NEWS FROM UKRAINE - WAR, MINSK, PUTIN AND SENTSOV

22.08.15


By Iryna Terlecky
Ukrainian Thought

Fears of all-out war

Renewed fighting in Donbas has claimed the lives of dozens of civilians and soldiers in the past two weeks, with 4 Ukrainian servicement killed and 14 reported wounded in the last 24 hours alone, as the already fragile ceasefire and diplomacy have broken down still further. 

Multiple ceasefire violations along the front line are the worst seen in the last six months and fears are mounting that Ukraine is closer to all-out war than at any time in the last year.

Self-appointed separatist leader Oleksandr Zakharchenko has said publicly that his forces are ready for further attacks, claiming that the Minsk agreements were dead and that there was no prospect of any peaceful solution. 

His statement followed a new wave of attacks on the western boundary of the so-called DNR, from Horlivka in the north to Mariupol in the south, with Donetsk citizens posting video of outgoing Grad fire from separatist-held territory. 

Some of the heaviest fighting has been for control of the highway linking Donetsk with Mariupol, with the outskirts of Mariupol suffering particularly heavy fire from the separatists.

Ukrainian forces have been holding their positions, but have concerns that they do not have the equipment to respond effectively. 

In particular, the Ukrainian government has lobbied the US for sophisticated ground-scan radar, which would allow the military to monitor and target vehicles and artillery beyond its line of sight. 

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon is ready to supply Ukraine with these weapons, but the White House is holding up the process because of the need for Russian cooperation on Iran and Syria.

Where are the weapons?

While Sergiy Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, predictably called on Western governments to put pressure on Kyiv to uphold the Minsk agreements, further evidence is being compiled of Russian weaponry being supplied to the separatists. 

James Miller, writing for Reuters, says that as far back as November 2014, ground-scan radar systems were photographed by journalist Stefan Huijboom and others traveling through Donetsk. 

Given that the Ukrainian military did not have these systems, and they could not therefore have been captured by the separatists, the only plausible explanation for these weapons appearing in Ukraine is that they were supplied by the Russian military, which likely also operates them since they are highly sophisticated war machines.

Furthermore, Ukraine does not possess sophisticated surveillance drones, yet it has shot down (and the OSCE has witnessed) many Russian military drones operating on the wrong side of the border since the start of the conflict. 

The monitors have recently seen an R-330ZH “Zhitel” jamming system not far from the front lines, which is capable of jamming GPS navigation and communication and which was used by the Russian military during its annexation of Crimea last year. 

Several OSCE drones have been jammed in the past months, and in one incident the aircraft crashed after the signal between the unmanned aerial vehicle and its controller was disrupted. 

The separatists told the OSCE that they had access to sophisticated equipment that can jam unmanned vehicles; in late June, soldiers from the Vostok Battalion, a group long thought to be Russian Special Forces, took selfies with an R-330ZH. 

Miller concludes, “Not only is Russia deeply involved in front-line operations in eastern Ukraine; it is hardly making any effort to hide it.”

The OSCE, who are monitoring the continued withdrawal of heavy weapons in accordance with the Minsk agreement, said, in their latest report that at five of the storage facilities it had visited in the DNR, heavy weapons which had been stored there were missing. 

Andriy Parubiy said the Ukrainian government had information that at least 30 pieces of military hardware had crossed the border from Russia into Ukraine in the last week, under the guise of yet another ‘humanitarian’ convoy.

NATO warned Russia this week that any attempt by Russian-backed separatists to take more of Ukraine’s territory would be unacceptable. 

Its statement said that member states had discussed the situation and stressed the need for all parties to show restraint. 

“Russia has a special responsibility to find a political solution. Any attempt by the Russian-backed separatists to take over more of Ukraine’s territory would be unacceptable to the international community.” 

Putin in Crimea and Russian justice in the spotlight

Vladimir Putin, with Russian politicians and businessmen in tow, made a highly publicised three-day visit to Crimea, ostensibly to promote Crimea as the ‘patriotic choice’ for Russian tourists, but also to reinforce the message that Crimea is Russia. 

In a comment which the BBC described as stony-faced, Putin said that the Crimean people had made their choice – full stop. 

Putin then indulged in a typical hard-man stunt, diving down to the bottom of the Black Sea in a mini-submarine. 

Cynical social media commentators said that his latest submarine trip is an attempt to ensure that the Kursk submarine tragedy in August 2000 is knocked off the top Google spot…

Other bizarre news from Russia centred on the destruction of thousands of tonnes of food from the EU following a decree that became law at the end of July, leaving many Russians wondering why so much was being destroyed while millions were living below the poverty line. 

The official Russian line was that the food was ‘contraband’ and that EU-produced food was being smuggled in under false flags, without the required certificates of origin and therefore no guarantee it was safe for human consumption. 

Oleg Sentsov

The Russian legal system is once again under the international spotlight, with the commencement of the trial of film director Oleg Sentsov, facing a 23-year prison sentence on terrorism charges, after he was arrested for taking part in protests in Crimea and allegedly being involved in an arson attack on a building, in which no-one was hurt.

The main prosecution witness has withdrawn his testimony, saying it was given under duress. The prosecution has also dismissed Sentsov’s claims that he was tortured and threatened with rape and murder in an attempt to force a confession, and in a move of such audacity it shocked even those familiar with the Russian legal system, prosecutors said they had found “sadomasochistic equipment” at Sentsov’s apartment, and the bruises and injuries he had resulted from “attempts to gain sexual pleasure”.

Sentsov made a powerful closing speech to the court. Wearing a white t-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Glory to Ukraine’, he said that he would never be such a coward as to confess to what he had not done, and that he was ready to suffer or die for his beliefs. “I am not going to beg for leniency. Everything is already clear. A court of occupiers cannot be just by definition,” he told the judges.

Western film directors, including Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, have written to President Putin demanding Sentsov’s release, and a full, prompt and impartial investigation into the apparently arbitrary detention by the FSB and Oleg Sentsov’s statements about torture in order to bring all those responsible to justice. 

The European Film Academy’s deputy chairman, Mike Downey, called the trial “a total fiasco” and likened it to the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s. He said the academy would “work tirelessly until he gets the justice he deserves”. 

And finally…

President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel are due to meet President Poroshenko in Berlin on 24 August to discuss the worsening situation in Donbas, with Poroshenko clear that he wants renewed international pressure on Russia to stop supplying the separatists and comply with the Minsk agreements. 

The OSCE is facing significant difficulties in monitoring the situation on the ground, following arson attacks which destroyed four of their cars, denial of access to many areas, and, most recently, abuse, violence and even death threats from separatists, in incidents the OSCE believe may be co-ordinated.

One piece of potentially good news is that Ukraine may reach an agreement with its creditors by the end of the month, but that will not include its debt to Russia, which has refused to join the talks. And even a limited agreement may not help if Ukraine has to pour more funds into defending its territory in the face of increased attacks.

 


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