Russia has significantly escalated its rhetoric, warning Ukraine that there will be consequences if it continues it’s “anti-terror operation” and announcing military drills to combat the “Ukrainian military machine.”
Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.
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An interactive map of the situation:
View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map
For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.
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While the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, did not go into the specifics of what any further economic sanctions against Russia could entail, a report, published an hour earlier by Newsweek, cited a US Treasury official as saying that President Putin himself could possibly be a target:
“As the White House has made clear, we don’t usually start off by
sanctioning heads of state, but imposing sanctions on Putin is an
option,” the spokesperson said Thursday after the publication of
Newsweek’s cover story on sanctions. “He is definitely not off the
The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has made an unscheduled statement on the crisis in Ukraine.
Kerry stressed that Ukraine has fulfilled its obligations according to the Geneva agreement. He both refuted Russian claims that Kiev has failed to adhere to the accords, and asserted that Russia has absolutely ignored them:
Only one side, one country, is keeping its word.
Let’s get real. The Geneva agreement is not open to interpretation. It is not vague. It is not optional. We agreed that all sides would refrain from violence and illegal groups would lay down arms in exchange for amnesty.
He cited the Ukrainian governments efforts to fulfil its obligations, saying that:
From day one the government of Ukraine started making good on its commitments… Prime Minister Yatsenyuk directly addressed the concerns of the Russians, and he did so on day one… And by complying with actions requested by Russia, like removing the barricades in the Maidan… Ukraine is thereby taking tangible concrete steps to move beyond the division of the last months.
Meanwhile Russia, he says, has “refused to take a single concrete step in the right direction.” He noted that:
You cannot solve a conflict when only one side is willing to do what is needed to.
Kerry attacked Russian efforts to distort the situation through propaganda, singling out Russia’s state-sponsored, English language broadcaster, RT (which he refers to as Russia Today, its original moniker) for criticism:
In fact the propaganda bullhorn that is the state sponsored Russia Today network… who have been devoted almost full time to this effort to propagandise & distort what is happening…
In the 21st century, when every citizen can broadcast messages & video from palm of their hand, no amount of propaganda can hide the truth.
The Secretary of State made it clear that he believed Russia to be behind the separatist protests in southeast Ukraine.
Prior to Russia’s escalation there was no violence. There was no broad scale assault on the rights of people in the east…
Russia is stoking the very instability that they say that they want to quell…
Having failed to halt a legitimate political process, Russia has instead chosen a course of illegitimate armed violence. This is a full throated effort by Russia to actively sabotage the democratic process through gross intimidation..
He mocked Russian claims that the militias’ uniforms and equipment were locally bought. He said that:
The world knows that peaceful protesters don’t come armed with grenade launchers, hiding the insignias on their brand new uniforms…
We’ve seen weapons and gear on the separatists that matches those used by Russia’s special forces.
He also cited the foreign, heavily Russian accents of many of the fighters, and referred to SBU claims of having arrested a number of Russian GRU agents, and the interception of phone calls between agents and their handlers in Moscow. He specifically referred to SBU claims of having identified the organiser of the separatists in Slavyansk as being Igor Stelkov, a GRU officer.
We’ve seen this movie before, most recently in Crimea where similar subterfuge by Russia was followed by a full invasion.
Kerry suggested that Russia would attempt to force Ukraine to overreact in order to provide an excuse to invade. He also said that “Russia is actually mystified” by the Ukrainian people’s desire to rid themselves of a corrupt government and to rebuild their state.
Threatening further economic sanctions, he warned that:
Let me clear. If Russia continues in this direction, it will not just be a grave mistake. It will be an expensive mistake.
After enumerating the economic costs Russia has already paid for its invasion of Crimea, Kerry said:
Make no mistake that what i’ve just described is really just a snapshot and is also, regrettably, just a preview of how the free world will respond if Russia continues to escalate what they have promised to de-escalate.
The window to change course is closing. If Russia does not, the world will make sure that the costs for Russia will only grow. We are ready to act.
More context on the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin’s suggestion that Russia could invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter with regards to Ukraine.
The Russian ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin has announced that Russia has the international legal grounds for introducing peace-keepers into Ukraine in the event of necessity. Churkin told Interfax:
‘There are relevant norms in the UN Charter, Art. 51 of the Charter, which speaks of self-defense, and which we, by the way, activated during the conflict in the Caucasus in 2008,” he said on the air in the program ‘Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyev.’
‘So we have international legal grounds. There is the relevant decision of the Federation Council,’ noted Churkin.
At the same time, the ambassador emphasized that there was still a chance to settle the conflict in Ukraine through the Geneva accords.
‘The authorities in Kiev must show that they really mean what is written in the Geneva accords. I think that there is a chance to return to the Geneva agreement. In fact, there isn’t any other rational path,’ said Churkin.
Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations has givenan interview to the television channel “Russia 1.” In the interview he argues that Ukraine is using its armed forces against Ukrainian civilians:
“I called UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon up and suggested that he discuss in a public statement which, I hope, he will make, the use of armed force against the political opposition in the country’s east,” Churkin said. “I explained that it is essential to return to implementing the Geneva document dated April 17.”
He went on to explain that a UN peacekeeping mission was unlikely, which he seems to use as an excuse for Russia to take unilateral action:
“The Security Council is split. We can’t expect much from it,” Churkin said during a special program on Rossiya-1 television on Friday when asked whether a UN peacekeeping operation is possible in Ukraine.
But then he dropped this bombshell:
Just yesterday, Russian bond sales fell in response to the crisis. Bloomberg reports:
Russia scrapped bond sales for the seventh time in eight weeks as investors demanded higher yields after the U.S. said the country wasn’t taking steps to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine.
The Finance Ministry canceled the sale of as much as 10 billion rubles ($280 million) of nine-year ruble securities and the same amount of five-year notes because there were no bids at acceptable prices, according to a statement on its website.
Some sources with ties to the pro-EU government in Kiev have said that when separatists captured a police station in Slavyansk, it contained the largest police weapons cache in the entire region. But The Guardian has released an article that argues that the Russian-backed gunmen in eastern Ukraine have captured the largest single weapons stockpile in all of eastern Europe:
Since March a group of protesters have been guarding the entrance to the Volodarsky salt mine, which holds an underground collection of at least a million firearms ranging from first world war heavy machine guns to Soviet-era Kalashnikovs.
The protesters say they are there to prevent the new government from using the weapons against them, but officials and analysts worry that pro-Russia militias could seize the guns.
“If such a large amount of weapons fell into hands of separatists, it would be a catastrophe,” said Alexei Melnik, a defence analyst at the Razumkov centre in Kiev. When Melnik visited the cache in 2002 it held about 3.5m firearms, he said.
The OSCE has released its report on the situation on the ground in Ukraine, current up until yesterday at 1900 Kiev time. The whole report can be read here, but there are a few highlights. First, this report from Slavyansk is interesting:
The team travelled to Sloviansk, passing on the way from Donetsk several checkpoints guarded either by Ukrainian police or by unarmed or armed opponents of the central government. The city administration building in Sloviansk remained heavily fortified by sandbags and manned by several people. The police station and the SBU building also remained heavily fortified by sandbags and guarded by a large number of men with masks, automatic weapons as well as many men dressed in civilian clothing. At the time of the team’s visit, two cars arrived. One of them was a regular Ukrainian police patrol car without license plates. Outwardly, the city of Sloviansk seemed to be very quiet, with no visible protests by the local population. Children were observed playing in a playground right next to the heavily fortified city administration. However, on the basis of their own observations and conversations with local residents the team concluded that the city remained under heavy surveillance, both by people in uniforms and masks, but also by many persons in civilian clothing. According to a local resident, people are afraid to discuss their opinions about the occupiers with one another.
Interestingly, the report does not seem to find a large amount of support for the separatists everywhere. In Kharkiv, for example, two protests, both having about 400 people, were organized to express support and opposition, respectively, for the local government. Another protest outside the administration building only had 150 participants. And the whole report could be summarized as “calm but tense” with few notable exceptions. If residents are afraid to protest against the Russian-backed separatists, then support for the separatists might be even lower.
The other interesting observation is the general state of antisemitism, and the OSCE met with many Jewish leaders. Some report growing antisemitic atmospheres over the years, but a representative of the Jewish community is Dnepropetrovsk said he could only think of three or four antisemitic incidents over two years. Interestingly, one of the Jewish leaders in Mariupol said that antisemitism was on the rise, but one of the groups that was leading that is called the “Union of the Slavs”.
Russia and the rest of the international community support the mission of the OSCE.
The secretary general of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) in Europe, Spencer Oliver, has blasted Russia for having “double standards” on separatism. In recent months a law has been passed a law increasing the penalties for separatism, and some have interpreted the law in such a way that any writing questioning the territorial integrity of Russia could fall under this law. That would include questioning whether Crimea should be part of Russia, under some interpretations.
At the same time, Russia has condemned Ukraine’s actions against separatists as “criminal.”
Oliver said: “In the OSCE, the Russians are always alleging double standards, but this is ridiculous because in Russia, anybody who calls for separatism is a criminal. So, that means that the people in Ukraine under Russian standards would be criminals.”
The Guardian is carrying a series of statements from Jen Psaski, the spokesperson for the U.S. State Department:
“Last night approximately 90 separatists attacked an arms depot in Donetsk,” Psaki said. She said when the Ukrainian military defended the depot, one soldier was wounded.
Then, Psaki said, the Ukrainians military moved to clear a roadblock outside Slavyansk, and “separatists resisted with force and some were killed in the exchange of fire.”
AP’s Matt Lee challenges the narrative: “I’m just wondering how you’re so sure it’s right, and the Russian version is a complete distortion?”
“We of course talked to a range of people on the ground,” Psaki replies.
It’s not clear, but the warehouse in Donetsk described above may be the base at Artemivsk, which,as we reported earlier, reportedly came under attack at 2 AM.
However, the “anti-terror operation” was quickly halted due to fear of a Russian invasion.
All of this raises an interesting question: If Russian-backed separatists can continue to hold territory as long as Russia threatens to invade, does Russia really need to invade to capture eastern Ukraine?
The Guardian translates a report from Gazeta which says that a total of four people have now been killed by Russian armor:
“In the Rostov region, two accidents involving military vehicles have killed four people. Among them was the driver of an APC … the armored vehicles’ were moving with the military exercises on the border with Ukraine, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.” In another accident, an APC “drove into the oncoming lane and collided head-on [with a civilian car], in which there were two local residents, a man and a woman. Both died on location.
A picture reportedly showing one of the cars.
It may get lost in the dramatic headlines, but another Ukrainian military base, one that houses 20-30 tanks, came under attack early this morning in the strategic town of Artemivsk, not far from Slavyansk (map). Kyiv Post reports:
Ukrainian forces repelled the 2 a.m. attack by a group of some 70 to 100 rebels who were armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, the country’s Ministry of Defense and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov reported. Hand grenades were used by the rebels in the assault, the Defense Ministry said.
Avakov said the group was led by a man with “an extensive beard,” hinting at pro-Russian separatist Alexander Mozhaev, who has been seen colluding with insurgents in the nearby city of Sloviansk. There, separatists have seized the city’s security services and administration buildings and taken several journalists hostage.
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said in a statement that the attackers in Artemivsk sustained a “heavy” but unspecified number of casualties during the failed assault on the military installation on Chaikovskoho Street. Meanwhile, a Ukrainian soldier was “lightly wounded.”
Breaking news — American journalist Simon Ostrovsky has been freed by the Russian-backed separatists in Slavyansk. Vice News released this statement:
VICE News is delighted to confirm that our colleague and friend Simon Ostrovsky has been safely released and is in good health. We would like to thank everyone for their support during this difficult time. Out of respect for Simon and his family’s privacy, we have no further statement at this time.
But other journalists are already saying more than that.
This video is important. The street signs say “Taganrog,” here on a map, which is just west of Rostov-on-Don. This highway splits towards Donetsk and Mariupol, and according to those signs these vehicles are headed west, directly towards Ukraine.
Most importantly, this would likely have to be a separate force than the ones in Novoshakhtinsk and Krasny Sulin just because of the location.
The sign at 2:07 is clear. It reads:
Mariupol 121 km
Donetsk 150 km
That puts these vehicles about 50 kilometers from the border, and they’re traveling at 30-50 kilometers per hour, so though they may have stopped, these forces are within striking distance of entering Ukraine.
Translation: Checkpoint at the entrance to Slavyansk near the feed plant.
Petro Poroshenko, a Ukrainian politician who is running for President, has reportedly told the Ukrainian press that three Russian helicopters have already violated Ukrainian airspace as they crossed the border near Lugansk today. So far, however, there is no land invasion.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s government has demanded that Russia pull back from the borders:
Acting President Oleksander Turchynov called on Russia to pull its troops back from Ukraine’s border, stop meddling in the country’s internal affairs and end its “blackmail,” according to Reuters.
We’re piecing together the narrative of what happened earlier today in Slavyansk, where Ukrainian forces attacked a checkpoint held by Russian-backed gunmen leaving 1-5 dead.
First, despite earlier reports from RIA Novosti, the separatist leaders are telling journalists in Slavyansk that only one of their fighters was killed, not five as the Ukrainian government reports:
Two days after he was detained by Russian-backed gunmen in Slavyansk, American journalist Simon Ostrovsky remains in their custody. Ukrainian activist-journalist Irma Krat has been in their custody since Easter Sunday. At least 16 people, according to the Kyiv Post, are either in custody of these separatists or have been reported missing near the town, and last night there was evidence that more people were being detained by the gunmen.
All of this is made more concerning now that Ukrainian forces appear to be preparing to storm the town, and five separatists were killed in a gunfight earlier today.
It looks like, so far at least, journalists are still not being treated well in the town.
ABC News has interviewed the self-appointed mayor of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev. According to Ponomarev, Ostrovsky is fine, is working on his book, but he has been detained because his reporting was irresponsible.
“He decided that he’s allowed to do anything, but he was wrong. He has to learn a lessons and he will get it,” Ponomarev told ABC in the interview, the video of which can be found here.
In their latest profile on Ostrovsky, RFE/RL calls him a “human shield.”
Despite denying the Ukrainian government’s report that five Russian-backed gunmen were killed in Slavyansk earlier today, the separatist’s mayor now admits that their losses have increased from two to five, according to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
Kyiv Post reports:
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry is reporting that more than 100 members of the National Guard have surrounded the Mariupol city council building to prevent an outbreak of separatist violence, which has erupted in other parts of eastern Ukraine.
The Interior Ministry’s press service reports that at about 3 a.m. on April 24, 20 people entered the city council building and demanded that the protesters vacate the premises immediately.
A clash then erupted between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protesters. Law enforcement officers soon arrived at the scene and were able to stop the conflict.
Mariupol is strategically located (map), as it is a potential amphibious landing location for any Russian attack against southern Ukraine
The International Business Times reports that Russia’s Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu has announced large-scale military drills across Ukraine’s border in order to stop Ukraine’s “military machine.”
“If this military machine is not stopped, it will lead to greater numbers of dead and wounded. Planned exercises by Nato forces in Poland and the Baltic countries do not foster normalisation of the situation surrounding Ukraine, either,” Shoigu was quoted as saying.
“We are forced to react to such a development of the situation,” he added before speaking about the precise details of the drills.
“As of today, our battalion tactical combined-arms groups from the southern and western military districts have begun drills in areas bordering Ukraine.
“The troops will practice marches and tactical deployment…as necessary. Additionally, our aviation units will perform flights to practice operations near our national border,” Shoigu concluded.
IBT also shares this video which reportedly shows Russia’s military mobilizing in Novoshakhtinsk, only ten kilometers from the Ukrainian border.
Ukraine’s military has begun executing the next stage of its “anti-terror operation” against Russian-backed gunmen holding government buildings and checkpoints across eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s government says it killed five of the rebels. Reuters reports:
“During the armed clash up to five terrorists were eliminated,” it said in a statement, adding that one person had been wounded on the side of the government forces.
A rebel spokeswoman in Slaviansk said two fighters had died in a clash in the same area, northeast of the city center.
This news breaks as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is warning of consequences:
“It is just a punitive operation and it will of course incur consequences for the people making these decisions, including (an effect) on our interstate relations,” Putin said in a televised meeting with regional media.
Russia may now have completed their rhetorical buildup, building the case for Russian military intervention in mainland Ukraine. The Kremlin has argued that the interim government, which it considers illegitimate, has broken the Geneva agreement, that they are the radicals, that the pro-Russian separatists are really protesters with a legal right to do what they are doing, and that Europe and the U.S. back Kiev and so cannot be trusted to (from Russia’s point of view) restore order.
Now the question is when we will see Putin’s “consequences” go into action.