Ukraine Liveblog Day 99: Renewed Fighting Around Donetsk Following Airport Assault

May 27, 2014
Ukrainian Mil-24 helicopter attacks Donetsk airport yesterday. Photo: Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

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.


Four OSCE Observers Seized by Separatists

Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk are now holding four monitors from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), BBC’s Russian Service reports.

The Danish Foreign Minister has announced that among the four is a Danish citizen. Contact with the group was lost about 18:00 local time on Monday, says BBC.

An Estonian Foreign Ministry official has also announced that an Estonian citizen is in the OSCE group and communication with him was also lost.

Ukraine’s President-Elect Calls For US Aid

Petro Poroshenko, the president-elect, has spoken to The Washington Post. He says that the election was a kind of referendum, as 96% of ballots cast asked for a united Ukraine (ignoring, of course, that turnout was very low in parts of the east due to violence). He also said he was willing to negotiate with Russia, but he needed direct U.S. aid to halt further Russian aggression:

For that, the new president thinks he will need more help than he has been getting from the United States. “I don’t have the impression that [sanctions] are strong enough — I think more aggression is possible,” he told me, speaking softly and fingering a string of beads after a long post-election day. “And when aggression starts, no sanctions help.”

What would help, Poroshenko says, is direct U.S. military aid. He brought up Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program during World War II, paraphrasing Roosevelt’s argument as “when your neighbor’s house is burning, you should lend him your hose.”

“Now we should create a new security treaty exactly like Lend-Lease,” he said. “We should cooperate in military technical assistance and in advising assistance. We are ready to fight for independence, and we should build up the armed forces of Ukraine.”

Read the article here.

Long-Lasting Damage to Donetsk After Battles
The battle in Donetsk will leave significant damage in its wake, even if peace is restored soon.

IDing The Serious Firepower of the Russian-Backed Rebels

Let’s take a look at some recent videos of arsenals captured or being used by the Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. Take this video, reportedly taken by Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) on May 25th. These weapons were reportedly captured by the SBU after they were being transported to mainland Ukraine from Sevastopol, in Crimea, by sea. According to Ukrainian authorities, 73 boxes of weapons were captured including:

– 88 AK 74s

– 5 machineguns, including 3 RPK-74 PKMs,

– 24 RPG-22 grenades launchers with 918 RPG rounds

– 20880 rounds of ammunition

This video reportedly shows one of the vans intercepted by Ukraine Border Services today. It shows, among other things, several guns, an RPG-7 with at least 3 rounds, and a SVD sniper rifle variant. The van was fired upon by Ukrainian border guard, and there is still blood inside the van.

Then there is this video which appears to be taken by the separatists themselves in Slavyansk. Visible in the video:

– Various AK-74Ms, some equipped with grenade launchers. These are military models.

– RPG-7

– What looks like an AGS-17 grenade launcher (this thing – rebels cheer at one point when they find it has a greater range than they had anticipated)


– An 9k115 Metis-M anti-tank missile.

– What may be a PKMS heavy machinegun equipped with a scope

Ukraine Says Slavyansk Rebels Shelling Residential Buildings
We have not geolocated this video, and the vehicle is hard to identify at this range, but it does appear that an armored vehicle, possibly one operated by the separatists, fires its gun at the end of the video:

This narrative matches a claim from the Ukrainian government that the Slavyansk rebels are shelling residential buildings to blame the government anti-terror operation. Kyiv Post reports:

Around Sloviansk, a city in Donetsk Oblast under control of separatists, [Vladyslav Seleznyov, the Ukrainian government spokesman for the anti-terrorist operation,] said that the Russian-backed terrorists are shooting into residential buildings as well as shelling the residences and then blaming the violence on Ukrainian forces, who have been restrained in their attacks to avoid civilian deaths. Seleznyov said that the separatists attacked a bread factory on Artem Street and a psychiatric hospital in Sloviansk.

Most Russian Troops Still In Place Near Border

According to NATO, they are seeing some Russian troop movements, but the majority of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders have not pulled back. The Moscow Times reports:

“The activity we are observing at present could suggest a slow or staged withdrawal of forces. At present, the bulk of the previously deployed Russian force remains in the vicinity of the border,” the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.

We have also not seen widespread reports of Russian troop movements on social media platforms. If Russia is pulling its troops back, it is doing so slowly.

Russia relies on a conscription system that pulls its recruits into a service of 12 months. That period is ending, which means that in order for Russia to maintain its troop positions on the border it would need to replace conscripts whose terms were expiring with new troops.

Local Reports Say Police Chiefs Executed by Separatists in Gorlovka

Two local news sites are reporting that two police chiefs from the Kalinin district, Roman Babyuk, the head of the criminal police and Dmitry Krikunov, the head of criminal investigations, have been publicly executed. reported first, citing a source at the Kalinin district police department.

The two men were reportedly executed by militants from the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ in a garage on the grounds of the Gorlovka building of the anti-organised crime department, which was captured at the beginning of May

The site says that there are reports that the DPR informed those police officers who had remained on duty in Kalinin of the execution at a meeting. They report that the men were executed for refusing to sign a pledge of allegiance to the self-proclaimed separatist state. notes that police officers in the town had been given a 48 hour period to write declarations of allegiance, but that this window had expired. 

Shortly afterwards, OstroV, a news site for south-eastern Ukraine, published a report citing an “eyewitness” at the scene. 

They give the time of the execution as 11:30 this morning (8:30 GMT). The order for the execution was reportedly read out by Aleksandr Shulzhenko, a former commander in the police patrol and inspection unit. The execution, by shooting, was carried out by the notorious separatist leader Igor Bezler and his men. The eyewitness is reported as saying that they “put sacks over their heads and shot them”.

More Scenes From Yesterday’s Fighting in Donetsk

The AP has released raw footage of separatists moving yesterday in Donetsk. Note that they appear to flee their vehicles and enter into the woods once the Ukrainian helicopters begin their attacks:

More footage shows separatists fleeing helicopter gunfire, which proved devastating to the rebel forces.

And this is why they fled their vehicles.
Also, an update on our previous post:
Ukraine Accused Russia of Sending Terrorists Across the Border
Earlier we reported that more vehicles filled with pro-separatist gunmen have been stopped while trying to cross the border into Ukraine, according to Ukraine’s border services.

But these incidents are not new and they have been occurring with increasing frequency. While in some ways the public rhetoric between Kiev and Moscow has cooled somewhat in the last week, this particular aspect of the rhetoric has not cooled. Ukraine’s foreign minister made these statements today:

“There are grounds to believe that Russian terrorists are being sent onto Ukrainian territory, organized and financed under the direct control of the Kremlin and Russian special forces,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry said.

Is this rhetoric, or has Moscow pulled a bait-and-switch by saying it’s pulling its military back from the borders while simultaneously increasing the amount of militants headed into eastern Ukraine?

At Least 37 People Killed in Yesterday’s Fighting in Donetsk
The death toll in yesterday’s gun battle is still unknown. But the coroner in the city has released some new figures.
Videos Show Vostok Battalion Separatist Fighters Telling Reporters They Are Chechens

CNN have published a video report on the ‘Novorossiya’ rally held in Donetsk on Sunday. Their reporter, Nick Paton Walsh, asks some of the fighters where they are from. They describe themselves as Chechens from the Russian Federation. While they say there are there on their own initiative, they refer to themselves as having been Kadyrovtsy (fighters for Chechnya’s Putin-backed dictator, Ramzan Kadyrov). They are asked to which unit they belonged, to which they respond “that was earlier”.

The name of the separatist battalion – Vostok (East) – was shared by an infamous Russian GRU- controlled spetsnaz battalion largely manned by Chechens who fought in the wars of the Caucasus and South Ossetia. The battalion was disbanded in 2008 following tensions between their leader Badruddi Yamadayev and Kadyrov including an armed shoot-out in June that year.

As long ago as March 8, there were claims that fighters from a resurrected version of the unit had been deployed to Crimea during the Russian invasion. Kadyrov has denied any presence of Chechen forces in Ukraine while threatening to send volunteers and even saying that he was ready to travel to Ukraine to “protect the population” himself.

Vostok Battalion fighters ambushed and inflicted heavy casualties on volunteer fighters from the Ukrainian Donbass Battalion on Friday in Karlovka. Their commander, Semyon Semyonchenko, wrote on Facebook that the men they had fought were highly trained Chechen fighters.

Vice‘s Henry Langston also filmed Vostok Battalion fighters at the same rally in this video dispatch covering the aftermath of the Karlovka attack and the day of the elections in Donetsk.

From about 8:34 in the following video, the men are seen saying that they are Chechen volunteers. They say that they are former soldiers who have served in Afghanistan and have come to defend Russia, Russians and the interests of “this country”.

OSCE Announces Contact Lost With Donetsk Team Since Yesterday Evening

The OSCE has published the following statement:

KYIV, 27 May 2014 – On Monday evening at around 18:00 OSCE Special Monitoring Mission lost contact with one of its Donetsk-based teams.

The team was on a routine patrol east of Donetsk when contact was lost. We have been unable to re-establish communication until now. The team consists of four international SMM members.

We are continuing with our efforts and utilizing our contacts on the ground. The Ukrainian Government as well as regional authorities have been informed of the situation.

Any further pertinent information will be shared as soon as possible.

Many Dead on Separatist Side in Aftermath of Yesterday’s Fighting in Donetsk

The self-proclaimed prime-minister of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’, Aleksandr Borodai, has told Reuters that “From our side, there are more than 50 (dead)”. There has, according to reports from journalists at the Donetsk morgue, been a heavy death toll on separatist fighters:

But there were also reports of some civilian casualties alongside the many separatist fighters killed.

The Ukrainian air force attacked the airport yesterday with heavy weaponry. Footage below shows Su-25 ground attack aircraft, MiG-29 fighters and Mil-24 gunships in action.

Ukrainian Border Guards Confront Armed Intruders at Russian Border

The Kyiv Post reports that a van and two cars were captured in the early hours of this morning by Ukrainian border guards in the Lugansk Oblast. The vehicles had illegally crossed over from Russia and were “part of a larger column of vehicles approaching the village of Astakhov.” The larger column reportedly contained trucks in addition to more vans and cars. Border guards engaged the intruders in a fire fight and one armed Russian was heavily wounded. Assault rifles, RPGs and explosives were found in the vehicles.

The Ukrainian Border Guard Service says that one group of vehicles fled further into Ukrainian territory, heading towards Antratsyt

However, the newspaper notes that the Ukrainian parliament has issued a conflicting press release, saying that:

[T]he remaining “terrorists” escaped to Russian territory. It stated that “five fighters were disarmed, and one was taken prisoner.”

Ukraine’s border guard service believes the column was part of a larger group that was spotted near the Dmytrivka border crossing in Donetsk Oblast. There, border guards spotted up to 40 Kamaz trucks with armed people 10 kilometers from the border.

Reports of Renewed Fighting Around Donetsk
Ukraine’s acting interior minister Arseniy Avakov has announced that Donetsk Airport was fully under Ukrainian control, Ukrainska Pravda reports (translated by The Interpreter):
“The airport is completely under control. The enemy have suffered heavy losses; we have no casualties. The operation continues in the morning.”

However there were reports from journalists in Donetsk this morning of combat around the airport:

Translation: flights over Donetsk again. Judging from the sound – aeroplanes.

Ukrainka Pravda reported that at about 12:30 (9:30 GMT), explosions and gunfire could be heard in Donetsk:

“10 minutes ago, at around 12:30, there were gunshots and explosions again. Aircraft are flying over the city again”, said an eyewitness.

According to some reports the security forces have cleared Putilovsky bridge and are driving the terrorists into the city centre. 

In the meantime, public transport is still running in the very centre of the city. There are far fewer people in the town than on a normal day.

The big shopping centres, in particular the Donetsk-City centre, are closed.

The Ostrov site reports, citing the Donetsk city council, that armed terrorists from the DNR [Donetsk People’s Republic] have turned up at several Donetsk schools. Children have been evacuated from them.

“Armed men who identified themselves as supporters of the DNR have entered the grounds of secondary school number 96. They have demanded mattresses for their wounded. As a result, students have been sent home. Police and local council representatives arrived at the scene, after which the DNR representatives left the school”, says a statement. 

Another, the Ikar private school, is holding classes off campus due to armed men arriving at their main premises.