Sunday, January 31, 2016

Canadian Doctors Help Turn Around Injured Ukrainian Boy’s Life

KIEV, Ukraine -- Mykola Nyzhnykovskyi was like any typical 11-year-old boy — ever curious, adventurous, and at times a bit goofy.

Doctors from the Canadian Medical Mission to Ukraine operate on Mykola Nyzhnykovskyi in Kyiv last fall.

But last August, his curiosity got the better of him and changed his life forever.

While playing tag with a few friends and his four year old brother, Mykola found a grenade on an open field used for military training in eastern Ukraine.

He didn’t know it was live.

“We put it in the middle of the road and then a friend of mine pushed me towards it. I stepped on it and it exploded,” the boy recounted from a hospital bed in Kiev, Ukraine.

Alla, Mykola’s mother, heard the explosion.

“I ran out into the street and saw pieces of flesh and skin and bones all around. Everything was covered in blood. I was praying to God he would survive.”

Doctors saved Mykola’s life but he lost both legs and his right arm.

He also suffered serious internal injuries and massive facial and cranial trauma.

But what he didn’t know for months was that the blast, while wounding his friends, killed his 4-year-old brother, Danyo.

His mother kept that a secret, fearing the news would devastate him.

For two months, Mykola lay in a hospital bed, his Ukrainian doctors lacking the expertise and the tools to help him fully heal.

His future looked bleak — that is until a Canadian medical mission to Ukraine got word of his situation.

“The story was horrifying and his injuries were devastating,” Dr. Oleh Antonyshyn said in an interview with CTV’s W5.

“We were not geared up to treat a pediatric patient. We didn’t know the extent of his injuries and we had not met the boy, and yet there were expectations that we would see him and potentially treat him.”

Antonyshyn is the lead surgeon and chief organizer of the Canadian Medical Mission to Ukraine.

A proud Canadian of Ukrainian heritage, he headed to Ukraine in late October for a third sojourn in a little more than a year, this time accompanied by a team of 21 medical professionals — surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses and one occupational therapist — all volunteers.

Their week-long mission, organized by the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, was funded by the Canadian government to the tune of $500,000.

The money will be used to operate on Ukrainian soldiers wounded in the ongoing war with Russian soldiers and separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In the week that W5 was there, three operating tables were going non-stop, repairing the horrific wounds to the faces, skulls and arms of 38 former soldiers at the sprawling military hospital in Kiev.

And while every soldier’s story is heart wrenching, it was the tragedy of Mykola that captured the hearts and minds of every volunteer from Canada.

However, Antonyshyn wasn’t sure the Ukrainian military would allow Mykola to be brought to the medical mission even for an assessment.

Then they relented.

From the moment the boy was wheeled into the clinic, the Canadian team felt they had to help however they could.

Yet while the doctors weren’t able to address Mykola’s amputated limbs, they knew they could deal with the wounds to his face and skull.

“It’s crucial because he literally doesn’t have part of his skull,” Antonyshyn said after examining the boy.

“There is just brain and the skin . . . any small incident could cause another severe injury.”

After overcoming red tape and getting the green light, two days later, Mykola was being prepped for surgery.

Understandably, he was scared.

That is until he met Dr. Adrian Hawaleshka, an anesthesiologist from Winnipeg.

“What was really difficult was when they brought Mykola in,” Hawaleshka said, wiping tears from his eyes.

“I mean he’s a little boy whose life is completely affected, and we’re actually trying to make his life better.”

But like any good professional, the doctor was careful not to betray any signs of sadness while treating Mykola.

His goal was to put his frightened patient at ease.

“I’m lucky that I give a fair amount of anesthetics to kids. And kids are really interesting. You can joke around with them more than you think.

“I knew I was going to give him an anesthetic so I brought in this little solution that smells like raspberries . . . and I promised that it (the gas) would smell like raspberries. I told him when I put the mask down it’s no longer going to smell like raspberries. It’s going to start smelling like farts. And every kid universally, no matter what culture, they know what that is and they think it’s funny.”

Hawaleshka was right.

Mykola laughed.

In the final days of the mission, a profound sense of gratitude emanated from the halls and rooms all along the hospital ward.

There were lots of hugs and smiles and lots of tears from patients and their families.

For patients like Roman Illchyshyn recovering from his second surgery by the Canadian doctors, to heal a wound in his jaw, the words came easy. “All I want to say is thank you. These people are part of us. They’re our people even though they live a long distance from us,” he said from his hospital bed.

The medical team brought 350 kilograms of supplies with much of it being left behind, including a full set of surgical instruments — a gift to the hospital.

And the last patient to be seen by Antonyshyn before the team heads back to Canada is Mykola.

Just four days earlier, surgeons removed a piece of shrapnel from his chin, rebuilt his lower lip, removed some scars on his face and put a titanium mesh screen onto his skull.

Dr. Tara Teshima assisted Antonyshyn in the operating room.

“We definitely helped this young boy. But he needs so much more done for this to give him that future that we hope for.”

Five weeks later, that hope for a good future took a big leap forward.

Word of Mykola’s plight came to the attention of Dr. Reggie Hamdy, an orthopedic surgeon at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Montreal, and he immediately offered to bring them to Canada.

It was an offer beyond anything Mykola and his mom could have ever dreamed.

Since arriving in Montreal Nov. 30, all his lingering medical issues are being taken care of.

He’ll eventually receive prosthetic limbs and physiotherapy over the next few months, which will dramatically improve his life.

And all his medical costs are being covered by the Shriners Hospital, while the Ukrainian community has provided them with the use of a condo.

“A triple amputee is quite severe,” Hamdy said.

“However I can say with technologies that we have now and the prosthesis, he will be able to run, to play hockey. He will be almost a normal child.”

For the Canadian doctors in Montreal and those who volunteered in Ukraine, there could be no greater accomplishment than to see this boy from a war-ravaged country have a chance to run and play again.

But first, Mykola faces a long road to recovery.

Source: Toronto Star

Humanitarian Activist Missing In Ukraine's Donetsk

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Ukrainian humanitarian activist Maryna Cherenkova has reportedly been detained by separatist security forces in the eastern city of Donetsk.

Maryna Cherenkova

Activists with the Responsible Citizens group reported on social media on January 30 that Cherenkova sent a late-night text message that said simply, "I have been taken by MGB," referring to the separatists' "security ministry."

She has not been heard from since despite activists spending the entire night trying to learn of her whereabouts.

The activists said police told them they do not have Cherenkov.

Since the conflict between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists began, Cherenkova has been active in securing humanitarian relief for civilians in the Donetsk conflict zone.

Journalist Oliver Carroll posted on his Twitter feed that Cherenkova is "a larger than life character" who has "been at the forefront of [the] humanitarian effort in Donetsk."

She has been "arguably as important as any international [organization]," he added.

Earlier this week, separatist forces detained respected religious-studies professor Ihor Kozlovskiy.

His relatives say he was taken from his home in Donetsk on January 28 and has not been heard from since.

Source: Radio Free Europe

Statue Of Controversial Bolshevik Leader Toppled In Ukraine

DNEPROPETROVSK, Ukraine -- Ukrainian activists in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk on Friday night toppled a statue of controversial Bolshevik leader Grigory Petrovsky, implicated in a famine that killed millions in the 1930s, city hall said.

Ukrainian Nationalists after they toppled Petrovsky’s statue.

Several young men toppled the 12-tonne bronze statue of Petrovsky — nicknamed “the butcher” for his role in the collectivisation of agriculture that led to a famine known as Holodomor — as they sung the Ukrainian national anthem, a YouTube video of the incident showed.

The monument, which had been inaugurated in 1976, will be now kept in a museum, Dnipropetrovsk mayor Borys Filatov said on his Facebook page, referring to Petrovsky as “the butcher.” 

Dnipropetrovsk, which is located near the pro-Russian separatist regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, was named after Petrovsky in the Soviet era and has since kept its name.

The activists — prompted by a local lawmaker close to Filatov — sawed-off the monument from its pedestal before pulling it down, Interfax-Ukraine reported.

“The statue is almost intact, it only lost its feet,” city hall said.

The several police officers called to the scene stood by as the monument was taken down, Interfax reported.

Ukraine’s Communist Party — which was banned by a Kiev court last month in the latest move to break from the country’s Soviet past — said the statue had been toppled by “neo-Nazi vandals” and called Petrovsky a “true citizen of Ukraine” who “addressed important public and social issues in the interest of the Ukrainian people”.

Petrovsky, the de facto head of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1922 to 1938, was also a signatory of the treaty that made Ukraine a Soviet republic.

The Holodomor happened as Soviet police enforced the brutal policy of collectivising agriculture by requisitioning grain and other foodstuffs.

Kiev recognises the Holodomor as a genocide while many Western historians say that Stalin’s regime orchestrated the famine to destroy Ukraine’s ambitions for independence.

Russia has meanwhile contested this claim.

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.

Source: AFP

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Russia Argues That Its Only Obligation To Ukraine Is Not To Nuke It, Experts React Swiftly

LONDON, England -- The Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom tried to pretend Tuesday that Moscow couldn’t have violated the Budapest Memorandum because that agreement only contained one provision: not to attack Ukraine with nuclear weapons.

Russian mobile Topol-M missile launching units drive in formation during the Victory Day parade in Moscow's Red Square May 9, 2014.

But in fact, as commentators on Twitter noted right away, the Budapest Memorandum contains six provisions, which are plainly visible to anyone who visits the site linked by the Russian Embassy and scrolls down.

In other words, the Russian Embassy assumed that it could fool readers into thinking that there was only one provision because the screenshot just showed the first half of the webpage. 

It didn’t work.

Twitter users linked to the English translation of the Budapest Memorandum signed in 1994 by Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The purpose of the agreement was to reassure Ukraine that if the country gave up its nuclear arsenal, it would retain its territorial integrity.

Users lambasted the embassy for trying to pass off painfully obvious falsehoods.

“Thanks for demonstrating your lack of intelligence. Just wondering if idiocy was an employment requirement for your position,” one user wrote.

Noted independent journalist Eliot Higgins also tweeted, “I think the @RussianEmbassy needs to explain themselves over this one.”

Brookings Institution scholar Steven Pifer wrote, “Lavrov claim that #Russia did not violate Budapest Memorandum because it did not threaten Ukraine with nuclear weapons is totally absurd.”

Ariana Gic Perry, who edits a journal on Russian affairs, said that “Russian FM Lavrov needs a “Budapest Memorandum for Dummies“. So here is a ‘dumbed down’ version just for him.”

The first and most obvious point of the memorandum is that the three countries agreed to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”

The second point is an agreement to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”

While the provision noted by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov does exist in the document, it is listed by the Council on Foreign Relations as the fifth point.

Lavrov delivered his remarks in response to a question from the UNIAN news agency, which is based in Kiev, Ukraine.

Russia is widely held to have repeatedly violated the agreement repeatedly, a point implied by a reporter, who raised the issue of Russian involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the clear annexation of Crimea.

But according to Lavrov, the Budapest Memoranum “contains only one obligation – i.e. not to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. No one has made any threats to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine.”

Source: The Daily Caller

Putin’s Angels: The Bikers Battling For Russia In Ukraine

LUHANSK, Ukraine -- A rumble of artillery prompts the biker gang to pause inside their stronghold. It has been some time since the rebel-held city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, on the war-torn fringes of Europe, has witnessed any frontline action.

Vladimir Putin with the Night Wolves’ Alexander ‘The Surgeon’ Zaldostanov. They were anarchic petrolheads and now they’re the Russian president’s henchmen: meet the Night Wolves, Moscow’s most infamous motorcycle gang.

An explosion sends pulses racing.

“Finally,” grins one of the men.

“We’re going to fight.”

But, with a large gathering fast approaching, the bikers soon put themselves back to work.

After all, their stage is not going to build itself.

Their magical oak tree stands unfinished; a phoenix costume needs its full, resplendent plumage.

Such are the confounding contrasts among the Luhansk chapter of the Night Wolves, Russia’s largest and most infamous motorcycle club.

The men now busily constructing a winter wonderland for the children of this battle-scarred city are the same bearded, tattooed bikers who inject extreme, flag-waving nationalism into motorcycle rallies, who fight alongside Russian-backed, separatist militias, and deride the “Satanism” of the west.

A few weeks later, the club would open its huge, rusting gates to the public, unleashing a strange brew of bike stunts, Slavic fairytales and patriotic pageantry, to see in the new year.

Converted from a disused sports complex, the Night Wolves’ base is a militaristic, Mad Max mishmash of wrecked tanks, spent artillery shells and technicolour murals.

At the rear, behind a museum of Soviet-era cars, the men grow vegetables and tend beehives.

The stars of the forthcoming show are Luhansk’s own few-dozen Night Wolves.

Denis Kuznetsov, the brooding, soft-spoken deputy commander, has left his wife and children in Moscow to support Ukraine’s pro-Russian insurgency; Vitaly “The Prosecutor” Kishkinov is their severe, swaggering boss; Sergey “Mosquito” Komarov is a baby-faced biker whose warmth and ebullience at times fail to eclipse the lasting trauma caused by fighting in Russia’s ruthless campaign in Chechnya.

Then there is Shamil Shakov, a psychologist from Siberia, whose stillness and new-age spirituality have led him to serve as the group’s unofficial sage.

Despite their penchant for chromed theatrics, the Night Wolves are no marginal subculture: they ride at the vanguard of Russia’s new wave of ultranationalism.

The club boasts thousands of members across eastern Europe and enjoys close relations with the Russian president, leading some to dub them Putin’s Angels.

Their presence here – and their role in the ongoing conflict – sheds light on the war in Donbass (eastern Ukraine), on Putin’s style of domestic politics, and on Russia’s ever-deteriorating relationship with the west.

While its Moscow HQ has had international media attention, the club’s outpost in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) remains largely unreported.

But after more than a month of negotiations, a small team and I secured unrestricted access to shoot a documentary about the group.

Weighed down with camera gear, our pockets stuffed with roubles, we crossed the conflict’s buffer zone and journeyed deep into the country’s separatist heartland to meet them.

On a cold, grey morning in Luhansk, one of Ukraine’s bleakest and best-preserved Soviet cities, we meet Kuznetsov at the Night Wolves’ base.

In the courtyard, club members arrange props and saw logs for the forthcoming show.

Framed by the flag of Novorossiya, Ukraine’s loose confederation of rebel-held territories, Kuznetsov wears a biker jacket over military fatigues, his olive-green beret badged with a hammer and sickle to round off the Easy Rider guerrilla look.

For the Night Wolves, image is king.

“Everything was inspired by American clubs, even the way we dress,” Kuznetsov explains.

“We took the best and reproduced it in our way. The club was created to fight against the USSR, but in the end we started working with the state.”

Kuznetsov joined the Night Wolves in the early 90s, after meeting the club’s charismatic leader, Alexander Zaldostanov, who trained in medicine and is known as “The Surgeon”.

Kuznetsov’s role in the club would eventually shift from motorcycle enthusiast to militant fighter.

As the Maidan street protests engulfed Kiev in the winter of 2013-14, in a bloody push towards integration with Europe, he was among a swath of ethnic Russians who saw only a violent coup d’état.

Stoked by the Kremlin’s narrative that Ukrainian “fascists”, aided and abetted by the CIA, had overthrown a legitimate, pro-Russian government (the notorious kleptocracy of Viktor Yanukovych, accused of presiding over a “mafia” administration that cost the country billions of dollars), Kuznetsov left his family in Moscow in February 2014 and headed south.

He and other bikers actively engaged in Russia’s covert invasion of Crimea, swapping leathers for body armour; that summer, they joined Ukraine’s separatist insurgency.

“The Maidan movement was starting in Crimea. We decided to invest all our strength in preventing it,” Kuznetsov tells us one evening in his sleeping quarters, over shots of fiery moonshine.

Religious icons, separatist banners, war medals and Kalashnikov rifles furnish the room, alongside a wolf-emblazoned dreamcatcher and a portrait of Kuznetsov’s grandfather in the second world war. 

“The Night Wolves built the first checkpoints,” he says.

“We were the first to be given weapons and to patrol Sevastopol. I am one of the million reasons Crimea finally was annexed.”

The US later sanctioned the Night Wolves for storming a gas facility and Ukrainian naval base on the Black Sea peninsula, blocking any assets they might have in the US and banning contact with US citizens – a token gesture, given the unlikelihood of patriotic Russians investing there.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, The Surgeon received a medal for his efforts.

For Kuznetsov and his fellow Night Wolves, the collapse of the Soviet Union remains a source of profound regret; Crimea’s annexation gave them the perfect opportunity to help Russia reassert its strength and resurrect a lost domain.

“The USSR was the most powerful empire in the world,” he muses one cold, overcast morning, walking among the carcasses of Soviet-era tanks salvaged from the Donbass battlefield.

“And in one hour, without a single shot, it was over. We lost everything we had for bubble gum and jeans. And McDonald’s.”

He recounts the penury of Moscow in the chaotic aftermath: empty shops and queues to buy basic groceries with coupons.

For Kuznetsov, the west can tolerate only a crippled post-Soviet state, not a resurgent Russia.

“Suddenly, everyone loved us. Now that we’re here and strong, no one likes us. When I was lying on the floor, everyone loved me.”

But Kuznetsov’s role in Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, and in the conflict in Donbass, has come at a price.

He has received medals but barely been home.

“To be honest, I’m a real traitor: I betrayed my family,” he admits.

“My wife didn’t understand. I’m a grown man. I had an income, three children. What was I looking for? But I had to go.”

The USSR was the most powerful empire in the world.

And in one hour, without a single shot, it was over The Night Wolves first roared out from Moscow’s 1980s underground.

In the liberalised environment that flourished under Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms, kindred bikers and metalheads partied to rock music, provided security for bands and ran protection rackets, tearing around the capital on their Soviet-era Dnepr, Jawa and Voskhod motorcycles.

“We were a powerful band on wheels,” Kuznetsov recalls.

“We were driving fast in Moscow by night, escaping the police.”

Since those early years, he and his fellow Night Wolves have evolved from an anarchic posse of petrolheads into a key component of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.

August 1991 marked a pivotal moment, as they moved in from the margins to join the resistance against the failed anti-Gorbachev putsch launched by communist hardliners.

In Russia’s rocky 90s, the club began hosting annual motorcycle shows and launched a Wolf Wear clothing line.

Putin has since become its most powerful patron, sanctioning huge grants and driving a three-wheeled Harley-Davidson as a Night Wolves outrider.

They ride across Slavic landscapes to Orthodox holy sites, and stage shows that combine stunts, special effects and hard rock with zealous patriotism and pyrotechnics.

Russia expert Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University, says the Night Wolves are not part of the counterculture; they are “countercountercultural”, acting as “outlaws yet tools of the state”.

In other words, the Kremlin has brought them in from the fringes to exploit their pro-Putinism, fervent Orthodoxy and anti-American rhetoric as a potent source of soft power.

A Harley-Davidson rally from Moscow to Berlin last April retraced the Red Army’s route to commemorate the defeat of Nazi Germany; in August, in Sevastopol, the bikers staged a second world war re-creation in a performance complete with lasers, rock music and motorcycle stunts.

Meanwhile, opposition activist Alexei Navalny has uncovered the flow of millions of roubles from the Russian government to the club, including funds to perform anti-western children’s shows.

Throw in their Soviet revivalism and large cache of assault rifles, and you have quite a cocktail. 

Anyone can apply to be in the Night Wolves.

Drug addicts can't join.

Neither can gay men.

Women can't join, either.

On our first day in Luhansk, Vitaly Kishkinov, the bullish boss of the local chapter, gives us a tour of the base.

Over the next week, we get to know his men beyond the two-dimensional characters the club so readily projects.

Kishkinov, however, remains stubbornly opaque and ideological – a consummate rebel leader.

“I love my country, I received it with my mother’s milk,” he tells us in front of a large mural inspired by Mad Max, featuring a fanged, fuel-belching tanker bursting through a brick wall.

“I am proud of my ancestors, proud of our Great Victory [in the second world war], proud of our grandfathers who shed blood and came back with medals. There’s no force on Earth that can make me think differently.”

For Kishkinov, the irony of delivering such a patriotic monologue against the backdrop of a Hollywood hit is no obstacle.

Kishkinov, whose wife and two children live elsewhere in Luhansk while he immerses himself in the club, takes us to what he calls “the museum” – part games room, part shrine.

A billiards table is draped with wolfskins.

One corner is dedicated to his celebrity friends, including photographs of crooner Grigory Leps, who was sanctioned by the US for suspected mafia ties.

Orthodox icons and crucifixes plaster the walls, alongside portraits of Stalin and Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s puppet warlord in Chechnya.

Elsewhere in the dark room, a sign reads, in Russian, “I will buy the skin of Obama.”

Who can join the Night Wolves, I ask Kishkinov.

“Anyone can apply, anyone with the desire to join,” he says, adding pointedly:

“Drug addicts can’t join. Neither can pederasts. [He uses the Russian homophobic slang for gay men.] Women can’t join, either: it’s a men’s club.”

Why not gay men?

Kishkinov, whose star in the Night Wolves has risen alongside Russia’s hard rightward, homophobic turn, looks incredulous.

“I don’t even know what to say. This is too obvious: God created us as men and women to sleep together. Gays are not normal.”

Turning to religion, he continues:

“We are Orthodox people, and if one loses his faith in the Wolves or in Orthodoxy, life has no sense. God is with us and God helps us.”

Kuznetsov would go even further.

In a war often viewed in hyperbolic terms – the Ukrainians brand the enemy “terrorists”; Russian-backed forces claim to battle “neo-Nazis” – he employs a phrase more readily associated with militants waging jihad.

“We’ve seen many miracles here. We’ve seen bombed churches where people survived,” he says.

“This is a religious and spiritual war.”

When separatist tensions in the Donbass region erupted into open warfare in the spring of 2014, claiming more than 9,100 lives to date, the Night Wolves were among the pro-Russian fighters deployed to carve out breakaway “people’s republics”.

Several members were killed and the US government later alleged close links between the club and Russian special forces.

The Night Wolves had evolved from a tool for exerting soft power to something harder and more violent.

As the front line ossifies into a de facto border, the group has integrated with the rebels’ internal affairs ministry, retaining a paramilitary function and substantial arsenal.

But it has also returned to its civic roots: staging patriotic events, campaigning against corruption, participating in urban renewal, delivering humanitarian aid – much to the adulation of the local population.

Putin’s brand of politics has created an environment in which such an organisation can thrive.

His brash cult of the macho celebrity is the modern-day cult of Stalin.

Here, in a political arena as manipulated as a daytime melodrama, Putin is at the top of the A-list.

“This man has leadership,” Kuznetsov insists.

“His politics are the best possible course for Russia.”

Stalin has enjoyed a renaissance, too, as the Kremlin harnesses Soviet nostalgia to reconnect with Russia’s superpower past.

The Night Wolves’ reverence for the dictator is clear even before you step inside their base.

A flag bearing Stalin’s face adorns the entrance gates, while three other banners show Jesus Christ, the tricolour of the Russian Federation and the LNR’s red star emblem.

On arrival in Luhansk, we visited the rebel regime’s ministry of information, a vast monolith housing a warren of corridors and sullen bureaucrats.

The Soviet-style paranoia of an emergent autocracy was rife; an apparatchik took our local fixer aside in a hallway and hissed:

“It would be wise to stop working with such western journalists and return home at the earliest opportunity.”

Later, our names came up during a televised cabinet meeting. The LNR’s increasingly authoritarian leader, Igor Plotnitsky, expressed clear suspicion about our work in his separatist statelet, prompting the rebels’ minister of information to intervene:

“They are working for the Guardian. It’s just some online youth magazine.”

We tried to shrug off both incidents as amusing quirks, but they would come back to haunt us.

We spend the following afternoon in the snug sentry hut of the Night Wolves’ base.

Over cups of tea and bread smeared with salo (pork fat), Sergey “Mosquito” Komarov tells us how his life led to this moment.

One of the most affable members of the chapter, he was born in a village outside Moscow and, as a teenager, served as a tankman during Russia’s brutal bid to crush Chechen resistance at the turn of the millennium.

It is clear the experience caused Mosquito subtle but long-term psychological damage.

Biking offered a kind of therapy.

“What have I gone through? A lot. It took me two years to get over it,” says Mosquito, now in his early 30s.

“Riding a motorbike has always been something I love. Fill up the tank and ride – your head is free from everything. Driving 2,000km (1,243mi) is better than a month of holidays.”

While running humanitarian aid to a frontline town in Ukraine last year, he met a local girl, Nadia, whose father had already left home to fight with the separatists.

She later moved in with Mosquito at the base.

“We didn’t choose the life we have,” says Nadia, 19, resting against him in the sentry post.

“I don’t care to be somewhere else. My man is here.”

Their rapport is touching, almost innocent – the sort of relationship born out of chance meetings amid the ravages of war.

Before our arrival, a two-month lull broke down as both sides re-engaged in trench warfare, nightly bombardments striking the outskirts of the separatist stronghold of Donetsk.

The frontline near Luhansk is calmer, though the remnants of 2014’s conflagration appear everywhere: boarded-up shops, tarmac cratered by mortar fire, buildings demolished by airstrikes and artillery attacks.

The most dramatic destruction lies several miles away at the airport.

Clashes between pro-Kiev forces and separatist militias, including members of Luhansk’s Night Wolves, backed by the might of the Russian army, dealt the terminal near-total annihilation.

On a bright, windswept morning, Kishkinov shows us the devastation, navigating the massive craters that rupture the runway.

One lone worker clambers over the rubble to collect an armful of bricks before walking down and dumping the debris on the ground, only to repeat the endless, empty exercise.

“Everything was destroyed,” Kishkinov says loudly, over the wind.

“It was a big battle – a very big one. Everything here is rinsed with blood, just as in the Great Patriotic War. Souls inhabit this place. The city was under siege. When I speak about this, I have goosebumps. I wouldn’t even want an enemy to go through this.”

In the shadow of the ruined terminal, I press him on Russia’s involvement in the war, long denied by Putin until recently, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Surely he encountered Russian troops?

Surely the blame for war cannot rest solely with Ukraine?

“Russia is not concerned here,” Kishkinov snarls in heavy, expletive-strewn Russian.

“Not once has Russia started war on her borders; Russia has never made war on another’s territory. We are always defending ourselves from enemies who want to take our land.”

We continue the final leg of the tour in silence as Kishkinov storms ahead.

At his 4x4, he turns to the camera:

“Greetings, Europe. I wish you one thing: that your people never experience what we did here. Live in peace and remember this saying: ‘A bad peace is better than a good war.’”

Rainclouds barrel across the sky and we depart.

Like Sisyphus, the lone figure continues to toil at his impossible task, dismantling the ruined airport stone by stone.

The presence and influence of the Night Wolves in Luhansk underscores the bitter ethnic rift that runs through Ukraine.

Many in the chapter are local men, yet align themselves with Moscow over Kiev, in spite of their common past and language.

Regardless of his militant creed, it is a divide that troubles Kuznetsov.

“There was a moment when we were fighting last year,” he says.

“As I approached some Ukrainian prisoners, they took their crosses, kissed them and prayed. And I knew they were saying the same prayers as I do. These were Orthodox men. Do I hate Ukrainians? No, I love them. But we have been set on each other.”

It was to be our final night at the base; we kept the camera rolling amid a fug of cigarette smoke while talking and trading ideas with the bikers in their sleeping quarters.

Two hours before the start of military curfew, we received a tipoff that the authorities had deemed us no longer welcome and had issued an arrest warrant.

Our fixer’s security and our reams of footage were at risk; we decided to hit the road as a matter of urgency.

We shook hands with Kuznetsov, bade a swift goodbye and headed to the gates.

Minutes later in the dark December chill, we spotted one of the older, more grizzled bikers on sentry duty.

In the 90s, Ivar had seen action with the Russian army throughout the restive Caucasus.

Now, in his 50s, he had found himself embroiled in yet another separatist conflict on the frontiers of Russia.

The headlights of our van appeared as our fixer raced down the track to meet us outside the Night Wolves’ stronghold.

Within an hour, he would be speeding towards the safety of the Russian border.

I would bundle into a second car with my fellow film-maker, Sebastien, before navigating a series of rural backroads to avoid rebel checkpoints.

We would grab a few hours’ sleep in a hostel near the frontline, leave before dawn and cross the conflict’s buffer zone into government-held Ukraine by lunchtime, our footage beyond the reach of any pro-Russia militias bent on confiscating it.

Before that, we had just enough time to say farewell.

The city lay silent beneath a cloudless winter night.

Ivar gave us a warm smile but declined to return our goodbyes.

“I’ll just say, see you soon,” he responded quietly.

“Since the war began, I’ve stopped saying goodbye to people.”

Source: The Guardian

'Putin Is Corrupt' Says US Treasury

LONDON, England -- The US Treasury has told a BBC investigation that it considers Russian President Vladimir Putin to be corrupt.

The US Treasury's Adam Szubin speaks of a "picture of corruption".

The US government has already imposed sanctions on Putin's aides, but it is thought to be the first time it has directly accused him of corruption.

His spokesman told the BBC that "none of these questions or issues needs to be answered, as they are pure fiction".

Last week a UK public inquiry said Putin had "probably" approved the murder of ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko.

Secret wealth 

Litvinenko, a former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agent and fierce critic of Putin, was poisoned in London with radioactive polonium in 2006.

Adam Szubin, who oversees US Treasury sanctions, has told BBC Panorama that the Russian president is corrupt and that the US government has known this for "many, many years".

He said: "We've seen him enriching his friends, his close allies, and marginalising those who he doesn't view as friends using state assets. Whether that's Russia's energy wealth, whether it's other state contracts, he directs those to whom he believes will serve him and excludes those who don't. To me, that is a picture of corruption."

The US government imposed sanctions against a number of Kremlin insiders in 2014 and stated that Vladimir Putin had secret investments in the energy sector.

However, the Americans did not directly accuse him of corruption at the time.

The sanctions - later expanded to include more individuals and organisations - coincided with similar EU measures against Russia.

The trigger for them was Russia's annexation of Crimea, during political turmoil in Ukraine.

US government officials have been reluctant to be interviewed about President Putin's wealth, but Mr Szubin agreed to take part in a BBC Panorama programme investigating the issue.

Mr Szubin would not comment on a secret CIA report from 2007 that put Putin's wealth at around $40 billion (£28 billion).

But he said the Russian president had been amassing secret wealth.

"He supposedly draws a state salary of something like $110,000 a year. That is not an accurate statement of the man's wealth, and he has long time training and practices in terms of how to mask his actual wealth."

The Kremlin denies such allegations.

In 2008, President Putin personally addressed claims that he was the richest man in Europe, saying:

"It's simply rubbish. They just picked all of it out of someone's nose and smeared it across their little papers."

Offshore company 

But Panorama has spoken to former Russian insiders who say they have first-hand knowledge of Vladimir Putin's secret riches.

Dmitry Skarga, who used to run the state shipping company Sovcomflot, says he oversaw the transfer of a $35 million yacht to Putin.

Mr Skarga says the 57m-long Olympia was a gift from Britain's most famous Russian - the Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich.

"It's a fact that Abramovich, through his employee, transferred a yacht to Putin," he said.

"I was on board of this yacht at the end of March 2002, in Amsterdam. And there was a representative of Abramovich… He said that Roman is the owner of this yacht."

Mr Skarga says the Olympia was then given to the Russian president via an offshore company.

He then oversaw the management of the yacht for Vladimir Putin and prepared reports on the boat's running costs.

He said: "This yacht was maintained and paid for running costs from the state budget."

Mr Skarga says the yacht was kept secret because it belonged personally to Vladimir Putin, rather than the state.

Panorama asked Abramovich about the yacht.

His lawyers dismissed claims about him as speculation and rumor.

President Putin declined to be interviewed for Panorama.

Source: BBC News

Friday, January 29, 2016

Amid East Ukraine War, Kiev Reduces Gas Supplies From Russia

KIEV, Ukraine -- Amid continued diplomatic strain with Russia, Ukraine announced plans Wednesday to significantly reduce the amount of gas it buys directly from its eastern neighbor -- and double what it takes from Europe.

An employee turns a valve at a gas compressor station in the village of Boyarka, outside Kiev.

Since November last year Kiev had refused to buy Russian gas because of the high price and instead relied on cheaper gas from Europe.

Over the last year Ukraine doubled its gas imports from Europe to 10.3 billion cubic meters (bcm) and reduced imports from the Russian Federation from 14.5 bcm to 6.1 bcm, marking a historical minimum.

Up until 2014, Ukraine exclusively imported all its gas from Russian under a contract with Moscow’s energy giant Gazprom, according to a report by Ukrainian news site Unian.

Relying on a process known as reverse flow, Europe buys its gas from Russian and pumps it back into Ukraine.

Normally this process would come at a premium, but in 2016 prices Russia is charging Ukraine $207 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas compared with Europe asking Kiev for around $175 for the same volume, despite it all coming from the same source.

The difference in price is because Europe is buying far more gas from Russia than Ukraine and is able to negotiate a discount.

Before the end of 2015, Russia had attempted to charge Ukraine $227 per 1,000 cubic meters, which is what prompted Kiev to stop buying.

However, given the large amount the country needs, it will for have to continue to buy some of it supplies from Russia until Europe is able to account for all of its needs.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 and its support for rebels in the Eastern Ukraine war had brought relations between the two neighboring countries to a low not seen since the end of the Cold War in 1991.

While there is relative peace in the war torn regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, more than 9,100 people have been killed and left parts of Ukraine’s industrial regions in ruins.

Ukraine still has no access to the territories under pro-Russian rebel control.

Source: IBT

EU Court Annuls Asset Freeze On Five Former Ukraine Officials

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The European Union’s second-highest court struck down an asset freeze on two former Ukraine prime ministers and three other people tied to ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, but four of the five people will stay on the bloc’s sanctions list for now.

Ukraine's former prime minister Mykola Azarov in Moscow, Russia, in August 2015.

The court accepted appeals against the EU asset freeze by former prime ministers Mykola Azarov and Serhiy Arbuzov as well as Arbuzov’s son, Oleksiy.

Serhiy Klyuyev, the brother of a former top aide to Yanukovych and former energy minister Eduard Stavytsky also won their appeals against sanctions the EU adopted to stop the misappropriation of state funds.

The decision was the latest blow to the sanctions the EU placed on Yanukovych’s inner circle in the chaotic days after the former president fled Ukraine amid a political crisis in the country.

Days later, Russia moved to annex Crimea.

The EU’s hope was to freeze stolen funds so that they could eventually be recovered and returned to Ukrainian coffers.

The court has already struck down the asset freeze on another official the EU sanctioned.

The bloc itself decided last March to drop the sanctions against several people because of the lack of hard evidence presented by Ukrainian authorities.

Among those people was Oleksiy Arbuzov’s son.

However at the time, the EU also relisted a number of the Ukrainians targeted on slightly different grounds.

That means that Azarov, Arbuzov, Klyuyev and Stavytsky will remain on the EU’s sanctions list until at least March 6, when the asset freezes expire.

The sanctions could be rolled over.

Azarov, Arbuzov and Klyuyev have appealed the EU’s relisting of them but the EU’s General Court has yet to decide on those cases.

A senior Ukrainian prosecutor said Thursday sanctions against 17 former Yanukovych-era officials remained in force, according to the news agency Interfax.

According to the report, Serhiy Horbatyuk, the head of the special investigation department of the Prosecutor-General of Ukraine, said a representative of the prosecutor’s office would be sent to Europe to press for the continuation of sanctions.

The EU also has just over two months to decide whether to appeal Thursday’s ruling to the bloc’s top court, the European Court of Justice.

Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, said officials “are studying carefully the ruling” and will reflect on what action to take.

Ms. Kocijancic said that when the EU relisted the four former Ukrainian officials in March 2015, this was “on the basis of updated information provided by the Ukrainian authorities.”

EU officials have acknowledged they moved quickly against targets identified by Kiev for fear that stolen assets would be taken out of the country as Yanukovych’s government collapsed.

For months, however, there was frustration in Brussels that Kiev hadn’t provided clear evidence against some of those targeted.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

13,000 Russian Servicemen Invaded Ukraine Near Ilovaisk In 2014

KIEV, Ukraine -- More than 13,000 Russian regular servicemen (three battalion combat teams) were deployed near the town of Ilovaisk, in Ukraine's Donetsk region, during August 2014.

A Russian tank in Ukraine.

Chief military prosecutor Anatoly Matios made public the information on January 27.

"The battle for Ilovaisk was investigated. We carried out an extensive examination of the evidence with many experts. We came to the conclusion that three tactical combat teams comprising more that 13,000 (Russian) regular servicemen crossed Ukraine's border," Matios said.

Matios earlier said over 15,000 Russian military troops and Russia-led militants were stationed near Ilovaisk in August 2014.

A fierce fighting took place near Ilovaisk in late August 2014.

Ukrainian troops were surrounded by combined Russian-separatist forces.

The Russian-backed militants fired on convoy which headed through the corridor, which had been agreed with the enemy for withdrawal of the Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian troops suffered multiple casualties.

The Ukrainian government described what happened at Ilovaysk as a massacre.

According to official data, 366 troops were killed, while another 429 were wounded.

However, a Ukrainian parliamentary commission estimates that up to 1,000 soldiers may have died in the Battle of Ilovaisk last year in August.

"We are investigating, whether Ukraine, with all the military units available at that time was really capable of doing something against a direct hybrid-war invasion," Matios said.

Source: UA Today

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Breaking The Bribe Culture Is Still A Challenge For Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- The manager of Danone Nutricia in Ukraine cannot for legal reasons say whether the Ukrainian tax authorities demanded bribes to drop an audit into his business.

But he has one word to describe their aims and methods: "Mafia."

Though it has been in Ukraine since 2001, the company, a subsidiary of French food group Danone , was handed a 15-20 percent higher tax bill after auditors spent five weeks looking for minor clerical errors in its accounts.

Manager Tahsin Yasin said the audit, which the company is contesting, made him realize the government's much-vaunted reforms were off-track, a gloomy prospect for a country battling an economic crash and a separatist war.

Since coming to power in 2014, the pro-Western government has pledged to stamp out the systemic graft that flourished under former president Viktor Yanukovich and kept Ukraine hooked on Russian money and cheap gas.

But for many, corruption has stayed the same or even got worse, eroding public support for the authorities, deterring foreign investment and causing Ukraine's Western backers to question Kiev's ability to deliver real change.

Failure to stamp out graft threatens to derail a $40 billion aid-for-reforms deal championed by the IMF, the European Union and Washington, which keeps the economy afloat as Ukraine battles pro-Russian separatists in the east.

"Illegal tax collection did happen under Yanukovich. Luckily it didn't affect us then, but they are targeting us now despite supposed reforms," Yasin told Reuters in an interview.

"We are dealing with a completely unprofessional mafia who are there simply to extort as much as they can while in office," he said.

The state fiscal service did not respond to a request for comment.

The story echoes the experience of several companies spoken to by Reuters, who say organized graft has given way to a free-for-all where bureaucrats grab what they can, while they can.


In Ukraine, companies can slash their tax bills in exchange for smaller sums of cash under the counter.

A chief executive of a large agricultural company told Reuters his firm had lost a court case because he had refused to pay the judge $30,000.

"The system of corruption has become more chaotic, more haphazard. Before, some issues could be resolved without money, but now these options don't exist – everyone is on the take," the director of a large industrial company told Reuters.

A November business survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine found 73 percent of respondents did not think corruption had decreased under the current leaders.

What's more, public perception of graft has worsened, a worrying sign for a government that swept to power after violent street protests against sleaze under Yankovich.

Last September 40 percent of people said they had experienced corruption in the previous 12 months, compared with 37 percent in April 2014, according to an IFES poll.

A separate survey said 51 percent of Ukrainians felt corruption had risen.


President Petro Poroshenko acknowledges more needs to change.

"At the middle level, the situation has not changed and I am not going to put up with that," he said at a news conference in response to a Reuters question.

Asking for patience, he said:

"if you sow potatoes and dig them up again immediately, you won't see a result."

The government has made a visible effort to cleanse the stables, bringing in respected foreigners to run key ministries, cleaning up the administration of the loss-making energy giant Naftogaz and curtailing corrupt bank lending.

Another new feature is the introduction of thousands of U.S.-trained traffic police to cleanse a body once notorious for being on-the-take.

They now don't take bribes, and citizens who try to pay them face punishment.

However, these changes are not enough as long as thousands of lower-ranking officials in Soviet-style state institutions feel safe from scrutiny.

"There is a big gap between the top level, where the situation is improving and the lower and lowest administrative levels, where the situation hasn't changed or even worsened," the business ombudsman for Ukraine's anti-corruption initiative, Algirdas Semeta, told Reuters.

"There have been complaints from businesses that even when they pay bribes, they don't get the services they expected."

There is hope that a newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau will improve accountability and help eliminate graft, while parliament is due to debate new laws to make it harder for judges to take bribes with impunity.

However, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden in December warned Ukraine that Washington's patience was running out.

People like Nutricia's Yasin say change won't come soon.

"Companies like ours want to invest and grow in Ukraine, but we simply don't have the confidence to do so in the absence of a stable, political and legal framework which will allow us to operate," he said.

Source: The Fiscal Times

Poland: Weapon Smuggling Following Ukraine War Arming Organised Crime And Terrorists In Western Europe

KIEV, Ukraine -- There has been a surge in attempts to smuggle illegal weapons into the European Union amid the conflict in east Ukraine, according to figures from Polish border guards.

Pro-Russian militant at a checkpoint near Kramatorsk.

Since fighting broke out between pro-Moscow and Ukrainian government forces in May 2014, thousands of weapons, including high-powered Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket launchers, and grenades, have entered the hands of rival militias, and seeped into the country's black market.

Poland has been forced to introduce increased security measures, with criminals increasingly attempting to exploit trafficking routes across across the Ukrainian-Polish border and transport weapons into the heart of the European Union, where they can fetch as much as $2,000 (€1,800). 

While in 2013 only three firearms were seized from smugglers by Polish authorities, in the 18 months following the outbreak of hostilities there was an increase of almost 2,000%, with a total of 53 guns seized, as well as 12 gas guns, which can be converted to fire live rounds, according to figures from Polish border guards.

There has also been an increase in ammunition smuggling, with 1,157 pieces of live ammunition seized since the war began, and only 191 seized the year prior to hostilities breaking out.

Arms smuggling rates from Ukraine to Poland are at their highest rate since 2012, when Polish border security was increased for the European Championship football tournament hosted jointly with Ukraine, and officials seized 57 firearms and 3,457 pieces of ammunition.

The number of firearms confiscated the previous year was 25, before dipping again the year after the competition.

There is increasing concern about the increasing availability of weapons fuelling terrorism and organised crime in Europe.

Islamist terrorists armed with illegally acquired weapons have committed two terror attacks in Paris in the space of a year, and security services across the continent are battling to prevent further attacks by groups of roving gunmen.

Thousands of weapons enter Ukraine 

The Ukrainian government claims more than 500,000 firearms have been smuggled into the country by Russia to arm militias, which took up arms after pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in a popular uprising.

As it struggled to roll back rebel advances, Ukraine became increasingly reliant on its own volunteer brigades, some with far-right affiliations, which it armed from military stockpiles.

"You have an internal civil conflict, as in the Balkans and now in Ukraine, and what it does is act like a sponge and soaks up weapons," said Mark Galeotti, an expert on crime and security in the former Soviet Bloc and a professor of Global Affairs at New York University.

Galeotti said that amid a breakdown in law and order in east Ukraine weapons had been acquired not just by militias but also by "people who in times of trouble would rather have a gun in their wardrobe because they don't really trust the authorities".

After the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s thousands of weapons – often from Soviet military stockpiles – entered the European black market, and there are fears of a similar surge of armaments from east Ukraine amid the worse European terror threat in decades.

Violence in east Ukraine between government forces and pro-Moscow militias has been sporadic since September.

Under the terms of the recent Minsk ceasefire agreement, officials from the European Council for Security and Co-operation in Europe have begun overseeing the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line in Donetsk and Donbass.

However, no efforts are being made by the agency to restrict the flow of small arms, and Ukrainian authorities claim that the smuggling of Russian weapons into the country continues unabated, though Moscow has long denied allegations of involvement.

"What happens is as peace breaks out, and as state reconstruction and legitimisation takes place, people are looking to get rid of these weapons, people have no need for them and the natural law of supply and demand means often they will flow elsewhere," said Galeotti.

Lucrative western Europe is the market many criminals will be seeking to exploit, he added.

"This is a depressing inevitability. This is the natural dynamic of the illegal arms market".

Nicolas Florquin, of Geneva-based think tank the Small Arms Survey, said that unless European and Ukrainian authorities take urgent action illegal weapons could flood the EU.

"A lot [of diplomatic effort] is about resolving the situation in Ukraine, and a lot of the discussion has involved heavy weapons and the withdrawal of armoured vehicles and so forth from the front line," he said.

"But there has been very little talk of the control of small arms and light weapons. I would recommend putting that on the agenda of talks as a matter of greater urgency."

Kalashnikovs sold in west European cities – such as illegal weapons hub Brussels – can fetch up to $2,000, a more than 200% increase on the $500 they will reportedly fetch in Donetsk in east Ukraine.

Often they are transported into Europe by individual operators one piece at a time, in a racket dubbed the Ant Trade by experts.

The weapons fuel terrorism and organised crime, as seen when criminals armed with Kalashnikovs taking a bank manager and his family hostage near the Belgian border only days after the 13 November Paris attacks.

The Odessa Network 

Ukraine has long played a key role in the global weapons trade.

In 2014, the Washington-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies released the report describing a network of individuals and companies allegedly responsible for shipping weapons to conflict hot spots worldwide from the Black Sea port of Odessa, which it dubbed the 'Odessa Network'.

The new influx of weapons into the country is being blamed for a spike in violent crime, with the Ukrainian General Prosecutor's Office finding that 2,000 weapons related crimes were committed in the first nine months of 2014, compared to 581 for the whole of the previous year, the Daily Signal reported.

It is not just Poland that has recorded a surge in arms smuggling from Ukraine as weapons spill onto the black market, with Alexander Tishchenko, spokesman for Belorussia's border security committee recently telling Russia's TASS state news agency that border security had been increased after an increase in illegal arms smuggling from Ukraine.

A Polish Border Guards spokeswoman told IBTimes UK that measures were being taken to tighten border security, with 11 observation towers equipped with surveillance cameras to be built, and drones launched to patrol the border.

Due to its proximity and wealth, western Europe will remain the focus for Ukrainian arms traders, said Galeotti, using well-established drugs and human trafficking routes.

Galeotti continued: "There are such deeply established smuggling routes out of Ukraine, for example for Afghan heroin.

The problem is if you have these pipelines already established it means you have corrupted border officials, people who know the ropes.

"If you are travelling in a car with a suitcase of heroin in the boot, frankly there is no real disincentive to throw in a couple of handguns and a Kalashnikov. If you are stopped and searched you are already at high risk."

Once weapons are trafficked into the open border Schengen zone, they can easily be transported between member states.

The Kalashnikovs, handguns and Scorpion machine gun used in the January 2015 attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Kosher supermarket were allegedly bought by terrorist Amedy Coulibaly from an illegal arms trader in Brussels, one of the hubs in the EU trade in illegal firearms.

A man recently arrested in Germany is accused of selling the perpetrators of the November Paris attacks their weapons through an illegal website.

The number of illegal firearms in Europe is steadily increasing, with figures from the Paris-based national Observatory for Delinquency showing the number of illegal guns in France increasing in double digits for years.

Euan Grant, a former strategic intelligence officer for HM Customs and Excise who advised Ukraine on border security, told IBTimes UK of the influx of weapons from Ukraine:

"Is not yet a major issue in the EU, but it has to be seen to be a potential one. "They [weapons] will undoubtedly be trafficked into Europe, and they are leaking [onto the black market], as shown by various incidents," he said.

EU interior ministers recently met to discuss measures to combat the trade in decommissioned weapons in Europe, but experts have warned that more needs to be done.

Though the European Commission recently advocated centralising border checks for the wave of refugees and migrants entering the EU, no co-ordinated measures have been proposed in response to weapons smuggling.

Galeotti said that tackling the problem would require urgent action not just in Europe, but against corruption on the Ukrainian side of the border, with police and border officials too often prepared to look the other way in exchange for a bribe.

With the threat from terror group Islamic State (Isis) the key concern since the Paris attacks and a series of thwarted attacks across Europe, Galeotti warned not to divert resources from the battle against organised crime, which is the real source of the market in illegal weapons.

"Actually fighting organised crime and minimising its capacity and will to look for weapons one of the best ways you can hit the market," he said.

He warned Europe not to repeat the mistakes of the US, where resources were focused on battling terrorism in the wake of 9/11, allowing organised crime gangs to expand.

Ukraine, Grant said, needs to be offered "tangible assistance" to tackle its smuggling networks.

"And that would be offered in a variety of ways, it may be financially. They need concrete practical assistance. Too much of the time we in western Europe take the attitude 'we have a people trafficking problem how can you help us? We have a heroin problem, how can you help us?' The question should be 'what can we do for you?"

Source: IBT UK

Monday, January 25, 2016

Russia Decides To Trade East Ukraine For Sanctions Relief

DAVOS, Switzerland -- Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry said in Davos that sanctions against Russia could be removed in a period of a few months.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L), and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov walk to their seats for a meeting about Syria, in Zurich, Switzerland, on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, before Kerry was to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos. Kerry’s trip is expected to last nine days and to encompass stops in Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Laos, Cambodia, and China.

The diplomatic, public statements along with movement of Western diplomats on the ground, meeting with their Russian counterparts, suggest Moscow has chosen to trade East Ukraine for sanctions relief to save their plummeting economy.

“I believe that with effort and with bona fide, legitimate intent to solve the problem on both sides, it is possible in these next months to … get to a place where sanctions can be appropriately … removed,” said Kerry during a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, reported CNN.

This scenario most likely would not have happened without the price of crude oil collapsing on world markets to its lowest level since 2004, placing severe stress on Russia’s hydrocarbon dependent economy.

It seems that the Kremlin has chosen to abandon the conflict in Donbass for its new offshore, military expedition in the Middle East.

With Russian engineers on the Turkish, Syrian border, possible preparing to establish another new Russian air base under Turkey’s (and NATO’s) nose, Moscow most likely has decided that keeping Russia’s newfound influence and footprint in Syria, supporting the Assad regime and joining forces with Iran, is more important than continuing to fund and militarily support a lost cause in Donetsk. 

Most likely Moscow sees sanctions relief as a bigger prize.

In actuality, the Kremlin can keep the pressure on Kiev to achieve its agenda with covert operations by its security services.

Moscow can resupply the rebels in Donbass at will by just sending trucks across the border if it decides to in the future.

Building military infrastructure to promote Russian power projection in Syria is a much more involved endeavor and one the Kremlin does not feel it can abandon at this stage of the operation.

Russia’s long-term goals in the Middle East remain to be seen.

Source: The Washington Times

Kiev's Heavyweight Boxing Champ Mayor Wants To Knock Out Corruption In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko has described the fight against corruption in Ukraine as an "illusion," and called on the country's general prosecutor to jail more offenders.

Klitschko, the former heavyweight boxing champion who was first elected mayor of Ukraine's capital city in 2014, spoke with VICE News at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. 

"The fight against corruption, it has to have clear rules — if somebody broke the rules, they have to take responsibility for that," said Klitschko.

But the onus, he said, was on the country's widely-maligned general prosecutor, Viktor Shokin.

"It's a problem, because the people expect, they [were] told [there would be] a fight against corruption, but it is illusion," he said.

"Who is in jail?"

Klitschko's comments come amid increased scrutiny from Ukraine's Western allies, including the US, for failing to follow through on prosecutions after the Maidan revolution in early 2014.

In September, American ambassador to Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt called out Shokin in front of business leaders gathered in the Ukrainian city of Odessa.

Shokin's staff, said Pyatt, were "openly and aggressively undermining reform."

"There is one glaring problem that threatens all of the good work that regional leaders here in Odessa, in Kharkiv, in Lviv and elsewhere are doing," said Pyatt.

"That obstacle is the failure of the institution of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine to successfully fight internal corruption."

Pyatt went on to highlight allegations levied against former Ecology Minister Mykola Zlochevsky, who is also the owner of the energy company Burisma Holdings.

Zlochevsky is accused of stealing $23 million — money that was order seized by a UK court.

Shokin's office has been slow to assist British authorities, which Pyatt condemned.

An added wrinkle to the Zlochevsky case is the employment of US Vice President Joe Biden's son Hunter, who serves on the board of Burma.

The company denies the hire was meant to influence or forestall possible investigations.

Public opinion polls in Ukraine show that few citizens believe the new pro-Western government has sufficiently tackled bribery and graft.

In December, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk was tackled by a parliamentarian during a speech in which he deflected criticism that the cabinet was not doing enough to fight corruption.

Klitschko, who was a leading figure in protests that saw the ouster of Ukraine's Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, said corruption was only one of the obstacles facing the country.

Ukraine, he said, needed more time to meet its debt payments, including billions owed after a Western-led bailout.

"Our economy right now is not healthy, and it is very difficult with all conditions we need a little bit more time, less interest," he said.

"We need more air for breathing."

The mayor was part of a large Ukrainian delegation in Davos, including President Petro Poroshenko.

On Thursday, Poroshenko met with the US vice president.

According to Biden's office, the two discussed implementation of the September 2014 Minsk agreement aimed at ending fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Fighting between Russia-backed separatists and Kiev's military continues sporadically, but front lines have remained mostly unchanged since last fall.

Much of the talk at the World Economic Forum this year centered on plummeting oil prices, which have gravely weakened the economies of many dependent countries, including Russia.

In his interview, Klitschko said Western countries had to double down on existing sanctions against Moscow at a time of possible Russian weakness.

"The sanctions have to be prolonged," he said.

"Everyone understands without money supporting separatists, without [the] propaganda war, brainwashing, without weapons deliveries," this conflict would never happen, said Klitschko, referencing Russia's role in Ukraine's east.

The media, he said, "is the most important and dangerous weapon," claiming that the Russian press swayed the public toward supporting the Kremlin's military activities in Ukraine.

"We Ukrainians don't want to go back to the USSR," he said.

"We see our future in the European Union, as a European democratic country. It is our main goal."

The 6'7" Klitschko met VICE News after a closed-door meeting with investors.

Already a veteran of Davos — he's been more than five times — the mayor said he came to sell Kiev to businesspeople gathered at the Swiss alpine town.

"A lot of networking," he said, describing the four day conference.

In 2014, Klitschko was a leading candidate in presidential elections before he pulled out and backed Poroshenko.

Asked if he had aspirations of once more running for Ukraine's highest office, he said there was "no reason" to talk about it.

"It was just two months I was re-elected," said Klitschko.

"The Kiev citizens trust me."

Paraphrasing a joke his friend told him, the former boxer poured more cold water on the idea, asking, "How many presidents [are there] in the world, how many mayors… how many world champions?" 

Source: VICE News

Among Global Orthodox Leaders, Ukraine Is A Bone Of Contention

GENEVA, Switzerland -- The Anglican Communion is not the only worldwide Christian fraternity to have organised a tense, top-level meeting this month.

Only a couple of weeks after the Communion preserved its shaky unity by ostracising its liberal American brethren, the leaders of the Orthodox Christian church convened in all their robed solemnity, and at rather short notice, in Geneva.

At stake is whether or not an even grander Orthodox meeting (the most important for centuries, in some people’s view) can proceed as planned this summer.

The key players in this drama are Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch who is considered “first among equals” in the Orthodox hierarchy and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

Since Ottoman and Tsarist times, these two centres of power have often competed for influence over the eastern Christian world.

The very fact that Moscow agreed in principle to this summer’s “Great and Holy Synod” marks something of a diplomatic success for Patriarch Bartholomew, as does Patriarch Kirill’s presence at the current session in Geneva.

He could have sent an underling.

But many things are up in the air, including the location of the summer gathering: originally scheduled to take place in Istanbul, it might be relocated (perhaps to Geneva again) because of the dire state of Russo-Turkish relations.

On arrival in the Swiss city, Patriarch Kirill made a carefully calibrated address that seemingly spelled out Moscow’s conditions for continued participation.

The most important concern Ukraine.

In that country the two biggest Orthodox institutions are the globally recognised Ukrainian Orthodox Church, ultimately under the Moscow Patriarchate, and the 25-year-old Kiev Patriarchate which strongly supports Ukrainian independence and the government’s battle against Russophile rebels in east.

These two bodies have identical services; the main difference is that they pray for, and obey, different bishops.

Many a confused believer could hardly tell the difference.

To outsiders, it’s remarkable that thousands of local parishes across Ukraine, including some of the country’s grandest places of worship, have managed to remain at least loosely under Moscow’s ecclesiastical jurisdiction, even as war raged between the Ukrainian army and rebels who enjoyed support in high Muscovite places.

As part of a survival strategy, the head of the UOC, Metropolitan Onufry, quietly excused his parishes from praying publicly for the Moscow Patriarch if they were located in areas where anti-Russian sentiment was running high.

But Patriarch Kirill protested in Geneva that 30 churches had been “violently” realigned from his authority to the Kiev hierarchy, and that at least ten other churches were “under threat of seizure by sectarians and [Ukrainian] nationalists, who then present what is happening as the supposedly voluntary transfer of a body of believers to the so-called Kiev Patriarchate.”

The Russian prelate complained that certain bishops, claiming to be acting under Patriarch Bartholomew’s authority, had visited Ukraine and expressed their support for the Kiev hierarchy, hence creating “temptations” among the believers and clergy of Ukraine.

Patriarch Kirill welcomed the fact that many of the world’s Orthodox churches had come out in clear support of Moscow’s position.

His subliminal message was something like: don’t even think about offering succour or recognition to the Kiev hierarchy, or all further inter-Orthodox cooperation will be cancelled until further notice. 

Religion-watchers saw the Russian Patriarch's warning as directed, above all, at Patriarch Bartholomew.

There are many Ukrainians, in the homeland and the diaspora who dream of their country having a united Orthodox church which would look politically to Kiev and ecclesiastically to the ancient see of Constantinople, in other words to Patriarch Bartholomew.

During a visit to Ukraine in 2008, Patriarch Bartholomew held a delicate balance, accepting the legality of the Moscow Patriarchate's authority in that part of the world but also giving heart to the Ukrainian yearning for a united, independent church.

Patriarch Kirill was making it clear that if this happens, there could be a massive split within global Orthodoxy.

Amid all these squabbles, there is something mysterious about any gathering of mitred, bearded prelates from different corners of the world.

The services over which these gentlemen habitually preside are immensely intricate pieces of choreography; there is a great variety of languages and singing styles from booming Slavic to ululating Arabic.

Yet they and their respective entourages can come together and worship, as they did this morning, in a Swiss city, the cradle of Protestantism as it happens, as though they had been concelebrating (to use the technical term) every day of their lives.

Source: The Economist

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Caught Between Russia And The US? The Curious Case Of Ukraine's Dmytro Firtash

VIENNA, Austria -- In a suite of grand rooms inside a Habsburg-era building in Vienna that bristles with security, Dmytro Firtash sips a cup of tea and speaks quietly but deliberately about Ukraine, the country of his birth that he has not set foot in for nearly two years.

Firtash, long seen as pro-Russian, has lost considerable influence in his home country since the revolution.

Critics claim Firtash personifies the country’s class of voracious oligarchs, who made their fortunes while preventing Ukraine’s economy from developing properly.

He had myriad business interests, wide-ranging political influence, and was a close confidant of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in the Maidan revolution in February 2014. 

For years he was a key figure in the country’s murky gas industry, arranging and profiting from key contracts to import central Asian and Russian gas to Ukraine.

But details of an Austrian court case, and FBI emails seen by the Guardian, suggest that Firtash has also been a major player in the battle between the west and Russia over the future direction of Ukraine.

A fortnight after the Maidan revolution toppled Yanukovych, armed police burst into Firtash’s offices in Vienna and arrested him on a US warrant.

He was charged with bribing Indian officials to secure a titanium deal.

However, Firtash’s aides claim the charges were politically motivated and aimed at removing the businessman from the Ukrainian political scene at a vital moment.

In a rare and surprising rebuff to Washington, an Austrian judge agreed, dismissing a US extradition request in April 2015 as politically motivated.

Emails from the FBI to Austrian authorities strongly support the theory that American moves against Firtash had been motivated by political concerns.

Sidelining him at the moment the Maidan revolution succeeded may have been part of a hands-on strategy designed to birth a new pro-European government.

Firtash denies he was pushing Russian interests in Ukraine, but in an interview with the Guardian, he says he was a longtime sceptic of a free-trade agreement with the EU.

The Maidan protests were triggered when Yanukovych pulled out of the deal and said he would turn towards Russia instead.

“I told everyone we should bring Russia to the table and discuss it all together,” says Firths.

“People say I want to swap democracy for cheap gas – I want to have both. I would like to have European values. But let’s be honest, if we turn one way or the other, we lose a lot. We can’t be without Russia, because for us it’s a huge market. But we don’t want to lose Europe either. Why do we have to choose?”

Before Maidan, Russia and the west insisted Yanukovych had to choose one or the other, and Firtash’s position – borne of his contacts and business interests in Russia – perhaps made him an inconvenient influence in western eyes.

Firtash has long been linked with business interests in Russia. Born in 1965 in a small town in west Ukraine, Firtash moved to Moscow in 1988 and took up residence in the Rossiya hotel, just off Red Square.

It functioned at the time as a kind of informal stock exchange, and Firtash met would-be businessmen from all over the Soviet Union, particularly from the central Asian republics.

“It all started with powdered milk. We sent [Uzbekistan] powdered milk but they didn’t have any money so they paid us in cotton. We sold the cotton in Europe and got our first money,” he recalls.

The same thing happened in Turkmenistan, where Firtash was paid in gas – the start of what would become a long and controversial involvement in the trade.

A Wikileaks cable recounting a 2008 meeting between Firtash and the US ambassador to Ukraine claimed the businessman had ties with Semion Mogilevich, a notorious mafia don who was until late last year on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list.

Firtash fiercely disputes the contents of the cable and claims he never said this to the ambassador.

“I knew Mogilevich, but so did half of Ukraine. I never had any dealings with him.”

Firtash’s gas contacts led to the establishment of RosUkrEnergo, a middle-man company that made huge profits while delivering central Asian and Russian gas to Ukraine.

A Reuters investigation found Firtash had been extended credit lines of up to $11bn (£7.8bn) by bankers close to Vladimir Putin, which helped him expand his empire.

The timing of US moves against Firtash align intriguingly with political developments in Ukraine.

An initial request to arrest Firtash was sent in late October 2013, just after Yanukovych had met the Russian president in Sochi and suggested he might not sign the EU deal.

A few days later, the US assistant secretary of state, Victoria Nuland, met Yanukovych in Kiev, and the Ukrainian president then promised he would sign the deal, Nuland said at the time.

The day before Nuland’s meeting, a flurry of US officials emailed the Austrians asking them to call off Firtash’s arrest.

The timing might have been a coincidence, but one of the emails, from the FBI’s legal attache in Vienna, strongly suggests it was not.

The email, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, noted “several discussions between senior officials from the US Department of Justice, US Department of State, and the FBI in Washington DC resulted in the decision to not pursue an arrest of this individual at this time, but to await a more opportune moment in the future that better fits the current investigative strategy”.

It is not clear why senior State Department officials would be involved in the decision to rescind an arrest warrant.

When contacted by the Guardian, the State Department, Justice Department, FBI and US embassy in Kiev all declined to comment on why the request was made and then rescinded, or why senior State Department officials had been involved in the decision.

Russian state media have long pushed various conspiracy theories that the Maidan protest was a US plot, and while there is no evidence for this, there are signs that Washington was pushing for personnel changes, with Nuland playing the key role.

After Yanukovych refused to sign the EU agreement, US policy in Ukraine became more aggressive, says Mykola Azarov, Yanukovych’s prime minister, in an interview in Moscow, where he now lives.

He recalled a meeting with Nuland in Kiev on 10 December 2013, in a trip during which Nuland handed out biscuits to protesters – an act that would come to symbolise Russian media claims of US meddling.

“She said to me, ‘prime minister, the best way out of this crisis would be to form a national unity government’; that I should resign,” says Azarov.

“We knew from our intelligence that the Americans were already planning a new government and discussing who would be the ministers. I said to her quite strongly that you are crudely interfering in our internal affairs and it’s unacceptable. I said to Nuland, ‘Tell your leaders that what you are doing in Ukraine will lead to a serious crisis, because Russia can’t look on at this idly.’”

In an intercepted telephone call leaked in early February 2014, Nuland and the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, discussed which of the opposition leaders they would like to see in government.

It was hardly, as Russian media claimed, proof that the State Department was directing the Maidan protests, but it certainly showed they were more involved than might be expected in Ukrainian political appointments.

With Ukraine’s political future in the balance, Firtash may also have been a problem.

“The Americans thought he was going to interfere, and he probably was,” says a source in the business intelligence world with knowledge of the case.

“They think he represents Russia’s influence in Ukraine, though it’s not clear exactly how they think this works.”

In London, Firtash enjoyed better contacts.

In the days after Maidan, he had briefed the Foreign Office on events in Ukraine, in a meeting apparently set up by Conservative MP John Whittingdale and the Tory peer Richard Spring, both of whom are part of the British Ukrainian Society, set up by Firths.

But even as he was briefing in London, the US reactivated the warrant in Austria, and this time police swooped, removing Firtash from the Ukrainian playing field.

On 12 March 2014, armed police stormed Firtash’s office in Vienna and arrested him.

He was released a week later after a €125m (£96m) ($135m) bail was posted.

“Of course Firtash depended on Russia; the Americans were worried he could jump across to the Russian side because of his financial links,” says Azarov.

From Vienna, Firtash continued to influence Ukrainian politics, notably meeting the current president, Petro Poroshenko, and former heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko in the city shortly after he was bailed.

Poroshenko insisted he had not planned to meet Firtash, but soon after the encounter Klitschko, who has been seen as close to Firtash, pulled out of the presidential race, leaving Poroshenko an easier run, and stood for mayor of Kiev instead.

Many political analysts saw this as a sign that even after the Maidan revolution, billionaires were still taking key political decisions.

The Austrian decision not to extradite Firtash has left him free to travel, although the US is appealing.

He had planned to return to Kiev on the day the Guardian interviewed him in early December but abandoned the trip after the interior minister said he would be arrested at the airport.

He had sent heavily armed men there to wait for Firtash despite the fact there were no charges against him.

Firtash wanted to travel to Kiev to promote his initiative, the Agency for the Modernisation of Ukraine, which is supported by Lord Risby and Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French philosopher, as well as a gaggle of former European politicians, who have come up with a number of reform proposals for Ukraine.

Cynics say this is merely a way for Firtash to buy friendship and retain influence amid the new government’s stated policy of de-oligarchisation.

Firtash himself admits that he has lost a lot in the past two years, though he would not say a figure. 

“I’ve never met anyone in Ukraine who considers these proposals seriously,” says Sergei Leshchenko, a former investigative journalist who is now an MP.

There is little sympathy for the plight of someone who many consider to have been a negative influence for years.

Firtash says all the smears against him are political.

He claims the events after Maidan, in which Russia annexed Crimea and fanned the flames of a civil war in eastern Ukraine, prove his point that Ukraine should not have to choose between Europe and Russia.

He says: “Time has gone by, and what have we got? Russia and the EU talk to each other again, while we are pushed to the side. And in the meantime, Russia has closed its borders to all our products.” 

Source: The Guardian

Swine Flu Exposes Ukraine's Health Flaws

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian officials have introduced a number of urgent measures to head off an outbreak of swine flu in the country, such as temporarily closing schools and banning some public gatherings.

The swine flu virus - H1N1 - can be fatal.

The Kiev city government has introduced a compulsory "mask regime" for its workers.

So far, the virus has killed 60 people, and is approaching, or has reached, epidemic levels in parts of the country - including the eastern Donetsk region, where fighting continues against Russian-backed insurgents.

Still, health authorities insist there is no reason for undue concern - an outbreak of swine flu was anticipated for this winter.

The measures are primarily "prophylactic," they say, in order to prevent the disease from growing into uncontrollable levels.

"There is no reason for panic," Alexander Kvitashvili, the country's health minister, said on Tuesday.

"Ukraine is in the same situation as its neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe."

Still, the disease seems to have caught Ukrainian officials flat-footed.

And the number of fatalities, which has surged in the last week, is a cause for worry.

"From the point of view of doctors, the situation is serious," said Dr Fyodor Lapiy, Kiev's chief immunologist.

"The number of cases of sickness are growing, and very many young people have fallen ill."

According to Dr Lapiy, one of the main reasons for the increase is the lack of a "culture of vaccination" among both doctors and the general population.

The number of physicians recommending to their patients to be immunized is extremely low, and the percentage of those who have actually received their flu shots is "practically non-existent," he says.

Another factor contributing to the seriousness of the outbreak is that many people do not seek treatment until the flu has progressed to an acute - and difficult to treat - stage.

"I encourage all people who suspect they have the flu, whether it is actually the flu or not, to go immediately to your physician," said Health Minister Kvitashvili.

Also, needed equipment, such as respiratory devices or surgical masks, are in short supply - or are misused.

Panicked response 

However, this instance of swine flu also points to deeper and more chronic problems within Ukraine's health system.

Seemingly, every outbreak of a major illness unleashes a panicked response, or at least a widespread scrambling, among health officials.

Swine flu: 

  • A respiratory disease, caused by a strain of the influenza type A virus known as H1N1 
  • H1N1 is the same strain which causes seasonal outbreaks of flu in humans on a regular basis 
  • Although the strain may have originated in pigs, it is now a wholly human disease 
  • It can be spread from person to person by coughing and sneezing 
  • Symptoms of swine flu in humans appear to be similar to those produced by standard, seasonal flu - fever, cough, sore throat, body aches and chills. Some people with the virus have also reported nausea and diarrhea 
  • However, many people who get flu show no symptoms at all, and for most people it is a mild illness - about 98% recover without the need for any hospital treatment. But doctors have found it very hard to predict who will develop complications 
  • More than 200 people died from the virus in Ukraine during a global outbreak in 2009  
Last year, authorities launched a nationwide emergency polio vaccination campaign, after two children died from the virus in south western Ukraine.

At the heart of the problem lies a health system that requires major re-structuring and is rife with corruption.

Doctors are grossly underpaid, and graft touches everything from the availability of treatment, to the supply of medications.

Complicating matters, parliament deputies failed to pass a major health reform package before leaving for vacation at the end of last year.

According to Dr Lapiy, Ukraine differs from its neighbours in significant ways.

In contrast to European countries, trust in the health system is extremely low, which is common among post-Soviet states.

But Ukraine is more democratic, and chaotic, than most countries in the former Soviet Union, and therefore lacks a central authoritarian structure that allows decisions to be taken quickly and decisively, when needed.

This is best exhibited by the fact that the country has seen four health ministers in the last two years, he says.

"To sum it up in one word, what we lack is 'continuity'," he says.

Source: BBC News