Has the war already started? There are unconfirmed reports of two dead in Kharkiv, an explosion at Kharkiv University, and Russian paratroopers on the ground in mainland Ukraine. We’ll be tracking developments and sorting rumor from report as the day goes on.
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Below, we will be making regular updates throughout the day:
1804 GMT: The Economist’s Edward Lucas has posted a statement from Bishop Borys Gudziak that provides more information on the kidnapped Greek Catholic Priest:
Fr. Kvych was seized by two men in uniform and four men in civilian clothing. The young chaplain for the Ukrainian Navy was taken to an undisclosed location where he is being held captive. A parishioner who called Fr. Kvych’s cellular phone heard abusive language on the line directed at the priest before the call was cut short. Sources confirm that Fr. Kvych is alive.
Earlier this week at the direction of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic hierarchy Fr. Kvych and other Greek Catholic priests in Crimea evacuated their wives and children to mainland Ukraine. The priests themselves returned to their parishes to be with their faithful in a time of crisis and moral and physical danger…
Yesterday, another Greek Catholic priest returned to his home in Crimea (location not revealed to preserve the priest’s identity) to find on the destroyed door of his apartment a menacing sign: “Get out Vatican spies. Police were standing outside the building.
The Greek Catholic priests of the peninsula have been directed not to celebrate services in their churches this Sunday but to serve in Roman Catholic Churches where in the company of other clergy their safety can be more easily guaranteed.
The Yanukovych government threatened to delegalize the Greek Catholic Church at Christmas time due to the pastoral attention that priest gave to protesting faithful. From 1946 to 1989 the UGCC was the biggest illegal Church in the world and the most substantial body of social opposition to Soviet rule in Ukraine. Since it did not collaborate with Soviet authorities it has enjoyed particular moral authority in Ukrainian society in the post-Soviet period and during the current social and political crisis.
1754 GMT: A Greek Catholic priest has been kidnapped by unknown gunmen in Sevastopol, Crimea. According to the report, the priest was a military chaplain for the Ukrainian forces in Crimea, and had received threats but had refused to leave the peninsula.
1750 GMT Three people suffered minor injuries in a chemical explosion at Kharkiv University. There was no fire. It appears as though this incident is over and unrelated to the violence that rocked the city last night.
1638 GMT: Russia may have an upper hand in a military battle against Ukraine, bit it has plenty of problems on the domestic front. While it’s not clear how strong the antiwar movement in Russia has become, there are very sizeable protests today in Moscow. The AFP reports:
An AFP team at the rally said its numbers had swelled rapidly from an initial 5,000 at around 2.00pm (1000 GMT), and stood at approximately 50,000 two hours later.
— Jim Roberts (@nycjim) March 15, 2014
1623 GMT: The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has released a statement on today’s reported Russian military incursion into the Kherson region (translated by The Interpreter):
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry expresses its decisive and categorical protest in connection with the landing on 15 March 2014 in the district of the settlement of Strelkovoye of Kherson Region of a platoon of soldiers from the Russian Federation Armed Forces numbering 80 persons, and the seizure of them of the settlement of Strelkovoye with the support of 4 combat helicopters and 3 combat armored vehicles. The Foreign Ministry demands that Russia immediately withdraw its armed forces from the territory of Ukraine. Ukraine reserves the right to take all necessary measures to end the military invasion by Russia.
So the official statement is that there were 80 soldiers, with ground and air support. The video we posted earlier does seem to show four helicopters, though it jumps around a bit so it’s hard to confirm that there are only four.
1608 GMT: We have translated today’s statement from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
Soldiers continue to commit outrages in the Ukraine, including from Right Sector. On 14 March in Kharkiv, they organized a provocation against peaceful demonstrators who came to express their attitude to the so-called new government. As a result of gunfire opened by the fighters, two people were killed, and there are wounded. Alarming information is coming in that a column of armed hirelings of Right Sector have left Kharkiv and are headed to Donetsk and Lugansk, and their leaders have announced the opening of an “eastern front,” and that they are sewing Russian military uniforms at a sewing factory on an emergency basis. During the course of their meeting in London on 14 March, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov drew the attention of Secretary of State John Kerry to the danger of the decisions of the Verkhovna Rada on the legitimization of the Right Sector and other radicals through a path of turning them into the system’s power organizations, such as the National Guard. Furthermore, S.V. Lavrov urgently called on J. Kerry to use Washingston’s influence on Kiev to prevent the outburst of the ultanationalists. Many appeals are coming to Russia with a request to defend civilians. These appeals will be reviewed.
In other words, any further violence, even if it is done by men in Russian uniforms, could be used by Moscow to justify military intervention in Ukraine — and not just in Crimea, but perhaps in all of eastern Ukraine. Note that Kharkiv, Donetsk and Lugansk are mentioned by name.
— Mark Lyall Grant (@LyallGrant) March 15, 2014
The resolution would have blocked recognition of tomorrow’s referendum in Crimea on whether the peninsula should declare independence from Ukraine and join Russia:
“This referendum can have no validity, and cannot form the basis for any alteration of the status of Crimea,” it states. It calls on “all states, international organizations and specialized agencies not to recognize any alteration of the status of Crimea on the basis of this referendum.”
— Kevin Bishop (@bishopk) March 15, 2014
We’re actually slightly more confident than Bishop, who is Acting Bureau Chief of BBC Moscow. We’ve seen videos of this region, so we’re pretty familiar with the landscape, and though the lack of any specific landmarks makes it impossible to geolocate the video, it certainly matches the area’s topography, down to the spacing of the telephone polls and the design of the road. We’ve also never seen this video before, and it is fairly dramatic. Similar videos taken in the last few weeks, and those showed the helicopters moving in the other direction of the frame (left to right). They also never showed a helicopter touching down, nor do they show helicopters moving around the car like that (for comparison, see videos in our liveblog from February 28th). It’s still unconfirmed, but this is fairly strong evidence, especially when one considers the growing number of sources carrying reports of Russian military operations involving paratroopers.
1526 GMT: If the reports of Russian paratroopers capturing a gas facility are true, then it is a highly provocative move. According to the best (but still unconfirmed) narrative we’ve been able to put together, the Russian troops deployed from helicopters and took the gas facilities in the Kherson region, only to retreat once Ukraine scrambled both ground and air forces. But what if the Ukrainian military had moved just slightly faster, or opened fire? An open war between Russia and Ukraine could be triggered by a single bullet, and there are now perhaps hundreds of thousands of guns in the region that could fire the catalyst. But if you’ve been following what Russia has been doing for the last 26 days, and more, that might be exactly what the Kremlin is hoping for.
1509 GMT: The governor of Kharkiv has released the following statement concerning his version of what happened last night in Kharkiv, translated by The Interpreter:
The provocation began on Svoboda Square, when a Volksvagen Transporter van with Dnepropetrovsk license plates drove up to a group of pro-Russian demonstrators. Igor Baluta [new governor of Kharkiv Region] noted that this is the same car which police have been searching for since the previous provocation was staged in Kharkiv several days ago. The passengers in the van deliberately staged a conflict with the pro-Russian activists after which they went to Rymarskaya Street to the office of Prosvita [Ukrainian cultural society] where they parked the vehicle. The pro-Russian activists, which by that time had already managed to call in “assistance” from some young toughs from the group Oplota, headed after them. A deliberate escalation of the conflict took place on Rymarskaya. Moreoever, this was without the participation of the Prosvita representatives, the Kharkov Regional Administration reports on its official web site. The group of people with St. George ribbons tried to storm the office at No. 18 Rymarskaya. Meanwhile, gunfire broke out between the two sides of the conflict. As a result 2 men died. Governor Baluta told a correspondent from MediaPort that both died of gunshot wounds. Pellets were found in one. According to the preliminary report, the two who died were on the side of the attackers (i.e. the group with the St. George ribbons), says the governor. Five people were injured, including one police officer.
1518 GMT: Have Russian paratroopers already engaged in combat with the Ukrainian military. That is what the Ukrainian military is reporting, and it matches some details in other reports:
“Units of Ukraine’s armed forces today … repelled an attempt by servicemen of the armed forces of the Russian Federation to enter the territory of Kherson region on Arbatskaya Strelka,” a statement from the Defense Ministry said. “This was repelled immediately.” It said the Ukrainian military used aircraft, ground forces and its aeromobile battalion in the operation. It was unclear whether any shots were fired. Earlier, local websites reported that several dozen paratroopers landed in the Kherson region, which is adjacent to Crimea. The soldiers reportedly wore no insignia, but were dropped off by helicopters bearing the red star of the Russian military. According to the Kherson Online website, the troops seized control of a gas distribution plant. The Crimean peninsula – which is set to vote Sunday in a referendum on joining the Russian Federation –is reliant on electricity, gas and water that transit the Kherson region.
It seems, however, that shots were not fired. The paratroopers may have retreated when the Ukrainian military responded:
1502 GMT: Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister said that there were no plans to invade Ukraine. He also said that there was a need to save Ukraine from “lawlessness,” and the Crimean self defense forces (that are really Russian soldiers) are filling that need. He also said that Russia reserves the right to intervene to protect civilians. And now there is this statement:
Russian Foreign Ministry: Russia is receiving a large number of appeals for help protecting peaceful citizens, will be studying the appeals. — Kevin Bishop (@bishopk) March 15, 2014
1450 GMT: WAR? The AP reports that at least two people killed last night in shootouts in Kharkiv, an eastern city close to the Russian border. AP reports:
Two people were killed and several others wounded, including a policeman, in a shootout at the building of a far-right Ukrainian nationalist group, highlighting the tensions in the eastern part of the country that have erupted in Ukraine’s political turmoil. Details of the Friday night shooting in the city of Kharkiv were murky, but local news reports said it broke out after a skirmish between pro-Russia demonstrators and their opponents… After the skirmish, according to the reports, there was gunfire outside a building housing the offices of several nationalist groups including Right Sector, which was one of the drivers of the protests against Yanukovych and that vehemently opposes Russian influence in Ukraine.
A spokesperson for Right Sector says it was pro-Russian provocateurs responsible for the gunfire. Meanwhile, there is breaking news of an explosion nearly two hours ago on the third floor of a building on Kharkiv University. It’s unclear if it’s related, but the report suggests that it was an explosion in a chemical laboratory. But there may be a far bigger headline:
Reuters: UKRAINIAN MILITARY REPELS ATTEMPT BY RUSSIAN FORCES TO ENTER REGION ADJACENT TO CRIMEA-UKRAINE’S DEFENCE MINISTRY
— Mark MacKinnon (@markmackinnon) March 15, 2014
GordonUA.com has this report:
Russian soldiers have landed in helicopters on the Arabat Spit [in the Sea of Azov to the northeast of the Crimean peninsulat]. They are several kilometers from the Chernomorneftegaz [Black Sea oil and gas] works. This territory is part of Kherson Region. There are about 40 paratroopers. Police in the Genich District have confirmed the report…
Combat helicopters from the South operations command have been fueled from the Dnepr-Avia aviatoin company owned by Igor Kolomoysky, governor of Dnepropetrovsk Region and billionaire. The copters are ready to fly.
Is this it? Is this the Russian invasion of Ukraine? We’ll be following the reports throughout the day.