The acting president of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov told regional governors on May 1 that the Kiev interim government was “helpless” to re-establish central government control in eastern Ukraine, where anti-Kiev forces (pro-independence and/or pro-Russian) have taken control of numerous cities in a manner imitating the way the Kiev government itself seized power in February.
“I will be frank. Today, security forces are unable to take the situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions quickly under control,” Turchynov said at the May Day meeting. He reported that numerous Ukrainian military and security personnel had defected to the rebels, taking their arms with them. With Kiev’s authority in doubt in much of eastern Ukraine, Turchynov said his government’s plan was to try to slow pro-Russian gains by concentrating on the defense of Kharkiv in the northeast and Odessa in the southwest.
For months, Odessa (population about one million) had remained relatively peaceful despite turmoil in other parts of the country. Odessa was more disturbed by speculation than active demonstrations. The April 16 declaration of the “Odessa People’s Republic” turned out to be a hoax and European monitors reported that the city remained calm. On April 23 in Odessa, people from various sides, including supporters of Euromaidan (pro-Kiev) and supporters of Antimaidan (pro-Russian culturally, but not always pro-separatist), agreed that the greatest threat to Ukraine was from abroad. They reportedly worked together to establish checkpoints around Odessa to defend against pro-Russian provocateurs.
The day after acting president Turchynov spoke of being “helpless,” the Kiev government launched its largest military operation to date in eastern Ukraine, an action that is still causing casualties on both sides, as the fighting continues at a low intensity.
On the same day, May 2, Odessa suffered more civilian deaths than any place in Ukraine since some 70 people died in Kiev in February, in the course of the bloody coup that brought the present government to power.
What happened in Odessa on May 2 remains somewhat murky
According to RT (Russian Television in English) in a late report that day, the events of May 2 started quietly and ended with violence and bloodshed (that has since been widely confirmed, although precise numbers remain uncertain):
39 anti-government activists have died in a fire at Odessa’s Trade Unions House. Some burned to death, while others suffocated or jumped out of windows, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry reported. The building was set ablaze by pro-Kiev radicals.
Earlier on May 2, around 2 p.m., some 1,500 pro-Kiev demonstrators gathered for a peaceful assembly in support of national unity, according to Agence France-Presse: at some point, “hundreds of pro-Russian militants swinging batons and wearing helmets on Friday attacked [the] rally…. Police intervened to try to break up the violence, which left dozens wounded on both sides.”
Where AFP saw an attack, RT saw a collision:
A pro-unity demonstration, which included nationalists and football fans, ran into a rally preaching greater autonomy for the regions. Gunfire was heard… as two rival rallies met, police having failed to draw them apart. Over 2,000 protesters pelted each other with Molotov cocktails and smoke grenades. Pavements were dismantled to get the stones for the fight, like it was done in Kiev during the Maidan protests. Local police reported that four people were killed in the stand-off, and at least one of them died due to a gun-shot wound. At least 37 received injuries in clashes….
Some of the people in the group were wearing the ultra-nationalist Right Sector movement insignia. They were also armed with chains and bats and carried shields, as an Itar-Tass correspondent on the ground reported. The group tried to march through the city, chanting ‘Glory to Ukraine,’ ‘Death to enemies,’ ‘Knife the Moskals [derogatory for Russians]’….
Judging by some of the available video, most of the crowd was not involved in any violence. People by the hundreds mill about like a crowd at a carnival, wandering around an intersection where nothing appears to be happening, while a large cluster of people to one side looks down a street toward a sideshow, something billowing smoke out of sight of the camera. Even when there are explosions or when shots ring out, no one seems to react. The crowd is overwhelmingly male. A lone young woman with a camera seems unconcerned in the middle of the street. Some of the men are masked, or wearing uniforms of one sort or another; some wear helmets and quite a few carry sticks or clubs, and shields, but firearms are rarely shown. Only a few people have cameras visible. A group of ten or more pro-Kiev men hijack a fire truck, then sit on it without moving. A Molotov cocktail burns on an empty street.
A long video compilation starts in bright daylight, showing police forming a line with their backs to one group of protestors as they face a sketchy barricade of lumber, ladders, a dumpster, panels of some sort, and other large detritus. Beyond this is another crowd in the distance. Some in the near crowd throw stones over the police in front of them, but it’s unlikely any can throw far enough to reach the other crowd. These police do nothing to intervene. Later there are some 30 police huddled together behind their shields as a handful of young men pelt them with rocks. In other shots there are men (not police) with handguns and automatic weapons.
Kiev proxies perpetrated the worst carnage of the day
Later in the day, the pro-Kiev forces attack a large stone building, five stories tall, with a colonnaded front entrance that is barricaded by its defenders. The attackers dismantle and burn an encampment in front of the building, dismantling a speaker’s platform and towers for lights and sound equipment. This is Odessa’s Trade Unions House and it is under siege, surrounded by a scattered, bustling crowd of hundreds of mostly armed men. Some throw stones at the defenders. Shots are fired. Farther back are thin ranks of hundreds of onlookers, many passively taking pictures. It appears to be a scene of relentless, low-intensity but extreme vandalism.
Later, the barricade is gone and no defenders are visible in front of the building. The pro-Kiev attackers have set fire to perhaps a dozen tents in front of the building and they burn into the night. Flames twenty feet high engulf the entrance to the Trade Unions House. Intense flames rage inside the ground floor and thick, black smoke pours out of windows on several floors (it looks like a stairwell on fire). There are people inside the building, fifty reportedly trapped on the roof. In the twilight, police arrive quietly, in formation, without reaction from the crowd. The police don’t do much. Wounded or dead victims are dragged or wheeled about, or left lying on the pavement. No one fights any of the fires. There are more occasional shots or small explosions to which no one visibly reacts. There is no sign that people inside the building are fighting back. The crowd gets noisy when more than half a dozen people from inside the building appear along a narrow ledge, between smoking windows. Some of the onlookers have moved one of the light and sound towers next to the building, allowing people on the ledge to climb down the pipe framing, with police surrounding the base.
In another tape, someone throws a Molotov cocktail that hits the side of the building and burns on a ledge. A heavyset man in a blue uniform shoots his pistol at the building. A man crouches on a ledge above the crowd as smoke and flames pour from a window to his right. Someone throws a Molotov cocktail that burns on the ledge on the other side of the window. Later the man is gone. If any of the dozens of men in uniform are police, they are doing nothing to control the crowd. A crawling, wounded man is kicked from behind. There are other wounded people, some getting medical attention (officially, more than 200 were wounded during the day).
At dusk, some people start rescuing those trapped in the building
At one window of the Trade Unions House is the Ukrainian flag. Two people hang onto the outside of a window frame of a smoking third-floor window. At another window there are flames inside. People are leaning out of other third floor windows. Someone throws a Molotov cocktail at them, but misses. The crowd remains quiet, ignoring explosions. Drumming begins in the distance and lasts a few minutes. A rescue effort using ropes and a sound/light tower and a ladder takes almost half an hour, but frees several people from the third floor. The second floor continues to burn nearby, but another ladder allows a few more people to escape from a smoking window. A man in a white helmet climbs a ladder to a third floor window and leads more people down. Firefighters in white helmets have extinguished the blaze at the front door. There are still hundreds of people in front of the building, but they are quiet, and the tent fires have burned out. It is dark. What light there is comes mostly from flashing emergency vehicles.
In the aftermath, inside the Trade Unions House , a 14-minute video travels with what appear to be police officers walking through a series of offices that have been trashed, but are not burned. The “officers” occasionally rummage through papers, but ignore the occasional, apparently lifeless body. Outside, in the dark, people are milling about, occasionally calling out, sometimes laughing, mostly quiet until a group starts to chant in the distance.
This fragmentary and non-linear impression of events in Odessa is based predominantly on several hours of video for which there is no reliable verification (or discrediting). The cumulative effect of seeing many of the same moments from different angles lends credence to the reality of what is shown. Little if any of it could have been staged without great effort that surely someone would have noticed. It’s hard to find a credible and detailed account of that day’s events anywhere, never mind in mainstream media [the best I have seen so far are by RT (several) and the BBC on May 6].
Given what looks like mob murder, how would western media play it?
At this point, a reasonable interpretation of fragmentary evidence suggests that there were distinct but related events in Odessa on May 2.
The first event began with the afternoon march of some 1,500 pro-Ukainian unity supporters, including hardcore fans of two Ukrainian soccer teams (Odessa vs. Kharkiv) as well as veterans of the Maidan Self Defense Force and members of Right Sector, the right wing political party that supplied much of the muscle in the Maidan’s resistance to the then-government. They then clashed with about 500 pro-Russian separatists, in a street fight with little close combat, although as many as four people died and others were injured. According to one report, that clash lasted about 15 minutes before the outnumbered pro-Russians retreated to the square in front of the Trade Unions House, where they had been camping out since February in a peaceful protest against the Kiev-coup government. (Odessa has a Russian ethnic minority of about 30%, or 300,000 people.)
The second event, the attack on the Trade Unions House (a mile or more away from the first clash), began some time later (likely flowing out of the first event, whether by desugn or opportunity). It formed for reasons that remain unclear – except for the ethnic/political hostility represented by the participants. The soccer/Maidan/Right Sector forces outnumbered the pro-Russians by 3 to 1, and appear to have been better armed as well. They had little difficulty driving the pro-Russians out of their encampment, then tearing it apart and setting it on fire. The pro-Kiev forces seem to have had little resistance from the pro-Russians, first forcing them back inside the Trade Unions Hall, then setting it on fire at multiple points, demonstrating what appears, at best, a willful disregard for life and safety.
For the most part western media seem to have underplayed or ignored the reality of Odessa (or distorted it) for the sake of a propagandistic linkage to the Kiev government’s military offensive against Slovyansk, half a country away. As the New York Times headlined it on May 3 (inside story on page 7): “Ukrainian Troops Strike Rebel-Held City as Fighting Spreads to Black Sea Port” – an incoherent headline on its face that gets only less coherent in the context of reality. The story below that headline includes exactly two, self-contradictory paragraphs about Odessa, one of which appears to be fiction:
“The deaths [on May 2] expand the increasingly violent struggle for control over Ukraine’s Black Sea port, which had been quiet until last week, when seven people were wounded in a roadside bombing.”
That’s the entire report of an attack for which there is no date, no location, no identification of the perpetrators, no identification of any of the victims, and no reaction from any official. A google search produced no other reference anywhere to this alleged roadside bombing. And the Times itself omits mention of the bombing in its longer, next-day story (inside on page 14) which goes back to reporting that Odessa “had been mostly calm” before May 2. (Another report referred to May 2 as Odessa’s “blackest day since 1941, when Nazi-allied Romanian occupying troops killed thousands of Jews.)
Dishonest media bang the drums for war in Ukraine
Although Reuters is sometimes considered among the more reliable news organizations, it’s on board with the propaganda designed to persuade its readers of the “inevitability” of war – and, more subtly, of the righteousness of “our” side. A Reuters story on May 6, under a deceptive headline – “Both sides bury dead as Ukraine slides towards war” – begins with a lede that offers the basis for a case study in manipulation of a sort common to American mainstream media from MSNBC to Fox:
“KRAMATORSK/ODESSA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Both sides have been burying their dead as Ukraine slides further towards war, with supporters of Russia and of a united Ukraine accusing each other of tearing the country apart.”
• “Both sides” is an inherently misleading phrase, since it is rare in any conflict that there are only two sides, especially in the conflict’s early stages.
• “Both sides” is meaningless – worse than meaningless, it, conceals meaning when applied to Ukraine, where there are, at a minimum, nine identifiable “sides” or factions, often over-lapping:
(1) Ukrainians who want a non-aligned, free, independent Ukraine;
(2) Ukrainians who want a western-aligned but independent Ukraine;
(3) Ukrainians who want an anti-Russian Ukraine in NATO;
(4) Americans (and some of their allies) who have been working for decades to use Ukraine to threaten Russia;
(5) Ukrainians who want a Russian-dominated Ukraine (for example, the elected government that was overthrown in February);
(6) Ukrainians who want a federal Ukraine (similar to U.S.) in which dominant ethnic groups have significant independence;
(7) Ukrainians who want one or more independent states established within what is now Ukraine (i.e., Republic of Donetsk);
(8) Ukrainians who want to be part of Russia (i.e., Crimea);
(9) Russians who want one or more of these options, but mostly want the U.S./west to end their decades of threatening and leave Ukraine as much in Russia’s sphere of influence as Mexico is in America’s.
• “Both sides” means what to Reuters? Which two of nine or more “sides” does Reuters want you to think about? Apparently Reuters wants you to think this is a conflict between Kiev and Moscow, as if Washington had played no role. That makes no sense unless one assumes some sort of political purity in Kiev, despite the regime’s illegitimacy and subsequent actions; the Kiev/Moscow reductionism also requires one to assume some sort of pure political malevolency in Moscow, despite its failure to intervene militarily yet and its legitimate interests in what happens on its border and what happens to ethnic Russians beyond its borders. A closer equivalence is between Washington and Moscow, each of which would like to achieve its own geopolitical goals (boding little good for Ukraine either way) without leaving more fingerprints at the crime scene that can be helped. Only a fool would assume that the American CIA chief visited Kiev to tell the government that the U.S. was not getting more involved in the struggle. Only a fool would believe that Kiev’s subsequent offensive against protesters (whose actions have been little different from those in the Maidan last winter) was all Kiev’s idea. Compared to the elected government’s restraint in the face of the Maidan protests, the current Kiev regime is proceeding with lethal rapidity and no apparent comparable effort to negotiate through the crisis.
• “Both sides” is an obvious fiction even within the Reuters story, since those who are “burying their dead” are perhaps on opposites sides (of nine or more) politically, but they are not even close to being on opposite sides of the same confrontation. One side, in Kramatorsk, in northeast Ukraine, is more than 400 miles away from the “other” side in Odessa, in southwest Ukraine. These people are, most likely, total strangers – not two sides of a neat prevarication.
• “burying their dead” is emotive language, apparently employed here to stir passion, since the burials themselves have no inherent news value (and Reuters doesn’t even try to fake that part).
• “Ukraine slides further towards war” misrepresents just about every aspect of what is happening. The underlying assumption, that Ukraine IS sliding towards war cannot be proven until it happens, which gives it an aspect of self-fulfilling prophecy. Focusing only on Ukraine falsifies a situation that includes Russia, the United States, Europe, Israel, border states, and an uncertain number of other actors. “Slides” is a slippery word that suggests no one is in control, when surely one or more sides in Ukraine are strategically ready (if not eager) to accept war.
And why just “war” – why not “civil war”? Low grade civil war may describe just what is happening now in Ukraine, where Ukrainians killing Ukrainians has continued its escalatory creep. Is Reuters secretly dreaming of a wider “war”?
• According to Reuters, “both sides” means “supporters of Russia and of a united Ukraine,” as if there weren’t another seven of more articulable political positions. So it’s nonsense on its face. But what does “supporters of Russia” even mean? What does a “supporter of Russia” want? Annexation? Independence? Autonomy within Ukraine? Friendly international relations? Puppies? And supporters of a “united Ukraine”? What do they want? NATO membership? European Union membership? Non-aligned independence? A federal system? What? What we know about the usurping government in Kiev is that its very first act was to remove Russian from its official language status, which infuriated Russian speakers, no surprise. Kiev has since reinstated Russian’s official language status, but it’s nowhere near reinstating even minimal trust from people who might be labeled “supporters of Russia.”
• Ukrainians “accusing each other of tearing the country apart” stand a good chance of being correct, no matter who they are. For a country to be torn apart it must first be a coherent whole, a state of being that Ukraine has never achieved for any significant period of time. So any accusation of tearing the country apart is more like a euphemism for “you’re not doing what I want.” In a situation with nine or more sides, you’re going to hear that a lot.
The reality in Ukraine is that no one likes the reality in Ukraine
Almost everyone who talks about Ukraine talks about the need for peaceful solutions, though it’s not at all clear how many of those people mean anything more than “accept my point of view.” From the available evidence, it seems safe to assume that Ukraine is not filled with peacemakers, although there seems to be a majority of Ukrainians ready to live peacefully if they’re just left alone [a speculation perhaps too rosy to be real]. A few in the current government seem, on occasion, to have peaceful instincts but insufficient moral authority to persuade many of their peers to temper their rhetoric and work patiently for a broadly-supported settlement, assuming one could be devised. Such a settlement, difficult enough under internal Ukrainian conditions, is impossible under international conditions. It’s not just that Washington and Moscow are facing off, which would be bad enough. It’s that Washington has slowly but relentlessly pushed Moscow into a corner where it has little choice but to resist or resign itself to hostile western advances more or less forever.
Ukraine is not surrounded by peacemakers, and even those European governments inclined to find a compromise are themselves compromised by an uncompromising United States, which lacks even the simple human decency to condemn burning innocent people alive. “The events in Odessa dramatically underscore the need for an immediate de-escalation of tensions in Ukraine,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said with near-pathological lack of empathy. “The violence and efforts to destabilize the country must end.” It’s unlikely he was referring to the decades-long effort by the United States, its allies, and its proxies to achieve such destabilization for their own benefit. It’s even less likely that the Obama administration will acknowledge its unique position to de-escalate tensions by easing up its own efforts to de-stabilize and control Ukraine by proxy. At this point, only a significant shift of American policy can offer any hope for Ukraine. That’s bad news for Ukraine.
In reaction to the massacre in Odessa, where he death toll stands at 46 with another 48 still missing, the Kiev government sacked the top leadership of the Odessa police department. Acting interior minister Arsen Avakov said on Facebook that he fired the police officials “for failing to prevent a pro-Russian mob from attacking a pro-Ukrainian rally, a confrontation that touched off the violence on Friday,” according to the Times on May 6, without alluding to the police role in relation to the mob action that burned people alive.
Earlier in its inside shirt tail (page 11) the Times referred to the burial of “one of the pro-Russian leaders, Vyachislav Markin.” With an almost Orwellian approach to re-writing history to fit he current propaganda, the Times wrote with cold distortion that: “Mr. Markin perished in the fire that burned a trade union building where pro-Russian activists had holed up after losing a street battle with pro-Ukrainian activists on Friday.”
Two days after the May 2 violence during which police arrested more than 100 people, several hundred pro-Russian supporters gathered at a police jail, forcing open its gate. Significantly outnumbered, police offered no resistance and released about 70 prisoners.
To replace the deposed Odessa police officers, minister Avakov has sent an elite police unit from Kiev to keep order in Odessa. The new police unit, called Kiev-1 battalion, comprises mostly veterans of the Maidan occupation that drove out the elected government in February. The nature and arrival of this special police unit, among an estimated 4,000 pro-Kiev troops sent to the city, has raised suspicions in Odessa where Bloomberg (among others) reports widespread uncertainty:
Conspiracy theories are rife on both sides [sic]. Pro-Russian groups say the gunmen who started it all by opening fire on a peaceful demonstration by pro-Ukrainian soccer fans were paid by officials in Kiev to justify military action and subdue the rebels by force. Nationalists say Russia planned the attack to spread insurrection and weaken the central government. Both sides accuse the police of inaction and Ukrainian prosecutors have started an investigation.
Ukraine’s government blamed the events on Russia’s Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, and said the fire broke out after pro-Russians threw Molotov cocktails from inside. They were seeking to escape fighting that broke out after a march for Ukrainian unity was attacked.
The speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, said Ukrainian radicals including the nationalist Pravy Sektor [Right Sector] group are pursuing ‘genocide’.
Things may get a lot worse in Ukraine before they start getting worse
Among the recent indicators of how things are going, the “helpless” Kiev government goes on killing fellow Ukrainians for their wrong opinions and the U.S. State Department warns people not to travel in Ukraine, while other parts of the American government support the unelected junta that is tinged with white racism and relies on street gangs to keep the natives from getting too restless. In the longer term, these developments might matter:
• Since mid-April, Kiev has been reducing the supply of fresh water to Crimea. Reportedly Kiev plane to cut off Crimea’s fresh water supply completely and has already begun building a dam for that purpose.
• Russia says it’s pulling troops back from positions within 50 miles of the Ukrainian border, and the United States says no, they’re not, without producing any of the satellite evidence that everyone knows would settle the factual issue.
• With a narrow strait from the Black Sea separating Crimea from mainland Russia, Crimea would be at continuing disadvantage with Ukraine as its only overland border state – except that now a Chinese state construction company has agreed to build a bridge between Crimea and Russia.
So why doesn’t the United States build more bridges, maybe even start at home?