Sunday, May 01, 2016

Cold War-Style Hotline Proposed As Tension Between East-West Rises In Ukraine

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- You can tell tension has risen to a very serious state of jitters when NATO feels the need for Cold War-style hotlines with Moscow to prevent sudden, armed clashes in eastern Europe.

The first Moscow-Washington hotline, which used teletype machines, was introduced after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

This is no routine diplomatic caution.

Hotlines are set up when parties fear there is a real possibility one side or the other might inadvertently push a tense crisis into an armed clash capable of triggering actual war.

The first one, famously, was set up between Washington and Moscow after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis pushed the two superpowers to the brink of thermonuclear war, and was kept in readiness all through the long Cold War.

We're not near that level of risk now.

But relations between Russia and the Western allies are bad enough to cause official alarm given the increasing security concerns and steady growth of forces — from the Baltic region to the Black Sea, on both sides of the Russian border.

Moscow and the West blame each other for the tension, and on April 20 the first meeting in two years between Moscow and NATO to try to ease the standoff over Ukraine ended with neither hint of progress nor any sense there'll be an easing of the current military escalation in central and eastern Europe.

That's when talk of hotlines came up.

NATO is particularly concerned with a renewal of clashes in eastern Ukraine along with what it sees as large-scale snap Russian military manoeuvres near the border regions of eastern Europe.

Those manoeuvres are "clearly destabilizing," a NATO diplomat told Reuters.

'Profound disagreements' 

With both sides engaged in ground exercises, along with naval and air surveillance, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called for hotlines to avoid inadvertent clashes that might plunge the whole region into combat.

"We have to use our lines of communications," he insisted after the April 20 meeting, warning that NATO-Russia relations have now descended into "profound disagreements."

Stoltenberg may even have understated matters, given that the Russians spoke of a complete breakdown in joint NATO-Russia working arrangements.

"All co-operation projects that were important for the security of Russian and the NATO member countries has been discontinued," was the blunt comment of Alexander Grushko, Russia's ambassador to NATO.

He gave no indication hotlines would be agreed to by Moscow.

The timing of such a break in communications could scarcely be worse.

April saw the sharpest escalation in fighting in months between Russia-sponsored separatist rebels and Ukrainian security forces along a 200-kilometre (124-miles) front in eastern Ukraine, according to international observers, who pointed to mounting civilian and military deaths. 

Ceasefire not stable

After a bitter war that cost 9,333 lives and displaced 1.2 million people, a ceasefire in the region has held shakily since Russia, Ukraine and NATO members signed the Minsk peace agreement in February last year.

But European observers now warn of growing use of mortars and heavy artillery on both sides, as well as increasing threats against peace monitors.

European nations have been mainly concerned of late with threats of terrorism and handling the refugee crisis — and are just coming to terms with the new crisis levels flaring in the east.

Last week the most prominent leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the ceasefire is no longer stable.

The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, has called up another 10,000 soldiers to add to the 250,000 now under arms and appears worried the Russian-backed rebel armies are preparing for a major summer offensive.

That view is not only shared but expanded upon by Poland, Ukraine's neighbour, which insists Moscow also has hostile intent against itself as well as other NATO members in the Baltic region.

"It's time to talk about it openly," Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz told Polish media recently.

"So far, all Russian behaviour attests to systematic preparation for aggressive action."

He later expanded on his warning in an interview with German Deutsche Welle TV by insisting Russia is provoking Poland militarily and trying to alter the whole security architecture of Europe.

Poland girds forces 

To respond, Poland has launched a 50 per cent buildup of its own forces while demanding more support from NATO members.

It has also formed new military partnerships with Ukraine and Romania as part of an increasing effort to deter Russia.

This forging of new regional military ties underscores how worry over Russian President Vladimir Putin's intentions is expanding the range of military buildups.

Ukraine has now launched naval exercises with Turkey in the Black Sea, where much of the Russian navy is based.

Turkey, which has been involved in a deepening feud with Putin since it shot down a Russian warplane suspected of entering its airspace, also announced an agreement to expand joint arms manufacturing projects with Ukraine, a move expected to rile Moscow further.

As it is, Moscow has complained repeatedly of the buildup of foreign forces along its western border, the very region its former Soviet Union controlled from the Baltic to the Black Sea as its natural "zone of influence" during the Cold War.

Since Russia's takeover of Crimea two years ago and the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine, Russian resentment and Western concern over Putin's real intentions have fed response and counter-response buildups of forces, as well as some dangerous close encounters.

Buzzed by warplanes 

In March the U.S. announced deployment to Europe of a new full combat armoured brigade of 4,500 troops with tanks and heavy equipment, meant to bolster eastern defenses.

It has also increased naval exercises to support the weak Baltic NATO members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

In response, two weeks ago, two Russian fighters buzzed at very low altitude U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook 11 times as it conducted drills only 70 kilometres off Russian territory.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the intercepts so aggressive U.S. sailors would have been justified shooting the Russian SU-24s down.

Russia shrugged off the complaints and, a few days later, the Americans complained a U.S. reconnaissance plane was also buzzed by a Russian jet, suggesting more incidents may follow.

Close interceptions in the air, growing military manoeuvres at sea and exercises on the ground, and renewed clashes in eastern Ukraine as the fighting season approaches all suggest it's well past time for a new hotline to go up.

The need for one is bad news.

The fact there isn't even agreement in place for so basic a security step looks even worse.

Source: CBC News

U.S. Bill Links Russia Sanctions Relief To Crimea's Return To Ukraine

WASHINGTON, DC -- A new bill in the U.S. Congress would prevent the White House from lifting a raft of sanctions against Russia until Ukraine restores control over Crimea, which Moscow forcibly annexed in 2014, or settles the peninsula's status to Kiev's satisfaction.

Democrat Congressman Eliot Engel (pictured) announced the new bill with Republican Adam Kinzinger.

The legislation, announced on April 29 by U.S. Representatives Eliot Engel (Democrat-New York) and Adam Kinzinger (Republican-Illinois), aims to bolster U.S. support for Kiev with measures that include tightened sanctions against Russia and a push for greater private investment in the Ukrainian economy.

"We need to build on our sanctions regime against troublemakers in the Kremlin, while working to preserve transatlantic unity," Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

"And we need to find ways of shoring up Ukraine and deterring [Russian President Vladimir] Putin that go beyond just throwing more money at the problem," Engel added.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration slapped several rounds of sanctions on senior Russian officials and companies following Moscow's military seizure of Crimea in March 2014 and an ensuing war between Russia-backed separatists and Kiev’s forces in eastern Ukraine.

These measures and analogous ones taken by the EU have angered the Kremlin, which has said it moved to take control over Crimea due to fears for the people there after the ouster of Ukraine's Moscow-backed president, Viktor Yanukovich, amid protests that Russia has cast as a U.S.-backed coup.

Russia also denies backing armed separatists in the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 9,300 since April 2014, despite significant evidence of such support.

The bill would require that the U.S. president, prior to lifting a raft of Ukraine-related sanctions, submit "certification" to Congress that Ukraine has restored "sovereignty" over Crimea or that the peninsula's status has been resolved to the satisfaction "of a democratically elected government" in Kiev.

"As we have seen time and again, there is no stopping Vladimir Putin’s disrespect for global order, especially in regards to Ukraine," Kinzinger said.

"It's time for the United States to stand up and reiterate that it will not tolerate Russia's aggression." 

Called the Stability And Democracy For Ukraine Act, the legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives on April 28 by Engel, Kinzinger, and 14 other co-sponsors.

The legislation would also codify the U.S. government’s policy of nonrecognition of Russian authority over Crimea, mirroring Washington's policy of refusing to recognize Soviet sovereignty over the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

It also directs the U.S. administration "to consult with the government of Ukraine and seek to establish an international consortium to drive private investment in Ukraine by minimizing and pooling political risk to would-be private investors," Engel's office said in a statement.

Source: Radio Free Europe

Kyiv Sees No Elections In Eastern Ukraine Until Russians Leave

KIEV, Ukraine -- A top Ukrainian official said that elections in eastern Ukraine are only possible after Ukraine's sovereignty is renewed in the region and the Russia's presence is eliminated in those territories.

Oksana Syroyid, Deputy Speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament.

A deputy speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, Oksana Syroyid, told VOA Friday that from the Ukrainian perspective, any elections under current conditions would legitimize those who occupy Ukrainian territory.

It would mean giving them legitimacy and bringing them to Ukrainian politics, she said, which would end up destroying the Ukrainian state and its sovereignty. 

In a broader sense, Syroyid said, Russian de-occupation should include eliminating the impact of Russian propaganda, reconciliation of all the people in Ukraine's Donbass region and the withdrawal of all Russian agents from the area.

Only after such conditions are fulfilled, she said, could holding elections in the occupied territories be discussed, and they should reflect the legitimacy of the people who live there, including those who now have the status of Internally Displaced People (IDP).

It happened because, one day, Russia decided to invade part of a neighboring country, Syroyid said.

There are not equal parties in today’s process, it is one party who is an invader and an aggressor and another one who is a nation-victim, that is Ukraine.

There should not be an equal Ukrainian-Russian treatment in this process by the international community, Syroyid said.

Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of giving military aid to the separatists in the Donbass region, something Russia has repeatedly denied, saying that those who fight alongside separatists are Russian volunteers.

Holding elections in the east is seen by Ukraine's European partners, Germany and France, as a way to end the two-year conflict in eastern Ukraine that has claimed over 9,300 lives.

US position on elections in Donbass 

State Department Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner reiterated at a press briefing Friday what Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland said in Kiev earlier in the week, that the U.S. has not set a specific deadline for when elections happen in eastern Ukraine.

Toner said that the U.S. is more concerned that Minsk require sufficient security and monitor access and that candidates have the ability to get their names on the ballot, and that citizens are able to hear from candidates before elections are held in the Donbass region. A

Ukrainian lawmaker said after meeting Nuland earlier in the week that she was setting a July deadline for the elections, which Nuland categorically denied.

The level of violence observed in eastern Ukraine since the cease-fire went into effect in September has been an issue of concern for the U.S., Toner said.

The Organization for Security and Co‑operation in Europe blames separatists for most of 30,000 violations in April alone.

A conflict of such proportions in part of Ukraine’s sovereign territory is certainly “destabilizing” to say the least, Toner added.

The U.S. calls on Russia and the separatists that it supports to fully comply and observe the cease-fire, Toner said.

STAND for Ukraine Act 

Congressmen Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) announced in a statement Friday that they introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to address the ongoing crisis in Ukraine —

The STAND for Ukraine Act. Calling Russian annexation of Crimea “illegal,” the act calls for a clarification of the position of the United States on Crimea, as well as for tightening sanctions on Russia and providing new innovative support for Ukraine.

The proposal also directs the State Department to implement a strategy to respond to Russian propaganda and disinformation.

“Driven by President [Vladimir] Putin, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has undermined that country’s sovereignty, and at the same time threatened our own long-term investment in a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace,” Engel said.

The act “makes clear that the United States will not just stand by as Putin bullies his neighbors, tests the resolve of NATO, and works to fracture Western unity.”

Kinzinger said that it has been obvious time and again that “there is no stopping Vladimir Putin’s disrespect for global order, especially in regards to Ukraine.”

It is time for the United States to ‘Stand with Ukraine’ legislatively and most effectively,” he said.

A bipartisan group of 14 members, including the bipartisan leadership of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, joined Engel and Kinzinger in introducing the Stability and Democracy (STAND) for Ukraine Act (H.R. 5094).

Source: Voice of America

Friday, April 29, 2016

9,333 Killed Since Ukraine Conflict Began, U.N. Says

UNITED NATIONS, USA -- Nearly 10,000 people have been killed and more than 20,000 wounded since the Ukraine conflict began in April 2014, a top United Nations official said Thursday.

Taye-Brook Zerihoun

The official, Taye-Brook Zerihoun, the assistant secretary general for political affairs, told the Security Council that the total number of casualties was now 30,729, with 9,333 people killed and 21,396 wounded.

Mr. Zerihoun said the most recent casualties occurred Wednesday when shelling killed at least four civilians and wounded at least eight people in Olenivka, near the city of Donetsk.

He said that fighting had escalated in recent weeks to levels not seen since August 2014, when it was at its most intense, and he called on all parties to cease hostilities.

He criticized both sides for hindering access to an international monitoring mission put in place under the cease-fire agreement worked out in Minsk, Belarus, on Feb. 14, 2015, by Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany, but he said that according to statistics provided by the monitors, restrictions were more common in rebel-held areas.

The Security Council meeting on Thursday was the first since December 2015 to address the situation in Ukraine.

During the meeting, representatives from Russia and Ukraine traded bitter accusations over who was to blame for the flare-up in hostilities.

“Russia has organized and deployed in Donbas a 34,000-strong hybrid military force consisting of the regular Russian troops as well as of foreign and local militants,” Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, told the Council.

“Russian generals and military officers provide direct command-and-control of this illegal military entity, impressively heavily armed.”

Mr. Prystaiko claimed that this force was better armed than most NATO members despite the Russians’ claims that the weapons were acquired in local hardware stores.

“Last time I checked, you will hardly be able to buy a decent knife in Ukrainian hardware stores, not to mention the multiple-launch rocket systems and jet flamethrowers,” Mr. Prystaiko said.

Ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin of Russia denounced the United Nations session as a play for time while Ukraine’s army occupied towns “in the neutral strip” stipulated by the Minsk agreement.

“Over the entire crisis, the U.N. has been used as a propaganda platform,” Churkin said, dismissing the Ukraine statement before the Security Council as “very disappointing,” and “a lot of rhetoric.”

Russia tried to circulate a statement that would reaffirm the United Nations’ commitment to the Minsk agreement, but it failed to gain consensus approval because it also called for an investigation into the killing of Russian protesters in Odessa, without mentioning violations of the cease-fire by rebel forces.

The United States, France and Britain all denounced Russian aggression for igniting the conflict. 

“What is happening today is the result of Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity which began with its occupation of Crimea more than two years ago and expanded with substantial military on the ground and weapons support for armed separatists in Eastern Ukraine,” the American ambassador, Samantha Power, told the Council.

Source: The New York Times

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Look Who Funds Ukraine's 'Anti-Putin' Internet TV

KIEV, Ukraine -- The best way to raise funds for a media project in Ukraine? Go full-bore anti-Russia to easily woo North American and European governments to give you money.

Vladimir Putin is supposedly overseeing vast Baltic-invading armies and a media empire propagandizing the West to his very whims. The same can be said about Western influence in global media, as one Ukrainian pro-West start up shows.

Kiev-based Hromadske.TV is the symbol of the info wars between Moscow and the Western world, a war that the West claims it is losing to the big guns in Moscow.

So worried are the Europeans, Canadians and Americans that the Russians are beating them at their own game –the sexy world of news and entertainment — that they’re funding the company.

According to their financial report for the year ending 2015, they have nearly a dozen foreign backers.

Some long term, some more fly-by-night.

Who are they?

They are the Canada International Development Agency (CIDA); the Embassy of The Netherlands in Ukraine; another Canadian charity called the Ukrainian World Foundation; independent DC-based Pact World; the U.S. Embassy of Ukraine’s Media Development Fund; California based Internews Network; Swiss Cooperation Office and the Swiss International Development Agency; eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s fund is one of the four biggest donors; the Swedish International Liberal Center; Thomson Foundation; the German Embassy of Ukraine and the biggest funder of all, the European Commission’s Ukrainian delegation office.

The U.S. is the smallest donor while European and Canadian government backed agencies are the biggest.

Many of the donations are harmless funds from organizations like Pact and Thomson that train young reporters.

But donations from the European Commission are a particularly interesting reveal given the anti-Russian government news flowing coming out of Hromadske.

The site was created by 43 year old Ukrainian journalist, Roman Skrypin, during the heat of the Euromaidan movement in 2013.

Within a year, the site became one of the go-to spots for news from the activists point of view, all of whom were pro-Europe.

The movement began following the rejection of a trade deal between Brussels and Kiev by then-president Viktor Yanukovych.

Yanukovych was then “rewarded” by the Russians by getting a Gazprom subsidized natural gas agreement.

Ukrainians in Kiev saw this as a slap in the face to national sovereignty, and Yanukovych was ousted from power in February of 2014, punished for kowtowing to Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine quickly moved to install a pro-Western government and Hromadske was its young, aggressive, digital chronicler of events.

Not unlike Ukraine, Skrypin allegedly stole around $250,000 from the online media company he created.

The channel is suing their ex-CEO.

Although Hromadske’s producers go after president Petro “Panama Papers” Poroshenko too, the media outlet can be relied on to push anti-Russia rhetoric about Putin’s aims in Ukraine and the Baltics, a three hour flight north of Kiev.

The Baltic story line has been one of particular interest to the West.

Even Hillary Clinton has chimed in saying the Russians were coming to a Baltic country near you.

Hromadske follows that narrative and others regularly seen in Russia-Ukraine headlines out of the U.S. and Europe.

For instance, this week it ran a story favorite to Western journalist sentiments about how the Crimean Tatars were under attack and being treated as third class citizens in Crimea, now owned by Russia.

The Russian government barred a separate assembly for the minority group, which set off the firestorm.

Nevertheless, the Tatars are a constant cause of concern for the U.S. press.

They make up 10.6% of the population of Crimea.

By comparison, African-Americans are around 13% of the U.S. population.

Hromadske also ran a piece this week assuring readers that NATO and Russia are most definitely not friends, despite recent meetings between the two sides.

Whew… If they were actually talking to each other sensibly, and someone reported on it, that would really throw a wrench in the narrative.

Interestingly enough, both the U.S., U.K. and Germany have sounded alarm bells about Russian television’s impact on public opinion in Ukraine and abroad.

The Daily Beast, no friend of Putin, reported back in September that the reach of Russia Today, better known as RT, was not as big as Russia said it was.

RT is Russia’s BBC.

Sure, the Russians fund this and the Russians fund that and the CIA funds this and the CIA funds that.

But until governments are 100% transparent in what they spend on foreign ventures, it is safe to say that the West equally invests in promoting its official story line to influence public opinion as the Russians do.

Hromadske.TV is merely an example.

American consumers of news media would be disgusted if they learned that the Huffington Post received grants from Russian think tanks.

It may not lead to outright editorial input in daily operations, but journalists and newsrooms are notorious self-censors.

And increasingly under financial strain.

Who will bite the hand that feeds it?

Judging by a small sampling of Hromadske’s daily coverage, not them.

Source: Forbes

US Urges Ukraine To Jail Corrupt Officials

KIEV, Ukraine -- The United States is urging Ukraine to start jailing corrupt officials, after months of political turmoil that has delayed billions of dollars in foreign loans.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland speaks during a news conference in Kiev, Ukraine, April 27, 2016. She has called on the country's government "to start locking up people who have ripped off the Ukrainian population for too long."

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland said in Kiev Wednesday that she was encouraged by Ukraine’s commitment to reforms but stressed that steps must be taken to counter corruption.

"Overall, I go home encouraged by the commitment of all the political forces to continuing and accelerating reform, economic reform, anti-corruption reform, in particular judicial reform... It's time to start locking up people who have ripped off the Ukrainian population for too long and it is time to eradicate the cancer of corruption," she said.

Nuland called for greater political unity, saying Ukraine must "stay the course" with a $17.5 billion bailout program from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a $1.7 billion third installment of which has been delayed since last October.

A third $1 billion loan guarantee is in the offing from the U.S., she said, but it all depends on the government adhering to the terms of the IMF program.

Nuland also indicated that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry intends to visit Ukraine this spring.

On elections in eastern Ukraine Regarding elections in eastern Ukraine as stipulated by a peace deal between Kiev and pro-Russia separatists engaged in conflict there, Nuland said that Washington was not setting a specific deadline as was reported Tuesday, but added that the so-called Minsk agreement requires proper preparations for elections, including sufficient security and OSCE access in the Donbass region.

“We have put no date on when elections need to happen,” Nuland said countering an earlier statement by a Ukrainian lawmaker who after meeting Nuland Monday said she was setting a July deadline for the elections.

“We have made absolutely clear that Minsk requires that there be sufficient security and OSCE access and the ability of candidates to ballot and the ability of citizens to hear from candidates before you can have an election."

Holding elections in the east is seen by Ukraine's European partners – Germany and France, who mediated the Minsk deal - as a way to end the two-year conflict in eastern Ukraine that has claimed about 9,200 lives.

Source: Voice of America

Under The Umbrella: Russia 'Covers' Ukraine's Former President And PM

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's ousted president Viktor Yanukovych and his ally, former Ukrainian Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov are now officially Russian citizens and, consequently, are under the protection of the Russian Federation.

Yanukovych and Azarov obtain Russian citizenship and protection - Transparency International.

This was reported by Transparency International investigators within the framework of their 'Unmask the Corrupt' project.

The report says: "All evidence indicates that Yanukovych and Azarov received the Russian citizenship and are placed under the protection of the Russian government. Azarov seems to be willing to get back to Ukrainian politics at any time, even if he has to give up his Russian citizenship in this case. On the other hand, the former Ukrainian President does not show any signs of trying to return to politics." 

Here is another important finding of the report: the gradual lifting of the sanctions against relatives and representatives of Yanukovych and Azarov allows them to sell properties they acquired, presumably, through corrupt practices.

The investigators report: "Reselling assets to complicate main beneficiaries' identification was largely observed in Ukrainian and off-shore companies whose beneficiaries are supposedly families of Yanukovych and Azarov. The same thing may happen to assets that are currently placed under the EU sanctions."

Thus, neither Ukraine nor European countries cannot compensate for losses caused by Yanukovych's and his allies' corrupt schemes.

This casts doubts on the effectiveness of the international anti-corruption measures.

Yanukovych fled his opulent mansion outside Kiev in February 2014 following mass protests against his decision to reject an E.U. Association Agreement and move the country towards Russia.

The new Ukrainian government says Yanukovych and his associates stole tens of billions of dollars during his tenure.

As of January 13, 2016, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was on the top of the list of the world's most corrupt persons according to Transparency International's Unmask the Corrupt campaign.

Mykola Azarov, Ukraine's last prime minister under Yanukovych.

On August 3, Azarov who is now living 'in exile' in Moscow formed the "Ukraine Salvation Committee," whose goal is "regime change" back home.

Azarov is wanted in Ukraine for several crimes, including embezzlement and abuse of power.

Source: Ukraine Today