Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ukraine Separatists Push East As US Intercepts Moscow Orders

LUHANSK, Ukraine -- John Kerry says US has proof that Russia is behind rebellion in country's east, as militants seize regional government building in Luhansk.

Pro-Russian activists burn Ukrainian symbols in front of the occupied Office of Public Prosecutor in Luhansk, Ukraine.

Hundreds of pro-Russian separatists, some armed with assault rifles, seized government buildings and laid siege to police headquarters in a second Ukrainian regional capital on Tuesday as they expanded the reach of their rebellion against Kiev.

Their storming of regional administration and prosecutor's office in Luhansk, just 15 miles from the Russian border, came as John Kerry, the US secretary of state, revealed that American eavesdroppers have overheard intelligence operatives being directed by Moscow.

"We know exactly who's giving those orders, we know where they are coming from," he said, in remarks to a private meeting that were leaked on Tuesday.

"Intel is producing taped conversations of intelligence operatives taking their orders from Moscow and everybody can tell the difference in the accents, in the idioms, in the language."

The new seizures in Luhansk, 80 miles east of the centre of the rebellion in Donetsk, suggest that the separatists are continuing the pattern of occupations that has spread across eastern Ukraine over the past month.

Pro-Russian gunmen had held the Ukrainian security service building in Luhansk since early April, but seizures of police stations and government since then have been concentrated in the Donetsk region.

The new takeovers came as the European Union imposed sanctions on 15 individuals including the head of the GRU, Russia's military intelligence service, and a rebel leader in eastern Ukraine that Brussels said is a GRU agent.

The leaked tape of John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, speaking on Friday, highlighted American concerns over operations run by the GRU inside East Ukraine.

"It's not an accident that you have some of the same people identified who were in Crimea and in Georgia and who are now in east Ukraine," he said, according to the Daily Beast website.

"This is insulting to everybody's intelligence, let alone to our notions about how we ought to be behaving in the 21st century. It's thuggism, it's rogue state-ism. It's the worst order of behaviour."

The European Union imposed travel bans and asset freezes on 15 people including a Russian deputy prime minister, the chief of staff of the Russian armed forces and the head of the country's military intelligence service.

The action came after Washington and Brussels accused Russia of failing to abide by the agreement reached by Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the EU earlier this month.

The list includes Dmitry Sergun, the head of the GRU, Russia's formidable military intelligence agency, who the European Union accused of being "responsible for the activities of GRU officers in Eastern Ukraine" - the first time Brussels has explicitly accused Russian intelligence of orchestrating unrest in the region.

The sanctions also targeted Igor Strelkov, the commander of the "people's militia" running the town of Slavyansk, one of the centres of the pro-Russian rebellion, and five other rebel leaders including the self proclaimed prime minister of the People's Republic of Donetsk.

The European Union said in its statement that Mr Strelkov was actually a GRU officer who has been "involved in incidents in Slavyansk".

Also on the latest list, which takes the number of people targeted by European sanctions to 48, is Dmitry Kozak, the Russian deputy prime minister who Vladimir Putin has put in charge of the integration of the annexed autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol into the Russian Federation.

The list stopped short of following the US in naming key figures within Vladimir Putin's circle, or individual businessmen or institutions that might have a more serious economic impact on the Kremlin, underlining continuing European divisions over sanctions.

In a significant political move, General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian military general staff, has been added to the sanctions list for his responsibility "for the massive deployment of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine and lack of de-escalation of the situation".

Russia said the European Union should be "ashamed" of itself for "doing Washington's bidding" by imposing the sanctions.

Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-declared "people's mayor" of Slavyansk, warned that he would not negotiate the release of seven European military observers his men are holding prisoner until the rebel leaders were dropped from the list.

"We will resume dialogue on the status of the prisoners of war only when the EU rejects these sanctions," he said.

"If they fail to remove the sanctions, then we will block access for EU representatives, and they won't be able to get to us. I will remind my guests from the OSCE about this."

Despite the threat, Mr Ponomarev spent several hours in negotiations with OSCE representatives, cancelling a planned press conference after the talks overran.

He later said "good progress" had been made after all-day talks with OSCE negotiators on Tuesday night, but refused to say when the imprisoned officers might be released.

The group of military officers, which includes four Germans, a Czech, a Dane, and a Pole, were detained as they tried to enter Slavyansk on Friday.

An eighth Swedish prisoner was earlier released on medical grounds.

Mr Ponomarev, who is not named on the sanctions list, has repeatedly denied that any Russian troops or officials are on the ground in the region, insisting that the militia nominally under his and Mr Strelkov's command is made up of volunteers largely from Ukraine.

However, some gunmen have told journalists they are Russian citizens, although the insisted they are Cossacks and unpaid volunteers with no link to the regular Russian army.

Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, also reassured his US counterpart that Russia had no intention of invading Ukraine, despite requests from Mr Ponomarev to send "peacekeepers" into the region.

In a telephone conversation with Chuck Hagel, the US secretary of defence, Mr Shoigu said Russian troops previously deployed to the border had returned to their bases after completing exercises.

Source: The Telegraph

Leave Ukraine In Peace, John Kerry Urges Russia

KIEV, Ukraine -- The US has urged Russia to "leave Ukraine in peace" and warned that "every inch" of territory in neighbouring Nato states would be defended if threatened.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said that Russia had failed to abide by the terms of a de-escalation agreement.

Russia's President Putin insisted that his country had no troops in Ukraine.

The comments came after pro-Russia activists stormed several more buildings in eastern Ukraine.

Mr Kerry said that Russia had "escalated the crisis" since signing the de-escalation agreement last month.

"Not one single step has been taken by Russia in any public way that seriously attempts to live by the spirit or the law of what was signed in that agreement" he said.

He went on to say that NATO was facing a "defining moment" in the strength of its alliance in the face of Russian actions.

Moscow has said it has no intention of invading eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia activists have seized government buildings in more than a dozen towns and cities.

"I solemnly declare that there are no Russian instructors there, nor any special forces there, nor troops," said Mr Putin.

Mr Putin also warned that new EU and US sanctions against Russia could impact on the work of Western energy firms.

"If this continues, we will of course have to think about how (foreign companies) work in the Russian Federation, including in key sectors of the Russian economy such as energy," he said.

In Kiev on Tuesday, activists mourning those who died in protests against the then pro-Moscow government earlier this year took part in a torch-lit ceremony.

Sanctions screw is tightened 

Eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population, was a stronghold for former President Viktor Yanukovych before he was overthrown by protesters in February.

The interim government has rejected the pro-Russian activists' demands for greater autonomy, fearing they could lead to the break-up of the country or more regions being annexed by Russia, as happened with Crimea last month.

Pro-Russian activists continue to detain some 40 people, including seven military observers linked to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) seized last week.

On Tuesday evening, the self-styled "mayor" of the town of Sloviansk, where the observers are being held, said "good progress" had been made at talks with OSCE representatives.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov had earlier warned that they would only be released if the EU dropped its sanctions against separatist leaders.

Earlier, the EU published a fresh list of 15 individuals facing travel bans and asset freezes.

It included the chief of the Russian General Staff, the head of Russian military intelligence, and a Russian deputy prime minister, as well as separatist leaders in Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk.

On Monday, the US announced sanctions against seven individuals and 17 companies it said were linked to President Putin's "inner circle".


The pro-Russian gunmen in Ukraine's east seem to be following a strategy of constant expansion and pressure on the Kiev government.

Hardly a day goes by without another incident.

Just recently, official buildings in Kostyantynivka have been taken over, Western military monitors detained, peaceful demonstrators in Donetsk attacked, and now the regional administration building in Luhansk has been seized.

It is difficult to say what their ultimate goal is.

Perhaps it is to keep government officials in Kiev on the defensive, forcing them to put out a number of fires at once, while others pop up throughout the region.

Or else it is simply to keep the situation unstable, in order to prevent the presidential election scheduled to take place on 25 May.

Or it could be just the opposite, as many in Kiev and throughout the country fear: to provoke the Ukrainians into a full crackdown, which would in turn spark a Russian invasion.

The militants have called on Moscow to intervene on more than one occasion.

Source: BBC News Europe

Ukraine: UN Political Chief Says Events Over Past Four Days ‘Should Alarm Us All’

NEW YORK, USA -- Describing “alarming” developments in Ukraine – from the capture of European observers and the violent takeover of Government buildings by separatist groups, to the shooting of the mayor of a major eastern city – a senior United Nations official this evening appealed to all sides to “work expeditiously” at putting the crisis-torn country on the path to stability.

Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman (second left), briefs the Security Council on the worsening situation in Ukraine.

“Time is of the essence,” Jeffrey Feltman, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, told the Security Council, as he painted a worrying picture of the past four days, during which the emerging spirit of compromise that led to the accord struck in Geneva at a meeting between Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union, “appears to have evaporated.”

“The implementation of the Geneva Statement has stalled as parties have sought to give different interpretations of what had been agreed upon,” he said of the 17 April deal on a series of steps to de-escalate tensions in eastern Ukraine that reportedly include demobilizing militias and vacating seized Government buildings.

“Unhelpful rhetoric on the part of many has further escalated the already high tensions,” he added.

The Geneva Statement capped months of political unrest in Ukraine that led to the removal by Parliament of President Viktor Yanukovych in February.

This was followed by increased tensions in the country’s autonomous region of Crimea, where Russian military were subsequently deployed and a secession referendum was held in mid-March, in which the majority of the region's people voted to join Russia.

By mid-April, tensions flared in eastern Ukraine as Luhansk, Kharkiv, Donetsk and at least 5 other cities in the region were targeted by uprisings and the violent takeover of Government buildings.

And in the city of Slovyansk, where the police station was seized, self-declared separatist groups reportedly demanded a referendum similar to the poll held in Crimea.

Mr. Feltman reported today that the situation in parts of eastern and southern Ukraine continues to deteriorate.

On 25 April, a group of military observers under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and accompanying Ukrainian staff were captured and detained.

Although one monitor has been released, the rest remain in detention.

Reiterating UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s strong condemnation of the incident, Mr. Feltman urged those responsible to release the detainees immediately, unconditionally and unharmed.

He also urged those with influence on the situation to assist urgently in resolving it; “lives are potentially at stake.”

Meanwhile, he said, gangs of militia and armed civilians “are increasing in number and springing up in more and more cities across the region,” seizing buildings, setting up roadblocks and cutting whole towns and communities off from the rest of Ukraine.

There are increasing reports of torture, kidnappings and violent clashes, he added. 

“Earlier today, self-declared separatist groups reportedly began an operation to take control of Luhansk.

Just a few hours ago, they stormed the police headquarters in the city, opening fire with automatic weapons and throwing stun grenades at police officers still inside,” said Mr. Feltman, adding that the State Security building seized earlier his month remained under control of those groups.

He went on to tell the Council that yesterday, Hennadiy Kernes, the Mayor of Kharkiv, was shot in the back by unknown assailants and remains in critical condition.

“On the same day, self-declared separatists seized a local government building in Kostyantynivka, also in the Donetsk Oblast."

While in Donetsk itself, a pro-Unity rally turned violent when separatist elements reportedly attacked the group with clubs and chains,” he said, adding that two days ago, clashes between some 400 opponents and between 400 and 500 supporters of a unitary Ukraine broke out and resulted in a number of injuries.

“What I just described are developments which have occurred only in the last four days.

These developments should alarm us all,” Mr. Feltman declared.

As for the efforts of the international community, he said that the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission provides fact-based and publicly available information on the state of human rights in Ukraine.

In addition, the Secretary-General has continued his high-level engagement with world leaders.

“He is your partner in using his good offices to help bring about a return to diplomacy and a peaceful resolution. In this spirit, he has asked me to return to Ukraine next week,” Mr. Feltman announced.

Reiterating the call made yesterday by Mr. Ban, he said:

“We must find a way back to the spirit of compromise exhibited on 17 April in Geneva. A diplomatic and political solution to this crisis is both imperative and long overdue.”

“Let us work concertedly and expeditiously towards peace and stability,” Mr. Feltman said.

Source: UN News Centre

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ukraine Crisis: EU Names 15 Individuals Targeted By Latest Sanctions

MOSCOW, Russia -- The European Union named another 15 people Tuesday who will face sanctions over the crisis in Ukraine, including a number of high-ranking Russian officials.

Dmitry Kozak is one of the Russians hit with sanctions on Monday.

The list includes Dmitry Kozak, Russia's deputy prime minister; Russian military chief Valery Gerasimov; and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine including Denis Pushilin, the self-declared leader of the "Donetsk People's Republic."

The sanctions, which go into immediate effect, include asset freezes and travel bans.

The EU said the 15 are "responsible for actions which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine."

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was alarmed by the worsening security situation in eastern Ukraine, and she called on Russia to take "concrete steps" in support of an international deal signed this month aimed at easing tensions. 

She warned that if necessary, the European Union "will look at possible additional individual measures" related to the crisis.

Ashton also condemned an attack on the mayor of Kharkiv on Monday and the continued detention by pro-Russian militants of a team of military observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

"All persons still illegally detained by armed groups in eastern Ukraine need to be immediately released," she said.

Western nations accuse Moscow of supporting the separatist gunmen who are occupying official buildings in cities across the region and are holding the OSCE team hostage.

Russia disputes that claim, saying it has no direct influence over the pro-Russian activists.

Russia: 'Aren't you ashamed?' 

In a statement on its website Tuesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the EU sanctions "cannot but cause rejection" and show a lack of comprehension of Ukraine's internal political situation.

"Instead of making the Kiev faction sit at the negotiating table with southeastern Ukraine, our partners follow Washington's lead with new unfriendly gestures regarding Russia," it said.

The EU action is "a direct invitation for local neo-Nazis to continue to promote anarchy and outrages regarding the civilians of the southeast," it said, repeating Russia's contention that ultranationalist groups are behind the unrest in Ukraine.

The statement concluded with the question, "Aren't you ashamed?"

On Monday, Russia promised a painful response to sanctions imposed by the United States.

Sergei Ryabkov, Russia's deputy minister for foreign relations, called the U.S. measures "meaningless, shameful, and disgusting."

"It will only intensify all the processes in Ukraine which it intends to change or stop," Ryabkov told CNN, speaking English.

"The U.S. does literally nothing to impress its cronies and clients in Kiev on whom there is full responsibility for constant deterioration of the situation in Ukraine. This is what needs to be changed and not the policy of Russia.

"A response of Moscow will follow, and it will be painfully felt in Washington, D.C."

Russia has not yet said what measures it will impose against Western interests.

U.S. sanctions 

In its latest round of sanctions, the U.S. targeted seven Russian government officials and 17 companies linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The White House said the seven Russians, including two from Putin's inner circle, are now subject to a freeze on any assets they hold in the United States and a ban on U.S. travel.

The two seen as closest to Putin are Igor Sechin, chairman of Russian oil giant Rosneft, and Sergey Chemezov, director general of Rostec, a large state-owned industrial conglomerate in Russia.

The companies the U.S. named are all linked to officials and oligarchs already designated last month, and the list did not include Rosneft itself or gas exporter Gazprom.

In addition, the United States will deny export license applications for any high-technology items that could contribute to Russian military capabilities.

The Commerce and State departments will revoke any existing export licenses that meet these conditions, the White House said in a statement.

"The sanctions build on the ones that were already in place. We're moving forward with an expanded list of individuals," U.S. President Barack Obama earlier told reporters in Manila, Philippines.

The move, Obama said, was to spur Putin to "walk the walk, not just talk the talk" in resolving the crisis in Ukraine.

If the latest round of sanctions does not work, the next phase could target economic sectors like banking, Obama said.

Altogether, the United States and European Union have now imposed asset freezes and travel bans on 66 individuals, mainly senior Russian officials.

The United States has sanctioned 18 companies in total.

'Stolen assets' 

Meanwhile, Britain is hosting a two-day international meeting aimed at helping Ukraine's government recover stolen assets, following claims of widespread corruption within the government of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

UK Home Secretary Theresa May, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the head of the Ukrainian delegation, acting Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnitskyi, are all taking part in the London forum.

May and Holder warned that it could take a long time to identify and recover stolen assets, but they said they're determined to make sure they are returned to the Ukrainian people.

"What we have committed to do is to persevere, to follow leads wherever we can find them," said Holder.

Makhnitskyi said that the investigators' attention was focused on recent years when Yanukovych and his associates were in charge and that they would try to get results as soon as possible.

"The Ukrainian society already demands results from the government," he said.

Yanukovych fled to Russia in February after months of street protests prompted by his decision to drop closer trade ties with Europe and turn instead toward Moscow.

Kharkiv mayor being treated in Israel 

Kharkiv Mayor Gennady Kernes, who city officials said underwent emergency surgery after being shot in the back Monday, is being treated in Israel, a hospital official said Tuesday.

Kernes arrived at Elisha Hospital in Haifa overnight, the hospital's chief accountant Jacob Karwasser told CNN.

The mayor is now "under control" in stable condition, he said, and has family members with him.

It's not known who is paying the bills for Kernes at the private hospital.

The attack on Kernes happened around noon local time Monday, the Kharkiv city office official website said.

It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the shooting.

The online statement said a bullet casing was found at the scene.

Police said an investigation unit was trying to determine the circumstances of the shooting.

Source: CNN World

Ukraine Crisis: Who Will Blink First, Vladimir Putin Or The West?

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Russia's seizure of Crimea last month may have unfolded with a lightning quickness, but Vladimir Putin and the West are now engaged in a much slower match of wits on a chessboard stretching across most of eastern Ukraine.

Pro-Russia militants, armed with baseball bats and iron bars, hold flares as they attack people marching for national unity in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Monday, April 28. Ukraine has seen a sharp rise in tensions since a new pro-European government took charge of the country in February. Moscow branded the new government illegitimate and annexed Ukraine's Crimea region last month, citing threats to Crimea's Russian-speaking majority. And in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists have captured towns and government buildings and are holding a team of European monitors hostage.

Rather than going for checkmate, both sides now seem content to wait for the other to make a mistake.

Putin made a strong first move by placing 40,000 troops on the border -- and separatists, who are not officially linked to Russia, on the ground in Ukraine.

Now Moscow is waiting for the pro-Western government in Kiev to try to retake the parts of the east it has seemingly lost.

In Russia's eyes, any such move from the capital would legitimize an overwhelming counterattack -- a re-run of the Georgia crisis in 2008, when President Mikheil Saakashvili lost his nerve, shot first, and prompted a Russian invasion.

Putin's problem is time; he cannot wait forever to strike.

Troops cannot remain ready for combat for many months at a time.

Separatists in eastern Ukraine are lost without outside support, and may become nervous as time drags on without any glimpse of a light at the end of the tunnel.

On the other side of the board are U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukraine's fledgling government.

The biggest challenge for Obama and his German counterpart is to keep a united Western front.

They need to uphold a credible threat of massive economic sanctions that could undercut the Kremlin's funding if it doesn't toe the line.

But cracks in Western unity are visible everywhere.

Europe may be concerned about Russian aggression in Ukraine, but the continent is dragging its collective feet on taking a more confrontational stance towards Putin. 

Some nations fear Russian pressure, especially on their energy supply.

Many are nervous about the price their own countries will pay as a result of tougher sanctions.

And nobody is sure yet whether they're ready to abandon the idea of Russia as a vital partner.

Obama, on the other hand, is much more inclined to put the squeeze on the Kremlin.

Washington is used to confrontation with Russia -- and with Putin, specifically -- and America is much less economically-connected with its old Cold War rival.

American leaders aren't motivated solely by their concern over eastern Europe and Russia reasserting itself as a more aggressive and expansionist power.

The U.S. also wants to assert key norms of international order -- namely territorial integrity and the principle to change borders only with the consent of all parties.

Ukraine is also a welcome opportunity to signal to allies and rivals alike that America is not retrenching from its global engagements.

The impact of Ukraine crisis on China and the various territorial conflicts with its neighbors will also loom very large on the minds of policy makers in Washington.

But whatever the differences among U.S. and EU leaders, the more they act in concert, the better chance they have to achieve their goal: beating back Moscow's attempt to undermine Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The West also needs to make sure that Kiev's interim government doesn't lose its nerve.

As hard as it is for leaders to watch pro-Russian separatists take over their buildings, any large-scale operation in eastern Ukraine could give Putin the opportunity he may be waiting for: invasion with some kind of dubious pseudo-legal cover.

It is difficult to say who is in a better position.

Putin is a master tactician.

Since his years as a KGB agent in Dresden in the 1980s, he has gained much expertise in finding and exploiting the West's weak spots.

And he seems to have broad support at home for his confrontational brand of politics.

Putin's weakness is his regime's economic dependency on the West.

Without the steady flow of income from the sale of gas and oil, brought under control of the Kremlin, the regime would not be able to buy support at home and to finance costly and risky foreign policy adventures.

The West has no appetite to confront Russia.

But if Putin's tanks roll into eastern Ukraine out of the blue, without any pretense of legitimacy, he will turn Western opinion even further against him.

This could give Merkel and Obama the necessary backing for tough sanctions.

If he is to achieve his main goal, which is to prevent Ukraine from associating closer with the West, Putin will have to move fast.

He probably needs to have some kind of Russian presence inside Ukraine (apart from Crimea), as control over separatists in the east alone might not be sufficient or sustainable.

A full-scale crackdown by the Ukrainian government on separatists would give Moscow the cover to move some Russian troops as "peacekeepers" into eastern Ukraine.

Once inside the country, another "frozen conflict" could be created which would destabilize the country and prevent Western attempts to help Ukraine to get on its feet.

This would keep Putin's longer-term ambition -- to bring Ukraine into a Moscow-led alliance or federation -- very much alive.

If the Kremlin comes to the conclusion that the West wouldn't respond to such a move with painful sanctions -- ones that would damage Putin's inner circle and be strong enough to sap major sources of income for the Kremlin -- Putin might choose to move along such lines or in other ways.

But if the U.S. and EU demonstrate that they are truly ready to use economic warfare to counter the Russian military machine, the West may yet be able to deter Putin from going much further.

Something has to give soon.

Source: CNN Opinion

Facing Crisis With Russia, Ukraine Scrambles To Get Military Up To Speed

KIEV, Ukraine -- As tensions with Russia continue to flare, Ukraine's army is adding markings to planes and helicopters in order to distinguish them from nearly identical Russian equipment and avoid friendly fire incidents should the situation escalate further.

White markings on tail of helicopter are meant to distinguish Ukrainian chopper from nearly identical craft flown by Russian Army.

The addition of painted white stripes, first reported in the military blog War is Boring, comes as Ukraine tries to get its military – which consists mostly of Soviet-era equipment – up to speed in the wake of the revolution in February and the subsequent invasion of parts of Ukraine by Russian forces.

But the cosmetic change may be the least of Ukraine's issues concerning its outdated military gear.

The Ukrainian military went through years of neglect under the now-toppled pro-Russian government, which "deliberately dismantled" the military according to the current prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

And experts agree.

“Because its leaders have tended to be pro-Russian, Ukraine's military is as much designed not to fight Russia as it is to fight it,” Ben Friedman, who studies defense policy at the CATO Institute, told

In previous years, Ukraine’s military released reports about how it received only a portion of the funding allocated to it through legislation.

“Expenditure… failed to fully meet the resource requirements of the Armed Forces,” a White Book released by the Ukraine military in 2012 noted.

It went on to say that the number of troops had recently been cut by a third, training and equipment was insufficient, and that the troops used outdated non-digital communications equipment.

In an attempt to improve its military, Ukraine has asked for international help for military supplies.

"What we need is support from the international community. We need technology and military support to overhaul the Ukrainian military and modernize -- to be ready not just to fight, but to be ready to win," Yatsenyuk said last month.

In the meantime, Ukraine has started a fundraising drive for its military, which so far has raised 111 million Ukrainian hrevnya, equivalent to about $10 million US dollars.

Others have given supplies directly.

“Our office has been running a pool to donate supplies to the military… everything from armor vests to food,” Justin Bruch, an American who moved from Iowa to western Ukraine in 2008 to run a large farm, said.

Bruch, who still lives and works in Ukraine, said that he gives supplies rather than money due to fear of corruption.

Bruch saw the state of Ukraine's army firsthand in 2010 when tanks came through his farm on a military exercise – and broke down.

“The drivers were out working on an old piece of junk in the middle of my farm fields,” he said, adding that from what he understood, the issue was an overheated engine.

On a positive note, patriotism and motivation are high is western Ukraine, he said. 

“People are very pro-Ukraine and anti-Russian. The west half of Ukraine is patriotic, similar to how most Americans are about America... Another interesting thing is how many Ukrainians want to get a gun license to buy guns for self-protection. They are jealous now to think that Americans can own guns and carry for self-protection. Most don't have the feeling that the military can protect them from Russia if and when they come,” he said.

The Ukrainian military also reports a bit of modernization of existing equipment, such as replacing old engines and communications equipment in some of its Soviet-era helicopters.

Why was Ukraine using such decrepit equipment, and spending just 1 percent of its gross domestic product on its military?

Some experts said it was because of over-reliance on Western countries.

“More Western-oriented Ukrainians may simply have concluded that balancing Russian military strength was impossible, so why waste much money trying?” Friedman suggested.

“[They] probably saw joining NATO as the best bet… Ukraine can be seen as an example of a danger created by alliances; their prospect can inhibit self-help.” 

Source: FOX News

Monday, April 28, 2014

Ukraine Crisis: Kharkiv Mayor Hennadiy Kernes Shot

KHARKIV, Ukraine -- The mayor of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine has been shot in the back and critically wounded amid continuing unrest in the region.

Mr Kernes has been described as a "mini-oligarch".

Hennadiy Kernes was recovering after a two-hour operation to repair damage to the chest and abdomen, but his life remained in danger, his office said.

Monday also saw pro-Russian separatists seize a local government building in Kostyantynivka, a town to the south.

The US has meanwhile expanded sanctions to include targets linked to President Vladimir Putin's "inner circle".

The list includes seven new individuals and 17 companies.

The European Union is also expected to announce new sanctions.

Western nations accuse Moscow of supporting separatist gunmen who are occupying official buildings in cities across eastern Ukraine.

The separatists continue to hold seven Western military observers who were seized last week in the region.

Mr Kernes used to be a supporter of the former pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych.

He then dropped his support for the ousted president in favour of a united Ukraine. 

He has been described as a "mini-oligarch" - a successful businessman wealthy enough to launch a career in politics.

He has been accused of starting his business career as an organised crime boss, a claim he denied while acknowledging that he was once jailed for fraud - a minor offence "partly fabricated" by his enemies, he insisted.

Kharkiv was also the scene of clashes on Sunday when football fans marching for a united Ukraine scuffled with pro-Russia supporters.

The authorities in Kharkiv said several people were injured.

On Monday morning, gunmen wearing uniforms with no insignias moved into the local administrative building in Kostyantynivka and raised the flag of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk Republic".

They were also reported to be in control of the police station in Kostyantynivka, which is located between the town of Sloviansk and the city of Donetsk, both also controlled by separatists.

'Not personal' 

US President Barack Obama confirmed the stepping up of sanctions against Russia, which he said was part of a "calibrated effort" to change Moscow's behaviour in Ukraine, during a visit to the Philippines.

He said the measures were in response to Moscow's failure to uphold an international accord aimed at peacefully resolving the Ukraine crisis.

A White House statement said the new targets were "seven Russian government officials, including two members of President Putin's inner circle, who will be subject to an asset freeze and a US visa ban, and 17 companies linked to Putin's inner circle, which will be subject to an asset freeze".

Mr Obama said the sanctions were not aimed at Russian President Vladimir Putin personally.

"The goal is to change his calculus with respect to how the current actions that he's engaging in could have an adverse impact on the Russian economy over the long haul," he said.

Meanwhile, ambassadors from the 28 EU member states are meeting in Brussels to agree new sanctions against Russia.

The US and EU already have assets freezes and travel bans in place targeting a number of Russian individuals and firms accused of playing a part in the annexation of Crimea last month.

BBC Europe correspondent Chris Morris says it is expected that the ambassadors will add another 15 people in positions of power to the list of those to whom sanctions apply.

Our correspondent says the White House wants a show of unity from the US and Europe, but there is little consensus within the EU at the moment for implementing broader economic sanctions against Russia.

Eight foreign observers - who were operating under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) - were led into Sloviansk town hall by masked gunmen and shown to the media on Sunday.

German monitor Col Axel Schneider, who spoke for the group, stressed they were not NATO officers - contrary to claims made by the separatists - nor armed fighters, but diplomats in uniform.

Later, one of the group - a Swede - was freed for medical reasons.

The fate of five Ukrainian military officers accompanying the mission is unknown. 

Source: BBC News Europe

French FM Warns Of 'Incalculable Consequences' In Ukraine

PARIS, France -- France has warned of "incalculable consequences" if the situation in Ukraine deteriorates, calling on Russia and on pro-Russian rebels in the former Soviet republic to de-escalate the crisis.

Pro-Russian activists break through the gate in front of TRK Donbass television station in Donetsk.

"The situation is very worrying," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on French television.

"When people are whipped into a frenzy and incidents proliferate, they can always boil over with incalculable consequences," he said on the eve of a meeting at which EU ambassadors will consider new sanctions against Moscow.

"It's not a question of going to war with Russia, that makes no sense. We must appeal for a de-escalation, in particular by the Russians and the pro-Russians" in Ukraine, he added.

Mr Fabius said: "Obviously we have to say, in particular to the Russians, that each country's sovereignty must be respected. We respect Russian sovereignty the Russians should respect Ukrainian sovereignty."

The French minister said that ambassadors from the European Union's 28 member states meeting in Brussels tomorrow will "prepare a new set of sanctions (against Moscow), the Americans are expected to reveal a new set of sanctions, and if things get even worse, there could be a third phase".

Meanwhile, pro-Russian separatists seized control of the offices of regional state television in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, a Reuters reporter outside the building said.

The reporter said four separatists in masks, with truncheons and shields, were standing at the entrance to the building controlling access, while more separatists in camouflage fatigues could be seen inside.

Earlier, just one of eight Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe inspectors held by rebels in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk has been released.

Two negotiators and the freed Swedish military inspector boarded a white car with an OSCE logo on it and drove away without any comment to reporters.

Earlier in the day the leader of the international observers detained by the pro-Russian separatists said that all the group were in good health.

However, he added that they were anxious to be allowed to go home soon.

Appearing in public for the first time since they were held three days ago, seven officers from the observer team and their translator were brought into a room of waiting journalists in the separatist-held city administration building.

Guards in camouflage fatigues and balaclavas, carrying Kalashnikov rifles, were also in the room as journalists spoke to the observers.

Colonel Axel Schneider, who was leading the observer mission, said the group came to Slaviansk without weapons and were there strictly in line with their mandate under OSCE rules, to carry out military verification work.

"We were accommodated in a cellar. We had to set up conditions for ourselves," said Col Schneider, describing what happened after they were seized.

"Since yesterday we've been in a more comfortable room with heating. We have daylight, and an air conditioner." 

Col Schneider, who had a shaven head, a closely-cropped beard and was wearing a plaid button-down shirt, told reporters he had "not been touched," and that there had been no physical mistreatment of the group.

The group sat side by side at a long table in front of the reporters, looking sombre and serious, but otherwise well.

"All the European officers are in good health and no one is sick," Col Schneider said. 

He said the separatist de factor mayor of Slaviansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, had guaranteed the group's safety.

He said he believed the mayor's promise.

Mr Ponomaryov appeared with the detained men at the news conference.

"We have no indication when we will be sent home to our countries," Col Schneider said.

"We wish from the bottom of our hearts to go back to our nations as soon and as quickly as possible."

Elsewhere, two OSCE monitors were held briefly at a checkpoint in eastern Ukraine before Ukrainian police secured their release, a spokeswoman for the pan-European security body said.

"Two team members were held for a short time at the administrative building there.

Local police units made it possible for the two members of the monitoring mission to leave the building unharmed," the spokeswoman told AFP.

The incident happened at the Yenakyeve checkpoint near Donetsk.

The two are part of a Special Monitoring Mission run by the OSCE currently comprising 122 civilians based in 10 locations plus local staff.

Earlier today, US President Barack Obama said new international sanctions set to come into force against Russia would send a message that it must stop its "provocation" in eastern Ukraine.

"It is important for us to take further steps sending a message to Russia that these kinds of destabilising activities taking place in Ukraine has to stop," Mr Obama said at a press conference in Malaysia.

He was speaking a day after G7 nations said that they would impose new sanctions on Russia within days, accusing the government in Moscow of doing nothing to honour an agreement forged in Geneva aimed at easing tensions in Ukraine.

"So long as Russia continues down a path of provocation rather than trying to resolve this issue peacefully and de-escalate it, there are going to be consequences and those consequences will continue to grow," Mr Obama said.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk claimed Russia had violated his country's airspace seven times overnight Friday with an aim "to provoke" Ukraine into starting a war.

US Secretary of State John Kerry told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that Washington was concerned about "provocative" troop movements along Russia's border with Ukraine and its support for the separatists, which he said "are undermining stability, security and unity in Ukraine".

Mr Yatsenyuk cut short a visit to the Vatican as concern grew that the tens of thousands of Russian troops conducting military drills on the border could soon be ordered to invade.

But Russia denied any transgression by its warplanes, with Mr Lavrov calling for "urgent measures" to calm the crisis, which has plunged East-West relations to their lowest point since the Cold War.

A Western diplomat warned: "We no longer exclude a Russian military intervention in Ukraine in the coming days."

The diplomatic source noted that Russia's UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, "has been recalled urgently to Moscow" for consultations.

Source: RTÉ News

Why We Have To Win In Ukraine And Putin Has To Lose

WASHINGTON, DC -- In 1956, Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary. In 1968, they crushed the Prague Spring and in the 1980’s, under Soviet pressure, Poland instituted martial law in order to subjugate the Solidarity movement.

Vladimir Putin

Yet today, all three countries are thriving democracies and NATO allies who contribute to our prosperity and security.

As the crisis in Ukraine continues to fester, we must decide where we stand.

Do we want to return to the dark days of the Cold War or do we want to build on the integrated global order that has delivered peace and prosperity?

Do we believe that people have the right to pursue their dreams or do we bequeath veto power on authoritarian thugs?

In Tom Friedman’s latest column, he sums up the dilemma quite nicely in the very first paragraph:
Sometimes the simplest question speaks the biggest truth. I was meeting with some Maidan activists here in Kiev last week, and we were talking about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Ukraine was part of Russia’s traditional “sphere of influence” and “buffer zone” with the West, and, therefore, America and the European Union need to keep their hands off. At one point, one of the activists, the popular Ukrainian journalist, Vitali Sych, erupted: “Did anyone ask us whether we wanted to be part of his buffer zone?” 
Friedman’s column is excellent and I urge you to read it, but I think I can add to his points and provide further depth.

First, some background.

The popular Ukrainian journalist that Friedman refers to is someone I know well.

I worked with Vitaly and consider him a close friend.

We still keep in touch.

Vitaly and I had a very healthy working relationship—he would often ask for my advice, but almost never took it (talent is the ultimate authority).

We frequently met at my home for extended discussions over whiskey—a lot of whiskey—that would go on for hours and span the personal, the professional and the political.

So I can say that when he posed the question about whether anyone asked Ukrainians if they wanted to be part of Putin’s buffer zone, it was very much in character.

Vitaly is one of the most independent thinking and insightful people I have ever met.

He is also very open and direct.

His public persona is very much like his private one.

However, I do think Friedman’s column gives less than the full account and three additional points need to be made.

First, while Vitaly was always a strong believer in Ukrainian independence, his support for EU integration is something more recent.

After the Orange Revolution he, like most Ukrainians, wanted a more Finnish style solution in which Ukraine was neither in the Russian camp nor part of NATO or the EU.

Ukrainians just wanted to be left alone.

It has been Russia’s constant infringement on Ukrainian sovereignty, its lack of respect for Ukrainian national ambitions and the sheer incompetence and corruption of Putin’s rule that has driven Ukraine away.

Ukrainians seek greater integration with NATO and the EU not as a matter of ideology, but practicality.

They are choosing a successful model over a failed one.

Second, when I was living in Poland in the late 90’s, I found that many people of the former Warsaw Pact felt much like Vitaly did after 2004.

They wanted to move away from Russia and to achieve better governance and prosperity, but most of all they valued their independence.

Nobody wanted to be a pawn on somebody else’s chessboard.

This was an important national discussion in each of the ascension countries. 

Ultimately, strong majorities voted to join NATO and the EU and undergo the extensive reforms necessary to meet ascension requirements.

This took no small amount of sacrifice, but I think it’s pretty clear that it has been more than worth it.

Today, a 100 million people in Eastern Europe have attained a standard of living that could hardly have been imagined a generation ago.

Further, rather than having to forfeit their identity, the increased freedom of expression and rule of law has resulted in a cultural renaissance in many of the former communist countries.

We should be proud of what we helped accomplish in Eastern Europe and we have also benefited handsomely.

Countries like Poland are strong allies and valuable trade partners.

They not only buy our products, but their highly educated workforce contributes to our science and technology efforts.

We have all become better off.

Third, we offered Russia many of the same opportunities—and in some ways more—than the NATO and EU expansion countries.

We sent technical and financial assistance, invited Russia to join important international structures like the G7 and the OSCE and educated its best and brightest through the FSA/FLEX and Muskie programs.

We treated Russia with respect and did our best to address its concerns.

The truth is that the Russians simply failed to take advantage of the opportunities they were given.

They never embraced reform.

When energy prices shot up, the proceeds went to Swiss bank accounts and military hardware rather than to reviving Russia’s dilapidated economy.

Yet instead of taking responsibility for their failures, they chose to blame the world, especially the US.

When I lived in Russia it became clear why:

Russians never accepted that they lost the Cold War.

Like Germany in the 20’s and 30’s, Russia today aspires to be an empire that can terrorize and subjugate its neighbors.

Yes, it has given up Communism, but that was always a farce.

In truth, Russia never truly gave up its Tsarist approach and that remains so even now.

Today, Russia has replaced Communism with a fantastical Eurasian ideal in which it seeks to undermine the international order that we have worked so hard to build—the same order that has brought peace and prosperity to Europe and has vastly reduced the spectre of nuclear armageddon.

While the world today has its share of problems, we should not forget that it is vastly better than the one that preceded it; safer, richer, healthier and more just.

We do not want to go back to a world where the interests of nations override the rights of people.

So this time, it is not enough for Russia to retreat.

It must surrender and forsake its designs to turn back the clock and upend the international order.

Any costs we incur to stop Putin here will pale in comparison to the price we will have to pay later.

Success, even perceived success, will only embolden Russian aggression.

So take my friend Vitaly’s point to heart.

Nobody asked Ukrainians if they wanted to be a “buffer.”

But also, ask the next logical question.

If Putin can subjugate a peaceful country in the heart of Europe without provocation and face no consequences, where will he stop?

Once you do, the answer becomes clear.

Ukraine’s fight is our fight.

Source: Forbes

Pro-Russia Rebels Parade Western Hostages In Ukraine

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine -- Pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine raised the stakes in their conflict with Kiev on Sunday by parading Western military observers as hostages and showing images of three bloodied Ukrainian intelligence officers the militants separately said they had detained.

People's mayor of Slovyansk Vyacheslav Ponomaryov (C), and OSCE military observers delegation members Axel Schneider, second right, and Thomas Johansson, right, detained by Donbass self defense units give a news conference at a local Ukrainian Security Service building.

The rise in the number of prisoners being held by the militants—whose power base has emerged in the southeast city of Slovyansk—has given the anti-Kiev uprising the appearance of an armed conflict zone, despite the Kremlin's description of the activists in the east as everyday "citizens driven to desperation."

The militants demand a referendum on the southeast Donetsk region's future and denounce as illegitimate the pro-Europe authorities in Kiev that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych, a Donetsk native, in late February.

The Kremlin also refuses to recognize the new Kiev authorities and describes them as perpetrators of an armed coup.

The U.S. and European Union are preparing to impose a new round of sanctions against Russia this week as punishment for its annexation of Crimea and what Western officials have described as Kremlin support of the unrest in eastern Ukraine.

But the sanctions largely have failed to change Russia's stance on Ukraine, a former Soviet republic the Kremlin has long seen as part of its privileged sphere of influence.

A failure by Russia to compel the militants to release the hostages could push the U.S. and Europe closer to passing broad economic sanctions against Russia—similar to the crippling measures imposed on Iran— that Western officials have deemed a last resort.

On Sunday, the self-appointed, pro-Russia rebel mayor of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov,  trotted out seven Western military inspectors from Germany, Poland, Denmark, Sweden and the Czech Republic and their translator, all seized late Friday at a makeshift checkpoint in nearby Kramatorsk.

One of the inspectors was later released.

The inspectors are members of their home countries' militaries and part of an inspection team that arrived in Ukraine under an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe pact called the Vienna Document, which sets out guidelines for exchanging military information and hosting inspections.

They aren't part of the OSCE special monitoring mission, which is made up of civilians and also operates in southeast Ukraine.

The European hostages gave a news conference in Slovyansk under the watch of armed pro-Russia rebels who have accused the inspectors of being spies for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The group numbers 13 in total, including five Ukrainian soldiers who were escorting the mission.

The Ukrainians didn't appear at the news conference.

"We have no indication when we will be sent home to our countries and to see our families," Axel Schneider, the German colonel leading the mission, told the news conference.

"The conditions…are not clear to us. It is not us [who] determine the decisions."

Col. Schneider said the European team initially stayed in a basement but was then moved to a place with heat and air conditioning.

He said they were traveling on diplomatic passports, adding that he didn't know the whereabouts of the Ukrainians or anything about their welfare.

Negotiators for the OSCE arrived in Slovyansk and held talks later Sunday with the pro-Russia militants on the release of the team.

The negotiators secured the release of one of the inspectors, a Swedish major, before leaving the city, said a spokesman for the OSCE's special monitoring mission in Ukraine.

An OSCE spokeswoman said he was released due to a medical condition.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the news conference in Slovyansk "repulsive" and said it is Russia's duty to force the militants to release the hostages.

Another top German official, Gernot Erler, warned that Germany could begin discussing imposing economic sanctions on Russia this week.

Russia's Foreign Ministry on Saturday said it would take steps to try to solve the situation with the European hostages but appeared to blame the Ukrainian government for inviting the inspectors.

The ministry suggested Kiev should have been more careful in deploying inspectors in a place "where the authorities don't control the situation and have launched a military operation against the people of their own country."

Both Russia and Ukraine are OSCE members and signatories of the Vienna Document.

Ukraine's Interior Ministry on Friday said Kiev officials had contacted the pro-Russia militants about the hostage situation.

"They refused to release the hostages, saying they had to agree with the competent authorities of the Russian Federation," the ministry said.

Igor Strelkov, the commander in charge of the Slovyansk militants, said in an interview with a Russian tabloid on Saturday that he would negotiate the release only with the authorities of the Russian Federation.

The pro-Russia militants began taking hostages this month, including American journalist Simon Ostrovsky, who was later released.

They have held other journalists, pro-Kiev activists and people they have accused of being far-right Ukrainian nationalist provocateurs.

Many have been held in a Ukrainian security service building in Slovyansk that the militants seized in early April.

They are also holding the city's elected mayor.

Ukraine's federal security service, known as the SBU, confirmed that three of its officers had been taken hostage late Saturday in the city of Horlivka, southeast of Slovyansk, when they tried to arrest the primary suspect in the murder of local councilman Volodymyr Rybak . 

The SBU officers had been trailing the local pro-Russia commander in charge of Horlivka's occupied police station, who Ukrainian authorities named as a suspect last week.

He hasn't responded to the allegations.

Alexei Petrov, a spokesman for the rebel movement there, said the pro-Russia activists realized that the SBU officers were following the local commander and other militants and seized the group in the center of Horlivka.

The SBU officers were later taken to Slovyansk, where Mr. Strelkov presented them in their underwear for questioning to Russian news outlets.

The three men appeared bloodied with tape and gauze over their eyes and their hands tied behind their backs.

In the footage, Mr. Strelkov pointed out that Kiev's attempt to surround Slovyansk and blockade his command hadn't prevented him from transferring the three SBU officers from Horlivka into the city.

"We will wait for a proposal from the Ukrainian side on the exchange of these people for our comrades," Mr. Strelkov said.

The militants have demanded the release of a number of activists who have been arrested during protests and other actions, including Pavel Gubarev, who helped lead the pro-Russia movement in Donetsk.

After declaring himself Donetsk's "people's mayor," Mr. Gubarev was arrested March 6 for a period of two months pending trial on suspicion of threatening Ukraine's territorial integrity and provoking mass disorder.

His wife has called the charges inaccurate.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called for Mr. Gubarev's release, pointing out that an agreement struck this month in Geneva by the U.S., Russia, the EU and Ukraine calls for amnesty for such activists.

An OSCE representative met with Mr. Gubarev on Saturday and confirmed he is on a hunger strike, RIA Novosti reported.

Amnesty International, the human-rights organization that advocates for prisoners, has denounced the behavior of the militants.

"Taking hostages and using them as bargaining chips for political gain is as abhorrent as it is unlawful," Heather McGill, a Ukraine researcher for Amnesty, said late last week.

She called on them to release all who are being held unlawfully.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Militants Resist Calls To Free European Military Observers Held In Eastern Ukraine

SLAVYANSK, Ukraine -- Antigovernment militants in eastern Ukraine on Saturday rebuffed international calls for the release of a group of European military observers, but suggested that they would consider a prisoner exchange.

Detained observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe arrive to take part in a press conference in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk on Sunday, April 27.

The military observers — a group of officers reportedly from Germany, Poland, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Denmark — were detained on Friday at a rebel checkpoint at the edge of this city while traveling with a Ukrainian military delegation, which was also held.

The observers, known as a military verification team, had been working under the auspices of a document from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that allows member nations — Ukraine, in this case — to invite other member nations to send observers to examine security conditions.

The militants have accused the observers of espionage.

Early Sunday morning, a spokesman for the O.S.C.E. in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, said members of its special monitoring mission to Ukraine, a set of monitors distinct from the detained military observers, would travel to Slavyansk from Donetsk to meet with the rebel authorities.

“We’re looking forward to access Slavyansk as soon as possible to play a role in the resolution,” said the spokesman, Michael B. Bociurkiw.

The detention of the observers and the allegations led to a day of swift-moving diplomatic developments.

Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, spoke by telephone with his counterparts in the United States and Germany and with the president of Switzerland, Didier Burkhalter, who is also the chairman of the O.S.C.E.

In his phone call with Mr. Lavrov, Secretary of State John Kerry urged Russia to use its influence with the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine to ensure that the detained observers and their Ukrainian guides be released “without preconditions,” a senior State Department official said.

Mr. Kerry is opposed to any prisoner exchange, the official said.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, said he welcomed Mr. Lavrov’s pledge to help free the observers.

Andrei Kelin, Russia’s representative to the security and cooperation group, said Russia would take “all possible steps” to help secure the observers’ release.

“We think that these people need to be freed as soon as possible,” he said, according to Itar-Tass.

The situation has been complicated by rival interpretations of the observers’ role, in part because their organization has taken pains to draw a public distinction between its permanent mission in Ukraine and the detained military observer team, and has said all of its staff members are accounted for.

Rebels have seized upon the organization’s statements to characterize the observers as NATO spies who used poor judgment and entered areas outside their host government’s control without invitation or permission.

“The officers we currently have do not have any relation to the O.S.C.E.,” Vyachislav Ponomaryov, the self-appointed mayor of Slavyansk, said in an interview.

“The O.S.C.E. disowned them. They were here to carry out their military mission.” 

Mr. Ponomaryov brushed off questions about his plans for them, hinting only that he might consider exchanging them for prisoners held by Ukraine, perhaps including his deputy, who he said had disappeared while returning from Moscow and might be in Ukrainian government custody.

“If we have the chance to swap them, we will do it,” he added.

“If not, let them live with us. Maybe they’ll start families in time.”

In a public appearance later, Mr. Ponomaryov said he had no direct contact with Russia about the detainees.

Asked whether the statement of Mr. Kelin, the Russian diplomat, might influence his thinking, he answered nonchalantly.

“I do not know this person,” he said.

Mr. Ponomaryov claims to control at least 40 additional prisoners, whom he calls Ukrainian “saboteurs.”

A Ukrainian journalist working for Telekanal Zik, a Ukrainian Internet TV station, was also detained Friday, after recording a video report near the city’s main square, his colleagues said.

The journalist, Yuri Lelyavsky, from Lviv in western Ukraine, was heard speaking Ukrainian on camera before being approached by men in camouflage and head coverings, they said.

Mr. Ponomaryov swept aside questions about him as well, saying only that saboteurs sometimes use journalistic cover.

On Friday, armed pro-Ukrainian forces in masks reportedly detained and deported two journalists from LifeNews, a Kremlin-aligned Russian television station.

The journalists, Yulia Shustraya and Mikhail Pudovkin, were seized from their residence in Donetsk and driven to the Russian border, according to their colleagues. 

A statement by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, released after Mr. Lavrov spoke with the other world leaders, emphasized that Ukraine was holding prisoners, and noted that Mr. Lavrov had been told that representatives of the European security organization had managed to see Pavel Gubarev, a pro-Russian leader in eastern Ukraine known as the “people’s governor,” who had been arrested by the Ukrainian authorities.

The ministry also released a summary of Mr. Lavrov’s phone call with Mr. Kerry, saying that Mr. Lavrov reiterated a previous statement that the interim government in Kiev should be held responsible for not “controlling the situation on the ground” or providing adequate security.

Ukrainian security forces appeared to tighten the government’s self-declared blockade around the city on Saturday, by establishing at least one more armed checkpoint on a road to the northwest.

The blockade appeared to be limited, and did not restrict the flow of goods.

Civilian vehicles were allowed to pass after a brief search and document check.

“Our objective is simply to make sure no armed people or weapons pass through,” said Sergey, a commander of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry troops at the checkpoint who declined to give his last name.

Later in the day, in a crowded auditorium in Slavyansk, anti-Kiev residents appointed a new people’s council loyal to Mr. Ponomaryov.

The residents appeared impatient as speakers described how this new government would be organized.

Residents also gathered for the funeral for Aleksandr V. Lubenets, 21, who they said died after being shot near a checkpoint that had been attacked by Ukrainian forces.

The attack, one man said, only drove eastern Ukrainian provinces closer to Russia. 

“Donbass, Kharkov, Russia — it’s us,” said one teary-eyed man, Nikolai Nikushin, referring to two regions of eastern Ukraine.

“We’re all together.”

Source: The New York Times

Ukraine Separatists Offer To Exchange OSCE Captives For Prisoners

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have offered to release eight captive international observers in a prisoner exchange, as Western governments prepared new sanctions against Moscow.

Pro-Russian protestors attend a rally at a barb wire crowned barricade near the occupied regional administration building in Donetsk, Ukraine, today.

The government in Kiev blamed Russia for what it called the kidnapping of the monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The separatists said they suspected the observers of spying; Ukraine said they were being used as human shields.

The Group of Seven major economies announced earlier that they had agreed to impose more sanctions on Russia, which they believe is bent on destabilising its former Soviet neighbour and possibly grabbing more territory.

Diplomats said the United States and the European Union were expected to unveil new punitive action against Russian individuals from Monday.

Russia denies orchestrating a campaign by pro-Moscow militants who have seized control of public buildings across eastern Ukraine.

It accuses the Kiev government of whipping up tensions by sending troops to root out the separatists.

The OSCE sent more monitors today to seek the release of those detained in Slaviansk, a city under the separatists’ control.

Those being held are from Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, de facto mayor of Slaviansk, told reporters:

“They were soldiers on our territory without our permission, of course they are prisoners.”

He said the separatists were ready to exchange the captured monitors for fellow rebels now in the custody of the Ukrainian authorities.

“Prisoners have always been coins to exchange during times of war. It’s an international practice,” he said.

Ukraine’s state security service said the OSCE observers - part of a German-led military verification mission deployed since early March at Kiev’s request - were being held “in inhuman conditions” and that one needed medical help.

A spokeswoman for the Vienna-based organisation, of which Russia is a member, said the OSCE had been in contact with “all sides” since late last night but had had no direct contact with the observers.

The Russian foreign ministry said it was working to resolve the crisis, but blamed Kiev for failing to ensure the OSCE mission’s safety in “areas where the authorities do not control the situation and where a military operation against residents of their own country has been unleashed”.

Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper released a video interview with a man it identified as Ivan Strelkov, a militia leader in Slaviansk, accused by Ukraine’s security services of being an employee of Russian intelligence.

He suggested the monitors might have been using their diplomatic status “to carry out reconnaissance of the resistance positions, for the benefit of the Ukrainian army”.

It is standard practice for serving military officers to be seconded to OSCE missions. 

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier discussed the Ukraine situation with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov by telephone today “with an accent on possible steps to de-escalate the situation,” the Russian ministry said.

Mr Steinmeier said Mr Lavrov had offered his backing, which he welcomed.

In a separate call with US secretary of state John Kerry, the Russian minister said Ukraine must halt military operations in the southeast of the country in order to defuse the crisis.

Ukrainian prime minister Arseny Yatsenyuk said Russian military aircraft entered Ukrainian airspace seven times overnight.

“The only reason is to provoke Ukraine ... and to accuse Ukraine of waging war against Russia,” the prime minister told reporters before cutting short a visit to Rome.

Washington deployed 150 paratroopers to Lithuania today.

A total of 600 US troops have now arrived in Poland and the former Soviet Baltic states in a bid to reassure nervous NATO allies.

“As threats emerged, we see who our real friends are,” Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite said as she greeted the troops at the Siauliai air base.

Without mentioning Russia, she said the presence of US troops would “repel those who encroach on stability in Europe and peace in the region”.

“The numbers are not important. If just one of our guests is harmed, this would mean an open confrontation, not with Lithuania but with the United States of America.”

US officials said new sanctions targeting “cronies” of president Vladimir Putin could be unveiled as early as Monday unless Russia moved fast to defuse the crisis.

In a joint statement, G7 leaders said Russia had not taken any concrete steps to implement an accord, signed earlier this month in Geneva, intended to rein in illegal armed groups.

“Instead, it has continued to escalate tensions by increasingly concerning rhetoric and ongoing threatening military manoeuvres on Ukraine’s border,” it said.

“We have now agreed that we will move swiftly to impose additional sanctions on Russia.”

But it added: “We underscore that the door remains open to a diplomatic resolution of this crisis.”

Senior EU diplomats will meet on Monday to discuss the next steps and are expected to add 15 more names to a list of Russians subject to asset freezes and a travel ban. 

Source: The Irish Times

Ukraine: Russian Troop Concentration May Be Prelude To Invasion

NEW YORK, USA -- Ukraine's government says it fears a concentration of Russian troops on the countries' border could be the prelude to an invasion.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danylo Lubkivsky

Deputy Foreign Minister Danylo Lubkivsky issued the warning Friday at the United Nations, saying that his country faces a possible Russian invasion "at any moment" and vowing that Ukraine would defend itself.

Concerns about Russia's intentions, meanwhile, prompted interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Saturday to shorten his visit to Rome, where he was received by Pope Francis.

Russian military activity on its side of the border was slightly less intense on Saturday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Mikhail Koval acknowledged, although he said Russian troops had moved to within 2-3 kilometers (1.2-1.8 miles) of the frontier. 

"Four IL-76 transport planes flew along our border at midday, but did not cross at any moment" to the Ukrainian side, Koval said at a press conference.

He said the troop movement may also be aimed at intimidating the Ukrainian government into halt its "anti-terrorist operation" against pro-Russian separatists in the country's southeast.

"I should say that the anti-terrorist operation is continuing, albeit not at a rapid pace," Koval added.

Ukrainian forces did not undertake actions Saturday against separatist militants entrenched in Slovyansk, a stronghold of a pro-Russian uprising against the government in Kiev.

Militants in that city seized seven Western military observers (three Germans, a Pole, a Dane, a Swede and a Czech), five Ukrainian officials and the driver of the bus in which they were riding on Friday.

The militants say the group from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe was "detained" as suspected NATO spies.

Ukrainian acting President Olexandr Turchynov, for his part, did not hesitate to accuse Russia of being behind the "kidnapping" of the Western military observers. 

"This crime could not have been committed without the direct authorization or order of the Russian government, which coordinates and supports terrorists who occupy buildings, take hostages, torture and kill people," Turchynov was quoted as saying by his press office.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said Saturday in Moscow that it was taking measures to "resolve the situation" of the detained Western military observers.

It accused the Ukrainian authorities of responsibility for the detentions, saying they should have previously "arranged issues related to the permanence, activity and safety of the observers in regions where they do not control the situation and where they have launched a military operation against the inhabitants of their own country." 

The rising tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border prompted the G7 group of developed nations to impose new sanctions on Russia for allegedly violating a peace deal reached earlier this month in Geneva by continuing to support pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine.

The European Union also will hold a meeting Monday to weigh the possibility of new sanctions on Russia.

Moscow, for its part, denies provoking unrest in eastern Ukraine but has warned its neighbor not to use force against separatist militants in that region.

Long-simmering tensions between pro-European western Ukraine and the country's eastern region, which has close ties with Russia, were exacerbated by the ouster in late February of President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally.

In the wake of his removal from office, Moscow sent troops to the strategic region of Crimea.

It subsequently annexed that peninsula last month - a move the West considers illegitimate - after its mostly Russian-speaking population voted in a referendum to break off from the Ukraine and rejoin Russia.

Moscow says Yanukovych was removed from office on Feb. 22 by far-right Ukrainian nationalists and that it moved to protect ethnic Russians and Russian interests in Crimea following that development.

The crisis that led to Yanukovych's ouster erupted at the end of November, when the Ukrainian president backed away from plans to ink a pact with the European Union and instead signed a $15 billion financial-aid package with Russia.

Source: FOX News

Europeans Detained In Ukraine, Raising Stakes

DONETSK, Ukraine -- International negotiators rushed to eastern Ukraine on Saturday to seek the release of European military monitors who were captured Friday and promptly branded “spies” by the pro-Russia militia that seized them.

Volunteers in Ukraine’s Donbass battalion take part in exercises in their camp on the border between the Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk regions.

The detention of the monitors instantly raised the stakes in an already fraught drama pitting the Ukrainian government against motley bands of separatists who have overtaken city halls across the country’s eastern half.

Although the standoff in Ukraine has for months been a proxy fight between Russia and the West, the imprisonment in a makeshift separatist jail of military officers from NATO countries threatens to draw the West more directly into the conflict.

Russia said Saturday that it would do all it could to win the release of the detained men, who include a total of eight military monitors from Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Denmark and Sweden, as well as five Ukrainian military escorts.

But as of Saturday night, leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in the city of Slovyansk remained adamant that they had no intention of freeing the officers, accusing them of espionage.

Ukrainian officials said they feared that the men would be used as human shields. 

The standoff raised fresh questions about the ability of any government — whether Ukrainian or Russian — to control events in a region where security is perilous and where shadowy militias hold growing sway. 

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is monitoring events in Ukraine and trying to broker local peace deals, said it would keep its monitors out of Slovyansk until further notice and that it was carefully watching conditions in other cities.

“It’s a very fluid security situation in a lot of these areas,” said Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the OSCE monitoring mission here.

“We’re definitely taking more precautions.”

Bociurkiw said that OSCE monitors visited Slovyansk last week, and that they had met with the pro-Russian activists who took over the city’s government buildings this month.

“It was tense, but there was an understanding achieved,” Bociurkiw­ said.

The detention of the monitors Friday, Bociurkiw said, was “entirely unexpected.” 

The detained men are military officers who also were here under OSCE auspices, but under a separate mission from the civilian observers. OSCE dispatched a team to eastern Ukraine on Saturday and was leading negotiations aimed at securing the monitors’ release, according to officials from OSCE and from Germany, which led the mission.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to discuss the situation Saturday, according to a Russian Foreign Ministry statement.

Steinmeier’s spokeswoman declined to discuss the call.

Lavrov also spoke Saturday with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Kerry urged Lavrov to help free the monitors, while Lavrov called on Kerry to force Kiev to halt its military operations against anti-government forces in southeastern Ukraine.

Reasons for visit unclear 

The standoff comes at a critical time in Western decision-making over how hard to punish Russia for its meddling in Ukraine.

In a statement released Saturday morning, the Group of Seven announced that it would impose new sanctions against Moscow, and officials indicated that they could come as early as Monday.

Germany, which has extensive economic ties to Russia, has led the call in the West for restraint in dealings with Moscow.

But the detention of the officers, including four Germans, in Slovyansk could alter that balance.

It was not clear why the monitors, who were in military uniform but unarmed, decided to try to enter Slovyansk on Friday.

The city, which has been known for weeks as a hotbed of separatist sentiment, was especially tense after a deadly Ukrainian military assault on several separatist checkpoints just a day earlier.

OSCE officials said they were not aware of the reason for the visit, and Germany declined to comment.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Saturday that it was “taking all measures possible to resolve the situation.”

But it added that the Ukrainian authorities “should have cleared the inspectors’ presence, activity and security in the regions . . . where a military operation has been launched against the people of their own country.”

The self-appointed “people’s mayor” of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomariov, told Russian news media that his men had detained the monitors on suspicion of spying, and that they had subsequently confiscated military maps that he said prove the accusation.

The monitors were traveling on a bus that had been stopped at a checkpoint on the way into the city.

In an appearance on Russian television, Ponomariov showed off the officers’ military ID tags, badges and medals.

“They were soldiers on our territory without our permission,” he said.

“Of course they are prisoners.”

He suggested that the men could be exchanged for pro- Russia activists being held by Ukraine.

A spokeswoman for Ponomariov, Stella Khorosheva, said the detainees were being treated well.

“We give them food and water,” said Khorosheva, who expressed frustration that the monitors were receiving so much attention from the Ukrainian news media “when they ignore those taken captive by illegal junta in Kiev.”

The pro-Russia forces argue that the Ukrainian government, which came to power in February after massive street protests that ousted the president, is illegitimate.

They have called for a referendum early next month that would allow eastern Ukraine substantial autonomy from Kiev.

Tension on border 

Ukrainian authorities and Western governments have accused Russia of covertly instigating the unrest in eastern Ukraine to destabilize the country, and possibly to justify an invasion.

Tens of thousands of Russian troops are massed on the Ukrainian border, and they have engaged in increasingly aggressive maneuvers in recent days.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told reporters Saturday that Russian military aircraft “crossed and violated” Ukrainian airspace seven times overnight and that the incursions were designed “to provoke Ukraine to start a war.”

Russia has said it is simply conducting drills and has no intention of invading Ukraine, but there were signs along the border with Russia on Saturday that Ukraine was in a state of heightened alert.

Military helicopters passed overhead, and at the lonely frontier crossing at Marynivka, the Ukrainian military erected a dozen large concrete anti-tank blocks. 

Vehicles continued to move between the countries, though the traffic was light.

At a nearby Ukrainian Border Guard garrison, troops defended the locked entrance and scanned the rutted two-lane farm road with binoculars.

“But nobody has seen any Russians,” said the maintenance manager at a hilltop war memorial called Savur-Mohyla, which commemorates the Red Army’s battle against German forces in 1943.

The worker, who was hoeing weeds and said he had lived in a nearby village all of his life, declined to give his name because he works for the state.

He said that in his village, most residents would rather be part of Russia, because they think their wages and pensions would improve.

Polls show that most Ukrainians — even those in the heavily Russian-speaking east — disagree and would rather stay in Ukraine.

The surveys also show strong resistance to the idea of a Russian invasion.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

The worker pointed at the country road that passed through the farms and orchards from Russia, just a few miles away.

“A Russian column traveling 30 mph with some helicopter support could be in Slovyansk in three hours,” he said.

“There's really no Ukraine army here to stop them if they want to come.”

Source: The Washington Post

Russia Complains Of Large Ukrainian Troop Buildup In East

KIEV, Ukraine -- A perilous face-off intensified Saturday when Russia state news complained that Ukraine had mobilized 15,000 troops in the suburbs of Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine "in order to wipe out the city and its residents."

U.S. troops arrive at the air force base near Siauliai Zuokniai, Lithuania, on April 26. The United States is conducting military exercises in Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. The exercises are, in part, a response to the ongoing instability in Ukraine.

Quoting a Russian Defense Ministry source, RIA Novosti said satellite photos showed the force forming around the city that has become a friction point between the Ukraine military and pro-Russian militants.

The Defense Ministry source said the number of Ukraine troops put the pro-Russian militants at a disadvantage because the latter are "armed only with small amount of pistols and shotguns."

Many eastern Ukraine residents have Russian roots and sympathize with Moscow.

The source said the photos showed about 160 tanks, 230 infantry combat vehicles and armored personnel carriers, mine throwers and multiple-launch rocket systems.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly criticized Kiev's use of force against Ukrainian civilians.

Developments in Ukraine have come at a rapid pace in recent days: -- Russia, which already had 40,000 troops on its side of the border, started new military drills a few days ago after Ukrainian forces said they killed five pro-Russian militants.

Ukraine launched the second stage of an "anti-terrorist operation" against militants in Slavyansk.

On Friday, a team of European and Ukrainian military observers were seized Friday by pro-Russian separatists in Slavyansk.

Russian military aircraft "crossed and violated" Ukrainian airspace seven times overnight, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told reporters in Rome on Saturday.

The Russian Defense Ministry denied the accusation, according to the state news agency Itar-Tass.

Yatsenyuk met with Pope Francis while in Rome on Saturday.

The meeting has been seen as a sigh of support from the Vatican for his government.

G7 leaders said they would impose new sanctions on Russia over its role in the crisis.

The Ukrainian Prime Minister urged Russia to pull back its security forces and not to support pro-Russian militants in eastern and southern Ukraine.

"We urge Russia to leave us alone," he said in televised remarks.

Ukraine's government has promised constitutional reforms and protections for Russian speakers in a bid to ease the tensions in its eastern regions.

Inspectors seized in Slavyansk 

On Saturday, the fate of the military inspectors preoccupied world leaders.

The inspectors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe were detained Friday as they entered Slavyansk, along with five Ukrainian military representatives and the driver of their bus, Ukraine's Interior Ministry said.

Ukraine's Security Service, the SBU, said the group is being kept under "inhumane conditions" in the basement of a building held by the militants.

The self-declared mayor of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, told reporters that one of the "prisoners" has diabetes, but he has the medicine he needs and will be given his own quarters overnight.

Separatist leader Denis Pushilin, self-declared chairman of the so-called "Donetsk People's Republic," told CNN he doesn't believe they are from the OSCE, but that some are NATO spies.

The German Foreign Office said it had set up an emergency task force to find out what has happened to the team members, four of whom are German.

The others are from Denmark, Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, Russian state media said.

The OSCE mission in Ukraine is tasked with helping to implement an international agreement signed nine days ago in Switzerland, which called for illegal militia groups to disarm and leave occupied buildings, among other provisions.

In a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asked the United States to use its influence to secure the release of pro-Russian leaders being held in Ukraine.

Kerry urged Russia to support efforts of the OSCE and the government of Ukraine to liberate the inspectors and their Ukrainian guides, according to a senior State Department official.

Targeted sanctions 

Against the backdrop of increasing volatility in Ukraine, leaders of the G7 industrialized nations on Friday announced they would "move swiftly to impose additional sanctions on Russia" over its actions in Ukraine.

The statement from the group -- which includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States -- came hours after U.S. President Barack Obama threatened Russia with new sanctions.

Source: CNN World