Press freedom is threatened as Russian-backed gunmen detain several journalists, including an American. Tensions are mounting after two bodies, one belonging to a prominent politician, were found in Slavyansk, prompting Kiev to announce the restarting of their “anti-terror campaign” against the separatists.
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View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map
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Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed ‘mayor’ of Slavyansk, has given a press conference where he answered questions about the fate of American journalist Simon Ostrovsky. Below we have posted a translation.
Reporter: Where is he?
Ponomarev: He’s alive and well, thank God.
Reporter: Where is he?
Ponomarev: He’s with us.
Reporters: Where? Where?
Ponomarev: [Laughs] In a preliminary detention cell.
Reporter: Why are you holding him?
Reporter: Why are you holding him?
Ponomarev: So he wouldn’t put out a lot of provocative commentary, so he wouldn’t conduct hostile activity on our territory. In the final analysis, he is an undesirable element in our area. Since — and I repeat again — we know all the journalists, we are familiar with you all, we talk to you all, we reached a certain agreement about what and how you are to clearly and accurately broadcast information received, not to exaggerate the facts.
Reporter: But… you want to tell us…
Ponomarev: Wait. And not to distort reality. Therefore, please, continue to work, we’re not interfering in any way, we are open to you to the maximum. If you don’t violate our agreement and we…will continue to cooperate with you.
Reporter: Do you have some kind of proof of his condition, can we talk to him, can we see him? So that we know…well, somehow…we don’t know…
Ponomarev: You know what, I’ll tell you the following. Listen to me carefully. Why do none of you ever pay any attention to the fact that in the isolation cells of the SBU [Ukrainian Security Service] there are a lot of our activists, in particular, Pavel Gubarev, the People’s Governor of Donetsk Region. Why don’t you focus attention on that? But you have intense attention for some journalist provocateur, intense, giving out all sorts of rumors where he is and so on.I assure you — I assure you. Nothing bad is happening to him. He is eating normally. He is being held in normal conditions. He’s clean, washed, that is, well…
Reporter: He’s a journalist.
Ponomaryov: And so what now? But if he conducts himself aggressively, if he is provocative, what now, he’s allowed to do anything? Or what?
Reporter: Yesterday, you said he was writing some material, what’s going on?
Ponomarev: Yes, that’s correct. He’s gathering some material while he’s in the KPZ [preliminary detention cell] so that he can share it with you when he gets out.
Reporter: When is he getting out?
Ponomarev: When it’s time, then he’ll get out. When we consider it necessary for him to get out, then we’ll let him out. I could ask the same question, so to say, of the representatives of the Kiev junta. When are you going to let out our activists? When are they going to stop abusing them? That’s it. You understand. We’re not discovering anything new, we’re not doing anything new.
Reporter: What do you want from him, in order to let him go? You said you’d let him out “when it’s time,” and “when you’re ready.” What do you want?
Ponomarev: Let him be our guest.
Reporter: Is he a hostage?
Ponomarev: Of course not. He’s a walking around. It’s just that we defined his place of stay, so to speak.
Reporter: What is his status?
Reporter: What is his legal status?
Ponomarev: We said from the beginning that we have one intention. And then it turns out he is nevertheless a citizen of Israel. And then this morning your colleague from Moscow tried to explain that to me that he is a person with dual citizenship, American and Israeli. That is, I myself would like to determine who he is. Either he has American citizenship or he has Israeli citizenship. Or maybe it’s Ethiopian. Let them declare about him his rights from Madagascar or somewhere else…
Reporter: What is his status with you?
Reporter: Is he detained, arrested, accused?
Today the Kyiv Post reports that a total of 16 people are missing, including journalists Serhiy Lefter and Yevhen Hapych, Irma Krat (who is not missing but is being held by the same separatists who are holding Simon Ostrovsky), and several politicians and residents of Slavyansk, including the mayor and the police chief — all of these are reportedly being held by the Russian-backed gunmen.
Now the Slavyansk separatists, who do not include a single person who was elected by the local population, may be taking more people into custody. But who are these people, how many are there, and why are they being detained?
The debate rages as to whether there is definitive proof of Russian special forces operating inside eastern Ukraine. The most controversial evidence being debated is a group of pictures that reportedly prove Russian troops, some of whom were in Crimea, are operating in eastern Ukraine. The evidence was presented to the OSCE by the Ukrainian government, and endorsed by the Obama administration. Some of that evidence has been debated, and some organizations that were familiar with some of those pictures before the report was released were more hesitant to release their own report because the pictures by themselves may not yet constitute definitive proof of Russian involvement in Ukraine.
There is other evidence, but it is more circumstantial. For instance, the separatists took control of strategic crossroads and police stations in what seemed like coordinated attacks, in quick succession or in simultaneous strikes across eastern Ukraine, capturing major police weapons stockpiles and distributing the weapons to sympathizers in the region. The attacks looked, to many, like they were conducted with military efficiency and were informed by military intelligence.
Since then, however, some pro-Russian gunmen have admitted that there are Russians in their ranks, though they have maintained that the men are not officially Russian military. In light of that, this report from Ukrainian Policy (a group clearly sympathetic to the pro-EU Ukrainian interim government) is interesting. It uses VKontakte, the Russian social network, to match some of the gunmen photographed in eastern Ukraine with their online profiles. The report does not claim to prove connections between the pro-Russian gunmen and Russia’s military, but it does provide some interesting insights. Notably, some of the men appear to be local Ukrainians, some appear to be Russians, and some appear to have pro-Nazi beliefs. Below is part of the summary, and the entire report can be found here.
From the identified militants, a few notes can be made from the following gunmen who appear to be connected to the raids in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. For one, not all are from Russia. While some may be local radicals, others appear to come from Belorechensk in Russia, or have connections to related neo-Cossack groups. This does not necessarily exonerate Russian state involvement, however. While it’s been known that military veterans and Russian ‘tourists’ have been actively involved for some time, the presence of Registered Cossacks of the Russian Federation connects Russia officially to the ongoing crisis. Registered Cossack organizations enjoy financial and organizational support from the authorities, including monthly salary as police auxiliaries. This, of course, isn’t the first controversial deployment of Cossack forces, who made a name for themselves on the world stage enforcing the law in Sochi.
There have been reports and videos today of an attack on a musician in the town of Rubizhne in the Lugansk oblast. The musician, Vasiliy Lyutiy, was beaten and tied to a tree after taking part in a pro-Ukrainian rally which was dispersed by pro-Russian activists, armed with bats and sticks.
Segodnya.ua reports that, according to a statement from the National Union of Kobzars (traditional Ukrainian bards), Lyutiy was seized by pro-Russian activists following the protest “For the Unity of Ukraine”. He was accused of carrying out provocations, beaten and tied to a tree.
Here is a video of Lyutiy tied to the tree, while what are presented to be te contents of his wallet are shown to the camera.
Local police said that there had been a scuffle between pro-Russian
and pro-Ukrainian protesters. They claimed to have taken him into
custody to avoid “vigilante actions” after finding two knives and an
card claiming membership of the ‘Brotherhood of UPA fighters’. Due to the type of knife found, they are considering criminal charges for possession.
However, Lyutiy’s wife, Marina, portrays the incident as one of police collusion with the pro-Russian protesters. In an interview with obzor.lg.ua,
she says that when the police arrived, Vasiliy’s assailants assumed the
role of witnesses, passing the police the knives and the UPA
Brotherhood membership card.
According to the police, Lyutiy was released at 17:45 yesterday,
but Marina says that he has not returned home. She said that the last
time she saw him was on Monday evening at the police station:
Five hours after his arrest he had still not received medical
attention. His head was bloody and he was bruised all over. The only
thing he had been able to do was to wash the blood from his face. As far
as I know, he was released on Tuesday, April 22, from the police
department, but Vasiliy did not return home.
Sky News reports that two Russian aircraft came close to UK airspace off the northeast coast of Scotland, forcing the RAF to scramble jets and escort the Russian aircraft away:
The aircraft, believed to be Tupolev 95s, were spotted off the coast of northeast Scotland.
They turned away from Britain when an RAF Typhoon was scrambled from Leuchars airbase, near Dundee, where crews are on standby to intercept unidentified aircraft at a moment’s notice.
According to Sky, eight similar incidents were reported in 2013. Obviously, however, the timing of this incident has raised many eyebrows.
The Tupolev 95 is a turboprop aircraft used for both bombing and surveillance.
An RAF Typhoon escorts a Tupolev 95 over the Atlantic in 2007. Pic: MoD, via Sky News
“We need captives. We need a bargaining chip. Many of our comrades are imprisoned. Those guys [Ukrainians] are grabbing them, then taking them to Kiev and torturing them. So then, we’re doing the very same thing. That is, in the sense that we’re taking captives,” said Ponomaryov.
To the question of a correspondent about whether Ostrovsky’s parents, who had telephoned the “people’s mayor” on Tuesday during a press conference, should expect their son in the near future, Ponomaryov announced: “Let them do what they want. We are on our territory.”
Earlier it was reported that American journalists in Slavyansk did not know where their colleague was. His mobile telephone did not answer, and he had not appeared in his hotel room.
Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, has said that the United States has invested $5 billion in ‘regime change’ in Ukraine and is now trying to make sure that they get a return on their investment. The Russian state-owned outlet RT reports:
“It seems it was the Americans, who tried to push through the most radical scenario,” Churkin said in an interview with Rossiya 24 channel. “They didn’t want any sort of compromise between [ousted President Viktor] Yanukovich and the opposition. And, I think, they came to the conclusion that it was time to cash in those $5 billion and handle the matter towards abrupt regime change, which, eventually, happened.”
This explains why the US, but not the European Union, took center stage when the coup resulted in legal vacuum in Kiev, he added.
US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland told CNN on Monday that Washington has invested around $5 billion into supporting democracy in Ukraine since the fall of Soviet Union.
But Churkin has doubts about Nuland’s claims, saying that “any sane person would, at least, say that those investments didn’t pay off.”
“If those $5 billion were spent on support of democracy, but not overthrow of the existing government and regime change, then no democracy has triumphed there [in Ukraine],” he explained.
In an interview with CNN, Victoria Nuland did admit that, since the fall of the Soviet Union, more than 20 years, the United States has invested about $5 billion in Ukraine:
“That money has been spent on supporting the aspirations of the Ukrainian people to have a strong, democratic government that represents their interests,” she said.
“But we certainly didn’t spend any money supporting the Maidan. That was a spontaneous movement, which is a far cry from what we are concerned Russia is up to now in eastern Ukraine.”
Ukrainian Interior Ministry special forces have raided the city of Svyatogorsk, north of Slavyansk (here on our interactive map) according to the official government of Ukraine website. We have translated the report from Pravda.com.ua below.
Special forces from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) have liberated the town of Svyatogorsk from illegal armed separatist groups.
This was announced by the MVD press office.
According to the announcement, the security forces who took part in the anti-terrorist operation pushed the illegal armed groups out of the settlement. There were no casualties.
In the course of an anti-terrorist operation on April 23, near the town of Svyatogorsk, a group of armed people was discovered. The town was liberated by special forces.
Hromadske.tv has posted this picture, reportedly showing one of the vehicles involved in the operation, though we have not confirmed the picture.
Interestingly, Interior Ministry forces were reportedly used — a change since Kiev has seemingly been unwilling to commit Interior Ministry forces to such operations out of concern that they may not be loyal.
NTV.RU, which is a television station run by Russia’s state-owned Gazprom, has released a report on detained American journalist Simon Ostrovsky. The title: “Journalist with Dual Citizenship Turns Out To Be Informer for Right Sector.” They also claim that the “anti-terror operation” that, according to what we have read, has not started, has in fact already ended. We’ve translated the article below:
Today the militia in Slavyansk confirmed that the American journalist Simon Ostrovsky has in fact been detained by self-defense forces.
As Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the people’s mayor of Slavyansk has stated, at this moment Ostrovsky is under arrest. The militia have made assurances that the foreigner is being kept “in normal conditions, and is provided food,” Interfax reports.
Vyacheslav Ponomaryov: “This journalist (he has dual citizens from the USA and Israel) really was detained by self-defense forces. According to our information, he is an informer of Right Sector.”
We will recall that a number of media outlets have reported that in Slavyansk, an employee of the American Internet publication Vice News, Simon Ostrovsky, was kidnapped in Slavyansk.
Later OSCE representative Dunya Mijatovich, citing these reports, demanded the release of the foreigner who, in her words, was forcibly detained by unknown persons in military uniform.
Meanwhile, in Slavyansk itself, despite the law-enforcement operation begun yesterday, a calm situation has been maintained. All the utilities are working, the stores are open, children are going to school, and there is no gunfire heard on the street.
Vyacheslav Ponomaryov: “There was movement from the direction of Izyum toward us by about 10 armored vehicles with soldiers, which we have been tracking. They went about five kilometers, turned around, and then dug in. And with that, the so-called ‘anti-terrorist operation’ is over for now.”
The death of a politician, Volodymyr Rybak, will perhaps be remembered as a major catalyst for more confrontation between the Ukrainian government and not only the Russian-backed separatist gunmen but also the Russian government. Ukraine’s Security Services (SBU) now alleges that two men, both of whom they claim are members of Russian military intelligence (GRU), ordered the attack. Financial Times reports:
In a statement on Wednesday, Ukraine’s SBU state security service implicated Igor Bezler and Igor Strelkov – whom it describes as senior officers in Russia’s GRU military intelligence services which is leading the pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine – in the murder of Horlivka city council member Volodymyr Rybak.
According to the statement, they ordered the kidnapping and murder of Rybak after he attempted to raise the Ukrainian flag on a Horlivka regional government building. His body was found this week in a nearby river with signs that he had been tortured.
“We established that they . . . Bezler and Strelkov . . . gave the orders to kidnap and later [deal with] the body. The killing took place under their command,” said Kateryna Kosereva, an SBU spokesperson.
Ukraine’s government is not hiding behind any diplomatic niceties. According to the SBU, Russian agents assassinated a politician who is a member of the interim President’s political party. These statements come as the Russian Foreign Ministry is threatening to invade Ukraine to protect “legitimate interests” (see previous updates). The rhetoric cannot get much more tense.
Despite the fact that Ukraine does not recognize Crimea as being part of Russia, Ukraine’s State Border Service will begin to treat the border between Crimea and the Kherson region as a border between two countries. The Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reports:
[SBU spokesman Oleg Slobodyan] said this decision had been made following Russia’s plans for the development of the Russian-Ukrainian border after the recent accession of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to Russia. According to Slobodyan, frontier posts will be replaced with border check points if the Ukrainian government makes such decision.
On Monday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev instructed the new head of the country’s border development state agency to oversee the development of border infrastructure between Ukraine and Russia, in view of the latter’s merger with Crimea and Sevastopol.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has spelled it out plainly today — if “legitimate interests” are threatened, Russia will militarily respond to the crisis in Ukraine. Lavrov said that the Easter attack on a checkpoint held by Russian-backed gunmen, and Kiev’s vow to renew its “anti-terror campaign” to recapture buildings held by the separatists, were signs that the government in Kiev, which Russia considers illegitimate, has broken the Geneva agreement and cannot be trusted:
“If we are attacked, we would certainly respond. If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia for example, I do not see any other way but to respond in accordance with international law,” he said.
“Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation,” he told RT.
He also blamed the United States for the violence.
“There is no reason not to believe that the Americans are running the show,” said Lavrov, referencing US Vice-President Joe Biden’s visit to Kiev and its coincidence with the renewed counter-terror operation on activists in eastern Ukraine.
“It’s quite telling they chose the moment of the Vice President of the US’ visit to announce the resumption of this operation because the launching of this operation happened immediately after [head of the CIA] John Brennan’s visit to Kiev,” said Lavrov…
“Ukraine is just one manifestation of the American unwillingness to yield in the geopolitical fight. Americans are not ready to admit that they cannot run the show in each and every part of the globe from Washington alone,” said Lavrov, adding Washington’s “ready-made solutions” cannot remedy a crisis that it does not understand.
Lavrov’s statements are the latest in the slowly-escalating rhetoric coming from the Kremlin that many see as Moscow’s attempt to build the justification for war. For instance, after first denying that there were an unusual amount of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, the Putin government then claimed that the troops were only there for training. Then Moscow claimed the troops had been withdrawn when they had not. Earlier this week, Putin’s office said that the troops were there as a defensive measure, “as reinforcement against the background of what is going on in Ukraine.”Now Russia is admitting that the troops are prepared to go into Ukraine if needed to protect “legitimate interests” are threatened.
Implicating the United States and other Western allies gives Russia the excuse to engage unilaterally to ‘restore order’ in eastern Ukraine if needed. This is exactly the same pattern of rhetoric we saw when Russia invaded Crimea. There, Russian troops, working with Crimean “self-defence forces,” established checkpoints and took control of government buildings. First Moscow denied the presence of their troops on the Crimean peninsula, then said that Kiev and the West were not taking actions to stand up to radicals that were a threat to ethnic Russians, and then Russia officially (and illegally) annexed the peninsula.
An American journalist, Simon Ostrovsky of Vice News, remains in the custody of Russian-backed separatists who are fostering a notoriously horrendous reputation with journalists. Since the gunmen have taken over government buildings in Slavyansk and appointed themselves as the rightful government, they have pointed guns at reporters, barred the doors behind them at press conferences, and just in the last two days have detained five reporters besides Ostrovsky, one of whom remains in custody.
The Daily Beast reports that the separatists are very clear when giving their reasons for detaining Ostrovsky:
“He was not reporting in a correct way,” says Stella Khoraeva, a former journalist and spokeswoman for the separatist leader Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the pro-Russian militant leader in Slovyansk, a rust belt industrial town on a tributary of the Donets River an hour’s drive from the Russian border…
Khoraeva told The Daily Beast today that Ostrovsky’s apprehension was planned. “We knew where he was going and the men manning the checkpoint were told to look out for him,” she says. She added that Ponomaryov himself was carefully examining the video footage Ostrovsky had with him.
She accused Ostrovsky of reporting in an “incorrect way,” but added he might be released shortly.
But he has not been released. And Ostrovsky is not alone. Irma Krat, a freelancer and activist who worked closely with the Maidan protesters to cover events there, has been in the custody of these separatists since Easter. Krat has been accused of torturing former Berkut riot police officers, and taking part in “war crimes.” To our knowledge, no evidence is publicly available that links Krat to any of these events. The Independent interviewed Krat and has been following her case.
On Sunday evening Ms Kart was interviewed, with a bag over her face, by Life News, a Russian website which has close ties with the country’s security establishment. In footage distasteful to watch, the reporter parroted the statement of the separatists: “The peoples’ militia has stopped a provocation by the head of the Maidan cell before being harangued about what she was doing here.”
On Monday, the same young female reporter took upon herself to act as the spokeswoman for the separatists, telling journalists not to block the entrance to their sandbagged base. Ms Krat was repeatedly asked whether she regretted being on the Maidan. Her response was: “We did not know then what we know now. There is no point in talking about that now, we should think about the future. I think we should think of the future.”
What about the prospect of her being exchanged for prisoners being held by the Kiev administration? “I am not a dog to be traded. I will get out of here by my own efforts; I have done nothing wrong”, was the defiant reply.