Ukraine Live Day 668: Savchenko To Go On Hunger Strike As Court Extends Detention Until April

December 17, 2015
Photo via @mark_feygin

Yesterday’s live coverage of the Ukraine conflict can be found here.

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2 Ukrainian Soldiers Wounded Yesterday With Reports Of Attacks North Of Donetsk Today

Colonel Andriy Lysenko, military spokesman for the Presidential Administration, has told reporters that two Ukrainian soldiers were wounded during attacks yesterday:

This morning, the ATO Press Centre reported around 20 attacks by Russian-backed fighters overnight.

Notably, Lysenko and the Press Centre report no use of heavy weaponry, which follows a trend of somewhat reduced violence compared to last week, which saw repeated use of Grad rockets and heavy artillery.

According to the Ukrainian military, Russian-backed fighters continued to mount attacks in the Donetsk and Gorlovka areas.

To the north of Donetsk, there were small-arms and sniper attacks on Ukrainian positions in Peski, Avdeyevka and Opytnoye.

Outside Gorlovka, Russian-backed fighters reportedly fired towards the villages of Leninskoye and Zaytsevo with grenade launchers and heavy machine guns, which were also used to attack Luganskoye, on the highway between Artyomovsk and Debaltsevo. 

This afternoon, the ATO Press Centre reported grenade launchers had been used to bombard a residential area of Avdeyevka at around 11:00.

The Ukrainian military claims that there are no troops in the area targeted. 

This unconfirmed report may be connected: 

Translation: At 10:10 (d) something very heavy (possibly Grad P) was launched from Oktyabr, flew far away…

The “(d)” after the time may indicate ‘Donetsk time’ – the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) uses Moscow time (GMT + 3) instead of Kiev time (GMT + 2), so the time quoted may match that given by the ATO Press Centre.

Oktyabr may refer either to Oktyabr street, southeast of the city centre, or perhaps more likely, the Oktyabrsky neighbourhood in the north of the city. A Grad P is a single-tube, man-portable version of the Grad rocket launcher.

Eduard Basurin, a military spokesman for the DNR, claimed this afternoon that “Ukrainian nationalist groups” had shelled the northern suburb of Spartak today at around 16:00 with 120 mm mortars.

Earlier today, the DNR claimed that Ukrainian troops had violated the ceasefire eight times over the previous 24 hours, shelling the outskirts of Gorlovka and Donetsk with mortars as well as using infantry fighting vehicles in attacks.

— Pierre Vaux

Putin Says Russians Engaged In Military Sphere In Ukraine But Avoids Admitting Invasion

Much has been made in the last hour of President Vladimir Putin’s comments today regarding the involvement of Russian citizens in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

During his marathon question and answer session, which is still under way, Putin was asked about two Russian Spetsnaz fighters captured in Ukraine earlier this year – Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev.

Putin replied (translation by The Interpreter):

“We have never said that there aren’t people there [in Ukraine] who are involved in solving specific issues, including in the military sphere. But this doesn’t mean that Russian regular troops are present there, feel the difference.”

Some commentators have interpreted this as an admission of Russian military involvement in much the same way as was seen after the occupation of Crimea, when Putin admitted that unmarked soldiers deployed on the peninsula were in fact Russian following months of denial.

However Putin’s language is carefully obscure here. While the balancing of the statement between those people he admits were in Ukraine and the “regular Russian troops” would indicate he refers to Russian special forces, military intelligence units or advisers, the use of “involved in” or literally “engaging themselves in” leaves us without any overt connection between these Russian individuals and the state.

The Kremlin has previously claimed that Russian citizens, including soldiers, who are fighting in Ukraine are there of their own accord, as volunteers, on holiday from their service commitments. Some Russian fighters in Ukraine have told reporters that they were ordered to sign letters of resignation before crossing the border so as to maintain this deniability. Others, however, have said that they were asked to sign no such documents.

Furthermore, Putin was responding to a question about the Aleksandrov and Yerofeyev case. While the Russian Ministry of Defence has denied that the men were in active service, one line put forward by Yerofeyev in the early days after his capture, was that he was in Ukraine not to fight, but to gather intelligence.

Perhaps Putin’s remarks could instead be seen as a move towards a “soft admission” that the men were indeed acting on orders, while avoiding taking responsibility for the conflict.  

The reality of course, as is well documented, is that large numbers of regular troops, not just special forces, have indeed been deployed in Ukraine, most notably during surges of force in the summer of 2014 and ahead of the battle for Debaltsevo at the beginning of this year.

The Interpreter published an extensive report into the activities of Russian military forces during these key stages of the war earlier this year:

— Pierre Vaux
Savchenko To Go On Hunger Strike As Court Extends Detention Until April

Nadezhda Savchenko, a Ukrainian military officer who was captured by separatist-fighters last summer and illegally transported to Russia, where she is on trial for allegedly targeting Russian journalists in a mortar attack, intends to renew her hunger strike from tomorrow.

The court in the Russian border town of Donetsk, in the Rostov region, today extended Savchenko’s detention, at the prosecutor’s request, until April 16, 2016.

Mark Feygin, one of Savchenko’s defence lawyers, tweeted:

Translation: Right now they’re extending Savchenko’s detention by three months until April 16, 2016…

Translation: Nadezhda Savchenko has declared a hunger strike as of tomorrow

Nikolai Polozov, another lawyer on the defence team, explained that Savchenko intends to go without water if not released after sentencing.

Translation: Nadezhda Savchenko has declared a hunger strike until the end of the trial. After sentencing, she will go on a dry hunger strike. Her demand is release.

Savchenko has gone on hunger strike several times since she was abducted and placed in a Russian jail. The longest strike lasted for 83 days. 

The case against Savchenko amounts to little more than a show trial, with regular obstruction of the defence team and several key components of the prosecution case undermined by phone records and video evidence. Furthermore, the Russian Investigative Committee claims that Savchenko was arrested on Russian territory having illegally crossed the border.

How she was able to escape after being captured by separatist fighters (a video of her interrogation in Ukraine, handcuffed to pipes, was uploaded shortly afterwards) and why she would then choose to travel into Russia, is left to the imagination.

To add to this, she has since been elected as an MP on the Batkivshchyna party list. Therefore she has diplomatic immunity as a member of the Parliamentary Association of the Council of Europe. The Russian authorities have repeatedly ignored challenges on this matter from the defence team and Ukrainian and European officials.

— Pierre Vaux