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An elderly woman pulls а cart with firewood near the Donetsk airport, in eastern Ukraine on Nov. 3, 2014. © AFP
Kyiv Post+, Kyiv Post.
An unidentified fighter in Donetsk released a short video clip on Nov. 24, showing what the local airport looks like after months of constant shelling.
The airport, located on the outskirts of Donetsk, between the Ukrainian and separatist held territories, has been one of the central focal points of the war in the east in the past few months. The airport has been shelled daily despite a cease-fire agreement signed on Sept. 5.
The airport itself was renovated just two years ago before Euro 2012 football championship, at the cost of $750 million from taxpayers alone. But recent footage of the airport shows that it has come to look like a pile of rubbish as a result of constant fighting.
The fighter in the video starts off by explaining the view out of the window on the fourth floor, where the video is shot.
“You see in front of you a tower, it’s ours. To the right, there is a fire building. It’s controlled by the terroristsk,” he says.
“Here, you see one of the offices on the fourth floor. This is our office now. You can see that the Russian artillery has made us great ventilation,” the fighter jokes, pointing the camera to holes in the roof.
“Everything is broken, you need to look where you step. There could be mines there, or just sharp objects,” he says, before moving to show the central part of the airport.
“Further we see a hall, the central hall of the airport. A vast, trashed hall. Further out there you see Metro and other buildings. So, if you feel it’s difficult to work in the office- we’re coming to you,” he concludes.
Igor Strelkov, a former separatist commander in eastern Ukraine. Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters.
Anna Dolgov, The Moscow Times.
Russian national Igor Strelkov, a former commander of pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine, has claimed “personal responsibility” for unleashing the conflict across the border, in which 4,300 people have been killed since April.
“I was the one who pulled the firing trigger of this war,” Strelkov said in an interview published Thursday with Russia’s Zavtra newspaper, which espouses imperialist views.
“If our unit hadn’t crossed the border, in the end everything would have fizzled out, like in [the Ukrainian city of] Kharkiv, like in Odessa,” Strelkov, also known as Girkin, was quoted as saying.
“There would have been several dozen killed, burned, detained. And that would have been the end of it. But the flywheel of the war, which is continuing to this day, was spun by our unit. We mixed up all the cards on the table,” he said.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea this spring, clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Moscow activists broke out in the cities of Kharkiv and Odessa, with more than 40 people killed in a fire in Odessa in early May.
Since then, the two cities have remained largely peaceful, and most of the fighting between rebels and government forces has been limited to the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Strelkov’s interview was published the same day the UN released a report highlighting the involvement of Russian fighters in the eastern Ukraine conflict, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 4,300 people since mid-April.
“The continuing presence of a large amount of sophisticated weaponry, as well as foreign fighters that include servicemen from the Russian Federation, directly affects the human rights situation in the east of Ukraine,” the report said.
Strelkov also told Zavtra that at the beginning of the conflict, Ukrainian separatists and government forces were reluctant to start fighting one another and that the main opposition to the rebels came from Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist militants such as the Right Sector.
“At first, nobody wanted to fight,” he was quoted as saying. “The first two weeks went on under the auspices of the sides trying to convince each other to engage.”
But Strelkov claimed Kiev became emboldened after seeing that Russia was refraining from openly interfering in eastern Ukraine, as it did in Crimea, or from sending in large-scale forces.
He added that the lack of large-scale support from Russia was a major disappointment for the separatists, which lacked the manpower or weapons to combat government forces.
“Initially I assumed that the Crimea scenario would be repeated: Russia would enter,” he told Zavtra. “That was the best scenario. And the population wanted that. Nobody intended to fight for the Luhansk and Donetsk republics. Initially everybody was for Russia.”
Strelkov also gave an account of the degree of Russia’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
At the start of this summer, 90 percent of rebel forces were made up of local residents, Strelkov was quoted as saying. However, by early August, Russian servicemen supposedly on “vacation” from the army had begun to arrive, he said.
According to Strelkov, the assault on the Black Sea town of Mariupol in September, which prompted concerns in Ukraine and the West that Russia has entered the conflict on a large scale, was conducted mostly by the Russian military “vacationers.”
The rebel forces advancing on Mariupol at that time met with little resistance from government troops and “could have been taken without a fight, “but there was an order not to take it,” he was quoted as saying.
While Moscow has repeatedly denied supplying the rebels with weaponry and manpower, Strelkov said the assistance offered to rebels remains significant: “I can’t say that we fully provide for them. But we are really helping them,” he said, noting that half of the rebel army was kitted out with winter clothes sent from Russia.
After Donetsk and Luhansk held “referendums” on their independence from Ukraine in May, separatist leaders appealed to Moscow to accept the territories as Russian regions but Moscow responded with vague statements calling for “dialog” between rebels and Kiev.
Separatist had not contemplated building functional states and had pinned their hopes on being absorbed by Russia, Strelkov said, reasoning that Moscow needed a land connection to Crimea, which it had annexed in March.
“And then, when I understood that Russia was not going to take us in — I associated myself with the resistance — for us that decision was a shock,” Strelkov was quoted as saying.
Strelkov has been living in Russia since early this fall, when he said he was moving to Moscow to protect President Vladimir Putin from enemies and traitors.
While he seems to have fallen out of favor with Russia’s state-run media, having disappeared from their newscasts, he has taken to YouTube and fringe publication to issue an occasional appeal for increased Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine.
“From the very beginning we started to fight for real — destroying raiding parties of the Right Sector,” Strelkov told Zavtra. “And I take personal responsibility for what is happening there.”
According to a UN report released Thursday, at least 4,317 people had been killed in eastern Ukraine by mid-November, and 9,921 have been wounded. The casualties include nearly 1,000 who have perished since “a tenuous cease-fire” was established earlier this fall.
The Moscow Times.
Pro-Russian militant ride on a tank taken from Ukrainian forces during fighting in August, on their way to test fire in open fields, in the eastern Ukrainian town of Ilovaisk, some 40 kms east of Donetsk, on Nov. 18. © AFP
The Editorial Board, The New York Times.
The crisis in Ukraine has reached an impasse. The cease-fire signed in Minsk, Belarus, in September never really took hold, but at least it provided a cover for efforts to reduce the level of fighting and focus on stabilizing and reforming the Ukrainian economy as a prelude to a serious, long-term search for a resolution of the crisis. Now even the fig leaf of cease-fire is gone. Russian armored vehicles are rolling into eastern Ukraine — disowned, of course, by Moscow.
Gunfire is exchanged constantly in and around Donetsk, and Kiev has basically disowned residents of territories claimed by separatists by cutting most government services, benefits and pensions. And though elections to the Ukrainian Parliament on Oct. 26 brought in a new, pro-Western legislature, Kiev is still far from forming a government or producing a viable program of reforms.
The United States and the European Union have made clear, and correctly so, that they hold President Vladimir Putin of Russia largely responsible for this state of affairs. He was snubbed at the Group of 20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia. Then Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, once the European leader deemed most cautious in relations with Moscow, assailed him for reviving a Cold War atmosphere 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell.
There is no question that by annexing Crimea and arming separatists in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Putin has done great damage to East-West relations — and to his country, which finds itself isolated and in economic trouble. The decision on Monday by the European Union to add more separatist leaders to the list of Mr. Putin’s allies barred from Europe may be largely symbolic, but along with the cold reception in Brisbane, it does let the Russian leader know that the West is not about to let him off the hook.
That said, it is important to acknowledge that officials in Kiev, and more specifically President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, have responsibilities they must live up to. Ukraine has been plagued by corruption since it became independent, and the current crisis has made it even more imperative for the leaders to form a government and come up with a credible economic and political strategy.
The Ukrainian economy is in terrible shape — the currency has lost almost half its value against the dollar in 2014, the industrial centers of Donetsk and Luhansk are in separatist hands, coal mines have shut down. The International Monetary Fund has provided emergency aid, but the hard fact is that the European Union and the United States cannot be expected to make substantial commitments until Ukraine provides a clear reform plan and priorities for outside investment. Johannes Hahn, the new European Union commissioner for enlargement, is right to insist that the union will not hold a donors’ conference without this.
In addition to an economic strategy, Kiev needs to prepare a plan for loosening central control in a way that might satisfy residents of the eastern provinces. The decision by President Poroshenko to cut government benefits and pensions to residents of areas under the control of Kremlin-backed separatists, though understandable in the circumstances, has left those unable to flee feeling betrayed by Kiev, creating a vacuum for Moscow to fill.
There is no question that ordering painful reforms when a country is already on its knees is asking a lot. That is why it is imperative that Western leaders make clear that they will give Kiev substantial assistance only after it embarks on a serious program of economic and political reform. After all, that was what the Ukrainians who took to the streets in December 2013 fought for.
Even as Russia shores up its illegitimate proxies in eastern Ukraine with weapons and troops, the West continues to behave spinelessly.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel discounted the possibility of further economic sanctions against Russia, opting instead to float the lame likelihood of individual visa bans and asset freezes against separatist leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. As the foremost leader of the 28-nation European Union bloc, Merkel’s unwillingness to more strongly confront Russia is disappointing. But abhorrent is the active opposition to more sanctions of such politicians as Hungary’s prime minister and the Czech Republic president. The United States, whose Congress is now in Republican hands, remains the best hope for Ukraine getting military aid and additional economic assistance.
The Russian assault on Ukraine is an assault on the international rule of law and the post-World War II order. It’s time to stop Vladimir Putin now. He is emboldened by the West’s weak response to his theft of Crimea and his attempts to dismember Ukraine.
The separatists destroying the infrastructure in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas have no lofty principles to uphold and don’t offer residents in Ukraine’s two most populous oblasts a better way of living. Rather, the violence and destruction is designed to bring Ukraine’s government in Kyiv to knuckle under to Putin’s imperial ambitions. Putin doesn’t want to absorb these territories, home to more than six million Ukrainian citizens before the war, into the Russian Federation. He just wants to wreak havoc and stoke fear.
The fact that Russia’s economy is tanking is testament to the fall in world oil and gas prices. To the extent the West is coordinating and assisting the drop in prices, its leaders are to be commended. But the drop looks to be more driven by the global economic slowdown and Saudi Arabia’s desire to undercut American competition.
The goal of Western sanctions has been to change Putin’s behavior. He remains undeterred. So further sanctions are essential, including a steep tax on Russian energy imports. Putin’s Russia should not be the venue for any international events. Crushing Putin’s economy is the fastest way to stop Putinism, bringing Russians closer to peace and prosperity.
A Ukrainian serviceman (R) and OSCE observers wait on a road near Donetsk on September 20, 2014 before an exchange of captives, which are being freed under the terms of a ceasefire deal between Kyiv and the separatist forces. OSCE, which is a signatory to the deal, has faced allegations of pro-Russian bias for their work in Ukraine increasingly frequently. © ANATOLII STEPANOV / AFP
A spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) refuted allegations of bias within its observation mission in eastern Ukraine voiced by an adviser to the defense minister earlier.
He said there is only one Russian1 working in the monitoring mission in Mariupol, and that was “definitely less than 80 percent,” which is what a defense ministry official implied.
Vasyl Budik, an adviser to the Defense Ministry, told Ukrainska Pravda website earlier on Tuesday that he has been told by mission representatives in Mariupol that 80 percent of the mission is composed of Russian nationals.
“What are Russia’s representatives doing in our positions? It’s not a secret that there is a war going on, and Russia is taking an active part in it. I am against Russians being a part of the mission. Do replace them with anyone else because they’re not doing the job they’re supposed to,” said Budik, according to the website.
He also said that most of those Russians come from secret services, and use derogatory forms of address when they describe Ukrainian soldiers. But Bociurkiw insisted that the main principles of work of the OSCE is neutrality and objectivity.
OSCE has been running an observation mission in eastern Ukraine and producing daily reports about its work in the region. It has also been a party in negotiations between Ukraine, Russia and separatists that have taken place in Minsk, and signatories of the cease-fire deal on Sept. 5.
This is not the first time the mission comes under fire for its work in Ukraine, however.
Dmytro Tymchuk, leader of Information Resistance, a civic initiative with a mission to inform the public about the war, had previously said in his public blog that he refused to meet with OSCE representatives because of their alleged bias towards Russia after it released a report about the shelling of school #63 in Donetsk last week, which killed two teenagers.
In the report, the mission said the shelling came from northwest of Donetsk, which many Russian and foreign media interpreted as coming from the Ukrainian positions. But OSCE denied it assigned blame, saying it only identified the direction from which the attack came.
Tymchuk said that his group has also recorded at least four cases when OSCE vehicles were used by Russia-backed separatists, and said OSCE recognized one such facts and issued an apology, stopping short of explaining how it could happen in the first place.
Tymchuk also said that his group has recorded cases when separatists knew beforehand of OSCE’s movements, and were able to remove heavy weaponry in time for the observation mission’s arrival.
- There should not be any Russian observers on Ukrainian soil because Russia itself is involved in the current crisis. ↩