Ukraine Liveblog Day 218: DNR Claims Artillery Withdrawn While Continuing To Attack Airport

September 23, 2014
Smoke rising over Donetsk Airport this morning. Photo: Paul Glypteau

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


RT Stringer Graham Phillips Now Freelancing for Russian Ministry of Defense’s TV Zvezda

Infamous British journalist and RT stringer Graham Phillips has announced on his Facebook page that he is shooting videos for the Zvezda TV channel. Zvezda has confirmed the report. Here is Phillips’ statement:

Maybe some media will always call me ‘Russia Today’s Graham Phillips’, but anyway that’s ok as I always love Russia Today, and have done quite a lot of video for Ruptly, RT’s video agency, in recent weeks.

I’ve agreed the right deal with Zvezda – I record in English, they put it into Russian, but I’ll keep the pieces and you’ll see them, in English, on my YouTube channel, around a day later.
It means that English ‘to camera’ reporting will be coming out of here.

Further, have given permission to the BBC to use video of mine in this last week.

TV Zvezda, however, is directly run by the Russian Ministry of Defense, and has often been used to put out disinformation in the past. If Phillips is worried about being seen as too closely associated with RT, this move is not likely to increase his credibility in the West.

Ukraine’s Soldiers Running for Office, Including Female Pilot In Russian Prison

Several members of Ukraine’s military are running for office in the upcoming parliamentary election, including Nadiya Savchenko, the pilot who was captured by Russian-backed militants and reportedly kidnapped across the border into Russia where she is facing trial. However, current Ukrainian law prohibits active members of the military, Interior Ministry troops, or police from holding office. As an official NAtional Security and Defense Council website points out, however, that should not stop the members of the military from running for office, though it remains unknown whether they will be able to actually take the office if they do win election:

However, Ukrainian legislation, as across most of the world, does not allow serving military personnel to hold office. In fact, they cannot even hold membership in a party. And while the concept of a soldier-turned-statesman can be found the world over, the specificities of Ukraine’s current situation – including a candidate stuck in prison outside of the country and the immediate need for soldiers to fight – requires some legal footwork to make it work.

One important point is that the law does not require active duty personnel to resign from the military if they are campaigning for office. While the candidate’s ability to do so will be dependent on the commanding officer’s release from duty at any given time, there is no legal impediment. Nor does the candidate need to be present, which is why Savchenko can run as a Tymoshenko candidate while imprisoned. In Russia. In her case, any documents, including the written statement that she requests to serve as a legislator in the party, can be relayed by her lawyer.

UN Says Soaring Death Toll Tops 3500

According to the top official at the UN Human Rights Council, Ivan Simonovic, the death toll in the Ukrainian crisis has soared past 3500:

“The current registered death toll, as at 21 September, is 3,543, if we are to include the 298 victims of the Malaysian plane crash,” Simonovic told the UN Human Rights Council.

Not counting the plane crash, the official toll therefore stands at 3,245.

“Let me add that this number covers killings registered by available resources, and that the actual number is likely to be significantly higher,” the UN assistant secretary-general for human rights said.

Grad Rockets Fired By Russian-Backed Separatists East of Donetsk
A report from AFP reporter Paul Gypteau:
Despite Ceasefire, Both Sides Continuing Artillery Exchanges In Debaltsevo

In reports for the Kyiv Post and The New Republic, Christopher Miller and Noah Sneider both report on the ongoing exchanges of fire between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed fighters around the town of Debaltsevo (Debaltseve in Ukrainian), lying on a strategically important route between Donetsk and Lugansk.

The town was retaken by Ukrainian forces in late July but is now nearly surrounded by Russian-backed fighters.

Sneider writes:

The situation is in Debaltseve is disturbingly reminiscent of the situation in Ilovaisk, where Ukrainian forces were surrounded in late August and suffered a devastating defeat, shifting the tides of the war. A similar disaster in Debaltseve could lead to the complete collapse of the Minsk accords. The highway to the city runs across two crucial bridges. If the Ukrainians lose those bridges, a retreat will be near impossible, and troops could be trapped, left to fight to the death or surrender en masse. Ukrainian officials nonetheless insist their men in Debaltseve are safe. “They have a way out,” Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, told reporters last week. “A repeat of Ilovaisk will not be allowed.”

Control over the exit route, however, remains tenuous. The first bridge is already partly blown up, its innards exposed, a thorn bush of rusted cables. To pass, cars must drive over two rickety metal plates that lie across the gap. At the second bridge, Ukrainian soldiers keep close watch—dozens of them are spread along the road and through the surrounding fields. 

In their report published today, the OSCE describes hearing and seeing evidence of artillery and grad rocket attacks on positions near the town on September 21. 

Christopher Miller writes that Zhenya Gorbochov, a Debaltsevo resident whose home was destroyed by a rocket attack last week, described recent attacks:

According to Gorbochev and several other residents, the city was bombarded late Sunday by rocket fire. He said seven civilians were injured in the assault. The Kyiv Post could not confirm the information. The city’s police department said three residents had died from rocket fire since Sept. 5.

Sasha, a soldier from the 25th airborne brigade, painted a darker picture in describing the horrific scenes he’s witnessed during his time in Debaltseve. Distraught and apparently drunk, he said “many” of his comrades here had been killed in battle and in surrounding towns, their positions hit by rockets and armored vehicles blown up, since they moved into Debaltseve in early July.

Miller also writes that the Kyiv Post witnessed outbound grad fire by the Ukrainian military while visiting on September 22, noting that on that day, there had been, according to both civilians and soldiers he interviewed, no incoming fire:

The Kyiv Post witnessed Ukrainian troops firing these weapons on Sept. 22, despite a cease-fire agreement with the separatists signed in Minsk last weekend.

Instead of pulling back like Kyiv promised to do so within 24 hours, artillery was seen and heard firing in a westerly direction toward the separatist stronghold of Horlivka, and south to the heart of the inchoate statelet they call “Novorossiya.”

The Kyiv Post observed some artillery being repositioned but not driven back 15 kilometers as outlined in the Minsk protocol. Otherwise, there was no movement of artillery.

Both journalists describe the conditions in the town as severe, with water and electricity long cut off. Both quote Gorbochov as saying “we live like rats.”

Ukraine Signs Arms Trade Treaty In New York

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has announced that the foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, has signed the UN Arms Trade Treaty today in New York.

The ministry’s announcement follows:

23 September 2014 in New York Foreign Minister of Ukraine Pavlo Klimkin attended the signing ceremony and signed the Arms Trade Treaty in the framework of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly.

This multilateral treaty was approved by the UN General Assembly 2 April 2013 and 3 June this year – opened for signature. Its main object is establishing the highest possible common international standards for regulating the international trade in conventional arms and reducing the risk of their diversion.

Adoption of the Treaty was preceded by painstaking work of the delegations of all UN member states and long negotiating process within the UN General Assembly. Ukraine has consistently supported this process and by signing the Treaty reaffirmed its readiness to make its contribution to regulation of international arms trade.

Ukraine’s signing of the treaty marks a move away from a past in which Ukrainian ports served a key role in the export of Russian and Ukrainian weaponry to states such as Syria. 

The Ukrainian network used for arms exports to both Syria and a number of other corrupt and repressive regimes is described in great detail in a report titled The Odessa Network, written by Tom Wallace and Farley Mesko for C4ADS, published in September 2013.

OSCE Records Multiple Incidents Of Shelling On September 21

The OSCE has published the daily report from their Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine, as of 18:00 Kiev time on September 22.

The SMM reports witnessing shelling from separatist-controlled territory near Metallist, north of Lugansk, on September 21. 

The OSCE observers also witnesses artillery strikes on the outskirts of Talakovka, outside Mariupol, which has been under attack by Russian or Russian-backed forces. Other evidence of shelling was seen in nearby Sartana.

Inbound shelling was also heard near Debaltsevo, which is held by Ukrainian troops. 

The full report follows:

The SMM on 21 September met the leader of an irregular armed group – a self-styled Cossack commander – in Pervomais’k (70km north-west of Luhansk city).  He insisted on being told in advance of any future SMM visit to territory controlled by him, saying the SMM’s security could not be guaranteed otherwise. The “Lugansk People’s Republic” (“LPR”) has previously told the SMM that the “commander” in question is not under the command or control of the “LPR”. (See Daily Report 139/2014)

The SMM – stationary in Stanitsa Luhanska (24km north-east of Luhansk city) – heard two incoming artillery rounds, seemingly emanating from territory controlled by the “LPR”. Ukrainian soldiers manning a nearby checkpoint told the SMM that the rounds had been fired from Metalist (9km north of Luhansk city).

On the road between Shchastya (24km north of Luhansk city) and Novoaidar (58km north of Luhansk city), the SMM observed a Ukrainian military convoy comprising of three tanks, six GRAD MLRSs, one BTR 80 and eight trucks carrying equipment and troops. The convoy was moving south, in the direction of Shchastya.

The SMM observed on 21 September a pro-Ukrainian demonstration in Severodonetsk (98km northwest of Luhansk city). Approximately 200 people – two thirds female with a large number of young people – listened to speeches, chanted pro-Ukrainian slogans and displayed the Ukrainian national flag. The event was peaceful, with nine police officers in attendance.

The SMM, on the outskirts of Talakivka (20km north-west of Mariupol), heard four incoming 120mm artillery rounds at 11:30hrs, emanating from a north-easterly direction.  On leaving the area, the SMM observed two columns of smoke rising from Talakivka.

A Ukrainian checkpoint commander – speaking to the SMM 8km north-east of Sartana (19km north-east of Mariupol) – claimed the checkpoint had been hit by three artillery rounds and a salvo of GRAD rockets on 21 September. The SMM observed three craters and a destroyed military vehicle at the scene.

The SMM – stationed approximately 5km east of Debaltseve (72km north-east of Donetsk city) – heard a number of incoming 120mm artillery rounds, coming from a south-easterly direction. On reaching a nearby Ukrainian military checkpoint, the SMM were told by the checkpoint commander that the checkpoint had just been hit by artillery fire, resulting in three soldiers being injured. The commander also claimed that an eastern suburb of Debaltseve had been subjected to a GRAD attack the previous day, resulting in the death of one woman and the wounding of a child. Municipal officials in Debaltseve corroborated the information supplied by the commander. The SMM later visited the scene of the alleged attack, observing eight damaged apartment blocks, with smashed window panes.

On the Avdeevka-Yatsinovata road (approximately 18km north of Donetsk city), the SMM observed on 21 September the simultaneous release of 28 Ukrainian servicemen and 28 members of irregular armed forces affiliated to the “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

Scuffles broke out in Kharkiv city centre when approximately 45 people broke away from a pro-unity demonstration to attack people attending a nearby pro-Russian demonstration. Police did not intervene to stop the violence but did help escort the mostly older female pro-Russians – who numbered approximately 50 – to safety. There were also a number of masked youths amongst the pro-Russian demonstrators, whom police arrested. The pro-unity demonstrators were mostly young and with an equal gender balance. 

A District Election Commission official in Odessa city told the SMM that IDPs living in the region would be able to vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections. He said those from Crimea would merely have to produce a national ID card, whilst those from Donbas would in addition have to prove they currently reside in the region. The voting rights of IDPs from Crimea are addressed under Ukrainian legislation, whilst those of IDPs from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are not yet defined by law.

The situation remained calm in Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson, Chernivtsi, Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv and Kyiv.  

Donetsk Airport Still Burns After Separatist Attack

Donetsk airport, held by the Ukrainian military, is still on fire after it was reportedly attacked by tanks belonging to Russian-backed separatists:

AFP has posted video showing the smoke rising from the airport, with vehicles flying a flag used by fighters from “Novorossiya” maneuvering nearby:
Kyiv Post is reporting that as of 2:30 PM )about 3 hours ago) there were still “isolated shots from large-caliber weapon and volleys of heavy gunfire” heard inside the city.
US Volunteer Fighting In Russian-Backed Vostok Battalion

A pro-separatist Youtube channel has posted a video of an interview with an Amercian citizen who has volunteered to fight with the Vostok battalion, a Russian-backed fighting group who have played a key role in the war in the Donbass.

The man, who gives his name as Hunter, is interviewed in English via an interpreter.

He admits that his knowledge of the political situation in Ukraine “is limited,” but faltering states that the Ukrainian government (whom he refers to as the “Kiev junta” with a hard j):

“wants to maintain control over this area, Donbass, and the people of Donbass want to be independent of the Kiev junta.

It seems to be a very simple, straightforward situation and the Kiev junta does not necessarily, I believe, reflect, they don’t, they don’t err, consider the popular opinion of the people of Donbass. So that’s why this issue’s happening.”

He called on others from the West with military experience to come and volunteer for the battalion.

When asked whether he had anything to say to the Ukrainian army and government, ‘Hunter’ replied:

“Well maybe they should just, it’d be better, it’d be better for everybody if they could just come to a peaceful resolution, giving a reasonable amount of territory to the new state of Novorussia [sic], and, erm, and make a peaceful arrangement.”

Crimean Tatar Mejlis Vacates Premises In Simferopol

Ukrainska Pravda reports, citing the Ukrainskie Novosti news agency, that the Crimean Tatar Mejlis has complied with the orders of the occupying Russian authorities and vacated their premises in Simferopol.

The director of the Crimea Fund, Riza Shevkieva, whose accounts have been frozen by Russian investigators following two armed raids of the building the fund shares with the Mejlis, told Ukrainskie Novosti (translated by The Interpreter):

“We’ve surrendered all our premises in Simferopol, evicted all the residents and laid off the workers. All our assets and accounts have been seized.”

The occupying Russian authorities in Crimea have also targeted activists who have opposed Russia’s annexation of the region in March.

Liza Bogutskaya, a Crimean political activists, spoke to Global Voices about a raid on her home by armed, masked men on September 8.

The men found nothing illegal at her home but did confiscate her computers, phones and memory sticks, and shot at (grazing) her dog.

Global Voices reports:

When asked by RuNet Echo if she thought the search of her property was related to what she wrote online, Bogutskaya was unequivocable. “It’s undoubtedly related,” she said.

Bogutskaya believes the search was also related to the local elections that took place in Crimea on Sunday, September 14 and her willingness to write about the plight of Crimean Tatars, whose homes and mosques have undergone raids in recent weeks and whose leaders have been banned from Crimea. Bogutskaya also thinks the search was linked to her high visibility in Sevastopol (she drives a car with traditional Ukrainian folk patterns and often wears blue and yellow clothing). 

“Well naturally I write everything. I speak about [their plight]… and have always spoken quite bravely and quite harshly. And it stands to reason that the current authorities didn’t like my behaviour and didn’t like that I wrote about everything, traveled around the cities quite freely, feeling myself to be very much at liberty.”

After being questioned as a “witness” for several hours, Bogutskaya was released. No longer feeling that she could write freely and talk about what was going on in Crimea, she has left the territory and is now in Kyiv. It had become clear to her that:

“I had to leave because I wouldn’t have been given the possibility to keep writing there. I left. I will be able to write more. I will be able to say more and I will be able to get my thoughts across to my readers.”

Ukrainian Military Report Mortar Attacks In Lugansk Region

Ukrainska Pravda reports that the Ukrainian armed forces’ Northern Operation Command has announced that Ukrainian forces in the Lugansk region have come under attack today with mortars.

The press office of the Northern Command reported (translated by The Interpreter):

“The direct violation of the memorandum continues. As of 11:50 [8:50 GMT] the shelling continues, there are no losses amongst the personnel of the Northern Operational Command’s military units.”

FSB Raid Mosque In Yalta

Crimea’s QHA reports (translated by The Interpreter):

Yesterday, September 22, another search took place in a Mosque in the city of Yalta. This was reported by local residents on social networks. The search was conducted by members of the FSB. Following the search, Islamic literature, banned in the Russian Federation, was removed. 

“There was an FSB raid at the Mosque in Yalta today. They intimidated the poor Turkish imam, who couldn’t really answer them at all in Russian. They were there for more than 5 hours. They took away books by A. Maududi – ‘Islam Today’ and ‘The Fundamentals of Islam’ and, most surprisingly, ‘The way to faith and perfection’ by Shamil Alyautdinov, who is the ‘legal’ imam at the Memorial Mosque in Moscow, 100% certified ‘theirs’,” wrote a local resident.

The occupying Russian authorities in Crimea have recently embarked on an campaign of repressions against Crimea’s Muslim Tatar people. There have been repeated raids of homes, and the Mejlis, the representative body of the Crimean Tatar people, has been ordered to vacate its premises in Simferopol.

Yesterday, Kommersant published an interview in which Sergei Aksyonov, the ‘prime minister’ of the occupied Ukrainian autonomous republic, said that “there is no such organisation as the Mejlis.”

On September 19, RFE/RL reported that the Crimean Tatar Library in Simferopol had announced it was being shut down, and that Nadir Bekir, a Tatar activist, had been beaten by masked men and stripped of his passport whilst about to depart for a UN conference in New York.

While DNR Claim Both Sides ‘Partially Withdrawing’ Artillery, Donetsk Airport Attacked Again

Ukrainian and Russian-backed separatist forces are both reportedly withdrawing some of their artillery behind the 15 km buffer zones agreed upon at the Minsk peace talks.

The ‘prime minister’ of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, claims that not all Ukrainian artillery has been withdrawn however, and that in those areas, neither will his own. 

Meanwhile, fighting once again rages around the government-held airport in Donetsk

Interfax-Ukraine reports, citing Russia’s own Interfax (translated by The Interpreter):

‘DNR’ [Donetsk People’s Republic] militants say that the Ukrainian armed forces have partially withdrawn their artillery from the line of contact between the opposing sides in the Donetsk region, and that they are, in accordance with the Minsk memorandum, acting reciprocally. Тhe ‘LNR’ [Lugansk People’s Republic] say that they are observing a withdrawal of Ukrainian military equipment in the Lugansk area.

“We are withdrawing our artillery, but only in those areas where Ukrainian regular units have acted accordingly. Where Ukraine has not withdrawn artillery, neither have we. All of this applies only to artillery weapons with a calibre exceeding 100 mm,” said the ‘prime minister of the DNR,’ Aleksandr Zakharchenko to Interfax on Tuesday morning.

At the same time, ‘LNR’ militants also reported that Ukrainian security forces had partially withdrawn military vehicles and artillery from previously occupied positions.

“In the Lugansk area, the Ukrainian army has started a partial withdrawal of military hardware and artillery from previously occupied positions near Starobelsk and Novoaidar,” said the headquarters of the ‘LNR’ militants to Interfax.

According to their data, the situation around Mariupol has not changed significantly.

The Interfax-Ukraine agency has not yet received confirmation from the Ukrainian authorities on the militants’ withdrawal of artillery systems.

Meanwhile, in the evening of September 22, the spokesman for the Information and Analysis centre of the SNBO [National Security and Defence Council], Andrei Lysenko, said, on air on one of the Ukrainian television channels, that Ukrainian soldiers are only occupying defensive positions and are preparing the ground for the withdrawal of heavy equpment, hoping for reciprocal acts from the militants’ side. However, he stressed that Ukrainian hardware still remains in place and is covering the occupied positions.

In Donetsk, despite the claims of ceasefires and withdrawals, fighting continued around the airport.

Paul Glypteau, a correspondent for AFP, tweeted:

Translation: #donetsk heavy blasts near the airport

AFP reported:

Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels were battling around the airport near the insurgent stronghold of Donetsk on Tuesday, sending flames and clouds of black smoke into the sky, AFP journalists said.

The fighting erupted despite a new truce agreement reached Saturday which calls for forces on both sides to cease fire and pull back from the frontline to create a buffer zone.

The airport, which was severely damaged in a fierce battle in May, was hit by heavy artillery and the rattle of automatic weapons fire could also be heard, the journalists said.

Interfax-Ukraine reports (in English) that the Donetsk city council reported today that one civilian was killed by shelling yesterday evening.

Artillery hit the Kyivsky and Kuibyshevsky districts of the city. Shells damaged trunk gas pipelines in the direct proximity to the Donetsk airport, on Stratonavtov and Zlitna Streets, the press service said.

Gas pipes were also damaged on Pressy, Schedryna and Utkina Streets in the Kuibyshevsky district of the city.

Residential buildings in the Kyivsky district again came under artillery fire at approximately 2050 on Monday. The bombardments sparked a fire.

There was one civilian casualty. “A young man was mortally wounded at the intersection of Artemivska and Svobody Streets,” the report said.