Ukraine Liveblog Day 58: Is Kiev Ready For a Showdown With Separatists?

April 16, 2014
The Ukrainian army preparing for counter-terror operations on April 15 | Picture via View image on Twitter Olaf Koens

Yesterday Ukraine launched a “counter-terrorism operation,” retaking an airfield in Kramatorsk from separatists. The Ukrainian military and police appeared to be preparing for a broader action, but there are already signs that Ukrainian authorities may be facing setbacks today.

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

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs.

An interactive map of the situation:

View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map

Below we will be making regular updates. Be sure to check back often and hit refresh.


Shooting Reported in Mariupol

In the port city of Mariupol (map), we’re still trying to piece together exactly what happened there. This report is from Euromaidan PR, a Twitter account linked to the leaders of the Euromaidan protests in Kiev:

We’re working on confirming these reports.

Canada and Estonia Call For Emergency OSCE Meeting

Some more breaking news:

Chapter 3 of the Vienna Document is designed to reduce risk of international conflicts through “exchanging information on defense policy, force planning, budgets, procurements, and calendars.”

In other words, OSCE members now believe that the movement and position of Russian troops in eastern Europe constitutes an unusual situation, and one of which the international community has not been properly informed.

Ukrainian APCs Withdraw From Kramatorsk
There are several reports that citizens of Kramatorsk, alongside pro-Russian rebels, challenged Ukrainian forces to withdraw. Now there is a report that those forces have pulled back.
Breaking News – Shooting Reported in Mariupol
This just in from Mariupol (map);
Former Sec. of State – Russia Engaged In Grotesque Orwellian Propaganda

Strobe Talbott, who was  Deputy Secretary of State from 1994 to 2001 and is currently associated with Yale University and the Brookings Institution, has just spoken to MSNBC. His assessment is grim: Putin wants to destabilize not just Ukraine, but all countries in eastern Europe (and beyond) which Russian wants to become either “vassal states that basically take orders from Moscow, or basket cases.” Talbott also speaks about Russia’s PR campaign:

“This is not ‘effective PR.’ This is the worst, most grotesque kind of Orwellian propaganda. We haven’t seen this kind of ‘Big Lie’  since the darkest days of the Cold War, and… we have to be very very careful about accepting the Russian version of what’s happening there (in Ukraine).” Talbott goes on to say that the polling is clear — as The Interpreter has pointed out —  that very few in eastern Ukraine support declaring independence or joining eastern Ukraine.

See the video of Talbott’s full remarks.

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry Refutes Russian Accusations that Ukraine is a Violent ‘Hot Spot’

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry (MID) has issued a statement accusing Russia of double standards in its freezing of a deal to return seized Ukrainian military equipment from Crimea. Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports:

In the statement it is argued that “Ukraine is not, and could not even be considered to be a hot spot”. According to Kiev, the suspension of the transfer of military equipment is regarded on the Ukrainian side as “the use of Russian double standards”.

On April 15 the Deputy Defence Minister of the Russian Federation, Anatoly Antonov, told journalists that the Defence Ministry had suspended the transfer of weapons and military equipment from Crimea, so that they could not be used against the civilian population in the East and Southeast of the country.

“May I remind you that the Russian Federation adheres to international obligations and, under the Charter of Paris, within the framework if the Helsinki Act and the decisions of the UN and OSCE, has committed itself not to exercise restraint or not deliver arms to hot spots,” he said. According to the Deputy Minister, the East and Southeast of Ukraine today is a hot spot.

“Therefore, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has decided to suspend the transfer of arms and military equipment, previously owned by Ukraine, from the Federal District of Crimea to the centre of Ukraine,” said Antoniv. However, he said that this does not apply to ships and aircraft.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry’s statement makes three main points:

Firstly, Ukraine is not, and can not even be considered to be a hot spot. The fact of the anti-terrorism operation does not justify the claim that Ukraine is a hot spot. Ukrainian special units, called upon for anti-terrorism operations, are acting professionally with the aim of neutralising subversive groups, who have illegally appeared on the territory of our state and have been externally inspired by the from the Russian side.

Secondly, this is not a discussion about military-technical cooperation in the traditional sense. We are talking about the return by the Russian Federation of military equipment illegally seized through looting and robbery by divisions of the Russian armed forces during the annexation of part of the sovereign territory of Ukraine – Crimea. This cannot be regarded as the “supply of arms” under any circumstances. Therefore, references by Russian officials to any international obligations are inappropriate.

Thirdly, Russia has traditionally been quite selective in how it treats its international obligations in the field of export controls. Nor do they explain how their weapons and military equipment mysteriously fall, and continue to fall, onto Ukrainian territory, particularly in the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where they are being widely used by illegal armed gangs.

The agreement to return military equipment was reached on April 8, and reportedly began with the transfer of the missile corvette Priluki and the tanker Fastov on April 11. Jane’s has more details on the specifics of the arranged transfers here.

Separatists in Donetsk Draft May 11th Referendum

The following is a report from the Russian state-operated propaganda/news outlet, — our comments are below:

The Donetsk Region has defined the questions to be put on the May 11 referendum, stated regional Councilor Irina Popova. There will be just two of them:

1) Do you support the creation of an independent Donetsk Republic?

2) Of which state should a Donetsk Republic be part of: Ukraine or the Russian Federation?

The Central Election Commission of Donetsk Region has already been allocated a headquarters building next to the regional government administration and is currently forming the list of members.

There are a number of distortions. First of all, the Donetsk Region has made no such decision. A small group of gunmen stormed the administrative building in Donetsk last week and began calling itself the “People’s Republic of Donetsk.” As such, these armed gunmen have created something called the “Central Election Commission.” 

The wording on this referendum has similarities to the one in Crimea, though it is missing an option to continue to be part of Ukraine but have more autonomy. Even though analysts suggested that question  was offering a false choice, this wording, as described by RT, really offers no choice — Ukraine would not stand for an independent Donetsk region, so the only real option on this ballot is to join Russia.

Of course, unlike in Crimea where separatist gunmen, backed by the full-force of the Russian military, had complete control over the peninsula of Crimea, separatists have control over very little territory. How is this vote supposed to happen at all?

Russia’s Foreign Ministry Says US Driving Ukraine Toward War
Russia has been carefully constructing a case for intervening in Ukraine. This could be the final statement that we’ve been waiting for, however, the final line of thinking that could be used by the Kremlin to justify, in their own minds at least, unilateral intervention in Ukraine — just like in Crimea:
Are Russian Special Forces Already in Ukraine and Plotting Murder?

Yesterday we were following statements from the Ukrainian leaders claiming that the Russian 45th Airborne was already operating in Ukraine. While the claim was not accompanied with specific evidence, and while we could not verify the claim, if Russia were sending units into Ukraine it would make sense for them to lead with the 45th airborne. Today the Kyiv Post expands upon the claim, which appears to be coming from Ukraine’s security services:

The state agency, known as the SBU, says that a special reconnaissance and operations unit within the Moscow-based 45th Detached Reconnaissance Regiment of Russian Airborne Troops and military intelligence units from southern Russia are leading the insurgency.

Their objective is to “cause bloodshed on the streets of our cities” and kill “100-200” Ukrainians to provide a pretext for Russia to mass an invasion of eastern Ukraine, said Vitaliy Naida, a high-ranking member of the SBU’s counter-intelligence department. Then, he predicted, “in an hour-and-a-half, tanks and armored personnel carriers of the Russian army will appear on the territory of Ukraine.”

Russia has denied involvement in separatist unrest and terrorist acts in eastern and southern Ukraine.

However, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said that the Kremlin has received “many appeals for help” in eastern Ukraine. 

The Kyiv Post report goes on to lay out some specific evidence and claims that Russian agents have already been arrested inside Ukraine. Yesterdayt he SBU opened a criminal investigation into Sberbank, a Russian state-owned bank, over evidence linking some of these agents bank to Sberbank. Read the entire article here.

Separatists Forcing Jews To Register or Face Deportation?

A report has been circulating today that a flyer has been distributed on Donetsk, signed by Denis Pushilin, the “mayor” appointed by the pro-Russian gunmen of the self-proclaimed “People’s Republic of Donetsk.” International Business Times reports:

It orders all Jews aged over 16 years old to register before the government building, which has been occupied by pro-Russian insurgents in defiance of Kiev rule.

Jews have also to pay a registration fee of $50 (£30) before 3 May and list all real estate and vehicles owned.

The registration and the fee are due because the Jewish leaders “supported the nationalist junta of [Stepan] Bandera in Kiev” and are hostile “to Orthodox Donetsk republic and its citizens.

Another article was forwarded to us that suggests that the origin of the story could be,  also knowns as “News of Donbass.”

We will continue to look into the claim, but at this time we cannot verify that this flyer was passed around in eastern Ukraine, nor can we verify that the flyer is not a hoax of some sort. Obviously, however, this is a troubling charge.
Euromaidan Address Financiers and Media on Akhmetov’s Role in Ukrainian Politics.

Andriy Gerus, a Euromaidan activist from Kiev studying in London, has posted an open letter on Facebook addressed to “Akhmetov’s debtholders and European media.”

This letter has been sent to more than 100 hedge funds, investment banks and brokerage houses and the journalists of 25 European media with a purpose to inform about the current situation in Ukraine and the role which Mr. Rinat Akhmetov, one of the richest businessmen in Eastern Europe and the beneficial owner of SCM, DTEK, Metinvest, and First Ukrainian International Bank (FUIB) plays in the current Ukrainian situation.

Having described the extremely close relationship between Akhmetov and former President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, Gerus points out that Akhmetov has flirted with the Russian-backed separatist movement in the East of Ukraine while keeping a careful distance from the new government.

We believe that such behavior is an attempt to blackmail the Ukrainian government and achieve certain guarantees that there would be no investigations against Akhmetov’s business, in particular regarding payment of taxes, privatization, cooperation schemes with certain persons, including MAKO Group companies controlled by Yanukovych family and others, in relation to which EU and US sanctions were imposed.

The letter then calls for both debtholders and journalists to investigate a list of concerns pertinent to Akhmetov’s position and influence within Ukraine:

• payment of taxes by the companies controlled by Rinat Akhmetov in 2010-2014;

• privatization of the Ukrainian state companies in 2010-2014 (in particular, ZakhidEnergo, KyivEnergo, DniproEnergo, KrymEnergo, Donetskoblenergo, Dniprooblenergo, Rovenkyantracyt, Sverdlovantracyt (which currently belong to DTEK) and others). The majority of these assets were acquired below the fair price, as special conditions of privatization were set up which denied access of other potential buyers to the privatization process (Mr. Zhevago, owner and CEO of Ferrexpo publicly confirmed recently that he was not allowed to participate in many privatization auctions during 2010-2014);

• conditions of acquisition of Mariupol Steel Plant named after Illich (member of Metinvest Group) and Ukrtelecom;

• relations between Akhmetov’s and Yanukovych’s businesses (the prosecution office of Swizerland has already conducted a search in the Swiss office of DTEK Group); Ukrainian companies-members of DTEK and Metinvest Groups had intensive relations with MAKO company controlled by the Yanukovych family which is attested by payables and receivables between these two companies reflected in the financial statements of the relevant Ukrainian companies;

• payment of dividends to Akhmetov, taking into consideration the fact that Ukrainian subsidiaries did not pay the dividends in the necessary amounts to holding companies in other jurisdictions. If transfer pricing or other schemes were used to form the dividends cash flow, it is necessary to examine whether they complied with the applicable laws of all the jurisdictions where such transactions took place;

• dominant position of Metinvest Group at the Ukrainian market of iron ore: Ukrainian iron ore plants which are members of Metinvest Group provide more than 2/3 of total amount of iron ore produced in Ukraine; and the supply of iron ore from other countries to Ukraine is rather complicated. At the same time, the dominant position of Metinvest Group was not officially recognized by the Antimonopoly Committee of Ukraine, and there were no corresponding actions from the Antimonopoly Committee of Ukraine in regard;

• possible participation of Yanukovych as one of the beneficial owners in Akhmetov’s businesses which developed by means of intensive privatization in Ukraine in 2010-2014.

Read the full letter here.

Russian Economy Drops, But How Far?

The Associate Press publishes this assessment of Russia’s economy:

In the first official estimate of the Ukrainian turmoil’s impact on growth, Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said the economy expanded just 0.8 percent in the first quarter — far short of the earlier prediction of 2.5 percent.

“The acute international situation of the past two months” and “serious capital flight” were to blame, he told parliament.

Russian markets have been rattled by tensions between Moscow and neighboring Ukraine, where Russia annexed the Black Sea region of Crimea last month. The main stock index tanked 10 percent in March, wiping out billions in market capitalization. In the first three months of 2014, the ruble lost 9 percent against the dollar, making imports more expensive, while spooked investors pulled about $70 billion out of the country — more than in all of 2013.

It’s worth noting that some analysts generally feel that the initial forecast growth of 2.5% was optimistic (therefore this new, worse number, may also be optimistic), and some long-term forecasts predicted a slowdown as the year went on. In other words, the Russian economy is already growing slower than predicted, but this crisis has accelerated the slowdown.

Yesterday, Russian stocks did drop — and the drop started the moment Ukraine’s “anti-terror operation” began. But today Russia’s MICEX index is up .83% and the ruble is up .51% against the dollar. In other words, investors in Russia clearly anticipate more Russian belligerence on the international stage, and may expect more sanctions, but while they seemed surprised yesterday by Ukraine’s strong and efficient reaction to this crisis yesterday, as Ukraine’s crackdown on separatists hits snags the Russian economy seems to have stabilized.

So Russia’s economy may be struggling, and long-term indicators may be raising blood pressures in Moscow, but this crisis does not seem to be deep enough, at least so far, to collapse the economy.

Max Seddon Reports From Slaviansk
Max Seddon has seen the Ukrainian soldiers who have just lost their APCs to pro-Russian militants. Note that Seddon says the separatists did take the guns from the Ukrainian soldiers, which contradicts some earlier reports. Also note that whether some of the men defected or not is in doubt, but there is some evidence that at least some of them did.
Ukrainian Soldiers Surrender to Pro-Russian Crowds

The Ukrainian soldiers belonging to the captured APCs are now on their way home.

An amazing picture. Though we can’t verify it is real, it does appear to be new.
Major Setbacks For Ukraine’s Crackdown on Separatists
We haven’t confirmed this picture yet, but…
The pro-Russians don’t need to be armed to block Ukrainian forces either:
Civilians Block Movement of Ukrainian Forces

Yesterday a Ukrainian tank got stuck in the mud and was harassed by unarmed pro-Russians. It’s not entirely clear what happened, but it is possible that the tank was off road to begin with because civilian vehicles appeared to be blocking some of the roads. At a certain point, the tank crew appears to power down the engines and give up.

Today, we have this report:
A picture from the Facebook page of journalist Gregory Zhygalov, who works for TCH. 10178047_10152352660928044_4766526750173
Pro-Russian Militants Capture Armored Vehicles

Yesterday, after the Ukrainian military seized the Kramatorks airport (map), it seemed like the military would soon move on Slaviansk, a city just up the road to the north (map) that has been a key base for pro-Russian militias who have been seizing government buildings since late last week.

That plan hit a snag, mainly that pro-Russian civilians gathered in both Kramatorsk and Slaviansk in support of the militants as the gunmen erected roadblocks near the entrances to the buildings. If the Ukrainian military wanted in, they would have to fight for it, and while Ukrainian forces had more than enough firepower to do so, it became clear that concerns of civilian casualties were mounting.

Today the situation may have become even worse for Ukrainian forces, as a group of six armored vehicles was either captured by pro-Russian gunmen, or the troops operating the vehicles defected. The New York Times reports:

About 100 soldiers in unmarked green uniforms and bearing the equipment of professional infantry guarded the vehicles, but they showed no signs of allegiance other than the single flag. Some of the soldiers had grenade launchers slung over their shoulders.

If the vehicles were indeed seized from the Ukrainian Army, it was not immediately clear whether they had been taken by force or with the collusion of defecting Ukrainian troops. Either possibility, however, would signal an escalation by Russian-backed militants in eastern Ukraine. , a Ukrainian news website, reported that militants seized the vehicles in a neighboring town, Kramatorsk, where the Ukrainians landed paratroopers Tuesday to secure an airfield, in what was intended to be a show of force.

The Ukrainian general who commanded the military operation, Vasily Krutov, stood near armored personnel carriers outside the town and warned loudly that gunmen who did not surrender their weapons would be “destroyed.”

A show of force? Yesterday, some may have considered the operation to seize Kramatorks airfield an impressive show of force, but losing six APCs, seemingly without firing a shot, will likely leave the opposite impression.