Ukraine Liveblog Day 39: Provoking a War?

March 28, 2014
A Russian tank rolls outside a former Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean capital Simferopol, on March 27, 2014 (AFP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov)

US intelligence estimates for the amount of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders continues to rise, and is eclipsed by Ukrainian estimates. Meanwhile, President Obama warns Putin to “move back those troops.”

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

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

2049 GMT: A cross post from our Russia liveblog

EuroMaidan PR, the Twitter account supporting the new Ukrainian government, reports that it has obtained a copy of Kremlin directives to the press on how to cover events. The page illustrated gives suggestions on how to portray Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s meetings, events in Ukraine, and a state campaign for physical education.

Such directives were routinely issued in the Soviet era, and then made a comeback in fact in Ukraine in 2002 under the presidency of Leonid Kuchma, when Viktor Yanukovych was then Prime Minister. The instructions earned the nickname temniki, or “little themes.” Human Rights Watch reported in 2003 that the temniki were a chill on freedom of express for journalists; now they have come full circle to Moscow.

1815 GMT: The US and the EU have released a joint statement on last night’s events outside the Verkhovna Rada, where Right Sector protesters staged a rally in protest over the death of one of their leaders (jump to update 1515):

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and the Delegation of the European Union to Ukraine condemn the incident that took place at the Verkhovna Rada on the night of March 27.

This is a difficult moment in Ukraine’s history, which requires consolidation of all reform efforts, while embracing mutual respect and eschewing violence. Lasting reform in Ukraine will be a long and complex process. To be credible, it must remain democratic, transparent, and peaceful and be pursued exclusively in coordination with the nation’s democratic institutions. As in the past, we call on all sides to refrain from violence and to stick to legal methods for expressing their views and concerns and to avoid any actions which may destabilize the situation.

We welcome the statements of Pravy Sector’s leadership that they intend to keep their actions “within the framework of the law”. We urge all political forces to distance themselves from extremists, who undermine the efforts to stabilize Ukraine and to protect its sovereignty.

We urge the Ukrainian Government to ensure that those who broke the law are held accountable. We stand by previous assertions that any death which occurs in unclear circumstances should be investigated impartially in order to provide citizens the feeling of security and accountability of law enforcement organs. We welcome the establishment of the special parliamentary commission which will scrutinize all evidence on the events involving the police and resulting losses.

During this process, the United States and European Union remain committed to standing with the Ukrainian people to help them build the prosperous, democratic future they deserve.

1806 GMT: The famalies of victims of Ukraine’s revolutionary violence will be given financial compensation. RFE/RL reports:

The Ukrainian government on Friday approved a proposal from Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk that the family of each victim be given the equivalent of $10,000.

In additional, survivors, including children, will be given monthly payments of 5,000 hryvnyas ($440) as of April 1.

The payments will be given to the families of all victims of the violence, including both demonstrators and police.

According to the latest data, 104 people died in the three-month standoff that led to ouster of President of Viktor Yanukovych in late February.

1800 GMT: Two interesting updates from our Window on Eurasia column. The first — the Russians keep complaining about a refugee crisis in Ukraine, and tremendous demand for Russian passports from Crimea, except that journalists have never seen evidence of the former, and Crimeans simply haven’t put in that many applications for passports.

Read the article: The Real ‘Crimean Referendum’ – Few There Asking for Russian Passports

Paul Goble also breaks down yesterday’s UN vote on the Crimean referendum. The bottom line? Russia has far fewer allies than it did during the Cold War, though some of them are in places that used to be closely allied with the West.

Read: UNGA Vote on Crimean ‘Referendum’ Shows New Divisions in the World

1545 GMT: Russia continues to swell its troops near the border of Ukraine, but they are not there for drills, according to the Pentagon. Reuters carried this report yesterday:

Although the Pentagon has cited assurances from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that its troops along the border were sent for exercises and that they would not cross into Ukraine, U.S. officials have acknowledged concerns about continued Russian reinforcements to the area.

“We’ve seen no specific indications that these – that exercises – are taking place,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told a news briefing.

But when pressed, Kirby added: “Just because we haven’t seen an indication of exercises now doesn’t mean that one won’t occur.”

“(The Russians) made it clear that their intent was to do exercises and not to cross the border. Our expectation is they’re going to live up to that word,” he said.

Since then, the estimates for the amount of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border has grown to 50,000, and the US has sent even more signals that it thinks an invasion is imminent.

Adding to these concerns are that there is no sign, in many areas, that the new forces are conducting drills. For instance, NBC reporter Jim Maceda reports that, at least near Belgorod (map), there’s no sign of Russian troops off of their bases. But while Maceda has questioned how a Russian buildup on their bases is a provocation, security experts have suggested that, in fact, the lack of active drilling is still highly concerning because it does not explain the presence of the new troop deployments.

Also, as we’ve mentioned, Russia now admits that the troops are present near the border, but only for drills, and this seems to be a lie. But even if it were true, Ukraine was never notified of any drills, which is a violation of several treaties.

Russia is massing troops, often less than 20-30 minutes from the border, and in scales we have not seen in recent history. Furthermore, two days ago tanks were seen off base north of Kiev, apparently after having been offloaded from trains in the area. The troop presence is not in question. The intentions of the Russian president appear to be the only unknown on this issue.

1515 GMT: As we reported last night, several hundred, or perhaps up to 1000, followers of “Right Sector,” one of Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist groups, gathered in front of the Rada (parliament). They demanded the resignation of Ukraine’s top cop in the wake of the mysterious death of one of Right Sector’s leaders this week. Kyiv Post reports:

Right Sector first gathered more than 1,000 members of the group – now an officially registered political party – on Constitution Square outside the Verkhovna Rada late on March 27. While they did not storm the building, several windows were shattered. Right Sector’s Kyiv leader Ihor Mazur said the first ones on the scene who broke the windows were not members of his group, but “provocateurs.”

“But separate citizens ran ahead. When we came here, the glass (in the parliament house near the central entrance) had been already smashed,” Ukrainian News reported Mazur as saying.

Radical Party leader Oleg Lyashko appeared from the building shortly after to try to temper the crowd, which chanted “Rev-o-lut-sia!” and picketed the building into the night.

Tempers cooled after independent lawmaker Yuriy Derevianko announced that an ad hoc interim commission would be set up in parliament to investigate the situation surrounding the suspicious death of Right Sector leader Oleksandr Muzychko, also known as Sashko Bily.

There were some tense moments, but the fact remains that the crowd, which was recorded on livestreaming video, never appeared particularly violent or volatile. In fact, many of Ukraine’s leaders walked out of the Rada to address the crowd.

The Russian media, on the other hand, reported that the Rada was under attack, that neo-Nazis were “storming” it, just as pro-EU groups had stormed Ukrainian government buildings during the crisis that sparked all of this. The reality, however, is that there was never a storming:

Russian propaganda? Sure, though those reports were published during the rally when things were more tense. What is far more problematic, however, is that some of the Russian media is still reporting that the Rada was “stormed.” Gazeta calls what happened an “unsuccessful attempt to storm the Rada” by “right wing radicals,” a new chapter in what it calls a “new street war between the radicals and the police.”

“Normal people don’t behave this way,” one man interviewed by the Russian outlet says.

Why is this important? The Right Sector is the favorite target of Russian media and government officials. The Russian narrative is that the country is being hijacked by neo-Nazis, and the people of Ukraine are the victims. The main justification for invading and annexing Crimea was to defend ethnic Russians against radicals from Kiev. Now, we see more and more that the Russian narrative is expanding, focusing on the people of south and east Ukraine. Extremism from Right Sector could easily be used to justify a similar intervention in mainland Ukraine.

Interestingly, though the Right Sector protest started very angrily, but when some leaders in the crowd suggested that Russia could use the storming of the Rada as an excuse to invade, the crowd calmed down.

1445 GMT: First Crimea, now all of Ukraine — ousted president Viktor Yanukovych has called from a Crimea-like referendum in every region in Ukraine.

“As the president whose thoughts and heart are together with you, I call on each reasonable citizen of Ukraine – don’t let the impostors use you! Demand a referendum on the determination of the status of each region within Ukraine,” Yanukovych said.

He said “everything that has happened in recent months and is happening in Ukraine is an armed coup that was conducted by the opposition with the use of arms of terrorist groups with full support of some Western states.”

“The impostors have no mandate of confidence of the Ukrainian people, have no right to deprive each Ukrainian citizen of his right to vote, introducing non-constitutional changes to the legislation, including on the presidential election,” Yanukovych stressed.
“The anarchy going on in the streets of our country has nothing in common with democracy,” he is certain. “Let at least any Western state call democratic the steps taken by the current ‘managers.’ I don’t think that anyone from European high-ranking officials would publicly recognize normal the shooting and plunder in the streets of their states when terrorists are called activists who are allowed to rob and kill people with impunity,” Yanukovych noted.

“It’s absolutely logical that the protest that is rising in the South-East of Ukraine is a natural reaction of the densely populated industrial region to an armed coup,” he stated.

Note that he groups south Ukraine, not Crimea, with east Ukraine. In other words, in both south and east Ukraine, the people don’t recognize Kiev, according to Yanukovych. Yanukovych spoke out against a Russian invasion of Crimea, or Ukraine, and spoke out against dividing the country — but that was right after he fled Ukraine and joined Russia, and it was long before the invasion started. It seems that the longer he stays in Russia, the more in line with the Russian-state line he becomes.

1423 GMT: The Russian government is already making statements that in many ways Eastern Ukraine is just like Crimea:

In fact, Alexander Malevany, deputy head of the FSB, said that the “legitimate desires of the peoples of the Crimea, and the eastern regions of Ukraine” making the rest of the world nervous:

“There has been a sharp increase in external threats to the state. The lawful desire of the peoples of Crimea and eastern Ukrainian regions is causing hysteria in the United States and its allies,” Federal Security Service (FSB) deputy head Alexander Malevany was quoted as saying by Interfax.

He said Moscow was taking “offensive intelligence measures” to counter Western efforts to “weaken Russian influence in a region that is of vital importance”.

1413 GMT: Russian forces on the border may be far closer to full invasion strength than other estimates indicate. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Russian troops massing near Ukraine are actively concealing their positions and establishing supply lines that could be used in a prolonged deployment, ratcheting up concerns that Moscow is preparing for another major incursion and not conducting exercises as it claims, U.S. officials said.

Such an incursion could take place without warning because Russia has already deployed the array of military forces needed for such an operation, say officials briefed on the latest U.S. intelligence.

The rapid speed of the Russian military buildup and efforts to camouflage the forces and equipment have stoked U.S. fears, in part because American intelligence agencies have struggled to assess Russian President Vladimir Putin’s specific intentions.

According to this latest assessment, Russia has 50,000 troops on the border close enough to strike Ukraine. That is perhaps a 100% growth in just one week, and US officials say that far more Russian forces are positioned further back and can be quickly mobilized.

1345 GMT: Yesterday morning, the CIA was estimating that there were 30,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. Today, US officials are putting that number at 40,000. Ukraine puts the number much higher. US President Barack Obama has said that the troops are an intimidation at best and a threat at worst. CNN reports:

“You’ve seen a range of troops massing along that border under the guise of military exercises, but these are not what Russia would normally be doing,” the President said. “It may simply be an effort to intimidate Ukraine, or it may be that they’ve got additional plans.

“And, in either case, what we need right now to resolve and de-escalate the situation would be for Russia to move back those troops and to begin negotiations directly with the Ukrainian government as well as the international community.”

Russia may have 40,000 troops near its border with Ukraine, two U.S. officials told CNN on Thursday. The officials said that this estimate was largely based on satellite imagery and that a firm number is difficult to assess.

However, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Council of National Security and Defense, Yarema Dukh, told CNN his government estimates 88,000 Russian troops are at the Ukrainian border.

U.S. officials said they believe the higher estimates may reflect Russian troops on alert farther to the east.

Missed in this analysis is the fact that under several treaties Russia is obligated to inform Ukraine in advance of military drills in Western Russia, and it has failed to do so.

Yesterday, we discussed the opinion that Russia still does not have enough troops in place to invade mainland Ukraine. And while the Russian media and government have been making a case for further intervention in Ukraine, that narrative has not yet reached fever pitch. Many Russia watchers expect that the case for invasion would need to be made more forcefully before Russia acts.

Still, there are signs that an invasion may not be far off. Yesterday we also carried a report that Russia may be building field hospitals near the border. Foreign Policy carries similar claims:

The numbers of troops near Russia’s border with Ukraine have been steadily increasing since Russian forces conquered Crimea in February. And near Ukraine’s eastern border, troops are reportedly being supplied with food and medical supplies, which they would need in the event of further operations — a development that U.S. intelligence agencies have noted with alarm. On Capitol Hill, U.S. spy agencies have given Congress increasingly dire assessments of the Russian activity and indicated that the likelihood of an invasion is rapidly growing, according to a participant in the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.

Pavel Felgenhauer, of Foreign Policy, argued this week that Russia needs mainland Ukraine now because Crimea is so dependent on mainland Ukraine. More worrying, however, Felgenhauer warns that Putin has a very narrow window to make a decision on whether he will attack mainland Ukraine, and that window, combined with Crimea’s needs, may pressure him to make a more rash decision. Among several reasons for the narrow window — the fact that Russia’s military draft deadline is nearing:

If Putin decides to send in his troops, he has a narrow window in which to act. The winter of 2014 in Russia and Ukraine was relatively mild with little snow, while the spring is early and warm. The soil is drying rapidly, meaning that it will soon be possible to move heavy vehicles off of highways and into fields in southern areas of Ukraine close to the Black and Azov Seas. A key date is April 1, which marks the beginning of the Russia’s spring conscript call-up, when some 130,000 troops drafted a year earlier will have to be mustered out as replacements arrive. This would leave the Russian airborne troops, marines, and army brigades with many conscripts that have served half a year or not at all, drastically reducing battle readiness. The better-trained one-year conscripts can be kept in the ranks for a couple of months but no longer. Otherwise they’ll start demanding to be sent home, and morale will slip. As a result, Russia’s conventional military will regain reasonable battle-readiness only around August or September 2014, giving the Ukrainians ample time to get their act together.

But where is the provocation? Where are the large body of invasion troops? If we look to what happened in Crimea, we might remember that the invasion there started small. The first move was when armed gunmen stormed the Crimean parliament. The Russian government said that this was a sign of anarchy, and then they praised a pro-Russian leader for installing his own gunmen in parliament, the first “Crimean self-defence” force. The only problem — they were the same soldiers. We also saw Russian helicopters and soldiers harass Ukrainian troops stationed in Crimea who refused to shoot. In other words, could we see small-scale Russian power grabs or Kremlin-backed provocations be used to justify a larger invasion in the weeks or months ahead?

No one knows whether Russia will invade the rest of Ukraine, or move on Moldova, or pick new targets north in Estonia, or Georgia, or elsewhere. What we do know is that every data point suggests that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine. The safe assumption at this point would be to count on the invasion happening, or perhaps even to try to find measures that could stop it.