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NATO military convoy in Hungary is heading to Ukraine – Ukrainian soldiers battling Russian tanks at Lugansk

katonai konvoj
Hungarian military convoy is heading to Ukraine as NATO continues support for Kiev

NATO continues to support Ukraine with military equipment against pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk. 

Ukrainian troops on Monday were battling a Russian tank contingent in the eastern city of Lugansk, Kiev said, accusing Moscow’s army units of moving into large cities in the region.

Continue reading NATO military convoy in Hungary is heading to Ukraine – Ukrainian soldiers battling Russian tanks at Lugansk

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Petro Poroshenko to meet Vladimir Putin in Milan

Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with Petro Poroshenko (Reuters)

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says he will meet Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin next week to discuss the six-month conflict between Kiev and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

“I will have a meeting with the President of Russia Vladimir Putin in Milan,” where a Europe-Asia Meeting summit will be held October 16-17, Poroshenko said while on a visit to eastern city Kharkiv.

The talks will also include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Premier Matteo Renzi, and British Prime Minister David Cameron along with the “leaders of the European Union,” Poroshenko said.

“You know, I don’t expect that these will be easy negotiations,” he added.

“I’m used to it. I have large experience with complicated diplomatic talks. But I’m an optimist.”

Putin and Poroshenko last met in late August for talks that led to a truce accord between Kiev and the pro-Russian rebels in eastern regions of Lugansk and Donetsk, where Ukraine says Moscow is stirring a bloody rebellion.

The conflict has already killed more than 3300 people. The United Nations says that more than 300 have died since the ceasefire.

Fighting has continued in several areas along the frontline where the two sides have failed to pull back heavy artillery, as required under the ceasefire.

300 Russian troops die in Ukraine, 4,000 missing

A photograph posted in “Cargo 200 from Ukraine to Russia” Facebook group shows a plate with personal data of five Russian soldiers buried in a common grave in an identified place in eastern Ukraine.

One of them has no name, but they all have the same date of death, Aug. 27. This was the day when Russian troops were advancing deep into Ukraine’s territory.

“Killed for (President Vladimir) Putin’s lies,” the plate says.

This photo, taken by a Ukrainian soldier, is one of many pieces of evidence of Russian soldiers dying massively in Ukraine.

The Facebook group’s name is a code word for sealed coffins that are used to carry bodies back home, which was set up in August by Russian volunteers to help relatives find men who could be fighting and dying in Ukraine.

Eleva Vasilieva, a human rights activist and the group’s founder, says that the total number of deaths of Russian soldiers and mercenaries in Ukraine warfare could be about 4,000.

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“We don’t know the number of wounded and those who could be killed of wounds as this figure is hidden,” she said at a press briefing in Kyiv.

“Under Ilovaisk on Aug. 25-27, when the Russian troops were deployed, we recorded the first thousand of Russian officers (killed) just in two days,” she added.

She said the dead bodies were shipped back, partly using the so-called humanitarian convoys organized by the Russians, allegedly to bring aid to areas that suffered the most.

By now, the Cargo 200 group has more than 23,000 members. But more importantly, it has helped to track and identify about 200 killed Russian soldiers and help build up social pressure to stop the Russian war in Ukraine.

On Sept. 5 Ukraine and Russia agreed about seize fire in eastern Ukraine, but despite the truce almost 100 soldiers have been killed on both sides, according to Vasilieva’s estimates.

Russian authorities have denied any involvement of regular troops in Ukraine, despite numerous photos of killed Russian soldiers, and media testimonies of their relatives at home.

Russian troops are still present on Ukraine’s territory, according to the nation’s officials.

Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the National Security and Defense Council, said that 76 Russian military officers met on Sept. 26 near Donets city with Ukrainian side and monitors of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to discuss seize-fire and creation of artillery-free buffer zone in Donetsk, following an agreement in Minsk on Sept, 19.

Michael Bociurkiw, spokesperson of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, confirmed that monitors of this organization participated in talk with “Ukrainian and Russian military officers in Soledar (Donetsk Oblast).”

Vasilieva said she didn’t have information about the number of Russian soldiers present in Ukraine at the moment. B

ut she said that in late Augusts, when the Russian troops started massively crossing into Ukraine, there were up to 30,000 troops, including representatives of Transnistria, the self-proclaimed republic on the territory of Moldova.

“This figure was supported by various sources, including military ones,” she said.

Vasilieva also said that the number of Ukrainian fighters killed in this war is up to 10 times higher than the official figures show. “We estimate the losses of Ukrainian side at up to 8,000,” she said.

Civilian losses are “impossible to count,” she said.

Putin call for ‘statehood’ talks on southeast Ukraine raises fears

Putin

Vladimir Putin has called for talks on the “statehood” of southeast Ukraine, in a provocative comment that will heighten fears Moscow is seeking the partition of the country.

The comments by the Russian president are the latest escalation in rhetoric from the Kremlin and come as Europe prepares to impose tougher sanctions against Moscow. They follow an intensification of fighting in eastern Ukraine that Kiev and western governments say is being fuelled by an inflow of Russian soldiers and equipment.

“We must immediately begin substantive, meaningful negotiations, not on technical questions but on questions of the political structure of society and of the statehood of southeast Ukraine in order to guarantee the legal interests of people who live there,” Mr Putin said in a television interview.

Ukrainian troops evacuated from the rebel-held town of Starobesheve

The use of the word “statehood”, while imprecise, is likely to antagonise Kiev. Dmitry Peskov, the president’s spokesman, sought to play down the remarks. He said Mr Putin had been calling for inclusive talks with the separatists to start as soon as possible, but that it was “absolutely wrong” to interpret his words as calling for independence for eastern Ukraine.

However, the escalation in the Ukraine conflict is likely to draw a western response this week. General Philip Breedlove, Nato’s supreme allied commander in Europe, said the alliance would “take head on” the engagement of Russian troops in Ukraine at a summit in Wales starting on Thursday. European leaders agreed on Saturday to prepare new sanctions against Moscow within a week.

In his TV interview, Mr Putin indirectly addressed allegations that Russian troops were fighting in Ukraine. “It must be taken into account that Russia cannot remain indifferent to the fact that people are being shot almost point-blank,” he said, before clarifying that he was referring to the Russian people, not the government.

Ukrainian loyalists hold their flag as they rally at the last checkpoint on the eastern side of Mariupol (picture from 30 August)

Russia, which annexed Crimea following a disputed referendum in March, has been calling for the federalisation of Ukraine since the pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in February. However, Moscow has stopped short of calling for the independence or annexation of eastern Ukraine.

Mr Peskov said Mr Putin’s words were a call for “negotiations within Ukraine, addressing the internal, Ukrainian structures which would take into account the interests of the eastern regions of the country”.

Late last week, Mr Putin made an address to “the militia of Novorossiya” – a politically loaded term that rebels and Russian nationalists use for areas of south and eastern Ukraine for which they seek independence. Mr Putin has only used the term publicly once before.

The EU will this week begin drawing up a comprehensive blacklist of people and companies involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

However, there is still disagreement over the extent to which sanctions should be strengthened. Although Britain, France and Germany want harder measures against the Russian financial and energy sectors by the end of the week, many eastern European countries fear that a trade war with Moscow could cripple their economies.

The EU summit came after Kiev and the west accused Russia of direct military incursions to help pro-Russian separatists launch a new front with Ukraine’s army. Separatists seized the town of Novoazovsk which borders Russia in the country’s far south-eastern corner. Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement in the conflict.

On a recent visit to Novoazovsk, the FT saw a handful of better-equipped soldiers, standing out from average rebel forces. They resembled the so-called “green men”, Russian soldiers without identifying insignias who appeared throughout Crimea earlier this year.

 

However, none admitted to be being from Russia. Nato’s Gen Breedlove said “it’s clear Russian troops are engaged in eastern Ukraine”.

The capture of Novoazovsk threatens to reverse gains made by Ukraine’s army in past weeks towards encircling separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk, their stronghold cities further north.

Rebels extend fight against Kiev to Ukraine’s south coast

Pro-Russian rebels entered a new town in southeast Ukraine on Wednesday while Kiev accused Russia of sending more troops into its territory, dispelling hopes of political progress after talks between the two countries’ presidents.

Rebels entered Novoazovsk, a strategically important town on the Sea of Azov 10km from the Russian border, the town’s mayor announced. It is on the road linking Russia to Crimea, the peninsula Moscow annexed in March, and is some distance south of the existing rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Andriy Lysenko, a Ukrainian army spokesman, said rebels had not seized the town but had entered the outskirts following heavy shelling. He alleged the rebels were being backed by Russian troops and weapons which Ukraine said crossed into its territory on Monday.

Mr Lysenko also claimed a further group of Russian soldiers had crossed its border on Wednesday and travelled to Amrosiyivka, a town on the road to Donetsk where Ukraine detained 10 Russian soldiers on Monday.

That allegation could not be independently verified and there was no immediate response from Moscow.

If confirmed, however, it will further fuel concerns in Kiev and western capitals that Russia is stepping up its support to separatist rebels, and that separatists are starting to reverse gains made by Ukraine’s military in recent weeks.

The fighting around Novoazovsk creates a de facto new front in the conflict, close to Mariupol. This coastal city has been used by Ukraine as a logistical base to support its campaign against the rebels further north in Donetsk and Lugansk.

It could also signal that Moscow is seeking to establish a direct land link under its control between Russia and the seized Crimean peninsula nearly 300km away.

“Our forces are currently engaged with Russian forces with tanks that are on the territory of Ukraine near . . . Novoazovsk,” said Oleksander Danylyuk, an adviser to Ukraine’s defence minister. “We are also increasingly facing genuine Russian soldiers in addition to mercenaries armed by Russia on the other fronts in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.”

The developments came just hours after talks in Minsk between Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin – the first face-to-face meeting between the two men since June.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to speak to the media after talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk, Belarus August 27, 2014. REUTERS-Alexander Zemlianichenko-Pool

Though the talks produced no breakthrough, Mr Poroshenko said on Wednesday he would work towards a road map for a bilateral ceasefire, which he said Mr Putin had supported.

Mr Putin made no reference to the road map proposal, but said he would do “everything” to work towards peace. Talks were set to continue between the two countries and EU representatives in a three-way contact group, Mr Poroshenko said.

(L-R) Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko pose for a family photo during their meeting in Minsk, August 26, 2014. REUTERS-Grigory Dukor

After two hours of bilateral talks between the two leaders, however, no details emerged of what the ceasefire plan might look like and no indication of how the eastern rebels might respond.

Mr Putin refused to be drawn on Ukraine’s claims that Moscow was supporting the rebels. He insisted the conflict was an internal Ukrainian matter and it was not his role to negotiate between Kiev and the rebels.

(L-R) Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko walk before posing for a family photo during their meeting in Minsk, August 26, 2014. REUTERS-Grigory Dukor

“We didn’t substantively discuss that, and we, Russia, can’t substantively discuss conditions of a ceasefire, of agreements between Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. That’s not our business, it’s up to Ukraine itself,” he told reporters.

In Moscow, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, suggested Russia may send regular humanitarian convoys to Ukraine.

Flags of the European Union (L-R), Ukraine and Russia fly during the arrivals of leaders and delegations at an airport outside Minsk August 26, 2014.  REUTERS-Vasily Fedosenko

Mr Lavrov said Russia hoped to reach agreement soon with Kiev on sending a second humanitarian convoy to eastern Ukraine, plans for which he announced earlier this week. “I am sure that it will not be the last, as aid is needed on an enormous scale,” he told a youth forum.

Kiev and the west have greeted Russia’s aid convoy scheme with suspicion, warning that Moscow might ultimately use the trucks as a way to further entrench itself on the ground in Ukraine, or as a distraction to mask Russia’s real intentions.

Despite the talks in Minsk, tensions remained high between Ukraine and Russia on Wednesday. Arseniy Yatseniuk, Ukrainian premier, claimed Kiev had learned of plans by Russia to continue a current shut-off of natural gas to Ukraine through the winter. Mr Yatseniuk gave no details of the alleged plans.

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko walks down a flight of stairs upon his arrival at an airport outside Minsk August 26, 2014.  REUTERS-Vasily Fedosenko

Mr Putin had called earlier for a resumption of the “energy dialogue” between the two countries. Speaking in Minsk, Günther Oettinger, EU energy commissioner, said three-way gas consultations would take place in Moscow on Friday between Russia, Ukraine and the EU, with Brussels acting as mediator.

In an attempt to broker a compromise before winter, Mr Oettinger suggested that the parties could agree an “interim price” before reaching a longer-term deal. However, the commissioner did not give any further deals on what form an “interim” deal could take.

Separatist leader boasts of fresh tanks and trained troops from Russia

Russian military personnel ride atop armoured personnel carriers (APCs) outside Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, Rostov Region, August 15, 2014. The European Union said on Friday it would consider any unilateral military actions by Russia in Ukraine as "a blatant violation of international law". REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov (RUSSIA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)
Russian armoured personnel carriers outside Kamensk-Shakhtinsky in the Rostov region on the Russian side of the border on Friday

Eastern Ukrainian separatists are receiving dozens of tanks and Russian-trained fighters, one of the rebel leaders has said, suggesting that Moscow continues to defy international pressure to end its backing for the four-month conflict.

Alexander Zakharchenko, who took over a week ago as prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, told members of his government that rebel forces had reopened a corridor to the Russian Federation allowing fresh inflows of arms and fighters.

“At present, moving along the path of this corridor . . . there are 150 items of combat hardware, 30 of which are tanks,” a YouTube video released on Saturday showed him as saying. Also en route were “1,200 individuals who underwent four months of training in the Russian Federation,” he said.

Though the revelation could not be independently confirmed, it comes one day after Kiev claimed to have used artillery to destroy Russian combat vehicles illegally entering its territory.

Denied by Russia, the incident allegedly occurred at a border crossing near the other rebel-held provincial capital, Lugansk, close to where a Russian convoy of nearly 270 trucks carrying humanitarian aid was parked awaiting Ukrainian customs clearance.

In Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, where more than 360 Russian aid trucks have been parked since Thursday, the Red Cross and Ukrainian and Russian representatives continued their negotiations over how the Russian aid convoy would be allowed into Ukrainian territory.

Six representatives for OMON, a Russian special police force, stood guard over the convoy camp on Saturday, refusing to let press access the site.

News organisations including the Financial Times have spotted numerous armed military vehicles on the main highway leading to the Russian town of Donetsk which borders Ukraine. Some of the vehicles have borne the red initials “MS” – the Russian symbol for peacekeeping forces.

Ukraine Conflict

On Saturday, there appeared to be fewer armed personnel carriers and military vehicles driving on the roads than in previous days.

Mr Zakharchenko’s confirmation that Russia continues to give military backing to his separatist movement upholds Kiev’s claim that its northern neighbour – which annexed Crimea earlier this year – is waging a “hybrid war” by orchestrating the separatist rebellion then providing arms and rebels for its fighting force.

Backing claims by their government, Ukrainian soldiers have in past weeks claimed to be routinely engaging undercover Russian soldiers alongside the rebels, while also being shelled from Russian territory.

First trucks carrying Russian humanitarian aid for Ukraine arrive in Ukraine
First trucks carrying Russian humanitarian aid for Ukraine arrive in Ukraine

In Donetsk this week, a rebel spokesman admitted Russians accounted for a significant part of rebel ranks. He said they were “fighting for Russia” against the west in a “civilisation war.”

The prospect of fresh inflows of arms and fighters could make things more difficult for Ukraine’s advancing army, which claimed in past weeks to have made significant gains towards encircling the militant strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Mr Zakharchenko, a native of Donetsk region, rose to prominence last week after replacing Muscovite Alexander Borodai, who has close ties to Kremlin insiders. His rise to power preceded this week’s unexpected removal of former Russian intelligence officer Igor Girkin, better known as Strelkov or Shooter in Russian, as the group’s military commander.

© Photo: AFP / Dmitry Serebryakov | A Russian military truck carries an air defence missile technical supply on a road outside the RUssiantown of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, 30 km from the Ukrainian border, on August 16, 2014.

The leadership shake-up appears to be a bid to conceal links to Russian involvement. But mounting evidence that Moscow continues to funnel arms and fighters to the separatist uprising is nonetheless likely to raise further international alarm, deepening the Kremlin’s stand-off with the west.

The US and EU have repeatedly warned Moscow that it faces additional economic sanctions should it fail to take measures to de-escalate the most serious east-west stand-off since the Cold War.

The foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France are scheduled on Sunday to hold fresh peace talks in Berlin.

 

War for ‘New Russia’ drives Ukraine separatists

The resignation of Igor Girkin, the Russian military mastermind behind the takeover of large parts of eastern Ukraine by rebel fighters, this week was the latest crack to appear at the top of the months-long rebellion that has become increasingly strained.

His departure is the third high-profile change in the rebel hierarchy in the past week. Alexander Borodai, also a Muscovite, stepped down last week as prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. With Mr Girkin, he was part of Russian-backed separatist forces in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria in the early 1990s.

The replacement of both with Ukrainians marks a transition in the leadership from highly trained Russian military officers to locally recruited warlords in an increasingly tense stand-off with Ukrainian forces.

“It will be like Stalingrad,” an armed rebel nicknamed Taipan recently told the Financial Times, referring to the battle between the separatists and government forces that is expected in coming days and weeks.

Taipan is one of thousands of locals who have joined forces with Russian militants to fight Kiev’s army for control of Ukraine’s east. The government estimates the ranks of the rebel army have swelled to between 10,000 and 15,000 since fighting started four months ago.

To evade the increasingly frequent shelling by Ukraine’s government forces, the rebels have concealed their tanks and are finding more cover in Donetsk. They have also become more suspicious of the western media, fearing that their location could be revealed to Ukrainian artillery squads.

“If I see you here again, I will shoot you,” one separatist commander said when approached by western journalists this week.

“If any shell hits us, I will find you and I will kill you,” he said before photographing a journalist accreditation card.

Taipan, a former construction worker, describes a sense of righteousness in defending the city he has grown up in from what he calls a “fascist” pro-western leadership. He views Kiev’s plans to forge closer links with the EU as a plot by America to exploit the region’s potentially large shale gas reserves and weaken ties with Russia.

His views are reinforced in broadcasts by Russian television, which are received in Donetsk and other parts of eastern Ukraine. Kiev’s pro-western government channels have been cut off in the region for months.

“It’s time to take down Obama,” another rebel shouted at a roadside checkpoint claiming that the US president orchestrated the toppling of Viktor Yanukovich, the former Ukraine president.

For Taipan, standing up to Kiev’s army, even if it ends in death, is a worthy cause comparable to Soviet war veterans who defeated Nazi Germany.

The rebels claim the ideology of what they call “New Russia” is a mixture of traditional Russian Orthodox theology and cultural conservatism that they believe should reign in eastern Ukraine.

The views echo the social agenda of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, who routinely attacks western values as materialistic and immoral.

Guarding the MH17 crash site weeks ago, one rebel commander nicknamed Grumpy described Americans, Europeans, Catholics, Protestants and Westerners at large as “enemies”.

The website of Alexander Khriakov, a Donetsk-based rebel official, contains articles alleging that western policy is heavily influenced by Zionists.

Koba, a rebel spokesperson, dubbed the eastern Ukraine war as the frontline in a “civilisation war” between Russia and the west.

This is Ukraine. We need a return to our peaceful past. We don’t want this war or anyone to defend us in our land

– Olga, a pensioner living on the frontline on the outskirts of Donetsk

A South Ossetian, Koba and other fighters from Russia say they are in Donetsk “fighting for Russia, for Russian civilisation”.

“To learn what drives Russian civilisation, the Russian soul, you need to read Dostoyevsky. It’s a different approach to life,” says Koba.

Though militants claim to be upholding an internationally unrecognised independence referendum held in May in Ukraine’s industrial east populated by some 5m, many locals have fled rebel-held cities.

Once a sprawling city of 1m, Donetsk is largely deserted. Sporadic shelling this week reached the centre of the city, hitting offices and residential buildings.

Though there are no signs of looting, most shops and restaurants closed weeks ago and the police have disappeared.

Lugansk is more damaged by the four-month conflict which, according to UN estimates, has claimed more than 2,000 civilian and combatant lives. Without water, power and telecommunications for nearly two weeks, half of Lugansk’s 400,000 former inhabitants have fled.

Kiev describes the rebellion as a proxy war engineered, financed and armed by Moscow. Civilian allegiances are split, but increasingly many seem to yearn most for a return to peace and normalcy.

“This is Ukraine. We need a return to our peaceful past. We don’t want this war or anyone to defend us in our land,” said Olga, a pensioner living on the frontline on the outskirts of Donetsk.

Koba, who uses the same nickname Stalin had, is baffled by such views.

“I don’t understand the local population’s mentality . . . when they are bombed, but then return walking through the city, drinking beer and relaxing,” he said.

“I never saw this in Grozny or Tskhinvali [capital of South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia during the 2007 Russia-Georgia war]. Men are obliged to defend their land,” he added.

Frustrated that many locals are not joining rebel ranks, Koba claims to still be confident in victory.

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