Ukraine Liveblog Day 79: Mariupol City Council Building Back in Separatist Hands

May 7, 2014
Separatists take down the Ukrainian flag outside Mariupol town hall, only hours after it was raised by Ukrainian forces who retook it from them. Photo: Clarissa Ward

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.

Putin Needs South and East Ukraine

On purely economic grounds, Russia has significant military ties to eastern and southern Ukraine that would make it very hard for Ukraine to give up control in the region. Michael Kelley of Business Insider reports:

The regions of Ukraine where pro-Russian separatists are rebelling is home to more than 50 factories that have been building specialized military equipment for Moscow over the last two decades, Kateryna Choursina and James M. Gomez of Bloomberg report.

The output is vital to Vladimir Putin: 30% of Ukrainian military exports to Russia are unique and cannot currently be substituted by Russian production.

Read the entire analysis here.

No Sign of Russian Troop Pullback – NATO

NATO confirms what we have already guessed – they have not seen Russian troops withdraw from the border, despite Vladimir Putin’s claims:

Contrary to reports from Russia, there is no evidence of any troop withdrawals from its shared border with Ukraine, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said today.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced today that he had ordered troops to pull back from the border region to training areas.

Despite this announcement, Warren said, “we have seen no change in the Russian force posture along the Ukrainian border.”

“We would know,” the colonel added.

The United States continues its call for Russia to withdraw its troops from the border and to work with the international community to find a peaceful solution to the crisis, he said.

Chechen Leader Threatens To Send Fighters To Ukraine

The following is a cross-post from our Russia liveblog.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov announced today that allegedly no Chechens are currently fighting in Ukraine, reported, citing Kadyrov’s Instagram account. But the Chechen strong-man threatened to send tens of thousands of Chechen “volunteers” to the south of Ukraine if the “junta” in Kiev continued its “punitive operations.”

Kommersant only carried part of Kadyrov’s statement, leaving out the threat to send volunteers to Ukraine. The Interpreter provides a full translation of Kadyrov’s Instagram post:

“There are no Chechen battalions in Ukraine. The ruling junta wants to write off its punitive operations in Slavyansk on the presence among the defenders of the city of Chechen battalions. This is absurd!. If they were there, I assure you, those who make such statements would have long ago run not only from Slavyansk but even from Kiev which essentially they don’t govern. I urge [Ukrainian Interior Minister] Arsen Avakov and others to calm down, seeing in every dark-skinned person a Chechen and shuddering when they pronounce that word. If a person is dark-skinned, that does not mean that he is necessarily a Chechen. He should know that there are blue-eyed and blonde and even red-haired Chechens. As the Russian proverb has it, ‘fear has big eyes.’

We don’t have the aim of fighting in Ukraine, but we are not indifferent to what is happening in that country. We want to help the Ukrainian people and reinforce friendly relations with them. It’s important for the Ukrainian authorities to stop the violence against the civilian population in the south-east of Ukraine. They will not achieve anything by punitive actions. You have to know how to talk to people and make decisions, taking into account their opinion, and not act blindly under dictation from the West. I have given Zaur Hizriyev, head of Grozny the assignment of visiting Slavyansk and meeting with the leadership in order to sign an agreement on brother cities. There are tens of thousands of volunteers in Chechnya who are ready to help those who are being abused by fascistic thugs, whose blood is being shed by the unlawful government of Kiev. And if the Chechens really go to Slavyansk and other cities, you will see how people like Avakov flee from there, and will not stop even at the Western border of Ukraine.”

Yesterday Ukrainian commanders conducting an anti-terrorist operation in Slavyansk told reporters that they believed there were “foreigners” fighting in the area, and added that they were “Chechens.”

Russian anti-terrorist forces killed 255 terrorist suspects in punitive operations last year and already 78 in the first quarter of this year, among the largest number in the world. Each month dozens of people are arrested and some killed in anti-terrorist sweeps in Dagestan as well as Chechnya. Kadyrov has presided over a ruthless regime of terror in his republic, and has been placed on the Magnitsky List of sanctions against massive human rights violators by the US government.

SBU Releases Phone Recording Between Separatist Leader and Russian Neo-Nazi Politician

The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) has released a recording, reportedly of an intercepted phone conversation between Dmytro Boitsov, who they describe as one of the “leaders of the unregistered Orthodox Donbass organisation” in Donetsk, and Aleksandr Barkashov, the leader of the Russian National Unity movement in Moscow.  Russian National Unity is a neo-Nazi political group, active since the early 90s, though they have somewhat faded from view in recent years.

A YouTube video of the recording, uploaded by the SBU with English subtitles, is below:

During the conversation, Boitsov says that the planned Donetsk referendum is infeasible due to the Ukrainian government anti-terrorist operation.The following excerpts are taken from the SBU’s subtitles:

Boitsov: The troops are landing… Donetsk won’t stand up…

If we don’t get support, if Russia does not bring its troops, we will be fucked up. I am cancelling the referendum set for the 11th, because it can’t be held. We can’t conduct it lawfully as long as these cocksuckers are here.

Barkashov: Dima, Dima Dima, there is no way that you cancel it. It will mean that you got scared…

Boitsov: No, we are not scared at all. We simply can’t hold it, we’re not ready.

Barkashov: Dima, just flog whatever you want. Write something like 99% down… Are you going to walk around and collect papers? Are you fucking insane? Forget it, fuck them all…

Boitsov: Got it.

Barkashov: Write that 99%… well, not 99%… let’s say 89% voted for the Donetsk Republic. And that’s it, fucking shit.

The recording also suggests a growing level of discontent amongst Russian fringe-elements and separatists with perceived inaction from Vladimir Putin.

Barkashov: I was the first to write to the president, then Zhirik [Zhirinovsky], Zyuganov [leader of the Russian Communist Party]… In the end everyone spoke on TV, even Kadyrov by the evening…

Boitsov: Everybody will turn their backs on him – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus – if he does not help.

Barkashov: What the fuck is our damn tricky president waiting for? I have no fucking idea… People are already writing and they are very indignant. They come down on him but that’s what I can’t doI’m just not in a position to call him names and come down on him. You understand?

Boitsov: Of course, it’s certainly a mess.

The recording, if real, is further evidence of the activities of Russian nationalists in eastern Ukraine. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party, made a publicity move yesterday announcing his gift of an armored car to Russian separatists in Lugansk. The relationship between such adventurism and the Kremlin is less clear, however. Today, President Putin publicly called for the separatist referendum to be postponed, causing some confusion in Donetsk.

Will Separatists Hold a Referendum on May 11?

As we’ve been reporting, Vladimir Putin has called for a postponement
of the May 11th referendum in eastern Ukraine, where voters were going
to be polled as to whether they wanted autonomy for the eastern regions.

this would not be a traditional election. In fact, it would not even be
like the referendum in Crimea. Ukrainian authorities said that they
would not recognize the referendum. It would be up to the separatists to
organize an election in a territory that they do not control. In fact,
separatists control very little of eastern Ukraine, and where they do
control entire towns, those towns, like Slavyansk, are under siege.

But it remains to be seen whether all of the separatists will listen to the Russian President. Mike Giglio reports that some of the separatists were confused by Putin’s announcement:

Kishinets, “war commissioner” of the People’s Republic, was taken aback
by Putin’s statement. “I don’t know exactly why Putin is talking like
this because in my opinion, the referendum has to be done as soon as
possible because we can use it to legitimize our power and defend it
politically from pressure.” He also thought a referendum might free up
the local security forces to disobey Kiev’s orders for crackdowns.

was widespread. Asked about Putin’s comments, one young pro-Russian
activist said: “It’s difficult for me to comment. I’m confused.”

But others seem to be obedient.

Wall Street Journal reports that a decision on the referendum is not final, however:

Leaders of the pro-Russia movement in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk will meet Thursday morning to discuss Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal to delay a referendum on regional sovereignty, which the rebels had been gearing up to hold on Sunday, a spokesman for the movement said…

Speaking in a personal capacity, Mr. Rudenko said he found it difficult to imagine how the pro-Russia activists could hold a referendum in the midst of Kiev’s active military campaign to take control of the area. “In such circumstances, it won’t be possible,” he said.

Ukrainian Government Says Separatists Have Anti-Tank Missiles and are Planting Explosives in Slavyansk

UNIAN reports that the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence has stated that Russian-backed fighters in Slavyansk have deployed anti-tank missiles at a block post.

The Defence Ministry report says that separatists are threatening to blow up any buildings bearing the emblem of Ukraine.

UNIAN reports (translated by The Interpreter):

The main roads in the town are controlled by the separatists. They are checking not only documents, but also mobile telephones (for photos and videos). People are frightened. Schools, kindergartens and shops are shut. Eyewitnesses say that electricity poles have even been toppled. At check points, the separatists have set up ‘Fagot’ guided anti-tank missiles.

UNIAN also adds that Crimean Cossacks have been seen in Slavyansk.

The 9K111 Fagot (Russian for bassoon), known by NATO as an AT-4 Spigot, is a wire-guided anti-tank missile. It is comparable with the US TOW system. Their presence would present a severe threat to Ukrainian armour and even, according to the Ministry of Defence, low flying helicopters.

Meanwhile, Ukrainska Pravda reports that the Interior Ministry’s press office has announced that separatists in Slavyansk are planting explosives in occupied buildings. They said that a “large quantity of explosives” was being brought into the SBU, police, prosecutor’s and city council buildings.

Ukrainska Pravda reports (translated by The Interpreter):

Reports, that pro-Russian terrorists had begun to lay explosives at night in Slavyansk’s administrative buildings, are circulating amongst locals.

According to local residents, the separatists are discussing amongst themselves about blowing up administrative buildings in the town as soon as government troops begin another offensive.

In the opinion of the locals, this is being done so that the explosions can be blamed on the Ukrainian authorities, following the Abkhazia scenario.

Putin Says His Forces Withdrew From the Border. He’s Probably Lying. Here’s Why

The New York Times reports that Putin has said that he has pulled Russia’s troops back from the borders:

“We were told constantly about concerns over our troops near the Ukrainian border,” Mr. Putin said after meeting with the Didier Burkhalter, the president of Switzerland and current head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “We have pulled them back. Today they are not at the Ukrainian border but in places of regular exercises, at training grounds.”

What’s fascinating about the news flash is that it appears to misconstrue Putin’s words.  The fact is that Putin made this pledge more than a week ago, but there have been absolutely no signs that Russia has withdrawn its forces from the border. Either Putin is just restating what his government said last week, or he is pledging to withdraw troops that his own government says have already been withdrawn. So why the “breaking news” from the press?

When Russia was moving forces toward Ukraine there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of videos uploaded from across the country showing the movement of tanks and troops across roads and railways. When things escalated near Slavyansk on April 24th and Russia mobilized its forces, racing them toward the border, not only were there plenty of videos showing this, and countless eyewitness reports, but there were actually four dead Russians, killed in the ensuing traffic accidents. If Russia is mobilizing its armed forces, we’ll likely hear plenty of reports from Russian citizens. We haven’t seen that happen yet, so any unskeptical media reports are irresponsible.

And now a quick update:

Putin Wants Delay in East Ukrainian Referendum

Putin has called for the May 11th vote on greater autonomy for eastern Ukraine, advocated for by Russian-backed separatists, to be postponed. AP reports:

The Russian leader described Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election — slated for May 25 — as a move “in the right direction,” but repeated Russia’s long-held stance that constitutional reforms must precede any nationwide vote in Ukraine.

Roman Lyagin, chairman of the Donetsk People’s Republic election commission, told The Associated Press that Putin’s remarks notwithstanding, plans for holding an autonomy referendum on May 11 remained unchanged.

At the same time, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had called for a delay in the May 25th elections just yesterday. RT reports:

“Carrying out an election in a situation when the army is being used against parts of the population – that is sufficiently unusual. This isn’t Afghanistan, where a war is going on, and nonetheless, elections were held,” he said.

The absence of violence would be one of the criteria by which Russia judges the legitimacy of the presidential election, as well as the upcoming referendums in Donetsk and Lugansk, Lavrov said.

“Elections and referendums must be free, fair, and take place in an environment that excludes violence, and be held under object and impartial international monitoring,” Lavrov said. “Depending on how all these criteria are met, we will determine our attitude toward events.”

For Kiev to de-escalate the conflict, it must cancel the order deploying the army and national guard against the population of southeast Ukraine, he said.

“I’m quoting to you an announcement made by NATO’s ministers of defense this past February, in which they demanded that the army not be allowed to interfere in the political process, and [further] demanded that the army remain neutral. That was when the fully valid president was Viktor Yanukovich,” Lavrov said.

So what game is Putin playing? Has the Kremlin they changed their minds in just 24 hours? Some journalists and thinkers weigh in.

Nobody knows Putin’s reasons at the moment, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens next.
The Russian Media War In Ukraine

In this week’s podcast, Boston College Professor Matt Sienkiewicz and Interpreter Magazine’s managing editor James Miller
discuss Right Sector, neo-Nazis, concentration camps and media wars,
the battles in Slavyansk, the role of the Russian Orthodox Church, and
public opinion on whether eastern Ukrainians want to become part of

Listen to the podcast here.

Ukrainian Government Retakes and Then Relinquishes Town Hall in Mariupol

This morning has seen a bizarre turn of events as Ukrainian government forces entered Mariupol and raised the Ukrainian flag in front the retaken city council building, which had been occupied by Russian-backed separatists, only to vacate the building a few hours later, leaving it to be retaken by separatists who removed it.

At 11:25 Kiev time [8:25 GMT], Ukrainska Pravda reported that Mariupol was under government control:

Mariupol is completely under the control of the Ukrainian authorities.

This was reported by Censor.Net sources in the Ukrainian
Interior Ministry, reports the editor of this publication, Yuri Butusov,
on Facebook.

“The terrorists have abandoned the city council building. One terrorist was killed and two have been captured. A captured terrorist, calling himself the ‘defence minister’ of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’, is suspected of poisoning Ukrainian soldiers”, he writes.

The Interior Minister, Arseniy Avakov, said: “During the operation, the Interior Ministry’s ‘Azov’ special forces battalion, and the Ministry of Defence’s 72nd Mechanised Brigade especially distinguished themselves. The blockade on Mariupol has been completely lifted. Roads are open to traffic and all administrative buildings are accessible.”

Ukrainska Pravda says that no shots were heard during the retaking of the council building.

When the Ukrainian forces reached the council, they demolished the barricades set up by the separatists.

The Ukrainian flag was raised.

And taken down again after they left.

[Translation: Now the people have again entered the city council building in Mariupol. The Donetsk People’s Republic and Russian flags have been hung up. The National Guard has abandoned the site.]

The operation to retake Mariupol involved heavier armoured vehicles than previously seen in the operations around Slavyansk. Numerous photos appeared early this morning of columns of Ukrainian military columns heading towards Mariupol. Notably, alongside the BTR-80, which we have seen used frequently in Ukrainian operations, a number of BMP-2 IFVs were deployed.

Mariupol news site reports that these vehicles are now deployed inside the town, noting that “right now” at 7:45 GMT, there were about 10 military vehicles in front of Silpo, a shop in Mariupol, (though there are two of these stores in the town, one in the centre, and the other towards the outskirts, we do not know which is being referred to here). Two armoured vehicles are reportedly parked in front of the Parallel petrol station on Krasnoflotskaya street.

Here are photos from the Ukrainian advance on Mariupol this morning:

Ukrainian BMP-2 near the Ilichevsky sintering plant this morning.



 Here is video footage of an armoured column heading towards Mariupol this morning:

Note: The above video is now gone from YouTube but it can be accessed here on an embedded page and also an NTV news broad about these events can be seen here.