Thursday, July 31, 2014

Moscow Fights Back After Sanctions; Battle Rages Near Ukraine Crash Site

KIEV, Ukraine -- Russia fought back on Wednesday over new U.S. and EU sanctions imposed over Ukraine even as G7 leaders warned of further steps, while Ukraine's government accused pro-Russian rebels of placing land mines near the site of a crashed Malaysian airliner to prevent a proper investigation.


A woman takes a photograph of wreckage at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near the village of Hrabove, Donetsk region July 26, 2014.

Russia announced a ban on most fruit and vegetable imports from Poland and said it could extend it to the entire European Union, a move Warsaw called Kremlin retaliation for new Western sanctions over Ukraine imposed on Russia on Tuesday. 

Moscow called the new EU and U.S. sanctions "destructive and short-sighted" and said they would lead to higher energy prices in Europe and damage cooperation with the United States on international affairs.

The confrontation between Russia and the West entered a new phase this week, with the United States and European Union taking by far the strongest international steps yet against Moscow over its support for Ukraine's rebels.

The new EU and U.S. sanctions restrict sales of arms and of equipment for the oil industry, while Russian state banks are barred from raising money in Western capital markets.

G7 leaders issued a joint statement on Wednesday warning Russia that it would face added economic sanctions if Moscow does not change course on its Ukraine policy. 

The statement from the leaders of the G7 countries - the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Britain - was a show of solidarity among allies.

They expressed grave concern about Russian actions that have undermined "Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence."

"Russia still has the opportunity to choose the path of de-escalation," the statement said.

"If it does not do so, however, we remain ready to further intensify the costs of its adverse actions."

In addition, the European Commission published the names of eight Russians, including some of President Vladimir Putin's associates, and three companies that will have their assets frozen as part of the sanctions.

The people on the list include Arkady Rotenberg, who is Putin's long-time judo partner and has been on a U.S. sanctions list since March.

Yury Kovalchuk and Nikolai Shamalov - the two largest shareholders in Bank Rossiya, a St. Petersburg company that expanded rapidly after Putin moved to Moscow and became president in 2000 - were also blacklisted.

The companies named include Russian National Commercial Bank, which was the first Russian bank to go into Crimea after the region's annexation by Russia this year.

The other two firms are anti-aircraft weapons maker Almaz-Antey and airline Dobrolyot, which operates flights between Moscow and Simferopol in the Crimea. 

FIGHTING NEAR THE CRASH SITE 

On the ground in Ukraine, heavy fighting between government forces and separatists has been taking place near the site where Malaysian flight MH17 crashed into wheat and sunflower fields on July 17, shot down by what Washington and Brussels say was a missile supplied by Russia.

Kiev accused the pro-Russian rebels on Wednesday of fortifying the area, including with land mines, to prevent the site from being properly investigated.

The land mine report could not be independently confirmed.

Ukraine is party to a treaty banning land mines; Russia is not.

Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said the rebels were digging in for battle near the crash site:

"They have brought a large number of heavy artillery there and mined approaches to this area. This makes impossible the work of international experts trying to start work to establish the reasons behind the Boeing 777 crash."

The G7 leaders called on all sides to establish a ceasefire at the crash site.

The new Western sanctions mark the first time Washington and Brussels have adopted measures designed to hurt the overall Russian economy, after weeks of narrow steps targeting only specific individuals blamed for Russia's Ukraine policy. 

German Economy Minister and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said the measures would hurt the European economy but would hurt Russia more.

The price was worth paying, he added:

"At a time of war and peace, economic policy is not the main consideration."

Even so, Russian markets rallied, as investors deemed the sanctions less severe than feared, with Russian stocks, bonds and the rouble rising.

The first European economic victims of the trade war were Polish apple growers, who sell more than half their exports to Russia.

Moscow is by far the biggest importer of EU fruit and vegetables, buying more than 2 billion euros' worth a year.

Russia said the ban, covering most Polish fruit and vegetables, was for sanitary reasons and it would look into expanding it to the rest of the EU.

Moscow denies Western accusations that it has armed and supported rebels who are fighting Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine.

But Western countries say flows of heavy weapons across the frontier have only increased since the airliner was shot down, killing all 298 people on board.

Lysenko said 363 Ukrainian troops had been killed and 1,434 wounded since Kiev's "anti-terrorist" operation began. 

Ukraine's fragile economy is also taking a battering.

Parliament will consider austerity budget amendments on Thursday that are key to receiving IMF support and to assign more financing for the army.

GOVERNMENT TROOPS ADVANCE

Despite what the West says is an increase in armaments for the rebels, government troops have advanced since the start of the month, when they pushed the rebels out of their best-defended stronghold, the town of Slavyansk.

Since then, Western countries say thousands of Russian soldiers have returned to the border from which they had withdrawn weeks ago.

NATO military commander General Philip Breedlove said the number of troops along the border was now "well over 12,000", and weaponry was also building up. 

Valentyn Nalivaichenko, the head of Ukraine's SBU security service, said arms including Grad multiple rocket launchers were flooding across the border.

"Grads come in from Russian territory, take pre-agreed positions and fire on the Ukrainians. This is hundreds of rocket launches. They come in, shoot around like in a safari. This is serious military aggression," he told a news conference.

The rebels are mainly holed up in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, which they have declared capitals of two independent "people's republics", as well as in the surrounding countryside.

The sanctions are intended to persuade Putin to back down from a months-long campaign to seize territory and disrupt his neighbour, a former Soviet state of 45 million where a pro-Russian president was toppled by street protests in February.

But Putin, whose popularity at home has surged since he annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in March, has shown no sign of backing down from support for the rebellion in parts of Ukraine that he has referred to as New Russia.

The EU had been reluctant to impose tighter sanctions - it has 10 times more trade with Russia than the United States does, and all 28 members must agree EU decisions - until the downing of the plane en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

The EU sanctions have nevertheless been crafted so as to inflict the minimum hardship on Europe: Russia's oil industry has been targeted but not the natural gas that fuels European industry and lights its cities.

Existing contracts are excluded from the arms embargo, allowing France to move ahead with delivery of a warship it has already sold for the Russian navy.

Source: einNews

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Where Ukraine's Separatists Get Their Weapons

DONETSK, Ukraine -- On the last day of May, a surface-to-air rocket was signed out of a military base near Moscow where it had been stored for more than 20 years. 


Pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk, Ukraine.

According to the ornate Cyrillic handwriting in the weapon's Russian Defence Ministry logbook, seen by Reuters, the portable rocket, for use with an Igla rocket launcher, was destined for a base in Rostov, some 50 km (31 miles) from the Ukrainian border.

In that area, say U.S. officials, lies a camp for training Ukrainian separatist fighters. 

Three weeks later the rocket and its logbook turned up in eastern Ukraine, where government troops seized them from pro-Russian separatists.

The logbook, which is more than 20 pages long, records that rocket 03181 entered service on May 21, 1993, and had regular tests as recently as 2005 to make sure it was in fighting form.

The seal of the Russian Defence Ministry has been stamped over the signature sending the weapon to Rostov.

A copy of the log was passed to a diplomat in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev.

Reuters was unable to verify its authenticity with the Russian military, and Moscow has consistently denied arming the separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The Igla and its logbook are just one indication that weapons are flowing from Russia into Ukraine.

Interviews with American officials, diplomats in Kiev, and Russian military analysts paint a picture of a steady and ongoing flow.

These people say weapons – from small arms to armored personnel carriers, tanks and sophisticated missile systems – have flooded into the region since May, fueling the violence.

In an interview with Reuters last week, a separatist leader said that Russia may have supplied the separatists with BUK rockets, which were used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

The destruction of the civilian passenger plane over eastern Ukraine on July 17 killed nearly 300 people.

Alexander Khodakovsky, commander of the Vostok Battalion, told Reuters: "I knew that a BUK came from Luhansk (in east Ukraine) ... I heard about it. I think they sent it back. Because I found out about it at exactly the moment that I found out that this tragedy (of MH17) had taken place. They probably sent it back in order to remove proof of its presence."

Three U.S. government officials said the weapons flow from Russia increased dramatically several weeks ago in response to successes by Ukrainian government forces, including the recapture of Slavyansk, a separatist stronghold in eastern Ukraine.

The new shipments included anti-aircraft systems designed to combat Ukraine’s air power, those officials said.

“If you trace the increase in supplies and materials ... we’ve seen in the last few weeks culminating in this tragic incident, it’s clearly in the face of successes by the Ukrainian forces," said a senior U.S. official, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity.

Moscow, which has said it is willing to cooperate with an international investigation into the loss of MH17, has denied sending any BUK missiles to the rebels.

It has said Washington is attempting to destabilize Russia through events in Ukraine. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week that Moscow was hopeful that monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe could be deployed along Russia's border with Ukraine to dispel suspicions that Russia is aiding the rebels.

"We hope that this will dispel suspicions that are regularly being voiced against us, that those (border) checkpoints controlled by the militias from the Ukrainian side are used for massive troops and weaponry deployment from Russia to Ukraine," he said. 

Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine maintain most of their weapons have come from captured Ukrainian armories or have been seized directly from the Ukrainian military on the battlefield.

BORDER SKIRMISHES 

In the weeks following Russia's annexation of Crimea in March, tensions grew on the south and east frontiers of Ukraine.

Kiev's border guard agency said it stopped thousands of Russian citizens who tried to enter Ukrainian territory carrying weapons or bags full of camouflage.

Separatists started firing on border guard positions, according to Ukrainian officials.

On May 29, the Stanychno-Luhanske border guard division in Ukraine's Luhansk province was attacked by 300 gunmen with small arms and grenade launchers.

Rebels seized control of the facility after five days of fighting.

Other border guard divisions and checkpoints along Ukraine’s more than 2,000-km (1,243-mi) border with Russia also fell.

Separatists were able to ferry in people and equipment almost unhindered.

That led to more ambitious attacks on Ukrainian targets.

On June 14, for instance, separatists shot down a Ukrainian IL-76 military transport jet coming in to land near the eastern city of Luhansk.

All 49 people on board died; charred pieces of the fuselage and engines littered the rolling wheat fields outside the village of Novohannivka.

The weapon used that day, according to separatists who later spoke about the attack, was an Igla rocket launcher, sometimes known generically as a MANPAD, for man-portable air-defence system.

The origin of the weapon remains unclear.

There is no evidence this was connected to the Igla rocket seized by Ukrainian forces a week later along with its log book.

Iglas were used extensively in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia in the 1990s and are easy to transport and common in eastern Ukraine.

Videos, posted online after Ukrainian troops drove separatists out of Slavyansk on July 7, show boxes marked 9M39 – the model of missile used with an Igla – stacked in the basement of the mayor’s office.

The day after the IL-76 was shot down, Valery Bolotov, top commander of the Luhansk People's Republic, claimed responsibility.

“I can't tell you anything more detailed on the IL-76, but I will repeat that the IL-76 was hit by our militia, the air defense forces of the Luhansk People's Republic," Bolotov, who wore a camouflage T-shirt, said in a video posted on YouTube.

The commander said that separatists in Luhansk controlled nearly 80 km (50 mi) of the border from Dolzhanksy to Izvaryna at that time, but denied getting weapons from Moscow, saying they had been pillaged from Ukrainian army and police store rooms.

A separatist officer in Slavyansk who used the nom de guerre Anton also said the Igla in the IL-76 attack was not Russian but a weapon seized from Ukrainians.

He declined to say whether the separatists received other weapons from Russia. 

Alexander Gureyev, a Russia supporter from Luhansk, told Reuters last week that all the separatists’ weapons had been found in local arms warehouses.

"We had to boost our arsenal,” he said.

“If you have small-caliber weapons and they're shooting at you with Howitzers - that's not right. But now they're getting it from us with Howitzers, mortars, tanks. It’s given them something to think about.”

He declined to detail the origin of heavy weapons, but said separatists were “thrilled” when the IL-76 was shot down.

“It was like a holiday in the city. People thought things would change and that with such a success people would stop dying in this conflict.”

He said the Luhansk rebels had decided to station anti-aircraft sharpshooters at the nearby airfield in retribution for the deaths of at least eight people in what he called a Ukrainian airstrike on the rebels’ headquarters in Luhansk.

"They simply flew above us, we were already fed up with it all and decided that we would start shooting at everything,” he said.

“We simply took anything out of the sky that flew above us."

“RUSSIAN BONEYARDS”

Not everyone believes the separatists’ assertions that their weapons had been seized from Ukrainian troops.

A diplomat said that arms had started to come in from Russia regularly around the time of the independence vote in Crimea in May.

In the past couple of weeks an increasing amount of materiel had arrived “in reaction to the collapse of Slavyansk,” he said.

That included T64 tanks from stocks of old weapons discarded after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Anton Lavrov, an independent Russian military analyst said: “It would be stupid to deny that Russia supports the separatists. The main question is only the scale of this support.”

He said pro-Russian separatists have been found in possession of a Kamaz Mustang military transport vehicle that is not used in Ukraine and cannot be bought there.

Reuters could not independently verify that.

“There was a serious escalation in the middle of June, when heavy weapons began to appear among the separatists, including tanks and artillery in such quantities that it would be hard to attribute it to seizures from Ukrainian stockpiles."

Another independent Russian military analyst, Alexander Golts, also said the rebels had received arms from Russia.

He described it as “all old Soviet weaponry.”

He said rocket launchers were spotted in April or the beginning of May very early in the conflict.

Washington is in no doubt Russia is the source of many of the weapons.

At least 20 tanks and armored personnel carriers have crossed the border from Russia since the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17, a senior U.S. intelligence official said.

In a media briefing on July 22, U.S. intelligence officials also released satellite photographs of what they said was a training site for Ukrainian separatists near the Russian city of Rostov.

The photographs appear to show increased activity at the site between June 19 and July 21.

A Moscovite volunteer called Valery Kolotsei, 37, said he joined the rebels in Ukraine’s Luhansk region for a few weeks in May and June.

He said he had connected with other volunteers over Vkontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook.

They had gathered, he said, in the Rostov region, where U.S. officials say a camp for training Ukrainian separatist fighters sits.

Kolotsei said the rebel group he joined used a motley array of weapons, including a mortar produced in 1944.

“OUT OF CONTROL”

Before the MH17 incident, U.S. spy agencies issued multiple warnings that Russia was shipping heavy weaponry, including rockets, to Ukrainian separatists, U.S. security officials said.

The officials said that before MH-17 went down, the United States had become aware separatists possessed SA-11 BUK missiles, but believed they were all inoperable.

Officials acknowledged, too, that U.S. intelligence agencies do not know who fired the missile or when and how separatists may have obtained it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has firmly denied his country had any involvement in the fate of MH17.

Putin and the separatists blamed Ukraine for the disaster, with some suggesting a Ukrainian missile team brought down the passenger aircraft.

Ukraine rejects such claims.

Vladyslav Seleznyov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military operations in eastern Ukraine, said:

“The Ukrainian army has portable missile systems of the Igla and Osa type and the complex BUK. However, they are not used in this campaign because there is no need for them.”

The rebels have no aircraft, he said.

Despite the MH17 tragedy, the conflict shows little sign of diminishing.

Another U.S. official said:

"There are indications that some groups feel betrayed by Moscow not doing enough. Others don’t like the way this is headed.”

He said some rebels fear the fighting has "gotten out of control."

Olexander Motsyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, told Reuters in an interview that his country has evidence Russia is preparing to supply separatist rebels with a powerful new multiple-rocket system known as the Tornado.

According to military websites, the system first saw service earlier this decade and is an improvement on Russia’s older Grad missile launcher.

The evidence for this, Motsyk said, includes satellite photographs as well as intercepts of telephone conversations.

He declined to be more specific.

Referring to the flow of weapons from Russia into eastern Ukraine, he said:

“Nothing has changed after the downing of the civilian airliner.”

Source: Google News

Ukraine Rebel Chief Igor Bezler Threatens To Execute Interviewer

HORLOVKA, Ukraine -- With a walrus moustache, a fiery temper and a reputation for brutality, Igor Bezler is the most feared of all the rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine.


Igor Bezler, in green fatigues and without his walrus moustache, is at a briefing of policemen in Horlovka.

Nicknamed Bes, or “the Demon”, he is regarded as something of a loose cannon, even by other rebels, who speak about him in hushed tones.

If the Ukrainian security services, the SBU, are to be believed, the Demon and a group of his men were responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the region a fortnight ago.

According to the recording of a phone call allegedly made two minutes before the disaster, the Demon was told: “A bird is flying towards you.”

He asked whether it was small or big, and was told that it was hard to see, as it was flying high above the clouds.

In another recording, apparently made 20 minutes later, the Demon reported to his interlocutor, supposedly a Russian intelligence official, that a plane had been shot down.

Bezler said the recording was real, but referred to a different incident: as well as allegedly bringing down MH17, the rebels have shot down 10 Ukrainian aircraft.

The Demon hardly ever gives interviews, but a Russian journalist and I managed to secure one, so we set off last Thursday to visit his headquarters in the town of Horlovka, a 40-minute drive along deserted roads from the regional capital of Donetsk.

Previously a normal east Ukrainian town, with decaying Soviet-era industrial plants and a political elite that skimmed off the financial flows that might have helped lift it from its decrepit state, Horlovka has become the Demon’s fiefdom in the three months since the uprising started.

At the entrance to the town was a checkpoint with barricades of sandbags and armoured personnel carriers pointing their guns at the road.

It was manned by rebels armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

The man on the post, who introduced himself as Gorynych – a three-headed dragon of Russian folklore – did not want to let us pass, but we explained we had an interview with the Demon himself.

Phone calls were made, and we were allowed to enter the town.

Arriving at the government building that the Demon’s fighters had seized at the start of the uprising, we were led through several barricades, made up of sandbags and stacked ammunition boxes, and brought to the first floor, where there was a waiting area for those who sought an audience with the Demon.

On the wall, there was a portrait of Vladimir Lenin and one of Soviet-era bard Vladimir Vysotsky, with the caption: “A thief should sit in prison.”

Periodically, fighters came dashing up the stairs with news for the boss.

Before they entered his office, they had to leave their telephones and weapons on a table.

One man with a Cossack fur hat deposited two pistols, a Kalashnikov, a foot-long dagger and an iPhone 5 on the table before he was allowed into the Demon’s inner sanctum.

While we waited, a group of fighters made us tea in plastic cups with a lilac-coloured kettle, and we talked about life in the war zone.

The rumble of shelling in the distance was audible.

It had been getting closer every day, said the fighters, as the Ukrainian army continued retaking towns, not without civilian loss of life.

Some of the fighters were locals; others had come from Russia and attended a training camp in Rostov, across the border, before being sent to the Demon.

One was a local who had lived in Moscow and worked as a lighting engineer for photo shoots.

He found holding up an umbrella all day demeaning work, and longed for something more meaningful.

When the insurgency started, he returned to his home town, and now he looked every inch the fighter, with a flowing beard, irregular fatigues, and a waistcoat with pockets for knives and ammunition.

The fighters showed me a room in disarray, filing cabinets tipped over and documents strewn across the floor.

In the corner, incongruously, was a petting zoo of 10 rabbits.

One of them was a huge, white specimen that the fighters had nicknamed Yatsenyuk, after the leader of the Maidan protests in Kiev, who went on to become prime minister and resigned last week.

They said they planned to skin, cook and eat Yatsenyuk soon.

It was unclear if they were joking.

In the bathroom, instead of toilet paper, a copy of the Ukrainian legal code sat on the holder, half of its pages ripped out.

The door to the Demon’s office opened and the man himself emerged, cigarette in hand, wearing a telnyashka – the stripy Russian naval vest – underneath military fatigues.

In an instant the fighters were on their feet, standing rigid and saluting.

One meekly explained that two journalists were waiting to see him.

“I’m busy. We will talk later. For now, show them the prisoners,” he snapped, striding down the stairs surrounded by heavily armed men.

The Demon was born in Crimea as Igor Bezler and lived for a long time in Russia before moving to Horlovka, where he worked for a time as the director of the local funeral parlour.

The SBU claims he is a Russian military intelligence agent who coordinates his actions directly with Moscow.

He is one of a number of key commanders of the rebel movement who Kiev claims are Russian agents, including the mysterious figure of Igor Girkin, nicknamed Strelkov or “the Shooter”, the commander-in-chief of the Donetsk resistance.

An enthusiast of military re-enactments, Strelkov himself has admitted he was a Russian agent until last year, and that he took part in the Russian takeover of Crimea. 

It is possible that men like Bezler and Strelkov are not directly carrying out Moscow’s orders but are proxy agents with handlers two, three or four steps removed from the Kremlin or other official Russian structures; players who can be directed from Moscow but who are also liable to go rogue at any time.

Bezler, Strelkov and many of the other commanders in the patchwork of rebel groups in eastern Ukraine have all taken hostages.

At the headquarters in Horlovka, we were led down to the ground floor and into two small rooms filled with mattresses.

In one of the rooms I met Vasyl Budik, a local journalist arrested for supposed links to Pravy Sektor, a Ukrainian far-right group.

He had been a prisoner for nearly three months, and was subjected to a mock execution on video to pressure Kiev into agreeing an exchange of the remaining prisoners.

There was also a 64-year-old Swede, who did not want to say what he was doing when captured (though he said he was not involved in combat), and a number of Ukrainian soldiers.

One of them was with his wife; she had travelled from Kiev and voluntarily entered captivity so she could be with her husband.

As we talked, guards came for Budik and took him up to the main courtyard.

A van had arrived, serving as an impromptu hearse, carrying the body of a rebel fighter who had died in combat.

The Demon and the other fighters crowded round the open doors of the van to glance at the open coffin and pay their respects.

Budik was also emotional.

“I knew him well, since he was eight years old,” he said.

“My wife and I would bring in homeless kids or orphans and try to give them a decent upbringing. I taught him boxing, tried to give him a grounding in life. I helped him out a lot. He was a good lad.”

I remarked what an extraordinary testament it was to the mindless, fratricidal nature of the conflict that he was mourning the death of one of his captors.

Budik chuckled.

“You think that’s weird. They’ve got a high-ranking SBU official as a prisoner here, and one of his in-laws is guarding him,” he said.

The Demon materialised outside the rooms holding the hostages and told us he was ready to talk, but as we turned to walk to his office, he became agitated over the question of why he keeps hostages.

He looked at us with furious eyes.

“The only reason they are here is because they are Ukrainian army soldiers,” he said, gesturing at the rooms with the hostages in.

“Those who are fighting with the Ukrainian army, we keep as prisoners. Those who are fighting with volunteer battalions, we question them and then shoot them on the spot. Why should we show any pity to them?”

His voice grew louder as he grew more angry.

“You should see what they have done to my people. They chop off their heads and shit in the helmets! They are fascists! So why should we stand on ceremony with them? Questioning, an execution, that’s it. I will hang those fuckers from lampposts!”

By this point he was shouting at the top of his voice, and suddenly noticed that the Russian journalist I was with had her Dictaphone on, and that I was making notes in my notebook.

He grabbed the Dictaphone from her hands and ordered one of the fighters to throw it at the wall.

Pulling my notebook from my hands, he began to rip out the pages frantically. 

Protesting only made things worse.

He barked commands at his subordinates: “Burn their notebooks! Seize their electronics! Search everything for compromising material and then destroy it! If you find anything, execute them as spies!”

Working in eastern Ukraine has been difficult for all journalists and anger and threats are commonplace.

This was the first time, however, that I felt a very real sense of danger.

“Don’t think for one minute I will hesitate to have you shot,” he yelled at the pair of us.

We were taken into a room where our bags were rummaged through by underlings, the gravity of the situation underlined by just how scared the rebel fighters themselves appeared to be.

Twenty minutes later, as a nervous woman was methodically flicking through our possessions and I was clandestinely deleting all photographs and messages from the phone in my pocket they had not noticed, the Demon appeared at the door again, smoking a cigarette.

He had calmed down, somewhat.

“Give them back their things. Drive them to the checkpoint, kick them out and never let them in,” he barked.

We left hastily, and I never did get to ask the Demon about his alleged role in shooting down MH17.

I may never get another chance.

Three days after our visit, on Sunday, Horlovka was ruthlessly shelled with Grad rockets.

Meaning “hail” in Russian, the Grad can launch up to 40 rockets in a matter of seconds, and is a spectacularly imprecise weapon designed to inflict maximum casualties.

The missiles hailed down on central Horlovka without warning, with plumes of smoke rising from buildings across the town.

The Demon was not there when the attack came; the Ukrainians say he has fled, his fighters say he left Horlovka on a mission.

But the missiles missed the headquarters anyway, coming down in various residential areas.

As the conflict enters what looks like an endgame, both sides are more resolute than ever.

When the bodies began to fall from the sky earlier this month, the downing of MH17 seemed like an event so outlandish, so gruesome, that some thought it might just act to jolt the players in the region’s conflict to their senses.

A collateral massacre whose victims had no stake in the conflict on the ground, it was surely enough to end a war that has appeared largely manufactured, but has nevertheless cost hundreds of civilian lives.

Instead, the fighting has intensified.

The pro-Russian rebels have continued to down Ukrainian planes and Kiev claims Russia is still funnelling weapons and fighters across the border.

Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, have intensified their attacks on the rebels and appear to have used indiscriminate missile systems against civilian areas.

The conflict, far from calming down, has entered its most vicious stage yet.

Around 13 people died in Horlovka on Sunday, including a mother and her young child.

A haunting photograph of the pair lying on the ground, the mother’s body badly mangled but one arm still cradling the corpse of her child, was shared on social media and led to another round of both sides loudly blaming the other for the atrocity.

The headquarters of the Ukrainian anti-terrorist operation denied it had used Grad missiles on Horlovka, instead blaming the rebels, saying they had carried out the attack to “discredit the Ukrainian army” among the town’s residents.

Ukrainian forces have repeatedly denied using Grads against residential areas, and it is true that both sides have the missile launchers in their arsenals.

However, Human Rights Watch found that on the outskirts of Donetsk there was compelling evidence that shelling had come from Ukrainian positions.

The rebels have a healthy supply of weaponry and, if Kiev is believed, are still receiving shipments from Russia.

But they are no match for the sheer size of the Ukrainian army and the various volunteer regiments fighting on Kiev’s side, whatever state of disarray the government forces may be in.

Deep down, they all expect to die here.

One of the Demon’s men, a jovial Muscovite, gave us a number to call so we could tell his relatives where to find his body when he is killed.

None of his family knew he had come to Ukraine to fight.

“There is nowhere for us to go now. We will fight until the end, until the last drop of our blood is spilled and the last one of us is dead,” he said.

The question is how much more civilian blood will be spilled before that happens. 

Source: The Guardian

Coordinated Sanctions Aim At Russia’s Ability To Tap Its Oil Reserves

WASHINGTON, DC -- The United States and Europe kicked off a joint effort on Tuesday intended to curb Russia’s long-term ability to develop new oil resources, taking aim at the Kremlin’s premier source of wealth and power in retaliation for its intervention in Ukraine.


In announcing coordinated sanctions, American and European leaders went beyond previous moves against banking and defense industries in an effort to curtail Russia’s access to Western technology as it seeks to tap new Arctic, deep sea and shale oil reserves.

The goal was not to inhibit current oil production but to cloud Russia’s energy future.

The new strategy took direct aim at the economic foundation of Russia, which holds the largest combined oil and gas reserves in the world.

The growth of the oil industry in the last two decades has powered Russia’s economic and geopolitical resurgence since the collapse of the Soviet Union and enriched allies of President Vladimir V. Putin.

Russia pumps about 10.5 million barrels of oil a day, making it among the largest producers.

“The biggest edge that western energy companies still have is their technological edge — that’s why these sanctions have the potential to have significant impact,” said Michael A. Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Chinese companies can’t step in and provide shale technology where U.S. companies are blocked. They can provide capital; they can provide people. They can’t fill in on the technology front.”

The technology cutoff could be important because Russia is only now at the early stages of developing new Arctic, deep sea and shale resources.

Most of its current production comes from depleted Siberian deposits that will eventually run out.

And several Western oil companies have been working with Russia to expand their resources.

ExxonMobil has a joint venture with Rosneft, the state-owned oil giant, to develop Arctic oil, and is scheduled to drill it’s first well in the Kara Sea within weeks.

BP, which owns 19.75 percent of Rosneft, just signed a joint venture with the Russian firm in May to search for shale oil in the Volga-Urals region.

Even though BP announced higher quarterly profits on Tuesday, its stock was hammered by the sanctions news, falling 3 percent.

BP warned investors bluntly that further sanctions “could adversely impact our business and strategic objectives in Russia.”

Dan Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, said the new energy measures underscored how much ties have deteriorated.

“A year ago, Western collaboration with Russia’s energy sector was one of the bright spots in what had become a dour relationship,” he said.

“No longer.”

The carefully orchestrated actions on both sides of the Atlantic were intended to demonstrate solidarity in the face of what American and European officials say has been a stark escalation by Russia in the insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Until now, European leaders had resisted the broader sorts of actions they agreed to on Tuesday and their decision to do so reflected increasing alarm that Russia was not only helping separatists in Ukraine but directly involving itself in the fighting.

They are “meant as a strong warning,” Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, said in a statement on Tuesday that was joined by José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission.

“Destabilizing Ukraine, or any other Eastern European neighboring state, will bring heavy costs,” the statement said.

President Obama said Russia’s economy would continue to suffer until it reversed course.

“Today is a reminder that the United States means what it says and we will rally the international community in standing up for the rights and freedom of people around the world,” he told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House.

Mr. Obama said the fact that Europe was now joining the United States in broader measures means they “will have an even bigger bite” but in response to reporters’ questions, he said “it’s not a new Cold War” between the two countries and made clear he was not considering providing arms to Ukraine’s government — as some Republicans have suggested — as it tries to put down the pro-Russian insurgency. 

“They are better armed than the separatists,” he said.

“The issue is, ‘How do we prevent bloodshed in eastern Ukraine?’ We’re trying to avoid that. And the main tool that we have to influence Russian behavior at this point is the impact that it’s having on its economy.”

The American and European actions were intended to largely, though not precisely, match each other.

The United States cut off three more Russian banks, including the giant VTB Bank, from medium- and long-term capital markets and barred Americans from doing business with the United Shipbuilding Corporation, a large state-owned firm created by Putin.

The Obama administration also formally suspended export credit and development finance to Russia.

The European Union adopted similar restrictions on capital markets and applied them to Russian state-owned banks.

It imposed an embargo on new arms sales to Russia and limited sales of equipment with both civilian and military uses to Russian military buyers.

Europe also approved new sanctions against at least three close Putin associates, but did not identify them publicly.

European governments moved ahead despite concerns that Europe would pay an economic price for confronting the Kremlin more aggressively.

While their actions went far beyond any previously taken against Russia over the Ukraine crisis, they were tailored to minimize their own costs.

The arms embargo, for instance, applies only to future sales, not to the much-debated delivery by France of Mistral-class helicopter carriers that resemble bigger aircraft carriers.

And the energy technology restrictions do not apply to Russian natural gas, which Europe heavily relies on.

The new sanctions could take effect as soon as Friday, though the necessary legal formalities would most likely to take longer to complete, officials said.

The president of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaite, welcomed the decision “on a wide range of sanctions on Russia” using her Twitter account.

But she expressed unease that France would be able to maintain its naval deal with Moscow.

“Unfortunately, nothing to stop the deal of Mistral yet,” she wrote.

Lithuania is one of five European Union states that are close to or border Russia.

Mr. Van Rompuy departed from the usual cautious language of Europe’s declarations by condemning Russia for actions that “cannot be accepted in 21st century Europe,” including “illegal annexation of territory” — a reference to Crimea — “and deliberate destabilization of a neighboring sovereign country.”

He also cited the “anger and frustration” over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over rebel-held territory July 17 and “the delays in providing international access to the site of the air crash, the tampering with the remains of the plane, and the disrespectful handling of the deceased.”

Although European commerce with Russia will probably decline because of the sanctions, where the measures are expected to more severely affect Russia are the restrictions on the ability of Russian banks to raise money in Europe and the United States.

“These sanctions can have quite a substantial chilling effect on the Russian economy,” said Adam Slater, a senior economist at Oxford Economics in London.

“That is probably a quite effective way to put pressure on Russia.”

Still, it could take time for the effects to be felt by ordinary Russians, and some analysts expected the Kremlin to shrug them off, at least publicly.

“Although the latest sanctions increase the costs for Russia, Russia’s perceived national security interest calculus should not change meaningfully as a result,” analysts at Citigroup said in a note to clients on Tuesday.

“If anything, official Russian government statements have emphasized Russia’s capacity for self-reliance.”

Source: The New York Times - Europe