Ukraine liveblog Day 161: Ukraine Military Advances – So Does Russian Armor

July 28, 2014
Russian-backed rebels guide OSCE investigators through the MH17 crash site | Vadim Ghirda/AP

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

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View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map
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?

Below we will be making regular updates so check back often.

Pentagon: 100 Russian Vehicles Crossed The Border Into Ukraine

Not only is the Pentagon warning that Russia has at least 12,000 combat troops on the border with Ukraine, they also say that a convoy of more than 100 Russian armored vehicles has already crossed the border — and that’s not the only vehicles that have crossed the border, it’s just the biggest:

“I can tell you that last week we saw a column of over 100 Russian vehicles moving into Ukraine,” Warren said. “That’s the largest one we’ve seen. It is a substantial enough number that is a great concern to us.”

Heavy and sophisticated equipment requires trained personnel, he said. “What we’ve seen that most concerns us is in southern Russia, Ukrainian separatists participating in training activities … around Rostov,” he added. “This indicates that Russia is, in fact, training these separatists on how to fight, how to operate equipment [and] how to conduct operations in Ukraine.”

This corresponds to  what we’ve been reporting for several weeks, that since shortly before MH17 was shot down the amount of direct military aid — and fire support — which the separatists have received from the Russian military has increased exponentially and continues to increase.

And there are more reports of artillery and rocket attacks into Ukraine from Russian soil as these words are being written:

Fighting Intense Near Donetsk

Kyiv Post reports that fourteen people, five of them children, have died in Gorlovka (Horlivka) according to the Donetsk regional state administration:

“According to the Donetsk regional state administration’s health department, 14 people were killed in Horlivka on Sunday, among them five children. No information is available about casualties in Avdiyivka and Debaltseve,” the posting says.

The Ukrainian military has retaken Gorlovka, but fighting further to the south could intensify, especially since there are more reports of columns of separatist armor, reportedly reinforcements coming from across the Russian border, arriving in the city of Donetsk. The website Inforesist has posted this picture of the new armor arriving in Ukraine’s fifth largest city:


New Sanctions Coming For Russia, But Will They Hit The ‘Big Fish’?

The Wall Street Journal reports that the EU will sanction five individuals and two entities, but will avoid slapping new sanctions on the “big fish”:

The move comes as the EU is putting the finishing touches on sectorwide economic sanctions that would target Russia’s financial system and restrict exports of arms, militarily sensitive goods and equipment used in unconventional oil destined for Russia, diplomats said. The financial sanctions would sharply restrict the ability of Russia’s largest banks, including Sberbank  (SBER.MZ -3.11%) and VTB Group, to raise financing in the EU, the diplomats said.

Meanwhile, RFE/RL reports that the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy have agreed to pass more sanctions against Russia:

The leaders of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy agreed by telephone on July 28 they would impose new sanctions on Russia for its role in the crisis in Ukraine.

The French president’s office released a statement about the call that said the five leaders “confirmed…their intention to adopt new measures against Russia.”

There were no details about the sanctions the five discussed.

The statement added the leader said they would watch carefully to see if Russia was giving direct military support to the separatists.

Rebel Leaders In Disarray As Ukraine’s Military Advances


Novorus has pulled the article translated below. We have no confirmation that Girkin/Strelkov was arrested. He gave a press conference at 15:00GMT and was seen by Western journalists. Since then his whereabouts are not known.

Ukraine’s separatist leadership is in disarray. As we’ve reported today, the self-appointed Prime Minister of the self-declared ‘Donetsk People’s Republic,’ Alexander Borodai, has reportedly left the country to go to Moscow. Separatist commander Igor Bezler has not been heard from (to our knowledge) since he fled the Ukrainian military assault in Gorlovka, we’re not sure where too. Aleksandr Khodakovsky, head of the Vostok Battalion, the Kremlin’s military right hand on the ground in Ukraine, has either lost Saur-Magila or is on the verge of losing it (depending on who you ask), and since the area is his primary claim to glory, it’s unclear if he has fled or if he has gone down with the ship.

Earlier today there were reports that separatist commander Igor Strelkov was captured by the Ukrainian government. The pro-separatist website Novorus reports (translated by The Interpreter):

News has been received from Shakhtyorsk today that DPR Defense Minister Igor Strelkov along with several other officers have been taken captive by the Ukrainian punitive units. We will recall that earlier Igor Ivanovich had come to Shakhtyorsk in order to personally lead the action of one of the chief assault divisions of the DPR, the Kalmius Spetsnaz Battalion.

According to preliminary information from our informed sources, Strelkov was immediately evacuated in the junta’s ‘medical’ helicopter deep into Ukrainian territory, as his kidnappers plan to exchange him for the Ukrainian terrorist pilot Nadezhda Savchenko.

“The use of a helicopter with the identifying marks of the Red Cross for transferring Strelkov once again illustrates the base nature of the Ukrainian junta, since the transport of prisoners of war by such means violates the Geneva Convention. Indeed, this possibly indirectly confirms that Strelkov was wounded during the heroic resistance against the Ukrainian henchmen,” said our other source.

Since, however, Strelkov has given a press conference:

And as Russian armored vehicles have been spotted moving into Ukraine with increased frequency just yesterday, Seddon asks a pertinent question:
The bottom line is that the separatist leadership was fragmented before, but now it may be in complete disarray. And the Ukrainian military is clearly pressing their advantage with an urgency that was not present at all just a few weeks ago.
Russia’s Next Crisis: A Brain Drain?
Today The Interpreter’s Andrew Bowen published in The National Interest on why the Ukraine crisis is just one of the problems that Russia is now facing.

Increasingly there have been examples of Russia’s best and brightest emigrating, from the respected economist Sergei Guriev to Russian facebook founder Pavel Durov. Emigration figures have jumped to 186,382 in 2013 from 33,578 in 2010. Yet, the numbers belie the more troubling trend as those figures are not just political refugees and cannot simply replaced by more immigrants from Central Asia, those figures include the entrepreneurs and bright minds of Russia. Minds that an increasingly isolated Russia can ill afford to lose.

“That is why today’s émigrés are all the more important-they have higher educations and are the engines of innovation and growth that Russia can ill afford to lose as it is increasingly isolated from the rest of the World.

And without people like these, Putin’s Stalin-like “four-year production plan” to boost labor productivity and ignite a “technological revolution” that will serve to energize the economy are more than likely to fall short. This-combined with his calls for further support of the arms industry to produce more “high-end jobs”-is not encouraging for the diversification of the Russian economy.”
You can read the full article here.

Russian Economy Takes a Major Hit

Russia’s economy is taking on water in the face of renewed tensions with the international community, new sanctions, and new fears that the crisis in Ukraine is about to explode. Bloomberg reports:

The Micex Index fell to an 11-week low, declining 1.5 percent to 1,368.21 by 1:50 p.m. in Moscow and giving a loss since Feb. 28, a day before President Vladimir Putin ’s intervention, of 5.3 percent. The yield on local-currency bonds due February 2027 rose six basis points to 9.30 percent, extending the increase in the period to 94 basis points. The ruble, which has advanced 1.5 percent since February, lost 0.7 percent to 35.365 per dollar.

As you can see, the MICEX had replaced its losses by the start of this month, but is now headed back to the bottom. The chart tells the story:


But there’s even worse news for the Russian government. The Hague has awarded the stock holders for the now-defunct Yukos oil company $50 billion. Yukos’s shares were nationalized by the Russian government in the aftermath of fraud charges leveled against Mikhail Khodorkovsky. New York Times reports:

In a roughly 600-page ruling, the tribunal concluded that the Russian Federation’s auctioning off of the oil company at the heart of Yukos “was not driven by motives of tax collection,” as the government had asserted, but “by the desire of the state to acquire Yukos’ most valuable asset.”

“In short,” the tribunal said, “it was in effect a devious and calculated expropriation.”

Yukos was put together by Mr. Khodorkovsky during Russia’s controversial privatization auctions, and the attack on Yukos was seen by some as the Kremlin’s effort to correct irregularities in that process. Many, however, saw Yukos’s troubles and Mr. Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment as an effort by the Kremlin to punish Mr. Khodorkovsky’s political ambitions.

Mr. Khodorkovsky has always contended that the charges of embezzlement and tax fraud brought against him were baseless and politically motivated. He was pardoned by President Vladimir V. Putin last year, after having spent about 10 years in jail.

The scale of the potential impact of this ruling is just becoming clear:

Russia’s economy was predicted to be almost flat this year. That was before the crisis in Ukraine. While Russia’s stock markets and the ruble had rebounded in recent months, they are once again on the decline. The questions now are how deeply new sanctions will cut and whether Russian investors will again place their trust in the Russian markets as time progresses.

Full disclosure – The Interpreter is a special project of Institute of Modern Russia, a non-profit who’s president is Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head Yukos.

UN Says Russian-Backed Separatists Conducting ‘Reign of Fear and Terror’

The newest report from the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights does not pull any punches. It says, “a total breakdown of law and order and a reign of fear and terror have been inflicted by armed groups on the population of eastern Ukraine.”

The report documents how these armed groups continue to abduct, detain, torture and execute people kept as hostages in order to intimidate and “to exercise their power over the population in raw and brutal ways.” Well organized and well equipped militarily, these armed groups have intensified their challenge to the Government of Ukraine, the report says. In response, there has been an acceleration of Government security operations during July in the areas still under the control of the armed groups, with heavy fighting located in and around population centres, resulting in loss of life, property and infrastructure and causing thousands to flee.

“The reports of increasingly intense fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are extremely alarming, with both sides employing heavy weaponry in built-up areas, including artillery, tanks, rockets and missiles,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.

“Both sides must take great care to prevent more civilians from being killed or injured,” she added. “Already increasing numbers of people are being killed with serious damage to civilian infrastructure, which – depending on circumstances – could amount to violations of international humanitarian law. The fighting must stop.”

The report, which covers the period immediately before the crash of MH17 (July 8th through July 15th). The report also notes that as time has gone on, the situation in eastern Ukraine has become dire, but the situation elsewhere has also deteriorated. Hate speech is on the rise across the country as the civilian casualties mount in eastern Ukraine. But the report also very strongly states that the source of these problems stem from the chaos in the east where militias have killed dissenters and detained journalists:

The report points out how impunity in the areas under the control of the armed groups in the east has led to the collapse of the rule of law. It lists examples of some of the 812 people who have been abducted or detained by these armed groups in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions since mid-April. “Some of those detained by the armed groups are local politicians, public officials and employees of the local coal mining industry; the majority are ordinary citizens, including teachers, journalists, members of the clergy and students.” The Monitoring Mission has received numerous reports of acts of ill-treatment or torture of these detainees, as well as killings by the armed groups which frequently seek ransom or, more recently, use the detainees to dig trenches or send them to fight on the front lines. Some abductions appear to be totally random. In addition, the Office of the High Commissioner reports cases of people being detained by the Ukrainian armed forces and some cases of Ukrainian nationals who allegedly have been taken and are currently detained in the Russian Federation on various charges.

New allegations of executions have arisen, some of which have been verified by the Monitoring Mission. Following the retreat of the armed groups from Slovyansk on 5 July, a journalist uncovered documents indicating that armed groups had been holding ‘military tribunals’ and sentencing people to death. ‘Execution orders’ were found signed by the ‘Commander-in-Chief’ of the armed groups.

Since the end of the ceasefire on 30 June, the Government has regained control of large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that were previously under the control of armed groups. But this has come at great cost, with increasing numbers of people being killed and injured and serious damage to property and infrastructure. In addition, new concerns arise as the Government restores law, order and security in those territories. The report urges the Government to ensure the full application of international human rights norms and apply adequate human rights guarantees, including avoiding reprisals, when identifying those suspected of violating the law while such areas were under control of the armed groups.

Rebel Leader Reportedly Leaves Ukraine For Moscow
With the Ukrainian military rapidly recapturing rebel territory, the self-appointed Prime Minister of the self-declared ‘Donetsk People’s Republic,’ Alexander Borodai, has reportedly left the country to go to Moscow.
Ukrainian Military Advances But So Does Russian Armor

Yesterday’s liveblog had a few key revelations. The first is that the United States released satellite images that prove that Russia is launching GRAD rockets into Ukraine. While the rockets are coming from multiple sites, one of the locations matches perfectly with a story The Interpreter broke the day before MH17 was shot down. Russia is shelling Ukraine, the Russian people documented the phenomenon first, and now there is satellite data to prove it.

Yesterday also saw a massive influx of new weapons, including armored vehicles and an advanced Strela-10 surface-to-air missile system, flooding across the border and moving towards the front lines.These weapons are being controlled by the militia and appear to have come from Russian military stockpiles.

But the reason why Russia is so eager to support the militia so boldly is because the Russian-backed gunmen have suffered another series of significant military losses. Yesterday the Ukrainian military recaptured or were close to recapturing Debaltsevo, Shakhtersk, Torez and Gorlovka. Today they are even closer to retaking the MH17 crash site. The New York Times reports:

By Sunday evening, the Ukrainian advance had blocked a road leading from the provincial capital, Donetsk, to the airplane debris northeast of Shakhtyorsk, but it remained unclear whether government troops were in control of all or part of the approximately 14 square miles of debris fields.

Videos posted online  appeared to show Ukrainian armored vehicles near the site, and reporters who visited earlier Sunday said insurgents were nowhere to be seen.

The combat spread out along the road in a fluid and chaotic scene, leaving it wholly unclear who controlled what. Fragments of rockets lay on the sunbaked macadam, and columns of black smoke rose along the horizon.

One separatist commander at a checkpoint outside Shakhtyorsk, about 10 miles from the crash site, said the Ukrainians had retaken the area, and a rebel leader, Alexander Borodai, confirmed that government troops were advancing.

While the fighting near the crash site has disrupted what limited international investigation is ongoing there, the securing of the crash site could rapidly change the amount of information that can be determined about how MH17 crashed since the Ukrainian government says it is eager to allow a full-scale investigation at the crash site.