Ukraine Live Day 515: A Year After MH17, Fighting Continues

July 17, 2015
Memorial service in Grabovo village church, near the MH17 crash site. Photo: Tom Burridge - @tomburridgebbc

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 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?

Strelkov Reportedly Says that Motorola, Givi Out; Zakharchenko Stripped of Guard; DNR Defense Ministry Dismantled after Moscow VIP Visit

Col. Igor Strelkov (Girkin), former commander of the forces of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR), has reportedly posted an announcement on in a forum he moderates under the name “Kotych” regarding important changes in the DNR. This forum is widely accepted as an authentic source for his personal statements.

A number of pro-separatist sources have posted a screen grab of his statement on the forum, but we were unable to find it there (it may be in a section only viewable by invited members) so the information has yet to be confirmed.

The Interpreter has a translation

Sent Today 10:52:49

Briefly on changes in the DNR

The Ministry of Defense is dismantled. Pan Kononov is appointed deputy
corps commanders with the duties of “give me, get me, and f**k you…”

2. The Somali Battalion is disbanded.
3. The Republican Guard was disbanded and in the near future it will be broken up into units of the People’s Militia Corps.
4. I don’t know yet what will happen to “Motorola” and “Givi”.

Strelkov uses “Pan,” the polite term of address in the Ukrainian language, ironically.

Yesterday there were rumors that a Kremlin VIP had arrived in
Donetsk, possibly even Vyacheslav Surkov, the “grey cardinal” of the
Kremlin who has been involved in “managing” the Russian-backed

Tatyana Kuznetsova, director of the Judicial Chamber of Permanent
Arbitration Courts in St. Petersburg also posted a series of tweets
today that quoted Strelkov, likely from the forum.

Translation: The completion of the centralization of the command by all military divisions is in one set of hands — the hands of the headquarters of the Corps (Strelkov).

For some, the news about Somali, Motorola and Givi will be as startling as the
diminishing of Zakharchenko’s powers and the dismantling of the carefully-constructed Ministry of Defense and
Republican Guard. The Republican Guard was an effort to
establish a unified corps of fighters from various battalions that did
not always subordinate to the civilian leaders of the DNR.

Somali Battalion, led by Mikhail Tolstykh, whose call sign is “Givi,” a
pro-Russian Ukrainian citizen, achieved fame via Russian state media
saturation coverage as the unit shelling the Donetsk Airport for months
last year until separatist militants with Russian fighters and armor
overran the Ukrainian “cyborgs” defending the airport.

head of the Sparta Battalion, also deployed at the Donetsk airport, was another
popular Russian media star and the subject of numerous special reports
and profiles on both Kremlin media and separatist media sponsored by

Givi was notorious for continuing to talk on his cell phone
while shells fell around him and for sending defiant messages to the
Ukrainian commanders. Motorola, wounded several times in battle, was
known as the first groom of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s
Republic” in a widely covered wedding, where Strelkov and other leaders

The pair were injected into the Russian-language media stream last fall
after Strelkov was already removed from his positions in the DNR  in July, and after
the battle of Ilovaisk when the Minsk talks were started in September.
The Kremlin wanted to make the forces it supported appear as if they
were more “indigenous” — although Motorola (whose real name is Arseny
Pavlov) is a Russian citizen.

In recent weeks, they have been
eclipsed by another set of fighters who seemed to be groomed as the new
“Novorossiya media stars,” Aleksey Milchakov, a Russian citizen whose
call sign is “Serb” and two fighters known as “Slavyanin” and “Viking,”
the head of a battalion by the same name, both of whom were said to be
citizens of Scandinavian countries. Yet these fighters were barely
covered by the Russian state media, and were only popularized by separatist
outlets like ANNA and Novorossiya TV, and heavily photographed by Gleb

Suddenly two weeks ago, they were ordered to retreat
from their base in Razdolnoye, which we exposed in a report. No reason
was given, and it is not clear whether the move was a feint, as fighting
has actually increased in recent weeks.

Strelkov has been known to make dire statements before that didn’t
always pan out, and more confirmation will be needed on these changes,
but it is possible that in the interests of the Minsk peace talks, the
Kremlin is shuffling the separatists to impress the west and keep them
off balance. Meanwhile, this week we have seen worsening attacks and
casualties continue to mount.

– Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Evidence About Who Shot Down MH17 Is Overwhelming
The Russian-backed fighters shot down MH17, with a Buk missile which was spotted in Russia both before and after MH17 was shot down. That is the conclusion of the report published by The Interpreter in The Daily Beast, our attempt to make the most comprehensive examination yet of the MH17 disaster.

How We Know Russia Shot Down MH17

It's been a year since Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot out of the sky, killing all 298 civilians onboard. The results of the official inquiry have yet to be released, and while the fact that this Boeing 777 was immolated has not been disputed, various theories have been floated by the Ukrainian government, the Russian government, and other interested parties as to how it was and who ultimately bears responsibility for this tragedy.

View full page >

Jul 18, 2015 00:48 (GMT)

One item in the report focuses on audio tapes released by the Ukrainian government which reportedly prove that the Russian-backed fighters had received a Buk, thought they were about to shoot down a military aircraft, and then learned that they had actually shot down a civilian airliner.

In one conversation, the voice of separatist commander Igor Bezler can be heard talking to one of his fighters about an aircraft which was approaching his territory:

Soon after the first audio leaks were released, and perhaps in a hurry to deny responsibility for an incident that had killed so many innocent civilians, Igor Bezler released a statement in which he admitted that it was indeed his voice on the recording with Geranin. But that conversation, Bezler insisted, happened before July 17, when a different plane was shot down. Bezler accused the SBU of editing the recording to make it sound like he was referring to MH17.

So Bezler confirms the authenticity of the conversation but denies its context. Yet in his confirmation is an important revelation: In his phone call with Geranin he describes a plane traveling over Enakievo, a town MH17 passed over before it was struck above Snezhnoye. This plane is described as flying at a high altitude (as was the one discussed between Bezler and Naymanets in the other intercepted conversation).

And yet according to the ARES analysis of all downed Ukrainian military aircraft until November 2014, no plane or helicopter was hit anywhere near Enakievo before July 17. (A MiG-29 fighter jet was downed close to the town on August 7.) Bezler cannot have been right in claiming that his conversation with Geranin occurred before MH17 was blown up

As you can see from this map, no aircraft were shot down in the area of MH17 before July 17:

Another important point in the report — the Russian narrative has
constantly changed. At one moment the KRemlin is saying that a Ukrainian
Su-25 fighter plane shot down MH17, and at another moment they claim it
was a Buk, but a Ukrainian Buk. Both theories are debunked in the
report, but the point is that these two mutually-exclusive stories keep
being spread by the Russian government and the Russian state-run media:

In a separate article for Reuters, I gave my reflection on the results of the report:

I have been compiling and analyzing information gathered over the last 12 months by field reporters and bloggers, statements from the Russian and Ukrainian governments, and the investigations launched by various government and non-government agencies, including the official inquiries of the Dutch Safety Board. The goal is to find and address similarities and discrepancies, and to use new information to verify or debunk parts of the narrative put forth by either the Ukrainian or Russian governments.

One theme struck me — just how well eyewitness testimony, the investigations of many journalists, videos and pictures uploaded by citizens of Ukraine, and even the intelligence assessments of the Ukrainian and Western governments all dovetail together with, ironically, the initial statements of the Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine to form a more complete and largely-harmonious picture of what happened that day.

Russia-Ukraine conflict: Proof of MH17 tragedy's real culprits grows

One year ago, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot out of the sky over the war zone in eastern Ukraine, and one year later we are closer than ever to proving who is ultimately responsible for this tragic act.

View full page >

Jul 18, 2015 00:57 (GMT)

Today I was a guest on RFE/RL’s “Power Vertical” podcast, discussing the implications of MH17 for Russia’s relationship with Europe. That recording can be heard here:

Podcast: When Putin's Ukraine War Went Global

One year after the downing of Flight MH17 killed 298 people from 10 countries on four continents, the evidence continues to mount that pro-Moscow seperatists in Ukraine — and perhaps Russia itself — were responsible. And as the evidence piles up, pressure is building for an international tribunal to prosecute the guilty parties — pressure Russia is strenuously trying to resist.

View full page >

Jul 18, 2015 01:00 (GMT)

James Miller
Pravyi Sektor To Hold ‘Emergency Conference’ In Kiev Next Week reports that Dmytro Yarosh, leader of Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector), has announced that the ultra-nationalist party and paramilitary group will hold an “emergency conference” in Kiev next week.

Yarosh said that decisions would be made there “on our future activities.”

In addition, Pravyi Sektor would, he said, hold a public meeting on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Maidan Square, but he did not specify when.

Yarosh accused the Ukrainian government of conducting an information war against his party, following a shoot-out in the western Zakarpattia region last weekend.

The Interpreter translates:

“They are trying to use this incident to destroy our structures – our military, logistical and political organizations. There is a constant barrage of defamation. We, as far as we can, are biting back, we’re putting out some information.”

— Pierre Vaux

Ukraine Claims Russian-Backed Forces Have Shelled A JCCC Observation Post Near Luganskoye

The Ukrainian military’s ATO Press Centre claims this evening that Russian-backed forces have shelled an observation post run by the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination (JCCC), a ceasefire-monitoring body formed of military delegations from Russia and Ukraine.

According to the report, 40 120 mm mortar shells have the observation post, located near Luganskoye, south-east of Artyomovsk, over the last 24 hours.

The Ukrainian military claims that this is the third time that Russian-backed forces have shelled a JCCC post.

— Pierre Vaux

Border Agency Says Lanio Turned Back Of His Own Accord, MP Says He Will Remain In Ukraine

Ukrinform reports that Vasiliy Servatyuk, deputy chairman of the State Border Agency of Ukraine, has told the news agency that, contrary to earlier reports, border guards did not prevent MP Mikhail Lanio from leaving Ukraine today.

According to Servatyuk, Lanio had indeed arrived at the crossing into Hungary, near Chop, Zakarpattia, but, while border guards were checking documents, the MP changed his mind and returned back of his own accord.

Interfax-Ukraine reports that the Volya Naroda parliamentary group, of which Lanio is a member, has put out an official statement, saying that Lanio has no intention now of leaving Ukraine.

According to the statement, Lanio will cooperate fully with the investigation into the events in Mukachevo and has given evidence to the prosecutor’s office as a witness.

— Pierre Vaux

Mukachevo MP Lanio Prevented From Leaving Ukraine By Border Guards

Ukrainska Pravda reports that Ukrainian border guards have prevented MP Mikhail Lanio, one of the figures at the centre of the recent unrest in Mukachevo, Zakarpattia, from leaving the country.

Lanio himself told Ukrainska Pravda that border guards at the Chop border crossing had refused to let him leave, claiming that their computer system was not working. 

He is now headed to the prosecutor’s office to raise the issue.

Lanio told the news site that he was taking his family to Italy by sea.

Journalist Vitaliy Glagola reported on his Facebook page that Lanio had been attempting to pass through the crossing to Hungary in a black Mercedes S-Class, accompanied by his bodyguards in a Land Rover.

On July 11, members of Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector) were due to meet with Lanio and his associates in connection to a dispute over cigarette smuggling. A stand-off developed, during which Pravyi Sektor members shot one of Lanio’s security guards and engaged police with automatic weapons.

Lanio was accused by Pravyi Sektor of running smuggling operations in the border region, but it is widely suspected that the members of the ultra-nationalist paramilitary organisation were engaged in a turf war rather than vigilantism.

On July 15, it was announced that Hennadyi Moskal, then governor of the war-torn Lugansk region, was being transferred to take over Zakarpattia, in order to restore order in the restive region, where many of the Pravyi Sektor fighters are still evading arrest and a clear-out of the local authorities has been instigated to eradicate corruption.

— Pierre Vaux
How We Know Russia Shot Down MH17

The Interpreter‘s James Miller and Michael Weiss report today at The Daily Beast on the overwhelming body of evidence demonstrating that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down one year ago today by a Russian surface-to-air missile launched from separatist-held territory.

Savchenko Being Transferred From Moscow To Rostov Region

Ilya Novikov, a lawyer for illegally detained Ukrainian military officer and MP Nadezhda Savchenko, has told Interfax that his client is being transferred from her pre-trial detention centre in Moscow to the Rostov region, bordering Ukraine.

The Interpreter translates:

“I was at the pre-trial detention centre today, they wouldn’t let me see Nadezhda, they said that she was being transferred to Rostov.” 

According to him, it is not yet known where exactly she will be placed. “We need to find this out,” said the lawyer.

The Russian Investigative Committee (Sledkom) has transferred the murder case brought against Savchenko from Moscow to a court in the town of Donetsk, near the Ukrainian border in the Rostov region.

Yesterday, another of Savchenko’s lawyers, Mark Feygin, published a letter written by Savchenko, addressed to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the President of the Parliamentary Association of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the head of the European Parliament.

In the letter, Savchenko appeals for help in having her case returned to a Moscow court.

She writes that, as one of the main crossing points for fighters into Ukraine, Donetsk is an unsafe location for her family to travel to, noting that her lawyers have received threats from supporters of the separatist ‘republics.’ Savchenko’s sister, Vera, is one of her main defence witnesses.

Savchenko also noted that the FSB may simply refuse access to the sensitive “border zone” to Ukrainian and foreign MPs.

The location, she wrote, has been chosen in order to hinder her defence team and prevent media coverage of the trial.

— Pierre Vaux

Separatists Preside Over Memorial Ceremony At MH17 Crash Site

A memorial ceremony is being held today in separatist-held Grabovo, scene of the main crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

Ukraine Reports More Than 40 Attacks Last Night

The Ukrainian military reports that Russian-backed forces have conducted around 60 attacks over the last 24 hours, more than 40 of which took place between 18:00 and midnight.

According to the ATO Press Centre, settlements were targeted, including Avdeyevka, which was fired on with 152 mm artillery and tanks, and Opytnoye, which was shelled with 120 mm mortars.

Ukrainian military positions were attacked last night near Orekhovo, Opytnoye, Novotoshkovskoye and Avdeyevka.  

On two occasions, the Press Centre claims, Ukrainian troops repelled attempted breakthroughs by Russian-backed fighters, near Stariy Aidar and Avdeyevka.

Today, as of 6 am, the military reported attacks near Peski, Schastye, Stanitsa Luganskaya, Khimik and Shirokino. 

At his daily briefing today, Colonel Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Presidential Administration on the military operation in the south-east, reported that two Ukrainian servicemen had been wounded:

Yaroslav Chepurnoy, press officer for the Ukrainian military headquarters in Mariupol, told that, at around 4 am today, Russian-backed fighters had fired on Ukrainian positions in Shirokino for 15 minutes.

Yesterday, there were two small arms attacks in Shirokino and one on Talakovka, just north-east of Mariupol.

Chepurnoy reported no casualties. 

Donetsk news site reports that a woman was wounded yesterday in the separatist held city.

The civilian received shrapnel wounds after a shells fell outside her home on Partizansky Prospekt, south-east of Donetsk Airport.

The local news site also cites reports from residents on social media that Ukrainian-held Avdeyevka was shelled last night from the Putilovsky forest park, just over two kilometres north-east of Partizansky Prospekt.

Translation: #Avdeyevka, 78 Svoboda street, aftermath of shelling on 16/07/15.

— Pierre Vaux