Ukraine Liveblog Day 168: Ukrainian Troops Forced To Retreat Into Russian Territory

August 4, 2014
Ukrainian servicemen, who are members of an artillery section, take cover after firing a cannon during a military operation against pro-Russian separatists near Pervomaisk, Luhansk region August 2, 2014. REUTERS/Maks Levin

Yesterday’s liveblog 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?

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

Sanctions On Russian Grounding Oligarchs and Airlines

CNN reports that Russian oligarch Gennady Timchenko cannot fly his Gulfstream luxury private airplane because he can’t get spare parts or even use the built-in maps to navigate the plane. The reason? New sanctions which specifically target some of Putin’s closest cronies.

But Timchenko’s not the only on grounded. CNN reports:

European sanctions have grounded Russia’s fledgling low-cost airline Dobrolet just two months after it launched. And a Russian tour operator, Labyrinth, collapsed over the weekend, blaming the financial strain of the crisis.

Dobrolet had been flying four times a day since June from Moscow to Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March.

Flights were suspended at midnight Sunday after European companies stopped providing leasing, repair and maintenance services and insurance to the airline, owned by Russian flag carrier Aeroflot.

Other sectors are also taking a hit, including the energy sector.While Russia’s stocks inched upwards today, energy stocks are down again over sanctions, fear of more sanctions, and over a proposed change in energy taxes which fuel a large percentage of the Kremlin’s coffers. RFE/RL reports that even an energy company which has not been hit with sanctions, LUKoil, Russia’s second-largest oil producer, has seen stocks slide:

LUKoil said in a statement it was selling its gas stations in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia as part of an “optimization” plan.

The decision came just days after Lukoil’s chief executive, Vagit Alekperov, said the company will likely be forced to trim its investment program as a result of Western sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis.

The European Union and the U.S. have so far refrained from imposing sanctions on LUKoil, but their latest rounds of sanctions shut Russia’s state-owned banks out of Western capital markets, in turn limiting Russian companies’ access to financing both at home and abroad.

Russian oligarchs are taking notice of the increasingly-targeted sanctions and appear to be selling off certain assets, including stocks:

As we’ve been reporting for months, Putin’s popularity shot way up as a direct result of his actions in Ukraine and Crimea. But as we’ve also reported, his status among his own elites may be slipping. The Fiscal Times reports:

“According to German intelligence it is quite possible that some of the oligarchs who are worried by European Union sanctions will soon start putting economic interests above political concerns and try to put the brakes on Putin,” Der Spiegel reported.

The German report came out before the new round of sanctions were announced. Many in Russia were assuming that Germany and the rest of Europe would not impose new penalties because of the close ties between the two. Yesterday, this assumption turned out to be false.

“The ruble is losing value, Russia’s budget deficit is growing and its economic development is bad. Even the Russian president sees this,” Germany Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaüble told Der Spiegel. “Nobody is Moscow should start thinking that Russia can win with its approach.”

As long as Putin believes that his popular support could be jeopardized by weakening his stance on Ukraine, he may continue to escalate his actions there which will continue to have more negative consequences for Russia’s oligarchs and certain sectors of the Russian economy — though survival, not economics, appears to be Putin’s prime motivator.

Russian ‘PeaceKeepers’ Moving Toward – And Across – Ukraine’s Borders
At a press conference the speaker of National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Andriy Lysenko, said that Russian troops disguised as “peacekeepers” were building up across the region, and some had already crossed the border.

An interesting claim was made at the press conference:

Some 34 Russian military armored carriers painted with the peacekeeping insignia are concentrating next to the Belaya Berezka village (Bryansk region), he says.

On Saturday, a military cargo train with 65 mobile sub-artillery units pulled in at the ‘Pivnichnyi’ railway station in Gomel city, Belarus, Lysenko notes.

The motley crew is trying to frame up Ukrainian forces by firing at the Russian territory with assault rifles, artillery and Grads, the speaker adds. This results in the return fire from the Russian side targeting the positions of the Ukrainian troops.

The Wall Street Journal adds that Lysenko also says that while Donetsk is nearly cut off, the city is not completely isolated — meaning that supplies and fighters from outside the city may still be able to reach the city which is controlled by insurgents.

Ukrainian Army Not Assaulting Donetsk, But Is Preparing To

The spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council (SNBO), Andrei Lysenko, has given another briefing today, reports Ukrainska Pravda.

Despite claiming earlier that Ukrainian forces had “begun liberating Donetsk,” the SNBO now says that an assault on the city is not currently under way.

“At this time, there is are no official reports on an assault. Preparatory activities are under way.”

Earlier, the Facebook page for the Ukrainian Azov volunteer battalion carried a photo with the caption “We have entered Donetsk.”


The photo was later geolocated by Facebook user Anton Komaroff as being taken in the suburb of Marinka:


This would reflect the most recent SNBO statement that Ukrainian forces are not storming the city yet. Marinka lies to the immediate west of the city, in an area where Ukrainian forces have been steadily retaking villages and small towns.

If, as Ukraine claims, the town of Yasinovataya, to the north-east of Donetsk, has been retaken, then it would appear that Ukraine is tightening the noose on the separatist-held city. Fighters from the Vostok battalion are still believed to be based in the eastern suburb of Makeyevka, to the east of which lies Debaltsevo, which Ukraine recently retook amidst heavy fighting. 

Germany Blocks Rheinmetall Exports To Russia

Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) reports that the German minister for economics, Sigmar Gabriel, has blocked the export of military training equipment by Rheinmetall to Russia, following EU sanctions.

The exports, for which permission has been withdrawn, were part of a plan to develop a €128 million combat training centre for the Russian army.

Berlin said Rheinmetall would be entitled to claim compensation for stopping the contract, which was approved by the last German government.

“We are in talks with the company and will remain that way,” a ministry spokeswoman said.

Moscow responded to the German decision by threatening to launch court action for damages, according to a report published by the Interfax news agency in Moscow.

Gabriel had already temporarily halted the deal in March following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

His decision to revoke the contract was backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, officials said.

Russia Holding War Games Near Ukraine

Russia is holding military drills near Ukraine’s border today. Reuters reports:

The Russian air force said more than 100 aircraft, including fighter jets and bombers, were taking part in the manoeuvres this week in the central and western military districts…

The manoeuvres include missile-firing practice and will assist “coordination between aviation and anti-missile defence”, Interfax news agency quoted an airforce spokesman as saying.

He said Russia’s latest bomber, the Su-24, was taking part, as well as Su-27 and MiG-31 fighter jets.

Meanwhile, Russia was supposed to hold an event called the “Tank Biathlon World Championship” today with representatives from across the world, though no Western nations participated:

After a year of diplomatic conflicts with the US and Europe over whistleblower Edward Snowden, the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, no western countries showed up for the party. Shoigu nonetheless called the event a “new page in international military cooperation”. The 12 countries participating were Angola, Armenia, Belarus, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Russia, Serbia and Venezuela.

Andriy Parubiy Reportedly To Resign

Andriy Parubiy, the secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council (SNBO) has reportedly written a statement of resignation, Ukraine’s The Insider reports.

They report (translated by The Interpreter):

“His statement was already written on July 25. His stated reasons were differences between the positions of the president and the secretary of the SNBO, in particular, with regards to information policies,” said a source.

According to them, the president has not yet signed the statement as a successor has not yet been decided upon.

One of the candidates being referred to is the current head of the SBU, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, but he is not agreeing to leave his post.

“And an appointment without approval may provoke a conflict with Klitschko,” said the source.

Another candidate is Yuriy Stets [head of the Information Security Directorate of the Ukrainian National Guard].

There has been no confirmation of this report from the Ukrainian government so far.

FSB: Over 180 Ukrainian Servicemen Returning Home

ITAR-TASS reports that Vassily Malayev, the spokesman for the Rostov region branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) border department, has announced that more than 180 of the Ukrainian servicemen who crossed into Russia overnight are returning to Ukraine:

“The FSB border department for the Rostov region has organized the transfer of Ukrainian military who decided to return home,” its spokesman Vassily Malayev said. The servicemen are heading home on buses and armored vehicles.

The rest of the group are still staying in Russia.

Russia’s LifeNews channel, which has long been suspected of close ties to the security services, broadcast comments from one of the men.

As ITAR-TASS puts it:

The servicemen who laid down arms were surprised that they were treated well as information of Kiev media was in sharp contrast to the reality they saw. “We could have a bath, received new clothes. We are very grateful,” one of them told Russian Lifenews television.

According to Ukrainian military, before they crossed the border they had been told that Russia was an “aggressor country” engaged in combat operations against them. Now, they have made sure it was not true, they added.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, promoted this interpretation of events in an interview with ITAR-TASS today.  

Lavrov said that the event demonstrated that Ukraine’s government was ordering its soldiers to fight their own people, and these orders were impossible to carry out:

“We have repeatedly helped Ukrainian law enforcers asking for help, asking us to receive their wounded friends,” said Russia’s top diplomat.

“We have helped, offering medical assistance and given the possibility of return to all those who wanted it without impeding them, without keeping anyone forcibly,” the foreign minister said.

“To tell the truth, those who had wished to return to Ukraine were then accused of deserting and were court-martialed,” he added.

Lavrov said he expected the Ukrainian authorities “will show humanity in the long run and will realise the absolute inadmissibility of the situation when Ukrainians are waging war against each other, when they are made to fight against their own people while those who refuse are seen as traitors to their own country.”

Ukraine meanwhile says that the soldiers and border guards were forced to withdraw across the border as a last resort after running out of ammunition in a fight with separatist militants.

Andrei Lysenko of the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council firmly refuted Russian claims that the servicemen had asked for asylum.

Over 400 Ukrainian Soldiers Now In Russia After Fleeing Gunfight
The first images of the Ukrainian soldiers who fled into Russia (see previous updates below) have been released by Russian state-operated news outlet RIA Novosti:
RFE/RL picks up an interesting tweet:
Investigators Resume Work At MH17 Site Today
The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine has reported that over 100 international experts have resumed work at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

Earlier today, the Ukrainian government had reported that investigators had been unable to reach the site. 

UNIAN reported that the Ukrainain Ministry of Regional Politics hadannounced that, as of 12:40 (9:40 GMT), international investigators were unable to go ahead with their work at site.

The Ministry claimed that separatist fighters, who control the area around the crash site, blocked the convoy of investigators. 

According to the Ministry, negotiations between representatives of the OSCE special mission to Ukraine and the separatists were under way, so as to enable investigators to reach the site.

The Ukrainian military says that it is not carrying out any combat activities within 20 km of the crash site and 10 km of the route of the international experts’ convoy.

Ukraine Tells Civilians To Leave Areas Under Separatist Control As They Move on Donetsk
Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council (SNBO) has made two announcements which may herald a step-up in efforts to retake separatist-held areas of south-east Ukraine.
Firstly, following their claim that the town of Yasinovataya had been liberated, the SNBO tweeted that Ukrainian forces had begun taking Donetsk:

Meanwhile, at a press conference today Andrei Lysenko, the Council’s spokesman, announced that civilians should leave separatist-held towns.

Novosti Donbassa reports that Lysenko said that civilians leaving Donetsk could head to the village of Dachnoye in the Marinsky district, and those fleeing Lugansk could travel through a humanitarian corridor to the town of Schastye.

He claimed that 967 people had already made use of the Lugansk corridor.

Afterwards, the website of the mayor of Donetsk, Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, posted information for citizens of the city considering leaving.

They provided a free telephone number to call for information and advice on operating train and bus services out of the city.

Heavy shelling was reported in the city last night:

Today, the local news site reported that, as of 13:00 (10:00 GMT), the atmosphere remained tense, though it was quiet in the city. 

They also reported that shelling had damaged gas lines in the city, with a number of residential areas left without gas or electricity. Repair teams are carrying out work to try and restore services at the moment. 

Boroday Returns to Donetsk

Aleksandr Boroday, the Russian ‘prime minister’ of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, has reportedly returned to Donetsk from Russia.

Both Ukraine’s Novosti Donbassa and Russia’s RIA Novosti report that Boroday is to give a press conference today. 

RIA Novosti reports that the press office of the separatist group has announced that his press conference was due to start at 13:00 (10:00 GMT).

We have yet to see reports on the press conference itself. 

Ukraine Says Troops Did Not Request Asylum in Russia

Andrei Lysenko, the speaker of the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council (SNBO) has told reporters at a briefing today that Ukrainian troops, who were forced to flee into Russian territory after being attacked by separatist fighters, did not ask for asylum, as Russia claims.

Ukrainska Pravda reports on Lysenko’s comments (translated by The Interpreter):

“They did not request any kind of asylum in Russia. We are currently maintaining contact with them through diplomatic channels. They want to return to their Motherland,” said Lysenko.

He reminded reporters that the exact number of Ukrainian servicemen in the country is still to be confirmed.

“There are soldiers and border guards there,” he noted.

Russia’s Federal Border Service (a branch of the FSB) claims that 438 Ukrainian servicemen crossed the border, 164 of which are border guards. Russia claims that the Ukrainian servicemen destroyed their weapons and ammunition on crossing the border.

Ukrainska Pravda continue:

According to Lysenko, their top priority was to save lives of the soldiers, “and that task was accomplished.”

To the question of whether the troops had abandoned their equipment during the retreat, Lysenko replied: “As far as I know, not one piece of operational equipment was left behind during the operation.”

Ukraine Claims To Have Liberated Yasinovataya

The Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council (SNBO) claims that Ukrainian forces have liberated the separatist-held town of Yasinovataya (Yasynuvata in Ukrainian). 

UNIAN reports (translated by The Interpreter):

According to [Andrei Lysenko, spokesman for the SNBO,] the liberation of the town has made it possible to close on Donetsk from the north and to cut off one of the important routes by which weapons and equipment were supplied to the terrorists. An operation is now being conducted in the town to find and neutralise the remnants of the terrorist gangs.

UNIAN also noted that the SNBO had announced the freeing up of roads to the Ukrainian border towns of Dmitrovka and Dyakovo, both of which have been under regular attack from both separatist fighters within Ukrainian territory, and Russian artillery fire from across the border. 

Ukrainian Troops Forced To Flee Into Russian Territory

A group, reported by Russia as numbering 438, of Ukrainian servicemen has been forced to cross into Russian territory after being attacked by separatist fighters. 

RBK-Ukraine reports:

A group of servicemen from the 72nd motorised brigade was forced to retreat into the territory of the Russian Federation after running out of ammunition during a battle with terrorists. This was told to RBK-Ukraine by Aleksei Dmitrashkovsky, a spokesman from the press centre for the Anti-Terrorism Operation in the Donbass.

“The soldiers from the 72nd brigade were split into two groups. One of them broke through the terrorists’ encirclement, the other group of soldiers covered them. One of the groups then ran out of ammunition and supplies. A military vehicle on the battlefield was damaged. Following this, the personnel were forced to withdraw to the area of the Russian border checkpoint. According to the most recent data, the soldiers are in Russian territory. The number of troops is yet to be confirmed,” said Dmitrashkovsky.

According to him, help has already arrived for the soldiers who covered the breakout from the terrorist encirclement.

Earlier, the Russian state-owned news agency ITAR-TASS had reported that 438 Ukrainian military personnel had crossed the border and requested asylum. 

Vassily Malayev, the spokesman for the Rostov region department of the border service (a branch of the FSB), told ITAR-TASS that 164 of those that crossed into Russian territory were Ukrainian border guards. 

Malayev claimed that the Ukrainian servicemen said that “they were tired of war and didn’t want to fight any more.”

ITAR-TASS reports that one of the soldiers was seriously wounded and was taken to a medical facility in Gukovo, where he underwent surgery.

Malayev claimed that the Ukrainian servicemen destroyed their weapons and ammunition on fleeing their country. He said that the remaining group of troops in Ukraine is also intending to cross over to the Russian Federation.

The report adds:

According to Malayev, Russian border guards have set up a tent camp for the Ukrainian servicemen. “The camp has been set up near the Gukovo border checkpoint. There are more than 400 Ukrainian servicemen there. They have all been provided sleeping room, hot tea and ration packs. They will soon be given hot food,” said Malayev.

All translations by The Interpreter.