Ukraine Liveblog Day 85: The Siege of Slavyansk Continues

May 13, 2014
The self-proclaimed Chairman of the "Donetsk People’s Republic" | RIA Novosti/Natalia Seliverstova

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.

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

US Releases More Satellite Photos Of Russian Troops On Ukraine’s Border.

Today the US has released more satellite photographs that reportedly show that Russia has not withdrawn its troops from Ukraine’s borders:

Alongside it, the U.S. government published another image of the same area on March 26, also showing helicopters. An earlier photograph, from March 22, showed no helicopters in the area.

A second satellite photograph, taken in the Rostov area on May 12, within 75 kms (50 miles) of the Ukraine border, showed what the U.S. government said was a group of Russian armored vehicles. The vehicles were also there in an earlier picture of the same area, dated March 23.

As we’ve pointed out, though, one does not need to take NATO’s word for it. When Russia moved the troops to the border in several waves between March and April, the troop movement was caught in photographs and videos from across Russia, and thousands of eyewitnesses — ordinary citizens — reported the troop movements on social media outlets. There were even four Russians killed in traffic accidents with Russian tanks. You just can’t move an army in secret these days.
Ukraine Will Pay For Russian Gas, But At Old Prices

Since this crisis began, Russia has jacked up the price on Ukrainian natural gas several times. Now the Ukrainian government has pledged to pay its debt to Russian energy giant Gazprom, but only if Gazprom will accept payments at the original price. Interfax reports:

Ukraine and national oil and gas company Naftogaz Ukrainy have confirmed their readiness to immediately pay gas debts totaling $2.2 billion and make on-time payments for subsequent deliveries if Gazprom agrees to maintain the price of natural gas at the level of the first quarter: $268.5 per 1,000 cubic meters, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk said at a briefing in Kyiv on Monday.

Gazprom Gas Deal with China Almost Done, Says Russia
Russian Deputy Energy Minister Anatoly Yanovsky said on Monday that a deal which could send significant amounts of natural gas to China is “98 percent” done and could be signed when President Putin visits China on the 20th. The deal has been under negotiations for over a decade and have gained increasing importance as Russia’s role as natural gas supplier is repeatedly been called into question. 
Kiev and Moscow Both Unhappy with the OSCE Roadmap

Interfax reports that Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia is unhappy with the OSCE roadmap because it doesn’t contain any obligations for Russia to help end the crisis by, for instance, ending their support for separatists and withdrawing troops from the border.

“Unfortunately, we do not see in this documents what obligations Russia will assume, since the de-escalation  of the situation in the eastern regions of Ukraine directly depends on whether Russia wlil stop sponsoring the terrorists, withdraw its troops from Ukrainian borders, and call on the terrorists to put down their weapons and release the seized buildings,” Evgeniy Perebiynis, director of the department of information policy at the Ukrainian Foreign Minister told Interfax Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry is complaining that the OSCE roadmap has not been implemented. ITAR-TASS reports:

“Of key importance is its provision urging to stop violence, for which ends Kiev must end its punitive operations in Ukraine’s southeastern regions,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday. “It is necessary to unblock settlements, to pull back the regular army and other armed units, including Right Sector forces and mercenaries.”

“They also must release all political prisoners, in line with the roadmap. Apart from that, we demand that the practice of intimidating civil population with the use of force and threats of the use of force be dropped too. We hope that if Kiev realizes such steps, the leaders of self-defense in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions will offer an adequate response,” the ministry stressed.

Moreover, the Russian Foreign Ministry urged to pay special attention to the roadmap’s section dedicated to investigation into all acts of violence. “We are confident that an absolute priority of the current agenda is the organization of unbiased and transparent international backing to the investigation into the May 2 tragedy in Odessa and all instances of armed attacks on civilian population in Ukraine’s Southeast in the recent days,” the ministry noted. “We call on the OSCE to make the Kiev authorities agree to all-round cooperation on those matters.”

Separatists Reportedly Kidnap Ukraine’s Eastern Territorial Commander

The following is a report from, translated by The Interpreter.

According to a report from Novosti Donbass, fighters who are active in Donetsk Region took captive Yury Lebed, head of the administration of the Eastern Territorial Command.

It should be noted that during the occupation of the Crimea, Yury Lebed led a spetsnaz regiment of the Interior Ministry’s interior forces. After the annexation of the Crimea by Russian occupiers, the Ukrainian officer refused to accept their citizenship.

As we reported earlier, about 13:00 on the outskirts of the village of Oktyabrskoye of the Slavyansk Region, 20 kilometers from Kramatorsk, while moving, a column of one of the Ukrainian Air Force combat units was cynically and cunningly shelled by terrorists from an ambush. As a result of the attack, 7 Ukrainian paratroopers died from the 95th Air Mobile Brigade of the Airborne Troops Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Joe Biden’s Son Hired By Ukraine’s Largest Private Gas Producer

In a move that is sure to raise eyebrows, Hunter Biden, the youngest son of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, has been hired to be the head of legal affairs for Burisma Holdings, Ukraine’s largest private natural gas producer. The Moscow Times reports:

Burisma owns several Ukrainian oil and gas companies, including Esko Pivnich and Pari, reported Tuesday. The company also has assets in Ukraine’s Dnepr-Donetsk, the Carpathian and the Azov-Kuvan basins.

Burisma produced 11,600 barrels of oil equivalent, or boe, in 2013 and was planning to increase its production in Ukraine by 35-40 percent in 2014, U.S. financier and member of the board of directors Devon Archer told newspaper Capital in late April.

Hunter’s father, as U.S. Vice President, has repeatedly rebuked Russia for its reported involvement in Ukraine and has pledged to support efforts to reduce its dependency on Russian energy.

Ukraine SBU Denies Head of Secret Service Was Shot
Several news reports are circulating that say that the head of Ukrainian Secret Service, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, was shot in an assassination attempt earlier. Several sources quote the SBU as denying these reports.
Ukrainian Ministry of Defence Reports 6 Killed in Ambush Near Kramatorsk

More on the ambush reported earlier:

Ukrainska Pravda reports, citing a statement by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence (translation by The Interpreter):

Аt about 13:00 [10:00 GMT] on the outskirts of Oktyabrskoye, in the Slavyansk, 20 km from Kramatorsk, while a convoy was moving, one of the units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine was cynically and treacherously fired on in an ambush.

“More than 30 attackers had arrived in advance and were positioned along the river in the bushes. The terrorists’ first shot came from a grenade launcher and hit the engine of the second of the BTRs [armoured personnel carriers] which had come up to the bridge. There was an explosion. Another BTR tried to push the damaged military vehicle, which caught fire further on from the village. The soldiers took to the fight”, said the Ministry of Defence.

After the first volley, the terrorists killed two soldiers with heavy weapons, wounding another 3. As a result of the prolonged confrontation, a total of 6 members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been killed. 8 received injuries of varying degrees of seriousness. One is badly wounded”, added the Ministry.

Dmytro Tymchuk, the coordinator of the Information Resistance group, had reported on this earlier.

“At around 13:00, 20 kilometres from Kramatorsk, near the village of Dmitrovka, a unit of the 95th the airborne brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, participating in the ATP, was attacked in an ambush organised by militants”, he said.

“According to preliminary reports, the terrorists destroyed a truck carrying ammunition with  a grenade launcher, after which the battle began. In the meantime, a bus arrived from Kramatorsk to the aid of the 30-40 militants. Reinforcements for the paratroopers arrived by helicopter”, said Tymchuk.

“As a result of the confrontation there have been killed and injured among the security forces. There is no information on losses amongst the terrorist”, added Tymchuk.

Russian Stocks Rally Despite New Sanctions

As long as Russian-backed separatists control parts of eastern Ukraine, Russia is not in a rush to invade, and that, combined with the fact that new Western sanctions have been minor and have avoided targeting Russia’s industries, has helped Russia’s stock market rally. Business Insider sums it up:

The Ukrainian situation had no major flare-up overnight, and Russia’s Micex Index climbed over 1% percent, extending gains to a fifth day – the longest streak of increases this year.

Bloomberg reports that not all the news was good, but key stocks, like Gazprom which has escaped yet another round of sanctions, are leading the way toward a recovery:

The currency strengthened 0.8 percent to 40.6812 against the central bank’s target dollar-euro basket by 4:28 p.m. in Moscow. The benchmark stock gauge added 1.2 percent to 1,391.50. Yields on ruble-denominated debt due in August 2023 declined two basis points to 8.95 percent, the lowest level in more than four weeks on a closing basis.

The Finance Ministry will seek to sell 10 billion rubles ($287 million) of the 2023 bonds tomorrow as it returns to the bond market after a string of canceled sales due to a lack of demand. While the EU expanded its sanctions list yesterday, EU and U.S. policy makers say they are concerned broad penalties on the country’s energy and financial sectors risk provoking retaliatory measures from Russia.

“The latest round of sanctions turned out to be rather insignificant,” Oleg Kouzmin, an analyst at Renaissance Capital in Russia, said in e-mailed comments today.

The ruble appreciated 0.5 percent to 34.8660 versus the dollar and traded 1 percent stronger at 47.8200 per euro. Russia’s currency has retreated 5.7 percent per dollar this year, the second-worst performance among 24 emerging-market currencies tracked by Bloomberg after Argentina’s peso.

OSCE Can’t Determine Who Is Shelling Slavyansk

The latest press release from the OSCE, the international monitoring team that both the West and Russia participates in, has an interesting note — they’re not sure who is shelling Slavyansk:

Artillery shelling of the northern outskirts of Kramatorsk (105 kilometres north from Donetsk) from beside the Sloviansk TV Tower on 12 May was confirmed to SMM by both the Ukrainian military and Kramatorsk “People’s Militia” (the latter being a group opposed to the central authorities). Damage caused by the shelling was presented to the SMM. It is however impossible to unambiguously identify which side conducted the shelling.

This report is interesting. Yesterday some journalists, most notably C.J. Chivers, said that the Ukrainian government forces were firing the shells. But there was never any direct evidence linking the Ukrainian military to the shelling. Some of the mortar shells, according to Chivers, were 120mm — the same as the “Nona” uses, a weapon in possession of the separatists as well as the Ukrainian government (jump to earlier update below).

Chivers noted that he had difficulty understanding the decision by the Ukrainian government to use mortars, as they would have little military efficiency and could endanger civilians, which would only make things worse.

Yesterday we also carried an unconfirmed report that the separatists were fighting each other in Karpovka, near Slavyansk.

Is it possible that the Ukrainian military is not responsible for the shelling?

Six Ukraine Soldiers Killed in Ambush

A follow up on our report about the separatist attack near Kramatorsk. Reuters reports that 6 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and eight wounded:

It said an armored column had come under fire as it approached a bridge. Two were killed when an armored car was hit and four others in an ensuing gunfight, a [defense] ministry statement said.

Ukrainian Journalist Yuri Lelyavsky Freed reports that Yuri Lelyavsky, a journalist who was abducted by separatists in Slavyansk on April 25, has been freed. They report that Lelyavsky gave a press conference in his home town of Lviv on Monday.


They report (translated by  The Interpreter):

According to him, militants abducted him on April 25, a few hours after his arrival in the town, and detained him for 15 days, reports Censor.NET with reference to Podrobnosti.

“All that time I was in the basement of the SBU building. They kept me in a common room for the first few ours, but they then moved me to a smaller room, where my neighbours were first, a policeman, and then a Ukrainian army officer”, he said. As the journalist says, he was detained by the local militia after he asked people at a barricade for comment. And the most likely reason for his detention was his residency in Lviv, despite the fact that he works for RIA Novosti in Kiev. But he hadn’t taken his journalistic accreditation with him because he feared that Ukrainian security officers outside Slavyansk would not allow him into the town if they saw his Russian media korochka [ID wallet].

Regarding the conditions of his detention, the journalist said that for several days he slept on boards like two tree stumps. On his diet, Lelyavsky said that he was given small portions of home-made food, which were brought by the guards, as well as hot tea.

“I don’t know all of the circumstances of my release”, said Lelyavsky. However he said that he regularly appealed to the guards to allow him a phone call to the editor of RIA Novosti to confirm that he was a journalist.

Zik, for whom Lelyavsky works, in addition to RIA Novosti, also reported on Lelyavsky’s press conference. He mentioned that he and his fellow detainees feared the mornings because they worried that the separatists would be out for revenge following losses in the fighting that took place on nights. He also described the wider situation in Slavyansk:

… he said that as far as he had learned, 90% or maybe more of the population of Slavyansk did indeed support separation from Ukraine. “Families are standing” at the barricades, bringing home-made food, and those who call themselves “militiamen” say that they “have come out to defend their homes”. According to the journalist, certain statements by radical, nationalist politicians are always being circulated there, and they are constantly using these to turn the locals against the wider Ukraine.

Following Lelyavsky’s abduction, the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote:

On Friday, Yuri Lelyavsky, a special correspondent for the Lviv-based ZIK media holding company, was abducted by assailants in Sloviansk while he was filming in the street. He was taken to a local municipality building, which had been captured by pro-Russia separatists, according to the Kiev-based press freedom group Institute of Mass Information citing journalists who witnessed the incident. Lelyavsky has not been heard from since, IMI said.

Zik reported that he is “feeling fine, but will still go for a medical examination tomorrow.” They note that:

He recommends that his other colleagues and journalists think carefully on whether or not to go to Slavyansk, as it is now really dangerous. He himself intends to go to the hot spots once again, though he does not want to disclose exactly where.

Separatist Leader in Lugansk Reportedly Survives Assassination Attempt

According to Kyiv Post,  Valery Bolotov, a separatist leader in Lugansk, reportedly survived an assassination attempt today:

“Today at about 11 a.m. there was an assassination attempt on Valery Bolotov. He is wounded but there is no risk for his life or health,” said Vasily Nikitin, a spokesman of Luhansk separatists, adding that Bolotov lost a lot of blood but is recovering in a private clinic.

Nikitin said that Bolotov was shot in his car on his way to negotiations over the future of Luhansk Oblast.

Separatists Launch Attacks Between Slavyansk and Kramatorsk
Over the last 24 hours Russian-backed separatists have reportedly launched their own mortar attacks against Ukrainian military positions.
The “Nona” was captured along with several other Ukrainian armored vehicles back in April, as seen in this video. Now it appears to be on the attack.

Yesterday, KP journalists reported that the mortar was being used to shell Ukrainian military positions (translation by The Interpreter):

Militia shelled a camp of Ukrainian forces at a feed factory with a Nona 120-mm SAU [self-propelled gun]. It is from this position that the National Guard soldiers made their sorties to checkpoints in Krestishchi, Bylbasovka, Rybkhoz and Kombikorm, killing unarmed militia.

Now a Ukrainian military expert reports that there have been separatist attacks on Ukrainian military positions between Kramatorsk and Slavyansk:

And this video reportedly shows the aftermath:

The separatists have not previously launched a significant attack like
this against Ukrainian military front lines, and the Nona self-propelled
gun has been suspiciously in the background before now. This may
represent a significant change in tactic for the Russian-backed
separatists in Slavyansk.
Separatists Create Their Own Sanctions List
One day after a key separatist military commander reportedlydeclared war on Kiev…
The separatists have now passed their own sanctions against key Western leaders:
No, US Special Forces Are Not In Ukraine

By now you may have seen the articles floating around claiming that US special forces are operating in Ukraine, assisting with the government “anti-terrorist operation.” We sum up the stories on our Russia liveblog:

Voice of Russia, the Kremlin’s propaganda outlet on radio and the Internet, has decided to wheel out the “American mercenaries in Ukraine” story once again. Wetraced the last round of this story here, and pointed out that the numbers had morphed from 1,000 to 300 to 150 mercenaries, and been sourced variously in the Russian ambassador and the Russian Foreign Ministry – but was never found to have any substance whatsoever. There was not a single eye-witness report, citizen’s YouTube, Instagram photo or tweet proving the existence of anything remotely like such persons.

Along the way, the earlier version made crude mistakes, like giving the outdated name of the firm as “Blackwater” and not explaining the actual relationship between Academi and the spin-off, Greystone.

As we point out, the new stories are simply quoting the ones that date back to April 7th, and pictures associated with the stories actually show S.W.A.T. teams operating in Louisiana.

Beyond all this evidence, though, one has to think about the one piece of evidence that is lacking. If the US had special operations forces leading the siege on the separatists, the battle would probably be going a lot differently.

Interior Minister Says Anti-Terrorist Operation Will Not Be Stopped, Warns of Provocations During Elections

Censor.Net reports:

The Minister of Internal Affairs, Arseniy Avakov, said yesterday that there are no grounds for suspending the anti-terrorist operation in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions.

Following an inspection of ATO forces in Kharkiv, the minister said that the activities would continue as long as “terrorists are terrorising the population” in those areas, reports Censor.NET, citing Radio Svoboda. According to him, provocations are being prepared for the time of the May 25 presidential elections, and the police are ready to counter them. The interior minister divided the country up into several zones of risk, to which high and “hyper-high” attention will be paid.

Avakov is certain that votes will be also be held in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions. Answering a question about security guarantees for the elections in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, the minister stressed that “the police are contributing as much as they can”. In addition, Avakov described the so-called referendum, held by pro-Russian separatists, a failure in many areas of the Lugansk and Donetsk regions.

Besides this, the minister is planning to ask the Central Electoral Commission and the Rada to allow police units to be positioned at polling stations  during the vote counting “so that there no risks or speculation apropos of this”.

Fighting Overnight in Slavyansk
Last night we reported that the Ukrainian military has been using 120mm mortars to shell Slavyansk. C.J. Chivers of the New York Times posted photographs showing that the effect of these mortars has been less than pinpoint.

Chivers has since written a full report for the New York Times.

Meanwhile, Dmyro Tymchuk of Information Resistance wrote on Facebook that separatist fighters were shelling Ukrainian positions with mortar fire last night:

Last night, according to Information Resistance’s operational data, terrorists in Slavyansk repeatedly opened fire on Ukrainian security service positions and on the television tower.

The shelling came from mortars.

The terrorists’ positions, from which firing was conducted, were located near Artyoma street and the Lesnoy district.

Thus, the pro-Russian terrorists are employing the tactic of using civilians as cover. The shelling is coming from residential areas. This greatly complicates the responsive actions of the security forces.

Needless to say, mortar duels between government and separatist forces in residential areas only raises the risk of civilian casualties.