Posts Tagged Kiev
The rare glint of optimism came on the heels of a pro-Russian rebel offensive in the east, capturing a major town from loyalists and drawing threats of new sanctions against Moscow from US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Journalists in the town of Zholobok saw 139 Ukrainian soldiers traded for 52 separatist fighters late Saturday, in rare compliance with the otherwise much-violated agreement which came into effect on February 15.
Some of the released soldiers were wounded. A few had to walk on crutches for many miles (kilometres) through countryside scarred and cratered by months of fighting.
Under the truce, both sides were to withdraw their heavy weapons from the frontline by March 3, carry out a prisoner exchange, conduct negotiations on greater autonomy in rebel-held areas, and eventually restore Ukraine’s control over all of its border with Russia.
The rebels have claimed to have pulled back weapons in some areas, although there was no confirmation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is monitoring the truce.
The insurgents said the prisoners included some troops seized this week when they overran the strategic town of Debaltseve, located between Lugansk and the other rebel stronghold of Donetsk.
That bloody offensive which killed 179 soldiers over the past month, according to one Ukrainian presidential aide was the most egregious breach of the UN-backed ceasefire. Some 2,500 Ukrainian troops had to flee Debaltseve under heavy rebel fire, and at least 112 were taken prisoner.
The Debaltseve assault and more than 250 ceasefire violations attributed to pro-Moscow fighters prompted a furious reaction from the United States, which blames Russia for the 10-month conflict. Russia denies the accusation.
“If this failure continues, make no mistake, there will be further consequences including consequences that will place added strains on Russia’s already troubled economy,” Kerry stormed during a press conference in London.
He believed President Barack Obama will “in the next few days” decide on “additional steps (which) will be taken in response to the breach of this ceasefire”. He predicted “serious sanctions” could be imposed.
Germany and France, which brokered the Ukraine truce, admit they “don’t have any illusions” about the difficulty in getting the agreement to take hold, but say it is the only hope of calming the conflict enough to find a lasting solution.
The UN estimates 5,700 people have died in the conflict, and Kiev and the rebels continue to trade accusations of shelling, mortar rounds and rocket strikes targeting their positions.
Ukrainian defence officials allege Russia has deployed 20 tanks towards the port city of Mariupol and said a dozen enemy reconnaissance drones have been shot down.
OSCE observers have been barred from entering Debaltseve to assess the situation, but the rebels had promised they would finally be allowed in on Sunday.
Moscow is already labouring under several rounds of US and EU sanctions over the crisis. But while they have accelerated Russia’s slide towards recession, they have thus far failed to change President Vladimir Putin’s stance.
In one sign of the effects on Russia’s economy, rating agency Moody’s cut Moscow’s debt note by one notch into “junk” territory, just a month after its last downgrade.
Meanwhile, several European leaders were expected at a “dignity march” Sunday morning in Kiev, following a sombre ceremony held on Friday marking a year since scores of people were gunned down in demonstrations that toppled Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych.
European Council president Donald Tusk and German President Joachim Gauck were among the likely participants.
Yanukovych, whose ouster early last year led to the insurgency raging in east Ukraine, said in a Russian TV interview excerpt released Saturday: “I’ll be back.”
The ex-leader has little support left in his home country, however, after it was discovered following his escape to Russia that he had been living in a sumptuous palace with a private zoo, a replica pirate ship and pure gold fittings, while the country sank further into debt.
In a dramatic gesture at a gathering of world leaders in Germany, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko brandished passports and military ID cards he said were captured from Russian soldiers deep inside the country, offering what he said was “evidence” of Russia’s presence in the country.
“Today a former strategic partner is waging a hidden war against a sovereign state,” he said at the Munich Security Conference (MSC).
Poroshenko was due Sunday to discuss the new initiative in a phone call with German, French and Russian leaders, as fresh fighting in the former Soviet republic claimed 12 more lives and Kiev warned the Russian-backed separatists were planning a new offensive.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel set the conference agenda as she championed a last-ditch peace plan she and French President Francois Hollande took to Putin in Moscow late Friday.
“It is uncertain whether it will lead to success, but from my point of view and that of the French president it is definitely worth trying,” she said.
Later German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told German television the fate of the join European push would be known in “two or three days.”
US Vice President Joe Biden voiced both support and scepticism, saying: “Given Russia’s recent history, we need to judge its deeds not its words. Don’t tell us, show us, President Putin!”
“Too many times President Putin has promised peace and delivered tanks and troops and weapons”.
Hollande said the stakes could not be higher, warning that the new peace plan was “one of the last chances” to halt the 10-month-old conflict.
“If we fail to find a lasting peace agreement, we know the scenario perfectly well, it has a name, it is called war.”
While Western leaders were united in condemning Russia for supporting rebels, they differed on whether to back Ukraine’s beleaguered army with weapons, although a US official denied to reporters that there was any split between the transatlantic allies. “There is not a rift about this,” the official told reporters.
Momentum has built in Washington for giving Kiev high-tech military equipment, but Merkel insisted such a step would only make matters worse.
“I can’t conceive of a situation where better armaments for the Ukrainian army would so impress President Putin that he believes he will militarily lose,” she said.
Biden, however, insisted Ukraine had the right to defend itself and pledged that Washington, which has so far provided non-lethal military equipment such as armoured vests and helmets, would stick by Kiev.
“We will continue to provide Ukraine with security assistance. Not to encourage war but to allow Ukraine to defend itself,” he said.
“Let me be clear: we do not believe there is a military solution in Ukraine. But let me be equally clear: We do not believe Russia has the right to do what they’re doing.”
Putin, meanwhile, said Russia was not at war and does not want war with anyone but lashed out at Western sanctions imposed as the Ukraine crisis has deepened.
“There’s no war, thank God. But there is definitely an attempt to curb our development,” Putin said in a TASS news agency report.
In Munich, his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he believed the new peace plan could help end the conflict, all the while charging the US and EU with having escalated the conflict at every turn.
“These talks will continue as you know; we believe there is every possibility that we will reach a result and agree the recommendations that will allow the sides to really untie this knot of a conflict,” Lavrov said.
Far from the diplomatic exchanges, fighting raged in eastern Ukraine, where some 5,400 people have been killed since the start of the conflict in April.
Rebels are “accumulating forces for further offensive operations on Debaltseve and Mariupol,” the Ukraine government said.
It said the separatists were sending fresh tanks, armoured personnel carriers and multiple rocket launcher systems to the Debaltseve region and Granitne, around 35 kilometres (20 miles) northeast of the city of Mariupol.
The town of Debaltseve mid-way between rebel centres Donetsk and Lugansk, has been the focus of fierce fighting for over a week as insurgents try to encircle government troops holding the strategic railway hub.
Separatist fighters in January fired rockets at the strategic government-held port of Mariupol, whose capture could open up a land bridge from Russia to Crimea.
According to Ukrainian online news site theinsider.ua, Merkel and Hollande proposed that Kiev withdraw from Debaltseve in exchange for rebels pulling back from near Mariupol.
A senior State Department official said the new initiative was based on the September ceasefire deal reached in Minsk, but would include some timings by which such things as a ceasefire should happen. But the official admitted the initiative was still “very much in flux and evolution.”
Hollande told France 2 television that the plan proposes the creation of a 50- to 70-kilometre (31- to 43-mile) demilitarised zone based around the current frontline.
The Americans have insisted all sides must lay down arms as the first step towards any deal.
NATO says Russia has sent weapons, funds and troops on the ground to assist the rebel advance, which scuppered a five-month-old ceasefire in eastern Ukraine where war has already killed more than 5,000 people.
Moscow denies involvement in fighting for territory the Kremlin now calls “New Russia”.
Washington has given its clearest signal yet that it is considering providing weapons to Ukraine. President Barack Obama’s pick for defense secretary, Ashton Carter, told a Senate committee he would “very much incline” toward supplying arms to Ukraine.
“The nature of those arms, I can’t say right now,” Carter said at his Senate confirmation hearing. “But I incline in the direction of providing them with arms, including, to get to what I’m sure your question is, lethal arms.”
Asked about the risks of escalation, he said: “I think the economic and political pressure onRussia has to remain the main center of gravity of our effort in pushing back.”
Kerry’s visit is more about diplomatic support for now. U.S. officials said he would promise $16.4 million in humanitarian aid, barely a token gesture for a country that is in desperate need of billions in overseas financing to stave off the threat of bankruptcy, worsened by war.
Western advocates of arming Ukraine say it would help raise the costs for President Vladimir Putin of pursuing Russia’s objectives. Opponents worry about escalating a conflict that would see NATO and Russia actively aiding opposing sides in battle for the first time since the Cold War.
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko called unambiguously for NATO arms in an interview with a German newspaper.
“The escalation of the conflict that’s happening today, the increasing number of civilian casualties… should move the alliance to provide Ukraine with more support,” Poroshenko told Die Welt. “(That) includes, among other things, delivering modern weapons for protection and for resisting the aggressor.”
But some NATO members are opposed to sending weapons.
“This is not a solution that could involve the European Union or our country in the slightest,” Italy’s Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said in a radio interview. The EU should maintain pressure through sanctions, not weapons, he said.
The rebels have been concentrating their advance on Debaltseve, a rail hub between their two main strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, where a government garrison has held out despite being nearly encircled.
On Wednesday, the rebels appeared to have captured Vuhlehirsk, a nearby small town where government troops had also been holding out. The army said it was still contesting the town, but journalists who reached it saw no sign of areas under army control.
In Kiev, the military said on Thursday five more soldiers had been killed and 29 wounded in the past 24 hours. Troops had fended off two attempts to storm Debaltseve.
The war and years of endemic corruption have brought Ukraine to the verge of economic collapse and bankruptcy.
The central bank announced an sharp hike in interest rates on Thursday, boosting the key re-financing rate to 19.5 percent from 14 percent, to stave off the collapse of the hryvnia currency.
“There is still panic on the market, connected with ongoing fighting,” Central Bank governor Valeria Gontareva told a news conference.
The Obama administration reportedly is reconsidering whether to provide defensive weapons and equipment to Ukrainian forces after Russian-backed separatist rebels dealt them a series of reversals in recent weeks.
The New York Times reports that President Obama has not made a decision on whether to provide more military aid. However, the paper reports that such a move is backed by departing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and NATO military commander Gen. Philip Breedlove.
The White House has previously limited aid to Ukrainian forces to so-called “non-lethal” items, such as body armor, first aid kits and other equipment. But the Times reports that the rebels’ progress across eastern Ukraine has forced Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey to revisit the matter.
According to The Times, an independent report due to be released Monday will call for the U.S. to send $3 billion in defensive arms and armor to Ukraine. Among the items specified in the report are anti-armor missiles, reconnaissance drones, and armored Humvees.
The release of the report comes after the latest settlement negotiations between the two sides collapsed over the weekend in Minsk, Belarus.
Ukraine’s envoy at the talks, former President Leonid Kuchma, told Interfax-Ukraine news agency that rebel representatives threatened to renew full-scale hostilities along the entire line of contact between the opposing forces. Kuchma said separatists also demanded to redraw a division line agreed by government and rebel forces in September.
In statements following the talks, rebel officials did not address any specific demands, but accused Ukraine of acting in bad faith and pursuing offensive maneuvers against their forces and civilians under their jurisdiction. In Donetsk, the main rebel-held city, three civilians were killed and four wounded in shelling, the city administration said.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s army reported 28 killed over the weekend in some of the deadliest fighting since a nominal cease-fire was signed in September. Much of the violence was centered on the government-held town of Debaltseve, a vital railway hub that connects Donetsk and Luhansk, both capitals of provinces that the rebels have declared independent.
The Wall Street Journal, citing Ukrainian military officials, reported that a shell hit the Debaltseve city hall, where Ukrainian officers had until recently worked alongside their Russian counterparts as cease-fire monitors. The Russian delegation had declined to show up in recent days, citing security concerns.
A new offensive launched by the rebels last month has attempted to retake industrial areas captured by government troops over the summer. The rebels said they had taken control of the shattered Donetsk airport last week, in a key symbolic loss for Kiev’s forces. All told, NATO officials estimate that the rebels have captured nearly 200 square miles of additional territory since the start of October.
Russia denies sending arms and troops to the rebels, who claim to rely solely on military equipment poached from the Ukrainian army. But the separatist forces have deployed vast quantities of powerful weapons, much of which military experts say are not even in Ukraine’s arsenal.
Western officials tell The Times that Russia has supplied the weapons with heavy tanks and rocket launch systems in recent weeks. NATO officials also estimate that approximately 1,000 Russian military and intelligence officials are supporting the rebel offensive, though the Ukrainians say that number is much higher.
The U.N. estimates that the conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed 5,100 civilians and displaced more than 900,000 people since it began in April.
Kiev’s leaders hope to hold truce talks Saturday with pro-Russian separatists despite heavy fighting in Debaltseve, a railway hub that could prove a crucial link between the main rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The urgent new round of negotiations in Minsk had been agreed for Friday but was postponed due to disagreements over who should represent the rebel camp.
Ukraine is insisting on the presence of Donetsk insurgency commander Alexander Zakharchenko and the self-appointed leader of the separatist Lugansk region, Igor Plotnitsky, at the talks rather than just their representatives, a Ukrainian diplomatic spokesman said.
Kiev’s envoy, former president Leonid Kuchma, is expected in Minsk for the talks, which will be mediated by European and Russian envoys.
“We expect to sign a document that reinforces the Minsk Memorandum of September and the peace plan of Presidents Poroshenko and Putin,” Kuchma told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.
The insurgents last week pulled out of peace talks and announced the start of an offensive designed to expand their control over a much broader swathe of the industrial southeast. They said Friday that they would not halt their actions in restive areas if the talks failed.
“Should the negotiations collapse… the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics reserve the right to pursue their offensive until the entire Donetsk and Lugansk regions are freed” of Ukrainian troops, the rebel regions’ main negotiators said in a joint statement.
Full-blown fighting between Russian-backed separatists and government forces has erupted in Debaltseve, a railway hub that could provide a crucial link between the main rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk if captured.
Separatists inched toward Debaltseve on Thursday when they burst through government lines into the town of Vuhlehirsk. The press office for Ukraine’s operations in the east said Friday that rebels were mounting artillery strikes on government checkpoints and bases in Vuhlehirsk.
“Precision strikes are destroying the opponents’ firepower, manpower and machinery,” the press office said.
The fighting is precipitating substantial hardship among the civilian population, which has been unable to leave the area. Debaltseve has been without electricity, running water and household gas for more than a week.
The United Nations on Friday voiced concern about the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Debaltseve and other densely populated areas in eastern Ukraine where intense fighting is going on. Neal Walker, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, has called for an immediate humanitarian truce to allow in aid and the evacuation of civilians.
“Indiscriminate shelling of civilians violates international humanitarian law and must stop,” he said in a statement.
Shells also rained down this week on the government-held town of Svitlodarsk, 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Debaltseve, destroying gas pipelines, toppling electricity pylons and putting the local hospital out of commission.
Residents across Svitlodarsk stood in huddled groups around the front entrance to their apartment buildings, by the steps leading to the basement, which are now doubling as bomb shelters. Many were busy chopping scrap wood and cooking meals of soup.
Views among people in Svitlodarsk reflect the common split of attitudes reflected across much of the war-stricken regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. While some pleaded their support for a united Ukraine, others inveighed against the government for its role in a conflict that has claimed more than 5,100 lives, according to UN estimates.
With the hospitals in Debaltseve and Svitlodarsk now unusable, the grievously sick and wounded must embark on trips of more than an hour along roads targeted by artillery for treatment.
Russia identified NATO as the nation’s No. 1 military threat and raised the possibility of a broader use of precision conventional weapons to deter foreign aggression under a new military doctrine signed by President Vladimir Putin on Friday.
NATO flatly denied it was a threat to Russia and accused Russia of undermining European security.
The new doctrine, which comes amid tensions over Ukraine, reflects the Kremlin’s readiness to take a stronger posture in response to what it sees as the U.S.-led efforts to isolate and weaken Russia.
The paper maintains the provisions of the previous, 2010 edition of the military doctrine regarding the use of nuclear weapons.
It says Russia could use nuclear weapons in retaliation for the use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction against the country or its allies, and also in the case of aggression involving conventional weapons that “threatens the very existence” of the Russian state.
For the first time, the new doctrine says Russia could use precision weapons “as part of strategic deterrent measures,” without spelling out when and how Moscow could resort to them.
Among other provisions, the paper mentions the need to protect Russia’s interests in the Arctic, where the global competition for oil and other natural resources has been heating up as the Arctic ice melts.
Russia has relied heavily on its nuclear deterrent and lagged far behind the U.S. and its NATO allies in the development of precision conventional weapons. However, it has recently sped up its military modernization, buying large numbers of new weapons and boosting military drills.
NATO has said that a sharp rise in the number of Russian air patrols over the Baltics has put civilian flights at risk.
Earlier this month, Russia flexed its muscle by airlifting state-of-the art Iskander missiles to its westernmost point, Kaliningrad, a Russian oblast that borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania. The missiles were pulled back to their home base after the drills, but the deployment clearly served as a demonstration of the military’s readiness to quickly raise the ante in case of crisis.
Russia has threatened earlier that it could permanently station the Iskander missiles, which can hit targets up to about 300 miles away with high precision, in retaliation to U.S.-led NATO missile defense plans.
On Friday, the military successfully test-fired the RS-24 Yars intercontinental ballistic missile from the Plesetsk launchpad in northwestern Russia.
The 29-page doctrine is a stand-alone document outlining the top threats to Russia’s security and possible responses. The current edition is the third since Putin was first elected in 2000.
The doctrine placed “a buildup of NATO military potential and its empowerment with global functions implemented in violation of international law, the expansion of NATO’s military infrastructure to the Russian borders” on top of military threats to Russia.
It stressed that that the deployment of foreign military forces on the territory of Russia’s neighbors could be used for “political and military pressure.”
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu responded by saying in a statement that the alliance “poses no threat to Russia or to any nation. Any steps taken by NATO to ensure the security of its members are clearly defensive in nature, proportionate and in compliance with international law,” she said. “In fact, it is Russia’s actions, including currently in Ukraine, which are breaking international law and undermining European security.”
Russia’s relations with the West have plummeted to their lowest point since the Cold War, and NATO cut off ties with Moscow after it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March. Ukraine and the West also have accused Moscow of fueling a pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine with troops and weapons. The Kremlin has denied those accusations.
“NATO will continue to seek a constructive relationship with Russia, as we have done for more than two decades,” Lungescu said. “But that is only possible with a Russia that abides by international law and principles including the right of nations to choose their future freely.”
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who had been critical of Putin in the past, but who has strongly backed the Kremlin over its spat with the West, said Friday that Russia’s actions were a response to U.S. and NATO moves.
“I think the president is right to a large extent when he draws attention to a particular responsibility of the United States,” he said during a public event in Moscow.
The U.S. and the European Union have slapped sanctions against Moscow, which have deepened Russia’s economic woes and contributed to a sharp devaluation of the ruble, which lost about half of its value this year.
The economic crisis could challenge Russia’s ambitious weapons modernization program, but so far the Kremlin has shown no intention of scaling it back.
The program envisages the deployment of new nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, the construction of nuclear submarines and a sweeping modernization of Russia’s conventional arsenals.
Russia has been particularly concerned about the so-called Prompt Global Strike program under development in the U.S., which would be capable of striking targets anywhere in the world in as little as an hour with deadly precision.
The new doctrine mentioned the U.S. program as a major destabilizing factor along with NATO missile defense plans.
Russian officials have said that Moscow was working on a response to the new U.S. weapons, but have released no details.
President Barack Obama prohibited American exports of goods or services to Crimea, a strategic peninsula and vacation destination that Russian seized from Ukraine last March.
“The United States will not accept Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea,” Obama said in a statement.
Similar measures were imposed Thursday by the European Union as the West attempted to ratchet up pressure on Moscow over its seizure of Crimea and support for a rebellion by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine.
Canada also added new sanctions Friday, targeting separatist leaders and the oil and gas sector in Russia, where the government is battling a currency crash and economic crisis.
Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that threatened US sanctions “could undermine the possibility of normal cooperation between our countries for a long time.”
The united Western pressure came as Ukraine and the rebels prepared for talks meant to put a stalled peace process back in motion.
However, Ukraine’s military reported losing five soldiers on Friday, the highest toll since Kiev and the Russian-backed militias struck a December 9 truce designed to reinforce a tenuous September agreement.
The next stage is meant to be comprehensive negotiations.
Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko hoped to start these on Sunday, with the help of European and Russian envoys in the Belarussian capital Minsk. But a top rebel said the insurgents would only be ready by Monday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande were due this weekend to impress the importance of an immediate meeting during their third joint call to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Poroshenko in the past few days.
The scale of the fighting has subsided with the onset of winter and heavy snows that make progress across the war-scarred fields and muddied roads all but impossible.
All sides are now busy looking for ways to ensure that millions of civilians who have been unable to flee the artillery shelling and rocket fire make it safely through the winter in apartments with little to no water or heat.
The United Nations believes the daily battles have killed more than 4,700 people and driven nearly a million from their homes.
Its children’s fund UNICEF said on Friday that “tens of thousands” of youth still lived in areas engulfed by violence.
“The situation for more than 1.7 million children affected by the conflict remains extremely serious,” the UN Children’s Rights and Emergency Relief Organisation said.
Any peace agreement is likely to include a requirement for fighters on both sides to let through humanitarian convoys they fear may be used to smuggle in weapons to their adversaries.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said it was essential for the Minsk negotiators to establish a buffer zone that sets the initial boundaries of areas overseen by the rebels within a unified Ukraine.
Steinmeier added after talks in Kiev with Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk that the sides must also agree to swap their remaining prisoners and “resolve humanitarian relief issues”.
Although Russia is under growing financial pressure because of the sanctions and low oil prices, Ukraine’s situation is even more dire.
Standard & Poors lowered its credit rating for Ukraine on Friday to CCC- with a negative outlook, warning that dangerously low foreign currency reserves could prompt a default within months.
“The negative outlook reflects our view of the increasing risk that, without additional financial support, Ukraine may default on its obligations,” the credit rating agency said.