Category Archives: Ukraine

Tragedy above Ukraine – 10 points about MH17

As most people will have heard by now, on Thursday afternoon a Malaysian airlines flight was shot down over the conflict zone in Eastern Ukraine. All 295 on board died, including 154 Dutch citizens. While much is still unclear about the crash, there are still a number of points that can be made.

Who did it?

  • The most likely cause is that the jet was shot down by pro-Russian separatists. They have shot down Ukrainian military planes before, including one carrying almost 50 soldiers. They also boasted on social media about shooting down a plane, before deleting the posts.
  • The Ukrainian army on the other hand has no reason to shoot at planes. The government would certainly not want this to happen, and it would be an unlikely accident as well. The separatists don’t use aircraft (certainly not at the high altitude MH17 was flying at) and the Ukrainians know which planes are in their airspace.
  • It was however most likely a mistake. The separatists lack access to air control information or good radar, meaning that they probably had no idea what they were shooting at.
  • It is extremely unlikely that either the Ukrainians, nor the separatists, nor the Russians would purposefully shoot down a commercial jet. It serves no purpose, and would be a horrific crime.

How did this happen?

  • Commercial jets flying at these altitudes can’t be hit with handheld missiles, like have been uses before in the area. It would require a much bigger system, according to experts the Buk missile system. The Buk also requires trained men to launch it.
  • The blame for this will land squarely at Russia’s feet. They have been encouraging the separatists in the Donetsk region and allowing Russian and Chechen ‘adventurers’ to cross the border and play at soldiers, with the sole purpose of creating chaos. They have also allowed all sorts of weapons to cross over, and the role their security services are playing is very murky. They are responsible for dragging Eastern Ukraine into war.
  • The other question being asked is: What was MH17 doing there? It’s utterly bizarre that airlines were still flying a route that passes over militias with missiles. This will probably become a big issue.

What now?

  • According to current reports, the black box is on its way to Moscow. With trust at an all time low, Western countries (especially the Netherlands) will loudly call for an independent investigation.
  • This will destroy the separatists in the eyes of the world. If it’s fully proved they were responsible, they will have been shown to be trigger happy and careless. They don’t seem like freedom fighters, but more like violent and foolish adventurers.
  • Russia will probably have to take a big step back from its support for the rebels. Backing militias shooting down jets will do terrible damage to their image on the world stage. Putin has already said that it’s the fault of the country whose airspace the plane was in, but he is the one heavily responsible for the violent condition of parts of that country.

With the news cycle moving fast, the attention will quickly focus on the political responses to the attack. Tonight though, the Netherlands especially is mourning the loss of 154 of its citizens. In such a small country, such a tragedy has a terrible impact. It can only be hoped that this disaster can open the eyes of those involved in the conflict, and bring it to a swift and just end.

To find out more about the conflict in Ukraine, click here.


Ukrainian success – Fall of Sloviansk

In the biggest victory for the Ukrainian army since the invasion of Crimea in February, government forces have retaken the rebel held city of Sloviansk in Eastern Ukraine. The city had been a centre for the separatists for months, and was seen as an important symbol of resistance. On Saturday though, the separatist fighters were forced into a ‘tactical retreat’, which turned into a more general retreat from rebel-held towns back towards Donetsk. So with the Ukrainian army finally booking some success, is this the beginning of a final push? A chance for negotiations? Or a potential spark for a worse conflict? Continue reading

Violence grinding on – Ukraine update

While the eyes of the world (and this blog) slip away towards to the advance of ISIS in Iraq, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is as impossible as ever. Just days after an offer of a ceasefire by President Poroshenko was taken up by the separatists, a Ukrainian helicopter was shot down by militants, killing nine soldiers. Today artillery and gunfire can still be heard in towns across Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. So what’s been happening? Have there been moves to peace? And is this still Russian aggression? Continue reading

Ukraine – Fighting to the death for the DPR

While Sunday’s elections saw a big step in Ukraine’s path to a better future, one day later the violence in the East was worse than ever. The Ukrainian army, now under new president Petro Poroshenko, appears to have smashed a separatist offensive at Donetsk International Airport, cementing the government’s control of the city’s main link to the outside world. The separatists lost at least 30 men, against no casualties for the army. So how did this happen? Is this a reversal of fortune for the Ukrainian army? And what will change under Ukraine’s new president, the ‘Chocolate King’?

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The Ukraine government remembers all too well the loss of Crimea, and how that started with Russian soldiers taking over the airport in Simferopol. So when armed separatists showed up at Donetsk Airport on Monday and stormed the main terminal building, there was no hesitation on the part of the government. There has been a small force of Ukrainian soldiers there since the beginning of the crisis in the city, and instead of surrendering they called in reinforcements.

The Ukrainian army then struck back hard, using helicopters and even airstrikes. One piece of separatist anti-aircraft weaponry was destroyed, and they were forced out of the airport. The army then continued to move towards the city centre, accompanied by paratroopers according to media sources. The street fighting raged for hours in the district between the airport and central train station. The day ended with the government firmly in control of the airport, but with separatists still armed and ready to fight in the area heading towards the station.

There’s no doubt however that this was a heavy blow for the separatists’ militias. Journalists found literal piles of bodies in the local morgue, and a destroyed truck surrounded by blood. The truck, full of militiamen, had apparently been struck by artillery or explosive rounds from a helicopter. The way the Ukrainians went on the attack instead of fading away will also worry the Donetsk People’s Republic. In comparison to the more than a dozen Ukrainian soldiers killed last week, these forces appeared to be much better trained and ready for a fight.

This new aggressiveness will come as good news to the country’s newly elected President, Petro Poroshenko. With over 50% of the vote (excluding Donetsk and Luhansk province, which didn’t vote), the former confectionary oligarch certainly has a mandate to lead. And he has already indicated he will not hesitate to confront the separatists, saying that he will not let Eastern Ukraine “become Somalia” and that the crisis will be tackled “within hours”. With the election behind them, the Ukrainian government has nothing to wait for. A new president has been chosen, and before he can get anything done on the economic quagmire, there is a conflict to be solved.

The question is however, even if the army can defeat the separatists, can they regain the East? With every artillery shell that is fired at Slavyansk and every fighter jet that roars over Donetsk, the people of the region feel more and more under attack by their own government. There were civilian casualties as well on Monday; a woman was caught in crossfire near the train station. On Tuesday the city was quiet, with shops boarded up and people remaining indoors. Rightly or wrongly, if the army comes it too hard it will only drive the people away, alienating those that might otherwise want to remain in Ukraine.

In the end though, there is no other good option. There is no future for the Donetsk People’s Republic. At the moment it’s a city running on inertia, with the police, firefighters and all the rest just doing their jobs. But the so-called government is a disaster of bureaucracy, inefficiency and aggression. Looting and random violence has become an issue, with the new ice hockey stadium being burnt down Tuesday for no apparent reason. Worst of all, the men with guns who now rule are often drunk and prone to attacking anyone who doesn’t support them. I recently heard of a prayer tent a few blocks away from our old home there. It had been staffed throughout this whole crisis by a local pastor who together with many others prayed for peace and for the people who came there every night, as well as cleaning the streets. Last week armed men who had taken offence at the Ukrainian flag on the tent came by, threw the tent into the river, then stole all the equipment the pastors had there. When one of them went to the administration building to ask for it back, he was severely beaten.

With the government offensive likely to step up in the coming days, it remains to be seen how many more separatists are willing to fight to the death to defend this republic.

If you’re interested in reading more about the situation in Donetsk, or keeping up to date with the big stories of the week, just click the ‘Follow’ button to the right, or follow @YW_Explained on Twitter.

Donetsk referendum – votes and violence

Today the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk are holding referendums on ‘self-rule’, against a backdrop of continuing violence and a bloody day in the city of Mariupol. The only question on the ballot: “Do you support the act of state self-rule of the Donetsk People’s Republic/Luhansk People’s Republic?” So what exactly is taking place today? Will it change anything? And what effect is the violence having on the people of the East?

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The referendum is being held in the provinces that have seen the most separatism, Donetsk and Luhansk. The pro-Russians intend to use the vote to show that the will of the people is to be one with Russia. Enthusiasm for the vote is strong in certain areas, with many people suggesting that the corruption and poverty affecting the East is their main reason for supporting the vote. However, so far it has been a chaotic day, making it impossible to take the referendum seriously.

  • There is no list of who is allowed to vote in each area, meaning it’s entirely unclear if the people voting have voted before or are actually in their own area. Journalists have spoken to numerous people voting twice, or who are from other areas.
  • The voting papers are not marked or numbered, merely run out on a printer, basically meaning the result can be faked in any number of ways.
  • The polling stations are being run by the separatists, and many of them have no secret voting booths. The boxes for the votes are see-through. This makes voting against separatism an extremely risky act.
  • In cities of 500 000 people like Mariupol there are only 5 polling stations. This has led to huge crowds and chaos inside.
  • Many people seem unsure about what they are voting for: separatism or federalisation inside Ukraine.
  • Even ignoring all these problems, the referendum is still illegal under the constitution of Ukraine, and it will not recognised by any country. The governor of Donetsk has condemned the vote, and even President Putin advised the separatists to postpone the referendum, though it’s unclear if this is part of another power play.

It’s almost certain that the vote will produce a ‘yes’ result, which will be impossible to relate to the actual feeling in these provinces. But will this result matter? Most experts don’t think so, saying the referendum is so illegitimate that it won’t even provide a pretext for Russian ‘protection’. I’m not so sure. The annexation of Crimea seemed equally ridiculous until it was completed. However, the vote will certainly place more pressure on Kyiv to agree to more demand for federalisation and regional autonomy; and with violence in the region only getting worse, this pressure is already high.

Friday saw fierce clashes in the city of Mariupol, south of Donetsk. Accounts of what started it differ, but the main fighting was between the Ukrainian army and separatists who either taken over a police station or allied themselves with local police. At least 7 people died as the Ukrainian army moved in to the city in force. Armoured vehicles didn’t let themselves be stopped by groups of civilians, pushing their way through. One man who tried to stand in front of a tank was shot in the chest. The fierce battle for control of the police station ended with the building completely destroyed, and the Ukrainian army withdrawing to their bases for now, the show of strength over. Numerous civilians had been killed or wounded

The following exceptionally clear video of one such incident shows exactly how this can happen. It shows a crowd of people walking towards Ukrainian soldiers who are withdrawing. While the crowd is shouting that they are unarmed, one man in the crowd pulls a pistol, shoots at a soldier, and then hides in the crowd. The soldier returns fire, and hits an unarmed man in the leg. Other videos of the incident show another man with a deadly head wound a few metres away (graphic). In this sort of vicious confusion, the seeds of anger and hatred that may yet lead to civil war are plain to see.

The ridiculousness of this referendum doesn’t change the fact that there is now serious anger in the east at the Kyiv government. With military action pushing more people away from the government, and the separatists showing no desire to negotiate, Ukraine is in a terrible situation. If it wasn’t for the separatist movement, the elections on the 25th of May might have been able to provide some unity. But the 25th has never seemed so far away.

Another Ukrainian tragedy – Flames in Odessa

On Friday night it was Odessa’s turn for tragedy. The southern Ukrainian city had been relatively peaceful up until now, and tensions between Russians and Ukrainians had been low. That peace may have been shattered forever after clashes between pro-Russians and pro-government protesters ended with a building full of pro-Russians going up in flames. While there were deaths on both sides, the majority were pro-Russians who were either burnt or died jumping from the building. So what led to such a disaster? Where were the police? And what does this mean for the near-future?

The events in Odessa started with a pro-government protest being attacked by pro-Russian protesters. According to journalists at the scene the main action on both sides eventually became a relatively small hard core of protesters, and both sides were armed with stones, bats, riot shields and Molotov cocktails. While the clashes went on for hours, things suddenly took a different turn when the pro-Russians were pushed back into their protest camp outside the Trade Unions building, and then further back into the building, where they were cornered by the pro-government people.

What happened next is unclear. Journalists describe Molotov cocktails flying back and forth, and there were shots fired from the roof of the building. There were deaths outside the building from gunshot wounds, and police found numerous bullet casings at the scene. But when the building went up in flames, the situation turned to chaos. People trapped on upper floors jumped to avoid the flames, while others managed to escape on ropes thrown by people below. In a sign of the hectic nature of mobs, some pro-Russians who managed to flee the building were severely beaten, while others had their wounds treated. The night ended with over 40 people dead, caught in the burning building or shot outside of it.

This is the worst incident in the country since 80 people were shot by police snipers in Kyiv in February, and the first time deaths have been mainly pro-Russian. Ukraine is in shock at such horrific violence, but while the general feeling is of mourning, the country remains divided. On the pro-government side the sympathy was tempered by anger towards the armed separatist movement, and the fact that some of the pro-Russian protesters were Russian citizens. The Russian media on the other hand scream “Odessa slaughter: How vicious mob burnt pro-Russian protesters alive”.

One thing that can be agreed on by all sides is that this horrific event shows how utterly unprepared the Ukrainian police are to deal with these events. Throughout the whole evening riot police stood by and watched while the mobs clashed and people burned. On the other side of the country in Donetsk, police have repeatedly only half-heartedly tried to protect pro-Ukrainian protesters, and people have died as a result. Vice News saw one Ukrainian journalist pushed into a car and kidnapped by armed separatists, while police watched from across the street. Mostly they are preoccupied with keeping a low profile, afraid of being cornered like the police in numerous cities throughout Donetsk Oblast.

The problem is with the whole institution – the Ukrainian police force is extremely corrupt and trusted by no one. They are known for police brutality, and especially the taking of bribes. Over 49% of Ukrainians have had to bribe a police officer. When I lived in Donetsk with my family we dreaded being stopped by the traffic police, as they would also try to extort bribes before allowing us to drive further. This corruption, partially driven by low pay, means they are incredibly demoralised and not willing to fight for their government or people (with the noble exception of two policemen in Horlivka). The only truly effective police were the well-paid Berkut, who were disbanded after the revolution for brutality, torture and murder of unarmed protesters.

The fires of Friday night will leave another deep scar in Ukraine. It is another sign of how parts of the country have sunk in to chaos in recent weeks, after the brief peace following the fall of Yanukovich. Ideally such a horror would shock Ukrainians into supporting peace and the elections to come on the 25th of May. But with Russia still supporting the separatists in the East (who are now shooting down helicopters with missiles), and the government determined to press on with reclaiming Donetsk, that seems unlikely. Yesterday the violence in the East rolled on, with two Ukrainian soldiers and numerous separatists killed in Slavyansk. This struggling country has many dark days ahead.

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Eastern Ukraine – A region of violence and fear

In recent weeks Eastern Ukraine have become steadily more violent and intolerant. Journalists have been kidnapped, politicians murdered, protests broken up and now seven foreign observers are being held hostage. These are not actions carried out by ‘peaceful protesters’, as Russia Today would call them. So what exactly happened in all these incidents? And what does it say about the future of Eastern Ukraine?

Continue reading