Moscow and Kiev spar over who was to blame for deadly sniper attacks

Ukraine's new government thinks shooters were Russian special forces with orders to sow mayhem; Moscow fingers opposition for the killings

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 March, 2014, 7:19pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2014, 6:09am

One of the biggest mysteries hanging over the protest mayhem that drove Ukraine's president from power is who was behind the snipers who sowed death and terror in Kiev?

That riddle has become the latest flashpoint of feuding over Ukraine - with the nation's fledgling government and the Kremlin giving starkly different interpretations of events that could either undermine or bolster the legitimacy of the new rulers.

Ukrainian authorities are investigating the February 18-20 bloodbath, and they have shifted their focus from ousted president Viktor Yanukovych's government to Vladimir Putin's Russia - pursuing the theory that the Kremlin was intent on sowing mayhem as a pretext for military incursion. Russia suggests that the snipers were organised by opposition leaders trying to whip up local and international outrage against the government.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday called for an investigation by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, saying the truth could no longer be "covered up".

Ukraine's new health minister - a doctor who helped oversee medical treatment for casualties during the protests - said that the similarity of bullet wounds suffered by opposition victims and police indicates the shooters were trying to stoke tensions on both sides.

"I think it wasn't just a part of the old regime that [plotted the provocation], but it was also the work of Russian special forces who served and maintained the ideology of the [old] regime," Health Minister Oleh Musiy said.

Putin has pushed the idea that the sniper shootings were ordered by opposition leaders, while Kremlin officials have pointed to a recording of a leaked phone call between Estonia's foreign minister and the European Union's foreign policy chief as evidence for that version.

On Tuesday, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov signalled that investigators may be turning their attention away from Ukrainian responsibility.

"I can say only one thing: the key factor in this uprising that spilled blood in Kiev and that turned the country upside down and shocked it, was a third force," Avakov was quoted as saying by Interfax. "And this force was not Ukrainian."

Deputy Interior Minister Mykola Velichkovych said that commanders of sniper units overseen by the Berkut police force and other Interior Ministry subdivisions have denied to investigators that they had given orders to shoot anyone.

Russia has used the uncertainty surrounding the bloodshed to discredit Ukraine's current government. During a news conference on Tuesday, Putin addressed the issue in response to a reporter's question, suggesting that the snipers in fact "may have been provocateurs from opposition parties".

That theory gained currency a day later when a recording of a February 26 private phone call between Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was leaked. In the call, Paet said he had heard from protesters during a visit to Kiev that opponents of Yanukovych were behind the sniper attacks.


Pentagon studies body language of leaders like Vladimir Putin for clues

A Pentagon research team is studying the body language of Russian President Vladimir Putin and other foreign leaders to better predict their behaviour.

The project, previously conducted under the State Department, is now backed by the Defence Department’s Office of Net Assessment. Putin’s psychological profile was last updated in 2012, a Pentagon official said.

Advocates of such studies argue that it could help US officials anticipate the Russian leader’s actions after he ordered troops into neighbouring Ukraine, taking control of the semi-autonomous Crimean peninsula. 

Pentagon analysts have studied about 15 foreign leaders including Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby insisted “for sure” that the studies did not inform the military’s policy decisions, saying Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel had only learned of them following a USA Today report.

He said about US$300,000 had been spent on the studies each year since 2009.

Studying someone’s body language and movements, usually using split-second video footage, can help determine behavioural habits and individual psychology, according to experts. Pentagon researcher Brenda Connors characterised Putin’s body language in 2004 as indicating he was “risk averse – stuck in place and time” as well as being “extremely sensitive to criticism”.

Agence France-Presse