Ukraine Liveblog Day 77: Heavy Fighting in Slavyansk

May 5, 2014
Separatist fighter in Kramatorsk today. Photo: Fergal Keane

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

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs.

An interactive map of the situation:

View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map

For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

Below we will be making regular updates. Be sure to check back often and hit refresh.

Separatist Commander Publishes Report of Today’s Battle

The commander of the separatists in Slavyansk has published his report of today’s battle. Here is a report from, translated by The Interpreter:

Igor Strelkov [Girkin], commander of the self-defense forces of the Donetsk People’s republic (code-name Strelok) published his ‘front round-up’ on the battles 5 May near the city of Slavyansk. Igor Strelkov himself is in Slavyansk, blockaded by forces of the regular Ukrainian Army, spetsnaz, and National Guard, and continues along with the people’s militia to hold the defense of the insurgent city. Here is what Strelok writes:

“Today was a heavy battle. Five of my fighters died. The correlation of forces was depressing — approximately 1 to 5 — the guys at ring road 4 were caught in a double ambush at Semenovka — the enemy surrounded them from both sides with 2 APCs on each side (then paratroopers landed from the helicopter and approached as well). And when the battle broke out, from the gas station they were strafed by a ‘Right Sector’ fighter in civilian clothing, they had not shown themselves before that. We were saved in the end by 2 trophy BMDs [airborne fighting vehicles] sent from the reserve – that enabled us to get out in one piece and carry out the wounded. This was the first ‘real’ battle. By the way, a senior lieutenant, a Russian, commanding the armored group, deliberately and voluntarily, without any coercion, crossed over to our side from the 25th air mobile brigade — the only one so far. Many of the other ‘amoebas’ in private conversations admitted gladly that they are serving bastards and Nazis, and are continuing to ‘remain loyal to their oath.” The senior lieutenant commanded today bravely and professionally. According to the Ukrainian media, the enemy’s losses are about the same, despite the indicated correlation of forces.

They are not lying, it is true, the ring of the blockade around Slavyansk really was closed off — Semenovka had the last ‘window’. The Krasny Liman regiment once again was distinguished today — it shot down yet another Mi-24 (from a machine gun). It fell in the water. So there are already 4 machines to the credit of my subordinates. Taking into account the ones previously damaged, we’ve thinned out the ranks of the helicopter depot of Ukraine pretty well. ‘It’s a little thing, but pleasant.’

Video May Show Jet Firing Rockets In Raihorodka

The videos we posted before likely show the firing of rockets from the jet, not toward it. In the first video, if you blow up the video you can clearly see that the aircraft is descending at an angle, perhaps to attack the ground. Then, there is a flash, as if rockets are being fired toward the ground.


All of the videos we have seen contain Russian descriptions, and the people in the videos say that the jet is firing rockets at the ground.

Was a Ukrainian Jet Shot Down?
We have now found a collection of videos that reportedly show a Ukrainian jet being shot out of the sky today near Raihorodka, northwest of Lugansk. The aircraft appears to be traveling at a good rate of speed, there is a flash, then smoke, then an explosion as it hits. All the videos appear to have been posted at approximately the same time, and the angles match.

The video could show the aircraft firing rockets, but it appears to disappear after firing. We cannot be sure, but because there are two angles, it is possible that these videos show the aircraft being shot down.

So far the Ukrainian government has not reported this incident.

One Civilian, a Woman, Reportedly Shot in Slavyansk

KP has interviewed Galina Zhurbenko, the chief physician at the Slavyansk City Hospital, who says that she has treated 10 people for gunshot wounds, including wounds to extremities and lungs. One woman has died. She confirms other reports that a girl was shot in the forehead.

In the same report, Igor Strelkov, commander of the self-defense forces of the Donetsk People’s republic (known as Strelok) says he lost 5 men in Slavyansk today. He said he himself is surrounded by the forces of the regular Ukrainian army, spetsnaz and National Guard in Slavyansk but with the people’s militia is continuing to defend the city; says there are Right Sector fighters in civilian clothing fighting.

A report on Facebook says that, according to the Moscow radio station Govorit Moskva, one civilian was killed today. This is our translation of that report, though we’d caution that we have not confirmed that Govorit Moskva is carrying this report:

The radio station Govorit Moskva [Moscow Calling] is reporting that a woman was killed on her balcony today in the shooting in Slavyansk. Special correspondent Aleksandr Kots from Komsomolskaya Pravda is cited as saying that 10 people with gunshot wounds have been brought to the hospital, and two have already died.

“There is one militiaman and one girl, in fact the girl died on her own blacony. She just went out on the balcony and caught a bullet in the forehead,” said the journalist.

Five people were taken to the hospital in Nikolayevka, and it is feared there may be more casualties.

Video of the Russian-Backed Gunmen Defending Slavyansk

A keen-eyed reader forwards us this video, reportedly showing the defense of Slavyansk today. The soldiers in the video all appear to be the Russian-backed separatists.

There first note – here is a translation of a few of the people who speak.

The female medic who speaks at the 18 second mark:

Reporter: How many people were brought in to you today?

Medic: 4-5 people

Reporter: 3 killed, 4 wounded?

Medic: Yes, 4 wounded

Group of men at 48 seconds: “Everything’s fine, civilians aren’t being touched.”

Voice commenting on fighters: “I don’t know who those guys are working there.”

Woman at 1:52: “Well, there are stresses all around. So this is how it ended up. They came and got gas at the gas station nearby.”

Reporter: And where were you at that time?

Woman: Behind the gas station, see that rusted-out station. They came to get gas from us, that’s how it happened.

Medic: Come on! The gunfire is starting again!

Reporter: Gunfire again.

Woman: Yes, up there. A lone gunman shooting again. 

Reporter: Let’s go!

Medics: “Come on, come on!”

We were curious about a few other details. The men are very well armed, and at least one RPG-22 is visible. But the most interesting scene is perhaps the snipers who appear just after 52 seconds. Here are some screen shots:



Sadly, the weapons are hard to see. But particularly in that first shot, we see that the butt of the rifle, the stock, has a hollowed opening, the handguard. It’s not possible to identify the rifle with absolute certainty without better pictures, but this could be an SVD rifle,  commonly used by Russian military snipers. It is possible that this is a VSS Vintorez rifle, which is nearly exclusively used by Russian spetsnaz.

Regardless, we see that some of the gunmen have chosen to defend the city in close proximity to civilians — and some of the civilians don’t seem to be in a hurry to leave the gunmen.

Russia Suspends Military Transparency Agreement with Lithuania
Another move that will be sure to chill relations between Russia and its neighbors:

The 2001 agreement required Lithuania and Russia to share certain information about military forces, and allowed for each to inspect the other’s military facilities:

“It was agreed to use the format of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Lithuania does not participate in for exchange of information, and conduct inspections under the conditions of the Vienna Document. On the Russian side, the agreement was applied to its forces in Kaliningrad. After Russia imposed a moratorium on the CFE in 2007, it seized providing information but bilateral inspections continued,” the Ministry of National Defence said.

Lithuania has implemented all conditions of the agreement and has not given Russia a pretext for such a move, the ministry said in the statement.

“Such a move by Russia demonstrates Russia’s unwillingness to ensure mutual trust and can be deemed another move towards the destruction of the mutual trust and security system in Europe,” the statement said.

It should be noted that Russia has a similar agreement with Ukraine. Ahead of the Crimean referendum, Russia reaffirmed their agreement with Ukraine by granting permission for Ukraine to conduct overflights on the border, but several Ukrainian border patrol flights were shot at by unknown assailants. 

Images From Slavyansk Show Damage From Shootout

So far, very few reporters have provided pictures from Slavyansk except for those who are working for Russian media outlets (likely because the Russian-backed separatists are giving them access). Still, we’re seeing more visual evidence accumulate.

The large unanswered questions concerning Slavyansk revolve around the extent of the damage, the size of the separatist forces, the damage done to civilians, whether separatist fighters are using civilians as human shields, and whether the Ukrainian forces have been reckless in their assault, just to name a few.

More pictures and videos from RT’s Graham Phillips – though we have not verified the claims. 
From this evidence, it does look like the Slavyansk “self-defence” forces were stationed very close to civilians, and civilian buildings, cars, and homes. How many civilian casualties there were is still unknown, but the Ukrainian government has stated that its advance is being slowed due to the presence of civilians.
Austrian Bank Closing 22 Branches Across Eastern Ukraine

ITAR-TASS reports that Ukraine’s Raiffeisen Bank Aval, which is owned by Austria’s Raiffeisen Zentralbank, has at least temporarily closed its branches in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions:

“Three branches of Ukraine’s Raiffeisen Bank Aval in the Luhansk region and 22 branches in the Donetsk region have been closed down temporarily on May 5,” Leonid Zyabrev, a spokesman for the bank said, adding that customers could access their money from cash machines and could still use their credit cards.

Earlier, Ukraine’s biggest bank, Privatbank, also halted operations in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, saying the situation in eastern Ukraine posed a threat to staff safety. The bank said its clients could access their accounts via the Internet and mobile devices, use their cards in shops and make cashless transactions at self-service terminals.

Latest OSCE Report On Situation In Ukraine

The OSCE has released their latest report, which is current up until May 2nd at 19:00 Kiev time. The entire report can be read here, but we highlight two sections below: 

The overall situation in Donetsk has deteriorated and has been tense for the last several days. The Government officially informed the SMM [Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine] that its anti-terrorism campaign resumed in the morning of 2 May in the Sloviansk-Kramatorsk region.  The aim of the operation had been to unblock checkpoints controlled by separatists surrounding the city. Two Ukrainian army helicopters had been shot down- reportedly by unidentified armed groups used man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). Multiple casualties were reported in Sloviansk. In Donetsk SMM noted a barricade consisting of concrete which was placed in front of the Regional Prosecutor’s Office.

Around 30 people gathered in the street outside the building. The front door was guarded by 4-5 people in uniform wearing masks and bulletproof vests. In addition, 4-5 other people with iron bars walked around the building. The police commander of the Regional Police Station expressed concern regarding the safety of SMM’s staff.

In Odessa  the situation deteriorated. SMM monitored clashes. Smoke grenades and rocks have been thrown and shots fired. Riot police, ordinary police and Special Forces have been deployed to separate the opposing groups. SMM observed about 400 football fans from the “Chornomorets” and “Metalist” (Kharkiv) football teams who held a rally in favour of Ukraine’s unity, about 600 metres away from the opponents of the government. SMM noted about 100 pro-unity activists in camouflage, with sticks and shields.

According to media reports and official Ukrainian statement, as for 22:00 on 2 May, the number of casualties was 37; about 200 people were injured among them 22 police officers. 130 people have been detained. This is the most significant clash in Odessa so far and is likely to increase tension and incidents over the weekend and in the run-up to the Day of Victory on 9 May.

People’s Republic of Lugansk To Hold Referendum On May 11

The self-appointed mayor of the “People’s Republic of Lugansk” has announced that he will hold a referendum on May 11th on whether the Lugansk region should become autonomous. The Russian state-controlled ITAR-TASS reports:

[Valery] Bolotov believes that people in the region will be able to express their will freely. “We will act in the interests of people in a manner as transparent as possible. It will be a fair referendum. We will not take any other steps except worthy expression of the will,” he said.

Videos Show Armored Train In Slavyansk
Earlier, Ukrainian authorities said that they had disabled a train that had been used by separatists as a sniper nest. Now several videos have emerged that show the train cars. First, RT’s camera crew captures the train, and Graham Phillips has taken footage inside one of the train cars.

Video Shows Ukrainian Helicopter Full of Bullet Holes

A Ukrainian helicopter pilot gives an interview where he shows a reporter the damage to his helicopter. Here is the translation: 

Pilot: This was an ugly incident, of course. This was a little bit…let’s say…an unexpected action from civilians. So..

Reporter: How many — approximately, I realize you haven’t managed to count how many hits yet but what weapons did they use.

Pilot: There were different calibers. There was 76-2, 5-45. So…there were more than 10 hits. There are some breakages of parts from the shooting…parts of the engine, the fuselage, the fuel tanks, the cabin, the cabin is also shot up, the fuselage, so…

Reporter: Is the crew unharmed?

Pilot: The crew is unharmed. So…the crew is unharmed, yes. That’s how it is. Repairs, repairs…we’ll have to dismantle it now and re-base it closer to where we can do a total repair job. We have to switch out the [inaudible]. We don’t have anyone to do this under field conditions. There are a lot of damaged parts.

Note that he claims there were unexpected encounters with civilians. What does he mean? We have already posted several curious pieces of video today. One shows Russian-backed gunmen, carrying rocket propelled grenades, very close to civilian homes. Other videos show a helicopter staying stationary for a long period of time before it fires, making it more vulnerable to attack. Is the helicopter staying relatively motionless because the crew is poorly trained? Perhaps the helicopter crew is having trouble finding a target among the civilians and the trees. The Ukrainian government has already admitted that it is having troubles advancing because of fear of civilian casualties.  
Video Claims to Show 2nd Helicopter Shot Down

This video is very loud. It starts with celebration and gunfire, and eventually shows smoke rising in the distance. The people in the video, who cannot be seen, yell:

“Bitch, whore… they should keep downing more helicopters!”

“They’ve already downed 2 helicopters.”

Unfortunately, this video was originally uploaded on May 1st.

There are now unconfirmed reports that four helicopters have been destroyed or damaged. 

Separatists Converting Trains Into Armored Vehicles?

This update via the Kyiv Post liveblog:

Ukrainian counterterrorism forces disabled a coal train cars that Kremlin-backed rebels were trying to convert into an armored train by cutting slits to their sides adapted for firing.

“After receiving intelligence confirmation of the terrorists’ plans, the train was disabled for use in subversive and terrorist actions…” reads a Defense Ministry statement.  – Mark Rachkevych

More Video Shows Burned Out Cars On Road to Slavyansk
It’s not clear what hit these cars, when they were hit, or why, but this video of a road reportedly leading into Slavyansk matches other reports we’ve seen.
Video Shows Explosion At Slavyansk Checkpoint
This video is important. It reportedly shows a checkpoint, manned by Russian-backed separatists in Slavyansk. The citizens are cutting down trees to block the roadways should the checkpoint fail. Ambulances can also be seeing moving on a perpendicular road. 

We have not confirmed this video yet, but it matches other reports we’ve heard.

Another video reportedly taken in the area shows what appear to be pro-Russian gunmen, equipped with what looks like an RPG-22, near a road waiting in ambush. Note how close these men are to the house where the video was shot.

We have yet to confirm this video.

The Russian State-operated outlet RT posts this video, which appears to show the fighting near a key checkpoint. The fireball is reportedly a nearby gas station that exploded.

Four Soldiers and More Than 20 Separatists Killed in Slavyansk

According to the Wall Street Journal, Ukrainian forces encountered 800 Russian-backed separatists in Slavyansk, rebels who were armed with “large caliber weapons, mortars and other equipment,” according to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov.

A separatist spokesman put his own death toll much higher: 

“The fighting is still under way. We have managed to stop the enemy from advancing deep into the city but it was with great difficulty. We have a lot of victims—maybe more than 20 people,” he was quoted as saying.

He said a gas station exploded after being hit by gunfire, sending up a large fireball that was visible from all around the city.

Mr. Avakov said the operation was moving forward slowly as to avoid civilian casualties, although his ministry said civilians had been hurt in the fighting, blaming separatists for using them as human shields.

RT provides some pictures from Slavyansk: 

Video Shows Helicopter Firing Rockets in Slavyansk
This video closely matches the last helicopter video we posted, but is from a different angle. It was sent to us on Twitter. Note that after a few seconds, there is a flash as the helicopter appears to fire a rocket.
The preview is not a scene from the video.

Interestingly, if you watch the whole video, there appears to be some gunfire, perhaps directed at the helicopter. The aircraft also stays stationary for long periods of time. We know that the Ukrainian Defense Ministry is reporting that it lost an Mi-24 earlier today to heavy gunfire.
15 Reportedly Killed in Konstantinovka
As we reported earlier, Ukrainian security forces say that they have cleaned out snipers nests in several areas, including Gorlovka, Semyonovka and Konstantinovka. Now there is a report that at least 15 are dead after the Ukrainian military assault. 
We can’t confirm these reports, but most internal transportation has been shut down across eastern Ukraine today. It seems nobody is moving except the Ukrainian army, the separatists they are fighting, and the journalists covering the story:
Video Reportedly Shows Helicopter in Slavyansk
This video reportedly shows a helicopter in the air in Slavyansk (the video preview is not related to the actual video). At about 24 seconds in, there is a flash, then the helicopter disappears out of sight.

It’s hard to ID the helicopter based on this poor video, but it could be an Mi-24, the same kind which was reportedly shot down earlier. However, it’s possible that the flash we are seeing is actually the helicopter firing a rocket, as the rockets are mounted under the wing:


We have not confirmed the video. 

Security Forces Reportedly Free Captives in Donetsk
Mike Giglio reports:
We have not seen confirmation of that yet, but Ruptly (owned by RT) has two reporters in Donetsk. 
Militants Shoot Down Helicopter Near Slavyansk

The official Ministry of Defense Twitter account reports that an Mi-24 helicopter has been shot down by militants. The report says that the crew was evacuated.

Kyiv Post shares has more details:

Pro-Russian insurgents shot down a Ukrainian M-24 helicopter in Sloviansk using a heavy machine gun around 2:30 on May 5. 

The helicopter crashed into a nearby river, and the pilots escaped without injury, according to the Defense Ministry’s Facebook page. — Isaac Webb

SBU Claims to Have Seized Radioactive Materials

At a press conference today, Marina Ostapenko, an SBU spokesperson, said that the SBU’s counter-intelligence group had seized nearly 1.5kg of a radioactive substance, possibly uranium, in the Chernivtsi region.

“The hazardous material was brought into Ukrainian territory from the self-proclaimed Transnistrian Republic in a car with foreign license plates, and was stored in a home-made container.”

She said that ten people had been detained by the SBU in the course of this operation, one of whom, according to initial reports, is a Russian citizen.

Ukrainska Pravda notes that the SBU has not ruled out the possibility that the radioactive material was intended to be used to construct a ‘dirty bomb’.

Crimean Chief Prosecutor Threatens Tatar Mejlis With Liquidation
RFE/RL reports that Natalya Poklonskaya, who is the prosecutor general of Russian-occupied Crimea, has warned that the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars faces liquidation if it engages in “extremist” activities. The video below shows a meeting between Poklonskaya and Refat Chubariv, leader of the Mejlis.

Ukrainian Military Operation Steps Up in Slavyansk

Ukrainska Pravda reports that the separatist-controlled town of Slavyansk is now completely surrounded by Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainian military is reportedly advancing “deep into the town”, with casualties on both sides. 

They quote an Interfax Ukraine reporter at the separatist headquarters:

“Heavy units are advancing deep into the town, further and further. While the militias are trying to hold onto their positions until the last, they have to retreat…

According to preliminary reports, 12-15 people have been wounded.”

Arseniy Avakov, the Ukrainian Interior Minister, announced that a television tower in Slavyansk, that had been used as a sniper nest, has been completely cleared and is under the control of Ukrainian forces.

According to SBU spokesperon Marina Ostapenko, other sniper positions have been engaged in Gorlovka, Semyonovka and Konstantinovka, where, she said Ukrainian forces had “liquidated” a sniper position on May 3. She also said that ambush points had been set up around the Tsaritsyno hotel, the Shakhtostroitel sanatorium and the Slavyansk city hospital.

She also said that almost all of Kramatorsk, bar the town centre, was under the control of the Anti-terrorism centre.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry has now issued a statement announcing 4 dead about 30 wounded amongst their forces. The statement adds:

The aggressors’ battle tactic is to hide behind the human shield of the local population,

Furthermore, local residents report that the attackers have been firing en-masse and burning residential buildings. There are casualties amongst the local population.

The battle is carrying on at the moment.