to the skies Thursday to intercept two Russian Sukhoi SU-24 bombers near the boundary of Latvia’s territorial waters in the Baltic Sea, the National Armed Forces (NBS) reported in a tweet.

It is not known whether these were the same Su-24s, or a different pair of Russian aircraft.
Russian Aircraft Reportedly Violate Swedish And Ukrainian Airspace
Another escalation over the skies of eastern Euorpe:

The report says that two Russian Su-24s entered Swedish airspace at noon today. According to the source in the armed forces, the aircraft made a deliberate turn into Swedish airspace, flew several miles, then made a deliberate turn out of Swedish airspace, which has given the source in the Swedish military the impression that this was a deliberate act.

The meeting happened while the Swedish military and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt were discussing Sweden’s response to Russian aggression and their larger strategy in the region. This is likely not a coincidence. Bildt has been a vocal critic of Russian interference in Ukraine, has been a strong proponent of a more robust response from the West, and has become one of the favorite targets for pro-Kremlin media and trolls.

The Ukrainian government is also reporting Russian aircraft, drones, violating Ukraine’s airspace today, though this is much less unusual — reports of Russian drones operating in Ukraine are a daily occurrence. 

Poroshenko Warns Of Discrimination Against Tatars In Crimea

While Poroshenko called upon the US to take specific actions, particularly the arming of the Ukrainian military and the designation of Ukraine as a highest-level non-NATO ally, Poroshenko also spoke at length about the plight of the Crimean Tatars. Ukraine, Poroshenko explained, could not simply allow Russia to take Ukraine. While Poroshenko said that there was clearly no military solution to the “Crimean problem,” he said that it was vital that Crimea be reunited with Ukraine:

“Allow me to also say this: there is no way, at no price, and under no condition, that we will ever put up with Crimea’s occupation.

Ending the occupation and annulling the annexation is not only an integral precondition to a full normalization of relations between Ukraine and Russia.

It is also an integral precondition to Crimea’s prosperity and modernization!”

See the entire video here:

Poroshenko Asks US For Arms, Highest Level of Non-NATO Alliance
Poroshenko began his talk to a joint session of US Congress with a a note of gratitude and humility. He said that the symbolism of the unification of the houses of Congress was the symbol of America’s support for Ukraine.

But Poroshenko then turned to the Maidan revolution in February. He said that the ultimatly Washington, and of the Maidan revolution, are symbols of freedom. He spoke about the bravery of the protesters who stood up to the well armed and well trained riot police belonging to the the previous government (police, many of whom were trained in Russia).

Poroshenko continued with his timeline of the conflict. The spirit of Imperial Russia is back, he said, as Russia has annexed Crimea and has invaded eastern Ukraine.

“The International system of checks and balances has been effectively ruined,” Poroshenko said, returning it to the state of uncertainty that hasn’t existed since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

“We need your support.”

This is not just Ukraine’s war, Poroshenko said. “This is Europe and America’s war, too. This is a war for the free world. For. The. Free. World.”

To hold back Russia, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are fighting. 70 have died since the ceasefire started, Poroshenko says.

Then Ukraine’s president said that his soldiers “urgently need” military supplies, “lethal and non-lethal.”

“We cannot win a war with blankets. Even more importantly, we cannot keep the peace with blankets.”

Poroshenko says that Ukraine’s struggle now is like America’s historical struggle. “Ukraine’s choice was the same as America’s. Freedom. Democracy. And the rule of law.”

Then Poroshenko asked for something interesting, special status which would give Ukraine the highest level of military support open to a non-NATO ally.

Poroshenko also asked for stronger sanctions. Sanctions are symbolicly important as well as important tools. Then Poroshenko admitted that he understood the toll that wars have taken on Western economies, but he stressed the need to continue to guard against threats to the security of the world, like Russia’s aggression.

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko Speaks To US Congress
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is in Washington, D.C., and is speaking to a joint session of both houses of the United States Congress (watch the live stream here):

But not only is Poroshenko fighting a war, he’s also trying to reform his government and revitilize his nation’s economy, two major demands of the revolution that toppled that last president, and the war in the east is diverting much of that energy. Brian Dooley reports for The Hill:

The crisis in Ukraine presents the greatest threat to European stability since the end of the Cold War and ranks as a major priority for Washington. Poroshenko needs to hear this week in Washington that the U.S. government both understands the difficulties of the shooting war and expects democratic reform. A Ukraine that promotes human rights and the rule of law is in in the best interests of both the region and the United States. A Ukraine that doesn’t make space for new politics to breathe is more likely to be volatile.

Human rights activists in Ukraine kept telling me that now is the country’s best, and maybe last, chance to get things right. Ukraine can’t afford to win the war in the east but lose its shot at democracy.

But The Interpreter’s editors have recently traveled to Kiev and spoken to members of the Ukrainian government. Reform efforts are largely under way. Ukraine is meeting its obligations to the IMF, and has hired top-level administrators who are developing and implementing strategies to combat corruption.

But there are two fundamental problems. The first problem is that much of Ukraine’s corruption was legal corruption — a system of kickbacks and top-skimming which was written right into the law. This means that each instance of corruption needs to be combated by rewriting the laws and replacing them with functional systems. The second key problem is that the government is filled with people who have either never been part of government before or who were actually part of the former government, and there’s no fast way to continue to operate the country while simultaneously getting rid of the “bad apples.” Reform, therefore, is a slow and surgical process, but many experts do believe that Ukraine, despite all of its significant problems, is largely on track.

Time will tell, of course, whether that remains the case.
Council Of Europe Urges Russia To Withdraw Troops From Ukraine
The Committee of Ministers, the decision making body of the Council of Europe, made up of member states’ foreign ministers or permanent diplomatic representatives, has published their decisions on the situation in eastern Ukraine.
In their statement, they acknowledge the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine and call for their withdrawal.
The full statement follows:

The Deputies,

Having reviewed the situation in Ukraine on the basis of the report presented by the Secretary General on his visits to Kyiv and Moscow on 2-4 September 2014,

Recalling their previous decisions,

1. stressed that the crisis in Ukraine can only be resolved, as advocated by the Secretary General, on the basis of the principles of the peaceful settlement of disputes, the full respect of the territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders and the protection of human rights;

2. welcomed the Protocol signed in Minsk on 5 September 2014, as a first step towards a durable cease-fire and a long-term solution to the crisis in eastern Ukraine, and called on all parties to strictly respect and fully implement all twelve principles contained therein without delay;

3. called upon the Russian Federation to use its influence over the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine with a view to de-escalating tensions and facilitating dialogue in the search of a peaceful and negotiated outcome to the crisis;

4. urged the Russian Federation to withdraw all its troops from Ukraine and refrain from any further military interference in Ukraine, including the supply of military assets to other parties, and to secure the border to avoid the illegal transfer of such assets, in full respect of the United Nations’ Charter and its commitments within the Council of Europe, regarding in particular the principles of the peaceful settlement of disputes and the full respect of the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of States, rejecting any forms of threats of force;

5. condemned the downing of the Malaysian Airlines aircraft on 17 July 2014 and called for immediate, safe and unrestricted access to the crash site to enable independent experts to continue their investigations;

6. underlined the importance for the peace process that the parliamentary elections scheduled in Ukraine for 26 October 2014 are held throughout the whole of its territory in a free and democratic manner and invited the Secretary General to provide any assistance which may be requested by the Ukrainian authorities for the successful conduct of these elections;

7. encouraged the Secretary General to continue to assist the Ukrainian authorities in the conduct of the necessary internal reforms, in particular regarding the Constitution, the judiciary, decentralisation and the protection of persons belonging to national minorities; welcomed the preparation of a new Council of Europe Action Plan for Ukraine to this effect and stressed the distinct contribution of the Venice Commission and the International Advisory Panel;

8. expressed their deep concern regarding the situation of all persons affected by the conflict, including internally displaced persons and refugees, and encouraged the Secretary General to examine how the Council of Europe can address, in co-ordination with other international organisations, the humanitarian needs and the human rights consequences of the military operations in Ukraine;

9. reiterated that the illegal annexation by the Russian Federation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol cannot form the basis for any alteration of their status, and underlined that the full and effective enjoyment of the rights enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights by all individuals living there, including the native Crimean Tatars and other persons belonging to national minorities, must be secured.

Azov Battalion To Be Reformed Into Regiment
The Insider reports (translated by The Interpreter):
“On the orders of the minister of Ukraine’s internal affairs, Arsen Avakov, for outstanding service to Ukraine, an Azov regiment has been established, based on the Azov battalion,” says the official Facebook page of the fighters.

Furthermore, Azov reported that Police Lieutenant Colonel Andrei Biletsky had been made commander of the special purpose Azov regiment.
More On The BBC Investigation And Attack

The BBC has published a longer report by Steve Rosenberg on their investigation into the deaths of Russian servicemen in or near Ukraine, which was curtailed when they were physically attacked in Astrakhan,Russia.

Rosenberg reports that he was travelling to Astrakhan after interviewing Oksana, the sister of Konstantin Kuzmin, a Russian professional soldier who was killed after being recalled from leave and sent to the Ukrainian border.

Kuzmin had rung home on July 26, telling his family that he was headed for Ukraine. He reportedly sounded fearful. 

On August 17, Kuzmin’s family was informed by a military commissar that he had been killed by a Ukrainian shell landing on Russian territory. Oksana said that the commissar himself admitted that he did not believe this story.

After interviewing Oksana, the BBC team set off towards Astrakhan. On leaving her village, they were stopped by traffic police, who checked their boot and IDs.

It was in Astrakhan that they were attacked and later, while at the police station, stripped of their data.

Rosenberg writes: 

Fortunately we had uploaded the interview to London earlier in the day.

But why would anyone set out to destroy our material and to silence the sister of a Russian soldier?

Oksana is no terrorist, no political opponent of the Russian government.

All she wants to know is the truth about Konstantin’s death – where exactly he died and how – and ensure that the army does not turn its back on her dead brother.

“He loved Russia, he was so patriotic,” Oksana tells me.

“I just don’t understand how they can forget a soldier like him. He was killed, he was buried and he was forgotten.”

BBC Lodges Formal Complaint With Russian Authorities

The BBC has lodged a formal complaint with the Russian authorities after a news crew was physically attacked and stripped of their data in Astrakhan while investigating the deaths of Russian servicemen near the Ukrainian border.

A BBC Press Office statement follows:

After filming in the city of Astrakhan, our team was assaulted by unidentified men in a co-ordinated attack. Our staff were badly beaten, their camera destroyed and then taken. After alerting the emergency services, the team was then taken to a police station for four hours of questioning after which they discovered that recording equipment – which was in their vehicle, at the police station – had been electronically wiped.

The attack on our staff, and the destruction of their equipment and recordings, were clearly part of a co-ordinated attempt to stop accredited news journalists reporting a legitimate news story.

We deplore this act of violence against our journalists and call on the Russian authorities to conduct a thorough investigation and to condemn the assault on our staff.

Shelling Continues In Donetsk

The Donetsk city council website reported today that shelling and shooting was heard this morning in the area around the Trudovskaya mine, on the western fringe of the city.

The mine lies immediately to the north-east of the Marinka suburb (which was entered by Ukrainian forces in August) and the west of the Petrovsky district, which has been shelled regularly throughout the last two months.

It is not clear which side is responsible for the shelling today.

There were also reports of continued fighting near the airport, to the north of the city.

Translation: Explosions heard in central Donetsk. From the direction of the airport.

Video footage has been uploaded which purportedly documents the fighting around the airport yesterday

This video was apparently filmed from Ukrainian positions defending the airport during the night (note the preview image is unrelated):

While this footage purportedly shows separatist militants approaching the airport area yesterday:

Russia’s Ruptly news agency, a subsidiary of RT, published this zoom footage of the remains of the airport:

BBC Team Attacked In Russia While Investigating Soldiers’ Deaths In Ukraine

The BBC’s Moscow correspondent, Steve Rosenberg, reports that he and his team have been attacked in Astrakhan while investigating reports of Russian soldiers being killed near the border with Ukraine.

Rosenberg writes:

As we left a cafe and approached our car, we were confronted and attacked by at least three aggressive individuals.

Using physical violence the men grabbed our camera, smashed it on the road, and then escaped with it in a getaway car. During the scuffle the BBC cameraman was knocked to the ground and beaten.

The team is now safe and back in Moscow.

Following the attack, we spent more than four hours being questioned in a local police station.

We discovered later that while we were there, back in the car some of our recording equipment had been tampered with.

The hard drive of the main computer as well as several memory cards with video material had been wiped clean.

The attack is not an isolated incident, though this is the first such incident in recent years in which foreign journalists have been physically attacked. 

On August 29 Lev Shlosberg, a deputy from the Yabloko party in the regional legislature in Pskov Region, was attacked by two men outside his home and was hospitalized with a skull and nose fracture and lacerations. He is expected to recover. Shlosberg said he believed the assault was related to his investigation into the Pskov 76th Guards whose soldiers were killed in action in the war in Ukraine.  Shlosberg is also the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Pskovskaya Guberniya newspaper.

Russia’s independent TV Rain (Dozhd) has been investigating the deaths of Russian servicemen in Ukraine (and is compiling an archive of those cases on their website).  Their chief producer and anchor, Kenya Batanova, was assaulted on a street in Moscow on September 12. Interestingly, Batanova had recently interviewed war photographer Viktoriya Ivleva about the Andrei Panasyuk, the Ukrainian POW filmed by the RIA Novosti photgrapher, Andrei Stenin, who was recently confirmed killed in Ukraine.