Ukraine Liveblog Day 59: Gun Battles in Mariupol

April 17, 2014
Pro-Russian rally outside the mayor's office in Mariupol | Kyiv Post

Last night pro-Russian gunmen tried to take over a military base in Mariupol, but they were met with a hail of gunfire. At least 3 were killed in the attack, and today there are more reports of violence in that city.

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

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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.


Kazakh Businessman Offers Reward for Murder of anti-Russian Ukrainian Oligarch

Yermek Taychibekoff, a Kazakh businessman and public figure, who also has a blog called “Russian empire”, has offered a huge reward for the capture or “liquidation” of Ihor Kolomoyskyi, a Ukrainian oligarch and the recently appointed Governor of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Kolomoyskyi has been somewhat outspoken in his criticism of the Russian state, describing President Putin, on March 3, as a “schizophrenic shorty.” 


[Yermek Taychibekoff]

Taychibekoff insisted that the payment would on be given on “a result”, and that the  “hunting season” would end, along with the offer of the reward, on May 1, 2014.

Taychibekoff’s offer of a reward for a political assassination has been publicised on the Russian state TV channel, Rossiya 24.

Taychibekoff has since increased his offer to 5.2 million rubles.

Over the course of the day, the prize money for the liquidation of Kolomoyskyi has increased to 5.2 million Russian rubles. Many are phoning in, writing, willing to invest for a common cause.

Agreement on Ukraine reached in Geneva

Representatives from Ukraine, the European Union, the United States and Russia have reached an agreement tonight on “initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security for all citizens.”

The full text of their statement follows:

The Geneva meeting on the situation in Ukraine agreed on initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and security for all citizens.

All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions. The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-semitism.

All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.

Amnesty will be granted to protestors and to those who have left buildings and other public places and surrendered weapons, with the exception of those found guilty of capital crimes.

It was agreed that the OSCE Special Monitoring Misson should play a leading role in assisting Ukrainian authorities and local communities in the immediate implementation of these de-escalation measures wherever they are needed most, beginning in the coming days. The US, EU and Russia commit to support this mission, including by providing monitors.

The announced constitutional process will be inclusive, transparent and accountable. It will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies, and allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments.

The participants underlined the importance of economic and financial stability in Ukraine and would be ready to discuss additional support as the above steps are implemented.

The Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, said:

We disagree with Russia on many things, but what we agreed today is to put an effort, joint efforts, to launch the process of de-escalation in eastern Ukraine. And Russia committed it to be part of this process. So it will be a test for Russia, if Russia wants to really show that it is willing to help the stability in these regions.

However, the Kyiv Post reports that Viktoria Siumar, deputy chief of the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council, has said that, regardless of the results of the Geneva talks, the anti-terrorist operation under way in the Southeast will not cease, saying:

Of course not. What does one have to do with the other?

The Kyiv Post follows:

Siumar said that the Russians no longer control the situation in Donetsk Oblast, just like the Ukrainians, implying that they can not help with disarming militants and freeing buildings. She said there are eight gangs in the Donetsk Oblast Administration alone that have no single leader for negotiations and no single set of demands, which makes the situation difficult to solve at the diplomatic level.

Indeed, The New York Times reports that some of of the separatists have already dismissed the agreement:

Vasili Domashev, who described himself as an aide to the commandant of a building under occupation in Donetsk, said that since no representative of the newly declared and wholly unrecognized People’s Republic of Donetsk had been invited to the Geneva talks, the republic would not be bound by the decisions made there.

Though Western governments maintain that Russia holds sway over the groups here, Mr. Domashev said that was not the case. ‘Lavrov and Kerry decided, but who are they to us? We are the Donetsk Republic. We have people who make their own decisions.”

“We will not leave,” he concluded. “We do not trust Kiev. We really don’t trust them.”

Is Russia merely playing for time so as to either better prepare a military option, or to keep the disruption going in eastern Ukraine up until the May 25 elections. Speaking to the Kyiv Post, Andrew Wilson, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says that:

It doesn’t add up, Russia’s primary task since all this (separatist movement in southeastern Ukraine) began has been to disrupt the vote either by preventing it, minimizing (voter) turnout elsewhere, or have Kyiv impose a state of emergency.

It must also be noted that the agreement of the vacation of “occupied buildings and spaces” does not seem to apply to Russian-occupied Crimea.

Further on Anti-Semitic Leaflet in Donetsk

We’ve been covering throughout the day the story of a disturbing leaflet in Donetsk that appeared to be issued by the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” and supposedly required “all Jews to register” in the region. 

While the leader of the “People’s Republic” disavowed the leaflet, some reports maintained that the group’s members were still somehow involved. The Times of Israel and Ynet reported the issue as follows, based on a local Jewish website in Ukraine:

In a response to a request by a Ukrainian Jewish website, Pushilin, the interim government’s regional chairman, confirmed that the flyers were distributed by his organization, but denied any connection to the leaflet’s content.

But we found the original website referenced, Yevreisky Kiev [Jewish Kiev], and discovered there’s a mistranslation. Here’s what the original said:

Journalists from the media project “Jewish Kiev” contacted Denis Pushilin for commentary. He confirmed that a leaflet signed by the organization which he heads really was distributed in Donetsk. And confirmed that neither he nor his organization has anything to do with it.

That’s the literal translation, and even in the Russian it might be misconstrued, but Pushilin’s actual admission was only that such a flyer existed. He then went on to deny that either he or his organization had anything to do with it. He added that the title for him — “People’s Governor” — which he does not use was further indication of a forgery to smear his group.

Simon Shuster of Time magazine has followed up:

But even if it looked like the start of some racist purge, the flier was more likely part of an ill-conceived extortion plot or a propaganda ploy against the separatists. For one thing, the sign-off at the bottom of the flier — “Yours, the People’s Governor of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin” — seemed off. This was a reference to the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, which was formed a week and a half ago by a group of armed separatists who seized the headquarters of the regional government. Theirs is perhaps the smallest breakaway republic in the world, as its territory is confined to that one building and a small patch of the plaza around it. Since April 7, they have barricaded themselves inside with a cache of weapons and demanded a referendum on secession from Ukraine. At the bottom of the flier was a reproduction of the stamp these separatists use on the press badges they have issued to journalists.

Denis Pushilin, however, is not the man who calls himself the “People’s Governor” of this pseudo-state. That would be Pavel Gubarev, who bestowed that title on himself in early March, during a separatist rally in the center of Donetsk. Three days later, he was arrested on charges of separatism and taken to jail in Kiev, where he remains. The alleged author of the anti-Semitic flier, Pushilin, is his ally and comrade-in-arms. But he has never gone by the title of “People’s Governor.” (His preferred title is the “co-chairman of the temporary coalition government” that he and his allies declared inside that building.) For his part, Pushilin denied on Thursday that he or his organization had anything to do with these fliers. “In reality this is a fake, and a pretty unsuccessful one,” Pushilin told the news network Russia Today. “It was all done with Photoshop.”

Oligarch Offer Cash to Fight Separatists
Some oligarchs have been accused of playing both sides of this conflict, effectively blackmailing Kiev for support against separatists. At least one oligarch seems to be fighting hard against that image, as he has vocally attacked Vladimir Putin, and he is now promising to reward those who stand against Russia.

The Kyiv Post reports:

Military patriotism among Ukrainians is now being financially rewarded. Dnipropetrovsk Oblast governor and billionaire Igor Kolomoisky is offering cash bonuses for those who fight against pro-Russian separatists.

“We have decided to pay Hr 500,000 to the members of the Mariupol military unit that stood against the attack. We ask the unit commander to contact us. Or by the end of the day we will find you ourselves,” Dnipropetrovsk Deputy Governor Borys Filatov wrote on his Facebook page on April 17…

Daily Beast Speaks to Donetsk Jews About Leaflet

The anti-Jewish leaflet (see updates below) had a very particular instruction – Jews were to bring documents, and $50, to room 514 in the administration building in Donetsk that is held by the pro-Russian separatists who call themselves the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” The Daily Beast had a bright idea — so they sent someone to room 514. The office was empty.

But The Daily Beast did find more information:

According to Rabbi Vyshedski, the press secretary of the self-proclaimed republic, Aleksander Kriakov, is “the most famous anti-Semite in the region.” Schneerson wondered how separatists who are trying to position themselves as “anti-fascist” and claiming it’s Kiev that’s run by neo-Nazis could pick Kriakov as their spokesman.

Will There Be a Crackdown on Jews in Ukraine?

Much is being made over this document which we have been discussing. John Kerry cited it, every news agency on the planet is talking about it, and Twitter is buzzing about it. Julia Ioffe has written about it for New Republic, and she says “Relax, Ukraine is Not Ordering Its Jews to Register.”

In conclusion: the Jews of Donetsk and eastern Ukraine may have been asked by a leaflet to register, but it has not been enforced nor are any Ukrainian Jews registering themselves. If that changes, I’ll be all over it, but so far, you can breathe easy. No Holocaust 2.0 just yet.

And of course, she is right. Even if the separatists were extremely antisemitic, they control a relatively small part of a few towns and cities in a single region. Just like this referendum that the separatists have drafted, there is no enforcement mechanism. So even if the documents were true the sky is not falling.

But this is still an important development. Even though the separatist leadership, namely Pushilin, denies that they had any involvement in the creation of this document, they also acknowledge that the document is real. They say they don’t endorse the message. Russia for months has accused ultra-nationalist groups of antisemitism, and those groups have also denounced that message. Either (at least some) separatists under Pushilin’s control really are antisemitic and he’s just denying it, or someone is working hard to discredit the separatists. And just because there is no enforcement mechanism doesn’t mean that Jews won’t get caught in the middle of the fight.

That said, if the rest of Ukraine is any indication, the fears about antisemitism have more to do with the geopolitical reality than the reality on the ground. The reality is that three people passed out antisemitic flyers in Donetsk. So far, while we can now safely say that this really happened, that’s about the only thing that is certain.

New Statements from Separatist Leader in Donetsk

More confirmation that the anti-Jewish leaflets (see previous update below) really were distributed by someone, perhaps pro-Russian separatists, in Donetsk. Think Progress reports:

In an interview with Ukrainian press, Pushilin confirmed that the flyers, marked with the emblem of his organization, were really distributed in Donetsk. But unlike various English translations, in the original interview with Ukrainian media, Pushilin not only rejected the content of the flyers, but also denied that his organization was behind their printing. “Some idiots yesterday were giving out these flyers in targeted areas,” he said, claiming that he had never himself used the “people’s governor” title the flyer bestows on him. Pushilin did not suggest who else may have been handing out the anti-Semetic flyers, but went on to criticize the original site for posting it online.

Pushilin maintains he does not endorse the message of the flyers, but it’s possible that some of his supporters do. After all, he does not say who these “freaks” are. After months (at least 59 days according to this liveblog) of Russia claiming that the pro-EU movement was run by neo-Nazis, over the objection of most of Ukraine’s Jewish leaders, it seems that the separatists could have an antisemitic streak of their own.

This should not come as a surprise. Russia, like much of Europe, has seen a massive resurgence in neo-Nazism in recent years, and in many cases Russian authorities have tacitly supported or at least ignored the actions of Russian ultra-nationalists. But while Jewish leaders in Ukraine maintain that antisemitism is not particularly on the rise in Ukraine, many Jewish leaders are already raising the alarm over not just this document but other signs of pro-Russian antisemitism.

John Kerry References Anti-Jewish Leaflet in Donetsk
Speaking about what had been discussed at today’s Geneva conference on this crisis, John Kerry mentioned the leaflet, reportedly passed out by separatists in Donetsk, that would require Jews to self-identify and register (for a fee of $50) or risk deportation.
If you are just joining us, The Interpreter has been tracking these claims. The latest analysis of the claims can be found here and a translation of the document can be found here.
International Criminal Court to Investigate Crimes in Ukraine
An interesting development:

Mark Leon Goldberg has analyzed the decision for the UN Dispatch:

The ICC’s registrar has just accepted a request from the government of Ukraine that grants the ICC jurisdiction to investigate alleged crimes committed on its territory between November 21, 2013 and February 22 2014. Ukraine is not a member of the International Criminal Court, but according to the ICC’s bylaws, a government can invite the court to investigate alleged crimes on an ad hoc basis. This is what happened today.

So does this mean that those responsible for the deaths of hundreds of protestors may wind up in The Hague? Not quite. It is now up to the prosecutor to decide whether or not this situation warrants the attention of her office. To that end, prosecutor Fatou Bensouda must consider whether the information available to her “establishes reasonable basis to open an investigation.” If not, the prosecutor can simply decline to take the case.  If so, she has to convince a judge to issue warrants or summonses to the accused. This process can take a long time.

Read his entire analysis here.

NATO’s New Response to the Crisis in Ukraine

Some new developments announced by NATO just now:

Secret Report: Pro-Russian Militias ‘Supervised and Guided’ By Russian Intelligence

The Times of London has a short but significant item in today’s edition in which it cites a document now being shared with EU governments purportedly showing how Russian spies are, as has been widely suspected, behind the armed separatist militias in eastern and southern Ukraine. The full story (behind a paywall online) is below:

Pro-Russian militia in Ukraine are being supervised and guided by Russian army intelligence agents based in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, according to a document seen by The Times.

Ten Russian “spies and raiders” were arrested in Ukraine during the past month, the analysis of Moscow’s involvement by the Ukrainian secret service says, while telephone intercepts show orders from Russian agents directing attacks. In one assault, a Ukrainian security officer was shot dead in Slovyansk on April 13.

The document is being sent to European Union governments as further evidence that Moscow is behind the pro-Russian militia action in eastern and southern Ukraine.

One European foreign service has accepted it as a credible indicator of Moscow’s involvement. The militia who occupied administrative buildings in Donetsk were not only armed with AK-100 weapons, “a model used exclusively by the Russian army and special-ops”, but their shoes were “manufactured by Butex, the Russian enterprise that supplied Russian security agencies”, the report says.

“The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has valid proof of the Russian special-ops troops being deployed on Ukrainian territory,” it concludes.

“Officers of the main intelligence directorate of the general staff of the armed forces of the Russian Federation, based currently in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, directly co-ordinate insurgents, provide them with financial, material and technical support,” it says.

It alleges that one of the co-ordinators worked as an assistant on security issues to Sergey Aksionov, the “puppet prime minister of Crimea”.

A group that he was allegedly in contact with in the Slovyansk area “conducted a ferocious and unprovoked attack on two vehicles with civilian licence plates, killing one SBU officer and wounding three” on April 13.

Protests and Travel Bans at Donetsk Airport
As we’ve been reporting, the Russian airline Aeroflot says that Russian and Crimean men between the ages of 16 and 60, and women between the ages of 20 and 35, are being blocked from entering Ukraine. There is some confirmation of that now, though we’re still monitoring the claim:
We’ve also been reporting that protesters in Donetsk are very upset about this claim, and have come to the airport to demand that authorities allow Russians and Crimeans into Ukraine. But that airport has not been significantly disrupted due to the protests, according to some reports.
Russian Troop Buildup in Crimea
Remember when a lot of people were tracking troop movement in Crimea to see if Russian troops will spill out into the mainland? Well, there are far fewer reporters in Crimea now, but some are reporting that the Russian military is continuing to strengthen it’s positions on the peninsula:
That town, Chornomors’ke (here on our interactive map), is near several key ports in the western corner of Crimea. Why would Russia be stacking military vehicles there? Well, it’s one of the closest points to mainland Ukraine, which is just across the Karkinitskiy Bay, and it is home to a key military base and port.
Did Separatists in Donetsk Really Threaten Jews With Deportation?

A follow-up on our story about a flyer, reportedly distributed in Donetsk, that told Jews in the city to register or face deportation. TV Rain, a Russian has quoted Denis Pushilin, the leader of Donetsk’s separatists, as saying that he is not responsible for the flyers that reportedly were distributed in Donetsk. Times of Israel reports:

The news site on Wednesday quoted Pushilin as denying any connection to the flyers, calling them a provocation.

Jewish groups have expressed concerns over possible anti-Semitism amid rising tensions in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have clashed with Ukrainians.

Chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky told Israel Radio Wednesday that he expects immigration to Israel from Ukraine to double by the end of the year.

Ynet News has published a report which says that many in the Jewish community, and individuals quoted in Kiev and Donetsk, confirm that the leaflets were distributed.

The leaflet, signed by Chairman of Donetsk’s temporary government Denis Pushilin, was distrbiuted to Jews near the Donetsk synagogue and later in other areas of the city where pro-Russians activists have declared Donetsk as an independent “people’s republic”, defying an ultimatum from Kiev to surrender.

But Ynet adds this fascinating detail (below) — that the separatist leader admits that the flyers were distributed by his people. And if you read the Times of Israel report which we just quoted closely, Pushilin does not deny that the flyers are real, but does deny that he is connected to them:

In a response to a request by a Ukrainian Jewish website, Pushilin, the interim government’s regional chairman, confirmed that the flyers were distributed by his organization, but denied any connection to the leaflet’s content.

So the separatists distributed the flyers but the separatists are not connected to the flyers?

There is other evidence that some of these “Cossacks” in eastern Ukraine are antisemitic. Luke Harding traveled to Slaviansk, where he found men, armed with “military-issue AK-74s,” who were more than happy to speak to him about who they were and what they believed:

Who exactly were they? “We’re Cossacks,” one of the group explained. “It doesn’t matter where we are from.” He declined to give his name. Instead, he offered a quick history lesson, stretching back a thousand years, to when Slavic tribes banded together to form Kievan Rus – the dynasty that eventually flourished into modern-day Ukraine and its big neighbour Russia.

“We don’t want Ukraine. Ukraine doesn’t exist for us. There are no people called Ukrainians,” he declared. “There are just Slav people who used to be in Kievan Rus, before Jews like Trotsky divided us. We should all be together again.” The man – a middle-aged commando with a bushy beard – said he had come to Slavyansk “to help”. He didn’t intend to kill anybody, he said. Producing a long knife, he said: “I can’t kill my brother Slavs.”

Pro-Russian Activists Occupy Donetsk Airport
More on a story we’ve been following this morning:
Separatists Reportedly Order Jews to Register or Face Expulsion
Yesterday we reported on a flyer that was reportedly distributed by pro-Russian gunmen in Donetsk, demanding that Jews register (for $50) or face expulsion. In our latest Window on Eurasia column, Paul Goble provides additional information and a translation of the flyer.
Ukraine Severely Restricts Russians From Entering the Country
The Russian airline Aeroflot says that Kiev has passed significant restrictions on Russians, and Crimeans, who want to enter Ukraine:

If confirmed, this could effectively close Ukraine off for the vast majority of Russians and Crimeans who would like to enter the country.

This also has to be put into historical context — Ukraine and Russia didn’t have a visa regime until this crisis. They aren’t exact parallels, but traveling between Ukraine and Russia used to be extremely easy, perhaps analogous to traveling between the US and Canada. To go from nearly open borders to nearly a travel ban would be a momentous shift in relations between the two countries.

Anti-Kiev Protests at Donetsk Airport

Pro-Russian crowds are at the airport in Donetsk and are making demands:

Putin Admits Those Were Russian Troops in Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a long press conference today (3 hours, 58 minutes, according to RFE/RL). In it he covered, as one might expect, a lot of ground.

Perhaps the biggest headline is that Putin now admits something that the Kremlin has consistently denied — that Russia had troops in Crimea, “little green men” as they are known, in order to support the Crimean “self-defence” forces. Washington Post reports:

“Of course we had our servicemen behind the self-defense units of Crimea,” Putin said in a televised meeting with the nation. “We had to make sure what is happening now in eastern Ukraine didn’t happen there.”

Putin was asked in regard to Crimea: “Who were those men in green uniforms?” They were Russian troops, he answered, deployed to make sure residents of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula were safe from assault by the government in Kiev. They also needed the proper conditions, he said, so they could safely vote in a referendum on secession. Russia annexed Crimea after a March 16 referendum, in which voters approved leaving Ukraine.

In early March, reporters asked Putin about the appearance in Crimea of mysterious armed men in green uniforms, which had no insignia but resembled Russian gear.

“There are many uniforms there that are similar. You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform,” he said then. “Those were local self-defense units.”

Putin then went on to argue that Ukraine had 20,000 soldiers in Crimea, and it was necessary to protect civilians from “even the slightest opportunity of those weapons being used against them.”

In other words, Russia lied for months to protect civilians, and though it wants to protect civilians in eastern Ukraine from the same threat that Crimeans faced, Putin promises that he’s not lying here and there are no Russian troops operating inside eastern Ukraine. That allegation is “nonsense.”

RFE/RL, which has liveblogged Putin’s statements and the reaction to them, also says that Putin had some important statements on the situation in eastern Ukraine:

He said people in eastern Ukraine became worried about their future after what he called the “unconstitutional coup” in Ukraine.

He said using force and “sending tanks and aircraft” against the civilian population in the region was “another very serious crime” on the part of Kyiv’s authorities.

Soldiers Who Surrendered Face Tribunal

Yesterday, 6 Ukrainian APCs and their crews surrendered to a group of people who appeared to be civilians mixed with pro-Russian militants. No shots were fired, and there were questions about whether some of the men who surrendered were actually defecting.

Today, Ukraine’s government is asking the same questions and has announced that it will be holding a tribunal for the soldiers who surrendered.

“The 25th Airborne Brigade whose soldiers showed cowardice and laid down weapons will be disbanded,” acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told parliament. “Guilty soldiers will stand before the court.”

Three Dead in Last Night’s Attack on Mariupol

Yesterday, we ended our coverage with reports of the gunfire in Mariupol. Today we have a clearer picture. The AP reports:

The Interior Ministry said a mob of around 300 people armed with stun grenades and firebombs were involved in the bloodiest episode to date in the confrontation pitting Ukraine’s new government in Kiev against an eastern insurgency tacitly supported by Moscow.

Masked and battle-ready militia bearing sophisticated firearms have been deeply involved in seizing government offices in eastern Ukraine, igniting suspicions that much of the unrest is being stirred with Russia’s backing…

Ukraine’s interior ministry said shots fired by servicemen in the Mariupol base initially proved insufficient to deter the pro-Russian crowd from proceeding with their assault. It remains unclear exactly how the three protesters were killed.

There were no casualties among Ukrainian servicemen, the ministry said. At least 63 people involved in the attack were detained, but local media Thursday morning cited police as saying 38 were later released.

We can’t confirm that there were 300 people, but this video showed men in masks and black clothing, and others wearing camouflage, shouting orders at the garrison to surrender.

Last night, Russia’s English-language propaganda/news outlet RT carried this report:

A group of several dozen protesters arrived at the base, located in the turbulent Donetsk region, on Wednesday evening.

They called on the troops to abandon the base, but the soldiers didn’t listen, the demonstrators said.

Instead, the troops opened fire at the protesters, injuring at least four people. One of them took a bullet in his chest and is in serious condition, according to protesters.

Some local media claimed the protesters were armed with Molotov cocktails, which they used in the confrontation, but no evidence of this was immediately available.

Note that the only qualifications in the entire report were in that last paragraph, and in paragraphs that speak about the number of casualties.

Interestingly, news of the attack is currently absent from RT’s front page, and the mentions of it on their liveblog don’t clarify who fired first.

More Fighting Reported in Mariupol
We start today with some breaking news:
Earlier there were signs of an intensifying security atmosphere:
We’ll keep an eye on this story for confirmation.