Sunday, November 23, 2014

Special Ops Medical Team Advises Ukrainian Soldiers

KHMELNYTSKYI, Ukraine -- About a dozen medical specialists from Special Operations Command Europe deployed earlier this week to Western Ukraine to coach Ukrainian soldiers on basic battlefield medical procedures, European Command officials announced Friday.

An Air Force Special Operations medical officer from U.S. Special Operations Command Europe demonstrates how to apply a tourniquet and bandage a wound to Ukrainian soldiers Tuesday in Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine.

The announcement comes the same day the White House released a statement honoring the memory of millions of Ukrainians starved to death during the "Holodomor," between 1932 and 1933 under Stalin's regime.

The SOCEUR team from Stuttgart, Germany, deployed to support nearly 600 Ministry of Defence personnel and in response to Ukrainian government requests, according to a statement from U.S. European Command spokesman Navy Capt. Greg Hicks.

Assessments over the last several months identified a need for enhanced individual medical capabilities, the statement said.

"This initial mission will take no more than 30 days but we are prepared to stay longer if directed based on the need for additional courses as identified by the Ukrainian Government/Military," EUCOM spokesman Lt. Col. David Westover told Military Times.

"This is another example of the U.S. Government supporting the Ukrainian Government and our partners in the region as a part of Operation Atlantic Resolve," he said in an email.

SOCEUR members are also working with the nongovernment organization Patriot Defense, which has conducted similar coaching for Ukrainian military forces since May.

On Thursday, the United Nations said that the death rate in Ukraine has climbed in the past eight weeks despite a ceasefire called in September, according to a report from Reuters. More than 4,400 fighters and civilians have died since pro-Russian rebels began taking control of border areas in early April.

SOCEUR is comprised of the Army 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne); the Air Force 352nd Special Operations Group; and Naval Special Warfare Unit 2, according to European Command's website.

Source: AirForceTimes

With Borscht And Rifle Scopes, Volunteers Power Ukraine Forces

DNEPROPETROVSK, Ukraine -- In a cramped kitchen that smelled strongly of cabbage and beets, a small army of women labored into the night, preparing what would become dried borscht to supply Ukrainian soldiers in the field.

Members of the Dnipro-1 volunteer battalion in Pervomaisk, Ukraine.

One Ziploc bag of the borscht, which looks something like wood chips, can feed 10 men and is distributed as a type of Ukrainian meal ready to eat.

Each bag comes with a handwritten note saying, “Bon app├ętit, made with love.”

“Who in the Ministry of Defense is going to make borscht?” Tatyana V. Sirko, an obstetrician volunteering on a recent evening, said.

“I want to help somehow. I want to help our guys. They aren’t having an easy time.”

In late summer, with rebel fighters on the run from a concerted government drive, Russian troops and military equipment poured over the border and launched a devastating counterattack, stopping the Ukrainians in their tracks.

A shaky truce declared in early September has averted all-out war.

But as NATO documents the arrival in recent weeks of another invasion of Russian armored columns, artillery units and elite troops, the country is bracing for a new assault.

While the Ukrainian government maintains that it is prepared for any sort of attack, the preparations are veiled in secrecy that many fear is a cover for weakness.

Most of the open fortification for the troops is coming now from volunteers, who offer not just moral and physical support but at least a glimmer of hope that the Ukrainian forces can hold their own against what appears to be a vastly superior force.

Powering the Ukrainian war effort, teams of volunteers, most of them women, work around the clock at a logistics center to send an array of products — bottles of homemade pickles, sets of handmade underwear and commercially available military equipment, like night vision scopes for rifles.

In one room, a man stacked hand-sewn ballistic vests, peculiarities of the war in Ukraine, a nation with a rich tradition of handicrafts but a woefully underfunded military.

Others at the site sort sleeping bags, miniature wood stoves and wool socks.

Volunteers tackle even seemingly core military tasks.

One group of civilian mechanics in the town of Zhovti Vody repairs trucks and armored vehicles, ancient heaps that break down regularly. 

“Our guys, our men, are defending the country, our country, and everything depends on them,” said Natasha L. Naumenko, a travel agent who organizes the operation.

“They need a strong spirit,” Ms. Naumenko said of the troops.

“We want to give them the warmth of home, let them feel they are not standing there for nothing. Their wives, their mothers, their daughters have made them borscht.”

The volunteerism is most pronounced in Dnepropetrovsk, a sprawling industrial city just 150 miles from the front that serves as a main logistic point in the war, but it is spreading throughout Ukraine.

In the western city of Lviv, residents drop money in a donation box in the shape of a tank.

Inspired by the dried borscht operation here, which produces 2,000 servings a week, similar kitchens have opened recently in Kiev and Odessa.

Volunteers are also fighting — 15,000 to 20,000 irregular combatants in about 30 volunteer battalions active in the east.

“Without us, the situation would be far more grievous,” Vitaly G. Feshenko, a former furniture salesman and deputy commander of the Dnipro-1 volunteer battalion, said in an interview.

“We are lawyers, businessmen and housewives,” he said.

Serving in one of his units, for example, is a former cellphone store accountant who fights under the nom de guerre “The Accountant” and is rumored to be widely feared along the front.

While this dedication to defending the country may warm the hearts of Ukrainian patriots, it also reflects the dismal state the military has fallen into, haphazardly equipped by a bankrupt government and receiving only minimal, defensive-oriented aid from the West.

With talk rife of an imminent rebel offensive, senior Ukrainian officials put on a brave face and never pass up an opportunity to reiterate that their army is ready.

On a recent visit to the front lines, however, the soldiers seemed to be lacking just about everything, including such basics as fuel and warm coats.

Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko, twice this month said the army was capable of defending the country’s territory, and told a group of senior security officials and generals that “there’s no reason to panic.”

In the past two months, he said, plans “came to fruition” to supply the army.

And yet Ukraine’s post-Soviet army has for years been unraveling amid corruption and mismanagement.

The Kiev Post newspaper printed a graphic detailing the origin of one soldier’s personal equipment.

All but the Kalashnikov rifle and a pair of summer boots was either donated or purchased by the soldier.

In Kharkiv, a group of men build prefabricated plywood shacks, more comfortable in the cold than tents.

Enthusiasts of drone photography donate their buzzing machines, teaching soldiers to use them to see over hills and around buildings.

Stories abound of families scraping to buy protective vests for a son or a nephew.

“What is wrong with our government?” said Anastasia S. Kuznetsova, 22, a social worker in Dnepropetrovsk, who helps coordinate donations.

“Winter is here and the soldiers don’t have warm clothes. They will be living in the snow and sleeping in trenches. And schoolchildren are sending them socks.”

At one sandbagged redoubt on a November morning, soldiers stood around a campfire, slathering toast with a tart, homemade cranberry jam.

“It’s a people’s army,” Mikola I. Fakas, a private, said.

“Some people fight, and some people supply them. The state is not an intermediary, and not a spoke in the wheel.”

Of those who donated the jam, he said he was very grateful.

“They love us, they trust us, they are counting on us.”

Volunteers are allowed powerful weapons like .50-caliber rifles and antitank rocket-propelled grenades, but are not provided factory-made armored vehicles.

On the Ukrainian side of the front, monstrous vehicles made from vans welded with steel plates rumble along the roads.

In what volunteer groups point to as grim evidence of their rising importance in the Ukrainian war effort, the man who organized the volunteer mechanics, Ivan D. Veliki, an Afghan war veteran, was killed this month in a sophisticated attack.

He was shot by a remote-controlled gun planted in a parked car that then burst into flames.

Nobody has been arrested in the killing.

Russian news media routinely vilify the proliferation of nongovernmental military organizations, dismissing them as the private armies of Ukrainian oligarchs, and to be sure, wealthy industrialists do play a big role.

So do the legions of do-it-yourself enthusiasts in Ukraine.

Sewing, embroidery, gardening and canning are traditions that run deep in Ukraine.

In the Soviet era, gaps in the consumer economy created these experts throughout the former Soviet space.

At Ms. Naumenko’s collection point on a recent evening, a woman showed up who had sewn from nylon camouflage fabric two pouches just the right shape for Kalashnikov magazines to fit snugly inside. 

One group of women sews boxer shorts, each with a distinct floral print pattern.

Like everything else at the collection point, they are stamped, “Not for sale. Army aid.”

Handwritten tags on the shorts say, “Together to victory!”

Source: The New York Times

Ukraine Is Building Armored Battle Buses

KIEV, Ukraine -- Here’s how a post-Soviet military improvises when it gets into a war it never prepared for.

New trucks could protect soldiers en route to war.

The Ukrainian army is fielding armored battle trucks that look like something from Mexico or Kurdish Syria.

Known as Raptors, the new trucks are for Ukrainian national guard troops fighting pro-Russian separatists in the east.

There are several versions, though they’re all based on six-wheeled KrAZ trucks—except covered in armored glass and plates capable of stopping 7.62-caliber machine gun rounds.

The trucks should also keep their occupants protected from mines that weigh up to 13 pounds.

Plus, the Raptor can shoot on the move.

The trucks have room inside for up to 24 soldiers and gun ports for about half as many.

“The vehicle is ready for combat conditions,” Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s interior minister, wrote on his Facebook page on Nov. 22.

It’s an example of Ukraine’s ever-more-improvised army.

Add it to the list of crowdfunded hardware and radio-controlled hobby planes to quadrotor drones—a low-cost means of artillery reconnaissance.

When Ukraine’s army mobilized in the spring to fight the separatists, troops who couldn’t hitch a ride in armored vehicles rode into battle inside soft-skinned cars, buses and armed, camouflaged pickup trucks known as technicals. 

This put the soldiers at grave risk from ambushes—if the separatists could catch them inside their vehicles.

The Ukrainians are repeating the same process the American military went through in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lightly-armored Humvee vehicles proved extremely vulnerable to improvised explosives, so the Pentagon pumped out thousands of wheeled, up-armored MRAP trucks.

Still, the separatists have captured lots of weapons—from machine guns up to anti-tank missiles and T-64 tanks.

They have a threatening amount of Russian-supplied T-72 tanks.

They wield modern ASVK anti-materiel rifles known only to belong to the Russian army.

The militants’ shoulder-fired, thermobaric weapons and rocket-propelled grenades are some of the best produced by the Russians arms industry—including the single-shot RPG-26.

Even their projectiles pack a considerably heavier punch than their equivalents in the Middle East.

“Unlike recent conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, where RPG-7 and other older rocket-assisted projectiles have proved the dominant types, the conflict in Ukraine has showcased the use of far greater quantities of more recent projectile types,” arms-tracking consultant firm ARES noted in a recent report.

The Raptor won’t provide as much protection against all that.

But it’s a start.

Don’t be surprised if more—and heavier ones—start appearing in the Donbass.

Source: War is Boring

Saturday, November 22, 2014

New Ukraine Coalition Agreed, Sets NATO As Priority

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's newly agreed five-party ruling coalition has reportedly set the country's membership of NATO as its major goal.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (L) and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk before a meeting of the national security council in Kiev in early November.

The coalition comprises the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, the Popular Front, Samopomich (Self-Rule), the Radical Party, and Batkivshchyna (Fatherland).

The five pro-Western parties that passed the 5 percent threshold in last month's parliamentary elections control a total of 288 seats in 421-seat parliament.

They reportedly hammered out a draft agreement early on November 21, after hours -- and indeed weeks -- of negotiations.

The official signing of the coalition agreement is expected to take place at the first session of the new parliament scheduled for November 27.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said at a ceremony to initial the document that the coalition would be made up of 300 legislators out of a total of 450 seats.

He also said that new Cabinet would be established in 10 days, adding that preparation of the agenda of the new government was under way. 

Ukrainian media reports cite participants as saying that besides joining NATO the coalition also agreed that the return of Russian-occupied Crimea under Ukrainian control will be one of its major goals.

It also mentioned as a priority the protection of the legal interests of Crimean Tatars, as well as all Ukrainian citizens living in "occupied territories."

The parties also agreed on working together toward Ukraine’s integration into the European Union.

The coalition also called for permanent military bases in the country's east, where the Ukrainian army is fighting a pro-Russia insurgency, and for the allocation of at least 3 percent of the nation's gross domestic product for defense.

Additionally, the parties agreed to cancel immunity for lawmakers, reform the election system, ban Soviet and Nazi symbols, and decentralize the power structure.

The parties also agreed to thoroughly investigate the killings of protesters on Kiev’s Maidan -- Independence Square -- in February 2014.

The agreement was expected to be officially presented in parliament later on November 21.

Out of a total of 421 candidates elected to the Verkhovna Rada in the October 26 polls, 225 were elected based on party lists, and 196 in districts using a first-past-the-post electoral system.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who arrived to Kiev on November 20, held talks with President Petro Poroshenko in the Ukrainian capital on November 21.

Source: Radio Free Europe

Kiev Says Russia Has 7,500 Troops In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Four Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 10 others wounded in violence gripping Ukraine’s east, according to security officials in Kiev, who accused Russia of having 7,500 troops deployed on Ukrainian soil to back pro-Moscow separatists.

Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak says there are 7,500 Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

One civilian, a 60-year-old man, was also killed in the eastern region of Luhansk on Friday, the governor's office announced on Saturday. 

Repeated attempts to end the violence that broke out nearly a year ago have failed, as armed rebels, who have declared self-proclaimed independence in eastern parts, and Ukrainian troops accuse each other of violating a ceasefire agreement.

Ukraine's defence minister Stepan Poltorak said in a statement published on the ministry's website on Saturday:

"Unfortunately, the stabilisation of the situation in the east of Ukraine does not depend only on us."

Ukraine's military has accused Russia on Friday of shelling its territory for the first time since the ceasefire was signed.

"The presence of 7,500 representatives of Russian armed forces in Ukraine destabilise the situation and prevents us from stabilising it," he added.

The ceasefire, which has been in place since early September, has not stopped almost 1,000 people from dying in fighting since, according to the United Nations.

Ukraine's new coalition government declared joining NATO a priority on Friday in a move likely to provoke fresh anger from Russia, which denies supporting the rebels.

Source: Al Jazeera

Biden Denounces Russia, But Says Ukraine Must Do More To Clean Up Its Governance

KIEV, Ukraine -- Vice President Biden denounced Russian behavior in eastern Ukraine as “a flagrant violation” of the international system here Friday, and he called elections held by Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists early this month a “Kremlin-orchestrated farce.”

Vice President Biden arriving in Kiev for meetings with President Petro Poroshenko.

Biden, who arrived in Kiev on Thursday for a two-day visit, declared the two countries the closest of friends and said Russia would face “rising costs and greater isolation” if it does not stop assisting the separatists with military equipment and troops and “restore Ukrainian control over its own border.”

But in a joint appearance with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Biden focused most of his remarks on the need for Kiev to clean up its governance, economy and judiciary, and to end endemic corruption.

Once that happens, Biden said, international partners who have been reluctant to pour much-needed financing into the country will increase their help.

In private meetings with Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Biden also again told the Ukrainians that the United States had made no decisions on the country’s long-standing request for lethal military equipment to combat the separatists, according to senior administration officials traveling with the vice president.

“They definitely talked about it,” said an official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity about what went on in the closed-door meetings.

The Ukrainians have asked for antitank weapons as well as additional small arms and ammunition.

“There were no decisions today,” the U.S. official said.

The United States has provided Ukraine with about $118 million in nonlethal military aid since a popular uprising early this year toppled President Viktor Yanu­kovych, a Moscow ally, including such items as night-vision goggles and body armor.

More recently, Humvees and counter-mortar radars have been approved for shipment as violence has escalated between the Russian-backed separatists and government forces.

Nearly 1,000 people have been killed in the fighting since a fast-unraveling cease-fire was negotiated between Moscow and Kiev in September, the United Nations said Friday.

While Biden’s tone was friendly and supportive, he made it clear that the United States — which hailed last month’s parliamentary elections as a sign of Ukraine’s growing democratic maturity — is becoming impatient with political haggling and delays in the formation of a new government.

“Even if the guns in the east fell silent tomorrow,” Biden said, “Ukraine would still face a struggle for its democratic and economic future. . . . There’s a lot of work to do in Kiev.”

Progress will begin, he said, “with forming a new government — in days, not weeks,” followed by fulfillment of a reform agenda that includes stronger democratic institutions, greater integration with Europe “and resolute efforts to root out the cancer of corruption that has hobbled Ukraine for a long time.”

A second U.S. official said that “right now, actors as diverse as the U.S. Congress, the Europeans and the IMF [International Monetary Fund] are all looking at the Ukrainian government to see if there is one.”

However much the United States wants to help, the official said, it can’t “do it alone.”

The lack of reform momentum, he said, makes it difficult for the United States to convince reluctant potential partners, primarily in Europe, that they should support an enlarged financial aid package for Ukraine or additional sanctions against Russia.

Poroshenko said that lengthy negotiations since elections Oct. 26 had finally led to a new coalition agreement between his party and that of Yatsenyuk early Friday, just hours after Biden’s arrival.

“Within six days,” before the scheduled seating of the new parliament, “we have to . . . find all the compromises, all the factions that participate in the coalition process,” he said.

Once that is done, Poroshenko said, government representatives would “make a roadshow to present our reform program in Europe and the whole world.

And we have agreed about a very profound assistance that the United States and our European partners will be able to provide financially and otherwise.”

The ongoing turbulence in Ukraine after a year of political upheaval and Russian-backed separatist rebellion was underscored when Biden abruptly canceled a wreath-laying ceremony Friday at a memorial for those killed in the pro-Western revolution after an angry crowd gathered to demand justice.

Poroshenko, who was to meet Biden at the makeshift memorial near the scene of violent protests early this year, arrived ahead of time and was quickly surrounded by elderly women who said their sons were among the dead and by men chanting “Shame! Shame!”

Uniformed soldiers and presidential security personnel at the scene did not attempt to hold back the protesters.

When Biden’s motorcade arrived at the edge of the growing crowd, his U.S. Secret Service escort decided it was unsafe for him to leave his vehicle, and his motorcade turned back.

Later in the day, between lunch with Poroshenko and an anti-corruption roundtable with newly elected members of parliament, Biden made an unannounced stop to leave flowers at a separate memorial.

Source: The Washington Post