Ukraine Live Day 269: Fears Grow Of Impending Russian Offensive

November 13, 2014
Russian 1RL232 artillery radar November 11, 2014 in Torez, Ukraine. Photo: AFP

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. An archive of our liveblogs can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.
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View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map
For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

For the latest summary of evidence surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 see our separate article: Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?

Below we will be making regular updates so check back often.

US Sees Russian Military Involvement Not Seen Before In This Conflict

Mashable’s Christopher Miller points out that the statements by US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt that Russia is using air defense systems to protect separatist convoys was also an accusation made yesterday by US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power:

At Minsk, Russia committed to remove all illegal military formations, military equipment and militants from Ukraine. Yet rather than withdrawing its military forces from Ukraine and rather than cutting off its support for separatists, Russia is instead surging more forces and more equipment across the border. The Russian military has maintained a forward presence in eastern Ukraine since the ceasefire took effect. We have information indicating that a Russian air defense system was operating near one of the separatists’ convoys in Donetsk. Russia has not provided this type of air defense system to separatists to date, suggesting that Russian forces were protecting the convoy.

On November 9th, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission reported two convoys of 17 unmarked green trucks moving west through Donetsk towards the ceasefire line. Yesterday, November 11th, OSCE monitors observed the movement of 43 unmarked military vehicles on the eastern outskirts of Donetsk. Five were seen towing 120-mm howitzers, and five others were towing multi-launch rocket systems.

NATO confirmed it has observed columns of Russian equipment, primarily Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defense systems, and Russian combat troops entering Ukraine over the past 48 hours.

US Ambassador — Russian Air Defense Protecting Separatist Convoys
The US Ambassador to Ukraine has tweeted out a very serious allegation:
Earlier, he retweeted this:

The United States, then, seems to be very close to openly accusing Russia of conducting military operations in Ukraine.

Yesterday The Interpreter reported on the presence of advanced battlefield surveillance radar systems. These weapons systems will help the Russian-backed separatists better target Ukrainian forces with artillery and rockets, while simultaneously giving their fighters better awareness of enemy troop movements. Our analysis, now now featured in a column written by The Interpreter’s staff for Foreign Policy, suggests that these weapons are likely new to this conflict — which means that they most likely came from Russia recently as part of the escalation. 

These weapons are also highly sophisticated and would need to be operated by highly-trained crews. This means that in all likelihood the Russian military is now providing logistical support for separatist artillery systems, and Pyatt’s tweet suggests that the Russian military may also be providing direct anti-aircraft support as well. And then, of course, there’s the fact that the rocket systems, artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, and fighters themselves also likely came from Russia.

This does resemble the buildup of Russian military involvement which took place in July and August, interrupted only by the shooting down of flight MH17. However, the presence of new weapons suggests an even greater involvement of the Russian military at a logistical level, even if we have not yet seen the volume of Russian troops in Ukraine that we saw in late August.


NATO Intercepts Russian Jets As They Approached Lithuanian and Estonian Airspace

Bloomberg reports that NATO jets have once again intercepted Russian flights which were approaching NATO airspace:

Two Dutch F-16 fighter jets on a NATO mission intercepted a Russian aircraft in the Baltics after it approached Estonian and Lithuanian airspace.

The F-16s intercepted an Ilyushin transport plane that hadn’t announced a flight plan yesterday near the two countries and escorted it out of the area, the Dutch Defense Ministry said on its website. The plane flew in the direction of the Russian Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad, the ministry said…

“Increased activity of Russian military aircraft by the Baltic borders is raising concerns,” Lithuania’s defense ministry said by e-mail today, adding that interceptions are a “standard procedure.”

This comes as Russia has announced that it will increase its own air patrols and will even send strategic bombers into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico as a response to “the situation in Ukraine”:

Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said Wednesday that “we have to maintain (Russia’s) military presence in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico” — including sending bombers “as part of the drills.” Shoigu added that Russia will also boost its security in Crimea, the region it annexed from Ukraine earlier this year.

“In many respects, this is connected with the situation in Ukraine, with fomentation of anti-Russian moods on the part of NATO and reinforcement of foreign military presence next to our border,” Shoigu said.

Lugansk Separatists Report Infighting, Firefight With Other Militants

In last night’s OSCE report, there is one paragraph about a reported firefight between two different armed groups in the self-declared ‘Lugansk Peoples’ Republic’:

On 11 November a member of an irregular armed group affiliated with the “LPR” in Krasnodon (50km south-east of Luhansk) told the SMM that there was ongoing antagonism between the “LPR” in Krasnodon and the “LPR” in Luhansk, resulting in a fire-fight between the two sides and the brief “detention” of Luhansk-based “LPR” personnel.

OSCE Sees 100s Of Fighters Cross Russian Border Into Ukraine, And Trucks With Bodies Leaving

Since at least July
there have been dead Russian soldiers who have returned to Russian
after being killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine. These bodies have
been shipped home in trucks marked “Cargo 200,” the Russian military
code for troops killed in action.

This week, with the fighting intensifying, the OSCE international
monitors have spotted a vehicle marked “Cargo 200” returning to Russia:

On 11 November, the OM observed a van marked with signs “gruz
200” [“Cargo 200” which is a well-known Russian military code used for
“military personnel killed in action”] crossing from the RF to Ukraine
and returning several hours later.

The OSCE observer teams (OTs) also witnessed hundreds of armed men crossing the border:

During the reporting period, the OTs observed 665 men and women
in military-style dress crossing the border in both directions. This is
the highest number observed so far. These people have been crossing
individually or in very small groups, but have recently also crossed in
larger groups. On 7 November the OM observed a group of 24 persons in
camouflage clothing that crossed by minibus from the RF to Ukraine at
Donetsk BCP. These border crossings were made predominantly at Donetsk
BCP in both directions. Several Cossacks were also observed by the OTs.
The Cossacks are identified by their traditional fur hats, as well as by
Cossack insignias. The observers did not see any of them carrying

As in previous weeks, the OM observed injured or sick
persons crossing the border from Ukraine to the RF. The OM also observed
the crossing of vans that were apparently assigned for the transport of
deceased (see below).

Read their weekly report here.

Ukrainian Government Continues To See Enemy Troop Movement And Rising Casualties
Today’s briefing from the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council continues a trend — more reports of troop movements inside territory occupied by the Russian-backed separatists, and once again the casualties continue to rise.
This report is something to watch. While the Ukrainian government often complains about breaches in the ceasefire, the the report of “heavy units” inside the demarcation line uses language that recalls the Minsk agreements. In other words, if the Ukrainian military is building a case that the Minsk agreements have been violated, this is an important rhetorical phrase.
OSCE Complaining About Limited Abilities In Ukraine

The OSCE has been the center of several controversies this week. The Ukrainian government accused the OSCE of leaking to foreign governments, a thinly-veiled accusation against the Russian members of the monitoring team. The OSCE also had to clarify one of their claims to say that they did not know who was responsible for a shell which killed two teens.

Since then, the OSCE has also been increasingly alarmist about the violence in eastern Ukraine, warning that the Russian-backed separatists (the OSCE calls them “illegal armed groups” and makes no mention of their support from Moscow) may be planning an offensive against Mariupol.

Today a top OSCE official is complaining about the mission’s limited ability to report on events in Ukraine. RFE/RL reports:

A top official from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says the group’s observer mission in eastern Ukraine faces “unacceptable restrictions” on its mandate to monitor the border with Russia.

Ilkka Kanerva, the president of the OSCE’s parliamentary assembly, told the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna on November 13 that OSCE monitors are limited to reporting “only what it sees pass through the official crossing along the tiniest strip of the border.”

Kanerva asked: “If we are not permitted to do it right, the question is — is it worth to do it at all?”

SBU Adviser Says Russia Preparing For ‘Active Hostilities’

Interfax-Ukraine reports that Markiyan Lubkivsky, an adviser to the chief of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), told the Shuster Live television programme last night that Russia is preparing for “active hostilities.”

Lubkivsky said:

“Today we see and document a buildup in Russia’s military presence in the temporarily occupied territories, troops are being redeployed, and positions are being fortified. There are all symptoms that Russia… is planning or preparing for active hostilities.”

Interfax-Ukraine notes, however, that Lubkivsky stressed that Ukrainians should not panic as Ukrainian forces were “in a state of enhanced readiness” and were liquidating “subversive groups.”

Lubkivsky also said that “in our opinion” Russia was mining the waters off Mariupol. He suggested a possible connection with Tuesday’s underwater explosion near Russia’s Dolgaya Spit (which was felt in Mariupol). Lubkivsky said it could not be excluded that a fishing vessel had struck such a mine (deployed accidentally we assume as the explosion took place near the approach to a Russian shipping port).

Lubkivsky’s statements regarding Ukraine’s preparedness were reiterated by the foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, speaking live on Bloomberg TV today.

Klimkin also restated that Ukraine had observed large quantities of Russian armour and troops crossing the border.

— Pierre Vaux

Journalist Reports Separatist Commanders Talking About Sunday Offensive

Ukrainian journalist Andrei Tsaplienko wrote today on his Facebook page that two commanders from the separatist Oplot and Kalmius battalions have said that an offensive is being prepared for Sunday, November 16.

Tsaplienko wrote that Ukrainian forces had detained three suspected militants last night at a checkpoint near Volnovakha, along the Donetsk-Mariupol road. The phone numbers of the commander of the Kalmius battalion and the leader of an Oplot unit were found on the detainees’ phones.

According to Tsaplienko, the Ukrainians rang and pretended to be separatist militants who had detained potential Ukrainian saboteurs at a checkpoint in Yelenovka, to the north. The separatist commanders told them to allow these men to pass as they were their own, effectively confirming the identity of those who had in reality being detained by the Ukrainian forces.

Tsaplienko wrote (translated by The Interpreter):

Then, both the commanders took asked how things were going at the checkpoint and ended their conversations with roughly the same phrase:

“Put up with it until Sunday men, the offensive is on Sunday.” 

“You know the order, on Sunday we go on the offensive.” 

As the Kalmius commander said goodbye he promised to “finally knock the shit out of the dillweeds [slang for Ukrainians].”

Noting that he could not vouch for the veracity of the commanders’ claims, Tsaplienko said that, as a reporter, his job is to report what he sees and hears.

“I cannot guarantee there will be an offensive on Sunday. For guarantees contact this address: The Kremlin. Moscow.”

— Pierre Vaux