Monday, June 30, 2014

Ukraine's Displaced: 'We Want To Go Home'

SVIATOHIRSK, Ukraine -- The terrace under the big tent at the Pyramid Cafe in Sviatohirsk was nearly empty. The loud pop music that would normally blast away as Russian and Ukrainian tourists tucked into plates of kebabs and fresh forest mushrooms had been switched off. A few men sat around drinking glasses of beer and staring blankly or sharing gossip and smoking.

In Sviatohirsk, food and hygiene products are piled at the Pyramid Cafe in Sviatohirsk, awaiting collection by IDPs escaping fighting in Slavyansk and other cities and towns across Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

In a neighbouring tent, people were absorbed by the screens of their laptops, reading the news or chatting quietly on Skype with family and friends still in the embattled city of Slavyansk.

Near the kitchen, under a big umbrella sponsoring a Ukrainian beer company, a pile of donated humanitarian aid was slowly dwindling as people came by.

Sacks of beets and potatoes leaned against cartons of laundry soap, heaps of toilet paper and bundles of clothes.

Usually a summer playground of lakes, forests and a famous holy shrine and monastery complex, Sviatohirsk - or Svyatogorsk in Russian - has in recent weeks turned into a refuge for thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing the encirclement and bombardment of the rebel rallying point of Slavyansk.

"Business is really bad, but we're focusing on humanitarian aid right now," said Irina, wife of Pavel Drozd, the owner of the Pyramid Cafe.

"We want to help the people here, but our work is just a drop in the sea compared to what is needed."

Indeed, by some estimates, there are around 15,000 IDPs in Sviatohirsk alone.

Tens of thousands displaced 

Around 35,000 people have been displaced by fighting in Ukraine's eastern provinces so far, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

From June 6-23, the number of IDPs in East Ukraine skyrocketed from around 2,500 to 35,000.

As the Ukrainian army has tightened its encirclement of the separatist People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated on June 23 that around 19,600 IDPs have been created.

The organisation estimates than an additional 15,000 IDPs remain unregistered, writing that "due to the lack of a centralised system of registration, the real figure of IDPs is unknown and is likely to be higher".

Another 11,500 IDPs were created by Russia's annexation of Crimea, according to reports from local authorities and NGOs, the UNHCR said.

And more than 5,000 people have applied for refugee status in Russia, according to the Russian Federal Migration Service.

In total, the UNHCR believes more than 51,000 people have been displaced by the fighting so far, and has begun supplying aid to them.

"People started to come here to the restaurant to use the internet. Then there started to be more and more of them.

That was around May 1 - the first wave of the antiterrorist operation," said Pavel, the owner of the Pyramid, the cafe that has become the focus of the IDP support drive on the town's main street.

"The biggest problem was people feeding themselves, because they were running out of money."

The mayor of Kharkiv agreed to help by ordering a notice posted on local television, telling IDPs they could pick up humanitarian aid at Pavel's cafe.

"The next day people were already here asking how to receive it. There were about 300 people here that first day and we ran out of everything in 40 minutes," Pavel said.

"Over the past five days we have distributed hygiene and food to some 1,500 people."

Pavel, Irina, their three-year-old daughter Maria, and the family's golden retriever are now living in an apartment they rent in the town.

They cannot return to their home in Slavyansk.

In a way, they are IDPs themselves.

"I understand at this moment that no one wants to help. But I think through my initiative people will be shamed into doing something," he said.

"I am just helping people who have nothing."

'When will all of this be over?' 

Some of the people fleeing the ongoing bombardment and skirmishes in Slavyansk escaped with little more than the shirt on their back and their passport.

They have nothing now but an abundance of need, worry, confusion, and fear for the future.

Besides material support, the people who come to the cafe also need reassurance, and Pavel is hard-pressed to give it to them.

"We're trying to support people, but everyone who comes here always asks us, 'When will all of this be over? When are we going to go home?'

But I have no idea how to answer.

I'm not Obama's brother.

I'm not Putin's brother.

I'm not Poroshenko.

You know, someone who knows the answers.

But I understand that the people are suffering, so I always tell them, 'soon'.

They think we know more than them, but we don't," Pavel said.

"That's Semenivka. That's Semenivka. That's Semenivka," said Valeri Morozl as he flipped through picture after picture on his phone of destroyed houses in his village southeast of Kramatorsk, near Slavyansk.

Moroz has been renting a flat in Sviatohirsk for nearly a month with his wife, two-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son.

One of his two houses took a direct shell hit and was blown apart.

The other has had all its windows blown out by Ukrainian army shelling.

"We're doing nothing. We just sit here all day," he said, as he nursed a beer at the Pyramid.

"I was laying in bed and you would here the boom of a shell being fired and you would wait there, counting the seconds to hear it land. It just wears on the nerves," the salesman said.

"My son doesn't seem to be afraid. If my wife starts to cry, my son will start to cry but tells her, 'Mom, don't cry. Everything will be okay,'" he said.

"But my wife just goes into hysterics immediately if something happens nearby. We were in the house and about 400m away a shell hit a house. I remember my shorts billowed up from the shockwave."

Besides a shortage of shelter, clothes and food, the terror of the past few weeks has left its mark.

"Every night there is a bombardment," said Stanislav, a relative of Pavel who helps by cold-calling people and telling them about the humanitarian aid available.

"Children suffer psychological trauma from this," he said, adding,

"If a young kid has to spend two months like that, they will suffer irreversible damage. So, a question: What are we supposed to do for them? It's a catastrophe." 

Cramped conditions 

Down the road and through the woods, the Iskra summer camp had no beds to spare.

Some people even slept in the guardhouse.

Shafts of late afternoon sunlight pierced the boughs of the pines while under a big blue tarp, men skewered meat for kebabs.

Little kids ran around, shooting toy guns at each other.

Women sat at a table and talked with neighbours about the news.

It almost looked as it would have last year, full of holidaying Ukrainians and Russians.

But all 120 of these people were from Slavyansk - staying at no cost through a social fund run by Rinat Akhmetov, a regional pro-Ukrainian oligarch.

Oleksander Kurilenko sat at a white plastic picnic table as his mother set out a simple dinner of rice and chicken.

Next to him sat Karina Ivanovskaya, his fiancé.

Next to her sat Kurilenko's 89-year-old grandmother.

Staying in the next room of the duplex cottage was his future mother-in-law and his wife's twin sister.

There were six people sleeping in two rooms.

"Our wedding was supposed to take place on June 14. Now we don't know when it will be," he said.

"She's been planning the wedding for six months now. She's got her dress and everything for it here. But we want to go home and have the wedding there. We hope we will go home. Tomorrow will already be two weeks."

They are not rich, and were planning to spend their honeymoon in Yalta, a resort town on the Crimean peninsula, now a part of Russia.

Now they are here, at this summer camp in the woods, with no clear idea of their future.

"If there will be peace in the region, then everyone who has fled will go home. We will all rebuild our houses," Kurilenko said.

"We didn't have water for about five days, and then the lights went out."

That's when they decided to leave.

At the camp, at night, there is little to do but talk, read the news, worry and talk to friends still in Slavyansk.

"We call our family members to find out what's going on," he said.

"The most common question is, 'Are they shooting, or are they not shooting?' We ask if there is water."

"Five months ago, no one thought that we would be in this situation. When all of that happened in Kiev, no one thought that it would affect us here. Then the situation spread to Crimea. Then it started with us, and then we thought that we would have to move somewhere," said Kurilenko.

"We want to go home," said Ivanovskaya, his fiancé.

"I don't want to live anywhere else. I want to go home."

Source: Al Jazeera

Hollande, Merkel Urge Ukraine Talks In Conference Call

BERLIN, Germany -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, in a telephone call lasting more than two hours, told Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko to start peace talks and reminded them of a looming deadline for Kremlin action.

In this handout photo provided by the German Government Press Office, French President Francois Hollande, from left, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel talk at the EU summit after the signing of the EU's Association Agreement with Ukraine, in Brussels, on June 27, 2014.

Ukraine accused pro-Russian rebels of breaking a cease-fire that is due to end tomorrow, the same day Putin faces the threat of deeper European Union sanctions. 

Merkel and Hollande in today’s call noted the importance of “the extension of the cease-fire and the implementation of the peace plan presented by Ukraine authorities,” according a statement from the French president’s office.

The increased pressure came just two days after EU leaders threatened Putin with “further significant restrictive measures” if he fails to rein in separatist rebels.

President Poroshenko’s office said in a statement the four leaders agreed to talk again tomorrow, while Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed they would discuss the tensions again, saying it could happen as early as tomorrow.

The EU ultimatum issued to Putin takes effect tomorrow.

Border Control 

The steps urged by Merkel and Hollande today also included the verification of the cease-fire and the “effective control” of the border.

In Moscow, the Kremlin press service said Poroshenko “was called upon to extend the cease-fire for a longer period,” while Putin also stressed the need for immediate humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine.

Poroshenko, in his own statement issued in Kiev, said the cease-fire should be respected by all sides, claiming it is now maintained only by Ukraine troops.

Poroshenko also called on Putin to step up border control “to stop the flow of insurgents and mercenaries to Ukraine and the supply of arms and armored vehicles for them.”

Ukraine accused pro-Russian rebels of starting at least seven skirmishes yesterday in violation of the cease-fire.

Rebels killed five Ukrainian soldiers in violation of a truce extended by the country’s government after the EU ultimatum.

Thirteen soldiers also were wounded in the attacks by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern region while five suffered shell shock, Ukraine National Security Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kiev today.

Leaders in eastern Ukraine, where the pro-Russian rebels are based, said it was the Ukrainian government that broke the cease-fire, according to Russian state TV Rossiya 24 and RIA Novosti news wire.

Source: Bloomberg

Ukraine Seeks EU Help With Putin Talks

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's new president has enlisted support from the leaders of Germany and France for a call to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as a ceasefire deadline looms.

Ukraine and its allies have been seeking concrete steps from Russia to back up the ceasefire with rebels.

President Petro Poroshenko is expected to be joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande on the scheduled phone call on Sunday to the Russian leader on the eve of the deadline.

Sunday's teleconference is primarily meant to check on any visible shift in Moscow before the European Union and Washington consider unleashing biting sanctions against Russia's financial and defence sectors starting on Monday.

Both Ukraine and its Western allies have been seeking concrete steps from Russia to back the ceasefire between Kiev and pro-Russian militias in the hope of calming a deadly insurgency sparked by the country's new westward course.

On Sunday, Ukraine's military said there had been sporadic attacks by pro-Russian gunmen in the east, despite the ceasefire being in place.

The phone call also comes after pro-Kremlin rebels in Donetsk released four monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- one woman and three men -- after being pressed by Putin to meet the terms of the tenuous truce with Kiev.

The OSCE observers looked tired but relieved as they were handed over by heavily-armed rebels to one of the group's representatives at a hotel in the eastern hub city of Donetsk.

"We are releasing the last four observers who were being held on the territory of the Luhansk People's Republic," the so called prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic told reporters.

"We consider that we have fulfilled all our obligations," Oleksandr Borodai said.

The first group of observers detained on May 26 in the Donetsk province were handed over to the OSCE on Thursday.

The Vienna-based organisation said the second team included nationals from Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Russia.

The one-week truce had been due to expire on Friday at 7pm GMT, and will now expire at 7pm GMT on June 30, according to Ukraine's presidential website.

Source: Al Jazeera

Ukrainian Soldiers Call For Lifting Of Cease-Fire

KIEV, Ukraine -- Several hundred Ukrainian soldiers and activists gathered outside the presidential administration in Kiev on Sunday to call for an end to the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, an indication that tensions remain high a day ahead of a deadline for steps toward easing the violence.

June 28, 2014: An unidentified member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine gets out of a vehicle next to Alexander Borodai, so called Prime Minister of the self proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic', left, on arrival in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.

After the weeklong cease-fire expired Friday, President Petro Poroshenko agreed to extend it through Monday in an effort to stop the fighting between government troops and Moscow-backed separatists that has left hundreds dead.

The European Union also set a Monday deadline for Russia and the separatists to take a series of steps, including releasing all captives, retreating from border checkpoints, agreeing on a way to verify the cease-fire and beginning "substantial negotiations" on Poroshenko's peace plan.

If this was not done, the EU warned that it was ready to impose new punitive measures on Russia.

Soldiers from the Donbass battalion, a militia formed by volunteers, appealed to Poroshenko on Sunday to allow them to resume the fight.

A presidential administration official, Henadiy Zubko, promised to pass on their demands to the president, but told them that the cease-fire order would remain in effect until 10 p.m. Monday (1900GMT).

Both sides have been accused of violating the cease-fire.

Late Saturday, pro-Russia separatists released a second team of four observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who had been held captive in eastern Ukraine since the end of May.

The first team of four was freed last week.

Ukraine on Friday signed a free-trade pact with the EU, the very deal that the former Ukrainian president dumped under pressure from Moscow in November, fueling huge protests that eventually drove him from power.

Moscow responded to those events by annexing the mainly Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula in March, and the pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine broke out a month later.

The United States and the EU have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle and threatened to impose more crippling sanctions against entire sectors of Russia's economy if the Kremlin fails to de-escalate the crisis.

Source: FOX News

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Five Ukraine Soldiers Are Killed As Rebels Defy Extended Cease-Fire

KIEV, Ukraine -- Rebels killed five Ukrainian soldiers in violation of a truce extended by the country’s government after the European Union gave Russia three days to quell the insurgency or face deeper sanctions.

Captive Ukrainian servicemen of the Ukrainian National Guard sit after pro-Russia militants seized their military base in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, on June 28, 2014.

Twelve soldiers also were wounded in the attacks by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern region, government officials said.

The violence occurred as EU leaders in Brussels demanded on June 27 that the separatists, whom Ukraine and its allies say are backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, abide by a cease-fire that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had extended through tomorrow, release hostages and start talks to implement a peace plan.

Rebel leaders agreed to the extension, according to news service Interfax.

Still, the defense ministry in Kiev said yesterday’s casualties occurred in two separate incidents. 

“Despite peace initiatives by Ukraine’s leadership and a unilateral cease-fire, the situation in the Eastern regions continues to escalate,” the ministry said in a statement.

“Insurgents are ignoring the peace plan to ease the situation in Ukraine’s east and keep attacking troops.”

Hostage Release 

Rebels in eastern Ukraine did release a total of eight monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe who had been held hostage since late May, according to accounts from the OSCE and Alexander Maltsev, a separatist spokesman for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

Other people not associated with the OSCE are still being held in the region.

The EU leaders said that failure to meet their demands will result in “further significant restrictive measures” against Russia, according to a statement issued June 27.

“If no visible progress is made on these points, then we are prepared to take further decisions, including drastic measures,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the meeting.

“We expect progress to come really in the hours ahead.”

The U.S. blames Putin for supporting rebels and stoking violence the United Nations says has killed more than 400 people in the country of more than 40 million.

The U.S. is preparing sanctions against Russia on technology aimed at exploiting and producing oil and gas products, a major part of that country’s economy, according to three people briefed on the plans.

The U.S. and European allies imposed sanctions about two months ago on a small number of people and companies close to Putin.

Russian View 

The U.S. is pushing Ukraine into conflict with Russia, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday, adding that the government in Kiev must consult with those in the country who are seeking more autonomy.

“There are our partners from overseas, our American colleagues who, based on plentiful evidence, still prefer to push the Ukrainian authorities along the confrontational road,” Lavrov said on state-run television.

He also said that while separatists in eastern Ukraine’s self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk listen to Moscow, they don’t respond to all requests from the Kremlin.

Poroshenko signed a free-trade pact June 27 with the 28-member EU to bolster solidarity with the richer nations to Ukraine’s west.

He said the agreement showed Ukraine’s “sovereign choice in favor of future membership of the EU.”

Poroshenko’s Goals 

“We’re just looking to modernize our country,” Poroshenko said in an interview in the French daily Le Figaro published yesterday.

“We introduce freedom, democracy and rule of law, European values, and we’re being attacked because of it.”

A previous rejection of the trade accord by the man Poroshenko replaced, Viktor Yanukovych, triggered deadly protests in Kiev last November that this year ousted the pro-Russian administration.

Russia responded by annexing Crimea from Ukraine and has voiced support for Russian speakers in Ukraine’s southeast, who it says are under attack by their own government.

About 67 percent of Ukrainians would vote to join the EU in a referendum, according to a June 6-11 Razumkov Center poll of 2,012 voters, versus 20 percent who wouldn’t.

While the deal doesn’t offer EU membership, it gives Ukrainian companies better access to the world’s biggest trading bloc and will boost exports by 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) a year, according to an EU estimate.

In exchange, Ukraine pledged to use EU funds to meet product, safety and consumer standards, bolster human rights and fight graft.

Putin’s Objections 

Putin, who is trying to establish a Eurasian trading bloc made up of former Soviet states to rival the EU, has said the agreement will damage Russia’s economy.

His government has said those who sign agreements with the EU may face repercussions.

In yesterday’s violence, insurgents killed three soldiers and wounded four at a checkpoint in the Donetsk rebel stronghold of Slavyansk, military spokesman Oleksiy Dmytrashkovskyi said.

Two other soldiers were killed and eight wounded in an attack by insurgents in the Luhansk region, he said.

There were no details on rebel casualties.

More than 20 Ukrainian soldiers have died in rebel attacks since the cease-fire began, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on June 27.

The EU has imposed asset freezes and travel bans on 61 people connected with unrest in Ukraine and Russia’s seizure of Crimea in March.

It has stopped short of broader curbs on investment and trade that might damage the European economy as it shakes off the effects of the debt crisis. 

Inflation Concern 

Russia’s economy can withstand sectoral sanctions, though a worst-case scenario would result in an economic contraction, higher inflation, and declining incomes and government reserves, Russian Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said on state-run TV yesterday.

The UN estimates that about 54,000 people have fled to other places inside Ukraine, while 110,000 displaced Ukrainians have arrived in Russia this year.

Russia’s failure to comply with the EU deadline could lead to additional asset freezes and travel bans after June 30.

A move toward more sanctions could come as early as mid-July, when the leaders are scheduled to meet again.

EU sanctions require a consensus of the bloc’s 28 governments, making it possible for countries such as Austria, Slovakia or Italy to stand in the way.

Austria deepened its economic ties with Russia last week by signing an accord with OAO Gazprom (OGZD) for direct pipeline access to Russian gas.

“The important thing is that for the very first time in history we -- the EU and Ukraine -- agreed on a common stance vis-a-vis Russia,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told reporters in Brussels on June 27.

Source: Bloomberg

Ukrainian Move Against Putin Easier Said Than Done

KIEV, Ukraine -- The Ukrainian Energy Forum is ongoing in Kiev, and it could not have come at a more interesting time for a country that some experts say is at the center of an impending global gas war.

Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk submitted a draft law to parliament last week suggesting that the country drastically change its gas storage and transportation system.

Specifically, the Ukrainian government wants to keep at least 51 percent ownership of pipelines and other domestic energy facilities, but begin selling the rest to companies from the United States and European Union.

The proposed move is seen as a measure designed to buttress Ukraine's position against Gazprom, the energy giant that's controlled by the Russian government.

Gazprom claims that Ukraine owes it $2 billion for natural gas that it used domestically.

But sources who spoke with CNBC cast doubt on the success of such an effort, saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin will continue to play his hand in the region until a deal is made that gives him control of the pipeline, which transports Russian natural gas to markets in Europe.

Robert Bensh, managing director of Pelicourt, an energy firm that holds assets in Ukraine, told CNBC that Putin will do everything he can to prevent such a law from going through.

"Putin will not stop until he gets that pipeline," Bensh said, adding that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko "will be forced by Putin to sell the pipeline in order to resolve all gas debts and to remove all opposition forces within Ukraine, at the very least." 

Ian Brzezinski, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who focuses on trans-Atlantic security, told CNBC that Putin's goal is to reassert Russian hegemony, if not control over Ukraine.

"Acquiring control of a pipeline is one step toward and one benefit of achieving his overall objective," Brzezinski said.

Bensh said, however, that he believes the United States will not idly stand by while Russia attempts to take control of Ukraine's gas transportation system.

The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment on the matter.

Timothy Ash, head of emerging markets at Standard Bank in London, characterized the draft law as a political move by Ukraine, which faces serious financial difficulties that Russia could help relieve if it felt pressure to do so.

He does not see such a move succeeding, however, because Russia's influence over Ukraine is too great.

"Russia comes in and takes Crimea, so they could get what they want with the pipeline as well," Ash said.

Bensh told CNBC that Russian involvement in dividing up or acquiring the pipeline could cause a global gas war which would see Russia more strongly playing its hand as Ukraine and Europe's energy supplier.

Russia recently inked a deal with China to provide more gas to the world's second-largest economy, an agreement that gives Putin more market leverage in his dealings with Ukraine and the West.

Brzezinski, however, disagreed.

"I do not see a global gas war, but I do see gas serving as a tool in a regional conflict, and that is already the case," he said.

A spokesman from Chevron, which has operations in Ukraine, told CNBC that the company is not in a position to comment on the pipeline ownership proposal.

Source: CNBC

Ukrainian President Accuses Russia Of Doing Nothing To End 'Disastrous' War

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The prospect of further western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine has grown after the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, accused Moscow of doing nothing to end the "disastrous war" in the east of his country.

Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, talks to the media at the European Union summit in Brussels.

In an interview with the Guardian and four other European newspapers on Friday, Poroshenko said separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk regions had carried out "more than 150 attacks" against government troops since a ceasefire began on 20 June.

Five more Ukrainian soldiers died on Friday, he said.

Speaking in fluent English in Brussels, Poroshenko stated bluntly that the rebels were under the control of Vladimir Putin's Kremlin.

"I think now Russia has done nothing [to end the violence]," he said.

"Russia is the leader of these banned groups. We are talking of Russian citizens, Russian officers, Russian soldiers of fortune."

He characterised the Kremlin's strategy in Ukraine as "not very pragmatic" and "very emotional".

While Poroshenko signed the outstanding chapters of a historic association agreement with the EU, pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian sides in Donetsk announced that they had extended a ceasefire for three days to allow talks to continue.

The Brussels deal brings Ukraine significantly closer to European markets and the EU – though with no prospect of eventual membership.

Russia warned that the move would have "grave consequences".

One Putin adviser, Sergei Glazyev, called Poroshenko a "Nazi".

Poroshenko told the Guardian that Ukraine had paid "a very high price" for its pro-European choice.

"We want to modernise my country. We want to introduce freedom, democracy and European values. Somebody doesn't like that. Someone attacks us for that," he lamented.

Last November, Ukraine's then president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the EU agreement, instead accepting a bailout from Moscow.

This triggered mass street protests, which led to Yanukovych fleeing the country and to Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea.

Asked whether Ukraine would get Crimea back during his presidential term, a smiling Poroshenko said: "Certainly".

He did not reveal how this might happen.

Poroshenko called Friday's signing ceremony, performed in the cavernous European council building in Brussels, the most important day for his country since independence from the crumbling Soviet Union back in 1991.

Symbolically he inked the agreement with the same black pen that Yanukovych was supposed to use at a summit in Vilnius last year.

"It is with me!" he said, showing the pen afterwards to the Guardian.

Poroshenko said that he had discussed his 15-point peace plan for Ukraine at length with EU leaders, including Angela Merkel, François Hollande and David Cameron.

He said the EU was "completely united" in its support for his country, which faced a grave security crisis.

"That is why I'm happy. They spoke with one voice," he told the Guardian.

The European council – representing EU leaders – will decide on Monday whether to impose new "targeted measures" against the Russian Federation, Poroshenko said.

This is likely to mean additional sanctions against the Russian economy, in areas such as energy, finance and defense.

EU states are divided as to how far these so-called "level three" sanctions, in preparation since March, should go.

Poroshenko said his peace plan envisages a series of concrete steps.

They include a ceasefire verified by European monitors, "including a Russian officer"; the return of three border checkpoints to Ukrainian forces; the release of all hostages seized by separatists; and the launch of "substantial" peace talks.

Four Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitors were freed on Friday, but separatists were still holding 180 prisoners, Poroshenko said, including eight captured on Thursday.

Poroshenko said it was now up to Russia to decide whether to back his plan.

Putin's only positive step so far, he said, had been to withdraw this week a threat to use military force.

Poroshenko said it was clear Russia had intended to destabilise Ukraine from the beginning.

He said he had done his best to persuade Russia's president to sign up to a peace deal when he met him in Normandy, together with Merkel and Hollande, days before his inauguration.

His goal was to make Russia "a predictable partner", he added.

Poroshenko admitted that the situation in parts of the east of the country was a "real disaster".

He said: "Half of Donetsk province and one third of Luhansk province is a zone of war."

"There are no banks open. No pensions are being paid. There is no water, electricity. Lots of people with weapons are on the streets. People are afraid to go outside."

He said that in areas controlled by Kiev – some 87% of the country – by contrast, life was entirely calm.

"Within 2km from our checkpoints it's normal life. It's peace. It's calm."

Poroshenko conceded that it was impossible to win back the east using military force alone.

His strategy had other components, he said.

It included constitutional changes to decentralise power, guarantees for Russian speakers, and the rebuilding of houses and other infrastructure damaged by fighting from state funds.

He also wanted to create jobs and renew traditional industries.

All this was impossible to do, he recognised, while "there was a war going on" and with rebels in control of key towns.

At one point Kiev lost control of 280km (174mi) of its border with Russia, he said.

He said a "significant part" was now back under "our control" but that "many tanks and artillery systems" had already crossed from Russia.

These were now in separatist hands, he added.

Looking pained, Poroshenko talked of the price his country was paying to try and defend its unity and integrity.

"If every day Ukraine pays with several lives of Ukrainian soldiers, with several injured, this is not a peace plan. This is not a ceasefire. We just block the operation of our army and they do what they want."

Source: The Guardian

Ukraine Troops Killed In Fresh Attack In East

KIEV, Ukraine -- Three members of the Ukrainian military have been killed after pro-Russian separatists attacked their post near the eastern flashpoint city of Slavyansk with small arms and mortar fire, a military spokesman said.

The reported attack on the post manned by members of the government's "anti-terrorist operation" took place on Saturday despite a government ceasefire, which was extended on Friday until Monday night.

"As a result of the fighters shooting at the post near Slavyansk, three members of the Ukrainian forces were killed and a fourth was wounded," a military spokesman, Oleksiy Dmitrashkovsky, told the Interfax news agency.

Hours after the attack, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk had released four of the group's monitors held since the end of May.

Two groups of unarmed observers from the European security organisation, totalling eight international monitors and a Ukrainian translator, were captured at roadblocks three days apart in late May.

But the second team seized on May 29 in the neighbouring Luhansk province appeared to have been abducted by a different group and negotiations for their release are ongoing.

The latest violence in Slavyansk came a day after four soldiers were killed and five wounded as Ukraine's military regained control of a checkpoint in the eastern region of Donetsk that had been earlier taken over by separatists.

Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko, announced the extension on Friday night, partly at the urging of some European leaders, after returning to Kiev from an EU summit in Brussels where he signed an association agreement.

The ceasefire extension was announced in line with a deadline set by EU leaders for rebels to agree to disarm, return border checkpoints to Kiev authorities and free hostages, including the OSCE monitors.

Poroshenko also called on Russia to close centres being used to recruit separatist volunteers on its side of the border.

The one-week truce had been due to expire on Friday at 7pm GMT, and will now expire at 7pm GMT on June 30, according to the presidential website.

Source: Al Jazeera Europe

Saturday, June 28, 2014

US Encouraging Ukraine Into Confrontation - Russian Foreign Minister

KIEV, Ukraine -- Russia's foreign minister has accused the United States of encouraging Ukraine to challenge Moscow and heavily weighing in on the European Union.

Russia's stern-faced Lavrov

Speaking in televised remarks, Sergey Lavrov said that "our American colleagues still prefer to push the Ukrainian leadership toward a confrontational path."

He added that chances for settling the Ukrainian crisis would have been higher if it only depended on Russia and Europe.

Lavrov spoke after the European Union summit, which decided not to immediately impose new sanctions on Russia for destabilizing eastern Ukraine, but gave the Russian government and pro-Russian insurgents there until Monday to take steps to improve the situation.

Ukraine has signed a free-trade pact with the EU, the very deal that angered Russia and triggered the bloodshed and political convulsions of the past seven months that brought Russia-West relations to their lowest point since the Cold War times.

In November, under pressure from Moscow, a former Ukrainian president dumped the EU pact, fueling huge protests that eventually drove him from power.

Moscow responded by annexing the mainly Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula in March, and pro-Russian separatists soon rose up in Ukraine's eastern provinces.

The US and the EU slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle and threatened to impose more crippling sanctions against entire sectors of Russia's economy if the Kremlin fails to de-escalate the crisis.

The EU leaders on Friday gave Russia and the rebels until Monday local time to take steps to ease the violence, including releasing all captives, retreating from border checkpoints, agreeing on a way to verify the cease-fire and launching "substantial negotiations" on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's peace plan.

The weeklong cease-fire, which both sides have been accused of violating, expired at 10 pm local time, but Mr Poroshenko quickly declared its extension until 10 pm local time Monday.

Lavrov has acknowledged that Russia has some leverage with the rebels, pointing at their move this week to release four observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe after weeks of captivity, but claimed that Moscow's influence is limited.

Source: AP

Europe, Backed By U.S., Give Russia Deadline On Ukraine

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Europe, backed by the U.S., on Friday gave Russia 72 hours to take concrete steps to calm tensions in Ukraine or face further sanctions, as Ukraine's president extended a shaky cease-fire that was about to expire.

Ukraine's President Poroshenko (C) poses with European Union officials Friday in Brussels.

The moves came after the European Union signed broad trade-and-political agreements with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, pushing the bloc's influence eastward but potentially deepening strains with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

The pacts, which lower trade barriers and aim to promote democratic reforms, were years in the making but faced doubts recently as Moscow sought to reassert its influence in the former Soviet republics.

It was former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's decision not to sign the EU agreement in November that sparked the huge pro-Western protests that eventually led to his ouster.

That in turn sparked unrest in parts of eastern Ukraine including the Crimean peninsula, which Russia quickly annexed.

Ukraine's new President Petro Poroshenko announced a weeklong cease-fire on June 20, a step that was to lead to talks on his plan to end the insurrection.

After signing the trade pact Friday in Brussels, he said it would be impossible for Ukraine to maintain the cease-fire much longer if the pro-Russia separatists, as well as Moscow, continued to ignore his peace push and launch attacks.

Early Saturday, after conferring with his security advisers back in Kiev, Mr. Poroshenko announced that he had decided to extend the cease-fire by 72 hours, to Monday night.

By then, Mr. Poroshenko said on the presidential website that he expected the four steps spelled out earlier in Brussels by European leaders for avoiding new sanctions would be met.

They include establishing "effective control of the border" with independent monitors, the release of hostages and the launch of peace talks.

"Ukraine reserves the right to suspend the cease-fire early if there is any use of force or a failure to follow these conditions," the presidential statement said.

The White House later endorsed the four steps.

"Failing to take them only increases the likelihood that additional economic costs will be imposed" on Russia, press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama on Air Force One.

The EU leaders said they would assess the situation next week and would impose fresh sanctions "should it be required."

That is likely to include adding names to the current list of individual Russian or separatist officials slapped with asset freezes and visa bans, EU officials said.

Russian firms could also be targeted, on top of the two Crimea-based companies already listed.

The leaders warned they were prepared to come back "at any time" and impose broader sanctions on Russia if the situation doesn't improve.

Mr. Earnest said the U.S. wasn't prepared to draw a "clear line" between meeting the four demands and imposing new sanctions, but added that the U.S. has shown "a clear willingness to act in concert with our partners and allies to further isolate Russia."

Several officials said the Ukrainian leader's arguments played a key role in shaping the EU sanctions threat, which was much tougher than had been expected.

"Until now Russia [is] doing nothing" to help the cease-fire, Mr. Poroshenko said in Brussels.

"Can you imagine? We declare a cease-fire and they send tanks."

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of sending heavy weaponry and fighters across the porous border to join the rebels—a charge Moscow has denied.

Earlier Friday, Mr. Putin called for a "long term cease-fire as a necessary condition for holding in-depth talks."

Rebel leader Alexander Borodai, after meeting with government representatives Friday, said his group was ready to extend the cease-fire, but wouldn't agree to cede control of border posts they have seized.

He also said that the talks with Kiev would be possible only if Ukraine withdraws all security forces from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where the fighting has been concentrated.

Friday's talks followed another night of clashes in the Donetsk region, with the government saying militants killed five soldiers and wounded several more.

Each side has accused the other of instigating violence.

However, the separatists did free four observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Friday after holding them for more than a month.

A second team of observers captured on May 29 in eastern Ukraine hasn't been released, although Mr. Borodai promised the observers would be soon.

Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency said that 110,000 Ukrainians have fled to Russia to escape the fighting, with tens of thousands more having been internally displaced.

In Brussels, Mr. Poroshenko said he had "a full understanding that this war is impossible to win just by military means."

"We should fight for the hearts and the brains of the people" in the east, he said.

He accused the separatists of being under Moscow's "direct control."

By signing the agreements with Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, EU leaders hoped to show they won't let a newly aggressive Russia deter them from welcoming countries into the European orbit.

The leaders of the three countries said the agreements are a pivotal step in aligning their countries permanently with Europe.

But the Kremlin has made it clear it sees the deals as a threat to its rightful sphere of influence.

Russia's Foreign Ministry reiterated Friday that the signing of the pacts will have serious consequences for those countries' relations with Russia, although it didn't say what.

The deals are part of an eastward-looking EU strategy launched in 2009, with an EU-Ukraine agreement always the centerpiece.

Azerbaijan, Belarus and Armenia turned down similar bilateral pacts.

EU leaders have insisted that efforts to strengthen ties with their eastern neighbors weren't intended to isolate Moscow.

"There is nothing in these agreements, nor in the European Union's approach, that might harm Russia in any way," European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said Friday.

Russia fought a war against Georgia in 2008, and still occupies the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In Moldova, Russia has significant influence over the separatist region of Transnistria, where it has stationed thousands of troops.

In Washington, the State Department offered congratulations to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine for signing the agreements, saying that they mark "a major step toward integrating these Eastern Partnership countries more closely with the European Union and realizing a Europe whole, free, and at peace."

Source: Wall Street Journal

More Than 50,000 Displaced By Turmoil In Ukraine - UN

KIEV, Ukraine -- The number of people displaced internally by the turmoil in Ukraine has reached 54,400 with 16,400 fleeing fighting last week alone, the UN says.

Children playing in the administrative headquarters of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in Donetsk, as they wait to be allowed to leave the region earlier this month.

A further 110,000 people left Ukraine for Russia this year, most of them from eastern regions, though only 9,500 sought official refugee status there.

A truce declared by Ukraine a week ago due to expire in the east, on Friday was extended by President Poroshenko, for three more days, until Monday.

Deadly fighting has continued during the ceasefire between pro-Russian separatist rebels and troops. 

Hundreds of civilians and combatants have been killed since mid-April.

The separatist leadership in Donetsk has said that around 800 of its fighters and around 250 civilians have been killed in that region and the neighbouring region of Luhansk, in what is believed to be the first overall death toll given by the rebels.

At the scene: Steve Rosenberg, BBC News, Moscow 

At one crossing point I visited on the Russian-Ukrainian border, Russia's emergency situations ministry had set up tents for people fleeing the violence.

Some of the people I spoke to said they planned to travel on to other parts of Russia to stay with relatives.

Others were in need of temporary accommodation in hotels, hostels and summer camps.

Most were hoping to return home when it became safe to do so.

People were deeply shocked that eastern Ukraine had been transformed, in such a short space of time, from a peaceful region into a battleground.

Kiev accuses Russia of doing that, through its backing for the pro-Russia armed separatists.

Many of the civilians I spoke to were critical of the Ukrainian security forces for shelling towns and villages.

That does not mean they support the idea of Donetsk and Luhansk regions breaking away from Ukraine.

Last week, the UN estimated that at least 356 people, including 257 civilians, had been killed in eastern Ukraine since 7 May.

'Sharp rise' 

The UN figures cover people displaced both as a result of Russia's relatively bloodless annexation of Crimea in March and the fighting in eastern Ukraine. 

Speaking in Geneva, UN refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said: "We are seeing a sharp rise in [internal] displacement in Ukraine."

Apart from those Ukrainians who went to Russia, some 700 others went to Poland, Belarus, the Czech Republic and Romania, she said.

Russia has been accused of fanning the insurrection in the east by allowing pro-separatist fighters and military supplies to cross its borders into Donetsk and Luhansk - a charge it denies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said a "real humanitarian catastrophe" was unfolding in eastern Ukraine.

He accused the new Ukrainian authorities of splitting the country with its decision to seek closer ties to the EU, signing a historic association agreement in Brussels on Friday.

Five dead 

Some towns and villages in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukraine's industrial heartland, have come under heavy bombardment during the conflict as government forces seek to break the rebels' hold.

The rebel casualty figures were given at a news conference by Andrei Purgin, first deputy prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic.

Five Ukrainian soldiers were killed in fighting on Thursday night in Donetsk region, the army confirmed.

The rebels confirmed they had launched an attack near Kramatorsk airport.

Source: BBC News Europe

Ukraine's Secret Weapon: Feisty Oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine -- Leaning over a map of eastern Ukraine on his desk, Gennady Korban gripped a ballpoint pen and drew a squiggling blue line down its center.

Ihor Kolomoisky, a billionaire banking tycoon recently appointed governor of Dnipropetrovsk region in eastern Ukraine.

The border, he said, marked the battlefront in his country's war with pro-Russia separatists.

One side was stable, rid of "troublemakers," he said.

On the other are "maniacs," he said.

"Men without families, who don't want families, they just like war."

If they cross over the line, he said, "we'll just have to kill them."

He called the border "Kolomoisky's line"—after his billionaire boss, who is emerging as one of the more unlikely protagonists to emerge from Ukraine's fight for survival. 

When its high-profile conflict with Russia began, the fledgling government in Kiev was caught flat-footed, with an army with little fighting experience or funding.

Enter Ihor Kolomoisky, a 51-year-old outspoken banking tycoon.

Now recently appointed by the country's president as governor of Dnipropetrovsk region in eastern Ukraine, he has decided to dip into his fortune to bolster that army and defend the homeland.

So far, that has included buying tires, car batteries and fuel for army units, as well outfitting local militias.

He also announced a program to buy up contraband weapons and offer a $10,000 bounty for any pro-Russia militant captured with a gun.

Without disclosing numbers, Mr. Kolomoisky's deputies call the program a success, though they say a few drunks have tried to turn in some compatriots for reward. 

Notable for having a massive shark aquarium in his office, Mr. Kolomoisky has arrived on the scene as the conflict with Russia drags into its fourth month.

On Friday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko extended a week-long cease-fire with pro-Russia fighters until Monday night.

Certainly the country, with a dire shortage of battle-ready troops, could use a billionaire's backing—and this particular one has no shortage of ideas.

Earlier this month, he announced a plan to build a 1,200-mile electrified fence spanning the border of Russia and Ukraine.

But critics question Mr. Kolomoisky's motives, pointing out that he and other oligarchs in Ukraine may have more financial than altruistic reasons for maintaining the status quo.

For years now, critics say, the oligarchs' powerful influence over many industries have blocked economic reforms in a country that has one of Europe's lowest average per capita incomes.

"These are precisely the opposite of the sorts of people would you want to appoint" as governors, said Mark Kramer, professor of Cold War studies at Harvard University.

"It's hard for me to see why those who fought for change in Ukraine would want such people in charge."

To oversee military operations, Mr. Kolomoisky appointed Mr. Korban, who describes himself as a conflict manager in hostile corporate takeovers.

In widely reported incidents, Mr. Korban narrowly escaped two assassination attempts during his career—when his car was machine-gunned and when someone planted a bomb under a table.

"I know one thing, we can only win this war with a real army," said Mr. Korban.

But, he said, until the army is ready for an offensive, he and Mr. Kolomoisky are taking temporary measures.

In a rare interview, Mr. Kolomoisky declined to say how much he is spending personally to build up what his aides call the "Kolomoisky army," but experts estimate it is about $10 million a month just to fund the salaries of militia and police units, some of whom technically report to Ukraine's army and interior ministry.

His province now has close to 2,000 battle-ready troops in the field, his aides say.

By comparison, Ukraine's army had only 6,000 through the entire country when Russia took control of the Crimean peninsula earlier this year.

For their part, Ukraine government officials say they are happy to have his help.

Mr. Kolomoisky didn't address any specific criticism about him, but did say his job as governor has mainly hurt, not helped, his business interests.

Still, Privat Bank, the bank he controls, could stand to gain from aid being pumped into Ukraine that will partly be used to recapitalize the country's banks regardless of the Russian threat.

This spring, for example, the International Monetary Fund approved $17 billion in aid to Ukraine, and the World Bank and Group of Seven leading nations plan to pump in another $15 billion soon.

A rotund man who is fond of home-cooked meals, Mr. Kolomoisky said he had been directing his businesses from a home in Switzerland, but returned to Ukraine in March to take the governor's job.

He said he is ready to quit it as soon as the threat of pro-Russia separatism subsides in Ukraine.

He took the governor's post, he said, on principle to oppose Russia's policy of bullying Ukraine away from closer ties to Europe.

He said he believes along with most Ukrainians that the country must follow the development of European countries that had been under Moscow's heel as members of the Warsaw Pact.

"It would have been possible to have warmer relations with Russia, but I'm not going to sacrifice my principles for it," he said.

"I'm a die-hard European."

He described the rise of oligarchs like himself in Ukraine as a natural stage in the transition of some countries to democracy, similar to the rubber barons of the U.S. at the beginning of the 1900s.

Today, a handful of tycoons control most of the heavy industries and media of Ukraine.

But Mr. Kolomoisky said he hopes such oligarchs will ultimately disappear as a class.

Not one to mince words, the tycoon quickly drew attention when he took office, saying in his first local television appearance that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a "schizophrenic of short stature" and was "completely incapable, totally insane."

Mr. Putin, who stands 5 feet 7 inches, shot back, calling Mr. Kolomoisky a "unique impostor" and expressing amazement that "such a scoundrel could be appointed governor."

Russian authorities then put the Moscow subsidiary of Mr. Kolomoisky's Privat Bank under temporary administration, saying it was having liquidity problems.

The unit was sold to a Russian company, protecting customers.

Mr. Kolomoisky's acquaintances say he never showed much interest in politics, but he did like to make money.

In Ukraine's loosely regulated market, he thrived as a pioneer with aggressive takeover tactics such as getting obscure provincial courts to change a company's share registrar, or hiring armed guards to seize company offices, said Tom Warner, a former Ukraine analyst for Sito Capital, an emerging markets fund manager.

Mr. Korban, the billionaire's takeover manager, says all of these tactics were legal.

"In the rest of the world it's called mergers and acquisitions," he said.

About 10 years after founding with some friends Privat Bank, and expanding his empire into numerous businesses, Mr. Kolomoisky began in 2000 to think about raising his political profile.

Dmitry Vydrin, a political consultant from Kiev, said Mr. Kolomoisky invited him for a chat in his office in Dnipropetrovsk, where the banking magnate listened, but also periodically pressed a button on a remote-control box on his desk that dropped crayfish meat to the sharks in his aquarium.

"It was unnerving," said Mr. Vydrin.

Mr. Kolomoisky steered clear of open party politics, but did acquire a nationally broadcast television station and a news service.

That "has more influence than having a party in parliament," Mr. Korban explained to a Ukrainian newspaper in 2007.

In the interview, Mr. Kolomoisky said he and his partners never offered any financial support to protesters before the president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted, but he did support them through his television channel.

He said discussions about becoming governor started in January—the month before the president fled—but declined to say whom they were with.

By the time he arrived in the governor's office, pro-Russia groups were seizing control of government buildings in nearby provinces, and moving to do the same in Dnipropetrovsk.

He moved quickly on several fronts, said a deputy governor, Boris Filatov.

Mr. Filatov said he was assigned to defuse tensions by holding meetings with various political groups and listening to their complaints.

He and Mr. Kolomoisky met with veterans groups and promised more patriotic education in the schools, and with Communists, to whom he promised to pay respects to some historic monuments.

Local fascists "wanted to do more sports," Mr. Filatov said.

"So we gave them gyms."

As Mr. Filatov tells it, pro-Russia demonstrations in the city at first drew about 1,500 people, but soon their numbers dwindled to 500, then 300, "and soon there weren't any meetings at all."

Critics of Mr. Kolomoisky said there was a more brutal campaign behind the scenes.

Viktor Marchenko led meetings of his local chapter of Union of Soviet Officers, clamoring for a return to Soviet borders, until some unidentified men punched him in the head at one event, he said.

He blamed Mr. Kolomoisky, who is Jewish, and said "there will be consequences" for the Jewish community one day.

The tycoon didn't discuss the incident in the interview. 

Oleg Tsarev, a local pro-Russia parliament member, also led some meetings, but left Ukraine after he was beaten by a mob in Kiev.

After decamping to Moscow he received a phone call from Mr. Kolomoisky, a recording of which was posted on the Internet.

In a conversation laced with invective, Mr. Kolomoisky told him that a Jewish soldier from the Dnipro Battalion had been killed in fighting and that members of the Jewish community had put a reward of a million dollars on Tsarev's head.

"They will be looking for you everywhere," Mr. Kolomoisky said.

"Don't go anywhere."

Mr. Kolomoisky confirmed the tape was real.

Mr. Korban said there was nothing wrong with the phone call.

"He was just giving him his opinion, he wasn't threatening him," Mr. Korban said. 

Mr. Korban said business contacts from Privat Group, an informal nebula of companies controlled by Mr. Kolomoisky and his partners, have been useful in supplying the army and militia units, allowing him to contact heads of major local chains to cut deals for military supplies.

The tycoon's team also funneled volunteers into a local militia, called the Dnipro Battalion, that were outfitted with gray SUVs and new uniforms.

More lightly armed militias were cobbled together as well, to man checkpoints around the province.

Today the Dnipro Battalion has not only the 2,000 battle-ready troops, equipped with heavy weapons, but more than 20,000 in reserve.

If any Russian soldier wants to die for Russia, said Yury Beryoza, the commander of the battalion, "they should come to Dnipropetrovsk, because here we will kill them." 

The Dnipro Batallion saw its first major action when separatists took control of a police station in the port city of Mariupol, in an adjacent province.

The station was burned to the ground with its occupants.

In all, 54 volunteers from Dnipropetrovsk have been killed since the beginning of the fighting.

Mr. Korban said Dnipropetrovsk is expanding the borders of its influence, with regional militias taking over four regions inside the adjacent province of Donetsk and installing regional administration heads who are friendly to Mr. Kolomoisky.

Mr. Korban called it a "buffer zone" and said they were prepared to take four more regions.

He said Mr. Kolomoisky has brought in Romanian and Georgian military advisers to help with the training of troops, who in the Dnipro Battallion until recently only had a week of boot camp.

He also invited Georgia's former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, to visit and bring some of his former advisers to help them streamline the bureaucracy of the Dnipropetrovsk government.

Mr. Saakashvili, whose country was invaded in 2008 after years of cross-border altercations with Russia, said he spent two days in Dnipropetrovsk last month, and said the situation looked a lot like Georgia's before the war.

He said that Mr. Putin was able to seize Crimea and destabilize eastern provinces by acting quickly, but that Mr. Kolomoisky appears to have halted his progress by moving faster than anyone expected.

As an oligarch who has insulted Mr. Putin's height "he is really everything that Putin hates," said Mr. Saakashvili, who believes now that Mr. Kolomoisky's appearance is a bad development for the Russian leader.

"I used to think that I was Putin's No. 1 enemy," he said, "but now I think an oligarch just pushed me aside."

Source: Wall Street Journal

Friday, June 27, 2014

Ukraine Signs Historic EU Deal That Sparked Months Of Upheaval

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed an association agreement with the European Union on Friday, the same deal whose reversal set off a crisis in the nation.

President Petro Poroshenko being interviewed by CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

His predecessor's decision to shun the deal last year and work with Russia instead unleashed deadly strife that led to the ouster of the nation's President, the loss of Crimea and a pro-Russia separatist rebellion.

Sealing the deal may be the second-most important moment in Ukraine's history, Poroshenko said, after its independence from Russia.

Poroshenko said the signing "shows how dramatically things can change in a short time, if the will of the people is strong enough."

And he paid tribute, on what he described as a "great day" in the nation's history, to Ukrainians who lost their lives when protests over closer ties with Europe turned bloody.

"The document we will sign today is not just political and economic, it is a symbol of faith and unbreakable will," he said.

"It is a tribute to people who gave their lives and health to make this moment happen and it is the strongest reminder that today's Europe must and will be about people's determination to live in a better and safer world."

Poroshenko said that in signing the association agreement, he was making the unilateral statement that his country has underlined its choice of future membership in the European Union.

And he signaled to Russia that its efforts to undermine the closer unification of Europe would fail in the face of Ukraine's determination to pursue its European dreams.

He used the same pen intended for use in November, before former President Viktor Yanukovych turned his back on the agreement in favor of closer ties with Moscow.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Russian state TV that signature of the agreement is a "sovereign right" but that "Russia will undertake its measures."

Van Rompuy: Security, stability, prosperity 

The EU-Ukraine Association Agreement calls for a free trade zone and for Ukraine to adhere to European values such as democracy and human rights.

It will allow for the country to participate in common border protection and security processes.

In remarks before the signing, the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, also remembered those who died in Ukraine.

"In Kiev and elsewhere, people gave their lives for this closer link to the European Union," he said.

"We will not forget this."

Van Rompuy said that closer political and economic ties would bring greater security, stability and prosperity to Ukraine and the two other former Soviet states also signing EU Association Agreements on Friday, Georgia and Moldova.

"Our joint goal is your full integration into the market of the European Union," Van Rompuy told the three leaders, adding that they must push forward with necessary reforms.

He also expressed the solidarity of the European Union with the three nations in the face of Ukraine's "very difficult" security situation, and the "uncertainties" looming over Georgia and Moldova's relationships with Russia.

At the same time, he stressed that Russia had nothing to fear from those nations' closer ties with Europe, adding that the European Union would engage with Russia to work for peace.

Escalating conflict? 

As Ukraine's government works to quell the violence in the country's east, Poroshenko said Thursday that negotiations with Russian separatists in that area will continue Friday, the day his unilaterally declared cease-fire expires.

Peace is possible if Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the right mood, he said.

"Sometimes, the position of Mr. Putin is quite pragmatic, sometimes it is very emotional," Poroshenko told CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Thursday in an exclusive interview.

"I just try to find out the time when he is more pragmatic than emotional."

The talks are intended to end fighting that threatens to escalate into a broader conflict.

"I am optimistic and I'm thinking that within a few weeks, maybe months, we can have a deal to establish peace," Poroshenko said from Brussels.

Putin has agreed to negotiations that will include an EU representative, Poroshenko said.

"We do not expect any immediate negative reaction," he said.

"I'm ready to make a peace deal with anybody," he said.

He is also ready to fight if necessary, but said, "I hate the idea not to use the last opportunity to bring the peace to the region."

At the same time, he made clear that in his mind, the Russian annexation of Crimea -- which has an ethnic Russian majority -- cannot stand.

Crimea is Ukrainian, he said.

He made the same point in his remarks Friday, when he said that "all Ukraine, including Crimea" will be associated with the European Union.

Russia and Ukraine have been engaged in a tense standoff since the annexation in March, when Russia also massed troops along its western border with Ukraine.

Cease-fire running out 

Despite Poroshenko's cease-fire declared last week, violence continues.

On Thursday, a Ukrainian national guard base came under attack in Donetsk, Anti-Terrorist Operation unit spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said.

Ukrainian troops were able to repel the attack, but were bracing for another assault.

Two days earlier, Ukrainian authorities said pro-Russia militants shot down a military helicopter in eastern Ukraine, killing nine.

Friday's negotiations must show some progress before his unilateral cease-fire expires at the end of the day, the President said.

He seeks a commitment to negotiations, the release of hostages, a mutual cease-fire and the withdrawal of Russian-backed forces from Ukraine.
"All the troops on Ukrainian territory are Russian, they are Russian citizens," he alleged, adding that separatist leaders were from the Russian secret service.

"If that continues, it is a real war."

Putin has shown signs of detente.

On Wednesday, Russia's upper house of parliament voted, at his request, to revoke the President's right to use troops in Ukraine.

Poroshenko said the Russian President recently vowed not to take economic revenge for the move of the former Soviet satellite state toward the West.

Source: CNN World

Ukraine: Putin Aide Brands Poroshenko 'Nazi' Ahead Of EU Deal

KIEV, Ukraine -- A senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin has lashed out at Ukraine's president ahead of the signing of a controversial EU deal.

Adviser to Vladimir Putin Sergei Glazyev says Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is a Nazi.

Sergei Glazyev said Petro Poroshenko was a "Nazi" and his endorsement of the deal was "illegitimate".

Mr Poroshenko is expected to sign the full association agreement at the EU summit in Brussels later today.

A shaky ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels are fighting government forces, is also due to end.

The pact - which would bind Ukraine more closely to the West both economically and politically - is at the heart of the crisis in the country and is strongly opposed by Russia.

Mr Poroshenko's predecessor Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the deal and protests led to his overthrow.

After this, Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region and pro-Russia separatists in eastern regions declared independence, claiming that extremists had taken power in Kiev.

In another development early on Friday, rebels released four international observers captured more than a month ago.

Alexander Borodai, head of the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic, said the members of the Vienna-based Organisation for the Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) had been freed as a goodwill gesture.

"We don't expect anything in return - we freed them without any pre-conditions," he said.

The OSCE said it remains concerned about four other observers captured at about the same time.

'Historic day' 

Political parts of the association agreement, aimed at forging closer ties with the EU, were signed by Ukraine's interim government in March.

Mr Poroshenko previously announced he would sign the crucial trade and economic relations portion of the pact on Friday, along with Georgia and Moldova.

And on his arrival in Brussels, he hailed "a historic day, the most important day since independence" in 1991 which offered his country "an absolutely new perspective". 

But earlier Mr Glazyev, Mr Putin's presidential adviser on regional economic integration, told the BBC:
"Europe is trying to push Ukraine to sign this agreement by force. They organised [a] military coup in Ukraine, they helped Nazis to come to power. This Nazi government is bombing the largest region in Ukraine."
Asked if he believed Mr Poroshenko was a Nazi he replied: "Of course."

Analysis: Steve Rosenberg, BBC News Moscow 

Sergei Glazyev is not an official presidential spokesman but it's still an astonishing outburst from a man who is a senior presidential adviser, and it reflects the general feeling of irritation or anger in Moscow that Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are signing historic free trade deals today with the EU.

Moscow has economic concerns here.

Russia fears that once the free trade deals are signed then European companies could use Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to flood Russia with cheaper goods, hitting Russian manufacturers.

More pressing for Moscow are the geopolitical concerns here - the whole idea of former Soviet states, countries that Moscow still views as being within its sphere of influence, drifting towards Europe and one day possibly becoming part of the EU - that really grates with Moscow, particularly in the case of Ukraine.

"I think after the signing of the agreement with EU, [the] European public will be... surprised when this Nazi Frankenstein, which was born by the Euro bureaucrats and some politicians, will knock on the European countries' doors," he said.

He said Mr Poroshenko was an "illegitimate" president because parts of Ukraine did not vote in May's elections.

His claims come despite President Putin engaging with the Ukrainian leader on peace negotiations.

He also said that Mr Poroshenko had no constitutional right to sign the treaty, which would damage the Ukrainian economy.

Free trade with the EU would come at the expense of free trade with Russia, he added, and Ukrainian goods did not conform to European technical standards. 

Fighting is said to have continued in some areas of eastern Ukraine despite a temporary ceasefire this week.

Talks on extending the truce in in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are also set to take place on Friday. 

More than 420 people have been killed in fighting between pro-Russia rebels and government forces in eastern Ukraine since mid-April, the UN estimates.

Russia denies it has allowed militants and heavy weaponry to cross its border into eastern Ukraine.

The US and EU are threatening to impose further sanctions if Russia does not act to defuse the situation.

Source: BBC News Europe

Russia Pressures Moldova And Ukraine Ahead Of Signing Of E.U. Association Agreement

CHISINAU, Moldova -- A new showdown is looming over former Soviet states’ ties to Europe — the same trigger that has ignited months of violence in Ukraine.

Members and supporters of the Socialist Party of Moldova protest against the Association Agreement between Moldova and E.U. in front of the US Embassy in Chisinau, Moldova on June 25.

With some of those states planning to sign a landmark deal Friday that will draw them closer to the European Union, the Kremlin is beaming out urgent warnings about the consequences.

Russia has said it will flex its considerable muscle to squeeze any nation in the former Soviet orbit that seeks a future with Europe.

Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are facing intense pressure ahead of the deal’s signing, including threats of export bans and tightened immigration rules, as well as the specter of strengthened separatist movements.

But the warnings may be backfiring, with leaders in all three countries saying Moscow’s ominous tone demonstrates more than ever why they need to pick a different path.

In Moldova — where decaying 19th-century mansions in the capital, Chisinau, testify to the once-grand heritage of Europe’s now-poorest nation — leaders say they are committed to the agreement, even if it makes their nation more impoverished in the short term in the event of a Russian backlash.

Many in this rural country, where annual economic output amounts to $3,800 per person, expect Moscow to follow through on warnings that it will ban Moldovan crop exports and expel some of Moldova’s large expatriate population in Russia.

Many officials also worry that pro-Russian separatist movements will be energized in breakaway regions of this nation of 3.6 million people.

Russia’s threats have hardly been subtle.

After a visit in May to the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin threatened to return in a plane armed with nuclear weaponry after his official jet had difficulty securing airspace permissions for his return flight.

Last year, ahead of winter, Rogozin told Moldovans that “I hope you don’t freeze,” a reference to their country’s complete dependence on Russian natural gas, which is used for heating and which Moscow has sometimes cut off during political disputes. 

And in September, Russia declared that Moldovan wines did not meet Russian food-safety standards, removing access to a major export market for a key Moldovan industry.

Wines from pro-Russian autonomous regions of Moldova have been deemed safe for Russian palates, however.

Many Moldovans are convinced that the apples and grapes that grow on their nation’s gently rolling hills are the next targets.

Russia is their main export market, and E.U. regulations will keep most of the fruits out of Europe even after the agreement is signed.

Moldovan leaders, elected in 2009 on a pro-European platform, have said that after 23 years of post-Soviet life within Russia’s orbit, they are not convinced that they are the better for it.

“Since Moldova’s independence, it became, unfortunately, the poorest country in Europe, with the lowest salaries and pensions, with the highest gas prices,” Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti said in an interview.

So, he said, “there are advantages and disadvantages” to being a member of the Russia-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States, an association of former Soviet republics.

The Moldovan public is evenly split in its support for building ties with the E.U., opinion polls show, and politicians say they want to maintain relations with Russia as well.

Overall, 26 percent of Moldova’s exports go to Russia and 47 percent to the European Union.

“We don’t want to protect ourselves from Russia. We believe that our relationship with Russia should be developed with the respect of sovereignty. Our interest is one thing — to develop Moldova,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Iulian Groza.

“But we don’t believe that by constraint you can force someone to marry you,” he added, alluding to Russia’s attempts to keep its neighbors at its side.

Fears of an outright Russian invasion have eased since March and April, when 40,000 Russian troops massed along the border with Ukraine.

As Russian troops seized Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea region, there were concerns that they could roll forward.

Officials in Chisinau say they expect newly vigorous agitation from Transnistria, a Soviet throwback where a massive granite statue of Lenin stands in front of the main government building and a hammer and a sickle adorn the flag.

New aquamarine public buses donated by Russia ply the streets of Transnistria’s capital, Tiraspol, bearing brightly colored slogans that pledge, “Into the future, together with Russia.”

Groza and others said they hoped that bolstered E.U. ties also pull Transnistrians westward.

As of mid-April, Moldovans can travel visa-free to the E.U.

Transnistria residents who have Moldovan passports also will benefit.

The upheaval in the former Soviet world started late last year, when Russia began campaigning against former Soviet republics signing the package of economic, trade and political deals with the E.U. known as the Association Agreement, the first step toward membership to the bloc.

Russia persuaded Armenia to pull out of its E.U. discussions in September.

Then it turned its attention to Ukraine, where President Viktor Yanukovych in November reversed course on plans to sign the agreement.

That set off pro-European protests in Kiev and eventually led to Yanukovych’s ouster in February.

But Russia’s moves have spurred neighbors to reorient westward even more quickly than they were contemplating.

The deal-signing date for Moldova and Georgia was pushed up to June.

Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, said he wanted to sign at the same time. 

Other countries with close ties to Russia also have become more cautious about binding themselves to their neighbor.

Belarus and Kazakhstan signed a treaty in May establishing the Eurasian Union, Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s signature attempt to build a Russian-led counterweight to the European Union, but it contains fewer provisions for political integration than he had initially sought.

“Russian behavior is irrational. If Russia wants to be able to promote more civilized policy, it had the chance to keep these territories in some soft, non­aggressive manner,” said Oazu Nantoi, an analyst at the Chisinau-based Institute for Public Policy.

Russian diplomats have logged many air miles in recent weeks visiting neighbors, including Moldova, to make a last-minute push to preserve relations with Moscow.

Russia hopes to minimize the “negative impacts” of Moldova’s new E.U. ties, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said during a visit to Chisinau this month.

In Moldova, some in business say that the Russian threats are an impetus for them to modernize in a way they never needed to after the Soviet Union’s breakup.

“If Russia were going very well, there wouldn’t have been a logical need to change anything,” said wine producer Sergiu Galusca, who hopes to find customers for the high-quality wines he aspires to sell in the West.

“But that model of business ended.”

Source: The Washington Post

A Day With Ukraine’s Ragtag Volunteer Fighters

KIEV, Ukraine -- Turmoil in eastern Ukraine has continued despite Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s offer of a cease-fire to pro-Russian rebels, with both sides accusing each other of violating it.

Members of volunteer battalion from Donbas take part in military exercises on the shooting range of Ukrainian National guards.

At least 11 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the June 23 cease-fire.

Perhaps alarmed by the prospect of punitive sanctions by the United States and the European Union, on June 25 the Russian parliament at the request of President Vladimir Putin rescinded the March 1 resolution that authorized him to intervene militarily in defense of Russian speakers in Ukraine and other non-Russian states. 

Putin’s actions may also have been motivated by the Ukrainian armed forces’ successful counterattacks.

After several early setbacks, Ukraine’s counterterrorism operations in recent weeks have squeezed the insurgents into an area of about one-third of the Donbas region and regained control of much of the border with Russia.

Self-defense units comprising volunteers from the region, who have thrown in their lot with Ukraine in the ongoing struggle against pro-Russian rebels, have been instrumental in that offensive.

The volunteers come from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds (including Ukrainians, Russians, Jews and many others), possess a sincere commitment to a democratic, pro-Western Ukraine and share a remarkable interethnic Ukrainian patriotism.

One such unit is the Donbas Battalion.

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the battalion’s training camp outside Kiev as part of a small group of opinion-makers and experts on a three-day study tour sponsored by the NATO Information and Documentation Center in Kiev.

The visit brought home several points.

First, Ukrainians are determined to fight and retain their sovereignty.

Second, residents of the Donbas, generally considered indifferent to Ukraine, can be as patriotic as western Ukrainians.

Third, the interethnic patriotic sentiments suggest that Ukraine is witnessing the emergence of an all-inclusive polity.

These developments bode well for Ukraine’s future and portend a sad end for Putin’s imperialist adventures in the mineral-rich eastern region.

‘Glory to Ukraine’ 

The camp was located about 12 miles north of Ukraine’s capital, on the grounds of a National Guard base, about a mile south of former President Viktor Yanukovych’s lavish estate, now a popular museum that serves as a reminder of the vast scale of his regime’s corruption, venality and bad taste.

Guards met us at the gate and provided us with passes.

They asked that we refrain from photographing the soldiers:

They would not be wearing masks, we were told, and a carelessly taken photo could jeopardize the safety of their families, who remained in the Donbas.

Our guide, a Russian-speaking adviser to Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov, took us past Ukrainian-language billboards and several training grounds.

We reached a dusty clearing amid a pine forest where the battalion was assembled.

Several hundred men, ranging in age from their early 20s to mid-50s, stood at ease, wearing combat boots and various military fatigues.

They watched us gather around their legendary commander, an ethnic Russian businessman turned guerrilla fighter from Donetsk known by his nom de guerre, Semen Semenchenko.

I had seen photographs of him before, but he was always wearing a balaclava mask.

This time his face was fully exposed, and, expecting a formidable fighter, I was struck by his regular-guy appearance.

Avakov’s adviser said 800 people had volunteered for the battalion a few weeks ago.

But only 462 (including fewer than 20 women) had passed muster and been accepted into the unit.

They were now being trained and would shortly return to the Donbas to fight pro-Russian militants.

Avakov’s adviser then turned to the soldiers, thanked them for their patriotism and sacrifice — all in Russian — and assured them that, once the “terrorists” were defeated, they would all have jobs in the reconstituted and reformed Ministry of Internal Affairs.

A commander shouted, “Slava Ukraini!” (“Glory to Ukraine!”), and the soldiers responded with a thunderous “Heroyam slava!” (“Glory to the heroes!”).

These greetings were employed by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the anti-Soviet nationalist underground (largely confined to Ukraine’s western provinces), during and after World War II.

They were also widely used by the Euro-Maidan demonstrators during the protests that climaxed in February and have now become part of everyday discourse throughout the country.

We were encouraged to go and speak to the soldiers.

I approached a unit of 20 to 30 men and talked to them for about 15 minutes.

When I switched from Ukrainian to Russian, several assured me that they understood both languages.

“We speak Ukrainian, too,” said one of the soldiers.

“Why doesn’t the West do more to help Ukraine?” some of them asked.

“Doesn’t Europe understand that Putin is a threat to the world? Don’t the Europeans care about Putin’s assault on democracy in Ukraine?”

I told them that Europeans cared more about cheap energy from Russia.

“But,” I continued, “at least the Americans understand what your struggle represents.”

If that’s so, several responded, why doesn’t Washington provide them with real weapons?

“We don’t need American soldiers here,” said one of them.

“We can fight. We will fight. We need equipment. We need guns.”

Another soldier, this time a Ukrainian speaker, continued, “Tell Obama we need M-4 and M-5 rifles.”

As our group walked over grassy fields, I asked the soldier next to me where he was from.

Fox, a pseudonym, was an ethnic Russian from the city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, liberated from rebel control earlier this month.

“Back in 1991,” he told me in Russian, “independence just fell on us, and no one understood what it meant. It was only after Russia started a war against Ukraine that I realized that this is my country — that I love it. The same happened to the other guys.”

Fox’s wife and daughter are still in Mariupol.

“You know,” he said, “I raised my daughter as a Ukrainian. This is where you live, I told her, this is your home.”

He paused.

“When she asked me one day just why it’s dangerous for her to go outside in an embroidered Ukrainian blouse, I decided to join the battalion.”

“So this is a national liberation struggle for you and the others?” I asked.

 “Da,” he replied.

“We are all Ukrainian citizens, and this is our homeland. We’re not fascists, as the Russians say. We are fighting for our homeland. We’re Russians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Jews and many others.”

It occurred to me that I was in the presence of something Ukraine had never had: a Ukrainian nation whose identity and allegiance were based not on ethnicity but on patriotism.

A little later I saw a soldier in a skullcap leading Ukrainians and Russians in a training exercise.

“We all agreed on a dry law,” Fox told me about his troops’ exemplary discipline, “and everyone knows that drinking will be punished severely.”

As we entered his tent, I saw more than a dozen soldiers lounging about on their cots, their Kalashnikovs at their sides.

Fox introduced me as a professor from New York, but not one with two f’s, jokingly alluding to Yanukovych’s inability to spell “professor” correctly.

Fox then pointed to a soldier on his left:

“This one is a Ukrainian Bandera” (a reference to the controversial leader of the interwar nationalist movement, Stepan Bandera).

“And I’m a Russian Bandera, and that one is a Jewish Bandera.”

He explicitly used the term “zhidobandera” in reference to his Jewish comrade, the preferred self-designation of the Jewish Ukrainian oligarch and Dnipropetrovsk province governor, Igor Kolomoisky.

“We’re not fascists,” the Jewish Bandera said.

“We fight fascism.”

As we parted ways, Fox gave me a child’s crayon drawing of their camp, with “Heroyam slava!” emblazoned along the top.

Another soldier, who looked like a teenager, gave me a moving Russian-language poem about the vigilance of the Donbas Battalion.

A third soldier — a Russian speaker — handed me a black-and-red Ukrainian nationalist flag with a caricature of Putin sporting black hair and a small square mustache, which read “Putler Kaput.”

What does one say to volunteer soldiers who will soon be deployed to eastern Ukraine and could be killed in a few days?

I was tongue-tied, moved and confused.

But I was certain of one thing: Putin’s mercenaries would stand no chance against people who are defending their families, their homes and their newfound country.

(This article was written by Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.)

Source: Al Jazeera America