Monday, February 29, 2016

The Corruption That Fueled Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution Won’t Go Away

KIEV, Ukraine -- From a wood-panel office overlooking Kiev’s Victory Avenue, Andriy Pyvovarsky, a former chief executive turned government reformer, earns $300 a month to manage a vast ministry more reminiscent of a “holding company.”

Andriy Pyvovarsky

The Ministry of Infrastructure’s bloated portfolio of almost 300 state-owned enterprises, including a railroad, seaports and roads, funnel cash to corrupt businessmen with connections to Ukraine’s parliament, he says.

For months, they have blocked his attempts to privatize them.

“This is an existential issue for the deputies,” meaning members of parliament, Pyvovarsky said in an interview this month.

“If the state-owned companies suddenly disappear, if they’re privately owned, then what’s in it for them? They cannot skim from those companies anymore.”

Crony capitalism was a major reason protesters toppled the pro-Russian government of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

After two years of a pro-Western, pro-reform government, corruption is once again fueling political crisis in Kiev.

At stake are billions of dollars, much of it siphoned from state-owned enterprises, and interests that allegedly extend to Ukraine’s leadership, including business circles close to both President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

The technocrats who entered the government to help implement Western-backed reforms are losing faith.

Pyvovarsky was one of several reform-minded ministers to resign this month after the economy minister, Aivaras Abromavicius, said that a close friend and political ally of Poroshenko had tried to force him to hire a deputy to manage Naftogaz, the state-owned oil giant, and other potentially lucrative companies.

Abromavicius, in an acerbic resignation letter, identified the ally as Ihor Kononenko.

Journalists already had dubbed him the party’s “gray cardinal,” and Ukraine’s leadership appeared shaken by the scandal.

Seeing a “window of opportunity,” Pyvovarsky returned to the government in a last-ditch effort to carry out his agenda, saying that he either would see parliament pass key reforms or he would quit for good.

The result?

More of the same.

“I’m not holding onto this table. I don’t want to be minister,” Pyvovarsky said.

“It’s a matter of a couple of days. I’m not going to wait for six months. Or one month. I don’t trust them. I do not trust them.”

Ukraine’s parliament is unraveling by the day, and the government is more concerned about survival than passing measures to bring about broad changes.

On Feb. 16, Yatsenyuk’s government narrowly survived a vote of no confidence, saved by lawmakers in Poroshenko’s party and those loyal to several oligarchs who mysteriously disappeared from parliament during the vote.

Later, two of four political parties left the ruling coalition, setting up the probable return of the populist Radical Party as a junior partner.

Early elections are likely.

Average Ukrainians are fed up.

There have been some successes in the reform process, such as a new police force and decentralization, but the economy contracted 10.5 percent and inflation rose more than 40 percent in 2015.

Political parties are thinking about positioning themselves for elections, said Balazs Jarabik, an analyst at the Carnegie Center, “not sound policy and reform-making in the parliament.”

Western governments want Ukraine to push forward with reforms but have rejected radical change in order to unblock Ukraine’s parliament, warning that new elections will plunge the country deeper into political crisis.

The West’s influence on the government in Kiev cannot be overstated.

Ukraine needs Western financial support, including the remainder of a $17.5 billion International Monetary Fund bailout, to prop up its economy.

IMF head Christine Lagarde threatened this month to cut off aid “without a substantial new effort to invigorate governance reforms and fight corruption.”

On the other hand, dismissing the government without a replacement also would risk the IMF bailout and would be like “jumping out of a plane without a parachute,” said one Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation candidly.

Poroshenko’s critics say he has played a double game: pandering to angry voters by publicly calling for Yatsenyuk to step down but privately scuttling the no-confidence vote to prevent new elections or the loss of Western aid.

The diplomat, citing private channels of communication, said that he had “clear indications that Poroshenko was not going to allow” the government to fall.

Poroshenko’s main concession on reform was firing Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, another ally who has been accused of blocking reforms and prosecutions against corrupt businessmen.

Perhaps the most troubled of Ukraine’s institutions, the prosecutor general’s office is trusted by less than 10 percent of the population.

“The decision is correct but it’s late,” said Vitaly Kasko, a respected deputy prosecutor general who also resigned recently, citing personal interference by Shokin.

He has said he was pressured and refused to accept instructions from Kononenko, the friend of the president.

In his resignation, Kasko wrote that the prosecutor general’s office was a “dead institution, the independence of which nobody believes in.”

He said that despite Shokin’s dismissal, he had no plans to return to work there.

Abromavicius, the minister of economy whose resignation triggered the crisis, said he welcomed the new scrutiny that the scandal has brought, including a code of ethics for public officials introduced by the cabinet.

“It is not too late to say goodbye to friends in politics,” he said, adding that Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk had an opportunity to restore trust in the government.

“If the government collapses, it is not because of us. It is because of the things that were being done in the wrong way.”

Source: The Washington Post

Sunday, February 28, 2016

How Many More Years Will Putin Occupy Ukraine?

KIEV, Ukraine -- Two years ago today, February 27, Russia invaded Ukraine. On the heels of the Euromaidan Revolution and the vicious sniper attacks that killed 103 Ukrainians, Russian President Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity and ordered the military takeover of Crimea.

A Russian soldier patrols at the airport in Simferopol, Crimea, two years ago. The operation began when Russian military personnel, disguised as little green men in unmarked uniforms, and pro-Russian militia groups stormed government buildings in Crimea.

The operation began when Russian military personnel, disguised as little green men in unmarked uniforms, and pro-Russian militia groups stormed government buildings in Crimea, including the parliament and the supreme court in Simferopol.

Russian flags immediately replaced Ukrainian ones.

Within forty-eight hours, Russian special forces seized Crimea’s airports.

By March 2, the Russian military, operating from its base in Sevastopol and buttressed by heavily armed troops arriving by air from Russia, had swiftly taken over the entire peninsula.

The Ukrainian government, still shell shocked by former President Viktor Yanukovych’s sudden ouster and advised by Western allies, ordered Ukrainian military personnel stationed in Crimea to stand down.

The Kremlin threatened Kiev with full-scale war if it resisted.

However, Ukraine’s concession was not enough to satiate Putin, who wanted economic and political control over Ukraine.

As Russia annexed Crimea after a fraudulent referendum on March 16, little green men also began to appear in the Donbass.

Russian troops and equipment poured into Ukraine’s east.

This time, the Ukrainian government had no choice but to respond militarily to stop the invasion of mainland Ukraine.

Two years later, the Kremlin-manufactured war in Ukraine has cost 10,000 Ukrainian lives, displaced more than 1.6 million and turned what was once the heart of the country’s industrial base into an economic wasteland.

Russia and its proxies now occupy 9 percent of Ukrainian territory.

Russia’s actions in Crimea revised European borders for the first time since World War II and broke numerous international treaties, including the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom agreed to respect the territorial integrity and political sovereignty of Ukraine.

In exchange for this guarantee, Ukraine gave up its significant nuclear arsenal.

The West responded to Putin’s aggression by imposing economic sanctions on Russian officials, businessmen with close ties to the Kremlin and their businesses.

These measures have limited Russian banks’ access to much-needed Western credit.

With oil prices remaining stubbornly low, the Russian economy, which is projected to contract by three to four percent in 2016, is feeling the pain.

Sanctions must remain in place until Ukraine controls its eastern border and Russia no longer occupies Crimea.

Despite a growing chorus of pro-Putin voices in Europe, the EU must remain steadfast in its commitment to sanctions until the Minsk agreements are fully implemented and Russia withdraws its troops from Ukraine.

But the West still needs to do more to counter the Russian narrative.

Western leaders have shied away from calling the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbass what it is: an invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation.

While intervention or action may sound more diplomatic, they are nothing more than euphemisms that misrepresent the reality on the ground.

Putin himself has publicly admitted and even boasted about the efficiency of Russia’s military takeover of Crimea—outlining, in methodical detail, the invasion.

He has also admitted that Russian soldiers are in the Donbass.

It is time that European and US policy makers and Western media take Putin at his word and call a spade a spade.

Euphemisms only play into the Kremlin’s version of events, undermine the international community’s unity against Moscow’s aggression, and make it harder to formulate a coherent Western policy against the Kremlin’s revisionist ambitions.

Source: Newsweek

Saturday, February 27, 2016

How Moscow Is Subverting Ukraine’s Bid For Freedom

KIEV, Ukraine -- Putin would hate for Ukraine’s revolution to succeed. Here’s what he’s doing to make sure it won’t.

Pro-Russian militants fly a Russian flag on a self-propelled howitzer, part of a convoy of pro-Russian forces near the eastern Ukrainian city of Starobeshevo on February 25, 2015.

How can one explain the contradictory picture of today’s Ukraine — a country whose government has loudly announced a reform agenda, yet whose reformers are currently leaving this very same government?

Kiev can boast its first successes in implementing the wide-ranging reform agenda it adopted in July 2014.

A number of consequential laws have been passed: on lustration, fighting corruption, procurement, restructuring the civil service, modernizing higher education, creating a new police force, introducing public broadcasting, and so on.

Four new anti-corruption agencies are being established.

Still other reforms are taking place on the local level.

Many regions, cities, and even villages are changing their public administration for the better, either in cooperation with Kiev or independently.

In a number of regional governments, like Odessa, the local changes even go beyond the reforms conducted in the capital.

And yet, despite these signs of progress, Ukraine is in the midst of a political crisis.

There is clear evidence of a deepening schism within the ruling elite.

After growing criticisms of the country’s lagging reform effort by foreign and domestic observers over the preceding months, Ukraine’s respected Economy Minister, Aivaras Abromavicius, stepped down on February 3, triggering an earthquake within the political class.

Abromavicius made it clear that his resignation was a protest against pressure on his office by corrupt interests, and his action brought the growing frustration of the country’s reformist officials out into the open.

It’s not just that the promises of quick and comprehensive reforms made after the Euromaidan revolution have yet to be fulfilled.

As Abromavicius made clear, the old kickback system and state-business networks are reasserting themselves under new guises.

Ironically, this is happening despite the anti-oligarchic furor of the Euromaidan revolution and the stated reformist agenda of the new government.

For all their energy and activism, a mobilized civil society sector and an engaged Western diaspora have failed to thwart the resistance of the old guard.

The standard explanation for this seeming contradiction, while it contains a large degree of truth, is incomplete:

Ukraine’s post-Soviet corruption networks are fighting back, old habits and structures have survived, and Kiev’s new political leadership is clearly not as transformational as the 2014 revolutionaries thought.

But why haven’t the Euromaidan’s reformist crusaders been able to overcome the old oligarchic system?

Three main reasons for this failure stand out — and they can all be traced to the Kremlin.

First, there is the brutal fact of Russian military aggression.

Moscow’s offensive in the country’s South and East has not only damaged Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but has also profoundly affected many other aspects of society, including its capacity for radical change.

Thousands of Ukrainians — among them many selfless patriots — have been killed, mutilated, wounded, or traumatized by the fighting.

The country lost two economically important territories, the Crimean peninsula and much of the Don Basin (Donbass).

Ukraine has had to redirect large portions of its already scarce financial, material, and human resources from civilian to military sectors as well to post-war restoration.

The war and various related challenges have had serious repercussions for Ukraine’s civil society and its diaspora in the West.

Tens of thousands of activists mobilized by the revolution could no longer concentrate their efforts on transforming the country.

Instead, they had to refocus on its very survival.

Rather than separating the government from the oligarch class, or demolishing the old state apparatus, the top priority was to ensure that everyone — no matter how unsavory — would stay in the fight against the Russians.

For instance, in the summer of 2014, one of Ukraine’s most notorious industry magnates, Ihor Kolomoyskiy, played a crucial role in keeping the Kremlin-inspired pro-Russian separatism in the Don Basin from spreading into the strategically important Dnipropetrovsk region.

Little wonder that today he remains one of the country’s most important power-brokers.

Even as the fighting ebbed, further daunting challenges, both for Ukraine’s government and for its civil society, came to the fore.

The country had to focus on alleviating the physical and psychological suffering of thousands of soldiers and civilians directly affected by the fighting, as well as figuring out how to take care of hundreds of thousands of displaced people from the affected territories.

Over the past two years, Ukraine’s civil society should have been concentrating on tasks like improving legislative projects, promoting international economic ties, uncovering corruption networks, developing education programs, identifying wasteful spending, or coming to terms with difficult historical issues.

Instead, most of the activists mobilized in the winter of 2013-14 have since been engaged in work tied to the war and its various repercussions on society.

The second major impediment to reform was the country’s economic crisis.

Mainly but not exclusively as a result of the war, Ukraine’s GDP collapsed in 2014-15, taking the national currency with it.

Real wages plummeted as well, by over 13 percent in 2014, and by another 10 percent in 2015. 

Ukrainians have also faced sharp increases in energy costs — a condition imposed by the International Monetary Fund before it would agree to disburse its multi-billion standby loans.

To be sure, these painful measures are long overdue.

But this drastic macroeconomic adjustment during wartime further exacerbated the shock of the country’s already severe financial and social problems.

The resulting surge in utility costs and consumer goods prices have not only reduced private consumption, investment, and comfort.

They have also reduced the living standards of civic activists, reduced popular support for the government’s Westernization agenda, and facilitated the rise of irresponsible political populism.

As impoverished anti-corruption campaigners became preoccupied with securing the daily survival of their families, the relative freedom of action of their super-rich enemies in industry, mass media, parliament, and government accordingly increased.

Finally, Ukraine’s ability to reform has been seriously damaged by Russia’s general campaign of subversion.

The more traditional aspects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been accompanied by a wide gamut of unconventional “hybrid war” elements, including non-military economic, social, psychological, political, and other measures that are only partially visible to western policymakers and publics.

These include trade sanctions, secret intelligence operations, international propaganda campaigns, cyber-attacks, diplomatic skirmishes, clustering of troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border, and so on. 

The aim of the latter element — the staging of large-scale army exercises and movements of ground forces — is not only to train and prepare Russian soldiers for a possible future attack on Ukraine.

Of more immediate concern is the anxiety the maneuvers create within Ukraine and among its partners.

Like the enormous amounts of heavy weapons with which Moscow has armed its puppet regimes in the Donbass, the army drills near the border are designed to keep everyone guessing.

Could Russia’s mobilized troops attack Ukraine now?

Or is the Kremlin preparing an offensive operation in the future?

Or is Moscow merely playing with Kiev’s nerves and trying to provoke radical Ukrainian forces?

Will a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine happen soon, or later, or never?

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Kremlin’s non-linear warfare is thus not its immediate effect on Ukrainian society.

What may be more important are its psychological effects.

Ukrainians are worn down from being held, for years, in a state of suspense — stuck between calm and tension, between war and peace, between insecurity and stability.

This applies in particular to those parts of Ukraine where Russian-speakers predominate.

Moscow’s subversive actions aim to discourage entrepreneurs, disillusion university graduates, unsettle civil society activists, spook international partners, and scare off foreign investors.

Obviously, neither Russian aggression nor economic difficulties should excuse the Ukraine government’s slow pace of reforms.

Ukraine’s friends should continue to press Kiev hard for cleaner government and deeper economic reform.

But the West should recognize that the country’s exhausted civil society and its beleaguered administration are operating in an environment of exceptional stress and myriad distractions.

Western leaders and policymakers must thus maintain the pressure on Moscow to abandon its reckless hybrid war.

Had Russia respected the sovereignty, integrity, and European choice of its “brother nation,” we would, already today, have a very different Ukraine.

Source: Foreign Policy

Joint Multinational Training Command Support Ukraine Mission Until 2020

YAVORIV, Ukraine -- Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine, also known as JMTG-U, is in its second rotation training Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MOD) forces at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center (IPSC) in western Ukraine.

A paratrooper with the U.S. Army's 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, gives marksmanship advice to a soldier with the Ukrainian National Guard's 3029th Regiment, May 6, 2015, during Fearless Guardian in Yavoriv, Ukraine.

The JMTG-U mission is part of ongoing efforts to contribute to Ukraine's long-term military reform and professionalism and to help improve the country's internal defense capabilities and training capacity.

JMTG-U is uniquely built with key players that include the National Guard and active duty Soldiers, U.S. Army civilians, and representatives from Canada, Estonia, Lithuania, and United Kingdom.

The California National Guard maintains headquarters responsibility, continuing to develop a valued relationship with Ukraine through their 23-year-old State Partnership Program.

The 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, from Fort Stewart, Georgia is responsible for training the MOD forces for the next six months.

"It gives them the opportunity to work with Ukraine and their Armed Forces and ensure that they receive what they need to become a more capable military," said JMTG-U Deputy, Adam Loveless. 

The mission will not only test the expeditionary skills of the "CAN DO" battalion, but continue strengthening the relationship between the two armies.

The Joint Multinational Training Command (JMTC) plays a crucial role in the mission as they help develop a Combat Training Center much like Grafenwoehr Training Area, U.S. Army Europe's elite training ground.

"This is a partnership with the Ukrainian Army to build a capability here that enables them to train their formations to a better standard than what they do right now, utilizing what we have learned to run combat training centers," said Loveless.

The line of effort will include JMTC capabilities from the Joint Multinational Simulation Center, Joint Multinational Readiness Center, and Training Support Activity Europe. "Right now, we're doing the initial portions of that in conjunction with Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine in developing the training cadre.

As they build that force, we are working with the 3-15th to build a training cadre to serve as the Observer Coach/Trainers like at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center.

JMTC is going to continue a partnership with the Ukrainian Armed forces to further develop them to a level to become NATO interoperable by 2020."

Plans for capabilities, such as an opposing force modeled after JMRC's 1-4 Infantry, building infrastructure much like Grafenwoehr's Training Area, and a range complex to support live fire ranges and maneuver training are also underway for IPSC.

Loveless says these efforts are not only a necessity for the Ukrainian Army, but are strategically important to Europe.

"Ukraine is a country that absolutely wants to fight for its own sovereignty here. They've asked for our help, they've asked for the help of the Allies in NATO and we owe it to them to give them an opportunity to succeed."

Source: The United States Army

Inside Looted Mansion Of Ukraine's President Enforcer Viktor Pshonka

KIEV, Ukraine -- They even stole the bathroom tiles! Chandeliers, snooker table and white grand piano looted from crumbling mansion of Ukraine tyrant ...and left just a photo album, karaoke CD and empty vodka bottle.

Pshonka installed a top-of-the-range hot tub and swimming pool next to his dining room windows so that visitors could see them as they enjoyed their meals. It is not known how Pshonka funded his excess - but he is now accused of embezzlement.

General Viktor Pshonka was former Ukrainian President Yanukovych's prosecutor who fled the country to Russia.

He is accused of conspiring to massacre 103 people protesting the President's alliance with Russia over the EU.

His gaudy home furnished with golden statues, a swimming pool and jacuzzi was stripped bare when he left in 2014.

Looters lived in Pshonka's luxury home for six weeks and stole everything from the grand piano to the floorboards.

Looters have gutted the palatial mansion of despot Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych's evil enforcer two years after he fled to Russia.

General Viktor Pshonka was once Ukraine's most powerful lawman, and his mansion in one of Kiev's most exclusive suburbs was designed to ensure everyone knew it.

Chandeliers, leather armchairs and 'gold' statues littered the gilded rooms, while people could entertain themselves with a game of snooker, or by playing the ostentatious white grand piano.

Guests invited for a meal would not fail to miss the swimming pool and state-of-the-art Jacuzzi - because they had been placed right next to his dining room.

Pshonka even had paintings of himself made up as Caesar and Napoleon - standing with his Yanukovych regime colleagues as though victorious generals on a 19th century battlefield.

But none of that remains now: after he fled in February 2014, the looters moved in.

Pshonka has not seen what became of his home: he was forced to flee Kiev when pro-democracy demonstrators ousted Yanukovych on 22 February 2014, heading for the safety of Russia.

He is now a wanted man, accused of conspiring to murder 103 protesters in Kiev's Independence Square, most of whom were shot down by sniper fire.

They were killed for daring to revolt against his boss's decision to ally with Russia's President Putin instead of the EU.

Pshonka also allegedly oversaw the theft of millions of dollars from the state, fuelling his profligate lifestyle.

Then there are the other allegations. 

During his time in office, Pshonka commanded 18,500 Soviet-style prosecutors who covered up the torture complaints of thousands of prisoners.

After Yanukovych took power in 2010, he even locked up the blonde-braided former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and her bespectacled former Internal Affairs Minister Yuriy Lutsenko.

Pshonka's prosecutor's office was a Soviet-era behemoth that held society in check with a vice-like grip.

It not only prosecuted investigations, but authorised and sometimes conducted them.

Ukraine's Prosecutor General even has a role in appointing and dismissing judges – despite the bias this builds into the judiciary when it is deciding on a prosecution.

This enormous power fuelled Pshonka's sizable ego.

But he was brought back to earth with a bump as he tried to escape.

Humiliating footage shows him bundling through the eastern city of Donetsk's airport's security check to reach a private jet – only to be thwarted and have to head east overland for Russia.

Revolutionaries wasted no time, and broke into his mansion for the first time immediately after he fled in 2014.

Inside, they discovered an orgy of kitsch - velvet curtains with gilded stripes, chaise-longues in a faux aquarium, marble busts, four-poster beds and what appeared to be a Faberge egg.

What followed was a free for all, with some individuals walking out with whatever they could carry.

Activists then pleaded with new President Petro Poroshenko to seize Pshonka's opulent home and recover its valuable assets for the impoverished state.

Instead, the country's current pro-EU government did nothing to stop the thieves.

Last October plunderers were able to live for a month and half in Pshonka's luxury home while they tore apart its interior.

Many paintings and other portable possessions were already gone when the unmarked trucks arrived, but an organized workforce systematically dismantled the mansion's interior.

The snooker table and grand piano were packed up and driven off.

Light switches, floorboards and swimming pool tiles were stripped out - carpet cut up and folded away.

Even the stairs were stolen.

One witness even suspects state officials were involved in the robbery.

'I work in a house near here, so I could see the vans come and go all the time,' he told MailOnline.

'I think they were state trucks but I can't be sure - the number plates were covered.

'They were afraid - there are cameras everywhere, they didn't want their plates filmed. Nobody called the police. Nobody wants problems.'

Yet somehow the authorities didn't interrupt the thieves during their six-week stay.

By the time they had finished, only a stack of family photos, a karaoke mix from Pshonka's 57th birthday and an empty bottle of luxury vodka remained.

Police could not identify any suspects when contacted by MailOnline.

Ukrainian media has speculated that Pshonka's former colleagues may have been involved in the theft - especially as many remain prosecutors.

Source: Daily Mail Online

Friday, February 26, 2016

Remember That War In Ukraine? They’re Still Fighting It

MARINKA, Ukraine -- It was wet and freezing cold inside: Bare earth floor with a dozen mattresses scattered around it, unfinished tea in an aluminum mug, a few pieces of bread on a plate on top of a dark green wooden box with army ammunition; a bunch of muddy rubber boots by a pile of bags with sand, a soldier’s jacket drying on a nail in dim light.

It could be a scene of the soldiers’ life in World War I, but it is modern times.

The Ukrainian soldiers in the dugout outside of Krasnohorivka, like those in the trenches a century ago, find themselves endlessly stuck, each side watching the other through binoculars.

Inhabitants of the front line towns of Marinka and Krasnohorivka in eastern Ukraine, more than 20,000 people in all, live a grim life without heating and without gas, because it is too dangerous for city services to fix the holes in the pipeline, which stretches above the ground along the war front.

Besides, once you fix it, there is a high chance it will be destroyed again.

The fear of death locks every door at about 5 p.m.

“Last time I felt safe outside in the evening was before the 3rd of June in 2014,” says Alina Kosse, director of the House of Arts for children.

“That was the day our nightmares began, thousands were fighting on our streets, tanks destroyed buildings, dozens were killed, wounded or captured.”

The fighting in eastern Ukraine has intensified this year, and local people can hardly sleep a single night in peace.

The truce between Kiev and Moscow is very shaky, the front line constantly moving back and forth, killing civilians and destroying their property in the crossfire.

Here in Marinka there is no sign of peace.

Every day people disappear from the streets after 4 p.m., as the first sounds of machine guns firing or RPGs exploding echoes through the cityscape and sniper fire comes as if out of nowhere.

“They must be Russian professionals shooting at us with super powerful sniper rifles,” Lt. Col. Alexander Pashkevich, told The Daily Beast.

“On Monday our soldier Yuriy Koval was shot in the back from hundreds of meters away, right here in town, on Oktiabryskaya Street.”

Almost every day and night, Ukrainian Armed Forces and Russia-backed rebels of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic exchange mortar fire, machine-gun fire or launched grenades in each other’s directions; and both sides report of each other’s truce violations.

On Wednesday night the Ukraine 14th Brigade units based in Marinka were under fire from a “sabotage group” of about 15 rebels, coming in the dead of the night as close as about 100 meters to the brigade’s headquarters on the outskirts of town.

Dozens more rebels backed up the group from the closest entrenched positions, the Ukrainian commander told The Daily Beast.

At about 8 p.m. the town of more than 6,000 people, including more than 200 children, was shaken up by RPGs and machine guns, then again a second time at around 10 p.m.

“They have better uniforms than ours; we cannot see them through our night thermal vision optics. Their corrections of fire are more accurate, they must have had better optics on every gun,” Vlad Yakushev, a press officer of the brigade told The Daily Beast after the night of fighting.

The 14th Brigade “West” of the Ukrainian Armed Forces has defended nearly 40 kilometer long front line outside of Marinka and Krasnohorivka towns since September.

A cruddy Opel given by volunteers and a few armored vehicles represent the only transport the brigade has for thousands of personnel.

But the lack of comfort has become the norm, and the soldiers complain about more serious issues, how many months overtime they have served on the frontline.

Many of the brigade’s soldiers and officers signed an agreement for one year’s but have been fighting for much longer; and many salaries are unpaid.

Such issues are feeding frustration in the units.

On Feb. 1, Vlad Yakushev, the same press officer, published a blog on a news website giving a detailed description of the issues in the 14th Brigade.

He mentioned that most of the soldiers spending nights fighting never received their 1,000 UAH or $36.86 battle premiums.

The next day Yakushev was detained by army officials and kept in detention for three days without his friends knowing where he was.

Looking for him, soldiers and journalists raised an outcry, made calls, organized a flash mob on social networks to demand his release.

“Even if this war lasts for five more years, soldiers should know exactly how long they are supposed to spend on the front; they should receive the money promised by the state,” Yakushev told The Daily Beast.

Five more years of war in Ukraine?

To locals it already feels like a decade.

Drive along the most dangerous streets in Marinka—Telmana, Matrosova, Okrtiabrskaya, Lenina—and you will see ruined buildings, fences and gates riddled with bullets, the history of the war.

The road to the nearby Krasnohorivka is the saddest picture.

Almost every building—factories, farms, warehouses, apartment buildings and private homes have signs of destruction.

“We do not have money to reconstruct this city’s ruined buildings,” the head of the Krasnohorivka administration, Ihor Robochiy, told The Daily Beast.

“People who still live here, about 16,000, live without gas or heating, sometimes without electricity for weeks.”

Among the worst issues the city manager mentioned was Ukraine losing the propaganda war in the region.

“Our citizens in towns along the front cannot watch any of the Ukrainian television channels, only separatist channels aired from Donetsk, and Russian channels,” he said.

“We sent Kiev our inquiries about this bad issue many times but authorities still have not solved the problem.”

Back in Marinka children were gathering at the regional House of Arts to work on their creative projects.

Some took classes for dancing or singing, some knitted toys, painted or studied music—all classes were free for about 600 children living in several neighboring towns and villages.

Parents chatted in the hallway, while kids studied, and although both walls and windows were perforated by bullets and pocked by shrapnel after multiple artillery attacks, the atmosphere was homey.

The Marinka community was coming together.

Maybe the war was almost over?

“No", the war goes on, said nine-year-old Katia, shaking her head. She looked serious, almost like a careworn adult. Nobody in Marinka can tell when the disaster will be over.

 Source: The Daily Beast

Two Years After Uprising, Ukraine Still Battling Corruption

KIEV, Ukraine -- Two years after the Ukraine's Euromaidan, the mass uprising that toppled the Russia-backed regime in 2013 and brought a pro-Western government to power, the country is still battling the corruption that the Euromaidan sought to purge.

Mykola Kokhanivsky, commander of a volunteer battalion, throws a stone against the window of an office that belongs to Ukraine tycoon Rinat Akhmetov in Kiev, Feb. 20, 2016. The activists blame Akhmetov for supporting corruption and pro-Russian separatists.

Last week, Ukraine's government barely survived a no-confidence vote in parliament, triggered by the resignation of a reformist economic minister over corruption and slow reform.

This week, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on Kiev to push forward with reforms "based on a principle of zero tolerance for corruption."

The corruption in Ukraine even threatened the International Monetary Fund’s support for the country.

"Without a substantial new effort to invigorate governance reforms and fight corruption, it is hard to see how the IMF-supported program can continue and be successful," IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said this month.

Kiev had it coming.

In December, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Ukraine's corruption a "cancer" and put the fight against it on par with the war against the "unrelenting aggression of the Kremlin."

According to a Gallup poll, only 17 percent of the population approved of President Petro Poroshenko's job performance last winter.

More than 80 percent said corruption was widespread in both the government and businesses.

Chronic problem 

Corruption in Ukraine overshadows the progress the new government has made.

Anders Aslund, a Ukraine expert with the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, wrote in January that Ukraine’s economic growth this year could surpass that of Russia.

He praised Kiev for carrying out important reforms in the energy and banking sectors, as well as securing the IMF’s support.

However, in the same overview, he pointed to the need to make “a credible fight against corruption,” starting with reform of the general prosecutor's office and the court system.

"Ukraine has 18,000 prosecutors and 10,000 judges. All but a few of them are likely to be corrupt," Aslund had written in an earlier article.

Joshua Cohen, a former U.S. Agency for International Development project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union, called on Ukraine's leaders to outsource the fight against corruption.

He cited the successful example of Guatemala's independent International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CCIG), created in 2006 after decades of civil war, when the country acknowledged its own inability to rein in corruption.

"CCIG was immune to pressure from the government or the oligarchs or security services," Cohen told VOA Ukrainian.

According to Cohen, Ukraine's corrupt "old guard," including the office of the prosecutor general, are the greatest allies to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his fight against Ukraine. 

Will to change 

Doubts about Poroshenko's commitment to change persist.

He was ranked Ukraine's sixth-richest man in 2015 by the Novoe Vremia newspaper, with an estimated worth of $979 million.

He was also the only person in the top 10 whose net worth had increased since 2014 (by 20 percent). 

"We won't have a clear answer to that question [whether Poroshenko's policies are affected by his interests as a businessman] until after he has left office," Alexander Clarkson, lecturer in German and European studies at King's College London, tweeted to VOA Ukrainian.

Adrian Karatnycky, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, called for a cautious approach to fighting corruption in Ukraine.

He wrote in The Wall Street Journal that oligarchs control a sizable portion of Ukraine's economy and parliament, and pushing them too hard would lead to a collapse of both the economy and the coalition government.

Mikheil Saakashvili, former president of Georgia and the current governor of Ukraine's Odessa region, has been at the forefront of Ukraine's push against corruption.

He enjoys support from Ukrainians for his relentless verbal attacks on the country's top officials.

But Saakashvili's success in fighting corruption has been limited — something his opponents do not fail to mention.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst argued in an interview with VOA’s Georgian service that Saakashvili has been thwarted by Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who stripped the former Georgian president of essential powers.

Grounds for optimism 

The National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), one of Ukraine's three anti-corruption bodies, made a much-publicized effort with the arrest in February of a state prosecutor who had allegedly attempted to buy himself a job in the agency with a $10,000 bribe.

"Any attempts to bribe members of commissions reviewing candidates for positions in the bureau will be met with a harsh reaction, such as the one you've witnessed in this case," NABU head Artem Sytnyk said of the arrest, which was subsequently dismissed by Ukrainians online as a publicity stunt. 

Mistrust of the government runs deep, and reversing it will require real change on the part of the government, said Maxim Eristavi, a Ukrainian journalist with a following among Western experts and the media.

Still, Eristavi sees grounds for optimism.

"The transparent way we debate this crisis, a number of brave reformists, a vibrant civil society — all this wouldn't be possible in Ukraine just three years ago," Eristavi said.

Source: Voice of America

Exclusive: Ally Of Ukrainian President Accused Of Meddling In Prosecution

KIEV, Ukraine -- An ally of Ukraine's president has been accused by a former Ukrainian prosecutor of interfering in law enforcement.

A woman walks past the parliament building in Kiev.

A representative of Ihor Kononenko, a business partner of President Petro Poroshenko and member of parliament of his political party, declined to comment on the allegation, made in a Reuters interview by ex-prosecutor Vitaliy Kasko.

The representative, Taras Pastushenko, the spokesman for Poroshenko's party in parliament, cited an ongoing investigation into separate allegations by the economy minister as the reason why Kononenko would not comment.

Corruption allegations are particularly sensitive in Ukraine, where a $40 billion Western aid program is propping up an economy devastated by Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in the former Soviet republic's east.

Kasko resigned as prosecutor last week alleging corruption in the prosecution service.

Asked to explain his decision, Kasko said in the interview one example was that the head of the service, General Prosecutor Viktor Shokin, had told him Kononenko had asked the service to influence a prosecution.

As a politician, Kononenko has no official role in the service.

Kasko said Shokin had given him instructions, which Shokin had said came from Kononenko, to intervene in the case.

"I received a firm request from the General Prosecutor in reference to this," Kasko said, declining to give details of the case.

"I refused to carry it out. I didn't do as I was told." Shokin's office declined to comment on whether Shokin had asked Kasko to handle a case in a particular way to suit Kononenko.

Shokin aide Vladislav Kutsenko had earlier described Kasko's resignation and general corruption allegation as attention-seeking.

"The General Prosecutor's Office has become the subject of an information war carried out by the representatives of some politicians, public organizations, who ... for the most part just attack us with the usual lies," Kutsenko said in relation to Kasko's resignation and allegations.

On Friday, President Poroshenko's spokesman said Shokin had resigned, but he remains in office pending confirmation of his resignation by parliament.

Attempts to reach Shokin were unsuccessful.

His office said he was on holiday and did not pass on contact details.

The prosecution service is one of the institutions the Ukrainian government needs to reform under the terms of the aid program and lenders have long said progress has been slow. 

Poroshenko, a multi-millionaire businessman, was elected in 2014 after Ukraine's Russian-backed president fled in the face of mass protests.

He and Kononenko served together in the Soviet army in the 1980s and worked in Ukrprominvest, a onetime business group that Poroshenko controlled.

Between them they now they own most of Ukraine's International Investment Bank.

Kononenko resigned as deputy leader of the president's party in parliament after the minister's allegations, but remained a lawmaker.

His office referred questions to his political party, which said he would not comment pending the investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU).

"Ihor Kononenko stated several times, and his position is, that until the investigation is completed in NABU he will not give any comments to the media," said Pastushenko, the spokesman for the party,
Petro Poroshenko's Bloc, in the parliament.

In response to questions about Kononenko's alleged influence, the president's office referred to two statements Poroshenko made after the allegations by Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius in a resignation letter on Feb. 3.

His resignation has yet to be considered by parliament.

The first presidential statement noted the minister's allegations were being investigated and Kononenko was cooperating.

"The sooner society receives an answer to the question, the better," Poroshenko had said on Feb. 3. 

The other statement, on Feb. 9, also referred to the anti-corruption bureau's investigation but did not mention any individuals.

"Nobody is safe from the Bureau's attention and any networking will not provide indulgence or protection," it said.

Source: Business Insider

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Russian Military Command Found Linked To MH17 Downing

LONDON, England -- A team of open-source researchers investigating the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has published a report it provided to Dutch prosecutors linking the commanders of a Russian military unit to the plane’s downing.

Bellingcat researchers say Russia's military chain of command was linked to the downing of the MH17 airliner over eastern Ukraine.

The latest report, released on February 24 by the British group known as Bellingcat, links higher-ups in Russia's military chain of command to the tragedy and adds other details building on earlier investigations into the July 2014 downing of MH17.

Its previous reports had identified Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade as being the likely source of the missile that Dutch aviation officials say brought down the jet, killing all 298 people on board.

But it adds to the growing body of circumstantial evidence suggesting Russian complicity.

This includes personal information about Russian military officers and enlisted soldiers who Bellingcat alleges specifically knew of, and possibly even manned, the Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile system believed to have brought down MH17.

Bellingcat in December provided a full version of the report to Dutch prosecutors, who said they would "seriously study" the group's claim that its research identified up to 100 Russian military personnel who might have knowledge of the movements of the missile launcher that destroyed the Boeing 777.

The group redacted most of these soldiers' names and blurred images of their faces -- culled from photographs and video published on social media and news sites -- in the public version it released on its website.

MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, when it disappeared from radars over eastern Ukraine.

Wreckage from the plane and its victims was found strewn over a wide area where Russia-backed separatists had been battling Ukrainian government forces.

In October 2015, the Dutch Safety Board, a government agency charged with investigating aviation disasters, said the jet was downed by a surface-to-air missile, and identified the 320-square-kilometer area from which the missile was fired.

The area was mostly controlled by separatists at the time.

The board stopped short of assigning criminal blame, however, something the four-nation Joint Investigative Team has been charged with doing.

The Joint Investigative Team did not immediately respond to an email from RFE/RL seeking comment.

Russia has strenuously denied the fighters it supports in eastern Ukraine were responsible or that it supplied the missile system.

A leading separatist commander initially appeared to take credit for firing a missile and downing a Ukrainian jet, but those claims on social media were later removed.

Russian officials have also put forth myriad alternate theories, including claims that MH17 was downed by a missile fired from a Ukrainian fighter jet.

Bellingcat has previously documented what it says is evidence that the Buk-M1 missile system purportedly used to shoot down MH17 was moved between June 23 and 25 to the Ukrainian border, near the town of Luhansk, and ultimately fired on the plane from a position near the Ukrainian town of Snizhne in Donetsk Oblast.

It says that the convoy was largely made up of vehicles from the 2nd Battalion of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, based near the southern city of Kursk.

The new report details the chain of command for this battalion.

"There is no direct evidence that soldiers or officers of the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade were part of the crew of the Buk-M1 that likely downed MH17 on 17 July 2014," the report notes, though it adds that a Russian crew may have moved together with the Buk-M1 across the border into Ukraine. 

Bellingcat said that if "the Buk crew consisted of Russian soldiers and officers, they were likely selected by" a man identified only as "Dmitry T.," who was "very likely" the battalion’s commander, or the commander of the 53rd Brigade, Colonel Sergei Muchkayev.

Bellingcat also said it explored the theory that Russian units transferred the Buk-M1 to separatists in eastern Ukraine.

"This scenario, however, seems unlikely, mainly because a Buk missile launcher is a very sophisticated and expensive weapon and it is very unlikely that Russia would turn it over unsupervised to a group of separatists without having adequate training," it said.

The chain of command that Bellingcat ties to the MH17 shootdown includes Muchkayev’s superior, Colonel Aleksei Zolotov, who was promoted to Chief of the Air Defense Forces of the 20th Army, which encompasses the 53rd Brigade.

But while Muchkayev may have made operational decisions regarding crews and the makeup of the Buk convoy, Bellingcat said the order more broadly to move military equipment across the border was likely made at top levels of the Russian military hierarchy, the Kremlin, and even by President Vladimir Putin himself.

Bellingcat said that, if its conclusion about the Russian Buk missile launcher that allegedly downed MH17 is correct, the Russian Defense Ministry "bears the main responsibility for the MH17 tragedy, shared with the military commanders and leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics," the names of the separatist organizations in eastern Ukraine.

Other international media, including The Associated Press, have pinpointed Buk-M1 systems in the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne on the day of the plane’s downing, and accompanying soldiers who spoke with accents from Moscow and other regions in Russia.
Cell phone conversations intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence services and subsequently released by the Ukrainian government show rebel commanders on the day of the jet’s downing discussing the firing of a missile, thinking that the aircraft that was targeted was a military jet.

The Joint Investigative Team is expected to release the results of its criminal probe sometime later this year.

Source: Radio Free Europe

West Told Ukraine To Abandon Crimea, Document Says

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- A newly-published transcript of Ukrainian crisis talks two years ago indicates that EU powers and the US urged Kiev not to resist Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

Putin (L) on a visit to Crimea in December 2015.

The document, published by a Ukrainian parliament committee on Tuesday (23 February) contains the official minutes of Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council on 28 February 2014.

The meeting, chaired by then acting president Oleksandr Turchynov, was called one week after former president Viktor Yanukovych fell from power and one day after Russian special forces seized government buildings in Crimea.

Turchynov wanted to declare a state of war and fight back.

But ministers and others warned him that Ukraine couldn’t do it alone and that the West wouldn’t help.

“We’re not ready for full-scale war. We need time. We need help. We need a tough reaction by the world, the international community. I’ll speak frankly. Today we have no army. It was systematically destroyed by Yanukovych and his entourage,” the defence minister, Ihor Tenyukh, said.

He said Ukraine could mobilise up to 5,000 troops.

But he said Russia was holding military drills on Ukraine’s eastern border which involved 38,000 troops with armoured, air, and naval support.

“It’s not just a demonstration of power, but a real preparation for the invasion of our territory,” Tenyukh said.

Other ministers told Turchynov not to expect popular resistance because the “dominant” mood of people in Crimea was on the Russian side.

They blamed Russian propaganda, which had broadcast fake stories that Kiev “fascists” were coming to massacre Russian-speakers.

They also linked it to years-long “subversion” operations in Crimea by Russian intelligence.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the then PM, who had taken office just one day earlier, told Turchynov that the country had no money for a war because Yanukovych had stolen it.

“We have a treasury account with no money in it at all,” he said.

Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who had just been freed from jail and who attended the meeting in an informal capacity, said that if Ukraine began moving its army toward Crimea it would cause “panic.”

“Can you imagine what will happen in the country when tanks and armoured vehicles roll through the streets? This will cause mass panic. People will massively flee the country,” she said.

US warships 

Yatsenyuk went on to say it’s “a pity” that the US Sixth Fleet pulled back two warships which had been stationed in the Black Sea, in a sign of Western intentions.

Asked by Turchynov if NATO is “afraid” to help Ukraine, the PM replied: “In today's environment, clearly.”

“I don’t think that any country, including those of the Budapest Memorandum, will be willing to help Ukraine,” Yatsenyuk said, referring to a 1994 treaty in which France, the UK, and the US had promised to protect Ukraine in return for its dismantling of its nuclear arsenal."

He said "Western states want to avoid “a military conflict with Russia in the middle of Europe ... we have to cope on our own.”

He added that if Ukraine declared a state of emergency or state of war, then Russia would take it as meaning that it’s “declaring war on Russia.”

“Right after we do this, there will be a Russian statement on ‘defending Russian citizens and Russian speakers who have ethnic ties with Russia.’

That’s the script the Russians have written,” he said.

Georgia precedent 

Tymoshenko added that the Crimea scenario resembled Georgia in 2008.

The 2008 war began when Russia-controlled fighters in the breakaway South Ossetia region in Georgia escalated skirmishes against Georgian troops.

When the then Georgian leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, fired back on the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, Russia invaded Georgia proper.

Saakashvili thought that the US or NATO would help him.

But no one did.

“He [Russian leader Vladimir Putin] is just waiting for us to give him a reason. Remember how Saakashvili swallowed his bait and lost?”, Tymoshenko said.

Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, Turchynov’s intelligence chief, echoed her warning.

“The Americans and Germans - all of them in one voice - are asking us not to start any action because, according to their intelligence, Putin will use it to start a large-scale land invasion,” he said.

’Doves of peace’ 

The meeting bandied round ideas such as calling for UN Security Council talks, asking the West for financial aid, and urging Ukrainian expats to picket Russian embassies around the world.

At one point, Tymoshenko said: “We have to become the most peaceful nation on the planet, to behave like doves of peace.”

Turchynov said: “Are you really suggesting we do nothing?”

The Ukrainian army, joined by volunteer brigades, did fight back when Russia’s hybrid forces, shortly afterward, also invaded the Donbass region in east Ukraine.

The conflict has so far claimed at least 9,200 lives and displaced more than 1 million people.

But Ukraine still hasn’t declared a state of war with Russia and Western powers still haven’t given it military assistance.

EU sanctions 

The EU and US did impose economic sanctions on Russia.

But with the West angling for Russian cooperation on Syria and on the refugee crisis, these could end in July.

The EU and US say they won’t recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea and that sanctions on doing business there will stay in place for the long term.

But even Ukrainian diplomats don’t think they’ll get Crimea back unless Russia changes, as in the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union undid former conquests.

Source: euobserver

US 'Deeply Concerned' About Spike In East Ukraine Fighting

WASHINGTON, DC -- A senior official said the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about an escalation in the conflict between government forces and pro-Russia separatist rebels in recent weeks in eastern Ukraine, despite a series of cease-fire attempts.

A member of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic forces walks atop a self-propelled artillery gun during tactical training exercises in Ukraine's Donetsk region.

Reports from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have indicated that a majority of cease-fire violations come from separatists-controlled areas.

A senior State Department official told VOA on Tuesday that the fighting is an indication that insurgents are not keeping up with their commitments under the Minsk agreements.

The so-called Minsk II agreement, mediated by Germany and France, represents a package of measures to alleviate the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.

It was agreed to by Ukraine, Russia, and separatists in February of 2015.

It also authorizes OSCE access for monitoring and verification of the cease-fire and heavy weapons withdrawal.

However, the ongoing fighting has thrown into doubt plans under the Minsk agreement for local elections in separatist-held areas.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry told lawmakers on Wednesday that the U.S. is increasing funding to support Ukrainian stability while pushing hard for its political reforms.

Various reports have blamed separatists for stepping up attacks on government forces to levels not seen for months.

On Wednesday, while testifying before a congressional panel, Kerry said the U.S. is also increasing funding to counter what the West sees as Russian aggression.

"Russia has a clear choice between continued sanctions and meeting its obligations to a sovereign and democratic Ukraine," Kerry pointed out in his written testimony to the House Appropriations Committee.

The administration has requested $3.4 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) to support efforts to ensure peace and security in Europe.

That total is four times the amount requested last year.

Beginning in February 2014, Russia orchestrated a military intervention and ultimately annexed Ukraine’s Crimea a few weeks later, a move that was largely condemned by the international community and brought sanctions from the United States and European Union.

In eastern Ukraine, despite international efforts for a cease-fire and de-escalation of the crisis, fighting between government forces and separatists widely seen as backed and armed by Russia has continued. 

Senior U.S. officials have made it clear that for the U.S. to roll back sanctions, there must be a complete implementation of the Minsk agreements.

That would include a full cease-fire, the withdrawal of all foreign troops and equipment from Ukraine, the full restoration of Ukrainian control of the international border, and the release of all hostages. 

Source: Voice of America

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Transparency Campaign Slams Continued Impunity For Deposed Ukraine President

LONDON, England -- Transparency International has criticised Ukraine, Russia and the UK for allowing former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to enjoy impunity in the face of grand corruption allegations.

Former Ukrainian president and bandit, who stole billions from Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych.

The anti-corruption organisation has called on the countries, as well as the European Union, to do more to investigate Yanukovych’s alleged crimes, bring him to justice and to recover billions of euros of stolen assets he is alleged to have stolen.

“Since Yanukovych escaped to Russia, little has been done in Ukraine to investigate the serious and numerous allegations of grand corruption against him and his cronies,” explained Andrei Marusov, chair of the board at Transparency International Ukraine.

“Instead courts have released Yanukovych’s allies who were part of his criminal enterprise and they have unfrozen their bank accounts and assets, while the Ukrainian Interpol regional office deleted Yanukovych and members of his family from the wanted list.”

Russia’s failure to extradite Yanukovych, a well-known ally of Russian president Vladmir Putin who sought sanctuary in Russia after being ousted during the 2013-14 unrest in Ukraine, however also prevents the Ukrainian authorities from charging their former president with his crimes.

Russia has given Yanukovych citizenship – which means he cannot be extradited – citing the current political situation in Ukraine.

But Transparency International also accused the UK of facilitating Yanukovych’s corrupt regime and continued impunity.

Robert Barrington, executive director of Transparency International UK, said the country has been implicated in laundering the assets of a number of Yanukovych’s close associates, known to have propped him up while in power.

“The UK authorities need to be vigilant in the hunt for stolen assets and unexplained wealth, and this needs active support from their counterparts in Ukraine,” he said.

“Two years have passed but we should not allow Yanukovych and his cronies to get away with it.”

He called for “systematic reform” in the UK relating to property ownership and the UK’s overseas territories and urged prime minister David Cameron to make good on his promise to ensure the UK isn’t a “safe haven for dirty cash”.

Transparency International urged Russia to cooperate with the Ukrainian authorities and prosecute Yanukovych under Russian legislation, in line with the United Nations Convention against Corruption, signed and ratified by Russia in 2003.

It also called on the European Union to renew and strengthen current political and economic sanctions against Yanukovych and his cronies, which are due to expire in March.

It said EU countries should effectively boycott politicians involved in Yanukovych’s corrupt regime, preventing them from crossing their borders or securing EU contracts.

Two years on from the Euromaiden uprising, Ukraine is still marred by corruption scandals in the new government.

A number of senior political figures, including economic minister Aivaras Abromavičus, have resigned citing corruption within the government.

The International Monetary Fund also recently threatened to withdraw its $17.5bn bailout support programme due to the slow pace of anti-corruption reforms.

Source: Public Finance International

Questions Linger Over Russia’s Endgame In Syria, Ukraine And Europe

MOSCOW, Russia -- The partial truce that Russia and the United States have thrashed out in Syria capped something of a foreign policy trifecta for President Vladimir V. Putin, with the Kremlin strong-arming itself into a pivotal role in the Middle East, Ukraine floundering and the European Union developing cracks like a badly glazed pot.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Moscow on Tuesday. Putin hopes to break a consensus among the European Union’s 28 nations on economic sanctions imposed on Russia.

Beyond what could well be a high point for Putin, however, lingering questions about Russia’s endgame arise in all three directions.

In Syria, Russia achieved its main goal of shoring up the government of President Bashar al-Assad, long the Kremlin’s foremost Arab ally.

Yet its ultimate objectives remain murky, not least navigating a graceful exit from the messy conflict. 

In Ukraine, Russia maintains a public commitment to implement a year-old peace agreement.

Renewed fighting in the Russian-backed breakaway regions, however, suggests that Moscow seeks to further destabilize the Kiev government, already wobbly from internal political brawling.

In Europe, Putin wants to deepen cracks in the European Union, hoping to break the 28-nation consensus behind the economic sanctions imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The Kremlin recently cranked up its propaganda machine to malign the German chancellor, Angela Merkel — viewed here as the central figure in the confrontation against Moscow — portraying her as barren and her country as suffering violent indigestion from too many immigrants.

The target audience for these achievements is the Russian populace, partly to distract people from their deepening economic woes.

“On screen we can see that we are so strong, we are so important, we are so great,” Nikolai Petrov, a political-science professor at the Moscow School for Higher Economics, said sarcastically.

Putin announced the agreement to a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria on television late Monday night, underscoring its importance as a joint Russian-American effort.

The Russian president has previously waxed nostalgic for the days when just two superpowers strode the world as problem-solving colossi, before the Soviet Union imploded.

“Russia will conduct the necessary work with Damascus and the legitimate Syrian leadership,” Putin said, while the United States will do the same with its allies and opposition groups.

“I am sure the joint actions agreed upon with the American side will be enough to radically reverse the situation in Syria.”

There was more. Putin wanted to make clear that Russia’s intervention in Syria would avoid the kind of catastrophic collapse that occurred in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, lumped together improbably with the American-backed “color” revolutions in Ukraine in 2004 and Georgia in 2003.

Syria, he said, could serve as an example of “responsible actions.”

Russia sent up to 50 combat aircraft to an air base near the coastal Syrian city of Latakia in September, along with more than 4,000 troops to protect them.

In that move, Russia was seen as having five main goals: stopping regime change abetted from outside the country; thwarting plans by Washington to isolate Moscow; proving that Russia was a more solid ally than the United States; showcasing new Russian weapons; and presenting a new foreign policy spectacle to a Russian public weary of the war in neighboring Ukraine.

To some extent, all five goals have been achieved, prompting some voices to call for Russia to come home.

“We have clear achievements; the main thing is that everybody now speaks to us,” Boris B. Nadezhdin, a former member of the Duma, Russia’s Parliament, said on a popular talk show.

“We are key participants of negotiations on the future of Syria.”

“Assad’s regime, or Syria’s legitimate government, has stayed in power,” he added.

“We need a political settlement, and to stop spending huge sums of money on an arms race.”

Syria remains unfinished business, however, and the roughly $3 million daily cost of the Syria operation is widely seen as affordable.

Putin has labeled it money well spent from the military training budget.

Assad’s forces have nearly surrounded Aleppo, long an opposition stronghold.

They will press the fight before the partial truce is set to begin on Saturday, and may well continue with attacks afterward.

There is a gaping loophole in the agreement in that it permits attacks against the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate, to continue.

This could work in Moscow’s favor, since many of the anti-Assad groups aligned with the United States fight alongside the Nusra Front and depend on it for support.

Thus, while American allies are being asked to stop fighting Assad’s government, Russia and the Syrian government can continue to strike United States-backed rebel groups without fear, if history is any guide, of Washington’s doing anything to stop them.

Ultimately, analysts believe that Russia wants to stick around long enough to supervise the transition to a new government in Syria; to ensure that Damascus remains a friendly capital; and to show that a political transition can be achieved through negotiations, not regime change.

Assad just announced parliamentary elections for April 13.

Moscow, not to say Assad, wants to avoid being surprised by a sudden power grab by the Sunni Muslims who form the backbone of the opposition and are hostile to Russia for supporting Assad. 

“The endgame for Russia is to move to the political process from a position of strength,” said Aleksandr Shumilin, a senior Middle East expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“Nobody can tell you how long it will last. This will depend on the situation, which is very complicated at the moment.”

Among the complications is that Assad, who has grown bolder because of Russian and Iranian support, recently said he planned to reassert control over all of Syria.

If Russia helps to vanquish the opposition in the western part of the country, only the Islamic State would remain as a formidable opponent.

That would put Russia in the unpredictable position of supporting Damascus through the long, most likely bloody slog needed to dislodge the Islamic militants.

In response, some Russian voices have lately taken to portraying Assad as the tail trying to wag the dog.

The Syrian government should “follow Russia’s leadership in settling this crisis,” Vitaly I. Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, told the Kommersant daily newspaper.

If the Syrian government thinks “that no truce is needed and we have to fight until the end,” he said, “then this conflict will last for a very long time.”

Another wild card for Moscow is its increasingly hostile relationship with Turkey, after a Russian warplane was shot down in November for briefly violating Turkish airspace.

Russia accuses Turkey of plotting to invade Syria, and is likely to blame Ankara if the partial truce collapses.

So far, however, the Kremlin can count Syria as a success.

“It is very cheap, bloodless, there are no Russian victims and it is seen positively by Russian society,” said Petrov, the political-science professor.

Syria has also worked to distract the Russian people from the war dragging on next door in Ukraine.

The conflict excites for less nationalist passions.

Yet it still serves Moscow’s interests by destabilizing the government of President Petro O. Poroshenko and discouraging warmer relations between Kiev and Europe — a Russian goal in tandem with lifting economic sanctions imposed over the annexation of Crimea.

The economic sanctions cut off Russia’s access to Western credit markets, among other measures, which it desperately needs to weather its recession.

The question is how best to persuade Europe and the United States to lift them.

In part, the Russian intervention in Syria was meant to confirm Moscow’s role as a dependable partner in solving international problems and thus help spur an end to sanctions.

But instead of attacking the Islamic State, Russia went after Western allies in the Syrian opposition, confirming its unreliable status to Western governments.

So Moscow most likely views the tougher course of exploiting divisions in Europe as its best chance to end sanctions.

One thing is certain for Russia, particularly in light of the crash in energy prices, said Konstantin von Eggert, an independent political commentator.

“It cannot return to the global stage under a bunch of sanctions,” he said.

Source: The New York Times

A Softer Iron Curtain Falls In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Throughout the Cold War, the symbolic center of the standoff between the Soviets and the West was Germany, split in two — much as the whole of Europe was — by the infamous Iron Curtain.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, centre, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, right, and French Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development Jean-Marc Ayrault, pose for a photo ahead of their meeting in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 22, 2016. Germany and France are pushing for Ukraine to move ahead with reforms needed in order to implement the year-old Minsk peace agreement.

But now, in Ukraine, a new center has emerged in the rivalry between East and West, dividing the country in ways that could prove just as enduring as the decadeslong partition of Germany.

This week marks the second anniversary of the Euromaidan uprising that drove former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich from power, shaking Ukraine to its foundations and driving Russia-West relations to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

Much has changed in the two years since: A pro-West government formed in Kiev, Russia annexed Crimea, and a rebellion in eastern Ukraine developed into a full-fledged war.

Meanwhile, the United States and the European Union have levied sanctions against Russia.

Moscow has responded with countersanctions against the West.

Economic activity between Ukraine and Russia has ground to a halt.

As the Ukrainian conflict enters its third year, a flurry of negotiations aimed at ending hostilities is taking place.

At higher levels, officials are holding talks in Normandy to address the conflict’s political aspects, while on the tactical front, there are discussions in Minsk to sort out the details of a cease-fire.

Alongside both, countless bilateral meetings are being held.

Occasionally, these talks renew hope that a lasting agreement can be reached.

In reality, though, Ukraine’s crisis is not a short-lived skirmish that a little additional negotiation can resolve.

Rather, it is a deep-seated conflict, rooted in geopolitics, that stretches back centuries and will likely continue to exist in some form for many more years.

Understanding Ukraine’s role in the Russia-West rivalry, with its similarities to Germany’s role during the Cold War, is crucial to envisioning how Europe’s future may evolve.

Ukraine: Divided Between East and West 

Ukraine has long been a polarized country.

Strategically located on the open plains of Eastern Europe, the country can trace its divisions to the numerous powers and empires that sought to claim shares of its territory.

Ukraine first belonged to Kievan Rus, a medieval Eastern Slavic state centered on Kiev that encompassed modern-day Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

But the kingdom began to decline, eventually falling to the Mongols in the 13th century, and the center of Eastern Slavic power shifted to Moscow.

Kiev, and the territory that today makes up Ukraine, languished.

Still, Ukraine was not left to its own devices for long.

To the east and west, respectively, Tsarist Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth each controlled parts of Ukrainian territory and jockeyed to gain more.

Over time, the Russian Empire chipped away at the commonwealth’s hold over Ukraine, until the Polish Partitions eliminated that state altogether.

The Russian Empire subsequently divided Ukraine with the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the west until both fell during World War I.

After a brief period of independence, Ukraine was divvied up once again, this time between the Soviet Union and the newly independent Poland.

Nazi Germany occupied Ukraine during World War II, after which Ukraine was reincorporated into the Soviet Union until the bloc collapsed in 1991.

Source: Forbes

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Why Ukraine's War Is Suddenly Getting Worse

KIEV, Ukraine -- The war in Ukraine, after a long lull, is suddenly picking back up. A Monday report from the New York Times, as well as previous dispatches from the Washington Post and Reuters, concluded that the pace of the violence in eastern Ukraine's contested Donbass region has escalated since mid-February, with death tolls rivaling those of last September — just before a partial truce took hold.

Pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists.

It's not bad as it's been in the past.

According to the Times's Andrew Kramer, "Neither side has yet resorted to firing heavy artillery," for example.

Not yet, anyway.

So what's going on?

Russian-backed separatist rebels are mostly driving the increase in violence.

They are probably aiming to improve their position in advance of peace negotiations.

It's a reminder that Ukraine's ongoing war, mostly off the front pages, still remains quite live — and quite dangerous.

Why fighting is (likely) escalating in Ukraine 

A little over a year ago, Russia and Ukraine, along with France and Germany, reached an agreement meant to end the war.

It's called Minsk II, named for the Belarusian capital where it was negotiated (the first Minsk agreement had collapsed in failure).

The first steps were a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front lines.

Between February and September 2015, Russia and its allies brazenly violated the ceasefire, even launching a major offensive aimed at the city of Debaltseve.

By September, the separatists' advance had stalled.

Under heavy diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions, Russia and its proxies began complying with the ceasefire and withdrawal terms.

The result was not peace or an end to the conflict — far from it — but at least a welcome lull.

Minsk II had also set a December 2015 deadline for reintegrating eastern Ukraine back into the rest of the country, albeit now granting the region more autonomy.

But it didn't happen by the deadline and still hasn't.

So France and Germany said they were pushing the deadline to an indefinite point in 2016.

As all this was happening, Russia continued to arm and support the separatist militias, thus keeping the war going.

And beginning in mid-February, the rebels stepped up low-level attacks, but kept the fighting short of a full-blown return to war.

Russia's game with Ukraine peace talks 

Analysts generally put the responsibility here on Russia, which they say is likely seeking to get the conflict going again to improve its position for the likely next round of peace talks.

"All indicators point to the conclusion that Russia is not yet prepared to reach a settlement of the crisis in eastern Ukraine, at least not on terms that would be considered reasonable for Kiev," Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes in a February piece.

Instead, Pifer writes, it's in Russia's interest to maintain a low level of conflict — periodically escalating when it wants concessions.

"That would allow the Kremlin to ratchet up the conflict at a later point if it desired to further pressure Kiev," he writes:

The most likely state in which Donbass will remain into the foreseeable future is thus a frozen (or not-so-frozen) conflict, where there is no major fighting yet no complete ceasefire, and where negotiations on implementing Minsk II continue yet show scant real progress.

Ukraine may thus feel pressured to carry out its end of the Mink II agreement even as Russia does not. 

The Times's Kramer spoke to a Ukrainian commander, Lt. Col. Mikhailo M. Prokopiv, who suggested the fighting was meant to "give us a little nightmare" and pressure Ukrainian leaders to comply with the terms of Minsk II.

In the long run, this up-and-down cycle of war in eastern Ukraine — peaks and valleys of violence — will be very costly for Ukraine, which is beset by a number of political and economic problems. 

"Ukrainians are becoming worn down by being held in a state of suspense over months and years — stuck between calm and tension, war and peace, insecurity and stability," Andreas Umland, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev, writes in an Atlantic Council piece.

He continues: This tactic could eventually hollow out the territories of so-called "New Russia"—that is, southeastern Ukraine—to such a degree that they sink into isolation, depression, radicalization, and violence.

According to the logic behind this approach, the region will sooner or later fall by itself into Moscow’s lap.

And that is why the current round of fighting is dangerous.

It strongly suggests that Russia and its proxies aren't serious about peace — and are, instead, perfectly fine with a perpetually "frozen" conflict.

Source: Vox

Things Get Ugly As Protesters Call For A New Ukraine Revolution

KIEV, Ukraine -- The second anniversary of Ukraine’s pro-European (anti-Russian) Maidan revolution was meant to be the day to remember the victims, to lay flowers around the improvised memorials on Kiev’s Maidan Square, light candles and think of those who died—those who are now called the Heavenly Hundred.

On the second anniversary of EuroMaidan, right-wing nationalist militias call for a new coup, playing right into the hands of pro-Russian separatists.

But on Saturday events began unfolding along ugly lines, disgracing the memory of what was called “The Revolution of Dignity.”

Dozens of nationalist, uniformed militia, some wearing masks, took over the square in the heart of Kiev, pitching tents with “Veterans of the Orange Revolution” banners on them and a portrait of Jesus, attempting to declare another revolution, which they called “The Third Maidan.”

This is a terrible moment for Ukraine, generally, and this kind of upheaval will only make things worse.

The International Monetary Fund is warning Kiev it will freeze a crucial bailout unless the country takes immediate control of overwhelming corruption.

The fighting with pro-Russian rebels has intensified in the east of the country—every day Ukrainian forces report violations of the ceasefire agreement along almost the entire front line.

The legitimacy of the government is in question.

Last week, President Petro Poroshenko encouraged the government to resign.

The public support for the president is melting away, with only 17 percent of Ukrainians approving of what Poroshenko is doing, according the latest Gallup poll.

The country’s prosecutor general, Victor Shokin, submitted his resignation last week.

The paramilitary activists on the square obviously planned to use the shaky moment for their agenda.

On Saturday afternoon, about 50 uniformed men occupied the eight-floor Kozatsky Hotel on the square.

Uniformed men, some in masks, did not allow anybody in.

A receptionist told The Daily Beast on the phone that the hotel was “booked up.”

Authorities made a few attempts to clear up the occupied Kozatsky, as well as Maidan Square.

But a mock gallows remained before the parliament building, as well as a banner with the prime minister’s face depicted as a target.

On Saturday and Sunday police and protesters clashed.

Dozens of Ukraine National Guard soldiers struggled to prevent militiamen from protesting on the square, and from setting up more tents.

The sad requiem music that the anniversary organizers played on the Maidan in memory of the dozens of protestors killed by snipers here on Feb. 20, 2014, could hardly be heard, as the new protesters chanted “Revolution!” in microphones, calling hundreds gathered on the square to organize “a powerful Third Maidan to bring down this criminal government.”

On Sunday night hundreds came out on Maidan square for a counter-rally, supporting the police.

Who was behind the calls for a new revolution in Ukraine?

The organizers of the “Third Maidan” introduced themselves as Revolutionary Right Forces (RPC).

Their leader, Roman Stoika, a former policeman, was fired from the ministry of interior in 2009 and allegedly joined a band of smugglers.

In 2013, police arrested Stoika for allegedly trying to smuggle cigarettes to Europe on an ultralight plane.

The leader of this weekend’s protests was not mentioned in any coverage of the Revolution of Dignity; his name appeared much later, in the scandalous episode of clashes and shooting between police and radical militia from the Right Sector in Mukachevo, a village in western Ukraine.

On the eve of the anniversary the founder of the Ukrainian nationalist Donbass Battalion, Parliament Deputy Semen Semenchenko, told The Daily Beast why he thought that his force of more than 800 soldiers and he himself began to have problems with the country’s leadership.

“President Poroshenko targets me personally, he deprived me of military status, encourages black rumors around my name; authorities put nine of my soldiers in jail to extract evidence against me,” Semenchenko said.

“The president hates me, because I recently brought thousands to the streets to block elections in the town of Krivoi Roh,” said Semenchenko.

“I push to investigate Poroshenko, as I believe that he helped the Kremlin build Novorossia [Greater Russia] in Ukraine,” Semenchenko told The Daily Beast across the street from the parliament, where the deputy stayed with a group of soldiers from Donbass battalion.

Two years ago the Maidan movement was joined by civil activists, hipsters, students, and artists.

This time, the protesters on the square were mostly uniformed militia from nationalist movements, war veterans, and some dubious characters with criminal records.

The morning of the anniversary began with a crowd of protesters smashing the windows of what they believed was the Russian-owned Alfa Bank with bricks and cobblestones.

The attackers climbed into the bank through the broken windows, toppled desks, turned chairs upside down.

Some Ukrainian volunteers and politicians suspected that the so-called Third Maidan actually served the agenda of pro-Moscow separatists.

“I do not feel that the people yelling on the square are sincere,” Halina Odnoroh, a civil society leader from Mariupol, told The Daily Beast.

“If they want to boycott everything Russian, just stop buying Russian products, they should not be smashing the banks.”

Former Maidan civic leaders were not sure about the current protests, either.

“The best would be to simply ignore them, as these are pure provocateurs playing in Putin’s favor; it does not surprise me that the ‘Russian Spring’ website covered these protests thoroughly,” former activist and reporter and now a Rada [parliament] deputy, Serhiy Leshchenko, told The Daily Beast on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the militia camp kept growing.

On Saturday night, two army tents had appeared by a column with a statue of a Ukrainian woman in traditional costume on top.

To get warm, protesters burned garbage in trash cans.

The sign in front of the entrance to the Kazatsky Hotel said “RPC headquarters.”

A spokesman for the Revolutionary Right Force occupying the hotel, “Oleh,” came out of a back entrance on Sunday morning to explain to reporters that the agenda of the new revolutionaries was “to make authorities respect the constitution and release our friends, patriots, and war veterans from prisons.”

The militia leader claimed that armed battalions from different regions supported the RPC.

On Sunday night, dozens of militia members occupying the hotel lined up and marched along the street to the far-right Azov Battalion’s headquarters.

“We are not planning to leave Maidan,” one of them told The Daily Beast.

Source: The Daily Beast