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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Ukraine Live Day 451

Publication: Ukraine Liveblogs
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
John Kerry, Poroshenko, And a Diplomatic Tangle Over Donetsk Airport

For months, the battle for Donetsk Airport was considered to be a microcosm of the Ukrainian conflict. The Russian-backed forces, armed to the teeth with Russian military hardware, broke every ceasefire to constantly attack the facility, while a small group of Ukrainian soldiers, despite all odds, fought off their attackers with little support from the outside. The "Russian invasion" of late August was frozen when the first Minsk agreement was signed, and the Ukrainian government, likely fearing the resumption of outright hostilities, was nearly powerless to support the "cyborgs" who defended the airport. At the same time, the symbolic importance of the airport grew by the day, meaning that neither side could afford to lose it completely.

On Monday, Ukrainian President Poroshenko vowed to retake the airport. Though Poroshenko did not put a timeline on when the airport might return to Ukrainian control, at the moment it is firmly controlled by the Russian-backed fighters. And yet, according to both Minsk agreements, signed by Ukraine and Russia and witnessed by Germany and France, the airport and the rest of the Donbass belong to Ukraine and will eventually be controlled by the Ukrainian government. If Poroshenko's statement was empty rhetoric, it was also rhetoric which had a basis in diplomatic reality.

Yet Poroshenko's statements inspired U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to say, in televised statements made in Russia,  that Poroshenko should "think twice" about taking action to regain control of the Donetsk Airport.

The Russian state-controlled media was ecstatic. TASS reports:

The Russian side finds the statement by US Secretary of State John Kerry who warned Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko against attempts to regain control over the Donetsk airport, to be a very important one, the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin told Rossiya’24 news channel.

"It’s an important thing that Kerry made this statement and that he said the US believed it was crucial to observe the accords reached in Minsk on February 12," he said. "Let’s hope the Americans would send this signal to Kiev in private contacts (with the Ukrainian officials), too."

The Ukrainian government, on the other hand, was quietly furious according to some, and the Ukrainian media was quick to fire back at Kerry, Kyiv Post ran an editorial entitled "Damaging diplomacy" which blasted Kerry's trip to Sochi:

The U.S. stance during President Barack Obama’s lame-duck phase – and lame is now the operative word – is weakening. The softer rhetoric more closely matches the West’s tepid actions in punishing Russia for its annexation of Crimea and war against eastern Ukraine.

Kerry visited Russia for three stated reasons: to press for peace in Ukraine, to get help in ending the civil war in Syria and, nebulously, to stay in touch. His cloying body language with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi was as disgusting as his public words. Not once did Kerry mention Russia’s war crimes or human rights violations. Not once did Kerry mention the need for Russia to pay for lives lost and the theft of Ukrainian national territory. Not once did Kerry assign blame for the war where it belongs – to Putin. Not once did Kerry mention slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov and his report, published on May 12, that implicates Russia in war crimes.

So if America won’t stand up to Putin, who will?

Kerry's statements were made in response to a question, however, and it appears there may not have been clear communication or strategy behind his words. The spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Moscow sent this tweet out today, which looks like it was designed to clear the air on the issue:

Yet the day before, Stevens gave an interview with the Russian outlet TV Rain (translated by The Interpreter) in which the messaging was far more muddled:

Stevens: Naturally disagreements remain about Ukraine. But I can say we are united, and we both said last night that we must see full compliance with the Minsk Agreement.

TV Rain: Which depends not only on the Russian side but the Ukrainian, and John Kerry yesterday rather sharply expressed himself regarding about the statement by Petro Poroshenko about the airport in Donbass.

Stevens: Uh-huh. Yes.

TV Rain: In Donetsk.

Do you know the reaction of Petro Poroshenko about the meeting between Kerry with President Putin?

Stevens: No, I don't know.

TV Rain: They spoke on the telephone.

Stevens: Yes, I understand they have spoken on the telephone but I don't know.

There is clearly frustration in Kiev at the White House, and there is clearly confusion in the U.S. State Department on this issue. But one has to wonder if the underpinning of the diplomatic efforts -- that political dialogue is going to solve this crisis -- is beginning to become unraveled.

-- James Miller

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
How Many Ukrainian Soldiers Have Died Since the Minsk Ceasefire?

Today Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that 83 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 400 have been wounded since the Minsk II agreement was signed on February 11, 2015. That certainly sounds like a large amount of casualties, and it's certainly clear that the ceasefire never really took hold, but the numbers put out by Poroshenko are confusing, and possibly inaccurate.

On February 18, 7 days after Minsk II, the Ukrainian troops who were defending Debaltsevo withdrew after weeks of intense battle that did not slow even a little bit when the Minsk deal was signed. At the time there was significant controversy regarding the official number of casualties suffered by the Ukrainian military. As our coverage indicated on that day, the Ukrainian government was initially saying that around a dozen troops were killed in the fight. Dozens of soldiers, and their commanders, who were interviewed by journalists suggested that perhaps ten times those numbers were killed in the battle. An advisor to Poroshenko, Yuri Biryukov, eventually posted that 179 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed between January 18 and February 18, and "in fact it will be more than that, some of the missing will inevitably be dead."  At the time the official death toll was 13.

Now, out of those 179 it's not clear how many of them were killed after February 11, but many of them were reportedly killed in the final days of fighting and during the withdrawal.

Whatever the official death toll may be, Poroshenko's point still stands -- that a significant amount of Ukrainian soldiers have died in battle since the ceasefire was signed.

-- James Miller

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
1 Killed, 3 Injured as Car Reportedly Runs Over Mine Near Donetsk

A passenger car in has run over a mine near Donetsk, killing one person and injuring three, RIA Novosti reported, citing Eduard Basurin, the spoken for the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic.

The accident occurred near the village of Slavne (Slavnoye) in Marynsky Region about 33 kilometers to the southwest from Donetsk


Basurin blamed the Ukrainian Armed Forces, saying "the activity of the Ukrainian diversionary reconnaissance groups have activated."

The incident has only been reported by Russian state media and Russian-backed separatist media and has not been confirmed by independent sources.

Slavne appears to be in Ukrainian-held territory, according to today's situation map from the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, though it's not entirely clear who controls the town or whether there is a military presence there.

According to the pro-Russian Military Maps, the car hit the mine just inside Ukrainian-held territory right near the line of contact.


-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Pictures Posted to Russian Social Media Prove Buk That Shot Down MH17 Was In Russia Before The Incident

As we reported last week, Novaya Gazeta published a leaked report from engineers who said their research indicated that Malaysian airliner MH17 was shot down from another location, Zaroshchenskoye, instead of near Snezhnoye, the area widely reported by eyewitnesses and journalists. While the engineers conceded that the plane was likely hit by a Buk missile, they claimed it had to be a Buk in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, because it was supposedly in territory they held.

We debunked the engineers' report by pointing out the existing evidence and the maps of battles at the time, which showed the area in fact was in Russian-backed separatist hands, and cited the past body of evidence pointing to a launch from near Snezhnoye.

Novaya Gazeta's publication of the flawed report caused many to wonder if they were under pressure from the government to push their new line, as the release of the Dutch experts' finding grows closer and the Kremlin's version of events involving anSU-25 plane firing at MH17 isn't holding up.

Then Novaya Gazeta published another account of the downing of MH17 by Mark Solonin, an aviation engineer and aircraft designer as well as World War II historian who challenged their previous report.

Curiously, Novaya Gazeta does not explain why they did not simply publish the two reports simultaneously, or explain originally that the second one was coming. In their first publication, they claimed that journalists were not qualified to make judgements about MH17. In their second publication they said defensively they had been attacked as "agents of the FSB and [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu]" and seemed to plead for tolerance in examining all perspectives (translation by The Interpreter):

Public research of the tragedy presupposes the juxtaposition of different perspectives and conclusions of analysts, experts, historians, political analysts, witnesses, participants in the events, and the comparison of arguments from materials of the investigation which have been cited in Russia, Ukraine, and the Netherlands regardless of whether someone likes the facts and arguments or not.

Yet local citizen journalists in Ukraine and Russia and journalists from mainstream media in the region and abroad have already put together a huge body of evidence that challenges the Kremlin's narrative. As we reported last July, even the basic facts of the separatists' own bragging in their own social media groups as well as for state or pro-Kremlin media let us know that the story of a Russian Buk in rebel-held territory backed by Russian tanks cannot be suppressed.

There is no need to patiently hear out Russian state TV ideologues with transparently photoshopped materials when citizen journalists and Western reporters already have multiple videos showing a scene near Torez with plumes of smoke consistent with a rocket, before plumes of smoke of an aircrash.

As for the engineers' report, as we noted, examination of elaborate trajectory and impact calculations aren't persuasive when basic reporting and maps from both sides in the conflict show that there were no Ukrainian forces in the area claimed.

As we did last week, the second Novaya Gazeta publication this week includes the maps of the Ukrainian National Security Defense Council of that time period which show the area was not under Ukrainian control. For good measure, they might have included the pro-Russian bloggers' battle maps, which show the same thing from their perspective.


The second report then contains an elaborate challenge to the previous report by the engineers, with trajectory of the calculations and impact points which are different and which the author say proves that the theory of Zaroshchenskoye as the launch site is mistaken. Solonin includes drawings of the impact first from Snezhnoye and then from Zaroshchenskoye to conclude the former was likely.


Map marked by Slononin showing the path of MH17, the point of impact, and the towns of Zaroshchenskoye and Snezhnoye, showing the point where the cockpit broke off in the first diagram and the place where the missile likely hit on the fuselage.



Solonin also makes the point that in theory, determining the place of launch from the damage to the plane isn't generally possible, although he then says that in this case, it may be. Of course these issues are difficult to assess until the Dutch investigators' report is published.

Today RFE/RL published the report of InformNapalm which has come up with another important piece of evidence from trawling the pages of Russian soldiers on Russian social media:

However, the activist group InformNapalm has found photographs on the VKontakte page of a Russian soldier named Dmitry Zubov that seem to detail the convoy's June 2014 journey.

According to Zubov's posts on VKontakte -- his account on the Russian social-media site has subsequently been closed down, but InformNapalm saved cached copies -- he was serving with the 147th Automotive Logistic Support Battalion, Unit 83466, based just outside of Moscow. At the time, he was serving his last few days before being demobilized.


 Buk photo from soldier's VKontakte page.

A frequent problem in verifying the InformNapalm stories based on VKontakte is that as soon as they publish the material, the soldier so highlighted often deletes his page or pictures in fear of retribution. In this case, the account was even replaced with other names. The work could gain more credibility if they first contacted mainstream journalists and showed them the links and pictures before publication so that they can be verified by another party, then published them. It can be difficult, however to get the attention of Western journalists without the Russian language or who have moved on from the story of the war in Ukraine which these dedicated bloggers stick with day after day.

These stories are most compelling when multiple sources for the same claim can be found, such as this research by Aric Toler with multiple photos of the same dogs at the Russian army camp.

In the case of the Buk story today, a second source was found on Instagram which is still viewable showing the Buk with a hashtag "Stary Oskol," a city in southern Russia and apartment buildings that appeared consistent with those on the main road where videos had also captured the convoys. The author said the convoys were headed in the direction of Ukraine.

Last year, The Interpreter was the first to geolocate two videos of these convoys with Buks in Stary Oskol. This Russian town is about 3 hours from the Ukrainian border. We could establish the likelihood that these convoys were headed into Ukraine, as others we had identified inside Ukraine had originated from Russia, but to prove this took many months of work by the team at Bellingcat, who were able to match the vehicles through various identifying traits.

In their work, Bellingcat used photos taken by a Le Monde reporter, videos of the convoys taken by citizens, a photo of a Buk in a shopping center parking lot in Torez and a video of a Buk truck minus one missile in Lugansk released by the Ukrainian Interior Ministry. They also got a lucky break with the posting by a Russian blogger on social media of one of the Buk vehicles in an area with buildings with distinctive features enabling the geolocation of the convoy.

As with many of the seeming "miracles of crowd-sourcing," the reports don't just originate from "the crowd" of online enthusiasts. They are actually often made up by a combination of old-fashioned government intelligence information leaked to social media; ordinary citizens who sometimes unwittingly post military pictures videos of significance while they are driving around or picnicking; local bloggers using pseudonyms who rarely get credit for their work although they take the greatest risk; and professional journalists willing to spend the time and resources to parse the masses of data, all of which require corroboration with other digital media to make a compelling story.

One of the hazards of the "crowd-sourcing" business is that many anonymous or pseudonymous social media users can be involved, and it's always possible that Russian or other hostile intelligence agencies could be planting disinformation -- as occurred soon after the downing of MH17 with the Buk video story by the Defense Ministry, which we exposed.

A report released yesterday in Moscow by the colleagues of Boris Nemtsov, Putin.War, also contains a chapter on the downing of MH17, a subject about which Nemtsov and Leonid Martynov had already made a  Russian video which attracted more than one million views.

The chapter reprints the work of blogger Sergei Parkhomenko published in March 2015 in Meduza. This material goes over the same ground originally discovered by the blogger @DaveyPetros of Ukraine@War who worked with the journalist Ronald Oliphant who visited the fields outside of Snezhnoye to try to reconstruct the line of sight in a photo published in social media of the plume of smoke from the firing on the Buk. Dutch journalist Olaf Koens of RTLNiews also found the photographer and obtained additional photographs of the area.

Parkhomenko identified more of the details in the picture covered by the other bloggers and mapped them to GoogleEarth.



Before and even after the Dutch report emerges, we are likely to see more of these efforts from Russia, both disinformation reports and good-faith efforts to reconstruct the events and social media posts providing further corroboration.

What will matter is the ability of Western powers, especially those most affected by the tragedy, to stand up to the inevitable Kremlin disinformation and dissembling that will occur regarding the facts of trajectories and fragments and smoke plumes -- or what can be particularly compelling for the Western value of adversarial debate, a call to "keep an open mind" and "look at all the theories."

Most of the civilized world now accepts that MH17 was shot down by Russian-backed militants with a Russian-supplied Buk system in Russian separatist-controlled territory -- which is what the separatist leader Col. Igor Strelkov said in the first hours in statements later deleted from social media but which still remain on the web sites of Russian media who sourced their stories about the plane from separatist fighters.

Since that time, only more eyewitnesses, pictures, videos and reports have come forward that tend to reinforce the original narrative clear from the conversations of a group of villagers gasping at the scene in their back yards, particularly the exclamation of one person about the "militia's" weapon system brought from Russia:  "They didn't bring it in vain."

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick