Ukraine Liveblog Day 94: Russian-Backed Separatists Launch Attacks Near Donetsk

May 22, 2014
Russian-backed separatist on patrol in eastern Ukraine earlier this week | Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

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.

15 Killed In Separatist Attack on Ukraine Army Checkpoint

Kyiv Post reports that 15 soldiers have died and 31 were injured in today’s attack. That means that 45 of the 52 Ukrainian soldiers who were attacked were either killed or wounded:

“As the officer who was there and who was lucky to stay alive said a jeep drove and stopped by check point. All attention was pointed at it, and then the two cars appeared from the other side and started shooting,” he said. As a result of the attack that was done by professionals only 7 soldiers out of 52 remained safe. “There were victims of their side as well but they were the real professionals,” the officer said. He added that after the shootout the attackers came out from their cars having Georgy stripes tied to their clothes and tried to pretend that they were the locals.

“They dislodged jaw to one of the wounded soldiers because he was from Volyn,” he said. The other soldier who said he came at the spot at about 6 am as reinforcement unit said that three helicopters flew to that place and one of them started shooting at an empty minivan of the attackers and totally destroyed it. It was unclear who the attackers were and to whom belonged the helicopters that came to the spot.

This video was taken today by a cameraman, perhaps one of the soldiers. Note that this was perhaps recorded hours after the initial attack. The soldiers are investigating the separatist vehicles that launched the earlier attack. Suddenly, the separatist vehicles come under attack, apparently from attack helicopters. Most of the gunfire heard in the video is “cook off” as fires ignite ammunition in the cars, but when the helicopters fire the audio is so loud it distorts the microphone on the camera and so it actually sounds quiet.

One observer spots signs that these are Ukrainian helicopters – note the flag.

There are reports that at least one soldier was wounded in this incident. In fact, at the end of the video there is some confusion perhaps because a wounded soldier is being loaded into an ambulance.

Note that earlier the Ukrainian government DID report that Russian helicopters had entered Ukrainian airspace, but this appears to be an unrelated incident.

Major Fighting Today in Lugansk

There are many reports of heavy fighting today in Lugansk. Kyiv Post reports:

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry reported in a separate statement that around 12:30 a.m. on May 22, snipers and other armed men began firing on border guards in Luhansk Oblast. By 1:00 a.m., the border guards had repulsed the attackers, some of whom sprayed the border guards with heavy machine gun fire.

Five Ukrainian guards were injured as a result of the firefight.

According to the Interior Ministry, the attackers were were armed with assault rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and sniper rifles.

We also have this video, reportedly showing a vehicle running a military checkpoint. It does not appear to go well for the offending vehicle, but we have no confirmation of what happened to the people inside:

And now there is this unconfirmed report:

However, that picture does not match the description given to it on May 20th, when it was uploaded to a social media platform. The picture is at least several days old, and this is likely a false report.

Kyiv Post reports that the separatist leader Valeriy Bolotov, the head of the self-proclaimed “People’s Republic of Lugansk,” declared martial law earlier today and requested a “full mobilization” of his supporters to defend against Ukrainian forces.

Russian-Backed Separatists Capture Weapons Stockpile
In today’s battle in Blahodatne, south of Donets, Russian-backed separatists have captured a significant amount of weapons and ammunition.

Note that it is not clear whether Russian separatists have captured ammunition for the RPGs.

However, even before this happened, the separatists across eastern Ukraine have been filmed with various RPGs and anti-tank missiles. Obviously, looking at video of the aftermath of the battle, they must have brought a lot of firepower with them when they attacked the Ukrainian checkpoint.

Russian Stock Market Halts Rally

Russian stock markets have been rallying this week, but that rally was halted today as investors debate the impact of Russia’s huge gas deal with China. Business Week reports:

Russian stocks declined for the first time in five days as investors sought more details of OAO Gazprom’s $400 billion accord to supply gas to China.

The Micex Index (INDEXCF) fell 0.7 percent from yesterday’s three-month high to 1,430.54 by the close in Moscow. Gazprom slipped 1.2 percent to 144.78 rubles, paring its gain this month as investors anticipated the China deal to 12 percent.

Russia’s state-controled gas monopoly reached an agreement to supply fuel to China for 30 years after more than a decade of talks. While the precise terms of the contract signed with China National Petroleum Corp. in Shanghai yesterday weren’t published, the price of gas was “about $350” per 1,000 cubic meters, Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said on Bloomberg TV. 

“The market is taking a break from the rally on Chinese deals news,” Evgeny Loktyukhov, an analyst at OAO Promsvyazbank in Moscow, said by phone. “Gazprom saw a visible inflow of funds before the deal was signed, now we’re expecting the stock to drop 3-5 percent. Fundamentally, the news is positive as the deal diversifies Gazprom’s exports markets.”

Russia’s MICEX index is still down 4.82% since the start of the year, and though the recent rally has made up significant ground, the MICEX is still below where it was just three months ago:


RT Freelancer Graham Phillips Released By Ukrainian Authorities
Graham Phillips reports that he has been released by Ukrainian authorities and he will not be facing deportation.
Are Russian Troops Pulling Back?

For days there has been no sign of Russian troop pullback, despite Russia’s promises to withdraw its troops. The head of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, says that for the first time, and after months of broken promises, there may be signs that Russian troops are moving.

Devastation South of Donetsk After Separatist Attack

It’s still unclear whether helicopters were used in the attack south of Donetsk. Those helicopters would be very deep inside Ukrainian territory, and the video we posted below may actually show Ukrainian helicopters engaged in a counterattack against separatists.

What is clear, however, is that somewhere between 11 and 15 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed, several Ukrainian APCs have been destroyed, and the incident corresponds to separate reports of incursions on the border.

The video of the aftermath makes the significance of the attack clear: 

Russian Helicopters Allegedly Attack Ukrainian Forces

As we reported below, the Ukrainian army major in charge of the troops who were attacked today south of Donetsk says that his forces were fired upon by helicopters. Two helicopters were also spotted near the scene of the attack.

Kyiv Post reports that, according to the Ukrainian government, Russian helicopters did cross into Ukrainian airspace: 

2:46 p.m. — Local residents in the Donetsk Oblast village of Olginka reported that three armored vehicles and 70 reserve army soldiers had been stationed there for three days from western Ukraine. About 4 a.m. on May 22, four mini-vans arrived with people in black masks and started shooting at the reservists, who fired back. Two helicopters also hovered overhead. About 6:30 a.m., two armored vehicles with Ukrainian flags arrived. Ambulances started driving around. Villagers were told that 17 Ukrainian reservists were killed and taken to the morgue in nearby Novotroitskoye. — Oksana Grytsenko

They also share this statement from the Foreign Ministry:

In particular, on May 21 in Krasnodonsky region of Lugansk Oblast Ukrainian border guards prevented an attempt of several groups of armed militants, who were escorting weapons and ammunition from the territory of the Russian Federation, to illegally break through the state border of Ukraine. The same day the Russian MI-8 helicopter violated the airspace of Ukraine in Sumy Oblast.

But this video might be the most interesting piece of information. It appears to show two helicopters in the sky near the incident. At one point there is a large explosion, perhaps the result of one of the helicopters firing at the ground.

There is some discussion, however, as to whether this footage definitively shows the helicopters attacking.
Death Toll Rising In Separatist Attack
Some updates on the current situation south of Donetsk, where the death toll is rising after a separatist attack on an army checkpoint earlier today
Helicopters? If confirmed this would be a significant escalation on a scale not yet seen in this conflict.
The bottom line — Russian backed separatists have made considerable gains in the last three days, after a week of suffering losses. With the presidential election only three days away, the probability that the elections will be able to take place in at least parts of eastern Ukraine is slipping.
At Least 11 Dead Ukrainian Soldiers In Separatist Attack

In the last several days we have documented rebel armor rolling into Donetsk, Russian-backed separatists capturing election offices across eastern Ukraine, and in general an expansion of their activity in the region. Today, AP journalists have seen 11 dead Ukrainian soldiers in Blahodatne, 30 kilometers south of Donetsk, where separatists have launched an attack. 

AP journalists also saw three destroyed Ukrainian armored vehicles.

Separatists in Gorlivka showed off captured Ukrainian weapons

“We destroyed a checkpoint of the fascist Ukrainian army deployed on the land the Donetsk Republic,” said the commander, who wore a balaclava and identified himself by his nom de guerre, “Bes,” Russian for “demon.” He said one of his men also was killed.

“The weapons you see here have been taken from the dead, they are trophies,” the rebel commander said, showing automatic and sniper rifles, rocket grenade launchers and bulletproof vests in the courtyard of the occupied Horlivka police headquarters.

“People living in western Ukraine: Think about where you are sending your brothers, fathers and sons, and why you need any of this,” he added.