Ukraine Live Day 416: POWs Released After 8 Months, But Others Held as DNR Claims Freed

April 9, 2015
Checkpoint Nulyovka (Zero), near Maryinka, the last Ukrainian checkpoint before DNR-seized territory. Screengrab from DN Donbass Public TV

Yesterday’s live coverage of the Ukraine conflict 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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For the latest summary of evidence surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 see our separate article: Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?

Artillery Shelling Reportedly Heard In Donetsk Tonight

There are several reports that artillery fire can be heard in Donetsk tonight — though it’s not clear whether it is incoming or outgoing fire:
James Miller
Ukraine’s Parliament Bans Soviet- And Nazi – Propaganda

The Ukrainian Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, has voted to ban both Soviet and Nazi propaganda, a bill which could mean the destruction of the remaining statues of Vladimir Lenin, popular targets for anti-Russian anger.

RFE/RL reports:

Ukraine’s parliament voted on April 9 to ban “propaganda of the totalitarian Communist and Nazi regimes,” a major rebuke to the country’s Soviet-era masters in Moscow and to Russia.

A total of 254 members of the 450-seat Vekhovna Rada voted in favor of the legislation in the former Soviet republic, which is deeply at odds with Russia over its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in a conflict that has killed more than 6,000 people.

Under the legislation, the Communist government that ruled between 1917 and 1991 — the Soviet era — is condemned as a criminal regime that conducted policies of state terror.

AFP adds that even some significant landmarks in Ukraine may have to be revisited, revamped, or removed:

For the former Soviet republic it could mean a major overhaul of public buildings and town squares across the country, with Lenin Streets to be renamed and any remaining statue of the Soviet leader removed.

Even a towering Liberty-like statue 102 metres high (300 feet) and weighing in at 150 tonnes that greets visitors to Kiev will need a revamp. The mammoth “Motherland” statue holds high a huge shield emblazoned with the Communist-era hammer and sickle.

P1010239.jpgThe Motherland Statue, which overlooks Kiev and is part of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, a large series of memorials marking the victory of the Soviet Army and Ukraine over Nazi Germany in World War II.

Perhaps ironically, some of Kiev’s most visible landmarks are its World War II memorials, part of the massive Museum of the Great Patriotic War, which depict the struggle of the country and the victory of the Soviet Army and the Ukrainian people over the German Nazis. It’s not clear how such monuments will be treated under the new law.

The law does continue to recognize May 9th as “Victory Day,” marking the defeat of the Nazis, but Soviet symbolism will be banned from the event.

Kyiv Post notes that perhaps a more overshadowed development came from the Verkhovna Rada today. The bills will open the historical archives which document repressive Soviet practices during the Soviet years:

Ukrainian lawmakers has passed the law that opens the access to the archives of 1917-1991 years of the repressive bodies of the communist regime.

According to [head of the Ukrainian Institute for the National Memory, Volodymyr Viatrovych, one of the authors of the bills], the repressive organs’ documents of the Soviet Union get the special status and the access to them can’t be restricted to anyone. He also said that all the archives will be passed to the historical Institute for the National Memory.

To get into the archive a citizen will need to show his passport and to write the request to look at the documents.

James Miller
Amnesty International Condemns Russian-Backed Fighters For Executing Ukrainian POWs
Last weekend we reported on a story, broken by Kyiv Post, that Arseny Pavlov, commander of the Russian-backed Sparta battalion who goes by the call-sign Motorola, had told the paper that he was personally responsible for executing 15 Ukrainian soldiers whom his fighters had taken prisoner — thus confirming the reports that the Russian-backed separatists were summarily executing POWs:

Today Amnesty International has raised the alarm about the new evidence of atrocities being committed by the Russian-supported forces:

“The new evidence of these summary killings confirms what we have suspected for a long time. The question now is: what are the separatist leaders going to do about it?” said Denis Krivosheev, Europe and Central Asia Deputy Director at Amnesty International.

“The torture, ill-treatment and killing of captured, surrendered or wounded soldiers are war crimes. These claims must be promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigated, and the perpetrators prosecuted in fair trials by recognized authorities.”

Footage reviewed by Amnesty International shows Ukrainian soldier Ihor Branovytsky, one of the defenders of Donetsk airport, taken captive and interrogated. The video, posted on YouTube, shows signs that he was hit in the face. He remained in captivity until he was killed.

James Miller

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Flips The Narrative on Ukraine, Western Sanctions
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has met with Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders and has made a series of statements today at their joint press conference which are worthy of highlight, if for no other reason than they completely distort reality or even turn it on its head. Some examples:
Russia had its voting rights in PACE (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) removed after its invasion of Ukraine. A majority of the member states believe that Russia is responsible for various human rights violations and breaches of international law, including Russia’s “agreement” with the breakaway region of Georgia, South Ossetia, which Russia has effectively annexed; Moscow’s clampdown on LGBT rights; “murder, enforced disappearances, torture, hostage-taking, and arbitrary detention” in Chechnya; and Russia’s crackdown on the Tatars in illegally-annexed Crimea, just to name a few. In other words, there remains significant divisions between Russia and the Council of Europe, all of which stem from Russia’s aggressive foreign policy and/or brutal and discriminating domestic policies, which makes this next statement laughable.


Lavrov then addressed the situation in Ukraine, highlighting the February’s Minsk agreement which was supposed to pave the way for a permanent ceasefire. Despite the fact that Russian forces and Russian-backed separatists immediately broke the ceasefire by capturing Debaltsevo, and Russian-backed separatists continue to violate the ceasefire each day, Lavrov blamed Ukraine for the lack of peace in the Donbass:

Interestingly, this statement from Lavrov comes on the same day that Amnesty International has released a report implicating Russian-backed separatists in the execution of Ukrainian prisoners of war.
Lavrov is referencing a report which says that Ukraine has not properly investigated or taken action against those who caused the violence during the closing days of the Euromaidan revolution in February, 2014. But the Ukrainian riot police who instigated the violence in Maidan which led to the death of the “Heavenly Hundred,” and the leaders of the Yanukovych  government, have close ties to Russia.

The Odessa Massacre is one of the rallying cries of the pro-Russian side. On May 2, 2014, during the early days of the growing insurgency in eastern Ukraine, a group of pro-Russians attacked a crowd of peaceful pro-Ukrainian protesters, killing some in the crowd. However, the instigators of the attacks were quickly beaten back, and fled to a nearby building, the Trade Unions House, which had been their headquarters. In the fight that ensued, 42 pro-Russian activists were burned to death, and 6 others were killed in the violence.

Who was to blame and the specifics of what ensued are often debated, but what is clear is that the police completely failed to bring about a peaceful solution to the events that day. However, the police force then, and to a somewhat lesser extent today, were supportive of the overthrown Yanukovych regime and often failed to prevent violence or the forcible takeover of government buildings by pro-Russian separatists.

This last tweet is a reference to a more recent dispute — while the Minsk agreement clearly states that the territories controlled by the Russian-backed separatists need to hold elections according to Ukrainian law, and it requires Ukraine to grant “sepcial status” — or semi-autonomy — to the Donbass, the separatists and Moscow have objected to a law, passed by the Verkhovna Rada, which requires these elections, and other requirements of the Minsk agreement, to be implemented before the “special status” law goes into full effect.


Lavrov also commented on Western sanctions against Russia, but seems to have neglected to mention the preceding Russian invasions of Ukraine which prompted the sanctions:

This is inaccurate — Russia heavily sanctioned its Eastern European neighbors, including Ukraine, starting more than a year ago in order to pressure them to avoid signing with the European Union:
James Miller
Ukraine Reports Heavy Artillery Attacks And Skirmishes

The Ukrainian military claims that Russian-backed fighters fired on their positions 13 times last night.

Liga Novosti reports that the ATO headquarters announced this morning that the most intense fire came inthe Donetsk region near Peski, north-west of Donetsk, and Shirokino and Berdyanskoye, east of Mariupol.

The Interpreter translates:

“At around 18:00, the militants shelled our positions near the village of Peski with 120 mm mortars, while from 19:15 to 20:00 our positions close to the village of Berdyanskpye were shelled with 120 mm mortars and 122 mm artillery. Near Avdeyevka and Mayorsk, the bandits used automatic grenade launchers and small arms during armed provocations, says the statement.

At around 20:00, an reconnaissance drone was detected flying over the village of Vodyanoye [north of Donetsk] in the direction of Opytnoye at an altitude of 800 metres.

In the Lugansk region, at 23:45, an armed confrontation occurred outside Krymskoye. “Our soldiers gave the enemy an appropriate response,” said the headquarters. 

According to Dmytro Tymchuk of Information Resistance, the attack came near the Bakhmutka highway (south of Krymskoye) and was mounted by enemy infantry numbering up to a full company in size, supported by several armoured vehicles and a tank. However the Ukrainians were successful, he claims, in pushing the attackers back to their initial position.

Elsewhere in the region, south-east of Stanitsa Luganskaya, near Bolotennoye, Russian-backed fighters struck Ukrainian positions with mortars, Tymchuk reported.

Tymchuk also reported an attempted ambush on Ukrainian troops near Granitnoye, east of Volnovakha. According to Tymchuk, Russian-backed fighters fired anti-tank missiles at Ukrainian armoured vehicles, however none of their rounds struck.

Ukrainska Pravda reports that the Azov regiment’s press service has reported that Russian-backed fighters have been shelling near Shirokino with 152 mm self-propelled artillery and 120 mm mortars. One of the targets reportedly included the village of Sopino, west along the coast from Shirokino, which is in Ukrainian-controlled territory but not defended by Ukrainian troops.

One Donbass battalion fighter was wounded, Azov claimed, during an artillery attack conducted out of Shirokino itself. The soldier received wounds of “varying degrees of severity” and has been given medical treatment. 

Meanwhile, Novosti Donbassa reported that Gorlovka blogger Nikita Sinicin had written that artillery fire could be heard in the separatist-held town.

According to Sinicin, after 23:00, residents could hear artillery fire, likely from the south-west. He reported that this was the second night in a row on which such fire could be heard.

— Pierre Vaux


Ukrainian POWs Released After 8 Months, But Others Held Up as DNR Claims All Have Been Freed

Yesterday April 7, an attempt to transfer 3 Ukrainian POWs failed when representatives of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) blocked it, Novosti Donbassa reported.

Darya Morozova, the DNR’s human rights commissioner, claimed on April 6 that all the POWs were released after 16 Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer fighters were freed. But Ukrainians involved in the POW exchange say this doesn’t square with information they have about remaining POWs.

Markiyan Lubkivsky, advisor to the SBU head, said that there were still about 400 Ukrainian troops being held as POWs.

Nikolai Zolotarenko, representative of Patriot,  a non-governmental group helping POWs, reported that 40 people remain in the former Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) building in Donetsk Region and at least 200 people in total remain throughout the Donetsk region.

Oleg Kotenko, a coordinator for Patriot said that his organization has information about 200 Ukrainian POWs, including field commanders, and their locations. He cannot give the exact number of POWs, but believes there are many more than 200.

DN (Donbass Public TV) uploaded a video April 7 showing the Ukrainians standing in a muddy parking lot and waiting on the phone in vain.

DN (Donbass Public TV) covered the releases of the POWs and uploaded footage to YouTube.

A visibly distraught Ukrainian volunteer named Vasily Kozak from Kherson region, who had once worked as chairman of a rural council was released April 2 said he “learned what hell was”.

He said he had worked as a driver delivering supplies to the front. “I brought the mobilized guys their packages, from the children, the mothers, the families. So, there was the last checkpoint, they hadn’t warned us, and we got caught.” He said there were still a lot of soldiers and volunteers being held as POWs, along with just random people taken for no reason.

Kotenko of Patriot described in an interview for DN that the exchange in which Kozak was freed was made at the last Ukrainian checkpoint before the territory taken by the DNR begins, called Nulyovka (Zero), near Maryinka. His group is raising funds at home and abroad to help rehabilitate the POWs and help them find medical care and jobs.

Oleg Khoroshikh from the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s department to facilitate POW releases said it was very hard to get information about the POWs and their locations and then deal with DNR or LNR commanders to get scraps of information about them and finally their release.

Nikolai Surmenko from the 93rd Mechanized Brigade and Vitaly Mikhailevich from the 51st Brigade were freed April 3. They both had spent more than 8 months in captivity.

The two men had tears in their eyes as they expressed their gratitude toward Patriot and the Ukrainian Defense Ministry for helping to obtain their release. They described their ordeal, which involved forced labor and psychological humiliation, DN (Donbass Public TV) reported in a video uploaded to YouTube on April 3.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick