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A destroyed armored personnel carrier BMP-2, which presumably came from Russia, is pictured on a road near Starobesheve, controlled by separatists, in eastern Ukraine, Oct. 2, 2014. Maria Tsvetkova / Reuters
The burnt-out remains of dozens of tanks and armored vehicles in fields near this small village bear witness to the ferocity of a battle that turned the tide of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Most of the tanks were used by the government forces routed in August near Horbatenko, 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, a defeat so demoralizing that days later Kiev agreed a cease-fire with pro-Russian separatists.
But among the debris journalists found the blackened carcasses of what military experts have since identified as two Russian army tanks, supporting statements by Kiev and the West that the rebels were backed by troops and equipment sent by Moscow.
Moscow denies the accusations though the rebels had been on the brink of defeat until late August, when the Ukrainian government says they received an injection of soldiers and weapons from Russia.
Photographs of the two badly damaged tanks, one of which had lost its turret, were shown to four independent military experts, who said they were of a type used exclusively by the Russian army.
At least one, they agreed, was a T-72BM — a Russian-made modification of a well known Soviet tank. This version of the tank, they said, is not known to have been exported.
“It is operated by the Russian Army in large numbers, but crucially it is not known to have been exported or operated outside of Russia,” Joseph Dempsey, a military analyst for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote in late August when a tank like that was discovered on grainy footage of rebel convoy.
“The presence of this variant in Ukraine therefore strongly supports the contention that Russia is supplying arms to separatist forces,” Dempsey said.
Such remarks clearly undermine Russian denials of direct involvement in the conflict in Ukraine to ensure Moscow maintains some influence and make governing Ukraine difficult as Kiev charts a Westward political and economic course.
The military experts shown photographs of the two tanks said the second was either the same as the first, a T-72BM, or a slightly different model, a T-72B1.
More conclusive recognition is difficult because of the extent of the damage.
The Soviet-made T-72B1, Dempsey said, is not believed to be in active service in Ukraine, making it almost impossible that the separatists captured it in battle.
Ukraine’s Security Council, which groups the country’s top political, defense and security chiefs, said in June the separatists were using T-72 tanks that could not have been captured from the Ukrainian army.
Kiev also said in late August that Russian forces had entered Ukraine and occupied Starobeshevo, five kilometers (three miles) from Horbatenko.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for more details of the decisive battles that followed soon afterwards but Ukrainian soldiers caught in the battles say they were quickly overcome.
Alexei Koshelenko, who said he was captured on Aug. 24-25 near the town of Ilovaysk, said: “We were hit by [multiple rocket launcher] Grads and after that the troops just swept us away. We were completely defeated within 20 minutes. Many of us were killed, others are missing.”
“They were Russians,” he said after being released with other prisoners of war. Referring to a city 300 kilometers (200 miles) northeast of Moscow, he said: “They said they were an airborne assault battalion from Kostroma.”
The accounts of residents of Horbatenko, a village of a few dozen inhabitants which overlooks the fields that became the battlefield, also challenge Russia’s denials of direct intervention.
Valentina Ivanovna, 75, said she was slightly wounded by shrapnel when fighting became fierce in late August.
“We saw an armored convoy coming down here,” she said. “They had white circles on the armor and white flags but whose troops they were we don’t know.”
Neither the rebels nor the Ukrainian forces have white circles as their permanent recognized emblem. But another local resident, who gave her name only as Nina for fear of retribution, said she had been told the meaning of the white circles in conversations with passing soldiers who identified themselves as Russian.
“One of them told me: white circles mean this is Russians,” she said. “He came to the last house for some water to drink and I asked how you can tell the difference between a Ukrainian or Russian. He said that if it’s us, there are white circles on the tanks.”
The two damaged tanks were too badly burned to have any recognizable insignia but a destroyed Soviet-made BMP-2 armored personnel carrier a few hundred meters away also bore a white circle on its broken turret.
Residents of areas on the Ukrainian side of the border with Russia also reported seeing armored convoys marked by white circles on Aug. 26.
Two days later Reuters spotted an armored convoy with the same insignia on the Russian side of the border.
At the end of August, Ukraine accused Russian troops of crossing the border. To support the accusations, it released videotaped interviews with Russian paratroopers captured by Ukrainian forces in a village 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Horbatenko.
They said they served in the 98th division based in the town of Ivanovo in central Russia.
President Vladimir Putin said he believed they had lost their way and crossed the unmarked segment of the border unintentionally. The captured paratroopers were later sent back to Russia.
Anti-tank missiles fired near where the tanks were destroyed also appear to have originated in Russia because various used parts of Kornet anti-tank guided missiles were left there.
Photographs of the missile parts were shown to three military experts and two of them said Ukraine does not have anti-tank guided missiles of this type.
“The presence of the Kornet ATGM is noteworthy and while it has been exported widely by Russia this list does not include Ukraine. As such, it further supports Russian involvement,” the International Institute for Strategic Studies said.
Trenches near the tanks also provided what appeared to be more evidence of foreign troops — numerous empty boxes of ready-to-eat meals that are used by the Russian army. Each box contains meals for one day.
One reporter counted 124 packages of field rations with “not for sale” labels and notes that they were produced for the Russian Defense Ministry.
A spokeswoman for Voentorg, the company in Russia that produces such meals for the Russian Defense Ministry, confirmed they cannot be sold.
About 50 empty bottles of mineral water around the tanks bore labels identifying them as being produced in Russia’s Ivanovo province, the region where the division of the Russian paratroopers captured in August is based.
Although Moscow has denied any direct involvement in the conflict, graves have been found in Russia with the remains of Russian servicemen who relatives, friends and human rights activists say were killed in Ukraine.
Moscow and the rebels have said that any acting servicemen from Russia were volunteers. Asked about the presence of Russian arms and field rations in Ukraine a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry said: “We have the answer and it has been given multiple times.”
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry did not reply to a request for information about the losses near Starobeshevo.
Sausage and meat products, produced in Russia, are on display during the World Food Moscow 2014. Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters
Kiev’s municipal council has ordered stores in the capital to label Russian-imported goods with additional markings to warn consumers they could be supporting the “aggressor” by buying the products, media reports said.
According to the ruling approved by the city’s legislature, Russian made-goods will also have to be displayed on separate shelves to Ukrainian goods, the UNIAN news agency reported Thursday.
The purpose of the move, which comes after similar steps were taken by local administrations in Lviv, Ivano Frankivsk and Cherkasy, is “so that people don’t support the aggressor,” Kiev lawmaker Ruslan Andriyko was quoted as saying by RBC-Ukraine.
“Every kopek paid for a product that was manufactured in Russia is also a kopek that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin uses for weapons, which will be aimed against our boys, against us, against our state in eastern Ukraine,” UNIAN quoted Andriyko as saying.
Ukraine has repeatedly accused Russia of aiding separatists in the east of Ukraine, where fighting has raged for several months between pro-Russian rebels and the pro-Western government’s forces, though Moscow has denied the charges.
In War Time, Corruption in Ukraine Can Be Deadly.
A Ukrainian serviceman gestures as he sits on a tank barrel in a base camp near the town of Debaltseve in Donetsk Oblast, on Oct. 6, 2014. © AFP / Kyiv Post.
Aleksandr Lapko reporting,
KIEV, Ukraine — This summer I received an official letter informing me that I had been called up for service in the Ukrainian Army, and that in a few weeks I would be deployed to the east, where our soldiers are fighting Russian-backed separatists.
I care deeply about my country and I want to defend it. But I was facing a dilemma: Should I go to war knowing that I will have to pay more than $2,000 out of my own pocket to get the military equipment that could save my life because official corruption has left the Ministry of Defense without enough adequate supplies to issue to new recruits? Or should I pay a $2,000 bribe to obtain papers falsely testifying that I am medically unfit and should thus be taken off the conscript list?
I’ve always been deeply opposed to corruption, a major problem in my country, not least for our soldiers fighting the insurgency. My brother, who is serving in the east, wasn’t issued anything but an old-fashioned AK-47 when he joined the army. My family, like too many others, had to spend their own money to buy what he needed: We found a second-hand NATO uniform, body armor, a helmet, a gun sight for his weapon, and kneepads and boots, all for roughly $2,400, including winter gear.
We were fortunate to have the money. The median monthly salary in Ukraine is about $260, which means that it’s impossible for the average family to equip their sons and brothers for war. The salary of a conscripted soldier varies from $185 to $417, depending on rank and speciality.
In times of peace, corruption hurts people indirectly. In times of war, corruption can be as deadly as a bullet.
Ukraine’s war with Russian-backed separatists came suddenly and caught the government unprepared. In Soviet times the military was relatively well equipped, but in the decades since that era ended our forces have deteriorated as defense spending has shrunk. In recent times, the Defense Ministry’s processes of procurement have usually been kept secret — specifications for body armor, for example, aren’t published. This means that the government can get away with purchasing low-quality gear. And it usually does.
The Office of the General Prosecutor recently announced that it is bringing charges against several former Defense Ministry officials who purchased substandard body armor for the army. They are accused of spending $5.6 million to buy 17,080 pieces of low-quality body armor, which, according to reports in the Ukrainian media, have led to dozens of casualties and deaths during military operations in the east. The armor was apparently incapable of withstanding a direct hit from a bullet.
In August, President Petro Poroshenko fired two Defense Ministry procurement directors for corruption. According to media reports, they will be charged with misuse of public funds, but not with manslaughter.
New procurement procedures were supposed to prevent corrupt practices that put our soldiers at even greater risk. In 2013, the Defense Ministry said that its Department of Internal Audit and Financial Control was launching a special investigation on behalf of the army under the direction of the then-minister of defense, Pavlo Lebedyev. Previously, it was relatively easy for bureaucrats in the ministry to jeopardize the integrity of an investigation. But last June, representatives from the internal audit department were excluded from procurement committees and lost their mandate to check army contracts. The military’s official explanation was that in times of war the army leadership needs the authority and flexibility to conduct its own purchases in order to supply troops as quickly as possible.
My brother says he was recently told he should buy his own winter equipment because the army couldn’t guarantee supplies. If they’ve changed the procurement system to make it faster, why are they still telling soldiers that they must fend for themselves?
Tetyana Chornovil, a former journalist who was put in charge of the new government’s anticorruption policy, recently resigned her post. “There is no political will in Ukraine for an uncompromising, wide-scale war on corruption,” she said in a newspaper interview.
Ordinary people in Ukraine want to help their soldiers. They buy special bracelets to support the troops and donate their time to volunteer organizations. But there have been reports that some initiatives are simply get-rich-quick schemes. I’ve heard of one organization whose members collected donations from the public to buy military equipment for the troops, then actually tried to sell it to soldiers.
Corruption scandals occur in many countries. But in Ukraine, it is the system itself that is corrupt. It greases the wheels between all institutions, be they in the public or the private sector, volunteer movements, or even NGOs. Without this grease, nothing moves.
There is a will to reform among the Ukrainian people and among our more forward-looking political leaders, but the momentum has slowed since the protests that helped rid the nation of President Viktor F. Yanukovych last winter. Now, amid the tensions with Russia and the unrest in the east, many of us are worried that the fight against corruption will be lost. If reforms don’t come now, they probably will never come.
As part of my job as a liaison officer with NATO, I was recently sent to Britain to research anticorruption programs with Transparency International. Their work is very important, tackling transparency issues in military enterprises and governments around the globe. But for Ukraine, these efforts aren’t enough; to “cure” the country all layers of society need to be involved. The political will to fight must also be in place.
As of now, the fighting in the east has quieted down and I may not have to be deployed after all. In any case, if it flares up again and it turns out that I am called to service, I have decided not to bribe my way out of the army. After all, I am 33 years old, and fit and able to serve. But if I am called to fight for my country, I want to be properly equipped to be able to defend myself. If I put my life on the line, I want to know that my government is committed to giving me the best protection it can afford. At this moment, I cannot be so sure. And I fear for my brother, who is still at the front.
Aleksandr Lapko is a senior specialist- assistant in the NATO Liaison Office in Ukraine.
Ukrainian, European parliaments approve long-awaited political association agreement; free trade pact delayed
by Anastasia Forina and Ian Bateson.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko shows a newly voted Ukrainian law about the ratification of the Ukraine-EU association agreement on Sept. 16 at the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev. The Ukrainian and European parliaments on September 16 simultaneously ratified a landmark pact at the heart of the ex-Soviet country’s bloodiest crisis since independence. AFP PHOTO/GENYA SAVILOV © AFP
In sessions held simultaneously, the Ukrainian and European parliaments ratified association and free trade agreements on Sept. 16, nearly 10 months and a revolution after the deals were first rejected by former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted by anti-government protesters in February as a result.
However, what many consider to be the most important provision of the association agreement, however, will be delayed. Under the agreement Ukraine is to join the European Union’s free trade zone, but in a concession to Russia it will not be allowed to join the free trade zone until 2016.
“The Heavenly Hundred and 872 brave Ukrainian fighters have died not only for Ukraine, but for us to take our rightful place in Europe,” said Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in parliament, referring to protestors and servicemen who were killed in Kyiv during the EuroMaidan Revolution and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. “There is not a single nation has paid as high a price for that since World War II.”
More than 100 people were killed during the revolution between late November 2013 and late February of this year, according to government statistics.
And some 3,000 people have been killed during the eastern conflict and more than a million displaced since the start of the government’s anti-terrorist operation in mid-April, the United Nations reported on Sept. 8. That figure includes 295 passengers who were killed when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was allegedly shot out of the sky by a rocket in July while flying over the city of Torez, Donetsk Oblast.
In the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, on Sept. 16, 355 MPs voted in favor of the agreement with 26 abstaining and none voting against. In the European Parliament, many of whose members came to Kyiv during the protests to show their support for the grassroots uprising, 535 voted for the agreement with 127 voting against and 35 abstaining.
“This is a historical moment,” said Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament. “We will continue supporting Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. These people are fighting for a better future, we are supporting the Ukrainian people in their will to make dreams of Maidan true.”
Russia has previously pushed Kyiv to join a Russian-led customs union and said it cannot be a member of both.
Critics have seen the delay of the free trade provision as Ukraine and the EU kowtowing to Russia. But not all experts agree.
“Russia wanted to change the text of the association agreement. It didn’t happen, and it was ratified as it was signed and prepared,” said Olexiy Haran a political analyst in Kyiv.
“It is a big step and something that took three presidents to achieve. It has finally been ratified and I think it is a choice of civilization,” he said.
by LAURA MILLS.
Russian trucks with Russian flags, intended to carry humanitarian aid for eastern Ukraine are stationed ready for another possible trip near Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, Rostov-on-Don region, Russia, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014. The ceasefire in eastern Ukraine has largely held. (AP Photo)
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine is “still in a state of war” with neighboring Russia despite a cease-fire between Kiev’s forces and Moscow-backed rebels in the east, the country’s prime minister said Saturday shortly after a second convoy of Russian trucks rolled into Ukraine.
Speaking at a conference with politicians and business leaders in Kiev, Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “goal is to take the entire Ukraine.”
“He cannot cope with the idea that Ukraine would be a part of a big EU family. He wants to restore the Soviet Union,” Yatsenyuk said.
He didn’t mention the second convoy of Russian trucks that entered rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine earlier Saturday, reportedly filled with almost 2,000 tons of humanitarian aid.
The last truck crossed onto Ukrainian soil early Saturday from the Russian border town Donetsk, some 200 kilometers (120 miles) miles east of the Ukrainian city with the same name, Rayan Farukshin, a spokesman for Russia’s customs agency, told the Associated Press by phone. He could not confirm the number of trucks, but news agency ITAR TASS reported that about 250 trucks were heading toward the city Luhansk.
The Russian emergency ministry, which coordinated previous humanitarian aid deliveries to Ukraine, could not be reached for comment about the convoy.
Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, told journalists Saturday that the convoy had crossed “illegally” onto Ukrainian territory.
“Ukraine border guards and customs were not allowed to examine the cargo and vehicles,” he said. “Representatives of the Red Cross don’t accompany the cargo, nobody knows what’s inside.”
Lysenko’s relatively mild comments on the second convoy and the silence of more senior Ukrainian officials shows how dramatically the mood has shifted in the Kiev government since August. President Petro Poroshenko has been at pains to prove that last week’s cease-fire deal has yielded improvements on the ground in east Ukraine. On Friday, he lauded the deal, which has been riddled by violations since it was imposed last week, as a “fragile but efficient peace process.”
In August, Ukrainian officials said that a first convoy of humanitarian aid from Russia would be seen as an invasion of the country, and loudly protested any attempts by Russia to unilaterally bring in the aid. Eventually Russia sent its trucks across the border and into rebel-held territory without the oversight of the International Red Cross, contrary to an agreement signed between Ukraine and Russia.
A representative of the ICRC’s Moscow office said they had not been informed about the current convoy, either.
“We were not officially notified of an agreement between Moscow and Kiev to ship the cargo,” Galina Balzamova said Saturday.
A Ukrainian army helicopter flies over their positions in Debaltsevo, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014. The cease-fire between the separatists and the Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine has largely held. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Lysenko said that six Ukrainian servicemen had died since the truce. He also confirmed that 12 rebel fighters had been killed by Ukrainian forces near Sea of Azov city of Mariupol, where he said they were doing reconnaissance work — the first such admission that they have inflicted casualties on the rebel side since the cease-fire began.
In a statement posted online early Saturday, the Donetsk city council said that there had been fighting near the airport throughout the night. Two shells had hit residential buildings in the area but no casualties were reported.
Continuous rocket fire could be heard overnight in downtown Donetsk, and a column of three GRAD rocket launchers — all its rockets still in place — was seen moving freely through the rebel-held city on Saturday morning.
(Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Peter Leonard in Donetsk, Ukraine contributed reporting).