Will Stewart and Damien Gayle / The Daily Mail & Reuters & The Associated Press – 2014-08-22 01:47:59
Kiev in U-turn over Claim that
‘Russian Tanks, Artillery and 1,200 Fighters’
Had Been Deployed in Eastern Ukraine
As Evidence Fails to Materialize
Will Stewart and Damien Gayle / The Daily Mail & Reuters & The Associated Press
(August 21, 2014) – Muddled security officials in Ukraine were last night forced to deny a huge Russian military convoy had been deployed in the eastern rebel-run city of Lugansk.
The strong rebuttal suggested an earlier claim about an invasion by Vladimir Putin’s troops amounted to a crude propaganda move by the pro-Western Kiev government — or deep confusion in its own ranks.
The original allegation of a Russian column arriving in Lugansk came from Lt-Gen Igor Voronchenko, head of the Ukrainian Anti Terrorist Operation (ATO) in the city, and was backed by military analyst Dmitry Tymchuk.
‘There are tanks, Grad artillery, APCs, accompanied by about 1,200 men dressed in the army uniform of Russian Federation,’ the general was quoted saying in an assertion calculated to alarm the West.
Yet there was no confirmation on Wednesday from NATO or other Western sources which was widely reported inside Ukraine.
The claim was also contradicted closer to home by Kiev’s National Security and Defence Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko who dismissed it as ‘strange’.
‘Intelligence is not confirming the existence of this column,’ he said. Later, after checking it, he stated: ‘Rebels who are fighting in Lugansk do have military hardware and Grad artillery but they did not get it yesterday. They had it for a while.’
Vorochenko and a chorus of social media sources had indicated a recent move. ‘We can confirm this information. This army column got to Ukraine about three days ago,’ he said.
Russia has repeatedly denied supplying heavy arms and fighters to pro-Moscow separatists fighting in Lugansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine.
Rebel spokesman Kostyantyn Knyrik dismissed the reports as ‘pure bluff’ and ‘lies’. ‘There is no Russian column, and there never was. It is not the first time that the Ukrainian side makes such statements, and not the first time it is a miss. They seem to be passionate about these columns.’
Kiev is understood to have received ‘advice’ from Western spin-doctors and ‘PR specialists’, while Moscow also pays attention to an ‘information war’.
Ukraine yesterday claimed to have taken control of a large area of Lugansk, another indication that there was no new Russian military presence. There is speculation Ukraine will hype up its military achievements ahead of a weekend when it will mark its Independence Day.
Lysenko today said government forces are now controlling ‘significant parts’ of the eastern city. Lugansk has been without electricity, running water or phone connections for 18 days due to the fighting. A separate 280-truck Russian ‘aid’ convoy is still stalled at the border amid fears in Kiev that it has a military purpose.
Russia and Ukraine said yesterday their presidents would meet together with top European Union officials in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on Monday to discuss their confrontation over Ukraine
The meeting will put Putin and Poroshenko in the same room for the first time since a passing encounter in France in June, though Ukrainian officials were at pains to say no face-to-face meeting between the two men was planned.
Nonetheless, with a Ukrainian military offensive making inroads against pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, Reuters reports that Ukrainian officials were upbeat that the meeting could be a diplomatic opportunity.
‘Today a clear diplomatic roadmap is taking shape. We can come up with new approaches that will allow us to talk about a move from war to peace,’ said Valery Chaly, Poroshenko’s top foreign policy aide. But that hope could turn sour if claims that separatists have had significant reinforcements courtesy of Russia. Messages posted on to Twitter, the microblogging website, appeared to back up the claims.
One read: ‘Column from Russian Federation entered the town with Russian army. It came from the East of Lugansk. At first we thought it was Ukrainian army. It was going for 2 hours, with white ribbons on the arms, without flags.’
Another said: ‘All is bad! Welcome humanitarian aid from Russia, newest T-72, Grads and other presents.’
A further Tweet read: ‘At about 2 pm on the street called ’30th anniversary of the Victory’ there was spotted a column of military hardware — tanks and infantry armoured vehicles.’
Anastasiya Stanko, a journalist with Hromadske.tv, reported: ‘I have information from the administration of Lugansk that a column of Russia military hardware entered the city, at least 150 vehicles, including tanks, Grad artillery and infantry armoured vehicles, also about 1,200 soldiers.’
She stated: ‘All are dressed in Russian army uniform but without chevrons. At the moment they are at the 30th anniversary of war victory street in Lugansk. There is information that this column crossed the border about three days ago and got to Lugansk via Severnyi Donets.’ The equipment came from the same vicinity as where the stalled humanitarian convoy was based near the Russian-Ukraine border in Rostov region, she said.
Mr Voronchenko linked the men and hardware to an announcement last week from separatist ‘prime minister’ in Donetsk, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, that he had obtained 150 pieces of military hardware ‘infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers’ from Russia. He also boasted the rebels had been boosted by 1,200 fighters ‘who have received four months training in the Russian Federation’.
Russia dismissed this report but Mr Voronchenko said the new force in Lugansk ‘is exactly what that Russian creature Zakharchenko spoke about’.
Yesterday, the Mail‘s correspondent in Russia reported movements of heavy military hardware in Rostov, the Russian region which borders Ukraine, in previous days. Tanks were seen carried West towards the frontier on trucks which later returned empty.
Ukrainian military analyst Dmitry Tymchuk said: ‘Unfortunately, we can confirm the fact that the column of Russian military equipment broke through to Lugansk to back up the local militants.’
This development came yesterday, he said, though some Russian military hardware had arrived earlier.
‘According to our data, a few dozen units of military equipment broke through into the neighbourhood of Lugansk, up to 40 of them are heavy armoured vehicles.
Part of this column entered the city. How the column of vehicles could have broken through the blockade line, considering the fact that Lugansk is being blocked by a circle of checkpoints and fortified strong points of ATO forces, we currently cannot say.’
Military activity on the ground has been high in recent days in Rostov region in areas close to the border where the West claims Russia has station[ed] large forces.
NATO warned last week about the threat of a Russian invasion into eastern Ukraine. Now it looks like such a possibility could overshadow any hopes of defusing the worst crisis to engulf Europe since the Cold War.
At Monday’s planned talks in Minsk, Putin will be accompanied by Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko and Kazkahstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Their countries are members of the Russia-led Customs Union, which the Western-backed Kiev leadership spurned in favour of EU integration when it seized power in February.
A statement from Poroshenko’s administration said the meeting would discuss issues related to implementing the landmark association agreement Kiev signed with the EU, energy security and ‘stabilising the situation in Ukraine’.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said only that the leaders ‘will discuss relations between Ukraine and the Customs Union and there will be a number of bilateral meetings.’
The Minsk meeting will form part of a hectic round of diplomatic meetings for Poroshenko in the next two weeks around Ukraine’s Independence Day celebrations on Sunday, when he hopes to be able to celebrate battlefield successes against the separatists.
He will host a key visit to Kiev by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday when he will expect her to voice strong support for his policies to crush the separatist rebellions.
Separately, Poroshenko’s website said he had accepted an invitation by the EU to visit Brussels on August 30 and would attend also a summit of the US-led NATO alliance in Wales in early September when he may meet US President Barack Obama, his aides said. ‘We can not say for certain yet, but I think that it would be correct if a meeting between the presidents of Ukraine and the United States took place at this summit,’ Mr Chaly said.
Rebels and Locals
Struggle to Maintain Normal Life
In Donetsk as the Ukrainian Army Closes In
(August 21, 2014) — It has been weeks since Donetsk last had a traffic jam.
The regular rumble on the edge of this besieged city in eastern Ukraine is a constant reminder of the government’s effort to shell armed pro-Russian separatists out of their stronghold. Rebels give as good as they get, blindly lobbing shells back at an unseen foe.
As fighting edges ever closer to the center, hundreds of thousands have fled a city once home to 1 million people. The bustle of a major industrial center has given way to the stillness of fear.
College teacher Nataliya Badibina said she would have left to stay with relatives in Russia were it not for her mother and father.
‘My parents are ill. They live nearby and I am not going to leave them,’ said Ms Badibina, whose apartment block in Donetsk’s western Petrovsky district had its windows blown out by shrapnel from a Grad rocket that landed in her courtyard.
Petrovsky district is on the edge of Donetsk and near some of the heaviest fighting seen in the city.
A local supermarket is still open and provides groceries for anybody with the money to buy them. Most people do their shopping before lunchtime, said Ms Badibina, after which the daily booms of artillery start anew.
A few restaurants have braved the shelling and serve customers, albeit typically giving notice that they close well before the 11pm rebel-imposed curfew. After that, the streets become deserted and an even ghostlier silence descends, only to be periodically punctured in the night by artillery booms.
Funds for many are running dry as pensions and government salaries are held up. City council spokesman Maxim Rovinsky said those paid on bank cards still get their money. Many others haven’t been paid since June.
On Tuesday, a crowd formed outside the 11th floor rebel headquarters in Donetsk amid rumors that pension and disability payments and child assistance were being given out.
Holding a sheaf of photocopied documents, Vyacheslav Melnikov said he was there to apply for money for his two disabled grandchildren.
‘I don’t even have enough money to feed them. I hope they will help us,’ he said.
One woman in line, Tatyana Ostrovksaya, said she wanted to be paid the money due to her brother, Viktor, who was killed in a rocket attack earlier in the month.
‘They’re supposed to pay out two months’ worth of pension, but nobody will pay it to me,’ Ms Ostrovksaya said.
It is not immediately clear where the funds to pay such applicants will come from. Rebel leaders announced months ago that they would raise funds by levying taxes from local businesses, but almost all private enterprises have ceased to operate altogether.
Shops in pedestrian underpasses feel relatively safe from bombardment, although the racket of trams passing overhead can unnerve newcomers likely to mistake it for a rocket hitting the ground. Business owners say they have long become accustomed to the sounds of war. The sheer imprecision of the weapons being indiscriminately used by rebels and government forces alike makes a target of everybody.
Even as chaos brews, a kind of ersatz normality has taken over.
The rebel headquarters, once the Donetsk region administrative building, has been substantially tidied up since it was first occupied and ransacked by separatists in April.
Many windows and fittings are still smashed, but the smell of stale alcohol that permeated the stairwell is largely gone, as are the random piles of binders once stacked up haphazardly in the offices. Rebel bureaucrats sit at their desks and ink documents with their own self-styled stamps.
The barricades of bricks and tires that once skirted the building were removed in late May, although some crude graffiti remains.
The regular police service has been disbanded and in its place are officers from the self-described Donetsk People’s Republic. Drivers still mostly stop obediently at traffic lights, not least because the rebel road police now carry automatic rifles. Stories abound of drivers caught speeding having their cars impounded at the point of a gun.
As part of an ostensible law-and-order campaign, the rebel leadership announced this week that it was introducing the death penalty for the most serious crimes. Pressed for information about which offenses would be punishable by death, Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the rebel republic, was unable to offer specifics.
The struggle to maintain normal life took a major blow over the weekend as water taps began to run dry. Local authorities explained that damage to an electricity line had cut off power to the water treatment facility that provided for most of the city’s needs. Supplies are now sporadic or nonexistent in some neighborhoods.
Electricity and gas supplies continue to be provided to most of the city because of the efforts of utilities workers who, amid the fighting, repair damaged pipelines and overhead cables. Even gardeners working for City Hall continue to carefully tend flower displays; street cleaners have ensured Donetsk’s streets do not pile up with trash.
Rovinsky of the city council said the hospitals and the fire service are also still operating, although there is a shortage of personnel and medical supplies.
The rebel FM radio station, Radio Respublika, broadcasts tips on how to behave in the event of shelling. Among the pieces of advice offered by the radio presenter in one afternoon show was to always keep mobile phones fully charged, have an emergency suitcase with basic items at hand and stock up on medicine such as painkillers and tranquillizers.
‘And you must also have water. Plus some food, which should be high-calorie and not take up too much room, like dry fruit or hard cheese,’ he said.
If larger numbers of people have not fled the prospect of all-out urban fighting, it is partly out of fear that their homes will be looted, as Badibina said happened in the Petrovksy district.
Many once eagerly fulminated against the government or grumbled quietly about the rebels. Now a kind of resigned trepidation is setting in as winter beckons.
‘Let’s just hope this is all over before the cold sets in,’ Ms Badibina said, ‘because winter is going to be hard.’
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.