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?
Reuters reports that according to the regional administration chief in Lugansk, four Ukrainian servicemen may have been killed in one town northwest of Lugansk today:
Gennady Moskal, governor of Luhansk region on the border with Russia, said on his Facebook page that separatists opened fire on government positions with mortar and artillery near the village of Katerinovka.
“According to preliminary data, four Ukrainian servicemen have been killed and two others have been wounded, one of them seriously,” Moskal said.
Other sources are reporting the fighting. LiveUAMap has this post:
Meanwhile, the death toll may actually be higher than 4. Today, May 19, in the area of Zolotoye [Zolote] and Katerinovka (near Popasnaya [Popasna] in Lugansk Region) Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-backed fighters clashed and 6 militants were killed and 6 wounded, nv.ua reports, citing TSN.
As TSN reported (translation by The Interpreter):
“Movement was noted at the front edge in one of the strongholds. A reconnaissance group was sent out to find out what was going on. Well, and that’s what happened, if you please, the ceasefire. They were shelled with mortars and that was it,” said a tank battalion fighter named “Kabul”.
According to journalists in the area, the militants were using mortar-launchers and machine guns. They were most likely shelling from the occupied village of Molodyozhnoye.
On May 4, Ukrainian forces repelled an attack from the Russian-backed separatists near Zolotoye in Lugansk Region.
A reconnaissance group went to pick up the wounded and their vehicle exploded when it ran over a mine, said TSN. It’s not clear how many were killed by the mine and how many may have been killed by the fighting.
Is it a coincidence that this battle is occurring, and others north of Lugansk have been reported over the last several days, and Ukraine claims to have captured two Russian spetsnaz soldiers near Schastye? We doubt it very much. What we know from each of the heaviest battles in Ukraine since July is that Russian soldiers are often utilized to coordinate and spearhead separatist offensives. We also know that all indications suggest that a new Russian offensive in Ukraine is being prepared.
Is this the start of that offensive? It may be too early to tell, but clearly the Russian-backed forces are attempting to secure river crossings which will allow them to advance north of Lugansk, and recent fighting in these areas may be paving the way for a larger offensive once those river crossings are taken from the Ukrainian military.
— James Miller, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Russia’s independent TV Rain (Dozhd) reports that Russian bloggers have discovered graves that he suggests belong to Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine.
According to Leviev, the dead were Spetsnaz troops from the GRU, but were not related the two Russian soldiers captured by Ukrainian troops on Sunday.
Speaking to TV Rain by phone, Ruslan Leviev, one of the bloggers, said that they had found three graves but declined to give their location.
Leviev said (translated by The Interpreter):
“The Spetsnaz troops were killed on May 5 in Ukraine, they were shelled. On May 10 they were buried.”
Translation: Ruslan and I found the grave of a GRU Spetsnaz soldier. 21-year-old lad. An orphaned wreath from the Ministry of Defence.
The text on the wreath reads:
To a defender of the Fatherland from the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation
The first soldier lived, Korovin said, on the outskirts of Tambov.
The pair subsequently received reports of two other graves in other regions.
Translation: At the grave of the second Spetsnaz soldier, the exact same wreath. They’ve bought them in bulk.
Korovin said that they had been sent the second photo as the graves were 900 kilometres apart. The second soldier was 20 years old.
The pair plan to write up their findings in full tomorrow.
— Pierre Vaux
Yesterday our top story was the capture by the Ukrainian military of two men whom Ukraine says are Russian special forces soldiers. Yesterday a video was released showing an interview between Ukrainian soldiers and Aleksandr Anatolievich Aleksandrov, who said he was a soldier in the 3rd Spetsnaz Brigade based in Togliatti. A sniper rifle showed to reporters and reportedly taken from the soldiers appeared to be a VSS Vintorez, a weapon only used by Russian spetznaz units.
General-Major Igor Konashenkov, official spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense, said that the men were no longer soldiers but were, in fact, retired.
The second soldier, Yevgeniy Yerofeyev, the commander, yesterday told Ukrainian TV station TSN that he was a militiaman from Lugansk. In a video released today, however, he said that he was in fact in the 3rd Spetsnaz Brigade. The video, below, has English subtitles:
In the video Yerofeyev delivers his lines slowly yet steadily, usually in an emotionally neutral voice. He may be reading a prepared statement, perhaps one that is effectively a transcript of his previous interrogation. The video is also edited, as at several points there are small jumps that indicate the video was spliced together, perhaps to remove dead air, or perhaps to combine multiple takes.
It’s possible that video testimony of the prisoners was given under duress. Media interviews of detainees is discouraged by the Geneva Conventions, though these videos are hypothetically taken from military interrogations.
The Russian government has called for a release of the prisoners, despite denying that they are active-duty Russian soldiers.
— James Miller
Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian Presidential Administration on the military operation in the Donbass, announced at lunchtime today that ten Ukrainian soldiers had been wounded over the last 24 hours.
According to Lysenko, most of the casualties were the result of a battle outside Troitskoye between Ukrainian border guard personnel and an enemy sabotage and reconnaissance group.
Lysenko claimed that two Russian-backed fighters had been killed in the fight, which ended when the remainder retreated.
The ATO Press Centre today claimed that Russian-backed forces had continued to use heavy artillery against key sections of the front north of Donetsk and near Mariupol last night.
According to the report, artillery, mortars, tanks and small arms were used against Ukrainian positions near Avdeyevka, Opytnoye, Peski, Vodyanoye, Verkhnetorestkoye, Vesyolovka Druga, Novolaspa, Starognatovka and also Schastye, in the Lugansk region.
After midnight, Russian-backed fighters reportedly shelled Peski, Granitnoye and Avdeyevka with 120 mm mortars.
Interfax-Ukraine reports that the governor of the Lugansk region, Hennadiy Moskal, claimed that Stanitsa Luganskaya had been shelled with mortars overnight, causing a blackout after power lines were damaged.
The governor’s office also reported strikes damaging water tanks east of Krymskoye.
— Pierre Vaux
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said today that he told Russien Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russia needs to end its support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine. RFE/RL reports:
Stoltenberg spoke in Brussels on May 19 after holding talks with Lavrov on the sidelines of the annual session of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers.
He also told reporters he had informed Lavrov that he was concerned about the large number of military exercises carried out by Russia at short notice.
“We also discussed the need for transparency, especially when we have an increased military presence along our borders.” He said. “For NATO it is important to do whatever we can to avoid that incidents are spiraling out of control.”
Stoltenberg was likely wasting his breath. The Russian government not only continues to deny that it has any soldiers in eastern Ukraine, it continues to distort key parts of the narrative on the crisis. Take, for instance, these tweets sent today by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
The MFA here is highlighting crimes it says were conducted by those who support the current government while simultaneously ignoring those committed by the separatists and the Russian soldiers who are supporting them.
But the last part about constitutional reform is perhaps the biggest distortion. Both Minsk agreements, the one signed in September and the most recent one signed in February, call for the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk to hold their own elections according to Ukrainian law. The separatists have refused to do so, thus denying themselves any representation in Kiev. Furthermore, the separatist leaders, most notably Alexander Zakharchenko, the self-declared head of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” continue to belligerently maintain that they do not want reconciliation with Ukraine (they’re called separatists for a reason). Zakharchenko could not have been any more clear about this than in a recent interview with Vice News where he called for the restoration of the Soviet Union and said that 95% of his populace did not want to rejoin Ukraine.
The deadline to receive the next tranche of funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is June 15, but Ukraine is still struggling to renegotiate some of its debt with certain international creditors. Now, the Verkhovna Rada is seeking the ability to freeze debt payments entirely. Bloomberg reports:
The eastern European nation is seeking permission to hold off on paying coupons, the first of which coming due is a May 21 payment of $33 million on a $1 billion note maturing in November 2016, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Ukraine said cutting its debt burden is a question of justice, according to an e-mailed statement on Tuesday.
“This is a logical next step to show people they are serious,” Dray Simpson, the London-based managing director of emerging markets at Cantor Fitzgerald Europe, said by e-mail on Tuesday. “Up to now there has been a lot of talk and very little action and any confrontations have been won by creditors. If Ukraine are going to reverse that trend they need to be firm.”
The moratorium wouldn’t apply to debt issued by state-run companies including State Export-Import Bank of Ukraine, AT Oschadbank and Ukrainian Railways, Interfax reported earlier.
Reuters adds that the Ukrainian government says this step needs to be taken to defend against “unscrupulous” creditors:
“In case of attacks on Ukraine by unscrupulous creditors, this moratorium will protect state assets and the state sector,” it said in a statement.
Many of Ukraine’s debts predate the Euromaidan Revolution, though since the Russian government illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula and supported the “little green men” who took over eastern Ukraine, the nation has seen military expenditures skyrocket at the same time as the economy has slumped and its currency has been devalued.
— James Miller
Ukrainska Pravda reports that Vladislav Seleznyov, head of the press office of the Ukrainian General Staff, has told the online paper that representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the OSCE will be allowed to visit the two prisoners, who Ukraine claims are Russian Spetsnaz troops, captured near Schastye on Sunday.
Seleznyov said that the ICRC and OSCE representatives would be allowed access to the prisoners so as to verify that the captives were not being tortured, as the Russian Ministry of Defence alleged yesterday, and were receiving appropriate treatment.
Access will be granted in the immediate future and will include health assessments.
At the moment, Seleznoyv said, the prisoners are being interrogated by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), which investigating the killing of a Ukrainian soldier.
The press officer also claimed that Ukraine intends to let the prisoners contact their families by telephone.
One of the captives, Aleksandr Aleksandrov, stated during a recorded interrogation that he was a member of the 3rd Brigade of the Russian Special Forces (Spetsnaz), however one cannot exclude the possibility that such statements were made under duress.
The other captive, Yevgeny Yerofeyev, whom Aleksandrov named as his commander, told Ukraine’s TSN television channel that he was not a Russian soldier but a separatist militia fighter.
As proof of their membership of the Russian Special Forces, the Ukrainian military presented a VSS Vintorez rifle seized from Yerofeyev.
The VSS Vintorez is issued to Russian Spetsnaz troops and is not in Ukrainian service. It has also been documented in use by unmarked Russian troops during the invasion of Crimea last year.
The Russian MOD has claimed that the captives are not active but former Spetsnaz officers while still demanding their immediate release.
— Pierre Vaux