Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ukraine Crisis In Mind, Lithuania Establishes A Rapid Reaction Force

RUKLA, Lithuania -- Maj. Linas Pakutka walked back and forth behind the line of soldiers lying in the snow-crusted field, a row of distant pines forming a jagged horizon in the twilight sky.

Maj. Linas Pakutka leads the two main units that make up the rapid-reaction force.

His command to fire was barely audible in the fierce wind.

The assault rifles, German-made G36s, crackled to life, punching invisible holes in a row of targets almost lost in the gloom.

“If something happens tomorrow, we are ready,” said Maj. Ernest Gaigalas as he watched the training exercise.

“If something really bad happens, we are good to go.”

Major Pakutka leads the two main units in Lithuania’s brand-new rapid-reaction force.

It is the first of its kind along NATO’s eastern flank, intended to address exactly the kind of hybrid, insurgent warfare that has characterized the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

“One thing is clear now, we have to be ready,” said Brig. Gen. Vilmantas Tamosaitis, leader of the joint staff that commands the force from the Ministry of Defense in Vilnius, the capital.

“We have the same neighbors that Ukraine has.”

With a population of about three million and an active military of 8,000, Lithuania is unlikely to put up much of a fight against Russia, a neighbor whose military alone is more than a million strong.

But the conflict in Ukraine, which is also a former Soviet republic, has this Baltic nation’s attention.

At the NATO summit meeting in Wales in September, the alliance’s leaders — pushed by Lithuania, Poland and other eastern flank nations to take a more forceful stand against Russian aggression in Ukraine — opted to create a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force to be made up of troops from several NATO member nations.

“The idea is to have a capability that could react to developments on the ground in the Baltic States or Poland, or perhaps Romania, if you had something like the Ukraine scenario develop,” said Marcin Zaborowski, the director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

The first prototype unit in this new force, an “interim spearhead force” made up of 3,000 to 4,000 German, Dutch and Norwegian troops, will be operational by next year, NATO officials said this month, but a permanent force will not be up and running until at least 2016. 

Lithuania, however, decided it could not wait that long.

“The situation in the region has changed,” General Tamosaitis said.

“And we need to counter these emerging threats, this new kind of hybrid war.”

Such conflict continues to simmer in eastern Ukraine, with Western leaders charging — and Moscow denying — that Russian troops are training, arming and fighting alongside local insurgents.

And Russia has been increasingly provocative in its use of military flights and naval operations in the Baltic Sea.

Last Friday, the Danish aviation authorities had to warn a Swedish passenger jet leaving Copenhagen to change course to avoid a Russian military aircraft flying with its transponder turned off.

Two days earlier, a plane flying out of Finland had a similar episode involving a Russian jet with its transponder off.

In October, the region was transfixed for more than a week by the search for a submarine, suspected of being from Russia, which witnesses claimed to have spotted near the Swedish coast.

In all, NATO officials said early this month, there had been more than 400 incidents this year in which alliance aircraft were scrambled to match the presence of Russian military jets.

That was an increase of 50 percent over 2013, they said.

“The Russians are testing what they can get away with,” Juozas Olekas, Lithuania’s defense minister, said in an interview.

“They’re testing how we react. They are exercising. They are demonstrating their power.”

The idea behind these rapid-reaction forces is that speed is essential in countering hybrid warfare threats.

Russia’s repeated use of massive military exercises near border regions, such as in Ukraine, puts its forces in a position to move into an area quickly, establish a foothold and even retract forces before conventional armies can react.

“Longstanding strategic and operational indicators are not valid anymore,” General Tamosaitis said.

“We need to be able to deploy forces in hours, not weeks and months.”

Lithuania’s rapid-reaction force — made up of 2,500 military personnel, more than one-fourth of the country’s entire active force — went on duty Nov. 1.

The heart of it is Major Gaigalas’s mechanized battalion and Major Pakutka’s motorized battalion, each with 700 to 800 members; they are joined by logistical support, a special operations unit and even a small air contingent. 

Lithuania is under no illusion that its 2,500-member force could hold off anything resembling a full-scale Russian incursion.

But if Moscow mounts a small, hybrid type of operation, General Tamosaitis said, the hope is that the force can hold the fort until the NATO cavalry arrives. 

“We would go into action in the initial, self-defense phase,” the general said, “to buy some time until NATO can get here.”

This is why, he said, Lithuania is eager for NATO’s high-readiness force to hurry up and get ready — and, perhaps, Mr. Olekas added, for some of Lithuania’s neighbors along the alliance’s eastern flank to form national rapid-reaction forces of their own.

Lithuania is in a unique position among the Baltic States because its border with Russia is not in the east, toward the Russian heartland, but in the west, toward the small, Russian-controlled enclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland.

By longstanding agreement, Russian military trains are allowed, with prior notice, to travel through Lithuania on their way to Kaliningrad, adding yet another avenue by which Russian forces could potentially be inserted into the country.

But Lithuania’s situation is also different demographically.

Unlike the other Baltic nations, Lithuania’s ethnic Russian population is small.

Protecting the interests of Ukraine’s large ethnic Russian population is one of the pretexts Moscow has used to justify its activities there.

“It is hardly possible to see a situation where Russian units could blend into the population in Lithuania,” General Tamosaitis said.

In the meantime, Lithuania plays host to a steady stream of forces from other alliance members for joint training exercises.

“In general, we are pleased that NATO is taking this seriously and will create this new force,” Mr. Olekas said.

“Many times we have been called Russia-phobians. But after Ukraine, after Crimea, people are starting to understand what we have been saying.”

Lithuania’s military, like those of other alliance members, has studied carefully the tactics used by separatist troops in eastern Ukraine and the actions that the Ukrainian military has taken to combat them.

The first task, General Tamosaitis said, is to figure out whether you are dealing with a domestic, criminal uprising or a foreign incursion.

He said that involves understanding the tactics and the weapons being used.

Major Pakutka walked through the glare of a headlight parked on the gravel road overlooking the training field where the dark silhouettes of his men moved noiselessly, his boots crunching in the frozen tire tracks.

Part of their training, he said, has been exercises in which his troops pretended to be “little green men,” as the military forces without insignia are called colloquially.

“When you need bad guys, you call them,” Major Gaigalas said, smiling.

Does either of them really think that there will be an incursion by Russian forces in Lithuania?

“Who knows?” Major Gaigalas said.

“We have to be ready for the worst. All I know is that if something happens, we are ready.”

Source: The New York Times

Ukraine Conflict: Hackers Take Sides In Virtual War

KIEV, Ukraine -- Throughout the bitter violence of the Ukrainian conflict, another hidden war has been waged, involving several groups of computer hackers.

Ukrainian hackers say they hijack CCTV cameras to monitor separatist troop movements.

Little is beyond their reach.

Official documents and private communications are made public, and websites blocked.

They hijack CCTV cameras, electronic billboards and network printers.

The best known of the virtual warriors are the Ukrainian Cyber Troops, the Cyber Berkut and Anonymous International.

All three present themselves as independent activists, separate from other, government-sponsored groups.

Ukrainian Cyber Troops 

The most prominent pro-Ukrainians hackers are the Ukrainian Cyber Troops, led by Kiev-based programmer Yevhen Dokukin.

Most recently, he claimed to have hacked into two Russian interior ministry servers and an email account used by police in Russia's Rostov region - bordering Ukraine's eastern separatist regions.

"I gave all this data to Ukraine's security service, but they still can't get round to analysing it, so do it yourselves," he urged readers on Facebook.

Volunteer activist group Inform Napalm sifted through more than 35 gigabytes of the data and found what looked like official reports confirming that Russian military servicemen were among the hundreds of people evacuated to Russia after being wounded in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Cyber Troops make extensive use of one of the most tried and tested tools in cyber warfare, the distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack.

"DDoS attacks are the Ukrainian Cyber Troops' artillery," Mr Dokukin likes saying.

Scores of rebel websites were made inaccessible when the Ukrainian Cyber Troops relentlessly bombarded them with fake service requests.

To disrupt separatist funding, they target accounts held by rebels in electronic payment systems such as PayPal and WebMoney.

The Cyber Troops have also hacked into public CCTV systems in rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine and monitor them for the movement of troops and military hardware.

On 8 December, Yevhen Dokukin claimed to have hijacked network printers in eastern Ukraine and Crimea to print pro-Ukrainian messages and insults against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Some media reports suggest that Ukraine's security services have used information obtained by hackers to direct artillery fire.

But officials deny this.

"We only use data obtained by people we trust and know," Ukrainian military spokesman Oleksiy Dmytrashkivsky told the BBC.

Cyber Berkut 

On the other side of the conflict is Cyber Berkut, a staunchly anti-Western group which takes its name from the riot police used against protesters during the unrest in Kiev that led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych.

The group's declared goal is thwarting Ukraine's military plans and thus stopping the "genocide" that it accuses Kiev of unleashing at America's behest.

Its motto is "We won't forgive or forget", and its rhetoric closely resembles that of Russian state media.

During US Vice-President Joe Biden's visit to Kiev on 20-21 November, Cyber Berkut hacked several Ukrainian government websites, placing a message on their front pages which read: "Joseph Biden is the fascists' master."

Cyber Berkut claims to have retrieved confidential documents from a mobile device used by one member of Mr Biden's team while it was in Kiev.

The documents appear to detail Washington's military assistance to Ukraine.

Another stunt carried out by Cyber Berkut is the apparent hacking of electronic billboards in Kiev, which were made to show a video branding Ukrainian officials and activists "war criminals" and featuring highly graphic images of civilians killed in the current conflict. 

They also claim to have disrupted the electronic vote-counting systems ahead of October's parliamentary election in Ukraine, to have leaked Ukrainian defence ministry data on losses and desertions, and to have blocked President Petro Poroshenko's website.

In addition, Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda quoted a Facebook conversation allegedly hacked by Cyber Berkut, in which Ukrainian officials appear to admit that their forces downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

The claim went largely ignored elsewhere and has never been verified.

Anonymous International 

Russia's Anonymous International uses imagery from Lewis Carroll's novel Through the Looking Glass Russian activist group Anonymous International made its name by publishing leaked documents from the Kremlin.

It is otherwise known as b0ltai or Shaltay Boltay, which translates as "Humpty Dumpty".

What is not clear is whether it obtains material through hacking or are given it by Kremlin insiders.

The group focuses on Russia's domestic affairs, but some of its material covers Ukraine.

In November it published a letter from a Russian fighter in eastern Ukraine suggesting that locals did not support the separatist forces. 

And in May it made headlines leaking what it said were emails to and from former Russian FSB colonel Igor Girkin, also known as Strelkov, who was then a key rebel commander in eastern Ukraine.

Access to Anonymous International's website is currently blocked in Russia.

Source: BBC Monitoring

Obama Signs Ukraine Freedom Support Act: White House

WASHINGTON, DC -- US President Barack Obama has signed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, a White House press release said Thursday.

According to a White House press release, US President Barack Obama has signed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, providing lethal military aid to Ukraine and imposing additional sanctions on Russia.

“On Thursday, December 18, 2014, the President signed into law H.R. 5859, the "Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014," which contains sanctions provisions on various Russian persons and entities and military and non-military assistance authorities for Ukraine,” the release said.

The Ukraine Freedom Support Act has passed in both chambers of US Congress last week.

The bill authorizes the provision of lethal assistance and aid in energy and defense sectors, as well as civil society to the Ukrainian government and the imposing of a new round of economic sanctions against Russia.

The United States, the European Union and a number of other countries have already introduced several rounds of sanctions against Russia, targeting its banking, energy and defense sectors, over Moscow’s alleged involvement in the Ukrainian crisis.

Russia, however, has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Source: Sputnik US

US Imposes New Russia Sanctions Ahead Of Ukraine Peace Talks

KIEV, Ukraine -- The United States imposed sanctions Friday on Russian-controlled Crimea as Ukraine announced the loss of five soldiers ahead of peace talks meant to end a war against Russian-backed insurgents.

A Ukrainian soldier fires a missile with a portable air-defense system during exercises near the city of Shchastya, north of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine on December 1, 2014.

President Barack Obama prohibited American exports of goods or services to Crimea, a strategic peninsula and vacation destination that Russian seized from Ukraine last March.

"The United States will not accept Russia's occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea," Obama said in a statement.

Similar measures were imposed Thursday by the European Union as the West attempted to ratchet up pressure on Moscow over its seizure of Crimea and support for a rebellion by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine.

Canada also added new sanctions Friday, targeting separatist leaders and the oil and gas sector in Russia, where the government is battling a currency crash and economic crisis.

Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that threatened US sanctions "could undermine the possibility of normal cooperation between our countries for a long time."

- Back to peace talks - 

The united Western pressure came as Ukraine and the rebels prepared for talks meant to put a stalled peace process back in motion. 

However, Ukraine's military reported losing five soldiers on Friday, the highest toll since Kiev and the Russian-backed militias struck a December 9 truce designed to reinforce a tenuous September agreement. 

The next stage is meant to be comprehensive negotiations.

Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko hoped to start these on Sunday, with the help of European and Russian envoys in the Belarussian capital Minsk.

But a top rebel said the insurgents would only be ready by Monday. 

"We agreed the general list of issues we need to discuss," rebel negotiator Vladislav Deynego told AFP by telephone.

"But we still have no Minsk date."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande were due this weekend to impress the importance of an immediate meeting during their third joint call to Russia's Vladimir Putin and Poroshenko in the past few days.

- Dire economic situation - 

The scale of the fighting has subsided with the onset of winter and heavy snows that make progress across the war-scarred fields and muddied roads all but impossible.

All sides are now busy looking for ways to ensure that millions of civilians who have been unable to flee the artillery shelling and rocket fire make it safely through the winter in apartments with little to no water or heat.

The United Nations believes the daily battles have killed more than 4,700 people and driven nearly a million from their homes.

Its children's fund UNICEF said on Friday that "tens of thousands" of youth still lived in areas engulfed by violence.

"The situation for more than 1.7 million children affected by the conflict remains extremely serious," the UN Children's Rights and Emergency Relief Organisation said.

Any peace agreement is likely to include a requirement for fighters on both sides to let through humanitarian convoys they fear may be used to smuggle in weapons to their adversaries.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said it was essential for the Minsk negotiators to establish a buffer zone that sets the initial boundaries of areas overseen by the rebels within a unified Ukraine.

Steinmeier added after talks in Kiev with Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk that the sides must also agree to swap their remaining prisoners and "resolve humanitarian relief issues". 

Although Russia is under growing financial pressure because of the sanctions and low oil prices, Ukraine's situation is even more dire. 

Standard & Poors lowered its credit rating for Ukraine on Friday to CCC- with a negative outlook, warning that dangerously low foreign currency reserves could prompt a default within months.

"The negative outlook reflects our view of the increasing risk that, without additional financial support, Ukraine may default on its obligations," the credit rating agency said.

Source: AFP

Friday, December 19, 2014

Putin: If Russian Bear Sits Still, His Teeth, Claws Will Be Pulled Out

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russia needs to keep actively guarding its sovereignty to avoid becoming like a chained bear whose captors "will pull out his teeth and claws," President Vladimir Putin said Thursday.

Putin: "We are not warmongers."

Responding to a question at his annual news conference about Russia's annexation of Crimea, Putin drew an analogy with what would happen if "our most recognizable symbol ... the bear who guards his Taiga (forest)" stopped chasing pigs and sat still, "maybe eating berries and honey."

The President pondered whether the bear would then be left alone before answering:

"They won't leave him alone. They are always trying to put him on a chain. They will always try to put him on a chain and as soon as he is put on this chain, they will pull out his teeth and claws. In today's terms we are speaking about our nuclear deterrence. As soon as, God forbid, this is done, the bear isn't needed anymore."

Once the bear had lost his teeth it might then be stuffed, he concluded.

Putin told reporters gathered in Moscow that his country was ready to mediate in the Ukraine crisis, and he denied that Russians killed in Ukraine were members of his country's military.

Western powers accuse Russia of sending troops and equipment to help separatists in eastern Ukraine in their fight against Ukrainian government forces.

In April, violence broke out in two Ukrainian regions that border Russia -- Donetsk and Luhansk -- as separatist leaders declared independence from the government in Kiev.

Moscow has voiced moral support for the rebels and sent aid convoys into the region, but it has repeatedly denied military involvement.

In his end-of-year news conference, Putin said there had been "a state coup and a military coup" in Ukraine with which parts of that country had not agreed.

He repeated the long-standing Russian line that any Russians killed in Ukraine were volunteers.

Putin said he hoped the situation would still be solved through dialogue rather than military means or economic blockades that were "harmful to the state of Ukraine, the people of Ukraine."

"The Ukraine crisis must be solved, and the quicker the better," he said.

A ceasefire deal was reached September 5 in Minsk, Belarus, after talks between representatives of Ukraine's government, Russia and rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine.

A subsequent agreement on September 19 in Minsk set out more measures.

But fighting in Ukraine has since resumed, with a British security official last month telling CNN that the conflict had returned to levels that preceded the ceasefire.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko "is striving towards a settlement of the Minsk agreement," Putin said.

"Our representatives in Minsk signed a memorandum, and the representatives of Donetsk did not sign that protocol -- that is what it's about."

"The Ukrainian officials are not removing their troops from the Donetsk airport -- they are sitting there," Putin told reporters.

"The next step should be following up the Minsk agreement -- it is important that the Kiev authorities use all these agreements," he said.

But he also said that if Ukraine wanted to restore its territorial integrity, "it has to be open and honest."

'We're not attacking anyone' 

Asked whether its economic problems were the price to pay for annexing Crimea, Putin said Russia was trying to maintain its sovereignty and independence.

He said Russia's economic woes were partially due to sanctions imposed against it.

Earlier, Putin said "external economic factors" provoked Russia's current situation.

He cited oil prices, and he praised the Bank of Russia's intervention this week to defend the ruble.

Asked to comment on suspicions in the West that he was returning Russia to a Cold War footing, Putin denied that his country was an aggressor.

"As far as our maneuvers and exercises of the military are concerned, you're saying that Russia has made a big contribution to the tensions in the world," he responded.

"Russia has only made a contribution where it is supporting its national interests. We're not attacking anyone; we're not warmongers."

Putin said Russia had stopped sending its aircraft on strategic flights in the 1990s and only resumed them in the last two or three years.

The United States, he said, has continued its strategic flights despite the end of the Cold War.

Furthermore, Russia has two military bases abroad.

"The American bases are throughout the globe, and you want to say we are the aggressors?" he said.

In addition, Putin said the Pentagon's defense budget was "virtually 10 times more" than Russia's.

"Are we extending the borders? Who is moving the borders of NATO forward -- the military infrastructure? Not us," the Russian President said.

Putin added that Russia had not been the country to establish a missile defense system.

"Who were the ones who wanted to set up this system of global security? It was not us. This is a threat for us," he said.

"In Romania and Poland -- right next to us -- and you are saying we are carrying out this policy."

He said Russia wanted to develop normal international relations and work as a partner in the areas of security and combating terror, drugs, crime and infectious diseases such as Ebola.

As Putin spoke, the Council of the European Union announced that further sanctions had been approved against Crimea and Sevastopol.

"This is to reinforce the EU's policy of not recognizing their illegal annexation by Russia and follows a conclusion by the Foreign Affairs Council of 17 November," it said in a statement.

The measures would be applied starting Saturday, the European Union said.

'We will get through this period' 

In the final question of the more than three-hour conference, Putin was asked whether he took personal responsibility for Russia's economic issues and if he would stand in the 2018 presidential elections.

He replied that it was too early to make a decision on running and said the economic responsibility was "nothing I can take on alone, and I don't plan to."

Putin pointed to the "responsibility of the central bank and different government bodies for the results of the work of each department for which they have responsibility."

He ended the conference on a positive note:

"We will get through this period. It's not easy, of course, but we will strengthen our position in the world economy," he said.

"The most important thing is to ensure social prosperity of people despite the cuts in income, the budget. And we can do that, we absolutely can."

Source: CNN World

Ukraine Forms 'Ministry Of Truth' To Regulate The Media

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine has a new government ministry. This month, the parliament voted to create a ministry of information policy that will be led by Yuriy Stets, the head of the information security department of the national guard.

A Ukrainian activist protests against a Russian propaganda TV series.

According to the new minister, the information war against Russia cannot be won without it.

But in resorting to such measures, does Ukraine not risk losing its battle for democracy?

Almost no one in Ukraine doubts that Russia is waging a propaganda war.

The Russian actors Mikhail Porechenkov and Ivan Okhlobystin have become notorious [for supporting the separatists], and Ukrainians approve of the fact that their popular Russian TV serials were recently banned.

But the idea that the government should oversee the information sphere was not universally welcomed.

It had to be forced through parliament, with deputies called upon to vote on the composition of the cabinet as whole rather than individual ministers.

Journalist Mustafa Nayyem best described the circumstances surrounding the creation of the press ministry, saying:

“We have not seen the details and we do not know what sort of monster we are creating”.

Despite many abstentions, the law was passed.

The deputies had cause to be cautious.

Under the terms of its creation, Stets’s ministry will receive wide powers to influence the media: officials will formulate and implement a “state information strategy” and take measures to protect citizens from “partial, ill-judged and unreliable information” and from manipulative technology.

Its purview extends to registering media outlets and defining professional standards.

But Stets will wield carrots as well as sticks.

His department will coordinate “state aid for the media” and attract investment in order to create a “national information product”.

What exactly hides behind this vague formulation is a matter of guesswork but Ukrainian activists are already tipping the ministry for a corrupt future.

They are far more worried, however, by the prospect that freedom of speech in Ukraine might be curtailed.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has warned of this threat, as have the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, journalists from Sumy Oblast and their colleagues from Kirovohrad, who organised a demonstration.

It is easy to understand their feelings.

A similar ministry existed in Ukraine under former president Leonid Kuchma.

Its time was marked by the death of the journalist Georgiy Gongadze. 

Kiev insists, however, that the creation of the ministry is as essential as it is timely.

“The main function of this ministry, as far as I am aware, is to prevent an attack on Ukraine from an assailant”, said the president, Petro Poroshenko.

He is echoed by a bevy of functionaries and deputies.

“A year ago, I proposed that a ministry of propaganda be created”, said Sergey Kaplin, a deputy from Poroshenko’s bloc.

“It would simply destroy separatism as a phenomenon as soon as it appeared in [Ukraine]”.

Stets promises that his department will be dissolved as soon as the war ends.

There is something to be said for their line of reasoning.

One way or another, the Russian media has played a notable role in plunging Donbas into crisis: recall the inflammatory articles by Darya Aslamova, for instance.

It is no accident that immediately after seizing the regional administration in Donetsk, the separatists took control of the TV towers.

You used to be able to defend Russian media in Ukraine by appealing to the need for pluralism but now, after Russian state TV presenter Dmitry Kiselev and his ilk broadcast stories about boys being crucified and slaves distributed among the national guard, that is no longer possible.

What is more, the scale of the Russian propaganda campaign is exercising NATO and Kiev is obliged to support its western allies.

But in combating aggression from abroad, Ukraine risks curtailing press freedom at home.

Encroachments have already occurred.

The ministry of defence recently tried to limit journalists’ access to the “zone of anti-terrorist operations”, insisting that they be accompanied by soldiers.

Fearing a scandal, the ministry later rescinded the order, or at least postponed it, but it left a bad taste in the mouth.

An incident involving journalist Dmitry Mendeleev also springs to mind: he wrote an article [accusing] government bodies of selling weapons on the commercial market at time of war.

Poroshenko himself asked the general prosecutor to deal with the journalist’s “subversive activity”.

There are fears, therefore, that the ministry of information policy is being created not so much to combat an external enemy as to suppress internal opposition.

If that is indeed the case, Ukraine will drift off in the same direction as Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

While accusing the Kremlin of propaganda, Kiev is itself trying to create a hermetically sealed sphere of information.

It is not hard to imagine how destructive the consequences might be.

But the question is, does it have any real alternative?

It is no secret that Russia’s propaganda machine is much more effective than Ukraine’s.

Even under former president Viktor Yanukovych, the authorities didn’t manage to control the media: the opposition press stirred up rebellious sentiment and it all ended with the fall of the regime.

A similar situation remains in Ukraine today.

Heightened expectations mean that the new government is criticised even more than the old one.

The economic crisis breeds subversion.

The possibility that support for Poroshenko will fall to critical levels over the next year cannot be ruled out.

But with the war ongoing, unrest in the rear might spell catastrophe – not only for the current authorities but also for Ukraine as a whole.

That is why Kiev [feels it] must surrender democratic principles in the name of stability.

No less important to Kiev is the restoration of legitimacy in the eastern and southern regions.

Here, again, it will not be possible to get by without tough counter-measures.

No matter how much bloggers from the capital make fun of [Russian TV channels] Lifenews and Channel 1, millions of Ukrainians have internalised the clichés of Russian propaganda.

Phrases such as “Maidan coup”, “national guard punishers” and “Kiev junta” have embedded themselves in the lexicon of inhabitants in the south and east.

Restoring the legitimacy of the Ukrainian authorities while also respecting diversity of opinion will therefore be devilishly difficult.

Clearly, it will involve replacing one set of propaganda clichés with another but, for now, Kiev may have no other option.

It appears that the prolonged conflict is assuming similar features on both sides of the fence.

Faced with an armed opponent, pacifist games must be set aside or your chances of survival diminish tragically.

But there is a cost to everything.

The possibility that a [propaganda journalist] such as Vladimir Kulistikov or Dmitry Kiselev will soon appear in Ukraine cannot be discounted.

On the other hand, there is hope that the ministry of information policy represents nothing more than a vacancy created to give Stets a job.

But in that case, how can we expect Ukraine to hold its own in the war of information?

Source: The Guardian

Gas In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Gas is flowing again from Russia to Ukraine, but blackouts have hit factories and homes.

Ukraine needs energy reform to fix the economy and weaken Russia’s grip.

Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, says Ukraine’s independence is compromised by its energy dependence on Russia.

Mykhailo Honchar of the Centre for Global Studies in Kiev claims that in its battle in Ukraine, Russia has opened an energy front where it has big advantages—thanks to Ukraine’s own failings.

Until the 1970s Ukraine powered the Soviet Union.

But since independence in 1991, inefficiency and falling production have left it reliant on Russia.

The problems are crystallised in Naftogaz, a state-controlled gas giant with a bigger budget deficit than Ukraine.

Ukraine has spent $6.4 billion keeping the company afloat this year, much of it going to Russia’s Gazprom.

After Naftogaz was created in 1998, it soon became a fount of corruption.

Artificially low prices and patchy metering offer ample pickings.

Opaque finances and central control over extraction, transport, storage and sales allow rent-seekers to act with impunity.

Yevgeny Bakulin, who led Naftogaz under President Viktor Yanukovych, is under investigation for corruption.

Yet he has won a seat in parliament for the Opposition Bloc led by Yuri Boiko, another former Naftogaz official.

The new energy officials, including Naftogaz’s 36-year-old boss, Andriy Kobolev, are an improvement.

Mr Kobolev is opening up the company’s books.

He has secured reverse-flow supplies from Slovakia, a deal for imports from Norway and an international loan to refurbish ageing pipelines.

But Ukraine’s energy oligarchs will complain, and some wonder if Mr Kobolev has the strength to take them on.

Prices need to be raised to market levels, with subsidies only for the neediest.

Energy conglomerates, including Naftogaz, must be broken up.

Ukraine has to do this both to balance its budget and as a member of the European Energy Community treaty.

Mr Kobolev argues for shock therapy.

“It’s better to cut off the dog’s tail all at once,” he says.

This requires politicians to be “brave enough” to deliver unpleasant news, which Mr Yatsenyuk promises to do.

Yet Mr Yatsenyuk has ducked hard decisions on energy.

Inflation ate up an initial price increase demanded by the IMF.

Rather than putting up prices again, Ukraine pushed up taxes on private producers.

Mr Yatsenyuk told big manufacturers to purchase gas exclusively from Naftogaz, strengthening its monopoly under the pretext of increasing revenue.

“They robbed Peter to pay Putin,” says one foreign diplomat, saying this amounts to “two own goals in a game they can’t afford to lose.”

A third was a plan to import coal from South Africa.

The deal, meant to offset disruption in supplies from eastern Ukraine, ended in another scandal over the coal’s quality.

With separatists in Ukraine’s east controlling the biggest coal mines, Ukraine has been forced to buy coal and electricity directly from Russia.

Otherwise power shortages could have been devastating, a fact Russia underlined by holding up a coal train at the border.

Ukraine’s new energy minister, Volodymyr Demchishin, is hoping to retrieve coal from storehouses in the besieged city of Debaltseve. 

Meanwhile Ukraine could raise output at its nuclear power stations—if they are safe.

An emergency shutdown knocked out a plant in southern Ukraine last month, awakening ghosts of Chernobyl.

Worse, Ukraine imports most nuclear fuel from Russia, despite increased co-operation with Westinghouse, an American firm.

And Ukraine relies on Russia to store nuclear waste.

As Mr Honchar notes, with so many pressure points, the Kremlin does not need troops to “strangle Kiev”.

Source: The Economist