Sunday, November 29, 2015

Ukraine Remembers Victims Of Stalin-Era Famine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine on Saturday held a day of mourning for the millions of victims of a Soviet-era famine, with President Petro Poroshenko describing it as an episode in the "war waged by Russia against Ukraine."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (C) and his wife Maryna lay spikelets of wheat in memory of the victims during a ceremony at the Holodomor famine memorial in Kiev on November 28, 2015.

Poroshenko, accompanied by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and hundreds of Ukrainians, laid symbolic wheat ears and lit candles before the Holodomor -- or "death by hunger" -- monument in central Kiev.

The 1932-33 famine happened as harvests dwindled and Josef Stalin's Soviet police enforced the brutal policy of collectivising agriculture by requisitioning grain and other foodstuffs.

But the Western-backed president dubbed it one of the darkest pages in the country's history and "a manifestation of a centuries-old hybrid war waged by Russia against Ukraine" as part of a bid "to destroy the Ukrainian nation."

The "hybrid warfare" is a term widely used by Kiev and its Western allies to describe the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine between the government troops and pro-Russian separatists that killed over 8,000 since its outbreak in April 2014.

Kiev and the West accuse Moscow of instigating the conflict by providing rebels with military support and deploying its regular troops.

Moscow continues to lie and denies any involvement in the conflict that broke out a month after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula following the ousting of a pro-Russian president as a result of massive pro-Western protests in Kiev.

For "21 months Ukraine fights against Russian aggression. Russia's hate towards Ukraine and its desire to destroy Ukrainian people remain unchanged," Poroshenko said minutes before the country held a minute of silence.

"I am convinced that the famine would not have occurred if we had not lost our independent state in the 1920s."

According to the latest studies, some 80 percent of Ukrainians regard the Holodomor as a genocide specifically aimed by Stalin's regime at eradicating the potentially awkward Ukrainian peasantry.

The magnitude of the death toll remains hugely controversial among historians, with estimates of those who died in Ukraine ranging from five million to nine million.

Ukraine has remembered the victims of Holodomor on the fourth Saturday of November since 1998. 

Source: AFP

The Priest, The Pianist, A Cat, And A DIY Sauna: One Week In Ukraine’s Forgotten War

PISKY, Ukraine -- The day passes to dusk, and then to darkness, bringing with it the nocturnal chorus of a ceasefire that stops nothing.

Skeptic, the platoon commander, with faithful canine companions Misha and Mukha. Before the war, he was an animal rights activist.

The first mortar round falls close to the platoon's canteen — a cramped metal box, riddled with mice and dug deep into the cold earth.

The explosion prompts the pair of soldiers to glance up from their bowls of stew, their faces lit by a naked electric lightbulb.

A subsequent rattle of a heavy machine-gun encourages the younger one, just 19 years old, to close the door and stop the smallest chink of light from betraying their position.

A second explosion signals the end of dinner.

"I think we should go," says the older one.

They traipse back to the trench, heads ducked down amid an intensifying fusillade of fire.

Do you know the Ukrainian night?

So asked the Russian writer, Gogol, as he waxed lyrical about this once-pleasant swathe of Slavic steppe.

The men of 2nd Platoon know the Ukrainian night, and there is little enchantment left here.

For hours, they were pinned down by a deadly hail of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.

For months, they have held this small stretch of the front in their country's industrial east.

And for more than a year and a half, their allied units of Ukraine's army have been locked in this devastating war, the intensity of which dips and rises with the passing of each truce.

The first day of September saw the signing of the latest peace deal.

For weeks, it was remarkably successful, raising hopes that it could herald the beginning of the end of the worst conflict on European soil since the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Those hopes are fading fast.

This month has seen a flare-up in fighting and fiery rhetoric following a two-month lull, shredding the credibility of the fragile ceasefire.

Raids and rocket attacks, pitched battles, and trench warfare — all are now returning with greater frequency and ferocity to this war-torn corner of Europe, where more than 8,000 have died and 2.2 million have been displaced since the conflict erupted in April 2014.

For seven days, VICE News embedded with the men of 2nd Platoon, a close-knit and eclectic mix of conscripts, career soldiers, nationalistic volunteers, Soviet Army veterans, ex-cons, and a chaplain.

They hold the line on the outskirts of Pisky, a once-affluent neighborhood on the northern outskirts of Donetsk, now dealt near-total destruction by the relentless pounding of artillery.

Undersupplied and living in squalor, the soldiers are fighting a forgotten war.

They feel neglected by their own country and the West, and hold the purported ceasefire in contempt.

Now they're hungry for a new push.

As fighting flared along the 280-mile eastern front, the platoon's warren of muddy trenches offered a ringside view of Europe's latest conflagration and provided powerful evidence that Ukraine's tentative peace is, yet again, on the brink of collapse.

The battered Vauxhall sped south-eastwards towards the front.

It belonged to an unusual pair of Russian journalists, clad in full military fatigues, who had offered to give us a lift.

The name of their on-board wifi network revealed their unexpected allegiance — "Putin Khuylo," politely translated as "Putin is a dickhead."

Slava, a gentle giant who regularly broke into high-pitched chuckles, was behind the wheel; Anna, with cropped hair and an elfin face, sat beside him.

"We run a pro-Ukraine channel on YouTube," Slava explained.

"My parents are very supportive of me but, for Anna, it's more complicated."

His girlfriend chimed in: "They don't really understand. My brother's blocked me on VK [Russia's equivalent of Facebook] and we don't speak anymore."

The couple live in exile and cannot risk returning to Russia, long accused by the West of actively supporting the rebel military campaign in Ukraine's eastern rustbelt.

"We can't go home — it's forbidden," Slava continued.

"We constantly move around the front and stay in nearby towns. These are our homes now. We're here to tell the truth."

The day had dawned cold and grey but by midday, the sun had burned through the mist.

We checked in at a forward operating base, jumped into a yellow Citroen Berlingo and hurtled towards frontline positions, swerving potholes and shell craters at 80mph.

The road passed bombed-out cottages, half-abandoned villages, Red Cross jeeps and the occasional figure toiling in a field.

Our driver, Yarik — a young soldier with a Cossack mohawk and easy grin — put on Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and cranked up the volume.

As we approached the final checkpoint, a pair of soldiers waved us through, and we headed down an off-road trail leading to the trench held by Kuprum (Copper) — the short name for the 2nd Platoon of the 7th Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 93rd Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Their position fringes no-man's land, an overgrown expanse of field littered with mines and unexploded munitions.

Rebel lines are within a couple of miles.

Kuprum's network of trenches, bunkers, and firing positions is home to a martial tribe who have shed their former civilian skins to adopt a colorful range of wartime identities.

Among them are Casper and Conan; Boar and Dragon; Pianist, Papa and Primus; Sabre and Skeptic. 

This last man, real name Yevgeny Pakhomov, 50, is their commander — a softly-spoken First Lieutenant and former animal rights activist who used to campaign for the protection of dolphins.

His hopes for peace are swayed by a gritty realism.

"There will be more fighting, then another ceasefire, then more killing, and so on. This war will never end," he told VICE News.

"Give it 10, 20 years and then Putin will be dead. Things may get a little better then."

Two armored personnel-carriers sit like sentinels above the trench, their cannons pointed into no-man's land.

Construction material is dumped haphazardly while cigarette butts are strewn over the parapet.

Weaving through mud and freshly-turned earth, the labyrinth of trenches provides scant shelter between each fortified position.

Boredom and danger dominate.

But even here, amid grime and a ramshackle existence, there are odd flashes of luxury.

Enter a bunker and a very different scene presents itself.

Our home for the week was a subterranean, rectangular room, panelled in wood and furbished with three bunkbeds, lined head-to-toe along one wall.

A log-burning stove pumped out heat into the night, a wifi router sent a reliable internet signal, and a large television, mounted in the corner, broadcast a daily diet of news, action films, and gameshows until midnight, when the generator was turned off.

A mini-galley boasts a microwave, fridge, kettle, and cupboards stuffed with cookies, chocolate, coffee, and herbal teas.

Alongside piles of body armor sits a saucer of milk for Shlyoma, the resident ginger tom-cat.

Boots, camouflage, combat medical kits, helmets, and military-grade radio sets fill every corner and dangle from every bed.

There is even a DIY sauna attached to a neighboring bunker, though scant supplies of water can put it out of action.

Clearly, these men know how to look after themselves.

The platoon's nickname, Copper, allegedly stems from a former proclivity for purloining metal from the local ghost town and selling it for scrap.

Among the most welcoming and charismatic of the fighters was Pianist, the resident chaplain.

With a flaming red beard and large metal crucifix hanging from his neck, he conjured up the presence and philosophy of a medieval Slavic warrior.

"Faith in God is nothing without deeds," he said.

"If I need to take up arms and kill separatists, then I will. I am a soldier first and a chaplain second." 

Despite the deployment of this man of God, formal services are kept to a minimum.

"We don't do anything special on a Sunday — every day I'm on duty for these men. In our ranks we have Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Muslims… I will help any man of any faith who needs it." 

After sunset, a soldier approached us.

"It's time for dinner," said Boar, real name Ruslan.

"Follow me."

He led us through the darkness, down a muddy slope and into the galley dugout.

Officially, this burly man in his late 30s is a machine-gunner, but the men here hold Boar in high esteem as their resident cook.

After a brief flurry of chopping, dicing, cracking, and frying, we sat hunched over a pan of potatoes and a 10-egg omelette.

As cigarette smoke filled the gloom, mice scurried among sacks behind us, and the occasional crackle of gunfire echoing around us, Boar began his story.

"All my friends now are fighting for the separatists. When they took Kramatorsk last year [a town now held by the government in the east], they went round looking for anyone who supported Ukraine.

"I got a phone call from an old friend of mine who had become a separatist commander — he told me I was on their list. I grabbed my daughter, a few possessions and drove out of town as fast as I could. I later learned that a few minutes after I'd left, they smashed into my house. But I had already gone.

"I began a new life in Poltava further west and spent all my money trying to get things going. Eventually I decided to return to the war. I planned to join the fight with Right Sector [an ultra-nationalistic Ukrainian militia] but the 93rd Brigade offered me a contract and I ended up with them. I've been here ever since."

It must have been hard cutting ties with old friends, I suggested.

Does he ever get to speak with them?

"Of course — sometimes, we exchange messages," Boar replied.

"They tell me they will hunt me down and slit my throat."

In the half-light, he gave a faint smile.

"But I'll get them first."

A particularly ferocious volley of gunfire resounded over the field.

"You hear that?" he asked, his eyes catching mine obliquely in the half-light.

"That would be the ceasefire."

Take a trip to the front and you would be forgiven for thinking that war had never stopped.

In recent weeks, its intensity has shifted up a gear from post-ceasefire calm to sporadic outbreaks of violence, which are now escalating into something altogether more concerning.

The peace deal signed in February, followed by September's truce, helped dampen the return to the firestorm of blitz and offensive that had raged through the summer of 2014 and the subsequent winter.

After this summer's intensifying wave of violence, there were indications that the Kremlin was looking to stabilize the crisis as Moscow turned its attention to the ongoing military campaign to bolster President Bashar al Assad in Syria.

Ukraine's war, however, now appears to be again spiralling out of control.

The international watchdog monitoring the conflict, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has reported an increase in the use of Grad rockets and mortars — both banned under the February deal.

In recent weeks, OSCE monitors have reported a spate of attacks involving anti-aircraft guns, automatic grenade-launchers, and large mortars around the battle-scarred regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Dozens of howitzers and other artillery pieces have been confirmed to be absent from Ukrainian holding areas, despite agreements for the heavy weapons to be mothballed, while the OSCE reports that a "considerable" amount of military hardware continues to move beyond respective withdrawal lines.

The latest attacks do not appear to be freak ruptures on the front nor the action of a local rebel commander gone rogue.

Rather, they fit into a wider pattern of escalating violence which threatens to derail the peace plan.

On just one day during VICE News's embed on the front, the Ukrainian Army reported rebel attacks across nine towns as well as explosions and sniper fire in the demilitarized zone of Shyrokyne, a former seaside town long feared to be a possible springboard for an assault on the strategic, eastern port city of Mariupol.

Daniel Baer, the US Ambassador to the OSCE, has warned against "a slide back into full-scale violence" and said that the "worrying increase in violence could cause the ceasefire to deteriorate altogether."

In recent months, the Ukrainian military has had some successes, in so far as it has stemmed further territory loss to the country's breakaway statelets, the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics.

It has also managed to mobilize more than 200,000 troops in a year — a sizeable figure in a relatively short space of time.

But issues remain, not least with its clunking command structure — an unwieldy relic of the Soviet era.

Top brass have been keen to publicize the army's compliance with the crumbling ceasefire deal and insist its forces resort to using heavy weapons only in defense.

Many of Ukraine's fighters, however, are frustrated by the limitations placed on their firepower and complain about red tape curbing counterstrikes.

In short, they loathe the current truce.

"We're not just frustrated — we're angry. We should be allowed to fire back whenever we want. They can tell me otherwise but this is still a war," said Doc, real name Alexander, a former psychiatrist and 45-year-old deputy commander of Pisky's 18th Platoon.

"There is no diplomatic solution. The war will only end when the feet of Ukrainian soldiers touch our border with Russia."

Scanning no-man's land with a pair of binoculars, he stood above a trench in a quarter of the town that lies now in utter ruin, tiny cottages reduced to rubble and a couple of walls.

"The ceasefire is one-sided," Doc continued.

"They're building up with heavy vehicles and heavy weapons directly opposite us."

As if to substantiate his claim, the distinctive noise of a tank rumbled over from rebel-held positions. 

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has condemned "a net escalation in the conflict" and blamed it on "a rise in the number of attacks" from pro-Russian forces.

He has also issued a presidential order allowing soldiers to shoot back "as soon as our troops' lives come under threat."

While this promises to streamline a notoriously inefficient chain of command, it puts the ceasefire on even thinner ice.

After weeks of relative peace, Poroshenko said this month that Ukraine's armed forces were on a renewed war footing:

"We've substantially increased the level of combat readiness and steps the Ukrainian army will make for the defense".

His comments came just hours after Kiev reported the deaths of five soldiers from direct rebel attacks in the previous 24-hour period — the highest daily death toll since the ceasefire was agreed in September.

Despite the heightened rhetoric among Ukraine's political elite, the troops feel forgotten — both by their countrymen and foreign allies.

"Before, we were heroes. Now, we are nobody," said Viktor, 45, a.k.a. "The Priest."

"The rest of the country doesn't want to know us."

This swarthy, middle-aged father-of-two earned his nickname after making a bombed-out, frontline church his home.

Despite claims that his country has abandoned him, The Priest remains sanguine.

"We have a job to do and that's all it is."

The US has pumped more than $250 million of "non-lethal" aid into the Ukrainian military since March 2014, from body armor to night-vision gear, advanced radar systems and an array of battlefield vehicles.

And in coming weeks, the next cycle of the American train-and-equip program is due to commence.

But what soldiers here want are weapons.

And, as far as they are concerned, talk of negotiations are pure anathema.

"There's only a military solution," said Artur, who was among a group of soldiers, smoking cigarettes and sipping cups of sweet, black tea outside Viktor's church one bright, chilly morning.

"Anyone who chooses diplomacy is a pussy."

But, I asked him, wouldn't an offensive just provoke a fierce response from the other side and provide an easy pretext for Russian aggression?

He shrugged off the idea with boisterous defiance.

"We're ready to push all the way to border. We'll take on Russia."

A few nights later, an unexpected battle suggested that such a move would not be taken lying down. 

Dinner was abandoned by the second blast.

The mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades began exploding in the pitch-black chill.

Arcs of red tracer-fire scored the night sky above a crescendo of assault rifles and heavy machine-guns.

Both sides, each stoked with hundreds of fighters, unleashed a barrage of fire for hours.

The men seemed well-accustomed to the pitch and timbre of this deadly reprise.

The swift staccato pops of a PKM light machine gun.

The heavy hammering of a DShK .50-caliber.

The thump of pressure to the chest and persistent ringing in the ears as Soviet-era SPG-9s released their explosive loads.

In 2nd Platoon's trench, a couple of hundred metres from the battle's epicentre, the radio buzzed with frenzied exchanges — "Heavy incoming fire"; "18th platoon getting hit"; "Enemy unit advancing towards Lynx".

Meanwhile, almost grudgingly, the soldiers ducked down in ditches beneath the mosquito whine of ricocheting bullets.

They chain-smoked through the worst of it, alternating between laughs and curses whenever a shell landed too close for comfort, rocking the earth.

One man poked his head up from a bunker during a particularly ferocious exchange.

Amid the shadows and repeated flashes, he joked: "Welcome to Disco Partisan."

A pair of dogs — abandoned at the outbreak of war and now adopted by the platoon — faithfully followed the commander, Skeptic, as he moved between firing positions in the trench.

They flinched at every explosion but barely let out a whimper as the bombs rained down within 100 meters of the dugout.

One infantryman, Viktor Bogan, 46 years old and a carpenter before taking up arms last year, continued to tinker away in his makeshift workshop on the edge of no-man's land.

He had lost half his hearing in previous fights and seemed nonplussed by the latest outbreak.

"I'm only here so my children and grandchildren don't have to face war for themselves," said Viktor. 

He was clad in a leather waistcoat, a bandana and worn gauntlets, the Mad Max aesthetic round off by a huge, homemade blade tucked into a deerskin sheath.

During lighter moments, his grizzled face would often crease into a generous smile and he would talk of his dream to rebuild his hometown's church, destroyed during the 1917 Russian Revolution.

"Only the older men should be here," he sighed.

"It would have been better if the young boys were never sent to this front line."

Once morning dawned grey and cold, the fighting had subsided — some of the fiercest in weeks.

Positions remained the same but Ukraine's fragile truce appeared to lie in tatters.

"I had a dream two nights ago that the war will begin again in 121 days. I don't know why that number came into my head. It's silly, really. But these visions of war come to me most nights. Now is not the end of the fighting — it is just a break and it won't last."

We talk of dreams and death and the coming winter through a darkening afternoon.

Anatoliy and Svetlana, both on the cusp of 70 and married for 46 years, are decent people cursed by war, yet not corrupted by it.

They defy the conflict's occupation of their home in Pisky and refuse to leave.

Svetlana tells us of her strange premonition while we enjoy homemade blackberry wine, endless cups of tea and biscuits spread with honey from their beehives.

Somehow, despite the devastation around them, despite the storms of artillery, despite the hatred, their house remains unscathed.

It's hard to fathom. "God," says Svetlana.

"That is the only reason. There's no other way. We have survived."

Laughter still fills their modest home, as do fleeting hints of darkness.

I first met the pair in August, when their garden was still blooming with flowers and fruit at the end of a hot, bloody summer.

Their spirited bond clearly remains but recent months have etched fatigue upon their faces.

"The rest of Ukraine has forgotten us," says Svetlana.

"They could not imagine what we experience. We've lost more than any politician in power, on either side, ever could."

Our conversation continues for an hour, maybe two.

Memories of Pisky before the war and of distant family members intermingle with talk of fear, politics and loss.

Putin is mentioned, as is Poroshenko; the couple describe their hopes of holding their 70th birthday parties in the new year.

Finally, Anatoliy rises from his wooden chair and tops up our tumblers with wine — the last round of the day.

Dusk is falling and the threat of battle hangs as ever over this little European town.

He raises his glass.

"Za mir", he says.

"To peace."

Source: VICE News

Ukraine's Police Say 'Goodbye' To Russian Social Networks

KIEV, Ukraine -- Members of Ukraine's newly-established police force have been told by their bosses to stay off Russian social networks.

Many of the new Ukrainian police officers are prolific social media users.

The two networks in question, VKontakte (VK) and Odnoklassniki (OK), include many pro-Kremlin accounts, and using them is now frowned upon by officials in Kiev, who worry that the police could be spied on as tensions between Russia and Ukraine remain high.

"We strongly advise our police officers not to use social networks which are controlled and moderated from the territory of the aggressor country," Interior Ministry spokesman Artem Shevchenko told BBC Trending.

"Such networks can be used by the Russian secret services in their information warfare and also to apply psychological pressure."

Ukraine is currently in the middle of replacing its notoriously corrupt and brutal police with new, more modern and approachable cops.

After the new force was launched in several big cities including the capital, Kiev, the new police became an instant hit on social media.

Many of the new officers were talked about online as being young, friendly, good-looking and likeable - and taking selfies with them became a craze.

But the government is demanding political loyalty from the new recruits.

On Wednesday, the Interior Ministry announced that four police officers had been sacked and five others are under investigation for social media posts that support pro-Russian separatists.

"They contradict the moral and ethical qualities of a Ukrainian police officer," the ministry said in a statement.

After one policeman was outed as a critic of the mass rallies that brought the current government to power last year, an Interior Ministry adviser took to Facebook to vent his outrage.

"There is no room in state service for those who disrespect their own country," Anton Herashchenko said.

Ukrainian police are still permitted to have accounts on Facebook and Twitter, but these social networks are also much less popular in Ukraine than VK or OK.

Source: BBC News

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Crimeans Describe Life During Blackout After Attacks From Ukraine

SIMFEROPOL, Crimea -- Crimean residents are learning to live with thawing fridges, pitch-dark highways and shuttered schools a week after Ukrainian miliants began attacking the power lines feeding the region.

Residents play cards in Simferopol. Locals say supplies of candles and batteries have been exhausted.

As Russian authorities scramble to restore power, almost 2 million people have been left without electricity.

Despite the hum of generators filling the streets, most businesses have been forced to shut down or dramatically scale back their operations.

Major towns are receiving electricity for a few hours a day while some villages have no power at all. 

Vladimir Putin has hit out at the Ukrainian government, saying without their tacit backing the cut-off would not have been possible.

Russia is working to finish a cable across the Kerch strait to link Crimea to the Russian mainland, but it will not be finished until the second half of December, and even then will only provide half of Crimea’s energy needs.

For now, hundreds of generators have been shipped to the region.

“There are no more candles and batteries in shops. Everything has been bought up,” says Yekaterina, a resident of Dzhankoy in northern Crimea.

Some 150 schools and nurseries have been closed until further notice as part of emergency measures imposed by the de facto authorities that came to power when Russia annexed the peninsula in March 2014.

The Crimean prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov, called the destruction of the electricity supply a “terrorist act”.

“No one will bring Crimeans to their knees, we won’t allow for negotiations,” he said.

“We won’t let anyone speak to us in the language of blackmail.”

Presently, back-up power reserves are proving unable to adequately supply Crimea’s hospitals.

“The situation could pose serious risks to people’s lives,” says Olga Skripnik, a Crimean human rights campaigner.

“Many people also complain that due to the lack of mobile networks they are unable to call ambulances and fire departments.”

‘We’re used to it’ 

It’s been a turbulent few months for the region’s residents, who have found themselves at the centre of a geopolitical storm, but many are putting on a brave face.

“I think the problems will be resolved, everything will be alright,” says a newspaper vendor in Simferopol, the regional capital.

“We are not worried about anything, not even the refrigerators,” one woman in Simferopol said.

“It’s OK. We’ll get through it. We’re used to it.”

Elderly residents, recalling the second world war and the shortages experienced before and after the Soviet breakup of 1991, appear to be taking the blackout in stride.

“What is there to say when there is no electricity?” says Valentina, an elderly woman sitting on a bench in Simferopol.

“No, wait, we have electricity today,” she suddenly remembers.

“That was yesterday,” one of her friends corrects from the next bench.

“Today we have no water,” Valentina explains.

However frustration is mounting over the transportation problems brought on by the blackout – trams no longer run, traffic lights are switched off and the streets and highways are eerily dark.

Gas stations have been shutting down one after the other, creating long lines outside those still open for service.

“I don’t understand, why isn’t there any electricity?” asks a driver, queuing up to refuel at a petrol station in Simferopol.

“We were told that Crimea is ready, that it has stations which can provide electricity to the whole of Crimea. Why aren’t they doing it then. Have they vanished?”

So far, the majority of Crimeans appear to blame their woes on Ukrainian nationalists and Crimean Tatars, who have been preventing engineers from repairing the damaged electricity pylons.

The nationalists in mainland Ukraine, which supplies approximately 70% of Crimea’s energy needs, said they would allow the repair work only if Russia released “political prisoners” – a reference to a number of people who have been jailed on charges supporters say are trumped-up – and let Crimean Tatar leaders return to their homes.

In the meantime, Crimeans are bracing for weeks of disruptions and shortages.

The senior official among the Russian authorities who control Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, said it might take his government an entire month to restore electricity to the peninsula.

“If you seize a territory,” said Dmitry, a resident of the southern port city of Feodosia, “then please be kind enough to supply electricity.”

Source: The Guardian

Russia-Ukraine Row Over Crimea Escalates As Moscow Cuts Coal To Kiev

KIEV, Ukraine -- Russia has begun to restrict coal supplies to Ukraine, Energy Minister Volodymyr Demchyshyn told parliament on Friday, days after the Kremlin threatened to punish Kiev for a power blackout of Russian-annexed Crimea.

A boy carries a container with soup as he visits a mobile station, opened and operated by members of the Russian Emergencies Ministry to lend support and to distribute hot meals among local residents due to power cuts in the settlement of Massandra, Crimea, November 27, 2015.

Demchyshyn said pro-Russian separatists who control coal mines in eastern Ukraine had also halted coal supplies.

He said Kiev had one month of its own coal supplies left and was seeking alternative supplies from South Africa.

"Coal supplies have been restricted from uncontrolled territory (Donbass) and from Russia," said Demchyshyn.

"Right now our power stations have enough coal reserves in storage to last for at least one month. But in the long-term problematic questions will arise."

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said on Tuesday that Russia might cut coal supplies to punish Ukraine for what he said was its deliberate refusal to help rebuild power lines to Crimea, which were blown up by unknown saboteurs.

Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in March last year, plunging relations between the one-time allies into crisis.

Minor repair work has been carried out on the sabotaged pylons and power lines in southern Ukraine which supply Crimea, but none of the four pylons which were destroyed are operational.

Ukraine depends on coal to fulfil around 44 percent of its power needs.

Nuclear energy makes up about the same proportion, with the rest of its needs being met by renewable sources.

Demchyshyn said two ships carrying coal from South Africa were en route to Ukraine and would dock in December with around 250,000 tonnes of coal.

Taken together with Ukraine's own coal reserves of about 1 million tonnes, he said Kiev had enough coal to ensure the stable functioning of its energy system for 45-50 days.

He said Ukraine was in talks with South Africa about further coal supplies.

Ukraine earlier this week said it was halting gas purchases from Russia.

Demchyshyn said Ukraine had 16.5 billion cubic meters of its own gas in reserve, enough for the winter heating season.

Source: Google News

Memo To Putin: Syria Is Turkey's Ukraine

LONDON, England -- Russian leaders have evidently been shocked by Turkey's deliberate decision to shoot down one of their planes, which they say was motivated by Turkey's alleged support for Islamic State and greed for the proceeds of smuggled terrorist oil.

A simpler explanation is that Russia would have done the same.

Here is the hypothetical:

What would President Vladimir Putin do if civil war broke out in a neighboring country, which had been part of the Russian empire for centuries before breaking away under circumstances, and with borders, that Russians still found difficult to accept?

What would he do if, in that war, some of the rebels were ethnic Russians at risk of being brutally crushed by the armed forces of the neighboring state?

Actually, that's not so hypothetical; it pretty much describes eastern Ukraine.

And we know what Russia did -- it became heavily involved in a poorly concealed invasion.

Syria was under Ottoman control from 1516 until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The Russian Empire took over the Donbass region in the mid-1700s.

The "Turkmen" rebels that Russia's Su-24 aircraft was bombing at the time it was shot down are ethnic Turks.

They ended up on the wrong side of the border when it was imposed by a 1921 treaty (shortly before the Donbass region was incorporated into Soviet Ukraine).

Even the strange psychology of how former empires feel they still have a special right, even responsibility, to intervene in long-since amputated parts is similar.

When pro-democracy protests began in Syria in 2011, Erdogan said Turkey had to view the turmoil in Syria as a domestic issue.

He was affronted when President Bashar al-Assad refused to do as he was told.

Since the shoot-down earlier this week, Turkey's President has all but admitted that his country deliberately targeted the Sukhoi because of what Russia was doing to the Turkmen rebels.

"We have no intention to escalate this incident. We are just defending our security and the rights of our brothers," Erdogan said.

As aggressive as the Turkish decision to down a Russian jet over a technical, 17-second airspace infringement was, Erdogan has not gone as far as Putin to assert his right to intervene militarily to protect ethnic kin, anytime, anywhere.

Now consider how Putin would react if the U.S. or North Atlantic Treaty Alliance decided to get involved militarily in eastern Ukraine, placing an airbase and Patriot missile batteries 50 miles from the Russian border.

Picture NATO aircraft providing airpower for an all-out Ukrainian ground assault against the Russian-backed rebels, aided by troops from Poland and Chechnya (in Syria's case, that's Iran and Hezbollah).

Imagine Turkish and American jets flying into Russian airspace as they try to optimize their bombing runs.

Just a wild guess here, but it would not take Putin three months before he shot down one of the NATO aircraft.

Nor would he take seriously any comment from the President of the United States that it was obvious the NATO pilots and bombers had "in no way threatened" the Russian Federation, the words Putin used as he raged that:

“We received a stab in the back from accomplices of terrorism.”

Nor would Putin have been impressed by NATO claims that the Russian-backed rebels it was bombing in the Donbass were terrorists.

Putin says he is bombing Islamic State in the Turkmen mountains, yet there are no recorded Islamic State forces in that area or for some distance beyond.

These are rebels fighting Assad.

Of course, there are as many differences as similarities between the situations in Northern Syria and Ukraine, past and current -- it is the attitudes of Russia and Turkey that are similar, not the conflicts.

And both Russia's leadership and Turkey's are using the cover of popular concern for the fate of fellow Russians and Turks to pursue more strategic, less noble goals.

Among those goals for Erdogan is one that will be all too familiar to the Kremlin:

A determination to show not just Russia, but also the U.S., France and others looking to agree a common strategy with Putin that no solution for Syria can be reached unless Turkish interests are fully taken into account.

These do not allow for an alliance with Assad to crush fellow Sunnis, whether Turkmen or Arab.

The smart thing for Russia to do now would be to recognize that it misjudged Turkish sensitivities, and adjust accordingly.

Surely Putin has enough hostile neighbors and former friends already.

But it will be tempting to go further, because Erdogan has also miscalculated:

He has a far weaker hand in Syria than Putin has in Ukraine.

To state the obvious, Turkey is not a nuclear power.

In addition, despite huge errors of judgment in supporting Islamist extremists once they arrived in Syria one to two years after the conflict began, Turkey did not manufacture Syria's civil war, as Russia manufactured the one in Ukraine.

Nor have the Turks put large numbers of "volunteer" troops and heavy equipment into the Syrian battlefield.

So Turkey's ability to influence or respond to events in Syria is extremely limited.

In the Donbass region, Putin has been able to turn the conflict on and off, more or less at will.

For the moment, Russian retaliation is shaping up as economic sanctions, deploying additional anti-aircraft missile systems in Northern Syria and, according to some reports, redoubling its bombing campaign in the Turkmen mountains.

Erdogan will be powerless to respond effectively, unless he takes even more reckless risks in a fight he cannot win.

Source: Bloomberg

Friday, November 27, 2015

Why Ukraine Rebellion Is Unlikely To Spread

DONETSK, Ukraine -- In April 2014, angry mobs and armed men stormed administrative buildings and police stations in eastern Ukraine, waving Russian flags and proclaiming the establishment of “Peoples’ Republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk.

An armed pro-Russian separatist stands guard at a road check point outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk June 8, 2014. Big data shows protests in Donetsk and Luhansk were inspired more by economics than ethnicity, the author writes.

At the time, some observers predicted that the “pro-Russian” uprising would spread to other parts of southeast Ukraine, throughout the vast territory Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to as historical “Novorossiya.”

Contrary to these forecasts, the rebellion remained surprisingly contained.

No region outside Donetsk or Luhansk experienced large-scale armed conflict or fell under rebel control.

Not only were separatists unable to realize the project of a greater “Novorossiya” stretching from Kharkiv to Odessa, they failed to consolidate their grip even within the borders of the Donbass.

Not more than 63 percent of municipalities in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were under rebel control at any time during the first year of the conflict, and less than a quarter of these territories showed resistance to government forces during Kiev’s attempt to liberate them.

What explains local variation in rebellion?

Why is rebel violence more intense in some areas than in others?

Why have some towns in eastern Ukraine remained under government control while others fell to the separatists?

The most common answers to these questions have fallen into one of two categories: ethnicity and economics.

The first view expects rebellion to be more likely and more intense in areas home to large concentrations of ethnolinguistic minorities—in this case, Russians or Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

According to this logic, geographically concentrated minorities can overcome some of the collective action problems associated with rebellion—such as monitoring and punishing defectors—while attracting an influx of fighters, weapons and economic aid from co-ethnics in neighboring states. 

Among others, Vladimir Putin, too, has cast the Donbass conflict as a primarily ethnic one:

“The essential issue is how to ensure the legitimate rights and interests of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the southeast of Ukraine.”

An alternative explanation for rebellion is economic opportunity costs.

According to this view, as income from less risky legal activities declines relative to income from rebellious behavior, participation in rebellion should rise.

As Maidan and the Revolution of Dignity proclaimed adherence to European values and set the path towards Europe and away from the Custom’s Union with Russia, the opportunity costs of rebellion declined in the Donbass.

As a heavily industrialized region with deep economic ties to Russia, the Donbass was uniquely exposed to potential negative economic shocks caused by trade openness with the EU, austerity and trade barriers with Russia.

A rebel fighter with the Vostok battalion summarized this view:

“Many mines started to close. I lost my job. Then, with what happened during the spring, I decided to go out and defend my city.”

In an article forthcoming in the Journal of Comparative Economics, I evaluate the relative explanatory power of these two perspectives, using new micro-level data on violence, ethnicity and economic activity in eastern Ukraine.

I find that local economic factors are stronger predictors of rebel violence and territorial control than Russian ethnicity or language.

Ethnicity only had an effect where economic incentives for rebellion were already weak.

Separatists in eastern Ukraine were “pro-Russian” not because they spoke Russian but because their economic livelihood had long depended on trade with Russia and they now saw this livelihood as being under threat.

The economic roots of the pro-Russian rebellion are evident from new data on violence and control, assembled from incident reports released by Ukrainian and Russian news agencies, government and rebel statements, daily “conflict maps” released by both sides, and social media news feeds.

The data include 10,567 unique violent events in the Donbass, at the municipality level, recorded between then President Viktor Yanukovych’s flight in February 2014 and the second Minsk cease-fire agreement of February 2015.

To explain variation in the timing and intensity of violence and control, I considered the proportion of Russian speakers residing in each municipality, and the proportion of the local labor force employed in three industries, differentially vulnerable to post-Euromaidan economic shocks.

These included machine-building, which is heavily dependent on exports to Russia, highly vulnerable to Russian import substitution and currently lacks short-term alternative export markets.

At the other extreme, there is the metals industry, which is less dependent on Russia and a potential beneficiary of increased trade with the EU.

 Finally, I considered employment in the mining industry, which had grown dependent on Yanukovych-era state-subsidies, and became highly vulnerable to IMF-imposed austerity measures. 

Given the relative exposure of these industries to post-Euromaidan economic shocks, one should expect the opportunity costs of rebellion to be lowest in machine-building towns and highest in metallurgy towns, with mining towns falling in the middle.

I also accounted for a host of other potential determinants of violence, like terrain, logistics, proximity to the Russian border, prewar electoral patterns and spillover effects from rebel activity in neighboring towns.

A statistical analysis of these data reveals that a municipality’s pre-war employment mix is a stronger and more robust predictor of rebel activity than local ethnolinguistic composition.

In municipalities more exposed to negative trade shocks with Russia (municipalities with high shares of population employed in machinery and mining), rebel violence was more likely to occur overall, and was more intense.

For a median Donbass municipality, an increase in the machine-building labor force from one standard deviation below (4 percent) to one standard deviation above the mean (26 percent) yields a 44 percent increase (95 percent credible interval: a 34 percent-56 percent increase) in the frequency of rebel violence from week to week.

These municipalities—where the local population was highly vulnerable to trade disruptions with Russia – also fell under rebel control earlier and took longer for the government to liberate than municipalities where the labor force was less dependent on exports to Russia.

On any given day, a municipality with higher-than-average employment in the beleaguered machine-building industry was about twice as likely to fall under rebel control as a municipality with below-average employment in the industry.

By contrast, there is little evidence of either a “Russian language effect” on violence, or an interaction between language and economics.

The impact of pre-war industrial employment on rebellion is the same in municipalities where a majority of the population is Russian-speaking as it is where the majority is Ukrainian-speaking. 

Russian language fared slightly better as a predictor of rebel control, but only under certain conditions.

In particular, where economic dependence on Russia was relatively low, municipalities with large Russian-speaking populations were more likely to fall under rebel control early in the conflict.

The “language effect” disappeared in municipalities where any one of the three industries had a major presence.

In other words, ethnicity and language only had an effect where economic incentives for rebellion were weak.

The seemingly rational economic self-interest at the heart of the conflict may seem puzzling, given the staggering costs of war.

In the eighteen months since armed men began storming government buildings in the Donbass, over 8,000 people have lost their lives, and over a million have been displaced.

Regional industrial production fell by 49.9 percent in 2014, with machinery exports to Russia down by 82 percent.

Suffering heavy damage from shelling, many factories have closed.

With airports destroyed, railroad links severed and roads heavily mined, a previously export-oriented economy has found itself isolated from the outside world.

If local machinists and miners had only known the scale of the destruction to come, the economic rationale for rebellion would surely have appeared less compelling.

Yet when choosing between a high-risk rebellion to retain one’s economic livelihood and an almost certain loss of income, many people chose the first option.

From a policy standpoint, the economic roots of the Donbass conflict should be seen as good news.

Despite the ethnocentric media coverage of this war in Russia and the West, the data show that attempts to divide Ukraine along ethnic or linguistic lines are likely to fail.

These results can also explain why the conflict has not spread beyond Donetsk and Luhansk.

Home to a large concentration of enterprises dependent on exports to Russia, highly subsidized and traditionally shielded from competition, the Donbass became exposed to a perfect storm of negative economic shocks after the Euromaidan.

No other region in Ukraine, or the former Soviet Union, has a similarly vulnerable economic profile.

Without a compelling economic motive, a pro-Russian rebellion is unlikely to occur elsewhere in Ukraine.

Source: Newsweek

Winter And Dwindling Supplies Put Pressure On The Humanitarian Response In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) calls for urgent action in response to the increasingly dire humanitarian situation in Ukraine.

Two years since civil unrest and conflict internally displaced 1.4 million people, relief supplies are dwindling and the IFRC’s emergency appeal for 20 million Swiss francs to enable the Ukrainian Red Cross Society to assist 100,000 people is significantly underfunded.

Temperatures can drop as low as -20C (-4F) during winter months, and without more support, the society’s ability to deliver essential relief including heating devices, food and mobile medical care is at risk.

“The situation is critical. 1.4 million people are now entering their third year of being displaced from their homes, savings have become depleted, and families – as well as host communities dealing with the economic crisis – have come to rely increasingly on humanitarian relief,” said Dr Ivan Usichenko, President of the Ukrainian Red Cross Society.

Simon Missiri, Director of IFRC’s Europe Region said health, food security and shelter were the priority needs for which funding is urgently sought.

“We are witnessing a spiral of vulnerability. Families are separated; employment has become harder to find in the face of a weak economy; market prices for basic items have tripled. We are making an urgent call to the world to remember this forgotten crisis in Ukraine,” he said.

The Ukrainian Red Cross Society has deployed 26 mobile medical care teams in Donetsk, Luhansk, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporozhe, Kharkov and Poltava to provide essential health care to more than 17,000 people.

A further 15 emergency response teams have been mobilized, delivering food vouchers and parcels to 12,000 people and providing psychosocial support to more than 3,000.

Source: IFRC

Russia And Ukraine In A Standoff Over Crimea Power Outage

CHONGAR, Ukraine -- Ground zero of the latest confrontation between Ukraine and Russia was a sea of mud and not much else on Wednesday.

A single light illuminated a room Wednesday during a blackout in the city of Simferopol, Crimea.

About half a dozen fighters, their boots sinking into a sodden field, were guarding the downed electricity pylons that were blown up last weekend, plunging much of the disputed Crimean peninsula and the Kherson region of mainland Ukraine into darkness.

Activists from the Tatar minority and Ukrainian nationalists attacked the first repair crews and their police escorts seeking to restore the felled pylons, driving them away.

The situation has been at an impasse since, with more than 1.2 million people in Crimea without power and no sign of any repair crews.

“The people of Crimea are not supposed to feel like they live in a resort while the country is at war,” said Oleksiy Byk, 34, a chunky, bearded veteran who serves as the area spokesman for the Right Sector, a right-wing Ukrainian organization violently opposed to any accommodation with Russia. 

Millions were left without electricity after saboteurs knocked down power lines on Sunday.

A man looked at electricity supply meters on Sunday at a house in Simferopol in the Russian-annexed peninsula of Crimea.

Mr. Byk said he used to fight the separatists in the east, but after the cease-fire negotiated under the Minsk peace accords finally took hold in September, he and many other hard-core fighters gravitated to the area just north of Crimea.

They are spoiling for a fight, since Ukraine rejects Russia’s March 2014 annexation of the Black Sea peninsula as illegal.

A desultory economic blockade has been enforced since September, but the downing of the pylons seems to have prompted a new standoff between Moscow and Kiev, with each side finding new ways to increase the tension daily.

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, said the country was closing its airspace to all Russian planes, after earlier terminating all flights between the two countries.

In a you-can’t-fire-me-I-quit move, he also ordered Naftogas, the state-run oil and gas company, to stop buying Russian gas.

But the Russian gas giant, Gazprom, had announced earlier in the day that it was cutting off all gas supplies to Ukraine — not linked to the electricity issue, at least not publicly — because Kiev had not paid its bills.

Russia also threatened to cut off coal supplies that some old power plants in Ukraine need to keep functioning.

Russia has thus far not acted with overt hostility, probably because the Kremlin is preoccupied with the crisis over Turkey shooting down one of its airplanes.

President Vladimir V. Putin did pause long enough on Wednesday to express dismay that the Ukrainian government was not addressing the problem.

“I am surprised by the position of our partners in Kiev,” said Putin, who tends to use the word “partners” for most interlocutors.

“These events could not be taking place without their connivance.”

He mocked the idea that Kiev wanted Crimea back while victimizing its residents.

Analysts said it was difficult for either side to act.

Russia, under the threat of European Union sanctions for any aggressive action in Ukraine, is trying to extract itself from economic sanctions, not prompt more.

Ukraine used to depend on Russia for gas, but after years of confrontations it has beefed up storage facilities and engineered reverse-flow supplies from Europe.

Ukraine seeks to avoid further Russian aggression to stymie its political and economic stability, and an already unpopular government does not want to go against public sentiment.

In Kiev, the main driver of the confrontation seems to be the leaders of the Tatar community who were exiled by Russia after it annexed the peninsula and who are now in Parliament as allies of President Petro O. Poroshenko.

Mr. Poroshenko has not said anything in public directly about the electricity confrontation.

The Tatars, a Turkic Muslim minority that now numbers about 300,000, have memories of crushing brutality under Stalin’s rule; thousands were forced into exile and returned to Crimea only after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Many said that their people again faced systematic repression, and the initial demands to restore power included that all activists be released from jail, that the independent Tatar news media be restored and that international human rights monitors be allowed to operate.

Here around Chongar, however, Tatar activists were not much in evidence.

They seemed to have been assigned logistical tasks like providing food and housing for the men guarding the checkpoints on the road and the fallen pylons.

The fighters were mostly veterans from the east who did not want to go back to civilian life.

Roman, who would give only his first name, was the spokesman for the group guarding the pylons.

Even though there were not many of them, he said, they could quickly summon reserves on standby should any repairmen or Ukrainian troops arrive or scavengers try to make off with the scrap metal. 

He said he was ready to take on any government forces who showed up.

“I’m more experienced then them,” bragged Roman.

“It would take me two minutes maximum to take a gun from them.”

The small contingent’s main problem was boredom and hunger.

Their food stocks were running low and the constant rain had affected their generator — the light bulb in their tent kept going out.

All the fighters in the area are a bit coy about who blew up the four main pylons.

The official answer they give is “unidentified patriots,” an echo of the “polite people” that Russia used to describe the special forces soldiers dispatched to seize Crimea in March 2014.

The fighters were allowing some repair work to proceed on one pylon to restore power to about 200,000 customers in the immediate vicinity, work that the state-run electric company, Ukrenergo, said would be completed as early as Thursday.

Arsen Avakov, the interior minister, announced that there was no point in rebuilding them all until they could be protected.

Crimea can generate about one third of the power it needs, and a trunk line to Russia meant to be connected by the end of December will not nearly close the gap.

Source: The New York Times