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An armed pro-Russia militant attempts to stop journalists from accessing the site of the crash of a Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in Grabove, in rebel-held east Ukraine, on July 19, 2014 © AFP
BERLIN – Germany’s BND foreign intelligence agency has concluded that pro-Russian rebels are to blame for the downing of Malaysia Airline MH17 in Ukraine in July, Der Spiegel weekly reported on Sunday, the first European agency to say so.
The crash over pro-Russian rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine on July 17 killed all 298 passengers and crew and led to a further deterioration of ties between the West and Moscow, who are in dispute over Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis.
Gerhard Schindler, president of the BND, told a secret parliamentary committee on security affairs earlier this month that separatists had used a Russian Buk missile defence system from a Ukrainian base to fire a rocket that exploded directly next to the Malyasia Air plane, Der Spiegel reported.
“It was pro-Russian separatists,” the magazine quoted him as saying.
The BND concluded the rebels were to blame after a detailed analysis based on satellite and other photos, Der Spiegel said. Noone at the BND was immediately available to comment.
Kiev blames the incident on the rebels and accused Moscow of arming them, but the rebels and Moscow deny the accusations.
European governments have so far refrained from openly pointing the finger, but shortly after the crash U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said there was strong evidence that Moscow-backed separatists had downed the plane.
The Dutch government, which has two investigations underway into the downing of the airliner, has yet to say who was responsible. Two thirds of the passengers were Dutch.
A preliminary report by the Dutch Safety Board last month said the airliner crashed due to a “large number of high-energy objects” from outside the aircraft. It drew no conclusions as to where they came from.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (R) visiting the Ukrainian defence line near the town of Kurahovo, Donetsk Oblast on Oct. 10. © AFP
Pavel Polityuk reporting,
KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Saturday he expected planned talks with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin next week in Italy to be difficult but said Moscow had a crucial role to play in bringing peace to his country.
Kiev and its Western backers accuse Moscow of backing a pro-Russian separatist revolt in eastern Ukraine by providing troops and arms. Russia denies the charges but says it has a right to defend the interests of the region’s Russian-speaking majority.
The Kremlin has said Putin and Poroshenko may hold talks on the sidelines of a summit of Asian and European leaders in Milan on Oct. 16-17.
“I don’t expect the talks will be easy. I’m used to this, I have a lot of experience of conducting very difficult diplomatic talks. But I’m an optimist,” Interfax Ukraine news agency quoted Poroshenko as telling reporters.
Poroshenko said some European leaders might also join his talks with Putin. Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov has said a “Normandy-style meeting” could not be ruled out – a reference to talks in France in June involving Putin, Poroshenko and the leaders of Germany and France.
“The key and main question is peace. Russia’s role in the issue of providing peace, as you understand, is difficult to overestimate,” Poroshenko said. “And today we raise the issue of moving from declarations to concrete steps.”
Putin and Poroshenko are known so far to have met twice since the Ukrainian leader’s election in May, firstly in Normandy and then in the Belarussian capital Minsk in August when they agreed on the need for a ceasefire between Kiev’s forces and the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
GAS DEAL EYED
A ceasefire began on Sept. 5 and has broadly held despite frequent violations, especially around the airport of Donetsk, the biggest city of eastern Ukraine.
The European Union and the United States have imposed economic sanctions against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine, where Moscow has also annexed the Crimea peninsula. In retaliation, Russia has banned most Western food imports.
The United Nations said on Wednesday the death toll from the conflict in eastern Ukraine now stood at more than 3,660 people.
Poroshenko also said on Saturday he hoped to make “significant progress” in Milan on resolving Ukraine’s long-running gas pricing dispute with Russia.
Russia shut off gas deliveries to Ukraine in June over what it said were more than $5 billion in unpaid bills and Ukraine faces a possibility of energy shortages this winter if no deal is reached, risking a replay of the disruptions to Europe’s gas supplies seen in 2006 and 2009.
“We believe that Ukraine’s proposals are absolutely clear, concrete and justified. We are sure that we are significantly closer to solving this issue,” he told reporters.
Separately, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are expected to discuss the situation in Ukraine at a meeting in Paris on Oct. 14.
Poroshenko, whose country holds parliamentary elections later this month, has faced some domestic criticism over elements of a peace plan agreed with Russia, especially his offer of autonomy to rebel-held regions of eastern Ukraine.
Interfax reported late on Friday that Poroshenko had sacked one of those critics, Serhiy Taruta, a billionaire businessman, as governor of the Donetsk region. Poroshenko has appointed in Taruta’s place as governor Oleksander Kikhtenko, a former head of interior ministry forces, Interfax said.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Donetsk; Writing by Alexander Winning in Moscow; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Gareth Jones).
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.
A first-grade pupil looks back at her mother while walking to a school building after a festive ceremony to mark the beginning of another academic year in Makiivka, eastern Ukraine, in this Oct. 1 file photo. Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters
MAKIYIVKA, Ukraine — On the first day of school outside the east Ukrainian rebel stronghold of Donetsk, 11th-grade teacher Yelena Sepik tells her class to get out of their seats to clap and sing along to the Soviet military music playing over the speakers.
“Louder!” she yells, theatrically clapping in rhythm to the music coming from a classroom CD player in front of about 30 unamused 15- and 16-year-olds in the town of Makiyivka.
“We have witnessed the formation of a new state,” she says. “The Donetsk People’s Republic, New Russia.”
Half a year into the republic, proclaimed on territory held by pro-Russian separatists since April, the region’s new rulers are trying to create a sense of normality and the trappings of a functioning state, not least in the education system.
But there is much that is not “normal.”
For one thing, there has been an exodus of Ukrainian-speakers and others reluctant to live in Russia’s orbit under an armed rebel administration. Schoolteachers say their classes have shrunk to as little as a third of their pre-insurgency sizes.
Shelling in the city, which has killed scores of civilians, delayed the opening of schools from Sept. 1, the traditional start of term across the former Soviet Union, to Oct. 1.
Although a cease-fire has been agreed between Kiev and the separatists, the crash of distant artillery fire still carries as far as Sepik’s third-floor classroom, where three classes have been combined into one, making seating scarce.
For the children who have stayed, a new curriculum awaits, with mentions of Ukraine carefully avoided, and a new focus on the history of Russia and the separatist regions.
Moscow vehemently denies accusations from Kiev and the West that it has backed the separatists with weapons and soldiers, but its influence is never far away from the classrooms, where teachers openly praise Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Much of the former Soviet Union shares the same school traditions, including a first lesson of the school year devoted to broad morals or civic values.
In communist times, this might have meant lessons on Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, or international Socialism; more recently perhaps on peace, or social skills.
But in this school year, children in the rest of Ukraine are focusing on “national unity” for the first period of their year, and those in the secessionist east are learning about the history they share with Russia.
In the Matviyivka class, that means World War II, known in Russia and Ukraine as the Great Patriotic War.
The students watch a black-and-white documentary about the region’s battles, with a voiceover that drifts between the city’s current name of Donetsk and its Soviet name of Stalino, after wartime leader Josef Stalin.
History teacher Natalia Kudoyar expects more changes to her curriculum.
“World history will be studied in depth, Russian history,” she says. “But our priority is the history of Donbass [the industrial region around Donetsk]. Because it is our region; we are proud of our region.”
The idea that this region is at the very least culturally part of Russia, and far removed from a Ukraine whose rulers are routinely labelled fascists, is as pervasive in the classroom as it is in the rebel administration’s public statements.
Irina, a teacher in a Ukrainian-language school who declined to give her last name, said all Ukrainian national symbols had been removed from the classrooms.
“We still use the old curriculum, but the school principal said that, in my 9th-grade class, the number of hours for Ukrainian language and literature will be reduced,” she said.
On Putin’s birthday on Tuesday, a video was posted on YouTube showing children in another school in Donetsk being asked who had done the most for peace in their region. “Putin,” said the teacher. “Putin!” the children repeated.
Pressure to Use Russian
Unsurprisingly, language is a central part of that cultural struggle. While everyone in the region is fluent in Russian, some speak Ukrainian as their first language.
Before Donetsk’s municipal administration building was occupied by protesters in mid-April, the Donetsk region had a roughly equal number of Russian- and Ukrainian-language schools, and parents decided which to send their children to.
On Monday, Kirill Baryshnikov, spokesman for the Donetsk People’s Republic’s Ministry of Education, said: “We don’t make anyone study in Russian or in Ukrainian. We have two state languages.”
But the pressure on everyone to speak Russian rather than Ukrainian is growing. On Thursday, the same ministry issued an order making Russian the official language for all education.
It said the only exception would be primary or secondary schools where 90 percent of parents requested teaching in “another language” — there was no direct mention of Ukrainian. Schoolbooks written in Ukrainian would continue to be used until new Russian-language ones could be issued.
A teacher of Ukrainian named Marina, who also declined to give her surname, said she saw “no future” for Ukrainian-language schools in Donetsk. “It hurts so much,” she said.
Maria Ivanitskaya, a mother who has left Donetsk for Kiev with her 12-year-old son, said she feared that Ukrainian-language schools could attract violence from people sympathetic to the rebels, and had no desire to return.
“I got a call from my son’s teacher. She asked if we were going to attend school this year,” she said.
“But our school is Ukrainian, and I’m scared of provocations. I called my husband in Donetsk, and he said: ‘Whatever you do, don’t come back.'”
A woman holds the hand of Prime Minister of the rebels’ self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”, Alexander Zakharchenko during a ceremony to honour the World War II defenders of Donetsk from Nazi forces Sept. 8. Marko Djurica / Reuters
Allison Quinn reporting,
Infamous former rebel commander Igor Girkin, a Russian better known by his nom de guerre “Strelkov,” alienated his troops while fighting in eastern Ukraine through a ruthless disregard for the local area and unrealistically lofty goals for the battlefield, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said in an interview published Wednesday with Russian Reporter.
“He was a person who fought alongside us. But 90 percent of his troops did not support his views on how to conduct military activities,” Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the rebel republic, said in the interview.
Strelkov, a former colonel for Russia’s Federal Security Service shot to fame in mid-May when he began leading rebel fighters in Donetsk. He eventually took on the role of defense minister of the makeshift republic, but resigned from that position in mid-August and moved to Moscow. Upon his arrival, he declared Moscow the new front line in a battle being waged against President Vladimir Putin by the West.
Despite Strelkov’s prominence as one of the top fighters in the Ukraine conflict, however, Zakharchenko implied he was generally not regarded highly by his fellow fighters.
An example of Strelkov’s ruthlessness involved a plan to destroy nine-story buildings in Slovyansk, a strategy that Zakharchenko said triggered a “wild scandal.”
“For me, destroying nine-story buildings on the outskirts of Donetsk is insane,” Zakharchenko said, noting that Strelkov had proposed such a plan during a battle there.
In response to the interviewer’s question on whether Strelkov had wanted to destroy buildings due to his own dabbling in historical military re-enactments — a hobby that many have said motivated his activities in Ukraine — Zakharchenko said Strelkov simply viewed war differently.
“In his opinion, it would have been more convenient to defend ourselves from among ruins. Because he doesn’t live here,” Zakharchenko said, adding that Strelkov had focused on “tactical moves aimed at strikes and fierce defense” that weren’t suitable to the situation in Ukraine.
For what Strelkov wanted to do, he said, “we would have needed a minimum of 20,000 fighters. But since he only had 6,000, we had to arrange it differently.”
While Strelkov’s fellow fighters respected him, Zakharchenko said, “we would have done things differently when it came to trying to resolve certain issues at the expense of the lives of our fellow countrymen.”
Signs of a rift between pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine were apparent throughout the summer, with several Russian commanders resigning. In August, documents surfaced purportedly showing orders given by Strelkov to execute his own fighters for looting, Reuters reported at the time.
Strelkov stepped down around the time reports broke of the alleged execution orders, though his representatives said he was quitting because he had found a new job.