Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ukraine Crisis: "Goblin," Moscow's Man in Crimea, Won Just 4% of Vote in 2010

Moscow's man in Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, has long been alleged to have been an organized crime figure with the nickname "Goblin," according to this Toronto Star story.

Aksyonov was installed as Crimea's leader after heavily armed, Russian-speaking soldiers took over the region's parliament building last week.

His Russian Unity party won just 4 percent of the vote in the last regional election in 2010.

Aksyonov suddenly emerged as Crimea's Moscow-backed prime minister after mass protests swept Ukraine's pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych out of office.

After Yanukovych fled to Russia, Crimea's political leaders explicitly refused to call for independence for their region, which has autonomous status within Ukraine.

That changed, however, after gunmen took over the region's parliament.

Aksyonov Installed Behind Closed Doors

Legislators were summoned, and their cellphones were taken as they entered the building, the Star reports. Media was banished.

Then, behind closed doors, the Crimean government was dismissed in a move that Ukrainian authorities say was unconstitutional and Aksyonov was installed as the new Crimean prime minister.

This, despite years of allegations that he was active in a large and violent crime gang called Salem, according to the Star. Many Crimean gangsters went into politics in the 1990s in order to obtain legal immunity that came from being a legislator.

Most Crimeans Opposed Joining Russia: Survey

The new Aksyonov-led government initially announced a referendum in May seeking greater autonomy for Crimea.

On Monday, the referendum date was moved to March 30. But today, Crimean lawmakers announced they had voted to separate from Ukraine and join Russia.

A referendum is now planned March 16 to ratify the decision.

A survey in February found a majority of people in Crimea don't support joining Russia, with only 41 percent supporting the idea.

In Ukraine's 1991 referendum on independence from Russia, 54 percent of Crimeans voted in favour.

Monitoring of Vote Promises to Be Difficult

There was no mention of outside observers to ensure the vote is fair and not manipulated by the thousands of Russian troops who have invaded the region.

The difficulties for international monitors were highlighted yesterday when the United Nations' special envoy to Crimea, Robert Serry, was confronted by 10 to 15 armed gunmen in camouflage after he left Ukrainian naval headquarters in Simferopol, Crimea.

The gunmen insisted that he leave. When he refused, his car was surrounded, and the diplomat was threatened. He sought refuge in a cafe, while the gunmen blocked the door and refused to let anyone leave or enter.

A pro-Russian demonstration started outside, and Serry eventually agreed to quit Crimea.

Russia has coveted Crimea ever since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union. The peninsula hosts Russia's Black Sea fleet.

Ukraine Crisis: Soldier On Camera Contradicting Putin Denial That Troops Are Russian

It's the invasion that has you feeling like you're on crazy pills.

Russia insists the estimated 6,000 to 7,000 heavily armed, Russian-speaking soldiers without insignia who have suddenly taken over most of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula -- many wearing face masks -- aren't from the Russian military and are beyond its control.

Instead, Russia's Vladimir Putin claims they're simply local "self-defense" forces who may have obtained their uniforms in a store -- despite numerous photos and video contradicting the claim. 

Some of the soldiers have also acknowledged to reporters and residents they're from the Russian military.

Russian Soldier: "That's the Kind of Uniform We Have -- Without Insignia"

Now, one of the soldiers in Kerch, Crimea, has acknowledged on camera that he is a Russian soldier.

In this Russian-language interview posted on the YouTube channel of, the soldier is asked 3:15 minutes in why he doesn't have insignia and where he's from.

"Because that's the kind of uniform we have -- without insignia," the soldier replies.

"In the Ukrainian or Russian military?" a reporter asks.

"I'm in the Russian service," the solder says.

"You're in the Russian service," a reporter says.


"What are Russian soldiers doing on Ukrainian territory?" asks a second reporter.

"Because... Don't you watch television?" replies the soldier.

UPDATE:'s YouTube channel has this video showing numerous images of unidentified soldiers in Crimea with equipment it says is available only to Russian troops.

The video is narrated by Anton Miknenko, deputy director of the Ukrainian army research centre.

"(Putin) is telling an outright lie. It's the height of cynicism," Miknenko says in this Ukrainian-language story.

"It's impossible to find enough equipment and weaponry in stores in Ukraine to equip all these men."

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ukraine Crisis: Soldier in Crimea Confirms to BBC He's Russian

More evidence has emerged to contradict Russian president Vladimir Putin's claim that soldiers in Crimea aren't Russian military, but rather local pro-Kremlin "self-defense" forces.

This BBC story today says a Russian-speaking soldier guarding a Ukrainian military airfield in Crimea disclosed he is a Russian citizen.

Soldiers without insignia had taken over the airfield a few days before.

It has since become the scene of a stand-off between heavily armed Russian-speaking soldiers and unarmed Ukrainian military pilots, who Tuesday staged a march demanding their jobs back.

"Don't come here any more," the Russian-speaking soldier -- who appeared to be in command of the other soldiers -- is quoted telling the BBC's reporter. "After all, you and I are Russian citizens. I don't want to shoot my own people."

The soldier later told the reporter, "Olga, you and I will still meet again in Moscow."

The reporter also noticed a tattoo on the back of the soldier's hand that said "za VDV," a tattoo of the elite Russian airborne forces (known as "VDV").

Other images and video of Russian hardware in Crimea have also emerged to contradict Putin's claims.

Ukraine Crisis: Images Contradict Putin's Claims That Soldiers in Crimea Not Russian

Heavily armed men stand guard outside government
Ukrainian building in Simferopol, Crimea, Monday.
Russian president Vladimir Putin claims they're
not Russian troops, but rather Crimean "self-
defense" forces who may have gotten their uniforms
in a store.
Russian president Vladimir Putin denied Russian soldiers have invaded Ukraine when he gave reporters his first interview Tuesday about the Crimean military stand-off.

Instead, he claimed that the thousands of heavily armed, Russian-speaking soldiers who have taken over Ukrainian government buildings and surround Ukrainian military installations, threatening to attack if troops inside don't surrender, are local "self-defense" forces.

Putin was asked directly if the soldiers are from the Russian military.

"Why don't you take a look at the post-Soviet states. There are many uniforms that are similar. You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform," he said.

A reporter asked: "But were they Russian soldiers or not?"

Putin: "Those were local self-defense units."

Russia Claims no Control Over "Self-Defense" Forces

Crimean "self-defense" members guard a military airfield
near Sevastopol in this photo from the Kyiv Post
published March 4. The men don't appear to be armed
or dressed in the same uniforms as the thousands
of well-equipped soldiers who have suddenly appeared
in Crimea. A truck that the Kyiv Post describes as a
"Russian military vehicle" is visible in the background.
Complicating matters, the thousands of Russian-speaking soldiers aren't wearing insignia, often wear face coverings and generally refuse to speak with reporters.

Some have, however, confirmed to reporters and locals that they are Russian soldiers, NPR reported yesterday.

The troops have occasionally been seen to collaborate with ragtag groups of pro-Russian activists who appear more clearly to be civilians (shown in this YouTube video attempting to confront Ukrainian marines in Crimea) -- although it's not clear how many of the latter are Crimean residents as opposed to arrivals from Russia.

(Ukrainian authorities say pro-Moscow provocateurs have been arriving by the busload from Russia, and these stories in Toronto's Globe and Mail and Kyiv Post suggest the claim isn't without merit.)

In contrast, the soldiers themselves appear professionally trained and are equipped with military-grade hardware -- bazookas, armoured personnel carriers, military trucks and assault rifles -- difficult or impossible to find in a store.

Yet, Russian officials insist they have no operational control over the Crimean "self-defense" forces and can't order them back to their bases. "They take no orders from us," Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters Wednesday.

Images Emerge of Russian Hardware in Crimea

Nonetheless, photos and video are emerging that provide more evidence the troops are Russian.

This story on the site, created by Ukrainian journalist students to counter Russian government propaganda about the crisis, includes a video showing soldiers breaking into a Ukrainian government building in Crimea.

The soldiers have no insignia, but one has a tag on his back with the name "A.M. Dosanov." StopFake says it has identified him as a Russian special forces soldier from a unit based in Russia's Saratov region.

The tag also says "рядовой," which means "private" in Russian.

Below are images of Russian hardware and military trucks with Russian plates in Crimea taken in recent days.

Russian tanks -- not likely obtained in a store -- blockading
a Ukrainian military base in Crimea. Source: CNN, March 2, 2014
Russian armoured personnel carriers on the road to
Simferopol, Crimea. Source: The Guardian, Feb. 28.

This image from a CNN report March 4 shows Russian self-
propelled guns.

UPDATE: Many other photographs demonstrating the Russian military presence in Crimea, including special forces, are included in this post on the EuroMaidan PR blog. 

Accompanying the photos is interesting explanatory text by French firearms expert Edmond Huet.

Ukraine Crisis: New Phase for Ukrainian Protest Movement -- Unarmed Soldiers March

It seemed like today we might wake up to a bloodbath in Crimea.

Russian military officials who had led an invasion of the Ukrainian region had given Ukrainian soldiers a deadline this morning to surrender or face attack.

Instead, the deadline came and went, and the only bullets fired were warning shots.

A group of 100 Ukrainian military pilots had marched unarmed, waving a Ukrainian flag and singing the national anthem, to a military airport in Sevastopol that Russian soldiers had seized in recent days. They wanted their jobs back.

The Ukrainians continued approaching Russian sentries despite warning shots. Tense negotiations ensued for several hours until the Ukrainians withdrew.

Putin Reportedly Wanted Ukrainians to Fire on Invading Soldiers

The non-violent approach of Ukrainian forces thus far is deliberate, says a Ukrainian military official, lieutenant-colonel Volodymyr Bondaruk, in this Kyiv Post item.

He said Ukraine has ordered its soldiers not to fire on the invading Russians. One reason: a conversation that reportedly took place between Russian president Vladimir Putin and his military commander in Crimea, which Bondaruk said was intercepted by a Ukrainian security agency.

(The veracity of the conversation hasn't been independently confirmed, so far as I know.)

In the conversation, Putin asked his commander why Ukrainians had yet to fire on the Russians moving into Crimea. "Why aren't they shooting?"

"They just aren't."

"But how do they behave? Do you provoke them?"

"Yes, we provoke them."

"Do you remain defiant?"

"Yes, we are defiant, but they aren't shooting."

"Why aren't they shooting?"

"I don't know why, but they don't."

Bondaruk at this point explained: "In other words, there is a provocation going on to make sure there is a first (shot), and that it's started on the Ukrainian side. As soon as the first one starts, the big unrest will start."

Putin reportedly went on: "So why aren't they shooting? What do they say?"

"They simply openly tell us to buzz off."

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ukraine Crisis: Kremlin-Funded TV Host Slams Crimea Invasion

Abby Martin, the host of Kremlin-funded TV channel Russia Today, devoted the end of her show Monday to a fierce denunciation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.

"Just because I work here, for RT, doesn't mean I don't have editorial independence," she said.

"What Russia did was wrong... And I will not sit here and apologize or defend military aggression.

"Above all, my heart goes out to the Ukrainian people, who are now wedged as pawns in the middle of a global power chess game."

Martin also slammed media coverage of the crisis, saying it was "truly disappointing from all sides of the media spectrum and rife with disinformation."

RT Says Martin to Be Sent to Crimea

The English-language channel is widely seen as the Russian government's voice, and its coverage of recent developments in Ukraine has generally reflected Moscow's position.

Russia Today issued a statement Tuesday saying Martin was free to express her opinion. "Contrary to popular opinion, RT doesn't beat its journalists into submission."

It promised "no reprimands" against Martin, but then noted that she would be sent to Crimea "to give her an opportunity to make up her own mind from the epicentre of the story."

Martin herself told the Telegraph of London: "I am not going to Crimea despite the statement RT has made."

Martin appears to reflect the opinion of most Russians, who overwhelmingly opposed intervention in Ukraine's internal affairs in a February survey, as reported here in a previous post.

Another RT Host Quits

UPDATE: Another RT host, Liz Wahl, announced on air on the network Wednesday that she was quitting because she couldn't any longer be "part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin."

"It actually makes me feel sick that I worked there," she later told The Daily Beast.

Ukraine Crisis: Most Crimeans, Easterners Don't Want to Rejoin Russia, Poll Finds

Some of the media coverage of the Ukraine crisis suggests that the country is divided between a pro-Russian east and south, where many -- even most -- hanker to rejoin Russia, and a nationalistic west.

That's not quite true, according to an opinion poll for the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. A majority of residents in every region of Ukraine do not want the country to join Russia, reports the survey of 2,303 Ukrainians conducted Feb. 8 to 18.

That includes Crimea, which Russia has invaded on the pretext of defending Russian citizens from the new Ukrainian government. There, most residents speak Russian as their native language; yet, just 41 percent support joining Russia.

(Note that in Ukraine's 1991 referendum on independence from Russia, every region also voted by a majority to leave Russia, including Crimea, where 54 percent voted in favour. Nationally, 90 percent supported independence.)

12.5% of Ukrainians Seek to Rejoin Russia

Elsewhere, support for joining Russia is lower -- 33 percent in the eastern city of Donetsk, 15 percent in Kharkiv (the largest city in the east), 5 percent in the capital Kyiv (in the centre of the country) and 0 percent in the western city of Lviv.

Overall, 12.5 percent of Ukrainians want to join Russia. That's down from 20 percent in Oct. 2010.

Age plays an important role in the question, with 17 percent of those 55 and up wanting the two countries to be one again, while only 5 percent of those 18 to 29 agree.

Ukraine Crisis: Video From Maidan Sniper Killings in Kyiv

Here are two contrasting POV videos that give a glimpse into what really happened in the last hours of the mass protests in Ukraine that forced president Viktor Yanukovych out of power on Feb. 21.

First is a 13-minute video of heavily armed police and government snipers moving into attack positions on Feb. 20 or 21.

Second is a 41-minute video from the protesters' side, showing how police and government snipers shot numerous unarmed demonstrators -- in some cases as they withdrew -- and medics trying to help those stricken.

The bloodbath was apparently part of a larger plan to encircle and open fire on thousands of protesters camped out in downtown Kyiv, involving 22,000 police and hundreds of special forces troops, according to Ukrainian legislator Hennadi Moskal, a former deputy interior minister.

Tracksuit-Wearing Government Thugs

Yanukovych was also accused of hiring thousands of tracksuit-wearing thugs -- known as "titushki," after Vadim Titushko, a 20-year-old martial arts enthusiast who beat up two journalists at a pro-government demonstration last year.

Titushki attacked and in some cases reportedly tortured and killed anti-government protesters and at least one journalist, while badly beating a second journalist, Tetyana Chornovol, after a dramatic car chase caught on her dashboard camera. Chornovol had been active in the Kyiv protest camp and had been investigating Yanukovych's corruption.

Vadim Titushko himself later switched sides and announced he supported the mass protests against Yanukovych, acknowledging he had made a mistake.

Since Yanukovych fled Ukraine, titushki have still been reported in eastern Ukrainian cities and Crimea. In this video, titushki in Crimea, calling themselves "self-defense" members, attempt to confront Ukrainian marines at a base blockaded by Russian armoured personnel carriers.

Surveillance Notes Hint at Attack

UPDATE: Journalists working on the YanukovychLeaks website, who are sifting through thousands of documents left behind by the deposed president at his lavish estate, report that Yanukovych's head bodyguard, Konstyantyn Kobzar, made what appear to be surveillance notes about Chornovol's movements around the time of the attack.

The notes say: "Chornovol went to Maidan," followed by "23:10 turned off her phone. 23:50 turned it on at Khreshchatyk str." The notes go on to say "23:50 cleanup operation started" and "01:00 done (clean)."

Monday, March 3, 2014

Ukraine Crisis: Investigative Reporters Move Into Yanukovych Estate to Probe Corruption

In the wake of the Ukrainian revolution, the country's long-besieged investigative journalists have turned one of the most secretive locations in eastern Europe into a haven for transparency and accountability.

Deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych's lavish 350-acre estate outside Kyiv -- which included an ostrich farm and a private lake complete with a full-size moored pirate galleon -- has been taken over by a team of Ukraine's investigative journalists.

They're using it as a base to study tends of thousands of documents found at the residence that are helping reveal the tale of the staggering corruption of Yanukovych's regime.

Their work may help Ukraine track down billions that were apparently looted from state coffers during Yanukovych's four years in office.

President's Son Won 50% of State Contacts

In a country where the average person makes $500 a month, Ukraine's new government says $37 billion went missing under Yanukovych, while another $70 billion flowed into offshore accounts -- though it's not clear how much of the latter amount was illegitimate. The government says its coffers are now virtually empty.

As an example of the corruption, the ousted president's son -- a 41-year-old dentist -- accumulated vast wealth during his father's short time in office and was reportedly worth $500 million in Nov. 2013. His various holding companies are reported to have won 50 percent of all state contracts in Jan. 2014.

The newfound freedom of Ukraine's investigative journalists is in sharp contrast with the country's recent record as one of the world's worst places for press freedom. In 2010, after Yanukovych came to power, the country fell from 90th place to 131st place in the annual press freedom ranking of the group Reporters Without Borders -- winding up behind Iraq and Zimbabwe.

The Ukrainian journalists have created the YanukovychLeaks website to publish their findings. Read more background here.

Ukraine Crisis: Jewish Views on Maidan Contradict Putin's Anti-Semitism Claims

Did Vladimir Putin really invade Ukraine to save Jewish Ukrainians from mounting anti-Semitism?

It seems a little dubious if you know much about Russia's president. Putin is the man who claimed last year that 80 to 85 percent of the first Soviet government was Jewish. He made the claim during a visit to Moscow's Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.

Of course, the claim is ridiculous. The first Soviet government -- the Council of People's Commissars -- had just one Jewish member out of 16 commissars, as this item in The Jewish Press noted, calling Putin's claim anti-Semitic.

Jewish Ukrainian Leaders Denounce Invasion

What about Putin's claim of invading Ukraine in part to save Ukraine's Jewish people from anti-Semitic attacks?

Of course, anti-Semitism is a critical issue in a country with Ukraine's history of anti-Jewish pogroms.

Yet, Jewish perspectives on this question contrast sharply with the claims of Putin and his officials. Here's a reading list:

"It was worth living in this country to experience Maidan," Hadashot, Feb. 2014 (translated and posted on the website of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine; original article in Russian here).

"Kyiv's Maidan is a Liberationist and Not Extremist Mass Action of Civic Disobedience," Andreas Umland et al., Feb. 2014 (also posted on the website of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine here).

- "An Open Letter on the Ukrainian Revolution in the Russian Language," Ukraina Syehodnya, March 3, 2014 (translated and posted on the website of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine; original article in Russian here).

"If we don't win, Ukraine will leave the civilization's realm altogether," Ukrainska Pravda, Feb. 14, 2014 (translated and posted on the website of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine; original article in Russian here).

"NCSJ strongly condemns the most recent violent attacks against protestors in Kyiv, Ukraine," National Conference Supporting Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia (NCSJ), Feb. 19, 2014.

- "Ukraine Update #9," NCSJ, Feb. 26, 2014.

Ukraine Crisis: Only 15% of Russians Supported Action on Ukraine

As the crisis over Russia's invasion of Ukraine escalates, I thought it'd be useful to add my two hryvnias.

I'll be posting occasional news items I think are enlightening from my perspective as an investigative journalist of partly Ukrainian descent.

Here's an interesting take from Time Magazine. It reveals that only 15 percent of Russians actually wanted their government to intervene to help Ukraine's deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych, stay in power.

In the survey, conducted by the Kremlin's own pollster, 73 percent said Russia shouldn't interfere in what they believed was an internal matter for Ukrainians. (Russian speakers and Google Translate users can read the complete results here.)

The poll was carried out Feb. 1 and 2, before mass protests in Ukraine forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia. Ukraine's new authorities have issued an arrest warrant for Yanukovych for mass murder in connection with the killing of nearly 100 protesters by police and government snipers as he clung to power.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has vociferously denounced the overthrow of his ally Yanukovych and sent thousands of Russian soldiers into Ukraine's Crimea region shortly after.

The poll also found that 30 percent of respondents in Moscow and St. Petersburg predicted Russia could see a similar protest movement, particularly if faced with a severe economic crisis or poverty.