Thursday, March 31, 2016

Vladimir Putin Sent Russian Mercenaries To 'Fight In Syria And Ukraine'

LONDON, England -- Fighters from a private military company called Wagner were used for deniable military operations abroad, finds an investigation by a Russian newspaper.

A photograph of Maksim Kolganov shows him at the Wagner training facility in Molkino, where he stands in front of a door reading: “Anyone who doubts our peacefulness will choke to death on blood. Because our mercy is ruthless!”

President Vladimir Putin has sent Russian mercenaries to fight in Syria and Ukraine, decorating them for their service and concealing their casualties, according to a new report.

An investigation published by Fontanka, an independent Russian newspaper, found that the Kremlin had hired members of a private military company called Wagner to go to Syria and Ukraine.

The use of contractors gives Putin a deniable way of sending trained personnel to both countries.

Wagner is believed to have a membership of around 1,000 mercenaries, but officially the group does not exist since Russian law forbids private military companies.

But Wagner is registered in Argentina and has a training camp in the Russian village of Molkino – the same village that hosts a training site of the 10th special forces brigade of the GRU military intelligence.

The Russian defence ministry has announced the deaths of six servicemen in Syria.

But former members of Wagner interviewed by Fontanka claim there were several dozen fatalities in the unit last year alone.

A high-ranking member of Russia's intelligence services then distributed posthumous military honours, signed by Putin.

Photographs of the awards, all signed by Putin, are included in the report.

The decorated men were confirmed as fighters in Wagner by other members of the unit.

Others were killed in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and 2015.

Pictures have emerged of Maksim Kolganov, a mercenary with Wagner, when he was in the city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine and the port of Latakia in Syria.

He is believed to have been killed in Syria on Feb 3 after which he received a posthumours “For Courage” medal from the Kremlin.

Several Wagner fighters took part in the battle for control of the Ukrainian town of Debaltseve in January and February 2015.

This also involved hundreds of regular Russian troops and involved one of the heaviest artillery bombardments in recent history, dealing a decisive blow to Ukraine’s army.

Putin has publicly spoken of how private military companies can be used by the Kremlin to conduct deniable operations.

As prime minister in 2012, he called for such companies to be legalised, describing them as a “tool for the implementation of national interests without direct participation of the state”.

Source: The Telegraph

Russia Running 'Shadow Government' For East Ukraine: Report

BERLIN, Germany -- Russia is running a "shadow government" in rebel-held territories of eastern Ukraine under the control of the FSB intelligence service, German newspaper Bild reported Wednesday, citing minutes from an official commission.

The report said that basic administrative functions of the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk are being run by six working groups at five Russian ministries.

The report said that basic administrative functions of the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk are being run by six working groups at five Russian ministries.

The officials, who manage areas including tax law, transport infrastructure and the establishment of an electricity market, work under the auspices of the FSB and answer to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, according to the minutes cited in Bild.

"It is notable that no members of the self-declared people's republics in eastern Ukraine are on the commission," Bild said.

"They are simply informed about its findings and their political implementation."

Kozak denied the allegations, with his spokesman telling independent Russian TV channel Dojd: "We have nothing to do with that... It has never been said that Dmitry Kozak deals with any regions other than those of the Russian Federation."

The minutes derive from an October 2015 meeting of the so-called Interministerial Commission for the Provision of Humanitarian Aid for the Affected Areas of the Southeast of the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions.

Bild quoted an unnamed secret services agent as saying that the commission's work allowed the separatist regions to function as a Russian "satellite state".

Eastern Ukraine has been gripped for nearly two years in a war between government forces and pro-Moscow separatists.

Russia has repeatedly denied allegations that it has active forces in the war zone or exercises direct influence over the territories, saying it only provides humanitarian aid there.

The fighting has killed more than 9,200 people since April 2014 and raised alarm across eastern European states about what they see as Putin's aggressive foreign policy stance.

A Western push to resolve the crisis has floundered as Ukraine and Russia have proved unable to agree on elections in the rebel-controlled areas.

Kiev has expressed fears that Russia -- already having annexed Crimea in 2014 -- may try to unsettle the country further by exerting influence over Donetsk and Luhansk within a a reunified Ukraine. 

Source: AFP

Air National Guard Will Train Ukraine Airmen This Spring

WASHINGTON, DC -- Members of the California Air National Guard will train with Ukraine's air force from April to June, Guard officials tell Air Force Times.

Airmen assigned to the 144th Fighter Wing wear mission-oriented protective posture gear during the training portion of their expeditionary skills course at the Fresno Air National Guard Base March 5. ANG members from the 144th FW will head to Ukraine this spring.

The scheduled deployments will send a dozen or so airmen to mentor their counterparts in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.

Airmen with the 144th Fighter Wing out of Fresno will provide airspace defense and alert training, according to the Guard.

Pararescuemen from the 129th Rescue Wing at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View will provide instruction on basic battlefield medical procedures and conduct air-medical coaching.

Ukraine will be leading the training events; it is unlikely that aircraft from the fighter wing will participate, the official said.

“A lot of the Air Guard’s focus in Ukraine is on domestic missions and internal security," said Capt. Will Martin, spokesman for the California ANG.

"Our Cal Guard personnel work alongside Ukraine’s search-and-rescue teams and exchange best practices on defending their nation’s airspace.”

The California National Guard has a longstanding relationship with the Ukrainian military, and has been paired with the Eastern European country since its state partnership program united the two in 1993.

In December, Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, California Air National Guard commander, and some of his guardsmen traveled to Kiev to donate helmets, masks and other gear to Ukraine's forces.

"We have delivered to them 100 helmets, and these helmets are current helmets that we use in our Air National Guard," Baldwin told reporters.

"We have also delivered harnesses that are used to help the pilot sit and fit in the ejection seat of his aircraft. So the purpose of this equipment is to allow the pilots of the Ukrainian air force to operate their aircraft more safely and effectively."

The visit came one month after troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade began the second phase of exercise Fearless Guardian.

The training, which has been taken over by soldiers from the California National Guard, simulates ground training under “increasingly complex conditions” for Ukraine’s security forces, Lt. Col. Michael Kloepper, commander of 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, told Army Times last fall.

On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced its plan to deploy an armored brigade combat team to Eastern Europe next February as part of the ongoing effort to rotate troops through the region.

The goal of the increase is to reassure allies like Estonia and Lithuania, feeling uneasy due to heightened Russian aggression in the region.

“This is bigger than Ukraine and the Cal Guard. It’s about contributing to the security of the Black Sea region and Europe as a whole," Martin said of the upcoming deployments.

"A stronger, democratic Ukraine makes for a more stable, peaceful Europe.”

Source: AirForceTimes

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

New Ukraine Coalition Uncertain After Fatherland Party Demurs

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's prospects of forming a new coalition — vital to get IMF loan talks back on track — were thrown into fresh doubt on Tuesday after Yulia Tymoshenko pressed demands as the price of taking her Fatherland Party into an alliance.

Ukrainian legislators attend a parliament session in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 29, 2016.

Her remarks dampened expectations of an imminent deal to end months of political infighting that have thwarted Western-backed reform efforts, delaying billions of dollars in foreign loans to prop up the war-torn economy.

"If we want to save this parliament... then we have to outline together 10-15 categorical conditions that must be met before the formation of any coalition," Tymoshenko said in parliament.

The demands included scrapping a tax on pension payments and rolling back energy price hikes.

The latter is a key reform implemented under Ukraine's bailout program from the International Monetary Fund.

The statement suggested a coalition was far from agreed despite an announcement by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's party on Monday of a new alliance with Fatherland and Ukraine's biggest faction, belonging to President Petro Poroshenko.

Tymoshenko's Fatherland is the smallest party in parliament, but support by its 19 lawmakers is enough to give the coalition a majority when added to the 216 MPs from Poroshenko's and Yatsenyuk's factions.

Tymoshenko "is demanding a stack of political laws be voted on before joining the coalition.

Everyone has to go back to the drawing-board," a source in Poroshenko's faction said.

The lack of a stable coalition capable of pushing reforms through parliament has derailed talks for a new $1.7 billion loan from the IMF.

The Fund has warned that political paralysis is putting the entire $17.5 billion aid program at risk. 

Support for Yatsenyuk and his People's Front party has tumbled since he took power after the 2013/2014 Maidan protests.

Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Groysman, a 38-year-old former mayor and ally of Poroshenko, has been put forward as a replacement prime minister, but Yatsenyuk has refused to step down until a new coalition agreement is signed. 

Anton Herashchenko, a lawmaker in Yatsenyuk's faction, said the three-party coalition had not been formalized.

"We're prepared to back Groysman [for prime minister], prepared to approve the cabinet and the government program. But the snag is there aren't any documents about this coalition yet," he told Reuters.

The head of Yatsenyuk's party, Maksym Burbak, said they did not expect any final coalition agreement before next week.

Meanwhile parliament approved the resignation of General Prosecutor Viktor Shokin - an ally of Poroshenko.

The United States has repeatedly called for top-to-bottom reform of the general prosecutor's office, which anti-graft campaigners have said plays a key role in protecting vested interests and allowing corrupt practices to flourish.

While Shokin's departure will be welcomed by U.S. officials during Poroshenko's visit to Washington this week, meetings are likely to be overshadowed by the political crisis in Kiev.

Failure to form a coalition could trigger snap parliamentary elections, but there is no clear deadline as the responsibility for calling the vote lies with Poroshenko.

Critics say elections would delay reforms further and boost support for populist parties who oppose the IMF-backed austerity measures.

Source: Voice of America

Ukraine Parliament Accepts Prosecutor's Resignation

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's parliament has accepted the resignation of the general prosecutor, who had been criticized for not doing enough to tackle corruption.

Then-General Prosecutor of Ukraine Viktor Shokin speaks during news conference in Kyiv, Feb. 16, 2015. Ukraine's parliament accepted his resignation on March 29, 2016, who had been criticized for not doing enough to tackle corruption.

The move comes a day after several hundred protesters rallied outside the parliament building calling for Viktor Shokin to step down.

President Petro Poroshenko had asked Shokin, who was considered one of his closer allies, to quit. 

Poroshenko has also asked Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to resign because of failures to deal with government corruption.

Yatsenyuk survived a February confidence vote in parliament, but continues to face pressure to step down.

Economic Development Minister Aivaras Abromavicius, who has openly criticized the role of corrupt elites in politics, sent a Twitter message shortly after Shokin's dismissal, saying “Hallelujah! Finally!” 

Abromavicius submitted a letter of resignation last month because of government’s perceived attempts not to pursue high-profile corruption cases.

Parliament has yet to decide whether to approve his departure.

Source: Voice of America

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Removing The Statues Of Lenin Won't De-Communise Ukraine

ZAPORIZHIA, Ukraine -- The largest remaining statue of Lenin in Ukraine was removed from its pedestal in Zaporizhia last week, the latest victim of the Ukrainian ban on Soviet symbols. But how do you go about “de-communising” an almost entirely Stalinist city?

A truck carries a dismantled statue of Lenin in Zaporizhia, Ukraine.

At the time of writing, the statue of V. I. Lenin in Zaporizhia is the last major edifice of the Bolshevik leader left standing in the centre of a major Ukrainian city.

The Lenin statue was pulled down on March 17.

The first notable thing about this bronze likeness of Vladimir Ilyich is what it was wearing.

Draped over his suit was a large yellow bib, like a high-vis jacket, which featured both the Ukrainian coat of arms and the logo of Ukrop (Dill), an oligarch-sponsored nationalist party, and his outstretched hand carried a Ukrainian football scarf.

This replaced the first new outerwear V. I. received post-Maidan, when a traditional embroidered Vyshyvanka was lowered by crane onto the giant figure.

The gesture of that was an unusual attempt in Ukraine to create genuine consensus — the wishes of those who would defend the statue weren't insulted, as it was neither defaced or demolished, and those who wanted to tear it down could see it wasn't allowed to stand inviolate, but was draped in Ukrainian symbols.

In fact, given Lenin's role, pointed to by none other than V. V. Putin, of bringing Odessa and Donbass into a unified, sovereign Ukraine, against the objections of many Bolsheviks, the costume had some historical justice.

The replacement with the sponsored jacket and scarf was a little more derisive, though as the critic and documentary film-maker Oleksiy Radynski argues, “It's actually more appropriate — he's wearing football gear and he has who is sponsoring him on his jacket, so he looks like a real worker.”

Anyway, this was one of Zaporizhia's less controversial statues — in 2010, a new statue of Stalin was erected by the local Communist Party, albeit removed soon after following vandalism.

As for the statue itself, it had it all — the gigantic scale, the heroic scowl, the red granite plinth featuring a crowd of smaller workers crowding around the feet of the giant leader. Lenin made the “look here, see what we have wrought!” gesture common to many of the tens of thousands Lenins, although this specific one was not one of the standardised Lenins that were churned out in factories.

The significance comes in the inscription and the thing to which he is pointing.

The Ukrainian-language inscription is the famous slogan “Communism = Soviet Power plus Electrification of the Whole Country”, a slogan which is more complex than it appeared; it didn't mean “cables plus one-party state” so much as that the direct democracy of workers' councils connecting with the decentralised nature of a national electrical grid would create the new society, an earlier variant of the Fully Automated Luxury Communism young folk in the west like to make memes about.

But this was to be enabled by the sort of big, state-sponsored heavy industrial tech that the great man was pointing to — that is, the structure officially called DniproHES in Ukrainian, but most famous just as the Dnieper Dam, one of the largest dams ever constructed.

Lenin was pointing right at it, across the gigantic square, and the pylons, wires and gantries around the structure poked up into the air around him, as if he was the dictator of electricity.

The Dnieper Dam was so famous and so publicised in international Soviet propaganda of the 1930s as to have been specifically sniffily dismissed by Orwell.

In the USSR, and not just in Soviet Ukraine, it was completely ubiquitous, featuring on countless reliefs (on a block of flats in Dnipropetrovsk, in Metro stations in Moscow and Kiev), on stamps, on badges.

It was — though this was seldom mentioned — a major project of Leon Trotsky's, who campaigned for it after his demotion from the Politburo, and similarly inconveniently, its technology, engineering and senior personnel were almost entirely American, largely courtesy of General Electric.

After it was opened, it generated more power than the entire infrastructure of the pre-1917 Russian Empire; the industrial base of the city was expanded further by Zaporizhstal, a large, and also American-designed, steelworks.

First the foreign engineers and experts, and only then the workers who built all of this were housed in an extension of the small industrial town of Alexandrovsk, which was renamed post-1917 — the new name means “beyond the rapids”, referring to the currents that power the dam's generators.

The new city was masterplanned by Viktor Vesnin (who also designed the dam's long, ribbon-windowed power-house) along Constructivist lines as a “Sotsgorod”.

After destruction in the war, the dam was extended, and later, a futurist administration block was built alongside and a flyover was built on top — a spindly construction that rattles every time a bus or a lorry goes across.

To actually get a full view of the dam, you have to go down to the riverbank, or go to the other famous thing here — Khortisya Island, known as the base of the Zaporizhian Sich, a self-governing Cossack state dissolved in the 18th century, then claimed by every conceivable political trend in Ukraine in the succeeding 300 years.

It has one of those typically Soviet “folk architecture museums” approximating what their encampment might have looked like, and a full view of the monumental curved concrete wall of the Dam.

The likely replacement for Lenin will, apparently, be a Cossack hetman.

The planning of the city, however, will still be around the dam.

Zaporizhia centres around a typical Stalinist magistrale, an example of Soviet imperial baroque at its most stupefying — a long, wide boulevard which begins near the railway station and then after several miles terminated at Lenin.

This is no longer called Prospekt Lenina on Google Maps (where it has reverted to its original name of Prospekt Sobornyi), but it is on all of the street signs, many of which are built onto the buildings, and decorated with golden swags.

After a couple of days in Zaporizhia it becomes clear that the only way to “de-communise” a city such as this would be to raze it to the ground.

A tour of Lenin Prospekt might begin at at the other end to Lenin, at Central Square, in front of the Hotel Intourist, as it is still called.

This is a large and dour plaza, flanked mostly by government buildings and two symmetrical, fortress-like precast concrete blocks of flats for the better class of Zaporizhian.

Government buildings stand on the other side, in the slightly classicised, stone-clad Soviet variant of International Style modernism, and a mural shows a muscleman heroically harnessing the power of DniproHES.

A small monument of molten steel being poured stands in one corner of the square, with the legend “GLORY TO WORK” on one side and a sheaf of wheat on the other.

Along the Prospekt, there are posters reading “FOR PEACE AND STABILITY – ZAPORIZHSTAL”.

The post-Party of Regions Opposition Blok easily won the elections here last autumn, and Zaporizhstal's chief engineer was elected as mayor.

It's a post-Soviet company town.

Zaporizhstal's assets are held by a company headquartered in Guernsey, and not much of its wealth has made its way to the rusting, crumbling city where the steel is actually made.

It's a story which could be told anywhere in Russia or Ukraine, and no political force seems to be willing or able to challenge it.

Much unlike Dnipropetrovsk, only two hours west by train, you can count the new buildings in Zaporizhia on one hand, and none are notable.

The Stalinist USSR was also a profoundly unequal society, but trickle-down there meant at least the swaggering grandiosity of Lenin Prospekt, built up largely in the early 1950s.

Every baroque trick of perspective and symmetry is brought in, with towers, urns, archways, turrets, spires, fluffy stucco hammers and sickles and burly male and female steelworkers in the place where there should be cherubs and angels.

It's thug baroque, with heavy columns, beefy pediments and abrupt portals.

You can see here that the Khrushchev critique of architectural “excess” had a point, given the proliferation of superfluous details — on one corner, two Roman temples flank each other on top of two blocks of tenements.

Step into the courtyards, and though the scale is maintained, everything else is more informal — brick and stucco replaces tile and granite, and there's as much green space as in a post-1956 modernist micro rayon.

There's plenty of amenities, cinemas, theatres, concert halls, mostly neoclassical — the Dovzhenko Cinema features a lovely metal bust of the film director and relief sculptures of workers and peasants; it also features a patriotic poster commemorating the “heavenly hundred”, the most explicit sign of Ukrainian patriotism I come across in the city.

Graffiti, always a good measure, is conflicted — “white power” on one tenement courtyard is crossed out and replaced with “USSR”, “ATO” (Anti-Terrorist Operation, the official name for the counter-insurgency in Donbass) is crossed out elsewhere, there are stencils of Shevchenko, and a stencil of a Tsarist eagle seizing Crimea, holding a nuclear bomb in one talon and a bottle of vodka in the other.

A bridge over the railway, offering views of Zaporizhstal in full blast, spewing out into the atmosphere (and you can taste it) and a tiny memorial to the Great Famine of 1933, leads to the Sotsgorod, or Sotsmisto in Ukrainian.

This is a complete late 20s/early 30s modernist housing estate, comparable in its completeness and scale to the Berlin estates of Bruno Taut from the same era, which are UNESCO-listed and restored.

Some of Sotsmisto was reclad after 1945 to make the design heavier and more monumental, but you can still see what it is clearly enough.

One part consists of a dozen or so free-standing, low-rise, deck-access blocks with curved, glazed stairwells, and pedestrian space around.

These blocks have faced a variety of treatments, some classicised, some left alone, some given plasticky reclads more recently, but their architectural expressiveness is still clear.

If they were anywhere west of the Elbe they'd have a preservation order, a Docomomo listing and a commemorative book.

The centrepiece of the Sotsmisto is a crescent, clearly recalling the Horseshoe Estate in Berlin, but with open colonnades, a simple garden filled with trees, and an advanced state of dilapidation, with balconies filled in and extensions added.

It also features the only poster for a political party I've ever seen in Ukraine that is on someone's flat rather than on a billboard; a faded image of the Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko.

At the parliamentary elections of 2012, his recently banned party got 21% here; in 2014, just under 10%.

Sotsmisto too has its amenities.

“Citizens of the USSR have the right to work” reads the pompous Russian inscription opposite the Kirov Palace of Culture, unpromisingly.

They had the right to other things too, and concerts and suchlike are held here.

Appropriately, then, someone has put a baton in the hand of the statue of Sergei Kirov that stands in front of this neoclassical temple, so that he looks either like a conductor or a magician.

This sort of gentle pisstaking, seen also in the changing outfits of the nearby Lenin, seems a much more genuinely democratic, “anti-totalitarian” approach than pulling down monumental statues to build new ones.

This history is remembered with a certain critical distance, but it isn't stripped away — in a city so totally Soviet as this, how could it be?

However sensible the city's relation to its past, especially in comparison with the hysteria elsewhere, its status in the present is less clear.

Obviously, this mainly working class city is not made up of nostalgic Stalinists (though there are clearly some), not Banderites (of which election results and political actions suggest there are very few), and not of liberal democrats either (of which there may be still fewer).

There was never much question of this Russophone city becoming part of “Novorossiya”, and while pro-Russian protests did take place, they were very small; the example of Donetsk, very nearby, was clearly not terribly persuasive.

Communist iconography is built into the fabric of this city, and will remain so; but voting loyally for the representatives of a company which keeps the fruits of your labour in Guernsey doesn't suggest an acute class consciousness.

Source: The Calvert Journal

Ukraine Extends Russia Sanctions Over Savchenko Case

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine has extended a sanctions list against Russia to include people and institutions involved in the detention of pilot Nadezhda Savchenko and other Ukrainian citizens, its Security and Defence Council said on Friday.

Former Ukrainian army pilot Nadezhda Savchenko looks out from a glass-walled cage during a verdict hearing at a court in the southern border town of Donetsk in Rostov region, Russia, in this still image taken from video March 22, 2016.

Kiev has already imposed economic and other restrictions on more than 400 Russian citizens and companies following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in March 2014 and the ensuing pro-Russian separatist uprising in the east.

The latest additions to the list follow a Russian court's decision on Tuesday to sentence Savchenko to 22 years in jail over her alleged involvement in the killing of two Russian journalists.

"The entities included on the sanctions list include the managers and works of the FSB (security service), the Russian Investigative Committee, prosecutors, the judiciary, military and others," the Council said in an online statement.

It accused the institutions of "abduction, illegal detention, torture, (and) falsification of cases" against detained Ukrainians.

Savchenko, who had taken leave from her job as a military pilot to volunteer with Ukraine's ground forces fighting against the separatists in eastern Ukraine, was captured by pro-Moscow rebels there in June 2014.

She was handed over to Russia where she was charged with directing mortar fire which killed two Russian journalists who were covering the conflict.

She has repeatedly gone on hunger strike, and says she is the victim of a show trial.

On Friday, Ukraine's Foreign Ministry accused Russia of concealing a deterioration in her health and preventing Ukrainian doctors from checking her.

While some of the sanctions have had a palpable impact, such as the ban on Russian airlines Transaero and Aeroflot flying to Ukraine, the consequences of others have been harder to assess at a time when bilateral relations are already at an all-time low.

Source: Google News

Ukraine Crisis: 'Russian Soldier's' Lawyer Found Dead

KIEV, Ukraine -- The Ukrainian lawyer of an alleged Russian special forces soldier has been found dead, days after disappearing in the middle of his trial in Kiev, Ukrainian officials say.

No motive for the apparent killing of Yuriy Hrabovsky has been given.

Yuriy Hrabovsky's body was found in a forest 125km (78 miles) south of Kiev.

He represented Alexander Alexandrov, who was captured in eastern Ukraine with Yevgeny Yerofeyev last May.

They are accused waging war against Ukrainian troops.

Russia says they were volunteers who had left active service.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said early this week (in Ukrainian) he was ready to exchange the two Russians for Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko.

She was sentenced to 22 years in jail after being convicted of directing artillery fire which killed two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine in June 2014.

Violent death 

The trial of the two Russians in Kiev was stopped at the beginning of the month, after Yuriy Hrabovsky went missing.

Anatoliy Matios says Hrabovsky's body was found during a police excavation of land on a former farming collective.

"Provisionally, I can say that... (he) was killed in a violent way and finished off with a firearm," Mr Matios said.

He added that the lawyer had been robbed and also had an explosive device attached to his leg.

Two men have been detained on suspicion of involvement, but no motive has been mentioned.

Russia's foreign ministry blamed Ukrainian authorities for failing to protect Hrabovsky.

In a statement, it said the lawyer had become a victim of anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine.

The Russian pair are alleged to be officers in Russia's GRU foreign military intelligence when they were captured during fighting in east Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials say Alexandrov and Yerofeyev confessed to serving in the Russian special services, but later retracted their confessions.

The two men deny charges of terrorism.

Prosecutors have called for life sentences.

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

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

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

Source: BBC News

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Time For Ukraine To Take The Initiative

WASHINGTON, DC -- Vladimir Putin’s maneuverings with the West and Ukraine are often compared to a game of chess.

The comparison is spot on, with one qualification.

Contrary to the image of grandmaster he prefers, the Russian president more closely resembles a loudmouthed barroom player who slams pieces against the board.

The effect is intimidating at first, but the best way to beat him is to take a deep breath, stick to your strategy, and play a consistently offensive and defensive game.

Unfortunately, President Obama isn’t very interested in playing chess with Putin.

Maybe the State Department and the Pentagon are, but they’re hamstrung by Obama’s apparent indifference.

The European Union, almost by definition, doesn’t play well.

Indeed, its member states can’t agree on whether the game is chess, checkers, or soccer.

Putin’s bullying and the West’s non-play give Ukraine’s leaders considerable room for maneuver.

If Kiev had a vision of its future, it could stop reacting to events and attempt to settle the war in eastern Ukraine on its own terms.

By announcing bold initiatives, Kiev could take the initiative and shock Washington and Europe out of their complacency or denial.

Consider the stalemate over the Minsk accords.

France and Germany are pressuring Ukraine to hold elections in the occupied Donbass even as the Kremlin negates its end of the bargain by violating the ceasefire, arming Putin’s proxies, repressing freedom of speech and assembly, and controlling the Ukrainian-Russian border.

The elections would be a violation of every value France and Germany claim to stand for and only ensure that Russia would become a permanent cancer on Ukraine’s body politic.

Rather than play the endless point and blame game, Kiev could simply state that it has temporarily suspended its sovereign right to the Donbass enclave and will defer the elections to an appropriate international body.

The OSCE or the UN would organize, conduct, and supervise the elections from beginning to end.

For its part, Ukraine will accept the results as long as independent international monitors declare that the election process was fair and free.

Better still, President Poroshenko could announce that he supports granting the occupied Donbass the status of a fully sovereign region within a confederal Ukraine.

The enclave would have its own government, its own budget, its own police, its own economy, its own laws.

Kiev wouldn’t subsidize the enclave, and the enclave wouldn’t subsidize Kiev.

All that would bind them would be some largely symbolic institution, perhaps a powerless council of elders that would periodically meet, sing songs, and be merry.

Putin and his proxies would be cornered.

Putin wants the Donbass to weaken Ukraine.

If you isolate the Donbass with a confederacy arrangement, the Kremlin’s ability to infect Ukraine will be nullified.

And the proxies couldn’t say no: Ukraine would be giving them far more autonomy than they want.

In the end, Ukraine would have a bankrupt criminal state on its border rather than a bankrupt criminal region inside its borders.

If that’s too radical, consider a third way to take the initiative:

Poroshenko could declare that Ukraine has “suspended” all efforts to reintegrate the occupied Donbass for, say, ten years.

No Minsk, no military, no diplomacy—just freeze the status quo.

After ten years, the OSCE or UN would oversee a referendum on self-determination in the occupied Donbass allowing the citizens to choose to return to Ukraine, remain independent, or join Russia.

Each of these three variants has the inestimable advantage of giving Ukraine the initiative.

Kiev would propose bold solutions that are consistent with human rights and democratic norms, and Russia and the West would have to respond.

Ukrainian elites must seize the initiative.

If they don’t counter Putin’s poor chess play with their smart game, they’ll lose.

Source: World Affairs

Ukraine Pilot Sings As Russia Jails Her For 22 Years

MOSCOW, Russia -- Nadezhda Savchenko burst into a traditional Ukrainian song at her ‘farce’ of a trial for the killing of two Russian journalists during the 2014 war in Ukraine.

When the guilty verdict came down Tuesday, the prisoner of war burst into song.

Nadezhda Savchenko looked defiant in her glass cage as she listened to her sentence.

Her muscular arms were crossed over her chest and she wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with the national emblem of Ukraine.

When the judge announced her punishment—22 years in prison for directing a mortar attack that killed two Russian journalists in 2014—Savchenko smiled sardonically and began singing a traditional Ukrainian song, and chanting, “Glory to Ukraine!”

The 34-year-old politician and pilot—the first woman to graduate from Ukraine’s air force academy—had long denounced her trial as a “farce.”

Russian prosecutors asked the court to punish Savchenko for the mortar attack, which she supposedly orchestrated as a member of the pro-Kiev Aidar battalion fighting in the Donbass region.

They slammed her as “aggressive and impulsive” and claimed she hated the citizens of the breakaway republic.

Savchenko was captured by rebels in 2014 and turned over to Russian authorities, while prosecutors claim that she escaped from rebels and crossed the border on her own, illegally.

Only a few reporters, family members, and foreign observers were allowed into the courtroom.

Most journalists did not get in, and watched the process in a special room on video.

At any court process, the main words are the most important: first the judge says guilty or not, and then reads the verdict, sometimes for two to three days.

On Monday, there was some confusion over the initial statements of the judge, Leonid Stepanenko, who stated that “Nadia Viktorivna Savchenko committed the killing of [soldiers] Kornelyuk and Voloshin by a group of persons by previous concert for hatred and enmity motives.”

The judge also concluded that the pilot had illegally crossed the border into Russian territory.

“The motive for the crimes committed by the accused was hatred and hostility towards the inhabitants of the Luhansk region, and towards Russian-speaking people as a whole.”

It was a confusing moment for all news agencies—was the judge pronouncing the pilot guilty, or quoting prosecutors?

The main word “guilty” was still not pronounced on Monday.

One of Russia’s most respected newspapers, Novaya Gazeta, even held a special briefing on whether to break the news of a guilty verdict and decided against it.

“We were torn, as it is a standard procedure—the judges always mention the decision in the very beginning of the verdict and it did sound like the judge recognized her guilty,” the newspaper’s court reporter, Vera Chelisheva, told The Daily Beast.

Russian state media, including Interfax and Russia Today, went ahead and published the news: the court had “convicted” the Ukrainian pilot.

On Tuesday, that news became official.

In the courtroom, Savchenko seemed to be indifferent to the judge’s final word.

“Well, I do not care what sort of verdict it is. In 10 days, when the verdict takes effect, I will declare a dry hunger strike and keep it to the end,” she told reporters before the judge entered the courtroom.

“I do not believe anybody in Russia any longer,” she added.

It was a long court process that started last September, “the case of the year,” as some Russian reports referred to it, though it did not take place in Moscow but in a small town in Donetsk, Russia.

During the last six months, Savchenko had declared multiple hunger strikes, living days without drinking water and practically melting away.

To her countrymen, Savchenko’s exhausted, bony face next to national emblems on the shirts she wore symbolized Ukraine’s suffering from the conflict with Russia.

On Monday she looked fit and unbroken.

Almost two years ago, Savchenko was fighting in the Aidar battalion in eastern Ukraine against Russia-backed rebels.

Her defense insists that she was captured by rebels and taken to Russia, while prosecutors claim that she escaped from rebels and crossed the border on her own, illegally.

Outside the courtroom, a group of activists demonstrated in support of her guilty verdict.

“Savchenko was involved in the murdering of Russian journalists!” one of the banners said.

By 4:23 p.m. the judge allowed five young men into the courtroom; they unfolded printed photographs of the Russian journalists murdered in Ukraine, allegedly Savchenko’s victims— Vesti correspondent Igor Kornelyuk and a video engineer, Anton Voloshin.

Not all reporters were allowed into the courtroom.

Among the lucky ones was a British blogger, Graham Philips, known for his strong pro-Kremlin agenda.

Several Russian cameramen were left behind the door, and some waited for hours for a permit to take pictures of Savchenko.

“This is not a court, it is a madhouse,” one of the reporters, Vasily Maximov, wrote on Twitter.

“I have never seen such a bad attitude towards the press.”

On Monday afternoon, the judge decided to take a break and continue reading the verdict later.

“Theoretically, tomorrow the judge could introduce some extenuating circumstances we don't know yet the rest of the evidence she will cite and the sentence,” the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, Rachel Denber, told The Daily Beast on Monday.

“It’s very hard to say what will happen politically, after the verdict, with Savchenko.”

Savchenko’s supporters hope that, even with the conviction, Savchenko could be transferred to her home country as a prisoner of war.

Both leaders of the European Union and U.S. President Barack Obama have called for the Kremlin to free Savchenko; but it is well known that President Vladimir Putin does not like to be pressured.

Russian officials dismissed all calls from the West as attempts to interfere with Russia’s internal affairs.

From the courtroom, Savchenko’s defense lawyer hinted that only Washington could help his client’s fate at this point and persuade Moscow to pass the pilot to her home country of Ukraine.

On Monday the lawyer wrote in his Twitter:

“John Kerry is coming to Moscow on Wednesday. Welcome. You know what I mean...”

Source: The Daily Beast

Ukrainian Pilot Held By Russia Prisoner Exchange? Vladimir Putin To Decide

MOSCOW, Russia -- A day after a Russian court sentenced Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko to 22 years in prison, proposals for a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine were still on the table, Kremlin officials said Wednesday.

People attend a rally Monday in Tblisi, Georgia, demanding that Russia release Ukrainian army pilot Nadiya Savchenko.

“We hear of proposals on the swap, and the issues will be considered in full accordance with the Russian legislation, the decision is taken by the head of state,” said Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian news agency Tass reported.

Putin will make the final decision on whether to exchange Savchenko for two Russian soldiers held by the Ukrainian government.

Lavrov said Russian officials have been discussing the issue with German officials, including Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has called for a “humanitarian solution” to Savchenko’s case.

Steinmeier and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Moscow Wednesday to hold talks with Russian officials on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

Kerry, who has spoken about Savenchenko’s case in the past, is expected to raise the issue with Russian officials.

Savchenko, 34, has become a symbol of defiance and pride for the Ukrainian people following her imprisonment and trial.

The Ukrainian pilot who was elected to the country’s parliament in absentia, has denied all the charges against her, including that she directed an artillery team to fire at Russian journalists Anton Voloshin and Igor Kornelyuk in June 2014 while she was fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Savchenko said she had been captured by Russian forces before the deaths of the two journalists. 

Ukrainian officials said Wednesday they would discuss the possibility of imposing sanctions against Russian officials involved in the Savchenko case.

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko had a call with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Wednesday to discuss the case.

Savchenko has resorted to hunger strikes in the past and said she would begin a new one after the sentence was handed down.

Officials from the EU have made statements calling for compassion in the case.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine that began in April 2014 has pitted government forces against Russian-backed rebels and resulted in the deaths of more than 9,200 people and the displacement of 1.4 million.

Russia has continued to deny any direct military involvement and accused the Ukrainian government Wednesday of ignoring a peace deal signed last year, the Associated Press reported.

Source: IBT

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Reports: Russian Court Poised To Convict Ukraine’s ‘Joan of Arc’ In Deaths Of Journalists

MOSCOW, Russia -- A Russian court on Monday appeared to lay the groundwork for a guilty verdict against a Ukrainian helicopter navigator nicknamed Ukraine’s “Joan of Arc,” wrapping up a trial over the 2014 deaths of two Russian journalists that has revived memories of Stalin-era show ­trials.

Nadiya Savchenko

Few observers expect an acquittal for the pilot, Lt. Nadiya Savchenko, 34, who has been widely demonized by Russia’s news media.

Savchenko is accused of directing mortar fire that killed the Russian journalists in southeast Ukraine in 2014.

She has denied any wrongdoing.

Russian news agencies on Monday prematurely reported that Savchenko was found guilty, as the judge, Leonid Stepanenko, reviewed the evidence from the six-month trial in a monotone.

Such pro forma readings can last days.

Although the judge’s language may indicate whether the defendant will be found guilty, the verdict and sentence are officially delivered only at the end of the session.

The trial’s conclusion is expected Tuesday.

Prosecutors have sought a sentence of 23 years.

The Russian government has accused Savchenko of murder — which the prosecution says was motivated by ethnic hatred for Russian speakers — and of later illegally crossing into Russia, where she was arrested.

Savchenko says she was abducted in Ukraine and spirited into Russia, where she was handed over to police.

Since her capture, Savchenko has become a national symbol of resistance in Ukraine and a favorite target for Russians.

She was elected a member of the Ukrainian parliament in absentia.

Western leaders have widely condemned the Russian court proceedings, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced last week that he would try to get the European Union to issue sanctions against a roster of officials involved in Savchenko’s detention.

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has condemned the trial, and Savchenko may be on the agenda when he visits Moscow this week to discuss the cease-fire in Syria.

The front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, also has expressed concern about Savchenko’s well-being.

Western officials and members of Savchenko’s legal team have said that the expected guilty verdict may set the stage for a prisoner exchange.

Two alleged Russian service members are on trial in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, on suspicion of fighting alongside Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

When asked about a possible trade for Savchenko at a news conference this month, Poroshenko said:

“As the president of Ukraine, using my constitutional rights, yes, it is possible. I am ready to swap so Nadiya Savchenko can come home.”

The Kremlin has denied that a prisoner exchange has been discussed with Kiev.

A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman has said that any such discussions cannot take place before a verdict is delivered in Savchenko’s case.

Such swaps are an established tradition in Russia’s relations with the West.

In September, Russia exchanged an Estonian security official, Eston Kohver, a little more than one month after he was sentenced to 15 years in prison on espionage charges.

But it is unclear that a similar agreement could be reached in Savchenko’s case, given the severity of the charges against her and the tense relations between Moscow and Kiev.

Ukraine has also demanded that Russia hand over several other Ukrainian nationals recently convicted on terrorism charges, including Oleg Sentsov, a filmmaker sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Amnesty International said the case was “redolent of Stalinist-era show trials.”

Sentsov is still in prison in Russia.

Savchenko’s attorneys said Monday that their client plans to resume a hunger strike and refuse liquids as a form of protest.

Source: The Washington Post

For Ukraine, EU Sanctions On Russia Hang In The Balance

AUSTIN, USA -- As an EU vote on the future of sanctions on Russia approaches, Ukraine is busy lobbying the Continental bloc to maintain a hard line against Moscow.

On March 17, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met with several EU leaders and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Brussels.

During the meeting, the Ukrainian leader urged against easing sanctions.

Over the next few months, Ukraine will likely employ various tactics as it attempts to keep the European Union united against Russia when sanctions come up for review in July.

In doing so, however, Kiev will face a number of domestic and foreign policy challenges.

Russia's standoff with the West over Ukraine has led to significant changes in Kiev's geopolitical position.

Since the 2014 Euromaidan uprising, Ukraine has swung away from Russia and toward the West.

In the process, Ukraine has become embroiled in a war with Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country who oppose this reorientation.

Politically and economically, Western support for Ukraine has increased substantially.

At the same time, the United States and European Union imposed sanctions on Russia for its role in the Ukrainian crisis.

Now, more than two years after the conflict began, the EU consensus on sanctions may be in jeopardy.

While EU member states have voted unanimously to preserve the sanctions each previous time they have been reviewed, certain countries are indicating that they may choose to discontinue them at the next EU vote.

If they are not renewed before then, the sanctions will expire July 31.

Countries such as Italy and Hungary — both of which are traditionally moderate on, and have strong economic ties with, Russia — have suggested that an EU extension of sanctions is not guaranteed.

A Possible Change of Opinion 

This prospect is extremely unnerving for the Ukrainian government.

Kiev has relied on the European Union not only to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine but also to back Kiev in ongoing Minsk talks on the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

These negotiations have stalled over disagreements between Russia and Ukraine on implementation.

Kiev argues that security measures such as a full cease-fire and the restoration of its border must be in place before any other measures, while Moscow and Ukrainian separatist militants argue that Ukraine must first delegate greater political autonomy to the eastern regions.

Until now, the European Union has supported Ukraine's position, pressuring Russia to do more to fulfill the Minsk agreement.

But opinion within the bloc on this issue appears to be increasingly divided.

Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Minister Linas Linkevicius said on March 15 that, at a recent EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting, some EU nations had called for Ukraine to decentralize before the situation on the ground improves.

Linkevicius' announcement essentially echoes Russia's position.

Although it is not binding, this statement nevertheless indicates that more EU countries may be willing to consider easing the sanctions on Russia.

Still, a vote to mitigate EU sanctions on Russia is far from inevitable.

Germany is the most important voice in EU decisions, and Berlin is firm in its resolve that Russia must implement the Minsk accords before sanctions are lifted.

And the countries most likely to vote against renewing Russian sanctions — Italy, Hungary and Greece — have all followed Berlin when the time came to vote on sanctions, despite spouting Russia-friendly rhetoric beforehand.

Trouble at Home 

But Ukraine has other problems to contend with when it comes to maintaining a united front against Russia.

Domestically, Kiev has come under considerable strain.

Three coalition partners have left the government, and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk faces growing pressure to resign, despite narrowly winning a no-confidence vote in February.

Plans to overhaul the Cabinet and replace Yatsenyuk could be arranged before the end of March.

Most major political actors — including Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk — have an interest in avoiding unscheduled elections in the near term, so as not to lose financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

Nevertheless, Ukraine's political instability makes certain EU member states skeptical of Ukraine, especially those that are friendlier with Russia.

In fact, some EU nations have accused Ukraine of dragging its feet on economic and institutional reforms in spite of Poroshenko's recent promise that the country's political crisis would be resolved by the end of this month.

This could explain why reports emerged in Ukrainian media that Kiev is already planning for a scenario in which the EU eases sanctions on Russia.

This "Plan B" would have Kiev strip Donbass residents of their citizenship and hold a referendum on the political fate of certain areas in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

In contrast, the "Plan A" currently being pursued involves Ukraine implementing the Minsk agreement in exchange for continued sanctions against Russia.

The comparatively hawkish "Plan B" amounts to a pressure tactic; Poroshenko recently reiterated that Kiev has been keeping its end of the Minsk deal but needs to see more cooperation from Moscow to continue.

Ukraine still needs the West more than the West needs Ukraine, and the government is in no position to pressure the European Union.

For this reason, Kiev will continue to employ a range of tactics, including diplomatic measures and threats to intensify the conflict if sanctions on Russia are eased.

Regardless, the European Union's sanctions decision will rest on factors largely beyond Ukraine's control.

Source: Stratfor

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Russia-Ukraine Conflict: Two Years After Crimea Annexation, Region Is A ‘Black Hole’ For Human Rights

KIEV, Ukraine -- Anna Andriyevskaya cannot go home. If she does, she will be arrested for inciting separatism and face a jail term of five years.

Journalist Anna Andriyevskaya stands close to the Swallow’s Nest castle in Gaspra, Crimea. Andriyevskaya lived under the Russian occupation of the region for three months before moving to the Ukrainian capital Kiev.

Skype is her main connection to her homeland of Crimea, where her family and friends have remained two years after Russia’s annexation of the region previously tied to Ukraine.

They, too, face threats from the Russian government, she said.

“Repression is spreading for local residents,” Andriyevskaya said.

“The situation is very bad.”

In the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the residents there who oppose the Russian occupation face growing repression, with international human rights groups describing the peninsula as a “black hole.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s promised economic blossoming has not been realized, despite his government spending almost $3 billion annually to pay local salaries and pensions and to keep the economy of the former tourist destination afloat.

As Russia begins its third year of rule, Crimeans say Western sanctions are the only thing exerting some pressure on Moscow.

Meanwhile, renewal of the European Union’s sanctions in July hangs in the balance with Greece, Hungary and Italy, as well as officials in Germany, calling for them to be lifted.

“The best way to describe what is happening in Crimea now is quiet repression. It’s sort of this black hole that’s incredibly difficult to monitor. There is very limited information coming from Crimea now,” said Yulia Horbunova, a researcher at Human Rights Watch focused on Ukraine who has faced difficulty in gaining access to Crimea, requiring permission from both the Russian and Ukrainian governments to travel there.

With its sun-drenched beaches and warm climate on the shores of the Black Sea, Crimea was a popular vacation destination among both Russians and Ukrainians during and after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The peninsula’s 2 million residents were largely dependent on tourism, welcoming 6 million people annually.

After the Ukrainian Euromaidan revolution that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014, so-called little green men appeared in the territory of Crimea as pro-Russian demonstrations were launched.

At the time, Putin denied these masked men without any insignias were Russian soldiers.

But after the troops captured key government buildings, a referendum on the status of Crimea was conducted March 16, 2014.

In the internationally disputed election considered illegal in the West, residents were asked whether they wanted to join Russia.

The official results indicated 96.77 percent of residents wanted to become a part of Russia in the hope that the region would be economically revitalized following more than two decades of neglect by the Ukrainian government.

Two years after the annexation, Crimea has been integrated into the Russian Federation.

Automobile license plates and passports all have been changed from the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag to the blue, red and white of the Russian flag that now flies above government buildings.

And the annual number of tourists visiting the region has dropped by about 25 percent, to around 4.5 million.

A native of Crimea, Andriyevskaya, 30, worked as a journalist for 10 years investigating local corruption, a topic that did not endear her to officials.

She reported on the annexation and was added to a black list of journalists and activists who were not toeing the line of the new authorities.

Fearing for her safety, she moved to Kiev in May 2014, but the psychological pressure did not end.

Crimea’s new officials opened a criminal case against her, accusing her of inciting separatism.

Russian federal security service agents raided her parents’ home in March 2015, questioning them about her work and playing her parents recordings of their private phone conversations.

“I’ve lost the opportunity to go to Crimea and visit my parents,” Andriyevskaya said.

“If I travel to Crimea, I will be arrested and I could face five years in prison.”

Since the annexation, Crimean authorities have clamped down, banning gatherings in the city of Simferopol, closing media outlets and using the pretext of extremism or terrorism charges to arrest and intimidate people.

The extrajudicial killings and torture committed by armed paramilitary groups and security officials that took place during and after the annexation have never been investigated.

And the disappearances of seven people have never been probed, either.

Activists have built networks in the region, working secretly with people who continue to live in Crimea and attorneys in Russia who agree to take on the cases.

They declined to share their methods, to keep people safe.

They noted they have gone so far as to urge supporters in Crimea to be careful of the things they like and repost on social media because agents of the Russian Federal Security Service, aka FSB, could be watching.

“Crimea now has a serious and massive system of persecution: the FSB, the courts, the immigration services and others. The problem is if someone has pro-Ukrainian views, then they have no chance to defend themselves because the organs of power work under Putin’s position,” said Olga Skrypnyk, head of the Crimea Human Rights Group that works with locals to produce reports on the situation in Crimea.

“Russia fabricates criminal proceedings against many different people.”

The Crimean Tatar population, a Muslim minority community, is also increasingly under pressure.

In 1944, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin accused the Tatars of collaborating with the Nazis and ordered their mass deportation to Central Asia.

Those who survived and their families were not allowed to return to Crimea until the late 1980s.

The Tatar community of more than 200,000 was vocally opposed to the annexation and key Tatar leaders, Refat Chubarov and Mustafa Dzhemilev, have been banned from entering Crimea.

Tatar media outlets, such as the independent channel ATR, have been shut down.

Authorities are now attempting to clamp down on the group’s representative body, the Mejlis.

“The authorities are trying to ban the Mejlis, which for 25 years has been in existence and represents the Crimean Tatar people,” said Alim Aliev, co-founder of the group Crimea SOS, which has been assisting people seeking to relocate from Crimea.

“They are labeling it as an extremist organization. Crimea Tatars who have lived in the region have obviously been involved in the Mejlis [to which] you could link almost every single Tatar.”

While Crimean Tatars and pro-Ukrainians face a repressive atmosphere, increased pensions and salaries for people working in the public sector, such as the military, have made some residents of the region happy and supportive of Russia’s annexation, with images and posters of Putin widely displayed.

“How do you interest people? It’s by finances,” said Liubov Kalmakova, a Crimean native whose pro-Ukrainian views forced her to move to Lviv in western Ukraine right after the annexation.

“I’m an ethnic Russian. Putin allegedly came to save me, but it’s a lie.”

Seeing little action by the Ukrainian government, Crimean Tatar activists launched an economic blockade of the peninsula in September and were purportedly involved in cutting off power that plunged nearly all of Crimea into darkness in November.

The journalist Andriyevskaya said her parents, who live 40 miles outside Simferopol, still experience power outages, making Skype calls difficult to arrange.

Russian and Ukrainian troops stand within view of one another along Crimea’s de facto northern border.

Without a land link to mainland Russia, the Kremlin has undertaken the expensive task of building a $3 billion bridge to Crimea and is also constructing a $740 million energy bridge, with cables laid along the Kerch Strait.

Putin visited Crimea Friday to inspect the bridge, threatening that somebody should be “hanged” in the event the project is not completed by Dec. 18, 2018.

Plunging oil prices and Western sanctions imposed after the annexation hit the Russian economy hard.

Basic financial services, including Western credit cards such as MasterCard and Visa, do not work on the peninsula, and Russia has had to import goods to keep shops full.

Ukraine also cut off water supplies to the region.

Aliev of Crimea SOS said his group’s hotline is now receiving more and more phone calls from Crimeans who want to leave because they cannot find jobs.

In annexing Crimea, “Russia certainly underestimated the overall cost — the cost of sanctions, the cost of losing international contracts,” said Vladimir Dubrovskiy, a senior economist at the Center for Social and Economic Research, a Kiev-based think tank.

“These costs I think are much higher than the direct cost of subsidizing the region of Crimea.”

While the EU called for more countries to impose sanctions Friday, its own unity is fraying, with leaders in Greece, Hungary and Italy, as well as Germany, hoping the economic penalties can soon be lifted.

Hungary and Italy have argued sanctions should not automatically be renewed in July, and Germany’s Economic Affairs and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Thursday it was important for the EU to move to a position where sanctions could be lifted over the summer.

“You cannot decide on sanctions by sweeping the issues under the carpet,” Hungary’s Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Péter Szijjártó said.

“We believe that the question of sanctions should be decided at the highest level. It cannot be automatic.”

Activists are hoping European resolve will not melt away.

They said that in the long run the sanctions will keep hurting the Russian economy and give the West leverage against the Kremlin, potentially making the cost of building a bridge to Crimea too great. 

“For us, it’s key that sanctions from our Western partners stay in place because we see their effectiveness,” said Aliev, the Crimean Tatar activist.

“Sanctions aren’t something that have an effect immediately, but it’s the long perspective” that shows their worth.

The annexation has divided families, with some staying in Crimea to safeguard their property and others moving to Ukraine, unwilling to take Russian passports.

The Crimean native Kalmakova has settled into her new life in Lviv and said she likes the feel of the Old World European city, but that she would never be able to call it home.

“I would like to return to Crimea or just see that Crimeans are safe, that people’s rights aren’t being violated,” Kalmakova said, choking back tears.

“It’s a political game now.”

Source: IBT

How Ukraine's Politicians Are Spoiling Another Revolution

KIEV, Ukraine -- The pattern, by now, is all too familiar to Ukrainians. There’s a revolution. The people celebrate. Then a new batch of politicians takes power and spoils it all.

Parliament speaker Volodymyr Groisman, a political protégé of Petro Poroshenko, has been mentioned as a possible replacement for the current prime minister.

The second anniversary of Ukraine’s latest revolution passed last month in a familiar atmosphere of political crisis.

President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk – two leaders of the 2014 ouster of a pro-Russian government headed by Viktor Yanukovych – are at loggerheads, with Mr. Yatsenyuk fighting to hold onto his job and Mr. Poroshenko determined to replace him.

To Ukrainians who remember the Orange Revolution of 2004, it feels like a rerun.

That revolt unravelled when its leaders, president Viktor Yushchenko and prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, wasted their political capital fighting each other rather than reforming the country.

That led to the rise of Yanukovych and a new era of Kiev’s subordination to Moscow.

Also still remembered is how popular protests in Kiev helped to bring about the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, only to see corrupt oligarchs take the place of the commissars.

The 2014 revolution was supposed to be different.

This time, people died fighting to change their country.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea – and its support for separatists in the southeast of the country – made it clearer than ever how high the stakes were.

But the parliamentary coalition headed by the Petro Poroshenko Bloc and Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front has collapsed, with three smaller parties leaving the alliance last month after a failed attempt to oust Mr. Yatsenyuk.

Meanwhile, the reforms they were elected to introduce remain largely unattended to.

The hated oligarchs still retain wide influence over business and politics in the country.

The economy continues to stumble.

A low-level war against Russian-backed separatists persists in the southeastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

And ordinary Ukrainians are left wondering just what it will take to set this country on a new and different course.

New parliamentary elections are one way out of the current standoff, but with populist forces on the rise, neither Mr. Yatsenyuk, whose popularity ratings have fallen to the single digits, nor Mr. Poroshenko wants those right now, since they would probably result in an even more adversarial parliament.

And so the two men are left arguing over whether Mr. Yatsenyuk needs to stand down, and if so, who should replace him.

This week began with rumours that Mr. Poroshenko, who controls the largest bloc in Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, was ready to back a new government of technocrats, with Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko moving into the prime minister’s post.

But while Ms. Jaresko – a U.S.-born economist who successfully lobbied Ukraine’s 2015 bailout by the International Monetary Fund – would be a popular pick with many Western governments, she appears to lack support in the Rada and among ordinary Ukrainians, who know her best for raising energy tariffs, a condition of the IMF bailout, in the middle of winter.

By midweek, Mr. Poroshenko was floating the names of other potential candidates – including popular Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi, who quickly rejected the idea, and Volodymyr Groysman, a political protégé of Mr. Poroshenko’s – while Mr. Yatsenyuk was digging in for a fight, penning a sharply worded editorial in the English-language Kyiv Post that accused his political rivals of “backstabbing” and waging a “primitive race for power and seats.”

Mr. Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front party controls the second-largest bloc of seats in the Rada, and Mr. Yatsenyuk has reportedly agreed to step aside only if he gets to name his successor and approve the new government’s agenda.

“The chances they will find a solution to this crisis are not that big,” said Taras Berezovets, a Kiev-based political consultant.

“It’s not that Yatsenyuk is not a good manager. The problem is that this is a coalition government with too many partners, too many oligarchs. This is a crisis of a lack of integrity, a lack of trust between ministers from different political parties. They do not work as a team.”

Mr. Berezovets said a snap election would be a “nightmare” for the country, since it would see left- and right-wing populists gain seats at the expense of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc and the People’s Front.

A poll released on Wednesday by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology showed that Ms. Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party – which was decimated in the 2014 election – is now the most popular party in the country, with 20.5 per cent support.

Second was the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc, with 12.1 per cent, followed by the leftist Radical Party, at 11.6 per cent.

The Petro Poroshenko Bloc stood fifth, with 10.9 per cent, while the People’s Front was almost a non-factor, with just 2.5 per cent support.

Dan Bilak, a Ukrainian-Canadian lawyer who has advised several Ukrainian governments, said the political crisis is proof that Ukraine’s revolution is ongoing.

“We’re in a transition. Everyone expected that we would get rid of Yanukovych and poof, happy days are here. But it doesn’t work that way,” he said.

“All of this is actually very good. It’s messy, it’s ugly, but there’s no easy way to kill an animal that needs to die. What we’re witnessing is the death throes of the post-Soviet command administration system of government.”

Source: The Globe and Mail

Ukraine Rebel Not Optimistic About Peace Time Frame

MOSCOW, Russia -- A rebel representative at peace talks for eastern Ukraine said on Friday a truce deal between the Ukrainian government and separatists could take years to be implemented.

An elderly woman pulls a barrow with humanitarian aid distribution by an EU humanitarian program in Semonovka, Eastern Ukraine, on Thursday.

Fighting has subsided in eastern Ukraine since the deal was signed in Minsk, Belarus, in February last year.

It provided for a cease-fire as well as a political transition in Ukraine's industrial heartland, where fighting has killed over 9,200 people.

Denis Pushilin, who represents the rebels in Minsk, was quoted by the rebel mouthpiece Donetsk News Agency on Friday as saying that the way the truce is being implemented right now, it could take 10 to 15 years to comply with all of its statures.

The step-by-step Minsk plan was linked to the withdrawal of heavy weaponry and was not supposed to drag on for years.

The cease-fire is constantly violated by both sides and crucial elements of the political settlement, such as holding local elections in rebel-occupied territories and ensuring the rebels hand over the control of parts of the border with Russia to Ukraine, have not been implemented.

Meanwhile, both sides on Friday traded accusations of cease-fire violations Thursday night.

Andriy Lysenko, presidential spokesman for Ukrainian forces in the east, said one Ukrainian has been killed by an unspecified explosive device and three troops have been injured in fighting in the past 24 hours.

Source: AP

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Ex-Professor Upsets Ukraine Politics, And Russia Peace Accord

KIEV, Ukraine -- When she moved into her office as deputy speaker of Parliament a little over a year ago, Oksana I. Syroyid hung a large oil painting called “The Edge of the Sky Is Glowing.” It shows a man turning his back on the viewer while flames burn on the horizon.

“Men by definition are treated as the appropriate specialists, but a woman has to prove herself as a super-specialist, just to be treated as a normal specialist.” Oksana I. Syroyid

“This,” she said, “is every oligarch and every Russian agent who is still in Ukraine.”

With her own fast burn of ambition, ferocity and style, Ms. Syroyid of the center-right Self-Reliance party, a former law professor, has shot to the top of Ukrainian politics.

A political insurgent, she has made a signature issue of derailing a peace agreement with Russia and, in the process, may have eclipsed the former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, as the most powerful female politician in Ukraine.

A 39-year-old native of the Lviv region in the country’s nationalist west, Ms. Syroyid talks boldly about Ukraine acting in its own interests, not those of outside powers.

“We need to stop thinking of how to counter Putin, or how to please all our partners,” she said in a recent interview.

The question many here ask is whether Ms. Syroyid, a relative newcomer, can somehow master the byzantine structure of Ukrainian politics and emerge as the one to lead the country out of the morass of corruption and government dysfunction that threatens its future.

Or, is she just another in a line of ambitious upstarts causing Western governments their latest headache in Ukraine and, possibly, taking the country down with her?

One thing is certain: She is not afraid to take a stand.

To the dismay of Western diplomats, Ms. Syroyid (pronounced “Seer-o-Eed”) has blocked Parliament from passing a constitutional amendment granting virtual autonomy to the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine — a central element of the Minsk II peace accord that ended the hot war in Ukraine a year ago.

Last month, she pulled the Self-Reliance party out of the ruling coalition, inviting new parliamentary elections despite strong feelings in Brussels and Washington that Ukraine is too unstable to go through another round of voting.

“We have to be ourselves,” she said in a recent interview.

“And only if we are good at that will we have partners and friends.”

A bookish, bespectacled expert on the Ukrainian Constitution, Ms. Syroyid put away her professorial turtlenecks when she entered politics and now dresses to the nines, saying she is taking a cue from Ms. Tymoshenko, the braided, crusading pioneer of female politicians in this patriarchal country.

“She definitely is the brightest person in Ukrainian politics, and not only among women,” said Ms. Syroyid, who earned a law degree in Canada.

“She is very stylish, and has a very feminine look. At the same time she is known for her tough decisions.”

None have been tougher than Parliament’s de facto rejection of Minsk II, which takes its name from the capital of Belarus where President Petro O. Poroshenko and Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, signed it, with French and German mediation.

Ms. Syroyid, who entered Parliament in 2014, has emerged as the face of this rejection, unabashedly rallying her fellow members of Parliament to stand fast against Western pressure.

While politicians in Russia and Ukraine have taken turns blaming one another for stalling the implementation of Minsk II, Ms. Syroyid has proudly taken credit.

After visiting Ms. Syroyid last month, and again hearing she would not budge, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said this week that the credibility of the Minsk process was threatened.

“Both sides need to perform,” he said.

Under paragraph 11 of the accord, Ukraine was supposed to adopt the constitutional amendment by the end of last year, but did not, as Ms. Syroyid worked tirelessly to dissuade her colleagues from voting for it.

The change, Ms. Syroyid said, would allow the Kremlin to regain a foothold in Ukrainian politics by requiring the central government to recognize, and integrate, the Russian-backed leadership in the east.

It would, for example, allow the rebel leadership, with a track record of holding sham elections, to fill 14 vacant parliamentary seats in Kiev.

Until Russian soldiers leave the Donbass region, she says, Ukraine should refuse any integration and call it an occupied territory.

“Russia wants to destabilize Ukraine,” she said.

“This paragraph 11 of the Minsk agreement is an instrument just like the war. This is not for the sake of resolution of the conflict; it is for the sake of destabilizing Ukraine.”

Passage of the amendment requires a supermajority of 300 of Parliament’s 450 members, an all-but-impossible vote now that Ms. Syroyid has unified the country’s nationalist parties against the measure.

To her critics, the obstinacy of Ms. Syroyid and her like-minded supporters in Parliament is mind-bogglingly irresponsible, the tantrum at the children’s table after the adults of European statesmanship had prepared a healthy settlement.

“This position stems from pure populism,” Oleh Voloshyn, a consultant for the Opposition Bloc political party, said of her tactics.

He said Ukraine had to face the reality that it was in the weakest possible position, having lost the war to Russia and surviving on a financial lifeline from the International Monetary Fund.

“There are two options: You win the war, or you lose the war. And when you lose the war, you have to negotiate. That is the problem. You don’t have any other alternative.”

Supporters say Ms. Syroyid has the backing of Ukrainian voters, whose anger at Putin is often evident.

Any rejection of his demands is likely to win the voters’ favor.

Besides, they say, Putin needs a peace agreement now more than ever, to get the West to lift economic sanctions that are hurting his energy-dependent economy.

“It‘s a difficult process not because of Syroyid per se, but because the Ukrainian public doesn’t accept it,” said Tymofiy S. Mylovanov, the president of the Kiev School of Economics.

“The price is too high.” 

Mr. Poroshenko agreed to the terms as Russian Army units and Russian-backed rebels were closing in on a Ukrainian force of about 5,000 soldiers cut off from resupply in Debaltseve, a town in eastern Ukraine.

In the talks mediated by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President François Hollande of France, the soldiers’ lives were weighed against the cost of longer-term political concessions, some of which required passage in Parliament.

But Ms. Syroyid said that the Russians never observed the cease-fire in Debaltseve, and that Ukrainian soldiers were forced to flee under fire three days after it was to have taken effect.

The government has said 179 soldiers died in the battle, 81 went missing and 110 were captured, and Ms. Syroyid says Ukraine is on the moral high ground today in stalling on the political demands.

Ms. Syroyid advocates abandoning the Minsk deal and declaring rebel zones occupied territory, for Russia to finance and feed, without a chance for integration until the Russian Army leaves.

“This is not a victory; it is just common sense,” she said.

It was not easy, she said, finding a voice as a woman in Europe’s gravest military crisis in a decade.

The ambassadors of the United States, Germany and France all pleaded for her to carry out the accord, lest war begin again.

“Men by definition are treated as the appropriate specialists, but a woman has to prove herself as a super-specialist, just to be treated as a normal specialist,” she said.

“But I knew all that before I came to Parliament.”

Source: The New York Times

Ukraine Wants Sanctions For 46 People In Savchenko Case; Russia Denies Existence Of List

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine is pressing for the European Union to impose sanctions on nearly 50 people it considers responsible for the "illegal detention and falsified trial" of Nadia Savchenko, a former Ukrainian military pilot and politician who is accused of killing two journalists in Russia.

Ukraine is pressing for the European Union to impose sanctions on nearly 50 people it considers responsible for the "illegal detention and falsified trial" of Nadia Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot accused in the killing of two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine. She is awaiting the outcome of her trial.

The list of 46 people, given by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to the heads of the European Council and the European Commission in Brussels, includes 44 Russians and two Ukrainians.

Officials said those on the list are "directly involved in the illegal process against the Ukrainian officer and pilot Nadia Savchenko, who is illegally kept in a Russian prison."

Poroshenko urged EU leaders to act quickly against people who have played a role in Savchenko's case.

Included on the list are Russian Investigative Committee Chief Aleksandr Bastrykin, Federal Security Service Director Aleksandr Bortnikov and Deputy Prosecutor-General Viktor Grin.

Poroshenko said sanctions would be an "effective reaction against the brutal violation of international law and human rights."

On March 9, members of the European Parliament sent a similar list to EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherin with recommending Russian President Vladimir Putin and 28 other officials be given sanctions.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday the Kremlin does not acknowledge any list of names and would not comment on it.

"There is no 'Savchenko List,' let us proceed from that, thus there is nothing to say on this subject. There are no grounds for comments yet," Peskov said.

Savchenko, 34, is a lieutenant in the Ukrainian army and an Iraq war veteran.

She was the first woman to graduate from Ukraine's prestigious military aviation school in Kharkiv.

She was fighting with the infantry in a volunteer militia when she was captured by pro-Russian forces on June 17.

Weeks later, she was in a Russian jail.

She is accused of killing Anton Voloshin and Igor Kornelyuk, journalists for Russia's state-owned VGTRK.

They were killed in a mortar attack while reporting from the same battle where Savchenko was captured.

Russian officials said she deliberately focused attacked on Voloshin and Kornelyuk.

She has denied the claims and went on a hunger strike in protest of her detainment.

The court is expected to read her verdict on March 21 or 22.

Prosecutors asked for a sentence of 23 years in prison.

Source: UPI

Russian Fighters Continue To Flow Into East Ukraine, US Official States

VIENNA, Austria -- Large numbers of personnel continue to flow into east Ukraine from Russia, according to the Chargé d'Affaires of the United States' mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Pro-Russian separatist fighters in east Ukraine, one of whom is wearing a traditional Cossack-style Kubanka hat. Large numbers of men wearing similar attire have recently crossed into Ukraine from Russia. According to the US representative to the OSCE they are unlikely to be in east Ukraine for the mushroom picking.

In an address to the OSCE in Vienna on 17 March, the wording of which was obtained by IHS Jane's , Kate Byrnes noted that over 2,200 individuals in military-style uniforms had been seen crossing into east Ukraine in the first three months of the year.

These figures relate to just two de facto separatist controlled border checkpoints (BCPs) at Hukovo and Donetsk, where the OSCE has a special observer mission (OM) active.

Byrnes pointedly remarked that "these continued border crossings by young men wearing camouflage cannot be explained away by bizarre claims like they are just following fashion trends or going mushroom picking".

Byrnes was making her remarks in response to a briefing by the leader of the OSCE OM in Ukraine, Swiss Lieutenant Colonel Simon Eugster.

From the approval of the mission in July 2015 to the end of 2015, 4,758 individuals in military-style dress, many wearing traditional Cossack 'Kubanka' hats, were seen crossing into east Ukraine.

Byrnes also criticised Russia for failing to respond meaningfully to technical proposals to enable the OM to operate more effectively.

These include lifting restrictions on the movements of OSCE observers, or to enable them to use basic sighting equipment like binoculars.

She also noted that Russia had also not created the 'security zone' along its border that was envisaged by the Minsk II protocol, nor has it allowed permanent monitoring of the border or other BCPs by the OSCE.

The US Chargé d'Affaires further unveiled that the OM continues to register convoys of Russian vehicles crossing into Ukraine through those two BCPs.

OSCE observers have only been able to see these convoys from a distance.

Source: IHS Jane's Defence Weekly

Friday, March 18, 2016

Britain Signs New Defence Pact To Help Ukraine In Russia Confrontation

LONDON, England -- Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, says new 15-year defence agreement will see Britain help Ukraine defend itself.

Michael Fallon with Ukrainian troops last year at a military base outside Zhytomyr.

Britain is to sign a new defence pact with Ukraine pledging to help the country with more military training and intelligence amid its confrontation with Russia.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, said the new agreement was a signal Britain would “stand firm” with the beleaguered eastern European nation.

The 15-year-long agreement will see British troops take part in more joint exercises and carry out more training with Ukrainian forces who have been battling Russian-backed separatists for two years. 

The countries will also cooperate on sharing military intelligence and expertise.

Mr Fallon said: “The UK will stand firm with Ukraine as they defend their territorial integrity. This new defence agreement sets out that commitment as we enhance our training of Ukrainian armed forces.”

The new agreement revives an earlier pact that lapsed in 2006 because of the anti-EU stance of the then pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, officials said. The overthrow of Yanukovych in 2014 was the trigger for Russia to annex Crimea and for pro-Russian separatists to rise up and seize large swathes of the Donbass region including Donetsk and Luhansk.

Moscow has denied NATO accusations that it has sent large numbers of undercover troops and sophisticated equipment to support the separatists.

A year-old ceasefire has failed to stop fighting in the region and over 9,200 soldiers and civilians have been killed since the conflict began in April 2014.

Small teams of British troops have already carried out training missions in the country, trying to teach life-saving battlefield medicine and basic infantry tactics.

However the Kiev government has repeatedly called for more help.

Source: The Telegraph