Ukraine Liveblog Day 92: Gunmen Storm Election Offices Across East Ukraine

May 20, 2014
"These guys just turned up near central Donetsk. Armed men on each corner of crossroads" - Kevin Bishop (@bishopk)

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.

Update On RT Freelancer Reportedly Detained In Mariupol

An RT correspondent adds more details about the reported detention of Graham Phillips, an RT freelancer:

Graham Phillips, who was caught lying about being shot at by Ukrainian forces last Friday, has a history of disinformation — and quite the sordid past. Buzzfeed’s Max Seddon has written an article about the rise of Phillips, who graduated from writing about his adventures in sex tourism to propagating pro-separatist propaganda in Ukraine. Phillips, who spent some time blogging about his experiences in brothels, eventually graduated to freelancing, and eventually was hired by RT:

By the time mass protests in Kiev against then-President Viktor Yanukovych broke out last December, however, Phillips’ time in Ukraine had, by his own admission, “completely flopped.” He was unemployed. An e-book he wrote accusing a Ukrainian internet bride of murdering her British husband was withdrawn after her new boyfriend threatened legal action. Another, about an American fruitlessly searching for a Ukrainian bride for 15 years, never came to fruition. A serious relationship with a Ukrainian woman collapsed when Phillips failed to commit to marriage, souring irreparably shortly afterward when he failed to share her embrace of the protest movement.

At the same time, Phillips’ online diatribes against the protesters caught the eye of producers at RT, who invited him on to denounce the movement a few times via Skype as a dissenting Western voice. “The way that Ukraine is perceived and portrayed in the media isn’t a representation of what I’ve seen and what I’ve felt and what I’ve experienced,” Phillips said. “They’re portrayed as the nice cuddly country that’s been attacked by the big bear of Russia. But what I see is a country that has a lot more problems.”

On the advice of an acquaintance, he bought a camera and started documenting the movement in the hope of selling the videos to Storyful, an agency that verifies and re-sells user-generated footage. Though the historical moment largely passed by Phillips, then living in Odessa in southern Ukraine, he decided to branch out further in March after Russia seized the nearby Crimean peninsula.

It’s not clear where Phillips is being held, and the Ukrainian government has not yet given comment.

Slavyansk Rebels Use Anti-Tank Missiles To Defend City
Videos reportedly taken yesterday show Russian-backed rebels wielding significant firepower in Slavyansk, including what may be the 9K115 Metis or 9K115-2 Metis-M anti-tank missile which we have documented is in the possession of the rebels.
Heavy Rebel Firepower Deployed Today in Donetsk
As we’ve been reporting, a significant presence of heavily-armed rebel gunmen have appeared in Donetsk today. Combined with the fact that nearly a dozen election offices have been raided by gunmen today (see previous update) there are new concerns that this is a well-organized rebel effort to disrupt Sunday’s elections and/or gain more territory:
An interesting claim, though we’d need more pictures to confirm it:
Election Offices Raided By Gunmen In Donetsk and Lugansk

Kyiv Post reports that nearly a dozen election commission offices across Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts have been stormed by gunmen today:

The gunmen seized 11 district elections offices and are threatening to capture at least eight more, news website Ukrainska Pravda and News Channel 24 reported, citing election officials. In most cases, the gunmen confiscated election documents, including ballots, from the offices…

In one incident at 11:30 a.m. on May 20, around 10 masked gunmen raided the city administration building in Artemivsk, a typically quiet city of some 80,000 people 86 kilometers north of Donetsk. They forced election officials there at gunpoint to hand over ballots, voter lists and other documents, an election official present told the Kyiv Post by phone minutes afterward.

The election official, who asked that his name not be published for fear of reprisals by the gunmen, said his office and the offices of his colleagues inside the city building on central Artema Street were stormed and that the gunmen forced them to march the boxes of documents outside to waiting vehicles.

The event lasted mere minutes, but terrified the elections staff, the official said. “We are all very, very scared. People are still standing here and we don’t know what to do,” he said 20 minutes after the incident.

Could the ballots be used to rig election results, or are these moves being made simply to disrupt the elections and scare officials, and potential voters, into not participating in the elections that are scheduled for Sunday May 25th?

Early Morning Shelling in Slavyansk
Several reports suggest that shelling in Slavyansk started about 12 hours ago, at about 4:30 in the morning. It’s unclear who is shooting what, but it seems the shelling was again focused on the TV tower as it has been for several days:
This video provides a closeup of some of the impacts near the tower:

Video reportedly taken at 4:30 AM local time:

Unconfirmed Report That RT’s Graham Phillips Was Detained in Mariupol

RT, the Russian state-operated news/propaganda outlet, reports that a “contributing journalist,” Graham Phillips, has been detained in Mariupol by Ukrainian National Guard:

“I’m sitting at a blockade post in a portacabin. The dialogue is quite interrogation oriented,” Phillips told RT in a phone call.

He added that he was asked if he is a spy, while his car was searched and his laptop confiscated. However, he noted that he is being treated well.

“At the moment I’m with the Ukrainian forces … near Mariupol. I’ve been here for over two hours and I’ve been described, my status, as being detained in terms of I can’t leave. I would also say I’m being treated OK by them. I believe that someone is coming. They’ve done checks on my documentation. They found my reports and clips I’ve done and they’re now looking through them asking me my position on things, asking if I’m a spy, and asking me quite thorough questions. They’ve checked all my documentation and photos, my laptop and the car – so that’s who I’m with at the moment.”

RT has uploaded a video of their phone call with Phillips:

So far there is no confirmation of Phillips’s story.

Graham Phillips is notorious, and his reputation has taken quite the hit since he was caught red handed lying about being shot at by Ukrainian forces this past Friday. The lie was so blatant that RT, a network not know for its adherence to the facts, publicly disagreed with Phillips’s story.

Phillips maintains that he was not lying and that he really was shot at. But the video he recorded shows him setting off a tripwire proximity alert flare. Needless to say, any story that relies on his word alone should be treated with caution, and as of yet there is no independent corroboration that Phillips has been detained.

As we have been reporting, however, two Russian journalists working for LifeNews, an outlet with close ties to the Russian security apparatus. The OSCE has asked for the release of the journalists, who appear to be under investigation for working with “terrorists” who were reportedly in possession of MANPADS (surface-to-air missiles). The Independent reports:

The detained journalists, Oleg Sidyakin and Marat Saichenko, are being investigated on the charges of “aiding the terrorist groups,” deputy secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (SNBO), Victoria Sumar, wrote on her Facebook page.

She added that there is “direct video evidence” of her claims, pointing at footage released on Monday showing Ukrainian troops rudely forcing a group of handcuffed people to get down on their knees and looking through belongings that appeared to have belonged to them.

Along with a close-up of the documents of two LifeNews journalists, the video showed some journalistic equipment, a pile of Ukrainian hrivnyas and Russian rubles, and a MANPAD with inscriptions in Polish. The third man shown kneeling on the ground was not identified.

The Ukrainian Security Service said on Monday, without elaborating, that two Russian citizens detained in the Donetsk Region with video equipment have been brought to Kiev for interrogation.

As we reported yesterday, a new report by ARES (Armament Research Services) suggests that those weapons may have been stolen by Russian soldiers in Georgia and smuggled into Ukraine.

As for Graham Phillips, he has a history of distortion. Phillips also reported that more than 150 people were killed in Mariupol in an incident on May 9th (that figure is 7-17 times more than other reports), though he refused to provide evidence supporting this claim to Human Rights Watch, and has yet to find any bodies. Phillips now claims that, according to witnesses he’s spoken to, the bodies were evacuated by truck before he could see them. As of now, however, there are no known lists of missing people in Mariupol that are large enough to account for this possibility.

NATO and Kiev Say Russia’s Troops Haven’t Moved An Inch
Once again Vladimir Putin says he is withdrawing Russian troops from the border with Ukraine. This was the third time he made this promise in less than a month, and before that he lied about the troops even being near the border. Once again today, there appear to be no signs of Russian drawback. 

NATO is also seeing no signs of troop movement yet. CNN reports:

President Vladimir Putin ordered tens of thousands of troops near the Ukraine border to return to their bases, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday. The withdrawal has started, he said, and could take some time to finish.

But despite Moscow’s assertion, there were no signs of the troops’ withdrawal, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said hours later.

The Obama administration was skeptical about Putin’s order, while Kiev said it’s monitoring the area to ensure troops are returning to their permanent bases.

We will continue to look for signs of troop movement on the other side of the border.