Ukraine Liveblog Day 246: Submarines, Gas Deals, And Human Rights

October 21, 2014
The Donbass Arena, damaged by the shock wave from yesterday's explosion at a chemical plant in Donetsk | AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky( (The 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.

Guardian: Sweden Will Almost Inevitably Join NATO Now

One story that has a lot of eyes right now is the search for a suspected Russian submarine in Swedish waters. The editorial team of The Guardian has written a scathing condemnation of both Russia’s incursion into Swedish territory, but also Sweden’s weak military and its propensity to try to sit on the sidelines:

20 years of steady bipartisan cuts to Sweden’s defence budget mean that there is no longer a single helicopter equipped for anti-submarine warfare, and many of the boats involved in the hunt are inflatable. Meanwhile, on the surrounding islands as many as 200 troops are deployed in the hunt for suspected Russian special forces soldiers. A further comic element is supplied by the antics of a Russian oil tanker, which is quite by coincidence shuffling back and forth uneasily just outside Swedish territorial waters in a position from which it might rescue, or have launched, a miniature submarine. There is even a certain grim amusement to be had from the shamelessness of the Russian response: “Russian submarines, just like their surface fleet, carry out their duties on the oceans.” That these duties include the routine violation of other nations’ territorial waters is apparently too obvious to be worth stating. The Kremlin’s suggestion that the hunted submersible might be Dutch is funnier, but also one of those lies that expresses utter contempt for its audience.

If the Swedish military is unable to find this submarine, it will be the ultimate symbol of Sweden’s need to finally take Russia seriously and join NATO, The Guardian argues.

That editorial was written before NATO intercepted a Russian military Il-20 aircraft, a signals intelligence (SIGINT) flight which may have been attempting to monitor the search for the missing submarine. Either way, Russia’s denials coming immediately before more incursions into foreign airspace just underlines The Guardian’s point that the Kremlin no longer respects or fears Europe, and even if it is at least somewhat afraid of NATO, it has nothing to fear from an independent non-aligned country like Sweden.

Lysenko Claims Donetsk Chemical Plant Blast Caused By Mishap In Explosives Manufacture

Ukrainska Pravda reports that the spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council, Andrei Lysenko, has claimed that the huge blast at the Donetsk State Chemical Products Factory (DKZKhI) was caused, not by a Ukrainian strike, but by a manufacturing accident.

Lysenko said (translated by The Interpreter):

“Since the capture by militants of the Donetsk State Chemical Products Factory, whose warehouses contain many chemical substances, the terrorists have been trying to establish the manufacture of explosives.”

Ukrainska Pravda reports that Lysenko claimed that the blast was the result of a failure to adhere to the safety requirements of explosives manufacture.

Further video of the devastation wrought by the blast has continued to appear online. 

This video from the separatist Novorissya YouTube channel shows the factory site after the explosion. The separatists claim, contrary to the Ukrainian government, that the blast followed a strike by a Ukrainian Tochka-U short range ballistic missile.

Meanwhile this footage shows a young girl narrowly escaping grievous injury as a section of the façade of the Donbass Arena football stadium collapsed yesterday after being struck by the shock wave from the DKZKhI blast.

Russia Temporarily Bans Ukrainian Fruit And Vegetables

Reuters reports that Russia will temporarily ban fruit and vegetables from Ukraine:

In a statement, Rosselkhoznadzor said that it was imposing the ban because of a lack of labelling, which it said was evidence that the goods were not of Ukrainian origin.

It said that a possible explanation for this was that goods from the European Union were being imported through Ukraine to evade Russian counter-sanctions against the EU.

NATO Jets Scrambled To Intercept Russian SIGINT Aircraft Over Baltic

The Latvian National Armed Forces (NBS) have announced that NATO Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) F-16 fighters have been scrambled to intercept a Russian Il-20 aircraft over the Baltic.

The news comes amidst heightened tensions in the region as the Swedish military continues to hunt for a suspected Russian submarine in the Stockholm archipelago.

Sweden’s Expressen reports that the Il-20 is a signals intelligence (SIGINT) flight. 

According to Expressen, the scramble was confirmed by Kaspars Galkins, chief of the communications department of the Latvian armed forces.

Galkins said that the F-16s were deployed when the Russian aircraft flew near the Latvian border, however the flight had remained within international airspace.

The NBS then tweeted that an Il-20 flight had also been intercepted by Canadian CF-118 Hornet fighters yesterday. 

Expressen reported that Luftwaffe Major Robert Gericke of the NATO Allied Air Command in Ramstein, Germany, said that two CF-118s had been scrambled on October 20 in order to identify the aircraft. Gericke confirmed that the flight was a Russian Il-20.
Poroshenko Announces Introduction Of ‘Artillery Silence’ In Donbass

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has announced the introduction of an “artillery silence” in the conflict zone in the eastern Donbass regions.

Interfax-Ukraine reports:

“There is going to be another agreement on an attempt to declare artillery silence. Let’s see how this is done. The agreements reached in Milan give grounds for very cautious optimism,” Poroshenko said while visiting the Pivdenne design bureau in Dnipropetrovsk on Tuesday. 

Former US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Calls For Military Aid For Ukraine

The Prague Post reports, citing the Czech News Agency (ČTK), that Leon Panetta, the former US defense secretary and director of the CIA, has called on the United States and its allies to provide military aid for Ukraine, including heavy weapons.

They report:

The military aid to Kiev is necessary for Russia to understand that further undermining Ukraine would not be successful, Panetta said at The USA and EU Days conference in Prague, of which Právo, Czech Radio and Czech Television were the exclusive media partners.

He said NATO should reinforce its presence in the countries around Russia and make further aggression impossible in this way.

Panetta said the economic sanctions are just one of the steps the West should take in reaction to Russian aggression, Právo writes.

The United States should help the countries of Central and Eastern Europe develop energy independence so Russia cannot blackmail them with gas and oil, Panetta said.

He said Russian President Vladimir Putin understands strength but that he also understands weakness. If Putin can see weakness in Eastern Europe, he will continue with what he has been doing in Ukraine, Panetta added.

The news comes a day after the leaders, from both the Democratic and Republican parties, of the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee co-authored an op-ed in The Washington Post, calling for the US to arm Ukraine.

On October 17, the UK Minister for Europe, David Lidington, announced that the UK would, pending a 14 day period for objections to be raised in the House of Commons, gift Ukraine with £840,300 of non-lethal military equipment, including body armour, helmets, medical kits and winter clothing and sleeping bags.

Lidington noted that the British government still believes some Russian forces remain inside Ukraine:

We are seeing daily outbreaks of violence which have led to over 50 Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) fatalities since the ceasefire began. Some progress has been made including the withdrawal of several thousand Russian regular troops, but we estimate a few hundred remain. The UAF are facing a chronic shortage of basic equipment which will become more acute when winter sets in. Our non-lethal equipment package is defensive and designed to prevent further UAF fatalities and casualties.

As Gas Deal Negotiated, Ukraine’s President Poroshenko Has Phone Conversation With Putin

With a gas deal potentially at hand, but with a ceasefire potentially disintegrating, the Ukrainian President’s Office has released the following statement:

On the occasion of energy consultations in Brussels, President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko had a phone conversation with President of Russia Vladimir Putin.

Energy consultations between the President of Ukraine and President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso are also planned for today.

The Ukrainian and Russian leaders emphasized the necessity of ensuring full ceasefire and artillery silence.

Clearly, this is an attempt by Poroshenko, and perhaps also Putin, to get the gas deal finished before any further escalation makes such a deal impossible. And there may not be much time. Luckily, however, the National Security and Defense Council is not reporting a significant bounce in fighting. They are reporting, however, that yesterday’s blast at the Donetsk chemical plant was not the work of the Ukrainian military, despite claims by the Russian-backed separatists:

Sweden Ready To Use Force Against Suspected Russian Submarine

After five days of searching fora “foreign vessel” in Swedish waters, the Swedish military is threatening to use weapons, if necessary, to surface the vessel. Since many suspect that the unidentified submerged object could be a Russian submarine, such a statement is certainly a significant escalation in rhetoric.

The Local, an English-language Swedish newspaper, reports:

When asked how the Armed Forces would manage to get the suspected foreign submarine to the surface, Commander Sverker Göranson responded:

“With weapons, if need be.”

His comments to the Swedish media came after a nearly two-hour long meeting with Sweden’s defence committee behind closed doors.

They also followed reports in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper that there had been more than 100 reported sightings of a suspect vessel from members of the public in the past day  or so.

NSDC Spokesman: ‘Use of Cluster Munitions Has Been Forbidden By The President’

Ukrainska Pravda reports that Andrei Lysenko, the spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council, has reiterated Seleznyov’s earlier claim, that Ukrainian forces have not been using cluster munitions during this conflict, and also claimed that such weapons had been deployed by Russian-backed forces and had been found in the village of Yevgenovka on October 13.

He said (translated by The Interpreter):

“On October 13 there was an announcement from the Emergencies Ministry that specialists had discovered 4 Uragan rocket projectiles from the terrorists’ side in the village of Yevgenovka in the Slavyansk district. The were fitted with cluster warheads.

Our specialists managed to defuse them and protect the civilian population. It must be pointed out that these munitions are prohibited and yet no-one paid attention to this fact.”

Lysenko said that the use of cluster munitions had been forbidden by the president.

He went on to say that Ukraine was thankful for the work of international organizations in monitoring the situation in the separatist-held east, but said that:

“We want to call on the representatives of international organizations to make a more detailed report, providing the corresponding facts and evidence. We’re seeing that the terrorists are creating lots of provocations and are spreading false information. I think that this information has reached the representatives of international and other organizations.”

Ukrainska Pravda also notes that Lysenko said that the president was calling for an increase in the number of observers to monitor the situation in the east.

Ukraine Denies Using Cluster Munitions — Ceasefire Could Be Crumbling

This morning there are at least three Ukraine-related major stories that deserve attention.

The story getting most of the headlines in the international press is the allegation that Ukraine has used cluster munitions against civilians as part of the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. We will be digging into this report throughout the day as there are many claims being made and each deserves closer attention.

Ukraine, for its part, denies the allegations. Vladislav Seleznyov, the head of the ATO press center, told Ukrainska Pravda that (translated by The Interpreter):

“Cluster bombs and shells are prohibited from use, therefore the ATO forces do not use them. And the second point is that we do not shell civilian areas.”

When Ukrainska Pravda asked Seleznyov whether the military has ever used cluster munitions during the ATO, he replied, once again, that they have not been used because they are prohibited.

“Secondly, our targets are not civilians
but the militants, therefore we don’t shell in the direction of civilians.”

This is not the first time cluster munitions have been documented in Ukraine. In a July report, Armament Research Services (ARES) also documented the use of “cargo rockets” in Slavyansk, though they noted at the time that both Russia and Ukraine control the types of munitions found and “neither Ukraine nor Russia are party to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions.”

The context of this report is critical to understand. Yesterday a large explosion (which appears to have killed no one) blew apart a chemical plant in Donetsk. As we reported, the explosion caused the self-appointed prime minister of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic,’ Prime Minister Alexander Zakharchenko, to declare the ceasefire over. After this statement, AP reports watched outgoing barrages of rocket fire headed from militant-controlled Donetsk and headed toward Ukrainian territory. Today the question is whether the ceasefire, already frequently broken, will be completely shattered.

And this new tension comes as Ukraine and Russia are entering what could be a critical and final stage of negotiations over Russia’s supply of natural gas to Ukraine. Bloomberg reports:

Talks aimed at ensuring Russian natural gas deliveries to Ukraine this winter are being held with the European Union in Brussels today as fighting continues in Ukraine’s war-torn east in defiance of a six week-old truce.

EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak and his Ukrainian counterpart Yuri Prodan are attending the talks that are supposed to end at 2 p.m. yet may take longer than planned, officials said.

And yet Bloomberg also points out that the shelling is throwing some doubt as to whether the gas talks could completely break down:

The cease-fire between pro-Russian separatists and Ukraine government forces, sealed Sept. 5, was broken overnight with rebels using artillery to shell Ukrainian units in the Donetsk region with mortar attacks at three other locations and an assault near Horlivka that was repelled, the military press center in Kiev said on Facebook.

Another story worth watching closely — Swedish naval forces are still looking for a suspected Russian submarine, and as we’ll see there are signs today that the Swedish military is more tense than ever because of this incident.