Diplomatic efforts to solve the Ukraine crisis are ongoing, there are more reports of Russian troops pulling back, and yet the heated rhetoric is only building. Also, unnoticed by the Western press, last night the deputy mayor of Kiev was reportedly shot along with two others, perhaps by members of the ultranationalist “Right Sector.”
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2036 GMT: As NATO has seen no sign of Russian pullback near the borders, it’s worth taking a quick look at the signals that Russia’s Foreign Ministry has sent today. So far they have sent three tweets in the last few hours. Here’s the first:
— MFA Russia (@mfa_russia) April 1, 2014
This is a reference to a “massacre” reported by Syrian and Russian press. The incident got a lot of attention in the international press because of Kim Karsashian and a reference to the Armenian genocide, but as of right now there’s no evidence that a massacre ever happened in Kessab, which is not out of character for Russian reporting on Syria.
The next tweet could be mistaken for an April Fool’s joke, but we’re sure that’s not how one is supposed to read it:
— MFA Russia (@mfa_russia) April 1, 2014
The article contains the following statement from the Foreign Ministry:
Ukraine’s loss of territorial integrity was a result of internal processes, as Russia had nothing to do with it, and did not violate its obligations under the Budapest Memorandum, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
The current Kiev ‘government’, which came to power in the wake of an unconstitutional coup, carried out policies, especially in relation to ethnic minorities, that in essence undermined Ukraine’s unity and pushed a whole region out of the country,the ministry said in a statement.
Russia is strictly following its obligations under the 1994 Budapest memorandum on respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty, including during several months of internal political standoff in Kiev, the statement said.
“The same cannot be applied to the policies conducted by western countries, which blatantly ignored Ukraine’s sovereignty during the events on Maidan.”
It’s worth noting that most experts agree that of the Budapest memorandum’s 6 main points, Russia broke either 3 or 4 of them in the last few months. Regardless, this sounds more like the line that we are used to hearing — the government in Kiev is an illegitimate Western-backed organization, and Russia has the right to operate as it has. One could easily extract from this, then, that if Russia sees the same conditions in eastern Ukraine it could take similar measures. Again, this is not a change in position.
— MFA Russia (@mfa_russia) April 1, 2014
Much of this article is focused on Ukraine’s non-aligned status which is what sparked this crisis:
“While on a trip to the village of Novye Petrovtsy Turchynov said Ukraine was considering the possibility of revising its non-aligned status,” the ministry says.
“A draft law to this effect has been submitted to the Verkhovna Rada,” it says.
“Ukraine’s European integration was raised under Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency. Such a policy froze Russian-Ukrainian political relations and spoiled Russia-NATO contacts. Also, it widened the split in Ukrainian society. A majority of the population is against the idea of Ukraine’s accession to NATO,” the ministry says.
“In 2010 Ukraine approved a law on the foreign policy priorities to proclaim its non-aligned status. The Russia-Ukraine Declaration on Strategic Partnership also refers to Ukraine as a non-aligned state,” it says.
So if the Russian Foreign Ministry is not changing its public position, and Russian forces are not withdrawing from the borders, everything appears to be the same as it was only one week ago.
1950 GMT: Ukraine’s Interior Ministry has announced that it wants to nationalize an oil refinery in Odessa, one that is owned by a top Russian bank after it seized it from a Ukrainian businessman who, according to the bank, failed to pay his debts. Kyiv Post reports:
Ukraine’s top cop Arsen Avakov wants the state to take over the Odesa Oil Refinery, a leading market player that once belonged to wanted businessman Serhiy Kurchenko, according to the minister’s March 31 Facebook post.
State-owned Russian bank VTB had subsequently secured the asset from Kurchenko because of unpaid debts in what Avakov called a “very dubious scheme.”
“To put it mildly…we are getting ready to expose the fraud within the formal procedure (of the ownership transfer from Kurchenko’s VETEK to VTB bank) that would return ownership of the plant to Ukraine,” wrote Avakov.
But if the deal between Kurchenko and VTB had indeed been conducted legitimately, it will be extremely difficult for Ukraine to take way the Odesa refinery, said Integreties law firm counselor Denys Kytsenko. One possible way to do this is cancelling the deal in court. However, the Interior Ministry needs to prove that the deal violated the law, the lawyer said.
1923 GMT: A blacklist of people who will be blocked from visiting Crimea has been published. The list has many members of Ukraine’s current government on it, but added to that list is former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and leader of the Right Sector Dmitry Yarosh.
1918 GMT: The Orange Revolution started in part because people were sick of a corrupt government in Ukraine. Yanukovych won the Presidency again because, in part, people were angry at the corruption of the Tymoshenko government. Yanukovych was ousted, again, in part because of people’s frustration at the level of corruption. Well, guess what, corruption is still a major problem.
Simon Shuster’s latest piece for Time shows that some in Ukraine’s military are selling aid that was supposed to go to Ukraine’s military:
Last week, Vladimir Belonog, a military supplies salesman in Kiev, Ukraine, put a new item up for sale, not on his usual website, where he deals in everything from camouflage jumpsuits to paintball guns and ninja stars, but on an Internet auction site he hadn’t used before. The new items were U.S. army rations – known as a meals ready to eat, or MREs – and right on the packaging, alongside the seal of the U.S. Department of Defense, each one said, “U.S. Government Property, commercial resale is unlawful.” In the days before Belonog started selling them, the Pentagon had begun delivering about 300,000 MREs as military aid to help Ukraine defend itself against a Russian invasion. How Belonog got his hands on such items is unclear.
Reached by phone on Tuesday, he admitted that he was the seller, but denied that they were the same MREs that the U.S. government is providing to Ukraine. (A few minutes after Belonog spoke to TIME, he deleted the MREs from his sales page.) Asked about the label forbidding their resale, Belonog says, “What can I tell you? These things are easy to get, and they’re for sale all over the place.” That seems to be the case.
1632 GMT: The MICEX (Moscow Interbank Currency Exchange) has continued to grow at a slow pace since just before the Crimean referendum. Part of this could be a market correction after the index crumbled in February and early March, but much of it also has to do with the fact that the chances for Russian military action, and the economic repercussions that come along with it, appear to be fading, at least for now. Today the MICEX added another .5%.
Even these recent Russian stock market gains are essentially on par or lagging behind world markets, especially European indexes like the SX5E which have also been adding value as the Crimean annexation fades into the background.
The reality is that the Russian economy was already facing sluggish growth, or even retraction, in 2014, and this crisis has only exacerbated this problem.
1613 GMT: In a statement released today, NATO announced that it is suspending cooperation with Russia and it will deepen its support of Ukraine:
1. We, the Foreign Ministers of NATO, are united in our condemnation of Russia’s illegal military intervention in Ukraine and Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We do not recognize Russia’s illegal and illegitimate attempt to annex Crimea. We urge Russia to take immediate steps, as set out in the statement by the NATO-Ukraine Commission, to return to compliance with international law and its international obligations and responsibilities, and to engage immediately in a genuine dialogue towards a political and diplomatic solution that respects international law and Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders. We support the deployment of an OSCE monitoring mission to Ukraine.
2. Our goal of a Euro-Atlantic region whole, free, and at peace has not changed, but has been fundamentally challenged by Russia. We support the sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity of all states within their internationally recognised borders. An independent, sovereign, and stable Ukraine, firmly committed to democracy and respect for human rights, minorities, and the rule of law, is key to Euro-Atlantic security.
3. In order to demonstrate our commitment to Ukraine, we will intensify our cooperation in the framework of our Distinctive Partnership. Today NATO and Ukraine have agreed, as set out in the statement by the NATO-Ukraine Commission, to implement immediate and longer-term measures in order to strengthen Ukraine’s ability to provide for its own security.
4. We have also today agreed a package of measures aimed at deepening our cooperation with other NATO partners in Eastern Europe, in consultation with them and within our existing bilateral programmes.
5. Over the past twenty years, NATO has consistently worked for closer cooperation and trust with Russia. However, Russia has violated international law and has acted in contradiction with the principles and commitments in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council Basic Document, the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and the Rome Declaration. It has gravely breached the trust upon which our cooperation must be based.
6. We have decided to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia. Our political dialogue in the NATO-Russia Council can continue, as necessary, at the Ambassadorial level and above, to allow us to exchange views, first and foremost on this crisis. We will review NATO’s relations with Russia at our next meeting in June.
7. As stated by our Heads of State and Government at the Chicago Summit in 2012, NATO is based on solidarity, Alliance cohesion, and the indivisibility of our security. In the current situation, the Alliance has already taken steps to demonstrate solidarity and strengthen its ability to anticipate and respond quickly to any challenges to Alliance security. We will continue to provide appropriate reinforcement and visible assurance of NATO’s cohesion and commitment to deterrence and collective defence against any threat of aggression to the Alliance.
Interestingly, the statement makes sure to point out that NATO, by definition, is not an opponent of Russia, and yet Russia has been treating it this way. What’s interesting about this is that it is a reference to statements made by the Russian government and state-controlled media that have largely redefined most significant geopolitical events of the last 20 years as Western encroachment on Russia.
1537 GMT: Two big pieces of energy news.
— Natalia Melnychuk (@pravolivo) April 1, 2014
The second piece of news has a far greater geopolitical consequence. In the run-up to former President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to halt the signing of an EU association agreement, Russia had continued to raise the price for natural gas. After Yanukovych pulled the plug on the EU process, Russia cut the price of gas and gave Ukraine a $15 billion aid package. Of course, the decision to stop moving towards the EU also sparked the protests that eventually led to Yanukovych’s downfall. And now, Russia is once again raising the price of gas:
Russian energy giant Gazprom has announced a more than 40 percent increase in the price of gas exports to Ukraine, scrapping a previous discount amid mounting strains between the two countries.
Ukraine will now pay a price of $385.5 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas, Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller said in a statement on Tuesday, raising the price from $268.5 per 1,000 cubic metres which was agreed in December.
The previous discount was part of a financial lifeline Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich after his decision to ditch a pact with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Moscow.
The Security Service of Ukraine said on March 31 that it had stopped a Russian man who investigators believe was planning to forcibly take over government buildings in Kyiv in an effort to destabilize the country.
Ukraine’s security service, known by the acronym SBU, said in a statement on its website that it had detained Oleg Bakhtiyarov, a leader of the extremist Eurasian Youth Union of Russia, for allegedly planning to storm the country’s parliament and Cabinet of Ministers buildings in Kyiv by force.
The Eurasian Youth Union, a Russian political organization and youth wing of the radical Eurasia Party, has been banned from Ukraine for carrying out acts of vandalism reported to be anti-Ukrainian.
The SBU said that Bakhtiyarov, working under the guise of a civil society activist in Kyiv, had recruited some 200 people to assist in storming the buildings and had stockpiled Molotov cocktails and various tools to carry out the provocation. He was also in possession of an undisclosed amount of cash.
1435 GMT: Russian troops withdrawing? Two days ago we noted reports that some Russian tanks were seen pulling back. The next day, the Russian government announced that, while its “drills” were legal and not provocations, it had ordered a partial pullback. But yesterday American officials said that they could not confirm a pullback, and today NATO appears to be going one step further — as far as they can tell, there is no pullback:
But NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking to reporters in Brussels at the start of a two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers Tuesday, said Russia’s “massive military buildup” remains in place. Russia has insisted that the troops are conducting a training exercise.
Rasmussen’s comments came as Eastern European leaders expressed unhappiness with the pace at which NATO has sought to bulk up its presence on the front lines with Russia. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said the results so far have been “unsatisfactory.”
“We are gaining something step by step, but the pace of NATO increasing its military presence for sure could be faster,” he said…
A Russian pullback “is not what we have seen,” he said. “And this massive military buildup can in no way contribute to a de-escalation of the situation, a de-escalation that we all want to see, so I continue to urge Russia to pull back its troops, live up to its international obligation and engage in a constructive dialogue with Ukraine.”
Ukrainskaya Pravda and Segodnya report a shoot-out at a restaurant called “Mafia” on the main avenue of Kreshchatik in which three people have been wounded.
The gunmen burst into the restaurant and barricaded themselves in the bathroom. Fighters from Right Sector and Maidan Self-Defense came to the scene and were debating whether ot try to neutralize the gunmen before the police arrived.
As of 21:00 local time, journalist Mikhaylina Skorik reported that one of the wounded is Bohdan Dubas, first deputy chairman of the Kiev State City Administration and the second is a self-defense fighter. The third was not yet identified. She said that “guys in masks from Right Sector” who looked to be teen-agers were among those who appeared to be the shooters.
According to Anatoly Medved, a sotnik [self defense fighter], the conflict with Right Sector occurred “over the issue of taking down the tents, the question of dismantling the barricades”. The shots were fired from a combat pistol. The gunmen retreated to the Hotel Dniepr. A Right Sector nick-named “Iranian” refused to identify the Right Sector gunman.
This morning, however, few additional details have been published and the story appears to have nearly completely escaped the attention of the Western press. Interfax, which is not necessarily a reliable source on a story like this, published this morning that Ukraine security forces have surrounded Right Sector’s HQ in Kiev and are negotiating for their surrender:
Senior police officers and high-ranking representatives of the Ukrainian Security Service are currently holding negotiations with Right Sector leaders in an attempt to persuade them to surrender their weapons.
This measure was taken in response to an incident, which occurred near the Dnepr hotel on Monday evening, when a Right Sector member wounded three people, including Kyiv city administration deputy head Bohdan Dubas. The attacker was subsequently detained and placed in the Ukrainian Security Service’s pre-trial detention center.
Ukraine’s acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook page: “The Dnepr hotel has been sealed off. Measures are being taken in order to prevent any accidental victims. All the people who are now inside the hotel holding illegal weapons have been asked to surrender these weapons.”
It is the Russian publication ITAR-TASS which may have the best summary, albeit filtered through pro-Kremlin propaganda. The report says that 3 people were shot, including deputy head of the Kiev city state administration Bogdan Dubas. Their details, though not their spin, match reports we carried last night:
“A Right Sector activist started shooting near the Mafia caf (sic). Three people were wounded, including two of them seriously. The wounded are two Maidan self-defense soldiers and Kiev city administration deputy head Bogdan Dubas,” Avakov said.
“The reasons for the shooting are unknown. The wounded are in a hospital,” Avakov said.
He said the shooter was blocked inside the caf· by other activists, adding that Right Sector representatives led the shooter out and accompanied him to the Dnepr hotel.
The minister said he ordered to detain those involved in the incident.
The indispensable RFE/RL provides this update, suggesting that the Right Sector members did indeed leave the hotel peacefully, and so the standoff is over.
RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service has just issued this video showing Ukrainian riot police surrounding the Dnipro Hotel in central Kyiv in the early hours of April 1 to disarm members of the ultranationalist Right Sector group who were staying there. Ukraine’s interior minister ordered the action after an alleged shooting by a Right Sector member left three injured. Right Sector members left the hotel peacefully a few hours after the police deployment:
RFE/RL, the only Western news outlet besides The Interpreter which appears to be carrying this story at all, also adds that Ukrainian MPs have voted to disarm all protest groups in response to the incident:
The decision, passed with 256 votes in favor, came after radical nationalists earlier Tuesday surrendered their weapons and left a Kyiv hotel. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said members of ultranationalist Right Sector movement left the Dnipro Hotel they had commandeered as their headquarters, got into buses and headed to a suburban camp. Their departure followed a shooting spree in the capital in which a Right Sector member shot and wounded three people, including a deputy mayor of the capital. Earlier reports said Tuesday that police had detained a suspect in the shooting incident in the hotel located not far from the city’s central Independence Square. Right Sector played a key role in the ouster of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych in late February but fell out with the new government following the killing of one of their leaders last month.
This is significant. In the wake of the uprising in Ukraine, armed protest groups have helped police keep the peace in much of the country. Those groups have also formed “self defence” groups to stop possible provocations, or even an invasion, from Russian forces. The Rada could risk upsetting those groups by taking this move. Then again, even last night Right Sector had already released a statement saying that they would cooperate with authorities.
For now, national unity has trumped party ideology.