Ukraine Liveblog Day 24: Russia Mobilizes Near the Border

March 13, 2014 protest of internet censorship in Russia

Yesterday, Russian tanks, APCs, and troops were seen mobilizing just north of Kharkiv, a few kilometers from the border with Ukraine. Today, the Russian Defense Ministry calls these movements “drills.”

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

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Below, we will be making regular updates throughout the day:

1203 GMT:
The Russian Foreign Ministry has issued a statement today

A translation by The Interpreter follows:

On 13 March in Donetsk tragic events occurred, blood was shed. Right-radical gangs, armed with traumatic weapons and bats, which had assembled the evening before in the city from other regions of the country, attacked peaceful demonstrations who had come to the streets of the city to express their attitude to the destruction position of people calling themselves the Ukrainian government.

We have repeatedly stated that those who have come to power in Kiev must disarm the fighters, guarantee the security of the population and the lawful right of people to hold rallies. Unfortunately, as events in Ukraine have shown, that is not happening, and the Kiev authorities are not controlling the situation in the country.

Russia is aware of its responsibility for the life of its compatriots and fellow citizens in Ukraine and reserves the right to take people under protection.

The statement seems to be directly at odds with reports from journalists and eyewitnesses as well as videos filmed in Donetsk last night (see below) which show Russian nationalists, some from Russia and some locals, armed with bats and mace, attacking unarmed supporters of EuroMaidan in Donetsk. One supporter of EuroMaidan was killed and dozens were wounded. The statement is also seen by some as essentially a justification for a declaration of war, although it may also refer to the issuing of Russian passports.

0641 GMT: ATR, the Crimean Tatar TV station in Simferopol, is still on the air and broadcasting critical reports. The 20:10 news show 13 March included footage of an attack on a fuel depot in Simferopol by uniformed men with bats described as “Aksyonov’s self-defense units” by ATR, after Sergei Aksyonov, the self-proclaimed leader of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

Attack on fuel depot in Simferopol. From ATR.

Attack on fuel depot in Simferopol. From ATR.

Men inside the depot returned gunfire, and journalists fled for their lives, some heaving their cameras over a fence topped with barbed wire which they could not scale themselves.

Journalist keeps reporting as she flees gunfire at the fuel depot attack. From ATR.

Journalist keeps reporting as she flees gunfire at the fuel depot attack. From ATR.

David Geoffrion, a French correspondent working for Canal+ managed to hurl his camera over the barrier, which was rescued by ATR TV. But the journalist himself was detained by the self-defense units, then released several hours later, reportedly only after retrieving and handing over his film footage to the self-defense fighters.

Other stories covered by ATR including a protest by EuroMaidan supporters in Simferopol with blank posters against the closure of Ukrainian TV stations in the Crimea, and a call from Crimean EuroMaidan leaders to boycott this Sunday’s referendum. ATR also reported that the Feodosiya oil depot was taken over by Aksyonov’s self-defense units; a depot officials Andrei Vorobyov said they had to do “inventory”. The depot belongs to the Ukrainian Ministry of Energy and Coal Industry.

EuroMaidan protest in Simferopol. From ATR.

EuroMaidan protest in Simferopol. From ATR.

0449 GMT:

The video shows Russians with the accents of those from the Russian Federation, not Ukraine, attacking a group of pro-EuroMaidan activists. They shout “Russia! Russia!” and “Where is your Ukraine?!” Using one of the worst insults in the region, they cry “Pederasts! Pederasts!” and then “On your knees! On your knees!” in a constant chant.

The EuroMaidan activists link arms in a tight circle and try to dodge flash grenades and mace spray, then riot police encircle them with arms linked, while a policeman radios a report that 10 people have been injured. The EuroMaidan demonstrators try to take cover near a bus that is already packed with people.

Somehow, the Russian rioters get around the riot police cordon, and start cracking heads with iron rods or bats.

The video is consistent with some written reports now being published on social media, such as that of Maksim Goryunov, who said that demonstrators tried to take cover by buses under a hail of stones, and then tried to get into the bus, where pavement stones came hurling through the windows and some kind of gas was sprayed on people (mace?). The Interpreter has translated an excerpt here:

“For the first time in my life I breathe gas — everyone was coughing, choking, and trying to get out. There was NOWHERE to run. You get out — they tear you apart, if you stay, you choke. We open the door — they “greet” us. I get a kick to the head — my luck, to the side, although a concussion still. We run behind the bus and form a tight circle of about 30 people in a bunch. All around, they shout ‘on your knees!’ and some of us are on our knees anyway; in order to reduce the area of attack, we crouched on our heels, covering our heads with our hands. I’m afraid of letting a blow or a stone through, I realize that if I cut out, they could crush us. The police can barely hold back the enraged crowd, they themselves do not want to suffer retaliation.

They constantly try to drag us out of the circle so it is more convenient to beat us — we hold tight to each other. I look at the police — there is no help there, I see that a window toward Ilyich Avenue has opened up and I make a fast lunge through (in fact I can barely move my legs, running from gangsters in my own city!), I am not running alone, several others have broken through.”

Mike Giglio of Buzzfeed has also reported from the scene; a 22-yearpold man died of knife wounds and 17 others sought medical care.

2036 GMT: Disturbing pictures and reports from Donetsk (see previous updates):



2030 GMT: Earlier we carried reports on clashes at dueling protests in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine (map)(jump to update 1856). Now, at least one person has reportedly been killed there:

1928 GMT: One day after shedding nearly 3% of its value, MICEX, Russia’s stock exchange, has shed nearly another 2%. The ruble is also down against the dollar another .36%:

INDEXCF Quote   MICEX Index   Bloomberg2

Furthermore, the stock market closed before much of the news broke about Russia’s shutting down of websites and news outlets, and the continual buildup on the border with Ukraine. We’re not economists, but if recent history is an indication, it may not be a good time to invest in Russian stocks.

1907 GMT: Dmitry Tymchuk, a former Ukrainian military officer, has established an organization, the Center of Military and Political Research on Kiev, to effectively collect and gather data about military-related facts. He posts this map on Facebook which he says shows Russia’s military preparations for what may be an impending invasion:


1856 GMT: Large rallies have been held in the eastern city of Donetsk, where clashes between Russia supporters and pro-Ukraine protesters have broken out. Mike Giglio sets the scene:



But then things turned ugly:


1847 GMT: NBC’s Richard Engel has been detained, and now released, by pro-Russian militants in Crimea:

1833 GMT: Does a crackdown on independent press in Russia mean an impending invasion in Ukraine? In our Russia liveblog, we are following developments in Russia where the Russian government is targeting independent media. First, they fired the editor of the independent and not-state-owned for an interview they published with the leader of Ukraine’s Right Sector. Today, they blocked several opposition websites and websites critical of the government, including the blog of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Is this related to Ukraine? Maybe. In fact, there’s a strong possibility, as the spark that seems to have set this wave of censorship off is the crisis in Ukraine. But one also needs to consider that Russia has its own internal problems, and censorship of the press is nothing new. As the economy of Russia falters, partially as a result of this crisis, those internal tensions become even more important to what happens next.

1750 GMT: NATO is not just meeting with Ukrainian and Russian neighbors, but also with pro-Ukraine opposition leaders now. Here is part of their latest press release:

The NATO Deputy Secretary General, Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, will meet with the Leader of the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian Member of the Parliament, Mr. Mustafa Cemilev Kirimoglu on Friday 14 March 2014.

1630 GMT: How large is Russia’s “training exercise” on the northern border with Ukraine? Massive, the New York Times reports:

On Wednesday, the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Andriy Parubiy, claimed that Russian forces near the border totaled more than 80,000 solders, 270 tanks, 370 artillery systems and 140 combat aircraft. “Ukraine today is facing the threat of a full-scale invasion from various directions,” he said.

While the Russian government claims that these are training exercises, it’s also worth noting that those have to be pre-announced to neighbors under conventional arms agreements. They were not. In fact, the existence of this mobilization was denied by the Kremlin until today.

And, as we wrote earlier, the last time Russia conducted “drills,” they invaded Crimea. The buildup of troops in Crimea, on the eastern edge of Ukraine, and along the northern border, has the Ukrainian government extremely nervous that they are facing further invasion. History tells us they have reason to be nervous.

1622 GMT: One of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessmen, Dmytro Firtash, was arrested today in Vienna — at the bequest of American authorities. Reuters reports:

Firtash, 48, is one of Ukraine’s richest men, an oligarch whose close links to Russia and involvement in the gas, chemicals, media and banking sectors gave him substantial influence, notably during the administration of recently ousted, Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich.

Kyiv Post has additional details:

The Austria Press Agency said that Firtash, one of the richest men in Ukraine and is involved in the natural gas business, is just one of those arrested. The arrest happened on March 12 in Vienna’s Margareten district. The seizure happened openly in the street, in the immediate vicinity of the suspect’s business premises, according to the article.

According to Mario Hejk, a spokesperson for the Federal Criminal Police Office (BK), BK officers from the organised crime office and EKO Cobra (Austria’s primary counter-terrorism special operations tactical unit) were involved in the operation. With regard to the suspect, Hejl noted that the FBI has been investigating the 48-year-old for years and the arrest has nothing to do with the current political turmoil in Ukraine. The American investigation has been ongoing since 2006.

No relation to the current crisis? One wonders, however, whether documents obtained by the interim government helped track the oligarch down. One also wonders, now that he has been detained, whether the investigation will establish more links between Firtash and organized crime, or even between the mob and ousted Ukrainian officials.

1606 GMT: The Ukrainian Border Guard reports that a Russian armored vehicle, a BTRu, has opened fire on a Ukrainian border patrol aircraft for the second time this week.


The Border Guard reiterates that the aircrafts were unarmed, but were fired upon anyway.

Just yesterday the Russian government said that it would honor a treaty that allows Ukraine to monitor Russian troop movements from the air.

1600 GMT: This picture was reportedly taken about an hour ago. Translation — A rally for Ukraine gradually became for Russia:



1553 GMT: Some breaking news:

Here is a report of the incident on Facebook, though we have not confirmed all of these details yet:

16:48 In Yalta, people with Russian flags burst into a Pro-Ukrainian protest and attacked the peaceful protesters with Ukrainian attributes.

Around 50 young men with Russian Federations flags and shouts of, “Russia!” and “Fascism will not pass!” first surrounded the peaceful protesters, and then pushed them off the stage and occupied it.

They came to the protest by the fountain from another, pro-Russian meeting, says an eyewitness.

A short fight started, but nobody suffered grave injuries. The fight resumed as of 16:40.

Yalta citizens with blue-and-yellow flags are ribbons are not leaving and are standing by the booth.

There are not many people, the atmosphere is tense. Some women are crying.

The locals are convinced that the attackers are Russian. Among the people bearing Russian flags are some men in Kuban Cossack dress. –

1445 GMT: Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk spoke to US President Barack Obama yesterday. This summary was posted on the White House website:

n their meeting, the President and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk discussed how to find a peaceful resolution to Russia’s ongoing military intervention in Crimea that would respect Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. They also discussed support the international community can provide to help Ukraine confront its economic challenges, and the importance of uniting Ukraine and working to fulfill the aspirations of the Ukrainian people as they prepare for May presidential elections.

Yatsenyuk then spoke to the Atlantic Council:

In his only public address during his Washington visit, Yatsenyuk underscored that Ukraine is determined to recover Crimea, but said it will not try to do so militarily. He accused Russia of invading Crimea on “artificial grounds” of protecting Russian-speaking minorities. “I was absolutely astonished with this,” he said. “My wife speaks Russian. She doesn’t need any kind of protection.”

Yatsenyuk noted that the new government vetoed a bill that would have downgraded the status of Russian as a minority language in Ukraine. “We, as a new Ukrainian government, will preserve the rights of all minorities,” including ethnic Russians, he told the audience of diplomats, policymakers, and journalists.

But this was perhaps Yatsenyuk’s bottom line:


His comments at the Atlantic Council can be seen here:


1437 GMT: Respected Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone yesterday, but the two did not see eye to eye, the Azerbaijani news agency Turan reported. The Russian leader appeared to want to obtain the support of the Crimean Tatars for the annexation of the Crimea to Russia.

In an interview with Turan 12 March, Dzhemilev, said first he had a meeting with Mintimer Shaymiyev, the former president of Tatarstan, a subject of the Russian Federation. Dzhemilev served 15 years in Soviet labor camps for his peaceful defense of his people and served as head of the Crimea Tatar Medjlis for 20 years.

“Shaymiyev could not answer questions about the actions of Russian troops and their withdrawal from the Crimea, but said the President of Russia wanted to see me.” Dzhemilev said he had to first obtain the consent of the Ukrainian leadership for the meeting, and then after getting Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s go-ahead, he traveled to Moscow to meet with Putin:

“For a half hour, Putin listened to my opinion about the events and expressed his vision. Our evaluations on events in the Crimea differed. However, we were united in the opinion that we must avoid bloodshed. Putin asked for the Tatars not to get involved in the conflict and not to succumb to provocations. I said that the Tatars will do everything possible, but it does not all depend on us, and if clashes begin, it will be impossible to restrain the situation and all sides will be drawn into the conflict.”

Dzhemilev underscored the need to withdraw Russian forces from the Crimea and observe the territorial integrity of the Ukraine:

“We support the idea of increasing the autonomy of the Crimea, but we are categorically against separating the peninsula and handing it to another state. Putin did not agree with me and proposed waiting for the results of the referendum, although we consider that referendum to be unlawful and its results are clear in advance, and the policy of Russia in that sense is completely obvious.”

1425 GMT: Yesterday we ended the day by carrying a small flood of reports of large-scale Russian troop movements just over the northern Ukrainian border, perhaps within 20 kilometers of Ukrainiane territory just north of Kharkiv.

Now the Russian Ministry of Defense says that these are simply drills. RFE/RL reports:

Russia’s Defense Ministry said today that some 8,500 troops would take part in the drills, which include artillery and multiple-rocket launchers.

According to the Defense Ministry’s website, the exercise is aimed at coordinating actions between artillery, mechanized and tank units, paratroopers, and marines.

It’s worth noting that the last time Russia announced military drills, they also said that they were unrelated to the crisis in Ukraine, and on the same day that the drills were held Russian troops invaded Crimea.

And if you’re unsure that those are Russian troops that did indeed invade Crimea, The Interpreter’s Andrew Bowen clears this up by pinpointing the actual Russian units spotted in Crimea in his latest assessment of Russian and Ukrainian military capabilities:

Among the many things that identify the troops in Crimea as Russian, other than them admitting it to TV cameras, has been their professionalism and equipment. It has been remarkable that such tense situations have not devolved into violence or even the shooting by a young soldier with an itchy trigger finger. From the seizure of the Crimean parliament and airport, to the blockading of Ukrainian military facilities, the control and professionalism has been remarkable. Additionally, the troops are very well equipped, from the weaponry (including the silenced VSS Vintorez sniper rifle only available to elite units in the Russian military) to Tigr armored vehicles (whose license plates identify not only that they are from Russia but what Military District they are from).

Read the entire analysis here: Yes Russia Controls Crimea, and Yes Those Really are Russian Troops

Russian soldiers in Crimea carry VSS Vintorez silenced sniper rifles.

Russian soldiers in Crimea carry VSS Vintorez silenced sniper rifles.

Russian armor near Ukraine's border | March 12, 2014

Russian armor near Ukraine’s border | March 12, 2014