Tuesday, June 28, 2016

US, NATO Thumb Noses At Russia With Massive War Games In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Nearly 2,000 troops from the United States and allies launched a massive military exercise in Ukraine Monday, the latest in a series of war games that NATO officials say would simulate counterattacks against "Russian aggression."

"Today’s presence here of such a powerful cohort of our partners and comrades in arms demonstrates the broad international support for the struggle of the Ukrainian nation for sovereignty and territorial integrity as a democratic European state,” Ukrainian Col. Eduard Moskalyov said.

The exercise, known as Rapid Trident 16, is set to last two weeks in western Ukraine.

It includes troops from Ukraine and 12 other nations, members of NATO or its Parnership for Peace program: Bulgaria, Canada, Georgia, Great Britain, Moldova, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Turkey and the United States.

U.S. officials say it includes situational and field training drills.

Russia, which took over the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, ramped up the pressure earlier this month after NATO defense ministers agreed to station additional forces in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland -- all near Russian borders.

"Those measures significantly erode the quality of regional security, in fact turning central and eastern Europe into an arena of military confrontation," Russia's ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko said, adding that NATO's decision "directly infringes on our legitimate security interests" and "won't be left unanswered."

The NATO allies also discussed establishing a Romanian-led multinational "framework brigade" of ground troops to help defend the Black Sea area. 

Grushko also criticized NATO's pledge to offer non-lethal assistance to Ukraine, saying it could encourage its reluctance to abide by the Minsk peace agreement.

The deal has helped reduce hostilities in eastern Ukraine, but fighting has continued and a political settlement has stalled.

More than 9,400 people have been killed in fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, which erupted in April 2014 weeks after Moscow's invasion of Crimea. 

Source: FOX News

Monday, June 27, 2016

Ongoing War In Ukraine Turns 1.7 Million People Into Refugees

KIEV, Ukraine -- Most 16-year-olds spend their summers working behind a counter, hanging out with their friends and maybe sneaking out to a party or two. Maria Semenenko got to spend hers fleeing her hometown.​

Maria Semenenko, an internally displaced Ukrainian refugee from Donetsk, attends the World Refugee Day celebrations in Kiev on June 20.  'Internally displaced persons' struggle to find new homes and jobs in their own country.

Semenenko, now 18, is from Donetsk, the still-burning hot spot of the war between Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels.

The conflict has claimed over 9,400 lives since 2014, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Despite the fact that there's a nominal ceasefire in place, military and civilian casualties continue to mount in eastern Ukraine, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says.

International monitors such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe continue to observe one ceasefire violation after another, and continue to be denied access by Russian-backed rebels to a number of parts of the territory they control, including the border with Russia.

The war, along with Russia's annexation of Crimea, has forced more than 1.7 million people like Semenenko from their homes to other parts of Ukraine.

Many have gone to fairly close cities in the east like Kharkiv and Zaporizhia.

Smaller numbers have gone to cities like Lviv in western Ukraine, more than 1,100 kilometres away, while others have gone to smaller cities and towns all over the country where they have friends and family.

But many, like Semenenko and her family, left everything behind and settled in Kiev, Ukraine's capital and largest city of almost three million.

It wasn't easy at first.

"I like singing," she says at Kiev's World Refugee Day celebration on June 20.

She used to sing and play a bit of guitar with her friends back home in Donetsk.

"But when I got to Kiev, I didn't know what to do," she says.

"I didn't know a lot of people here."

But last winter Semenenko found out about a talent show an NGO was putting on for young internally displaced persons (IDPs) like her.

She applied, auditioned and was accepted.

It gave her a chance to not only belt out a few tunes, but also to make friends in a crowded new city. 

"I've had some good luck," she says.

But she knows not everyone is as lucky.

Few jobs for refugees Semenenko's parents have found work in Ukraine's competitive capital city.

But according to a recent survey by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) mission in Ukraine, fewer than half of such families in Ukraine even have regular income from employment. 

Even those who do can't manage to pull in very much.

According to the IOM's survey, 59 per cent of internal refugees made less than CA$68 per family member per month.

"The general level of well-being of most IDPs is quite low," says Manfred Profazi, IOM Ukraine's chief of mission.

Some assistance is available from the Ukrainian government: CA$20 a month if a refugee is able to work and CA$46 if not.

But refugee activists worry that new Ukrainian government rules and "monitoring commissions" will take these benefits away from the most vulnerable refugees like the elderly and disabled.

"For people who live in poverty, on the very brink of survival, these small subsidies mean a lot," activist Andriy Timoshenko told the Kiev Post last week.

"They don't have anywhere to live or anything to live on."

From Syria to Ukraine Assad Hawlkat might have a place to live, but it's not where he wants to be.

A Kurd from Kobani in northern Syria, Hawlkat left home several years ago to study at a university in Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

He earned an undergraduate degree, got married and was working towards a graduate degree when Russian-backed rebels seized Luhansk.

"In 2015 they started saying they might have to send all the international students out because of the situation there," he says.

He ended up going back home to Kobani, itself recently liberated after a long siege by ISIS.

Hawlkat, a fervent painter, didn't last long back home.

Extremists threatened him after a small exhibition of his paintings earned their ire and soon after he came back to Ukraine to pursue his graduate studies in Kiev.

Nothing to go back to 

After his parents told him there was nothing to come back to in Kobani, Hawlkat applied for refugee status in Ukraine.

He is still waiting.

But he can't go back to Luhansk, where he'd rather be. His wife is there but can't leave because she's looking after her ill mother and grandmother.

As a refugee claimant, he isn't allowed to get through the front lines to visit.

"I have all the photos to prove my story but they say no," he says, frustrated.

But for Hawlkat, art is his outlet.

He displayed some of his paintings at the World Refugee Day celebration.

His paintings are visual odes to what he's lost and what he hopes to get back.

Some of his pieces are based on photographs, including of his own war-torn hometown in Syria. 

Others are abstract pieces, from multicoloured swirls of oil to flowery yet fiery electrocardiograms that express emotions he can't put into words.

"As an artist, I'm burning from the inside for my paintings," he says.

"I can't live without them."

As Maria Semenenko shelters herself from the afternoon sun, she is asked what she would say to Canadians about herself and her life.

She pauses, seeking the right words in English.

"Value peace, all that you have," she says.

"Because just one time, you can lose it all."

Source: CBC News

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Ukraine Detains Two IS Militants From Tajikistan

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine said on Saturday that it had detained two alleged Islamic State militants from Tajikistan and planned to foment a ‘revolution’ in their homeland.

The Ukrainian state border service said that the two Tajik nationals were stopped after they arrived from Istanbul on Friday in the eastern city of Kharkiv and that both men were on an Interpol wanted list.

"The border guards searched them and found video tutorials in Arabic language with instruction for the manufacture of explosive devices," the border service said in a statement.

It added that the border guards also discovered flash disks ‘containing pictures of militants holding weapons and speaking extremist literature.’

According to border guards, the detained pair told them ‘they had planned a religious revolution in Tajikistan.’

The SBU national security service said that both the men ‘were trained in IS camps and afterwards fought in Syria’ and could be handed over to Tajikistan.

The authorities of Central Asian Tajikistan say some 1,000 citizens have abandoned their homeland to join the Islamic State militant group.

Officials in crisis-hit Ukraine have reported the detention or expulsion of more than 30 alleged IS supporters from the country since March.

Tajikistan has faced international criticism for its crackdown on religious groups and political opposition in the country, as President Emomali Rakhmon seeks to bolster his two-decade rule. 

Source: Daily Times

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Back In The USSR? Ukraine Rebels Aim To ‘Bring Up Patriots’

DONETSK, Ukraine -- In camouflage uniforms and red caps, a group of young people gather in the Ukrainian rebels’ de facto capital of Donetsk to sing patriotic songs and discuss the conflict.

They are members of Patriot, a youth club set up by separatist authorities in the self-proclaimed republic who are increasingly glorifying the Soviet past.

The rebels — who view the government in Kiev as right-wing nationalist “fascists” — hope to instill loyalty in the young people as they liken their battle to the Red Army’s World War II fight against the Nazis.

They have drawn inspiration straight from the Soviet era “Pioneer” movement, a kind of Communist Scouts that most children would join at age 10.

Around the campfire, the Pioneers in their distinctive red kerchiefs and caps were taught to revere Lenin, just as the Patriots, with their red caps, sing the pro-Moscow rebels’ praises.

“No one will bring us to our knees, Donetsk guys are made of steel,” spits out 23-year-old Alexander in a “patriotic rap” song he wrote and performed for the group.

They meet monthly at Donetsk’s World War II museum, which is decked out with Soviet flags and military banners, as portraits of Stalin have started cropping up in the city centre.

Only 55 school children and college students have joined the movement since it started just over a year ago, but the organisation has big plans.

“Our goal is to bring up patriots, to develop the new Donetsk People’s Republic as a state,” said its chief Lyudmila Mikhaleva.

Yelizaveta Kozlovskaya, 18, enrolled after her parents dissuaded her from volunteering to fight Ukrainian forces.

But “if someone attacks my family with machine guns, then I will fight back. I will defend my home,” says the round-faced college student.

More than 9,400 civilians and fighters from both sides have perished since the revolt broke out in April 2014.

About 1.8 million people, including 230,000 minors, have also fled the tension in the rebel-held east, according to UN figures.

Kozlovskaya’s own parents and brother moved to Russia, which is accused by Kiev and the West of buttressing the rebels and sending regular troops across the border — claims that Moscow denies.

But Kozlovskaya insisted on staying behind with her grandmother.

“The young people are leaving Donetsk. They say this isn’t their war and they don’t want to die. But it’s my city, why shouldn’t I defend it?” she says.

Membership is on a voluntary basis and the Patriots offer no weapons training, unlike some other youth groups cropping up that do carry out military drills.

Senior rebel officials and fighters often join the meetings, encouraging Patriots to learn about relatives and “heroes” who fell both in World War II and the current conflict.

The rise of such groups has paralleled the war-torn east’s growing nostalgia for Soviet days, and at least a dozen are now operating in the rebel-held area.

The mood was clear at a May 9 parade in Donetsk to celebrate the Allied win over the Nazis in 1945, when many children wore red caps and kerchiefs like the Soviet Pioneers.

Kiev’s pro-Western authorities have deplored the trend, with Ukraine’s deputy minister of information policy Tetyana Popova calling it a blatant “violation of children’s rights”.

“We are against any initiative in which children are taught to hate or even kill,” she told AFP.

One group tried to call itself the Zakharovists for rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko, just as the Soviet Pioneers were called “Leninists.”

Its members would be “successors to the glorious deeds of the Pioneer movement in the Soviet Union”, said separatist negotiator Denis Pushilin.

The organisers even created a red, five-pointed star badge with Zakharchenko’s portrait, mimicking the Pioneers’ red, five-pointed star badge bearing the face of Lenin.

But Zakharchenko scotched the idea, saying “it’s out of the question for a movement to be named after me,” even if he praised the principle of the group.

His veto disappointed Ivan Fedko, 15, whose grandfather was a member of the old Pioneers. “Zakharchenko is my idol,” he said.

"So I would join such an organisation and I would wear such a badge.”

Not all agree, including Fedko’s school friend, 18-year-old Nikita Tishchenko.

“I wouldn’t join the Zakharovists because I think it’s a return to the Soviet Union,” he said.

“And I don’t want to go back there because it was the last century. There was a different political system then — it was totalitarianism.”

Source: AFP

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

NATO Says Ukraine Ceasefire Barely Holding, Scolds Russia

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Russia is violating an internationally-agreed ceasefire in Ukraine "again and again", NATO's chief said on Wednesday, accusing Moscow of continuing to arm separatists in the conflict at the center of East-West tensions.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg briefs the media during a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, June 14, 2016.

Some European governments are eager to lift the economic sanctions that the West has levied on Russia over its role in the Ukraine crisis.

But the assertions by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg of continued fighting and Russian support would make it difficult to ease any penalties under the terms of the Minsk peace deal.

"The ceasefire is violated again and again, and this is of great concern," Stoltenberg told a news conference following a meeting about Ukraine with NATO defense ministers.

"Russia supports the separatists ... with equipment, with weapons. They also mass troops along the Ukrainian border," he said.

There was no immediate reaction from the Kremlin, which has denied any direct support for the rebels.

Moscow returned to Kiev jailed Ukrainian military pilot Nadezhda Savchenko last month, in a prisoner exchange welcomed by Western politicians.

Europe and the United States have linked any softening of the economic sanctions on implementation of the peace deal signed in Minsk in February 2015, which calls for a full ceasefire in the rebel-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.

EU leaders must decide at a June 28-29 summit whether to extend sanctions on Russia's financial, defense and energy sectors over what the West says is Moscow's support for separatists in the conflict that has killed more than 9,400 people since April 2014.

OSCE international observers recorded more than 200 explosions on Sunday and Monday in eastern Ukraine, as well as shelling, heavy-machine-gun fire and grenade attacks that destroyed buildings and left craters in the ground.

Asked about the report, Stoltenberg said: "We see many ceasefire violations over a long period of time. There are also many casualties. Ukrainian soldiers have lost their lives."

Ukraine's defense minister, who joined NATO defense ministers for their meeting in Brussels, said civilians were being shelled in the city of Donetsk and that Russian-backed rebels were increasingly using heavy weapons.

"We have evidence that separatists are firing at Donetsk," Stepan Poltorak told a separate news conference.

"How can we talk about a ceasefire when it is violated 50 or 60 times a day, when we have soldiers wounded every day?

Violations are made by heavy artillery, which is banned by Minsk," he said.

Source: Google News

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

'Ukraine Is On France's Priority List'- French Ambassador In Kiev

KIEV, Ukraine -- Isabelle Dumont claims Paris is dedicated to improving relations with Ukraine.

Isabelle Dumont, the French Ambassador to Ukraine.

Isabelle Dumont, the French Ambassador to Ukraine, insists contrary to the generally-held view, the current situation in Ukraine and support for Kiev are among the highest commitments of the French officials. 

During the presentation of the Institute of World Policy's research dedicated to Ukraine-France relations Ms. Dumont said:

"The study says that Ukrainian question is among 10 top priorities for France. I disagree with that because Ukraine is among the 5 key issues," Dumont underlined.

The French Ambassador also highlighted that France has been a strong supporter of Ukraine for many years.

She also stressed that this fact quite often remains unnoticed in Ukraine.

"The role of France is somehow forgotten, especially when speaking about the Association Agreement," Dumont said.

In 2008, in terms of the E.U.-Ukraine Summit in Paris, the French presidency suggested to call the Ukraine's agreement with the E.U. as the Association Agreement.

"I'm also not sure whether the Ukrainian society knows that France was the 2nd largest contributor to the construction of the new safe confinement [in Chernobyl], and that the French company was engaged in the construction. These are only the events of the recent years," the Ambassador added. 

Source: uatoday

Ukraine's Parliament Fully Behind Joining NATO: Speaker

KIEV, Ukraine -- The speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, Andriy Parubiy, has declared that joining NATO is a strategic goal for the country and that parliament is wholeheartedly behind the initiative.

Newly-appointed Ukrainian Parliament speaker Andriy Parubiy stands by his chair, Kiev, Ukraine, April 14.

Ukraine largely maintained a non-alliance policy in the years following its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union.

However, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Kiev has pushed for deepening ties with the West.

A new government formed during the recent crisis declared NATO membership a goal for the first time since Kiev affirmed its non-aligned status in 2010.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a decree in February, opening the first official NATO representative office in Ukraine.

Only seven parliamentarians had voted against that initiative.

While NATO membership requires Ukraine to complete the reform programme its defense forces are currently undertaking, the fact that it does not have full control over its territory, with Russia in control of Crimea and pro-Russian troops holding parts of east Ukraine, may complicate membership.

“I am convinced that for Ukraine, at the time of Russian aggression, NATO membership is the strategic direction of our development,” Parubiy told parliamentarians at a meeting with NATO officials.

“There is no alternative to this direction,” he said, according to news site Ukrainskaya Pravda.

NATO first signalled it was prepared to eventually welcome Ukraine in the alliance in 2008 at a summit in Bucharest, although Ukraine would then elect a pro-Russian government that put this process on hold.

“I highlight today that for us the decision at the Bucharest summit on the advancement of Ukraine into NATO remains in power and all of us, the whole of parliament, is convinced that Ukraine will be a NATO member,” Parubiy said.

“This is a matter of time, but for Ukraine this is a fundamental matter not only in the military dimension, but also in the strategic and geopolitical dimension.” Parubiy said that without international pressure on Russia, Ukraine would not be able to regain lost territories, news agency Unian reported.

“Within the framework of the political dialogue between Ukraine and NATO, we have to focus on a strategy to restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” he said.

“Our main goal is clear. It is to restore peace to our country and oust the occupants.”

He called for NATO to maintain high military readiness and pressure on Russia, in support of Ukraine and as a precaution from keeping Russian forces away from allies in Eastern Europe.

“Putin understands only the language of force,” Parubiy said.

“He will only stop there where we stop him ourselves.”

Poroshenko has estimated that the majority of Ukrainians now support integrating into NATO when this figure was only 16 percent, around three years ago.

He has also vowed to hold a referendum on the question once the reform package his government has promised to implement is complete.

European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker recently said that Ukraine would not join the EU or NATO in the next quarter of a century.

Source: Newsweek

Monday, June 13, 2016

Ukraine Shields Gay Rights Parade From Repeat Of Violence

KIEV, Ukraine -- Gay rights groups in Ukraine celebrated a milestone on Sunday — holding a parade without being chased or attacked by right-wing opponents.

Gay rights activists marched through Kiev, Ukraine, on Sunday, guarded by police and security forces. Though threats had been made beforehand, no violence was reported at the event.

But the march, in Kiev, was guarded by police and security forces who sealed off much of the city center and warned participants not to linger afterward.

About 2,000 people turned out for the parade, called KievPride.

No violence was reported at the event, but a participant was beaten in the downtown area an hour or so afterward, organizers and the police said.

The outcome was a striking contrast to last year, when members of far-right organizations attacked the 300 or so marchers, injuring dozens.

Similar violence appeared likely to unfold on Sunday after right-wing paramilitaries, emboldened by their popularity for fighting in the war against Russian-backed separatists in the east, vowed to shut down the march.

“In short, it will be a bloody mess on June 12 in Kiev,” Artem Skoropadsky, the spokesman for one group, the Right Sector, wrote in a joint statement with another group, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.

That threat was too much even for Ukraine, a society traumatized by a war that has often sought comfort in nationalist ideology, and stirred resentment far beyond the gay community.

So what was initially planned as a gay pride parade transformed into a demonstration for equality and against nationalists who want to impose their own version of tradition.

“I stood up during two Maidans because I didn’t want anybody to tell me how I should live,” Daniel Kovzhun, a participant in the pro-democracy protests in Maidan Square in 2004 and 2014, wrote in response to Mr. Skoropadsky’s threat.

“I was at war to defend my family, my children, my home and my freedom,” Mr. Kovzhun wrote.

“And my children will be free to decide how they should live, with whom to sleep and what to believe.”

He posed with his wife and small son for an advertising campaign in support of KievPride.

Lt. Nadiya V. Savchenko, Ukraine’s first female combat pilot, who was freed in a prisoners exchange with Russia last month, also spoke in support of the parade.

She said her country “needed no more blood in the streets.”

Ukraine’s national police force, long notorious for brutality and venality, has been undergoing sweeping changes by hiring thousands of young officers.

Some have pointed to that as a sign that the country can change for the better.

The head of the National Police, Khatia Dekanoidze, promised to prevent violence at the march.

She devised a security plan that minimized the possibility of clashes, at the cost of locking down part the capital.

The police sealed a 10-block area in the city center, and entering the area was possible only after a thorough search.

After the march, which lasted no more than half an hour, the police evacuated participants by buses and through a subway station that was open only to them.

Ms. Dekanoidze later reported that 57 people had been detained.

During the event, young men could be seen loitering around the blocked areas, and as the march ended, the police blocked a column of people in black ski masks moving toward the parade.

Source: The New York Times

Friday, June 10, 2016

Georgia, Kosovo, Ukraine’s Visa-Free Access To EU Delayed

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Hopes in Georgia, Ukraine and Kosovo that the European Union would approve their visa-free access to the bloc by the summer have faded in recent days amid a raft of new concerns raised by the bloc’s biggest member states.

The deal would give millions of citizens from Georgia, Ukraine and Kosovo visa-free access to the border-free Schengen zone.

The issues range from German concerns about organized crime by Georgian gangs to worries in France that the visa deals could create new security vulnerabilities at a time of heightened terror fears. 

EU officials and diplomats now say that September appears to be the earliest date that EU governments and the European Parliament could sign off the agreements.

The deal would give millions of citizens from these countries who hold biometric passports visa-free access to the border-free Schengen zone covering most EU nations.

The U.K. and Ireland are outside Schengen.

For the bloc, the visa-free regimes are a key tool for binding their neighbors closer and for advancing reforms in those countries.

Delays could deplete pro-western forces in countries like Georgia and Ukraine, who are struggling with their hostile Russian neighbor.

In recent months, the European Commission, the EU’s executive, has recommended visa-free status for Georgia, Ukraine, Kosovo and Turkey.

The latter’s bid has already been put on the back burner with EU and Turkish officials now targeting an October deal as Ankara completes several final tasks.

The other three countries’ bids were expected to move rapidly.

On Wednesday, however, ambassadors from the EU’s 28 nations failed to gather enough support to back Georgia’s bid.

Georgia has been waiting for a decision on its visa-free regime since December.

But in recent days, German officials have argued that Berlin’s backing for a deal is contingent on more efforts to stamp out Georgian organized crime gangs that German authorities blame for a spate of house robberies, German and EU officials say.

On Wednesday, Berlin asked the commission to report on Georgian crime gangs across the bloc, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Other countries have also slowed down approval.

Italy and France have said a decision should await the approval of new rules which will make it easier to suspend visa-free regimes in case of abuse.

The European Parliament is only expected to formally back the changes in September.

Diplomats say there are some EU governments who want to hold up any decisions on Georgia, Ukraine and Kosovo until they consider Turkey’s visa-free application.

That has created growing concerns in Kiev, Tbilisi and Pristina.

“Brussels literally has no more reasons to delay,” Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, saying his government will complete its final visa-linked task before the summer by pushing through parliament a border agreement with Montenegro.

Mr. Thaci said he doesn’t want to interfere in decisions by the EU governments but that he hoped Kosovo’s bid would win backing within three-to-six months of the commission’s May recommendation.

“Kosovo should not be held hostage to any disagreements between—in this case Brussels and Ankara. We have done our homework,” he said.

Georgia’s government was hoping the visa-free bid would boost pro-European parties ahead of elections in October.

During a visit to Brussels on Wednesday, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili made only a brief public mention of the issue but a senior EU official said he lobbied hard for the visa-free bid in meetings with top officials.

There are similar concerns in Ukraine, where President Petro Poroshenko has placed the issue high up his agenda since last year.

The commission recommended Ukraine’s visa-free bid in April.

On Thursday, Mykola Tochytskyi, Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU, said he hoped EU governments and the parliament would formally approve Kiev’s visa bid by early autumn at the latest.

He warned however that any further delays and linking Ukraine’s bid with others would hurt the EU’s credibility.

That will add to domestic pressure on the government when it is trying to push difficult legislation through parliament connected to its economic program and the Minsk peace agreement with Russia. 

“It’s very difficult to explain at home…why we should be linked to other countries for purely political reasons,” Mr. Tochytskyi said.

“The key issue is not to stop this process (of approval).”

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Ukraine’s Out of Control Arms Bazaar In Europe’s Backyard

KIEV, Ukraine -- When the the Ukrainian Security Service, the SBU, announced recently that it had detained a 25-year-old French citizen, GrĂ©goire Moutaux, who was trying to cross the country’s border into Poland in a vehicle full of explosives and weapons, that sounded like a major blow against terrorism.

SBU spokesman Vasyl Hrytsak declared that after two weeks of investigation, which is to say of interrogation, “The Ukrainian Security Service managed to prevent 15 terrorist attacks targeting the territory of France.”

According to the SBU this alleged French criminal attempted to smuggle five Kalashnikov assault rifles, more than 50,000 bullets, two RPG-7 anti-tank grenade-launchers, 100 electronic detonators, and 125 kilograms of TNT across Ukraine’s frontier.


But in Kiev, the announcement was greeted with deep skepticism.

Neither local journalists nor independent observers place much trust in SBU reports these days, and with good reason.

The timing of Hrystak’s Monday press conference was suspect, coming as it did in the midst of scandals discrediting the SBU.

Many noted that the spy organization announced the news about its successful operation against Moutaux right after the United Nations condemned it for running secret prisons and torturing prisoners.

“It all sounded like a public relations gambit,” television anchor Katerina Sakirianska told The Daily Beast.

“Unfortunately, when both Ukraine and Europe are endangered by terrorism and need professional security services more than ever, there is not much confidence in what the SBU tells us,” independent journalist Saken Aymurzaev told The Daily Beast.

Putting aside for a moment the moral and legal issues, confessions extracted with torture are notoriously unreliable, and whatever the truth of Moutaux’s case, there’s little question the country has become a thriving arms bazaar for just about anyone with money to buy right in the back yard of Europe.

The ideological and ethnic conflict that has torn Ukraine apart over the last two hears has attracted radical nationalists from different countries, some of them involved in weapon smuggling.

Among these, notably, were a few French volunteers, ideological supporters of pro-Russian forces who were fighting in eastern Ukraine two years ago.

Poland had to increase security measures last year to try to prevent criminals attempting to transport weapons from Ukraine into its territory.

If in 2013 Polish police seized only three firearms smuggled from Ukraine, last year law enforcement arrested smugglers with 53 guns, and there are many, many more where those came from.

“There are over 200,000 people involved in anti-terrorist [anti-rebel] operations in Ukraine; if 10 percent of the militia sold weapons or committed some crime, that would be 20,000 incidents,” Kiev-based Belarusian journalist and dissident Pavel Sheremet told The Daily Beast.

News reports of law enforcement officials discovering underground arsenals have grown commonplace.

Former volunteer militia and regular military often smuggle weapons from the war-torn Donbass region to Kiev.

Last week police discovered a big underground arsenal of hand grenades, guns, explosives, and other weapons in a garage on the outskirts of Kiev.

“Most probably these weapons were brought to Kiev from the zone of anti-terrorist operations,” the head of Kiev National police Andriy Krischenko suggested on Saturday.

In July 2014 The Daily Beast interviewed Ukrainian volunteers in eastern Ukraine about the prices for Kalashnikov.

At the time one Kalashnikov could be purchased in the combat zone for less than $500 and sold in Kiev for more than $2,000.

But not many in eastern Ukraine would dare to report to the SBU about military violations, since people are afraid to end up in one of the secret detention centers.

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report that SBU officers systematically break Ukrainian law.

“Legally, the SBU is not supposed to have detention facilities and torture people,” says Tatyana Lokshina, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“There is evidence that interrogators hang up their victims and torture them by beating them with sticks or giving them electric shocks.”

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International recently sent a joint request to the SBU asking “about concrete facilities, concrete victims,” as Lokshina told The Daily Beast.

International observers became especially suspicious in May when the SBU did not allow a UN delegation concerned with tortured to have access to particular sites the observers wanted to visit.

The delegation chief, Malcolm Evans, said that the team was prevented from visiting “some places where we have heard numerous and serious allegations that people have been detained and where torture or ill-treatment may have occurred.”

At the press conference SBU spokesman Hrystak compared journalists to priests:

“Pastors use the Bible and gospel for preaching and journalists use information, which could be served in different ways,” Hrytsak said, apparently trying to build a bridge of trust to the press.

But it’s doubtful that will get far.

“All we hear lately is that the SBU is involved in scandals that discredit it,” independent reporter Saken Aymurzaev explained.

Last week UN Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic said that the SBU massively detained and tortured supporters of the militia of the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine shows entrenched “disregard for human rights.”

One more scandal earlier this month involved the first deputy head of the SBU, Victor Trepak, a close ally of Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko.

He resigned after leaking materials about so-called black accounting to Ukrainian newspapers.

Last month a website affiliated with SBU leaked a list of names and private information of all journalists covering the conflict in the Donetsk region.

Some law enforcement officials blamed reporters for covering both sides of the front lines.

But to investigate crimes against humanity, including illegal smuggling of weapons, reporters had to cover both east and west of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Security Service have been criticized for incompetence and for violating people’s rights for many years.

“Today Ukraine needs professional security services to control the militia who trade Kalashnikovs, hand grenades, RPGS, explosive devices, and TNT that they get out of land mines, a countless number that nobody counts,” says Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB officer now operating out of Moscow as a security consultant.

Source: The Daily Beast

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Poll: Russians See US, Ukraine, Turkey As Top 3 Enemies

MOSCOW, Russia -- A survey by an independent Moscow-based polling agency has found that Russians believe their country has a trio of main enemies – the United States, Ukraine and Turkey, in that order.

A pro-European Union activist with Ukrainian and European Union flags rallies with others in Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, Dec. 20, 2013. The protests ended up toppling Ukraine's Russia-backed president Viktor Yanukovych.

The findings of the Levada Center poll, conducted among 2,400 people across Russia May 20-23, contain little new data other than Turkey's inclusion in the top enemies list. Until recently, a majority of Russians viewed Turkey either neutrally or positively.

According to polling data going back a number of years, the United States has long been seen by a considerable part of the Russian population as a potential threat and a “source of global evil.”

The Levada Center’s poll found that the level of anti-American and anti-European sentiment in Russia is now higher than it was before Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in early 2014, but lower than it was at the start of 2015.

The polling agency found that negative attitudes toward Ukraine have increased, with 48 percent naming it as one of the five nations most hostile to Russia, up from 37 percent in 2015.

The number of respondents who named Turkey as one of the five most hostile countries jumped to 29 percent in the latest poll, up from just 1 percent in 2015.

Last November, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet it said had crossed into its airspace, despite warnings.

The United States’ rating remained basically unchanged: 72 percent of the respondents in the latest poll named it one of the five nations most hostile to Russia, down slightly from 73 percent in 2015. 

‘Aggressive’ propaganda blamed Belarus, Kazakhstan and China were named as the top three countries most friendly to Russia (although China’s rating dropped from 43 percent in 2015 to 34 percent in the latest poll), followed by India, Armenia and Cuba.

Syria came in seventh place, but its “friendly” rating showed the greatest increase (from 2 percent of the respondents last year to 10 percent in the latest poll).

The Levada poll also found that support for Russia joining the European Union has dropped dramatically over the last seven years.

In 2009, 53 percent of respondents said they supported Russia becoming an EU member and 21 percent opposed it.

In the latest poll, 56 percent said they were against Russia joining the EU, while only 24 percent supported it.

The director of the Levada Center, Lev Gudkov, told VOA that the results of this poll show the impact of an “extraordinary and extremely aggressive anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian propaganda" campaign that started after popular protests ousted Ukraine’s Russia-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, in early 2014.

According to Gudkov, Russia’s leadership has a "paranoid fear" of “color revolutions” like Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. 

Thus, the aim of Moscow's anti-Ukrainian propaganda campaign was not only to discredit Yanukovych's successors, but to subvert the liberal, democratic values that motivated those who participated in the protests that led to his ouster, said Gudkov.

Another aim of the anti-Ukrainian propaganda is to discredit Russia's democratic opposition, he said. 

Spreading fear 

The efforts to discredit Ukraine’s pro-Western government and Russia’s democratic opposition, said Gudkov, have been accompanied by “an extremely powerful and, in its own way, effective anti-American campaign" that is still being carried out via Russia's TV channels daily.

“We see the results of this: more than 70 percent (of respondents) expressed clear hostility toward the United States," he said.

With Russia's economy faltering, the Kremlin needs to have an external enemy in order to mobilize Russian society, “because a crisis is approaching and the regime does not feel very confident, despite all the high ratings and demonstrative support of the population," Gudkov said.

That is why the authorities are trying to create an atmosphere in which the Russian public feels the country is “on the brink of war,” he added.

Yevgeniy Magda, director of the Center for Public Affairs, a Kiev-based research institution, said Russian government propaganda has a significant impact on Russian society.

“There is a certain dependence of public opinion on the national media, which is centralized in Russia, and which, as a rule, expresses a uniform position on key issues concerning Ukraine,” Magda told VOA.

The results from the Levada Center’s polls, he said, show just how potent an effect this “unified propaganda machine” has.

Still, Magda added that this situation could “change radically” in a few years, as a result of “pluralization of the press” and “democratic processes" inside Russia.

Source: Voice of America

I Am My Own Man, Says Ukraine's New Prime Minister

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman said on Friday he would not let his decision-making be shackled by powerful vested interests, allowing him to push through reforms and usher in a period of economic stability.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman attends an interview in Kiev, Ukraine, June 3, 2016.

In his first interview with foreign media since taking office in April, Groysman told Reuters he was confident of receiving a further installment of aid worth $1.7 billion from the International Monetary Fund, which is contingent on implementing reforms.

He will travel to Washington in mid-June, with Ukraine having recently taken two major steps - freeing up gas prices and passing legislation to tackle corruption in the judiciary - under its commitments in a $40 billion international bailout deal.

The appointment of Groysman, 38, ended months of political turmoil that had stymied policymaking.

He had cut his teeth as Ukraine's youngest ever mayor, at 28, before becoming speaker of the rough-and-tumble parliament.

Since the fall of communism, Ukraine's business oligarchs have frustrated efforts by a succession of governments to reform the economy, most recently in the form of changes promised by pro-Western leaders after street protests toppled the previous president in 2014.

Asked if he could free himself from the oligarchs' influence, Groysman said: "I consider myself to be completely free in terms of my views and my decision-making."

"I can be dependent only on Ukrainian society," he added.

"We will fight for every reform, for every change, fight transparently."


Groysman took power with Ukraine just emerging from recession, still fighting a war against Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbass region and amid growing disillusion with the pace of change since the 2014 uprising.

A ceasefire agreement negotiated by Ukraine, Russia and Western powers is barely holding, with each side accusing the other of failing to honor their promises.

The IMF and Ukraine's other main backers - the European Union and United States - have also urged Kiev to speed up the reforms and tackling of endemic corruption.

An agreement for more IMF aid had been derailed by the political turmoil in Kiev.

An IMF mission visited in May for talks on a new memorandum, which is still being drafted, and the Fund is expected to decide on disbursing new aid in July.

"During the last IMF mission, we had a constructive and frank discussion about the problems, and we found a common ground that allows us to move on," Groysman said.

"I do not see anything that would prevent us to get (the next installment)," he added.

"I am optimistic about our continued co-operation with the IMF."

"We need to ensure macroeconomic stability," he said.

"This requires fighting corruption with deregulation, privatization, and an effective judicial system," he said.

Once Ukraine returns to economic growth, which Groysman saw happening "very quickly", Ukraine and the IMF could even move to a "very different system of cooperation", he said, without specifying what the change would be.

He also said Ukraine could soon expect to receive a $500 million loan from the World Bank to buy gas in exchange for certain conditions, including improving governance at state energy giant Naftogaz. 

Ukraine is expected to bypass Russia to purchase the gas, but Groysman did not completely rule out buying supplies from Russia's Gazprom, saying his government would take a "political decision" if Gazprom made the right offer.

Ukraine's Western backers have praised the steps taken since Groysman came to power, and on Friday Washington signed a new loan guarantee agreement worth $1 billion.

However, it has not all been plain sailing.

Kiev has pledged to privatize hundreds of state-owned companies, but last week the IMF and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) criticized the process.

They complained to Groysman that the sale of the Odessa Portside Plant - seen as the first major test of Kiev's ability to attract foreign investment - fell short of international standards and could deter respectable investors.

Groysman ruled out making any change to the reserve price of $521 million for the fertilizer plant, which the IMF and EBRD say is too high.

"No. We have started this process and are interested in making it happen," he said.


The Minsk ceasefire agreement to stop the violence in Donbass, which has already killed more than 9,400 people, requires Ukraine to hold local elections in the region and pass a law giving it greater autonomy.

Meanwhile, the EU is due to decide within weeks whether to renew sanctions on Russia, imposed after Moscow's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Some countries in the bloc want them lifted.

Asked whether Ukraine could hold elections in the Donbass region this year, Groysman said:

"Here is the question to Russia: when they will meet their obligations? When will they withdraw their troops and withdraw fighters and mercenaries, and when do we regain control over the territory?" 

Elections are impossible "under the barrel of a gun", he said.

Lifting sanctions, he said, would only reward Russian aggression.

"I believe that the lifting of sanctions or easing of sanctions, is unacceptable for any civilized state because today Ukrainian soldiers are defending not only the borders of Ukraine - it is the eastern border of Europe."

Source: Google News

Ukraine Eyes 30 New Vessels, Military Training Facilities

WARSAW, Poland -- The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense is aiming to acquire 30 new vessels for the country’s Navy by 2020, and to upgrade its training facilities under a program worth 500 million hryvnia (US $20 million), the ministry said.

Ukrainian sailors stand next to their warships in the southern Ukrainian city Odessa on May 3, 2015. The country plans to boost its Navy fleet by 2020.

The two programs are related to Ukraine’s ongoing military efforts in the country’s eastern part, where the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been combating Russia-backed insurgents.

Currently, the Ukrainian Navy "is actively involved in the anti-terrorist operation in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, prepared to counter a seaborne armed aggression," the ministry said in a statement.

The planned acquisitions are expected to enable a "radical modernisation" of the Ukrainian Navy's combat capabilities, the statement said.

Most recently, the Defense Ministry signed a contract with the state-run Leninska Kuznya shipyard under which the Kiev-based shipbuilder will supply two landing craft to the Ukrainian Navy.

Should the latest deal be carried out as planned, the Defense Ministry could decide to award further shipbuilding contracts to Leninska Kuznya.

Some deals could also be awarded to the shipbuilding division of Ukraine's leading defense group Ukroboronprom.

In addition to developing the capabilities of the Ukrainian Navy, the ministry also wants to enhance the training capacity of the country’s military.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak said that Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko considers improving the country’s military training infrastructure "a top priority."

As a result, the country’s International Peacekeeping and Security Centre (IPSC) in Starychi, in Ukraine's western part, and its training units will be upgraded until the end of 2020, according to the minister.

Source: Defense News