Volunteers dedicated to serving Ukrainian troops

DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine — The familiar thump! thump! thump! of shelling a few kilometers away is suddenly broken by the staccato rat-a-tat-tat-tat! of automatic gunfire. We all stop, crouch a little, and look around.

“That is a new sound,” says Arkady Nesterenko, our TV/radio journalist companion from Belarus.

We all laugh. He’s right, the gunfire is a new sound, and a troubling one. It means our 700-kilometre journey from Kyiv to this area has taken us deeper toward the fighting most of us have only seen on TV or the internet.

The five of us — two volunteers bringing supplies to Ukrainian troops, two journalists and a journalist/interpreter — are just outside this town of Debaltseve in Donetsk oblast, near the border with the region of Luhansk. Dusk is descending like a comforting quilt, obscuring the nearby tank, concrete barriers, sandbagged bunker and armed Ukrainian soldiers as they check our papers on this rural road. We have been through this many times before. But the checkpoints now are closer together, the inspections tougher, to control the movement of people and materials.

Volunteer Sergey unloads some potatoes for Ukrainian troops on Saturday.
Volunteer Sergey unloads some potatoes for Ukrainian troops on Saturday.

Our driver and co-leader is Sergey Golub, a 45-year-old former staff sergeant in the Soviet army. Tall, lanky and likeable, he looks like a movie star and drives like Mario Andretti. Serious about helping the soldiers, he nevertheless likes a joke. After inviting me to drive the van for a while, he quips: “We have a saying in Ukraine: the driver pays for the gas.”

Sergey and his friend Valerii, who shares the driving and owns this 2010 Opel Vivaro CDTI van, are veterans of the EuroMaidan Revoluton in Kyiv last winter, when hundreds of thousands of people demanded democracy and rule of law in Ukraine and closer ties to the European Union. A man was shot and killed beside Sergey Feb. 20, when numerous protesters fell from gunfire, believed to be from either state security personnel or Russian snipers in high-rise apartments.

The demonstrations by all ages and sectors of Ukrainian society (they were started by students) prompted former president Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia, and Sergey was pleased. Like many here, he reviles the man for his corruption (padding his own pockets and those of friends and wasting public money) and for turning away from an association agreement with the European Union, seen as the lynchpin for progress in this debt-ridden state. Yanukovych was taking Ukraine closer into Moscow’s prickly embrace when the people said no.

Sergey and Valerii’s joy at his departure was short-lived, for the separatist unrest in this region began shortly after the president fled, and it soon became an armed conflict with the army. But the army here is not like Canada’s, where the government supplies most of the things a soldier needs. Here, the many volunteer battalions, and even to a degree the conscripted ones, must provide much of their own food, weapons, and clothing.

This is where Sergey, Valerii and hundreds of other brave people found a new raison d’etre: collecting, packaging and delivering tonnes of materials monthly for the soldiers at the front. These include vital medical supplies such as painkillers for local hospitals flush with the injured.

Some volunteers, like Sergey and Valerii, work on their own, establishing personal military and civilian contacts to keep the flow of supplies moving. This trip is their 14th journey east.

Others serve through established groups such as Narodnye Tyl (which roughly translated means “People’s Support”). Co-founders Roman Siuieyu and Georgi Tuka found space in Kyiv and set up an office and supply depot. It delivers three to four van or truck loads of clothing, army gear (such as five bullet-proof Kevlar helmets from a Ukrainian ex-pat in the U.S.) and medical supplies to the troops each week. About 30 volunteers serve here. Donations of money and materials come in from all over the world but mainly Europe and North America, and chiefly via Facebook. “I cannot imagine not doing this,” says Julia Goncharova, who manages the group’s medical donations and works 12-hour days. “The soldiers call us angels; they say they wouldn’t survive without us.”

"This tank will no longer do any damage."
“This tank will no longer do any damage.”

Back at the checkpoint, Sergey makes his case to the soldier. “We are volunteers,” he tells the armed young man inspecting his papers as another round of thump! thump! thump! reverberates in the distance.

“Do you have any warm clothes?”

“Yes,” Sergey says, “we will get you some.”

He and Valerii go to the back of the van and dispense gloves, toques, socks – and a large warm coat. The soldier, who looks about 19, smiles in gratitude and soon three others mill about and inspect the precious winter attire. It is cold even now, in mid-October, near freezing.

The soldier says thanks, returns our papers and passports, and moves us along.

Valerii also sits up front, with little Arkady, 31, between them. He works for Belsat TV, which operates from Poland but is run by people from Belarus. In the back are myself, a Canadian freelance reporter, and my invaluable Ukrainian interpreter/fixer, Ievgenii Sinielnikov, 27, a businessman and former medical researcher and PhD student who studied in Finland before the EU cut his funding. Ievgenii got a big break there when asked to interview Finland’s foreign minister.

Valerii, a salesman and solid type who likes to smoke, cracks a joke and chuckles with the rest of them. It is too much for Ievgenii to translate every exchange, and I don’t ask for this one. Besides, the meaning is clear in any language: relief that we passed another barricade without incident and helped a few more men.

This scenario is often repeated. Only the faces change, and the circumstances.

Twenty minutes earlier we had come across a heavily damaged bridge over a railway. Somehow Sergey maneuvered the van across it, and I opened the side door and took two photos as we passed, not knowing there was a checkpoint ahead. The soldiers there were curt and suspicious, ordering us out of the van and giving Sergey a hard time over a multi-tool he carries. “It is a handy tool!” he says. “Look, we are volunteers, and these men are journalists. You can see the PRESS sign in our window.”

“This photo of a bomb-damaged bridge made things difficult at the next checkpoint.”

After some delay and hassle in the cold we are finally permitted to proceed. Valerii turns in his seat and looks at me over his left shoulder. “It is because you took pictures from the moving van,” he says.

“That is my job,” I reply. “That is why I am here.”

As darkness becomes complete, the high-beam lights of our red Opel reveal pothole after pothole. The van bounces and careers as Sergey speeds over the broken pavement. Sleep is impossible because of the rough ride.

“I know why the rebels are fighting,” I tell Ievgenii. “They want better roads.”

He smiles at the attempt at a joke. But it is only partly a joke. One of the separatists’ complaints is that the people in this region pay taxes but don’t see the benefits they desire. Bad roads, failing infrastructure, lack of other amenities – these are the things that hit home when people don’t feel part of a national fabric. When Ukraine became independent in 1991 it retained the centralized authority of the Soviet era in an effort to build a strong new state. But the cost has been dissatisfaction in some of the outlying regions, just as certain parts of Canada still complain about insufficient federal funding.

It doesn’t help that many of the people here have friends and family living across the border in nearby Russia. Propaganda from Russia says their lives would be better if they rejoined the motherland. Ukraine was once an important part of the Soviet Union, rich in coal and agricultural products, so the ties of culture, ethnicity, language and history are strong.

At 9:30 p.m. we roll into the city of Artemivsk, population 78,000. We are just north of the city of Donetsk, where fighting over control of the airport makes regular headlines.

Artemivsk is a beautiful old city, a cultural centre, I learn later on the internet. But now all I see are darkened streets, modest brick houses, bleak metal roofing glinting in the moon light. We don’t know where we will sleep, and Sergey has an idea. The hospital. It has beds and we will use five of them, in exchange for some medical supplies.

Julia Goncharova with the volunteer group in Kyiv.
Julia Goncharova with the volunteer group in Kyiv.

After a 30-minute wait in the regional hospital’s parking lot we are ushered inside. The four-storey building is decades old but warm. Ievgenii and I are placed in one room, with four Ukrainian soldiers, bandaged and forlorn looking. Our colleagues bunk elsewhere.

I grab the only bed with a multi-colored comforter and place my bags upon it as the soldiers, dressed in camouflage green garb, look on. Then Sergey walks in with three bottles of beer! I had joked earlier about needing a beer, as “Canadians like their beer,” I said, and Ukrainian brews are tasty and cheap.

Ievgenii declines his bottle and I pass it to the nearest soldier, who is blond and 25. He smiles as he opens it. His friends are on antibiotics and cannot drink at the moment, he says. Then he makes a toast as our bottles clink.

“To the war ending soon,” he says.


Mr. Bird is a Canadian journalist and former staff writer with the Winnipeg Free Press.

Ukraine’s parliamentary elections and the far right

On the 26th of October 2014, Ukrainians voted at the early parliamentary elections. Ukraine currently has a mixed electoral system (50% under party lists and 50% under constituencies) with a 5% election threshold. Here are the results of the National Exit Poll 2014.

Since these are not official results, the following analysis is preliminary:

As I argued in February this year, popular support for the far right Svoboda party had dwindled already by the beginning of Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. Svoboda obtained 10.44% of the vote at the 2012 parliamentary elections, but in November 2013 only 5.1% of the voters would have cast a ballot for this party. Moreover, Svoboda failed to recover its lost support during the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, so only 5.6% of the voters would vote for the party in February 2014. At the early presidential election in May 2014, the leader of Svoboda Oleh Tyahybok obtained 1.16% of the vote.

Svoboda’s relative failure to mobilise its former electorate can be attributed to the demise of former president Viktor Yanukovych’s regime: Svoboda was successful in 2012 because it was considered an anti-Yanukovych party, so with Yanukovych ousted, almost half of Svoboda’s electorate was gone too. Furthermore, in 2012, Svoboda was also considered almost the only “patriotic” party, but now all democratic parties are patriotic, so Svoboda has lost its “monopoly” on patriotism.

What should also be noted is that the decline of Svoboda is much deeper than the simple comparison of electoral results in 2012 and 2014 can demonstrate. In 2014, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and part of the Donbass region did not take part in the parliamentary elections as Crimea is now criminally annexed by Russia, while part of the Donbass region is under control of (pro-)Russian extremists. These two regions voted heavily for Yanukovych’s party and the misleadingly named Communist Party of Ukraine and, therefore, brought down the support for Svoboda on the national level. If citizens in Crimea and Donbass had been given a chance to freely vote in the 2014 parliamentary elections, Svoboda’s results would have been even worse.

Where did Svoboda’s former electorate go? I presume that more moderate voters went back to the national-democratic forces, such as the People’s Front or Samopomich. Part of Svoboda’s former electorate apparently went to the Right Sector and Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party. The inclusion of these two parties into the far right category is tentative. As a political party, the Right Sector is ideologically quite different from the movement under the same name that was formed during the 2014 revolution; the party is less radical than the movement, so I suggest the term “national conservative” as a more relevant one. Lyashko’s Radical Party is dangerously populist and a typical anti-establishment force. However, both the Right Sector and Lyashko’s Radical Party have extreme right members, but they are a minority. In contrast to Lyashko’s Radical Party, the Right Sector will not be able to enter the parliament, but its leader Dmytro Yarosh will most likely be elected in one of the single-member districts.

The People’s Front led by prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk also involved extreme right candidates: Andriy Biletskiy, leader of the neo-Nazi Social-National Assembly and commander of the Azov regiment, and Vadym Troyan of the same affiliation, ran in single-member districts and were supported by the People’s Front. At the time of writing, it is not clear whether Biletsky and Troyan have been elected.

The veterans of the Ukrainian far right, the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, have failed again. I presume the aim of their participation in the elections is not about getting into the parliament; rather, it is about having official observers in the electoral commissions – sometimes in the past observers from fringe political forces provided “services” to interested parties, i.e. were involved in corrupt schemes.

To conclude this preliminary analysis, the Ukrainian far right forces do not appear to be as successful in the electoral terms as they were in 2012. Populism, however, is still a problem, while relatively large segments of the Ukrainian society fail to recognise the threat that populism poses to the consolidation of democracy in Ukraine.

Exclusive: An interview with a Chechen commander fighting for Ukraine

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine – The leader of the Chechen volunteer battalion here says Canada, the United States and other western nations can help to stop Russian aggression now in the “open war” against Ukraine, or face it later elsewhere.

“If we don’t stop Russia, it will go further,” said Cmdr. Isa Munajev, a veteran of the Chechen wars of the 1990s who now serves in the Ukrainian army. He suggested Estonia and Latvia will be the next countries Russia will attack. About 3,000 to 4,000 Russian soldiers are among those fighting with separatist rebels in the east of Ukraine, the United Nations has reported.

Munajev was interviewed recently 50 kilometres behind the lines at the headquarters of his group, called the International Peacekeepers Battalion. About 10 tents house the group’s soldiers here, and it has people in two other locations as well.

Cmdr. Isa Munajev with reporter Bird.
Cmdr. Isa Munajev with reporter Bird.

The commander said he is motivated partly by revenge, after the Russians killed some family members in earlier wars, but he also wants to help the Ukrainian people stop Russian-backed separatist aggression.

He said he would like Canada and the United States to enter the fray in eastern Ukraine. “It would be wonderful. It would be unity of the civilized world against the barbarian (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.”

But another officer at a checkpoint in Ukrainian-held territory said this is a local fight that should be fought by local soldiers, though he would welcome material aid from the West. So there is a variety of viewpoints about what should be done going forward.

Despite the Sept. 5 ceasefire agreement, which promises autonomy for the two self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, shelling and skirmishes continue.

Since Ukraine does not belong to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, western countries are not obliged to help it repel aggression. But NATO is concerned about the violence in eastern Ukraine and is seeing an increasing number of flights of Russian military aircraft over the Baltic states, which are NATO members.

An Oct. 8 report from the UN’s Human Rights Office outlines rape, beatings, mock-murders and murders of Ukrainian civilians by “armed groups” in the war-torn areas.

“It is true,” said Munajev, who blamed the rebels and Russians for the atrocities, though the report says elements on both sides are culpable. “I have been here for two months and the same things happened in Chechnya (when Russian troops invaded in the 1990s). I hope the world community will stand up to this devil, Putin. We can defeat him only together.”

Tents used by the Chechen battalion.
Tents used by the Chechen battalion.

Munajev said seven of his men have been injured in recent fighting; he would not reveal the number of dead.

Timur, 21, is an ethnic Chechen who recently graduated with a degree in economics and was living in Germany. “I have seen what the Russians have done to the Chechen people,” Timur said, explaining why he volunteered. “Many of my family have died.”

All of those interviewed spoke through an interpreter.

Another soldier, Valentine, 35, is from Russia. “No other battalion would accept me, and my father was Ukrainian,” he explains. He was trained by the Russian army.

The commander said Russian forces are three kilometers closer to this base than they were last week. “The Russians are coming here, step by step,” he said. The HQ is in a field near a line of trees used for firewood to cook and heat the tents.

“I hope the world will find out the truth. It’s a war, an open war against the Ukrainian nation and state,” said Munajev.

The Russian president’s image is used for target practice.
The Russian president’s image is used for target practice.

[hr] Mr. Bird is a Canadian freelance reporter.

The “Snipers’ Massacre” in Kyiv

On October 17, at a symposium on “Negotiating Borders” organized by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta, Ivan Katchanovski, an Ottawa-based scholar, presented a paper on “The ‘Snipers’ Massacre’ on the Maidan in Ukraine.” He argued that leaders of the Maidan gained power as a result of a massacre organized by their own supporters, using as evidence video footage, TV and Internet broadcasting, and radio intercepts, as well as bullet holes, in trees and other places.

The paper was received rather coldly. Indeed Bohdan Harasymiw, one of the organizers of the conference, ignoring the usual politeness one might expect would be accorded to a guest speaker, derided the paper as having neither theory nor analysis, while another participant from the host institution, Taras Kuzio, dismissed Katchanovski personally as an anti-Ukrainian, noting that his opinions mirrored those of Vladimir Putin and Russian propaganda organs.

On the other hand, after the appearance of this paper on a Facebook site, Volodymyr Ishchenko, Deputy Director of the Society for Center Research (Kyiv) who offers analysis on Ukrainian politics from a leftist perspective, described it as an important study, commenting: “This is the most documented and coherent interpretation of Feb 20 events I’ve seen so far…. And, of course, if it was proven that the incumbent government came to power in [sic!] the result of a huge bloody provocation, it must have political consequences.”

one notes some oddities about this paper

A reading of this 29-page paper would therefore seem warranted. As preliminary comments, one notes some oddities about this paper. On three occasions the author refers to it as an “academic” study. It is not. It is an unpublished research paper that has not yet been peer reviewed. That is evident from its layout, which is a chaotic listing of facts, one after the other, often in a very confusing manner. An editor would have asked the author to highlight the important facts and say why they are significant.

An editor would also have suggested the removal of passages that are completely off topic, such as the author’s allusion (p. 28) to Nazi, OUN, and UPA-led crimes in the Second World War, which are compared directly, without the addition of a single date, to deaths in Odesa and the Donbas in 2014.

The conclusion is a veritable jumble of illogical reasoning

Moreover, the paper appears politically driven, i.e. it sets out to prove that the change of regime in Kyiv last spring was illegitimate and that a democratically elected president (however corrupt) was forced out of power by a rightist-orchestrated coup. The conclusion is a veritable jumble of illogical reasoning and statements that do not seem warranted by the findings, which are themselves confusing, as will be noted below. Here is one example:

The seemingly irrational mass shooting and killing of protesters and the police on February 20 [2014] appear to be rational from the self-interest based perspectives of rational choice and Weberian theories of instrumentally rational action.

What these Weberian theories are, the reader is left to ponder.

Katchanovski declares that the massacre of protesters and police “represented a violent overthrow of the government in Ukraine and a major human rights crime” (p.29). After denouncing the “violent overthrow” as the root cause of all that followed, he makes another remarkable statement. While the evidence shows that both the Maidan opposition and the “far right” were clearly carrying out the killing of the 100-plus innocents in the square: “the involvement of the special police units in killings of some of the protesters cannot be entirely ruled out based on publicly available evidence” (p. 29) [my italics]. So were they involved or not?

The meat of the paper is a long chronicle of who was shooting from where and at whom. But it is very difficult to follow and the blurry photographs included do not help very much. At one point the author notes that the pro-Maidan snipers were holed up in Hotel Ukraina. On page 7, for example (lines 1-3) we read that, based on video evidence, two protesters were shot from this direction, one with 7.62mm bullet, and one wounded “in his backside.” Further, on page 25 (lines 1-2), there is a firm statement that “The types of guns and ammunition used and the direction and type of the entry wound among both protesters and policemen also confirm that the shooters came from the Maidan side” (p. 25).

Yet on page 26, the author cites a parliamentary commission report that the police on the Maidan were shot by firearms and ammunition that protesters stole from the police after raids on various arsenals in Western Ukraine. So how is it possible to determine the perpetrators if both had access to the same types of weapons? They could indeed have been members of the Right Sector. They could also have been police agents. We have no names or identities.

On page 19, one reads about gunfire from the Kozatsky Hotel and from the Trade Union building, as well as from the Main Post Office (p20). On this same page, the author cites a statement by an “unidentified intruder” to Internal Troops that people were “aiming a rocket propelled grenade launcher into the Hotel Ukraina from the 6th floor of the Trade Union building.” Assuming one wants to accept this statement as “evidence,” were they shooting at their own snipers? And hotels are rather large places; it seems unlikely that either side would completely occupy or control a building as large as Hotel Ukraina. The author informs (p. 15) us that ABC News reporters were based here, for example. There are other apparent anomalies. If the massacre and subsequent events constituted a coup by the Right Sector, then why are its supporters not in power today? One recalls their unceremonious eviction from the Hotel Dnipro on April 1, 2014. Can one have a successful coup that does not result in a takeover of power by the perpetrators?

If these events constituted simply a violent overthrow of a democratically elected regime, other things need explaining too: the subsequent holding of presidential and (forthcoming) parliamentary elections; and the explanation of why former President Yanukovych had been preparing for several days (if not weeks) to leave his residence, as evidenced by the fleets of vehicles moving his goods from Mezhyhirya. It was not a sudden departure forced by the threat of his capture. Central Kyiv after all is 12 miles away.

Not all of Dr. Katchanovski’s findings should be dismissed. He has raised some new evidence that suggests new investigations into the sniper massacres are much needed. The official version of events is indeed deeply troublesome and his gathering of new material is commendable. His paper does provide evidence that there were several separate groups of snipers, including anti-government ones.

The problem is that while the paper is not devoid of analysis—Bohdan Harasymiw’s comments were unjustified in this respect—it appears to be based on preconceived conclusions, all heavily weighted against the supporters of Maidan and the current government of Ukraine. In short it reads less like an academic paper and more like a polemic that addresses its findings in an unsatisfactory and unconvincing manner.

Virtually anyone interested in Ukraine with access to the Internet watched live feeds of the unprovoked police violence of November 30 and December 1, 2013, which in the eyes of many Kyiv locals transformed the protests from “Euromaidan” to a “Revolution of Dignity.” As subsequent election results corroborated, peaceful supporters of Euromaidan heavily outnumbered the violent activists of Right Sector and other forces. The protests and the attempt to form a more democratic government based on popular support must be given their due before any analysis of why events turned so violent.

That statement in no way implies that the new government was universally popular, or that Euromaidan was welcomed in all parts of Ukraine. Nor does it suggest that right-wing forces were not growing and problematic.

The author’s depiction of such groups seeking to benefit from the mass protests and use them as a means of taking power, even to the point of killing their own fellow demonstrators on the square, is an important issue. But the paper doesn’t debate this question; it simply assumes it as a given fact, in a conclusion that seems somewhat divorced from the rest of the paper.

It would have been advisable for the author to focus on his findings and offer some preliminary assessments as to what they might mean. If the reader discerns that the apparent purpose of a paper is to discredit and malign the current government, then it ipso facto becomes a political tract (and moreover one that appears to fall closely into line with the RT version of events disseminated in the Russian Federation), which then leads to suspicions about its methodology. A more objective approach is needed. Without it, even the most startling revelations will not receive serious attention.

Protestants persecuted in rebel-held Luhansk

LVIV, Ukraine — Protestants and pro-Ukraine residents in the war-torn areas of eastern Ukraine are being persecuted by separatist rebels and forced to flee, says a man from the Luhansk area.

“The separatists say all Protestant churches are American spies, so there is religious oppression,” said Yurii Radchenko, 46, from the town of Zymohiria. Radchenko, a Protestant, said he was shot at twice in separate incidents but emerged unscathed.

“All the religious communities have been threatened except the Russian Orthodox. My property was taken and we have nothing,” he said. Others, including a recent report from the United Nations Human Rights Office, confirm that looting is being done by rebels and their supporters.

“That is the problem. I have lost everything in eastern Ukraine,” said Radchenko. “Those who remain undergo threats, oppression and are beaten up. That is the tragedy. If the separatists learn that people are pro-Ukraine they suffer a lot. It is like cleansing. Either you leave or you suffer.”

Yurii Radchenko says he has been shot at, his houses stolen.
Yurii Radchenko says he has been shot at, his houses stolen.

Radchenko and other Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) spoke to a reporter recently through an interpreter at a former military compound in the town of Vynnyky, east of Lviv. About 200 men, women and children are being sheltered and fed there by The Good Samaritan Protestant Church, said a Canadian, Roman Yereniuk, who is helping to fund the effort.

“Many Protestants are not tolerated by the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine,” he said. “The other two Orthodox churches have good ecumenical relations with the Protestants. Many have escaped from the east to the west.”

Some 375,000 IDPs have fled from the violence in the east and are living largely off their savings and the largesse of friends and family across Ukraine, the United Nations Human Rights Office reported Oct. 8. The report confirms that persecution is taking place.

Some of them near Lviv arrived four months ago, others more recently, said one of their leaders, Elena Pavlenko. All had similar stories of fearing for their lives as a result of either direct threats or concerns about being caught in the crossfire between Ukrainian and separatist forces.

In a recent article in Ukraine’s The Day newspaper, Mykola Siry, a senior researcher at the Koretsky Institute of State and Law, said “we are talking about systemic torture of people in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, intentional murders. It is a form of intimidation of the whole population.”

In the Middle East, ISIS is attacking and killing civilian populations because of their beliefs, and the international community is taking military action. But violence is also happening to civilians in eastern Ukraine, where the West is avoiding engagement.

For Pavlenko, fears arose when the separatists placed missile launchers beside her house. The noise was deafening, she said, and they feared being bombed by their own side. Her husband arranges the refugees’ humanitarian aid, and they have a small child. The rebels, a mix of local men resenting the centralized control of Kyiv and foreigners she said are from Russia, are shelling the airport about eight kilometers away in a bid to force out the Ukrainian forces in control.

Elena Pavlenko, a leader of the group, talks to a reporter.
Elena Pavlenko, a leader of the group, talks to a reporter.

Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatist fighters recently marked one month since the signing of a Kremlin-backed truce with one the most heated battles of the six-month war in Donetsk. Ukraine said 75 soldiers and civilians have been killed since the Sept. 5 cease-fire. President Petro Poroshenko is hoping the shaky truce, signed as part of a peace plan, will hold together for parliamentary elections Oct. 26.

Pavlenko said many soldiers have died in the fighting, noting a “massive burial site” near the airport. About 400 civilians have also died from Luhansk, to her knowledge. Most people have fled, she said, and those who remain stay inside. Thousands of IDPs have also gone to Russia.

Protestants make up about 2.4 per cent of the Ukrainian population, but Ukraine has been called the “Bible belt” of Eastern Europe and a hub of evangelical church life and missions. Most people are Ukrainian Orthodox (40 per cent), Russian Orthodox (30 per cent), or Ukrainian Greek Catholic (14 per cent). Roman Catholics account for 1.7 per cent of the population, Moslems 0.6 per cent and Jews, 0.2.

While the loss of Crimea in March appeared to reduce tensions between the Orthodox churches – one pro-Moscow prelate even denounced Putin as a “bandit” – bitter divisions remain.

Mr. Radchenko, who worked for a non-profit organization that helped drug addicts and former prison inmates, said pastors have been tortured. He gave the example of one who was injured and taken to a hospital, where separatists were also being treated. When they heard him proselytize they informed their leaders, who hauled the man from the hospital, beat him up, and left him for dead in a forest. Parishoners found him and he is recovering, Radchenko said.

That’s when he asked friends to find a place for him and his family – wife, four children and mother in law. His wife and kids arrived here four months ago, but he stayed home until mid-September.

It all began with widespread protests in Ukraine last November when former President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of a deal with Russia. He was forced from office in February, as most Ukrainian people support ties with the EU as essential to cleaning up a corrupt system. Ukraine is also deeply in debt, and Yanukovych was despised for lining his own pockets and those of his family and friends. But his departure displeased the Kremlin and led to armed rebellion by pro-Russian rebels in the east and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

As a 17-year-old student, Valentine, said at the monument on Maidan or Independence Square, “Russia wanted to control us, hence the fighting in the east.”

Another man who fled from the east, Vasiliy Klimov, 40, who has four daughters and a wife, said things got quickly out of hand at his home of Krasnodon.

“When the war began, local people who formed the bandit groups took weapons, from I don’t know where, and captured the police station, and it surrendered and joined them. Next these separatists blew up the customs building on the border with Russia.”

Klimov said it was frightening to go into town because the armed rebels without uniforms were openly stopping cars and people. “It was scary to say something that would provoke them. Some friends heard people scream from the cars, they heard someone shoot. That’s why we packed up and left for Crimea in June.”

But the family left Crimea Sept. 22 because “there is uncertainty in the air and some people expect the war also in Crimea,” on the Black Sea peninsula. It has Russia’s only warm-water port (which it had been leasing) and is home to its Black Sea fleet. “Crimea is wanted back by local authorities,” Klimov said, “and local Tatars (who are Moslem and more than 10 per cent of the population) are against the annexation of Crimea.”

Vasiliy Klimov with three of his daughters; they fled twice.
Vasiliy Klimov with three of his daughters; they fled twice.

Annexation happened after the March 16 referendum showed 97 per cent support for joining Russia. Even if the voting was rigged, some people say most Crimeans wanted change; others say a majority liked the status-quo. Some Ukrainian people from the Soviet era believe that under Russia their old ways would be better protected.

Like many here, Pavlenko believes the war is rooted partly in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire for a land route to Crimea.

Putin has said his concern is to protect ethnic Russians. He has accused Ukrainian troops of acting “like Nazis” in the conflict by targeting residential areas of towns and cities like German troops did in the former Soviet Union during the Second World War.

Propaganda comes from both sides, but much of it is from Russia. Russian military leaders have claimed on TV that only Ukrainian can be spoken in the region, when in fact Russian is freely and legally used. The UN report says propaganda and incitement to hatred are causing tensions in eastern Ukraine that could lead to the region breaking away like Crimea.

Language is a sore point. Ukrainian is the only officially recognized tongue, which tends to hamper rather than build national unity. Many people speak Russian, especially in the cities, while Ukrainian is more common in the country. The interpreter, Ievgenii Sinielnikov, a 27-year-old businessman and former PhD student from a town near Kyiv, said many use a blended Russian-Ukrainian language called “Surzhyk,” after a mix of grain.

Another problem is corruption in the legal system: bribery of judges is common.

But the key reason for regional discontent in Sinielnikov’s view is the lack of local control over taxation, spending, and other matters. While countries like Canada have empowered their regions and largely removed the grievances of those in outlying areas, many in the east resent Kyiv’s control of their lives. For them, it smacks of the Soviet Union at its worst.

The month-old ceasefire agreement addresses this concern, as greater autonomy will be granted to the rebel-held areas. But the separatist genie is out of the bottle and will be difficult to stuff back in.


Mr. Bird is touring Ukraine and area. For more about the refugee camp see teenagerfund.org.ua

Cover photo: Orthodox church overlooks a smoke filled Luhansk

Valentina Lisita's trolling inadvertently exposes more on 'Material Evidence' campaign in New York

In a series of typically vitriolic Tweets,  pro-Putin pianist and part time Twitter troll Valentina Lisitsa took time today to support the anti-Ukrainian photo exhibit in New York – Material Evidence – and help cover up its dirty handlers while also smearing Euromaidan Press. As readers may recall, in a previous article I uncovered the truth behind this exhibit and its connections to Russia’s extremist far-right, as well as its part in an anti-American content farm. The exhibit’s website’s association to propaganda efforts were extensively documented.

Ms. Lisitsa is partially correct, the domain ‘Material-Evidence.com’ shows its administrative contact to be the exhibit’s curator, Mr. Benjamin Hiller. The reason for this is simple and anyone can see in the WHOIS report: it was updated October 8, 2014. Ostensibly, this was to disassociate the involvement of any Ms. Zakharova. ‘She’ remains the registered owner for sites like Anti-Liberal.com and Grant-JT.com (the associated site of the far-right Journalistic Truth, working with Material Evidence and promoted through them).

The original owner
The original owner

The registrar for Material-Evidence.com remains REG.RU, a Russian service; its contact email the same associated with all of the other extremist or propaganda content farms.

We have since reached out to Mr. Hiller and he has informed us that in light of this news he is going to reevaluate his involvement in the project and whether our claims were true, and issue a statement regarding the situation. He reiterated that he does not support Russia’s far-right, and informed us that the Russian government involved itself in the Moscow exhibit:

“The Russian Government pressured the photographers not to show two images in Moscow as “it would shed bad light” on the “Pro-Russian Separatists” in Crimea. These images are shown in NY.”

He also took time to address the name issue, saying he was made the owner for legal reasons:

“We had to change the admin after the webpage developer used the name from this crazy Pro-Putin ballerina – we warned him that he gets sued for that if he keeps on going.”

We will continue to update the public on the Material Evidence campaign, and future statements from those involved. We will also continue to debunk any and all statements from Ms. Lisitsa in her campaign to discredit Euromaidan Press and journalists exposing the truth everywhere.

New York’s anti-Ukrainian art gallery, and the far-right Russian network behind it

Two weeks ago a number of buses and subways engaged in an advertising blitz for an art exhibit opening in New York City titled “Material Evidence.” The gallery claimed to tour the reality of the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. Recently, this exhibit was allegedly vandalized and its curator attacked – so let’s get to the bottom of this.

“Material Evidence”?

Material Evidence is a photojournalism art gallery documenting various aspects of the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, claiming to give “the whole reality about the countries involved in civil war” and posing the question: “who’s next?”

Prior to arriving in New York, the exhibit toured in Berlin and was promoted by Russian network RT, where organizers lashed out against the perils of democracy:

“In the last decades the international community has been observing, once again, a distortion of what is considered the ‘rules of democracy’, which are constantly broken by political dictatorships,” organizers of the exposition say. Democracy, they argue, should result in minimizing conflicts and confrontations. Instead, the drive for democracy is tainted in blood.

The messages on their official site do little to help viewers understand more. Below is an excerpt (errors preserved, emphasis added):

The evens of the last months in Ukraine have almost led to the dissolution of Ukraine as a sovereign country.
Bloody collisions on the «Maidan Independence Square» in Kiev resulted in an upsurge of nationalists-banderovtsy groups on the ground who where the main force behind the overthrow of the last president. This uprising could not be ignored by the Eastern parts of Ukraine, which are mostly populated with Russian-speaking people. The residents of the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine strongly oppose «benserovtsy» and «Westerner Oligarchs» who had come to power. Accordingly the Autonomous Republic of Crimea held a referendum on the separation from the Ukraine and its reunification with Russia.

Much less than the advertised ‘whole reality’, this message clearly tows strongly typical Russian propaganda and/or trolling rhetoric seen online: The debunked fiction of far-right nationalists taking over Kyiv, the east ‘opposing‘ the revolution, ‘Western(er)’ conspiracies, and pretending the widely condemned occupation of Crimea has a semblance of legitimacy. Simple enough.

Bus advertisement in New York
Bus advertisement in New York

Who is behind this?

While the curator of the NYC gallery states that the Material Evidence event was “backed by crowdfunding and private fundraising efforts,” RT’s coverage admits that Material Evidence is organized by Zhurnalistskaya Pravda (Journalistic Truth, JT), a Moscow-based newspaper with a heavy anti-Ukrainian slant (a recent article mockingly asks readers how many Kharkiv residents will survive until the spring).

Journalistic Truth is also advertising a number of cash prizes for journalism via the Material Evidence site totaling over $93,000. In other words, they are not on a shoestring ‘crowdsourced’ budget.

The current JT page is devoid of any information on the publication’s founders, but WHOIS info and a cache of the page from January shows it is owned by Fregat Publishing LLC. So, who runs the paper? Its Editor-in-Chief is Vladislav Shurigin, and Deputy Editor is Denis Tukmakov – both of whom work for Russia’s extremist / ultra-nationalist-communist newspaper Zavtra. In the case of Shurigin, he is also a member of the National-Bolshevik party (a Nazi-Communist hybrid), and a member of the notorious Izborsky Club, a group which advocates forming a “Eurasian Empire.”

Vladislav Shurigin at a Material Evidence exhibit in Moscow
Vladislav Shurigin at a Material Evidence exhibit in Moscow

Shurigin promotes his involvement in the Material Evidence on his blog and is referred to as its Project Manager in the Russian media.

For those unaware, Zavtra and his club are run by Alexander Prokhanov, a notorious anti-Semitic conspiracist who is now a regular at Russian government events.

An attack

Anti-Russia photo vandalized in the gallery

On October 3 the website Hyperallergic ran a report that the gallery had been sacked by three vandals, and Material Evidence’s curator, Benjamin Hiller, had been pepper sprayed. The article doesn’t state that the individuals were Ukrainians, but does say that “Pamphlets containing anti-Putin and neo-Nazi slogans were also distributed throughout the Ukraine-focused section.”

The story itself raises many questions. For one, the lead photo that was vandalized (as seen in the article and to the right) was actually one denouncing Russia, with a swastika emblazoned over top the Russian flag. This causes one to wonder why (presumably) pro-Ukrainian neo-Nazis would deface a swastika and an anti-Russian symbol.

Second, the victim, Hiller, alleges that two of the vandals approached him and asked if he spoke Russian – why? Were they Russian speaking New Yorkers themselves? Hiller’s account becomes less credible when his statement on crowdfunding and fundraising is taken into consideration.

Third, the “pamphlets.” In the photo provided by Hiller below neither has neo-Nazi slogans nor anti-Putin anything. These are also not pamphlets, but an assortment of graphics printed on standard 8×11 printer paper, possibly at random.

The graphic on the left does indeed contain neo-Nazi and neo-Pagan symbology, including the Wolfsangl used by the Azov Battalion, and a Nazi Totenkopf – below reads “freedom or death.” However, the print-out on the right commemorates the ‘Heavenly Hundred‘ who were killed in Kyiv, showing them with angel wings. An unusual combination.

Was the attack staged? When factoring in the the shady financial backers, vandalism of an anti-Russian photo exhibit, and unrelated printed pictures reported as neo-Nazi propaganda, there certainly leaves much to be questioned.

Is there any evidence that this group is shadier than the extremist backers already named? Well, let’s take a look.

Who else is involved in this?

Minoborony.com
Minoborony.com

Weeks ago, when ads for the gallery first started blasting New Yorkers, celebrity singer-activist Ruslana published a blog pointing out that the gallery’s site, Material-Evidence.com, was registered to Svetlana Zaharova – a famous ballerina who is also a Russian MP and member of Putin’s ruling party, United Russia. Although we cannot verify that the Svetlana Zaharova who is the listed owner of the website is the same Svetlana Zaharova who is a member of the Russian Presidential Council for Culture and Art, we felt this needed a bit more digging.

Doing just a quick search found that Ms. Zaharova is the administrative contact for a number of Russian websites, many of which are ostensibly anti-American. All of these blogs appear to be part of a content-farming, propaganda network, each consisting of hundreds of original (poorly written) articles with little traffic or comments.

GoodbyeUSA.com
GoodbyeUSA.com

For instance we have minoborony.com (“Ministry of Defense”), where America is the “No. 1 Terrorist.” The site claims to be owned and copyrighted by the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Defense, but is clearly a fan site.

GoodbyeUSA.com follows the same rhetoric, and RonovoRossia.com is your typical Russian nationalist blog.

But it’s Trueman-lab.com that is the most shocking, dealing mostly in anti-American propaganda with racist anti-Mexican cartoons and articles thrown in the mix (as in this piece: “But I can hardly respect those who never worked or even planned to, by whom I mean about 40% of immigrants”). This is the only site of the network which is in English, however, it’s clear the content was not made by a native English-speaker, made obvious by the Russian-language use of «brackets» instead of quotation marks. One particularly cringeworthy video (with a computer generated voice over poorly written text) even alludes that the U.S. infected the Congo with Ebola as a biological weapon.

Finally, if we look up the registrant’s email address, it ends up there are a number of unfinished websites in the works, including: Anti-Liberal.com, AntiLiberalism.com, and TerraUSA.net.

Question to readers

The exhibit is already being exposed to students, with a group from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice visiting on October 1. Given the connections of the exhibit’s owners, their other anti-American projects, and those involved in their funding, should this be in New York?

Pro-Russian performers in Donetsk make Nazi salutes

Yesterday in Donetsk performers celebrating the 6 month anniversary of the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic” took part in a Nazi march while giving a torrent of Hitler salutes. The performers mocked Ukrainians as “Nazis” and “fascists” in Donetsk’s main square, but did so under the flag of “New Russia” while German music played in the background.

Russians enacted a similar, but much more lavish performance during a national broadcast in occupied Sevastopol earlier in the summer.

Russian official fighting in Donetsk admits locals refuse to collaborate, 90% of unit are Russians and "defending Slavs"

Locals are refusing to collaborate with Russian forces as they storm the Donetsk airport, says Communist Party member Alexander Negrabetskikh – a city council deputy and Chechen War veteran from the Russian city of Zlatoustcurrently operating in a terrorist “volunteer” cell in Donetsk.

Negrabetskikh with other soldiers
Negrabetskikh with other soldiers

Now in Ukraine, he is part of a unit involved in storming the Donetsk airport – 90% of which are Russian, half being Siberian and half from the Urals; with the remainder being self-identified Russians from Donetsk. In whole he says 7,500 men are involved in the current battle, which he says would be better handled with smaller, specialist groups. He admits his unit suffered heavy losses while attacking Ukrainian forces defending the airport on Wednesday, saying his men came under heavy shelling.

Negrabetskikh says he is fighting in Ukraine because he is a “Russian patriot” and defending racial Slavs. “I’ll be there to protect brother Slavs and Russian land from the Nazis,” he explained. “If we do not, then sooner or later this fascist abscess would come to us.”

He claims that Ukraine’s forces are replete “Poles and Germans,” a conspiracy which Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has dismissed. Russian media has loudly implicated Poland in other conspiracies on national television.

The reason for his unit being almost entirely foreign with little actual Donetsk citizens is that support for the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) is low, he concedes, a sentiment previously echoed by Russian terrorist leader Igor Girkin. In Negrabetskikh’s words, he was shocked at how few locals would collaborate with Russians to “protect” their land, or in other words, join the DNR. “They go to Russia, and we come here!” he exclaimed.

Ultimately, many he talked to simply care about pensions, not allegiances. Ukraine’s government has stated that public sector salaries and pensions will not be disbursed in occupied territory, while DNR officials have said salaries and pensions are being paid on time, without indicating where the vast funding was coming from.