Sunday, November 29, 2015

Ukraine Remembers Victims Of Stalin-Era Famine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: AFP

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

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

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

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

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

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

A second explosion signals the end of dinner.

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

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

Do you know the Ukrainian night?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those hopes are fading fast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now they're hungry for a new push.

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

The battered Vauxhall sped south-eastwards towards the front.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebel lines are within a couple of miles.

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

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

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

His hopes for peace are swayed by a gritty realism.

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

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

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

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

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

Boredom and danger dominate.

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

Enter a bunker and a very different scene presents itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clearly, these men know how to look after themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After sunset, a soldier approached us.

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

"Follow me."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does he ever get to speak with them?

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

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

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

"But I'll get them first."

A particularly ferocious volley of gunfire resounded over the field.

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

"That would be the ceasefire."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short, they loathe the current truce.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what soldiers here want are weapons.

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

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

"Anyone who chooses diplomacy is a pussy."

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

He shrugged off the idea with boisterous defiance.

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

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

Dinner was abandoned by the second blast.

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

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

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

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

The swift staccato pops of a PKM light machine gun.

The heavy hammering of a DShK .50-caliber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our conversation continues for an hour, maybe two.

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

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

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

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

He raises his glass.

"Za mir", he says.

"To peace."

Source: VICE News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: BBC News

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Crimeans Describe Life During Blackout After Attacks From Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We’re used to it’ 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Today we have no water,” Valentina explains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: The Guardian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Google News

Memo To Putin: Syria Is Turkey's Ukraine

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

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

Here is the hypothetical:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are rebels fighting Assad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surely Putin has enough hostile neighbors and former friends already.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Bloomberg

Friday, November 27, 2015

Why Ukraine Rebellion Is Unlikely To Spread

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

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

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

Contrary to these forecasts, the rebellion remained surprisingly contained.

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

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

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

What explains local variation in rebellion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An alternative explanation for rebellion is economic opportunity costs.

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

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

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

A rebel fighter with the Vostok battalion summarized this view:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suffering heavy damage from shelling, many factories have closed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Newsweek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: IFRC

Russia And Ukraine In A Standoff Over Crimea Power Outage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysts said it was difficult for either side to act.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: The New York Times

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

When Ukraine Lost Donetsk

DONETSK, Ukraine -- If the leader of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) has anything to say about it, the current cease-fire in eastern Ukraine will never translate into permanent peace.

Alexander Zakharchenko at the Kholodnaya Balka mine in Makiivka, outside Donetsk, October 29, 2014.

Nor will it lead to the separatist territories’ reintegration into Ukraine.

Alexander Zakharchenko’s statements before and after the guns went silent on the first of September reveal a continued rejection of Ukraine, a commitment to Donbass independence, a strong determination to acquire more territory, and a radical division of people into friends and enemies.

Small wonder that separatist violations of the cease-fire have increased significantly since early November.

It is impossible to say whether Zakharchenko’s militancy is the posturing of a desperate man or the vision of a ruthless leader.

Either way, it suggests that the DNR’s interests are incompatible with Ukraine’s and that the Minsk-2 accords will fail to achieve their intended goal of reintegrating the DNR and its sister entity, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR).

Even if Russia pressures the DNR to make substantive concessions—and that is an extremely big if—its leader will resist.

In effect, peace in eastern Ukraine is dependent on two willful, demagogic, unpredictable, and militaristic men—Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zakharchenko.

Putin claims to be a bystander in the war, whereas Zakharchenko insists that he is in charge.

The reality is more complex.

As the September 1 cease-fire showed, Putin’s is the decisive voice.

He started the war, and he can sue for peace.

But Zakharchenko isn’t just a puppet.

He has ideas, ambitions, and plans of his own, and his acquiescence will ultimately determine whether any deal holds.

 Zakharchenko, a 39-year-old former electrical mechanic, first entered politics in 2010, the year Viktor Yanukovych was elected president of Ukraine.

As head of the Donetsk-based pro-Russian and pro-Soviet organization, Oplot (Bulwark), he actively opposed the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013­–14, was one of seven armed men who seized the Donetsk city administration building on April 16, 2014, and was an active combatant in subsequent fighting with Ukrainian armed forces.

In August 2014, he was elected DNR premier. A few months later, he was elected head of the DNR.

Zakharchenko has dominated the area’s political landscape since then.

The DNR is not, he has routinely insisted, Ukrainian territory.

It is an independent state.

“Children,” he says, “must understand that they live in a different country.”

Whereas Ukraine is in the grip of a fascist junta and “outspoken Nazis,” the DNR is democratic and committed to the commonwealth.

That there is dissent and disagreement within the DNR is “normal,” says Zakharchenko.

“After all, we are not Ukraine!”

Zakharchenko insists that Kiev exists in a “parallel, virtual reality.”

Indeed, he believes “Ukraine itself has become a virtual reality under their leadership,” suggesting that both the state and the nation are fictitious.

One may dispute Zakharchenko’s characterization of Kiev’s reality as virtual, but he is right to call it parallel.

Post-Maidan Ukraine stands for everything he, and by extension the DNR, reject, just as Zakharchenko and his statelet stand for everything post-Maidan Ukraine and the West reject.

There appears to be no room for compromise.

In turn, any attempts by Ukraine to retake the Donbass are, in effect, invasions.

On September 7, just a few days after the cease-fire went into effect, Zakharchenko compared the Kiev government and army to the invading Nazis:

“In 1941 a vicious, perfidious, and powerful enemy came to our land…. In 2014 an enemy again came to our land,” he said.

“They failed to force the Donbass to its knees in 1941. They also failed in 2014–2015.”

On another occasion, he accused Kiev of committing “genocide against our people.”

Naturally, all of Ukraine’s aggressions against the DNR have the backing of nefarious Western forces, including Doctors Without Borders.

But woe to Ukraine if it decides to join NATO (a prospect Zakharchenko appears to believe is possible in the immediate future).

As he said on September 25, “If Ukraine starts preparing a referendum on NATO membership or other procedures, the DNR will immediately abandon the Minsk agreement and proceed with cleansing all the territory of the Donbass of the Kiev occupation.”

Zakharchenko intends to win back the rest of the Donbass even if Ukraine makes no move to join NATO.

“I have stated many times that I consider the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic to be the entire territory of the former Donetsk province. And I do not renounce those words,” Zakharchenko said on November 5.

He sees two possible scenarios of the DNR’s expansion.

If Kiev resumes fighting, Zakharchenko will seize the Donbass by force.

If the Minsk peace process continues, the territory will be retaken through political negotiations. 

Zakharchenko was even more outspoken in an August 27 interview.

The DNR’s minimum goal is recapturing all of Donetsk province.

His maximum goal is “a Great Novorossiya,” or New Russia, which would encompass all of southeastern Ukraine.

How to attain that goal will be decided “when we’re victorious.”

In the meantime, “there’s no need to sit and wait” with respect to “the rest of so-called Ukraine.”

Whoever “wants to be rid of an illegal government, destroy the fascists, and stop Ukraine from being a spineless puppet in the hands of American puppeteers should evince a more active position.”

Zakharchenko’s radicalism manifests itself in his attitude toward refugees from and residents of the DNR.

Those who fled to Ukraine and opposed the DNR will not, “to put it mildly,” be welcomed.

To be sure, “we won’t shoot returnees,” but they will have to prove their “usefulness” and make amends.

Open enemies will “possibly be tried.”

As to those who stayed in Donetsk, Zakharchenko admits that “many” remained, not out of ideological conviction but because “they simply couldn’t flee.”

That makes them no different from the refugees.

Zakharchenko also minces no words about who will rule his state: “those who defended the Republic with weapons in their hands or who, under fire, helped rebuild our industry, economy, and infrastructure.”

Kiev’s recommendations for conducting local elections in the Donbas are thus divorced from reality, as Zakharchenko puts it, since they entail the participation of “those parties that created the political cover for the punitive operation in the Donbass.”

Since all of Ukraine’s democratic parties supported military action against the DNR, the local elections mandated by Minsk-2 would in effect feature only one set of candidates—Zakharchenko’s elite.

Some of this bravado must cheer Russia.

In Zakharchenko, Putin has a fanatical opponent of Ukrainian statehood, a man who will, under no circumstances, compromise with Kiev and the West.

But Zakharchenko’s fanaticism must also be a source of concern.

On November 5, the DNR leader insisted that the “fate of the Donbass” is decided in the Donbass, and not in Moscow, Washington, Berlin, or Paris.

Zakharchenko’s next sentence had to worry the Kremlin:

“I personally do not intend to be a puppet in anyone’s hands.”

Zakharchenko is best viewed as a regional Russian warlord who, like Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov, will be reluctant to play the role of Putin’s toady.

The recent increase in DNR violations of the cease-fire demonstrates the inherent tensions between Putin and Zakharchenko.

Attacking the Ukrainian armed forces is an excellent way of raising the morale of the DNR’s dispirited fighters, many of whom appear to feel abandoned by Russia.

But the escalation and possible collapse of Minsk-2 would not be advantageous to a Russia worried about Western sanctions and poised to increase its involvement in Syria.

Zakharchenko needs Putin, but Putin also needs Zakharchenko—a fact the wily DNR head no doubt knows.

Unless Zakharchenko’s words are insincere, there is no way he could possibly agree to implement any version of the Minsk-2 accords.

Whatever its own intentions, Russia may be able to twist his arm up to a point, as it did by imposing a cease-fire on his forces on September 1, but it is highly unlikely to force him to follow Moscow’s orders blindly.

Minsk-2 thus has two possible outcomes. Most probable is a “frozen conflict” along the lines of Transnistria, the breakaway region of Moldova.

Ukraine would be spared the pain of having to integrate a region that cannot be integrated, while Zakharchenko and his elite would be able to continue building their statelet.

The West would be happy with any outcome that stops the guns from firing.

Even Russia might acquiesce, however grudgingly.

It would still have to spend billions on the DNR economy, but it would be able to claim that it saved the Donbass from the “fascists.” 

Less likely is a very loose confederation of Ukraine and the DNR-LNR, in which the breakaway republics enjoy complete political, cultural, and economic autonomy, receive no financial subsidies from Kiev, and have no authority to meddle in Kiev’s affairs.

Although all parties could claim victory in this scenario, the arrangement would be intrinsically unstable and would probably revert to some form of frozen conflict after a few months or years.

There is a third, less likely alternative, but one that Putin and his parent organization, the KGB, have effectively practiced.

A loose cannon such as Zakharchenko may easily lose his usefulness to the Kremlin and become a serious problem.

The DNR’s leader may thus want to keep in mind the sad fate of another Alexander—Litvinenko—the FSB officer who was poisoned and died in London in 2006.

Source: Foreign Affairs

Putin Wants To Turn Page From Ukraine To Syria

MOSCOW, Russia -- When it comes to relations with Russia, the Kremlin wants the West to choose between sticking by its diplomatic guns on Ukraine or working arm-in-arm in Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

So far, the EU and U.S. are resisting a zero-sum choice.

In the days since the Paris terrorist attacks, senior officials in Washington and European capitals have signalled their reluctance to turn the page on the Ukraine crisis, normalize relations with Moscow and join forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

Yet Moscow is pressing on the military and diplomatic fronts, and looking to open up new lines of communication with Western leaders.

Russia has scrambled to use the international outrage over the terrorist attacks in Paris to try to rebuild strained ties.

President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces in Syria to treat the French as “allies,” and Moscow was unusually cooperative last week in backing France’s U.N. Security Council resolution, which urges countries to take “all necessary measures” against the Islamic radicals.

A Russian defense ministry video last week showed Russian air crews painting “For Paris” on bombs they were preparing to drop in Syria.

Until recently the Russia concentrated its firepower on rebels backed by the U.S. who are fighting their ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and less on ISIL.

After the terrorist group claimed responsibility last month for planting the bomb that brought down a Russian civilian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Russia has become more aggressive against ISIL.

Ukraine isn’t going away 

Yet Ukraine remains an imposing hurdle to any rapprochement.

In a speech in Berlin last week, Victoria Nuland, the most senior American diplomat for Europe, said the focus on ISIL doesn’t change the importance of implementing the fragile Minsk peace accords, which sketch out a way to end the conflict in Ukraine.

The U.S. wants to keep the sanctions imposed on Russia first for illegally annexing Crimea last year and then for its support of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, she said.

“Sanctions are an essential tool for holding Russia accountable: They must be rolled over until Minsk is fully implemented. And we must keep our Crimea-related sanctions in place until Russia returns the peninsula to Ukraine,” said Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs. 

A similar message is coming out of Brussels.

Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, sent Putin a letter last week — seen by POLITICO — about building better economic relations between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led trade bloc.

But he tied any progress on expanding commercial links to implementation of the Minsk accords. 

“This has to be seen in a Ukrainian context,” said a Commission official.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, called Juncker’s offer “hardly relevant or possible.”

Sanctions to remain in place 

The EU is set to extend sanctions against Russia at the end of this year, at least until June of next year, despite opposition from several countries unhappy about the economic costs of the sanctions.

In an interview with POLITICO published on Monday, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that while he disagrees with the sanctions on Russia, he wouldn’t stand in the way of their extension, and that he expects them to be extended.

Other Central European nations warn the EU against cozying up to Moscow in the hope of ending the civil war in Syria.

Edgars Rinkēvičs, Latvia’s foreign minister, gave a speech last week in which he again recalled the annexation of Crimea.

“The fight against terrorists and resolving the Syrian conflict should not take place at the expense of Ukraine,” read the Latvian foreign ministry summary of the speech.

Konrad Szymański, Poland’s new Europe minister, warned of a tendency in European politics to look for a pretext to not hold Russia to account over Ukraine.

“We’re open to acknowledging Russia’s useful role in any part of the world if [it’s useful] from the European point of view, but we aren’t going to link that to other situations in which we see that Russia’s role is less constructive,” he told the Polish press.

EU sanctions against Russia were pushed through last year and have since been kept in place thanks to German diplomatic muscle and the intervention of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Germany hasn’t signaled any softening of its position on Russian sanctions.

Diplomats say Berlin believes the EU should keep the pressure on Russia until Moscow fully complies with the Minsk accords and supports a 6-month extension of the sanctions in December.

While all the diplomatic signals point to continued sanctions, markets are more optimistic.

The cost of credit default swaps, a measure of risk, on five-year Russian debt has fallen to 2.5 percent from 3.9 percent since September — one of the biggest drops for any emerging market, said Timothy Ash, an emerging markets analyst at Nomura, the investment bank.

“Markets have rallied into that, assuming that sanctions will be moderated,” he said.

“But my sense is that the market may be over-optimsitic. The Americans are going to be very reluctant to remove sanctions.”

An unwanted ally Moscow got involved in Syria at the end of September for a host of reasons.

The main one was to lend support to Assad, whose forces were showing signs of buckling under pressure of opposition attacks.

The Syrian dictator is one of Russia’s few regional allies and the relationship makes Moscow a player in Middle Eastern politics.

Russia also wanted to fight the more than estimated 2,400 Russian citizens who have joined ISIL, mainly from disaffected Muslim regions like Chechnya.

Finally, tackling a common foe in Syria was supposed to help smooth disagreements with the West over Ukraine.

Putin even called for the formation of a “grand coalition,” recalling the wartime alliance of the USSR and the West to combat Nazi Germany.

There isn’t much Western interest in any sort of formal arrangement with Russia — largely because of Ukraine.

The Pentagon noted that Russia is now hitting ISIL, and not more moderate groups fighting Assad.

But the Americans aren’t reassessing their relationship with Moscow.

Although the Russian military did inform the U.S. of their latest attacks, “we are not cooperating with Russia,” said Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook.

“When it comes to Russia, we will maintain a strong and balanced approach,” he said.

“There are going to be areas where we disagree with the Russians, significant disagreements. In Ukraine, for example.”

Source: Politico

Crimea Hit By Power Blackout And Ukraine Trade Boycott

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine has suspended deliveries of goods to Crimea, where a power blackout has caused major disruption.

Anti-Russian activists were accused of sabotaging four electricity pylons near Crimea.

Only essential services and government offices are operating in Crimea after key electricity pylons connected to the peninsula were knocked down in Ukraine.

Protesters, including Crimean Tatars, are preventing the repair work.

Russia has warned of retaliatory measures.

Ukraine is planning new rules for cargo traffic for the southern peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

There has been disruption to road and rail traffic to and from Crimea since Ukrainian nationalists and Crimean Tatars began a border blockade in September.

Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev said the protesters would only let engineers repair two pylons that serve areas of mainland Ukraine - not the two linked to Crimea.

Russia does not have a land border with Crimea, which gets about 70% of its electricity from Ukraine.

Economic impact 

Most of Crimea's two million people have been hit by the power cut.

There are also water shortages.

Public transport is still running and hospitals are using generators.

But the blackout has shut down many businesses and plunged the streets into darkness.

A state of emergency was imposed on Sunday and Monday was declared a non-working day.

The blackout forced the closure of some 150 schools.

"We are outraged by the cut-off... because a lot of us have electric cookers, we can't wash properly at the moment... our fridges are defrosting," Sevastopol resident Raisa Kazhyrnova told Reuters news agency.

Ukraine's state energy company, Ukrenergo, said the damage to the pylons was caused by "shelling or the use of explosive devices".

Trade tensions 

Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk said the government "is temporarily banning cargo traffic on the administrative border" between Ukraine and Crimea.

He also warned Ukraine would respond in kind if Russia introduced an embargo on Ukrainian products, as Moscow has threatened to do.

Russia is angry at Ukraine's decision to implement a free trade agreement with the EU on 1 January 2016.

Russia says the deal will undermine its producers, because EU exporters are likely to use Ukraine as a back door into the Russian market.

Russia has blamed Ukrainian nationalists and Crimean Tatar activists for the pylon damage, calling it "an act of terrorism".

Crimean Tatar activists said Russia must release "political prisoners" and let their leaders return to Crimea in exchange for the repair work.

Emergency timetable 

Crimean Tatar activists accuse Russia of abusing their rights.

Crimean authorities said they had managed to partially reconnect some cities using generators.

But emergency power-saving measures have been imposed across the peninsula.

Russia has started laying undersea cables to connect Crimea to its power grid.

But the first phase will only take effect next month and the switch to Russia as the main supplier will take several years to complete.

Source: BBC News

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Two Years After Ukraine’s Euromaidan, Protesters Say 'Nothing Has Changed'

KIEV, Ukraine -- Exactly two years after the beginning of the Euromaidan protests that toppled Ukraine's government, a cluster of demonstrators stood under black umbrellas along a barricade on a street known by many in Kiev as "Heroes Alley."

Soldiers block protesters from approaching the "Heavenly Hundred" memorial in Kiev on Saturday.

Police in riot and army gear stood on the other side of the barrier, stopping people from approaching a memorial to the "Heavenly Hundred," the men and women killed by sniper fire during the unrest that preceded the Ukrainian revolution.

The rain pelted down on the group of roughly 200 protesters, who sporadically chanted anti-corruption slogans as they waited for the arrival of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Saturday.

After last year, when Poroshenko was booed and heckled during a wreath-laying ceremony, the chanting demonstrators were kept far away from the memorial and only people on a preordained list were allowed through the barriers.

"Look how many police there are for just some of us," said Olena, a woman who travelled overnight from Zhmerynka region of Ukraine to be at the anniversary.

"I wanted to make my voice heard," she said.

"People do not have satellite television, they believe what they are told about Poroshenko doing what he promised."

Poroshenko's advertised arrival time of 1pm came and went, and the rain started to drive away the disgruntled crowds.

It was a far cry from the fierce protests that had filled Maidan two years before, when students began a demonstration against the government's refusal to sign a declaration that would bring the country closer to the European Union.

Police and security forces responded with violence, leading to months of rallies on the Maidan.

The 2013 protests continued into 2014, culminating with three days of extreme violence that began on February 18 and left more than 100 dead.

President Viktor Yanucovych ultimately stepped down and fled to Russia, triggering an ongoing conflict that led to Russia's annexation of Crimea and Russian-backed separatists forming breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine.

Two years later, there are still no answers as to who was responsible for the deaths.

Additionally, many Ukrainians feel let down by Poroshenko's government, which has not delivered the anti-corruption changes it promised in the wake of Euromaidan.

"The country is still ruled by corruption," Olena said.

"It is still the same people in power, nothing has changed."

The president's official website said that while Poroshenko talked to the families of those who died, he "stressed that all those guilty of crimes against the activists of the Maidan will not escape justice." 

Metro stations near "Heroes Alley" were closed off until after the politicians had finished their visit, and many people who had been at Maidan during the worst of the violence were kept away from the official ceremony.

Kateryna Kruk said she was on Maidan at the peak of the violence last year.

She said that what started as a people's revolution has been taken over by the political elite. 

"Poroshenko wasn't on Maidan on February 21. I was," Kruk said.

"And now he has blocked the street to the Heavenly Hundred memorial. There's special list to come closer to Heavenly Hundred memorial. Was there a special list of politicians to be on Maidan when we were shot?"

Away from "Heroes Alley," a massive stage was set up in preparation for a concert later in the evening.

The sound and light tests give Maidan an atmosphere more similar to a festival than a commemoration.

On the same part of the square, people who were at the Euromaidan protests were also apparently banned from putting up stages on the square itself, despite having the correct permits.

"It was supposed to be a day of dignity and freedom," Kruk tweeted alongside a picture of armed guards at the barricade.

"Is this how authorities understand those words? I am so disappointed."

Speaking to VICE News, Kruk said things had apparently come full circle since the protests two years ago.

"Once again I am standing in the rain next to the police," she said.

"Some things never change on the Maidan."

Source: Vice News

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Kharkiv Fights Tooth And Nail Against Ukraine Decommunization Process

KHARKIV, Ukraine -- Towns and cities across Ukraine pressed hard to meet a November 21 deadline for identifying streets, squares, enterprises, and other places that fall under a sweeping "decommunization" law that came into force in May.

An crowd of protesters enthusiastically pulled down a huge Lenin statue in Kharkiv last year, but removing other communist symbols and toponyms from the city's streets is proving a lot more fractious.

Local communities were also submitting suggestions for new names to replace literally thousands of ubiquitous toponyms like Lenin Avenue or Dzerzhinsky Square.

In addition, they were tasked with identifying monuments and artworks that are suffused with Soviet symbols and ideology that should be dismantled under the legislation.

Over the last six months, the country has passed through a process of public hearings and open debate that has revealed deep divisions over how to deal with the lingering legacy of more than 70 years of communist rule from Moscow.

In some cases, especially in the southern and eastern parts of the country where significant parts of the population identify with Russia, the local authorities have been less than enthusiastic in implementing the new law.

"I think that in general our politicians have acted rather irresponsibly," said Volodymyr Viatrovych, director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory.

"Many in their electorate, especially in local elections, are people of the older generation, and instead of reporting to them the demands of the law and the necessity of implementing it, they have been playing on their sentiments. They tell them it isn't necessary and somehow they can resolve the issue and that they are against renaming and that, if elected, they will do what the voters say. Acting in this way is a direct violation of the law."

The northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest with a population of about 1.5 million, has been a case in point.

Heated Process 

Local hearings on the renaming process there have been contentious and heated, with activists who pushed to implement the law saying the government packed the events with conservative, elderly pensioners and state-sector workers.

"It went exactly as expected," wrote local writer Serhiy Petrov on Facebook following a November 11 meeting at Kharkiv’s Kiev district administration building.

"A whole roomful of budget-sector workers was herded in -- primarily teachers (for example, I saw several teachers and the director from the school I went to). It was the typical exercise of administrative resources, using teachers like slaves."

Petrov added that he saw the teachers meeting after the hearing was over to be thanked by city officials.

Other public-sector workers were also out in force.

"We read about the public hearing in the newspaper," a nurse who identified herself as Olha told RFE/RL.

"We work in Municipal Maternity Hospital No. 3. Why are you provoking us? We came here on our own."

Olha prevented the other women in her group from speaking with journalists.

"I'd like to emphasize that I don't think renaming streets is the main problem here right now," she said. 

Sources at one city kindergarten told RFE/RL that employees there had been ordered to attend the hearing.

Activists with the nongovernmental Kharkiv Toponym Group carried out their own research into the renaming issue.

"We looked at 263 streets, which is many more than the official commission," said group activist Maria Takhtouloviy, who at one point was reduced to shouting from the back of the hall.

"Every name [we suggested] was well grounded -- either a return to an old name or a new one that is based on local geography or a specific local object or figure. This is work of a completely different category than what was proposed by the city authorities."

'Dangerous' Public Hearings 

Two other attempts to hold public hearings on the issue were cancelled when they threatened to turn into riots.

In one case, a group of unidentified young men took over the podium and began a tussle.

Kharkiv Deputy Mayor Ihor Terekhov took the microphone and said:

"Considering the situation, it appears it has become dangerous for all those in the hall. We are closing the public hearings. Further actions will be taken according to the law."

The city's official list includes 173 toponyms with proposed changes, although some of them seem to be an unsubtle effort to subvert the law.

The city, for instance, proposes "renaming" the city's Oktyabr district -- which honors the 1917 Bolshevik revolution -- as Oktyabr, in honor of the official October 28 holiday marking the liberation of Ukraine from German troops in World War II. 

Officials propose renaming the Dzerzhinsky district -- which honors the founder of the Soviet secret police, Feliks Dzerzhinsky -- after his brother, Vladislav Dzerzhinsky, a neurologist who was briefly a professor at Kharkiv University in 1915.

The Frunze District, named in honor of Bolshevik military commander Mikhail Frunze, is to be rechristened in honor of Timur Frunze, the son of Mikhail Frunze and a Hero of the Soviet Union who died in combat in 1942.

"As far as what you call the ambiguous context of these names, let's talk about the law and how we are fulfilling the letter of the law," Deputy Mayor Terekhov told RFE/RL.

"There are people who deserve to be memorialized. Whether we like it or not, the people of Kharkiv do not support renaming. And we will do whatever we can not to let them down."

Less Specific Soviet Names 

A July poll by a Kharkiv institute found that a majority of city residents oppose the renaming.

Likewise, a majority oppose naming city locations after the Heavenly Hundred, as the Ukrainian government refers to the victims of police violence during the 2013-14 Euromaidan uprising against then-President Viktor Yanukovych. 

He fled to Russia in February 2014 and was replaced by a pro-Western government, whose ties with Moscow have been further strained by its takeover of the Crimea region and its military support for separatists who control parts of two provinces south of Kharkiv.

In addition, the city of Kharkiv has ruled that many places with less specific Soviet names like "Proletariat" or "Communist International" do not fall under the scope of the law and do not need to be renamed.

The Ukrainian government in Kiev has until February 21 to respond to the local lists, setting up a likely collision between the central authorities and the administration of Kharkiv Governor Hennadiy Kernes.

Source: Radio Free Europe