Ukraine Liveblog Day 205: A United Ukraine With an Autonomous East?

September 10, 2014
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko inspects his troops in Mariupol on September 8 | Mykola Lazarenko / Associated Press

Yesterday’s liveblog 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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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.

Ukraine Says It Has Captured Two Russian Soldiers

Ukrainska Pravda reports that Andrei Lysenko, the spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council (SNBO) has announced at a briefing today that two Russian soldiers have been detained by Ukrainian forces.

Lysenko said (translated by The Interpreter):

“While conducting anti-terrorist operations in the ATO zone, fighters from the Lugansk-1 battalion captured two servicemen of the armed forces of the Russian Federation, who are suspected of using MANPADS against Ukrainian military aircraft.”

Lysenko gave no further details on the captured soldiers or their current situation. 

Curfew On Mariupol Surroundings

Aleksandar Vasovic reports for Reuters that the authorities in Mariupol have announced a curfew today on movements at night around the approaches to the city.

The curfew, running from 8 pm to 6 am, will cover nearby towns and villages, and is aimed at preventing Russian or pro-Russian forces from carrying out reconnaissance or infiltration missions under the guise of civilian movements.

A Ukrainian military officer told Reuters:

“This is not martial law. We want them to show themselves. If someone is out there between 8pm and 6am we will know they are not civilians and we can take appropriate measures.”

The report gives further details on the measures announced:

As well as the night-time curfew, city authorities have banned columns of vehicles and the transport of various kinds of equipment, imposed strict speed restrictions and increased document checks in those areas affected.

The measures apply to a string of villages and small towns to the east of Mariupol. The city is about 50 km (35 miles) from the Russian border.

The military officer said rebels had been using civilian vehicles to access Ukrainian positions for reconnaissance purposes and to transport men and supplies around the area.

At a checkpoint between Mariupol and the village of Sartana to the north of the city on Wednesday, men of the Azov volunteer militia were controlling traffic and checking documents.

“They check us and then they let us go, and we understand this because it is wartime,” said Nikolay, a driver of a beaten-up Lada whose trunk was filled with watermelons.

Ukrainian Pilot And Film Director Could Be Part of Prisoner Exchange

Part of the ceasefire deal negotiated by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko includes clauses about a prisoner exchange. RFE/RL reports that two high-profile Ukrainian prisoners could be included in the swap:

Ukrainian air force pilot Nadiya Savchenko and film director Oleh Sentsov, who are in Russian custody, may be exchanged for pro-Russian rebels captured by Ukrainian forces in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The chief of Ukraine’s Security Service, Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, told journalists on September 10 that Savchenko and Sentsov are on a list of people to be exchanged…

There was no immediate comment from Russia, which has charged Savchenko with complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine.

Sentsov has been charged with planning terrorist attacks in Crimea after it was annexed from Ukraine by Russia in March.

Despite Russian Media’s Spin, New Report Suggests BUK Missle Downed MH17

UPDATE: Before the release of yesterday’s Dutch Safety Board report on the cause of the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, there was already highly-compelling evidence that MH17 was shot down by a BUK anti-aircraft missile operated by Russian-backed rebels. Certain details of yesterday’s reports add new forensic evidence that a BUK was indeed responsible for the downing of the civilian airliner (see yesterday’s coverage for details).

The investigation concluded that MH17’s fuselage was penetrated by large amounts of “high-energy objects,” projectiles while entered the aircraft from the outside. The BUK is an advanced aircraft system that tracks its targets using radar and detonates when it is close to its target, triggered through a radar-proximity fuse. It’s warhead is a high-explosive fragmentation device weighing in at 70 kg,(154.3 Lbs), which sends shrapnel out at high-velocity, literally shredding the target. Weapons experts we consulted all agree that the tell-tale sign of this weapon being used would be large quantities of relatively small impact puncture sites in the fuselage of the aircraft (unlike an autocannon, which would leave a smaller amount of larger impact sites in a more linear pattern, or a heat-seeking missile which would impact the engines rather than tear the aircraft apart). 

After the shooting down of MH17, the Russian media made multiple changing and largely contradictory claims about what could have brought down the airliner. The theory eventually put our by the Russian government is that one Ukrainian SU-25 followed MH17 and may have fired an air-to-air missile (or some have suggested an autocannon) at the civilian aircraft, while a second SU-25 circled the crash site afterwards. That theory was debunked at the time, but the new forensic evidence rules this out. Professor Mark Galeotti explained in July why the Russian theory did not match the facts, and as we see his argument is even more relevant with the release of the Dutch report:

A Su-25 is a ground-attack aircraft. Yes, it can be armed with air-to-air missiles such as the R-60 ‘Aphid’, but its 3kg warhead—compared with the SA-11 Buk’s 70kg—is extremely unlikely to have done the damage visible on MH17. Eyewitness and photographic evidence from the crash site demonstrates a very broad and deep fragmentation pattern. Both the Buk’s 98M38 or 98M317 missiles and the R-60 are designed to explode just before impact to blast the target with shrapnel, but the size, pattern and above all quantity and kinetic energy of the two weapons’ warheads are very different.

Nor necessarily is an R-60 at all likely to have brought a Boeing 777 down with one hit. The KAL 007 747 brought down by Soviet fighters in 1983 was hit by two heavier R-98 missiles (with 40kg warheads) and still did not suffer the immediate, catastrophic destruction evident for MH17. Overall, the damage clearly points to a larger weapon than the R-60.

Kyiv Post has interviewed yet another expert who suggests that the Dutch Safety Board report suggests that the weapon used in this attack was a BUK:

The report does not directly identify what the object was, but Viacheslav Tseluiko, an expert on non-state armed groups, said that it was clear that it was a Buk missile that had caused the damage. 

“The aircraft was damaged from the outside according to the report and basically the Dutch are saying that the plane was shot down by fragments of a Buk missile,” he said.

A Buk missile functions by exploding near its target and showering it with shrapnel. 

In our comprehensive evidence review of the downing of flight MH17, we show how both eyewitness reports and citizen-uploaded videos and pictures prove that the BUK traveled through Donetsk, on to Torez and Snezhnoye where it was spotted by AP journalists and many eyewitnesses (from where it is theorized that it shot down MH17), and then it traveled on to Luganks, Krasnadon, and out to Russia through the Izvarino crossing. 

The BBC has released new evidence, testimony from eyewitnesses who confirm that the BUK system was spotted in the Snezhnoye/Torez area, and the crews manning the vehicle spoke Russian with accents that suggest that they were Russian soldiers from the Russian Federation:

Three eyewitnesses, all civilians, separately told Panorama that they saw a missile-launcher in rebel-held territory a few hours before the Boeing jet was hit.

One eyewitness saw the missile-launcher roll off a low-loader at Snezhnoye, around ten miles from the crash site, at around 13:30 local time (10:30 GMT).

“We just saw it being offloaded and when the BUK started its engine the exhaust smoke filled the whole town square,” he said.

The eyewitness told the BBC that the crew struck him as Russian soldiers: “Well-disciplined, unlike the rebels, and not wearing the standard Ukrainian camouflage uniform sported by government and rebel troops alike.”

“They had pure Russian accents. They say the letter ‘g’ differently to us,” he said.

Of course, flying in the face of all of the evidence, witness and expert testimony, and common sense, the Russian media continues to spin the story and claim that the civilian airliner was brought down by machinegun fire, not a missile. RIA Novosti, the formerly-respected news agency which was reorganized under the direct control of a pro-Kremlin propagandist, reports:

The preliminary report by the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) on the Malaysian MH17 crash suggests that the plane was not brought down by a missile, Michel Chossudovsky, director of the Center for Research on Globalization told RIA Novosti on Tuesday.

“The conclusion of the report by the Dutch Safety Board confirms earlier independent reports to the effect that the Malaysian airlines flight was not brought down by a missile,” Chossudovsky said, quoting the DSB statement: “the aircraft was penetrated by a large number of high-energy objects from outside. It’s likely that this damage resulted in a loss of structural integrity of the aircraft, leading to an in-flight break up”.

“This paragraph dispels the notion that it was a missile attack, and that’s what is important,” Chossudovsky asserted.

Chossudovsky also thinks that the report confirms the earlier statement of the Head of mission of the OSCE who pointed to “machine gun-like holes.”

New York University Professor Mark Galeotti told The Interpreter today that this theory is simply not supported by the facts:

It is wholly implausible that an Su-25’s GSh-30-2 25mm autocannon would have done the kind of damage visible on MH17. The pattern of impacts would be very different. Furthermore, the cockpit recordings indicate no alarm on the part of the flight crew. Even if an Su-25 could approach unnoticed (not that hard, admittedly), it’s extremely unlikely that it could fire a burst of 390-gramme shells that would both fragment the aircraft and kill both of the pilots before they had the chance even to express their shock. That, to me, helps clinch that the plane was ripped apart by a large stand-off warhead shattering its aerodynamic integrity in an instant, catastrophic blast of shrapnel. 

Russia’s Gazprom Cuts Poland’s Supply Of Gas By 20-24%
Has Russia made its first pre-winter retaliation against Europe’s natural gas supply?

Bloomberg confirms that Poland’s gas supplies have indeed been cut between 20-24%, but explains that Gazprom is claiming that this is simply due to “maintenance.” 

Gazprom is doing pre-winter maintenance on pipelines and filling Russian storage sites, which is limiting supply to Poland at the level of the end of last week, according to a company official who declined to be named, citing policy. Russia is reducing flows to the European Union to restrict so-called reverse supply to Ukraine, said Ihor Prokopiv, the chief executive officer of UkrTransGas. Poland today halted supply to Ukraine of 4 million cubic meters (140 million cubic feet) a day, he said.

Russia, which meets about 15 percent of Europe’s gas demand through Soviet-era pipelines across Ukraine, halted supplies to its neighbor on June 16 in a dispute over debt and prices, echoing spats in 2006 and 2009 that left European customers short of fuel.

Michael Murphy, a spokesman at RWE AG in Essen, Germany, declined to comment on reverse flow to Ukraine from Poland. RWE started supplies to Ukraine via Poland in April.

Gazprom assumes countries that get their gas via Ukraine understood the possible risks in the spring and filled up storage sites at a faster pace, Sergei Kupriyanov, a spokesman for the Russian pipeline gas export monopoly, said by phone on Sept. 3.

Despite Increased Pressure, United States Likely Won’t Arm Ukraine

The New York Times reports that despite the increase in the volume of calls to arm Ukraine, and the significant military support the separatists are receiving from Russia, the Obama administration will likely avoid arming Ukraine, and much of the supplies it has already pledged have not yet been delivered:

The $70 million in aid the United States has pledged includes rations, radios, concertina wire, first-aid kits and limited supplies of body armor, but no arms. But much of the assistance is still in the pipeline, including such important items as night-vision goggles. The United States has also promised to train 700 members of Ukraine’s National Guard, but that program is not scheduled to get underway until 2015.

In contrast, Ukrainian separatists have been battling the government’s troops with the help of Russian tanks, artillery, antiaircraft weapons and, NATO says, thousands of Russian troops.

Poroshenko – 70% Of Russian Forces Withdrawn, But Tymchuk Claims Build-Up Near Novoazovsk

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has told his cabinet that 70% of Russian forces in the Donbass have withdrawn across the Russian border, and that a bill on granting special status to the Donetsk and Lugansk regions will be submitted to the Verkhovna Rada next week.

Interfax-Ukraine reports that Poroshenko told the cabinet that:

“According to the latest data, 70% of Russian troops have withdrawn behind the border and this gives more reason to hope that the peace initiatives have a future.”

Yesterday, Ukrainska Pravda reports, the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, announced that an agreement had been reached between Ukraine and Russia on the withdrawal of Russian soldiers and military equipment from the Donbass. 

With regards to the bill to be put to parliament on the special status, Poroshenko insisted that no compromises had been made with regards to Ukraine’s sovereignty. 

Ukrainska Pravda reports (translated by The Interpreter) that the president assured ministers that:

“Ukraine has made no concessions with regards to its territorial integrity and state structure… I draw your attention to the fact that there is no mention of any federalisation or divestment in the protocols. There is no mention at all of such entities as the so-called LNR and DNR in the document.”

Interfax-Ukraine reported that Poroshenko added that a “special regime of stay” may be introduced in “areas adjacent to the antiterrorist operation zone.”

However, while Poroshenko claimed that 70% of Russian troops had withdrawn across the border, Dmytro Tymchuk of Information Resistance reported that there had in fact been a further build-up of Russian forces near occupied Novoazovsk, to the east of Mariupol.

Tymchuk wrote on his Facebook page (translated by The Interpreter):

According to Information Resistance’s operational data, the Russians are continuing to concentrate forces in the Novoazovsk area.

No fewer than 180 units of military hardware (tanks, BMPs BTRs and also several Grad MLRS units) have been transferred from Russian territory to this area.

A Russian military car, equipped with electronic surveillance equipment, has been identified near Bezymyonnoye (in the Novoazovsk district).

The concentration of occupying Russian forces in the north of Crimea continues. At the moment, there are no fewer than 70 tanks, around 100 BTRs and BMPs and also Grad and Uragan MLRS and several Buk SAMS close to the administrative border between the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the Kherson region.

Also, over the last two days, no fewer than 40 broken-down Russian military vehicles have been ferried out of the Donbass into Russian territory near Izvarino

Furthermore, Tymchuk reported 5 incidents of shelling by Russian or Russian-backed forces during the night.

Poroshenko: Greater Autonomy For The East, Russia Pulling Back

There have been many times in the past where a diplomatic breakthrough looked as if it had been accomplished in eastern Ukraine, but the promise of peace fell apart. Today there is a new glimmer of hope. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has announced that he is committed to a united Ukraine, with borders the same as they are now but with greater autonomy for rebel-held territory in the east. Reuters reports:

Poroshenko also told a televised meeting of the government that a ceasefire between government forces and the rebels in eastern Ukraine was proving difficult to maintain because “the terrorists are trying all the time to provoke” Kiev’s troops.

“The protocol (signed in Minsk last Friday) envisages the restoration and preservation of Ukrainian sovereignty on all the territory of the Donbass (in eastern Ukraine), including that controlled by the fighters,” he said.

Associate Press adds:

Ukraine’s president promised Wednesday to introduce a bill as early as next week that would offer greater autonomy to rebellious regions in the pro-Russia east, where separatists have been battling government troops for almost five months.

But President Petro Poroshenko said the regions would remain part of Ukraine and rejected the idea of federalization, something both Russia and the Russian-backed separatists are still pushing for even after a cease-fire that began Friday.

The speech, televised on Wednesday morning, did not included details, however, and it’s unclear whether this plan will meet the demands of the separatists. However, Poroshenko did add a glimmer of hope because he also said that Russian troops have started to withdraw from the border:

“According to the latest information that I have received from our intelligence, 70 percent of Russian troops have been moved back across the border,” Poroshenko told a government meeting.

“This further strengthens our hope that the peace initiatives have good prospects.”

Those claims have not been confirmed. 

While this looks like a diplomatic breakthrough, experience teaches us that all optimism should be tempered with realism, and every previous diplomatic breakthrough had ended in an escalation, rather than a deescalation, of the fighting.  Despite the ceasefire the death toll continues to rise and thee are already reports of more fighting in the east today. Not only that, but even Poroshenko is pointing towards provocations from the rebels, and National Security and Defence council spokesman Andriy Lysenko is reporting more attacks launched by ‘terrorists’ today: