Donetsk separatism only truly became a noticeable problem in 2014. Until then, almost no one believed that it existed.
Crimea was long considered the only potentially dangerous region in this regard. A certain degree of Donbas isolation was acknowledged, but this was initially written off as the result of machinations by oligarchic clans who sought to turn the local population against other regions of Ukraine and reaffirm the myth of the Donbas as the nation’s leading breadwinner.
This was partly true; these clans are still able to divide and to rule. They skilfully directed the wrath of the Donbas’ depressed mining communities against similarly disenfranchised workers from western Ukraine. While average people squabbled with each other on the Internet, the clans were quietly appropriating the Donetsk region’s industries. However, the very same Party of Regions officials from Donetsk and Luhansk who convinced their electorates that the Donbas is a “special region” with the right to occupy a dominant position in Ukraine were more often themselves the captives of stereotypes.
Donetsk separatism existed long before it was popularized by the Party of Regions. It is not about “Donetsk–Kryviy Rih Soviet Republic,” whose existence was noted only by the Bolsheviks who invented it and Donetsk native Volodymyr Kornilov, who wrote a book on it. In the USSR, the Donbas showed no discernible desire for independence. The first signs of separatism appeared in the mining regions at the end of the 1980s before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, this phenomenon was primarily economic and not national in origin.
Solidarity became the foundation of the Donetsk miners’ separatism. The popular assertion that “Donbas feeds the entire country” originated among them. The profession had been heroized in the 1920s-30s, with the mine worker portrayed by official propaganda as a true Atlas on whose shoulders rested the economic power of the whole country. And as the Donbas was a major coal mining region of the Soviet Union, its residents, of course, overflowed with a sense of self-worth. It was here that the saying “miners are the guardians of labour”was coined; it was here that the legendary Soviet miner Alexey Stakhanov set his world record; it was the Donbas that a famous Soviet poster named “the heart of Russia”.
Inspirational newspaper editorials about Donbas miners were common until the late 1970s when the region achieved its peak for coal production. Coal output has been decreasing ever since. After the discovery of huge oil fields in Siberia, the Soviet fuel and energy industry began switching from coal to oil and gas. Priorities and investments changed. For the next two decades, the holdings of Donbas coal mining companies remained practically unchanged, with mines continuing to operate without renovation. In the 1980s the coal industry of the Ukrainian SSR inevitably deteriorated, hitting a crisis at the end of the decade that resulted in massive strikes.
Agitators for Narodniy Rukh successfully exploited the miners’ discontent to convince the population of the Ukrainian SSR that Ukraine was the economic engine of the Soviet Union and it was dragging backward regions along. These words resonated with the miners, who were also convinced that “our backs bend while Moscow rests”. Rather than demanding regional autonomy for the Donbas, they wanted greater economic independence for the Ukrainian SSR so that money would remain in Ukraine, and pushed the Parliament to adopt a law to that effect. Thus, for these economic reasons, they voted for Ukraine’s independence in the referendum of 1991. Until recently, many patriotic Ukrainians regarded the Donbas workers’ support for independence as a sign of their increased national consciousness.However, the workers were not in fact moved by patriotism, but rather a desire to keep mining revenues closer to home.
Just two years later, the mood in the Donbas changed dramatically. Prosperity did not follow the collapse of the USSR, and the economic crisis of the late 1980s gave way to the horrors of the early 1990s. In 1993, strikes broke out once more in the region, and again the miners demanded regional autonomy—only this time from Kyiv. As in 1989, they were convinced that their hard work was simply feeding parasites, only now the subjects of their discontent were not the peoples of Central Asia and Moscow, but the residents of Kyiv and Western Ukraine. One of the organizers of the strike was Yukhym Zviahilskyi, a long-time MP, member of the Party of Regions more recently, and a red director, who skilfully manipulated the coal miners’ discontent while simultaneously convincing the authorities that he was helping to resolve the conflict. In the wake of the protests, he moved to Kyiv and was appointed the first Vice Prime Minister. As a result, the fire was gradually extinguished with his help, yet the political demands for Donbas’ regional autonomy remained unsatisfied.
However, the Donetsk elite did not abandon the idea of separatism, and continued to agitate the situation. In 1994, together with the parliamentary elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, an event occurred that some called a “local referendum” and others a “deliberative poll”. By law, it was not possible to conduct a referendum, so another term was officially used. The survey consisted of four items, the first of which concerned the government of Ukraine. Donbas residents were asked if they would support federation as well as granting official status to the Russian language.
This event was organized in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions by “regional advisory commissions for the deliberative polling of citizens”, which were at the command of regional deputies. The “referendum” was a pre-election move. Ukraine held both parliamentary and presidential elections in 1994, and local elections were held in the Donbas region. After the elections, the results of the “referendum” were no longer mentioned. It is difficult to say how accurate they were, but 80% voted for the federalization of the Donbas at the time.
Separatist slogans were once again commonplace during the many miners’ strikes in 1996-1998, but the movement never seriously took shape. Once Viktor Yanukovych had taken office as Prime Minister for the first time in 2002, the Donetsk clan ceased to play the separatism card, expecting that all of Ukraine would soon be in their hands and there was no longer any sense in blackmailing Kyiv. After Yanukovych’s career had taken off, separatist agitation declined significantly, even giving way to patriotic rhetoric. Regional elites were quite willing to love Ukraine if the country lived by Donetsk’s rules. But after the failure of the 2004 elections, Yanukovych’s regional separatism again received a major boost.
Unfortunately, all this time the central government in Kyiv failed to take measures to combat the virus of separatism in Donbas. The result of this failure became visible in the tragic events of 2014.
While many of tales of atrocities have come to surface over the past few months, most have been defined by two attributes: the perpetrator’s Russian origin, and the body of evidence coming from the testimony of victims and witnesses.
Some first hand interviews have offset the latter, shining light on the motivations and actions from both sides of the trigger, these have still mostly come from foreign invaders and not locals. One Sovietized insurgent from Armenia detailed his destructive foray into Ukraine, confirming that 80% of militants occupying Donetsk are foreigner like himself. Another Russian mercenary issued his disinterest in Luhansk’s destruction to the New York Times, ‘not giving a damn about any of this.’
Volodymyr Parasyuk, a revolutionary hero to many in Ukraine, provided first hand details of a captive’s confession, one that offers more than just casual indifference as a reason for violence. As the account goes, the National Guard’s Dnipro Battalion captured a Ukrainian paratrooper who had turned-coat and defected to the militants in the Donetsk Republic terrorist organization – informing them of military positions, weapon intel, checkpoint locations, and made possible Grad rocket attacks on Ukrainian positions.
The prisoner, Dmytro, was of the belief that Putin was going to save them, and that they already had Russian assistance.
He also told Parasyuk how the Donetsk Republic’s men treated the location population: “They get all liquored up in the evening, they go down the streets, and they shoot at innocent civilians. Whoever kills more wins the bet.”
He also admitted that the group had raped young girls, “and anyone who refused got a rifle to the head and was offered a choice: obey or get a bullet to the head.”
Regionnaires (Party of Regions members) and Commies always yell that these aren’t terrorists, that they’re just people with different views, and that Russians are our brothers. But here’s the way it is, they’re no brothers of ours. These are swine who hate everything Ukrainian and dream of destroying the Ukrainian nation, so that there’s not a trace of it left.
While it may be hard to gauge how much of the above is true – either said under duress or as twisted bravado – the scars of war undoubtedly yield likened brutality the world over. What sets Dmytro apart, however, is that he is not a foreign plunderer but a local collaborator; and not one with blasé detachment but frenzied indifference to his own people. If insurgent forces are described as “anti-Kyiv,” then why is equal attention given to local innocents?
It is true that the Russian backed ‘militias’ have been described as disorganized, chronically dysfunctional, and also drunk, just as the above testimony illustrated.
UN monitors have especially noted the steady rise in wanton violence by Russian-backed groups in Ukraine. “A climate of lawlessness prevails in the east with an increase in criminality, killings, abductions and detentions by the armed groups,” said UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic. More than a simply gradient increase, Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch bluntly called these groups are “out of control” and “abusing people at will.”
Another top UN human rights office official described the situation as a “reign of fear, if not a reign of terror,” in the areas controlled by these terrorist groups.
Amnesty International deputy director Denis Krivosheev describes, in clarifying that the bulk of abductions have been carried out by Russian-backed groups, that victims are “often subjected to stomach-turning beatings and torture.”
Russian-backed militias have also been known to employ terrorist tactics (MH17 aside), with Human Rights Watch noting that they use “beatings and kidnappings to send the message that anyone who doesn’t support them had better shut up or leave.”
But perhaps Oliver Carroll described the regional situation and local phenomenon best in Foreign Policy, calling it bluntly “a bit of the old ultraviolence,” a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s classic A Clockwork Orange – because that’s what the situation on the ground, unleashed from the east, is increasingly appearing to be.
On May 22 in Donetsk, the founding congress of the newly formed New Russia Party (officially the Social-Political Movement – Party of New Russia) took place, led by Pavel Gubarev, paramilitary leader and self-declared ‘People’s Governor’ of the Donetsk People’s Republic. The purpose of the party, Gubarev said, was to create “a broad platform for a future political force.” He addressed the crowd with policy issues, the goals & objectives of the party, and proclaimed the foundation of a (another) new state he called New Russia – which he stated would be the party’s first goal. The second goal would be the nationalization of property owned by oligarchs who resisted the party – namely, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov.
The news follows similar announcements murmured on May 6 when renegade Ukrainian MP Oleg Tsarov issued a similar declaration on the creation of a new ‘Federal Republic of New Russia,’ though details of its organization were limited and official word had been quiet since. Tsarov has been trying to carve out a place for himself in separatist politics after his bid in the presidential race failed to gain traction in Ukraine’s southeast, and has since remained in the easternmost province of Luhansk. The declaration earned him a place on the European Union’s sanctions list.
The First Congress
A Collective of the Far-Right
The first congress of New Russia’s eponymous party was attended by pro-Russian separatist officials of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Donbass Militia and Donetsk Republic leader Pavel Gubarev. Notably, Gubarev was previously a member of the neo-Nazi Russian National Unity, which is part of the World Union of National Socialists. The leader of the RNU was recently implicated in rigging the Donetsk Republic referendum, and openly admitted to his presence in the region.
Also in attendance were Alexander Prokhanov, described as “a devout Stalinist and notorious anti-Semite whose ideology bears strong marks of Russian fascism if not Nazism (including fascination with the idea that Russia is the true “mystical womb” of Aryan civilization);” Alexander Dugin, a controversial ideologue known for his admiration of fascism and the killing of Ukrainians; and Valery Korovin, a political analyst who calls for “the domination of leftist economics and rightist politics.” Both Prokhanov and Korovin are members of the Izborsky Club, a group which advocates for a continental “Eurasian Empire” to “save the peoples of Russia from degeneration and outside attack.”
Dugin expanded his thoughts on the self-declared state later online, calling it a response by those who “reject the Kyiv-Galician identity” in favor of an “ethno-social” Cossack way of life. The party’s purpose is also a rejection of “Jewish oligarchs,” “pro-American liberals,” and “Catholics, Protestants, and Schismatics.” He also describes an ongoing “war with liberal Nazis.”
Clearly being a driving political hand behind the party and new ‘confederation’, Dugin says that New Russia will be independent but part of ‘Eurasian integration’ which will facilitate a restoration of ‘Great Russia’, and essentially sees the polity as both a satellite state and key to the revival of the Russian Empire. However, he plainly states that the region won’t join the Russia Federation as Crimea did. The official party programme states it will be a sovereign federation.
Donetsk will act as the capital city of the federation, and Russian Orthodox Christianity will be given ‘special status’ as the official state religion. Ukrainian (which he refers to as ‘Little Russian’) should be the second official language (though the official party guide contradicts this). Nationalization of major industries is a must.
While the creation of the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics is considered the first phase of the project, the second phase is surprisingly said to be causing rebellion in the western Ukrainian province of Zakarpattia. The third phase is a further expansion to central and western Ukraine.
Given the political leanings of those involved in the congress, the symbology used by the party follows a predictable, but attention grabbing motif.
Officially, the new national flag was presented by a speaker as a take on the St. Andrews Cross, with white representing “purity and honesty,” and red representing blood. However, most will likely see the flag for what it most ostensibly is: a near recreation of the American Confederate battle flag, a symbol which remains highly controversial in the United States and often associated with racism. The flag made its first appearance on the Facebook account of Pavel Gubarev in December, months before eastern unrest. The unofficial rationale behind the decision could be multitude: rebellion, confederacy, ‘state rights’ (regional autonomy), and a desire to provoke the U.S. (a stated enemy); of course, the reason could also be more insidious.
Beyond that, the party crest (seen in the Novorossiya newspaper a day prior) is somewhat innocuous with its wheat, spoil tips, and prolific Golden Eagle soaring above. The eagle, known as a berkut in Ukrainian, was intentionally chosen as a divisive nod to the reviled and disbanded special police force of the same name that was involved in widespread police brutality and the murder of EuroMaidan protesters, but unsurprisingly heroized by Russia and pro-Russian separatists alike.
In recent months Russian president Vladimir Putin has made ominous statements referring to Ukraine’s southeast in the archaic “New Russia,” (Novorossiya) and in parroting revisionist history lamenting that “Only God knows” why these historically Ukrainian lands were “transferred” to [Soviet] Ukraine in 1920. “I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya [New Russia] back in the tsarist days—Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa—were not part of Ukraine back then.” What he says is partially true, as Ukraine did not exist as a state ‘back then’. Neither did the Russian Federation. Semantics aside, in reality, Soviet Ukraine was birthed in the eastern city of Kharkiv in 1919, and even after a Russian-backed civil war against a unified (if tumultuous) unified Ukrainian state in Kyiv, the southeast remained integral to the territorial unit that is Ukraine through all its incarnations (and no transfers have ever occurred). Despite this, use of the colonial-era term has been explained as a case of irredentism, used increasingly by Russian neo-imperialists.
It is still to be determined what purpose a party such as this will have in Ukrainian, or separatist politics. While the political aspirations of the now terrorist-branded Donetsk Republic may have been too small in scope for Gubarev, creating such a party is a clear attempt to consolidate and unify separatist forces which have been plagued with infighting in Donetsk, and with no clear direction or coordination between the Donetsk and Luhansk camps. Moreover, the Congress is also a clear attempt to establish a single-party system in these self-declared democracies.
Russian historian Sergey Lebedev recently called Moldova’s Russian-occupied region of Transnistria “the first liberated part of New Russia” and these escalating developments in its name are cause for concern as each successive move since the invasion of Crimea has been predictably telegraphed in advance. If Gubarev’s social media postings are to be prophetic of his intentions, a map posted in late January adorning the party’s flag indicates supporters’ eyes are set on 9 southeastern regions in order to create a “politically stable Ukraine.” Will the South rise again? Based solely on the will of the people and the military setbacks in successfully gaining a foothold in the Donbas, the aspirations of the New Russia Party are currently nothing short of a pipe dream.
Ukrainian intelligence produced and presented a dossier of photographsto the OSCE last week. The images, and official accusations, point to Russian “sabotage-reconnaissance groups” being involved in the recent armed insurgency in eastern Ukraine – Donetsk region specifically. According to a New York Times article, the photos and their descriptions were “endorsed by the Obama administration,” but who are these men? With the power of crowdsourcing, but mostly with the power of social networking and public profiles, the identities of a series of Russian insurgents in Donetsk have been uncovered. Men have been comparing the size of their guns since the invention of gunpowder, and thankfully these few decided to flaunt just that. Publicly. On the internet.
Another point of interest is the insignia seen on a number of the gunmen. For clarity’s sake, the symbol is that of Andrei Shkuro‘s ‘Terek Wolf Company’, a detachment of White emigre Cossacks who fought for Nazi Germany during the second world war.
So who is involved in the Ukrainian invasion? Let’s take a look.
Evgeny “Dingo” Ponomarev
Ponomarev is a 39 year old native of Belorechensk, Russia, in the Kuban region. Pictured above, he is a Registered Cossack with full police badge. He is active in the Terek Cossack community, and featured in many of the photos recently presented by CNN and the BBC detailing the same group of insurgents appearing in Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. At this moment there is no confirmation that he is directly related to self-declared Sloviansk mayor Vyacheslav Ponomarev, though they are pictured together.
While Ganchev’s profile is littered with cat pictures and memes, in 2013 through to January 2014 there are many photos of him in combat training, including with sniper rifles, assault rifles, heavy machine guns, and rocket launchers. Recent photos from April show him with members who seized buildings in Donetsk. Groups he is a member of include Berkut support, The Supreme Council of the people of Ukraine and Russia (which asks for “practical” assistance in imposing referendums), Crimean “self-defense” groups, and airsoft rifle groups in Crimea (which appears to be a front to gather militants and buy weapons). His current city is listed as Horlivka, Ukraine, and he appears to be from Makiivka.
Like Ponomarev, Karetniy is a member of the Belorechensk Cossack community in Russia. A photo posted on the community page details the group involved in the seizures in Sloviansk called “Terek Wolf Sotnia“. His profile is relatively new (registered in February, active more recently) so it cannot be confirmed that his identity is real, however, he does have the social connections with other members involved with a higher degree of authenticity. It’s likely this is him pictured with Ponomarev.
Update: Karetniy has since deleted all personal information and photos from his page.
Kovalyov is another from Belorechensk, Russia. His photo albums contain many swastikas and neo-Nazi or ultranationalist imagery. Photos dating back 2 years show him in paramilitary garb, while his profile picture appears to be ‘self-defense’ force paramilitary in Crimea. In another photo he appears with Karetniy while wearing the ‘Terek Wolf Company’ badge, who is also an insurgent in Donetsk with a Russian Cossack connection.
Photos show him carrying an automatic rifle in front government buildings in Slovinansk. His profile lists him as being a Simferopol native, and is a member of a Simferopol Don Cossack group. Photos also show what appears to be a swastika pendant, and Russian ultra-nationalist graphics.
Topaz is a sort of celebrity in internet circles. He was placed under house arrest on March 29 for his involvement in the March 1st raid on the Kharkiv Regional State Administration building. On April 7, Topaz fled house arrest, cutting off his monitoring bracelet. Topaz has since given interviews with the Russian channel LifeNews, and spoken about the current ‘guerrilla struggle’ and need to use firearms to capture buildings. Pictures with assault rifles, BDU, and St. George ribbon indicate it’s likely he has been involved in the current insurgency in Donetsk or Luhansk since his arrest.
This profile is less straightforward, but the photos appear to sync up. Anastasov is from Simferopol. Photos include him with various firearms. The above photo makes no indication on which building he is in, so it’s possible he was only involved in Crimea.
Following a late night session of the National Security Council which discussed anti-terrorism measures and the possibility of introducing a state of emergency, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced a counter-terrorist operation would begin in Sloviansk under the leadership of the Security Service (SBU). The operation is said to include units from all service branches in Ukraine.
Shortly thereafter, Avakov stated that separatists had opened fire on special forces in the city. He then posted a notice to citizens in the city to leave the city center, stay at home, and avoid windows for their own safety.
Riot police were then reported to have cleared a separatist roadblock leading in to the city. Eyewitnesses stated that the Russian tricolor had been also taken down from atop the city administration. Helicopters have been seen flying over the city.
The news follows yesterday’s explosion of armed separatist uprising in the northern Donetk region city of Sloviansk, where masked men in army fatigues and bulletproof vests, armed with assault rifles captured the executive committee building, the police department and SBU office in the city, along with a sizable weapons cache.
The counter-terrorist operation would be the first sign of retaking the Donetsk region, which has thus far been apprehensive to fight back. The last notable operation of its kind took place on April 8 when Jaguar units from Vinnytsia were used in the arrest of 70 separatists in Kharkiv attempting to take over the Regional State Administration building.
Russian nationalist groups signed a broad declaration on March 1st, stating their their intention to ‘defend the rights of Russians in Ukraine’ at a meeting held by the Russian deputy prime minister. Historian and Ukrainian politician Hryhoriy Nemyria separately claimed that Moscow has “Russian citizens in Ukraine’s provinces orchestrating illegal seizure of administration buildings,” and that Russian citizens were working in Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Mykolayiv.
In eastern regions of Ukraine pro-Russian protesters have stormed the Donetsk and Mariupol government administrations, and in the former, pulling down the flag of Ukraine. Donetsk city council declared itself the soul authority of the region, distancing itself from the government in Kyiv and declaring Russian the official language. Russian rallies in Odessa were also reported, with up to 5,000 attending, promoting Soviet symbols.
In Kharkiv, Russian demonstrators violently stormed the RSA, evicting Euromaidan protesters; 97 were reported injured in the attack, including minors, and 2 from gunshots (note that Euromaidan protesters previously occupying the building did so peacefully once security stood down). Journalist Serhiy Zhadan was also attacked in the clashes. BBC reports that the pro-Russian protesters also clashed with local police.
During the clashes in Kharkiv, it was discovered that the man who planted the Russian flag atop the State Administration was a Russian citizen from Moscow. The man was determined to be popular Russian activist Mika Ronkainen .On his blog, he stated “I am proud that I was able to participate in the confrontation with militants who came “to peacefully protest” in Kharkiv, and hoist the Russian flag on the liberated administration!” The flag was later removed, said regional officials.
The rally in Donetsk, which discussed the possibility of secession, chose Pavel Gubarev to be the commander of the “People’s Militia of Donbass,” who called for the annexation of the entire Donbass (Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk) region to Russia. The protesters were in direct defiance to the incumbent governor, an appointee of the largely pro-Russian Yanukovych regime. Police stated they would side with the people, presumably the secessionist crowds (as opposed to the contingent of the population loyal to the Party of Regions). The demonstrations in Donetsk ended abruptly, implying that participants may have been paid as was often seen with pro-regime protests during Euromaidan. While they continued on the second day, crowds reached a maximum of only 1,000 attendees.
The Kyiv Postreported that a petition by ethnic Russians has already garnered over 50,000 signatures, asking Russia to not intervene and that there is no persecution of Russians in Ukraine.
Previously, pro-Russian or rallies of any kind in the east and south have been limited even during the peak of the Euromaidan protest movement. The presence of Russian citizens engaging in the protests is a concerning development.
In the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk thousands took to the streets on Saturday evening in an anti-Putin march. Near the Regional State Administration, they chanted “Putin = Hitler” and “East & West Together.” The regional leader of Right Sector announced a general mobilization of the male population, and calling all with hunting weapons to arm themselves to protect the peace. The RSA was staffed with self-defense squads in case of an attack as in Kharkiv, and remained barricaded with barbed wire, a remnant of the former Yanukovych-installed governor.
An eastern solution?
One solution to the regional fissures in Ukraine may be to employ the nation’s oligarchs, and include them in the decision making process of their home regions, tying them and the wellbeing of their businesses to local stability. Former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko said that negotiations were ongoing with large businesses in the south-eastern regions of Ukraine and that the goal is to use not only public but also private resources to maintain regional unity. Donetsk-base oligarch Serhiy Taruta was appointed to govern the region, and Israeli-Ukrainian businessman Igor Kolomoisky was made head of his local Dnipropetrovsk. Rinat Akhmetov and Viktor Pinchuk are also considering taking governing posts.
The Ukrainian government also proposed today to include more eastern Ukrainian politicians within in the new Ukrainian government in Kyiv, hoping to provide greater legitimacy in eastern regions that may feel dejected over the loss of the revolution against the Yanukovych regime.
This article will update as the situation unfolds.
On February 27th, Russian naval infantry forces seized control of the Crimean capital, installing through a vote at gunpoint, a radical pro-Russian politician. Days prior, protests in Crimea erupted demanding secession, primarily in Simferopol and Sevastopol – in Sevastopol, a Russian citizen was named de facto mayor of the city. On the night of February 28th Russian forces then took the airports in both cities, and continued to spread out, establishing control of border posts, military installations, telecommunications buildings, and the media. Airspace is now restricted. Crimea’s de facto PM declared control over Ukraine’s military within Crimea, and Russia approved the use of force to stabilize the situation in Ukraine. No clashes have yet erupted between both nation’s armed forces. Some figures place the Russian presence as high as 28,000 troops.
Mass demonstrations have taken place across the south and east of the country protesting the Russian invasion, while smaller groups of Russian nationalists have violently stormed government buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Odessa. The Ukrainian armed forces remain at high alert and have announced a mobilization of its reservists, and many have volunteered to take up arms.
Russia has begun wanton aggression against Ukraine under the guise of training exercises. The Russian Federation has sent troops into Crimea, and has not only captured the Crimean parliament and Council of Ministers, but also has taken control of communications facilities […] We’re sure that Ukraine will preserve its territory, Ukraine will defend its independence, and any attempts of annexation or intrusion will have very serious consequences – Acting Ukrainian President Turchynov
Article was last updated Mar 4 @ 4:20pm EST
LIVE timeline, March 1st: It’s official
At 1am local time on March 1st, the Ministry of Defense issued a statement that they received intel informing of an attack on Ukrainian military installations between 2-5am, and that the Ukrainian army would respond if attacked. In turn, at 2am, the military airfield in Kirovske was captured by Russian soldiers. There is an unconfirmed report from Seabreeze.org.ua that the Nikolai Filchenkov Alligator-class landing ship, capable of carrying 300-400 troops, is due to arrive in Sevastopol this morning. UNIANconfirmed the arrival of the ship, citing military sources and that some 700 Russian Airborne paratroopers were aboard.
A Request to Declare War
[one_fifth]”I appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin to assist in maintaining peace”[/one_fifth]
At 8:45am, controversially appointed Crimean PM Sergei Aksenov issued a statementdeclaring that due to the worsening situation involving Russian “unidentified armed groups” and “military equipment” in the region, and the inability of police to deal with with the military threat, he invokes his constitutional powers to subsume all regional police, border guards, security forces, and Ukrainian army & navy under his direct authority, and away from the new central government in Kyiv. He then directed all military commanders to only follow his direct orders, and that any dissenters would be dismissed from the service. “Given the above, realizing their responsibility for the lives and safety of citizens, I appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin to assist in maintaining peace and tranquility in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea,” the statement concluded. The Russian presidential administration quickly responded that it would not disregard the appeal to assist in ‘ensuring peace and tranquility in the autonomy.’ Russia’s state-owned Gazprom then issued notice that if Ukraine did not repay its debts, Russia would raise its prices, canceling previously negotiated discounts. Aksenov later issued a decree calling for March 30th elections on whether to join Russia, declare independence, or retain its current status.
Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk stated that “Ukraine will not succumb to provocations and not resort to force” and that the military was careful not to provoke a violent confrontation. “Sole responsibility for the escalation of the conflict lies with the person at the head of the Russian Federation,” he concluded.
The request, however, was reciprocated by Putin, who issued the following statement, requesting the use of military force to secure Crimea:
“Due to the extraordinary situation on Ukraine, threatened the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation, our compatriots; the personnel of the military contingent of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation located in accordance with the international agreement on the territory of Ukraine (Autonomous Republic of Crimea), on the basis of paragraph “D” Part 1 of Article 102 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation am submitting to the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation appeal for use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine to the normalization of the political situation in this country.”
Russia’s upper house of parliament voted unanimously Saturday to approve sending Russian military forces into Ukraine. A new bill was drafted in the Russian Duma as well, making it easier for Ukrainians to acquire Russian citizenship (they would only need know the Russian language), as well as allowing for ‘new entities’ to join the Russian Federation. During the session, Russian parliamentarian Yuri Vorobyov slammed US president Obama’s statements on Russian non-intervention a direct threat to the Russian people. Other Russian Council members argued that troops were needed in mainland Ukraine until constitutional order (i.e. the previous pro-Russian regime) could be restored, and that their presence was needed to protect Ukraine’s Russian population. In a final move to solidify Russia’s stance on the situation, the Duma also declared that Ukraine’s scheduled presidential elections on May 25th would not be recognized.
When asked if Russia was concerned U.S. or NATO troops could be sent into Ukraine to counteract Russian forces, Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko responded, “On what grounds? We have not given [NATO and the U.S.] consent to deploy troops there.” Matviyenko suggested sending in a “limited contingent” of Russian military – similar language was noted to be used during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Russian forces, working with Berkut and auxiliary supporters have blockaded the border crossing between mainland Ukraine in Kherson, and the Crimean peninsula.
Off the Crimean coast, two Russian anti-submarine warships were sighted, violating an agreement on Moscow’s lease of a naval base, Interfax news agency quoted a Ukrainian military source as saying. The source said the two vessels, part of Russia’s Baltic Fleet, had been sighted in a bay at Sevastopol, where Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet has a base. In Sevastopol, Russian troops (confirmed by Russian license plates) surrounded a Ukrainian military unit.
In cyber warfare, the Russian language social network VK began blocking pro-democratic Ukrainian pages. In one notable instance, the VK page for Ukrainian militant group Right Sector was hacked, and a statement was posted pleading to Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov to aid Ukraine – a controversial statement to discredit the Ukrainians as supporting terrorists. This precipitated Putin-installed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to issue a statement threatening Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh with death.
By late night, the Interpreter, citing an anonymous source, wrote that outside of Feodosia in the town of Sudak, in eastern Crimea, the situation is tense as another military base has been seized by Russian forces.
“Everything seems to be quiet for now, but very tense. Near us the military base has been seized, Ukrainian soldiers are not resisting, because the advantage of forces is on Russia’s side by about 5 times. Crimeans realize that they have wound up as hostages of the situation. The civilian population is not being touched, the Russian soldiers are concentrating on the airfields or the army bases.”
Shooting in Simeropol
Ukraine’s Channel 5 and Le Fiagro (France) reported that 20 masked militants without insignia opened fire with Russian-made assault rifles and grenade launchers on the streets of Simferopol. A brief battle allegedly took place at the House of Trade Unions between them and Russian soldiers. According to one eyewitness, the unidentified insurgents tried to storm the building. Police have not yet commented on the situation. No civilians were injured. (video & more video) The Russian media portrayed the men as Ukrainian extremists.
March 2nd: Russian expansion
The U.S. tracked “thousands more” of Russian troops entering into Ukraine’s Crimea on Sunday to reinforce Russian positions, a senior U.S. official said. Russian troops seized the military installations and airfields in Dzhankoy andKerch (eastern Crimea), attempted to disarm the 39th and 191st Training unit of the Ukrainian Navy in Sevastopol, and hundreds of soldiers laid siege to the 36th Ukrainian Coastal Defense unit in Perevalne (between Simferopol and Alushta). Standoffs with Russian forces took place, including with Interior Troops and marines who refused to stand down. Auxiliaries were called up from retirement or inactive status with Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and wore black-and-orange ribbons or red armbands identifying themselves as “volunteers of the autonomous republic of Crimea.”
“We gave an oath to the state of Ukraine, not an oath to one particular general, and certainly not one from another country,”
– Major Rostislav Lomtev
In major news, Rear Admiral Denis Berezovsky defected from the Ukrainian Navy to the Republic of Crimea, which Russian-installed Crimean leader Sergei Aksenov. Berezovsky had before his dismissal and official defection, ordered all Ukrainian troops to lay down arms and accept the Russian invasion, which was rejected by Ukrainian officers who informed the Ministry of Defense of his treason. Later, electricity was cut to the main Ukrainian naval base. Following the defection, Aksenov declared the creation of a new Crimean Navy, headed by Berezovsky, and the future creation of a Ministry of Defense. March 2nd “will go down in the history of autonomy, as the day of formation of all its security forces,”he said.
In Mykolayiv, video evidence shows presumably Russian nationalists (waving Soviet flags and wearing St. George ribbons) attempting to establish a roadblock near the southern Ukrainian city and prevent a Ukrainian military convoy from passing. The convoy included a column of tanks preparing to mobilize. Videos indicate that local police were able to disperse the small crowd.
The Kyiv Postreported that at Russian controlled military checkpoints, soldiers confiscated filming equipment, bulletproof vests and helmets carried by journalists. By Sunday, no media were allowed to not only enter Crimea, but escape it – an exception only permitted for Russian press. “We told them they were on the territory of Ukraine, but they said they don’t think so. They think they’re now on Russian territory,” a Hromadske TV journalist said.
Crimean Tatars have threatened an insurgency against a repeat of Russian rule. “Our people are peaceful, but if they threaten us, our men will defend the community,” an interviewee to the New York Times said.“It is better to die here than leave again.” Ukraine offers more security than Russia, Tartar representatives say. Some 5 million Tatars lived in Crimea prior to Russian annexation in the late 18th century; a figure which dwarfs Crimea’s current population. Tatar leaders have stated that the Crimean Tatar population will not take part in or recognize any separatist referendum.
Mass demonstrations against Russia were held across Ukraine, notably in its eastern regions. Cities included Kharkiv, Odessa (10,000), Sumy (12,000), Mykolayiv (10,000), Kherson (2,500), Poltava (‘thousands’), Kryvyi Rih (1,000) and Dnipropetrovsk (15,000). In contrast, the regional council of the far-eastern city of Luhansk announced it would not recognize the new central government and call for federalization, while Odessa officials also informed it would discuss the possibility of receiving greater autonomy.
March 3rd: Ultimatums
Early in the day Russians continued to seize and maintain control of strategic buildings, including ammunitions depots. Two explosions had been heard in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, with no official details yet available. A possible explanation may have been the use of stun grenades, which have been used in the capture of installations, including one in Belbek where Russians disarmed Ukrainian soldiers who were ordered not to fire first. Border guards were under pressure from Russian forces to switch sides, and Espreso.tv reported that in instances where soldiers were captured in Russian incursions, they were forced to renounce their oath and instead swear allegiance to the ‘Crimean people’. A Kyiv Post journalist, citing a local source, indicated that independent television channels were cut off, and the Crimean Center for Investigative Journalism was occupied by unmarked soldiers, and that the Crimean government has threatened other mass media. Other reports indicated public sector employees, teachers in particular, were forced to attend pro-Russian rallies in Simferopol.
Media reports indicated Russia moved armored divisions across the Kerch Strait, taking control of the local ferry that connects transit between both countries. Local news refuted the existence of armored divisions, but provided video of Russian troops surrounding the ferry port. Ex-Admiral Denis Berezovsky, now wanted for treason, broke into the headquarters of the Naval Forces of Ukraine in Sevastopol with the aid of neo-Cossacks and demanded that the officers inside defect to Russia. Approximately 400 Russian irregulars aided by neo-Cossacks and reinforced by armed Russian soldiers in the rear were involved in the storming of the naval headquarters.
The vice speaker of Crimea, Sergei Tsekov, told Russian RIA news agency that officials in Odessa, Kherson, and Mykolayiv oblasts had declared their intent to join the Crimean Republic. The information could not be verified, but recall that mass demonstrations in opposition to separatism and Russian intervention in all three of these cities occurred the day prior. In Odessa, 500 Russian nationalists stormed the city council building, a far cry from the 10,000 who took to the streets the day before to protest against Russian expansion. The city council of Odessa made statements condemning separatism, and removed the Russian flag planted by activists earlier in the day. Outside, the Russian nationalists were met by 3,000 pro-European protesters.
[one_fourth]“Attention comrades, you must surrender your weapons”[/one_fourth]
Alexander Vitko, commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet issued an ultimatum to Ukrainian forces to surrender by 5am Tuesday or face a military assault. “If they do not surrender before 5 a.m. tomorrow, a real assault will be started against units and divisions of the armed forces across Crimea,” Interfax quoted a Ministry of Defense source as saying. AP reported that four Russian warships cornered and demanded the crew of two Ukrainian warships, the corvette Ternopil and the control ship Slavutych, surrender by within hours or face seizure by the fleet. The Russian defense ministry denied the reports of an ultimatum, but reiterated its ‘right‘ to use force. However, Kyiv Post journalists on scene confirmed that the Russian vessels were yelling what appeared to be an ultimatum over loudspeaker. Ukrainian naval officer Alexei Kyrylov confirmed to Ukrainian media the ultimatum was in effect and that he expected an attack by the evening. By 8pm, attack helicopters and military aircraft were evacuated from the Novofedorivka air base and relocated in mainland Ukraine.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs claimed to have evidence that unknown individuals, on the night of the ultimatum’s timeframe, are planning to murder 3-4 Russian soldiers under the guise of Ukrainian aggression. The motivation for this is to provide legal pretext for the introduction of troops into Ukraine, the ministry warned. Former top adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Andrey Illarionov, also claimed that a group of Russian special forces troops had been deployed to Crimea to kill Russian troops and Russian citizens to provide justification for a full scale invasion, as had occurred during the August War in Georgia.
By the evening, Russia initiated an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the situation in Ukraine at 10:30pm Kyiv time. During the statement, Russian ambassador Churkin reiterated the Russian presence was there for peacekeeping purposes, and reiterated a fabricated statement by deposed president Viktor Yanukovych dated March 1st that “in the country there is chaos and anarchy,” the persecution of Russians is ongoing, anti-semitism, and that the nation was on the brink of civil war. The alleged statement from Yanukovych implored Russia to use its military to restore him to power. Jewish leaders in Crimea issued a statement backing the Kyiv government, and called talk of anti-semitism ‘exaggerated’.
“It is incredibly tense in Crimea right now, with ultimatums given to troops at almost all Ukrainian military bases here,” Oleg Chubuk, a spokesman of Ukraine’s defense ministry, told the Kyiv Post.
While the deadline given for the ultimatum passed, journalists on the ground reported seeing missile batteries mounted on personnel carriers near Sevastopol, and other APCs headed north towards Simferopol. Soon after, the press secretary of Russian President Vladimir Putin reported that he had ordered troops and formations that took part in military exercises, return to their places of permanent deployment. At the same time, journalists at Belbek reported in a series of tweets that Ukrainian troops from the military base, after receiving another ultimatum to surrender, marched on the Russian-occupied airstrip, unarmed and carrying only a pair of Ukrainian national and Soviet Air Force flags, to take it back. When the sides met, Russian troops began firing warning shots in the air, but to no avail the Ukrainians marched undeterred despite being surrounded by machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. They called their bluff, and the Russians then allowed a tentative compromise of 10 Ukrainian soldiers to take up positions on the occupied base and maintain their aircraft while they awaited orders and commanding officers faced off. During the negotiations, Ukrainian commander Colonel Yuli Mamchuk received word of Putin’s order to withdraw troops, and demanded to jointly guard the base with the Russian soldiers. In the standoff, Mamchuk vented “Because of one certain politician we are now at loggerheads. This is wrong.” Talks then suddenly fell apart and the troops, accompanied by their wives, marched under the threat of gunfire to their aircraft. The situation eventually subsided, with more Russian reinforcements arriving and the soldiers remaining defiant, who then marched back to their barracks.
This tense standoff was a microcosm of what was to come when president Putin held a press conference later in the afternoon. While stressing the values of democratic representation and the right to self determination in one direction, he lauded the legitimacy of Yanukovych and smeared the democratic movement in Kyiv in the other. When asked if Russian troops were currently active in Crimea, he held to the concocted story of the troops, who had been widely identified as Russian soldiers, as being ‘local self-defense units,’ and that anyone “can go to a store to buy any kind of uniform” in post-Soviet states. Putin also said that it was “a new state could appear” in Ukraine and said that Russia would “not sign any fundamental documents with this new state,” signaling that he considers Ukraine as a state to have formally dissolved, but still insisted the ‘new state’ pay for the ‘previous’ one’s debts. He referred to the democratic movement as anti-Semitic; a statement which was refuted by co-chairman of the European Jewish Parliament Vadim Rabinovich, while the chief rabbi of Ukraine accused Russia of of staging anti-Semitic provocations in order to justify intervention. “This is what the Nazis did during the Anshluss in Austria,” he said. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright called Putin outright ‘delusional‘. By night, Russia test fired an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) in a show of force (the test was previously scheduled, but not stated when).
In drawing tensions, Ukraine’s flagship vessel, the frigate Hetman Sahaidachny was reported en route to Sevastopol, returning after completing counter-piracy operations with NATO’s Operation Shield and European Union Naval Force, and accompanied by the Turkish pleasure craft Rusen Bey.
Invasion of mainland Ukraine?
The current number of Russian troops on Ukrainian soil is estimated to be between 6–28,000. Tyzhden reported a column of Russian troops is moving into Zaporizhia – other mediaoutlets disputed these accounts. Russia’s Interior Ministry issued a statement on its website asking for Ukrainian police to support them. Spilno.TV, citing “a reliable source, who has personal connections with Russian army personnel,” Russian soldiers that are stationed in Crimea and Smolensk (Russia) were given maps of Kyiv and the greater Kyiv region.
Regional officials indicated on March 2nd that 10km from the Russian border in the northern Chernihiv region; Russian military movements were spotted, including tanks. According to the Ukrainian State Border Service, locals in Sumy indicated that Russian border guards had been interrogating Ukrainian travelers, and questioning the location of Ukrainian border guards and military positions. Interim president Turchynov later informed that a no-fly zone over the country had been initiated for military aircraft.
On Monday March 3rd, the State Border Service of Ukraine announced that Russian forces were accumulating, including artillery and armored carriers, along the country’s eastern borders in the Donbas region of Luhansk, Donetsk, and Kharkiv. Russian border services have also closed the border for Russian citizens traveling into Donetsk, while the governor of neighboring Rostov-on-Don ordered the setup of refugee camps. In response, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, Yuri Sergeyev, suggested that “expanding military units and their equipment indicates that [Russia is] prepared to intervene in the mainland of Ukraine,” he said during a UN Security Council meeting in New York. Despite this, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk has said that Russian troops will not be allowed into the eastern regions of Ukraine. “I am convinced that no Russian military contingents will be allowed into [Ukraine’s] eastern regions,”he said.
The vice speaker of Crimea, Sergei Tsekov, proclaimed in a March 3rd interview that was widely disseminated in Russian state media, that officials in Odessa, Kherson, and Mykolayiv oblasts had declared their intent to join the so-called Crimean Republic. While unsupported, such statements could foreshadow future military expansion, should the republic declare independence or federation with Russia at month’s end.
In response to the unravelling situation, Vitali Klitschko petitioned acting president Turchynov to submit an application to the UN Security Council with regard to Russian aggression (the UNSC will meet at 9pm local time). Klitschko then insisted on holding a parliamentary session to void any treaties allowing Russia’s lease of Sevastopol and its harbor of the Black Sea Fleet. Turchynov in a separate move declared Aksenov’s appointment by the Crimean parliament to be constitutionally void.
The Ministry of Defense announced heightened combat readiness, “The armed forces stationed on the territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, are in high alert and ready to defend,” said defense minister Ihor Teniukh. He also said that military units remained in their home bases. He later stated that troops were at the highest level of readiness and morale remained high, and that they were ready to fulfill their constitutional duty.
The paramilitary Right Sector then announced a general mobilization of its forces and its intent to work in tangent with the Ukrainian government and armed forces. Later, the right-wing nationalist Svoboda party called for the introduction of martial law and the immediate mobilization forces, as well as calling on Ukrainians to defend their homeland, and ‘not give up a single shred of Ukrainian land to the invaders.
In a standoff between Russian marines and Ukrainian border guards in Balaklava, locals formed a human shield in an effort to prevent bloodshed.
“We are ready to defend our sovereignty. We believe that Russia will not resort to military intervention in Ukraine because such intervention will be the start of war and the end of any relationship with Russia”
– Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk
Near 10pm, president Turchynov announced that armed forces had been placed on full alert and that the nation’s defense council had developed a plan of action in case of direct military aggression. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also called on the U.S. and NATO to consider all possible means to protect the territorial integrity of the country. Turchynov said that Russia is engaged in numerous provocations designed to provoke a military engagement and destabilize the country. In a call between Turchynov and head of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of Russia, Sergei Narishkin, the latter informed of Russian readiness to implement military aggression against Ukraine in the event force is used “against peaceful citizens of Ukraine who reside in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.”
On early March 2nd, the three former presidents of Ukraine stood in unison to terminate the Kharkiv Accords which extended the lease of the Black Sea Fleet port to Russia. They noted that “for the first time in recent history the Ukrainian people are faced with a crisis that threatens the unity, sovereignty, and independence of our country, and this can turn into a national catastrophe that threatens the destruction of Ukraine.” They also urged the Security Service (SBU) to “instantly respond to any threats to split Ukraine.” In a fiery speech, Ukraine’s first president Leonid Kravchuk even said “I am 80 years old but I’ll take up a gun and defend your country.”
Prime Minister Yatsenyuk “If [Putin] wants to be the president who started the war between two neighboring and friendly countries, he has reached his target within a few inches. We are on the brink of disaster.” The Defense Ministry was later ordered to stage a call-up and mobilization of reserves, which theoretically could include a draft of all men up to 40 years old. Reservists were told to prepare for deployment. Dmytro Yarosh also called on Ukrainians to join Right Sector militia squads nationwide, and the establishment of a Right Sector military headquarters. On March 2nd, men from Kyiv flooded the city’s 10 district recruitment centers, and in instances over half were volunteers. Conscription fever grew over the course of the next 24 hours of mobilization, with thousands enlisting across the entire country – conscripts came throughout the day in Lviv, over 1,000 signed up in Lutsk and 4,000 in Chernihiv alone, and Polish Ukrainians enlisted at the embassy in Poland to defend their country.
Amid statements by Polish prime minister Donald Tusk that the world stands ‘on the brink of conflict’, witnesses noted columns of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and a massive rail transport of military equipment being transported in the area of Gorzow Wielkopolski and Slupsk. A spokesperson for the General Staff confirmed the movements, but dismissed them as being routine. On March 3rd, Poland invoked Article 4 meeting with NATO, which is used when a member feels that its security or territorial integrity is threatened.
It should go without saying that an attempt to seize Ukrainian territory would be a disaster in the short run, ruining Russian credibility around the world and likely starting a major war. In the long term, such an action, even if it were to succeed, would set a rather troubling precedent — for Russia itself.
Beijing pays attention to Ukraine because it has a major stake in Ukrainian agricultural territories. It will likely note the developing Russian doctrine on the flexibility of Russia’s external borders. China also has a stake in eastern Siberia. It needs fresh water, hydrocarbons, mineral resources such as copper and zinc, and fertile soil for its farmers. The Chinese economic relationship with eastern Siberia is a colonial one: China buys raw materials and sells finished goods. Beijing actually invests more in eastern Siberia than does Moscow. No one knows the exact number of Chinese citizens in eastern Siberia — in part because the last Russian census declined to count them — but it certainly dwarfs the number of Russians in Crimea, and is expected by Russian analysts to increase significantly with time.
It seems rather risky for Russia to develop, on its own border, a challenge to the basic premise of territorial sovereignty. Beijing and Moscow currently enjoy good relations, and Chinese leaders are too sophisticated to consider open threats to eastern Siberia. But down the road, as demographic pressures mount and Russian resources beckon, a Russian doctrine of the ethnic adjustments of Russian borders could provide Beijing with a useful model.
Timothy Snyder is an American historian and Professor of History at Yale University.
Mr Walden says the Chinese have never forgiven Russia for seizing East Siberia under the Tsars, the “lost territories”. They want their property back, and they are getting it back by ethnic resettlement across the Amur and the frontier regions, much as Mexico is retaking California and Texas by the Reconquista of migration.
The population of far Eastern Siberia has collapsed to 6.3m from over 8 million twenty years ago, leaving ghost towns along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Russia has failed to make a go of its Eastern venture. With a national fertility rate of 1.4, chronic alcoholism, and a population expected to shrink by 30m to barely more than 110m by 2050 — according to UN demographers, not Mr Putin’s officials — the nation must inexorably recede towards its European bastion of Old Muscovy. The question is how fast, and how peacefully.
Amid ethnic and military tensions, at 4:20am on February 27, a group of up to 120 armed Russian insurgents armed with automatic weapons seized the Crimean parliament in the capital of Simferopol. Reuters and Interfax are confirming the events. Insurgents shot at entryway doors, eventually breaking them down. Eyewitnesses described them as professionals (“like marines”) and heavily armed. The seizure was described as pre-meditated, and that in the first wave about 30 men broke into the building. The building was cordoned off by police but not well, and afterwards a bus arrived carrying the additional reinforcements who were carrying Kalashnikovs, SVD sniper rifles, RPGs, combinations devices, and ammunition.
The gunmen were unmarked but raised Russian flags. In particular, the Russian flag was raised over the capital building so as to signify its occupation. They wore black and orange St. George ribbons, a Russian and Soviet symbol used prominently by the now dissolved militant Ukrainian Front, and erected a sign saying ‘Crimea is Russia’, according to AP. The ribbons have also been worn by vigilantes in recent assaults in Kerch, Crimea.
A high-ranking Ukrainian official in Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry stated the insurgents were Russian: “Nobody can understand who took over, but it seems it’s the Russians,” the Foreign Ministry source said. Local authorities have claimed that the men were from local ‘self-defense’ militias. Pro-Russian groups have openly been openly recruiting for so-called “self defense” militias in recent days (video). Mustafa Jemilov, former head of the Mejilis of the Crimean Tatar people, believes them to be either Russian soldiers, or former Berkut soldiers loyal to Russia. Illegally installed, de facto mayor of the city of Sevastopol, Alexei Chaly, has actively recruited form former Berkut riot police who were dismissed by the government following the killings of nearly 100 in Kyiv. The renegade Berkut, armed with assault rifles, have been seen manning military checkpoints on Crimean highways under the Russian flag.
Eyewitnesses report that participants of the ongoing protests stayed overnight as the parliament remained barricaded with debris, and by sunset unmarked individuals were seen in full combat gear. One security guard was killed in the raid, and other police were released. At least 100 police surrounded parliament. Entrances to the building have since been sealed with wooden crates.
At this moment the armed men have no made any demands, saying they are not authorized to either hold talks or make demands. Lifenews reports that the gunmen informed protesters that they came to “protect the interests of the Russian population,” and KP quoted that they stated their rejection of the Kyiv government. They also informed that they would open fire on any who approached the building.
The Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has informed that the neighborhood around parliament has been cordoned off by police to prevent civilian casualties.
The event takes place one day after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered ordering a surprise military exercise of ground and air forces. The New York Times reports that residents have seen Russian military vehicles with greater frequency on their streets. In response to the occupation, Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov has called on Russian forces stationed in Sevastopol to not leave its naval base, and that any troop movement outside agreed territories would be considered an act of military aggression. Avakov meanwhile stated that he believed the group to be terrorists attempting to provoke a confrontation between Ukrainian and Russian military forces.
As a result of the standoff, Crimea’s parliament, at gunpoint, sacked its Cabinet and ordered a referendum on “autonomy” for May 25 to coincide with Ukraine’s presidential elections. The referendum will ask “Do you support the state independence of Crimea as part of Ukraine on the basis of treaties and agreements?”