Sunday, May 31, 2015

Bloodshed On The Frontline Exposes Hollowness Of Ukraine Peace Deal

SHYROKYNE, Ukraine -- A Russian-backed offensive would target the village of Shyrokyne in eastern Ukraine, where "there is no ceasefire" and shells explode every day.

A Donbas Battalion fighter in the ruined Mayak holiday camp.

If Russian-backed rebels launch a new offensive in eastern Ukraine, the shell-damaged hulk of the Mayak holiday camp will be a prized objective.

Found on a hilltop beside the Sea of Azov, this sorry carcass of a building - now a frontline position for Ukrainian troops - could dictate how Europe’s war unfolds.

Below lies the village of Shyrokyne, most of which is controlled by pro-Russian rebels.

If they advance and capture Mayak, the Moscow-backed forces would seize a field of fire allowing them to strike towards the port city of Mariupol, 12 miles to the west.

And Mariupol - an industrial centre with 500,000 people - controls the overland route to Crimea, which Russia annexed last year.

As fierce exchanges of artillery and mortar fire grip Shyrokyne, there are rising fears of a new offensive towards Mariupol.

The daily clashes here make a mockery of the ceasefire agreement signed in Minsk in February.

“Shyrokyne is a strategic height,” said Yevgeny Adarenko, a Ukrainian military spokesman.

“If we give it up completely there will be no point defending the settlements around it.”

The main building of the former holiday camp is held by fighters from the Donbas Battalion, a volunteer unit that was absorbed into Ukraine’s National Guard last year.

Here, the war has settled into an artillery duel.

More than 100 shells or other projectiles exploded in Shyrokyne in the space of one hour last Sunday, according to observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

There are other flashpoints along the frontline between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces, but Shyrokyne is by far the most dangerous.

Since the Minsk agreement was signed, 25 Ukrainian servicemen have been killed in the village and at least 100 injured.

The rebels also claim numerous casualties.

All but a handful of the villagers have fled.

When the separatists attack, the Donbas fighters hide in a windowless ground-floor room of the old holiday camp, whose doorway is protected by sandbags.

Outside, concrete steps lead to a path where exploding shells have shredded trees and scooped waist-high craters out of the earth.

On the first floor of the camp building, shells have ripped holes through the roof and walls, creating a warren of rubble.

During the Telegraph’s visit, the Donbas men climbed to the roof to fire half a dozen rockets at rebel positions, using an SPG-9 anti-tank gun.

Mortars were also fired from behind the Ukrainian lines.

Major Sergei Filippov, deputy commander of the Donbas Battalion, admitted that his men were breaking the ceasefire.

He said they were responding with small-calibre weapons after repeated separatist attacks with heavy artillery.

“This is the crater of a 152mm shell, fired by a howitzer, which is forbidden under the Minsk peace agreement,” said Major Filippov, pointing towards a hole some three feet deep and five wide.

“They fire these shells at us so often that it would be impossible to keep count.”

He added: “When there are repeated attacks by the separatists, we ask permission to respond from our command, but often the answer is so slow it’s useless as a means of defence. After one of my boys got killed this week I gave the order to fire anyway.”

In that attack, a shell fired by self-propelled artillery hit a Ukrainian trench next to Mayak, killing a 27-year-old fighter from Odessa.

“My friend died, that’s why we’re firing back,” said Viktor Pylypenko, 28, who mans the anti-tank gun.

“His name was Spasatel (Lifesaver). A 152mm shell hit the dugout where he was, over there. Both his legs and one arm were torn apart. We tried to get him to help but we came under machine gun fire. In the end it was too late.”

It was not hard to imagine a separatist fighter on the other side of the line giving the same reason for breaking the ceasefire.

International monitors have observed a partial withdrawal of forces from other stretches of the “line of control” between Ukraine’s troops and the rebels.

But at Shyrokyne, the two enemies blast each-other across a 600-yard expanse of ruined village.

Under the Minsk accord, heavy artillery should have been withdrawn at least 15 miles away from the frontline on both sides.

Smaller arms are allowed in the area, but no weapon should be fired.

Russia is massing more troops and heavy weaponry close to Ukraine - and Kiev believes its neighbour is preparing a new assault across the border.

During earlier incursions, Russian soldiers helped the rebel advance.

The Donbas men believe their opponents are regular Russian soldiers as well as rebels, using weapons supplied by the Kremlin.

To the north-east, Ukrainian units captured two Russian special forces officers on May 16.

They are now awaiting trial on terrorism charges in Kiev.

In Shyrokyne, Mr Pylypenko and his comrades said they were trying to fire rockets through a window to knock out an artillery spotter.

Enemy fire can come at any moment.

“There is no ceasefire,” said Mr Pylypenko simply.

Another fighter, who gave his name as Oleg, said:

“We come under fire literally every day – from self-propelled artillery, tanks, mortars.”

Major Filippov, whose nom de guerre is Greyhair, is a former gas company executive and army veteran.

He feels let down by Ukraine’s leadership and the governments of the West.

“The Minsk accords are the same as Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement – a betrayal by the leadership of Europe,” he said.

“Europe forced us to sign these accords which freeze the conflict and endorse Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory. Hitler went into the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Putin went into Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk.”

In the nearby village of Berdyanskye, just behind the frontline, there is a veneer of normality.

Cuckoos call in the spring sunshine and people tend their gardens.

Yet the danger is ever present.

Earlier in May, two shells ploughed into the garage of Petr and Anna Federchuk, killing their dog and narrowly missing their two cows.

The couple were inside their house a few yards away at the time.

This was not the first occasion when they had escaped death.

Back in 1986, they fled their home near the Chernobyl power plant in northern Ukraine when Reactor Four exploded.

“We’re too old to move and start over all again,” said Mr Federchuk, 60.

“I built this place with my own hands. And I can’t leave the cows.”

Down the road in Mariupol, more than 30 civilians were killed when volleys of Grad rockets – apparently fired by the rebels – crashed into a residential neighbourhood in January.

The threat of a Russian-backed offensive has caused many people to leave the city.

“Business is way down,” said Olga Babina, 56, who was selling light fittings in a market.

“It’s very frightening. At night I look out of my window and see the shells falling on Shyrokyne – first the flash of light, then the bang. We are waiting for peace, but it never comes.”

Source: The Telegraph

Ex-President Of Georgia To Lead Ukraine Region

KIEV, Ukraine -- President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine on Saturday appointed the former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, as governor of the Odessa region, turning to a longtime nemesis of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for help governing an area coveted by pro-Russian separatists.

Mikheil Saakashvili

Mr. Poroshenko announced the appointment of Mr. Saakashvili during a visit to Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea, calling him a “great friend of Ukraine.”

He has also granted Mr. Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship.

Mr. Saakashvili replaces Ihor Palytsia, who was appointed governor in May 2014 after more than 40 people, most of them pro-Russian separatists, died in a fire in Odessa during clashes with pro-Western street demonstrators.

Mr. Palytsia is an ally of Igor V. Kolomoisky, a billionaire and former governor of Dnipropetrovsk.

Volodymyr Zelenyuk, 28, works at  Mr. Kolomoisky was dismissed from his own governor’s position after clashing with Mr. Poroshenko this year as the president began a “deoligarchization” campaign aimed at reducing the power and influence of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessmen.

The appointment of Mr. Saakashvili was immediately interpreted in Ukraine as a message to Mr. Kolomoisky as well as a jab at Putin.

Mr. Saakashvili and Putin have an animosity that dates to before the brief war fought between Georgia and Russia in 2008.

Although Mr. Poroshenko portrayed the appointment as an effort to speed up the government overhaul in Odessa, it also highlighted the continuing challenges the Ukrainian government faces, even as it confronts a constant threat of renewed warfare on the Russian border.

It is increasingly clear that there is insufficient domestic capacity for implementing wide-scale changes, and the Ukrainian public’s general willingness to accept the appointment of foreigners to high-level positions underscores the deep lack of trust in any government after nearly a quarter-century of mismanagement and corruption.

Like the war-torn regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, Odessa is home to a large native Russian-speaking population that has strong historical ties to Russia.

The Ukrainian government has said that it has thwarted numerous planned attacks by pro-Russian separatists in the region, and Odessa so far has avoided the open warfare that has decimated the east and displaced a million or more residents.

Mr. Saakashvili has made frequent visits to Ukraine since pro-European demonstrations began there in November 2013.

As a supporter of the demonstrations, he was briefly barred from the country by President Viktor F. Yanukovych, who was ultimately ousted by the protests in February 2014. Mr. Saakashvili has served as an adviser to Mr. Poroshenko since his election just over a year ago.

Most recently, Mr. Saakashvili had served as the head of Mr. Poroshenko’s International Advisory Council of Reforms, a post he was named to in February.

A number of former senior officials in Mr. Saakshvili’s government now occupy senior posts in Ukraine, and have been granted Ukrainian citizenship, including the health minister, a deputy prosecutor general and a deputy interior minister.

As president of Georgia from January 2004 to November 2013, Mr. Saakashvili led an aggressive effort to eliminate corruption and bureaucracy from Georgia’s post-Soviet government.

He won wide acclaim in the West for achieving dramatic successes, but he was also heavily criticized at home for heavy-handedness, including allegations of rights abuses.

Mr. Saakashvili left office in November 2013 after serving the maximum two terms as president.

He has been living abroad, mostly in New York and Ukraine, since then, and has been unable to return to Georgia, where the current government wants him arrested on criminal charges that he abused his authority as president.

A number of senior officials from Mr. Saakashvili’s government, including a former prime minister, have been prosecuted by the new government in what is widely perceived as a campaign of political retribution.

Mr. Saakashvili has denied any wrongdoing.

In Russia, his appointment as governor of Odessa was denounced as an example of political patronage by Mr. Poroshenko, and Mr. Saakashvili was described in the Russian news media as a fugitive on the run from criminal charges in Georgia.

Mr. Saakashvili and Mr. Poroshenko are longtime acquaintances, having attended graduate school together in the early 1990s at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

Source: The New York Times

Ukrainian Migrants Fleeing Conflict Get A Cool Reception In Europe

LVIV, Ukraine -- Volodymyr Zelenyuk knew it was time to bolt when the pro-Russian separatists came to the carwash he owned in the eastern Ukrainian coal town of Antratsyt and demanded his help making and repairing weapons.

Volodymyr Zelenyuk, 28, works at Ukrainian World. He and his wife fled their country, seeking asylum in Poland, where there are now an estimated 400,000 Ukrainians.

“Either you help them, or you die,” Mr. Zelenyuk, 28, said.

So he grabbed his wife, their passports, two backpacks and a credit card and fled across the nearby border into Russia, beginning a long trek to Crimea, Kiev and, finally, four months ago, to the Polish border where they begged for asylum.

“I don’t know what I am going to do if I am refused,” he said.

“But I can’t be too optimistic.”

Since the conflict that erupted early last year in Ukraine, the flow of immigrants and asylum seekers from there into Poland and other European nations has steadily increased.

But the countries have been wary about welcoming them too warmly.

Poland, Germany, Italy and other favored destinations for Ukrainian asylum-seekers have overwhelmingly rejected their applications or delayed processing them.

The nations, which are loath to open their borders to what could be yet another torrent of job-hungry immigrants, point to vast stretches of western Ukraine that the separatist conflict has not yet touched. 

“The reason they are rejected is very obvious,” said Marta Jaroszewicz, the migration project coordinator at the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.

“Ukraine is a huge country. Only part of the territory is insecure, so they can relocate internally.”

The numbers of Ukrainian migrants are still relatively small — especially compared with the tens of thousands crossing the Mediterranean into Italy from the Middle East and Africa — but they are growing and now account for among the largest group of asylum seekers in several European nations. 

“Over the last 10 or 20 years, Ukrainians were essentially not present in the asylum numbers,” said Robert K. Visser, the executive director of the European Asylum Support Office, based in Malta.

“That changed substantially and quite suddenly in March of last year.”

In 2013, 1,060 Ukrainians sought asylum in the European Union.

Last year, after the conflict ignited in eastern Ukraine, the figure jumped to 14,040.

Some Ukrainians in the bloc are on student or other visas or are awaiting decisions on permanent resident status.

“We have seen that large numbers are going to Poland, but also to Germany, Italy, France, Sweden and Spain, very much covering Europe as a whole,” Dr. Visser said.

And in Poland, a deeply homogeneous nation with among the most liberal visa laws in the European Union and little experience dealing with large numbers of immigrants, the issue is particularly acute.

Its deep cultural and ethnic ties to western Ukraine make it a logical destination, resulting in a surge of Ukrainians seeking jobs, education and permanent, legal residency.

Dr. Jaroszewicz estimated that there were about 400,000 Ukrainians now in Poland, many of them having arrived since the conflict began.

Last year, more than 300,000 Ukrainians applied for short-term work visas, the most common type of visa they seek and the first step toward obtaining what they most want: official resident status.

“The vast majority of Ukrainians who flee here prefer to apply for visas, rather than asylum,” said Ewa Piechota, a spokeswoman for Poland’s Office for Foreigners.

“Once they are granted temporary residence, basically they can stay in Poland indefinitely.”

For the thousands who cannot obtain such a visa, even under Poland’s more liberal regulations, asking for asylum is the only option.

But the odds are bad.

Mr. Zelenyuk’s experience is typical.

He and his wife abandoned their car in Kiev and made their way to the Polish frontier.

The Ukrainian border guard waved them through, even though they had no visa.

On the Polish side, they filled out some forms, had photos and fingerprints taken and were told to report to a refugee center within two days.

“The refugee center is basically in the middle of nowhere,” Mr. Zelenyuk said, wearing an Adidas cap and a Reebok windbreaker, recent acquisitions.

Residents are given about $20 a month in pocket money, but there is little to spend it on.

So, many, like Mr. Zelenyuk, head to Warsaw.

He began volunteering as a handyman at Ukrainian World, a welcome center for displaced Ukrainians in a former nightclub space on Nowy Swiat, the city’s grand boulevard.

A ring of long, thick keys dangled from his belt.

Nearby, more recent arrivals, surrounded by their tattered suitcases, spread out across worn sofas while the center’s workers tried to help them find a place to stay.

The elegant space, its walls lined with white columns, has an ornate tile floor ringed with the names of distant train stations — Gare de Lyon, Grand Central, Victoria — little more than impossible dreams for the desperate immigrants who pile up at Ukraine World.

The Ukrainians can tap into a diaspora that has settled communities in several European states.

That is why so many go to countries like Spain that do not normally attract large numbers of asylum seekers, Dr. Visser said.

Last year, in the Czech Republic and Estonia, Ukrainians were the No. 1 national group seeking asylum.

In Poland, Spain, Latvia, Cyprus and Iceland, they were second.

Germany saw the largest raw number of Ukrainians wanting asylum, 2,705, but the nation is also the favored destination of immigrants from many other nations, including 41,100 from Syria.

And while asylum seekers from other war-torn countries have seen their applications overwhelmingly accepted in the European Union — 95 percent of Syrians, for instance, and 89 percent of Eritreans get full refugee status — Ukrainians have either seen their applications languish or faced rejection.

In 2014, of the 2,985 Ukrainian asylum applicants whose cases were processed in the European Union, only 150 were granted full refugee status; 2,335 were rejected; and the rest got other forms of protection — an acceptance rate of only 22 percent.

Still, it was better than the flood of immigrants from Kosovo and Serbia who pushed across the border into the European Union in 2014.

Without even the justification of the conflict that Ukrainians face, only 8 percent of Kosovars saw their applications accepted, and just 2 percent of Serbs.

Anastasia Pavlychenko, 32, sat on the carpeted floor of the Warsaw technical school where she was taking classes to qualify for a visa.

The school, which runs on charitable contributions and aims to help immigrants win legal status in Poland, is straining under the rising number of Ukrainians seeking help.

The school’s office is so new that, in the director’s office, the only furniture was a hastily assembled Ikea desk that swayed alarmingly whenever anyone touched it.

A half-dozen other Ukrainians sat on the floor beside her. “I’m not even going to bother applying for asylum,” she said.

“I won’t get it. No one gets it.”

Viktor Reka, 40, strummed softly on a guitar.

An ethnic Cossack who fought during the Maidan uprising in Kiev that overturned the pro-Russian government early last year, he had the traditional chupryna hairstyle with a lock of hair protruding from a shaved head and a long, twisting mustache.

Albert and Natalia Bakurova, ages 50 and 48, a married couple, had fled their eastern Ukrainian town more than a year ago.

“We tried to make a living in Ukraine, but there was no work so we had no choice but to try to come to Poland,” Mr. Bakurova said.

They have been rejected once for asylum, but have appealed.

If they are rejected again, they will have no choice but to go back to Ukraine.

Mr. Reka’s wife, Oksana, 34, a singer-accompanist, cleared her throat.

“If you don’t mind, Viktor will play now,” she announced.

Mr. Reka began strumming with greater fervor, emitting a slow, sad Cossack lament.

Everyone nodded solemnly.

A ribbon with the colors of Poland, red and white, was intertwined with a blue-and-yellow one, Ukraine’s colors, dangling from the neck of the guitar.

“It is a song about coming back from the war,” Ms. Reka explained.

“The people back home are wondering when the husbands and sons will return, but also the soldiers at the front are wondering when the fighting will end. No one knows what is going to happen, so all they can do is hope.”

Source: The New York Times

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Struggle For Survival On Ukraine's Frontline

DONETSK/LUHANSK, Ukraine -- After navigating shattered glass, craters, a burnt-out car and a checkpoint, they stand in line, ready to get onto all fours and clamber down a precarious wall of rubble and crumbling cement in rebel-held eastern Ukraine.

A destroyed bridge marks the border between government and rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine.

The 20 or so civilians, some of them quite elderly, make their way gingerly across the blown-up bridge that leads to government-controlled territory.

More importantly, it will give them access to medicine, money and cheaper provisions.

"When you're 56 of course it's hard, but we have to climb because we need money," Lena Vasilivna tells me after scaling the informal border on her return journey.

Credit cards, banks and ATMs don't function at all in the rebel-held east.

People are cut off from all the services the Ukrainian state would usually provide, such as pensions and benefits.

The government made an official announcement in November, but locals say the funds dried up months before that.

The conflict between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatist rebels has claimed more than 6,334 lives since it erupted 13 months ago, according to conservative estimates from UN relief officials.

The Ukrainian government of Petro Poroshenko puts the death toll above 8,600, including nearly 7,000 civilians.

The war, which holds enormous geopolitical importance for Russia and Europe, grew out of protests by pro-Russian separatists, which escalated after Russia's annexation of Ukraine's southeastern peninsula of Crimea.

Russia's move followed the February 2014 revolution that overthrew pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych. 

Separatists took control of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and set up the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" (DPR) and "Luhansk People’s Republic" (LPR) in April.

Kiev and NATO say the rebels are backed by Moscow, which Russia denies.

The war’s frontline has become Ukraine’s de facto Berlin Wall, splitting the country east and west, dividing the two populations – sometimes members of the same family even – into haves and have-nots.

An untold number of civilians cross the frontline every month to get money and supplies from the west.

They can't afford to stay there and rent apartments, especially with no means of employment, so they return east with whatever they can carry.

Vasilivna lives in the small village of Nikolaevka, seven kilometers from the bridge.

When fighting intensified in February, she slept on the floor in the corridor, hoping the extra walls would provide greater protection if a shell hit.

Once a month, she makes her way like hundreds of others across the bridge to the town of Stanytsia Luhanska to pick up her mother's medication for high blood pressure and her pension from the post office.

In government-controlled territory, Vasilivna has access to cheaper goods.

At home, she would pay $5.65 for one kilo of pork fat.

Across the bridge, she can get it for $2.11.

A box of teabags costs 70 cents on the western side versus $1.65 on the east.

She has to stop at three checkpoints and is never sure she'll be allowed to pass.

Sometimes, the guards say she cannot go through for security reasons.

Other times, she is denied passage but given no explanation.

Even when she does make it, difficult trade-offs have to be made:

"If we buy medicine, we can't afford to buy some food," she explains.

Who is helping? 

Most of the estimated 1.2 million Ukrainians in need of assistance in rebel-held Ukraine can't keep crossing to and fro like Vasilivna to make ends meet.

Many have no income at all and are reliant on whatever aid comes their way.

According to an extensive assessment of humanitarian needs conducted by the NGO Forum in Ukraine in March, of the more than 670,000 people who urgently needed food aid, almost 90 percent were in rebel-held areas.

International aid agencies are struggling to fill the void left by the Ukrainian government, which cannot access the rebel-held east, and by the separatists, who are trying to build their own quasi-state with limited means. 

It is an impossible task, especially as February's truce is a ceasefire in name only.

"There's a huge population that we will never be able to cover," Loïc Jaeger, deputy head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Ukraine, tells me.

A limited number of aid convoys do cross quite regularly from the west, but they can't access certain areas, especially villages in lawless Luhansk region far from crossing points, down minor roads.

Some help is provided by the Russian government, but it isn’t clear how widespread or regular this assistance is.

Aid agencies are also hampered by a Ukrainian government policy, introduced in January, requiring people who travel from government-controlled areas into rebel-held territory to formally apply for permission first.

Daniel Bunnskog, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) representative in Luhansk, says this bureaucracy means dozens of trucks have been left languishing for days at Ukrainian checkpoints waiting for the correct passes.

"It doesn't seem to be a unified system where everybody has the same opinion of what's supposed to happen when you come with your passes and trucks," he says.

"It makes the timely delivery of the assistance very difficult."

The policy has limited the amount of aid the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) can deliver in rebel territory.

WFP reports officer Ryan Mcdonagh says figuring out how to get past the checkpoints has become a daily struggle because the process is so inconsistent and unreliable.

"It's really important to get food in now… you have areas that have been cut off for months," he tells me.

"At the same time that we’re trying to get in as much food as possible to some of these (rebel-held) areas, this administrative hurdle becomes an increasingly more burdensome challenge."

Many people in the rebel-held part of Luhansk region have to rely on soup kitchens run by separatists.

Apart from MSF and ICRC, few international aid organisations have a consistent presence here, where the humanitarian crisis is worst.

"There are very few humanitarian actors to fill the gap which actually exists between needs and what is available," Bunnskog says.

"The main provider of assistance is (the) so-called LPR government… mainly through the (assistance) it receives from the Russian side."

Impossible security situation 

Even in Donetsk, a city of one million people before the war that is significantly better resourced than most, hundreds of people still seek food and medicine every day.

When I visit in early spring, the majority of shops are closed down, but there are still markets and grocery stores open.

This is also true for the rebel stronghold of Luhansk city, where most businesses are boarded up yet some supermarkets remain well-stocked.

As I drive north or west from Luhansk city or north from Donetsk, however, a different story quickly emerges: the scale of the destruction increases dramatically as I enter the heavily shelled areas close to the frontline.

The conditions I find are appalling in many towns and villages.

But the security situation is calmer than it was, especially during the bouts of intense fighting that marked the long, hard winter.

Access to rebel-held areas has significantly improved since a second ceasefire agreement was struck in February, allowing more aid convoys to make their way in (the first, in September, collapsed almost immediately).

But the fighting has not stopped.

Both sides blame each other for truce violations and mortar and grenade attacks are still reported regularly.

The Ukrainian government accuses the rebels of continuing to use heavy weapons that should have been withdrawn under the peace deal.

At least nine fatalities were reported just on Wednesday, most of them civilians.

The security situation is particularly dicey in Luhansk region, where an increasing number of assassinations of rebel commanders in recent months has been interpreted by Kiev as a sign of growing divisions between rival separatist factions.

Control of towns and checkpoints in the rebel-held part of Luhansk region are nominally split between the separatist LPR "government" and a group of Ukrainian Cossacks – famed for their traditional role in defending the borders of the Russian empire.

But some frontline towns, like Pervomaisk, have witnessed bitter internal power struggles.

In January, the Cossack mayor was shot dead, while a local warlord allied to another group of Cossacks, Alexander Bednov, known by his nickname "Batman," was killed along with six bodyguards when an anti-tank missile blew up his armoured car.

Natalia Stupina, who heads LPR’s humanitarian operations, insists there has been no problem working with the Cossacks and says she would welcome more international agencies into the area.

"Certainly, for the sake of people," she tells me.

But in reality, even if LPR officials allow aid convoys in, they cannot guarantee them safe passage through the rebel-held part of the region.

"When you don’t have a clear vision of who is where and who (you) should talk to to get access to Luhansk, you might not want to take the risk to come here," says Bunnskog.

The dangers for international aid organisations operating in this environment are extreme.

At the end of April, rebels raided the offices of the International Rescue Committee in Donetsk for alleged "spying," expelling five foreign nationals and taking two Americans hostage for nine days.

In October, a Swiss ICRC worker was killed when a shell landed near his office in Donetsk.

"You cross several checkpoints, and checkpoints along the frontline are often places where you have quite a lot of tension," says Bunnskog.

"When you have convoys of 10, 12, 14 huge trucks going through these areas and being checked… sometimes (for) hours, you're basically exposing your teams to a high risk."

'No hope for my life' 

On an overcast and cold March morning, rebels standing next to empty trenches at the checkpoint for Pervomaisk say it is a "closed" town and outsiders have to get special registration to enter.

I am only allowed in with an escort.

Boxes with MSF's logo on them are stacked at the entrance of a municipal building.

Dozens of people have lined up nearby to register for free bread.

The streets tell a tale of destruction: shell holes in the road; wires dangling down from broken telegraph poles; row after row of bombed-out apartment blocks – plastic sheets flapping violently in the wind, failing to cover glassless windows.

Inside one building, I find 78-year-old local resident Anna Reshedko.

Aside from her high blood pressure, she needs medication for a long-term heart condition.

Even if Pervomaisk's badly damaged and under-resourced main hospital had what she needed, it is several miles away and too far for her to reach; she can only walk for 30 minutes a day.

So she spends her time sitting in her unheated apartment with a coat covering the legs she can barely stand on.

Cold air streams in from a bedroom window broken during the shelling.

At one point in the winter, she says the inside temperature fell to just four degrees Celsius (39 F).

Reshedko keeps her bathtub full because the water normally comes in just once a week.

At times, she has gone weeks without running water.

Once, she sat next to a window and cried out to passersby to get her food and water because she couldn’t walk out of her apartment.

"When the cars with the aid came here, I couldn't go there," she says.

"Everybody (got) the aid and I couldn't."

She rarely uses her electric heating blanket because she is scared it might stop working when she really needs it.

Reshedko worked as a nurse for 40 years but has not received her pension in 10 months.

A pink beret conceals her partly bald head, the result of stress after her husband and mother died two months apart, 20 years ago.

She has no family left.

"There is no hope for my life," she says.

Hiding underground 

Indiscriminate shelling, including in residential areas, cut off some towns from any international aid until after the second ceasefire.

Nowhere was fought over more fiercely than the strategic town of Debaltseve, a vital rail and road junction that Ukrainian forces finally relinquished control of on 18 February after a long siege, at a heavy cost of both men and weaponry.

Freight cars now litter the ditches on the way into town.

At the checkpoint to enter, burnt-out military vehicles lie still like monuments behind the fighters who check documents and question those who come in.

In the town centre on this bright and sunny day, rebels hand out boxes of food aid from the back of a truck.

But only a few streets away, Oleg, who doesn’t want his last name used, emerges from the dark, damp underground shelter where he lived for six weeks with his wife and young son.

Sleeping in a tiny room covered with carpets to keep the heat in, they created a makeshift kitchen next door to store jars of homemade preservatives stockpiled in preparation for the war.

They are happy to return upstairs to their apartment despite the lack of electricity and running water.

But Oleg, 45, fears their relief might only be fleeting.

"Any moment they can start (to) fire here (again)," he tells me.

Only a fraction of Debaltseve's 25,000 original inhabitants remain in the town, which is largely destroyed.

Nearby Zorynsk, with a pre-war population of 7,500, is a ghost town.

Only 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the frontline, it was also heavily shelled in February.

But it did not have the same strategic value as Debaltseve so it garnered less attention.

On one street, pieces of wood are scattered across a lawn.

Those few beams are all that is left of an entire house.

It would be impossible to tell had it not been for another badly shelled house next door.

One or two vendors still ply their wares in the town's market, but most of the rusty stalls are all shut up.

At the market entrance is 83-year-old Anna Vasiliyevna, wearing her roommate's old dress and selling cigarettes.

She works from 5am to 5pm, earning 25 cents a day.

For lunch she has a piece of bread and an onion.

Sometimes, she gets a bowl of soup from a kitchen run by the local separatist authorities.

While it means she can survive, she still goes hungry in a conflict she says is worse than the first one she had to live through 70 years ago: World War II.

Vasiliyevna went without heating this winter in her damaged apartment.

She stopped getting her pension in July and could no longer pay for gas, which increased in price, as did bread:

“ I can’t afford the food if I pay the bills....It would be better if I died in my flat.” 

What next? 

While the better summer weather will make it is easier for civilians and aid agencies to move around, it will also improve conditions for fighting.

"Every indication has suggested this is a lull before the storm in so far as the fighting is concerned," says WFP's Mcdonagh, who expects the number of people requiring food aid to double if agencies can't get enough provisions across the frontline.

The violence has already intensified through April and May, with both sides reporting causalities and accusing each other of shelling.

A report this week appears to confirm statements from US officials that Russia has built up more troops on the border than at any time since October, and a NATO commander has warned that he believes the rebels are taking advantage of the ceasefire to prepare for a new offensive.

Restrictions have been placed on residents crossing from rebel-held Luhansk to government-controlled territory.

At least those who can still move between the warring sides of eastern Ukraine get some respite.

Many others can't.

While the summer may bring more fighting, the winter will almost certainly bring further misery.

Analysts see no end to a cycle of conflict that could be frozen for years.

For those trapped on Ukraine's frontline, like Anna Reshedko in Pervomaisk, there is little to no hope:

"We don’t know what will happen tomorrow and I don't even want to think about [it] because the war is not over", she says.

"I'm going to die because there's nobody to help."

Source: IRINnews

‘Novorossiya’ Falls From Putin’s Vocabulary As Ukraine Crisis Drags

MOSCOW, Russia -- Revival of Czarist-era term for ‘New Russia’ fades ahead of European decision on sanctions.

Pro-Russian rebels carry the flag of Novorossiya, or New Russia, past a damaged building in the strategic town of Debaltseve after Ukrainian forces withdrew in February.

When Vladimir Putin first mentioned Novorossiya over a year ago, alarm bells went off in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.

The czarist-era term, which means New Russia, refers to a large swath of modern-day Ukraine that Catherine the Great won from the Ottomans and Cossacks at the end of the 18th century.

Hearing it from the Russian president in April 2014 reinforced fears that Moscow’s designs on its neighbor extended beyond the Crimean peninsula and across Ukraine’s southern shores to Odessa.

But now, as abruptly as the Novorossiya movement appeared, it has begun to fade.

Putin has stopped using the term.

More modest borders for the Russia-backed rebel republics in eastern Ukraine have begun settling into place.

The word is heard less and less on Russian state television.

Oleg Tsaryov, a separatist politician who became the frontman for the movement on Russian television, announced this month that the Novorossiya parliament he proclaimed to unite Ukraine’s rebel regions had suspended operations.

His reason: The project violates the cease-fire agreement Putin helped to broker.

It is unclear whether such signs signal a real shift in Kremlin policy or mark a temporary bid to relax tensions ahead of a likely June decision by the European Union on whether to renew sanctions against Russia.

So far, Russia’s negotiating partners in the West appear skeptical that any change is substantive.

A year ago, what appeared to be a mild thaw in relations arose ahead of a summit in France, where world leaders made their first attempt to broker peaceful relations between Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

But Moscow’s rhetoric turned cold soon after and fighting reignited in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow has shown no sign lately of easing support for the separatists there, much less returning Crimea, which it formally annexed in March 2014.

Yet the Kremlin has sent other, modest signs of a softening approach to the West, as Russia copes with a deepening recession at home.

This month, Putin met U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Russian soil for the first time in two years.

The Russian president also called to congratulate U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron on his re-election, during which he expressed Russia’s willingness to help counter Islamic State in the Middle East.

On Tuesday, Deputy Security Council Secretary Yevgeny Lukyanov said Moscow was open to cooperation with the West on global security issues.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also has emphasized that the rebel Donetsk and Luhansk republics should be reintegrated into Ukraine.

“There’s a desire to show the West that Russia is subtly limiting its game in Ukraine and localizing it to Donetsk and Luhansk,” says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Moscow-based political consultancy Center for Political Technologies.

Those rebel states have entered a period of consolidation, according to Makarkin, who says Russia ultimately hopes to keep them integrated with Ukraine as levers of influence over Kiev.

European officials caution that they believe the Kremlin’s goal of seeking to block Ukraine’s reorientation toward the West by maintaining a low-level conflict hasn’t changed, and that Moscow could back military escalation if Russia fails to achieve desired results politically.

There are few signs the EU is prepared to ease sanctions next month, nor to ramp them up, suggesting a continuation of the status quo.

Even if the shift in Kremlin rhetoric lasts, the pattern of behavior on the ground in east Ukraine has shown little sign of change.

On a recent trip to Moscow, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Victoria Nuland expressed hope for deeper cooperation in east Ukraine but warned that the cease-fire was sill being “violated on a daily basis.”

“Unfortunately, there’s too much combustible kindling on the ground in Donbas as we head into the summer season, which last year was a time of heavy fighting,” said Andrew S. Weiss, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A senior Obama administration official said evidence of Russia’s intentions will be whether substantive progress is made to implement the February peace plan, including a local cease-fire for Shyrokyne, near the government-held port city of Mariupol, and movement toward elections.

The next round of ground-level talks are set for Tuesday and “we will be watching those very closely,” the official said.

Putin’s use of the Novorossiya term endowed the separatist cause with a sense of historical legitimacy and rallied Russian nationalists and revanchists on the battlefield.

In the de facto rebel states, separatist officials still hang the revived red and blue Novorossiya flag alongside their own new ones.

The idea of Novorossiya “cannot be frozen, and to some degree has already been accomplished,”  Tsaryov, the separatist politician, said in a phone interview.

Alexander Kofman, the foreign minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, suggested that the curtailment of the parliament project signaled a rollback of efforts to spread separatist fervor outside the existing rebel areas.

“We will be waiting for the other regions to rise up and follow our lead,” Kofman said a week ago on the Russian network LifeNews, in a noted shift from more-bellicose past statements.

“We don’t have the right to rise up for them.”

In a May 15 blog post, Tsaryov, 44 years old, suggested now was the time for consolidation.

The only way to turn Ukraine as a whole toward Russia is to create a standard of living in the rebel-held regions, known collectively as Donbas, that exceeds the rest of Ukraine, he wrote.

For now, people in government-held areas view Donbas with trepidation, he suggested.

“Today the southeast of Ukraine is afraid of a repeat of the fate of Donbas,” he wrote.

“Donbas came out in favor of the Russian world and today they are being shot at.”

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Russian Military Insignia Are Reported In Ukraine

MOSCOW, Russia -- International monitors tracking cease-fire violations in eastern Ukraine reported Friday that they had encountered four people wearing military uniforms with Russian insignia in a town about 25 miles southeast of the regional capital of Donetsk, which is controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Sgt. Aleksandr Aleksandrov, who identified himself as a Russian soldier, was interviewed by Reuters at a hospital in Kiev.

In its daily report, the special monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said a young man had reported that “an unknown armed group” had occupied the grounds of a former children’s campground in the town, Petrivske.

According to the report, monitors “spoke to two women, both wearing military uniforms, with caps with Russian Federation Armed Forces insignia.”

“During the conversation with the two women, a vehicle with Russian Federation number plates stopped next to the O.S.C.E. vehicles and two armed men, similarly dressed, exited the car and ordered the women to stop the conversation,” the report stated.

Behind a fence surrounding the camp, the monitors “observed one infantry fighting vehicle,” according to the report.

The monitors could not enter the camp.

The report was a rare allegation by the international monitors of a possible sighting of active Russian military personnel in eastern Ukraine.

The monitors, however, did not identify the women or men who were observed in uniform in Petrivske, and there was no way to independently verify the monitors’ account.

Although there has been substantial other evidence of Russian military activity in eastern Ukraine cited by journalists, as well as by Ukraine and its Western allies, including the United States, the monitors for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have not previously reported a definitive observation of uniformed personnel bearing Russian insignia.

On Nov. 13, the monitors reported seeing “five unarmed men in camouflage, with Russian Federation flag patches and other badges on their uniforms,” in the city of Luhansk, but noted that they were “unable to ascertain the affiliation of these men.”

The monitors have regularly reported unmarked military convoys pulling heavy weaponry toward Donetsk, said Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the monitoring mission.

Asked if monitors had previously seen such clear evidence of Russian military insignia, Mr. Bociurkiw replied, “No, we haven’t.”

The Kremlin in recent days has reiterated its longstanding denials that any active-duty Russian forces have been present in eastern Ukraine, despite substantial evidence to the contrary, including dozens of military funerals in Russia during the past year of fighting.

Ukrainian forces this month captured two fighters who have identified themselves as active-duty Russian soldiers from a special forces unit, the Third Special Forces Brigade, based in Togliatti in southern Russia.

The Russian government has confirmed that the two men are Russian citizens but insists that they are former military personnel who left active service before going to Ukraine.

In an interview with Reuters, published Friday, the men said again that they were Russian military personnel.

One of the men, Sgt. Aleksandr Aleksandrov, told the news agency that he was in the middle of a three-year contract, which he had never canceled, and that he felt abandoned by his country.

“I never tore it up; I wrote no resignation request,” Sergeant Aleksandrov said.

“I was carrying out my orders.”

The potential political fallout from Russian soldiers’ being wounded and killed in eastern Ukraine seems to be increasingly worrisome for the Kremlin.

On Thursday, President Vladimir V. Putin decreed that Russian casualties in “special operations” can be classified as military secrets even in peacetime.

Despite Putin’s repeated denials that Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine, his critics say Russia not only continues to intervene militarily in Ukraine but is turning its back on soldiers who are wounded or killed there.

The monitors for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also reported Friday that a separatist leader, Aleksandr V. Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, had told them he was “unavailable to attend meetings outside the country until the end of July due to health reasons.”

This presented a potential stumbling block in efforts to negotiate full implementation of the cease-fire accord signed in Minsk, Belarus, in February.

Russia, which helped broker the accord together with Ukraine, France and Germany, has insisted that it wants to put the peace deal into effect.

The United States, however, has criticized Russia for failing to live up to its obligations under the agreement and of obstructing efforts to carry out steps required to achieve a long-term political resolution of the Ukraine crisis.

The Kremlin says the failure to carry out the accord is the fault of the Ukrainian government in Kiev. 

In its report on Friday, the security and cooperation organization noted an increase in cease-fire violations compared with those of recent days, including 150 explosions heard from an observation point near the central railway station in Donetsk, consistent with mortar and tank fire.

Because of security concerns, the monitors said they could not observe the situation in Shyrokyne, the scene of some intense clashes in recent weeks.

But from an observation point in the city of Mariupol, the monitors reported hearing explosions coming from the direction of Shyrokyne.

“We do see a deterioration,” said Mr. Bociurkiw, the organization’s spokesman.

“It does appear to us the geographical scope of the zone of conflict is slightly widening.”

Source: The New York Times

Friday, May 29, 2015

Putin Denies Russian Troops Are In Ukraine, Decrees Certain Deaths Secret

MOSCOW, Russia -- If there was one weak spot in Russian support for the Kremlin’s aims in Ukraine this year, it was the population’s strong aversion to sending in Russian troops — something Russia denies doing, despite mounting international evidence to the contrary.

Russian military vehicles sit on a freight train on May 24 in the southern Russian town of Matveev Kurgan, near the border with Ukraine.

Now, Russia can ignore that evidence — as well as any questions citizens might raise — since President Vladimir Putin signed a decree classifying certain peacetime deaths of soldiers as state secrets.

Putin signed an order Thursday making the deaths of Russian troops lost during “special operations” a secret, amending a previous decree that limited such secrecy to deaths of soldiers in wartime.

Some watchers can see only one plausible reason for the change: Russia is gearing up for another military push into Ukraine.

“We’re in a pre­war situation. Right now there’s going to be another campaign in Ukraine,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst based in Moscow, who added that Russia was being secret about losses­ because “we’re fighting a secret war.”

But war brings about the sort of casualties that can serve as proof of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, Felgenhauer pointed out.

“If foreigners know about the losses­ of soldiers in Donbass, that’s not very good,” he said, using a term that refers to eastern Ukraine.

“But more important is that the Russian public doesn’t know. So it’s going to be a secret, as it was in Soviet times.”

Russia has long denied its troops are operating in Ukraine, dismissing as fabrications reports of training camps, troop build­ups and even the testimony of captured Russian soldiers claiming to be on active duty.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday that the decree is a simple upgrade of state privacy laws that “has nothing to do with Ukraine” and that Putin had no plans to green light a special operation there.

Yet dead and missing soldiers speak to the Russian population louder than NATO satellite images­ tracking Russian troop movements.

And last summer, as news of troops returning from Ukraine in caskets reached the Russian people, the government narrowly avoided an internal crisis.

Eventually, mothers of Russian soldiers clamoring for information on their sons captured in Ukraine were muzzled, while politicians who publicized the secret funerals and burials of Russian soldiers thought to have died in Ukraine were reportedly beaten.

Russia has a history of secrecy surrounding the deaths of troops.

The country spares no ceremony celebrating its military victories and prowess, but there are still many families who don’t know what happened to their war dead, in World War II or any of the military campaigns that Soviet troops fought in the decades after.

Russians don’t even know how many people who died in those conflicts were civilians vs. soldiers, because the state kept such figures secret.

But one thing is sure:

Much as they may support Putin’s Ukraine policies, Russians don’t want to repeat the experience of suffering mass losses­ over a conflict in another country.

Last year, one state-run poll found that two-thirds of Russians opposed sending troops into Ukraine, while barely more than a quarter of the population supported the idea.

Nonetheless, reports continue to emerge about how Russia has been building up its troop presence near the Ukrainian border.

A Bloomberg report this week cited U.S. lawmakers claiming that Russia was operating mobile crematoriums in eastern Ukraine to hide its dead — and thus hide its involvement in the conflict.

And then there’s the image that the decree’s terminology — “special operations” — drums up.

“Special operations” is “a new term to identify a new reality" without a legal definition, presidential Human Rights Council member Sergey Krivenko told Russian news outlet RBK on Thursday.

But Russians have heard the term before during Putin’s presidency — in connection with such campaigns as the second Chechen war, the 2008 conflict in South Ossetia and, most recently, last year’s annexation of Crimea.

Source: The Washington Post

Scathing Report Says Russia At War With Ukraine, Putin Lying

WASHINGTON, DC -- A Washington-based think tank on international affairs has released a scathing report on Russia's "direct military intervention" in eastern Ukraine, concluding that President Vladimir Putin has led his country into war and has lied about it.

According to a new report, pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are receiving weapons and equipment from Moscow.

The report by the Atlantic Council also charges that Putin is using the decrease in hostilities that has followed a February cease-fire deal to reinforce Russian-backed rebels with troops and weaponry in order "to prepare for the next stage of fighting."

At the same time, the Atlantic Council researchers say "the Kremlin is building its case that forces engaged in any future outbreaks of fighting are indigenous, legitimate Ukrainian forces rather than Moscow's creation."

The report, released on May 28, is titled "Hiding In Plain Sight: Putin's War in Ukraine."

Amid persistent denials from Putin, it adds to mounting evidence of Russian involvement in the conflict between Ukrainian government forces and separatists, which has killed more than 6,300 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014 and caused the biggest rift between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

The researchers carried out in-depth digital analysis of open source information -- including satellite imagery, videos posted to the Internet from residents on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian border, and photos posted to social media from eastern Ukraine by Russian soldiers themselves.

The results are what the authors call "irrefutable evidence" that the conflict in eastern Ukraine is "a Kremlin-manufactured war -- fueled by Russian-made military equipment, fought by Russian soldiers, and supported by Putin."

Russian Weaponry 

The Kremlin continues to claim that any Russians fighting in eastern Ukraine are there on their own volition, and that heavy weaponry used by the pro-Russian separatists was seized from Ukraine's military.

But the Atlantic Council's analysis shows that several types of Russian-built weaponry and ammunition that have never been used by Ukrainian government forces have appeared in the hands of the separatists.

One such weapon is a modernized version of Russia's main battle tank, which did not even enter service in Russia until 2013, the T-72B3.

It is distinguished by an upgraded targeting and fire control system as well as other visible improvements on earlier models of the T-72 battle tank.

Other uniquely Russian weapons seen in eastern Ukraine are the Pantsir-S1 antiaircraft vehicle, known as the SA-22, and 2B26 Grad missile launchers mounted on the chassis of a Kamaz truck.

Russia's military began using those vehicles in 2012.

The report also documents the presence in eastern Ukraine of Russian Dozor armored scout vehicles with advanced communications systems.

Lighter weaponry found in eastern Ukraine that has never been in the Ukrainian Army's arsenal includes shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, or MANPADS, several types of rocket launchers, antitank guided missiles, land mines, and various types of small arms.

Another charge in the Atlantic Council report is that Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine have received support during key offensives from heavy artillery that was fired from within Russia -- not from the separatist-controlled territory of Ukraine as Moscow claims.

Crater Analysis 

The researchers' evidence includes a combination of satellite data and sophisticated crater analysis from territory in eastern Ukraine that had been battlefields during the summer of 2014, such as an area outside of the village of Panchenkove.

The crater analysis helped determine the trajectory and origins of artillery fire, with four of five different attacks said to have originated from Gukovo on the Russian side of the border.

Journalists who visited that launch site in Russia have quoted residents who confirmed barrages were fired from there.

They also discovered clear signs of Russian military activity -- including a large number of red endcaps from 122 mm artillery rockets.

Satellite imagery also confirms the movement of Russian troops and camp buildups along the Ukrainian border.

The Kremlin has described those deployments as part of tactical and strategic training exercises.

But the Atlantic Council says the evidence proves that those camps have been used as "launching points for Russia's war in Ukraine," serving as “the staging ground” for Russian military equipment and troops to enter eastern Ukraine.

The report says that Russian military commanders have ordered Russian troops who are sent into Ukraine to remove any insignia or other markings that would be obvious evidence of a Russian military incursion.

It quotes military experts who estimate that Russia had at least 12,000 regular troops deployed in eastern Ukraine by March 2015, with about 50,000 at the staging areas on the Russian side of the border.

The Atlantic Council researchers say the presence of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine is undeniable because of "a steady stream of coffins" that have been "returning to Russia under the label 'Cargo 200'" -- a coded term for the corpses of soldiers.

The Atlantic Council noted that Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead near the Kremlin on February 27, was killed while collecting evidence that the bodies of Russian soldiers have been sent home from Ukraine.

The Atlantic Council said it only learned about Nemtsov's investigation after his killing, and that its own research is "distinct" from Nemtsov's efforts -- which were continued by colleagues and produced a report saying more than 220 Russian soldiers have been killed in eastern Ukraine.

But it said it decided to time the release of its study close to the May 12 presentation of the Nemtsov report "to reinforce our common message: Putin led his nation into war against a peaceful neighbor and lied about it."

Source: Radio Free Europe

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Atlantic Council Report: "Hiding In Plain Sight - Putin's War In Ukraine"

Foreword From Atlantic Council Report

For twenty-five years, prominent members of the Atlantic Council community have worked to advance the vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace in which Russia enjoys its peaceful place.

In fact, many in our community aspired not only for a strategic partnership with Russia, but envisioned an alliance between Russia and NATO contributing to international stability and security.

Unfortunately, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine today mock this vision and threaten the international order established at the end of the Cold War.

In hindsight, the West might have recognized and responded to Mr. Putin’s assertiveness much earlier.

Regardless of the moment of origin, however, it became clear in 2014, after Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea and its covert war in Ukraine’s east, that this major challenge to international security required a decisive and comprehensive response.

The Atlantic Council responded to this challenge in February 2014 by launching the Ukraine in Europe Initiative, with a focus on enhancing Ukraine’s security, advancing Ukraine’s reform process and economic prospects, and keeping attention on Russian-occupied Crimea.

The Council’s Initiative also aims to counter Moscow’s massive disinformation campaign.

If the international community cannot distinguish fact from fiction, or chooses not to do so in public, it is unlikely to coalesce around an effective strategy to support Ukraine and deter Mr. Putin.

This report, Hiding in Plain Sight: Putin’s War in Ukraine, is the Council’s contribution to offer clarity.

Russian propaganda frames the Ukraine crisis as a civil war.

In reality, the conflict in Ukraine’s east is a Kremlin- manufactured war—fueled by Russian-made military equipment, fought by Russian soldiers, and supported by Mr. Putin.

To reveal the full extent of Russian military intervention in Ukraine, the Atlantic Council has produced this study, using publicly available information and rigorous analysis.

Courageous Ukrainians and frontline diplomats inspired this effort.

This report is a result of the leadership and vision of Council Executive Vice President Damon Wilson and Director of the Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and former US Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst; the dedication and tenacity of Associate Director of the Ukraine in Europe Initiative Dr. Alina Polyakova and social media savvy Special Assistant Maksymilian Czuperski; and the ingenuity of our key partner in this endeavor, Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat.

The information documented in this report draws on open source data using innovative socialmedia forensics and geolocation and is informed by team visits Ambassador Herbst led to Ukraine in March and April 2015, during which Maks and Alina also visited the conflict zone.

This effort would not have been possible without the support of those who have stood behind the Council’s work on Ukraine, including George Chopivsky and the Chopivsky Family Foundation, Ambassador Julie Finley, Frontera Resources, Ian Ihnatowycz and Marta Witer, Lenna Koszarny and Horizon Capital, James Temerty, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Ukrainian World Congress led by President Eugene Czolij and Vice President Paul Grod, and the Patriciu family.

Only after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, steps from the Kremlin, did the Council team learn about his efforts to expose Mr. Putin’s war.

While the work Mr. Nemtsov spearheaded remains distinct from the Council’s, our teams have subsequently coordinated the release of this report with Mr. Nemtsov’s report to reinforce our common message:

Mr. Putin led his nation into war against a peaceful neighbor and lied.

For the complete report please go to:

Source: Atlantic Council

In Ukraine, Humanitarian Situation Still Dire Amid Sporadic Fighting, UN Reports

UNITED NATIONS, USA -- The tenuous situation in eastern Ukraine continues to be marked by sporadic fighting and a crippling humanitarian crisis forcing many civilians to seek refuge in underground shelters or in neighbouring countries, the United Nations relief arm confirmed today.

A hospital in Sloviansk, Ukraine, which was destroyed by shelling.

In its latest situation report on the Ukraine crisis, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) painted a stark portrait of daily life in the country’s conflict-affected areas amid reports of ongoing hostilities at Donetsk airport, as well as in the towns of Shyrokyne, Avdiivka and Shastia.

Meanwhile, casualties are also being reported daily.

According to OCHA, between mid-April 2014 and 14 May 2015, at least 6,334 people have been documented as killed and 15,752 as wounded while unexploded ordinance and landmines pose a continuing threat to civilian lives.

Against that backdrop, the Ministry of Social Policy has registered some 1.3 million people as internally displaced – an increase of about 44,000 people in the past three weeks alone – while the exodus from the country is also on the rise.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported that about 857,000 Ukrainians have sought asylum, residence permits or other forms of legal stay in neighbouring countries – an increase of about 23,000 people in the past two weeks.

Life in the embattled provinces of eastern Ukraine is also precarious from a healthcare standpoint as services are increasingly curtailed due to lack of medicine and medical equipment.

Access to healthcare is severely constrained across the east and in non-Government controlled areas in particular, because of lack of medicine and medical equipment.

OCHA added that there is an increased burden on healthcare facilities particularly due to the influx of displaced families.

Source: UN News Centre

Biden Blasts Putin, Says U.S. Debating Sending Weapons To Ukraine

WASHINGTON, DC -- With tensions flaring between Russia and the West, Vice President Joe Biden blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday and said that the White House is still mulling sending arms and equipment to besieged Ukrainian troops.

US Vice President Joe Biden

Biden criticized Putin for what he called "brutal aggression" in Ukraine, and said the Russian president was also responsible for "aggressive repression at home."

Top military brass, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, have expressed support for transferring more weapons to Ukraine as it battles Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.

But President Barack Obama, faced with skepticism from European partners, has so far resisted supplying Ukrainians with lethal aid.

Some American officials have expressed concern that sending arms could escalate the crisis into a proxy war with Putin and have favored instead ramped-up financial assistance.

Later on Wednesday, the U.S. announced an additional $18 million in humanitarian assistance for Ukrainians, bringing the total American contribution to $61 million.

The State Department said 5 million people inside Ukraine need humanitarian aid, including disabled and elderly Ukrainians.

Biden, saying the debate over supplying Ukraine with weapons was "worth having," didn't shy away from using tough words against Putin in his address Wednesday to the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Calling Putin's hard-fisted approach toward dissidents and gays "bullying," Biden said "Putin's vision has very little to offer the people of Europe, or for that matter the people of Russia, other than myths and illusions."

But he noted that Russia and the U.S. have worked as partners in the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and said the U.S. was continuing to offer Putin "off ramps" to deescalate the Ukraine crisis.

"We're not looking to embarrass him," Biden said.

"We're not looking for regime change. We're not looking for any fundamental alteration of the circumstances inside Russia. We're looking for him to, in our view, act rationally."

"The world looks different today than it did before he re-assumed the presidency" in 2012, Biden continued.

"President Putin must understand as he has changed, so has our focus."

As the vice president spoke, thousands of Russian troops were assembling in the country's northwest for a military exercise, just as European militaries were beginning similar exercises in the Arctic. 

Russia's move was met with disapproval by NATO, which said it was "concerned by the size, scale and frequency" of the military exercises.

Obama, sitting alongside NATO's secretary general in the Oval Office on Tuesday, said Russia had taken an "increasingly aggressive posture" in Europe.

Source: CNN Politics

Russia Won’t Admit Its Soldiers Are In Ukraine, Even The Captured Ones

KIEV, Ukraine -- Groups of armed officers guarded the gate to the Main Military Clinical Hospital in Kiev on Tuesday.

The fate of the imprisoned Russians remains unclear. The Kremlin seems intent on forgetting about them.

No cars were allowed in.

“Today we have a special system of passes,” one of the guards told drivers trying to enter the hospital’s green, quiet courtyard.

The reason for the extra security measures was the presence of two Russian prisoners, self-described soldiers of the Russian special forces, being treated for their wounds.

From his wheelchair, a young uniformed patient pointed at a brick building on the side of the main alley:

“Russians are there at Otolaryngology [ear, nose and throat] clinic,” he said.

Another, with a bandaged head, said, “They are terrorists and should be put on public trial, so no more professional military dare to sneak in to kill us.”

The two Ukrainian soldiers sympathized with two Russian soldiers “abandoned by their motherland,” but they still referred to the prisoners as “terrorists.”

“Russians never betray their own” is a common slogan.

It was often repeated in Crimea last spring, when militia in brand new Russian EMR (universal camouflage pattern) combat uniforms without insignia surrounded the airport and took over administrative buildings.

Most of these militia or “little green men” were praised by locals, some received medals for helping the Kremlin carry out its mostly peaceful annexation of Crimea.

The next fight waged behind the slogan that Russians never betray their own was in the eastern region of Ukraine to save it from the “Kiev junta.”

That could be understood and endorsed by the Russian public.

But then there’s the case of these two arrested Russian self-described soldiers.

The indifference demonstrated to their fate by Russian diplomats and army commanders puts the famous slogan in question.

The arrested military men introduced themselves as Sergeant Alexander Alexandrov and Captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev.

They were captured this month near the town of Schastya, just 20 miles from the Russian border.

Both were seriously wounded, both are facing a threat of medical complications.

The hospitalized men told international observers that they were on a reconnaissance mission in Ukraine, but that the Russian ministry of defense did not give them any orders to attack.

Ukrainian reports accused the two soldiers from the GRU, the Military Intelligence Directorate, of laying mines in the area, an action qualified as an act of terrorism.

Now guarded by a dozen Ukrainian security, both Alexandrov and Yerofeyev were recovering from surgery this week after Ukrainian doctors saved Alexandrov’s leg and Yerofeyev’s arm.

The news from Russia hurt the two soldiers more than their wounds:

The soldiers’ commanders and even their own family members were claiming they were not active military.

“I would prefer to be a prisoner of war. I like that status more than a recruit or a bandit,” Alexandrov told the Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

But his hopes to keep that preferable status had been dashed when the television channel Russia-24 aired a show in which Alexandrov’s wife even went so far as to say he’d been kicked out of the military last year.

Alexandrov was stunned.

“Tell me, why is this happening? I just obeyed orders. I am not a terrorist…. There was an order! I gave an oath to my motherland. I simply went,” Alexandrov said on camera.

He could not believe his wife, who served in the same Tolyatti brigade, had given up on him.

Alexandrov covered his face with a white towel, trying to fight back his tears.

To speak with Alexandrov’s wife, Yekaterina, and find out whether she made that statement under duress, a Rain TV journalist, Timur Olevsky, traveled to Tolyatti.

Olevsky had little trouble finding her.

She lived in a house near the military base.

But Yekaterina refused to speak on camera.

Then Olevsky got into trouble.

“When I was leaving her house an officer in a GRU uniform took a picture of me,” Olevsky told The Daily Beast.

“It turned out that reporters needed a special permit to interview her. Any attempt to find out anything about the soldiers’ background seems not to be allowed.”

On Monday in Moscow, Valentina Melnikova, head of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, received an email and then an SMS from Ukraine.

Alexandrov, introducing himself as “a sergeant” of the Russian forces, asked Melnikova for help.

The Soldiers’ Mothers organization originally was founded in 1989 and involved over 300 mothers determined to bring their sons home safe and sound from Afghanistan.

Now it’s biggest concern is Ukraine.

“The request was clear, the two soldiers want our committee to help them return home to Russia,” Melnikova told The Daily Beast.

“So we made the first steps to help them: We applied to the central [government prosecutors] and Tollyati military prosecutors. We based our requests on the email we received from Alexandrov.” 

Melnikova’s group has suffered for its activism.

After fighting in eastern Ukraine grew deadly serious in August last year, one of the members of Soldiers’ Mothers stated that 100 Russian soldiers had been injured fighting in Ukraine and were taken to hospitals in St. Petersburg.

Soon after that, the Russian government labeled the human-rights group as a “foreign agent.” 

Melnikova said that she understood the situation “perfectly well.”

If Russian officials refused to help and recognize the two soldiers as prisoners of war “Ukraine has full right to put the two guys on trial, as terrorist, there will be a bouquet of various accusations, including international crime,” Melnikova added.

On Tuesday both the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministries confirmed talks about the two soldiers matter but so far no Russian diplomats had been let into the hospital to see the two Russian citizens.

Outside the entrance to the Otolaryngology clinic two gunmen stopped The Daily Beast from entering:

“Nobody can see the arrested ones today,” they said.

Source: The Daily Beast

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Russia Is Using Mobile Crematoriums To Hide Ukraine's Dead

WASHINGTON, DC -- Russia is so desperate to hide its military involvement in Ukraine that it has brought in mobile crematoriums to destroy the bodies of its war dead, say U.S. lawmakers who traveled to the war-torn country this spring.

Pro-Russian subtlety.

The U.S. and NATO have long maintained that thousands of Russian troops are fighting alongside separatists inside eastern Ukraine, and that the Russian government is obscuring not only the presence but also the deaths of its soldiers there.

In March, NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow told a conference, "Russian leaders are less and less able to conceal the fact that Russian soldiers are fighting -- and dying -- in large numbers in eastern Ukraine."

Hence the extreme measures to get rid of the evidence.

“The Russians are trying to hide their casualties by taking mobile crematoriums with them,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry told me.

“They are trying to hide not only from the world but from the Russian people their involvement.” 

Thornberry said he had seen evidence of the crematoriums from both U.S. and Ukrainian sources.

He said he could not disclose details of classified information, but insisted that he believed the reports.

“What we have heard from the Ukrainians, they are largely supported by U.S. intelligence and others,” he said.

Representative Seth Moulton, a former Marine Corps officer and a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, was with Thornberry on the Ukraine trip in late March.

He tweeted about the mobile crematoriums at the time, but didn’t reveal his sources.

He told me this week the information didn’t come just from Ukrainian officials, whose record of providing war intelligence to U.S. lawmakers isn’t stellar.

“We heard this from a variety of sources over there, enough that I was confident in the veracity of the information,” Moulton said, also being careful not to disclose classified U.S. intelligence.

Both Thornberry and Moulton agreed with Vershbow's assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin was struggling to keep up the ruse that he has no soldiers fighting inside Ukraine.

Moulton said the mounting evidence of dead Russian soldiers is causing a domestic backlash for Putin.

Russian and Ukrainian bloggers and activists have been compiling lists of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine, including details of their service and circumstances of their deaths.

New organizations in Russia representing soldiers’ families have sprung up to publicly challenge Putin's narrative.

“Russia is clearly having a problem with their home front and the casualties they are taking from the war,” Moulton said.

“The fact that they would resort to burning the bodies of their own soldiers is horrific and shameful.” 

There had been unconfirmed reports of Russia using mobile crematoriums in Ukraine for months, including leaked videos purporting to show them.

But never before have U.S. lawmakers confirmed that American officials also believe the claims.

The head of Ukraine’s security service, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, said in January that seven truck-mounted crematoriums crossed into his country over a four-day period.

"Each of these crematoriums burns 8-10 bodies per day," he said.

The next month, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko held up the passports of several Russian soldiers and intelligence officers he said were captured or killed in Ukraine, rejecting the Russian assertions that these troops had accidentally wandered over the border.

For many in Washington, the Russian casualties represent a rare vulnerability for Putin -- one that should be exploited through providing weapons to the Ukrainian military.

This is a position held by the top U.S. military commander in Europe, General Philip Breedlove, Secretary of State John Kerryand many top lawmakers in both parties.

Yet, in the face of European resistance, President Barack Obama said in March that he was still pondering providing defensive arms to Ukraine.

More than two months later, he has yet to make a decision.

The result has been a de facto policy of limiting U.S. assistance to Kiev to non-military items.

Even that assistance has been delivered late, or in many cases not at all.

Thornberry said arming the Ukrainians would raise the price Putin pays for his aggression.

As long as Putin feels the cost of his Ukraine policy is manageable, Russian fueled instability will continue, he said.

The recently passed House version of next year’s national defense authorization act contains explicit authorization for appropriations to support Ukraine’s military and provide it with defensive lethal weapons.

This goes further than the action Congress took last year in passing the Ukrainian Freedom Support Act, which Obama signed but still has not acted on with regard to lethal support for Ukraine.

The new legislation would set aside money specifically for the arms, and provide for increased production of items the Ukrainians want including Javelin anti-tank missiles.

“We’re doing anything we can possibly think of to get at legislatively forcing it to happen. How do we force the president to provide weapons to a country if he doesn’t want to?" Thornberry said.

"I can’t find anyone who is against this except for President Obama.”

Moulton said that the West has a moral obligation to help the Ukrainians, and under current conditions, the Ukrainian military simply can’t face down the heavy weapons Russia continues to pour into Ukraine.

He also said that if Putin isn’t confronted now, he will only become more aggressive later.

“When a bear comes out of hibernation, he doesn’t have a few blueberries and go back to sleep. He is hungry for more,” said Moulton.

The Obama administration is understandably concerned that giving the Ukrainians arms will fuel the fire and risk a retaliatory Russian escalation.

But if that’s the decision, Obama should let the Ukrainians and the American public know it.

He then must come up with an alternative to the current, failing approach to stopping Putin’s murderous mischief.

Source: Bloomberg

Ukraine's Stubborn Frontline Civilians Defy Bombardment

PISKY, Ukraine -- It was a perfect afternoon in early summer. Somebody had placed a garland of fresh flowers on the rusting wreckage of a tank.

Anatoliy and Svetlana Kosse, both aged 68, were among the few residents still here. The pair could not bear to be separated or leave their home.

Men died here and were remembered.

Although the fields were empty it was possible to imagine them filled with workers harvesting the sunflower crop.

This was the lull, the space between bombardments when the land reminded us of its true purpose: not a battlefield but a place of abundance.

I remarked to a colleague that the calm was our greatest enemy here.

It lulled us into a false sense of ease.

And then it started. I heard shouts of "Go, go, go" in English and Ukrainian.

There were loud cracks and flashes in the fields nearby, then the surge of adrenalin; the fear - impossible to convey - of being caught in the open by artillery.

Another small moment in the life of a war we have reported on for the past year.

Much of that time has been spent in the villages around Donetsk airport, like Pisky.

Of a pre-war population of 3,000, there are now only around 40 people left.

Beekeeping amid bombardment 

We had come back to Pisky to spend a night in the company of a couple who refused to leave one of the most embattled places on the Ukrainian front.

Anatoliy and Svetlana Kosse, both aged 68, were among the few residents still here.

All around them were the ruins of houses struck by shellfire.

Their days and nights are punctuated by the noise of artillery, rockets, mortars and gunfire.

But alongside this murderous back and forth there was a more hopeful soundtrack.

We heard it in the garden where Anatoliy tends his bees, in the kitchen where Svetlana cooked us dinner from the vegetables she grew and the eggs from her henhouse.

It was the unrehearsed but determined music of life that refused to be yield in the face of war.

Pain in my 'soul' 

The village sat close to Donetsk airport and on the frontline between the Government and rebel armies.

There was no electricity or water.

Food supplies were meagre: the couple survived on what they produced and on occasional aid deliveries.

"It is terrifying," said Svetlana.

"Before I only had a few grey hairs here. And now you can see. When I look at myself with my glasses on, it is terrifying."

So why did they stay?

Why did they not leave for the city?

I asked these questions of Anatoliy as he tended the beehives.

"I am taking care of them, they are here, how can I just leave them?" he replied.

This was home.

To leave would be to abandon all they had worked for.

In fact Svetlana did move to the city for several months.

Anatoliy stayed behind to take care of the home they had created together with its crop-filled garden, beehives and neat rows of flowers.

We were sitting over dinner when Svetlana described what happened after she left.

"When he was alone here, every morning and evening we called each other. I had a strong pain in my soul and so did he. He was a lonely man here because all the neighbours moved away."

So she returned.

They decided to endure the danger and the stress.

I asked Anatoliy what his wife meant to him.

"How can I explain what she means to me?" he said.

Then he smiled and leaned across and placed his head on her shoulder.

They both laughed.

'The nicest and bravest' 

The shelling and shooting went on.

It was a perfectly clear, starlit sky.

And below the stars, shining brightly, we could see the unmanned aerial drones searching for targets on the ground.

When we left the following morning I told Anatoliy and Svetlana that in war I had met all kinds of people but they were among the nicest and bravest I'd ever come across.

"You make too much of us," Anatoliy replied.

They laughed again.

I was struck by how much laughter there was in this home.

Every day now I read of fighting in Pisky; I think of the beekeeper and his wife and I curse the war that threatens such decent people.

Source: BBC News

Now Convoy Of Russian Tanks Arrive By Rail At Border With Ukraine Days After Military Trucks And Rocket Launchers Were Spotted Rolling Through Town

MATVEEV KURGAN, Russia -- A freight train pictured carrying a convoy tanks towards the Ukrainian border looks to escalate tensions between the two sides even further.

Spotted: This mobile phone picture shows the Russian tanks on a freight train shortly after they arrived.

The tanks arrived in the southern town of Matveev Kurgan on Monday, before being driven along the streets on Tuesday.

The picture, taken on a mobile phone, comes just days after a huge convoy, including rocket launchers, military trucks without licence plates and armoured personnel carriers, was photographed driving along a road near the town.

The arrival of the convoys will no doubt be seen as more aggression from the Russians towards their neighbours, who have been arming Ukraine's separatist rebels for months.

Matveev Kurgan is just 17 miles from the border, and just 72 miles from Donetsk, where some of the heaviest fighting of the 15-month conflict has taken place.

It holds a checkpoint between the two countries, but had to be evacuated temporarily in August last year when fighting got too near to the border, according to Russian news agency TASS.

Elsewhere in Russia, it seems Putin is just as keen to show off his military might.

A massive 'surprise' military drill featuring 12,000 soldiers and 250 aircraft was launched in response to two weeks of NATO exercises in the Arctic.

The Russian manoeuvres - which began in the Ural mountains and western Siberia yesterday - are intended to help the military prepare for an even larger drill in September, called Tsentr-2015.

This week's drills began on the same day as NATO launched its own long-planned military exercises in the Arctic, where 100 aircraft and 4,000 servicemen from Germany, Britain, France, Netherlands and the U.S., are taking part in a Norway-led aviation exercise described as the 'largest of its kind'.

Non-NATO allies Finland, Sweden and Switzerland have also joined the so-called 'Arctic Challenge'. 

Source: Daily Mail