TIME Ukraine

Why Ukraine’s Peace Plan Leaves the Door Open for a Winter of Conflict

Residents Of Donetsk Have Largely Fled, As Pro-Russian Rebels Control The City
A separatist fighter stands guard on Sept. 10, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine. Spencer Platt—Getty Images

The peace process allows Russia to try a less violent means of keeping Ukraine dependent and divided — energy blackmail by shutting off its fuel supplies

The armistice in eastern Ukraine came like clockwork with the end of the summer fighting season, and both the government forces and the separatist rebels have taken it as a chance to entrench, consolidate their gains and make up for their losses. Even the separatist forces, who with the aid of Russia were on the offensive before the ceasefire took hold on Sept. 5, are playing along with the truce for now. But their leaders warn that this is only a breather between bouts.

“The situation now can best be characterized as neither war nor peace,” says Oleg Tsarev, one of the leading figures in the separatist movement. “Still, I expect there to be major upheavals for Ukraine ahead. Most importantly, how will it handle the winter, the cold, and the [economic] crisis that is now arriving in Ukraine?”

The winter weather, though ill suited to the use of tanks and infantry, will give Russia a chance to try out another tactic in Ukraine. Its goals will be the same—to pry Ukraine apart, to erode the support of its allies in the West and, ultimately, to halt or reverse the westward drift of the new government in Kiev. But when the temperature falls, Russia can pursue these aims more effectively by shutting off supplies of fuel than it can with the use of force.

It has been doing both already. As the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine was heating up in June, Russia handed Ukraine an unpaid fuel bill worth around $5 billion, demanded pre-payment for any future supplies and unceremoniously shut the tap. At the end of August, President Vladimir Putin said that talks to resume these supplies had “reached a dead end.” During the summer season, Ukraine’s reserves of natural gas have been enough to meet demand. But that may change with the onset of winter, which could force Ukraine to seek more help from the West—in the form of loans, energy supplies or both—to prevent its citizens from freezing.

Slovakia became the first this month to set its natural gas pipelines to flow backwards into Ukraine, potentially covering about a fifth of its neighbor’s demand. But practically all of Slovakia’s gas comes from Russia in the first place; now part of it is simply being shipped back to Ukraine. If other neighbors are willing to share, this bizarre arrangement may be the only way Ukraine survives the winter. But it’s not clear how generous E.U. nations can afford to be.

Europe depends on Russia for a third of its energy supplies, and roughly 80% of that gas travels through Ukrainian pipelines before getting to its destination. So the last time Russia tried to cut off the flow to Ukraine in 2009—during an especially frigid winter—millions of Europeans came up short on fuel when they needed it most.

The separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk won’t have this problem. Russia has fuel pipelines running directly into these regions, and it has already begun negotiating supply deals with their separatist leaders on preferential terms. The goal, says Tsarev, is to demonstrate that an alliance with Russia is a lot cozier than one with the West, at least when it comes to surviving the winter. “Our goal is to rebuild our economy, to establish our statehood, and to show that our model is more successful than the one that exists in Ukraine,” he tells TIME in a phone interview.

The peace deal that Ukraine’s President defended on Wednesday will allow the separatists room to pursue these ends. In a speech to his cabinet of ministers, Petro Poroshenko said the breakaway regions would be able to hold elections to choose their own leaders and lawmakers. Ukraine’s parliament, he said, must also pass a law outlining “the temporary order of self-government for certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” namely those that are still under the control of the rebel militias. But the key provision of Poroshenko’s 12-point peace plan is the one that calls for the “decentralization of power.”

This phrase seems just vague enough to satisfy all sides. It falls short of Putin’s earlier calls for the “federalization” of Ukraine, which would grant broad rights of self-determination to the breakaway provinces. But it also allows Poroshenko to play up the promise that Ukraine will remain united, with no more regions splitting off. “The protocol does not mention any federalization, any secession,” he said. “That is not up for debate.”

The separatists would beg to differ. Andrei Purgin, one of the two rebel leaders who signed Poroshenko’s peace plan on Sept. 5, declared a few days later that the region of Donetsk is “standing firm on the condition of self-determination.” How the rebels will push this demand remains unclear. Tsarev says that the idea of full independence is still very much on the table, while another official in the rebel leadership, Sergei Kavtaradze (who unlike the other two is a Russian citizen) told TIME on Wednesday that, “we are not allowed to comment right now” on the question of independence. Considering his background as a Moscow public relations expert, Kavtaradze’s reticence suggests that Russia may be urging the separatists to hold off on making any more demands for now.

But that hardly means they will not arise in the future. If Ukraine moves ahead with its integration with the European Union, Russia could easily encourage the separatists to resume their rebellion. By spring, they will likely have elected a set of leaders who can push the cause of independence with more legitimacy than their movement can claim as of now. Though Poroshenko seems to realize this, he clearly sees it as the lesser evil.

Speaking to his cabinet on Wednesday, he said Kiev will probably not be thrilled with ranks of the local lawmakers that Donetsk and Luhansk will soon be allowed to elect. But then he asked, “isn’t it better to administer policy through ballots instead of automatic gunfire…?” Most of his war-weary constituents will likely agree that it is. But nothing in Poroshenko’s peace plan obliges the rebels to give up their arsenals, and weather permitting, they will still be able to use them again with the arrival of spring.

TIME russia

Canada Trolls Russia on Twitter With Sardonic Geography Lesson

So what is and isn’t Russia? Canada aims to set the record straight

“Geography can be tough.”

Canada’s NATO delegation posted a cheeky lesson on what is — and isn’t — Russian land in a tweet on Wednesday.

The snide post, which includes labels of “Russia” and “Not Russia,” was aimed at the Kremlin’s soldiers who “keep getting lost & ‘accidentally’ entering #Ukraine” — a clear reference to the recent capture of Russian soldiers in Ukrainian territory. Exactly why the Russian soldiers wandered across the border remains murky, though Moscow maintains it was an accident.

The Canadian tweet had been retweeted more than 30,000 times as of early Friday morning, including by NATO delegations from the U.S., U.K. and Sweden on their official Twitter accounts. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry also retweeted the map.

Russia, however, came back with its own snarky rebuttal.

On Thursday, the Russian NATO delegation’s official account wrote, “Helping our Canadian colleagues to catch up with contemporary geography of #Europe.” The tweet included its own map, which noticeably labels the Crimean Peninsula as belonging to Russia.

The map also shaded in a separate color for Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two states whose 2008 unilateral independence is recognized by Russia — but internationally condemned.

The Canada-Russia tweet battle came prior to an emergency NATO session with E.U. leaders on Friday. They plan to discuss Kiev’s accusations that Russia invaded eastern Ukraine as well as the West’s contention that Moscow is directly involved in the conflict with pro-Russian separatists.

TIME Ukraine

Russian Artillery Units Are Firing at Ukrainian Soldiers, NATO Says

A pro-Russian gunman is seen through a shrapnel hole after shelling in Donetsk on August 22, 2014.
A pro-Russian gunman is seen through a shrapnel hole after shelling in Donetsk on August 22, 2014. Dimitar Dilkoff—AFP/Getty Images

The move marks an escalation in a conflict over a region embroiled in war between Ukraine's central government and pro-Russian separatists

Updated 5:57 p.m. on Aug. 22

Artillery units being operated by Russian soldiers have crossed into Ukraine and are firing on Ukrainian forces, Western officials said Friday, in an apparent escalation of the ongoing conflict along the border.

“We have seen the use of Russian artillery in Ukraine in the past days,” U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters Friday, calling it part of “a pattern whereby we’ve seen firing from within Russia into Ukraine, and we’ve seen a disturbing movement of Russian artillery and military equipment into Ukraine as well.”

Rhodes also called on Russia to remove a convoy of trucks that recently entered Ukraine, which Moscow says are bringing aid but whose arrival was not coordinated with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Ukraine has called the entry of the trucks a “direct invasion.”

“Russia should take the opportunity to remove this convoy from within Ukraine,” Rhodes said. “If they don’t, they will face additional costs and consequences from the United States and our partners in the international community.”

Russia has long been accused by the West of lending support, including arms and sometimes clandestine personnel, to pro-Russian separatists in the eastern half of Ukraine, but comments by Rhoades and NATO leaders marked the first time Western powers have accused Moscow of directly invading Ukrainian territory with Russian military units and personnel.

A NATO spokeswoman said the military alliance has received multiple of Russian forces being directly involved in recent days, the New York Times reports, “including Russian airborne, air defense and special operations.”

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in a statement from Brussels, said the group has “also seen transfers of large quantities of advanced weapons, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and artillery to separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, NATO is observing an alarming build-up of Russian ground and air forces in the vicinity of Ukraine.”

Rasmussen condemned Moscow for allowing an ostensibly humanitarian economic convoy to enter Ukraine with no involvement from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which typically coordinates such missions. He went on to blame Russia for escalating tensions with a military buildup along the Ukrainian border.

“This is a blatant breach of Russia’s international commitments, including those made recently in Berlin and Geneva, and a further violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty by Russia,”Rasmussen said. “It can only deepen the crisis in the region, which Russia itself has created and has continued to fuel.”

The Obama Administration also condemned the latest Russian movements.

“At the same time as Russian vehicles violate Ukraine’s sovereignty, Russia maintains a sizable military force on the Ukrainian border capable of invading Ukraine on very short notice,” National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in a statement. “It has repeatedly fired into Ukrainian territory, and has sent an ever-increasing stream of military equipment and fighters into Ukraine.”

TIME Ukraine

Ukraine: Russia’s Aid Convoy Is a ‘Direct Invasion’

A Russian border guard opens a gate into the Ukraine for the first trucks heading into the country from the Russian town of Donetsk, Rostov-on-Don region, Russia, Aug. 22, 2014.
A Russian border guard opens a gate into the Ukraine for the first trucks heading into the country from the Russian town of Donetsk, Rostov-on-Don region, Russia, Aug. 22, 2014. Sergei Grits—AP

But Moscow warns against interfering with the trucks' crossing

Russia sent dozens of aid trucks into eastern Ukraine on Friday without the Ukrainian government’s approval, the Associated Press reports. This show of defiance, which a Ukrainian security chief called a “a direct invasion,” has increased fears of conflict between Russian forces and the Ukrainian military.

A witness told Reuters that 70 of the 260 white trucks left a Russian convoy that had been stalled at the border for over a week. The breakaway column crossed the border and headed for the rebel-held area of Luhansk, accompanied by some Ukrainian separatist fighters.

The convoy was being held at the border while Kiev and Moscow negotiated the terms of the crossing and discussed the trucks’ contents and the role the International Committee for the Red Cross should play. Both sides had agreed the Red Cross would accompany the vehicles, but an unnamed Ukrainian official told the Interfax news agency that the 70-strong convoy traveled without ICRC escort.

Ukrainian and Western officials are worried Russia may use the convoy as an excuse for Russia to directly intervene in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. Moscow, however, has dismissed this as preposterous, saying instead that Friday’s border crossing happened after it had grown impatient with Ukrainian delays.

“All excuses to delay sending aid have been exhausted,” said Russia’s foreign ministry in a statement. “The Russian side has taken the decision to act.” The ministry further warned at any attempts to disrupt the convoy. A spokesperson for the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin has been told of the convoy’s advance.

Russia has repeatedly denied accusations that it has been sending weapons and experts to help separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. The conflict has intensified around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk recently, with fatalities rapidly rising. All told, the struggle between Ukrainian troops and rebels loyal to Russia for control of eastern Ukraine has been raging for four months. The death toll stands at over 2,000, and many residents are stranded without food, medicine or clean water.

[AP]

TIME Ukraine

Russian Aid Convoy Keeps on Trucking Toward Ukraine

A Russian convoy carrying humanitarian aid for residents in rebel eastern Ukrainian regions moves along a road about 30 miles from Voronezh, Russia, Aug. 14, 2014.
A Russian convoy carrying humanitarian aid for residents in rebel eastern Ukrainian regions moves along a road about 30 miles from Voronezh, Russia, Aug. 14, 2014. Yuri Kochetko—EPA

Kiev has now agreed to let the trucks enter Ukraine, but a full agreement on the crossing has yet to be reached

A Russian convoy numbering close to 300 vehicles has resumed its journey towards separatist-held areas in eastern Ukraine, laden with what Russia says is humanitarian aid supplies for the people of Ukraine.

Traveling at 50 miles per hour the aid convoy left a military base in Voronezh, Russia before dawn, the New York Times reports. The vehicles had been held there for over a day following outcry from the Ukrainian government, and as Western officials voiced suspicions they could be cover for a potential invasion.

But it now appears that the convoy will be permitted to enter Ukraine. The President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, said Wednesday the trucks could cross following inspections by officials from Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Russia says the dispatch of aid, which were dispatched early Tuesday, was intended to counter the escalating humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine. Moscow said the trucks, equipped with 649 tons of water and 340 tons of canned meat, were intended to help Ukrainians in areas like Luhansk where heavy fire has cut off water and electricity supplies. Residents are also without communication as phone lines have been hit.

Moscow and Kiev haven’t yet reached a complete agreement over the convoy’s crossing, however. If the vehicles cross at Izvarino, an eastern Ukrainian town close to Luhansk which isn’t under Ukrainian control, the existing agreement between Russia and Ukraine would need to be rewritten. Both sides had originally decided that the trucks would cross further north at a Ukrainian-held border crossing.

Poroshenko’s government authorized a similar Ukrainian aid convoy this week, in response to Moscow’s actions. Lorries loaded with supplies left Kiev, Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk Thursday bound for Starobelsk in eastern Ukraine.

The West has regarded the Russian convoy with deep suspicion. Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the UN said if Russia acted unilaterally in its humanitarian mission, it would “be viewed as an invasion.” On Monday NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Reuters that there was a “high probability” of Russia invading Ukraine, potentially “under the guise of a humanitarian operation.”

Russia meanwhile insists that it’s working with the Red Cross despite their protestations otherwise. “All this is going on in complete coordination with and under the aegis of the Red Cross,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin to reporters.

Both convoys, Ukrainian and Russian, will arrive amidst escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine. The latest figures from the UN place the death toll at 2,086 since fighting began mid-April. Over half of these fatalities occurred in the past two weeks.

[NYT]

TIME Ukraine

Ukraine: MH17 Downed by ‘Massive Explosive Decompression’

Firefighters arrive at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove, Ukraine, on July 17, 2014.
Firefighters arrive at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove, Ukraine, on July 17, 2014. Dmitry Lovetsky—AP

As U.N. human-rights chief suggests downing of the plane may be a "war crime"

Ukrainian authorities said Monday that black-box data from the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 revealed shrapnel from a missile caused “massive explosive decompression” onboard, as the U.N. human-rights chief said the aircraft’s shooting down “may amount to a war crime.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that “this violation of international law, given the prevailing circumstances, may amount to a war crime. It is imperative that a prompt, thorough, effective, independent and impartial investigation be conducted into this event.”

All 298 people aboard MH17 died when the passenger jet fell from the sky in eastern Ukraine on July 17 after being struck by a missile believed by the U.S. to have been fired from territory under the control of pro-Russian separatists.

Ukrainian authorities pointed to “massive explosive decompression” from missile shrapnel as the cause of the crash on Monday, the Wall Street Journal reports, though European officials analyzing the on-flight recordings have not confirmed the conclusion. Explosive decompression happens when the air inside an aircraft depressurizes at an extremely fast rate, with results similar to a bomb detonation.

Clashes in Ukraine, meanwhile, continue to block outside authorities from conducting a proper investigation. At the crash site, however, Dutch and Australian authorities were blocked from recovering bodies and gathering forensic evidence for the third day in a row Monday because of continuous fighting in the area.

Clashes between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists have killed an estimated 1,129 people and wounded 3,442 since mid-April, according to a U.N. analysis of casualties.

“I would like to stress to all those involved in the conflict, including foreign fighters, that every effort will be made to ensure that anyone committing serious violations of international law including war crimes will be brought to justice, no matter who they are,” said Pillay. “I urge all sides to bring to an end the rule of the gun and restore respect for the rule of law and human rights.”

TIME eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian Pilots Missing After 2 Jets Shot Down in East

Two Ukrainian military jets shot down
A file picture dated September 17, 2007 shows Ukrainian Su-25 attack planes during manoeuvres at the landfill in Rovno, Ukraine. Pro-Russian separatists have shot down two Ukrainian military jets in the east of the country, Defence Ministry spokesman Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskiy said on July 23, 2014. Sergey Popsuevich—EPA

Both pilots ejected safely but their whereabouts are unknown

Pro-Russia separatist rebels shot down two Ukrainian military planes over eastern Ukraine Wednesday, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Council told TIME. Both pilots ejected from their aircraft but remain missing.

An aide to separatist leader Alexander Borodai, told CNN that the two jets had been shot down by rebel fighters using a shoulder-fired missile system. However, Yarema Dukh, the Council’s press secretary, says that the jets were shot down from an altitude of 17,000 feet, an altitude she says is too high for those systems to reach. The aircrafts’ altitude, Dukh says, is instead a sign that “the planes may have been shot down by another plane.”

On top of that, though, it’s widely believed that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a Boeing 777 which crashed in eastern Ukraine on July 17, was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, which most likely originated from rebel-controlled territory. Flight 17 was traveling at 33,000 feet at the time of the suspected shoot-down — much higher than the Ukrainian jets.

The two jets shot down Wednesday, both Soviet-built Sukhoi Su-25 attack aircraft, were among four fighter planes returning to base after supporting Ukrainian government forces along the Russia-Ukraine border, the Council said in a press conference Wednesday. They were hit over the Savur Mogila area close to the border around 1:30 p.m. local time.

The Ukrainian aircraft were flying in the same area as where Flight 17 crashed, killing all 298 people on board. On Wednesday, 40 of the 200 MH17 passengers’ bodies thus far recovered arrived in the Netherlands for identification. The flight’s two black boxes also safely reached investigators in Britain Wednesday.

In the days before the MH17 disaster, a Ukrainian An-26 transport plane and another Su-25 jet were also shot down. A second Su-25 was fired upon, but the pilot managed to land his plane with minimal damage.

TIME

Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: 2 Dogs Aboard Airplane

Air Malaysia Passenger Jet Crashes In Eastern Ukraine
Debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is shown smouldering in a field July 17, 2014 in Grabovo, Ukraine near the Russian border. Pierre Crom—Getty Images

The cargo manifest from MH017 reveals that several live animals also went down with MH017

In addition to the 298 people aboard the Malaysian Airlines jet that crashed Thursday in eastern Ukraine, two dogs were also aboard the flight, according to the cargo manifest for the flight made public Friday.

MH017 – Cargo Manifest 1

The Kuala Lumpur-bound Flight MH17 crashed Thursday evening in a part of Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists. The government of Ukraine alleges that insurgents shot down the Boeing 777, a charge the rebels have denied.

Five “live birds” and four pigeons also went down with the two dogs in the plane’s cargo bay.

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