Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Ukraine Leader Mocks Russia's Call For Anti-Terrorism Coalition

UNITED NATIONS, USA -- Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday derided Russia's call for the creation of an international antiterrorism coalition, saying the Russians inspire terrorism on their own doorstep and back bellicose puppet governments.

President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 29, 2015.

Russian President Putin on Monday called for the creation of a broad international coalition to fight Islamic State and other militant extremist groups.

Poroshenko used his speech at the annual gathering of world leaders for the United Nations General Assembly to blast Russia and suggest its call for global action against terrorist threats was hypocritical.

"Over the last few days we have heard conciliatory statements form the Russian side," he told the 193-nation assembly.

"Cool story, but really hard to believe. How can you urge an antiterrorist coalition if you inspire terrorism right in front of your door? "How can you talk about peace and legitimacy if your policy is war via puppet governments?" he added.

"The Gospel of John teaches us, 'In the beginning was the word.' But what kind of a gospel do you bring to the world if all your words are double-tongued like that?"

He referred to the fact that Russia is accelerating military support to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has been locked in a civil war with rebel forces seeking to oust Assad for 4-1/2 years.

"These days the Russian 'men in green' tread on Syrian land," he said.

"What or who is next?" 

Poroshenko renewed accusations that Russia finances, trains and supplies pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, while sending heavy weapons and Russian troops, with insignias removed from their uniforms, to help battle Ukrainian forces loyal to the Kiev government.

Speaking later at Columbia University, Poroshenko called on countries that support Kiev to help his government secure modern weapons to defend itself.

Moscow denies the allegations and accuses the United States of having orchestrated the ouster of Ukraine's former pro-Kremlin president early last year.

"For over 20 months, Russia's aggression against my country has been continuing through financing of terrorists and mercenaries, and supplies of arms and military equipment to the illegal armed groups," Poroshenko told the General Assembly.

All but one member of Russia's delegation left the assembly hall while Poroshenko spoke.

The full delegation returned after he finished his speech.

The United States and European Union support the Kiev government and have imposed economic sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. 

Poroshenko said that if Russia does not implement the Minsk peace deal reached last year, under which both sides were to hold fire and withdraw heavy weapons, international sanctions of Moscow should remain in place.

Poroshenko and Putin will meet with the leaders of France and Germany in Paris on Friday to discuss the fragile Minsk ceasefire agreement.

A representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said earlier that Ukraine and the separatists have now agreed, in talks in Minsk, Belarus, to extend a pullback of weapons in east Ukraine to include tanks and smaller weapons systems.

Source: Google News

Why Putin Wants The West To Forget Ukraine

ODESSA, Ukraine -- Mikheil Saakashvili tends to be easily dismissed. The former Georgian president’s impulsiveness and habit of exaggeration have always made him controversial, and when he let himself be lured into firing the first shot in a war with Russia in 2008, his reputation seemed unlikely to recover.

Yet Saakashvili has re-emerged.

For three months he has been running Ukraine’s Odessa region, where he is proving popular and also right about what Ukraine as a whole needs.

In some ways, the Georgian has never have been better suited to a job than the one he has now: shaking things up in a mafia-ridden region of a country that isn’t his own.

That’s just as well, because if Russian President Vladimir Putin has throttled back his war in eastern Ukraine and pivoted to Syria, it is in large part to distract attention from here.

There is no need for him to incur the cost of further military action to destabilize Ukraine.

By Saakashvili’s own calculation, Ukraine’s pro-Western government has as little as six months to get radical economic reform underway or collapse.

So President Petro Poroshenko’s experiment in sending Putin’s bete noire to Odessa is in reality a Hail Mary pass, designed to break the reform logjam before it’s too late.

Speaking late at night in his Soviet-era governor’s office in Odessa, Saakashvili explained why: 

Because within six months, if real change doesn’t happen, the state apparatus, the state bureaucracy, is going to disintegrate.

Look we have a state bureaucracy that people don’t realize is not getting salaries any more.

It is not getting paid.

As a result we can get all kinds of chaotic elements taking over, or trying to take over and causing more chaos.

As if to make his point Sunday, a bomb went off outside the offices of Ukraine’s security service in Odessa.

Devaluation and inflation have hit hard.

Without sweeping corruption trials and reforms to demonstrate that the kleptocracy Ukrainians revolted against almost two years ago is coming to an end, patience with the new regime is running out fast.

Support for Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front party, the largest in parliament, has fallen to just 2 percent.

The good news is that Ukrainians, tired of corruption, hardship and inept government, want the radical change that Saakashvili brought to Georgia, after its so-called Rose Revolution of 2003.

He gave the corrupt businessmen who sucked that country dry after independence an ultimatum:

Pay a large lump sum in arbitrary “back taxes” and get out of the way, or go to jail.

It worked.

Empty coffers were filled, enabling him to make other changes.

He amended the constitution to give himself more powers at the expense of parliament, jailed undesirables, fired traffic police whose sole function had been to extort bribes, winnowed unwanted civil servants and sold off all the state assets he could.

The big question is whether Saakashvili can repeat his Georgian reforms without having the Putinesque powers he wielded in Georgia.

Won't he simply get sucked into the same reform-blocking morass as the government in Kiev?

“True, but not fully,” says Saakachvili.

Poroshenko gave him the right to put a new chief prosecutor in place (a Georgian) and purge the office -- an essential step as Ukraine’s prosecutors protect the corrupt.

Saakashvili recently replaced the region’s top 10 prosecutors, as well as 26 district heads of administration.

The president also let him install a new police chief (another Georgian), and with U.S. aid he has already put through his signature reform from Georgia: retraining and rebranding the police.

The governor of Kharkiv, a large Ukrainian region on Russia’s border, now says he wants a similar U.S. package for police and prosecution reform.

Just as important as the law enforcement leverage Poroshenko provided is having popular backing for the reforms he wants, says Saakachvili:

In Georgia we had all the time to initiate reforms, sometimes not even to ask them about them and just do it and drag society after us.

Here society is leading the reforms.

Here society wants the reforms, they can articulate the reforms, they can tell you exactly what they want.

You can follow them rather than being followed by them all the time.

That’s a huge difference.

Right now there isn’t a single radical idea that cannot fly well with Ukrainian society.

It’s amazing.

They [the population] have also such a force that all the elite in Kiev is quite scared of them.

Also local elites.

And this is Saakashvili’s pitch: He may not wield absolute power, but he can stir up public support to use as a battering ram to change or defeat Ukraine’s deeply entrenched vested interests.

That’s what he did to get the legislative changes for his police and prosecutorial reforms from the parliament in Kiev, “screaming” in public after weeks of quiet lobbying got him nowhere.

That’s also what will be required to drive through customs reform, enabling him to automate customs at Odessa’s port and so remove the discretionary powers that enable corruption that greases wheels all the way to Kiev.

In parliament, they will try to sabotage the reform package.

Look, for instance, at electronic customs.

There is a whole class of customs brokers who would basically just go out of business as a result.

So of course they will try to block it through technical means; but once you make this debate very public, then again this whole crisis of the public makes it very difficult for them to publicly reject it. 

Clearly, this strategy can only work if Saakashvili and his message are popular, which they seem to be.

On a walkabout with U.S. Senator John McCain last week in downtown Odessa, and at a concert to boost tourism at a former Ottoman fortress along the coast, under-30s wanted selfies with the new governor.

Older generations were more cautious, skeptical of yet another promise to change the system, but willing to wait and see; they too like what he says about fighting corruption.

In a city split roughly half and half between those who identify with Western Europe and Russia, there have -- remarkably -- been no significant protests against Saakashvili’s appointment.

A few changes are starting to materialize.

On top of the new-look police force, Saakashvili has persuaded businessmen responsible for a half-built terminal at Odessa airport to restart construction -- ostensibly by threatening to open a new airport.

On Friday, he inducted the new (all-young, nearly all-female and stilettoed) staff of a one-stop office for registering passports and businesses in minutes rather than weeks or months, due to open on Oct. 10.

With no more queueing and bribing, the center will be popular.

Which is probably why one of the two men who effectively run Odessa, Mayor Gennadiy Trukhmanov, who faces re-election next month, decided to back the document-registration center.

Saakashvili thinks there’s more to it, though.

At the induction, the mayor was eloquent in promoting transparency and attacking corruption.

“The ‘C’ word would never have been mentioned by him a few months ago,” Saakashvili says.

I would never think that in Georgia such people can change.

Here I have my second thoughts.

Maybe part of them can change.

Because this is a critical situation, they understand the country is standing on the edge of the abyss and something needs to be done.


But the other man who runs Odessa is Sergey Kivalov, the powerful law academy chief.

He headed the election commission that stole Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election for former President Viktor Yanukovych, triggering the country’s first, “Orange” revolution.

Meeting Kivalov is like meeting Yanukovych’s twin brother:

He has the same stiff bouffon hair, the same nose flattened like a street-fighter’s and a similar rough-diamond style.

He even, like Yanukovych, owns an over-the-top home that supposedly belongs to the state and is filled with gilded furniture.

It’s known here as the “Harry Potter house.”

So can Saakashvili also work with Kivalov?

“Hardly,” he says.

“Kivalov still runs this whole ring of judges and prosecutors he used to control and basically they are corrupt and that’s the point; it’s why I have doubts about that.”

Kivalov took me around the impressive sports stadium, rare books collection and reading rooms of the law academy he has run since its creation.

“If I was corrupt, how could we have built all this?” he asked.

He finished by showing off the rooms where Saakashvili’s new chief prosecutor is restructuring the prosecution service.

“I voted for these reforms, I’m helping them,” said Kivalov, a legislator in Ukraine’s parliament. 

People in Odessa don’t seem to care greatly about the issue most international commentary focused on after Saakashvili’s appointment, namely that he was a foreigner whose insertion would be seen from Moscow as a U.S. provocation.

What Odessans do care about is that he should change the system and build the road to the European Union he promised -- a pledge every governor in memory has made and failed to deliver.

Kivalov is a good example of how much harder this will be to do in Ukraine than it was in Georgia.

He’s too powerful to ignore, but will seek to make sure the system he helped to build stays intact (for example, he’s pressing for judges to be locally elected, rather than appointed from Kiev, ensuring a hostile government in Kiev can’t eradicate his influence).

So far, though, Saakashvili has just laid foundations for the big changes he needs to make -- his new prosecutors now need to build cases, for example.

It’s hard to see how, on his own timetable, he will have time to drive change through in Ukraine’s corrupt and chaotic democracy:

If Ukraine has six months, he gives himself only another three-to-four in Odessa.

And that’s why it benefits Putin for Western attention to drift away from Ukraine right now; time is on his side.

All the more reason for the EU, as well as the U.S., to get behind Poroshenko’s Hail Mary pass in Odessa, and then in other regions.

If that means the EU getting over its personal wariness of Saakashvili, and of his toxic relationship with Putin, then it’s time.

Source: Bloomberg

Ukraine Crisis: Two 'Russian Soldiers' In Kiev Terror Trial

KIEV, Ukraine -- Two men described as Russian special-forces soldiers have gone on trial in Kiev accused of waging war against Ukrainian troops.

The two men, named by Ukrainian officials as Alexander Alexandrov (R) and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, appeared in a cage on Tuesday.

The pair, named as Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Alexander Alexandrov and alleged to be officers in Russia's GRU foreign military intelligence, were captured in May during fighting in east Ukraine.

Russia insists the men were not serving soldiers when they were detained.

Prosecutors called for life sentences.

The hearing was adjourned.

The two men deny charges of terrorism.

In court - Olga Ivshina, BBC News, Kiev 

The Ukrainian security service says the two men have admitted being members of the Russian military and helping pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

But Yevgeny Yerofeyev denied some of his earlier statements, saying that they had been given under duress.

Alexander Alexandrov has not changed his testimony.

Moscow, which has long claimed there are no Russian servicemen in Ukraine, says the men had retired from the military intelligence service before going to Luhansk to join the separatists.

Some officials have spoken of the possibility of exchanging them for Ukrainian air force pilot Nadia Savchenko, 34, who was captured last year.

Tuesday's hearing coincided with the resumption of Nadia Savchenko's trial in southern Russia, where she is accused of planning the deaths of two Russian journalists in a mortar attack.

She told the court she was captured by rebels in eastern Ukraine before the journalists were killed, and then handed over a week later to Russian forces.

"I am a prisoner of war and a hostage who has been abducted," she said, rejecting Russia's claim that she crossed the border herself, posing as a refugee.

"I was taken across the border against my will."

Ms Savchenko, who has become a Ukrainian MP during her detention in Russia, dismissed the case against her as a "piece of rubbish" when the trial began last week.

'Elite' intelligence team 

The court trying the two Russians in Kiev said the judicial system would look at a request by their defence lawyers for the trial to take place in Luhansk region, where the soldiers were captured.

Their detention last May was a major success for Ukrainian forces, which had long maintained that Russian special forces were playing a key role in the military campaign by pro-Russian rebels.

One Ukrainian was killed during the fighting in which they were captured.

Ukraine's security chief told the BBC at the time that they had been part of a 220-strong GRU team deployed in Luhansk.

While Ukraine and the West have said there is clear evidence of Russian military help, the government in Moscow has argued that only volunteers have joined the separatists in the east.

One of the captured men was shown on an unverified video in May saying he was from the central Russian city of Togliatti, where an elite army intelligence unit is based.

Source: BBC News

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Petro Poroshenko Will Seek To Put Ukraine Conflict Back On U.N.’s Radar

UNITED NATIONS, USA -- President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday morning.

President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine.

What will be Mr. Poroshenko’s priority? 

He arrives in New York seeking ways to bring attention back to the conflict with Russia, and to shore up Western financial and other support for Kiev.

Ukraine has been gradually slipping down the list of urgent world crises, particularly since a shaky cease-fire took hold in the southeast at the beginning of this month.

Mr. Poroshenko said in an interview with Ukrainian television stations that many issues on the United Nations agenda — including peace and security, human rights, and help for people displaced by war — coincide with the problems in Ukraine.

What is the status of the conflict in Ukraine? 

The broad outlines of a peace proposal were agreed on by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, last February.

It has been haphazardly put into effect as a Dec. 31 deadline approaches, however, and the degree of autonomy for the breakaway regions supported by Russia remains a main stumbling block. 

The cease-fire has been attributed partly to the desire of President Vladimir V. Putin to draw attention away from Russia’s role in the conflict ahead of the United Nations meeting, a role Mr. Poroshenko is certain to highlight when he addresses the General Assembly.

While the West is sympathetic to Ukraine’s plight, there are increasing questions about the slow pace of government overhaul.

What would Mr. Poroshenko like to achieve? 

He has said that his aims in New York include discussing changes to the Security Council, in particular diminishing the right of permanent members like Russia to veto resolutions aimed at calming conflicts in which they are involved.

Overhaul is a perennial nonstarter, but Ukraine is campaigning for a nonpermanent Security Council seat for 2016-17, and it needs to look serious about Council issues.

In terms of a direct impact on the Ukraine crisis, a more concrete meeting is set for Friday, when Mr. Poroshenko and Putin, along with the leaders of France and Germany, are scheduled to meet in Paris to discuss the Minsk agreement.

Source: The New York Times

Obama At The U.N.: World Cannot Stand By As Russia Violates Ukraine's Sovereignty

UNITED NATIONS, USA -- In a speech to the United Nations on Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama criticized Russia for its actions in Ukraine and Syria but said he wanted Russia to be a strong partner in international affairs.

Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 28.

Obama also had strong words for Iran, China and Syria in his speech at the 70th session of the U.N. General Assembly, where Russian President Vladimir Putin was due to speak later in the day.

Obama and Putin are also due to meet after months of growing tension between the two countries stemming from Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the subsequent imposition of sanctions by the United States and other Western countries.

“If that happens without consequence in Ukraine, it could happen to any nation gathered here today,” Obama said, adding that the world “cannot stand by” as the sovereignty of Ukraine is violated.

“Look at the results. The Ukrainian people are more interested than ever in aligning with Europe than Russia.”

The president said the U.S. doesn’t want to isolate Russia, but instead wants a “strong Russia” to work with the U.S. to strengthen international order as a whole.

U.S. International sanctions against Russia, which have resulted in a decline in the Russian economy and a weakening ruble over the past year, do not stem from “a desire to return to a cold war,” Obama said.

Obama also addressed the war in Syria, which entered its fifth year in March and said the U.S. is prepared to work with any country, including Russia and Iran, to work to solve the conflict that has killed more than 220,000 people.

Like the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the “apocalyptic cult” of the Islamic State (ISIS) cannot be tolerated, he said.

A U.S.-led coalition has been targeting Islamic State targets for the past several months, military action the U.S. should make “no apologies for,” said Obama.

“When a dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people, that is not just a matter of one nation’s internal affairs—it breeds human suffering on an order of magnitude that affects us all,” Obama said.

Likewise, the brutal executions perpetrated by ISIS are “an assault on all humanity,” he said.

During his address, Putin expressed his support for Assad in fighting ISIS in Syria and said it’s “an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces.”

Russia has been escalating its military presence in Syria, sending fighter jets, tanks and armoured vehicles into the country.

Putin also spoke of creating an international coalition to defeat ISIS, likening such an alliance to the “anti-Hitler coalition” of the Soviet Union, the U.S., the U.K. and France during World War II.

“After arming a regime responsible for atrocities and blocking U.N. action, Putin is now trying to rebrand Assad as a bulwark against ISIS and other extremists,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement emailed to Newsweek following Putin’s remarks.

“Anyone tempted to buy this narrative should remember that the Syrian regime’s brutal tactics against civilians are a bonanza for ISIS recruiters, a major spur for refugee flight, and an obstacle to any peace process.”

Obama spoke about the Iran nuclear deal during his address, which he used as an example of countries successfully working together and obeying laws.

In exchange for the lifting of tough economic sanctions against Iran, the country will have limited access to nuclear materials and will eventually be allowed to pursue a peaceful path to nuclear energy.

While he praised the deal, Obama still warned Iran against the anti-American sentiments expressed by some in Iran. 

“Chanting ‘Death to America’ does not create jobs, or make Iran more secure,” he said.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the nuclear deal is “a brilliant example of victory over war” that can provide the basis for change in the Middle East during his speech on Monday.

He criticized the international community for not doing enough to end conflict in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and blamed the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan for turmoil in the region today.

Obama said the world cannot return to the “old ways of conflict and coercion” and must work together with other countries to prevent future conflicts and instability.

The U.S. learned that lesson in Iraq, he said; billions of dollars and thousands of troops “cannot by itself impose stability on a foreign land.”

“Today, we see the collapse of strong men and fragile states breeding conflict and driving innocent men women and children across borders,” he said.

“Brutal networks of terror have stepped into the vacuum.”

Obama said the U.S. “should have done more” to fill the power gap in Libya left after the death of former Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

“We see some major powers assert themselves in ways that contravene international law,” said Obama.

The president also addressed free speech during his address, saying, “You can jail your opponents, but you can’t imprison ideas.”

Just last month, the U.S. government launched a campaign called #Freethe20, highlighting the plight of 20 female activists; among them are three Chinese women and Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian held in Russian custody.

Obama also criticized China’s aggressive movement in the South China Sea and encouraged China and other claimants of islands in the sea, such as the Phillippines and Vietnam, to “resolve their differences peacefully.”

Later on Monday, Obama will chair a meeting on U.N. peacekeeping operations, which have recently come under fire for allegations of sexual abuse against women and children in some of the countries where peacekeepers operate.

Source: Newsweek

Marine Corps Could Expand Training Mission In Ukraine

YAVORIV, Ukraine -- Marine leaders are considering expanding the Corps' mission in Ukraine by training local troops who could be tasked with taking on Russian-backed separatists.

Ukrainian soldiers stand on top of an armored personal carrier near the front line of defense against pro-Russian separatists. U.S. troops, including Marines, will likely begin training more Ukrainian forces.

Marines could deploy to the Eastern European country to train the Ukrainian naval infantry, said Capt. Richard Ulsh, a spokesman for Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa.

The move would follow a July 25 announcement by the State Department that the U.S. military would expand its mission in the country to include training conventional forces.

U.S. troops were previously only authorized to train Ukrainian national guardsmen.

It also follows an 11-day exercise the Marine Corps concluded in Ukraine in late July.

About 56 Marines from Minnesota-based 4th Law Enforcement Battalion participated in Exercise Saber Guardian, a multinational exercise.

About 1,800 military personnel from the U.S. and several European partners participated in Saber Guardian.

The exercise was held at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center outside Yavoriv in western Ukraine, near Poland — far from front-line fighting in Crimea.

State Department officials said if more U.S. troops head to Ukraine to train members of its military, they also will be far from the front lines.

"As with the training that’s just concluding with the national guard, it’s going to be in western Ukraine, near Poland, near the Poland border," State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told reporters July 24.

Marine officials said the training during Saber Guardian was focused on nonlethal tactics rather than direct combat skills, but a Washington think tanker says it could still help them fight Russian-backed separatists.

“The U.S. always says this as a way to not raise tensions with Russia," Luke Coffey, a former Army captain who’s now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said.

“All this sounds nice and plays well, but the reality is the training can be applied to Russian separatists in Ukraine, even if it is not directly focused on those issues.”

While details are scant about what training Marines might offer Ukrainian naval infantrymen, even nonlethal training will prove useful on the chaotic front near the Crimean peninsula, where fighters are mixed with civilian populations.

The need for nonlethal tactics and equipment on complex battlefields is a point Marine leaders emphasized during a Sept. 22 panel discussion during the Modern Day Marine expo in Quantico, Virginia.

Lt. Gen. Ronald Bailey, deputy commandant for Plans, Policies and Operations, used a photo from Ukraine, depicting what appear to be uniformed Russian troops standing in formation with men in jeans and sneakers, toting AK-47s, to illustrate the types of hybrid threats that are becoming increasingly common.

Marines are likely to find themselves in that sort of fight in the future where on a single urban battlefield they face a fusion of tactics and weaponry from insurgents and conventional military forces.

Ukrainian forces already operate in that environment, Coffey said, and Marines' counterinsurgency knowledge could prove useful to those troops.

“The location, culture and language are different than in Afghanistan or western Iraq, but nevertheless it is an insurgency, so Marines have a lot to offer,” he said.

"The Marines have a decade of COIN experience from Anbar and Helmand," he said, referring to provinces in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.

Source: Marine Corps Times

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Return Of The ‘Afgantsy’

DONETSK, Ukraine -- The sleeve of rebel fighter Yuri Protsenko shows his allegiance in the ongoing conflict in his native Ukraine.

Yuri Protsenko, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, now fights for the largest Russia-backed separatist militia in Ukraine.

He wears the patch of the largest Russia-backed separatist militia in the country, the Vostok Battalion, which he joined in February of last year.

In Kiev, Ihor Panasyuk is readying himself for combat against rebels like Protsenko.

Stout with a silver moustache, the 49-year-old joined the Ukrainian army to protect eastern Ukraine “from becoming another Chechnya,” where Russians and separatists waged two bloody post-Soviet wars.

But while Protsenko and Panasyuk are adversaries today, they are erstwhile brothers-in-arms:

Both fought for the Soviets during the war in Afghanistan, where their time overlapped for one year in 1988.

In the Red Army, Protsenko battled mujahideen in Kabul and Kandahar, where an injury to his right eye gave it a slight tendency to wander.

Panasyuk served as a fighter pilot stationed in the northern Afghan province of Mazar-e-Sharif, and flew out of Afghanistan on the February day that the Soviet Union withdrew its troops in 1989.

Although the two never met, they may face each other today across the front line of an entirely different war in their home country.

The two men are not alone.

Once participants on a key battleground of the Cold War, where U.S.-backed guerrilla fighters dealt a humiliating blow to the Soviet Union and the Afghan military it trained, Afghan war vets are again taking up arms in Ukraine by the thousands—whether on the side of the separatists or for the Ukrainian government.

For these men, called “Afgantsy” in Russian, the impulse to fight is almost innate—a response to what they view as another proxy war between the West, which backs Ukraine, and Russia, which openly supports the separatists.

Despite their age, for many Afgantsy, the nearly 2-year-old Ukraine conflict, which has killed almost 8,000 people and displaced at least 1.4 million, is a natural next step.

It is their third war in at least 25 years, with the 1990s Chechen wars sandwiched in between.

The middle-aged fighters’ hardened reserve, combined with much-needed combat experience, makes them desirable in a conflict defined by poverty and incompetence, in which recruits on both sides have been accused of robbery, drug-dealing and hard drinking.

“Afgantsy don’t sit about at home, twiddling our thumbs,” Protsenko told me at cafĂ© in Donetsk, the capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, which pro-Russian rebels seized last year.

Garbed in camouflage and a teal-colored beret, he puffed on a cigarette, making his chest, festooned with Afghan war medals, heave up and down as he told me, “We know how to deal with blood, with wounds, with artillery.”

Panasyuk, who, like Protsenko, was en route to Horlovka, one of a string of bullet-riddled towns near the de-facto border separating the Donetsk statelet from the rest of Ukraine, echoed Protsenko’s claims to Afgantsy battle-readiness—“we know what war is, and what it isn’t”—but he doesn’t see his “brothers” from Afghanistan as his enemy; instead it is Russian President Vladimir Putin, Panasyuk told me, reaching up every now and then to touch the Soviet dog tag still on his neck, as if it were an amulet.

The presence of the Afgantsy is certainly felt.

Hundreds of pro-Ukraine Afgantsy took part in Kiev’s 2014 Maidan revolution, which drove out the Moscow-backed government.

Now, according to the Security Service of Ukraine, known as the SBU, there are thousands of Afgantsy fighting as part of the 232,000-strong Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Representatives from the Ukrainian Union of Afghan War Veterans, a non-governmental volunteer group, say there are at least hundreds taking part on the Russian-backed side of the conflict, though some rebels estimate the number to be in the thousands.

It is widely rumored that even rebel commander Igor Bezler (whose nom de guerre is “Demon”)—the man the SBU blames for the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine a year ago—served in Afghanistan in the early 1980s, though he will neither confirm nor deny this.

The Soviet war in Afghanistan, which began in December 1979 and ended a little more than nine years later, remains a painful chapter in former Soviets’ collective memory.

It hastened the bankruptcy and 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

After Russia, Ukraine suffered the second-largest losses from the war, with at least 2,500 dead soldiers and thousands more wounded.

The toll on Afghanistan, meanwhile, was horrific:

One million people were killed, the country’s agriculture was destroyed and a third of its population fled, creating the largest single-country refugee crisis the world had then known—not to mention that Moscow’s invasion sparked a cycle of violence that continues today.

For many of the 90,000 Afgantsy who returned home (at least 15,000 did not), a hero’s welcome was rare.

As in other conflicts—there is a strong likeness to the American experience in Vietnam—what Afgantsy saw as an increasingly pointless war made returning to normal life extremely difficult.

“In Afghanistan, we bombed not only the detachments of rebels and their caravans, but our own ideals as well,” the prominent Russian journalist Artyom Borovik, who embedded multiple times with Soviet troops, wrote in his book The Hidden War.

This mix of disillusionment with the Soviet leadership and the scorn heaped on returning soldiers led many Afgantsy to form tight-knit support communities at home.

In Ukraine, these communities, mostly set up as branches of the veterans’ union, were instrumental in organizing fighters for the current war.

Source: Politico

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Dangerous Link Between Syria And Ukraine

WASHINGTON, DC -- Despite what Vladimir Putin is saying, the United States still staunchly refuses to believe Russia is engaged in a new Cold War — and that the U.S. is losing.

Vladimir Putin has used the fighting in both countries to trap the U.S.

But Russia aggressively pushes its own narrative where U.S. leadership is absent.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seems to be everywhere in recent weeks, speaking several times with his US counterpart and others in the region, selling Russia as a partner for peace and stability when the West is faced with crisis.

Experts from the left and right alike warn that cooperation with Russia on Syria can have potentially disastrous consequences for the U.S., but too many Americans still don’t understand how closely linked these two headline conflicts are, and American policy has yet to confront the reality that Syria and Ukraine are part of the same mission for Russia — the destruction of the post-WWII architecture of the West.

To achieve this goal, Russia has pursued a clear policy of disruption, chaos and destabilization — in Ukraine and in the Middle East — in order to force the West to have to partner with Russia to “resolve” the crises it has created.

Now, poised to launch a direct military campaign in Syria, Russia wants the U.S. to join a Russian-led coalition against the Islamic State and complete the rehabilitation of Bashar al Assad, or else end up in direct conflict with Russia in the Middle East.

Indeed, many of the anti-aircraft and other Russian weapons systems being moved to Syria are more suited to shooting at American drones and assets than anything the Islamic State has access to.

This suggested coalition is little more than a well-constructed trap for the White House and for Europe.

Russia created the conflict in Ukraine.

Their military support for Assad fuels a bloody civil war and a refugee crisis from Syria.

Russian efforts have also materially aided in the creation of the Islamic State — the wealthiest, best-armed terrorist network in history.

Understanding how Russia has engineered the false choice between accepting Russia as a dominant force in its “sphere of influence” or the proliferation of conflict is essential to accepting that neither choice is the answer.

Too often policy analysts debate whether the Kremlin is strategic or merely tactical in its approach to foreign policy.

But the answer doesn’t matter.

They don’t need a master plan when one clear strategic objective drives decision-making: make the U.S. the enemy — and make them look weak.

The Kremlin has been opportunistic and decisive in grabbing a position of strength — in the Middle East and in Europe — while U.S. attention has waned and retracted.

When the civil uprising against Assad first began in Syria, the rebellion’s leaders hoped for western support.

Support for the rebels was slow to materialize, despite early calls for Assad to leave power, but Russia — eager to protect its military foothold on the Mediterranean and on the southern flank of NATO — was quick to line up against U.S. policy and supply Assad with arms, military advisers, intelligence and political support.

After Syria deployed chemical weapons against rebels and civilians in August 2013, Russia brokered a deal with the U.S. to save Assad from outside military intervention.

Russian support for Assad has allowed the civil war to continue for years at such an intense level of bloodshed and destruction.

But shipments of armaments were not their only tool for saving their primary regional ally.

They are also involved in building an engine of terrorism to open a second front in the Syrian war.

By the time the chemical weapons deal was signed, the nature of the war in Syria had changed.

Before the 2014 Sochi Olympics — as Russia issued warnings about potential attacks by North Caucasus extremists and moved military assets into the region for the seizure of Crimea—there were rumors, now confirmed by Russian investigative journalists, that Russia was actively exporting fighters from the North Caucasus to Syria.

Elena Milashina, writing in Novaya Gazeta, documented how, beginning in 2011, the FSB established safe routes for militants in the North Caucasus to reach Syria via Turkey.

Local FSB officers, sometimes with the help of local intermediaries and community leaders, encouraged and aided jihadis to leave Russia for the fighting in the Middle East, in many cases providing documents that allowed them to travel.

It probably wasn’t a hard sell for the FSB to make to nascent jihadis:

Go fight in the desert, for infinite riches and glory, or stay in Russia, where the security services had pretty good cover to kill a lot of them.

A lot of them left.

In late 2012, Russian-speaking jihadis began to arrive in Syria.

According to regional intelligence sources who have closely tracked their movements and activities, the Russian-speakers negotiated the unification of the Islamic States in Syria and in Iraq, creating the current Islamic State formation.

Suddenly, the war in Syria was “confusing” to American policymakers seeking a way out of the war and an end to Assad’s regime.

There were “good rebels” and “bad rebels,” and the U.S. couldn’t decide which side to support.

These tactics were similar to the irregular warfare Russia would deploy in Ukraine.

The war at that point also turned away from Assad and Syria, and toward Iraq instead.

The western front of ISIL was led by Russian-speakers; the eastern commanders included disenfranchised Soviet/Russian-trained Saddam-era Sunni military officers.

From the beginning, their efforts were closely coordinated.

There were reports from Kurdish forces of Russian operatives at secret outposts in the desert. 

Meanwhile, back in Russia, the jihad in the North Caucasus was steadily depleted.

Crimea was seized and annexed in 2014.

Russia’s information war portrays Assad as a champion against terrorism, with the help of Russian and Iranian support.

This Middle Eastern narrative is a key instrument for distracting attention from the war in Ukraine. 

The war in the Donbass has grown quiet, and will likely stay that way until Putin makes his first speech before the UN General Assembly in 10 years on September 28.

This is a part of his strategy to strong-arm the Obama White House into supporting Russia’s actions in Syria.

Putin will speak about Ukraine and the war on terror — while Russian deployments to Syria escalate, with many of the same shadow special forces units launch from Sevastopol to Damascus.

Syrian refugees flood Europe and create political crisis.

Many European leaders have stated that Russia must be part of the solution in Syria — despite the chaos it’s purposefully creating in Ukraine.

This is, of course, exactly what Russia wants.

A global expansion of the “reset:” partner with Russia to solve the crises it has created while ignoring its bad deeds.

Russia’s strategy has included the empowerment of other bad-news actors.

Russia has pushed for the U.S. nuclear deal with Shiite Iran; Russia will also benefit from the deal commercially and financial and in terms of the strengthened positioned for its ally in the region.

Russia has simultaneously used the dissatisfaction of regional Sunni powers to cultivate relationships with traditional American allies: increasing economic, nuclear and military cooperation with Egypt; negotiating a nuclear deal with Jordan; coordinating energy policy with the Saudis.

Russia now pushes for an anti-terrorism coalition to complete the rehabilitation of Assad, undermine the U.S. position on Syria, likely force an end to the sanctions imposed because of its actions in Ukraine and position Russia as a regional leader.

As a bonus, Vladimir Putin could erase another despised democratic revolt by ending the Syrian people’s desire for freedom.

In Moscow’s eyes, this is victory over the U.S. Both in Ukraine and in Syria, Russia created chaos to become the center of all U.S. policy options in the Middle East and Europe — or so it would have the U.S. believe.

Absent real leadership on U.S. foreign policy, the Kremlin has been successful at manipulating what they view as an indecisive and disinterested U.S. president into caving to their demands.

In the Kremlin’s best case scenario, the U.S. and Russia become allies, killing Chechen jihadis and re-entrenching Assad, and they receive new concessions to bolster their efforts to destabilize the government in Kiev.

With their bluster and threats, they encourage the White House to see the alternative as pursuing separate policies over Syria and ISIL and possibly end up in direct conflict — a Vietnam for the post-Cold War era.

It is the outcome Putin has craved since the war in Georgia in 2008 — forcing the U.S. to back down from direct confrontation, empowering the Russian exceptionalist narrative that he so hauntingly outlined when he called for the annexation of Crimea.

After slow half-measures in response to two conflicts fueled by Russian money and military support, Putin feels certain that Obama will not risk even a proxy military confrontation with Moscow.

And with one year left in the U.S. presidency, he sees now as the time to act.

Cultivating an engine of terrorism to save Assad and distract from Ukraine is a dangerous game — but Russia’s risk/reward calculus is far different from ours.

ISIL may be more volatile than the “green men,” the Russian special forces troops deployed without national flags in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, but the potential prize is far greater:

Russia doesn’t need to challenge NATO’s Article 5 collective defense principal if it can neutralize the United States.

This will impact the outcome in Ukraine and across the frontier of Europe, put frontline nations in the Baltics at further risk and determine the future of NATO.

U.S. policy has failed to develop effective responses to end the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria or slow the expansion of ISIL, and now many nations are at risk.

The next U.S. president will likely come to office facing a world in which U.S. interests are challenged and compromised, and in which the architecture of Western security is at risk.

Without the alliance structures we have relied on to provide peace and stability since World War II, it will be more costly and dangerous for the United States to defend itself and its interests.

But the current U.S. president can still act to ensure the world is not adrift to the manipulations of an alliance of tyrants.

Russia has constructed a dangerous geopolitical trap for U.S. policy.

The way out requires the U.S. to develop adequate policy positions and stop equivocating about what Russia is doing in Ukraine and Syria.

This policy must also be enforced, instead of revised and retreated from each time Russia manufactures a new opportunity to bully us.

Provide Ukraine defensive arms and intelligence support; re-engage the Middle East and stop apologizing for Iraq; and confront Russian actions in the region and beyond.

The answer to the crises in Ukraine and Syria, and the refugee crisis and the blossoming threat of ISIL, is in facing the centrality of Russia’s role in these conflicts and taking the lead [which Obama will never do].

Source: Politico

Obama And Putin To Meet Monday, With Syria And Ukraine On Menu

WASHINGTON/MOSCOW -- U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet in New York on Monday at a time of high tension in Europe and the Middle East, but the Kremlin and the White House disagreed on Thursday over the top priority for the talks.

President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on June 17, 2013.

The White House insisted the meeting would focus on eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed forces are fighting the Kiev government, prompting tough sanctions that have damaged Russia's economy. 

Moscow said the main focus would be on Syria, where Russia has built up its military forces in recent weeks with combat aircraft, tanks and other equipment in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters: "Of course, the primary topic will be Syria."

Asked whether Ukraine would be discussed, he said: "Well, if time allows."

"There will be time," Obama's spokesman, Josh Earnest, retorted during a briefing in Washington.

Earnest, speaking at the White House, played down the possibility for any "major announcement" from the meeting.

Obama and Putin will hold a bilateral meeting on Monday afternoon during the three-day session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, the White House said.

White House officials said Obama would push Putin to explain how his country's military presence in Syria will contribute to the defeat of Islamic State.

The two camps also differed over who called for the meeting.

The Kremlin said it was organized "by mutual agreement," but Earnest said it was being held at Putin's request.

He said the Russians were "more desperate" to talk to their American counterparts because of the economic sanctions' impact.

Past meetings between the two leaders have been frosty.

One encounter in June 2013, which also focused on Syria, resulted in a famous photo of the leaders looking distant and glum.

Earnest said Putin had used similar body language in a photo after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week.

The United States also hopes to advance political talks on Syria at other General Assembly meetings, Sheba Crocker, assistant secretary for international organization affairs, told a State Department briefing.

But Crocker said the United States would not back a U.N. Security Council statement on countering terrorism proposed by Russia because of fears it would send the wrong message to U.S. partners in the fight against Islamic State militants in Syria.

Source: NBC News

The West Is Moving Russia’s Way, On Syria And Even Ukraine

LONDON, England -- Meetings between heads of government have become commonplace. But Monday's between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin is something special.

Ignore the misleading briefings. It is Vladimir Putin who is precipitating change in US and UK policy.

They have not met formally for nearly two and a half years.

The last encounter, planned, for August 2013, was brusquely cancelled by Obama because “there was nothing to talk about”.

The main undiscussable issue was Syria.

The United States wanted President Assad instantly out; Russia feared chaos without him.

Ukraine crisis pushed the relationship further downhill.

Russia, seeing a Western attack on its interests, responded by seizing Crimea and supporting separatist war in eastern Ukraine.

The West retaliated with tough sanctions.

Even co-operation to achieve this year’s Iran agreement (which needed Russian Security Council assent) did not lift the Obama/Putin chill.

So Monday’s meeting is a dramatic reversal.

Already the two sides are spinning it differently.

The Americans say the Russians were “desperate” for it, while the Russians say it was by mutual consent.

And the Americans say it will be all about Obama taking Putin to task over Ukraine, while the Russians say the main item of business will be Syria.

In fact, behind the misleading briefings, it is plainly the build-up of Russian troops in Syria that has precipitated the meeting.

Western commentators have offered the normal range of fanciful explanations for this: to replace the fading US presence in the region, or to put pressure on the Saudis over oil prices.

The reality is simpler.

As Putin says (and on this is to be believed), Russia’s overriding aim is to block the rise of Islamic fundamentalism which is a direct domestic threat to them in the Caucasus and elsewhere.

They have seen the West bungle this, notably by the chaos left behind in Iraq and Libya.

The West’s support for a moderate opposition in Syria is a delusion (didn’t the responsible US general tell Congress a few days ago that that opposition had “four or five” US-trained soldiers in the field?).

The only choice in Syria is between the nasty (Assad) and the nasty and dangerous (Islamic State).

Unconstrained by public opinion or any concern for human rights, this is a no-brainer for Putin.

He is bolstering the faltering Assad to prevent IS inheriting Syria.

And, he adds, the West, which is as threatened by IS as Russia, should join him.

Western policy does seem to be moving the way Putin wants.

The US and (as of Friday) the UK, having spent years demanding Assad’s instant departure, now concede that he might stay on in an “interim” capacity.

The US Defence Secretary, after a year of refusing contact with his Russian opposite number, opened such contact last week in order to “deconflict” the two countries’ actions on the ground.

Whatever the obfuscations around Monday’s meeting, Syria will be a key part of the agenda.

Obama will also tackle Putin on Ukraine.

But here, too, it looks as though the debate is moving in Russia’s direction.

In February this year, when the Minsk II Peace Agreement was signed as the basis for a ceasefire and political settlement, both the US and the UK were dismissive.

The agreement, we quietly said, would rapidly collapse.

Our policy remained to “change Putin’s calculus”, meaning to use sanctions to compel Russia to back down.

But this has not worked.

With all its imperfections, Minsk has in fact helped to end the fighting, and is still very much in play.

And, while the sanctions have done some economic damage, they have not changed one jot Putin’s determination to retain Crimea and the whip hand in eastern Ukraine.

On the contrary, they have cemented Russian public opinion firmly behind him.

The avowed aim of sanctions has therefore quietly shifted to ensuring Russian observance of Minsk.

When Obama says this to him Monday, Putin can only agree.

He wants Minsk to work, too.

He has got roughly what he wants in Ukraine and hopes now to get back to a more normal relationship with the West.

The Ukrainian crisis is not over.

We are in for some rough moments this autumn.

The political provisions of Minsk will begin to fray as the two Ukrainian sides continue to refuse to talk to each other.

The official report on the downing of the Malaysian airliner, due next month, will almost certainly blame the rebels, and provoke a storm of further criticism of Russia.

And the end-of-year deadline for closing the Russian/Ukrainian border will certainly not be met.

But the major players are now talking rather than shooting.

While we are not yet out of the tunnel, we may well be approaching the exit ramp.

So is Russia on a roll?

Sensible Russians will welcome their country’s foreign policy successes, but also have real worries.

The danger of the Putin regime, unconstrained by public opinion or parliament, overconfidently blundering into some further foreign adventure is high.

And Russia’s core problem, its underperforming domestic economy, remains acute.

There is no sign of any will to tackle the corrupt clientelism that keeps Russia poor and earns public detestation.

Politically sensitive public benefits, such as pensions, are under pressure.

Next year brings parliamentary elections whose outcome can be massaged but not entirely fixed.

Putin’s real nightmare is not Western sanctions but Goldman Sachs’ prediction that the oil price could fall to $20 a barrel.

The support of his people is at the moment overwhelming, but how long can it last if living standards collapse?

Nevertheless, Vladimir Putin may recall Madeleine Albright’s description in 1998 of the US as the “indispensable nation”, vital to tackling the world’s problems.

And he may take some pleasure in his discussion with Barack Obama in noting that, for some of those problems – Iran, Syria, Ukraine – Russia, too, is indispensable.

Source: The Independent

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ukraine Bans Russian Airlines From Flying Into The Country

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine banned Russian airlines from flying into the country in an effort to pressure Moscow over its backing of rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine has decided to ban Russian airlines from its soil.

During a meeting Friday, Cabinet ministers also prohibited transit flights of Russian airlines via Ukraine, "if they contain military goods, dual use or Russian military manpower," according to a statement by the government.

"Russian aircraft with Russian tricolor have nothing to do in Ukrainian airports," Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said at the meeting.

The ban will include Russia's largest carrier, Aeroflot, and is set to take effect October 25.

An 'act of insanity' 

Moscow called the ban an act of "lunacy."

"Suspension of air service between Russia and Ukraine would be another act of insanity," Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying Friday by state media.

"Looking back at the past 20 months, we cannot deny a hypothetical possibility of such acts of lunacy on the part of Kiev."

Nearly 8,000 people have lost their lives as a result of the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Despite some isolated violations, Kiev and international monitors insist the ceasefire agreement between the military and separatists in the eastern part of the country is still holding.

Obama, Putin to meet 

President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, will meet during next week's gathering of the United Nations General Assembly, a senior administration official said.

During their bilateral discussion, Obama will press Putin to deescalate tensions in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian forces continue to clash with the Ukrainian military.

The two leaders' relationship has soured since Moscow's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, a military action that resulted in Russia's expulsion from the G8 group of world leaders.

Putin has said there's no chance Crimea -- which Russia annexed last year -- will go back in Ukraine. 

Russia has denied widespread claims that it is supporting the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and has sent its own troops to the border.

Source: CNN

U.S. Ambassador Upbraids Ukrainian Prosecutors Over Anticorruption Efforts

KIEV, Ukraine -- The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine has accused the country’s Prosecutor-General’s Office of obstructing efforts to combat corruption and shielding its own employees from graft investigations.

U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt.

Western governments supporting Ukraine’s reform agenda have repeatedly stressed the need for Kiev to tackle endemic corruption.

But the comments by Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt were unusually blunt for a U.S. official speaking before the public. 

Pyatt told a group of business executives and investors in Odessa that the Prosecutor-General’s Office is an “obstacle” to anticorruption reforms by failing to “successfully fight internal corruption."

“Rather than supporting Ukraine’s reforms and working to root out corruption, corrupt actors within the Prosecutor-General’s Office are making things worse by openly and aggressively undermining reform,” Pyatt said in the September 24 speech.

“They intimidate and obstruct the efforts of those working honestly on reform initiatives within that same office,” Pyatt said.

“The United States stands behind those who challenge these bad actors."

There was no immediate reaction to Pyatt's comments, either by the Prosecutor-General’s Office or by the government of President Petro Poroshenko.

He called for an investigation of officials within the Prosecutor-General’s Office who he says stymied efforts to pursue tens of millions of dollars in “illicit assets” that former Ukrainian official Mykola Zlochevskiy held in Britain.

Zlochevskiy served as environment and natural resources minister under former President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally whose ouster amid mass street protests in 2014 triggered events that led to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and a bloody war with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Zlochevskiy, who earned a reputation for lavishness, was placed on Ukraine's most-wanted list in December for a host of alleged economic crimes.

Pyatt said that “those responsible for subverting the case” against Zlochevskiy “should -- at a minimum -- be summarily terminated.”

Since his appointment by Poroshenko in February, Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin has faced accusations of stalling high-profile corruption cases against allies of Yanukovych.

Shokin signed a decree on September 22 establishing a special anticorruption department within the Prosecutor-General’s Office.

Pyatt urged the audience to “speak up in support of these brave investigators and prosecutors” leading this department, who “have delivered important arrests and have sent the signal that those who abuse their official positions as prosecutors will be investigated and prosecuted.”

“Give them the resources and support to successfully prosecute these and future cases,” he said.

The Black Sea port of Odessa, where Pyatt spoke, is a notorious hub for crime and drug trafficking and has come under additional pressure with the arrival of Ukrainians displaced by war to the east.

It is the main city in the Odessa region, which is led by Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia who was named governor by Poroshenko in May.

Earlier this month, Saakashvili accused officials in Kiev of sabotaging his attempts to enact the kind of sweeping reforms, including a harsh crackdown on corruption, that he is widely credited with conducting during his presidency in Georgia. 

Pyatt said Odessa’s “vision for reform is transformative.”

“If successful, Odessa can be a model of transparent, accountable government and business,” he said. 

Ukraine is near the bottom of global rankings of corrupt nations, according to Transparency International.

The German-based advocacy group last December called Ukraine “still the most corrupt country in Europe.”

Source: Radio Free Europe

Flight MH17: Russia Could Face Legal Action Over Downing Of Jet Over Ukraine

UNITED NATIONS, USA -- Countries whose nationals lost their lives when the Malaysia Airlines flight went down gather at the UN general assembly to discuss their options.

Emergencies ministry members walk at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in Donetsk on 17 July 2014.

Russia could face a barrage of legal action over the downing of flight MH17 as affected countries gather in New York to discuss their options.

Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, will meet with her counterparts from Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine on Tuesday during the annual United Nations general assembly meeting.

One of the proposals is for a tribunal similar to that established to prosecute Libyan suspects over the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Scotland.

Nations that lost some of the 298 passengers and crew in the Malaysia Airlines disaster over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 are also looking at launching separate prosecutions. 

A report by the Dutch led-investigation team, set to be published on 13 October, is understood to include evidence the plane was brought down by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from separatist territory in eastern Ukraine.

Russia has denied any involvement but in July used its veto power at the UN to block a resolution that would have formed a tribunal to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The tribunal would not require UN approval, and could be established through a treaty by all of the countries that lost citizens and residents.

A further option could be a fresh attempt at a UN security council resolution.

However, this is unlikely until after the investigation report is concluded.

It is understood several international lawyers are working on the options.

A draft report on the disaster has ruled out mechanical failure.

Bishop said at the time of the resolution debate that Russia’s UNSC motion veto “compounded the atrocity”, but she remained determined to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Source: The Guardian

Friday, September 25, 2015

Progress in Ukraine: Look West, Maidan

KIEV, Ukraine -- You would be forgiven for thinking that the crisis in Ukraine is past its worst. Although the Minsk agreements are honoured in the breach and artillery fire still echoes across the Donbass, there has been little real combat for months.

The revolution in Ukraine is being smothered by corruption and special interests.

The separatists have given up extending their territory, Russia has given up sending them heavy reinforcements, and Ukraine has given up trying to defeat them.

A chance to resolve lingering disagreements will come on October 2nd when the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany meet in Paris.

Although Western powers are surely tempted to turn their attention elsewhere, that would be a mistake.

The shooting war was never the only conflict in Ukraine—nor even the most vital one.

The Maidan revolution was an attempt to replace a corrupt post-Soviet government with a modern European-style one based on the rule of law.

Ordinary people challenged Vladimir Putin’s vision of a distinct “Russian World” unsuited to liberal democracy.

What is at stake in Ukraine is thus the future of the entire post-Soviet region.

Get clean, Ukraine 

As yet, Putin does not have much to worry about. Ukraine’s reformers have tried, but their war on corruption is not going well.

The Ukrainian state, like the Russian one, still resembles a giant mafia.

It administers the country (reluctantly), but its main purpose is to generate graft and it governs largely by dishing out the proceeds.

Oligarchs and their political cronies still dominate Ukrainian life.

Should the government do too much to fight corruption, the oligarchs may use their private armies to stage a coup.

Should the government do too little, angry Maidan veterans might stage one themselves.

That could leave Europe with a failed state on its borders contested by rival militias—a European Syria.

What Ukraine requires is more direct help from outside.

The government has already brought in technocrats from across central and eastern Europe, and members of the Ukrainian diaspora.

The West should urgently send more.

The notion that foreigners can solve a country’s corruption problems sounds dubious, but it has worked elsewhere—in Guatemala, for instance, a UN-sponsored agency staffed by expatriate lawyers has brought justice, even indicting the country’s former president.

Ukrainian civil-society groups are begging for outside help.

Western donors now propose to top up the salaries of Ukrainian officials in an attempt to curb the temptation to take bribes.

Some officials will take both the top-up and the graft.

Better still to send in outsiders.

Information is needed, too.

Putin’s vision reaches Ukrainians through Russia’s slick television channels.

Ukraine’s stations, mostly owned by oligarchs, are dreary by comparison.

The budgets of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the BBC World Service have been cut since the cold war; their Ukrainian- and Russian-language services now need beefing up.

Ukraine’s other needs, such as infrastructure, are more expensive—though less so than coping with the cost of a failed state.

But liberal democracies have a stake in Ukraine’s success.

To bring down their president in the winter of 2013, roughly 100,000 Ukrainians braved gas canisters and bullets not because they wanted war with Russia, but because they wanted to live in a “normal” country.

The Maidan demonstrators wanted a reasonably non-corrupt, reasonably effective, liberal democratic system like the ones they saw in Europe.

So far they have not got what they sought.

If liberal democracies cannot help such people realise their dream, then they should not be surprised when the discontented masses conclude that liberal democracy has nothing to offer them.

Source: The Economist

Carter Reaffirms U.S. Commitment To Ukraine

WASHINGTON, DC -- The United States will continue to back the Ukrainian military’s right to defend itself when Russian-separatist forces attack its positions, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said today.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (L), hosts an honor cordon to welcome Ukrainan Defense Minister Col.-Gen. Stepan Poltorak to the Pentagon, Sept. 24, 2015. The two defense leaders met to discuss matters of mutual importance.

In a joint news conference with Ukrainian Defense Minister Col.-Gen. Stepan Poltorak following their meeting during Poltorak’s first visit to the Pentagon, Carter reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Ukraine and praised his counterpart for his leadership and fortitude “at a critical time for the security of his country, the region and the world.”

Ukraine has made “a genuine effort to live up to its Minsk commitments, and has shown considerable restraint in the face of provocations and attacks,” the secretary said, referring to a February ceasefire agreement.

Carter said the U.S. message to Russia stands firm as the United States is “adjusting its posture and investments to deter Russian aggression, and working with NATO and other security partners to do the same.”

The Defense Department will continue ongoing U.S.-Russia military talks on issues in Syria and countering the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, where mutual interests overlap, he said.

But those talks will neither take away from the strong U.S. condemnation of Russian actions in Ukraine nor change U.S. sanctions and security support in response to destabilizing actions, he added. 

Productive Meeting 

The two leaders met previously at the recent NATO defense ministerial conference and discussed their nations’ strong defense relationship, Carter said.

“Today, we had a productive meeting and built on that discussion in Brussels [to find] ways to sustain and strengthen those commitments, including ongoing security assistance to Ukraine’s armed forces and border guard service,” the secretary said.

“[Poltorak] described to me today the very admirable steps he’s been taking to strengthen the Ukrainian armed forces, and I was very impressed,” he added.

While recent reports of a general reduction of violence in Ukraine are encouraging, the secretary said, the United States still sees a failure to fully uphold the Minsk commitments by Russia and the separatists.

“That’s why we’re committed to helping Ukraine safely and effectively operate, secure and defend its border, and preserve and enforce its territorial integrity,” he said.

The secretary noted the United States has provided Ukraine with more than $244 million in equipment and training, including Humvees, counter-mortar radar, night vision gear, body armor and medical equipment, and he said strengthening Ukraine's training capacity will strengthen its defense capability.

And by the end of November, he added, “we will have trained 900 Ukrainian national guard personnel, and we are commencing training the regular Ukrainian armed forces.

Grateful for Support 

Thanking all the nations that support Ukraine during what he called “a difficult time, Poltorak emphasized the particular importance of U.S. support as his country fights for its democracy.

The minister described the U.S.-Ukraine relationship “as good as ever before,” and said he invited Carter to visit his country and see the many changes made to its economy and its armed forces and how the nation is “building a Ukraine that will be a European country with democratic values in which its people are treated as [the] first priority.”

The United States and Ukraine must stand together going forward “to overcome all the challenges we’re facing right now,” the minister said.

“I’m very happy the United States and other countries … are supporting us,” he added.

“Together, we will win.”

Source: US Department of Defense

Ukraine Crisis: Rebels Order UN Agencies To Leave

LUHANSK, Ukraine -- The UN humanitarian aid chief has expressed alarm after UN agencies were ordered out of rebel-held parts of the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine.

Some 150,000 people in rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine were not receiving monthly food distributions, the UN warned.

Stephen O'Brien said the agencies had been told to leave by Friday, and several international non-governmental organisations (NGO) by Saturday.

The Luhansk separatists had earlier banned 10 international humanitarian agencies citing "violations".

Pro-Russian rebels seized parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions last year.

Almost 8,000 people have been killed since fighting erupted in eastern Ukraine in April 2014, a month after Russia annexed the southern Crimea peninsula.

'Psychotropic medication' 

In a statement, Mr O'Brien said the "de facto authorities" in Luhansk had ordered the UN agencies and NGOs to leave the area.

He also said all UN agency operations had been suspended in the rebel-held parts of Donetsk.

Mr O'Brien urged the separatists in "both Luhansk and Donetsk to ensure the immediate resumption of UN and international NGO activities".

He warned that restrictions on humanitarian shipments had prevented delivery of some 16,000 tons of vital supplies.

"Hospitals cannot perform surgery because they lack anaesthesia. Some 150,000 people are not receiving monthly food distributions," Mr O'Brien said.

On Thursday the Luhansk rebels refused to register 10 out of 11 foreign NGOs because of "violations".

They accused one of the banned NGOs - Doctors Without Borders - of "illegally storing psychotropic medication".

The NGO denies the allegation.

Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of arming the separatists and also sending its regular troops in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow denies this, but admits that Russian "volunteers" fight alongside the rebels.

The EU and the US have imposed their own sanctions against Russian officials and top allies of President Vladimir Putin.

A ceasefire in eastern Ukraine has been holding in the past two weeks, although there have been reports of occasional shelling.

Source: BBC News

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Cybersleuth Points To Russian Tank Unit In Eastern Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- An open-source researcher in Ukraine has become the latest cybersleuth to seemingly add a chink to Russia's armor of denial about troop and arms deployments to support separatists in eastern Ukraine.

A Russian soldier stands next to a T-72B3 tank with the tactical sign of the 6th Tank Division.

The researcher, who identifies himself as Askai707, details evidence on his LiveJournal blog of alleged involvement one year ago of Russia's 6th Tank Brigade in a prominent strategic and symbolic battlefield win for the separatists.

Ukrainian forces suffered heavy casualties trying to capture the city of Ilovaysk in the Donetsk region in August 2014.

Pro-Russian forces had encircled them, and an agreement was reportedly reached by both sides to allow the Ukrainians to evacuate from inside what became known as the "Ilovaysk Kettle."

However, that deal was not honored and 366 Ukrainian soldiers, according to the Ukrainian military, were killed by pro-Russian forces while trying to escape in what many described as a massacre.

It was one of the Ukrainian military's most humiliating defeats in eastern Ukraine.

Kiev accused Moscow of sending in troops and tanks to help the rebels, and this fresh research appears to back Ukraine's claims.

Askai707 tracked down many of soldiers of Russia's 6th Tank Brigade, following their cybertrail thanks to their own social-media postings, namely on VKontakte, the biggest Russian-language social-networking site.

"I think it's very compelling. I think there's a good range of different sources that clearly point to Russian tanks and soldiers crossing in this specific incident," Elliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, which has used open sources and social media to carry out its own widely acclaimed probe of Russian military involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, including the downing of Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, says of Askai707's findings.

'100 Percent Certain' 

Bellingcat posted an English-language version of Askai707's post on its own site.

"Time and time again we're finding Russian equipment and Russian soldiers we can identify in Russia and then they head to the border and suddenly we see them in Ukraine,” Higgins told RFE/RL in a telephone interview on September 23.

He noted the similarity to Bellingcat's own research and said that "you find this time and time again with the Russian military."

"Loads of young guys who are serving, posting lots of pictures, and photographs, and reports online about their activities as part of the unit," Higgins said.

"It probably seems innocent when they're thinking, 'Oh, it's just one or two photos I'm posting,' but when you've got 200 guys in the same unit posting one or two photographs you've got a massive amount of information," Higgins said.

The report also tracks down a T-72B3 tank that was first captured by a Ukrainian unit and then seized back by the separatists.

"And what was interesting there was they pulled out a document from there that actually had the name of one of the soldiers [whom] the writer originally identified. When you've got those kind of documents being produced, as something separate from the actual investigation, I think that's very interesting indeed," Higgins said.

According to the website Military Today, the T-72B3 is an upgrade to the T-72B tank.

The first versions of this tank were reportedly delivered to the Russian Army in 2013.

Higgins said the Askai707 posting on September 17 had encouraged others to come forward on the Russian tank division in question.

"In fact, after this article was published on the tank unit, someone sent me a video that was published by a Ukrainian military unit, which actually showed what appears to be one of the soldiers from that unit who was captured inside Ukraine. Of course, at the time, it's very difficult to say, 'Well, are we sure these are Russian soldiers?' Because you don't have this body of evidence we now have," Higgins said.

"But now...we can be 100 percent certain, it's the same person in the video and the information that was collected, and yeah, he's definitely a Russian soldier because we have pictures of him serving in his unit and his tank."

Source: Radio Free Europe

The Fool, Russia, and Ukraine

WASHINGTON, DC -- With The Fool (Durak), 34-year-old Russian film director Yuri Bykov has officially become his country’s Cassandra.

Yuri Bykov • Director

The New York Times says the film is about corruption in a squalid Russia.

Bykov’s 2014 film is about much more than that.

The Fool is an obvious allegory of the rottenness—and coming collapse—of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. 

Dima Nikitin, a plumber, notices that a building occupied by the dregs of society in his hometown has a large crack running from top to bottom and concludes that, since the foundation is shifting and the building is tilting some 10 percent, its collapse is inevitable.

He tries to mobilize the city mayor and her council to take action.

At first determined to do something, they realize that their theft of state funds has depleted the treasury and made evacuating the building impossible.

Besides, there’s no place to put the 800-plus inhabitants.

The mayor and one of her advisers then decide to do nothing, hatching a plan to blame any later calamity on the heads of the fire and housing departments.

Meanwhile, Dima decides to save the building’s inhabitants on his own.

He runs from apartment to apartment shouting that the “building is collapsing.”

Once everyone leaves, and the building fails to fall, the people turn on him.

The last scene shows him lying in the snow, unconscious or dead.

Needless to say, the building stands for Putin’s Russia.

Everybody is on the take—from the people who live in the building to the mayor and her chums to the governor who gets a 50 percent kickback from the city budget.

The police chief says, “I’m Russian. How can I not take bribes?”

However, Bykov’s central concern is not corruption per se, but its destructive impact on Russia—on the building.

“Leave,” Dima’s father tells him, “this place will never change. Never.”

Dima tells his wife that “we live and die as swine, because we treat one another as nothing.”

The mayor asks Dima when the building will collapse.

“It’s already falling,” he replies.

Just like Putin’s regime.

The film reminded me of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, also released in 2014, which depicts one man’s hopeless battle against corrupt city officials in Russia’s North.

Not only does he lose.

He also loses his wife and best friend and is thrown into jail, to boot.

More important, The Fool is very reminiscent of Little Vera, Vasili Pichul’s 1988 film that depicted the squalor and corruption of late Brezhnev Russia.

Some three decades later, nothing has changed.

The population lives in misery, while the elite drink champagne.

Little Vera presaged the USSR’s collapse.

The Fool predicts Russia’s downfall.

Whether it’s the country’s or the regime’s, you can decide for yourself.

I hope The Fool gets widely distributed in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, there is all too much about the film that applies with equal force to Ukraine.

Viewers will have no trouble realizing that both Russia’s and Ukraine’s buildings are in trouble.

There are two key differences, however.

Thanks to the Orange and Maidan Revolutions, Ukrainians know they need to fix their home fast.

Russians are still in denial.

Indeed, Putin seems intent on adding other decrepit buildings to his existing collection, while Russians cheer him on and turn on their Cassandra.

That may be the key difference between Ukraine and Russia.

Ukraine has hope.

Russia is hopeless.

Source: World Affairs

Ukraine Presses NATO Chief For Defensive Weapons

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine pressed NATO on Tuesday for Western weaponry to help defend itself against pro-Russian separatists but the head of the alliance resisted for fear of threatening a fragile ceasefire with Russian-backed rebels.

Oleksandr Turchynov, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, second from right, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, second from left, take part in a signing ceremony of bilateral documents in Kiev, Ukraine, on Tuesday.

In Kiev's imposing Soviet-era government buildings, Ukraine's political leadership told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that their armed forces were no match for Russia, and needed help.

"Our heroes, our warriors belong to an army that was neglected for decades...they face aggression and need defensive weaponry," the speaker of the parliament, Volodymyr Groysman, told Stoltenberg making his first visit to Ukraine as head of NATO, 18 months after Russia seized Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.

Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, sitting alongside Stoltenberg at a national security council meeting, was equally blunt in depicting a threat from Russia which, however, denies it has provided weapons to the rebels in the east.

"Defence capabilities are essential to us in the face of a nuclear country, which has spent tens of billions of dollars on modernising its army," Yatseniuk said.

Diplomats said the issue of weaponry was raised at the security council, but the tone was less strident than in public.

Initially, defensive equipment, for the Ukrainians, could include more communication equipment, they said. 

Hours earlier, Stoltenberg had signed agreements to help modernise the Ukrainian armed forces.

But Stoltenberg said that was as far as NATO would go, telling Reuters in an interview that "NATO does not provide or supply weapons."

"The main focus now is the implementation of the Minsk agreement," Stoltenberg said, adding that Monday was the first day since the peace deal was signed in February in which no violations of the ceasefire had been registered.


The ebb in violence in Ukraine's east, where the West say Russia is supporting and arming separatists and has positioned its own heavy weapons, was an opportunity for new momentum for diplomacy, Stoltenberg said.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, while accepting that non-NATO Ukraine could not expect direct military aid, portrayed his country as a bulwark against Russian aggression that could one day threaten other parts of the continent.

"De jure we are not allies, but de facto we are much more than partners. Ukraine is the most eastern outpost of the Euro-Atlantic area," Poroshenko said.

Stoltenberg sees Ukraine as the most complex of Europe's many crises and backs the 11-step Minsk peace deal signed in February that set an end-year deadline for implementation.

He sees the alliance's role mainly limited to helping rebuild the Ukrainian army after years of mismanagement that was reflected in defeats by the pro-Russian rebels.

Former president Viktor Yanukovich dropped a bid to join NATO in 2010 to please Moscow.

When he moved last year to decline an EU partnership deal and draw closer to Moscow, he was toppled by protests dubbed by Russia a Western-backed coup.

The current pro-Western leadership under Poroshenko now sees NATO membership as the only way to protect its territory.

NATO, however, wants to avoid provoking Moscow.

Russia opposes any potential expansion of NATO to former communist areas of eastern and southeastern Europe, part of a battle for influence that lies at the heart of the conflict in Ukraine. 

Source: Google News

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Russia Trial Of Ukraine Pilot Nadia Savchenko Begins

DONETSK, Russia -- Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko has made a show of defiance, denying charges against her at the opening of her controversial trial in Russia.

Journalists were only able to see a grainy monitor image of Ms Savchenko at her court appearance.

She described the case, in which she is accused of involvement in the deaths of two Russian journalists, as a "piece of rubbish".

Ms Savchenko could face 25 years in jail if found guilty.

The pilot has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance to Russia.

The case has soured already strained relations between Moscow and Kiev.

In the courtroom in Donetsk, in Russia's southern Rostov region, Ms Savchenko proclaimed her innocence.

"Everyone in this room understands very well this is not a case, it's a piece of rubbish," she protested in Ukrainian from inside a glass cage in the courtroom.

"Russia has long behaved in a hypocritical and two-faced way," she added.

"Its hypocrisy is represented by the seizing of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine."

Ms Savchenko is a national hero in Ukraine, where she is seen as a figurehead of the country's resistance in the conflict with pro-Russian rebels in the east of the country, seen by many as a war of Russian aggression.

The two journalists were killed in a mortar attack last June, which prosecutors allege she helped target.

Her lawyers have said that she has an alibi, and had already been captured by rebels at the time the attack happened.

However, they say a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion as the court follows political orders.

"Nadia Savchenko has prepared herself for any sentence," one of her lawyers, Mark Feigin, told journalists.

"If there is even one chance to get her acquitted through the publicity round her, then we will use it."

Charges against her were upgraded in July to "joint perpetrator".

There was heavy security at the court, with armed riot police on guard outside the premises and snipers positioned on the roof of a nearby apartment block.

Journalists have been barred from the courtroom.

The defence argues the trial is being held in Donetsk because it will get less public attention.

Donetsk is a small town close to the border with Ukraine, not to be confused with the much larger rebel-held city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

Ms Savchenko insists that she was kidnapped and smuggled illegally across the border into Russia at the time of her capture while fighting pro-Russian fighters in June 2014.

But Russia says she crossed the border herself, posing as a refugee.

Most of the public seats in the court were occupied by Cossack militiamen, correspondents say, with the press only allowed to monitor proceedings by a video-link from an adjoining room.

However three representatives from the European Union, a Ukrainian consul based in Rostov-on-Don and Ms Savchenko's sister Vera were among those who were allowed to attend the hearing.

Ms Savchenko has spent more than a year in custody in Russia during which time she has gone on hunger strike for 80 days in protest over her detention.

Last year she was elected in absentia to Ukraine's parliament.

Source: BBC News