Ukraine Liveblog Day 78: Donetsk Airport Closed

May 6, 2014
Donetsk Airport. Stock Photo:

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

For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

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

Are Right Sector Militants Fighting Alongside Ukrainian Forces?

Yesterday, in a statement about what had transpired during a battle with Ukrainian forces, the separatist commander in Slavyansk, Igor Strelkov (AKA Igor Girkin) said that Right Sector forces joined in the assault against the city that he occupies.

The enemy surrounded them from both sides with 2 APCs on each side (then paratroopers landed from the helicopter and approached as well). And when the battle broke out, from the gas station they were strafed by a ‘Right Sector’ fighter in civilian clothing, they had not shown themselves before that. We were saved in the end by 2 trophy BMDs [airborne fighting vehicles] sent from the reserve – that enabled us to get out in one piece and carry out the wounded.

Tonight, the Russian media is reporting that Right Sector militants joined in the assault against Mariupol (which may still be ongoing). RT does not say they were Right Sector fighters, but mentions that those who attacked Mariupol tonight were not in traditional uniform. Their reports:

 “People in black and camouflage have shot at several vehicles,” the source said, adding that there was no information about injuries at the moment.

According to RIA Novosti citing its source from Donetsk, “unknown men attacked several checkpoints”.

“There was shooting in the area close to a military base near the airport,” the source said. It also added that the shooting has calmed down for now and only single shots can be heard.

The source said that “the assault” did not look like “active actions by the regular army” because the men were wearing uniforms without matching camouflage print.

Right Sector is Russia’s favorite scapegoat and the ultranationalist group only does a tiny fraction of the behaviors that the Kremlin and its allies accuse it of doing, but are the reports perhaps based in fact? 

A video from yesterday’s assault was apparently taken by Ukrainian forces and shows a helicopter involved in moving prisoners and supplies. What’s interesting is that several prisoners appear to have been captured in the raid. They were escorted by men who appear to be out of uniform. The likelihood of these being Right Sector activists may be low, but are these special forces, or maybe Interior Ministry troops, who may have been trying to blend in with the separatists?

Separatists Defending Mariupol With Burning Tires And Roadblocks

The website has posted pictures from Mariupol, where Russian-backed separatists have set up roadblocks in the city center which they have occupied for weeks. Note that the tires appear to have been set on fire by the separatists, and so far it looks like those fires have caused the thick black smoke we’ve seen in other pictures rising above the city.




More pictures can be found here.

Heavy Fighting In Mariupol
As we’ve been reporting, there is now heavy fighting reported in Mariupol:
A video appears to show a bus being used to block off part of the road.

This was also reportedly taken tonight. Separatists are reportedly burning tires and establishing roadblocks in order to block Ukrainian military vehicles from entering.

And this video reportedly shows the gunfire behind the barricades — note that this looks like where we saw the bus earlier.

Russian TV outlets are reporting that one person has been killed and three injured when Ukrainian forces stormed the city. They also say that the attack was led by Right Sector activists, working with Ukrainian security forces.
Shooting Reported in Mariupol
Russia’s RT reports:
More unconfirmed reports:
An unconfirmed picture of smoke rising from the city. The tweet is 3 hours old. A reverse-image search suggests that the picture does not appear to have been uploaded elsewhere before today.

Now RT is carrying this report:

Ukrainian Special Forces have started storming checkpoints in Mariupol in the Donetsk region, Ukraine’s south-east, the city’s self-defense says.

“It looks like the assault has started,” Mikhail Krutko from the self-defense headquarters told Interfax news agency, adding that there is no information about injuries or victims. “We have just now started getting messages about a massive attack on our checkpoints, located in the western part of the city.”

A local activist named Dmitry has confirmed to RT that “intensive shooting can be heard” and “there are dead”.

Reports in Twitter say activists are building barricades out of tires along a major avenue and that entrances into the coastal city have been blocked. Self-defense forces reportedly advise everyone in the streets to seek shelter as the civil alarm goes off.

It’s worth noting that so far it is primarily anti-Maidan sources carrying this story.

UK MP Advises Russian and Central Asian Oligarchs on Buying UK Property

London has long been the destination of choice for Oligarchs from the former Soviet Union to launder their cash, buy homes, set up shell companies and to send their children to school. With a welcoming environment for investors, which protects them from the capricious oversight of their governments and with a strong history of legal and banking protections, the UK has played an integral role in facilitating the access of Russian elites into the world.

Buzzfeed has just written a story illustrating just how welcoming the UK and members of its government are to Oligarch money. Buzzfeed reports that senior conservative MP Sir Tony Baldry commands a high fee for advising clients on how to invest in the UK.

“Werner Capital helps wealthy individuals from around the world buy expensive property in London and protect their money from “political upheaval” abroad.

‘We offer our private clients solutions for their tax, estate planning and structuring issues,’ the company states.

Former employees of Werner Capital say that the firm focuses on helping ‘ultra high net-worth individuals’ from ‘Russia and the CIS.’ This means Baldry’s new employer helps oligarchs from Russia and former Soviet states buy British luxury property.”

Propaganda Is Journalism, Says Award-Winning Russian Journalist

Last week, The Interpreter’s managing editor James Miller wrote an op-ed for Vice News arguing that Russian propaganda has become the Kremlin’s primary weapon for waging war, and has been absolutely essential in driving the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Since that time plenty of shots have been fired, but Russia has still not formally invaded. In Odessa, while there is some evidence that some Russian citizens were involved in starting the riot, many of the pro-Russian rioters were local residents. In Slavyansk, civilians have been supporting the Russian-backed gunmen, and their proximity to the separatists has effectively made them voluntary human shields, slowing the progress of the Ukrainian military operation to retake the country. Russia’s propaganda campaign has been crucial in making sure that these civilians are true believers in the Kremlin’s ideology.

Now, an award winning Russian journalist says there is no difference between journalism and propaganda — and they are both weapons of war.

RFE/RL explains.

Andrei Kondrashov is one of 300 media professionals awarded by Russian President Vladimir Putin for their “objective” coverage of events in Crimea. Speaking to RFE/RL in Moscow, Russian state television’s leading news anchor defended his award and said he saw no difference between journalism and propaganda. (RFE/RL’s Russian Service)

Watch the video here.

Former Minister Natalia Korolevskaya Missing

Novosti Donbassa reports that Natalia Korolevskaya, a former candidate in the upcoming presidential elections, has gone missing en route to Slavyansk. The news site reports that contact with her was lost a few hours after she set out from Dnipropetrovsk. She was heading to the Donetsk oblast to aid in the evacuation of disabled people from Slavyansk.

In her last post on her Facebook page, she said:

“I had planned today to visit Donetsk and monitor the situation of the evacuation of paraplegics, about whom I wrote to you. But the airport in Donetsk has been closed for unknown reasons. Therefore I am flying with the team to Dnipropetrovsk, and from there we will go through the checkpoints and reach Donetsk by car.”

Tymoshenko Claims Ukraine Needs Another Revolution if She Loses Elections

Ukrainska Pravda reports on statements today from Yulia Tymoshenko at a press conference:

Presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko believes that only she can carry out necessary political reforms for the country.

She announced this during a press conference in Mykolaiv on Tuesday, reports NikVesti.

The Batkivshchyna leader said that Ukraine needs a radical change of the relationship between businessmen and the government, as well as the nurturing of a “new generation” which will build a “new country”.

Tymoshenko spoke about her bill, the passing of which she believes will help to solve the problem of corruption. However, Tymoshenko said that many of the members of oligarchical powers are not interested in this, including her main competitor, Petro Poroshenko.

Moreover, the Batkivshchyna leader is confident that if her opponent wins, Ukraine will have to go through another revolution:

“I don’t want to be held responsible for the breakdown of the revolution. But if the country elects another president, and I actually have one competitor today, I think we will have to go through a third round of revolution. Because I do not see a chance for any sort of change there. I simply know all of these people”, said Tymoshenko

Militants Surround Donetsk Military Academy
Pro-Russian forces, some armed with RPG-22s, briefly surrounded the Donetsk Military Academy, though they have now withdrawn.
Was Putin Really Behind the Kidnapping of OSCE Monitors?

Earlier we carried a report by Paul Roderick Gregory of Forbes, re-posting an intercepted phone call between Kremlin human rights envoy Vladimir Lukin, the former Russian Human Rights Ombudsman, and Igor Strelkov, commander of the Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine appears to be have been taken out of context.

We believe the voice of Lukin to be authentic. But Gregory implies that this conversation constitutes a smoking gun for Kremlin involvement in the kidnapping from the start. While this may have been the case, the intercepted conversation isn’t itself evidence for such complicity.

In fact, the phone call on the 1st or 2nd of May shows that Lukin was merely used to negotiate the release of the hostages. The “thing” he is talking about is the release of the hostages. Strelkov and Lukin aren’t “two acquaintances arranging a golf game,” as Gregory describes it, but a Russian-backed commander and a Kremlin negotiator whose own communications were lost for a time with the Kremlin while he performed his mission — a mission supported by the OSCE leadership.

Putin dispatched Lukin to negotiate with the Slavyansk fighters; he had to reach Strelkov/Girkin in order to intervene on the OSCE monitors behalf.

While Russia claimed the hostage-taking was done locally, and Forbes claims the intercepted conversation is proof of complicity, in fact, the Kremlin’s involvement at a high level in obtaining the OSCE monitors’ release was known and publicized. The Washington Post reported on May 2nd:

Putin on Thursday sent a special envoy to eastern Ukraine to negotiate with pro-Russian separatists who have taken seven international observers hostage in Slovyansk. But the mission of envoy Vladimir Lukin was ‘under threat’ Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, calling for assurances about Lukin’s safety.

The Kremlin said Friday that it had lost contact with Lukin for part of the day, although it later said contact was reestablished.

Lukin’s phone call was about obtaining assurances that his negotiating team would be taken safely to meet Strelkov/Girkin.

Lukin, a lawyer who formerly served as Human Rights Ombudsman, an office appointed by parliament, has enjoyed a good reputation as critical of the Kremlin over poor prison conditions, mistreatment of migrants and suppression of press freedom. Since leaving office, he served as Putin’s special envoy to Kiev in February during negotiations before Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country.

It’s worth noting that our update below is also a correction of a report by Paul Roderick Gregory of Forbes on a different topic.

How Many People Really Voted for the Referendum in Crimea?

Below is a quote from this The Interpreter’s Russian liveblog.

A critical report on human rights violations in Crimea, originally posted on the front page of the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights, has been “censored” because of reporting truthfully about poor turnout in the Crimean referendum, Forbes writer Paul Roderick Gregory reports.

But we have found the story is actually more complicated, as the report is still available, isn’t official, and doesn’t make claims of “only 15%” voting for annexation – the figure given is 50%. But clearly it has been removed from view and easy access due to its critical findings on a number of topics.

As we point out,  the Forbes article distorts the voting data, the scale and nature of the report, and the fact that the report was not removed as Forbes claims.

What is important, however, is that, according to the report, turnout appears to much much lower than the Kremlin maintains it was (The Interpreter has been producing evidence of that since the vote was held) and that the voting margins were far more narrow, even if, according to the report, 50% still voted in favor of the referendum.

Read our entire analysis here.

Phone Call Reportedly Shows Putin Pulls Strings of Separatists

A leaked audio tape reportedly shows that the separatist commander in Slavyansk,  Igor Girkin AKA Igor Strelkov, ran many elements of his operation through a contact in the Kremlin, including the kidnapping of the OSCE military monitors who were released last week. Forbes reports:

Russia’s lie is exposed by tapped phone calls, obtained by the Ukraine Security Service (SBU), that took place on May 1 and 2 between Colonel Igor Girkin (alias Igor Strelkov), the military commander of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” and Putin’s special envoy, Vladimir Lukin.

In their calls, Lukin gives Girkin aka Strelkov his instructions about how to carry out this “thing.” Girkin a.k.a. Strelkov has no objections to this “thing” because he has already “been informed.” In their calls, Lukin refers to “verification from the highest levels.” As the President’s special envoy, I imagine this refers to Putin himself. It also appears that Girkin/Strelkov has to make calls to clear new “things” with higher-ups, such as admitting Council of Europe members along with Lukin.

Forbes also has the video, and a full translation, which can be read in full here. In several excerpts, Moscow’s envoy, Vladimir Lukin, clearly encourages Strelkov/Girkin, and reminds him that “we are carrying out this ‘thing’ together.”

Paul Roderick Gregory, who wrote the article, is highly confident that the audio is real:

I have personally met Lukin several times, and it would be difficult to imitate his voice and super-polite manner of speech. Their conversation rings like two acquaintances arranging a golf game.

Girkin/Streltsov’s voice is well known from You Tube (introducing to the local police their new boss whom he has named) and from his intercepted call with the self-appointed mayor of Slovyansk about the disposition of the body of the murdered local politician, Volodymir Rybak.

Member of Crimean Tatar Mejlis Beaten in Simferopol

Crimean news site 15 Minutes reports that Abduraman Egiz, the deputy head of the Department for Foreign Relations of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, has been beaten by unidentified, camouflaged men in Simferopol:

As the victim himself told 15 Minutes, the incident took place on Gorky Street.

“After I parked my car I was approached by several men, presenting themselves as “self-defence”, who demanded I present my documents”, said Egiz. He refused to the comply with the unidentified individuals’ demands and offered to call the police, to whom he was prepared to show his passport.

The “self-defence” members, who were, according to Egiz, joined by another 20 people in military uniforms, insisted. Moreover, they demanded that he open up his car for inspection, which he also refused.

After this, the “self-defence” members put handcuffs on the Mejlis member and tried to take him to their headquarters. Egiz put up resistance, as a result of which, they inflicted several blows upon him. The same fate befell several other Crimean Tatar guys who tried to defend the member of the Mejlis.

Eventually Egiz showed his passport to his abusers. Seeing the Mejlis member’s Crimean residency, the “self-defence” members let him go.

“Dialogue is impossible with them. Reasoning makes no impression on these people”, said Egiz. In answer to the question of whether he intends to appeal to the police on the matter, the Mejlis member is uncertain. According to him, as his next step he intends to discuss the case with the head of the representative body of the Crimean Tatars, Refat Chubarov.


Abduraman Egiz. Photo from the website of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People.

Avakov Claims Chechens are Fighting on Separatist Side

At a presser yesterday, Arseniy Avakov, the Ukrainian Interior Minister, said that around 30 separatist fighters had been killed during the ongoing anti-terrorist operation. He noted that “many Crimeans and Russians” had been encountered in Slavyansk on Monday, along with Chechens.

The presence of Chechen fighters would be evidence of Russian military participation, drawing soldiers or paramilitaries from far beyond the Russian Federation’s borderlands with Ukraine. In February Ramzan Kadyrov, the despotic Putin-backed ruler of Chechnya, known for his hyperbolic public statements, offered to send troops to Ukraine to fight against “terrorists”.

The Kyiv Post noted this YouTube video today, apparently filmed on May 3, in which, at 57 seconds in, the two soldiers, guarding a separatist checkpoint, speak to each other in a language that is neither Russian nor Ukrainian. Could these fighters be from elsewhere in the Russian Federation?

Note that the preview image is unrelated to the content of the video.

Reports of Fighting in Slavyansk

We’ve seen a number of reports on Twitter of renewed fighting in Slavyansk today:

This video purports to show Ukrainian Air Force fighters over Slavyansk yesterday. They appear to be using flares to counter infra-red surface-to-air missiles, such as those used to down two Ukrainian Mi-24 helicopters a few days ago.

Donetsk Airport Closed

Ukrainska Pravda reports that Donetsk airport has been closed to all flights today:

“By order of the State Aviation Administration of Ukraine, aircraft landings and take-offs at Donetsk airport have been temporarily suspended”, announces the airport website.

As of 10:25 [7:25 GMT] almost all flights on the website, up until at least 20:00 [17:00 GMT], have been cancelled. This affects flights to Moscow, Kiev and abroad.

Here is a screenshot from the Donetsk Aiport website: