Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Voices: Ukraine A Country Aching With Anguish

KIEV, Ukraine -- Everywhere I went during my recent visit to Ukraine, I ran into people heartbroken about what war with Russian-backed separatists has done to their country.

Elena Bilan, 55, prays at a makeshift shrine in Kiev to dozens of people killed by mysterious snipers during last year's Maidan uprising that resulted in the ousting of former president Viktor Yanukovych. "What will happen next year I don't know. I have a son at the front and I help him with everything I have," Bilan said.

I encountered tears in Odessa, Mariupol, Donetsk, Amvrosiivka, Vasylkiivka and Kiev, government- and separatist-held towns where the brutality of the conflict and the likelihood it will last seemed to be setting in.

Everywhere, the sadness was accompanied by financial fear.

Yet the war has caused feelings on both sides to harden against what many here see as Russian – or Ukrainian – aggression.

Elena Bilan, 55, prayed at makeshift shrines to dozens of people killed by mysterious snipers in Kiev during last year's Maidan uprising that led to the war.

"We used to have a lot of tourists from Belarus and Russia. Last year we had a lot of people from Donetsk, but they weren't tourists, they were displaced people," she said.

"What will happen next year I don't know. I have a son at the front, and I help him with everything I have."

Prices on foreign goods have risen while wages stagnate.

Some jobs have disappeared, and everywhere young men are waiting to find out whether they'll be mobilized for the country's defense.

In separatist-held Amvrosiivka, near the Russian border, I spoke to a group of mothers waiting in the cold for handouts from an aid group.

Those who had jobs weren't getting paid.

Government assistance no longer arrives.

And the war is killing their men.

They were afraid rebel officials would retaliate against them if they spoke candidly on the record to a reporter.

Eventually, Natalia Larkina, 30, Olga Lapteva, 35, Alona Peleshok, 33, Marina Azmanova, 39, and Tatiana Belsmer, 38, agreed to talk as a group.

Belsmer, a clerk at a new car showroom before the war, has two small children and a son who could be drafted into the rebel military.

She'd like to leave her town and go somewhere else, anywhere else.

But she doesn't have the money.

She started crying as she contemplated her fate.

She admits that she supported separation from Ukraine a year ago.

But she never expected war. 

"Many people were killed," she said.

"It's almost impossible to forgive."

In Kiev, Oksana Semenets, 25, stood in line with a friend outside the Pinchuk Art Centre, a free art gallery that is one of the few entertainment venues people here can still enjoy.

"We can't buy a house and can't afford a child now," Semenets said.

"Now, everyone is nervous. We're waiting for the mobilization."

Semenets' husband, who plays the trumpet with the National Philharmonic Society of Ukraine, may soon have to trade in his tuxedo for fatigues.

Semenets, a pianist and teacher, opposed pro-European demonstrations when they began in the fall of 2013.

Ukraine has a long cultural connection to Russia, especially in the musical sphere, and Ukraine is a country with resources that can develop without attaching itself to Europe, she said.

But the war and the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin changed her mind.

"I'm not against (Russian) people, I'm against Russian authorities and what they do," she said.

"Let them deal with their own huge country and leave us alone."

Mykola Polishchuk, 62, a retired store manager who has traveled across the region, said countering Russia and its cronies in eastern Ukraine means going up against a deep Russian nationalism that's hard to reason with.

"Their Russian identity is the glue that holds their Russian society together," Polishchuk said.

"It's a kind of fascism that believes we don't need good cars, bread or economy as long as we have that (identity) to hold us together."

He saw the influence of such thinking on his sister. who moved to Donetsk and then took three years "to change back to normal" after she moved back to Kiev.

But he's optimistic that Ukraine, with its natural riches, educated workforce, and industrial capacity, can prevail.

All it needs is Western aid, and Polishchuk is sure it's coming.

Ukraine needs Western capital as well as agricultural and technical know-how to improve its economy, Polishchuk said.

And, he added, "If Putin is to be stopped, we need modern American weapons."

Source: USA Today

Children Of War

ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine -- Slurping a bowl of thick soup, his twig-like legs swinging beneath the dining table, 6-year-old Ilya at first seems like any happy-go-lucky kid.

But so far life has been neither happy nor lucky.

Last spring as fighting intensified in eastern Ukraine, his mother fled to Russia with everything she had — except for Ilya, whom she abandoned in Horlivka, a city controlled by pro-Russian rebels.

Svetlana Kovalenko, a 44-year-old mother of seven, now takes care of the bony, fragile boy who suffers from cerebral palsy.

"If not me, who?" she said when asked why she took in Ilya.

Her family survives on about $132 each month and she struggles to afford the medication he needs. 

"Everything is more expensive than before the war," she said.

After dinner, Ilya began playing with a couple of matchboxes that he had stuck together.

Holding them to his ear like a phone, he placed an imaginary call.

"Hello?" he said.

"It's Ilya. Where are you?" 

He was trying to reach his mother who he hasn't seen in more than year.

Thousands of kids have lost one or both parents and at least 60 children have been killed — random casualties of a brutal conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists now in its second year.

Countless other children have been wounded in the fighting.

And an untold number are scarred emotionally by the unpredictable conflict that has pitted neighbor against neighbor.

At least 500 children have been evacuated from devastated rebel-held areas to Emerald City, a former summer camp.

Hundreds others live in nearby camps, and on the grounds of a picturesque monastery on the sharp right bank of the river.

While not ideal, conditions are far better here than where the children lived before. Halina Valentinovna, director at Emerald City, knows the toll of war on these young lives —the gruesome things they've seen and lived through.

Most have cowered with their families in dank, dark basements with little food and without running water, heat or power as their homes were bombarded with heavy artillery for months.

And a couple of kids told her of seeing bodies falling from the sky as a Ukrainian military plane was shot down.

"The children were terrified," Valentinovna says.

On a recent Sunday, a group of about 20 kids played dodge ball in a courtyard bordered by towering pines.

Inside the orphanage, toddlers played with building blocks and colored in children's books.

At first blush, they may appear fine but the children are severely traumatized.

Many shudder at the all-too-common sight of a soldier.

The children display other symptoms including heightened anxiety, frustration and aggression, according to Emerald City staff.

Those children still on the front lines play war games and amuse themselves by climbing in and out of rocket craters.

On a recent day, two young boys with plastic Kalashnikovs chased each other around a monument in central Donetsk in a mock battle for the airport.

"Officially, we say about 100,000 children need psychosocial care," said Gabrielle Akimova, an official with United Nations Children's Fund.

"I think it's five times that."

Ask them what's going on outside the orphanage and they'll talk knowledgably about tank warfare and Grad rocket systems.

Look at their artwork and you'll see rainbows and butterflies alongside heavy artillery and gunmen. 

Ukraine's orphanages are underfunded, overcrowded and short of staff as a result of the war and the country's struggling economy.

Many social workers have been let go and there are rumors more will be fired soon -- resulting in less help for children who really need it.

Before the war began, about one million children lived in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, according to UNICEF.

Of those, some 14,500 were already orphans or children deprived of parental care, with 2,600 living in state institutions.

Bohdan was one of them.

A bright 17-year-old, Bohdan recently told of his dreams of becoming a singer.

He arrived at Emerald City in July after a Ukrainian air strike accidentally leveled a residential neighborhood in his hometown of Snizhne, burying many civilians beneath the rubble.

On a recent field trip to Kiev, he was brought to meet Ukraine's First Lady, Marina Poroshenko.

She told the teenager that her husband, President Petro Poroshenko, would rebuild Ukraine so that he would have an opportunity to realize his dream. 

"She promised me that I'd become a singer," he said.

Source: Mashable

Monday, March 30, 2015

Ukraine Says Rebel Attacks Waning As Tanks Said to Cross Border

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine said one soldier was killed in clashes with separatists, while regional officials said 22 tanks crossed the border from Russia into the conflict zone.

Three other soldiers were wounded in the past day as pro-Russian rebels fired on government positions, Ukrainian military spokesman Colonel Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kiev on Monday.

“The situation in the east is being gradually stabilized. In the past 24 hours there were no cases of military vehicles, cannon and rocket artillery being used,” Lysenko said.

While casualties have waned following a cease-fire on Feb. 12 in Minsk, Belarus, fighting has sporadically erupted between government troops and separatists.

At the same time, Kiev is facing the increasingly onerous task of fixing an economy ruined by months of fighting, cracking down on corruption and negotiating new terms with international bondholders, including Russia.

The tanks entered Ukraine from the Russian town of Gukovo and moved toward Sverdlovsk in Luhansk region on March 28, the Donetsk regional government said on its website on Sunday.

Ukrainian forces broke the truce 13 times in the past day, the separatist-run DAN news service reported on Monday, citing the Defense Ministry of the self-declared Donetsk republic.

Investment Proposal 

George Soros is ready to put $1 billion into “concrete investment ideas” for Ukrainian agriculture and infrastructure projects, the billionaire told Austria’s Der Standard newspaper in an interview published on Monday.

Western governments should make investing in Ukraine more attractive by insuring against political risks and offering mezzanine financing at European Union rates, “meaning close to zero,” he said.

Ukraine’s government bond due in July 2017 rose for a third day, by 1.5 percent to 39.6 cents to the dollar at 1:10 p.m. in Kiev.

The hyrvnia, which has declined 33 percent against the greenback this year, the world’s worst performer, was little changed at 23.415 per dollar.

Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko urged Ukraine’s creditors on March 24 to back a debt overhaul or risk bigger losses.

The probability the negotiations will fail and lead to a disorderly default is about 30 percent, according to the median estimate of 21 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg on March 20-26.

Source: Bloomberg

Vladimir Putin Is Fighting For Political Survival – By Provoking Unrest In Ukraine

SEVASTOPOL, Crimea -- Writing from Sevastapol, the BBC World Affairs editor John Simpson explains how Russia's premiere is stalling. His Crimean coup is an attempt to distract the west.

Among the ruins: a collapsed building in Vuhlehirsk, eastern Ukraine, destroyed in the fighting between Ukrainian and rebel troops in February.

Mikhail Vanin, the Russian ambassador to Denmark, looks like a shrewd little man, with fuzzy hair and sharp, Putin-like eyes behind rimless glasses.

And he has quite a way with words.

Speaking to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 21 March, he said: “I don’t think that Danes fully understand the consequences if Denmark joins the American-led missile defence shield . . . If they do, then Danish warships will be targets for Russian nuclear missiles . . .

“It is, of course, your own decision. I just want to remind you that your finances and security will suffer.”

I don’t suppose that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most of us imagined that we would hear threats of this crudity being uttered in Europe again.

It is a little over a year since the west’s relationship with Russia seemed, if inevitably spiky, at least rational and manageable.

Now here is a Russian diplomat publicly warning a small member of NATO and the EU of the possibility of nuclear war.

How could things have got this bad in such a short space of time?

How could the post-cold war consensus have vanished so utterly? 

After Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Moscow Ukrainian government collapsed following the often violent protests of February 2014, Russia started to infiltrate Crimea with its forces as part of a plan that was worked out, we are now told, by Putin himself.

They cut off Crimea from mainland Ukraine, annexed it and received the post-dated questionable agreement of a large majority of its inhabitants.

After that, the same combination of nasty civilian thugs (one whom I came up against in Crimea had “Rossiya” tattooed across his forehead) and serving soldiers in unmarked uniforms headed to eastern Ukraine.

They are still fighting there.

The methodology goes back to the heart of the postwar Soviet era, with a few 21st-century touches.

If Moscow’s grip on a country that mattered seemed about to loosen, excuses were found and fraternal forces were assembled to make sure that it didn’t happen – the hard way.

Remember Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979 and now Ukraine in 2014.

Keeping hold of what they have has always mattered to Russia’s rulers.

If they let one part go, the whole structure might start to fall down.

Above all, it suggests weakness and there will always be those inside or outside the system who might take advantage of it and bring the rulers down.

As we shall see, some Putin-watchers think that this pattern is being repeated.

In Russia’s cities, you still occasionally come across a group of fascinated passers-by gathered around an upturned cardboard box, while some dodgy-looking character moves three walnut shells around with admirable prestidigitation.

It is illegal to play the game for money because it is crooked.

The innocent are supposed to bet on which shell is hiding a dried pea and they almost always – surprise, surprise – get it wrong.

There is a case to be made that Russia’s wholly cynical infiltration of eastern Ukraine and its threats towards the Baltic are an elaborate shell game.

While the outside world stares with fascination at the clever manipulation of the walnuts, our attention is being drawn away from the shell that matters: the one with Crimea under it.

The more we concentrate on Ukraine and the Baltic – which are, indeed, of immense importance – the more inclined we are to forget that Russia has grabbed one of the choicest bits of territory of a country whose borders it had solemnly undertaken to respect.

France, Italy and Greece are keen to ease the sanctions that the west as a whole has imposed on Russia as punishment for filching Crimea.

If Russia now stirs things up in the previously peaceful Baltic, our eyes will be distracted even more from the shell containing Crimea.

That is the one place that matters most to Vladimir Putin.

Neither he nor any other Russian leader will give up Crimea, except as the result of the most extreme force – and that is pretty unlikely, surely?

Getting hold of Crimea last year pushed Putin’s approval ratings in Russia beyond the 80 per cent mark.

When not long ago a rather ghastly teenager at a Crimean school sang for my television crew and me a welcoming song about Crimea being the diamond of Russia, he was absolutely right.

The Crimean Peninsula (and especially the southern part of it, which includes Yalta, Sevastopol and Balaklava) is as good as it gets anywhere.

Take Balaklava: it’s a delightful seaport, its white-painted house fronts built in the restrained, neoclassical style that was one of the best achievements of tsarism’s later years.

On a sunny day, of which there are many, it is like the south of France must have been before the rich arrived.

For five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Balaklava was a closed town.

Even the relatives of people who worked on its top-secret nuclear submarine base, which lies in full view on the other side of the port, had to carry special passes if they went to visit them.

The dark mouth of the tunnel that has been carved into the mountainside so that Soviet submarines could slip into their underground workshops, impregnable against any form of air attack, is clearly visible just across the water from the excellent fish restaurants opposite.

It looks like something out of an early James Bond film.

In the decades after Ukraine became independent from Russia in 1991, nothing much was done about Balaklava.

One or two top politicians built hotels there but because of all the political troubles, the work on them was never finished.

Slowly the holiday trade is starting to return and the little stalls along the quayside are opening up to sell pictures of Putin and bath towels with the emblems of the old Soviet Union.

You could easily imagine Anton Chekhov strolling beside the moored boats in his white suit, gazing across the water.

Balaklava, like the rest of Crimea, seems utterly Russian.

Practically all of the opinion polls and all of the anecdotal evidence indicate that the majority of the people here are willing to be part of Russia again – not surprisingly, given that about 60 per cent of them, perhaps more now, are ethnic Russians.

Twenty-four per cent of them (these figures are based on the 2001 census, so they could have changed) are ethnic Ukrainians and 12 per cent are Crimean Tatars, some of whom have returned from the brutal exile in central Asia to which Stalin subjected about a quarter of a million of them in 1944.

But ethnicity isn’t the only deciding factor in people’s attitudes; class enters into it, as well.

Last year, the relatively small proportion of educated, middle-class Russians in the region mostly seemed keen on staying with Ukraine, because they identified it with the freer political climate of the European Union.

Now, however, they have gone quiet and accepted the change.

There is no sign of any determined fightback against Russian rule.

A former teacher, an ethnic Ukrainian who lost his job and was sentenced to community service for attending a celebration of the Ukrainian poet Shevchenko and wearing the yellow-and-blue ribbons of his country, assured me that he and his friends would not do anything to break the law.

It’s hard to think that there will be any serious resistance to Putin’s Crimean coup.

Crimea should never have been separated from Russia in the first place.

In an act of celebratory foolishness, Nikita Khrushchev (who was born near the Russian border with Ukraine) awarded it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954 after he emerged as Stalin’s successor.

At the time, it meant nothing more than jiggling around with a county boundary in Britain.

In December 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus met in the palace in the Belarusian forest of Belovezhskaya Pushcha to agree to the carve-up of the old state.

Boris Yeltsin was the new Russian leader and he was too weak and too punch-drunk as a result of everything that had happened to demand Crimea back.

Yet Russia’s case was a good one – until Putin annexed the peninsula at gunpoint.

Having done this, the president cannot possibly pull back.

If he were to lose Crimea, he would be finished.

Putin is, in person, a very different man from the swaggering, macho public image.

On each of the three occasions when I’ve talked to him, I have found him polite and pleasant and certainly not domineering.

The three occasions could have been four, except that when I went to film at the mayoral office in St Petersburg where he worked in 1991, he didn’t seem important enough to interview: mea maxima culpa.

He has been phenomenally successful ever since; he is the most successful leader in Russia since Stalin.

But does that make his position safe?

The veteran Polish intellectual Adam Michnik, one of the heroes of the 1980s struggle against the Soviet Union and a perceptive observer of Russia today, thinks not.

He gave an interview to Le Monde recently in which he suggested that the brutal murder of the former Russian deputy prime minister and liberal opposition figure Boris Nem­tsov had been carried out by a group within the security system that wanted to force Putin to be tougher in eastern Ukraine: capturing Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk or Odessa, for instance.

It was a warning, he believes.

According to Michnik, Putin thinks that he, too, is in a certain amount of danger, not so much from the plots within his power structure as from the kind of popular revolt we saw on the streets of Ukraine when Yanukovych fell.

Michnik says that someone close to Putin has told him privately that the live coverage of the fall and murder of Muammar al-Gaddafi in October 2011 was a terrible shock to the president.

“His worst fear,” Michnik said, “is to see a Maidan [the anti-Yanukovych demonstrations in Kiev] emerging in Red Square.”

If Michnik is right, then taking hold of Crimea and fomenting trouble in eastern Ukraine and perhaps the Baltic is a matter of personal survival for the Russian president.

A Ukraine that might one day be prepared to allow NATO to base missiles on its territory is not just an existential threat to Russia – it is an existential threat to Putin, just as the potential loss of Hungary was a personal threat to Khrushchev in 1956 and the potential loss of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan were to Leonid Brezhnev in 1968 and 1979, respectively.

We can certainly blame the US for its triumphalist approach after 1991, refusing Russia the hand of full friendship and alliance.

We can blame the EU for dangling the promise of association and eventual membership in front of Ukraine’s eyes as though it were any other European outpost.

But we would be very foolish indeed if we failed to understand that Vladimir Putin, however relaxed he may seem, now thinks that he could be fighting for his life – and that he will be prepared to use every threat, every trick and every weapon in a disturbingly large arsenal in order to protect himself. 

Source: BBC News Europe

US, Ukraine To Conduct Observation Flight Over Russia Under Open Skies Treaty

WASHINGTON, DC -- The inspectors of the United States and Ukraine will conduct observation flight over Russia and Belarus under the Treaty on Open Skies this week, Sergei Ryzhkov, head of Russia’s National Nuclear Risk Reduction Center, announced Sunday.

The flight will take place between March 30 and April 4, using a Boeing OC-135B American observation aircraft.

The flight, which will take place between March 30 and April 4, will be conducted using the Boeing OC-135B American observation aircraft, RIA Novosti reported, adding that the plane will not be equipped with any weapons, but will have internationally approved observation technology.

“Within the framework of the international Treaty on Open Skies a US mission with the participation of Ukrainian representatives plans to conduct an observation flight over the territory of a group of participating states, the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation,” Ryzhkov told RIA Novosti. 

According to the U.S. Department of State, the Treaty on Open Skies allows 34 participating countries to carry out observation flights over each other's territories to gather information through aerial imaging on military forces and activities that are of concern to them.

The Treaty on Open Skies, which was signed in March 1992 in Helsinki, came into force on Jan. 1, 2002.

Russia ratified the treaty on May 26, 2001.

The latest development has come after the U.S. House passed a resolution last week prompting the government to offer military assistance to Ukraine as the conflict with pro-Russian rebels continues in the eastern region of the country.

However, U.S. President Barack Obama was opposed to providing lethal aid to Ukraine as he believed such weapons would only lead to greater aggression from Russia, which has been accused by the West of supporting rebels in Ukraine's conflict-torn areas.

Source: IBT

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Residents In Eastern Ukraine City Rally Against Separatism

DNEPROPETROVSK, Ukraine -- Residents of this city held what they called a “unity rally” on Saturday meant to help mend a rift between President Petro O. Poroshenko and the regional governor he fired and ease worries that Ukraine, on top of everything else, is also now at risk of unraveling into privately ruled fiefs.

Ihor V. Kolomoisky

The country seemed to be teetering in that direction last week, when Mr. Poroshenko dismissed Ihor V. Kolomoisky, the billionaire governor of Dnepropetrovsk, an important industrial region in the east, apparently for sending armed loyalists to Kiev, the capital, to occupy the offices of two state-owned energy companies that are central to a business dispute.

Mr. Kolomoisky had been one of the government’s staunchest allies, and his militias had helped stop pro-Russian fighters from moving beyond the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where the pro-Russian fighters have been waging war for nearly a year.

But recently, Mr. Kolomoisky had clashed with the government over the future of the energy companies, in which he owned a minority stake.

Masked armed men occupied the offices of the companies — UkrTransNafta and its parent company, Ukrnafta — for five days, until Monday, when Mr. Poroshenko ordered Ukraine’s state security service to arrest the men.

Mr. Kolomoisky emerged from the UkrTransNafta building after his men had seized it on March 19 to say they had just thwarted an attempt by “Russian saboteurs” to take control of the company, and cursed at reporters who asked about his presence there at such a late hour.

The building seizure unsettled Kiev, and members of Parliament, worried that other oligarchs with private militias would follow suit, threatening national stability, sharply criticized Mr. Kolomoisky. 

The rally on Saturday evening was intended to tamp down these tensions and demonstrate that the city, and the former governor, remained loyal to Kiev despite the clash, supporters of Mr. Kolomoisky said. 

“When we have war in our country, we cannot have any internal political disagreement,” Borys Filatov, a business partner and political ally of Mr. Kolomoisky, said in an interview before the rally.

“We are all citizens who understand if we shake the president, the country will fall apart.”

A few thousand people gathered in a cold rain on Heroes of Maidan Square, a central plaza formerly known as Lenin Square, and released blue and yellow balloons while politicians spoke dismissively, and to cheers, of the possibility of separatism here.

Mr. Kolomoisky was shown in a video tribute.

The rally wrapped up with a fervently patriotic set by a Ukrainian pop singer Ruslana, who praised the city and its departing leaders for keeping separatism at bay.

Other developments indicated that the breach in Ukraine’s domestic politics was mending.

Mr. Poroshenko flew to Dnepropetrovsk on Thursday to thank Mr. Kolomoisky and his team, an event that was televised.

“We parted very well, and we will cooperate,” Mr. Filatov said.

“There were no demands, and no slamming of doors.”

Mr. Kolomoisky became the most prominent example of a strategy adopted by the new government last winter, first embraced by former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko, to halt the Russian advance in the country’s east by appointing the region’s business titans, who were in a position to sponsor private militias, as regional governors.

Mr. Kolomoisky, a banking and oil magnate and philanthropist supporting Jewish culture in Ukraine, was an enthusiastic backer.

“The idea was to save the country and save his assets at the same time,” Mr. Filatov said.

But the arrangement was always understood to be temporary.

Critics of the militias have long warned that they could easily turn against the national government.

After the confrontation at the oil company headquarters, Mr. Poroshenko said he would take steps to incorporate private militias like those controlled by Mr. Kolomoisky into Ukraine’s military.

Mr. Filatov said the oligarch’s backers in Dnepropetrovsk were considering forming a political party and would run on their accomplishments this year, including forming the militia, called Dnepro-1, and keeping the region out of separatists’ hands.

An acting governor has been appointed to lead the Dnepropetrovsk region.

Mr. Kolomoisky, Mr. Filatov said, wanted to use the rally to say goodbye to supporters and reaffirm his patriotism.

“As they say, the English leave without saying goodbye, and the Jews say goodbye without leaving,” Mr. Filatov said.

“And that’s us. We’re saying goodbye but not leaving.”

Source: The New York Times

Ukraine Front Calms As Explosion Hits Odessa With No Casualties

ODESSA, Ukraine -- Ukraine’s military recorded no major attacks by pro-Russian insurgents on Sunday and a bombing in the port city of Odessa caused no casualties, though frontline troops still didn’t escape without any injuries.

Colonel Andriy Lysenko

Two government soldiers were wounded in 24 hours, with “armed provocations” witnessed right across the eastern regions affected by the conflict, Colonel Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military, said during his daily briefing in Kiev.

Most tension remained in the town of Shyrokyne near Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and near Donetsk airport, he said.

“The situation in the zone of the anti-terrorist operation has somewhat stabilized,” Lysenko said.

“The enemy continues to replenish its ranks with new fighters, mostly by engaging Russian mercenaries.”

While casualties have waned following a cease-fire on Feb. 12 in Minsk, Belarus, fighting has sporadically erupted between government troops and pro-Russian separatists.

At the same time, Kiev is facing the increasingly onerous task of fixing the economy ruined by months of fighting, cracking down on corruption and negotiating new terms with international bond holders, including Russia.

Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko urged Ukraine’s creditors on Tuesday to back a debt overhaul or risk bigger losses.

The probability the negotiations will fail and lead to a disorderly default is about 30 percent, according to the median estimate of 21 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg on March 20-26.

No one was hurt after a bomb went off at about 10:30 p.m. on Saturday in Odessa near the office of the organization that aids Ukraine’s army, the Interior Ministry said on its website, labeling it a “terrorist” attack.

The country’s largest port city has been the target of frequent bombings, most recently on March 5. 

Source: Bloomberg

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Putin's Mystery Military Award Points To Ukraine Involvement

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has awarded several military units a hugely prestigious title that was given to troops for heroism during WWII, sparking new questions about the Kremlin's involvement in Ukraine.

Russian troops take part in a military drill close to the Chechnya border, some 260 km (162 mi) from Stavropol, Russia on March 19, 2015.

Putin this week bestowed the honorary "guards" title on two air assault brigades and a communications regiment, with the award being seen by some analysts as a tacit acknowledgement that Russian troops have been fighting in east Ukraine.

Under Stalin, the designation "guards" was given to Soviet troops that distinguished themselves through outstanding heroism as the Red Army struggled to halt the advance of Nazi Germany in 1941. 

The defence ministry in Moscow says that the honorary title is not given to military units "in times of peace".

According to Putin's decree, the 11th and 83rd air assault brigades and the 38th communications regiment were honoured for "mass heroism and valour, fortitude and courage" displayed by the units "during armed hostilities to defend the Fatherland and state interests."

The wording appears odd given that Russia -- according to the official line -- is not involved in any military conflicts.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the awards have anything to do with alleged involvement in Ukraine and said they could relate to earlier missions.

"These units took part in various operations back in Soviet times," Peskov told AFP, noting the troops also included those who served in the volatile Caucasus. 

The defence ministry refused to comment.

But prominent arms expert Igor Sutyagin claimed the three units fought in eastern Ukraine, adding that he saw the prestigious award as a morale boost for Russia's airborne forces.

"Both air assault brigades fought in Ukraine," Sutyagin, a senior research fellow in Russian Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think tank, told AFP.

"Both of them even suffered losses -- and not small ones," said Sutyagin, who was jailed in Russia for passing information to a UK firm before being handed over to the West in a 2010 spy swap.

- Show of support - 

In a recent report based on what he called "open sources", Sutyagin claimed that the 11th brigade, which is based in the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, was one of the Russian regular units that fought in Ukraine in February.

The 83th air assault brigade based in the town of Ussuriisk near Vladivostok on the Pacific took part in the Ukraine fighting "a bit earlier than February", Sutyagin said in emailed comments.

He suggested that the honorary title was given to shore up spirits among the troops.

"This is the basic need to somehow support the airborne troops which have taken very active participation in the events and have sustained significant losses because of that," he said.

Independent political expert Alexander Konovalov said that by handing out the eye-catching awards Putin could be trying to maintain his popularity among the troops despite the public denials that they are fighting.

"They will know that their homeland remembers them," the head of the Strategic Analysis Institute told AFP.

Even those like Igor Korotchenko, the fiercely pro-Kremlin editor of the National Defence magazine who denies Russia's army is in Ukraine, agreed that the "guards" designation was "a sign of acknowledgement for their services."

"This means they performed real tasks."

- 'Everyone understood everything' - 

After first denying it, Putin now admits that he deployed Russian troops during the seizure of Crimea last year but suggestions of the involvement of regular forces elsewhere in Ukraine has been taboo. 

Amid a blackout on state television, rights activists collected evidence of unexplained funerals of serving soldiers across Russia and said that conscripts have also been pressured to fight in Ukraine. 

Opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta this month ran a wide-ranging interview with 20-year-old Dorzhi Batomunkuyev, who said he was deployed to Ukraine as part of Ulan-Ude-based tank troops. 

Batomunkuyev, who received extensive burns in a February battle with Ukrainian troops, said commanders did not explain anything "because everyone understood everything anyway."

"There were lots of troop trains. Before us there were guys from special operations from Khabarovsk, from various cities, just from the east. One by one, you see? Every day".

Source: AFP

AP Interview: Ukraine PM: Russia Could Start New Offensive, Aims To Erase Kiev's Independence

KIEV, Ukraine -- Russia plans to eliminate Ukraine as an independent state and could spark a new offensive in the east to achieve that aim, Ukraine's prime minister told The Associated Press on Friday.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk talks with reporters during an interview with the Associated Press in Kiev, Ukraine, Friday, March 27, 2015. 

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in an interview at his office in Kiev, said Russia was uninterested in de-escalating Ukraine's conflict with separatist forces, despite its commitment to maintain a peace deal made in February.

Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of being directly involved in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine which has left over 6,000 dead in the last year.

Moscow denies that charge.

The warring sides are poised in a delicate truce that is largely holding, despite sporadic skirmishes along the 450-kilometer (280-mile) front line.

The cease-fire agreement reached in February requires both Ukraine government and rebel forces to pull back their heavy weapons.

It also envisions Ukraine granting its rebellious eastern territories some measure of self-rule. 

Yatsenyuk told the AP in an English-language interview that the agreement was a bad but necessary settlement that could halt new rebel advances.

"This is a political solution. A diplomatically political solution, which has to be underpinned by the military capabilities of the Ukrainian army," he said.

"The idea is just to deter the Russian terrorists, not to allow them to move further."

The prime minister said the West must stay united in helping Ukraine repel Russian aggression and that achieving this would be the "joint success of the entire free world."

The European Union and the United States have slapped sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine, a move that has hurt the Russian economy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's "main focus today is on the EU," Yatsenyuk said.

"To split the unity among the EU member states, to lift sanctions. And to split the unity among the United States of America and the European Union."

The Ukrainian government's detractors have sought to paint it as crippled by corruption and divisions within its national leadership and weighed down by a plummeting economy.

Ukraine has begun addressing shortcomings in all those areas, Yatsenyuk said.

On Wednesday, police officers barged into a televised government meeting to detain two top officials on suspicion of extorting bribes.

Yatsenyuk indicated that would set the pace for his government's looming fight against graft.

"It is disgusting when the country is in the state of war and high-profile officials are just stealing the money from the pockets of ordinary Ukrainians," he said.

"Everyone who violates the law, who commits any kind of corruption, will be brought to justice."

The International Monetary Fund earlier in March agreed to extend $17.5 billion in loans to Ukraine as part of a program designed to pull the country back from the verge of economic collapse.

Yatsenyuk said that kind of support would head off the default that many economic experts have predicted for Ukraine.

"This is the way how to stabilize the economic situation, how to stabilize the (foreign exchange rate), and how to repay out debts to our creditors," he said.

Just how successful Ukraine will be in handling repayment of its onerous debts, however, will depend on accommodations by its creditors, which include Russia.

Yatsenyuk played down persistent rumors of fissures within the national leadership, particularly between himself and President Petro Poroshenko.

Anxiety at infighting among Ukraine's elite was compounded this week after Poroshenko was compelled to dismiss the truculent billionaire governor of an eastern region.

"We are fully and entirely united," Yatsenyuk insisted.

"We are floating in the same boat. And we are not eager to sink. We want to float."

The austerity required by international creditors is pressing down on already-low standards of living in Ukraine.

Yatsenyuk rattled off a series of harsh changes implemented by his government, which have included increases in taxes, a reduction in social entitlement programs and a freeze in state salaries.

"We've closed a number of tax loopholes. We've increased communal tariffs by six times. We've fired 10 percent of public servants," he said, sighing heavily.

Yatsenyuk said the ultimate goal of enduring the financial pain was to create a country with a clear sense of national purpose.

"A few years ago we had the territory. Today, we have the country. An independent country that is fighting for freedoms and liberties," he said.

Source: AP

Putin Speech Bodes Ill For Ukraine Ceasefire

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Russian leader Vladimir Putin has said “the West” is encroaching on Russia and fomenting internal unrest, in his first foreign policy speech in a month.

Putin's 11-day retreat prompted speculation of a Kremlin power struggle.

He told a meeting of his internal intelligence service, the FSB, on Thursday (26 March), that “they are using their entire arsenal of means for the so-called deterrence of Russia: from attempts at political isolation and economic pressure, to large-scale information war and special services operations”.

He noted that NATO is “building up its infrastructure near our borders” and said the alliance’s creation of an anti-ballistic missile shield is designed “to violate the existing nuclear parity”.

“The situation … will not change for the better if we succumb and yield at every step. It will only change for the better if we become stronger”, he added.

He also said “Western special services continue their attempts at using public, non-governmental and politicised organisations to … discredit the authorities and destabilise the internal situation in Russia”. 

He claimed Russian counter-intelligence operations “resulted in the suspension of activity of 52 officers and 290 agents of foreign special services” last year.

“We will continue paying attention to non-governmental organisations that have foreign funding sources; we will … terminate any violations”.

The same day, his foreign ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, extended a threat against NATO missile shield participants.

The Russian ambassador to Denmark last week caused alarm by saying that if Danish ships host shield components, then Russia will target them with tactical nuclear missiles.

Lukashevich said on Thursday that “participants in this system should bear in mind that Russia has all the necessary means to neutralise such threats”.

The strident rhetoric comes after more than a month of Putin's near-silence following the murder of opposition activist Boris Nemtsov and the Russian leader’s subsequent, 11-day long, retreat from public view.

It also comes amid a lull in hostilities in Ukraine and EU deliberation on whether to extend economic sanctions.

Putin's 11-day retreat prompted speculation of an internal power struggle in the Kremlin between anti-Western hawks and doves.

But his FSB speech indicates that Russia will continue its confrontational approach.


Russian media, in the past three weeks, have multiplied reports that Ukrainian forces are violating the so-called Minsk 2 ceasefire accord.

At the same time, NATO officials say Russia is building up troops and deploying heavy equipment on the outskirts of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

“Moscow is preparing the world for another offensive. The objectives are straightforward - to justify the offensive and to blame Ukraine for violating Minsk 2”, Roman Sohn, a Ukrainian activist, told EUobserver.

The former US ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, noted in an op-ed in Ukrainian media last week that: “Mariupol would be an important step to make a frozen separatist-occupied Donbas [in east Ukraine] economically viable”.

“Mariupol is the port through which much of the steel and other industrial products of the Donbas are exported. Mariupol is also key if the Russians desire a land bridge to Crimea”.


Putin’s references to NATO encroachment come after the alliance, at a summit in Wales last September, agreed to create a rapid reaction force to deter Russian aggression in the Baltic region and to build six new “command and control” facilities in former Iron Curtain countries.

It has also increased Baltic air-policing and military drills in reaction to the Ukraine crisis.

“We are implementing the biggest reinforcement of our collective defence since the end of the Cold War,” NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg told a seminar in Washington on Wednesday.

Source: euobserver

Friday, March 27, 2015

No One Sees Easy Way Out On Ukraine

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Hardly anyone expects Ukraine to get better before it gets worse, or for the latest set of commitments in last month’s cease-fire agreement to be kept.

Victoria Nuland, assistant Secretary of State for European affairs.

Instead, senior Western diplomats and analysts are predicting a further escalation of tensions, including the placing of Russian nuclear weapons in newly annexed Crimea; more unrest in cities like Mariupol and even Odessa; more advances by Russian-supported rebels against an under-gunned and dispirited Ukrainian Army; and attempts to destabilize the Western-leaning government in Kiev, beginning with President Petro O. Poroshenko.

Mr. Poroshenko, weakened by the loss of Crimea and a large, contiguous chunk of eastern Ukraine, faces Western demands for economic overhauls, increased energy prices and a crackdown on corruption to justify billions in loans and aid.

He also confronts new challenges from oligarchs like Ihor V. Kolomoisky over control of energy companies and private militias with flexible loyalties to the state, or what’s left of it.

The West, which claims to be united, is actually divided over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and how to respond.

Having hailed the revolution in Kiev as a defeat for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, the United States and Europe are indeed united in one matter: refusing to defend Ukraine militarily.

But they disagree on much else: whether to provide Kiev with arms; whether to give Kiev massive economic aid and for what benchmarks; whether the cease-fire agreement reached in Minsk, Belarus, last month is being implemented.

The disputes were clear this week at the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum.

Europeans, led by Germany and France, oppose supplying even defensive arms to Kiev, believing it would prompt Russian escalation.

Washington is not convinced.

Nor is the NATO supreme commander, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, who said that the West must respond to Russia’s continuing supply of troops and arms to the rebels.

The West “should consider all our tools in reply,” he said.

“Could it be destabilizing? The answer is yes. Also inaction could be destabilizing. Is inaction an appropriate action?”

General Breedlove’s outspokenness and readiness to publicize evidence of Russian intervention have not endeared him to European officials or some in Washington who do not want to be pushed into difficult decisions.

Europeans say that key elements of the Minsk agreement, like the withdrawal of heavy weapons, are proceeding; American officials disagree.

“We continue to see disturbing evidence of air defense, command and control, resupply equipments coming across a completely porous border, so there are concerns whether Minsk is being followed or not,” General Breedlove said.

Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, said the pro-Russian separatists possessed more sophisticated weapons than the Ukrainian Army.

“We’ve seen, month on month, more lethal weaponry of a higher caliber” brought into Ukraine, she said.

“The No. 1 thing,” she added, “is for Russia to stop sending arms over the border so we can have real politics.”

The European Union has rolled over financial sanctions against Moscow, but its foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, wants to lift sanctions, though subject to “the situation on the ground.”

Russia faces large loan payments by year’s end that exceed its foreign-currency reserves, making some officials wonder whether Moscow will escalate or try to accommodate, hoping to get European Union sanctions lifted.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former American national security adviser, is not sanguine.

Predicting Russian nuclear weapons in Crimea, he said, “I’m not sure that at this stage we have succeeded in convincing the Russians that we are prepared to deter the kind of steps they are adopting.”

He wants to balance deterrence and accommodation, but he suggests instead that “the Russians may pursue an assertive policy towards Ukraine just far enough to avoid a military confrontation but produce the result of the total collapse of the Ukrainian economy, the wasting of billions of dollars.”

Despite sanctions, Russia “remains a major power and therefore achieves a major change in the geopolitical situation in Europe.”

Source: The New York Times

To See Ukraine’s Future, Recall Crimea

LONDON, ENGLAND -- Just over a year ago, Russia annexed Crimea in the first major land grab in Europe since World War II.

The world has paid little attention to Crimea since then, but developments on the Black Sea peninsula provide fearsome insights into both the folly of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, in Ukraine and his campaign of intimidation against Russia’s near neighbors.

Over the past 15 years, Putin has built a system in Russia in which opposition voices are silenced, individual rights are trampled on, freedom of expression is restricted, organized crime is rampant and property rights are arbitrarily enforced.

Since Russia annexed Crimea, Putin has imported the same grotesque mode of governance to the peninsula.

Many of the so-called self-defense forces that sprang up a year ago, alongside Putin’s “little green men” (as the unmarked Russian armed forces are colloquially known), were the foot soldiers of Crimea’s criminal gangs.

The region’s elite has long had a close relationship with organized crime.

Various news organizations have reported that Putin’s handpicked leader in Crimea, Sergei V. Aksyonov, was known in mafia circles as “the Goblin” in the 1990s. (Aksyonov has denied links to organized crime.)

According to Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University, “Many of the burly and well-armed ‘self-defense volunteers’ who came out on the streets alongside the not-officially Russian troops turned out to be local gangsters.”

Over the last year, many have been drafted into a quasi-policing role in Crimea, their paramilitary units renamed the “people’s militia.”

Since last March, this force has conducted a series of raids and property seizures.

Immediately after annexation, Russia swiftly assumed control of several Ukrainian state-owned industrial interests; it soon shifted its focus to private enterprises.

In August, the headquarters of Zaliv, Crimea’s largest civilian shipbuilder, were stormed, as part of a campaign to force the management to hand over control to a Moscow-based company.

According to estimates from local sources, the total value of losses accrued as a result of real estate and other asset expropriation in Crimea is more than $1 billion.

As part of this, Crimea’s authorities forced Ukrainian banks operating on the peninsula to close, including those belonging to Igor V. Kolomoisky, the pro-Kiev governor of Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine.

In their place, Russian ones have moved in — among them, the Russian National Commercial Bank.

According to The Moscow Times, Crimean authorities acquired this little-known subsidiary of the Bank of Moscow “just weeks after Russia seized the peninsula. They then presided over its growth from one of the country’s smallest banks to become Crimea’s largest bank.”

The Kremlin has seized control of the peninsula’s media, taking Ukrainian TV channels off the air and replacing them with state-backed Russian ones.

In August, Crimea’s authorities raided the independent Chernomorska broadcaster, impounding its equipment and computers, and sealing off its building.

Elsewhere, journalists have been pressured to toe the Kremlin’s line.

According to Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper, Ukraine-based Center for Investigative Journalism recorded 85 incidents of harassment and censorship against reporters in Crimea during March 2014 alone.

Human Rights Watch has reported that the peninsula’s pro-Russian paramilitary groups are implicated in the disappearance of a number of pro-Ukrainian activists.

In March, Andriy Shekun and Anatoly Kovalksy were abducted from a train station in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, and held for 11 days in detention where they were beaten and shot at with low-velocity handguns (designed to cause trauma but not kill).

Mr. Shekun was subjected to electric shocks on two occasions, according to the rights group.

The people who have borne the worst of Russia’s annexation are Crimea’s native Tatars.

Since March, several Tatar activists have been abducted, some of them killed — including Reshat Ametov, who was detained during a Simferopol protest in March, and was later found murdered.

Two of the community’s most prominent leaders, Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, have been barred by Crimea’s authorities from entering the peninsula.

In September, Russian security forces raided the headquarters of the Mejlis, the Tatars’ representative body, as well as the home of one of its members, Eskender Bariev.

Institutions that are not explicitly pro-Russian are also regularly targeted for intimidation and harassment.

Ukrainian-language teaching has disappeared from school curriculums, while the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, most of which broke away from Russian Orthodoxy in the early 1990s, has been forced to close 11 of its 18 parishes.

America’s assistant secretary of state for the region, Victoria Nuland, said at a congressional hearing this month that as a result of Russia’s actions, Crimea was “suffering a reign of terror.”

She was right.

Condemned in the West a year ago as a flagrant breach of international law, Russia’s annexation of Crimea has fallen down the international agenda as the situation in Ukraine has evolved.

Western diplomacy has focused instead on trying to stop a deterioration of the situation in southeastern Ukraine.

Yet the West should take a careful look at what is happening in Crimea.

The fate of the annexed peninsula could very likely prefigure what is in store for the secessionist Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.

In January, the European Council’s president, Donald Tusk, appeared to accuse some European Union leaders of favoring a policy of “appeasement” with Russia, and warned against any watering down of economic sanctions.

But the fact that Crimea was not mentioned in either of the cease-fire deals known as Minsk I, signed last September, or Minsk II, agreed to in February, is a form of appeasement in itself.

That Western countries are highly unlikely to grant official recognition to Russia’s control over Crimea does nothing to change this.

The fear in Western capitals last year was that Crimea might be only the first of many land grabs planned by Putin against Russia’s near neighbors.

And so it has proved.

Last week, Russia violated Georgia’s sovereignty when it signed an accord with the leadership of South Ossetia, integrating the breakaway republic with Russia.

This followed the signing last year of a similar agreement with Abkhazia, another breakaway region of Georgia.

In Moldova, meanwhile, the Kremlin continues to tolerate corruption and criminality as the engine of Transnistria’s economy, and to block progress by the country’s reform-minded government.

If the West is serious about halting the growth of a Russian regime that poses a threat to the citizens not only of Russia and Ukraine but also elsewhere, it must begin by remembering that Crimea matters.

Source: The New York Times

Ukraine Receives First Batch Of US Humvees

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday took delivery of 10 US armored vehicles, two days after American lawmakers voted to urge President Barack Obama to provide "lethal" aid to Kiev.

Ukrainian and US servicemen unload Humvees from a plane at Kiev airport on March 25.

Dressed in camouflage, the Ukraine leader thanked Washington for the 10 Humvees, the first of 30 promised by Washington, as they arrived at Kiev's Boryspil International Airport.

In total, the US plans to send 200 regular Humvees, radios, counter-mortar radars and other non-lethal equipment worth $75 million.

The US House of Representatives on Monday voted 348-48 in favor of putting pressure on Obama to ship "lethal defensive weapon systems" to help Kiev forces defend against Russian "aggression". 

Obama has so far resisted calls to provide Kiev with weapons and other heavy military equipment, but House Democrat Eliot Engel, the lead sponsor of the resolution, told colleagues it was time to stop treating the Ukraine crisis "as just some faraway conflict."

The United Nations estimates that more than 6,000 people have been killed in fighting between Ukraine forces and pro-Russian separatists in the country's east since April.

Kiev and its allies in the West accuse Russia of arming and spearheading the pro-Kremlin uprising, but Moscow denies the allegation.

A ceasefire signed on February 12 has largely held despite sporadic fighting along the frontline. 

Source: Defense News

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ukraine Invasion Has Slipped Beyond Putin’s Control

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

Putin the aggressor

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the film also surprised in a number of ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putin had to intervene personally to resolve the issue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Newsweek

Russian Parliamentarians Warn U.S. Not To Arm Ukraine

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

Mikhail Yemelyanov

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Radio Free Europe

Ukraine Arrests 2 Officials As Nation Watches On TV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yefremov was released on bail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: The New York Times

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beneath the dressings, he’s still bleeding.

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

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

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

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


How did you end up there? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Did they explain that this was part of your mission? 

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

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

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

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

How were you injured? 

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

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

Did some of the tank crew die? 

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

Did you fight alongside pro-Russian militias? 


Did you kill civilians? 

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

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

So you didn’t coordinate at all? 

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

Which settlement was this in? 

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

And how many villages did you pass through? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you see Polish mercenaries? 

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

Did you have contact with civilians? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future 

Do you have regrets? 

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

How do you plan to live from now on? 

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

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

Do you have any questions to ask of Putin? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: The Guardian

Clashes Rage In Ukrainian Town, Making Mockery Of Truce

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

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

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

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

The skirmishes are fierce, but contained — for now.

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

Shyrokyne itself is not much of a prize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coordination is sometimes poor, however.

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

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

"The Donbass guys put them there."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The infamy appears only partly deserved, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: AP