More ominous headlines from Ukraine that only leave us wondering what to believe. Winning the prize for combining sensationalism with sloppy vagueness is (surprise) the New York Post, which warns: "Jews in east Ukraine forced to register with authorities." There are two serious problems with this headline. First, if you actually read the story, nobody has been "forced" to do anything—yet, at least. The demand was made in threatening leaflets, with no attempt at enforcement. Second, given the confused situation in east Ukraine, it is completely ambiguous who is indicated by the word "authorities." The "official" Urkainian government, or the Russian-backed separatists who claim to be in control? This is a rather critical point, given all the Russian propaganda about how the Kiev government is "fascist" and "anti-Semitic."
On April 13, some 10,000 people turned out in Moscow for an anti-Kremlin rally to denounce Russian state television's coverage of the Ukraine crisis—which portrays the new government in Kiev as a "fascist junta" under the control of the US. Some of those who took part in the "March of Truth" carried blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags. One woman, wearing a traditional Ukrainian wreath of flowers on her head, held a sign with President Vladimir Putin's picture and the words: "Stop lying." Among those who spoke to the crowd was Andrei Zubov, a history professor who was fired from the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations last month after criticizing Russia's military intervention in the Crimea, comparing it with Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria on the eve of World War II. Zubov told the crowd that by lying to the Russian people on television, the government is leading the country toward "an abyss." (AP, April 13; Global Voices Online, March 27; Reuters, March 24)
Pro-Russian protests broke out in Ukraine's east April 6, climaxing in the seizure of government buildings in the cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk. (See map.) Protesters in Donetsk declared their own "constituent assembly," and proclaimed the Donbas region to be a "people's republic." After clashing with riot police and breaking through their lines to enter the regional parliament chamber, the protesters raised the Russian flag from the building. Supporters outside cheered and chanted: "Russia, Russia!" A report by Russia's Interfax agency said the Donetsk protesters will push for a regional referendum by May 11 on unification with Russia. Protest camps have been established outside the government buildings in all three cities, with banners bearing messages such as "Putin, help!"
NATO on April 1 began a two-day exercise, briging more than 100 US Air Force personnel, along with F-15 fighter jets and a Germany-based Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) craft, to former Soviet air bases in Lithuania. Denmark is also sending six F16 fighter jets to the Baltic as part of an expanded NATO air policing mission, with regular patrols to begin May 1. The incidence of Russian jets flying close enough to Baltic airspace this year to prompt NATO jets being scrambled has increased to about once a week, according to Lithuania's defense ministry. NATO jets were scrambled about 40 times in both 2012 and 2013; in 2004, the year the Baltic republics joined NATO, it only happened once.
The US Defense Department is dispatching a naval vessel to the Black Sea to conduct military exercises with allies in the region, as well as deploying additional Marines to enlarge a "rotational crisis response force" in Romania, the Pentagon announced April 3. The Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response Force, based at Moron Air Base in Spain, is being increased from 500 to 675 and deployed to Romania "to allow greater flexibility." The Pentagon denied that the decision to send the additional Marines to Romania is related to developments in Ukraine. (American Forces Press Service, April 3)
An inquiry by the interim Ukrainian government on April 2 implicated members of the special Berkut riot police in the deaths of 76 anti-government protesters in Kiev in February. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov presented initial findings before reporters indicating twelve members of the elite police force as snipers and arrested three on suspicion of shooting deaths. Avakov also identified Maj Dmytro Sadovnyk as commander of a Berkut unit suspected of the shooting death of seventeen protesters. Most of the protester shootings occured near the main protest camp on Independence Square. Ukrainian Security Service chief Valentyn Nalyvaychenko has accused Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives of coordinating operations against protesters. In addition to allegations of Russian involvement in suppressing protests, a top security official for the interim government accused ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's government of hiring gangs of thugs to terrorize protesters and opposition groups.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated Moscow's support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad in an April 2 message delivered by a visiting delegation of the Russia-based Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, headed by the society's chairman Sergei Stepashin. In the message, Putin hailed Assad's war against "international terrorism" that he asserted is "backed" by Western nations. (Xinhua, April 2) The message comes amid reports from Jane's Defense Weekly that Assad's military started using longer-range Russian Smerch and Uragan rockets for the first time in February. Ruslan Pukhov, an adviser to Russia's Defense Ministry and head of the Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, confirmed that Moscow is supplying a "lifeline" of ammunition and parts for tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters to Damascus. Alexei Malashenko, Middle East analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said: "Russia is now doing everything to ensure that Assad wins convincingly. If Russia can show it's capable of carrying out its own foreign policy, regardless of America’s wishes, it will be a major achievement for Putin." (Bloomberg, April 2)
The Majilis of Crimean Tatars on March 29 voted to seek "a national autonomous territory." The assembly of 200 Tatar delegates in the Crimean Tatars' historic capital of Bakhchisaray voted in favor of the proposal put to them by assembly leader Refat Chubarov. "I ask you to approve...the start of political and legal procedures aimed at creating ethnic and territorial autonomy of the Crimean Tatars of their historic territory of Crimea," Chubarov said. "In the life of every nation there comes a time when it must make decisions that will determine its future." The session was started with the anthem of Crimean Tatars, after which Crimean Muslim Mufti Haji Emirali Ablayev blessed the congress' work, saying: "Crimean Tatars returned to their homeland after years of deportation. Despite the fact that Crimea is having hard times today, we should not leave Crimea." (DW, Interfax, March 29)