Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Ukrainians Say Russian Troops Captured Them In East Ukraine

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Two Ukrainian soldiers have offered new evidence of direct Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine, saying they were captured by Russian troops in a battle that became a turning point in the conflict.

Ukrainian servicemen take up position during fighting with pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian town of Ilovaysk on Aug 26, 2014.

Their testimony, given after being freed from a month's captivity, casts further doubt on Moscow's denials of Western accusations that it helped pro-Russian rebels stave off defeat last month by sending in soldiers and weapons from Russia.

The Russian Defense Ministry, contacted by phone on Monday, declined to comment on their remarks.

Stepping out of a bus on at dusk on Sunday during a prisoner exchange, Alexei Koshelenko said he was captured during heavy fighting on Aug. 24-25 near the town of Ilovaysk, east of the separatist stronghold of Donetsk.

He said his 93rd mechanized brigade was encircled and quickly overrun in the battle, in which forces loyal to the Kiev government suffered big losses.

"We were hit by (multiple rocket launcher) Grads and after that the troops just swept us away. We were completed defeated within 20 minutes. Many of us were killed, others are missing," Koshelenko told reporters.

"They were Russians," he said, standing among unshaven and exhausted-looking soldiers being counted before the swap was completed.

Referring to a city 300 km (200 miles) northeast of Moscow, he said: "They said they were an airborne assault battalion from Kostroma."

Koshelenko said his unit had initially confused the Russian soldiers for their own. 

"We got up in the morning on Aug. 25 and were fired on heavily from all sides. Tanks, APCs (armored personnel carriers) and infantry were attacking us. We thought we were in the rear, we thought they were ours ... The fire mowed down the woods," he said.

"Our troops retreated and it was Russians all around. We got captured. We ran out of ammunition, we simply ran out of ammunition."


Andrei Krupa, who was also among dozens of prisoners freed on a road north of Donetsk pockmarked by shrapnel and shelling, said his 51st mechanized brigade also suffered losses in the same battle.

Krupa, 21, said he was captured at 11 a.m. on Aug. 25 near the village of Dzerkalniy, 20 km (12 miles) south of Ilovaysk.

"They were Russian soldiers - soldiers from Kostroma, paratroopers," he said. 

Ukrainian media reports say hundreds of government soldiers were killed in the defeat at and around Ilovaysk, full details of which have still not been disclosed by the Kiev military.

Days later, President Petro Poroshenko accepted a ceasefire.

The rebels had looked on the verge of defeat in August, four months after they rose up against Kiev's rule, but the tide of the war turned with what Kiev and the West say was an injection of Russian troops and weapons in late August.

The separatists' top leader and a prominent rebel military commander said that scores of Russians were fighting in their ranks but that any soldiers among them were on leave.

But evidence to the contrary has gradually emerged, with human rights groups and relatives of soldiers saying hundreds of Russians have been killed or wounded in eastern Ukraine.

On Aug. 26, Ukraine released a video of 10 Russian paratroopers captured in east Ukraine with one of them saying his regiment was based in Kostroma.

Moscow said at the time that the soldiers had crossed an unmarked section of the border by mistake, but NATO said it had seen a significant escalation of Moscow's military involvement in Ukraine.

Source: Google News

Ukraine Truce In Tatters As Election Season Kicks Off

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's tenuous truce and troop withdrawal deal lay in tatters on Tuesday after the deadliest wave of attacks by pro-Russian insurgents in more than a month killed nine government soldiers.

A pro-Russian rebel stands in front of a building that was destroyed in the recent shelling, in the town of Yasinovataya, eastern Ukraine.

The surge in clashes across the separatist rust belt spelled an ominous start to campaigning for parties that make the ballot for October 26 parliamentary polls once the registration deadline passes on Tuesday night.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- his closest and most powerful European ally -- on Monday that Russia was ignoring the terms of a September 5 peace pact the sides sealed in the Belarussian capital Minsk. 

Poroshenko "stressed that he expected Russia to fulfil its Minsk Protocol obligations: to withdraw forces, ensure the border's closure, and establish a buffer zone," the presidency said in a statement.

The truce was reinforced with a September 20 deal by each side to pull back 15 kilometres (nine miles) from the front line and allow European monitors to report any resumption of bloodshed that has already claimed more 3,500 lives.

But a weekend attempt by a Russian military delegation to convince the rebels to comply -- a war zone visit that represented a rare if indirect admission by Moscow of its sway over the insurgency -- ended in seeming failure.

The Ukrainian military said militias on Monday launched a tank assault on a long-disputed airport outside the rebel stronghold of Donetsk in which a shell hit an armoured vehicle filled with government troops.

At least nine soldiers died in the strike and ensuing firefight.

Local and Ukrainian state officials said four civilians were also killed in mortar and rocket attacks that spread across the self-proclaimed "people's republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Ukrainian military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov told Kiev's Channel 5 television on Tuesday that insurgents were again using Grad multiple rocket launcher systems that have been blamed for destroying scores of civilian homes.

- Poroshenko's election test - 

The pro-Western leader's highly controversial decision to promise temporary self-rule for territories under rebel control in exchange for their renouncement of independence has dominated political debate in the run-up to the parliamentary polls. 

Poroshenko called the snap vote under pressure to sweep out the Kremlin-backed factions that many see as complicit in winter carnage in which police gunned down nearly 100 pro-European protesters in the heart of Kiev.

The deadliest incident in Ukraine's post-Soviet history forced the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, into self-imposed exile in Russia, and his Regions Party suffered mass abdications that spelled the effective end its dominance in politics.

His successor's newly formed Petro Poroshenko Bloc -- headed by the charismatic and hugely popular former boxing champ Vitali Klitschko -- is the early favourite to finish with the largest share of seats in the new, and far more powerful, parliament. 

Future lawmakers will nominate prime ministers and have the right to sack top cabinet members without prior consultation with the president.

But the pro-Western leader is unlikely to secure a majority in the 450-seat chamber. 

And his chances of forging a coalition that could help him make peace with Russia while securing a military and economic alliance with the West at present look somewhat remote.

The other main parties that polls show should make it into the new chamber represent either nationalist forces, who reject any deal with the insurgents, or new pro-Russian groups that refuse to accept Ukraine's shift toward the West.

The right-wing contingent includes the People's Front group of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and parliament speaker Oleksandr Turchynov -- dubbed by Moscow as Ukraine's "party of war".

Also likely to make it are the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party of ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko -- an opposition icon stained by sticky corruption allegations -- and the Radical Party of the populist Oleg Lyashko.

Both oppose even a hint of compromise with the rebels and suggest that force may be require to return the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea that Russian seized in the wake of the pro-European revolution in March.

Source: AFP

Renewed Fighting Around Donetsk Airport Tests Ukraine Cease-Fire

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Deadly fighting has broken out again between the government and rebels around the strategically important airport outside Donetsk, a continuing source of friction that is testing the resilience of a recent cease-fire agreement.

Ukrainian soldiers patrolled near Debaltseve, Ukraine, on Monday.

Nine Ukrainian soldiers and three civilians were killed during heavy shelling on Sunday, government officials announced.

Colonel Andriy Lysenko, an army spokesman, said seven soldiers died when a tank shell hit their troop transport.

It was the deadliest attack since the cease-fire was announced on Sept. 5.

President Petro O. Poroshenko has called the cease-fire the keystone to his peace plan for the country, and in a nationally televised news conference on Thursday said he had “no doubt that the biggest, most dangerous part of the war is already behind us.” 

But at important positions held by Ukrainian forces, like the airport and the city of Debaltseve, a crucial junction between the largest rebel cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, shelling has only intensified in recent days.

The upsurge in violence comes at a particularly critical moment, as Russian, Ukrainian and rebel military officials are meeting to work out the boundaries of a buffer zone of 30 kilometers, about 19 miles, that, when finalized, could mark a neutral area in a new, frozen conflict.

“The line drawn on paper does not correspond to the current positions,” said Andrei Purgin, the deputy prime minister of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, who participated in the talks in Minsk, Belarus, that led to the cease-fire.

In an interview, Mr. Purgin said that fighting was taking place at contested points on the proposed demarcation line, which he said amounted to 30 percent of the border between the rebel republics and Ukraine.

He also claimed that the Ukrainian Army was pouring in troops to defend the airport, which he likened to “a fetish.”

According to the cease-fire agreement, “the airport should be ours,” he said.

“But they are not leaving it.”

A Russian Army delegation led by Aleksandr Lentsov, the deputy commander of Russia’s ground forces, has been in Ukraine since last week, and first met with Ukrainian and rebel military representatives on Friday, according to an official involved in the talks.

Russia has sought to minimize its public role in mediating the conflict, and on Friday the Russian Foreign Ministry denied it was a party to the talks.

On Saturday, however, Russian state television broadcast an interview with Mr. Lentsov in the rebel-held city of Horlivka, Ukraine.

“There are questions where we have found common ground, and some questions are problematic,” Mr. Lentsov said without elaborating in televised comments.

“Our main task is a cease-fire. Both sides should understand that.”

Perhaps no question is more problematic than the Donetsk airport, which was renovated for the Euro 2012 soccer championship held in Ukraine and, if repaired, could be a vital supply line for either the fledgling rebel state or the Ukrainian military.

Speaking with several journalists on Saturday, Ihor Kolomoysky, the billionaire governor of the neighboring Dnipropetrovsk region, said that Ukraine had agreed to abandon the airport in exchange for a wide stretch of territory south of Donetsk, a quid pro quo that had previously been unreported.

Mr. Kolomoysky, who was appointed governor by Mr. Poroshenko, has played an important part in the Ukrainian war effort, bankrolling several pro-Ukrainian paramilitary battalions.

With Ukraine still reeling from a rebel counteroffensive in August, he said, the front lines will most likely remain static until spring.

Mr. Lysenko, the military spokesman, denied during a briefing on Monday that the army was planning to abandon its positions at the airport, saying it “was, is and will be under the control of the Ukrainian military.”

Nonetheless, he said, the decision belongs to his superiors.

“We have a high military command, and it decides where the Ukrainian Army moves,” he said.

While fighting raged in the east, thousands of pro-Ukrainian demonstrators in Kharkiv late Sunday evening toppled a 40-foot statue of Lenin, an anti-Russian gesture that raised the possibility of violence in what is the country’s second-largest city.

Some of the protesters etched a wolfsangel, a symbol once used by the Nazis and now by Ukrainian ultranationalists, into the statue’s pedestal.

Kharkiv saw brutal street fights in March between supporters and opponents of the new Kiev government, but has quieted in recent months.

The city police made no effort to disperse the crowds.

But they did announce an investigation into the episode at the same time that a protester was sawing through the leg of the statue with a chain saw.

Gennady A. Kernes, the city’s divisive and powerful mayor, promised Monday to restore the statue in an attempt to prevent a pro-Russian backlash in the city.

Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s interior minister and a rival of Mr. Kernes’s, barely hid his glee.

“Lenin? Let him fall,” Mr. Avakov wrote on his Facebook page.

Source: The New York Times

Monday, September 29, 2014

Ukrainian Crowds Topple Lenin Statue (Again)

KHARKIV, Ukraine -- Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, said goodbye to its landmark statue of Lenin located in the heart of the city’s main square – thus sending a message to Russia that Kharkov belongs to Ukraine.

Activists dismantle Ukraine's biggest monument to Lenin at a pro-Ukrainian rally in the central square of the eastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014.

A video showed the historic toppling of the landmark monument in the country’s largest square.

Many of Kharkiv’s residents felt very protective of the figure and cultivated nostalgic memories of him.

But the need to break away from the Soviet past prevailed and the monument that dominated Freedom square (formerly named after Soviet leader Felix Dzerzhinsky) for a half-century, was ripped away.

The so-called ‘Fall of Lenin’ – the Ukrainian movement of toppling statues of the Soviet-era totalitarian leader by strong-willed citizens – began in Kiev last winter, on December 8th, when Euro-Maidan protesters took down the statue of Lenin near the Bessarabska district.

Soon after, over 150 monuments throughout Ukraine were felled by Ukrainians to show that they are eager to part with Soviet symbols and demonstrate their pro-democratic and pro-European outlook.

Putin’s imperial ambitions, and the threat of restoring a Soviet-style state, prompted Ukrainian activists to declare a definite “no” to the suggestion of slipping back into Russia’s control.

On Sunday, September 28, the wave of sentiment reached Ukraine’s large – and rather inert –Russian speaking city of Kharkiv and its 1.5 million inhabitants, only twenty-five miles away from the Russian border.

Since the anti-government protests broke out in Kiev in December of last year, the city has largely stayed out of the protest movement and was threatened by separatism due to its controversial mayor Hennadiy Kernes, linked to pro-Russian structures.

But with war in Donbass – only about 100 miles away – patriotism among local residents of all ages grew.

Despite the fact that a majority of the city’s people speak Russian and many residents have close ties with Russia – not to mention feeling little connection to Western Ukraine and Ukrainian nationalism – Kharkiv’s identity has come out as decisively Ukrainian following Russia’s recent incursions.

Russian propaganda painted Kharkiv as a city willing to join Russia in a heartbeat.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a long-standing and eccentric member of the Russian Duma, publically called the educational and industrial center a Russian city.

Kharkiv has even been included in various maps of what the Kremlin calls future “Novorossiya” – a fictional state made up by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s advisors for the South-Eastern parts of Ukraine.

These examples of wishful thinking on the Kremlin’s part were largely contradicted by Sunday’s events, plus the latest poll conducted by Russian oppositionist Alexey Navalny and his anti-corruption center.

The survey of Kharkiv and Odessa showed that 87% of respondents in both regions wanted to be part of Ukraine, 8% were undecided, and 3% and 2% respectively said they would want to join Russia and become part of Novorossiya.

Kharkov’s rally for peace and a united Ukraine brought out around five thousand people on Sunday, by various estimates.

In a time of war, when dozens of people wounded in Donbass continue to arrive in Kharkov’s hospitals, not all the residents lent support to the rally as well as the toppling of the monument.

However, local businesses and individuals developed a steady volunteer and fundraising movement in support of the Ukrainian army and military hospitals. 

Earlier, city authorities had signed an official decree to remove the monument but protesters, mostly a younger crowd, couldn’t wait for the city to officially dismantle it and authorities allowed them to take it down.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page that he only hopes that provocateurs won’t use this incident as an excuse to create more clashes.

Source: Forbes

Ukraine Soldiers Suffer Worst Loss Of Life Since Ceasefire Began

KIEV, Ukraine -- East Ukraine has suffered the worst violence in more than a week, as fighting between pro-Russian rebels and government troops in the region killed at least 12 people and wounded 32.

A Ukrainian soldier stands guard as pro-Russian rebels await to be exchanged as part of a ceasefire. Seven Ukrainian troops were killed Monday near Donetsk's airport, according to a government spokesman.

Col. Andriy Lysenko told journalists in a briefing in Kiev on Monday that at least nine servicemen had been killed in the last day and 27 had been wounded.

The city council of Donetsk said in a statement published online that at least three civilians were killed and five wounded in overnight shelling of a residential area in the north, where fighting has centred on the government-held airport.

Violence has continued despite a ceasefire declared on Sept. 5. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has been at pains to prove to a skeptical audience at home that his peace plan is working.

Since fighting began in April, the conflict has claimed at least 3,500 lives.

Last week, representatives of Russia, Ukraine, and the rebels signed another agreement that would require both sides to remove all heavy artillery from the front line, creating a buffer zone that would allow the cease-fire to be better enforced.

On Sunday, in the second-largest Ukrainian city, Kharkiv, nationalists tore down an enormous statue of Vladimir Lenin to cheers from the crowd.

Across Ukraine, people have torn down statues to the former Communist leader in a symbolic display of anti-Russian sentiment.

The authorities in Kharkiv supported the move.

Arsen Avakov, Ukraine's Minister of Internal Affairs and a Kharkiv native, wrote on his Facebook page:

"Lenin? Let him fall ... As long as nobody gets hurt."

Source: AP

World War 3: Vladimir Putin Threatening Ukraine And Europe, But Thousands Of Russians Protesting

MOSCOW, Russia -- Tens of thousands of Russians are displeased over president Vladimir Putin’s recent actions, including the fighting in Ukraine.

 Smoke rises after shelling near the town of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014. 

Putin recently threatened European governments, claiming that Russia could invade many capitals–including Kiev, Warsaw, and Bucharest–in just two days, while Russia allegedly continues supporting pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.

Russia’s actions in and around Ukraine have brought increasing amounts of attention and action, especially after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was allegedly shot down by pro-Russian separatists.

But while many believe that a majority of Russians are supportive of attacking Ukraine, there’s also apparently many against them.

Many Russians took to the streets of Moscow this past week, with unofficial figures counting tens of thousands.

Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister who helped organize the march, said via Facebook that that march “had a very important psychological effect.”

“Supporters all over the world saw each other and it turned out that there’s a lot of us! It brings strength, and faith in our victory,” he said.

He added that the anti-war movement is “serious” and includes tens of thousands of “educated, free” people who have been “marginalized” by Putin.

“Putin’s freaks could not even muster deceitful propaganda to derail the march,” he said.

The protesters chanted “No Putin, no war! Russia without Putin, a world without war!”

Meanwhile, an important distinction between actions was highlighted in a poll late last month of 1,600 adults in Russia.

It showed that many Russians believe supporting pro-Russian separatists is not the same as going to war with Ukraine.

“The perception among Russians that the country is principally providing support to the separatists and has not entered the war itself is an important one,” reported the Pew Research Center.

“The public is split on whether they would support the Kremlin in the event of open military conflict with Ukraine: 41 percent say yes, 43 percent say no, while 16 percent are unsure. And, the share of Russians prepared to back the government in the event of war with Ukraine has fallen dramatically from this past spring, when seven-in-ten or more in March and May (74 percent and 69 percent, respectively) said they would back such intervention.”

Also, most Russians said in a different poll that the main reason they thought the new Ukrainian government was seeking to distance itself from Russia and draw closer to Europe, was that “Ukraine had become a puppet in the hands of the West and U.S.A., who are pursuing an anti-Russian policy.”

The Russian foreign minister issued a blistering attack on the West and NATO on Saturday, accusing them of being unable to change their Cold War “genetic code” and saying the United States must abandon its claims to “eternal uniqueness.”

Sergey Lavrov’s assault appeared to be an extension of the increasingly anti-Western stance of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is riding a wave of popularity at home with his neo-nationalist rhetoric and policies.

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, Lavrov said the crisis in Ukraine was the result of a coup d’etat in that country backed by the United States and the European Union for the purpose of pulling Kiev out of its “organic role as a binding link” between East and West, denying it the opportunity for “neutral and non-bloc status.”

Lavrov also said the Russian annexation of Crimea earlier this year was the choice of the largely Russian-speaking population there.

Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred control over the strategic Black Sea region to Ukraine from Moscow in the 1950s.

While the rhetoric was tough, Andrew Weiss, a top Russia expert at the Carnegie Foundation, said the Lavrov speech “hewed closely to themes the Russians have put forward throughout the Ukraine crisis.”

Immediately before Lavrov spoke, the German foreign minister said Russia’s actions to retake Crimea were a crime.

“Russia has, with its annexation of Crimea, unilaterally changed existing borders in Europe and thus broke international law,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in his address to the world body.

He spent considerable time speaking about what the West sees as Russian meddling in Ukraine, a nation on the verge of bankruptcy after a series of corrupt post-independence regimes.

Lavrov made no mention of Western allegations that Russia has sent troops and heavy weapons into eastern Ukraine in support of pro-Russian rebels there who have taken over a number of key industrial cities after the ouster of former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich.

His departure followed months of demonstrations against his corrupt rule.

Russia routinely denies its forces are involved.

Lavrov rejected that Western economic sanctions would cause Russia to reverse course on the issue of Ukraine.

“Attempts to put pressure on Russia and to compel it to abandon its values, truth and justice have no prospects whatsoever,” Lavrov said.

The regime has been using the sanctions in a propaganda drive to build support at home, creating anger against the U.S. and Europe as a distraction from the pain that Russia’s citizens absorb from the punitive measures.

The Kremlin’s growing anger with the United States and Western Europe springs from long-standing and bitter complaints over the past two decades about NATO expansion into former Soviet satellite nations in Eastern Europe and some Baltic nations, once Soviet republics.

Lavrov insisted Russia was promised, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, that the expansion would not occur.

There now is a cease-fire, though routinely violated, in eastern Ukraine.

Lavrov and other Russian officials now say they believe a settlement is possible, given the wobbly cease-fire and new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s decision to delay implementation of the country’s economic association agreement with the European Union.

But, Lavrov said, the Ukraine crisis should be a lesson to Washington and NATO against trying to break “the deep-rooted and fraternal ties between the two peoples” of Russia and Ukraine.

Source: Epoch Times

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Russian TV Sees US Plot Behind Ukraine And IS Militants

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russia is the target of a global plot orchestrated by the United States and involving fighters from the self-styled Islamic State (IS) and nationalist Ukrainian troops - that is the latest conspiracy theory broadcast on Russian state TV.

Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky: US is training "a new generation of killers" in the Middle East and Ukraine.

"America is everywhere, the West is everywhere, NATO is everywhere. Everything is organised against Russia," the veteran Russian nationalist MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky railed during a talk show on Channel One, Russia's most popular TV station.

There was a "certain link", he hinted, between Ukrainian troops "raiding our western regions" and IS, which he said was being armed by the US.

Joining the studio discussion by video link, pro-Moscow Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov alleged that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a "CIA employee".

He suggested that he had been recruited while in prison. Kadyrov and Zhirinovsky were speaking on Time Will Tell, a new daytime political talk show on Channel One.

Its appearance at a time of day normally reserved for soaps, cookery shows or celebrity chat is just one example of how highly emotive coverage of the Ukraine crisis is increasingly dominating Russian TV schedules.

'Gallery of horrors' 

Time Will Tell host Pyotr Tolstoy took up the IS-Ukraine conspiracy theme by suggesting a link between IS leader Baghdadi and Ukrainian ultra-nationalist leader Dmytro Yarosh - they were both born in 1971, both went to university, both have written a book, he said.

Zhirinovsky eagerly agreed.

They were both members of a "new generation of gunmen" being trained by the US, he claimed.

Moreover, Zhirinovsky added, Mr Yarosh is "more dangerous because he wants to take Moscow, while the Islamic militants only want to take the Caucasus".

These frenzied exchanges were triggered by reports about unmarked graves in an area of east Ukraine said until recently to have been under the control of pro-Kiev forces.

Russian state TV has referred to them as a "mass grave", but a local official appearing on Time Will Tell said four bodies had been discovered.

The bodies in the graves are said to show signs of torture.

Tolstoy said the discovery was part of a "gallery of horrors stretching from Donetsk to the Middle East".

Earlier in the Ukraine crisis, Channel One had highlighted claims by a woman refugee that Ukrainian troops had crucified a three-year-old boy on an advertising hoarding.

It showed her testimony in its prime-time bulletins three days running.

But no evidence was ever produced to substantiate the claims.

'Outlandish theories' 

In an article in US magazine The Atlantic, London-based TV producer Peter Pomerantsev said the "crucifixion" story was an example of how the "borders between fact and fiction [on Russian news] have become utterly blurred".

This was particularly true, he said, following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over east Ukraine in July, when the "Kremlin and its affiliated media spat out outlandish theories" about the disaster - from a plot to kill President Vladimir Putin to claims the airliner had been packed with corpses.

Conspiracy theories like these are now "all over Russian TV", Mr Pomerantsev said. 

A UK-based researcher, Ilya Yablokov, wrote in a recent article for the Moscow Times that conspiracy theory has been a key element in Russian political discourse stretching back to Soviet times.

The latest wave of conspiracy mania, though, began with the mass anti-Kremlin protests that rocked Moscow in 2011-2012.

It was then that Russian state TV started to systematically demonise the opposition as American agents.

Today opponents of Moscow's intervention in Ukraine are routinely dubbed "traitors" or "fifth columnists".

Nationalist commentator Alexander Dugin has even coined the term "sixth column" - to denote members of the establishment who profess support for Putin but also espouse the values of Western liberalism.

Conspiracy talk now appears to be rife in Russian society from top to bottom.

Putin has described the internet as a CIA "special project", while a recent poll by the state-funded All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found that 45% of people believed in the existence of some sort of organisation which "exerts influence on all global processes and the actions of many states".

According to Yablokov, the function of conspiracy theories is to mobilise society through "fear of foreign or internal deception and subversion".

He also suggests that if the current stand-off with the West continues, the Kremlin will turn more and more to conspiracy theory as a "major tool" with which to manage its own people.

Source: BBC News Europe

Russian Malware Used By 'Privateer' Hackers Against Ukrainian Government

KIEV, Ukraine -- A hacker tool popular across underground Russian crime networks has been used in attacks on the Ukrainian government, indicating the use of “privateers” for digital espionage, according to researchers.

The malware, known as BlackEnergy, has been used in cyberattacks to steal credit card data.

The malware, known as BlackEnergy, appears to have been used in cyberattacks against Georgia during the Russo-Georgian conflict of 2008 too, but has also been operated by criminals as a means to steal credit card data.

This summer, it was tailored to hit a number of Ukrainian targets.

Researchers from security firm F-Secure said Ukrainian Railways and infrastructure related to government bodies in Dnipropetrovsk, a city in the southeast of Ukraine, were in the crosshairs of the hackers.

The researchers uncovered the hackers’ use of proxy servers - used to reroute internet traffic - linked to those targets’ networks.

The current “working theory” is that the attackers were carrying out hits on a wide range of targets to earn themselves a living, but were “somehow co-opted” into carrying out state espionage, F-Secure’s Sean Sullivan suggested to the Guardian.

“They used to steal credit cards and now they have a different kind of buyer,” Sullivan added.

Victims were sent emails containing documents that ostensibly offered information on Russian plans to take over the world, said researchers from another anti-virus firm ESET.

One appeared to be a story from the Guardian, entitled ‘Russian ambassadors: next we’ll take Catalonia, Venice, Scotland and Alaska’.

Though this was a genuine article online, anyone who clicked on the associated Word file would open themselves up to BlackEnergy infection.

The malware can scoop up reams of information from victims’ PCs, including passwords and system information.

“The nature of the information being gathered seems to be generic rather than targeted. This may be because the malware has roots from crimeware,” F-Secure’s report read.

“The information is still useful however as such data makes it easier for the gang to plan any further attacks on the same targets.”

Sullivan said many of the targets were using an old form of anti-virus protection, where “signatures” or markers of malware are used to blacklist them and ban them from the network.

The BlackEnergy hackers, just like most cybercriminals on the planet, have tweaked their code so anti-virus won’t recognise them as there is no corresponding signature. 

“The attackers don’t need a lot of sophistication to get round a 2001 technology,” Sullivan said.

The so-called Quedagh gang behind the attacks has been operating since 2010, F-Secure said, but their tools have been used by various cyber criminals since 2007. 

There is much suspicion around Russian government involvement in cyber attacks on foreign entities, especially those related to the current conflict in Ukraine.

UK defence contractor BAE Systems reported in March that Ukraine was facing a barrage of attacks from digital spies as tensions escalated between the two countries. 

The FBI is investigating whether Russia backed recent attacks on US banks, including JP Morgan, in response to sanctions imposed by the west since the Putin regime’s support of rebels in the east of Ukraine.

Source: The Guardian

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Under Pact, Russians To Give Gas To Ukraine

BERLIN, Germany -- European officials said Friday that they had brokered a deal between Russia and Ukraine aimed at ensuring gas flows to keep factories running and homes warm over the next six months, despite a dispute over the size of Ukraine’s outstanding bills.

With Ukraine teetering on bankruptcy after months of unrest, residents in Donetsk, mostly retirees, lined up to apply for and receive food donations this week.

Günther H. Oettinger, the European Union energy commissioner, met Friday in Berlin with the energy ministers of Russia and Ukraine to urge the two sides to reach an agreement that would resume the flow of natural gas from Russia to Ukraine for a set price during the winter.

Russia’s natural gas giant, Gazprom, cut off supplies to Ukraine this summer after the two countries failed to reach an agreement on how much Kiev owes Russia for past deliveries.

Under Friday’s deal, which Moscow and Kiev are expected to approve by next week, Ukraine would pay Russia $3.1 billion toward its outstanding bill, in two separate installments by the end of the year.

In exchange, Gazprom will ensure that at least 5 billion cubic meters of gas are supplied to Ukraine from October to March at the set price of $385 per 1,000 cubic meters, which must be prepaid before delivery.

Mr. Oettinger said the European Union would guarantee a loan from the International Monetary Fund to help Ukraine meet its debt payments.

The deal foresees an initial installment of $2 billion due by the end of October, with the outstanding $1.1 billion due by the end of December.

“The details of the winter package are satisfactory,” Alexander Novak, Russia’s energy minister, told reporters.

“I think a big step has been taken.”

The urgency of reaching a deal was made clear hours before the talks concluded, when Hungary made a surprise announcement that it would not sell natural gas back to Ukraine that it had obtained from Russia but did not need.

Hungary apparently buckled to Russian pressure not to engage in such business — known as reverse flow — after a visit to Budapest on Monday by Alexei Miller, the chief executive of Gazprom.

He met with Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who had seen deliveries sharply reduced to Slovakia and Poland after they sold Russian gas back to Ukraine.

Hungary, Slovakia and Poland are the three main conduits for reverse flow deliveries, an effort backed by European Union officials in Brussels to meet Ukraine’s energy needs through the purchase from European countries of any natural gas supplies they have left over from Gazprom.

Russia and Ukraine have been sparring over gas bills since February, when pro-European protesters drove President Viktor F. Yanukovych from office in a fury over corruption and his pro-Russian policies.

After that, Gazprom cut off supplies to Ukraine, putatively in a dispute over the size of Kiev’s outstanding bill, which Gazprom has put at anywhere from $3 billion to over $5 billion.

But supplies intended for European countries beyond Ukraine continued to flow.

An arbitration court in Stockholm is expected to rule on the question of past and future prices in the second half of 2015.

A Hungarian pipeline operator, FGSZ, said it had suspended deliveries to Ukraine indefinitely, citing the need for technical work to “manage the security supply” in the face of increasing demand.

Helen Kearns, a spokeswoman for the European Commission in Brussels, noted that Brussels expected “all members to facilitate reverse flows,” as was agreed to by the European Council.

“It is worth recalling that there is nothing preventing E.U. companies to dispose freely of gas purchased from Gazprom, and this includes selling this gas to customers both with the E.U. as well as to third countries such as Ukraine,” Ms. Kearns said. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has pressed for a deal on Russian gas supplies and prices to avoid any repeat of 2009, when a price dispute between Russia and Ukraine choked off supplies to other European countries that receive their natural gas from pipes through Ukraine.

Ukraine uses about 50 billion cubic meters of gas a year, according to government officials and outside experts.

Domestic production is about 20 billion cubic meters, said Anders Aslund, a Swedish analyst of Russia and the former Soviet Union, and Ukraine has an estimated 16 billion cubic meters now in storage.

Under plans laid before Friday’s deal, the European Union agreed that Ukraine would get about 12 billion cubic meters in reverse flows, and the shortfall would come either from saving on heating and lower demand because of declining industrial production and the destruction of plants in the war-torn Donbass region of southeastern Ukraine.

Mr. Aslund and other outside experts have been critical of Ukraine’s subsidies for energy, which they argue eat up almost 10 percent of the gross domestic product and essentially benefit a handful of oligarchs in a country teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Nevertheless, with parliamentary elections due in late October, politicians are unlikely to impose what could be depicted as further hardship on voters.

Source: The New York Times

Ukraine Can't Afford NATO

KIEV, Ukraine -- Just one day after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared the worst of the war in the country's east to be over, the government in Kiev appears to be doing its level best to ensure the fighting starts again.

The cabinet submitted legislation to parliament today that would cancel Ukraine's existing commitment not to join any military alliance, and instead seek membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization "in the short term."

For the sake of peace and reason, Ukraine's parliament should vote no.

Should the law pass anyway, Poroshenko should commit to veto it.

Of the many reasons it is a bad idea for Ukraine to attempt to join NATO, the most obvious is that NATO does not want it.

This much was clear at the recent alliance summit in the U.K., where an uncomfortable Poroshenko had to bat away questions about potential membership.

When Poroshenko then traveled to Washington to ask President Barack Obama for special status as a "major non-NATO ally," the answer was a blunt no.

To understand why the NATO members are so opposed, consider two very hypothetical scenarios:

First, imagine for a moment that NATO, which is already struggling to convince its easternmost members that it would indeed fight for them if Russia should attack, were foolish enough to encourage Ukraine to join.

Ukraine, a divided and almost bankrupt nation of 45 million, would first have to receive a Membership Action Plan and then meet its conditions -- a process that would take many years.

(Albania, which joined NATO in 2009, got its MAP in 1999.)

So starting the process would merely set the clock ticking for Russia to do whatever it takes to prevent its neighbor from joining -- from rekindling the war to eastern Ukraine to making a full-scale invasion.

Next, imagine that Ukraine were, miraculously, to succeed in joining NATO.

It would only further destabilize the country.

Even though Russia has lately done much to unite most Ukrainians against it, the east of the country still has strong cultural and historical ties to Russia.

As long as the Kremlin sees and portrays NATO as a threat, a substantial share of Ukraine's population will want no part of it.

Before the annexation of Crimea, in 2010, 51 percent of Ukrainians opposed joining NATO.

In the east, 72 percent did.

Even today, polls suggest that less than half of Ukrainians want to join the alliance. 

Ukraine deserves U.S. and European support in its effort to ward off a predatory power next door and remain truly independent.

It should have the right to develop ties and common standards with the European Union if it wants.

Yet a country with Ukraine's history cannot suddenly join a military alliance that was formed to confront Russia, without asking for trouble.

No doubt, Ukrainian politicians have reasons for talking tough about joining NATO, as they jostle for position ahead of parliamentary elections next month.

Yet this is a game their country cannot win.

Ukraine should instead offer a long-term pledge of neutrality as part of a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin that would allow the country to develop whatever political and economic associations it wants.

Source: Bloomberg

Friday, September 26, 2014

Ukraine In Turmoil - A Somalia scenario?

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine -- With violence in eastern Ukraine waning (for the moment), attention has tentatively turned to the country’s post-war contours.

Both the government in Kiev and the separatists claim to be withdrawing heavy weaponry, following an agreement on September 20th to create a 30km (19 miles) buffer-zone, though clashes have continued in some places.

Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, claims that “serious work” is under way to build a defensive line around rebel-controlled territory.

No matter its final shape, Ukraine will be left with boorish new neighbours on its eastern flank.

Directly west of Donetsk, the Dnipropetrovsk region is preparing for more trouble, including banditry, kidnapping and terror.

Dnipropetrovsk officials have faced assassination attempts by “liquidation groups” from the Donbas in recent months, and criminals have begun arriving under the guise of refugees.

Borys Filatov, a deputy governor of Dnipropetrovsk, speaks worryingly of a “Somalia scenario”, under which the Donbas becomes a swathe of ungoverned territory harbouring bandits who cross into the rest of Ukraine to raid, kidnap and steal.

Another troubling precedent lies in Moldova’s breakaway Transdniestria region, where organised crime and corruption have flourished under a Russian-backed regime.

Throughout Dnipropetrovsk, fortifications are cropping up along the main roadways.

The most robust checkpoints feature crews of roughly 20 men, networks of trenches, bunkers and anti-tank barriers.

Any cars with Donetsk or Luhansk licence plates face searches from armed soldiers.

While officials downplay these measures as a means of “control”, construction of a new internal border has in effect begun.

Reflecting the sorry condition of the Ukrainian state, Dnipropetrovsk’s security has been left to the private sector.

Local business, private donors and concerned citizens fill the coffers of two non-state charitable funds, one for defence and the other for humanitarian causes.

While the regional administration oversees the projects, the money remains outside state structures in order to bypass a centralised, “unjust and ineffective” system, says another deputy governor, Svyatoslav Oliynyk.

Such a strategy, however, begets concerns over corruption and command structures at the checkpoints, where a poorly co-ordinated mix of volunteer battalions, police and security-service officers stand guard.

Over one newly constructed bunker on the border with the Donetsk region fly two flags: Ukraine’s blue and yellow, and the red-and-black nationalist flag of the local Sicheslav battalion.

The motley crew on duty answer to different commanders, and at times receive conflicting orders.

When asked about Mr Poroshenko’s “special status” law for the Donbas, a group of soldiers at the checkpoint scoff, calling it “traitorous”.

An older fighter who goes by the nickname “Grandpa” asks, “What did our guys die for?”

The regional elite accepts the law with gritted teeth—they know from bitter experience about the futility of fighting the Russian army.

Two lists taped to the front windows of the administration building in Dnipropetrovsk enumerate 400 names of those missing and 800 prisoners.

Throughout the conflict, Dnipropetrovsk has borne a disproportionate share of the burden.

“Every day we deal with battalions, security, the wounded, the killed, the ill, prisoners, funerals, and so on, while in Kiev they just work on elections,” says Mr Filatov, who recently announced plans to run for the national parliament, as did Mr Oliynyk.

Their boss, the governor of Dnipropetrovsk, Ihor Kolomoisky, began supporting the country’s military preparations early on, building up volunteer battalions long before the Ukrainian government threw its full weight into the war.

The region has suffered more than most in terms of wounded soldiers and soldiers killed in action.

Although the death toll has slowed since the ceasefire on September 5th, it has yet to stop entirely.

Dnipropetrovsk’s 25th airborne brigade remains stationed around Debaltseve, a city between Donetsk and Luhansk, where the troops take and return heavy artillery fire daily.

Residents say that the ceasefire has not halted the fighting, nor has it restored running water, which was cut nearly a month ago.

Clashes have also persisted near the port of Mariupol and Donetsk airport, which Ukrainian forces still control.

It is “a ceasefire in name only”, declares Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe.

With the risk of renewed war still looming, training and recruitment for volunteer battalions continues in Dnipropetrovsk.

“While the Kiev government gets itself together,” comments Mr Filatov, “we don’t have time to wait.”

Source: The Economist

Exclusive: Ukraine Prime Minister Says Russians 'Want Us To Freeze'

UNITED NATIONS, USA -- The prime minister of the Kiev government accused Russia on Thursday of attempting to freeze Ukraine in the coming winter by using natural gas as a weapon to subjugate the former Soviet Republic.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk at the United Nations.

"They want us to freeze. This is the aim and this is another trump card in Russian hands. So, except military offense, except military operation against Ukraine, they have another trump card, which is energy," Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said in an interview on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.

"The ultimate goal of Russia is to organize, to orchestrate another frozen conflict in Ukraine."

Russia's state-controlled energy company Gazprom cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in June because of a row over Kiev's unpaid gas bill, raising concerns that the country may not be able to cover the peak-demand winter season.

The European Commission is aiming to propose an interim solution to the gas quarrel between Russia and Ukraine at talks it is brokering in Berlin on Friday.

Yatseniuk said there were no official negotiations on it, though he said a plan to help Ukraine secure additional gas "would be helpful for us."

A war between pro-Russian separatists has left more than 3,500 people dead.

Kiev and Western governments have said it was direct Russian military intervention that tipped the battlefield balance in favor of rebels in eastern Ukraine and forced President Petro Poroshenko to call a ceasefire on Sept. 5 after big losses by government forces.

Russia, which opposes the pro-Western course of leadership in the ex-Soviet republic, continues to lie and has denied that its troops have participated in the war or provided arms to rebels.

Yatseniuk defended the Kiev government's decision to grant temporary autonomy to rebel regions, saying it was the least repugnant choice they had, as well as a "goodwill" move that demonstrated their commitment to a peaceful solution.

"We do understand that we had just two options: bad and worse," he said.

"So the president and the government decided to take just the bad option."

He expressed little confidence in Russian President Vladimir Putin as a partner in peace talks.

"I have no trust in President Putin," he said, adding that was why it was crucial to have the United States and European Union sitting with Ukraine at talks with Russia. 

Echoing comments he made in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, Yatseniuk said EU and U.S. sanctions against Russia should remain in place until all of Ukraine is back under control of Kiev, including Crimea, a Black Sea region Russia annexed after an independence referendum in March.

"Russia has to pay the price," he said.

"They want to get back to business as usual but we want to restore law and order, restore territorial integrity and independence of our country."

"This is the aim of the sanctions, to urge Russia to pull back its forces," he said.

"To pull back its artillery and stop the supply of weapons and lethal aid to Russian-led terrorists and just to get out of Ukraine."

Asked if he was disappointed by the United States not supplying weapons to his government, Yatseniuk said Washington had taken the lead in pushing for international sanctions against Moscow and was likely to do more.

He did not provide details.

Poroshenko visited Washington last week.

A U.S. official said that for the time being the United States was not willing to consider providing Ukraine with weapons but it had not absolutely ruled it out over the long term.

"The clear message last week was we're not ready to do that - now," the official said. 

Any eventual discussion of arming Ukraine is sure to spark a debate in Washington over whether such action would strengthen Kiev's security by deterring Russia or simply provoke Moscow.

President Poroshenko's Moscow-backed predecessor Viktor Yanukovich fled to Russia in February in the face of mass street protests.

Moscow denounced a pro-Western "coup" against him, annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and backed armed separatists in the heavily industrialized east in their drive for independence from Kiev.

The chain of events has provoked the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

Source: Google News

Ukraine Leader Sees Country Applying For EU Membership 'In 6 Years Time'

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko said he would present a broad plan of social and economic reforms on Thursday which would allow the former Soviet republic to apply for membership of the European Union in six years.

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko speaks to the media during a news conference in Kiev, September 25, 2014.

Ukraine's parliament ratified a landmark agreement on closer ties with the EU on Sept. 16, though implementation of the trade part of the accord has been delayed until January 2016 to appease Russia, which says the pact will hurt its markets. 

Poroshenko, speaking to Ukrainian judges, also said that for the first time in many months no deaths or wounded had been reported in the past 24 hours in a conflict with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, indicating that a ceasefire struck on Sept. 5 "has finally begun working".

"I will present my vision of Ukraine's development, our strategy for the period up to 2020," Poroshenko said, referring to a news conference set for later on Thursday.

"It (the strategy) provides for 60 separate reforms and special programmes, which will prepare Ukraine for applying for membership in the European Union in six years time," he said.

Poroshenko is trying to keep his strife-torn country on a course of European integration despite fierce opposition from Russia, which Kiev and its Western backers say has armed and backed the separatists in mainly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 3,500 people.

Russia is also fiercely opposed to Ukraine, a nation of some 46 million people, ever joining NATO.

Both the 28-nation EU and NATO have said they have no plans to offer membership to Kiev.

Ukraine agreed to the ceasefire after big battlefield losses by government forces which Kiev ascribed to Russian forces joining the fray on the side of separatists.

Moscow denies sending its forces into Ukraine or arming the rebels, despite what Kiev and the West say is incontrovertible proof.

Ukrainian and foreign analysts say Kiev needs to carry out deep-rooted and effective political and economic reforms to overcome years of inefficient and corrupt governance to make the country eligible for EU membership.

Malpractice reached a peak under Poroshenko's Moscow-backed predecessor Viktor Yanukovich.

After Yanukovich fled to Russia in February in the face of mass street protests, Moscow denounced a pro-Western "coup" against him, annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and subsequently backed the armed separatists in the heavily industrialised east in their drive for independence from Kiev.

The chain of events has provoked the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

The United States and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions against Russia and Moscow has retaliated with its own measures.

Source: Newsweek

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ukrainian PM To Putin: 'You Cannot Win'

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has appealed to the international community to keep sanctions against Russia in place until Kiev regains "control of its entire territory," including Crimea.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly Wednesday evening, Yatsenuk delivered a direct message to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Mr. Putin, you can win the fight against the troops, but you will never win the fight against the nation - united Ukrainian nation," said Yatsenyuk.

Yatsenuk said that Russia has violated international laws by invading parts of its territory, arming pro-Russian insurgents and annexing the Crimea peninsula in March.

Earlier Wednesday the Ukrainian prime minister spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

He expressed skepticism about the cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels, calling it extremely fragile and shaky.

He said Ukraine could easily deter separatists and restore peace in the country.

But he said its armed forces cannot fight against the well-trained and well-equipped Russian military.

Although Moscow denies it, there has been ample evidence of direct Russian military support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, and the presence of Russian troops on Ukrainian soil.

NATO, which has observed some pullback in recent days, says some Russian troops still remain.

Yatsenyuk is blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin personally for arming the separatists in eastern Ukraine.

"And this is President Putin who personally sent his military and his agents, his heavy weapons and artillery, his lethal weapons and lethal aid to Ukraine," referring with “lethal aid” to three humanitarian convoys Russia sent into Ukraine, parts of which, Kiev says, Moscow used to ship in supplies and reinforcement for rebels. 

Yatsenyuk said economic sanctions against Russia are effective, that the value of the Russian currency, the ruble, has dropped, and that inflation there is on the rise.

But he said while sanctions work in the long run, Ukraine needs a short-term solution to prevent Russia from taking control of eastern Ukraine and moving farther inland. 

He said the ultimate goal of the Russian president is to create another frozen conflict in Europe.

One such conflict, widely seen as supported by Moscow, is in Moldova's Transdniester region, which borders Ukraine.

Some observers have suspected that Putin’s ultimate plan, after annexing Ukraine’s Crimea in March, would be to establish a land corridor along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast connecting Russian mainland with Transdniestria, as the Moldovan region is also known, thus also securing Moscow’s land access to Crimea.

Currently, Crimea is accessible to Russia only by land and sea, and depends heavily on electricity and drinking water provided by Ukraine.

Yatsenyuk said he would like to see U.S. and EU participation in talks with Russia on settling the conflict.

As for the long-term, Ukraine’s prime minister said that he believes the time will come when peace will be reestablished in the country’s east, Crimea will return under Kiev’s control and Russia will apologize for its actions.

But he ruled out that this would happen under Putin.

Source: Voice of America

Ukraine Urges Rebel Withdrawal As Obama Presses Moscow

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine urged pro-Russian separatists to stop shelling government troops and start withdrawing their heavy weapons, while President Barack Obama said Russia must choose peace to have U.S. sanctions lifted.

Russian soldiers talks to each other on the top of a tank, some 10 km (6 mi) outside the southern-Russian city of Donetsk.

Separatists shelled government troop-held Donetsk airport and a checkpoint in the area, wounding eight servicemen, military spokesman Colonel Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kiev today.

He said Russia provided no information to Ukraine about the content of a fourth aid convoy that is on its way to the region.

Russia continues to lie and denies U.S. and European Union allegations that it’s stoking the unrest in eastern Ukraine.

NATO said yesterday Russia has embarked on a “significant” withdrawal of its forces from Ukraine, adding to signs that the truce is holding between the government in Kiev and separatist groups.

The conflict, which erupted after Russia annexed Crimea in March, has killed more than 3,500 people, the United Nations estimates.

Obama, in a speech today to the 69th General Assembly of the UN, said the U.S. and its allies will continue supporting Ukraine while offering Russian President Vladimir Putin a way out of the conflict that has been opened by the cease-fire.

“If Russia takes that path -- a path that for stretches of the post-Cold War period resulted in prosperity for the Russian people -- then we will lift our sanctions and welcome Russia’s role in addressing common challenges,” the U.S. president said.

He urged Russia to adhere to the path of diplomacy and peace.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, told reporters in New York that the U.S. can’t dictate terms for a Ukraine peace.

He said Russia is ready for equal dialogue with the U.S. and rejected accusations of aggression in Ukraine.

Ukraine Debt 

Halyna Pakhachuk, head of the Ukrainian Finance Ministry’s debt department, said in an e-mail today that the country isn’t considering debt restructuring “at all.”

The ratio of debt to economic output is “not that high” while “Ukraine will be able to refinance its debt at affordable rates as soon as military actions stop,” according to Pakhachuk’s statement.

Tatiana Orlova, a London-based economist at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, said in an e-mailed note today that “if de-escalation of the Ukraine-Russia conflict continues, we expect a generally positive reaction from Russian markets.”

“Any positive news from the EU next week -- such as a timetable for the gradual withdrawal of biting sanctions against Russia -- could lead to a rally across the board,” Orlova wrote.

Russia’s Micex Index rose 1 percent at 6:25 p.m. in Moscow, while the ruble strengthened 0.9 percent against the dollar.

Demilitarized Zone 

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko agreed to a cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels on Sept. 5 and granted them powers to govern the areas they control.

A final settlement to the crisis, which has stirred Cold War tensions, hasn’t yet been found.

The deal to create a 30-kilometer (18 mile) demilitarized zone was struck Sept. 20 in the Belarusian capital of Minsk.

“As soon as” the rebels “start to withdraw their heavy weapons, Ukrainian government troops will also start the weapons withdrawal,” Lysenko said.

“We have already prepared an area for relocation” of equipment.

The EU and the U.S. have imposed sanctions targeting Russian individuals, companies and the nation’s finance, energy and defense industries.

Source: Bloomberg

Ukraine Picks Motley Group To Exchange For Prisoners

DONETSK, Ukraine -- At first glance, the prisoner swap between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists appeared fair enough.

On a deserted stretch of highway along the front line, each side released 28 captives, observing a principle of numerical parity.

Under the watchful eyes of mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the prisoners walked past one another to freedom.

Then the questions started to pop up.

The pro-Russian separatists — who with the aid of the Russian Army routed the Ukrainians in battles in August, taking many captives — released men appearing to be actual prisoners of war.

The Ukrainians, however, widely understood to be lacking enough prisoners of their own to effect a one-for-one exchange, set free a motley group of men, women and teenagers wearing tracksuits or dirty jeans, and taken, they said, from jails as far away as Kiev.

Soon enough, many of them were objecting to anybody who would listen there on the highway that they had never fought for pro-Russian separatists, and in fact had no idea how they ended up in a prisoner exchange in eastern Ukraine.

“I am a civilian and I was included just to fill out the numbers,” Nikita Podikov, 17, said in an interview.

Ukrainian soldiers arrested him in a town near the front lines two weeks ago as they pulled back during a retreat, he said.

Mr. Podikov said the authorities accused him of belonging to a gang of pro-Russian assassins working behind enemy lines, but never gave any proof.

“I never fought, I never killed anybody,” he said.

“They arrested me, beat me for two days and then kept me for trading,” he said.

On Sunday, he wound up in a prisoner swap of 27 men and one woman, only seven of whom were rebel fighters.

In interviews at their point of release and in a dormitory where former detainees are housed in Donetsk, a dozen men freed in exchanges over the weekend by the Ukrainian Army gave similar accounts.

Some said they were arrested months ago in other parts of Ukraine for pro-Russian political actions, such as joining protests calling for autonomy in eastern Ukraine or for distributing leaflets.

The prisoner exchanges now taking place daily in eastern Ukraine are helping to solidify a fragile truce by building trust between negotiators and bringing relief to detainees and their families.

The process is also emphasizing the scale of the Ukrainian setbacks and Kiev’s lack of leverage on a host of issues, including prisoner swaps, left open in the Sept. 5 cease-fire agreement that ended hostilities.

The agreement required both sides to free all prisoners, but the separatists, holding hundreds of regular Ukrainian soldiers, are demanding one-for-one swaps that they are using to free people jailed in western Ukraine for political activities and other nonmilitary reasons.

An elaborate weighing of the exchange rate for prisoners takes place on both sides in preparation for such swaps.

On both sides, said Vladimir Ruban, a retired Ukrainian officer and senior negotiator, the prisoners are divided into several categories, each valued differently, such as civilians arrested in protests, prisoners of war, and suspected spies.

Officers, snipers, suspected spies and soldiers with grave wounds that need immediate treatment are deemed the most valuable in trades, negotiators say.

“Just as we forgot how to fight, we forgot how to exchange prisoners, and so we are now learning this art again,” Mr. Ruban said.

“It’s a new experience.”

A common trade appears to be one Ukrainian private for one pro-Russian political agitator arrested during protests in Ukraine last spring outside the Donetsk or Luhansk regions.

Mr. Ruban has negotiated more complex deals.

Earlier this year, for example, Igor Bezler, a rebel commander who went by the nickname Bes, or the Devil, traded 17 Ukrainian officers for one woman, Olga Koligina, whose value to him was something of a mystery.

“It is more difficult than a simple bank transaction,” Mr. Ruban said.

Ukrainian officials have issued conflicting figures on the numbers of Ukrainian soldiers in captivity.

On Friday, Semen Semenchenko, the commander of the Donbass battalion, wrote on his Facebook page that 853 Ukrainian soldiers remained in rebel hands and 408 were missing in action.

On Tuesday, Mr. Ruban’s group, called Officer Corpus, a nongovernmental organization of retired military officers negotiating releases, reported that 504 Ukrainian soldiers remained in captivity.

In Sunday’s trade, the buses stopped on the highway a few hundred yards apart, their headlights shining in the deepening twilight, artillery explosions booming in the distance.

Oksana Bilozir, a former member of the Ukrainian Parliament engaged in hostage negotiations on behalf of the Kiev government, walked across the front line to check lists with a separatist counterpart, before the prisoners went free.

One man released by the Ukrainian Army, Oleg Furman, 43, said he was a soldier for the Luhansk People’s Republic, one of the rebel groups here.

The Ukrainians suspected he was a sniper, he said, and so broke his trigger finger, which was still cocooned in gauze bandages.

His special value may have helped the trade, he said, though he denied he was a sniper.

“I’m fine other than having five broken ribs and a broken finger,” he said.

More typical of those released over the weekend was Valery Ginsberg, a businessman from Kiev, who was let loose on the highway in a swap on Saturday.

In an interview, he said he had never been to Donetsk.

In Kiev, he was indeed known as a supporter of closer economic ties with Russia.

He had been arrested on a pretext, he said.

“They traded us like cattle,” he said.

“I’m a citizen of Ukraine. How can they do this? I would have proved my innocence. I wanted to prove my innocence. But they never asked me.”

Source: The New York Times

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

NATO: Russia Has Withdrawn Many Troops From Ukraine

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- A top European Union official blasted Russia for reviving threats of retaliation against Ukraine over a trade deal with the bloc, stoking political tensions even as signs mount of a military de-escalation in the conflict zone.

A pro-Russia rebel watches Tuesday as smoke rises near the government-held Donetsk airport, where sporadic shelling has continued.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said that Russia had withdrawn a sizable number of troops from eastern Ukraine—though some remained.

Meanwhile Russia-backed rebels in the region said they had begun pulling back their heavy artillery, after Ukrainian troops did the same.

Scattered fighting continued, however, amid mutual accusations of violations of a cease-fire that took effect 2½ weeks ago—indicating any peace taking hold remains fragile as Kiev continues to challenge Moscow by seeking closer ties to Europe.

In a three-way deal reached Sept. 12, the EU and Ukraine agreed to postpone part of the trade pact, including dropping tariffs on EU goods, until 2016.

Russia argued the pact would lead to a flood of EU imports entering Russia and undercut Russian exports to Ukraine.

It had threatened to retaliate by ending its preferential trade relationship with Kiev, a move that could deliver a fresh blow to Ukraine's tottering economy.

It dropped that threat, however, in exchange for the delay, which will give both Russian and Ukrainian businesses additional time to adapt.

However, Russian Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukaev sent a letter to the European Commission's trade chief and Ukraine's foreign minister last week warning that Russia could still retaliate against Ukraine for ratifying the pact.

Moscow also demanded a mandate for future talks, saying that the three sides should prepare amendments to the accord, according to a copy of the letter seen by The Wall Street Journal. 

EU officials have insisted they won't reopen the text of the agreement.

The EU's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Füle, dismissed Russia's interpretation of the Sept. 12 agreement as coming "from a different world, a parallel world."

In an interview with the Journal late Monday, Mr. Füle, long the EU's point man on Ukraine, said the EU and Ukraine would soon reply to Russia but that its demands were bogus.

"The Russians will have to abandon this virtual reality," he said.

The Russian mission to the EU didn't respond to requests to comment.

Many European officials feared that without a compromise on the trade pact, Russia could sow fresh trouble in eastern Ukraine.

Russia denies orchestrating or supporting the rebels there.

EU foreign ministers attending the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York met Tuesday to discuss the situation in Ukraine and next steps on Russia sanctions, European diplomats said.

The EU had promised to reconsider its latest sanctions by the end of this month in light of the cease-fire deal.

A senior U.S. official said Sunday that it was too early to even consider rolling back sanctions, and that "we are far from" the point where the plan has been fully implemented.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday said the cease-fire and a political process to solve the conflict couldn't happen without the full withdrawal of Russian armed forces.

On Tuesday, a NATO spokesman, Lt. Col. Jay Janzen, said: "There has been a significant pullback of Russian conventional forces."

But he said exact numbers were hard to pinpoint and that special forces were still operating in Ukraine. 

"It is clear that NATO allies need to remain vigilant," he said.

Russia has faced escalating sanctions from the West over what NATO has said in recent weeks was about 1,000 troops in Ukraine fighting alongside the rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Russia didn't comment on NATO's claims Tuesday or Saturday.

It has consistently denied that it has sent troops in Ukraine, though it has allowed that some soldiers may have gone to fight on their vacations.

Kiev and the Russia-backed rebels agreed last weekend to set up an 18-mile-wide buffer zone along the front line to reduce tension and bolster a Sept. 5 truce, but mutual mistrust has cast doubt on the process.

"There does seem to be, for the first time in several months, a set of indicators that seem to point in one direction, which is de-escalation," one senior NATO diplomat said.

Still, he added, "we've seen any number of occasions in the last six or eight months where indicators pointed one direction, and we wake up some random Wednesday and they start pointing the other direction."

Meanwhile, a rebel leader said his forces were pulling back artillery, but only from areas where Ukrainian units have pulled back.

"Where Ukraine hasn't withdrawn artillery, we also haven't done so," Alexander Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told the Interfax news agency.

The Ukrainian government didn't comment on Zakharchenko's claim.

On Tuesday, defense spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko said that while some Russian units had been seen crossing the border back into Russia, others had entered Ukraine.

"A rotation of units is taking place," he told a daily briefing.

He also accused Russia of continuing to operate training camps for separatist fighters on its territory as well.

The six-month conflict in Ukraine has already claimed over 3,500 lives according to a U.N. report.

The rebel-held stronghold of Donetsk in particular remains tense, with reports of overnight shelling near residential areas and the government-held airport.

The Donetsk city council said that a male civilian was killed during the fighting and that residents reported hearing scattered shooting Tuesday morning.

There were no casualties among government troops, Col. Lysenko said.

Zakharchenko told Interfax that the negotiators involved in the peace talks would likely meet again in the Belarusian capital of Minsk in about a month.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Ukraine Crisis: Rebels Declare Early Poll Date

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine say they will hold elections on 2 November, in an apparent show of defiance towards the government in Kiev.

Both sides are required to pull back their heavy guns from the frontline to create a buffer zone.

Although Ukraine is holding parliamentary polls a week before, it has offered the pro-Russian rebels a vote on self-rule in December.

A shaky ceasefire has held since 5 September and the two sides have since agreed to set up a buffer zone.

UN officials say 3,245 people have been killed since fighting began in April.

That number does not include the 298 victims of the Malaysia Airlines plane downed over eastern Ukraine on 17 July.

Separatists in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence from Ukrainian rule after Russia annexed Crimea in March.

The rebels seized several cities and fighting raged for five months, with Russia denying accusations that it had sent soldiers and weapons to push back the Ukrainian army.

Despite frequent flare-ups in the violence, the fragile ceasefire agreed early this month appears to have held.

Explosions were, however, reported north of Donetsk late on Tuesday.

Ukraine's parliament passed a bill last week granting three-year "self-rule" to parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, with elections on 7 December - a decision condemned by some MPs as "capitulation".

In an apparent rejection of the terms of the "special status" law offered by the Kiev parliament, the leaders of the self-declared people's republics of Luhansk and Donetsk said on Tuesday that they would set a preliminary date five weeks earlier, on 2 November.

They both aim to elect a Supreme Soviet (parliament) and their own leaders.

"We do not have an election legislation yet, but we do hope to draft and adopt it by that date," Donetsk's first deputy prime minister Andrey Purgin told Itar-Tass news agency.

Under the terms of a nine-point deal agreed at the weekend in Belarus, Ukrainian government and rebel forces have agreed to pull back their big guns 15km (9.5 miles) from the line of engagement, creating a 30km buffer zone.

Rebels in Donetsk began moving their heavy artillery in some areas on Tuesday, according to Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko, "but only in those areas where the Ukrainian regular units have done the same".

Ukraine announced on Monday that it was preparing to move its heavy weaponry, although all other units and their weapons would remain in place.

Minsk memorandum: Key points

  • To pull heavy weaponry 15km by each side from the line of contact, creating a 30km security zone 
  • To ban offensive operations 
  • To ban flights by combat aircraft over the security zone 
  • To set up an OSCE monitoring mission 
  • To withdraw all foreign mercenaries from the conflict zone  
Source: BBC News Europe

Meet The Woman Running Supplies To The Ukraine Front Lines

ARTEMIVSK-DEBLATSEVE, Ukraine –- Dmitry and Andriy, a paratrooper and a volunteer medic, pick me up in a truck in central Artemivsk, a city once controlled by Russian-backed separatists 50 miles north of their stronghold in Donetsk.

Tatyana Rychkova

The city is now back in the hands of Ukrainian forces and has been used as a staging ground for the military’s “anti-terrorist operations.”

Squeezed between radios, bulletproof vests, ballistic helmets, camouflaged backpacks, night-vision goggles and cartons of cigarettes stacked from floor to ceiling, we make our way to a checkpoint on the edge of town, where we are to meet Tatyana Rychkova, a 35-year-old former baker turned volunteer who for the past several months has run supplies to Ukrainian soldiers fighting pitched battles on the front lines of Kiev’s war against the separatists.

Every soldier knows “Tanya” Rychkova it seems and she has been featured in some of the country’s biggest news magazines, fast becoming something of a celebrity. 

When I meet her on Tuesday, she is dressed in camouflage fatigues and tan combat boots.

She wears sparkly star-shaped rhinestone earrings, dark violet-colored lipstick and her nails are painted a shade of military green.

Her nail art, though, may be the most impressive of all: on her right thumb, a parachute and the words “25th Brigade” have been painted in white; on her left thumb, the airborne unit’s motto — “Nobody but us" — is spelled out.

She has just stepped out of the truck that has served as her home since June, when she sold her bakery and summer cottage in neighboring Dnipropetrovsk to become a supply-runner for Ukraine’s fledgling armed forces.

Since then, she has lived a life on the road, traversing the war zone.

“I’ve been shot at, and had all the windows in my truck shot out,” she tells me.

She decided to volunteer after she visited the Airborne Brigade camp where her husband, Vadim Rychkov, worked as head of the unit’s communications.

“I saw the squalor they were living in and decided something needed to be done,” she says.

Even after her husband was killed in action here in August, Rychkova didn’t leave the front.

If anything, his death only invigorated her.

In the 23 years since Ukraine declared independence, the country’s defense budget dwindled.

With each successive administration, the military was stripped further of funds and material.

Armor and artillery was sold off or fell into disrepair.

“There was no reason to think that we would need to have a strong army,” Oleksiy Melnyk, co-director for foreign relations and international security programs at the Kiev-based Razumkov center told me recently.

After all, there was the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which the United States, Great Britain and Russia were to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in exchange for its surrender of its nuclear arsenal, then one of the world’s largest.

So when Kiev launched its counter-insurgency operation in mid-April to root out separatists in eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, it found itself woefully unprepared.

Besides the poor condition of its armor, the army numbered only about 6,000 troops — and they lacked the training and even basic equipment needed to fight the pro-Russian rebels, who Moscow covertly supplied with advanced weapons systems. 

Following his election in May, President Petro Poroshenko announced a partial mobilization, which helped with the personnel issue.

But the soldiers still needed equipment.

In the months since then, volunteers have stepped up to fill that void.

Citizen organizations such as Wings of Phoenix and Army SOS, among others, actively fundraise to equip the country’s solders.

Mikhail, a soldier I spoke with at the army’s camp in Debaltseve, the flashpoint town of some 25,000 people near Donetsk that separatist forces have nearly surrounded, said that when he enlisted in June, he was only given one uniform, one pair of underwear, two pairs of socks and a used pair of boots — one size too big.

“They told us this is supposed to last us two years,” he said.

Today Rychkova is delivering medical supplies, such as antibiotics, and power generators, tools, batteries, clothes and more, along with the supplies from Dmitry’s and Andriy’s truck.

What she’s packed is all being driven to the army’s camp here in Debaltseve in a white and silver Mercedes cargo truck riddled by bullets – reminders of past harrowing deliveries.

After a precarious 20 mile drive south through the war-torn east, past the charred remains of a separatist armored vehicle and over a steel grate used to prop up a partially destroyed bridge, we arrive at the army base, where scores of men from the Dnipropetrovsk 25th are camped.

They give “Tanya” a hero’s welcome, cheering her.

She jumps into the arms of one soldier who plants a fat kiss on her cheek before another wraps her up in a bear hug.

The reunion lasts for more than ten minutes as a crowd gathers around.

Inside the camp, soldiers mill around, cook meat over open flames, stack crates of artillery shells in bunkers and wander through a maze of trenches as rockets fire all around.

Everyone here seems to know “Tanya.”

She is the soldier’s lifeline, but also their friend, sister, platonic girlfriend and mother.

“We get 99 percent of our supplies from volunteers,” one fighter said, adding that if it weren’t for Rychkova and others like her, they’d be “fucked.”

Source: Mashable

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

EU Set For New Clash With Russia Over Ukraine Pact

NEW YORK, USA -- The European Union seemed set for a fresh clash with Russia after the bloc's enlargement chief, Stefan Füle, accused Moscow of living in a "virtual reality" over its interpretation of a recent deal aimed at defusing trade tensions over Ukraine.

EU enlargement chief Stefan Füle, pictured in Brussels, has told The Wall Street Journal that the Russian government is living in a "virtual reality" over its interpretation of a recent compromise trade deal involving Ukraine.

The dispute threatens to dampen hopes that a Sept. 12 accord between the EU, Russia, and Ukraine could start to ease tensions between Brussels and Moscow.

Last week, Russian Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukaev sent a letter to the European Commission's trade chief and Ukraine's foreign minister setting out Moscow's interpretation of the agreement and warning that Russia could still retaliate against Ukraine for ratifying a broad trade and political agreement with the EU.

According to European officials, that Sept. 12 compromise was based on a Russian promise not to retaliate against Ukraine for ratifying the so-called association agreement with the EU.

In return, the EU agreed to give Ukraine 15 more months before it starts implementing key parts of the agreement related to trade, even while extending its zero-tariff regime for most Ukrainian exports.

That would give Russian firms more time to adapt to the accord.

Russia has fiercely opposed the association agreement, arguing it will lead to a flood of EU imports entering Russia and undercut Russian exports to Ukraine.

The Kremlin had threatened to retaliate by ending its preferential trade relationship with Kiev, a move that could deliver a fresh blow to Ukraine's tottering economy. 

Many European officials feared if there was no compromise, Russia could sow fresh trouble in eastern Ukraine, where a fragile cease-fire has subdued a full-blown conflict between Kiev's government and pro-Russian separatists.

Russia denies orchestrating or supporting the rebels.

A copy of the Russian letter reviewed by The Wall Street Journal warns that Russia could still retaliate against Ukraine for ratifying the pact.

The letter says Ukraine must not implement any of the provisions of the association agreement, even though Brussels says the compromise froze only some parts of its chapter on trade.

Moscow also demanded a mandate for future talks, specifying that the three sides should prepare amendments to the accord.

EU officials have insisted repeatedly they won't reopen the text of the agreement.

EU officials said Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote a similar letter to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Monday, Mr. Füle said the EU and Ukraine would soon reply to Russia.

He said Moscow's demands went far beyond anything agreed.

"You could compare the texts. You just need to put together the text of what has been agreed and what the Russian interpretation is to understand that this interpretation is from a different world, a parallel world," he said.

"We are committed to" dealing with "real issues, real problems and finding real solutions. The Russians will have to abandon this virtual reality."

Mr. Füle, the Czech commissioner who is EU's point man on Ukraine relations, said he didn't want to prejudge whether the Russian letter implied Moscow didn't enter the Sept. 12 deal in good faith.

The September deal raised hopes among some in Brussels that Moscow would start to be more flexible in its approach to the bloc.

Some EU officials hoped it could open the way to resolve other problems, like the talks over a standoff between Ukraine and Russia over gas supplies.

The EU has gradually escalated sanctions against Russia in recent months over what it says is Moscow's meddling in Ukraine.

Russia has retaliated.

In late August, Mr. Barroso warned that ties between the two European giants were nearing a "point of no return."

The EU has long dismissed most Russian complaints about Ukraine pact, saying Moscow's real concern was losing its leverage over Kiev.

However Brussels officials hoped the 15-month delay on the trade provisions would give Ukraine's economy time to recover, weakening the threat of any eventual Russian retaliation.

The Sept. 12 deal didn't bind Russia to refrain from retaliating after Dec. 31, 2015, if Ukraine starts to implement the agreement fully.

Source: The Wall Street Journal