Saturday, March 15, 2014

Ukraine Crisis: Russian Incursion Repelled, Moscow Anti-War March Draws Up to 50,000

Ukrainian authorities say they repelled an attempted Russian military incursion into Ukraine, marking a dramatic escalation in the crisis in the region, says this Globe and Mail item.

Russian military helicopters reportedly attempted to land several dozen paratroopers in the Kherson area, north of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, which Russian soldiers invaded in late February.

Ukrainian-language reported that the incursion involved about 80 Russian soldiers supported by several armoured vehicles and military helicopters.

They reportedly seized natural gas facilities and a village in Kherson. Crimea is heavily reliant on infrastructure in Kherson for gas supplies, electricity and water.

Up to 50,000 at Moscow Anti-War March

The incident follows earlier reports of Russian soldiers and provocateurs attempting to enter Ukraine incognito in recent days.

Ukrainian defense official Andriy Parubiy has warned that Russia appears to be massing troops to mount a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands -- possibly as many as 50,000 -- marched today in Moscow to oppose their government's invasion of Crimea, BBC reports.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Ukraine Crisis: Surveys Suggest Most Crimeans Oppose Joining Russia

Two surveys suggest most Crimeans don't want to join Russia.

The autonomous Ukrainian region is poised to vote on the question Sunday in a referendum hastily organized after thousands of Russian soldiers invaded Crimea in recent weeks.

International observers won't be present to monitor. The G-7 nations say they won't recognize the vote, calling it "deeply flawed."

In the latest poll, only 19 percent of residents of Ukraine's south, including Crimea, said they want Crimea to join Russia.

This, according to a survey of 2,000 people conducted March 1 to 7 by Kyiv-based Rating Group.

Seventy-nine percent want Crimea to remain in Ukraine.

The two million Crimeans make up 30 percent of the Ukrainian southern region's 6.7 million people.

What portion of Crimeans themselves support joining Russia? The survey doesn't say.

But if we assume that non-Crimeans in this region favour Crimea joining Russia in the same portion as residents in Ukraine's heavily Russian-speaking Donbass region (where 8 percent favour the idea), then we can extrapolate that about 45 percent of Crimeans support joining Russia.

Less than a majority -- and far from an overwhelming portion.

Majority of Crimeans Oppose Joining Russia: Second Poll

Another recent poll showed similar results.

Forty-one percent of Crimeans said they favoured joining Russia in a February survey for the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology.

Support for joining Russia fell to 33 percent in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk and to 15 percent in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine's largest city, while it was 12.5 percent nation-wide.

Ukraine Crisis: Referendum Ballots Already Marked to Join Russia

It's two days before Crimea's disputed referendum to quit Ukraine and join Russia.

And some referendum ballots have already been filled out with a check-mark in support of joining Russia, reports Ukrainian-language today.

It appears ballots were already filled in when sent out from the printer, the news site says.

UPDATE: A senior U.S. official said there was "concrete evidence" that some ballots in the referendum arrived pre-marked, this Reuters story later reported.

Plans to Falsify Vote

The photo originally appeared in an item on the widely read Russian-language news site.

That story cited a source in the Crimean government who reported that authorities now in control of the region plan to falsify the referendum with fake ballots and voting by Russians.

The target is to achieve a 73-percent vote in favour of joining Russia, the source is quoted saying.

Busloads of Russians

On that score, also reported busloads of Russian citizens have been arriving in Crimea, ostensibly to participate in Sunday's vote.

The referendum has been widely denounced by Ukraine and other nations as illegal.

It was announced after Russian-speaking soldiers without insignia took control over the Ukrainian region.

The troops oversaw the ousting of existing Crimean authorities and installment as prime minister of a little-known pro-Russia politician with alleged organized crime ties.

No international monitoring of the vote is planned.

Observers from the UN and Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe have been denied entry to Crimea or kicked out of the region by pro-Russia gunmen.

Ukraine Crisis: Amnesty Calls for Rights Monitors After Pro-Russia Activists Kill Two

International human rights monitors should be deployed across Ukraine amid rising violence and abuses by pro-Russia forces, says Amnesty International in this statement today.

The group says police in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk let pro-Russia activists through a police cordon to attack a pro-Ukrainian unity and anti-war demonstration Thursday.

The attackers were armed with sticks, metal tubes and knives. At least two pro-Ukraine marchers were killed, while about 50 were injured, according to this report from the Kyiv Post and this one on Ukrainian-language

Reports of Russian Provocateurs, Soldiers Entering Ukraine

Earlier reports indicate Russian provocateurs have arrived by the busload in eastern Ukraine and organized protests in the region.

Ukrainian authorities have also reported detaining a number of Russian soldiers trying to enter Ukraine incognito. A Russian military intelligence spy was detained Thursday near the Crimean border with an assault rifle and ID giving different names, reports.

Ukrainian security officials announced Wednesday that a Russian military reconnaissance unit had been detained also near Crimea.

The Russian foreign ministry said after the Donetsk clash it has the right to intervene in Ukraine to protect Russian citizens.

(Russian president Vladimir Putin was reported Wednesday to have said Ukraine's 1991 separation from the Soviet Union was legally questionable, even though Russia separated from the Soviet Union in a similar manner the same year.)

The incident in Donetsk is reminiscent of previous attacks by gangs of armed thugs known as titushki, who were employed by Ukraine's recently deposed pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych to attack anti-government protesters.

Pro-Ukraine Activists Missing

Amnesty International's statement also decried the disappearance of three pro-Ukrainian unity activists on Thursday in the Crimean capital of Simferopol.

The disappearance is just the latest of numerous reports of detentions of journalists and activists and other rights abuses in Crimea since thousands of Russian soldiers took over the Ukrainian region in late February.

"Reports of the harassment and intimidation of activists and journalists by the de facto military forces operating in Crimea are an extremely worrying development where human rights abuses are already rife," said Amnesty's John Dalhuisen.

"We reiterate our calls for both the Crimean authorities and those in de facto military control of the region to allow people to peacefully exercise their human rights without the threat of intimidation or violence."

Ukraine Crisis: Human Rights Abuses Escalate in "Lawless" Crimea

Numerous reports of rights abuses have emerged in Crimea since thousands of Russian soldiers invaded the Ukrainian autonomous region.

- Many journalists in Crimea have been detained, threatened and had equipment seized, said the group Reporters Without Borders in a March 7 statement titled "Freedom of Information in Dire State in Crimea."

"We are alarmed by the steady escalation in violations of journalists' rights in Crimea, which is turning into a lawless region controlled by armed bands whose anonymity reinforces their impunity," the group noted in a follow-up statement March 10.

"The frequency of deliberate attacks on journalists and the scale of the censorship suggest a desire to turn the region into a black hole for news and information."

Since those statements, French TV documentary maker David Geoffrion, working for France's Canal+ network, was arrested by pro-Russian gunmen on March 13, Reuters reported.

Activists Detained, Missing

- Andriy Shekun, leader of the EuroMaidan-Crimea pro-democracy group, was detained on March 9 by a pro-Russia defense militia in Simferopol, Crimea, along with a fellow activist, Anatoli Kowalski (see this and this news item). The militia seizing the men was linked with Russian Unity, the party of Crimea's self-proclaimed prime minister Sergei Aksyonov.

Both men are still missing. The police in Simferopol say they are not in their custody, reports in this March 9 Ukrainian-language item.

- Also on March 9, pro-Russia militia detained two groups of Ukrainian journalists and activists while trying to enter Crimea, this item reports. They were held two nights, beaten and robbed, this Ukrainska Pravda account says.

Marchers Beaten

- Pro-Russia activists attacked and beat people attending a Ukrainian rally to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, the BBC reported March 10. Some of the Russian-speaking attackers wielded whips and threatened BBC journalists at the scene.

- Crimea's new pro-Russia government (read more about how it came to power here) has ordered nearly all Ukrainian TV channels off the air in the territory, replacing some with Russian ones, Ukrainian-language reported March 9.

Tatar Minority Afraid, Many Flee

- Crimea's Tatar minority, which is strongly opposed to the takeover of the region by Russian troops, say they fear being out at night or walking in city centres, which are patrolled by armed pro-Russia gangs.

"I don't even go to Simferopol any more," said one Tatar man in this Kyiv Post story.

"If they see me, as a Crimean Tatar man, they will attack me."

Tatar leaders have called for a boycott of Sunday's referendum on whether Crimea should join Russia, which Ukraine and the G-7 countries say they won't recognize and call illegal.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin deported the Tatar people from Crimea to the Far East and Siberia after World War II on the pretext that some Tatars collaborated with Nazi Germany. Half of the Tatar population died in the forced deportations.

Many Tatars have since trickled back to their homeland. But now, many fear they could be deported again, this Kyiv Post story says.

The story says 150 to 200 Tatar families have left Crimea to seek refuge in western Ukraine since Russian troops invaded at the end of February.

International Observers Kept Out

- Pro-Russia gunmen have prevented international observers from entering Crimea to investigate the rights situation.

UN envoy Robert Serry was confronted by armed gunmen, threatened and forced to leave Crimea while on a fact-finding mission.

Meanwhile, observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe were turned back on three consecutive days from entering Crimea.