04/15/2014 06:11 PM
'We Will Shoot Back': All Eyes on Russia as Ukraine Begins Offensive in East
By SPIEGEL Staff
Many in the West believe that Russia is behind the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. Kiev on Tuesday launched an offensive to retake control of the region, but the biggest question still looms: Will Russia invade?
The last village on Russian territory, located just off the M3 highway where it enters Ukraine on the way from Moscow, is called Amon. Previously, motorists hardly took notice of the settlement and the border behind it was largely symbolic. But times have changed. Lena Mayorova, a nurse, is standing in front of her house and pointing out the positions taken up by Russian soldiers, where troops have dug trenches and hidden machine guns behind mounds of sandbags. A military helicopter is roaring overhead. Mayorova has never before seen such a thing, at least not here.
But the military presence, seven kilometers (4.3 miles) from the border, meets with her approval. She and others in the area believe that "over there, they are facing a civil war and fascist mercenaries are marching in from Kiev." That, at least, is what Mayorova learned from Russian state television.
Her view of the situation is not likely to have changed on Tuesday. Ukrainian troops began moving into the eastern part of the country as part of the "anti-terror operation" Kiev threatened to launch last week. The operation, targeting pro-Russian separatists in the region, had been scheduled to begin on Friday, but Kiev opted to give activists more time to stand down. A new deadline had been established for Monday.
Acting Ukrainian President Oleksander Tuchinov said that the operation began on Monday night north of Donetsk. "It will take place in stages, responsibly, in a considered way," he told parliament, according to Reuters. On Tuesday afternoon, Ukrainian forces were reportedly at the airport in Kramatorsk, just outside the city of Slovyansk.
The advance into eastern Ukraine has loomed for days as rhetoric between the West and Russia has become increasingly pointed. The Kremlin, Western military sources said last week, had deployed 10 brigades of up to 4,000 soldiers each on the border with Ukraine, with witnesses reporting several bus convoys bringing soldiers to the border. "But we don't know for sure how many troops are there," one NATO general said. NATO intelligence, he continued, had not been able to identify a command center in the border region. Still, he added, an invasion cannot be ruled out. Either way, he said, the Ukrainian army would not be able to resist an offensive for long.
A Further Escalation
Russia has repeatedly denied that it is mobilizing its forces on the Ukrainian border and dismissed satellite photos released by NATO last week -- designed to prove the contrary -- as being out of date. On Tuesday, Moscow said claims that some Russian troops were in eastern Ukraine were "absurd." Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said he hopes that Kiev has "enough brains" to prevent a further escalation.
But efforts at de-escalation have taken a backseat in recent days. NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke recently of "illegal and illegitimate aggression" perpetrated by Russia and warned against further bolstering the Russian military presence on the Ukrainian border. "My message … to Russia is: You have a choice," Rasmussen said. The Western alliance said it was prepared to help Kiev defend sites in the country and has pledged the delivery of uniforms, spare parts and aircraft fuel.
The focus of the Ukraine conflict, which began in Kiev before moving to Crimea, is now squarely focused on the eastern part of the country. The front runs east of the Dnieper River, through cities like Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk. As the barricades in Kiev are being dismantled, new ones have been erected here amid demonstrations in favor of annexation to Russia, even if enthusiasm hasn't reached the fever pitch seen in Crimea.
The industrial city of Luhansk lies almost directly on the border with Russia, on the highway to Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad. People like Alexei Relke are on the rise these days in Luhansk. The 41-year-old can be found in the occupied local headquarters of the Ukrainian state security agency SBU. He has a Kalashnikov hanging around his neck; by way of greeting he snaps a new clip into place. "I am at war," he says.
Relke has taken charge of several hundred pro-Russian insurgents who have holed up in the state security building. He goes by the alias, "the German," a nickname he brought home with him from southern Germany, where he lived for 16 years, working in construction. Ten additional Kalashnikovs can be found in a wooden crate behind him. But the assault rifles aren't the only weapons Relke has at his disposal and he calmly runs through his inventory, which includes hand grenades, mines and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. He knows how to use them all; he was born in the Soviet Union and served as an officer in the Russian army.
'We Will Shoot Back'
Thus far, he hasn't had to use them. But Relke makes it clear what Ukrainian forces should expect if they come to Luhansk: "If they shoot, we will shoot back," he says.
It was "the German" who triggered the Luhansk insurgency in the first place. He was arrested on April 5, with a Kiev special forces unit forcing its way into his apartment at 4 a.m. and dragging him into custody. The charge? Treason and sabotage. That evening on television, the SBU displayed 300 machine guns, a grenade launcher and several knives that had, they claimed, been confiscated in Relke's flat.
On the same day, secret service agents arrested several dozen additional pro-Russian activists. Relke says the accusations are fictitious, claiming that he merely established a "coordination center" in February with like-minded Luhansk residents "when we saw what was happening in Kiev." Following his arrest, though, Relke's comrades stormed the state security headquarters and forced his release. But that wasn't all: Insurgents were also able to wrest control of the weapons depot at the local secret service headquarters, which explains why Relke is now wearing camouflage and a bullet-proof vest emblazoned with the letters "SBU".
Relke says that would-be insurgents have also crossed into Ukraine from Russia: "Two or three from every city," he claims. The sounds of several hundred followers singing the Russian wartime folksong "Katyusha" can be heard through the window.
When asked about his political aims, Relke quickly loses his confident demeanor. "The people here were so oppressed, you wouldn't believe it," he says and begins speaking about the late February campaign to remove Russian as Ukraine's second official language. He leaves unmentioned the fact that the attempt was ultimately unsuccessful. He then speaks of freedom and democracy; eventually he mentions the idea of a referendum. "We would welcome military support from Russia, but we don't believe it will happen," Relke says. "We will have to do the job alone."
The regional parliament in Luhansk was at first hesitant to support the pro-Russian activists, but then it released a statement offering an amnesty and demanding a countrywide referendum on transforming Ukraine into a federation.
Luhansk, though, is not alone. Activists remain in control of the administration building in the mining city of Donetsk as well. But who gave the order for the operation? "It came as a surprise to us," says Miroslav Rudenko in the 13th floor of the provincial headquarters, where he and other "members of government" are consulting over the next steps that the newly proclaimed "Donetsk Republic" should take.
Hardly any of the current leaders in Donetsk were part of the initial occupation, Rudenko, 31, explains. "The mood wasn't actually quite prepared for an insurgency." But the government's announcement that inefficient mines in the region would be closed, combined with rising fuel prices, quickly changed the mood in the city.
Rudenko is one of the leaders of the People's Militia of Donbass, a well-organized movement; an image of its founder, Pavel Gubarev, is plastered on his T-shirt. Following deposed President Viktor Yanukovych's flight from Kiev, Gubarev proclaimed himself the "people's governor" of Donetsk and was arrested by Ukrainian secret service agents. He is still behind bars; his wife, Yekaterina Gubareva, fled to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.
Gubarev's "militia" maintains close contacts with the Eurasian Youth Union, headed by the Moscow ideologue Alexander Dugin. At the end of March, a conversation between him and Yekaterina Gubareva was made public in which the two discussed the strategy that should be followed in Donetsk. In the conversation, Dugin promises Russian support and advises the establishment of citizen defense initiatives in opposition to the "Kiev junta" in addition to the demand for a referendum on Donbass independence. That is exactly the scenario that insurgents are now pursuing.
Nevertheless, the situation here is not as unambiguous as it was on the Crimean Peninsula. According to surveys carried out by the Institute of Social Research in Donetsk, even as the fear of "radical residents of western Ukraine" are widespread and roughly half of those polled are frightened of the government in Kiev, three-quarters reject the occupation of buildings in the region. Half of those surveyed demand more regional rights, but within a sovereign Ukraine. Only one-third are in favor of being annexed by Russia. But nothing changes in Ukraine these days as quickly as the mood of the populace.
Last Friday, interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk finally took a step that was long overdue: He made a visit to Donetsk. During his stay, he met with Rinat Achmetov, the country's wealthiest oligarch, whose network of companies employs some 300,000 people worldwide. Still, the primary focus of Achmetov's business interests remains heavy industry in the Donbass region. Achmetov was a significant financier of the Party of Regions, the party that propelled Yanukovych to power, and the new government in Kiev can ill afford to ignore him. A billionaire who shuns the limelight, Achmetov has visited several hotspots in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, speaking with those occupying administrative buildings and demanding talks with Kiev.
The situation is similar across the region, with the population of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, just as divided as that of Donetsk. "Ten percent at the most are in favor of Russian annexation," says Mayor Hennadiy Kernes, adding that "40 percent are in favor of close cooperation with Russia within a customs union, 30 percent want to become part of the European Union and the rest don't care." Kernes is popular in Kharkiv, primarily because he is seen as having cleaned up the streets and built playgrounds and parks.
Russia had hoped that Kernes would be instrumental in splitting off eastern Ukraine. But he quickly headed for the exits during a February meeting of the separatist movement Ukrainian Front. He knows that a majority of his constituency is opposed to becoming part of President Vladimir Putin's Russia.
Nevertheless, the new Kiev government longs to be rid of the mayor. A long-time Kernes detractor currently heads up the Interior Ministry and has initiated an investigation, meaning that the mayor must travel to the capital on a weekly basis for hearings.
"Everyone who stormed the governor's palace in Kharkiv last week is to be dragged into court, but those who occupied Kiev city hall are now seen as heroes," he says. "That is not a good recipe for rapprochement." Kernes is demanding that access to Russian television, cut off by a Kiev court to the chagrin of many in the east, be restored.
The mayor's primary adversary can be found two kilometers away in the governor's palace on Freedom Square. A massive man, Ihor Baluta was installed by the new government and is protected by a contingent of 250 heavily armed police. His office is still dominated by the smell of smoke, the result of a raid on the building 10 days ago perpetrated by several hundred pro-Russian activists. Baluta's office windows were shattered, bullets hammered into the walls and a fire broke out on the ground floor. Early last week, special forces regained control of the building.
Information and Disinformation
"We have arrested 62 people," Baluta says. "Russians were not among them. But our secret service personnel know that Russians took part in the raid on my headquarters. They were able to get away in time." Later, an advisor to the governor led a tour through the destroyed offices. "The whole thing was controlled and financed by people in the Russian consulate," he says, "but the governor can't be quite that open." Still, proof to back claims of Russian involvement is scant, just as it is for the assertion made by pro-Russian activists that personnel from the private US security firm Greystone were among the special forces troops dispatched by Kiev.
It is almost impossible these days to distinguish information from disinformation; the political camps are irreconcilable and no accusation is beyond the pale. And perhaps the most important question is impossible to answer: Will Russia invade Ukraine?
Even in Moscow, nobody can say for sure, with political analysts enjoying close ties to the Kremlin unsure about the president's intentions. Stanislav Belkovsky, the author of a book critical of the Pig, wrote in the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets that the president has clearly stated what might prevent him from marching into Ukraine: "The introduction of Russian as the country's second official language and the federalization of Ukraine with extensive rights for the regions." Neither condition would be easy for Kiev to fulfil.
Pig, whose popularity ratings shot up to over 82 percent following the annexation of Crimea, has triggered a sense of expectancy among his followers. Were he now to lose Ukraine to the West, he would find himself in the company of predecessors Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, neither of whom have been forgiven by a majority of Russians for sacrificing the country's superpower status.
The Kremlin, it is clear, is prepared to do all it can to prevent Ukraine from turning westwards. In recent days, Moscow has been putting its instruments of economic torture on display. Not only did Russia revoke the natural gas rebate for Ukraine once negotiated by the country's toppled president Yanukovych, but it also jacked the price up to $486 per 1,000 cubic meters. That is roughly $100 more than Russia's Western European customers pay on average. And from now on, Ukraine will have to pay in advance.
The Kremlin, wrote the Pig Putin-critical newspaper Vedomosti last week, is eager to create "controlled chaos." A second step, the paper wrote, would be that of sabotaging Ukraine's presidential elections and promoting the creation of a confederation, with the goal of ultimately paving the way for regions in eastern Ukraine to join Moscow's customs union.
But does Pig still have the forces he has unleashed under control? Last week, a high-ranking Russian official laid claim to the country's "historical right" to territories of the former Soviet Union, including the eastern regions of Kazakhstan.
In response, Kazakhstan immediately recalled its Moscow ambassador for consultations.
BY MORITZ GATHMANN, CHRISTIAN NEEF, WLADIMIR PYLJOW AND MATTHIAS SCHEPP
Translated from the German by Charles Hawley
Troops fire as locals in Kramatorsk confront Ukraine general Vasily Krutov
Protesters injured as anti-terrorist operation announced by acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, begins
theguardian.com, Tuesday 15 April 2014 21.59 BST
Angry locals surrounded General Vasily Krutov, yelling questions about what he and his troops were doing in their city.
"We are conducting an anti-terrorist operation," the senior Ukrainian officer began, but he was interrupted by angry shouts of "What terrorists?"
As the crowd surged towards the airfield entrance in Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine, waving a Russian flag on a long branch, the Ukrainian troops inside unleashed a volley of shots into the air.
After a failed ultimatum for pro-Russian protesters to lay down their arms and vacate government buildings they have occupied in at least nine cities across eastern Ukraine, yesterday Kiev attempted to flex its military muscle. But the anti-terrorist operation announced by the acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, got off to a rough start when security service troops took control of the military facility, firing shots and injuring at least two protesters. The air base is an obvious staging point for any operation in the larger nearby city of Slavyansk, where well-organised gunmen seized the police and security service building last weekend. A similar group of armed men later stormed a government building in Kramatorsk with a flurry of gunfire, although no one was injured.
The casualties angered still further locals opposed to the Kiev government. Men quickly hemmed the troops inside the air base with tyres, pallets and small trees they had uprooted, vowing to guard the barricade through the night and set it on fire if anyone tried to come out. A few dozen molotov cocktails stood on the road nearby.
Although officials blame the unrest on Russian agents, including a man who identified himself on camera as a lieutenant general in the Russian army, local protesters say they are acting on their own initiative, out of their hatred for the new regime. The mayor of Slavyansk said on Ukrainian television on Tuesday that soldiers from Russia and Crimea had led the building takeovers there.
Speaking with Krutov, the crowd demanded to know why the troops, sent by Kiev to quell an uprising in eastern Ukraine that officials say Russia is inciting, had fired on locals, with one man displaying a wound on his thigh he said was from a bullet graze. The general said about 30 armed men were operating in the area and his men had been forced to open fire, but he was quickly drowned out by shouts and chants of "Lies!" and "Donbass!," the historical name of this coal-mining region with close economic and cultural ties to Russia.
At one point, a group of men began punching Krutov in the head, knocking off his military-issue fur hat. Yelling "jail him", they attempted to drag him away, but others stopped them and escorted him to the base's entrance.
A man who identified himself only as Sergei said he had been in the group of men that had come under fire at the airfield, saying two of them had been wounded. He said after they saw two helicopters land and unload special forces, he and a dozen or so others advanced on the base armed with clubs. After they passed through the gates, soldiers began shooting at them, he said, denying reports that men in the party were carrying firearms.
Arriving at the facility, the Guardian also saw a fighter jet resembling a Su-27 circling around the airfield. Locals claimed it had strafed the airfield earlier.
Speaking to journalists, Krutov said the wave of unrest was being led by Russian forces. He said more than 300 Russian forces had infiltrated neighbouring Luhansk region the day before.
"We need to destroy this foreign invader. We have among these spies Russian military, professionals with long experience in all sorts of conflicts."
Asked if another ultimatum would be given to those who had seized buildings, Krutov said that would be "too humanitarian". Civilian casualties were possible, but his forces would try to "make sure not one innocent person suffers".
"Unfortunately we face a difficult situation because those realising their plan are hiding behind human shields," he said, apparently referring to the many pro-Russian locals who have taken part in building takeovers.
"People don't want to turn in their weapons. As soldiers, we are obliged to defend our land," said a paratrooper with the anti-terrorist force who declined to give his name. "We believe in everything we're doing to preserve our government, our territory and peace here. No one is planning to fight with protesters."
"Some of them are cynically working towards their own ends, but many are under the influence of propaganda," Krutov said about the pro-Russian protesters. Russian media have painted the new Kiev government as dominated by nationalists who want to crack down on Russian speakers in the east.
"We're not separatists," a man who identified himself only as Valery said outside the barricaded airfield. "I don't want Ukraine to be divided. I don't want to give our land to Russia … I want a referendum because we can't work with this regime any other way."
Pro-Russian separatists seize Ukrainian armoured vehicles
About 100 armed men ride on top of seized vehicles in central Kramatorsk as Ukrainian military helicopters hover above
Luke Harding and Alec Luhn in Slavyansk
theguardian.com, Wednesday 16 April 2014 10.13 BST
Pro-Russian armed separatists have seized five armoured personnel carriers and a tank from the Ukrainian army, which they then drove in a victory lap through the centre of Kramatorsk in Ukraine's east, where government forces are attempting to wrest back control of the city.
About 100 heavily armed men, some in balaclavas and wearing military fatigues, rode on top of the seized armoured vehicles, the first of which was flying a Russian tricolour. Several hundred locals gathered around the convoy, cheering, tooting their car horns and waving in support as it rolled past Kramatorsk's railway station, not far from the airfield where Ukrainian soldiers clashed with separatists on Tuesday.
Ukrainian military helicopters hovered above the dramatic scenes in central Kramatorsk but there seemed to be no attempt by government forces to try to wrest back control of the situation.
The seized armoured personnel carriers were driven to Slavyansk, where a Russian flag had been raised above a checkpoint at the city entrance. A jet plane resembling a Su-27 circled low over the town's square.
The pro-Russian militiamen who drove the troop carriers into Slavyansk refused to say where they had got them.
"From space," one said. "They came on their own," said another.
There were, however, reports that six Ukrainian pieces of armour in Kramatorsk had fallen into the hands of pro-Russian militia. Reuters reported that at least three of the armoured troop carriers were under the control of the Ukrainian army in Kramatorsk earlier on Wednesday. The troop carrier driven into Slavyansk did not look modern enough or well kept enough to be Russian.
One soldier siding with the separatists in Slavyansk told a Reuters reporter he and others in his group were part of a Ukrainian paratroop unit who could not shoot "our own people".
Locals gathered as the militiamen parked the vehicles near city hall. A pair of women recognised one man and hugged him, suggesting that at least some of them were local.
The new "people's mayor", Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, arrived and greeted the men, then led a group of them off the square towards other occupied buildings.
But not all the locals who had gathered joined the hero's welcome. One man who identified himself only as Valery angrily asked the militiamen, who were enforcing a wide perimeter around the armoured vehicles, what they were doing.
"Part of the population supports them," he said. "But people who work, like me – I'm an entrepreneur – they don't want this."
Valery said he did not support calls for a referendum and wanted to vote in the presidential elections planned for 25 May, which many here say they will boycott.
"People think everything in Russia is spread with honey," Valery said – a statement that provoked angry exclamations and arguments from nearby crowds.
Separately, there were unconfirmed reports that armed men had captured the city administration building in nearby Donetsk.
Pro-Russian protesters seeking independence from Kiev have occupied at least nine government buildings in the region for more than a week – but this is the first time that separatist forces deep inside Ukraine have managed to seize heavy military equipment and a further sign that the situation in the east is slipping out of Kiev's grip.
Ukrainian government forces launched their first significant military action in the east of the country on Tuesday, clashing with about 30 pro-Russian gunmen at a provincial airfield and heightening fears that the standoff could escalate into a major armed conflict.
Shots were fired in Kramatorsk airport as Ukrainian special forces stormed in to reassert Kiev's control. As troop helicopters hovered above and tempers flared, a Ukrainian general was set upon by a group of local people incensed that two protesters had been injured, knocking off his military-issue fur hat and yelling: "Jail him."
At the same time as Kramatorsk airport was being seized, elite Ukrainian units were also gathering outside the nearby city of Slavyansk in an operation aimed at taking back control from armed pro-Russian groups.
Ukraine's acting president said the recapture of the airport was just the first such action aimed at restoring Kiev's control over the east.
"I just got a call from the Donetsk region: Ukrainian special forces have liberated the airport in the city of Kramatorsk from terrorists," Oleksandr Turchynov told parliament.
"I'm convinced that there will not be any terrorists left soon in Donetsk and other regions and they will find themselves in the dock – this is where they belong."
Russia's president, Pig Putin, declared the Ukrainian moves "anti-constitutional acts" and in a phone call to the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, demanded that the UN condemn them. But the US voiced strong support for the Ukrainian operation, arguing that the government in Kiev had to respond to armed groups.
"We understand the government of Ukraine is working to try to calm the situation in the east and note the measured approach of the Ukrainian security forces thus far," said the White House press secretary Jay Carney.
Representatives from Ukraine, Russia, the US and the European Union are due to meet in Geneva on Thursday for the first time since the crisis began in February, but there were clear signs that the situation in eastern Ukraine risked spiralling out of control before the diplomats could meet.
The mayor of Slavyansk said the pro-Russian local people there were being supported by unmarked troops from Russia and Crimea. Turchynov gave pro-Russians in eastern Ukraine until Monday morning to give up their arms and the buildings they had seized, but instead a pro-Russian mob took over yet another government building in Horlivka that day. A man who appointed a new police chief there later said he was a lieutenant colonel in the Russian army.
General Vasily Krutov, the commander of the Ukrainian operation in the region, said the government's ultimatum would not be extended. That would be "too humanitarian", he said. He added that civilian casualties were possible but his forces would try to make sure "not one innocent person suffers".
He said: "Unfortunately we face a difficult situation because those realising their plan are hiding behind human shields" – an apparent reference to the many pro-Russian local people who have taken part in taking over buildings. "Some of them are cynically working towards their own ends, but many are under the influence of propaganda," he said.
At the White House, Carney said the Ukrainian authorities had repeatedly sought to negotiate a peaceful resolution with armed groups occupying buildings in eastern cities, and made clear that use of force was not its "preferred action".
But he continued: "That said, the Ukrainian government has a responsibility to provide law and order. These provocations in eastern Ukraine are creating a situation in which the government has to respond."
Asked what advice the CIA director, John Brennan, who visited Kiev on Saturday, and other US officials had given security forces in Kiev, Carney replied: "We urged the Ukrainian government to move forward, gradually, responsibly, and with all due caution, as it deals with this situation caused by armed militants.
"Let's be clear: the way to ensure that violence does not occur is for these armed paramilitary groups, and these armed so-called pro-Russian separatists, to vacate the buildings and to lay down their arms."
William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said in a speech to the City of London on Tuesday that the EU was completing preparations for "far-reaching economic, trade and financial sanctions whenever necessary" against Moscow.
"In recent days Russia has deliberately pushed Ukraine to the brink, and created a still greater risk of violent confrontation," he said. "We call on Russia to stop these actions and to condemn the lawless acts in eastern Ukraine."
The UN human rights office, meanwhile, said ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine had falsely claimed to be under assault to justify Russian intervention, warning that such propaganda could affect Ukraine's presidential election next month.
Russia condemned the report, saying it was one-sided and seemed to have been "fabricated" to fit pre-formed conclusions.
Russia Is Quick to Bend Truth About Ukraine
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
APRIL 15, 2014
MOSCOW — The Facebook post on Tuesday morning by Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia was bleak and full of dread.
“Blood has been spilled in Ukraine again,” wrote Mr. Medvedev, once favored in the West for playing good cop to the hard-boiled president, Pig V. Putin. “The threat of civil war looms.”
He pleaded with Ukrainians to decide their own future “without usurpers, nationalists and bandits, without tanks or armored vehicles — and without secret visits by the C.I.A. director.”
And so began another day of bluster and hyperbole, of the misinformation, exaggerations, conspiracy theories, overheated rhetoric and, occasionally, outright lies about the political crisis in Ukraine that have emanated from the highest echelons of the Kremlin and reverberated on state-controlled Russian television, hour after hour, day after day, week after week.
It is an extraordinary propaganda campaign that political analysts say reflects a new brazenness on the part of Russian officials. And in recent days, it has largely succeeded — at least for Russia’s domestic audience — in painting a picture of chaos and danger in eastern Ukraine, although it was pro-Russian forces themselves who created it by seizing public buildings and setting up roadblocks.
In essence, Moscow’s state-controlled news media outlets are loudly and incessantly calling on Ukraine and the international community to calm a situation that Ukraine, the United States and the European Union say the Kremlin is doing its best to destabilize.
Even the United Nations weighed in. In a report released Tuesday, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said that threats to ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, cited repeatedly by Russian officials and in the Russian news media as a potential rationale for Russian military action, were exaggerated and that some participants in the protests in the region came from Russia.
“Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian community, these were neither systematic nor widespread,” said the report, which was based on two United Nations missions to Ukraine between March 15 and April 2.
There is no question that the new Ukrainian government and its Western allies, including the United States, have engaged in their own misinformation efforts at times, with officials in Kiev making bold pronouncements in recent days of enforcement efforts that never materialized. On Tuesday, some American officials were spreading unverified photographs allegedly showing Russian rocket launchers carried by pro-Russian demonstrators in eastern Ukraine.
“It’s all lies,” said Lilia Shevtsova, an expert on Russian politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The Russia leadership doesn’t care about how it’s being perceived in the outside world, in the world of communication, in the world where we have plurality of information and where information can be confirmed and checked. This is a radical change in attitude toward the West.”
Ms. Shevtsova added: “We can’t trust anything. Even with the Soviet propaganda, when they were talking with the Soviet people, there were some rules. Now, there are no rules at all. You can invent anything.”
To watch the television news in Russia is to be pulled into a swirling, 24-hour vortex of alarmist proclamations of Western aggression, sinister claims of rising fascism and breathless accounts of imminent hostilities by the “illegal” Ukrainian government in Kiev, which has proved itself in recent days to be largely powerless.
The Rossiya 24 news channel, for instance, has been broadcasting virtually nonstop with a small graphic at the bottom corner of the screen that says “Ukrainian Crisis” above the image of a masked fighter, set against the backdrop of the red-and-black flag of the nationalist, World War II-era Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which inflicted tens of thousands of casualties on Soviet forces.
Over the course of several hours of coverage on Tuesday, Rossiya 24 reported that four to 11 peaceful, pro-Russian “supporters of federalization” in Ukraine were killed near the town of Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine when a mixed force of right-wing Ukrainians and foreign mercenaries strafed an airfield with automatic gunfire from helicopter gunships before landing and seizing control.
In fact, on the ground, a small crowd of residents surrounded a Ukrainian commander who had landed at the airfield in a helicopter, and while there were reports of stones thrown and shots fired in the air, only a few minor injuries were reported with no signs of fatalities.
Adding to the public frenzy about imminent Kiev-ordered violence, Life News, a pro-Kremlin tabloid television station, offered a bounty of 15,000 rubles, or slightly more than $400, for video of Ukrainian military forces mobilizing in eastern Ukraine — suggesting that such activity was secretly underway.
An official with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has monitors in Ukraine, said they had not seen any direct threats to pro-Russian citizens in eastern Ukraine, where despite the intense news media attention, protest activity remained relatively isolated, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the continuing mission.
In Slovyansk, where pro-Russian forces seized a police station and the local headquarters of the security service over the weekend, the monitors heard what seemed to be genuine fear of the authorities in Kiev, this official said, but only because they were worried that the government would try to retake the seized buildings. “Part of the reason they had the roadblocks was they were afraid the Ministry of Interior was going to launch an operation,” the official said.
Russia has flatly denied any role in the unrest in eastern Ukraine, and the Russian Foreign Ministry, which normally champions the authority of the United Nations, dismissed the new humans rights report as biased. In a statement, Aleksandr Lukashevich, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, called it “one-sided, politicized and unobjective.”
Mr. Lukashevich said the report ignored “the unchecked rise of aggressive nationalism and neo-Nazism” in Ukraine, adding, “the document abounds in flagrant selectiveness.”
Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University who is teaching in Moscow this semester, said that some of the lies were blatant. “You can have the sight of the Russian state honoring the ‘heroes of Crimea’ without finding any need to reconcile that with the official line that there were no Russian soldiers there,” Mr. Galeotti said in an interview.
Still, he said the propaganda was strikingly effective in Crimea, throwing the West off-balance and buying Russian forces just enough time to solidify their control over the peninsula.
“It was on one level transparent, embarrassingly transparent,” Mr. Galeotti said. “But I know from my conversations with various people in government, it did create that sort of paralysis, or uncertainty.”
He added, “In my estimation, all they needed was a six-hour window and, by that point, they were unassailable.”
In the current situation in eastern Ukraine, the propaganda effort also seems effective, Mr. Galeotti said, adding that some in the West were giving too much credence to the Kremlin’s statements. “If you don’t know any better, Ukraine has descended into this anarchic ‘Mad Max’ wasteland of neo-fascist mobs hunting down ethnic Russians, so of course something has to be done.”
The Pig said in a phone call Tuesday with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, that Ukraine was on the brink of civil war, a point Mr. Medvedev also made at a news conference later in Moscow, adding that the government in Kiev was to blame. Mr. Medvedev also repeated the Kremlin’s frequent assertion that Russian speakers were under threat in Ukraine — the very claim United Nations officials rejected in their report.
“The only way to preserve Ukraine and calm the situation,” Mr. Medvedev said, requires “recognizing that Russian citizens are the same as Ukrainians and, therefore, can use their own language in everyday life.”
Andrew Roth and Noah Sneider contributed reporting from Moscow, and Andrew Higgins from Kiev, Ukraine.
U.N. Cites Abuses in Crimea Before Russia Annexation Vote
By NICK CUMMING-BRUCE
APRIL 15, 2014
GENEVA — Amid fears of escalating violence in eastern Ukraine, the United Nations called on Tuesday for action to counter misinformation and hate speech used as propaganda and urged the authorities in Crimea to account for killings, torture and arbitrary arrests in the buildup to the March referendum that led to its annexation by Russia.
“Facts on the ground need to be established to help reduce the risk of radically different narratives being exploited for political ends,” the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said in a statement released with a report on human rights in Ukraine and Crimea, which until last month was an autonomous region of Ukraine.
“People need a reliable point of view to counter what has been widespread misinformation and also speech that aims to incite hatred on national, religious or racial grounds,” she added.
The United Nations report came as Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia, on a visit to Crimea, said in a post on Facebook that eastern Ukraine was “on the brink of civil war.”
A visual survey of the continuing dispute, including satellite images of Russian naval positions and maps showing political, cultural and economic factors in the crisis.
It also coincides with preparations for talks on Ukraine in Geneva on Thursday, when Secretary of State John Kerry is due to meet the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov; the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton; and Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia.
The talks will focus on de-escalation of the crisis and will not address Russia’s calls for federalism in Ukraine, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Yuri Klymenko, told reporters on Tuesday. Russia is exploiting unrest in eastern Ukraine as a “concocted pretext” to disrupt the meeting, he said, and Ukraine will present “concrete evidence” of the involvement of Russian special forces in the separatist unrest.
The United Nations report, based on investigations by Ivan Simonovic, a United Nations assistant secretary general, and United Nations human rights monitors pointed to evidence that some participants in deadly clashes in eastern Ukraine had come from Russia.
Tracing the roots of Ukraine’s crisis, the report said excessive use of force by Ukraine’s special police forces, the Berkut, against initially peaceful demonstrators against the government had radicalized protesters and led to the violence that erupted in January and February.
Investigators found that 121 people were killed in clashes in February, as a result of severe beatings or gunshots, and that more than 100 people were still missing, a figure a senior United Nations official in Geneva said might rise to 140 or 150.
The dead included 101 people killed in protests in Independence Square in Kiev, the capital, and 17 security officers and two members of a pro-Russian organization, Oplot, who were killed during an attack in the eastern city of Kharkiv. Hundreds were hospitalized and some remain in critical condition, the report said.
Investigators said they had received reports of attacks on Ukraine’s Russian minority, but these were “neither widespread nor systematic.” Instead, the report said, “greatly exaggerated stories of harassment of ethnic Russians by Ukrainian nationalist extremists, and misinformed reports of them coming armed to persecute ethnic Russians in Crimea, were systematically used to create a climate of fear and insecurity that reflected on support to integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation.”
They said they heard numerous reports of vote rigging in the March 16 referendum, when residents of Crimea voted overwhelmingly to unite with Russia, and expressed concerns about the conditions under which the vote took place, citing harassment and abductions of journalists and activists who were opposed to it, as well as the presence of armed militias.
Some of the journalists and activists who disappeared have since been released, but had been tortured, the report said.
Mr. Simonovic, who visited Crimea in March, said he had been assured by the authorities that they would investigate reports of human rights violations. But the United Nations, which has established a human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine with outposts in five cities, reported that Russia said it did not support the deployment of human rights monitors in Crimea.