Ukraine Liveblog Day 91: Putin Orders Russian Forces to Withdraw from Ukrainian Border, Again

May 19, 2014
Ukrainian football ultras from various teams hold a pro-unity demonstration in Kiev last night. Photo: Reuters

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.

OSCE Urges Ukraine To Release LifeNews Reporters

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media has called for the release of two LifeNews journalists detained by authorities in Ukraine. It’s not clear why the journalists were detained, though the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense released this statement yesterday (according to

“As a result of the actions of the servicemen of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, unknown individuals were identified, disarmed and taken prisoners. The individuals, who introduced themselves as journalists and citizens of the Russian Federation, were detained and handed over for interrogation,” officials said.

The Russian state-operated news outlet RIA Novosti has also released an article, “Factbox: Restrictions Against Russian Media in Ukraine in 2014,” which lists reported incidents against Russian journalists. To our knowledge only some of those incidents have been verified.

The Russian media and the Russian government have been having a field day with these incidents, which is ironic because they have largely ignored stories of Western and local journalists who continue to be detained, some of whom remain missing or held by separatists. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, has called for the journalists to be released.

Simon Ostrovsky, who was himself detained for several days by Russian-backed separatists in Slavyansk, perhaps sums it up best:

Separatist Leader Will Work To Stop May 25th Presidential Election

With less than a week before the May 25th presidential election, lots of observers are wondering whether an election can even take place while separatists control so much territory, the Ukrainian military is engaged in an “anti-terror operation” in parts of the country, and Russian troops are, as of this moment and despite Kremlin promises, still near enough to the border to invade at any moment.

AP reports:

Nearly 15 percent of Ukraine’s population lives on territory now largely controlled by pro-Russia militias.

“No one is going to vote because no one wants to get a bullet in their forehead,” said 68-year-old Donetsk resident Dmytro Zarubo. “We’ve been threatened with this.”

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has sent observers to monitor Ukraine’s presidential election, says there has been no significant campaigning in the Donetsk or Luhansk regions or in the neighboring Kharkiv region, where separatist sentiments are also strong.

Ukraine election officials say armed men have occupied election commission offices in the east.

“Members of the district commissions have been calling the police saying they have to resign because they have received death threats,” said Andriy Mahera, deputy chairman of the Ukrainian Election Commission.

When asked about the threats, Denis Pushilin, a leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, made it clear that his forces would not let Sunday’s vote take place.

“The May 25 election is an election for the president of a neighboring state,” Pushilin told the Associated Press. “People are still working to hold the election but we are putting an end to this with civilized means.”

Anti-Aircraft Missiles, Possibly Taken By Russia From Georgia, Found in Ukraine
Armament Research Services (ARES) has analyzed a video which shows a Polish PPZR Grom surface-to-air (MANPADS) missile which has reportedly been seized by Ukrainian authorities from Russian-backed separatists in Kramatorsk.

ARES, which has identified various components of the weapon as Russian-made, notes that the weapons may have actually been captured by Russian soldiers in Georgia:

Markings on the missile launch tube indicate it was produced in 2007. Interestingly, one of the few known foreign exports of the Grom was to Georgia, who are believed to have purchased 30 launchers and 100 missiles in 2007. Russian forces are known to have captured some of these, and Poland later accused Russia of planting material from this contract in Chechnya for political reasons. Whilst far from concrete evidence of supply, it is interesting that missiles from the same year as those ordered by Georgia and captured by Russian forces should turn up in the hands of pro-Russian separatists, fitted with Russian produced gripstocks.  ARES will be sending an official tracing request to the Polish and Russian governments, as well as the manufacturers of the missile tube and gripstock.

Read the entire analysis here.

Right Sector Twitter Account Blocked In Russia

Right Sector, the ultranationalist Ukrainian organization, is complaining that their Twitter account is blocked inside Russia. RFE/RL reports:

Access to the account in Russia was blocked two days after the Russian Ministry of Communications officially reprimanded Maksim Ksenzov, the chairman of Russia’s media-monitoring state agency Roskomnadzor, for publicly saying that Twitter might be blocked in Russia for ignoring legal demands made by Russian officials regarding content regarded as “extremist.”

As RFE/RL explains, Dmitry Medvedev condemned statements suggesting that social networks should be shut down, but Mashable’s Brian Ries has investigated the claim and found that the report seems to be true:

By simply changing the country listed in our profile settings, Mashable was able to confirm that the account is indeed blocked in Russia.

By changing one’s account location to Russia, @PravyjSektorRus shows the following message (which varies slightly based on how you access Twitter):

Note that, so far, this might mean it’s possible for Russians to view the account if they change their location from “Russia” to some other country. This suggests that Twitter is blocking the account in Russia, rather than Russia blocking the account through some filtering protocol.

Mashable reports that Twitter has not responded to inquiries on the matter.

As we pointed out in our own analysis on Friday, Twitter has a history of censoring tweets at the request of the Russian government:

Twitter now issues a semi-annual “transparency report” on take-down notices and responses. In fact, as the report indicates, the company did take action on Russia, removing 64% of content requested in 14 requests for removal, and withholding one account and 9 tweets (far less than for France, which had 133 tweets withheld.)

Implicit in this censorship-by-country policy was also the understanding that for those outside a given country, that tweet would be visible, thus essentially defeating local censorship.

We also translated and analyzed the statements from Ksenzov, and the pushback on his statement.

White House Doubts Reports of Russian Pullback

As we’ve been reporting, this is the third time in a month that the Russian government has said that it is withdrawing troops from the border with Ukraine. Each time there was no evidence to support that a withdrawal had occurred. Also, if Russia could be trusted in this matter, then why is it announcing the drawback today, after the Russian troops are supposed to already be gone.

RFE/RL has gotten a reaction from the White House on this newest announcement by Russian president Vladimir Putin:

“We’ve seen what President Putin has said, and if Russia conducts a transparent and meaningful withdrawal of forces back to their home bases, we’d welcome it,” a senior administration official told reporters. “But to date, we haven’t seen evidence of them doing so.”

“Although we’ve heard from Russian leaders in the past that they were removing troops from the border, they haven’t done so,” said the official, adding that the administration would be “tracking this closely” and would want to see evidence before making a judgment.

The Guardian was more optimistic in their outlook:

“This time it could be actually be true because it’s time to withdraw, it’s time to demobilise the soldiers, it’s time to step down,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a defence analyst and columnist at the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

According to Felgenhauer, the decision is mainly based on the need to send home the one-year conscripts that form the backbone of the Russian army and focus energies on drawing up this year’s class. Ultimately, he said, Putin decided against invading eastern Ukraine due to the risks involved and because the situation of the Kiev government was already tenuous.

“You had to make a decision to go or not to go, and threats of western sanctions were a significant factor,” Felgenhauer said.

Anton Lavrov, an independent analyst who monitors troop movements, said he had not yet seen any troops withdrawing but the test would come on Tuesday. “If they actually go back to home base this will be a big de-escalation because these bases are all far from Ukraine,” he said.

So it’s possible that the troops are preparing to move and will move soon. But, as we’ve pointed out, one does not need to view satellite images to see a force this large on the move. When the troop presence on the border was building, dozens of videos showing the troop movement corresponded to hundreds of reports from eyewitnesses.

So far, the only video of armor on the move in the region appears to show Ukrainian forces inside Kharkiv oblast moving toward the front lines (caution – loud):

More fighting Reported Near Slavyansk
The battle near Slavyansk which, as we have been reporting, started early this morning, is continuing.
Former Yanukovych Aide Talks Elections, Tymoshenko, and Russian Influence

This week Russian journalist Pavel Kanygin of the independent Novaya Gazetahimself freed 11 May from a day-long kidnapping in Artemovsk in Donetsk Region where he was threatened with murder – interviewed Anna German, former deputy head of administration under deposed former president Viktor Yanukovych, once his closest aide. While she doesn’t “tell all,” she does give us some glimpse into his rule and some informed commentary on the elections.

German believes the 25 May elections cannot be decided in the first round – Yuliya Tymoshenko, past prime minister, will “do everything so that doesn’t happen” because otherwise “it will be a total fiasco.” German thinks Poroshenko has the resources to win the first round, and the confidence of the public but due to Tymoshenko’s “intriguing,” there will be a second round.

We have translated parts of German’s interview here.

An RT Freelancer Even RT Can’t Stand Behind

On Friday, RT freelancer Graham Phillips was, well, caught in an embarrassing lie, one so obvious that his own network, one note exactly known for its adherence to facts, couldn’t even stand by his reports. Phillips claimed he was shot at by Ukrainian soldiers, and that he had filmed the incident. But the soldiers were not visible in the video, and there were no gunshots. Instead, Phillips clearly walked into a trip wire, setting off a nearly-harmless proximity alert flare system.

The Interpreter may have been the first to expose the problems with his reporting. Today, Adam Holland has written about the incident in his Watching Russia column:

Russian TV Using 2012 Footage From North Caucasus To Lie About Ukraine

RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson finds that Russian State TV has reused footage taken in 2012 in the North Caucasus to “prove” that Ukrainian forces are killing civilians in Ukraine.

Though the footage is in Russian, the dates in the subtitles are completely comprehensible to those who only read English. The problem is obvious:

A must-read:

What’s problematic is that Russian State TV is now beamed into much of Ukraine, including on formerly-independent channels which separatists have taken over. In Crimea, this has happened to almost all of the channels. If you are an ethnic Russian, much of your news, or perhaps all of it, comes from Moscow and carries similar distortions.

Another problem — Putin’s popularity has reached a six-year high at home. The Independent reports:

The results of the poll, conducted by the All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) earlier this month, showed that Mr Putin’s approval rating had increased from 82 per cent to 85 per cent since April, and by more than a third since the beginning of the year.

“Thus, this figure is virtually identical to the one recorded six years ago,” the poll said.

His United Russia party also did well, winning 60 per cent approval, up from just 41 per cent in January.

Political analysts in the country believe the results are closely tied to Russia’s controversial involvement in the Ukraine crisis.

Russian propaganda has been dangerously effective since this crisis started. These distortions have real-world consequences.

Ukrainian Ministry of Defence Says Separatists Shelled Government Position from Kindergarten

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence reports that one of their positions in Slavyansk was attacked by separatists, firing mortars from the grounds of a kindergarten. A statement, in English, on the Ministry’s website reads:

Monday, May 19. SLOVYANSK – This night the terrorists have attacked the Ukrainian block post using mortar. Their actions were cynical as usual; they acted from the ambush located in the kindergarten. The militants provoked the servicemen for return actions to destroy the buildings of the kindergarten.

Soldier Hennadiy Belyak was killed. One serviceman was wounded, two persons were shell-shocked. There are no victims among civilians.

Ukrainian Journalist Detained, Beaten and Robbed in Simferopol
Osman Pashaev, a well known Crimean Tatar journalist who was detained yesterday in Russian-occupied Crimea, has been released.

Ukrainska Pravda reports (translated by The Interpreter):

Ukrainian journalist Osman Pashaev, who was detained on Sunday in Simferopol, has been released.

This was announced on Twitter by Hromadske TV.

“Pashaev has been released. They beat him and took away all of his equipment. He was given a summons and a case has been brought against him. His foreign cameraman was severely beaten”, said the statement.

Pashaev himself wrote on Facebook: “They held my face against a wall for four hours. The worst thing is that, because of me, five people, who didn’t leave and a followed me in to the cesspool of Aksyonov’s self-defence at 26 Kirov Street, have suffered.

“I wasn’t beaten very much – a few times on my legs. No-one was broken, but the moral abuse was much worse than the physical. They stole three tablets, three routers, one computer and four smartphones”, added the journalist.

Pashaev asked Tetyana Montyan to be his lawyer in his case against the Crimean Self-defence force.

He also wrote that he will not leave Yalta until his abusers are caught by the Ukrainian security forces.

Putin, Once Again, Orders Russian Withdrawal From Ukrainian Borders

Despite the fact that on Vladimir Putin has already announced the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Ukrainian border on May 7, today, he announced that Russian forces would be withdrawing from the border.

Following Putin’s May 7 announcement, NATO reported no evidence of a Russian withdrawal, demonstrating the continued massing of Russian forces with satellite photos

However the Kremlin announced today that Russian forces, who were apparently still on exercises, were to return to their home bases from Rostov, Bryansk and Belgorod.

As Reuters reports:

In Brussels, however, a NATO military officer said the military alliance had seen no sign of the Russian troops returning to their bases.

“We haven’t seen any movement to validate (the report),” the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.

Heavy Fighting Around Slavyansk Television Tower
There was renewed heavy fighting around the television tower overlooking Slavyansk on Karachun hill in the early hours of this morning. The television tower has been occupied by Ukrainian forces, and has become the scene of regular night-fighting. 

Dmytro Tymchuk of Information Resistance reported, on his Facebook page, that the separatist bombardment of the Ukrainian positions on the hill had left one member of the security forces dead and three wounded.

Dutch blogger Peter Martin points out that at 2:23 into the video, a flare goes off. He suggests this has been set off by a tripwire, indicating that separatist fighters are approaching the positions by the tower. The series of flares going straight up does look very similar to those set off after an RT freelancer set off a tripwire on Friday last week.