Yesterday a key group of world powers appeared to find middle ground on Ukraine at the conference to defuse the crisis in Geneva. Actions, however, speak louder than words. Will today see Ukraine move closer to or further away from ending this crisis?
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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.
In a significant escalation of rhetoric, not only does Putin’s press secretary admit that there are Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, but he says that they are there to respond if Russia is driven “into a corner.” RFE/RL reports:
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has confirmed that Russia does have troops near the Ukrainian border and that some of those forces are stationed there “on a permanent basis.”
Peskov said additional forces are in the area along Russia’s border with Ukraine but only “as reinforcement aganst (sic) the background of what is going on in Ukraine.”
Peskov also said Washington’s threats of additional sanctions against Russia if Moscow does not adhere to the terms of an agreement reached yesterday in Gevena between top diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and European Union were “absolutely unacceptable.”
“We can mobilize our whole society if someone starts driving Russia into a corner,” he said. “Thank God, it is impossible to drive Russia into a corner.”
Previous to this, the Russian line has been that the troops were there as part of drills that are unrelated to the crisis in Ukraine. To our knowledge, the troop deployment has not changed, just the way Moscow is now talking about them.
It’s hard to fathom that groups of armed men in masks suddenly sprang forward from the population in eastern Ukraine and systematically began to occupy government facilities. It’s hard to fathom because it’s simply not true. What is happening in eastern Ukraine is a military operation that is well planned and organized and we assess that it is being carried out at the direction of Russia.
President Barack Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister David Cameron, President François Hollande, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and many others have publicly stated their belief that Russian forces are behind the events in Ukraine. I would like to provide some observations from our analytical experts to help explain why I strongly agree with these world leaders.
- The pro-Russian “activists” in eastern Ukraine exhibit tell-tale military training and equipment and work together in a way that is consistent with troops who are part of a long-standing unit, not spontaneously stood up from a local militia.
- The weapon handling discipline and professional behavior of these forces is consistent with a trained military force. Rifle muzzles are pointed down, fingers not on triggers, but rather laid across trigger mechanisms.
- Coordinated use of tear gas and stun grenades against targeted buildings indicates a level of training that exceeds a recently formed militia.
- Video of these forces at checkpoints shows they are attentive, on their feet, focused on their security tasks, and under control of an apparent leader. This contrasts with typical militia or mob checkpoints, where it’s common to see people sitting, smoking, and so forth.
- The way these forces target government buildings, hit them in coordinated strikes and quickly secure the surrounding area with roadblocks and barricades is similar to what we’ve seen in Crimea. Again, indicative of a professional military force, acting under direction and leadership, not a spontaneous militia.
- Finally, the weapons and equipment they carry are primarily Russian army issue. This is not the kind of equipment that civilians would be likely to be able to get their hands on in large numbers.
Any one of the points above taken alone would not be enough to come to a conclusion on this issue, but taken in the aggregate, the story is clear.
His post also provides other news stories that support his case, and it seems the BBC is working on compiling video evidence as well.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, via state-owned news outlet ITAR-TASS, says Washington is trying to “whitewash” Kiev’s actions:
Washington’s assessments of the four-party meeting on the deescalation of tensions in Ukraine are highly disappointing, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a commentary Friday.
“The assessments of the April 17 meeting of Russian, US, Ukrainian and EU representatives that are coming from Washington are highly disappointing as the American side is again trying to whitewash the course of action of the incumbent Kiev authorities who are set to suppress by force the protest activity of the population of southeastern regions where people are expressing legal indignation over encroachments on their rights,” the commentary says.
“On the face of it, blame for the Ukrainian crisis and its current deterioration is groundlessly apportioned to Russia in spite of the businesslike tonality and absence of propagandistic cliches at the talks in Geneva,” the ministry said.
Let’s take a closer look at a few of these statements. Russia is calling Ukraine’s attempts to defend government buildings from armed pro-Russian gunmen “suppression by force” of “legal indignation.” In other words, just as we predicted, though both sides, Russia and the West, agree that illegal activity needs to cease, Russia calls the activities of armed gunmen who have taken over government buildings and erected roadblocks “legal.”
RFE/RL adds another note:
The statement said, “It’s clear when we talk about disarmament, we mean first of all confiscating weapons from the militants of the Right Sector and other pro-fascist groups.”
So are the Ukrainian armed forces “pro-fascist groups” according to Russia’s thinking?
By now, long-time observers of Putin’s behavior see a familiar pattern — Russia often agrees with the rest of the world on principle, but their definitions of nouns change. When Assad in Syria pledged to withdraw his troops from his cities and cease all attacks on civilians, nothing changed. But both Russia and Syria said that Assad’s attacks were not a crackdown on civilians and protesters but legal and justified actions against “terrorists.” And while each time the international community (and the media) get excited over brief glimpses of diplomatic breakthroughs, all that really happens is that a whole lot of time is wasted in the process.
For more on how Russia uses this strategy to buy time from the international community, see our investigation:
The following is a statement from the OSCE, released by press release:
In Donetsk at 13:30 on 17 April, the team observed the occupied oblast administration building with some 150 people inside the barricades. Russian television programmes were broadcast there, including President Putin’s live question-and-answer session. The city administration office, also occupied by opponents of the central government, appeared to be working normally. At 18:00, following information about a disruptive protest at the Donetsk International Airport, the team visited the airport to verify the situation on the ground. In its assessment, the overall situation was normal and calm. At the departures hall, the team observed the presence of around 30 people of different age groups with St. George’s ribbons on their clothes and one man with a “Donetsk People’s Republic” flag on his shoulders.
The Donetsk team spoke also to the local Rabbi, who confirmed media reports about anti-Jewish fliers signed by the self-declared “People’s Governor of Donbas” (the Ukrainian and Russian name for the area covering the Donetsk and Luhansk regions). The text called upon local Jewish people to present themselves for registration, threatening deportation and confiscation of property if they failed to do so. According to the Rabbi, on 15 April, three or four masked men arrived on foot at the synagogue and handed several of these fliers to people located on the premises. They returned later that night by car and handed out more of the fliers. The self-declared governor denied that he and his office were responsible for the flier.
The team observed armed Ukrainian police watching the activities of the traffic police in Volnovakha(approximately 60 km south of Donetsk).
In Mariupol, as of 11:25, there were no helicopters or aircraft seen flying over the city. The town appeared to be functioning normally. The Mariupol Administration building remained occupied, with the flag of the “Donetsk Republic” flying on top of the eastern structure and the flag of the former Soviet Union flying on top of the west building. Mariupol’s Mayor claimed that the City Administration building had been occupied by 40 fighters assisted by Russian intelligence officers, and that most of the Mariupol and Donbas population were in favor of significant decentralization of Ukraine but did not support separatism.
The team left Mariupol, travelling to the Ministry of Interior Internal Forces compound, arriving at 13:12. Outside the entrance of the compound there was a government jeep which had been fired upon and was damaged both inside and out. There were traces of blood observed on the outside of the right doors and the rear tailgate of the vehicle. The metal gates to the compound entrance had at some point been removed and discarded to the side of the road. The entrance had been blocked by two large government trucks, parked facing into the compound. Upon entering the compound, the team observed that the front of both trucks had bullet holes in both the window and body. The team observed evidence that Molotov cocktails had been used against the compound, and there was one building that had burned to the ground and was still smoldering. At 15:00, the team went to the Emergency Medical Hospital. According to its director, five patients were brought to this facility, all with gunshot wounds. He also checked the daily registry for Mariupol and found that on 16 April, a total of 16 people were treated for wounds in various medical facilities. According to the Ministry of Interior and the Mayor, there were three fatalities. The Medical Director confirmed one; however, he could not personally confirm any others as he was only working at the emergency hospital. At around 15:30 the team arrived at Mariupol Airport. Upon approaching the terminal, there appeared to be no more activity than had been seen the day before, with Ukrainian flags flying. However, upon closer observation, four Ukrainian military helicopters were seen parked on the tarmac.
The general situation in Dnepropetrovsk, Kherson and Odessa remained calm and quiet, as assessed by the monitoring teams. On the main roads in the vicinity of Odessa an increasing number of roadblocks were seen as compared to previous days. They were manned by unarmed or armed police, often accompanied by local volunteers supporting a unitary state structure for Ukraine.
The situation continues to be calm in Chernivtsi, Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv. According to a representative of Lviv’s local Russian community, its situation is “precarious” but far from being dangerous at the moment. He noted an absence of any Russian-speaking pre-schools in the region.
There are several reports that last night the Ukrainian military recaptured two of the six APCs which were captured by pro-Russian separatists in Kramatorsk earlier in the week.
At least some of the reports use Dmitry Tymchuk as the source. Tymchuk is a former Ukrainian military officer who reportedly is collecting open-source intelligence to monitor the military situation on the ground in Ukraine (and across the border in Russia).
We have not yet confirmed these reports, however.
Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg has interviewed Moldova’s Minister of Defense, Valeriu Troenco, and Moldova’s Prime Minister, Iurie Leanca. The topic of conversation — Transnistria, a breakaway republic where Russia has stationed a group of peacekeepers as part of a deal inked in 1992. Moldova and Russia negotiated a new deal in 1994 that would have Russian troops withdrawn, but the treaty was never ratified by the Russian State Duma, and so the Russian troops remain.
In light of all this, it’s worth noting that Transnistria, the eastern-most region of Moldova, is separated from the rest of Moldova by the River Dniester, and it borders Ukraine.
Goldberg pressed Prime Minister Leanca for answers about Putin’s intentions. Does Putin want to annex a large part of the south and east of Ukraine and then annex Transnistria?
Does [Leanca] actually believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin will stop at Ukraine? He demurred. He knows he walks a knife’s edge — every word he utters is studied carefully in Moscow. But he went on to take note of a troubling trend: a pronounced increase in the tempo of Russian troop “exercises” in Transnistria, which sits just an hour away from Chisinau.
Transnistria, which has a population of roughly 500,000 (no one knows for sure, and the Transnistrian government, which is suspected of being controlled by the Kremlin, is uninterested in authorizing a rigorous census), maintains its own army and police detachments, which receive aid and support from Russian troops that never left. “The Russian army is trying to learn how to cross the Dniester River in a few minutes,” the prime minister told me.
Even though he refuses to speculate about Putin’s designs, I suspect Leanca understands that Moldova is facing an existential crisis. I suspect he believes that Putin has designs on Moldova because most everyone in Moldova — even the leaders of the Communist Party (it is still, rather unbelievably, called the Communist Party in Chisinau) — believes that Putin sees it as part of Russia’s birthright.
Two days ago RFE/RL ran an interview with a Kiev-base political analyst, Ivan Lozowy, who suggested, among other things, that some of Ukraine’s oligarchs would support a Russian invasion or a separatist movement if the economic conditions were right:
Politics is clearly secondary. If Chinese military forces showed up in Odesa and began marching across southeastern Ukraine and they made a good offer to Kernes or Yefremov — say, $2 billion apiece just to stay in place and make sure the local population supports the incursion, they’d be all for it.
For them money is everything. I don’t think they have any political values. They just don’t want to be arrested and put in jail. They don’t want to be in exile in Russia, because that’s a very bad life for them. So what they do is play these games. The current chaos works to their advantage, because it keeps them out of reach.
This is Rinat Akhmetov’s motivation as well. He’s a very, very smart person. He understood that the Euromaidan victory was sort of the first bell that tolled for him. That’s why he’s quietly supporting the separatists in Donetsk and pretending he’s trying to help the situation. It just increases the pressure on Kyiv.
This echoed a report in Financial Times that suggested that some of Ukraine’s oligarchs, including Akhmetov, were “double dealing,” effectively blackmailing the interim government in Kiev to guarantee their support.
Today RFE/RL posts this interesting tweet, which directly relates back to these questions:
We are currently unaware of a single instance where pro-Russian gunmen have given up a building that they are occupying. In other words, the central part of yesterday’s Geneva deal seems to be completely broken. Global Post reports on the situation in Slaviansk:
In Slovyansk, a city that has become a flashpoint in the crisis after men with Kalashnikovs took control last weekend, leaders of the pro-Russian gunmen were holding a meeting early on Friday inside one of the buildings they seized on how to respond to the Geneva agreement.
On the street, there was little change. In front of the Slovyansk mayor’s office, men armed with Kalashnikovs peered over sandbags which had been piled higher overnight. Separatists remained in control of the city’s main streets, searching cars at checkpoints around the city.
“Are we going to leave the buildings so that they can come and arrest us? I don’t think so,” said a man guarding the road to the security office, another building the separatists seized, who identified himself as Alexei.
But he acknowledged that the Geneva talks had changed the situation.
“It turns out Vova doesn’t love us as much as we thought.” said Alexei, using a diminutive term for Vladimir Putin, the Russian president viewed by many of the separatist militias in eastern Ukraine as their champion and protector.
The map shows Crimea with a Russian flag (no surprise) but then it shows a huge swatch of the country, from Kharkiv to the border with Moldova, as a separate section. At first glance, this is the area that separatists have taken over some buildings. But the reality is that this is a much larger part of Ukraine than separatists are active in.
The other division is curious, splitting Kiev off from Lviv. It would be interesting to get an explanation on this line of thinking. It’s possible that this is just for balance — in other words, Russia can say that they aren’t trying to grab land, but each part of Ukraine should be independent, or at least autonomous.
For the last two days there has been significant confusion over a leaflet distributed in Donetsk that demanded that Jews register with the leaders of the separatist government or face deportation. We now know that this leaflet really was distributed on Donetsk, but that the leadership of the separatists deny they were behind it.
As we pointed out, part of the confusion was that there were several mistranslations by multiple news agencies.
But ultimately, there is a larger question — are the pro-Russian separatists antisemitic? The Daily Beast visited the office where Jews were supposed to register and found it empty. But they also spoke to leading Jewish figures in Donetsk, and while those leaders said that they thought that the leaflets were a provocation, the leaders also noted that a prominent separatist leader is a famous neo-Nazi, and there are real concerns within the Jewish community that separatists may endanger Jews and minorities in the city.
Today, Harriet Salem, a freelance journalist, reports that inside the administration building held by the separatists there are some disturbing signs.
She also reportedly took this picture of the separatist leader, Dennis Pushilin, making his defiant statements that he will not leave until the interim government in Kiev resigns:
If you turned on the TV news yesterday evening, seemingly no matter what channel, the headlines were the same: “Diplomatic Breakthrough!” Some of the news channels were a little more cautious, with a rising inflection that read more like “Diplomatic Breakthrough?!” Yesterday, in what John Kerry described as “a good day’s work,” Russia and the West seemed to come to an agreement on the crisis in Ukraine. Briefly, here are the key points:
– All sides would refrain from violence, intimidation, intolerance and antisemitism.
– All illegal groups will disarm and all buildings, squares, and public spaces held will be returned to their “legitimate owners.”
– Amnesty will be granted to those who leave the buildings and surrender their weapons, unless they are charged with a capital crime (like shooting at police).
– The OSCE will expand their mission and will now play a leading role in de-escalating the crisis.
– The Constitutional reform process will be ” inclusive, transparent and accountable.”
As we noted yesterday, there were already doubts as to whether all the sides were on the same page about what these terms meant. Kiev vowed to continue their “:anti-terror” operation to restore order. Would Russia see this as a use of violence and thus a breach of this deal? Does Russia consider the separatists in Donetsk to be the legitimate owners of the administration building where the self-appointed “Donetsk People’s Republic” has been established? After all, Russia views the Crimean parliament which gained power in a somewhat similar manner to be legitimate.
Perhaps most importantly, will the separatists in Donetsk abide by the decision?
“Lavrov did not sign anything for us, he signed on behalf of the Russian Federation,” Denis Pushilin, head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, told reporters in the city.
The demonstrators will only leave occupied buildings in eastern Ukraine if the country’s interim government in Kiev resigns, he said.
Pushilin said this week he wants a referendum by May 11 to ask residents whether they want sovereignty. It’s a step that may be popular with those who view Ukraine’s interim authorities, who took power after President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster in February, as illegitimate.