Saturday, May 31, 2014

Russian Boots On The Ground

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Russia is widely accused of orchestrating the separatist insurgency in Ukraine's eastern provinces despite the Kremlin's attempts to portray it as a home-grown movement and its repeated denials of involvement.


Vostok fighters aboard a troop carrier with a Russian flag in Donetsk.

After two months of fighting and the loss of hundreds of lives, Moscow's strong propaganda campaign against the new leadership in Kiev now comes with mounting evidence of Russian military engagement in the two provinces just across its border, Donetsk and Luhansk.

Is Russia arming the insurgency? 

After militants downed another helicopter on 29 May, killing the general responsible for training Ukraine's new National Guard in combat, Washington said it was concerned about the separatists' continuing "access to advanced weaponry and other assistance from the outside".

The implication is that Russia or forces in Russia are supplying the heavily armed militants, who are known to have anti-aircraft artillery and armoured troop carriers in their arsenal.

Kiev said the militants had used a portable air defence missile to down the helicopter - not evidence of Russian involvement in itself, however, as the Ukrainian army possesses similar weapons and rebels have seized weapons from the army before. 

According to the government, weapons found after the fighting at Donetsk airport on 26 May had clearly been brought in from Russia.

Are there Russian boots on the ground? 

One of the most telling episodes of the conflict was the killing of a large group of militants in a government attack on their lorry during the airport fighting.

At least 30 coffins were later dispatched across the border to Russia, with separatists describing the dead as "volunteers from Russia".

The presence of "volunteers", such as Cossacks from southern Russia, has been an open secret for months and echoes the situation in Crimea in March, before Russia annexed the territory from Ukraine.

Whether they are volunteers, mercenaries or soldiers on a covert mission, the suggestion now is that Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine is much more organized.

What is the Vostok Battalion? 

The airport attack brought to light the presence in Donetsk of a well-equipped, close-knit military unit operating on the separatist side.

They call themselves the Vostok Battalion (English: East Battalion), which is the name of a former ethnic Chechen special forces unit commanded by Russian officers.

It once fought for Moscow against rebels in the Russian republic of Chechnya, and later served in the war against Georgia over South Ossetia in 2008.

Political pressure forced the dissolution of the old Vostok but, as regional security analyst Mark Galeotti argues in a recent blog post, it may have been reformed for covert tasks in Ukraine.

Their value to the separatists as a military unit is clear but they have also reportedly been cracking down on looters among the rebels, ostensibly trying to instil greater discipline.

Who are the Chechens fighting in Ukraine? 

Vostok members confirmed for the BBC's Olga Ivshina that Chechens and Ossetians had taken part in recent fighting in Donetsk.

They refused to say whether they were volunteers or had been under orders to deploy to Ukraine.

"Ramzan asked us to go so we went," one militant told another reporter, in apparent reference to Chechnya's hard-line pro-Moscow President, Ramzan Kadyrov.

But Mr Kadyrov has distanced himself from the conflict, while not denying that Chechens, who are Russian citizens of course, might be involved there without his knowledge.

The appearance of Chechens, with their reputation as formidable fighters and experts in urban warfare, adds a new dimension to the conflict, which has yet to see Ukrainian ground forces try to regain control of Donetsk, a city of nearly one million people.

Can Russians circulate freely in eastern Ukraine? 

Ukraine's control over its frontier with Russia appears to have broken down in the east.

Just across the border, Russia had until recently a large military force, fuelling fears of an actual invasion.

One border town in Luhansk, Antratsyt (named after the anthracite mined locally) is said to be a key hub for the traffic in Russian fighters and weapons.

The arrival of what was said to be a column of Cossacks from Russia in early May was captured on video and posted on YouTube.

A resident of the town, who did not want to be named, told BBC News that Ukrainian authorities had given up trying to control the situation.

However, Ukrainian forces appear to have been taking action elsewhere in Luhansk.

There are reports of a clash between border guards and a large incoming Russian convoy - reportedly 40 lorries - in the Dmytrivka area on 27 May.

But there must be local people among the separatists too... 

Two key figures in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic are both Russian citizens - defence minister Igor Girkin, whose nom de guerre is Strelkov, and prime minister Alexander Borodai.

But other leaders of the separatist movement like Pavel Gubarev, the rebel governor of Donetsk Region, and Denys Pushylin, speaker of the Donetsk rebels' parliament, are very much from the region.

And local men have also been killed fighting for the separatist cause in the east, as a YouTube video of a recent funeral shows.

Source: BBC News

East Ukraine Quiet Raises Leadership Questions

DONETSK, Ukraine -- The scruffy rebels who normally wander about the headquarters of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic were mostly out of view on Friday, replaced by a disciplined new faction who showed up a day earlier with an armored personnel carrier and anti-aircraft gun.


Families flee hard-hit Eastern Ukraine.

The separatists' so-called prime minister said nothing has changed — but something has clearly shifted in Ukraine's troubled east.

The balance of power in the region has teetered wildly this week.

After Ukrainians elected Petro Poroshenko as the country's president and Russia said it would respect the vote, hopes rose for a resolution to the conflict between the central government and the insurgents who want Donetsk to be part of Russia.

But a day later, the rebels launched an exceptionally bold assault, seizing Donetsk's airport.

Ukraine's military responded with previously unseen ferocity, launching airstrikes and sending in paratroopers to retake the airport.

To some, the rebel operation looked like a desperate last stand.

But on Thursday, insurgents shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter, killing 12 soldiers, including a general.

The same day, the murky Vostok Battalion militiamen took over rebel headquarters in the 11-story Donetsk regional administration building, demanding it be evacuated because of what they said was the presence of looters.

The Vostok Battalion's wrath was ostensibly about the ransacking of a supermarket during the battle for the airport, but some interpreted their move as a power grab.

The battalion is believed to consist largely of Russians, bolstering fears that Russia is either directing the unrest in the east or supporting it in order to destabilize the country and seize regions bordering Russia.

Donetsk insurgency leaders were at pains to stress that the takeover of their building did not signify a change of guard.

"No coup has taken place. The whole terrible panic that was whipped up over this, what you might call a police operation, is a panic that has been instigated by our so-called friends in Kiev," said Alexander Borodai, the self-styled prime minister of the Donetsk People's Republic.

The heavy contingent of Vostok Battalion militiamen had disappeared by Friday morning, as had the armored personnel carrier and vintage anti-aircraft gun.

Inside, however, many members of the militia group were spotted in civilian clothing.

Meanwhile, there were mixed signals Friday on whether Moscow and Kiev were moving toward improving relations, a key element in resolving the conflict.

At talks in Berlin, Ukraine said it ordered a $786 million payment to Russia in a first step toward paying off its gas debts, and another round of talks aimed at resolving the two countries' gas price dispute was set for Monday.

Russia has stepped up pressure on Ukraine over gas, demanding payment up front for deliveries starting in June.

It has threatened to restrict supplies starting Tuesday if no payment is made.

Moscow has put Kiev's gas debt since November at $3.5 billion, and the CEO of Russian gas company Gazprom said this week that gas delivered in May could raise that to $5.2 billion.

Ukraine, which saw gas discounts granted by Russia eliminated following the February ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, has sought a price agreement before paying up.

Moscow, meanwhile, fired a new legal salvo at Kiev.

A spokesman for Russia's top investigative body, Vladimir Markin, said a criminal case had been opened on whether to charge Ukrainian authorities and servicemen with war crimes for the government's offensive against insurgents throughout the east.

Russia has repeatedly denounced the operation as a war against Ukraine's own people and demanded that forces be withdrawn from the east.

In Washington, the White House announced that President Barack Obama plans to meet Wednesday in Poland with Poroshenko, Ukraine's president-elect.

Obama's European trip includes a stop in Normandy to attend events marking the 70th anniversary of the Allied landing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also plans to be in Normandy, but the White House said Obama has no plans for any formal or one-on-one meeting with the Russian leader, even though they will be at the same events.

Also Friday, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it lost contact with a five-member observer team in eastern Ukraine, where four members of another OSCE mission are still being held by pro-Russian rebels.

The OSCE said in a statement that it lost contact with the team, which includes four international workers and a Ukrainian translator, in the Luhansk region late Thursday.

The OSCE has been out of contact with another four-member team in the neighboring region of Donetsk since Monday.

An insurgent leader in Donetsk confirmed Thursday that the four-member team was in rebel custody.

The rebels told journalists they would "deal with this and then release them," but didn't elaborate or give a specific time frame.

The OSCE's teams are in Ukraine to monitor the security situation following Russia's annexation of Crimea and the rise of the pro-Russia separatist insurgency in the east. 

Source: AP

Ukraine To Push On With Army Offensive, Row Grows Over Russian Fighters Reports

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's government vowed on Friday to press ahead with a military offensive against separatists, despite a deadly attack on an army helicopter, amid increasing reports that fighters from Russia have been involved in rebellions in the east.


Pro-Russian separatists look at a map on their base in the east Ukrainian city of Donetsk May 30, 2014.

President-elect Petro Poroshenko, who scored an overwhelming first-round victory in a poll on May 25, swore to punish those responsible for the shooting down on Thursday of the helicopter near Slavyansk, which killed 14 servicemen including a general.

Acting Defence Minister Mykhilo Koval, repeating charges that Russia was carrying out "special operations" in the east of Ukraine, said on Friday that Ukrainian forces would continue with military operations in border areas "until these regions begin to live normally, until there is peace".

Elsewhere in Ukraine's troubled eastern regions, a separatist group detained a second four-person team of monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Vienna-based OSCE said.

Last Monday separatists in another area detained a four-man OSCE team and have not yet released them.

Ukrainian authorities have long alleged that the rebellions have been fomented by Moscow among the largely Russian-speaking population, which is especially vulnerable to cross-border propaganda hostile to Kiev's "Euro-Maidan" revolution that overthrew Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich in February.

Reports by Ukrainian border authorities and journalists on the ground now appear to show increasing evidence of direct involvement by fighters from Russia in the rebellions that erupted two months ago in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea.

According to these reports, fighters may be coming into Ukraine from former hotspots in Russia and its North Caucasus fringes such as Chechnya whose own troubles in the past 20 years have spawned a proliferation of armed groups.

Ukraine's authorities say Russian border guards are doing nothing to stop fighters crossing the long land border from Russia, along with truck loads of ammunition and weapons.

In the latest such report, Ukrainian border guards said on Friday they had seized a cache of weapons including guns, machine-guns, grenade-launchers, sniper rifles and 84 boxes of live ammunition in two cars they stopped as they crossed from Russia.

A total of 13 people were detained, the border guard service said in a statement on its website.

Reuters correspondents in Donetsk, an industrial city and one of the main separatist centres, saw coffins loaded onto a vegetable truck on Thursday and driven off after being told by rebels that "volunteers" from Russia killed earlier in the week in an army offensive were being repatriated.

BODIES 

An official of the Ukrainian border guard service said on Friday that bodies of slain Russian nationals were being allowed to return to Russia for humanitarian reasons. 

"We don't need them to fertilise the land of Ukraine," Serhiy Astakhov, an aide to the head of the border guard service, said in Kiev in reply to a journalist's question. 

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov says weapons that could only have been brought in from Russia were found at the scene of Donetsk airport after it was cleared of rebels. 

The reports have revived Russia-West tensions that had eased slightly after Moscow pulled back thousands of its troops from the border with Ukraine in what the United States described as a "promising sign".

The U.S. State Department said on Thursday that Secretary of State John Kerry had pressed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to end all Russian support for separatists and call on them to lay down their arms.

Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said Russia was clearly behind the violent unrest, though there were no immediately effective steps the West could take to stop it.

Poroshenko, a 48-year-old wealthy businessman who has emerged as a national leader from six months of turmoil, will plunge into a hectic round of meetings with world leaders next week with the fate of his country on their minds.

He will hold talks on the crisis with U.S. President Barack Obama in Warsaw on June 3-4 when both men attend events marking Poland's emergence from communist rule. 

Then later at the end of the week in France he will have the opportunity to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as European leaders, at an international gathering marking the "D-Day" World War Two landings in Normandy.

Poroshenko voiced support for a resumption of the military drive against the separatists as soon as it became clear he had been overwhelmingly voted in as president last Sunday.

The day after the vote, Ukrainian forces attacked rebels who seized Donetsk international airport, killing 50 of their number in fierce airstrikes.

Poroshenko, due to be inaugurated on June 7, has vowed to punish the perpetrators of the attack on the Ukrainian helicopter.

In a step to resolving a long-standing row over gas deliveries which has long bedevilled Ukraine's relations with its main supplier Russia, Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said Ukraine had paid $786 million to Russia in back payments.

Russia's energy minister said in Berlin on Friday that talks aimed a settling a gas debt which Gazprom, the Russian state gas monopoly, says will be at about $5.2 billion by June 7 should be able to continue next week.

Donetsk, an industrial hub of 1 million where strategic buildings are being held by rebels, was quiet on Friday.

But the airport violence brought a subdued air to the last day of the school year when school-leavers usually celebrate in the parks with champagne and ice-cream.

Long lines were forming at the city's railway station following Monday and Tuesday's clashes as many people headed out of the city for safety reasons.

Vita, a middle-aged woman waiting with her daughter and little granddaughter for a train to Moscow, said:

"We are really concerned with what is going on, I need to take away my pregnant daughter. We'll leave her with my sister in Moscow and come back to my husband who stayed at home with all our belongings."

Source: Google News

Assault Fear Sparks Ukraine Town Exodus

SLAVYANSK, Ukraine -- Thousands of civilians are fleeing the eastern town of Slavyansk amid growing speculation that the Ukrainian army is preparing to launch a full-scale assault to rid the region of pro-Russian separatists.


Pro-Russian fighters clashed with Ukrainian soldiers outside Slavyansk, causing an exodus from the area.

On Friday, cars and minibuses packed with frightened residents drove out of the city.

The scene has been the same over the last few days with reports suggesting a Ukrainian army build-up across the province.

“They've been going for days now. The busses are packed full of women and children and baggage," said a soldier checking passing vehicles and documents at the Ukrainian army checkpoint just outside Slavyansk on the road to Kramatorsk.

Inside Slavyansk, the streets are barricaded.

Felled birch trees lie black and white across roads and heaps of tyres block sandy lanes, making navigation difficult.

Some people could be seen visiting produce shops before they closed at 6pm, the curfew under martial law.

Exodus from Slavyansk

But the most people to be seen were at the central bus station.

"People have started calling around 6am everyday for the past few days. They're looking for tickets out of Slavyansk - anywhere but here," said Elvira, a ticket seller at the bus station.

"I would say that around ten thousand people have left already, out of a population of about 130,000. All of my friends have gone and I sent my two daughters away last week to stay with their grandmother in Kramatorsk."

The exodus from Slavyansk has gathered pace since Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko vowed to wrest the region back from the hands of pro-Russian rebels. 

"They should open up a corridor and allow people to leave. How can the army shoot at a town filled with people? How can the army prepare to conduct a clearance operation if there are still people in town? And even if they were allowed to leave, where would people go? It is expensive to move a whole family," Elvira, the ticket seller, said.

Yan and Vika, a young couple who waited with their luggage to board a minibus out of Slavyansk, said they have had enough.

They are headed to Krasnoarmiisk – a nearby town controlled by the Ukrainian army that has also seen fighting, but is now relatively peaceful.

"We're leaving. We’re going to go stay with my relatives in a village near the town," Vika said.

"I don't really know what to say about living in a Ukrainian army controlled town, but at least it's peaceful there. They're not just shooting randomly. We couldn't stay any longer. We think an operation will start soon and it's just too scary for us," Yan said.

Others cannot leave so easily.

"What would I do with my flat and my car?" said an ethnic Azerbaijani taxi driver living in town.

“They would be looted straight away.”

Ahead of a possible army assault on the rebel town and the Donetsk People's Republic in general, the people of Slavyansk are right now faced with many difficult questions and no easy answers.

Source: Al Jazeera Europe

Friday, May 30, 2014

Ukraine's Poroshenko Vows Revenge For Slavyansk Attack

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's President-elect Petro Poroshenko has vowed to punish "bandits" after pro-Russian rebels shot down an army helicopter, killing 14.


The helicopter had just taken off after transporting soldiers to a Ukrainian base.

"These criminal acts of the enemies of the Ukrainian people will not go unpunished," he was quoted as saying by the Unian news agency.

The helicopter was shot down near the eastern city of Slavyansk.

An army general was among those killed.

Slavyansk has seen fierce fighting between the rebels and Ukraine's army.

Russia has reiterated calls for Ukraine to stop its military campaign against the pro-Moscow rebels and "start a real national dialogue".

In a separate development, Ukraine, Russia and the EU are due to open a new round of talks in Berlin on resolving a growing dispute over Moscow's gas supplies to Kiev.

Russia's Gazprom has threatened to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine if it fails to pay its huge debt.

At the scene reporting 
The helicopter arrived at Karachun, near Slavyansk , to unload and pick up a group of people who were finishing their tour and going on leave.
They were shot down after take-off.
I had talked to the pilot and also to Maj Gen Serhiy Kulchytskiy.
The pilots were very nice guys - polite, correct, friendly.
Gen Kulchytskiy was very capable and very accessible, a good commander who would fly to the checkpoints where his soldiers were.
He would personally bring them food and water.
He kept an eye on everything.
The fighting here has become more frequent recently.
In the last few days, it broke out even during the daytime.
Previously, it happened only at night.
However, the last two days were relatively quiet.
The army man checkpoints, preventing the forces of the People's Republic of Donetsk from moving about freely.
The mood is good among the soldiers.
No desertion or talk about giving up.
People are in good fighting spirit.
'Criminals destroyed' 

Mr Poroshenko, who won last Sunday's presidential elections, expressed his condolences to the families of the helicopter crew.

"We must make every effort to make sure that no more Ukrainians die at the hands of terrorists and bandits," he said.

The Mi-8 helicopter was hit during heavy fighting between Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, Donetsk region, after it had dropped off troops at a military base.

The 14 people on board were killed, including Maj Gen Kulchytskiy, head of combat and special training, the Ukrainian National Guard said.

It added that the "criminals" who attacked the helicopter were later "destroyed" by Ukrainian troops involved in an "anti-terror" operation.

Two helicopters were also shot down by separatists earlier this month.

'Independence referendums'

The conflict has intensified in recent days.

The rebels say they lost up to 100 fighters when they unsuccessfully tried to seize Donetsk's international airport on Monday.

Among those killed were 33 Russian nationals, a separatist leader said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said there was also "evidence of Russians crossing over, trained personnel from Chechnya trained in Russia, who've come across to stir things up, to engage in fighting".

Chechnya's president has denied sending troops to Ukraine.

Pro-Russian separatists in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence after referendums on 11 May, which were not recognised by Kiev or its Western allies.

The rebels took their cue from a disputed referendum in Crimea, which led to Russia's annexation of Ukraine's southern peninsula.

Ukraine's deadliest clashes 
  • 24 April: Ukraine military kills five rebels in assault on Slavyansk 
  • 2 May: More than 40 people killed in burning building after street fighting in Odessa 
  • 9 May: 20 pro-Russian activists and Ukrainian security officer killed in Mariupol 
  • 13 May: Seven Ukrainian soldiers killed in ambush between Slavyansk and Kramatorsk 
  • 22 May: Rebel attack on checkpoint in Volnovakha leaves at least 14 soldiers dead 
  • 27 May: At least 50 rebels killed (rebels claim 100 killed) in "anti-terrorist operation" against separatists holding Donetsk airport 
  • 29 May: Ukrainian military helicopter shot down near Slavyansk, killing 14 
Source: BBC News

AP Sources: Russian Troops Leaving Ukraine Border

WASHINGTON, DC -- U.S. defense officials said Thursday that Russia has pulled most of its forces away from the Ukraine border, a withdrawal that the U.S. has been demanding for weeks.


US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel

They said about seven battalions remained, amounting to a couple of thousand troops.

U.S. officials had estimated as many as 40,000 Russian forces had been aligned along the border with a restive eastern Ukraine that has been wracked with violence between government security forces and pro-Russian separatists.

The defense officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the precise numbers.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel didn't provide any details to reporters traveling with him at the start of a 12-day overseas trip, but he called the withdrawal promising. 

"They are not where they need to be and won't be until all of their troops that they positioned along that border a couple of months ago are gone," Hagel said.

"We do know that thousands of Russian troops have been pulled back and are moving away. But we also know that there are still thousands of Russian troops still there that have not yet moved," Hagel said.

Hagel said he has not spoken to his Russian counterpart about the withdrawal.

Hagel was among Obama administration officials who expressed new concerns Thursday about rising violence in eastern Ukraine, including the downing of a military helicopter by pro-Russian rebels.

The White House and State Department both said a de-escalation of the crisis was imperative and called on Russia to exert pressure on the separatists to get them to end the fighting and release a group of international monitors who have been detained in eastern Ukraine since earlier this week.

"We are disturbed by the ongoing violence in eastern Ukraine," presidential spokesman Jay Carney said at the White House.

While the U.S. has not been able to verify what happened to the helicopter, he said, "We are concerned that this indicates separatists continue to have access to advanced weaponry and other assistance from the outside."

Ukraine's acting president said earlier Thursday that 14 troops died when rebels shot down a military helicopter in Slovyansk using a portable air defense missile.

Even before the incident, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on Wednesday to reiterate U.S. concerns about the deteriorating situation in Ukraine, the State Department said.

Kerry raised with Lavrov reports of Chechen fighters crossing into Ukraine to join the separatists, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at the State Department. Kerry "pressed Foreign Minister Lavrov to end all support for separatists, denounce their actions and call on them to lay down their arms," she said.

"Our broad view, as you know, is that de-escalation is the proper path forward," Psaki added, although she said she was not aware of concerns that Ukrainian security forces were using disproportionate means to quell the fighting as some Russians have alleged.

Carney and Psaki also said it was unacceptable that insurgents have detained four observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

They demanded their immediate release.

The U.S. has called on Russia repeatedly to help de-escalate tensions in Ukraine, including withdrawing troops massed near Ukraine.

Source: AP

Ukraine's Rebels In Crisis After Donetsk 'Coup'

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Vostok Battalion, a pro-Russian group, seize control of Donetsk Peoples' Republic's headquarters, plunging rebel movement in east into crisis.


Pro-Russian fighters of Vostok (East) battalion rest in the regional state building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

Ukraine's rebel movement was plunged into crisis on Thursday, when pro-Russian fighters backed by armoured personnel carriers seized the movement's headquarters in Donetsk and destroyed the barricades protecting it.

The surprise move by a group called the Vostok Battalion, a heavily armed rebel unit that has been involved in fighting against the Ukrainian army, sparked speculation about an internal coup within the fractious rebel movement.

There was also speculation that the move could have been an attempt by the leadership to purge undesirable elements with the Donetsk Peoples' Republic.

Key rebel leaders, who were not in the building when the fighters arrived, insisted they were still in control and that they had even ordered the operation.

"This is a police action directed against looters," a rebel source close to Alexander Borodai, the prime minister of the self-declared republic, said on Thursday afternoon.

"There is no coup. Everything is under control."

Gunmen from the battalion, which includes fighters from mainland Russia as well as Ukrainian-born volunteers, said they had acted out of disgust at the looting of a supermarket following the battle for Donetsk airport on Monday.

"We're on the same side, we're never going back to Ukraine. We're just against lawlessness and theft," said one fighter as he picked through the chaos left behind by the building's occupiers.

The 11-story regional administration building has been the headquarters of the Donetsk rebel movement since it was stormed and occupied by pro-Russian activists on April 6, sparking the uprising that led to the current conflict in the region.

Since then it has been used variously as the 'republic's' government headquarters, a parliament, a hospital, a command centre, and most notoriously as a prison. 

Thursday's raid finally put an end to that occupation, with Vostok Battalion fighters evicting hundreds of pro-Russian activists from the building before bringing in bulldozers to destroy the barricades built to protect it against the police.

In one office on the sixth floor a fridge was stocked with huge cheeses and sausages bearing the logo of the Metro supermarket, a superstore close to the airport that was reportedly raided by well-organised looters after Monday's battle brought life in the district to a standstill.

In other offices, fighters found vast quantities of cigarettes, soft drinks, and shops own-brand socks and underwear stacked on desks and in wardrobes.

"We were starving on the battle field for two days," said a masked fighter, as he tested the ripeness of several mangos looted from the fruit and vegetable department that were scattered on a desk in a sixth floor office.

But looting - of which there was plenty of evidence - appears only to have been a pretext for a purge designed to assert control over the fractious rebel movement, eliminate autonomous groups, and possibly reverse a breakdown of law and order that has created increasing resentment amongst the public.

Denis Pushilin, the speaker of the republic's parliament, said the operation was aimed at "dishonest people" guilty of "criminal activity against the republic."

Access to the building had previously been tightly controlled, and the raid provided a rare opportunity to glimpse the chaotic mechanics of the pro-Russian counter revolution.

Offices were stacked with used ashtrays, discarded food and mattresses.

On the tenth floor several offices had been marked with the initials of the NKVD – Josef Stalin's feared secret police force, which the 'republic' appears to have attempted to revive.

The purge came as republican leaders dropped all pretence of Russian involvement in the uprising, with rebel leaders announcing the repatriation of dozens of bodies of Russian fighters killed in Monday's battle at the airport.

Lorries carrying the bodies of 33 Russian citizens, who were amongst dozens of rebels killed, left Donetsk for Russia on Thursday evening.

Casualties from Monday's fighting were so heavy that fighters had to take over a refrigeration facility at a local factory when the main city morgue overflowed.

The bodies of six fighters were laid in coffins waiting to be loaded on to the huge articulated refrigerator lorry that would carry them to the Russian border when The Daily Telegraph was granted access to the facility on Thursday.

Workers used painted a huge red cross and the number "200" – Soviet-era military code for dead bodies in transit – on the roof and sides of the lorry, in a bid to ward off attacks by Ukrainian aircraft.

The convoy, escorted by police, planned to carry the bodies to Rostov-on-Don, where they would be dispatched to families across Russia, rebel spokesmen organising the convoy said.

Rebel leaders say the Russian fighters were all volunteers, not members of the regular Russian armed forces.

They reiterated the hope that President Vladimir Putin would finally send troops to assist them.

The open admission of the presence of foreign fighters marks a remarkable change of tune from the separatist leadership, which previously maintained that its forces were entirely made up of locals.

While Donetsk was relatively calm on Thursday, fighting continued around the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk.

In a serious loss for the Ukrainians, 14 servicemen including a general were killed when rebels downed a helicopter near the city.

Olexander Turchynov, Ukraine's acting president told parliament rebels used a portable air defence missile to bring the down the helicopter and said Gen Volodymyr Kulchitsky was among the dead.

A separatist spokesman had earlier told Russian news agencies that the militants had downed a Ukrainian army helicopter in a fierce battle on the southern outskirts of the rebel-controlled city.

The unnamed spokesman said that "as a result of active military activities, several houses belonging to civilians caught fire".

The death toll is one of the highest suffered by Ukrainian forces since the separatist insurgency first erupted in eastern Ukraine in early April.

Source: The Telegraph

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Rebels Kill 14 Downing Ukraine Chopper As Russia Sees War

SLAVYANSK, Ukraine -- Pro-Russian rebels downed a military helicopter in eastern Ukraine, killing 13 troops and a general, as an aide to President Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. of pushing the world toward war through proxies in Kiev.


General Serhiy Kulchytskiy, killed in downed helicopter, had a senior position in Ukraine's National Guard

Insurgents shot down an Mi-8 transport chopper with a shoulder-fired missile amid heavy fighting in Slavyansk, 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the Russian border, Speaker Oleksandr Turchynov told lawmakers in parliament in Kiev today.

Russia called for unspecified “emergency” measures to halt the violence in eastern Ukraine after separatists suffered the heaviest casualties of their campaign.

“There’s no excuse” for military action, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier by phone yesterday, according to the ministry’s website.

Ukraine stepped up air patrols over Donetsk yesterday as a convoy of pro-Russian rebels moved through the eastern city with an anti-aircraft gun in tow, regrouping after dozens were killed in a government operation to retake the main airport. 

President-elect Petro Poroshenko has vowed to wipe out the insurgents and re-establish order after winning office May 25.

He’s faced with trying to stabilize an economy the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development expects to shrink 7 percent this year while reclaiming swaths of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions captured by pro-Russian militias.

‘World War’ 

An economic adviser to Putin, Sergei Glazyev, said the U.S. controls the new Ukrainian government and is seeking to start a “third world war.”

“This can’t be called anything but madness -- the bombing of cities, airports, escalation of unmotivated violence against their own people,” Glazyev told reporters today in the Kazakh capital Astana, where he’s traveling with the Russian president. 

Russia has reduced the number of soldiers stationed on its border with Ukraine to about 20,000 from about 50,000, the press service of Ukraine’s border guards said yesterday.

The Russian troops are leaving behind military assets, suggesting they may return, the service said, without being more specific.

Even so, a “threatening, capable” Russian force remains “poised along the Ukrainian border,” Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesman for the Pentagon, told reporters yesterday.

No Thanks 

The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said yesterday that Russia is being asked for humanitarian aid by people in eastern Ukraine affected by the conflict.

Russia wants Ukraine’s help delivering supplies across the border and expects “the fastest possible answer,” the ministry said on its website.

Ukraine said thanks, but no thanks.

“This is another element of propaganda,” Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said.

It may also be a “a hidden attempt to help Russian terrorists who are now in a difficult position,” the ministry said in an e-mailed statement today.

Putin, who has repeatedly denied aiding the insurgency, told Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in a phone call on May 27 that Ukraine’s military operations must stop.

“Russia’s goal was and is to keep Ukraine so unstable that we accept everything that the Russians want,” Poroshenko said in an interview with German newspaper Bild that was published yesterday.

“I have no doubt that Putin can end the fighting with his direct influence.”

Gas Dispute 

As the violence continued, Ukraine stopped short of accepting an EU proposal to reach a debt and price deal for natural gas from Russia and avert a threatened shutoff.

Russia, the world’s largest supplier of the fuel, has twice cut gas flows to Ukraine since Putin came to power in 2000, leading to shortages throughout Europe.

Under the EU plan, Ukraine’s state energy company, NAK Naftogaz Ukrainy, would pay Russian gas exporter OAO Gazprom $2 billion by May 30 and a further $500 million by June 7.

That would partially cover Ukraine’s outstanding debt, which Gazprom Chief Executive Officer Alexey Miller said yesterday will reach $5.2 billion by June 7. 

Ukraine’s government is “ready to clean the bill” and “pay the arrears,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in Berlin yesterday.

The country is seeking a market-based price of $250-$350 per 1,000 cubic meters, he said.

Gazprom raised the price it charges Ukraine, which relies on the Russian exporter for half of its gas, by 81 percent to $486 per 1,000 cubic meters after Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in February.

No Light 

About 15 percent of Europe’s gas supply flows from Russia through Ukraine, which is counting on $17 billion from the International Monetary Fund to avoid bankruptcy.

Talks between EU, Russian and Ukrainian officials to break the deadlock will resume in Berlin tomorrow, Olga Golant, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Energy Ministry, said by phone.

The lack of progress is threatening to escalate into a full-blown crisis, “undermining the sustainability of Russian gas transit to the EU through Ukraine,” Alexander Kornilov, an energy analyst at Alfa Bank in Moscow, said in an e-mailed note. 

“Ukraine’s position indicates that the light at the end of the tunnel in Russia-Ukraine-EU gas discussions is still very far away,” Kornilov said.

EU leaders meeting in Brussels on May 27 decided to put off further sanctions on Russia after Putin showed a willingness to work with Ukraine’s new leader and pulled back some troops.

Sanctions ‘Reminder’ 

“The possibility of de-escalation is here, finally,” French President Francois Hollande told reporters after the summit ended.

“But we still need this strict reminder.”

In their final statement, the leaders said the EU was working on “possible targeted measures” and agreed “to continue preparations” in case further steps are needed. 

Since Putin annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimea region in March, the EU has blacklisted 83 Russian and Ukrainian officials and two companies.

President Barack Obama, who has imposed U.S. sanctions on people close to Putin, including Glazyev, the economic adviser, called Poroshenko May 27 to congratulate him on his victory and offer “the full support of the United States,” according to a White House statement.

The U.S. leader plans to meet with Poroshenko during his trip to Europe next week, Obama told NPR News in an interview scheduled to air today.

He told the radio network he expects to discuss Crimea with Poroshenko during their meeting.

Poroshenko said after his victory that government forces won’t quit until separatists are completely defeated.

“They won’t last two or three months,” the president-elect said.

“They’ll last a few hours.”

Source: Bloomberg

Ukraine, Russia Leaders To Attend D-Day Ceremonies

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's president-elect Petro Poroshenko will attend the 70th anniversary of the World War II D-Day landings in Normandy, his office said on Wednesday.

Ukrainian businessman, politician and president-elect Petro Poroshenko gestures to supporters in Kiev.

Also present at the observance will be Russian President Vladimir Putin, but there are no indications yet that there will be a direct meeting between the two – the first such opportunity since Poroshenko’s overwhelming election win last Sunday.

Relations between Ukraine and Russia deteriorated following the ouster of Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanokovych in February following months of protests, and Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in March.

Condemning the takeover of the peninsula as an illegal land-grab, Kiev also accuses Moscow of fomenting separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine, which to date has claimed dozens of lives and raised internal tensions.

Should the two men come face-to-face it would be the first time Russia's president would meet an official of Ukraine’s new pro-Western government.

Putin and Poroshenko are among several leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski - all key players in the Ukraine crisis - who are due to meet for lunch on June 6 to mark D-day.

Uneasy calm in Ukraine's east 

Some calm returned to Ukraine’s east on Wednesday, a day after government troops, in one of their biggest shows of force to date, killed as many as 50 pro-Russia separatists in the country’s restive Donetsk region.

The operation, which was centered on retaking control of Donetsk International Airport seized by rebels earlier, came after Ukrainians, in a poll on Sunday, overwhelming elected pro-Western chocolatier and former foreign minister Petro Poroshenko as their new president.

The assault, following weeks of restraint, filled morgues in the region’s eponymous capital with bodies of rebel gunmen, some with limbs missing.

Pro-Moscow gunmen have declared the city of a million people capital of an independent "Donetsk People's Republic" they proclaimed following a referendum condemned by both Kiev and the West.

Some battles between separatists and Ukrainian government forces Wednesday in the region of Luhansk.

Ukraine's Interior Ministry reported that the fighting broke out when separatist fighters tried to overrun a Ukrainian National Guard unit in the city of Luhansk.

The ministry said there were losses on both sides but provided no casualty figures. 

Obama blasts Russia, praises allies 

President Obama on Wednesday again condemned Russia for its “aggression” against Ukraine and praised Western allies for their unified response to the crisis.

In a speech on global challenges and America’s role in the world, Obama said that Moscow’s posturing brought back memories of “the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe.”

He praised Western allies and organizations for uniting behind Ukraine in the face of Russia’s actions.

“This mobilization of world opinion and institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda, Russian troops on the border, and armed militias,” said Obama speaking at a commencement ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

“Standing with our allies on behalf of international order has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future,” added Obama in remarks before hundreds of cadets.

‘Fratricidal war’ 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday accused the West of pushing Ukraine into a “fratricidal war” and repeated Moscow's calls for an end to Kiev’s “punitive operations” in the country’s east.

Lavrov’s remarks echoed earlier Russian statements placing blame on the United States and the EU for the turmoil in Ukraine.

“The people [of Ukraine] are in essence being pushed into the abyss of fratricidal war,” Russian news agencies quoted Lavrov as saying at a ministry reception attended by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called on Russia's Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to block the border to Ukraine to prevent separatist fighters from entering the country.

He said that if Russian influence was eliminated, the crisis could be ended swiftly. 

Yatsenyuk accused Moscow of supporting, financing and providing rebels access to Ukrainian territory.

Miners rally 

Also Wednesday, several hundred coal miners from the Donetsk region rallied in support of pro-Russia militants.

The miners marched through Donetsk city center to demand the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from the region.

The protesters carried "Donetsk People's Republic" flags and banners reading “We will revive the power of the Donbass," a reference to Ukraine's industrial heartland. 

According to Ukrainian media reports, the workers belong to a miners union closely associated with ousted president Yanukovych's Party of Regions.

Other unions seemed to have distanced themselves from the rally.

Source: Voice of America

‘Point Of No Return’: Resolve Builds Among Ukraine Rebels With Each Death

HORLIVKA, Ukraine — The funeral procession last weekend for Aleksandr Politov snaked through the wooded lanes of an overgrown cemetery to the plot where the men of the Novorossiya Army buried their comrade.


The various separatist militias all answer to Russian Igor Strelkov (R), talking to reporters in Slavyansk, where he is the head of the self-defense forces. Kiev regards him as a Russian agent.

Soldiers fired three salutes from rifles, but few in the civilian crowd of hundreds flinched.

They have become used to the sound of gunshots.

“You had a friend, and then — poof — he’s gone,” said Artem Chernushkin, a barman and a neighbor of Politov’s in Horlivka.

“He was a regular guy, a construction worker who carried tiles and laid bricks, the most regular guy.

He was a builder, not a fighter.”

Yet Politov, whose corpse was dressed in camouflage and draped with a Russian tricolor flag, had recently joined a separatist militia and died last week during an attack on a Ukrainian army position outside the town of Volnovakha.

Infected with a malignant mix of Russian propaganda and genuine resentment, people like Politov have fueled the creation of the Donetsk People’s Republic, an inchoate statelet at the forefront of eastern Ukraine’s continuing unrest.

The movement’s military wing, often called the Novorossiya Army by its members, has demonstrated an ability to impose control over territory but largely operates as an informal conglomerate of warlords and militias.

Its political leaders speak of resisting the Kiev government, which they regularly call a junta, and preach a program based on vague promises to clean up corruption and eventually join the Russian Federation.

Ukraine’s new president-elect, the confectionery magnate Petro Poroshenko, has pledged to end the slide toward civil war, comparing the separatists to Somali pirates and announcing that his first steps in office will include a trip to Donetsk, the regional capital.

"The anti-terrorist operation should not last two or three months,” Poroshenko told reporters in Kiev on Monday.

“It should last for a matter of hours.”

As he spoke, the Ukrainian army had launched an assault on the Donetsk airport, deploying air and ground forces against rebels who had seized a terminal overnight.

Fighter jets and explosions echoed over the city for hours, and the violence left dozens dead in the most intense clash since the separatist movement emerged in March.

‘The point of no return’ 

The Kremlin has indicated a willingness to work with Poroshenko’s new government but denounced the Ukrainian military actions and has yet to officially recognize the election as legitimate.

While the airport battle gave the Ukrainian military operation new momentum, neither it nor Poroshenko’s election has resolved the eastern standoff.

The rebel troops remain resolute.

And each death, from Politov’s to Monday’s casualties, leaves more tears in the region’s quickly fraying social fabric.

Many here see no way for Ukraine to remain united.

Only seven of 22 voting districts in the Donetsk region were active for Sunday’s polling, according to Ukraine’s central election commission.

“The point of no return has been crossed. We can’t live with them any longer,” said Pavel Petruk, a 56-year-old pensioner with a graying horseshoe mustache who stood by a statue of Lenin outside a polling site in Dobropolye but did not vote.

“The only peaceful solution is for Ukraine to get out of the Donbas.”

The Donbas, which includes Donetsk and the neighboring Luhansk region, is a landscape by turns bucolic and distressed.

Along the same roads, cows graze by riverbanks and chimneys spit black smoke from decaying factories.

Since the revolution in Kiev drove President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February, the Donbas has also become a patchwork of conflicted loyalties.

“Many people are against the Kiev government, and they provoked that reaction against themselves with their actions, their laws and their military operations,” said Vladimir, a senior officer from the Ukrainian Interior Ministry who watched over a polling site in Krasnoarmeysk, one of the few eastern cities where voting occurred.

He explained that a sense of duty kept him at his post, not allegiance to the country’s current leaders.

“If we don’t find a common language now, there will be a long partisan war,” he added.

The Novorossiya Army 

The separatists are united in their opposition to Kiev but remain tied to local power centers.

Their ranks appear to be growing, fed by angered locals and, reportedly, visiting warriors from Crimea, Chechnya and other parts of Russia.

The Ukrainian border service announced that cars filled with weapons from Russia attempted to cross the border early on Tuesday.

Vasily, a senior fighter in Horlivka, said on Monday that three truckfuls of weapons from Russia had arrived for the rebels.

His claim could not be independently verified.

The various groups operate under the umbrella of the Novorossiya Army and appear to answer to Igor Strelkov, a mercurial commander based in Slavyansk who has been described by Kiev and its Western allies as a Russian agent.

But the militias have their own spheres of control and often act independently.

“As long as we don’t have a front, we don’t need to maintain a formal military structure of communications,” said Aleksey Petrov, press officer for the militia in Horlivka, which is led by Igor Besler, who goes by the nom de guerre Bes, meaning “demon.”

“It’s local pockets of resistance,” Petrov added.

“But there is no conflict among different groups.”

Horlivka emerged as a new power center last week after its militia, under the Demon’s command, led an operation at Volnovakha that killed at least 16 Ukrainian soldiers.

Immediately after the clash, representatives for the People’s Republic in Donetsk distanced themselves, blaming the attack on the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector.

Besler first appeared publicly in mid-April after the initial seizure of Horlivka’s police station.

A video posted online showed him instructing policemen and claiming to be an officer of the Russian army.

In interviews, his fighters claim that he is a Horlivka local who rose in the militia’s ranks over the past month.

He has been implicated by Ukrainian authorities in the murder of a local politician, Volodymyr Rybak, and in the kidnapping of three Ukrainian special forces officers who were later released in a prisoner exchange.

Besler could not be reached for comment.

In Horlivka, as in many other cities across the Donbas, separatists now control the city’s administration building and its central police station, which are surrounded by barricades of sandbags, tires and barbed wire.

One sign by the police station reads, in both Russian and English, “My rights were stolen by Kiev’s junta!”

Across the road stands a billboard reading “Fascism will not pass!” alongside images of Josef Stalin and a soldier skewering a swastika with a bayonet.

The cover of revolution 

As the conflict nears its third month, commanders like Bes appear to be jostling for power and resorting to brutal methods to maintain control among their troops.

“Many people are trying to resolve personal problems under the cover of revolution,” Petrov said.

“We don’t want to resort to extreme measures, but we will if we have to. I want you to understand what extreme measures mean. If a person is caught in violence, murder or kidnapping, he will be shot.”

In Slavyansk, Strelkov ordered the execution of two militiamen on Monday, accusing them of looting and referring to a Stalin-era law to justify the punishment.

A spokesman for the Slavyansk militia confirmed that the men had been shot. 

Ukrainian media allege that Besler followed suit by killing two local police officers who had taken and subsequently broken an oath of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

Petrov denied the charge and said they had merely been detained.

The pro-Kiev forces also seem jumbled, with army units working alongside a newly formed national guard service and several semi-independent paramilitary groups emerging to fight the separatists.

In Karlovka, a group of Ukrainian patriots who call themselves the Donbas Battalion took heavy causalities on Friday during an ambush by the pro-Russian Vostok Battalion, which has risen to the top of the Donetsk-based militias.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian army troops stood sentry on the roads around the city.

“First they said we’d be here 45 days, then 60, and now they’re saying maybe until September,” said Ruslan, a Ukrainian soldier at a checkpoint outside town.

The dozen or so men stationed there appeared bored, lounging under the early summer sun shirtless and in sandals.

Many carried weapons produced in the 1970s or 80s and said they had been drafted into service under threat of prison time.

“Of course it would be better at home with our wives,” Ruslan added.

“But while I’m here, I’m not letting any damn separatists through.”

Source: Al Jazeera America

Team Of Monitors Missing In Eastern Ukraine

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Four members of Europe's Special Monitoring Mission who went missing in the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk are being held by a pro-Russian group, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebynis said Wednesday.


"The negotiations for their release are in process," Perebynis said during a briefing in Kiev.

The team members, who are Swiss, Turkish, Estonian and Danish, were on a routine patrol Monday east of Donetsk when last heard from, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

The last time an OSCE team went missing in Donetsk, its members turned up in the hands of militant separatists in the town of Slavyansk.

They were freed just over a week later.

There were fears Wednesday that another group of 11 monitors had gone missing after being stopped at a roadblock in Marinka, west of Donetsk, but the group reestablished contact with the OSCE after returning to Donetsk, according to an OSCE statement.

Battle for Donetsk airport 

The deadly battle for control of an airport in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk may have ended, but fears of further violence stalked the streets Wednesday as a military jet flew low overhead.

Dozens of pro-Russian separatists were killed after Ukrainian security forces launched an assault on Donetsk International Airport on Monday, following the militants' seizure of a terminal.

The bullets stopped flying Tuesday, but the roar of the military jet's engines fed into a narrative being sold by the separatists' spokespeople of a possible bombing campaign against the city.

There has been no indication from Ukrainian authorities of any such plan.

But amid a climate of fear, distrust and misinformation, and in the aftermath of Monday's assault on the airport -- perhaps the deadliest incident in weeks of unrest -- concern in Donetsk is heightened.

There were unconfirmed reports Wednesday of some shots being fired not far from a central administration building occupied by the separatists for some weeks.

A representative for the separatists said they were trying to shoot down a drone.

The Ukrainian military's move against the militants at Donetsk airport has been interpreted by some as an indication that newly elected President Petro Poroshenko will take a tougher stance.

The presence of military aircraft may be intended as a reminder of the security forces' capacity to act.

The separatists' attempt to take the airport came within hours of Poroshenko claiming victory in Sunday's vote.

Donetsk has been at the heart of the separatists' bid to declare independence for the wider Donetsk region from the rest of Ukraine, which was mirrored in the neighboring Luhansk region.

'Our guys' 

Signs of the fierce fighting around the airport were visible in Donetsk on Tuesday.

Blood and human remains could be seen near two blown-out trucks that had carried separatists.

A pile of bodies lay in a city morgue, including the remains of a woman whose head had been apparently taken off by a round.

One resident, who didn't want to show his face on camera, told a CNN team on the ground that many people in the region would be fighting -- and he didn't know who could stop the conflict, except perhaps Russia.

Asked whether he thought the eastern region could ever be part of a united Ukraine again, he replied, "I think Ukraine will be destroyed."

Other onlookers said the dead were "nashi," Russian for "our guys," in an indication of the public support the separatists command in their battle against the federal authorities.

Eastern Ukraine was the support base for ousted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, and many Russian speakers there feel closer to Moscow than to Kiev. 

The Donetsk mayor's office said that 40 people had died in the airport fighting, including two civilians, but did not specify how many of the dead were separatists. 

The separatists said that 35 of their own had been killed and about 60 more injured. 

The separatist movement in Donetsk believed it was offered a three-hour truce Tuesday afternoon to leave the city of Donetsk, according to a spokeswoman for the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic who asked not to be identified to avoid possible arrest.

The Donetsk People's Republic learned of this truce online, the spokeswoman told CNN, adding that Ukrainian armed forces were threatening to bomb separatist strongholds in the city if they failed to leave.

The Ukrainian government denied offering rebels any such truce.

The government's anti-terror operation told CNN there is a longstanding offer of amnesty to separatists who turn themselves in and give up their weapons, unless they are guilty of murder.

NATO: Signs of Russian troops packing up 

Kiev and the West have accused Russia of backing and supplying the separatists, a claim Moscow denies.

They have also voiced concern over a buildup of what NATO estimated was 40,000 Russian troops near Russia's border with Ukraine.

In a sign that Russia may have heeded calls for it to withdraw those forces, NATO said Wednesday that there was "ongoing evidence of equipment and supplies being packed or prepared for movement" in the area.

"A small number of units have now withdrawn from the border. The activity we are observing continues to suggest a slow withdrawal of forces," a NATO military officer said.

However, he said, many of the Russian troops remain in the border area and are capable of operations at short notice.

"Thousands of troops have withdrawn, but tens of thousands remain," he said.

The Kremlin announced about 10 days ago that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops to return to their bases but said the pullback could take some time.

NATO is monitoring the situation and would welcome a complete, verifiable Russian withdrawal, the NATO military officer said.

But, he added, "Any withdrawal does not erase or reverse what has happened in recent months. Russia has violated the trust of the international community by illegally invading Ukraine. The security dynamic in Europe has been fundamentally changed."

Ukraine is not part of NATO, but other former Soviet states such as Poland do belong to the alliance.

Russia is opposed to any move by Ukraine to forge closer ties with NATO.

Source: CNN News World

Chechen Leader Denies Sending Troops To Ukraine

DONETSK, Ukraine -- As the fighting becomes more ferocious in eastern Ukraine, Chechnya's Moscow-backed leader did little Wednesday to dispel suspicions that he had sent in some of his famously ruthless troops to help the pro-Russia insurgents.


Ramzan Kadyrov

In a statement posted on his Instagram, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said two-thirds of the 3 million Chechens live outside his province in Russia's North Caucasus mountains, so he can't "know where each of them goes."

"If someone saw a Chechen in the zone of conflict, he's there on his own," he said. 

Scores of rebel fighters have been killed this week around the major eastern city of Donetsk, and Ukrainian border guards have reported at least one gunbattle as they blocked groups of armed men trying to cross into Ukraine from Russia.

Ukraine and the West have accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied sending any troops or intelligence agents to help the insurgents.

Fighters who looked like Caucasus natives have been seen among the pro-Russia rebels who have seized government buildings, declared independence from Ukraine and are fighting government forces in the east.

Kadyrov's forces, known for their warrior spirit and deadly efficiency, helped Russia win a quick victory in a 2008 war with neighboring Georgia.

The 37-year-old leader has vowed unswerving fealty to Putin and has hailed his policy in Ukraine.

If Kadyrov has sent fighters in to Ukraine, he most likely has done so with at least the Kremlin's tacit consent.

In the most furious battle yet, rebels in Donetsk tried to take control of the city airport Monday, but were repelled by Ukrainian forces using combat jets and helicopter gunships.

Dozens of men were killed and some morgues were overflowing Tuesday.

Some insurgent leaders said up to 100 fighters may have been killed.

The city remained tense Wednesday, with Ukrainian fighter jets flying overhead.

Some gunshots were heard.

In Slavyansk, a city 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Donetsk that has seen constant clashes over the past few weeks, residential areas came under mortar shelling Wednesday from government forces.

A school was badly damaged and other buildings were hit.

Residents told The Associated Press that several people were wounded.

Kadyrov, a former rebel who fought Russian forces in the first of two devastating separatist wars, switched sides during the second campaign when his father became Chechnya's pro-Moscow leader.

Following his father's death in a rebel bombing, Kadyrov rebuilt the region with generous Kremlin funding and squelched the rebel resistance with his ruthless paramilitary forces, which have been blamed for extrajudicial killings, torture and other abuses.

Putin praised Kadyrov last week after he negotiated the release of two Russian journalists arrested by Ukrainian forces and accused of assisting the rebels.

The Chechen leader has not said how he got the journalists freed, but has directed threats at Ukrainian authorities.

"If the Ukrainian authorities want so much to see 'Chechen units' in Donetsk, why go to Donetsk if there is a good highway to Kiev?" he said in Wednesday's statement. 

However, he added that he fully supports Putin's policy to help restore peace in Ukraine.

Putin has denied Ukraine's allegations that Russia has sent its special forces to foment the mutiny.

On Tuesday, Russia's Federal Security Service rejected the Ukrainian claim that a convoy of vehicles loaded with weapons attempted to break through the border and engaged in a gunbattle with Ukrainian border guards.

Russia, which annexed Crimea in March, has ignored the requests of eastern insurgents to join Russia following controversial independence referendums.

The Kremlin also welcomed Ukraine's presidential election and said it was ready to work with the winner, billionaire candy magnate Petro Poroshenko, trying to de-escalate the worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War and avoid a new round of Western sanctions.

"It's necessary to use the situation after the election to immediately end using the military and launch a broad all-Ukraine dialogue involving all regions and political forces," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday.

Russia has supported a plan by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that calls for ending hostilities and opening a political dialogue.

It has sought to cast the rebels' actions as a response to the heavy-handed use of force by the central government.

Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said Ukrainian military action in the east was "pushing the situation into a deadlock, making it increasingly difficult to organize a dialogue."

He said the Kremlin hadn't received a letter from the insurgents asking Russia for assistance.

Ushakov said Putin will visit Paris on June 5, where he would meet with French President Francois Hollande and then travel to Normandy the next day for the 70th anniversary of the allied landing in Normandy.

It will be Putin's first meeting with President Barack Obama and other Western leaders since the start of Ukraine's crisis.

Ushakov said there are no plans for any formal meetings but Putin would likely have informal contacts with the other leaders.

Source: AP

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Fighting In Ukraine Escalates As Militia Groups Flock To Donetsk

DONETSK, Ukraine -- "Our president [Ramzan Kadyrov] gave the order. They called us and we came,” 33-year-old Zelimhan tells VICE News.


Ukrainian medical staff prepare to clean the body of a killed pro-Russian fighter at the Kalinina morgue in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, on May 27, 2014.

The bearded fighter, a member of a unit known as the “Wild Division,” says he arrived a week ago with 34 Chechen men who volunteered to come and support their “brothers” in the People’s Republic of Donetsk.

Russia and the authorities of the rebel republic have repeatedly denied allegations that foreign groups are crossing into Ukraine to fight alongside the rebels.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry has said that the country is under “undisguised aggression” from Moscow, which is “exporting foreign terrorism” to the country.

The Wild Division is just the latest unit to join the swirling mix of militia groups that are descending on eastern Ukraine to join in a conflict that increasingly looks to be turning into a civil war.

Fighting in the region has killed scores in the last week.

“We know how it looks when people are humiliated, so we have come to help,” says 30-year-old Magomed, another member of the Chechen unit.

The fighter reclines against a wall outside the hospital, dragging heavily on a cigarette.

His ragtag military fatigues are bloodstained and he looks exhausted.

Yesterday he was shot twice, once in the ankle and once in the groin, during the fierce clashes between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces for control of Donetsk airport. 

On his chest is a home-inked wolf tattoo: “It’s like me, independent and self-sufficient,” he says with a broad grin.

The battle over the airfield in the administrative capital of the region came just one day after Ukraine elected a new president: the so-called “Chocolate King" Petro Poroshenko.

The oligarch-cum-politician has made clear that he will not negotiate with the “terrorists” operating in the country’s east, who he says are leading Ukraine to a Somalia-like scenario.

Following a bid by the rebels to take over the airport, Ukrainian helicopters and fighter jets fired overhead as a gun battle raged below.

The rebels claim they were caught unawares after being lured inside for "negotiations," but what sparked the fighting is unclear.

Most of the pro-Russia militia groups operating in the area are local, but many have traveled from neighboring regions of the country, including Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow last month following a Putin-backed putsch.

Numerous loosely coordinated paramilitary units now operate in the country’s east.

Some, such as Oplot, a Russian nationalist group based in Kharkiv, pre-date the crisis, while others like the Unit of Bes ("demon" in Russian) have formed in response to it.

On the other side of the fence, pro-Ukrainian fighter groups are also weighing into the conflict. 

Last week, “Right Sector,” a nationalist group, attacked a rebel checkpoint in Karlovka.

The fighting, which raged for several hours just meters away from residential houses, killed at least a dozen.

The far-right group coordinated the assault with Donbass Battalion, a newly formed group of so-called “patriotic volunteers” rumored to be financed by the Kiev-appointed Governor of Dnipropetrovsk and owner of Privat bank Ihor Kolomoisky. 

Another Ukrainian paramilitary unit, financed by Oleh Lyashko, leader of the Radical Party and presidential candidate in the recent election, were implicated in a botched anti-terrorism assault led by the Ukrainian army in Mariupol.

The operation killed several unarmed citizens when nervous troops opened fire on an angry crowd.

Lyashko’s unit openly claimed responsibility for another operation which “cleansed” pro-Russia rebels from an administration building in Torez; one was killed and two were wounded in the attack.

Both Russia and the West have engaged in mutual finger-pointing over the deepening Ukraine crisis, which has rocked the country since the Maidan revolution ousted the pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych in February.

America has openly supplied the Ukrainian army with food rations, but the rebels accuse the West of sending weapons and mercenaries to fight in the region.

The Ukraine’s porous borders with Russia allow easy access for those who want to send weapons, or men, to aid the rebel groups operating the country’s east.

Ukraine’s border guards have made numerous reports of trucks with arms crossing into the country in the last few weeks.

Vasya, a 25-year-old former small-time gangster who now runs an intelligence and police unit for the rebels in Horlovka – a town just thirty minutes drive from Donetsk city – told VICE News that he had run two trucks of weapons across Russian border into Ukraine this week.

“It’s easy,” he bragged.

“There’s nothing to stop you doing it.”

The pro-Russia rebels are appearing on the streets with increasingly sophisticated weaponry including rocket-propelled grenade launchers and air to land missiles.

The journey from their native Chechnya via Rostov to Donetsk was equally straightforward, Sayid, one of the Wild Division’s fighters told VICE News.

The Chechen unit tells VICE News they are fighting alongside 16 “brothers” from Ossetia, who have been on site for around two months.

Today, fighting continued to flare on the outskirts of Donetsk.

Standing at a police cordon that marks a three-kilometer zone around the airport, the intermittent dull boom of shells was audible.

A few anxious rebels armed with automatic weapons paced near the barricade, keeping their fingers on their triggers.

Molotov cocktails were stacked up at the side of the road.

Speaking to VICE News, head of the Donetsk municipal police Yuriy Sednyev called the situation was a "mess," and reported that "neither side bothered to inform police about military actions."

"We are advising all civilians to stay inside their homes," he added.

In the city where most shops were closed and the streets were quiet, rebel leaders today announced a 10 PM curfew.

At the morgue the bodies continue to pile up.

According to the police officer, stationed outside the cordoned-off hospital building, there were at least 35 bodies stretched out inside, including 10 civilians caught in the crossfire.

Many were nearly unidentifiable due to their heavy wounds, he said.

Signs of war were visible on the streets of the Donetsk center this morning.

Less than a kilometer down the road from the city’s central trauma hospital, the carcass of an overturned Kamaz truck lay outside a block of administrative offices.

Another of the Soviet-era military vehicles sprawled across the highway near the bridge, body parts scattered on the road around it.

The Chechen fighters told VICE News that they were transporting the rebels’ dead and wounded from battle in the vehicles when they were hit by heavy sniper fire. 

Alexei Dmitrashkovsky, a spokesperson for Kiev’s “counter-terrorism” effort, claimed that his forces have killed at least 200 men.

“The anti-terror operation in Donetsk will continue until all the terrorists will be destroyed or until they surrender,” he said in a statement.

The depths the country will sink to before that goal is achieved, however, could be catastrophic.

“In our country there is a meaning to 'blood feud',” says tattooed Chechen fighter Magomed whose lost one comrade in the battle yesterday.

“We will not forget this. If you kill one of ours, we will kill one hundred of yours.” 

Source: Vice News

Russians Revealed Among Ukraine Fighters

DONETSK, Ukraine -- For weeks, rumors have flown about the foreign fighters involved in the deepening conflict in Ukraine’s troubled east, each one stranger than the last: mercenaries from an American company, Blackwater; Russian special forces; and even Chechen soldiers of fortune.


Yet there they were on Tuesday afternoon, resting outside a hospital here: Chechen men with automatic rifles, some bearing bloodstained bandages, protecting their wounded comrades in a city hospital after a firefight with the Ukrainian Army.

“We received an invitation to help our brothers,” said one of the fighters in heavily accented Russian.

He said he was from Grozny and had fought in the Chechen War that began in 1999.

He said he arrived here last week with several dozen men to join a pro-Russian militia group.

The scene at the hospital was new evidence that fighters from Russia are an increasingly visible part of the conflict here, a development that raises new questions about that country’s role in the unrest.

Moscow has denied that its regular soldiers are part of the conflict, and there is no evidence that they are.

But motley assortments of fighters from other war zones that are intimately associated with Russia would be unlikely to surface against the powerful will of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, experts said.

The disclosure of Russian nationals among the fighters here muddies an already murky picture of the complex connections and allegiances that are beginning to form.

While their presence does not draw a straight line to the Kremlin, it raises the possibility of a more subtle Russian game that could keep Ukraine unbalanced for years.

The revelation about foreign fighters received an unexpected official confirmation on Tuesday, when the mayor of Donetsk, Aleksandr A. Lukyanchenko, said at least eight people with Russian passports were among the wounded rebels who had been taken to the city’s hospitals.

He said the Russians were from Moscow and from the cities of Grozny and Gudermes in Chechnya, a republic that is part of Russia and whose leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, was installed by the Kremlin to bring the region under control after bitter wars starting in the 1990s.

On Tuesday, Mr. Kadyrov denied any connection to the fighters.

Mr. Lukyanchenko added that residents of Crimea, the peninsula in the Black Sea that Russia seized in March, were also among the wounded.

The Kremlin has said it would work with the government of Petro O. Poroshenko, the Ukrainian billionaire elected in a landslide on Sunday, who accepted congratulations from President Obama on Tuesday.

Mr. Poroshenko has pledged to crush the separatists who seized public buildings in two regions in eastern Ukraine in March.

But Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, suggested Tuesday that ending the violence would be a criterion for improved relations, a line that could leave Ukraine’s new government in a tight spot.

Many here say the fighters speak to the shadowy nature of a conflict that sometimes seems manufactured.

“It’s irritating but not very surprising,” said Stanislav Kucherenko, 32, a massage therapist who lives near the airport and woke to the sound of shelling Tuesday.

“It shows that this war is not clean. It is artificially created. If this is an uprising by the Donetsk People’s Republic, what are foreigners doing here?”

The men are Donetsk’s worst kept secret.

Several appeared on a CNN report at a military parade this weekend, and others were caught on a Vice News video, saying, “We are volunteers, Chechens, Afghans and Muslims who have come to protect Russia, to protect Russians, to protect the interests of this country.”

It is unclear what portion of the rebel fighters the men represent, who they work for or whether they were paid.

The soldier at the hospital Tuesday said all the men were volunteers, a commonly given explanation but one locals say is not convincing.

“They say they are patriots,” Mr. Kucherenko said of the foreign fighters.

“I don’t think there are that many patriots.”

The Chechen fighter at the hospital, who declined to give his name, seemed to be losing his resolve.

The unit had a commander who had given an order to stay and fight for the city.

Otherwise, he said, he would be happy to go home.

“I haven’t slept for four nights,” he said, resting his head on a wooden bench outside the hospital with a Kalashnikov across his knees.

Donetsk was mostly quiet on Tuesday.

Schools were closed, and residents were warned not to leave their homes.

But signs of Monday’s battle remained.

A truck that had been carrying rebel fighters and was hit by Ukrainians lay on its side.

Many pro-Russian residents praised the foreign fighters, saying they were all that stood between them and what they saw as a hostile Ukrainian force from Kiev.

Yevgeny Matvichyuk, 26, who is from the embattled city of Slovyansk, said he had spoken with two foreign fighters, one from North Ossetia, a republic in Russia, and another from Tajikistan in Central Asia.

“They said we came from Russia to help you,” he said standing at the bus depot in Donetsk.

“What’s wrong with that?”

Source: The New York Times

Russia Will Pay The Price For Vladimir Putin’s Treatment Of Ukraine

MOSCOW, Russia -- Conducting an orderly retreat is the hardest thing not only in war but also in politics, as Russian president Vladimir Putin is now learning.


Vladimir Putin

His own desire to avoid humiliation gets in the way of rapid disengagement from a losing battle, which why he waited until two days before last Sunday’s (May 25) Ukrainian presidential election to say that he would respect the result.

And even then he said “respect”, not “recognize”.

The Ukrainian election went well.

Petro Poroshenko, a minor-league oligarch with business interests in Russia, won convincingly in the first round, and 60 percent of voters actually showed up at the polls.

Even in Donetsk province, where most city centres are occupied by separatist gunmen, seven out of 12 district electoral commissions were able to operate normally.

It’s a good start on stabilising the country.

So why didn’t Putin just say “recognzse”, when that is clearly what he will have to do in the end if Russia and Ukraine are to have peaceful relations?

Why prolong the uncertainty about his intentions in the West, where the belief that he is an “expansionist” bent on recreating the Russian/Soviet empire takes deeper root with each passing day?

The answer is pride—and Russia will pay a significant price for Putin’s pride.

Last week Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, enlivened his royal tour of Canada by telling an elderly Polish immigrant that Hitler's relentless takeover of European countries in the 1930s was “not unlike what Putin is doing now”.

Prince Charles is well known for saying silly things, but what he said in Canada sounded quite sensible to many people in the West. 

That is a big problem for Putin.

Putin’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, though completely illegal, was not the first step in his plan for world conquest.

That is preposterous: Russia is a relatively poor country of only 140 million people.

But it is a regrettable fact of life that the Hitler analogy has a powerful grip on the popular imagination throughout Europe and North America, and Putin’s aimless belligerence has been setting him up in Western minds as the next Hitler.

He was very cross when his tame Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown by protesters after he obeyed Putin’s demand to break off trade talks with the European Union.

Putin punished Ukraine by annexing Crimea, and he started doing some heavy breathing about Ukraine’s eastern provinces as well.

He encouraged pro-Russian gunmen to seize government buildings in eastern Ukraine and warned that he might intervene militarily if the Ukrainian government used force against them.

He moved 40,000 troops up to Ukraine’s eastern border on “exercises”.

It was quite pointless, since he could neither annex the eastern provinces nor remove the Ukrainian government without actually invading, but he was very cross.

Three months of that, and the damage to his and Russia’s image is starting to pile up. 

Simple-minded people like Prince Charles talk about a new Hitler.

Terrified Poles, Estonians, and other Eastern Europeans who used to live under the Soviet yoke fear that they might be next and demand NATO troops on their soil.

And clever people in the Western military-industrial complexes see an opportunity to sell more of their wares.

So at last, in early May, Putin sobers up and calls off the fright campaign.

He says that the Ukrainian election could be a move “in the right direction”.

He publicly urges the pro-Russian gunmen in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces to postpone a planned referendum on union with Russia.

He even says that he is withdrawing his troops from Ukraine’s borders.

But he doesn’t really withdraw the troops yet.

He doesn’t use his influence to force the separatist gunmen in eastern Ukraine to postpone their referendum, and he doesn’t actually say that he will recognise the Ukrainian election as legitimate.

Putin wants to walk away from the game, but it’s too embarrassing to do a complete about-face.

So he leaves the pot of fear and suspicion boiling for another three weeks.

Finally, only two days before the Ukranian election, Putin says he will “respect” the result, and his tanks start to pull back from Ukraine’s border.

Too damned late.

There won’t be any more Western sanctions against Russia, but Putin has managed to resurrect the image of Russia as a mortal threat to its neighbors.

It will not lie down again soon.

European defence budgets will stop falling, and the integration of the armed forces of the various new NATO members in Eastern Europe will accelerate.

Leading-edge technologies like missile defence will get more funding in the United States.

Foreign investment in Russia is already declining.

And the countries of the European Union will move heaven and earth to cut their dependence on Russian gas exports.

Putin has already turned to China as a new customer for Russian gas, but it will never pay as well as Europe did.

He used to be able to play the Europeans and the Chinese off against each other, but that game is over.

NATO sees him as a wild card at best, and at worst a real threat.

The master strategist has lost his touch.

Source: Straight.com

More Than 50 Rebels Killed As New Ukraine Leader Unleashes Assault

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Ukrainian aircraft and paratroopers killed more than 50 pro-Russian rebels in an assault that raged into a second day on Tuesday after a newly elected president vowed to crush the revolt in the east once and for all.


A Ukrainian helicopter gunship flies above areas where pro-Russian militias have taken position.

The unprecedented offensive throws a challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has said he reserves the right to defend Russian speakers under threat, but whose past assertions that Kiev is led by an illegitimate "junta" were undermined by the landslide election victory of billionaire Petro Poroshenko.

Reuters journalists counted 20 bodies in combat fatigues in one room of a city morgue in Donetsk.

Some of the bodies were missing limbs, a sign that the government had brought to bear heavy firepower against the rebels for the first time.

"From our side, there are more than 50 (dead)," the prime minister of the rebels' self-styled Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander Borodai, told Reuters at the hospital. 

The government said it suffered no losses in the assault, which began with air strikes hours after Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted to elect 48-year-old confectionery magnate Poroshenko as their new president.

Putin demanded an immediate halt to the offensive.

Moscow said a visit by Poroshenko was not under consideration, though it has said it is prepared to work with him.

Until now, Ukrainian forces have largely avoided direct assaults on the separatists, partly because they fear tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on the border could invade.

But Poroshenko and his government appear to have interpreted his victory as a clear mandate for decisive action.

He won more than 54 percent of the vote in a field of 21 candidates, against 13 percent for his closest challenger.

Poroshenko and other leaders in Kiev may have calculated that the election, by bestowing legitimacy on the authorities, makes it harder for Putin to justify intervention.

Putin said in recent weeks he would withdraw troops from the border.

A NATO military officer said most of them were still there, although some showed signs of packing to leave.

HELICOPTER, PARATROOPERS 

The new Ukrainian government assault began even as Poroshenko was holding his victory news conference in Kiev.

After rebels seized the Donetsk airport on Monday, Ukrainian warplanes and helicopters strafed them from the air, and paratroopers were flown in to root them out.

Shooting carried on through the night, and on Tuesday the road to the airport bore signs of fighting.

Heavy machinegun fire could be heard in the distance in mid-morning.

On the airport highway, a truck - the kind that rebels have used to ferry dozens of fighters across the region - had been torn apart by machinegun fire.

Blood was sprayed across the road and splattered on a billboard seven meters above. 

"The airport is completely under control," Interior Minister Arsen Avakov told journalists in the capital Kiev.

"The adversary suffered heavy losses. We have no losses," he added.

"We'll continue the anti-terrorist operation until not a single terrorist remains on the territory of Ukraine," First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema said on the margins of a government meeting.

Borodai, the self-proclaimed rebel prime minister, also said the airport was now under government control.

Inside the city of a million people, where normal life had previously carried on despite the crisis, there was a new climate of fear.

Firefighters battled to put out a blaze at a hockey stadium torched during the night. 

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said a team of four of its monitors - a Dane, an Estonian, a Turk and a Swiss - had gone missing after approaching a road checkpoint near Donetsk on Monday.

In early May, pro-Moscow rebels held a team of seven OSCE monitors for eight days.

SCALE OF VICTORY 

The battle marks the first time the government has unleashed the full lethal force of its aircraft and ground troops directly at the Donetsk rebels, a group of local volunteers and shadowy outsiders led by a Muscovite that Kiev and Western countries say works for Russian military intelligence.

Moscow says the rebellion is purely local and it has no control over the fighters.

In his victory news conference, Poroshenko promised to invigorate the government's stalled "anti-terrorist" campaign, saying it ought to be able to put down the revolt within hours, rather than months.

He also said there could be no negotiations with rebels he compared to terrorists, bandits and pirates.

Ukraine's future has seemed in the balance since Putin responded to the overthrow of a pro-Russian president in Kiev in February by declaring that Russia had the right to defend Russian speakers and swiftly annexing Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.

Moscow's consistent message has been that the government in Kiev, which took power after President Viktor Yanukovich fled an uprising by pro-European demonstrators, was an illegitimate "fascist junta" and Russian speakers were in danger.

But that argument was undermined by the victory of Poroshenko, who served in cabinets under both Yanukovich and his anti-Russian predecessors, and campaigned on his reputation as a pragmatist capable of bridging the deep east-west divide that has been Ukraine's greatest weakness since independence.

Poroshenko became the first candidate to win a presidential election with more than half of the vote in a single round since 1991, when Ukrainians first voted to secede from Moscow's rule.

Although separatists managed to prevent a tenth of voters from reaching polls by blocking the election in two eastern provinces, his margin of victory left little room to question his legitimacy.

He was helped by calls from potential rivals for voters to unite behind the frontrunner.

The Kremlin said on Tuesday Putin had called for an end to the Ukrainian military campaign and for dialogue between Kiev and the separatists.

Putin was speaking in a telephone call with Italy's prime minister, his first reported comments on Ukraine since Sunday's election.

"NEW RUSSIA" 

The separatists have repeatedly pleaded for Putin to send his forces to aid them.

Since the annexation of Crimea, Putin has turned the protection of Russians in other former Soviet republics into a central theme of his rule.

Last month he began referring to eastern Ukraine as "New Russia".

But in the run-up to the election his words had become more accommodating.

On the eve of the vote, he promised to accept the will of the Ukrainian people.

On Monday, before the scale of the latest military assault became clear, Moscow said it was prepared to work with Poroshenko, although it also called for him to call off the military campaign.

Western countries say they do not trust Putin's promises not to interfere, saying he announced repeatedly he would withdraw his troops from the border without doing so.

The United States and European Union have imposed limited sanctions on a few dozen Russian individuals and small firms but have said they would take much stronger action, including measures against whole swathes of Russian industry, if Moscow interfered in Sunday's Ukrainian election.

In another sign of confidence since Poroshenko's election, Kiev pressed a claim on Tuesday for more than $1 billion from Russia's natural gas export monopoly Gazprom, for gas it said Moscow had "stolen" when it annexed Crimea.

Russia has threatened to switch off Ukraine's gas from June 3 unless it pays Gazprom upfront for supplies.

Moscow wants to charge Kiev far more for gas than it charges European countries.

A gas cut-off could hit onward shipments to Western Europe, some of which transit Ukraine.

Source: Google News