Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ukraine Invasion Has Slipped Beyond Putin’s Control

WASHINGTON, DC -- Russian President Vladimir Putin faces a formidable communications challenge because of the need to maintain domestic support for his actions in Ukraine—both among the elite and in society at large—while also trying to prevent the emergence of a more unified Western response to his policies.

Putin the aggressor

This agenda is complicated by Putin’s need to accommodate different elements within his domestic power base, which disagree over policy on Ukraine.

For the domestic audience, Putin’s priority, the message remains predictably nationalistic and triumphal.

On March 15, state television aired a two-and-a-half-hour documentary, Crimea: Journey to the Motherland, timed to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Watched by one of the biggest television audiences in Russia in recent years, the film provided a hagiographical depiction of the Russian president as the architect and hands-on manager of the operation to save the majority-Russian population of Crimea.

Its narrative rested on graphic messages about the allegedly violent intentions of Western-backed Ukrainian nationalists.

It continued the Russian state media’s relentless vilification over the past year of Ukrainians and their Western supporters.

But the film also surprised in a number of ways.

Structured around excerpts from a long interview with Putin in the immediate aftermath of Crime’s annexation, it contained remarkable detail about how the operation was carried out after Putin and his security chiefs saw that they could exploit revolutionary turmoil in Ukraine by regaining control of territory that in their view had never ceased to be Russia’s.

Given the careful editing that must have been involved, the decision by the Kremlin to include Putin’s statement that the military plan for retaking Crimea was supported by nuclear deterrence measures was especially striking.

It indicated another audience for the film: the U.S. and its NATO allies.

This international audience will draw its own conclusions from the film. NATO countries will note that Putin’s justification for intervention in Crimea was ostensibly to save Russian lives.

Worryingly for Western governments, this could also apply to all the major cities in eastern Ukraine, not just the territories currently under the control of separatist forces.

Moreover, Putin’s frank admission, contrary to earlier denials, that he had sent regular military forces to Crimea as part of the plan to seize control of the peninsula further undermined the Kremlin’s line that Russia has not intervened militarily in the Donbass region.

Western capitals will also pay attention to the apparent evidence of command-and-control problems during the Crimean operation.

Putin said that one military unit did not deploy to its directed location because it believed that the commander in chief had changed his mind.

Putin had to intervene personally to resolve the issue.

When asked about the “buzzing” of the U.S. minesweeper USS Donald Cook in the Black Sea by a SU-24 fighter aircraft, Putin said that he had not given the order for this and that military commanders had “behaved like hooligans.”

More broadly, Western audiences will note that despite Putin’s public support for a peaceful settlement in the Donbass, Russian propaganda continues to keep up its high-pitched anti-Western, anti-Ukrainian rhetoric.

This continues to repeat the accusation that Western countries orchestrated the revolution in Ukraine in 2014 with the express intent of inflicting damage on Russia.

Together with Putin’s statements in the film, the recent start of military exercises involving elements of Russia’s northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets sends a clear signal to the Russian audience, as well as to NATO countries and Kiev, that Moscow is not preparing to back down over Ukraine.

This, of course, runs counter to Russia’s efforts to conduct a charm offensive toward some southern European countries using economic blandishments.

These efforts aim to split the EU, and to undermine the West’s collective will to maintain sanctions against Russia and provide political and financial support to Ukraine.

Putin’s messages at home and abroad reflect a disturbing lack of policy options beyond maintaining pressure on both Kiev and the West to prevent Ukraine from developing on a Western model as opposed to a Russian one.

His continued references to Russians and Ukrainians as one people also show that he is in denial about the alienation that his policies have created between the two countries.

Within his power base, Putin appears to be trying to reconcile the views of two different groups on Russia’s strategy toward Ukraine.

One group favors taking all necessary measures now to disable Ukraine’s integration drive with the West, including openly testing NATO’s security guarantees to the Baltic states.

A smaller, less powerful group would prefer to play the long game by seeking a peace settlement in the Donbass and pulling Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence over the longer term, but without breaking all ties with the West.

In an effort to balance between the two groups, Putin has been positioning himself as backing diplomacy based on the Minsk agreements while providing no indication of how Russia might achieve a broader peace settlement with Ukraine.

Putin’s silence on this issue is a powerful, albeit unintended, message to audiences in Russia, Ukraine and the West that he has created a crisis that has moved beyond his control.

Source: Newsweek

Russian Parliamentarians Warn U.S. Not To Arm Ukraine

MOSCOW, Russia -- Pro-Kremlin lawmakers say the Russian parliament should reinstate President Vladimir Putin's formal authority to send troops into Ukraine if the United States provides Kiev with lethal weapons.

Mikhail Yemelyanov

The lawmakers spoke on March 24, a day after the U.S. House of Representatives approved a resolution urging President Barack Obama to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons to defend itself against Russian "aggression."

A Just Russia party lawmaker Mikhail Yemelyanov told the State Duma, the lower parliament house, that if the "the United States actually starts to deliver lethal weapons to Ukraine we should openly back militias...with weapons, and reinstate the president's right to send troops to Ukrainian territory." 

He was referring to Russian-backed separatists whose war with government forces has killed more than 6,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.

Frants Klintsevich, a ruling United Russia party lawmaker, said U.S. supplies of lethal weapons would "in a second" destroy the fragile cease-fire deal now in place.

Parliament gave Putin the formal authority to send troops to Ukraine in March 2014 , a move that sent a warning signal to the West following the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

The authority was later withdrawn, and Russia denies sending troops into eastern Ukraine despite what Kiev and NATO say is overwhelming evidence.

Source: Radio Free Europe

Ukraine Arrests 2 Officials As Nation Watches On TV

KIEV, Ukraine -- In a carefully orchestrated spectacle calculated to dramatize a newly aggressive anticorruption campaign, the Ukrainian authorities on Wednesday arrested two senior government officials during a televised cabinet meeting in Kiev.

The head of the Ukrainian state emergency service, Serhiy Bochkovsky, and his deputy, Vasiliy Stoyetsky, were arrested and charged with corruption during a televised government meeting.

Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, who was in the room, declared it a warning to public officials about abusing their offices or stealing from taxpayers.

With the cameras rolling and top government officials sitting around a huge wooden conference table, police officers in thick bulletproof vests and knit caps handcuffed the director of Ukraine’s emergency services ministry, Sergiy Bochkovsky, and his deputy, Vasyl Stoyetsky, and led them from the room.

Both Bochkovsky and Stoyetsky were wearing dark uniforms covered in medals.

“This will happen to everyone who breaks the law and sneers at the Ukrainian state,” Mr. Yatsenyuk told journalists who watched the arrests.

The Interior Ministry later said that Bochkovsky and Stoyetsky would be charged with crimes including embezzlement and abuse of power.

The Ukrainian government has long been hobbled by deep-rooted corruption and mismanagement, a source of angry, public frustration that was a factor in the street protests in Kiev last year that ousted President Viktor F. Yanukovych.

But the efforts to fight corruption and hold former public officials accountable have proved to be frustratingly slow and largely ineffective, as the new government has been forced to deal first with Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, and then with a war waged by Russian-backed separatists in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

With Ukraine’s economy collapsing, officials appealed desperately for international assistance.

Western allies of the Kiev government have been eager to help, but have stepped up pressure for a more aggressive approach on corruption, making it a condition for assistance.

Even so, a new anticorruption bureau formed partly at the behest of the International Monetary Fund still does not have a director.

In recent weeks, however, a number of steps have been taken in the government and in Parliament, including the dismissal of the country’s top prosecutor.

Last month, the authorities arrested a former leader of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, Oleksandr Yefremov, on charges of abuse of power in connection with another embezzlement scheme, this one involving overpayment by the government for coal.

Yefremov was released on bail.

And a deputy head of the Party of Regions, Mykhailo Chechetov, who had been charged with abuse of authority, committed suicide on the night of Feb. 27 by leaping from a window of his 17th-floor apartment in Kiev.

Chechetov had been under house arrest and wore an electronic monitoring bracelet.

This month, the authorities in Spain arrested a former Ukrainian finance minister, Yuri Kolobov, who is accused along with other senior officials in Yanukovych’s government of misappropriating millions of dollars.

So far, he is the only former minister to be detained, though others are being sought, including several who fled to Russia.

The arrests of the two emergency services officials came hours after President Petro O. Poroshenko dismissed the billionaire governor of Dnipropetrovsk, Igor V. Kolomoisky, in a dispute that critics said reflected other murky dealings between the government and the country’s richest businessmen.

Kolomoisky was angry over legislation that curtailed his power over two state-controlled energy companies in which he owned a minority stake.

The battle with Kolomoisky, who had been one of the government’s staunchest allies, raised questions about other disputes that may unfold involving the country’s so-called oligarchs, who have long found ways to benefit from the mismanagement and malfeasance in the Ukrainian government.

Private militias financed by Kolomoisky had helped prevent Russian-backed separatists from advancing from Donetsk and Luhansk into the heart of Ukraine.

Some prominent members of Parliament had called for Kolomoisky’s removal and on Wednesday said it should be just the start of a campaign to reduce the influence of the oligarchs.

The government in the meantime seemed intent on making an example of the emergency services officials, who it said had overseen a wide-scale corruption scheme in which fuel for government vehicles was purchased at inflated prices.

Anton Herashchenko, a member of Parliament who serves on a board overseeing the Interior Ministry, said that up to 20 percent of the amount spent on fuel was diverted to bank accounts of  Bochkovsky and Stoyetsky in Cyprus and in Jersey, part of the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy.

“Search operations conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs over the last six months helped detect and document in detail the whole vertical of corruption led by the top leadership” of the emergency services ministry, Mr. Herashchenko said in a statement.

Source: The New York Times

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Invisible Army: The Story Of A Russian Soldier Sent To Fight In Ukraine

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Moscow denies its soldiers are crossing the border but 20-year-old conscript Dorji Batomunkuev, who was seriously injured near Donetsk, tells a different story. He talks to Elena Kostyuchenko of Novaya Gazeta.

The flag of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, following an assault by the Ukrainian army in Kramatovsk, Ukraine.

Dorji Batomunkuev, military unit number 46108, is 20 years old and part of the Russian fifth tank brigade from Ulan-Ude, a city near the Mongolian border.

He is a conscript and was called up 18 months ago.

When we meet at the Central Regional hospital in Donetsk, his face and hands are burnt and bandaged, and his ears are singed and shrivelled.

Beneath the dressings, he’s still bleeding.

He says he was injured in the eastern Ukraine town of Lohvynove on 9 February, at the mouth of the Debaltseve pocket, while fighting alongside the separatist militia of the Donetsk People’s Republic against Ukrainian forces.

Russia has denied that its forces are fighting in Ukraine, although a recent report by the Royal United Services Institute contests this, suggesting that several units have crossed the border since the conflict began.

At their peak in December 2014, they numbered some 10,000 troops, the report says.

Speaking from the hospital burns unit in Donetsk, Batomunkuev tells the story of some of these troops and their involvement in what has become the most serious conflict in the post-Soviet world since 1991.


How did you end up there? 

“I was called up on 25 November 2013. As a conscript, I scored well in firing and fitness training. The following year, as autumn approached, they started to pull together contract soldiers from all the battalions in our sector to make up a separate tank battalion. We were all bundled together, got to know each other, lived together for four days and then set we off.

“They told us that we were going to train but we knew where we were really going. I was already prepared mentally and morally – we would have to go to Ukraine.

“Back in Ulan-Ude, the numbers and emblems on some of the tanks were painted over, and our patches and chevrons were removed when we arrived at the firing range. We took it all off in order to disguise ourselves. Passports were left with the military units and military IDs were left at the firing range.

“Training lasted for three months, as planned. They then gave the signal and we moved out.

“As soon as we left the firing range, they said: ‘hand over everything: phone, documents’. From the Kuzminsky training ground we moved out towards the Russian border and stopped in a strip of woodland. Then the signal came through. No notice was read out to us, we were only told to start the march. Even so, without any words, we all understood.”

So no one, neither the political officers nor the commanders, said anything to you about Ukraine? 

“No, because everyone already understood. There was no need for them to chew it over for us. No one shoved any patriotic crap down our throats either.”

When did you find out that you were on your way to Donetsk? 

“When we read ‘Donetsk’ on signs, when we stopped in the city and saw the inscription ‘DNR’. Oh, we are in Ukraine! I poked my head out of the hatch to see the city. It is was beautiful city, I liked it. Everything beautiful.

“When we arrived, we went to a shelter and parked. We were taken to a campus for a hot meal and then put into rooms. One of our guys had a phone, and we found Radio Sputnik. There was a discussion being broadcast about whether there are Russian troops in Ukraine, and all the guests were like: ‘No, no, no’. We all listened, and said to each other, ‘yeah, right’.

“Who is prepared to talk openly? Our government understands that we have to help but if they send troops officially, that would annoy Europe, and NATO. Although, you understand, don’t you, that NATO is also involved of course, that it is supplying weapons to the Ukrainians?”

Did they explain to you how long you would be here for? 

“No. But we understood that the whole war depended on us. That’s why they’d beaten the training into us those previous three months. We were well prepared, both our snipers and other troops.”


“There were 31 tanks in the battalion. We went in companies, 10 tanks in each one. We were around 300 men, all from Ulan-Ude, mostly Buryats [the largest indigenous group in Siberia].” 

From mid-January separatist forces were trying to recapture the city of Debaltseve which had fallen under Ukrainian control.

Did they explain that this was part of your mission? 

“No, they didn’t explain anything. But we understood: we don’t let anyone out. Whoever moves will be shot dead. Shoot to kill.

“We played carousel, a tactic of tank fire. Three or four tanks would go out to the edge [of the area] of open fire, shoot, and when they ran out of rounds three or four tanks would take their place while they reloaded. That’s how we rotated.

“But our battalion commander wasn’t in luck. A tank is a very capricious machine – you try to shoot but not a God damn thing comes out. The stupid things wouldn’t fire.

“The ‘ukropi’ [‘dill people’, a derogatory term for Ukrainians] pounded us. The battalion commander responded by jumping into his tank and was off, destroying first one tank, then another.”

How were you injured? 

“There was a tank battle. The sound was deafening. I opened my eyes and there was fire, a blinding glare. I heard the sound of gunpowder exploding. I tried to open the hatch but it wouldn’t budge. The only thought that crossed my mind was ‘that’s it, I’m dead’. Then my defence mechanisms suddenly kicked in.

“I tried again to open the hatch. This time it worked. An infantry vehicle arrived and the driver jumped out: ‘Mate, mate, come here’. My whole face was burning, my tank helmet was burning. I saw he had a red fire extinguisher, so I ran towards him and he sprayed me. ‘Lie down, lie down’ he shouted, and doused me again. Early the next morning, I was taken to Donetsk, and I regained consciousness.”

Did some of the tank crew die? 

“No. There was a guy whose foot was torn off though. It was severed with its boot still attached. Our battalion commander was burnt, as was the gun layer Chip, and Spartak... It’s all seared into my memory.”

Did you fight alongside pro-Russian militias? 


Did you kill civilians? 

“There was an occasion when a pick-up went by and they all said ‘Shoot, shoot’. ‘Wait a minute, wait’, I said. At the last moment, I looked out and saw a guy with a white bandage, a militiaman, one of ours. I thought, if I had blown him away I would have killed one of our guys.

“The [separatist] militiamen didn’t tell us what their movements were. I shouted to our guys ‘They’re ours!’ That was the first time I got scared that we’d end up killing our own.”

So you didn’t coordinate at all? 

“No. The militia are strange types. They fire and fire and then stop and if they’re going off to work – there’s no organisation, no leaders, no battle command, it’s all disjointed.”

Which settlement was this in? 

“I don’t know where we were. All the villages looked the same – devastation everywhere, everything bombed out.”

And how many villages did you pass through? 

“Four maybe. There was one time when we recaptured some villages, and others we simply stopped off at… I am not proud of what I did, that I destroyed... killed people. But, on the other hand, I feel more at ease when I remember that it is all in the cause of peace, civilians… children, the elderly, old women, good guys.

“But I’m not proud of this, the fact that I fired and hit …” [Long silence]

“Subconsciously, you know you’re fighting the same sort of person as you, in the same sort of tank. Made of flesh and blood. But on the other hand, you understand that he is your enemy. The people I killed were far from innocent. They killed civilians and children. The scum sits there shaking all over, praying that he won’t be killed. He starts to ask forgiveness. God alone is your judge.

“We took a few Ukrainians prisoner. Everyone wants to live when you’ve got their back against the wall. But they are the same sort of people as you, they have mothers too.

“Each person has a destiny of his own, sometimes an unfortunate one. But nobody forced them to do this. With conscripts, it’s a different kettle of fish. Two- or three-thousand out of the 8,000 Ukrainians we were fighting were conscripted soldiers. I thought also about how I would have acted if it had been me in the place of those 18-year-old boys. I think I would have gone too. If you don’t kill, they say ‘we’ll kill you and your family’.

“But those mercenaries from Poland or Chechnya who are driven solely by ideas, who itch for war: it’s them we must wipe out.”

Did you see Polish mercenaries? 

“No but we were told that they were there.”

Did you have contact with civilians? 

“No. They came up to us many times but we tried hard not to talk to them. When we were in Makiivka [in the Donestsk Oblast province], they told us that 70% of the civilians there were supporting the ‘ukropi’. When we stopped in Makiivka, we hid in the town park, covered up our equipment and used camouflage, but literally within an hour mortars started raining down on us. I just climbed into the tank, I didn’t care. Mortars can’t damage a tank.”

And that didn’t make you tense, that 70% of locals in Makiivka were supporting Ukraine? 

“Of course it made me tense! Mentally, you’re expecting everyone to trick you. They brought us things to eat and drink, tea or whatever. We took it but we didn’t drink it. It could have been poisoned. But as they say, ‘You can’t beat Russians, you can only bribe them’.”

But didn’t you have doubts? If it’s true that 70% were against you, then why did you go? 

“I had doubts. But, for me, 70% of the population of one village doesn’t mean much. You have to respect the people’s choice. If Donetsk wants independence, it must be given independence. I talked to the nurses and doctors there. They said, ‘we want the sort of independence and government that you have, we want Putin’.”

Will there be any [injury] pay-outs to your family? 

“I don’t know about that. In Russia, it’s like this – when it comes to money, you can never be sure. On 27 November last year my time as a conscript expired, so I might be made out to look like someone who went on my own to Ukraine. So, I’m a little concerned.”

The future 

Do you have regrets? 

“It is pointless to have regrets. I don’t bear any grievances because I know that I fought for a good cause. I went with a feeling not of duty, but of justice. I saw how they kill people. They do whatever the hell they like. When we were travelling in the tanks, the ‘ukropi’ would sometimes intercept our radios. I distinctly remember a man’s voice saying: ‘Listen carefully, you Moscow, Petersburg, Rostov degenerates. We are going to kill all of you. First we will kill you, then we’ll kill your wives and kids, we will even get at your parents. We’ll stop at nothing’.”

How do you plan to live from now on? 

“I’ve had my fill of war. I served, fought for the DNR. It’s time to live the life of a civilian, to study and work. My body will recover, it will fight back.

“The only thing I still want to visit before I return home to Ulan-Ude is Sensation, a dance event which takes place each year in St Petersburg. The dress code is that everyone wears white. The best DJs come. My sister went…”

Do you have any questions to ask of Putin? 

“I don’t have anything against him. He’s a very interesting person, of course, and crafty: he’s sending troops, but not sending them. ‘There are no troops there’, he tells the world. But then he says to us ‘Jump to it!’

“But if Ukraine enters the European Union and the United Nations, the UN in principle can deploy its rockets and weaponry there [Ukraine was one of the founding member nations of the UN]. Then we’ll be in their crosshairs. They would be closer to us, no longer separated by oceans but by land. That would suck, you know? We have to defend our position so that we are not affected. Like in the cold war, if you remember.

“Today, Russia is concerned. From what I’ve read and the history I’ve studied, Russia’s opinions have started to be reckoned with in recent years. Nowadays, we’re on the rise again, we are being treated with contempt again but we haven’t disintegrated yet.”

Aftermath Batomunkuev and two other injured soldiers were transferred a couple of days later to the regional military hospital in Rostov-on-Don, where they were treated without being registered on any admissions list.

Neither Batomunkuev nor his family were contacted by anyone from his military unity or the Ministry of Defence.

After much persistence his mother got in touch with her son’s military unit where she was told that he was registered on the list of soldiers sent to Ukraine, so the Ministry would fulfil its obligations and pay for his treatment.

“They said that they wouldn’t turn their back on him,” his mother said.

For now, Batomunkuev keeps in touch with his family thanks to his neighbours on the ward, who lend him their mobile phones. 

Source: The Guardian

Clashes Rage In Ukrainian Town, Making Mockery Of Truce

SHYROKYNE, Ukraine -- To reach rear-guard government positions in the seaside town of Shyrokyne, Ukrainian soldiers gingerly wind their off-roaders through private gardens hugging a precipice along the Azov Sea.

In this photo taken Sunday, March 23, 2015, fighters of the Azov Battalion prepare to fire an anti-tank weapon in the town of Shyrokyne, eastern Ukraine. Government and Russian-backed separatist forces face off against one another across an unseen line cutting through the town in daily gun and artillery battles. The truce announced in mid-February never made it here.

The truce announced in mid-February has never taken here, so traveling by the main roads is too dangerous.

Government and Russian-backed separatist forces face off in daily gun and artillery battles across an unseen line cutting through the town.

The skirmishes are fierce, but contained — for now.

Still, the enduring unrest arouses deep anxieties that a conflict which has already claimed more than 6,000 lives in eastern Ukraine could flare up again across the entire 450-kilometer (280-mile) front line.

Shyrokyne itself is not much of a prize.

It is the industrial port city of Mariupol, 10 kilometers (6 miles) further west, that Ukrainian forces want to defend from the rebels at all costs.

Residents and government troops alike believe the separatists' ultimate aim is to take Mariupol — and eventually create a land bridge between Russia and Crimea, which Russia annexed last March.

Crimea has no physical link to Russian territory now and a bridge being discussed is years away from completion.

Government forces in Shyrokyne are only truly at ease behind three defensive lines separating them from the heat of fighting in the center.

At a makeshift garrison installed there, on the grounds of a restaurant near the shore, two tanks stood parked Sunday under a striped awning.

Several hundred meters away, mortar shells landing in the sea sprayed up columns of water.

"They are hurling anti-tank shells at the lighthouse. Another one just came this way," said a bearded, barrel-chested fighter with the government's Azov Battalion who gave only his nom de guerre, Al.

As reports came that two enemy tanks had been spotted, Al's thoughts turned to the combat ahead.

"It is all about to start," he said.

To proceed closer to the area where the battle is fiercest, soldiers abandon their cars and race on foot toward a school, climbing through a hole in the fence.

The asphalt on the road had been torn up by explosives, so only armored vehicles could get through with ease.

The responsibility for defending Shyrokyne is shared between the Azov and Donbass battalions, who take weekly turns to serve in the town.

Coordination is sometimes poor, however.

As Azov troops jogged for cover behind the school Sunday, one soldier shouted: "What are you doing? Are you crazy running like that? There are booby traps there."

Another soldier corrected him. "Nah, the booby traps are over there," he said, waving his hand vaguely to the left.

"The Donbass guys put them there."

Inside the school, children's drawings still decorated the walls.

One man fried sausages and another chowed down on boiled oats as a mobile phone blared out music by a Russian death metal band.

Underfoot, amid the spent bullet cartridges and shrapnel, students' art collages lay covered in fallen plaster.

As the sound of mortars grew more intense, all the men ducked inside for cover.

"There they go, they've started again," said an Azov spotter with the nickname Mathematician.

A cease-fire between Ukrainian and rebel forces was forged after marathon negotiations between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France on Feb. 12.

Under the truce, fighting was supposed to stop and heavy weapons were to be pulled back from the front line.

Responsibility for verifying the cease-fire lies with monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Mathematician said the rebels always wait for the OSCE teams to leave before resuming their attacks. 

"As soon as the OSCE leaves, the firing starts," he said.

Separatists accuse Ukrainian forces of similar deviousness, and it's hard to know definitely even at the front line who started any specific round of firing.

The head of the OSCE monitoring mission on Monday demanded that his teams be granted secure access to Shyrokyne. 

"Both sides in this area continue to violate numerous provisions of the (cease-fire) agreements, including those related to cessation of fire, prohibition of attacking moves, withdrawal of heavy weapons, and deployment of (airborne drones)," said Ertugrul Apakan.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the disparity between what Russia and the separatists say and what they do threatens stability in the region.

"Russia and the separatists claim to be honoring the ceasefire, but in reality, they are violating it on a regular basis, and are encroaching further beyond the ceasefire line," she said, and reiterated a call for unfettered access for OSCE monitors.

Later on Sunday afternoon, sounds resembling outgoing mortars could be heard from a field near Shyrokyne.

Soldiers refused to give an AP reporter access to the area.

"We don't have any mortars," Mathematician said, smiling.

"They only allow us to have small arms. But when they (rebels) get really brazen, we call in support and flatten them."

Many in the Azov Battalion have unabashed Ukrainian nationalist sympathies, prompting rebels to label them neo-fascists.

From time to time, Azov fighters in Shyrokyne greeted one another with ironic Roman salutes and then grinned at their own humor.

That kind of idle larking and the battalion's flirtation with neo-Nazi symbolism is seized upon as confirmation of their critics' worst fears.

The infamy appears only partly deserved, however.

Some embrace fervent Ukrainian nationalism as a repudiation of the heavily Russian-dominated Soviet legacy, all while serving with fighters from a wide array of political and ethnic backgrounds.

Chit-chat switches casually from Ukrainian to Russian and back again.

The best view of the skirmishes raging inside the village is from the House of Culture, a stolid building of a style popular across the Soviet Union during Josef Stalin's rule.

From there, fighters unleashed salvoes from an automatic grenade launcher and 73 mm caliber anti-tank guns.

Ukrainian forces hold the elevated sections of Shyrokyne, giving them a tactical advantage.

Smoke could be seen billowing from houses in the lower-lying buffer zone.

One shell apparently flying in from rebel positions landed by a church.

All at once, the men on the House of Culture roof cried out in a jubilant chorus, pointing toward the village.

"Did you see those flames? We hit a tank. Two direct hits," one government fighter said.

By the day's end, the final Ukrainian tally was at least one enemy tank destroyed and two relatively light injuries among their ranks.

Almost every day brings new casualties — on occasion, some fatal — but their determination to stop the rebel advance along the Azov Sea coast is intense.

One Azov fighter calling himself Tantsor — Russian for dancer — said the rebels were clearly hoping to take Mariupol by stealth.

"They are violating the cease-fire everywhere and using any chance they get to advance even by one centimeter toward peaceful Ukrainian towns," he said.

Source: AP

Ukraine Pleads For Quick Restructuring Of Debts

KIEV, Ukraine -- Finance minister Natalie Jaresko wants to see debt cut and interest on remainder reduced so Ukraine can move towards stability.

Natalie Jaresko addresses the Chatham House thinktank.

Ukraine could be forced into a damaging default unless talks to restructure its debts are concluded successfully and speedily, the country’s finance minister warned on Tuesday.

Natalie Jaresko said all her country’s creditors were aware of the critical nature of the negotiations designed to help stabilise an economy crippled by recession, corruption, mismanagement, and war. 

“It’s a serious, serious, financial crisis,” Jaresko said.

“Ukraine has had 70 years of communism and 23 years of incomplete reforms. The last regime, at a bare minimum, was corrupt. We have had revolution and war. There has been a huge human cost of the war, with 6,000 dead and 1 million people displaced. It is one of the most complicated situations in Europe.”

Jaresko is seeking additional financial support from the west after the announcement of a $17.5bn loan from the International Monetary Fund this month.

“We are very lucky to have the support of the IMF,” Jaresko said, adding that Ukraine’s reserves were at an all-time low of $5bn before it received the first $5bn tranche of IMF financial assistance this month.

Part of the IMF deal involves a $15bn restructuring of Ukraine’s debts, and Jaresko said there needed to be an agreement with creditors by the end of May.

She is looking to ease her country’s debt burden by a cut in the amount owed and by paying back the remainder over a longer period and at lower interest rates.

“I think everybody understands the situation is critical and that we need to move relatively quickly,” she said as she admitted that the economy was likely to suffer a second year of deep recession in 2015 

“There is always a risk of a default,” she added, noting that several factions in Ukraine’s parliament were demanding that the government go down that route.

Jaresko said the IMF loan was enough to stabilise the economy but not sufficient to “reorganise and renew” it.

“Everybody in the free world should be doing more to help Ukraine. This is a country that has given its life for democracy and is protecting Europe from an aggressive neighbour,” she said.

“The human and economic costs to Europe from a Ukraine that is not stable are very great.

“Ukraine is a big country. This is not going to be a small crisis if it goes beyond our borders.”

Jaresko said she could not complain that Ukraine had been ignored while the European Union tried to sort out the problems of Greece.

“I can’t say they haven’t focused. We would like more attention and more support. The Ukrainian government deserves that support.”

Jaresko said that, in five years, she wanted to see a Ukraine at peace, with a rapidly growing economy, that had restored normal relations with all its neighbours and was diversified in its exports.

“There are enormous risks to that scenario. There are social risks, that society will not have the patience to continue with austerity. We have political risks. We have banking and currency shock risks. I don’t control the violence in the east of the country,” she said.

Every country, Russia included, had to buy into this vision, Jaresko said.

“We have got a banking crisis, a lack of confidence, people pulling money out of the banks. Every time there is a spike in violence people fear what will happen next.

“The good news is that we have made great progress on stability.”

Tariffs had been imposed, currency controls imposed and a start made on introducing the structural reforms imposed by the IMF in return for its $17.5bn of financial support.

Source: The Guardian