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Putin is repeating his August advance in the Donbas

From – http://euromaidanpress.com/2015/01/21/putin-is-repeating-his-august-advance-in-the-donbas/

Today there in no longer any doubt that Putin has decided to launch a large-scale war with Ukraine after all. The present situation in the ATO zone is very complicated. It will become evident in the next few days if the Ukrainian command has a plan B for the intensified Russian presence.

Espreso TV wrote on January 18 that Putin has decided on further escalation in the Donbas and has begun informational preparations for the active involvement of Russian “lost paratroopers” in the war. At that time a ghostly chance still remained that it would not come to this. Today, however, we can already see the first results of Putin’s decision — Russian and terrorist forces have increased considerably. Fighting is continuing along the entire ceasefire line, and the direction of the advances that are the current priority for Putin’s troops is becoming clear.

First, it is the Donetsk airport, which, despite having no strategic value, has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. This is why the seizure of the airport is essential for Russian PR, for lifting the morale of their own soldiers and humiliating Ukrainians. Today, as in previous days, fierce fighting is taking place at the airport. The capture of eight Ukrainian soldiers today — news that was gleefully rebroadcast by Russian propagandist media — while unpleasant, to put it mildly, has no decisive meaning for the outcome of the battle for the airport. Right now the fighting is continuing at the airport, where hardly anything remains. Whatever remains of the airport buildings will ultimately be destroyed by the constant shelling ; there will be no reason nor even any possibility for anyone to hold on to it.

The second direction, where the situation is somewhat more alarming than at the airport, is the so-called Bakhmutka highway. Today Ukrainians have withdrawn from the 31st checkpoint and are withstanding fierce shelling and attacks by Russian troops. As the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) has indicated, Ukrainian troops have stopped the enemy’s advance, but the situation remains very tense. The danger is that by taking Bakhmutka highway Russians would open a direct path to the Lysychansk-Severodonetsk-Rubishne conglomeration and open up the possibility of surrounding the strategically important city of Shchastia, where the thermal power plant that feeds electricity to Luhansk is located. Additionally, there is a direct path from Shchastia to the north of the oblast and then on to Kharkiv.

This entire activation of the militants has a simple explanation. According to the same NSDC, over the last two days two tactical battalion groups have crossed the border. Naturally, these are regular Russian troops, without insignia, who are now playing the role of “people’s militias.” According to NSDC, these are the forces that are taking the key role in the advance on Bakhmutka.

Moreover, new units of the regular Russian army are approaching the Ukrainian border. There is no doubt that very soon they will cross the border as well and will further strengthen the terrorist forces.

In addition, against the background of the offensive at the front, the terrorist war is spreading to our rear. Last night there was another explosion in Kharkiv, and today the railway bridge in the Zaporizhia Oblast was blown up. If the terrorist act in Kharkiv was designed primarily to terrify and to distract forces from events at the front, then in Zaporizhia it was an attempt to destroy one of the important supply lines for Ukrainian troops.

All these facts show that Putin has decided to repeat his August course, when the “Ilovaisk cauldron” was created with the help of the regular Russian army that had crossed the Ukrainian border and a significant part of the Donbas was occupied. Obviously, the Russian dictator is counting on repeating last year’s success and on adding new territories to the terrorist Novorossiya. As became obvious in August, the Ukrainian command, unfortunately, did not have a plan B for a possible Russian invasion, and this resulted in the catastrophe near Ilovaisk. Does the General Staff have such a plan now? The answer to this question will become apparent in the coming days.

Ukraine Army Claims It Was Attacked by Regular Russian Troops

From – http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/kiev-military-claims-ukraine-forces-came-under-attack-from-russian-troops/514666.html

Ukrainian army units came under attack from Russian regular forces in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday and heavy fighting was taking place, a Ukrainian military spokesman said.

The announcement at a specially called news briefing was one of the boldest assertions yet by Ukraine of direct Russian military involvement in the nine-month conflict between pro-Russian separatists and government forces.

“In spite of preliminary agreements, Ukrainian military units were attacked in the north of the anti-terrorist operational zone by regular military formations of the armed forces of Russia,” the spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, said.

“Heavy fighting is continuing near (Ukrainian army) checkpoints 29 and 31,” he said, pinpointing an area near the town of Slovyanoserbsk, northwest of the city of Luhansk.

“Ukrainian forces have stopped the advance of Russian troops … The situation in the conflict zone is serious but under our control,” Lysenko said at a news briefing.

Three more battalion tactical groups of Russian motorized infantry had been tracked inside Russia heading towards the Ukrainian border, as well as an artillery division, he said.

Lysenko had no immediate figures for estimated casualties.

Ukraine’s assertion that its troops were now engaged with Russian regular forces in its separatist-minded eastern regions followed a flurry of charges by Kiev that the Russian military was stepping up incursions to support the rebels.

Despite what the West and Kiev say is incontrovertible proof, Moscow has consistently denied that any of its regular forces are deployed in Ukraine.

The region around Luhansk includes a huge stretch of border with Russia and, with large parts of it under the control of separatists, is vulnerable to an inflow of military equipment and Russian forces.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said on Monday that Russian-made rocket and weapons systems were pouring into the country and Lysenko on Tuesday said two battalion tactical groups, each of about 400 men, had crossed into Ukraine from Russia — a charge dismissed as “absolute nonsense” by the Russian Defense Ministry.

In a separate statement, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Ukrainian forces had withdrawn from one of the two checkpoints under attack and, with the aid of reinforcements, were trying to dislodge enemy forces.

Four-Way Summit Due
Ukraine’s announcement was certain to ratchet up tension between Kiev and Moscow on the eve of a planned meeting in Berlin of four foreign ministers that should bring Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin face to face with Russia’s Sergei Lavrov.

Wednesday’s meeting, which also brings in the German and French foreign ministers, has been called to give fresh impetus to stalled efforts to end the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.

The crisis started with the popular overthrow of a Moscow-backed president by street protests in Kiev a year ago.

Russia subsequently annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and threw its weight behind a pro-Russian separatist rebellion, leading to a conflict in which more than 4,800 people have been killed and the West has applied sanctions against Russia.

Ukrainian forces at the weekend launched a counter-offensive to reclaim ground lost to separatists near the international airport in the big city of Donetsk, bringing condemnation from Moscow, which said this had damaged the prospects for a four-power summit on the conflict.

Earlier on Tuesday, Ukraine’s Klimkin pressed for further meetings to implement agreements reached in Minsk, Belarus, last September with Russia and separatist leaders including strengthening a much violated cease-fire.

Klimkin said separatist forces had abused the Minsk deal by seizing 500 sq kilometers (194 sq miles) of territory beyond agreed separation lines since it was struck.

Petro Poroshenko: the frontline to defend European values is in Ukraine

From – http://euromaidanpress.com/2015/01/21/petro-poroshenko-the-frontline-to-defend-european-values-is-in-ukraine/

President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko participated in a conference at the University of Zurich on 19 January 2015, on the eve of the Davos Economic Forum in which he participated, where on 19 September 1946 Winston Churchill had called for unity within Europe. At the end of the conference, having been interrupted several times by pro-Russian activists who shouted “Je suis Donbass,” Mr. Poroshenko gave an interview to Le Monde, the Wall Street Journal and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Euromaidan Press has provided a translation of the interview given to Le Monde.

Fighting intensified in recent days in the East of your country. Are the Minsk Agreements which provided for a cease-fire dead?

Today marks exactly four months since the Minsk agreements were signed. They have still not entered into force because one of the sides does not apply them. But things are not black and white. At one point, to avoid the term cease-fire, we introduced the term “artillery silence.” It was decreed from 9 December 2014. For three weeks instead of 40 to 50 bombings per day, there was only 10. For two weeks, there were no civil or military casualties. This shows that Russians can control the terrorists when they want it. This proves that a diplomatic solution is possible. Unfortunately, for the last ten to twelve days, an escalation of the fighting is observed, which is not of our making, with the attack on Donetsk airport, artillery attacks like the one on the bus near Volnovakha [resulting in 13 civilian casualties], and other provocations.

Why am I still optimistic? Because Europe is united and that solidarity with Ukraine is global. Sanctions work, in the sense that they not only create problems for Russia, but they keep the Russians at the table.

President Putin has made you the proposals in a letter Friday. According to Moscow, you have rejected them…

This is false. Upon publication of this letter, we said that we were ready to cease fire if we had a guarantee from Russia that it would be bilateral, not unilateral. In this letter, Putin says he is willing to withdraw heavy weapons from the front but does not specify from which line exactly. My answer is very clear: we are prepared to withdraw artillery from the line drawn in Minsk, and we have proposed January 19 as a starting day. If we do not recognize at which line you are willing to remove the artillery, the ceasefire could collapse after two days.

Why do you think he has made this proposal?

Because it was on the eve of the meeting of the European Council of Foreign Ministers on 19 January.

So you do not believe him?

Look, I believe in God … If you ask me whether I have confidence in the EU, I say yes. If you ask me if I have confidence in President Putin, I will answer no. I have much more confidence in President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel, and all the European leaders.

Was President Hollande wrong to believe Putin when he said that he did not invade Ukraine?

I would just remind you that two months before the invasion of the Crimea, the Russians assured that they would not invade. And the Russians are already fighting in the east of our territory. According to our services, there are between 8,000 and 9,500 Russian troops on our soil. Despite this, it is necessary to build trust.

Do you often talk with President Putin?

At least once every two weeks.

Have you noticed a change in tone and attitude since the sanctions have an impact on the Russian economy?

Frankly, in our conversations, it is not the price of oil and the ruble that dominate. The topic of Ukraine is very emotional for him. However, it is essential to maintain the dialogue.

What does President really Putin want?

I would prefer if he told you himself. We want the territorial integrity of Ukraine. At the same time, I am fully aware that there is no military solution to this conflict: Russia has the largest army in Europe. For seven months we have been building an army to defend our territory to ensure that the cancer does not spread beyond the line fixed by Minsk.

Do you think that Russia seeks not to invade the southeast of Ukraine but simply to destabilize your country permanently?

It’s possible. But instead of weakening my country, it strengthens it. I called for early parliamentary elections, thanks to which we now have a pro-European constitutional majority in Parliament. Before, 33% of Ukrainians wanted to join the EU; now 80% do. Before, 16% of people wanted to join NATO; now the number is at 60%. This is not to say that we want to adhere immediately to NATO, it means that our country is united. And I’m ready for a national dialogue on the shape of the state, unitary or federal, through a referendum.

Some of the leaders of the revolution in Maidan denounce the slow pace of reforms in Ukraine. They note the resistance of the system and the oligarchs.

There are indeed people that it is essential to replace. I am determined to change my country, and will not let anyone stand in the way, whether the oligarchs, bureaucrats, or our neighbor. It is a matter of survival for our country. It is not about waging a war against the oligarchs, but to build a state based on the rule of law, a transparent financial system that will apply to the oligarchs as well as the others. But do you realize that we are doing all that during wartime?

Do you possible to move forward on reforms while maintaining your territorial integrity?

There are two problems: peace in the Donbas and negotiations on Crimea. These are two separate issues. For Crimea, it is not a matter of a month. For Donetsk, we must obtain the withdrawal of troops.

What have you accomplished since your election in May?

I signed the Association Agreement with the EU and we built an army.

In August 2014, you said that three quarters of the tanks were out of order…

It was August. In June we had no army. In August we tried to stop the offensive with the means at hand. Today we have an army. We have very effective cooperation programs for our military with countries around the world. Now we are ready to defend not only our country, but also to defend Europe. Because the frontline to defend freedom and European values is in Ukraine.

The West is enough for you?

Yes. Do not underestimate the unity of the European Union. Of course, I need support, unity, and sanctions against Russia. I need a free Ukraine, independent and democratic. I was proud to be in Paris on 11 January, I really liked the people who were not afraid and demonstrating for their values. And values are more important than money.

Frontline journalist: Russian attack to take place in two weeks

From – http://euromaidanpress.com/2015/01/21/frontline-journalist-russian-attack-to-take-place-in-two-weeks/

It has been quite some time since I have written a military-political commentary. Currently, I am at base, walking with the help of crutches, and am not able to be more active in combat.

Here are some facts:
1. Poroshenko has announced a wide-ranging mobilization, which the Verkhovna Rada has ratified, and it will definitely happen. In the small village where my parents live, for example, 36 people have received notification.

2. Putin’s soldiers, whom we refer to here as “separatists”, have become extremely active within the past few days. Their artillery now stands at 150 units per kilometer. For the first time in the entire war, an artillery bombardment now sounds like an automatic weapon.

3. Poroshenko has promised to demobilize the first wave of Ukrainian soldiers this spring.

Here are my conclusions:
1. Ukraine is obviously in no position to feed an army of the magnitute that it has intentions of training. And those soldiers who already have been mobilized would be going hungry and barefoot even now if it weren’t for the help of volunteers;
Therefore, by springtime or earlier, there are plans to commit the Ukrainian army to an all-out attack;

2. Putin will be unable to withstand such a comprehensive advance with his current conglomerate of thugs, deserters, and Ukrainian traitors, Russian anti-social misfits, Caucasus mercenaries and others, complemented by various Russian regular army professionals. They will try to defeat the Ukrainian army and Ukrainian volunteer army, but any chance at success will only come from the deployment of significant numbers of regular forces of the RF, discarding completely the charade and pretension of being “Novorossia militiamen.”

3. In other words, Putler will also be preparing to go on the attack. He will not be able to wait for spring: first, by springtime, the Russian economy will deteriorate even more than it already has; second, he will face a much larger adversary in the springtime than he currently does.

4. Such an attack will take place within two or three weeks, the amount of time he still requires for preparation.

5. Such an attack will be conducted once again under the false pretense of being fought by the “Novorossia militiamen”, though they won’t try as hard to hide the reality; they simply won’t acknowledge the truth; if he waits until spring, then it will be completely impossible to hide the truth.

6. The strategic goal of a new campaign won’t be to grab our land all the way to the Zbruch (the world community won’t allow Putler to go that far because if he did, then Poland and the Baltic countries would be next.) Rather, the goal will be to force Ukraine to make serious concessions ( removal of our army, federalization, and other items on his list).

7. We must stand our ground. Time is on our side, even if only because the population now shows significantly less sympathy for the “separatists”, and the world community is becoming increasingly more worried about how to save its own skin.

Kharkiv Blast Injures 14 As Fighting Rages In Donetsk

From – http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-kharkiv-/26803013.html

An explosion near a court house in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv has left 14 people wounded, four of them seriously.

Markiyan Lubkivsky, an adviser for the state security service SBU, said on his Facebook page the incident on January 19 was being treated as a “terrorist act.”

Kharkiv is a large city in eastern Ukraine, but far away from the conflict zone in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions further southeast.

However, in recent weeks there have been dozens of small bombings across the country, with the epicenters being Kharkiv, Odesa, Mariupol, and Kyiv.

Kharkiv, Odesa, and Mariupol seem to be in the crosshairs because they are geographically close to areas controlled by the pro-Russian separatist regions in eastern Ukraine and have significant ethnic-Russian populations.

Authorities and most Ukrainians are convinced that the attacks are directly linked to Russia.

The blast in Kharkiv comes as Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russian separatist fighters are battling for the control of the bitterly contested Donetsk airport in eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian military claims its troops have retaken almost all the areas of the ruined airport lost to separatists in recent weeks.

But a separatist leader, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, said that “all the Ukrainian Army’s attempts to take the airport…have failed.”

Artillery fire was reported in several areas of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions and a hospital in the city of Donetsk was reportedly hit.

In Kyiv, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko reiterated he was ready for fresh peace talks, but that Russia would first have to fulfill the agreements to end the separatist conflict signed in Minsk in September 2014.

In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers ruled out any easing of the sanctions imposed on Russia for its actions in Ukraine.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said on January 19 that the fighting around Donetsk airport showed “this is no time to talk about the easing of sanctions.”

Russia has shown “no political will, no movement on the ground, so no reason to change policy,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Antanas Linkevicius said.

The United States and European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Russia following Russia’s annexation of Crimea last March.

The West also accuses Russia of sending troops and weapons into eastern Ukraine to support the separatists, which Moscow denies.

The EU also pledged to respond to a perceived Russian propaganda campaign, after the issue was raised in a recent letter signed by the foreign ministers of Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, and Britain.

Mogherini said the EU will work on “concrete steps to be implemented in the coming weeks,” adding, however, that the bloc would not engage in counterpropaganda.

Linkevicius told RFE/RL that there was “wide support” among his EU counterparts for the need to address Russian propaganda.

Rights watchdog Amnesty International said in a statement on January 19 that the escalation in hostilities in eastern Ukraine since January 18 had resulted in the deaths of numerous civilians, including children, and put civilian lives in great danger.

London-based Amnesty International said pro-Russian separatists used densely populated areas for launching military operations while the Ukrainian troops returned heavy fire into those areas.

Amnesty said rebels fired rockets from residential areas in Donetsk and Horlivka. Artillery fire was returned by Ukrainian troops, killing at least two civilians in Horlivka on January 18.

Analysts Predict a Russian Descent Into Madness

From – http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/analysts-predict-a-russian-descent-into-madness/514538.html

President Vladimir Putin cannot afford at this point to reform the political system he has built up, as doing so would undermine his grip on power, a panel of political analysts said at the Gaidar Forum on Friday.

They went on to warn that without fundamental change, Russia risks an eventual descent into “revolutionary chaos.” The panel, which consisted of several analysts known for their vocal criticism of Russian government policy, spoke before a packed audience.

Such heated political rhetoric may seem out of place at a high-level economic policy conference co-organized by the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) and the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy. But the final day of this year’s forum was marked by departures from mainstream economics, with forays into everything from politics to education.

The political panel was moderated by Leonid Gozman, who has stood at the helm of some of Russia’s most prominent liberal parties over the course of the past decade.

At one point Gozman asked the panel, which included seven Russian analysts and one American, to say something nice about the ruling elite. “We have to say something good about the government, or we won’t be allowed to hold this session again next year,” he said facetiously.

Rapid Deterioration

Jokes aside, the speakers had a tough time finding any silver linings in what they saw as the many challenges Russia is presently facing due to the decisions Putin has made during his 15 years as Russia’s central political figure.

Most of the analysts agreed that Russia’s political system will likely remain inert over the course of 2015, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev expected to remain in his post. At the same time, the majority agreed that the system is fragile, and susceptible to rapid deterioration.

“We have entered a stage of fantastic instability,” said Georgy Satarov, former aide to Russia’s first President, Boris Yeltsin, and now an expert on political corruption in Russia.

According to Satarov, the current economic crisis may leave the government with only two options: launch dramatic political reforms or tighten the screws.

“The fact that everyday life in Russia is still stable prevents common people from understanding how fragile the political situation is,” he said.

The second option — cracking down — could provoke widespread dissent, which could in turn propel Russia into “revolutionary chaos,” Saratov said. “This is an absolutely realistic scenario,” he urged.

Experts were divided on the question of where such revolutionary chaos could originate. Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Moscow-based Mercator political research group, suggested that momentum would likely start in Moscow, as the capital continues to grow increasingly gentrified and politically conscious in contrast to other Russian regions.

Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Higher School of Economics, argued that such fervor could emerge in Chechnya, as its leader Ramzan Kadyrov grows increasingly independent and power-hungry.

“Kadyrov has 20,000 people that swore allegiance to him and Putin. In case there is a difficulty in Moscow, they would defend them,” Petrov said. “Russia is hostage to the regime; the regime is hostage to Putin; while Putin is hostage to his decisions, which have left him without an exit strategy.”

Perestroika Impossible

Tatiana Vorozheikina, a political scientist specializing in Latin American affairs, argued that fundamental political change remains an unlikely scenario for the foreseeable future in Russia, as such change would threaten the standing of the present-day political elite.

At the same time, she opined, the current structure is rooted in Putin. “I don’t believe the regime can be preserved without Putin,” said Vorozheikina. “The process of a negative selection among the elites did not leave anybody prominent and authoritative in the establishment, who would be able to assume power during the transition period.”

Regardless of the likelihood of impending change, Vorozheikina argued that Russia’s political power players are not primarily to blame for bringing about the country’s current economic crisis.

Putin’s Rating

Despite the panelists’ conclusions on the Kremlin’s hurdle-laden road ahead, it does not appear that Russia’s economic downturn will necessarily force Putin’s hand with regard to reforms. Recent statistics reveal that his approval ratings are no longer tied to the country’s overall prosperity.

Poll results published last week by the independent Levada Center revealed that 55 percent of Russians would like to see Putin remain Russia’s president after the next election in 2018. Tellingly, 54 percent of respondents said they see no alternative to Putin. The poll was conducted among 1,600 respondents with the margin of error not exceeding 3.4 percent.

According to Alexei Levinson, senior researcher at the Levada Center, approval of Putin and approval of the Russian leadership overall are two very different issues.

“Over the past 15 months, Putin has come to be seen as a symbolic and sacred figure who is not responsible for the economic situation in the country, but is responsible for the country’s greatness,” Levinson told the Gaidar Forum audience.

“The more Russians feel that they are threatened by the outside world, the more they will consolidate around Putin,” he said.

Predictions and Advice

As the session drew to a close, Gozman asked the participants to offer words of advice to Putin, and to hypothesize about the coming year.

Most experts recommended that Putin introduce fair competition into the political system, in particular by allowing possible “successors” to emerge.

“Russia must find a mechanism that would introduce rotation into government … No regime can survive without rotation at the very top,” said Timothy Colton, professor of government and Russian studies at Harvard and chairman of the university’s department of government.

As for the coming year, most experts were grim, predicting that the crisis in Ukraine will likely escalate over the course of 2015, and that protest activity in Russia will likely remain small-scale and localized, even if it intensifies.

Gozman said that most of the last year’s predictions failed to materialize, and that the prize — a bottle of booze — would therefore not be awarded to any of the panelists. However, next year’s winner will get two bottles to distract from the dismal realities he or she correctly predicted this year — that is, if the Presidential Academy allows the same experts to hold such a panel again, he added.

Russian activist: 382 Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine during last three days

From – http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/russian-activist-382-russian-soldiers-killed-in-ukraine-during-last-three-days-377786.html

Respected Russian human rights activist Elena Vasilieva has announced that 382 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine during the last three days.

“[I] came back from the war zone. It is impossible to call it an ATO zone – it is a real merciless war there,” Vasilieva writes on her official website. “I’m already afraid to write these numbers. The Russian army has huge losses over the past three days. 382 people – selected Special Forces, marines, paratroopers. Up to 500 injured. More likely the number of wounded is much higher. But we have no access to the full information about the injured from the Russian side.”

The activist said that, counting the most recent 382 deaths, the total loss on the Russian side is 6,242 killed.

It’s impossible to verify Vasilieva’s claim because the Russian government insists that no Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine — only volunteers — and the Ukrainian government also does not have reliable figures on the number of enemy casualties.

Vasilieva in early August said she created the group called “Cargo 200 from Ukraine to Russia” in social networks. Its name is a reference to dead bodies carried across the border. The name caught attention of tens of thousands of people, and the group started receiving information about regular army soldiers, officers and former military who volunteered to fight and were killed in eastern Ukraine.

Vasilieva became the source of information for hundreds of Russians women whose sons and husbands secretly went (or were sent) to war. Vasilieva is the one who tells them what military units of the Russian Federation took part in which fights, and what to do if a soldier has not been in communication for some weeks.

Eastern Ukraine: Civilians dying and in grave danger as fighting escalates

From – http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/eastern-ukraine-civilians-dying-and-grave-danger-fighting-escalates-2015-01-19

An escalation in hostilities in eastern Ukraine since yesterday has resulted in the deaths of numerous civilians, including children, with many more lives in grave danger, Amnesty International said as it renewed its calls on both sides to protect civilians amid the fighting.

“The use of heavily populated areas for launching attacks by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Horlivka and the return of fire into these areas by pro-Kyiv forces is putting civilian lives in great danger,” said Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International.

“Pro-Russian separatist forces must stop using densely populated areas for launching military operations and Kyiv-controlled forces must not launch indiscriminate attacks which put civilian lives at risk. These are violations of the laws of war for which civilians are paying with their lives.”

On 18 January, Ukrainian armed forces received orders to open heavy fire on pro-Russian separatist positions in eastern Ukraine in a push to retake full control of the contested Donetsk airport and surrounding areas. This followed an earlier ultimatum issued to them by the pro-Russian forces to leave the airport and their subsequent full-scale offensive against the Ukrainian forces’ positions there.

Videos posted on the internet by users in Donetsk show separatist forces launching volleys from “Grad” multiple launch rocket systems based inside residential areas in the city on the morning of 18 January.

Residents in pro-Russian separatist controlled Horlivka, 40 km north-east of Donetsk, told Amnesty International of similar cases of rockets being fired from the town centre. Shortly after one such instance on 18 January, artillery fire was returned by pro-Kyiv forces, killing at least two civilians.

According to a high-ranking local official, two brothers, aged seven and 16, were killed on 18 January after their house was hit directly in Vuhlehirsk, a town some 60 km north-east of Donetsk which is controlled by pro-Kyiv forces. A girl, aged eight, was wounded in the same attack and her leg was later amputated in the hospital.

Three people, including a father and his teenage son, died this morning (19 January) in Ukrainian-controlled Debaltseve, a key rail hub, after shelling by pro-Russian separatist forces. A total of 10 people were injured in the attack.

The escalation in fighting follows an artillery strike on a bus that killed 12 civilians and wounded 16 near Volnovakha on 13 January.

“The tragic artillery strike in Volnovakha serves as a grisly reminder of the price paid by the civilian population when the rules of international humanitarian law are disregarded during military operations. While the available evidence strongly suggests that the separatists fired the rocket which killed the bus passengers in Volnovakha, neither side is always doing what is required to protect civilians, which time and again leads to their deaths,” said Denis Krivosheev.

The use of populated areas for staging military operations and the use of imprecise explosive weapons in civilian neighbourhoods repeats a pattern seen by Amnesty International during research missions to eastern Ukraine in September, October and December 2014.

Amnesty International reiterates its call to urgently investigate all incidents involving civilian deaths as they could amount to violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). IHL prohibits attacks that target civilians and civilian structures, as well as attacks in civilian areas that cannot be directed at a specific military objective. Both sides in the conflict have violated the prohibition by relying on unguided mortars and rockets that cannot be aimed with any precision in highly populated civilian areas.

By basing troops, weaponry and other military targets in residential areas, separatists and Ukrainian government forces have failed to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians, endangering civilians in violation of the laws of war.

A nominal ceasefire was agreed in eastern Ukraine in September 2014, but upwards of 1,400 people, including many civilians, have been killed since then as both sides increasingly engage in tit-for-tat reprisals. In all, almost 5,000 people have died since the conflict broke out last year.

Separatists renew attack on airport as Russia and Ukraine bicker

From – http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/19/us-ukraine-crisis-fighting-idUSKBN0KS0ZT20150119

Pro-Russian separatists renewed attacks on Ukrainian forces at an airport complex in the east on Monday after Kiev launched a mass operation to reclaim lost ground there that Russia called a “strategic mistake”.

Ukrainian officials said three soldiers had been killed and 66 wounded over the past 24 hours, during which they said they had returned battle lines at the airport to the status quo under a much violated international peace plan.

Russia expressed concern at what it called escalation by Kiev and published its own peace plan on Monday in the form of a letter from President Vladimir Putin to Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, which it said Poroshenko had rejected.

“It’s the biggest, even strategic mistake of the Ukrainian authorities to bank on a military solution to the crisis,” Interfax quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin as saying. “This may lead to irreversible consequences for Ukrainian statehood.”

Ukrainian officials have insisted Moscow sticks to the 12-point peace plan agreed in Minsk in September, which they say was not violated by its airport counter-offensive, launched after troops had appeared to be pinned down inside the complex.

Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said the situation was still very tense around the airport, which has symbolic value for both sides, and separatists continued attacks on government forces there and elsewhere in the east.

A military source told Reuters that up to 25 Russian tanks had crossed the border near Luhansk.

Since plans for another round of peace talks last week were abandoned, fighting has flared up again in Ukraine, whose Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia in March last year, prompting a crisis with the West, which has imposed sanctions.

In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers said now was not the time to ease the economic sanctions against Russia despite conciliatory proposals from the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

Mogherini had suggested that member states could start talking to Russia again on a range of issues if Moscow implemented peace agreements, but hawkish states such as Lithuania said this would send the wrong message to Russia’s Putin that the EU’s resolve was cracking.

“I don’t think that we now should think how to re-engage. Russia should think how to re-engage,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told reporters.

Apart from calling for a ceasefire, the Minsk agreement called for the withdrawal of armed groups and foreign fighters as well as military equipment – meaning, for Kiev, weapons and rocket systems which it says Moscow is supplying to the rebels.

Despite what Kiev and the West says is incontrovertible proof, Russia denies its troops are involved or that it is funneling military equipment to the separatists.

PUTIN’S LETTER

Putin’s letter called for urgent moves to withdraw large-calibre weapons from the conflict zone. “This is now an absolute priority,” said a Russian Foreign Ministry statement.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry hit back, calling for Moscow to show its readiness to comply with the Minsk agreement by signing a timetable for implementing its main points.

“It is very important that a concrete plan is signed for fulfilling all, without exception, the points of the Minsk agreements, and not just those that Russia or the terrorists like,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Evhen Perebynis said on TV channel 112.

Military spokesman Lysenko said Russia was continuing to send significant quantities of military equipment into Ukraine.

The World Health Organisation says more than 4,800 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in Ukraine’s coal-mining eastern territories last April.