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?
The foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France are meeting today in Berlin to discuss the next phase of the implementation of a more-permanent peace plan in eastern Ukraine. Wall Street Journal reports:
The foreign ministers’ meeting in Berlin on Monday will focus on how to move forward with political aspects of the truce agreement signed in Minsk, German diplomats said.
Key points will include how to set up local elections in the occupied areas as well as humanitarian aid for the regions, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in an interview with a German newspaper on Sunday. He warned the threat of renewed heavy fighting hadn’t disappeared as violence continues to flare up near the Donetsk airport and the port city of Mariupol—making it critical to move ahead with political measures that could enable a longer-lasting peace.
“The cease-fire reached in Minsk is largely holding, and the withdrawal of heavy weaponry has come a long way,” Mr. Steinmeier said. “The danger of a renewed escalation has not entirely been averted.”
But the next phase of the peace process will be very hard to implement since the last phase of the peace process, the agreement signed in Minsk in February, is completely falling apart. As we’ve been reporting today, heavy fighting has broken out near both Mariupol and Donetsk, including the use of heavy weaponry which was supposed to have been withdrawn under the Minsk II agreement.
— James Miller
On April 11, an unnamed NATO official told the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Sonntagszeitung that Russia is continuing to send troops and military hardware across the Ukrainian border.
AFP translated the official’s comments:
“We have noticed again support for the separatists, with weapons, troops and training. Russia is still sending troops and arms from one side of the open border with Ukraine to the other.”
While we have seen modernised variants of the T-72 in action in Ukraine (most notably the T-72B3, which was introduced into service in 2013 and could only have come from Russia), we have not seen solid evidence of T-80s and 90s in Ukraine itself.
This would suggest an escalation of force. Which is worrying news as the frontline situation near Peski and Mariupol degrades further.
Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak has said today that Russia is planning to shut off the gas pipes that run through Ukraine by 2019, according to Reuters.
Interfax adds a quote from Novak, who cites South Stream, the plan to send gas through Turkey and on to Europe, possibly through Greece, as the factor which will enable Russia to shut off its Ukraine pipelines:
“As now stated by Alexei Miller (head of Gazprom – IF), the transit contract with Ukraine will not be renewed after 2019,” – he said.
“Now all the effort is to realize the construction of the gas transport system on the border of Turkey and Greece, and delivery to European customers in South-Eastern and Central Europe through this route,” – said Novak.
Miller, in his speech at the Valdai Club conference, said that blocking South Stream was intended only for “the status quo in transit through Ukraine.” He threatened opponents of South Stream and the Turkish stream with cessation of supplies.
Recently, the Greek prime minister. Alexis Tsipras, visited Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The two spoke about plans to build new pipelines which travel through Turkey and on to Europe through Greece. Tsipras is both anti-EU and pro-Russian, and his party has deep ties to Russian nationalist Aleksandr Dugin. Read our analysis of Tsipras’s visit here:
Bloomberg writes that the head of Russia’s energy giant Gazprom, Alexei Miller, has sent a warning to European countries that they must begin planning for their natural gas supplies to enter through the South Stream:
Europe should start preparing now to accept fuel through Turkish Stream, once the pipeline is built, or see volumes shifted to Asia, Alexey Miller, the head of state-run gas exporter OAO Gazprom, said Monday at an energy conference in Berlin.
The European Union has been seeking to broker an interim deal between Russia and Ukraine to protect gas flows through March 2016 as the former Soviet allies fight over prices and debts in international arbitration. Ukraine plays a key role in the EU’s energy security, carrying more than 10 percent of the 28-member bloc’s gas through its pipelines from Russia even as Gazprom seeks to build pipeline circumventing its neighbor.
Trying to hinder Turkish Stream “is a very serious mistake,” Miller told a conference in Berlin, accusing the EU of scuppering its earlier-planned South Stream link to help Ukraine maintain transit. “First, all these volumes may go to other markets. Second, and i want to direct your attention our competitive advantage — we can sustain a pause.”
— James Miller
While we can confirm that there has been extremely heavy fighting today, and while the OSCE is raising the alarm about the dangers of renewed conflict, there is increasing doubt about one aspect of this story — the claim that the Russian-backed fighters used white phosphorus against Ukrainian military positions near Donetsk.
As we pointed out below, one of the pictures posted by Krym Battalion, the Crimea volunteer battalion, showing the alleged use of incendiary weapons is a fake — but to avoid being caught, the picture has been flipped left to right, thus fooling reverse image search tools.
Now, the Ukrainian military is denying that incendiary weapons were used against its positions. In fact, the military says that the Krym Battalion is not even in this area. The website 112.ua reports (translatd by The Interpreter):
The Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff emphasized that there are exclusively divisions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the area of the airport.
The soldiers in the area of the Donetsk airport have not used phosphorous ammunition, Aleksey Mazepa, acting speaker for the Ukrainian General Staff said on the television channel 112 Ukraine.
“Phosphorus ammunition have not been noted at our positions, conventional weapons are used exclusively. As for the information that the Krym Battalion is disseminating now, at the present time only the Ukrainian armed forces divisions are located in the area of the Donetsk Airport, Krym Battalion is not there, this is the usual fake which is an attempt to change the picture at the front.”
As of right now there is plenty of evidence that there has been heavy fighting in the area of Donetsk, but no evidence that incendiary weapons have been used.
— James Miller, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
UPDATED: Yesterday saw a dramatic intensification in fighting near both Mariupol and Donetsk with shelling reported to have carried into the early morning.
The head of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM), Ertugrul Apakan, “expressed his dismay at the resumed violence,” says an OSCE statement on the fighting in Shirokino, released last night.
“While fighting in Shyrokyne stopped again after three hours Saturday night, new and heavy fighting broke out today in and around Donetsk airport. SMM monitors are present to observe the developments and will report accordingly,” said Apakan.
He added that he regretted that the so called “Donetsk People’s Republic” forces had prevented SMM monitors from entering Shyrokyne earlier on Saturday and again today.
“Once again I call upon all sides to exercise maximum restraint and to honour the commitments enshrined in the Minsk agreements. Our hope is of course for a long-lasting and comprehensive ceasefire that will bring an end to the spiral of violence that has destroyed so many lives and infrastructure,” said Apakan.
The OSCE observed repeated barrages from both mortars and artillery in the area:
Also on 12 April, from an observation point located in the eastern outskirts of Berdianske (government-controlled, 19km east of Mariupol, 1.5km west of Shyrokyne) between 17:45 and 18:00hrs, the SMM heard 25 incoming mortar rounds it assessed were fired from “DPR” positions in the east, impacting one kilometre north of the SMM’s position, on Ukrainian Armed Forces positions in western Shyrokyne. Between 18:00 and 18:25hrs, the SMM heard another 24 incoming mortar rounds impacting two kilometres from its position, near the E58 road. From 18:05 to 18:25hrs, the SMM observed 30 mortar rounds fired from a Ukrainian Armed Forces position along the Sea of Azov coast in southern Berdianske, 400m south-east of the SMM’s position. Following a lull until 18:50hrs, “DPR” artillery from the north-north-east targeted these Ukrainian Armed Forces positions with salvos, probably 122mm howitzers. The SMM observed splashes in the Sea of Azov. The SMM departed at 19:00hrs but continued to hear artillery fire. The artillery fire was heard and shook buildings across Mariupol; it ended at 20:25hrs.
The Ukrainian military headquarters in Mariupol reported this morning that attacks on Ukrainian positions had continued throughout the evening with 120 mm mortars.
The press service of the volunteer-based Azov regiment claimedthat their positions in Shirokino had been attacked this morning, starting at 5:30, with both tanks and mortars. Azov also claimed to have killed two Russian-backed fighters yesterday – a machine gunner and a sniper.
0629.com.ua reported that Dmitry Gorbunov, press officer for the military in the Mariupol area, had told journalists that the heaviest period of fighting had occurred between 18:00 and 20:45, during which, in addition to 120 and 82 mm mortars, grenade launchers, small arms and tanks had been used. The last attacks were, he claimed, at 6:40 this morning.
The military reported no casualties in the area.
Novosti Donbassa reports that the press officer of the governor of the Lugansk region, Hennadiy Moskal, announced this morning that there had been attacks across the front line in the north of the region.
The Interpreter translates:
“A battle broke out last night between Ukrainian security forces and militants on the edge of Tryokhizbenka. After 20:00, a sabotage and reconnaissance group of terrorists came right up to the ruined bridge over the Seversky Donets (along which runs the demarcation line) and opened fire on our soldiers. Bar short interruptions, the fighting went on for more than 2 hours, during which not only small arms but automatic grenade launchers were used,” says the statement.
Shelling continues near the checkpoint on the Bakhmutka highway and the village of Troitskoye.
“Starting from 2:00 and lasting until 5:30, Ukrainian forces at the 29th checkpoint received periodic shelling from the direction of the village of Zholobok, which is occupied by Russian regular forces. They fired on our troops with, amongst other things, a tank. No reports of casualties have been received.
In Troitskoye (in the Popasnaya district), Ukrainian military defensive positions were repeatedly fired upon with automatic weapons by the militants. The last attack was at 4 am today,” added the press office.
The greatest intensification in fighting was reported north-west of Donetsk, in the village of Peski, which has been the scene continuous, low intensity fighting since the fall of Donetsk Airport, with both sides dug into trenches.
However the OSCE reported that both the Ukrainian and Russian delegations at the Joint Centre For Control and Coordination (JCCC) had reported a Ukrainian offensive through the front line towards Zhobunki, a Donetsk suburb just south of Donetsk Airport. While the OSCE could not confirm this, they relayed reports that the offensive was being led by Praviy Sector fighters.
The OSCE reported intense exchanges of fire, with heavy artillery used as well as small arms:
The SMM observed that an intensive armed clash was underway with the use of tanks, heavy artillery, automatic grenade launchers, mortars, heavy machine-guns, and small arms and light weapons (SALW). From its arrival at 9.35 to 15:00hrs, the SMM observed and recorded 1,166 explosions, caused mainly by artillery and mortar shell strikes. The SMM assessed that weapons with a calibre larger than 100mm were used by both sides during the fighting.
The SMM observed shelling and/or SALW fire outgoing from the following locations: Kyivskyi district (“DPR”-controlled, 7km west-north-west of Donetsk); Kuibyshevskyi district (“DPR”-controlled, 7km west-north-west of Donetsk); a forested area one kilometre south-east of Spartak (“DPR”-controlled, 10km north-west of Donetsk); the area of “Ventstvol” mine (government-controlled, 12km north-west of Donetsk); and Butorskaya mine (“DPR”-controlled, 12.5km north-west of Donetsk).
The SMM observed that the following locations were subjected to incoming shelling: Opytne (government-controlled, 14km north-west of Donetsk); the radio tower at Donetsk airport (“DPR”-controlled, 11km north-west of Donetsk); Pisky (government-controlled, 11km north-west of Donetsk); Zhabunki; the Volvo Centre (“DPR”-controlled, 12km west-north-west of Donetsk); Kyievskyi district; and Spartak.
The SMM was in contact with the JCCC throughout the day and was informed that the JCCC attempted several times to mediate observation of the ceasefire, but was unsuccessful. Fighting was on-going at the time of the submission of this spot report from the field at 18:12hrs.
The Crimea volunteer battalion claimed on its Facebook pagethat Russian-backed forces had bombarded their positions in Peski with incendiary weapons, describing the situation as a “burning inferno.”
According to the battalion, either white phosphorus or napalm was being used in air-burst shells, with “hundreds” of such rounds being used, setting even the brick walls of houses on fire.
The battalion posted photos, purportedly showing the munitions in use and their aftermath. The Interpreter cannot verify these as of yet, though we can say that the photos do not appear in prior Google image search results.
UPDATE: We can confirm that this first picture, at least, is old. A reader points out that the image has been used before, but it has been reversed left to right. We’re also skeptical about the rest of the report of incendiary weapons, but will continue to monitor this claim.
We caution that allegations of white phosphorus use, made by Russian state media against Ukrainian forces, have been debunked in the past.
Ukrainska Pravda reports that colonel Andriy Leshchynskiy, head of the Ukrainian delegation at the JCCC, had announced that a local journalist had been killed near the airport when the car in which he and another reporter were travelling was struck by an anti-tank missile. The other reporter was injured but survived, he said. Neither have been named.
However the pro-separatist Donetsk News Agency (DAN) reported that Eduard Basurin, spokesman for the ‘defence ministry’ of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), had told reporters that both journalists had in fact survived the incident.
The Interpreter translates:
“The journalists are alive: one is contused, one is wounded. Both are in hospital.”
According to DAN, the journalists were fired on by Ukrainian forces near Peski yesterday evening.
Basurin also introduced a separatist battalion commander, known as Krym (Crimea) to reporters, who proceeded to tell them that a Ukrainian soldier had been captured during fighting this morning near the Volvo Centre, south-east of Peski.
The Ukrainian soldier had been wounded but underwent surgery and has resumed consciousness, Krym claimed.
Meanwhile the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine (NSDC) reported that one Ukrainian soldier had been killed and six wounded over the last 24 hours: