Thursday, July 31, 2014

Russia Scorns Sanctions; Ukraine Army Forges On

KIEV, Ukraine -- The day after the European Union and the United States announced expanded sanctions against Russia over the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Moscow remained defiant, the Ukrainian Army remained on the offensive, and an international team remained unable to reach the crash site of a Malaysian jetliner.


A senior Ukrainian official, Valeriy Chaly, said on Wednesday that his country welcomed the expanded sanctions, while Russian officials condemned and belittled them, saying they would prompt Russia to strengthen its economy but would just make a sour diplomatic atmosphere worse.

Mr. Chaly, the deputy chief of Ukraine’s presidential administration, told reporters in Kiev that his government would not scale back its offensive against the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

He said troops had already freed 60 cities and towns and more than one million residents from rebel control.

But Mr. Chaly denied that the military was trying to seize control of the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by force.

“We are not ready for such a scenario without the agreement of our international partners,” he said.

The White House issued a joint statement Wednesday with the leaders of six other major industrialized nations condemning Russia for its intervention in Ukraine, and calling on Moscow to change course or risk further penalties beyond the new round of sanctions.

The statement, on behalf of the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, expressed “grave concern about Russia’s continued actions to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.”

Earlier in the day, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe tried to get to the crash site but were turned back by reports of clashes and gunfire along the route.

And a mission of Dutch police officers and experts said that after being similarly blocked on Monday and Tuesday, they would not attempt the journey on Wednesday. Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, the head of a Dutch recovery mission, said he did not “expect the security situation to improve enough over the next few days” to visit the crash site.

The mission has been in Donetsk, the nearby provincial capital, since Sunday.

The government of Belarus, a neighboring country on good terms with both Kiev and Moscow, said on Wednesday that President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine had asked it to host talks among Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe over access to the crash site and other issues, Reuters reported.

The office of President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus said that “all interested parties” were invited, the news agency reported, but it was not clear whether the separatists would be represented or when the talks would convene.

Andriy Lysenko, the spokesman for the Ukrainian government’s National Security and Defense Council, said the main obstacle to reaching and securing the wreckage of the plane was rebel resistance.

“At the crash site of the Boeing 777, the terrorists have made new fighting positions,” he said.

“They have amassed their heavy artillery, and they mined the approaches to this territory. This made impossible the work of international experts who began trying to carry out their duties and establish the reasons for the crash.”

Russia, however, said Ukraine and the United States were fueling the violence in the area.

“It’s not Russia but the Kiev regime and its overseas sponsors who are to blame for the growing number of victims among the civilian population of the eastern regions,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

It said the expanded sanctions announced on Tuesday would make peace harder to achieve.

Imposing them, it said, can only result in “further aggravation of Russian-American relations and the creation of an extremely unfavorable background in international affairs, where collaboration between our countries often plays a decisive role.” 

Dmitri O. Rogozin, the Russian deputy prime minister in charge of the military industry, suggested that the United States had imposed new restrictions on arms and technology sales to Russia out of fear of its growing might.

He said on Twitter that the measures were “a sign that Russian military shipbuilding is becoming a problem for the enemies of Russia.”

But Ukrainian leaders saw in the sanctions announcement a new unity and resolve in the West to rein in Russia.

“What even a month or a month and a half ago was considered impossible has become a reality,” Mr. Chaly said.

“We hope by joint action of the international community, we will be able to convince our neighbor to stop the aggression against us.”

As the possible effects of the new sanctions were being discussed, the European Union on Wednesday placed three people close to the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, on a sanctions list.

The names included Arkady Rotenberg, described in the sanctions as a “longtime acquaintance of President Putin and his former judo sparring partner.”

The union also named Nikolai Shamalov, another longtime acquaintance of Putin and the second-largest shareholder of Bank Rossiya, and Yuri Kovalchuk, also a longtime acquaintance of Putin and a co-founder of Ozero Dacha, a “cooperative society bringing together an influential group of individuals around President Putin.”

For the Russian business community and political analysts, the expanded sanctions are a blow to Russia’s economic prospects and a worrying sign that the country is becoming increasingly isolated.

Some of the affected companies issued statements playing down the impact.

VTB, a major Russian bank in which the government has a majority stake, said the new restrictions on its access to European financial markets would “not affect the bank’s work, nor its credit rating,” and had not been imposed because of anything the bank had done.

“We consider this decision purely politically motivated, unjust, contradictory to the law and reciprocally harmful for the economy,” the bank said.

Investors bid down the value of the ruble by 0.26 percent against the dollar on Wednesday.

Opposition voices in Russia said the economy would nonetheless pay a price for what they called Putin’s misguided policy in destabilizing Ukraine.

“I was asked whether sanctions will stop Putin,” Boris Y. Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, wrote on his Facebook page.

“My answer is no, they won’t,” he wrote, suggesting that sanctions might even fuel Putin’s zeal to punish Ukraine for trying to leave Russia’s orbit.

“Only the Russian people can stop him, when they ultimately understand that the crazy man cornered and impoverished them,” he said.

“But it won’t happen right away. The withdrawal sickness and hangover will be long and painful.”

Source: The New York Times

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIGHTING NEAR THE CRASH SITE 

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

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

The land mine report could not be independently confirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The price was worth paying, he added:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ukraine's fragile economy is also taking a battering.

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

GOVERNMENT TROOPS ADVANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: einNews

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Where Ukraine's Separatists Get Their Weapons

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


Pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk, Ukraine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BORDER SKIRMISHES 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That led to more ambitious attacks on Ukrainian targets.

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

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

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

The origin of the weapon remains unclear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“RUSSIAN BONEYARDS”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reuters could not independently verify that.

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

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

He described it as “all old Soviet weaponry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“OUT OF CONTROL”

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

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

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

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

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

Ukraine rejects such claims.

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

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

The rebels have no aircraft, he said.

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

Another U.S. official said:

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

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

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

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

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

He declined to be more specific.

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

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

Source: Google News

Ukraine Rebel Chief Igor Bezler Threatens To Execute Interviewer

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rumble of shelling in the distance was audible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was unclear if they were joking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Budik was also emotional.

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

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

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

Budik chuckled.

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

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

He looked at us with furious eyes.

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

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

His voice grew louder as he grew more angry.

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

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

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

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

Protesting only made things worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had calmed down, somewhat.

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

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

I may never get another chance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, the fighting has intensified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep down, they all expect to die here.

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

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

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

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

Source: The Guardian

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No longer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: The New York Times - Europe

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Double Blow For Putin As Ukraine Rebels Suffer Setbacks, West Prepares To Levy More Sanctions

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine reportedly have suffered their biggest battlefield setbacks in months as the U.S. and European countries prepare to ramp up pressure on Russian leader Vladimir Putin by imposing more sanctions against Moscow later this week.


July 28, 2014: Igor Strelkov, a Russian rebel commander, speaks to the media in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Ukraine army forces had made rapid gains near the site where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed July 17 and were apparently trying to split the territory held by the rebels into two parts between the major cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Officials on both sides of the fighting also told the Journal that Ukraine army was attempting to cut off supply lines from Russia to the rebels.

Igor Girkin, a Russian citizen who is the top defense official in the separatist Donetsk People's Republic, also said Monday that more than 100 wounded separatist fighters had been evacuated to Russia because "I can't rule out the total siege of Donetsk from all sides."

Meanwhile, the separatist republic's self-proclaimed Prime Minister Alexander Borodai left the rebel-held territory for Moscow on Monday, triggering speculation that the rebels were fleeing the city. ‪

Another separatist official, Vladimir Antufeyev, said that Borodai had gone to Russia to discuss "humanitarian aid" and planned to return soon.

U.S. officials say Russia appears to be taking a more direct role in the fight between the Ukraine government and the separatist rebels.

Tony Blinken, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told reporters Monday that Moscow appeared to be using the international attention focused on the downed Malaysia Airlines plane as "cover and distraction" while it moves more heavy weaponry over its border and into Ukraine.

"We've seen a significant re-buildup of Russian forces along the border, potentially positioning Russia for a so-called humanitarian or peace-keeping intervention in Ukraine," Blinken said.

"So there's urgency to arresting this."

The European Union is expected to move to restrict transactions with Russia's state banks and limit technology exports as early as Tuesday, as well as place an embargo on future arms sales.

The U.S. has said it will follow suit.

On Monday, EU ambassadors also agreed to bring pressure to bear on influential Russians, potentially including members of President Putin's inner circle and support base, by allowing EU-wide asset freezes and travel bans to apply to Russians who have supported or benefited from the Kremlin's takeover of Crimea.

The ambassadors also agreed to target additional organizations and businesses for sanctions because of their alleged actions in violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity.

Those measures were expected to take effect as early as Wednesday evening.

In a rare videoconference call with President Barack Obama on Monday, the leaders of Britain, Germany, Italy and France expressed their willingness to adopt new sanctions against Russia in coordination with the United States, an official French statement said.

The Western nations are demanding Russia halt the alleged supply of arms to Ukrainian separatists and other actions that destabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine.

Europe, which has a stronger trade relationship with Russia than the U.S., has lagged behind Washington with its earlier sanctions package, in part out of concern from leaders that the penalties could have a negative impact on their own economies.

But a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said following Monday's call that the West agreed that the EU should move a "strong package of sectoral sanctions as swiftly as possible."

French President Francois Hollande said in a statement that the Western leaders "regretted Russia has not effectively pressured separatists to bring them to negotiate nor taken expected concrete measures to assure control of the Russian-Ukrainian border."

Neither set of penalties is expected to fully cut off Russian economic sectors from the West, an options U.S. officials have said they're holding in reserve in case Russia launches a full-on military incursion in Ukraine or takes a similarly provocative step. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said any sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European countries on Russia would not be effective.

"We will overcome any difficulties that may arise in certain areas of the economy, and maybe we will become more independent and more confident in our own strength," he said, according to Reuters.

Source: FOX News

Setbacks Complicate Putin's Ukraine Strategy

MOSCOW, Russia -- Pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine saw some of their worst battlefield setbacks in weeks Monday as the West agreed on tougher sanctions aimed at forcing Moscow to cut support for the militias—posing fresh challenges on two fronts for Russian President Vladimir Putin.


Putin (C), at a government meeting on the Russian defense industry Monday, where he said Russia is capable of finding substitutes for supplies imported for weapons manufacture.

Ukrainian forces were advancing from the north and south in an effort to cut off Donetsk, one of two remaining separatist strongholds, from fellow rebels in the other, Luhansk, as well as their supply lines to the Russian border, officials on both sides of the fighting said.

At the same time, the U.S. and Europe said they would adopt the harshest economic sanctions yet on the Kremlin this week.

The European Union—Russia's largest trading partner—is expected to move as early as Tuesday to restrict transactions with Russia's state banks, as well as limit technology exports vital for the country's oil and weapons industries.

The U.S. has vowed to follow suit.

In the past, every time such sectoral sanctions were threatened, the Kremlin managed to head them off with moves that appeared to signal de-escalation of the conflict.

In reality, those moves "were only meant to buy time," a European official said.

"Now, they are no longer trying to buy time."

Instead, Moscow appears to be digging in, even as the situation for the pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine deteriorates.

At a hastily called news conference, Igor Girkin, a Russian citizen who is the top defense official in the separatist Donetsk People's Republic, said his forces had evacuated more than 100 wounded fighters to Russia because "I can't rule out the total siege of Donetsk from all sides."

The Donetsk separatists' top political leader, Alexander Borodai, had left for Moscow for consultations, his deputy said.

The new sanctions were agreed to during a conference call Monday that included U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

The leaders agreed Moscow hadn't done enough to deprive the separatists of arms or to push the separatists toward a truce with the Kiev government, U.S. and European officials said.

Although Russia offered modest concessions for international monitoring, it has actually substantially stepped up supplies of weapons to rebels across the border, according to Western officials.

"We expect the European Union to take significant additional steps this week, including in key sectors of the Russian economy," said Tony Blinken, Mr. Obama's deputy national security adviser.

"In turn, and in full coordination with Europe, the United States will implement additional measures itself."

The Kremlin has taken steps to prepare Russians for deeper international isolation.

On Monday, Putin gathered top defense-industry officials at his residence to discuss how to replace imported technologies amid "risks of a political nature."

In a nationally televised speech to security chiefs last week, he warned that while Russia's nuclear deterrent protects it from military conquest, rivals still seek to undermine the country "in the economic sphere and politically."

Putin vowed to work to head off any such threats to Russia's "sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Putin's balancing act over the past several months—keeping the pressure on Kiev with covert support for the rebels while avoiding serious economic penalties from the West—had managed to satisfy both the nationalist hard-liners and the business elite within Russia.

But pressure was building even before the Malaysian jetliner was downed over rebel-held territory on July 17, amid growing frustration in Europe with the lack of progress toward a resolution of the crisis.

Scenes of separatists roving through the crash site amid the bodies of the victims and their belongings cemented Western support for tough new measures.

The crash created "a completely new situation that makes further-reaching measures necessary," a spokeswoman for Ms. Merkel said Monday.

Broadening the sanctions "will be in some way a disaster," economically and politically, for both sides, said one longtime European diplomat.

"But we cannot be indifferent. We had to react."

Even Russian officials have acknowledged that the impact of sectoral restrictions is likely to be much more painful than the sanctions targeting individuals and companies that have been imposed to date—a list that the EU is also preparing to extend to include, for the first time, some Russian oligarchs.

Russia's stock market and currency dropped Monday as investors girded for the worst.

"The room for maneuver is now minimal," says Alexei Makarkin, analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow political consultant.

"From the pragmatic point of view, it would probably be best to pull back" and allow the Ukrainian military to defeat the separatists, he said.

"But now that's very difficult. The public wouldn't understand."

Some observers say the Kremlin seems to have misread the rising frustration in the West and assumed that the close economic ties with Europe would again save it from tougher action.

Moscow "thought that the West wouldn't go further" with sanctions because the risk of economic blowback would "outweigh moral principles," Alexei Venediktov, editor of independent Ekho Moskvy radio said.

"The situation is much more ominous than it was a week ago," said Thomas Graham, a former White House Russia-policy chief.

"Putin is underestimating the West. But are we underestimating how much he will risk in Ukraine?"

European officials said the looming sanctions would be carefully modulated to allow them to be tightened if the situation worsened and lifted if Putin took real steps toward defusing the conflict.

Pro-Kremlin commentators have warned in recent days that backing down now in Ukraine would lead the West to turn its focus to returning Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in March.

The threat of a sudden collapse of the separatist forces under pressure from Kiev could also prove intolerable for the Kremlin, spurring even deeper intervention.

Some Kremlin advisers say the conflict with the West is seen in increasingly existential terms in Moscow.

"The long-term [Western] goal—though no one talks about it—is political change inside Russia, regime change, if you will," Fyodor Lukyanov, head of a Kremlin foreign-policy advisory panel, said in an interview Monday with a Russian online-news site.

Western officials say the sanctions are aimed only at changing Kremlin policy in Ukraine.

"Expecting Putin to back off, or his close friends to persuade him to change tack or else the 'oligarchs' to pressure the Kremlin into beating a retreat betrays a lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation," Dmitry Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, wrote in a commentary Monday.

"It is no longer the struggle for Ukraine but a battle for Russia."

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Enmity And Civilian Toll Rise In Ukraine While Attention Is Diverted

DONETSK, Ukraine -- One was a retired cook. Another installed alarms in cars. Another was a cleaner in a grocery store who had gone out to buy ground beef to make her son meatball soup.


With international attention focused on the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the deaths of these three civilians — some of the roughly 800 who have been killed in the battle over eastern Ukraine — have gone virtually unnoticed by the outside world.

The Ukrainian military’s advances to reclaim territory from rebel control have come at a steep human cost.

According to a United Nations count released on Monday, 799 civilians have been killed since mid-April, when Ukraine began to battle insurgents here, and at least 2,155 have been wounded.

The killings have left the population in eastern Ukraine embittered toward Ukraine’s pro-Western government, and are helping to spur recruitment for the pro-Russian militias.

In time, even if the Ukrainian military routs the rebels and retakes the east, the civilian deaths are likely to leave deep resentments here, and could complicate reconciliation efforts for decades.

The rising toll of the conflict in eastern Ukraine — the first open hostilities in Europe in 15 years — is a direct consequence of the nature of the war here.

Much of the fighting takes the form of low-tech airstrikes and artillery fired at a distance from aging weaponry, tactics that can inflict significant harm on civilians.

In comparison, 330 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed, the United Nations said.

There are no estimates for rebels.

In a report released on Thursday, Human Rights Watch documented four instances of the use of unguided Grad rockets, which killed at least 16 civilians in and around Donetsk in nine days.

While both rebels and Ukrainian forces use the rockets — descendants of World War II-era weapons — the investigation “strongly indicates that Ukrainian government forces were responsible” for the four attacks.

“Using these kinds of weapons in populated areas is a violation of the laws of war,” said Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“International allies of the Ukrainian government — the United States, the European Union — should condemn this use and urge the government to stop.”

Ukraine’s military strongly denies responsibility for any attacks that have caused civilian deaths.

Vladislav Seleznyov, a military spokesman, did not comment on the report itself, but he said that soldiers were under orders not to harm civilians.

“We are prohibited from using artillery in residential areas,” he said.

“Yes, we have these weapons,” he said, referring to Grads, “but we never use them in civilian areas. No way.”

But the military’s campaign against the rebels has increased the likelihood of civilian casualties given how deeply the rebels have embedded into the civilian population. 

As Ukrainian troops inched toward Donetsk and Luhansk in recent weeks, two regional capitals with a combined population of 1.5 million, residents feared the worst, looking to what happened in Slavyansk, a small city to the north that the military took by pounding rebel positions and flattening the neighborhoods where the rebels were.

Those fears were soon realized.

One of the main rebel bases in Luhansk is in a military recruitment office next to the main bus station, and it drew intense shelling, leaving power lines scattered like string over the shrapnel-torn pavement.

And in Donetsk, where Ukrainian troops have pressed forward from the north and west for weeks, the Marinka, Petrovsky and Kuibyshevsky neighborhoods have come under heavy rocket fire.

The barrages against all three areas, according to Human Rights Watch, originated from positions held by the Ukrainian military.

Mr. Seleznyov said he could not comment on specific events.

On July 21 in Kuibyshevsky, in a leafy area near a dental office and a library, Sergei Yakshin, 41, the man with the alarm business, was walking to his car.

He never made it.

A rocket exploded nearby, killing him and another man instantly.

A short walk away, a different rocket hit Valentina A. Surmai, a 72-year-old pensioner who worked at a local grocery store to support her blind husband.

The cook, Alla A. Vasyutina, 60, bled to death in her kitchen after a piece of shrapnel penetrated the wall of her house.

“She wanted to make us soup,” said Ms. Surmai’s son, Sergei, standing in his underwear, his eyes red.

“I told her, ‘Mom, don’t go out,’ ” he said.

He barely recognized her body in the morgue. Half her face and her left side were gone.

Her death enraged Mr. Surmai.

“If they give me a gun, I’m ready to go fight,” he said.

“After this, it’s either us, or them. There’s no choice now. We have to go to the end.” 

A friend of Ms. Surmai’s, Alexandra Rud, 74, said she, like her friend, hated the rebels, but she blamed the government for Ms. Surmai’s death.

“I want to shout to the whole world,” she said, her voice shrill, as artillery boomed in the distance.

“Stop it! Get out! Leave us alone!”

The violence has rearranged habits and daily routines.

Konstantin, a morgue worker in Luhansk who refused to give his full name for fear of exposing himself and his family to attention, said he and his wife now sleep on a mattress stuffed into a small underground space in a garage used for repairing cars.

Teatime chatter was about what survival supplies to put in their cellars, which now double as bomb shelters.

Anatoly Leonidovich, the head doctor at the Luhansk morgue, said that after a particularly vicious battle two weeks ago, he received 15 bodies, all but one twisted and torn, consistent with artillery wounds.

The next day, he was still getting calls.

“Who are you looking for?” he said, speaking into a Soviet-era telephone.

“Is he civilian or a rebel?” he asked.

Rebels collect the bodies of their comrades and do their own paperwork, he said.

“Ah yes, I have him. Sklyarov, Vladimir, year of birth, 1973.”

Establishing responsibility for civilian deaths has been difficult.

The shelling in Luhansk, for example, touched off ferocious arguments:

Supporters of the government in Kiev accuse the rebels, while those who favor Russia blame the Ukrainian forces.

 “Idiot!” shouted a stout woman with fiery red lipstick.

She was glaring at Boris Besarab, a bespectacled security guard in a Luhansk neighborhood called Peaceful that was hit on July 14.

He had been explaining why he believed that the angle of impact meant that rebels had fired the shell.

“Take your glasses off,” she fumed, stalking away.

“This is why Ukraine is going to hell!”

The local disputes mirror those on a larger scale, with Russia and Ukraine blaming one another for attacks that kill civilians.

Civilian deaths have been at the heart of Russia’s narrative against Kiev, though rarely mentioned is the fact that rebels cause them too.

In one case, Ukraine claimed that Russia carried out an airstrike on an apartment block in the city of Snizhne, suggesting that a plane traveled from across the border, more than 12 miles to the south.

But the angle of the 10 holes punched by the bombs and the direction of the damage indicated that the bomber was flying from west to east.

Some residents suggested that the target might have been a rebel base just a quarter of a mile away.

War is as much about perception as reality, and in some ways truth is powerless against what people want to believe.

Most people interviewed at attack sites accused the Ukrainian forces, a pattern that bodes ill for Ukraine’s government as it tries to put the country back together again. 

“Look, there’s your Poroshenko!” yelled Viktoria Y. Iotova, referring to Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko, and pointing to 14 Lenin Street in Snizhne, where at least 11 civilians were killed.

“Who will answer for these human lives?” she added as she began to cry.

Piles of personal items were strewn through the streets around her.

A sewing machine lay between a teacup and an old Samsung laptop.

One wall of a corner apartment remained intact, shielded from the blast wave.

It told of life before the bombs: potted plants on a shelf, a red teakettle atop the cupboard and a neatly ordered spice rack with two rows of six jars apiece.

There, amid the debris, a 4-year-old boy, Bogdan Yasterbov, was trapped.

As a yellow crane lifted concrete blocks from the wreckage, local residents sat in shock, and the blue-eyed Bogdan screamed.

It took hours before anyone heard him.

Then, as a cellphone video shows, red-faced rescue workers noticed him and yelled:

“Children! Be quiet!”

Men began digging.

Bogdan came into view, face down in a pocket of space under the rubble.

He was carried out and laid on a stretcher, limbs limp.

His bright blond hair was darkened by the dust.

Bogdan survived, but his mother, Daria, did not.

Source: The New York Times

Monday, July 28, 2014

As Fighting Continues In East Ukraine, U.S. Releases Images Said To Implicate Russia

KIEV, Ukraine -- Rebels and government troops fired on each other’s positions Sunday in a strategically important city in eastern Ukraine, sending residents into bomb shelters, as Washington released images that it said proved Russia is shooting across the border into Ukraine to support separatists.


The US State Department released this and several other images it says show Russian forces launching rockets from Ukraine and Russia at Ukrainian forces this past week.

At least 13 civilians were reported killed in the fighting around Horlivka, an industrial city of almost 300,000 people about 30 miles from the rebel bastion of Donetsk.

According to a resident reached by telephone, parts of the city are without water or electricity, grocery stores are empty, and rebels and residents are fleeing.

The Ukrainian military denied targeting civilians and said the pro-Russian rebels were to blame for the damage and casualties.

The military accused the rebels of firing into residential neighborhoods.

The battle in Horlivka is part of a major push by the military to isolate and eventually oust the rebel fighters from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

It would be a huge symbolic and strategic victory.

As the fighting raged, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov talked briefly on the phone.

According to a Russian Foreign Ministry statement, they discussed the need for an “immediate” cease-fire in Ukraine.

The State Department said that during the short call, Kerry urged Lavrov “to stop the flow of heavy weapons and rocket and artillery fire from Russia into Ukraine, and to begin to contribute to deescalating the conflict. He did not accept Foreign Minister Lavrov’s denial that heavy weapons from Russia were contributing to the conflict.” 

As the ground war in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatist forces and government troops has escalated, the war of words and images between Russia and the West has reached a fever pitch.

The Obama administration on Sunday released grainy surveillance photographs that it said were evidence that Russia has fired artillery rounds from its side of the border on Ukrainian military units.

Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, charged Sunday that the United States is getting most of its intelligence data on the Russian military from social media and suggested that it turn to more “trustworthy” information, the news agency Itar-Tass reported.

Konashenkov denied U.S. statements last week that Russia, after first decreasing the number of its troops deployed along the Ukraine border, has increased their ranks to at least 15,000.

Regular international inspections under the Open Skies Treaty, he said, “have not registered any violations or undeclared military activity on the part of Russia in the areas adjacent to the Ukrainian border.”

Under the international treaty, member governments regularly conduct overflights, after providing advance notice, of neighboring countries.

Although such flights were common in the early days of the Ukraine conflict, it is unclear whether any have been conducted recently.

The State Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, both of which distributed the photographs to journalists Sunday, did not indicate the source of the photos, which were labelled with the imprint of DigitalGlobe, a commercial satellite and aerial-imaging company.

Konashenkov said similar inspections of “Ukrainian armed forces’ active combat actions in the areas adjacent to the Russian border” would “register high concentration of Ukrainian troops, armaments and military equipment that regularly shell Russian settlements and have already killed and injured our citizens there.”

The high-altitude images released Sunday “provide evidence that Russian forces have fired across the border at Ukrainian military forces, and that Russia-backed separatists have used heavy artillery, provided by Russia, in attacks on Ukrainian forces from inside Ukraine,” according to labels on the pictures provided by the U.S. government.

The most recent photograph, taken Saturday, shows what is described as “blast marks” from rocket-launcher fire on the Russian side of the border and “impact craters” inside Ukraine.

A photograph labeled as having been taken Wednesday shows a row of vehicles described as “self-propelled artillery only found in Russian military units, on the Russian side of the border, oriented in the direction of a Ukrainian military unit within Ukraine.”

On the other side of the border, “the pattern of crater impacts near the Ukrainian military unit indicates strikes from artillery fired from self-propelled or towed artillery, vice multiple rocket launchers,” the label says.

The Obama administration has said that direct Russian participation in Ukraine, along with Moscow’s failure to use its influence on the separatists to allow international inspectors access to the site of the July 17 Malaysian airliner crash inside separatist territory, should lead to increased sanctions against Russia.

A team of forensic experts and investigators that arrived Sunday in Donetsk had planned to head to the crash site, but the visit was called off for safety reasons. 

Sunday marked the third day of the Ukrainian army’s assault on rebels in Horlivka.

Some residents said shelling began shortly after dawn Sunday and continued intermittently throughout the day.

Andriy Lysenko, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said troops are not carrying out air or artillery strikes against civilians.

He blamed the attacks on rebels, who he said are trying to frighten residents and discredit the army by posing as government troops.

A video taken Sunday in Horlivka showed large plumes of gray smoke rising from several places in the city.

A resident named Viktor, a 32-year-old engineer who asked that his last name not be published because of the precarious situation, said he watched from his sixth-floor balcony as army troops and rebels exchanged fire.

He said he saw rockets launched from a rebel position answered by return fire a few minutes later.

The weapons fire ignited the local energy company’s office, struck a supermarket on the ground floor of an apartment building and destroyed a building housing the kitchen of the local hospital, he said.

Viktor described an eerie emptiness in Horlivka. Traffic, he said, is mostly just a few speeding cars that appear to be driven by rebels.

Residents who live in houses are spending nights in their basements, he said, while apartment dwellers have retreated to abandoned, Soviet-era bomb shelters that smell of sewage.

“A lot of people have left,” Viktor said.

“But my mother is here, and I can’t leave her.”

Source: The Washington Post

Ukraine Poised To Try To Reclaim Donetsk, Its Military Says

KIEV, Ukraine -- Government troops were engaged in a pitched battle with rebels on Saturday just outside the separatist bastion of Donetsk and plan to advance next into the city that has been at the heart of the pro-Russian insurgency.


A carrier flying Ukraine's flag in the region of Lugansk. Russia on Friday called the latest US accusations of Moscow’s involvement in the Ukrainian conflict a baseless “smear campaign.”

If the army succeeds in retaking Horlivka, a city of almost 300,000 people where fighting was fierce Saturday, they will be within a few miles of Donetsk.

Rebels have held sway there since the spring, ruling what they call the Donetsk People’s Republic.

Cars created roadblocks out of town Saturday, and the railway station was packed with people desperate to board the next train out.

The military already has ousted rebels from 10 surrounding villages and towns over the past week and blocked roads into and out of Donetsk to prevent supplies from entering the city, according to Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Security and Defense Council.

“The next one will be Donetsk,” Lysenko said, making a bold prediction:

“The city will be liberated.”

Ukrainian officials have sounded increasingly confident in recent days, even though 15,000 Russian troops are believed to be massed at the border and gaining in men and materiel with every passing day.

American and Ukrainian officials have said Moscow appears to be stepping up its support of the rebels, which include many Russian citizens, since a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane was downed on July 17 by a missile fired from separatist-held territory.

Explosions from the battlefield can be heard at the unsecured crash site, where investigators say they are still finding human remains.

A plane carrying the last of 227 coffins filled with body bags of passenger and crew from the crash left Kharkiv for the Netherlands on Saturday, though it’s not known how many remains are in each bag.

That potentially leaves dozens of people unaccounted for.

Rebels said that they have given Dutch officials luggage and other personal effects belonging to crash victims, according to a statement cited by Russian news service Interfax.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said his country was not fighting a civil war in the east but “foreign mercenaries.”

“This is a real fight for the sovereignty of Ukraine, the territorial integrity of Ukraine, for the independence of Ukraine,” he said while awarding service medals to the National Guard.

“It is not an internal conflict; it is Ukraine defending its territory from foreign mercenaries, from bandits and from terrorists.”

Russia, in turn, stepped up its rhetoric against the United States and Europe, accusing the United States of spreading lies and warning that sanctions imposed by the European Union are “endangering international security cooperation.”

A Foreign Ministry statement said the sanctions show Europe has “embarked on a complete turning away from cooperation with Russia on international and regional security, including the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, organized crime and other new challenges and threats.”

“We are convinced that such decisions will be enthusiastically received by international terrorists,” the statement added.

In a separate statement, the ministry accused the U.S. government of conducting “an unrelenting campaign of slander against Russia, ever more relying on open lies.”

The escalating tensions, within Ukraine and with its neighbor, have left many Ukrainians on edge.

The mayor of Kremenchuk, a town in central Ukraine, was fatally shot Saturday.

The house of another mayor, in Lviv in western Ukraine, was damaged by fire from an antitank grenade launcher. That led many people to speculate on social media that the attacks were connected to the insurgency, though there was no evidence immediately available to prove that.

Source: The Washington Post

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Ukraine Launches Offensive To Retake Donetsk

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Ukrainian officials said their forces advanced to the outskirts of a key town north of Donetsk on Saturday as they try to retake the stronghold held for months by pro-Russia rebels.


Angela Rudhart-Dyczynski and Jerzy Dyczynski from Australia react as they arrive on July 26, 2014 at the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 where they lost their 25 years old daughter Fatima (portrayed on the father's t-shirt), near the village of Hrabove, in the Donetsk region.

The move comes as Ukrainian forces appear to have gained some momentum recently by retaking control of territory from the rebels.

But Russia also appears to becoming more involved in the fighting, with the U.S. and Ukraine accusing Moscow of moving heavily artillery across the border to the rebels.

Ukrainian national security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Ukrainian forces were outside Horlikva, just north of the regional center of Donetsk.

Once they can take Horlivka, "the direct route is open for the forces of the anti-terrorist operation to the capital of the Donbass region — the city of Donetsk," Lysenko said.

"The approaches to Donetsk are being blocked so that the terrorists do not get the chance to receive ammunition, reinforcements or equipment."

Donetsk, a city of about 1 million people, is a major center of the separatist uprising that has battled Ukrainian government forces for five months.

An Associated Press reporter found the highway north of Donetsk blocked by rebels and heard the sound of artillery to the north.

Explosions were heard in the direction of the town's airport, on the northwest edge of the city, an area frequently contested by Ukrainian forces and rebels.

Black smoke rose from the direction of Yakovlikva, a northern suburb of Donetsk. 

About 35 miles (60 kilometers) to the east, the site where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down was still eerily empty except for the parents of one of the 298 people killed in the July 17 disaster.

A full-fledged investigation still hasn't started because of the security risks posed by the nearby fighting.

But Jerzy Dyczynski and Angela Rudhart-Dyczynski, parents of 25-year-old Fatima, travelled from their home in Perth, Australia to honor their daughter.

They crossed territory held by pro-Russian rebels to reach the wreckage-strewn fields outside the village of Hrabove, where they sat together on part of the debris, his arm around her shoulder.

Fatima "was for peace. She will be forever for peace," her father said.

U.S. and Ukrainian officials say the plane was shot down by a missile from rebel territory, most likely by mistake.

Two military cargo planes, one Dutch and the other Australian, also flew 38 more coffins carrying victims to the Netherlands for identification and investigation.

Later, the Dutch government said the first formal identification of a victim had taken place.

The name and sex of the victim, a Dutch national, were not released.

The planes took off Saturday from Kharkiv, a government-controlled city where the bodies have been brought from the wreckage site in territory held by pro-Russian separatists fighting the Ukrainian government.

They landed later in the afternoon in Eindhoven, where the coffins were transferred to a fleet of hearses in a solemn ceremony.

Officials said the flights took the last of the 227 coffins containing victims that had been brought to Kharkiv by refrigerated train.

Officials say the exact number of people held in the coffins is still to be determined by forensic experts in the Netherlands, where Ukraine agreed to send the bodies.

International observers have said there are still remains at the wreckage site.

Access has been limited due to rebel interference and security concerns.

The disaster sparked hopes in the West that Russia would scale back its involvement in the uprising in Ukraine's east, but nine days later the opposite seems to be the case.

Russia launched artillery attacks from its soil into Ukraine on Friday, while the United States said it has seen powerful rocket systems moving closer to the Ukraine border.

Those accusations sparked a strong denial from Moscow, which accuses the U.S. of a smear campaign.

The Russian Foreign Ministry accused the United States on Saturday of conducting "an unrelenting campaign of slander against Russia, ever more relying on open lies." 

The ministry took particular issue with comments Friday by White House spokesman Josh Earnest, who said Washington regards Moscow as involved in the shooting down of the airliner because it allegedly has supplied missile systems to the rebels and trained them on how to use them.

The ministry complained that these allegations have not been backed up with public evidence and it sneered at Earnest for saying they are supported by claims on social media. 

"In other words, the Washington regime is basing its contentions on anti-Russian speculation gathered from the Internet that does not correspond to reality," it said. 

Russia also lashed out at the latest round of Ukraine-related sanctions imposed by the European Union, saying they endanger the fight against international terrorism.

The EU sanctions, announced on Friday, impose travel bans and asset freezes on 15 people, including the head of Russia's Federal Security Service and the head of the agency's department overseeing international operations and intelligence.

Four members of Russia's national security council are also on the list.

The Foreign Ministry said the sanctions show the EU is taking "a complete turn away from joint work with Russia on international and regional security, including the fight against the spread of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism (and) organized crime." 

"We are sure the decisions will be greeted enthusiastically by international terrorists," the ministry said.

Meanwhile, CNN reported that a Ukrainian freelancer who had been detained by separatists was freed on Saturday.

The journalist, Anton Skiba, was seized Tuesday in the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk when he and other members of a TV crew returned to a hotel after working at the site of the downed Malaysian airliner.

A day earlier, the anti-Kremlin newspaper Novaya Gazeta ran a full front-page photo of a cortege of hearses with the headline in Dutch and Russian saying:

"Forgive us, Holland."

Source: AP

Ukraine Woman Posts Selfies With Mascara 'Looted' From Malaysia Airlines rash

DONETSK, Ukraine -- The young pro-Russia woman boasted of using makeup from downed Flight MH17. An uproar ensued on the Internet and the Instagram account was taken down. Looters also reportedly swiped credit cards from at least one passenger at the crash site.


Russian sympathiser, Ekaterina Parkhomenko, used makeup looted from a dead passenger of downed Flight MH17.

This beauty is actually a beast.

An Ukrainian woman with pro-Russia beliefs posted pictures on Instagram of herself wearing makeup that she bragged was looted from debris of the downed Malaysia Airlines flight.

“Mascara from Amsterdam, or rather from the field,” Ekaterina Parkhomenko wrote to her Instagram followers.

“Well, I think you know what I mean.”

A self-described “separatist,” Parkhomenko noted that she did not collect the Catrice brand makeup herself.

She wrote that it was given to her by a “familiar friend.”

That claim did nothing to stem the uproar triggered by her photos.

One Instagram poster called her “complete scum.”

“It is sick, completely sick,” another commenter wrote.

Well known Russian blogger Bozhena Rysnka blasted Parkhomenko, comparing her to an hungry dog.

“It is lower than low to pick up mascara from the deceased,” she wrote on Facebook, according to London’s Daily Mail.

She’s “simply an animal, like a dog that gets a pack of biscuits falling from the sky.

Can you be angry with a dog for eating it?”

Before deleting her account, Parkhomenko wrote:

“I am just sick of all this Ukrainian stuff. Sick and terribly furious.”

It appears makeup isn’t the only type of item in the wreckage that looters were gunning for.

The furor over Parkhomenko’s pics erupted as a family member of a South African man aboard the doomed plane revealed that his credit cards had been stolen at the crash site and used by thieves.

A brother-in-law of Cameron Dalziel — a 43-year-old helicopter rescue pilot who was traveling on a British passport — called the thievery “cruel” and “disgusting.” 

“We’ve been told some of his cards were stolen,” Shane Hattingh told The Sun newspaper.

“After all we’ve been through — to do this to the families is so cruel. It is leaving some struggling for money. This really is the final insult. It is disgusting.”

A total of 298 people were killed after the Malaysia Airlines Flight was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17.

A team of Dutch experts is probing the cause of the crash, with heavy suspicion falling on the pro-Russian rebels who control the region.

The failure to secure the crash site has turned into an international fiasco.

Australia on Friday said it’s close to finalizing a deal with Ukraine to send troops to protect the scene.

“This is a humanitarian mission ... with a clear and simple objective: to bring them home,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters.

“Others can engage in the politics of eastern Europe. All we want to do is to claim our dead and to bring them home.”

Source: New York Daily News