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Kyryl Savin (photo: privat)
Image: privat

Russia 'steering unrest'

Interview: Günther Birkenstock / sst
May 3, 2014

Ukraine's south has been gripped by clashes between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian pro-unity protesters. Kyryl Savin, head of the Kyiv office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, says Russia is steering the conflict.


DW: There have been clashes in Odessa in Ukraine's relatively quiet south on Friday (02.05.2014) - many people were killed in a fire. What can you tell us about this incident?

Kyryl Savin: There was a pro-Ukrainian demonstration on Friday, especially among soccer fans from a local soccer team in Odessa and fans from Kharkiv. They wanted to demonstrate for Ukraine's unity, and when they took to the streets, they were attacked by armed separatists. It's hard to say who did this, but it's probably the same mix as in Ukraine's east: Russian saboteurs plus local criminals and pro-Russian activists.

Four people from the ranks of pro-Ukrainian protesters died in these clashes. Then backup for the pro-Ukrainian side - citizens of Odessa - moved in on the pro-Russian separatists. The separatists holed up in a trade union building. According to media reports, both sides threw Molotov cocktails at each other, which caused the building to catch fire. Due to the fire on the first floor, people in the upper floors couldn't flee - some jumped out of the windows. A total of 42 people reportedly died.

So it was a tragic accident, but not a targeted attack?

That's how I see it. There were these four people who died during the clashes, and 38 people who fell victim to the fire - I regard that as a tragic accident, but not as a targeted attack.

A protester walks past a burning pro-Russian tent camp near the trade union building in Odessa (photo: REUTERS/Yevgeny Volokin)
Savin sees the fire that killed at least 38 people on Friday in a trade union building in Odessa's downtown as a tragic accidentImage: Reuters

What are the initial reactions to this incident in Odessa?

The governor of Odessa quickly spoke and put the blame on the militia, the police - he claimed the militia once again failed to react and only stood by. On Saturday morning, Ukraine's Interior Minister fired the head of Odessa's local militia. The minister has also ordered an official mourning period of three days.

On Friday morning, Ukraine's east also saw unrest emerge when two army helicopters were shot down.

That happened in Slovyansk where the Ukrainian government continues to carry out its anti-terror operations. And the government is trying to continue with its operation step-by-step, in order to avoid large numbers of fatalities. The action forces have the order to shoot only under exceptional circumstances, and to only target militant separatists and not civilians. That's why this is taking so long, with no quick, successful missions to show for. At least for this mission, there hasn't been a high death toll - until now.

Do you have new information with regard to the helicopters that were shot down, and the arrested pilots?

Information is quite contradictory, there are different numbers. The pilot's [health] condition is also unclear. The incident has been strongly criticized, not just by the government in Kyiv, but also by the international public.

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bild made an ironic remark in a comment on Twitter that he believes the grandmothers of Slovyansk had bought rockets in grocery stores to shoot down the helicopters. That's because the Russian side continues to insist that it's not delivering weapons to separatists - that separatists are buying their weapons at local businesses.

Does this incident give proof to the idea that Russia's claims have been lip service? What influence does Putin have on the separatists?

According to knowledge here in Ukraine, Putin is steering the whole thing. This force consists of Russian secret service agents and saboteurs who have been specially trained and who have crossed the border with their weapons. But they are not many, maybe 200 in total. They are controlled and coordinated by the Kremlin.

But they are not alone. There are also local criminals who would take part in anything - be it for money, or out of conviction, or both. And then there is a group of local fanatic pro-Russian activists.

Pro-Russian activists hurl objects at supporters of the Kiev government during clashes in the streets of Odessa May 2, 2014. (Photo: REUTERS/Yevgeny Volokin)
Savin says local criminals joined up with pro-Russian separatists in the Odessa street clashesImage: Reuters

How do you know these groups are controlled by Russia?

There is solid evidence, such as dozens of online audio files of tapped talks between separatists and people speaking with Russian voices. For example, members of the Russian secret service give clear orders to separatists in Slovyansk and other cities. There is also video of conversations with Russian saboteurs who are quite well-known and speak very openly.

One thing is absolutely clear to me: If these Russian forces were not present in the area of Donetsk, there would not be such great unrest. People would still silently hate Kyiv because they are very unhappy with the government and because people here have been heavily influenced by Russian propaganda, but there would not be any violence and dead bodies.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin has now demanded another UN Security Council session. What success could such a session achieve, and do you think this is a serious attempt?

Russia is playing a dangerous game. They're trying to portray to the world that what's happening in Ukraine is a civil war, in which Russia is not involved at all, and is simply a very worried bystander: Worried about the Russian-speaking population, worried about its own borders, worried that the conflict might spill over from individual cities, et cetera. That's reportedly the reason why Russian troops have been deployed to Ukraine's border. Russia is trying to reduce the conflict to a fight between Ukraine's east and west; that it's simply people in eastern Ukraine who have felt neglected for so long, and have now decided to stand up and fight for their rights. That's the image Putin likes to convey.

And calling on the Security Council to hold a session is nothing more but part of the show. In my opinion, Russia is looking for reasons to legitimate a possible military operation by Russian troops. [So that Russia] can say at the end: Well, we couldn't do anything else, we had to move in as peacekeepers in order to stop violence from spreading.

At the moment, it doesn't look like Russian troops would come in and seize the land like they did with Crimea. But that also cannot be ruled out.

Kyryl Savin directs the Kyiv office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is associated with the German Green party. Among other things, Savin worked at the German embassy in Kyiv, where he also studied international relations.

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