TIME Ukraine

Kerry Says Not ‘a Shred’ of Evidence Russia Wants to Ease Ukraine Fighting

Kerry warned Russia would face stiffer sanctions if it continued to arm and support Ukraine's separatists

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry threatened to impose wider sanctions on Russia in a Tuesday press conference, arguing that Russian officials had “not shown a shred of evidence” that they want to de-escalate the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Kerry accused Russia of continuing to ship arms, funds and personnel into eastern Ukraine even after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. If Russia failed to reign in its separatist allies, “we and our European partners will take additional measures and impose wider sanctions on key sections of the Russian economy,” Kerry said during a Washington, D.C. appearance alongside Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.

The announcement echoed a warning from the White House on Monday that the United States and European Union were prepared to tighten sanctions over key sectors of the Russian economy.

Kerry also blasted separatists militias for blocking international investigators’ access to the MH17 crash site and failing to return victims’ remains and belongings to their families. Kerry urged Russia to intervene, calling the behavior “an appalling disregard for human decency.”

TIME Ukraine

LIVE: John Kerry Speaks on Ukraine

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Secretary of State John Kerry holds a joint press conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.

TIME Ukraine

This Man Thinks He’s In Charge of Pro-Russian Rebels in Ukraine

Meet Alexander Borodai, the self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the Donetsk People's Republic

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Eastern Ukraine rebel leader Alexander Borodai, a former PR consultant in Russia, is now at the helm of a group of pro-Russian rebels controlling the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site and other territories around the Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

But what kind of authority does Borodai have? A kind he decided for himself. In April, a gang led by Borodai and another rebel, Igor Girkin, declared the eastern province of Donetsk a republic.

But while Borodai has become the face of the rebels on the international stage, it is unclear how much influence he wields among the ranks of rebels fighting on the ground in Ukraine.

In the video above, TIME’s Simon Shuster talks about Borodai’s power—or lack thereof—and what that means for the future of the region.

 

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 Ukraine

Death Toll Mounts as Clashes Intensify in Ukraine

People leave their home after pro-Russian militants and Ukrainian forces battled for control of several towns around the crash site of downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine on July 28, 2014 in Donetsk.
People leave their home after pro-Russian militants and Ukrainian forces battled for control of several towns around the crash site of downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine on July 28, 2014 in Donetsk. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

Authorities in Luhansk said five people were killed and 15 injured by overnight artillery strikes

(KIEV, Ukraine) — At least eight civilians have been killed by fighting and shelling in two Ukrainian cities held by separatist militants, officials in the rebellion-wracked east said Monday.

Authorities in Luhansk said five people were killed and 15 injured by overnight artillery strikes. Three were killed in Donetsk as a result of clashes, the city’s government said.

Territory between the cities has seen intensified fighting as government troops try to gain control over the area where a Malaysia Airlines plane was downed earlier this month.

Dutch and Australian police set off for the crash site Monday morning in a convoy of 20 cars, aiming to secure the area so that investigations can continue and any remaining bodies can be recovered.

Both sides in the conflict have traded accusations over the mounting civilian death toll. The armed conflict that has been raging for more than three months has displaced more than 200,000 people.

Rebels accuse government troops of deploying artillery against residential areas. Authorities deny that charge, but also complain of insurgents using apartment blocks as firing positions.

The U.S. State Department on Sunday released satellite images that it says back up its claims that rockets have been fired from Russia into eastern Ukraine and heavy artillery for separatists has also crossed the border.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the claims Monday during a televised press conference, asking “why it took ten days” before the U.S. released the images.

A four-page document released by the State Department appears to show blast marks from where rockets were launched and craters where they landed. Officials said the images, sourced from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, show heavy weapons fired between July 21 and July 26 — after the July 17 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

The images could not be independently verified by The Associated Press.

Lavrov said he is expecting OSCE observers to arrive at the Russian-Ukrainian border “in the coming days.” He said they would see that accusations rebels are traveling freely into Ukraine from Russia are false.

Ukrainian officials have said the mission is largely pointless because it involves only about two dozen observers monitoring the 2,000 kilometer (1,240-mile) border between the two countries.

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Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Mstyslav Chernov in Donetsk contributed to this report

TIME Ukraine

U.S.: Satellite Imagery Shows Russians Shelling Eastern Ukraine

Satellite imagery shows evidence of Russian artillery attacks against the Ukrainian military, U.S. officials say

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U.S. officials released satellite images Sunday they say offer proof that Russian forces have been shelling eastern Ukraine in a campaign to assist rebel groups fighting Ukraine’s government in Kiev. Obama Administration officials said as early as last week that the Russians were launching attacks in eastern Ukraine.

The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which released the civilian-taken satellite images Sunday, said they show visual evidence that Russia has been firing shells across the border at Ukrainian military forces. Officials also said the images show that Russia-backed separatists have used heavy artillery, provided by Russia, in attacks on Ukrainian forces from inside Ukraine.

One image dated July 25–26 shows what DNI claims is “ground scarring” on the Russian side of the border from artillery aimed at Ukrainian military units in Ukraine, as well as the resultant ground craters on the Ukrainian side of the border:

DNI 1
DigitalGlobe via DNI

A slide from a day earlier is said to show self-propelled artillery on the Russian side of the border oriented toward Ukraine, with impact areas near Ukrainian military units:

DNI 2a
DigitalGlobe via DNI

Russian officials denied on Friday allegations of involvement in eastern Ukraine, calling it a U.S.-led “smear campaign,” the New York Times reports.

The Ukrainian military said Saturday it was poised to reclaim Donetsk, the city at the heart of the pro-Russian insurgency, even as Russian forces numbering around 15,000 amassed on the border, the Washington Post reports.

TIME Ukraine

Police Visit to MH17 Disaster Site Canceled

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Rescue workers search for bodies in a field near the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near the village of Hrabove (Grabove), in Donetsk region on July 26, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

DONETSK, Ukraine — A team of international police officers that had been due to visit the site of the Malaysian plane disaster in eastern Ukraine canceled the trip Sunday after receiving reports of fighting in the area.

Alexander Hug, the deputy head of a monitoring team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said it was too dangerous for the unarmed officers to travel to the site from its current location in the rebel-held city of Donetsk.

Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down with a surface-to-air missile over a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists on July 17, killing all 298 people on board. U.S. and Ukrainian officials say it was shot down by a missile from rebel territory, most likely by mistake.

While it was not immediately clear where precisely clashes had broken out, a Ukrainian defense official said Sunday that government forces are now undertaking efforts to clear the areas around the Boeing 777 crash site from separatist rebels.

Hug said the police mission, which is comprised of officers from the Netherlands and Australia, will reconsider resuming operations if security improves.

“We continue to reassess the situation continuously and we will start to redeploy tomorrow morning back to the site if the situation changes,” Hug said.

Australian prime minister Tony Abbott had said earlier Sunday that unarmed Australian police would be sent to the crash site as part of a Dutch-led police force to secure the area and help recover victims’ remains.

Concerns about the integrity of the site were raised further on Saturday when a couple that had flown from their home in Perth, Australia, visited the wreckage-strewn fields outside the village of Hrabove and even sat down on part of the debris.

Flights from Ukraine to the Netherlands have taken 227 coffins containing victims of the plane disaster. Officials say the exact number of people held in the coffins still needs to be determined by forensic experts in the Netherlands.

Ukraine’s National Security Council spokesman Andrei Lysenko said that Ukrainian troops were engaging rebels in fighting at several locations Sunday, including near the town of Debaltseve, which is 15 miles (25 kilometers) northwest of the crash site.

There was also fighting on the outskirts of Horlivka, one of the separatists’ key strongholds, Lysenko said.

Lysenko said more than 20 rebel fighters were killed and eight of their armored vehicles destroyed during fighting in Horlivka. One government soldier has been killed over the previous day’s fighting, he said.

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported Sunday that a column of Ukrainian armored personnel carriers, trucks and tanks had entered the town of Shakhtarsk, 10 miles (15 kilometers) west of the site of the crash.

Shakhtarsk is a strategic town in the area. By controlling the town, the Ukrainian army would be cutting off the regional capital, Donetsk, from the highway leading to the Russian border.

The Malaysia Airlines disaster prompted some expectation in the West that Russia would scale back its involvement in the uprising in Ukraine’s east, but 10 days later the opposite seems to be the case.

Russia launched artillery attacks from its soil into Ukraine on Friday, while the United States said it has seen powerful rocket systems moving closer to the Ukraine border.

TIME Ukraine

Experts: MH17 Victims Could Have Remained Conscious During Fall

A firefighter and an armed man look at the remains and the corpses of passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that was shot down over eastern Ukraine, July 17, 2014.
A firefighter and an armed man look at the remains and the corpses of passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that was shot down over eastern Ukraine, July 17, 2014. Jerome Sessini—Magnum

A forensic analysis of the disaster

In the aftermath of the downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet, it has been widely assumed that death—or at least unconsciousness—came quickly for the 298 people aboard when the Boeing 777 came apart in the oxygen-thin, cold air at 33,000 feet. But some medical and aviation experts who spoke to TIME are questioning this assumption.

As photos from the MH17 debris field near Gravobo, Ukraine, have shown, many of the victims’ bodies appeared completely intact after falling from a great altitude. TIME asked experts to review photographs from the scene and found a minority view: some victims may have survived the aircraft’s disintegration and even experienced consciousness during the fall to Earth. The images were taken by French photographer Jerome Sessini, who was among the first at the crash site, and they focused on plane debris and victims’ bodies. (Some of Sessini’s work was recently published by TIME, but the photos reviewed by the experts also included images of human remains considered inappropriate for publication.)

The intact bodies are not out of the ordinary, according to Dr. Michael Baden, the former chief medical examiner of New York City and chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police. Baden has investigated high-profile plane disasters like the TWA 800 crash in 1996 and the 2010 crash of a Polish government jet near Smolensk, Russia, that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski. As Baden explained, objects falling through the air reach what is called terminal velocity, an upper limit on speed dictated by such variables as air density and the falling object’s surface area—but not the height from which it is dropped. For a human body, terminal velocity is about 120 mph (193 k/h). Impact at that speed inflicts devastating internal injuries, but the skin tends to remain intact.

Baden says that many of the victims did exhibit minor burns and shrapnel wounds, most of which appeared non-lethal. He says this suggests that some of the passengers could have been alive and even conscious during their descent.

“The cause of death in the great majority of these people would have been impact with the ground,” he said. Unless they were affected by the initial explosions or shrapnel, and absent some pre-existing condition like lung or heart disease, they would have remained alive and even been conscious at some point during the approximately 3-to-4-minute fall.

“Even if there’s no oxygen, you’d catch your breath in four minutes,” he said. “You might have some brain damage, but you’d be alive, and you could be conscious,” he said. Autopsies, at least when there is such extensive damage to the head and brain, cannot allow doctors to pinpoint when exactly consciousness was lost, so it might never be possible to know for sure if Baden is right.

The deceleration that occurred as a result of the attack—which could have been the equivalent of driving into a wall at 500 mph—might have been less sudden than has been assumed. The Russian-made SA-11 suspected to have been used in the attack is designed not to strike the aircraft directly, but to explode before impact, instead releasing a cloud of shrapnel.

“The deceleration itself wouldn’t be rapid, it would almost be like someone pulling back on the throttles perhaps,” says Robert Benzon, a former Air Force pilot and veteran accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, now retired. Benzon speculated based on the nature of the missile that the decompression may have been somewhat gradual, and could have been survivable in the short term. “In my estimation what you’d have is a lot of small holes in the airplane,” he says, “so the decompression itself would be pretty slow.”

Several bodies were found still strapped into their seats. Robert Goyer, who is editor-in-chief of Flying magazine, said that airliner seats are designed to withstand tremendous G-forces, sometimes more than a human body can sustain. Even when the seat itself is torn from the surrounding structure of the plane, people are likely to remain belted in. He cited Juliane Koepcke, who in 1971 survived a two-mile fall into the Amazon rainforest, strapped to her seat all the while.

Photographs indicate that those who did stay in their seats tended to retain all of their clothing, but other passengers were found in states of undress. While Goyer said that it was common to see bodies stripped of clothes after falling a long distance through the air, Baden suspected other causes.

“You can lose a shirt or a headband or maybe even a jacket, but not pants and underwear and shoes and socks. It would seem to me, given the situation, that looters came,” he said. As further evidence, he noted indications in the photos that some of the bodies appeared to have been moved around, based on lividity—the dark discoloration of the skin that occurs in the lowest parts of the body, as blood settles due to gravity. (When this discolored skin is seen facing up, it suggests that a part of the body previously low to the ground was shifted from that position.) Baden also observed that none of the bodies pictured appeared to be wearing watches or jewelry.

The investigation into the tragedy was initially hindered by strife in the region, with some reports suggesting that rebels have threatened investigators, tampered with the plane debris, and moved bodies around. The Dutch government has since succeeded in negotiating the release of some of the passengers’ remains, which were kept on refrigerated train cars and eventually flown back to the Netherlands for a more thorough forensic examination.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: July 25

1. Reinventing Justice: Seventeen states are fixing prisons by using data-driven sentencing practices and focusing on keeping the most dangerous prisoners behind bars. The federal government should follow their lead.

By Nancy La Vigne, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations

2. Social media has permanently altered our control over what we say and do. We need a new definition of “public.”

By Anil Dash in The Message, a curated collection on Medium

3. This might be the world’s last chance to rescue Ukraine.

By the editors of the Washington Post

4. Water as a weapon: the next escalation in modern warfare.

By Sarah Goodyear at Next City

5. Work local: Reimagining offices to work more like neighborhoods.

By Max Chopovsky in Harvard Business Review

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

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