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2017: In Ukraine: a quest for peace and reforms

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In Kyiv on February 1, Ukrainian soldiers pray for their comrades-in-arms killed in the Russian offensive on Avdiyivka.

Andriy Dubchak/RadioSvoboda.org

In Kyiv on February 1, Ukrainian soldiers pray for their comrades-in-arms killed in the Russian offensive on Avdiyivka.

Authorities in Ukraine started 2017 by presenting evidence in January that disgraced ex-President Viktor Yanukovych asked his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to send soldiers to Ukraine on March 1, 2014. It was allegedly based on a letter dated that same day which then-Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaliy Churkin presented in New York to the U.N. Security Council during an extraordinary meeting. After the envoy’s death, the Russian leader’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, stated that no letter “or any similar document” was received to deploy troops to Ukraine.

In Kyiv on February 1, Ukrainian soldiers pray for their comrades-in-arms killed in the Russian offensive on Avdiyivka.

Andriy Dubchak/RadioSvoboda.org

In Kyiv on February 1, Ukrainian soldiers pray for their comrades-in-arms killed in the Russian offensive on Avdiyivka.

Yet on the very same day Mr. Putin had asked the upper house of Russia’s Parliament for permission to deploy forces in Ukraine. Three days later, he stated the following: “What could serve as grounds for the use of the armed forces? This is, of course, an extreme situation… It is firstly an issue of legitimacy. As you know, we have a direct appeal from the current and legitimate… President of Ukraine Yanukovych, about the use of armed forces for the defense of the life, freedom and health of Ukrainian citizens… And, if we see that this lawlessness is beginning in eastern regions, if people ask us for help, and we already have an official appeal from the current legitimate president, we reserve the right to use all means at our disposal to protect these citizens.”

Prosecutors in Ukraine are seeking a life sentence for Mr. Yanukovych based on treason charges. He also is suspected of embezzling close to $40 billion. The former president and Donbas native has called the trial taking place in the northernmost district of Obolon in Kyiv “politically motivated.” He is being tried in absentia and is believed to reside in Russia.

Fighting escalated along the 450-kilometer frontline in January. The epicenter of the fighting was the industrial town of Avdiyivka, where one of Europe’s biggest coking coal plants is located. Seven servicemen were killed fighting near the Donetsk Oblast town on January 29-30. By the end of the year, 219 Ukrainian soldiers had died in the Donbas war, and the United Nations estimated that more than 10,330 had been killed in the Moscow-instigated war.

The Ukrainian Weekly visited the frontline town in early December and witnessed what international groups call a festering humanitarian disaster. Although a consistent hotspot, fighting at Avdiyivka escalated in December, reaching the same levels as February 2017, said Ertugrul Apakan, the chief monitor of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in a statement on December 19.

Ambassador Kurt Volker (left), U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, toured Avdiyivka and Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine on July 23. Accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch (far right), he received briefings from Ukrainian government and military officials in order to better understand the situation on the ground. Ambassadors Volker and Yovanovitch also met with civil society groups and victims of Russian aggression in Avdiyivka.

U.S. Embassy Kyiv

Ambassador Kurt Volker (left), U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, toured Avdiyivka and Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine on July 23. Accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch (far right), he received briefings from Ukrainian government and military officials in order to better understand the situation on the ground. Ambassadors Volker and Yovanovitch also met with civil society groups and victims of Russian aggression in Avdiyivka.

Ambassador Kurt Volker, U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, who is tasked with working to end the Donbas war, said that the “decision for peace lies with Russia.” In a December 19 tweet he noted: “Peace in eastern Ukraine can come if Russia pulls out its forces and stops support for its proxies.”

The U.N.’s Security Council on February 2 discussed the Donbas war, with Kyiv’s envoy emphasizing that there was no military solution in the Donbas. Regarding the attacks on civilian targets in Avdiyivka a month earlier, Ukraine said the humanitarian disaster that it created – including electricity and water shortages – was “a terrorist tactic aimed primarily at civilians.” It was notable that Russia’s attacks in the Donbas coincided with Ukraine taking over the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council for February.

A United Nations report released on February 17 emphasized the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in the Donbas, noting that 1 million children were in urgent need of assistance – nearly double the number in 2016 for the same reporting period. The situation was particularly grave for the approximately 200,000 girls and boys living within 15 kilometers on each side of the “contact line” in eastern Ukraine, a line that divides government- and non-government-controlled areas where fighting is most severe. Thousands of children are regularly forced to take refuge in improvised bomb shelters. Teachers, psychologists and parents report signs of severe psychosocial distress among children including nightmares, aggression, social withdrawal and panic triggered by loud noises. More than 740 schools – one in five in eastern Ukraine – have been damaged or destroyed, UNICEF reported.

By mid-year, a U.N. report released on June 13 stated that “people continue to be abducted, unlawfully deprived of freedom and held incommunicado – particularly in districts controlled by Russia-backed separatists.”

Unfortunately, “freedom” as measured by the Washington-based think tank Freedom House declined worldwide for the 11th consecutive year, according to the group’s report published in February. “We see leaders and nations pursuing their own narrow interests without meaningful constraints or regard for the shared benefits of global peace and freedom,” said Arch Puddington, one of the report’s coauthors. “These trends are accelerating and starting to undo the international order of the past quarter-century, including the general respect for long-established norms for fundamental freedoms and democracy.”

Regarding the geographic region of Eurasia where Ukraine is located, the group said most countries there ranked “at or near the bottom” concerning political rights and civil liberties. “While a few – such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – have struggled to democratize and pursue European integration in recent years, they face strong resistance from Russia and anti-democratic elements within their borders,” Freedom House stated.

Ukraine was judged to be “partly free” in terms of both political rights and civil liberties, while the Russian-occupied Crimea – which was listed and evaluated separately – was determined to be “not free.”

In a separate report on media freedom that Freedom House published in April, Crimea was named the fourth least press friendly territory or country in the world. However, Ukraine’s media environment had “significantly improved since a change in government in 2014, and ongoing reforms continue to strengthen the legislative environment for journalists and outlets.”

Meanwhile, Russia is using Ukraine as a testing ground for its “new-generation warfare,” Dr. Phillip Karber, a military expert and president of the Potomac Foundation in Virginia, told The Ukrainian Weekly in February. He noted that it was a “miracle” for Kyiv to withstand Russia’s initial onslaught in Donbas starting in April 2014 when the Donbas war started.

Today, “Ukraine has 22 brigades and close to 70 battalions, and has the structure to have up to 30 brigades,” The Ukrainian Weekly reported on February 26. Mr. Karber credited the volunteer battalions that sprung up when war broke out, mainly consisting of protesters from the Euro-Maidan Revolution, with preventing the conflict from spreading beyond the Donbas. “But that was not true by the end of summer of 2014, and the country wouldn’t exist today if it hadn’t been for the army making major progress in building up its force, modernizing its equipment, training. And a whole new generation of combat commanders had to learn at the front… [they] taught themselves and figured it out, and became some very first-class commanders,” he said.

His observations were based on 177 days spent on the war front on over 25 trips from March 2014 until the end of 2016.

Asked what would happen if Ukraine stops fighting, Dr. Karber said that the country, which has already lost 7 percent, or 43,744 square kilometers of territory to Russia, “would be reduced to a figment of its former self and not exist the way it does today.”

Russia-led proxies on July 18 in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region announced what they say is the creation of a new state called “Malorossiya,” or Little Russia – a declaration that was swiftly condemned by Kyiv. But the Kremlin remained silent on the matter. Mr. Poroshenko suggested it was part of a Russian effort to divide and conquer the country, and said that would never happen.

No high-level officials were prosecuted in 2017 for the death of the nearly 100 protesters who were shot dead by police during the Euro-Maidan Revolution of 2014. Ukraine’s diplomatic mission attended an event on February 20 to commemorate the “Heavenly Hundred” in Washington that started with the mournful Lemko folk song “Plyve Kacha.”

President Petro Poroshenko and First Lady Maryna Poroshenko visit a memorial to the Heavenly Hundred in downtown Kyiv on November 21 on the fourth anniversary of the Euro-Maidan Revolution.

Presidential Administration of Ukraine

President Petro Poroshenko and First Lady Maryna Poroshenko visit a memorial to the Heavenly Hundred in downtown Kyiv on November 21 on the fourth anniversary of the Euro-Maidan Revolution.

In his address to participants of the vigil, the ambassador of Ukraine to the United States, Valeriy Chaly, said that we, Ukrainians, must be worthy of the memory of the participants of the Revolution of Dignity, who gave their lives for a decent future for Ukraine. Ambassador Chaly stressed that the struggle for Ukraine continues against Russia’s ongoing aggression. He thanked everyone for their unity and solidarity with Ukraine.

Ukraine cut off business ties with Russia-occupied Donbas, where much of the country’s coal and steel-making plants are located, starting in late January. Kremlin-backed proxies responded by taking over some 45 enterprises in March. The Kyiv-based Ukrainian Institute for the Future reported that the blockade cost the nation’s coffers 1.5 percent of gross domestic product by year-end.

Meanwhile, Kyiv moved forward with international litigation over Russia’s military aggression and illegal annexation of territory. In particular, Ukraine initiated a case at The Hague’s International Court of Justice over Russia’s trampling of “fundamental rights and liberties” in Crimea that it invaded and took over in March 2014. Kyiv accuses Moscow of sponsoring “terrorism” and of discrimination against Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians on the peninsula.

President Petro Poroshenko (right) and National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksandr Turchynov (second from right) at the council’s meeting on March 15, when a decision was made to halt all cargo traffic with the occupied Donbas.

Mikhail Palinchak/UNIAN

President Petro Poroshenko (right) and National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksandr Turchynov (second from right) at the council’s meeting on March 15, when a decision was made to halt all cargo traffic with the occupied Donbas.

The case that Ukraine lodged in January said that it was seeking “full reparations for… acts of terrorism the Russian Federation has caused, facilitated or supported,” citing bombardments of residential areas and the July 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17), which killed all 298 passengers and crew.

Neutrality isn’t an option for Ukraine and is “illusory peace,” according to a March 16 statement released by the First of December Initiative Group, a coalition of Ukrainian intellectuals. It rejected making compromises with Russia and arguments expressed by pro-Kremlin politicians like Viktor Medvedchuk that Kyiv should take an “Austrian-style” stance on neutrality in exchange for the promise of Russia stopping its war. “Malicious ‘peacemakers,’ both within Ukraine and beyond its borders, expect us to be like docile lambs. Their proposal for ‘peace’ requires a price that is nothing less than our capitulation,” the statement read.

Noting the worsening conditions on the Crimean peninsula, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said in March that her country is “deeply troubled by the politically motivated application of ‘anti-terrorist’ and ‘anti-extremist’ legislation; ongoing harassment of human rights activists, journalists and lawyers; arbitrary detentions; disappearances; and the persecution of Crimean Tatars and other minorities.” She also denounced the banning of the Mejlis, the self-governing body of the Crimean Tatars, and called on Russia to reverse this “illegal and immoral decision.”

Also in March, Ukrainian National Deputy Serhiy Leshchenko disclosed documents that showed Paul Manafort, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, had received secret payments totaling $750,000 when he worked as a political consultant for Mr. Yanukovych. They were based on invoices for the purchase of computers and were linked to an offshore bank account.

That same month the Verkhovna Rada passed legislation that obliges employees of civil society groups that monitor graft and the vendors with whom they conduct business to disclose their incomes and purchasing activity. Members of Ukraine’s civil society called the new measure discriminatory and said it will also affect journalists who uncover corruption because many work for non-profit groups. Citing the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Oksana Romaniuk, director of the media watchdog Institute of Mass Information, said many journalism outlets are “registered not as mass media but as civil society organizations.”

The Ukrainian Parliament on March 22 passed a resolution asking the U.S. to recognize Ukraine as a “major non-NATO ally,” which would bolster security and defense cooperation between the two strategic partners.

Kyiv received only $1 billion from the Washington-based International Monetary Fund (IMF) during 2017 as part of a $17.5 billion loan program. Some $4 billion was earmarked for Ukraine in 2017 but three-quarters of that weren’t disbursed because Kyiv failed to meet anti-corruption conditions as part of the economic bailout program.

Crusading central bank governor Valeria Gontareva resigned on April 10 after cleaning up the banking sector in her three years at the helm of the National Bank of Ukraine. Under her watch, 87 out of some 180 banks lost their licenses because they couldn’t meet the stricter regulations she put in place in one of Europe’s most corrupt and shaky banking systems. As a result, total banking sector assets shrank to $53.8 billion by year-end 2016 from more than $120 billion three years earlier.

Another banker, Deputy Justice Minister Denys Chernyshov, unveiled his plans to reform the nation’s penitentiary system that he described as currently serving only two functions: “punishment and isolation.” Appointed in October 2016, Mr. Chernyshov is initiating public-private partnerships, overseeing probation programs and introducing technology to modernize the prison system. He is responsible for 148 various incarceration centers that house over 61,000 convicts and which are staffed by nearly 28,000 personnel.

Work on the $2.3 billion “New Safe Confinement” shell over the site of the site of Chornobyl disaster was completed last year. It is a metal dome that is designed to stop future leaks from the crippled reactor No. 4 that has more than 200 tons of uranium buried inside. The reactor at the power plant north of Kyiv, in then-Soviet Ukraine exploded at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986, after a safety test went wrong. The precise number of victims and extent of the damage remain the subject of debate, in part because Soviet authorities took days to publicly acknowledge the disaster and kept information hidden.

Russian President Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel differed in their stances on Ukraine, following a meeting they held in the Black Sea port of Sochi on May 2. “Today we once again reiterated the necessity of the strict observation of the Minsk agreements by the parties to the conflict [in eastern Ukraine],” Mr. Putin told journalists. Ms. Merkel said Moscow and Berlin “are of differing opinions about the cause of the conflict.” She said it was essential for Kyiv to regain complete control of its border, including the portion between the separatist-controlled areas and Russia.

Throughout the year, the European Union repeatedly prolonged sanctions on Russia for its continued occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and portions of the easternmost regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.

President Petro Poroshenko also urged the leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations to maintain sanctions against Russia. Due to Russia’s persistent warmongering, there are “no grounds for the EU to cancel or ease economic and sectoral sanctions against the Russian Federation,” Mr. Poroshenko said during a telephone conversation with European Council President Donald Tusk ahead of the G-7 summit that took place on May 26-27 in Sicily, Italy.

At the signing ceremony for a new visa-liberalization regime with the European Union in Strasbourg on May 17 (from left) are: Malta’s Interior Minister Carmelo Abela (whose country then held the rotating presidency of the EU), Member of the European Parliament Mariya Gabriel, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and European Parliament President Antonio Tajani. In his May 14 press conference, Mr. Poroshenko cited Ukraine’s closer ties with the European Union as a major achievement.

Presidential Administration of Ukraine

At the signing ceremony for a new visa-liberalization regime with the European Union in Strasbourg on May 17 (from left) are: Malta’s Interior Minister Carmelo Abela (whose country then held the rotating presidency of the EU), Member of the European Parliament Mariya Gabriel, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and European Parliament President Antonio Tajani. In his May 14 press conference, Mr. Poroshenko cited Ukraine’s closer ties with the European Union as a major achievement.

Ukrainians learned that visa requirements for the European Union were waived on May 11 – something that President Petro Poroshenko touted during his first news conference in 16 months three days later. The liberalized regime entered into force on June 11, allowing Ukrainian citizens who have biometric passports to enter all EU member states other than Ireland and the United Kingdom without a visa for up to 90 days during any 180-day period. It also applies to four Schengen-area countries that are not in the EU: Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland.

“Only crazy people can consider Ukraine to be part of the so-called ‘Russian world.’ Ukraine is part of a united Europe stretching from Lisbon to Kharkiv. For three years Russia has tried everything to block Ukraine’s path towards the EU. But nothing will stop our path to Europe,” Mr. Poroshenko said.

While visiting Berlin on May 20, Mr. Poroshenko cited the signing of a political pact and free-trade agreement with the 28-nation EU as another accomplishment. However, by year-end, Kyiv had fulfilled only 10 of 86 commitments in the Association Agreement. The European Union formally approved the Association Agreement with Ukraine on July 11; it went into effect on September 1.

At the Ukraine-EU Summit in Kyiv on July 12-13, European Council President Tusk urged Ukrainians to remain united and avoid internal conflicts. “We stand steadfast behind Ukraine,” he said. In turn, European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker called on Kyiv to do more to battle corruption.

A minute of silence was observed across the country on May 18 to commemorate the victims of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s mass deportation of Tatars from Crimea in 1944. Incidentally, the anniversary wasn’t observed in Russia-occupied Crimea. “Seventy-three years ago the Communist regime brutally expelled Crimean Tatars and representatives of other ethnic groups from their homelands,” Mr. Poroshenko said. “For the Ukrainian nation it is an unhealed wound that especially hurts after the annexation of Crimea.”

The Crimean Tatars were deported en masse from the Black Sea peninsula in May 1944, after Stalin accused them of collaborating with Nazi Germany. Starting on May 18, 1944, some 250,000 were put on trains – most of them in the space of two days – and sent to Central Asia. Tens of thousands died during the journey or after they were left on the barren steppe with few resources. Crimean Tatars were not allowed to return to Crimea until the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev conducted reforms in the years before the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In November 2015, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a law declaring May 18 the Day of Commemoration of Victims of the Genocide of the Crimean Tatars.

Ukraine dealt a legal blow to Russia in their multi-faceted war when a Swedish arbitration tribunal on May 31 “rejected” claims by state-owned Gazprom over natural gas supplies to Ukraine worth more than $45 billion. Ukraine’s state-run energy holding company, Naftogaz, said in a news release that the tribunal dismissed Gazprom’s “take or pay” claim that stems from a 2009 contract, which required Kyiv to pay for unpurchased gas volumes. “This is an important step towards energy security,” Mr. Poroshenko said in a statement. “Moscow for the first time loses the ability to use gas as a weapon of political pressure and extortion.”

Three months after Russia illegally annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, Gazprom on June 16, 2014, had initiated litigation in Stockholm over the 10-year gas contract. In turn, Naftogaz filed a counterclaim alleging that Russia had underpaid for gas transit through Ukrainian pipelines. Kyiv is asking for an award worth up to $30.3 billion. That includes the market price difference for gas adding up to $18 billion and for transit equaling $12.3 billion.

An overwhelming 92 percent of Ukrainian citizens consider themselves ethnic Ukrainians, according to a Razumkov Center survey conducted in March. Six percent of the respondents consider themselves ethnic Russians, and 1.5 percent cite other ethnic groups. This is the highest recorded percentage of Ukrainian self-identification since Ukraine regained independence.

Acting Health Minister Ulana Suprun reacts in Ukraine’s Parliament on October 19 after reforms she had pushed to overhaul the nation’s health-care system were passed.

Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine

Acting Health Minister Ulana Suprun reacts in Ukraine’s Parliament on October 19 after reforms she had pushed to overhaul the nation’s health-care system were passed.

Additional reforms took place during 2017 in health care and education. “Health outcomes in Ukraine today are poor,” the World Bank reported. “Life expectancy at birth in Ukraine is 71 years, more than 10 years less than the European Union average.” The good news was that American-born acting Health Minister Ulana Suprun saw her vision for revamping Ukraine’s Soviet-era health-care system passed.

“Health outcomes in Ukraine today are poor,” the World Bank reported. “Life expectancy at birth in Ukraine is 71 years, more than 10 years less than the European Union average.” Dr. Suprun has publicly stated that 136,000 Ukrainians yearly die prematurely – lives a normally functioning medical system would’ve saved. Indeed, with 15.6 deaths per 1,000 people, Ukraine had the third highest death rate in the world last year after South Africa and Russia.

Dr. Suprun’s bills are designed to have “money follow the patient” instead of having funds being allocated based on the Soviet-era method of counting hospital beds.

However, she stated that “vested interests” struck out certain accords during the reform bill’s final adoption. Namely, the option of co-payment for certain services and “international protocols” that were penned to update outdated procedures when a patient visits a hospital. Still, a National Health Care Agency will exist to control quality and determine how medical services are paid in a system that is supposed to be free, in accordance with the Constitution of Ukraine, but currently forces patients to pay even for the most basic of services to save their lives.

Ukraine’s new law on education adopted in September is more inclusive of minorities and will improve their integration into society, the Presidential Administration stated. The law “raises the role of the official Ukrainian language in the learning process” and emphasizes the “importance of steadfast observance during education of the humanitarian rights of national minorities who live on the territory of Ukraine,” the president’s office said in an official statement published online on September 25.

It mandates Ukrainian-language instruction starting in the fifth grade. Those attending schools where instruction is in their native language will be able to continue learning it in separate classes. Ethnic groups native to Ukraine, like the Crimean Tatars, are able to continue study in their native language

Currently, there are 581 daily Russian-language schools, 75 Romanian and 71 Hungarian, according to data provided by Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science. Some 3.7 million pupils are in grades 1 through 11; of them, some 360,000 attend daily publicly funded Russian-language schools, and an additional 900,000 take Russian as a separate course.

A more representative electoral bill was approved in the first of two readings on November 7. It foresees replacing half of the country’s 225 voting districts, in which single candidates got elected based only on who receives the most votes, with regional political party lists, whereby candidates get elected based on the proportion of votes their party receives.

Another bill that was approved in its first reading dealt with selling off a portion of the state’s nearly 3,500 companies – the vast majority of which stand idle or are not profitable. Kyiv’s main lender, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has called on the government to sell whatever assets are still viable, like the chemical producer Odesa Portside Plant, as a prerequisite for additional funding.

In addition, the Verkhovna Rada on November 9 passed in its final reading a law that should improve public utilities and communal services for residents living in the nation’s high-rise buildings. It was the last of four key “energy efficiency bills” that the Ministry for Regional Development, Building and Housing had advanced.

Ukraine’s business community received a preliminary respite when the Cabinet of Ministers approved a “Business Pressure Relief Law” designed to soften pressure from fiscal and law enforcement authorities. On November 9, the nation’s Business Ombudsman, Algirdas Semeta, and Daniel Bilak, the director of UkraineInvest, a government-run foreign business promotion agency, jointly announced that the bill will strengthen the “protection of the rights of businesses, prevent abusive practices on the part of law enforcement bodies during the course of investigations, and introduce liability for any unlawful behavior on the part of investigating officers.”

As regards Ukraine’s aspirations for membership in NATO, the Verkhovna Rada on June 8 voted to make NATO accession a policy goal. There are currently 29 member states in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization a collective defense alliance. Lawmakers justified the move by citing “Russian aggression” – mainly Russia’s illegal annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and its de facto occupation of certain parts of easternmost Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

A month later on July 10, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg affirmed the alliance’s “unwavering support” for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and called on Russia to remove its “thousands of soldiers from Ukraine and stop supporting the militants with command-and-control and military equipment.”

In separate comments issued by his office, President Poroshenko said Ukraine was determined to conduct reforms in order to “have a clear schedule of what must be done by 2020 to meet the NATO membership criteria.”

Holland in 2017 marked the third anniversary of the downing of MH17 that its Safety Board in October 2015 had said was brought down by a Russian-made rocket and outlined the area, largely held by the separatists, from which it was fired. That was followed by a report by Bellingcat, a team of independent, open-source researchers who said they had positively identified the actual Russian Buk missile launcher as the weapon that brought the passenger jet’s flight to a fiery end. And in September 2016, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) that conducted the international investigation said it had determined that the Buk missile system had been brought into Ukraine from Russia shortly before the Malaysian jet was shot down and then quickly smuggled back to Russia afterwards. It said the missile was fired from a field in separatist-held territory.

On July 5, the Dutch Foreign Affairs Ministry said any suspects in the downing of MH17 will be prosecuted in a court in the Netherlands after an agreement was reached by the countries jointly investigating the crash: Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, Ukraine and the Netherlands.

Mikheil Saakashvili in Przemysl (Peremyshl) in Poland before boarding a train bound for Ukraine on September 10. Ukrainian authorities claimed he crossed the border into Ukraine illegally. He is seen at a press briefing with Yulia Tymoshenko.

Mikheil Saakashvil/Facebook

Mikheil Saakashvili in Przemysl (Peremyshl) in Poland before boarding a train bound for Ukraine on September 10. Ukrainian authorities claimed he crossed the border into Ukraine illegally. He is seen at a press briefing with Yulia Tymoshenko.

Former Georgian leader turned Ukrainian politician Mikheil Saakashvili staged anti-government protests towards the end of the year. Mr. Poroshenko’s erstwhile ally and former college chum is suspected of taking money from exiled Ukrainian businessmen based in Russia. He was initially appointed by the president in 2015 to govern Odesa Oblast but had a falling out with the ruling government when he complained that his reform efforts were being blocked. Mr. Poroshenko subsequently stripped Mr. Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship. Afterwards, Mr. Saakashvili vowed to lead an opposition movement to demand that Mr. Poroshenko clamp down on pervasive and high-level graft in the country.

Russia moved ahead with building a bridge to connect the country with occupied Crimea. It is a $5 billion project that includes a 19-kilometer road and railway that is being built across the Kerch Strait. Construction has already caused periodic closures that sealed off shipping lanes from Ukrainian ports located in the Azov Sea.

To meet the bridge on the Crimean side, Russia plans a modern, four-lane highway running the approximately 400 kilometers from Kerch in the northeast to Sevastopol in the southwest. The highway will pass through Feodosia, Bilohirsk, the Crimean capital of Symferopol, and Bakhchysarai.

The ports of Berdiansk and Mariupol lie on the Sea of Azov. In 2013, they handled 2.16 billion and 15.5 billion tons of cargo, respectively. Based on previous treaty agreements between Ukraine and Russia, a mutual arrangement must be reached before any construction in the Kerch Strait is allowed to begin.

A scene from the anti-government demonstration in Kyiv on December 9 – the largest since the Euro-Maidan – that called on the Poroshenko administration to speed up anti-graft efforts.

Inna Sokolovska/UNIAN

A scene from the anti-government demonstration in Kyiv on December 9 – the largest since the Euro-Maidan – that called on the Poroshenko administration to speed up anti-graft efforts.

An overwhelming majority of Ukrainians think the war-torn Donbas region should remain part of Ukraine, a poll by the International Republican Institute found in May. “Three years into the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has claimed the lives of 10,000 and displaced more than 1.7 million people, Ukrainians are resolute in their desire to restore their territorial integrity and their rejection of the illegal occupation by Russian-backed separatists,” said IRI Regional Director for Eurasia Stephen Nix. “This data is critical, as it suggests that the Ukrainian people will not accept the division of their country.”

War trauma is taking its toll on Ukrainian soldiers, statistics showed. Some 500 veterans have committed suicide since the war started in April 2014 through mid-June 2017, according to the Military Prosecutor’s Office. That figure doesn’t include the suicides committed while soldiers were in service.

Outreach groups told The Ukrainian Weekly that the government needs to do more for the nearly 200,000 war veterans. “Although what we’re [and others] are doing can be scaled up… An integrated government system is needed to treat veterans. PTSD will collapse on society, on civilians who are ignoring this unless intervention happens,” Dr. Roman Torgovitsky, a Harvard-trained biomedical scientist said in September. “We’re only a small part of the rehabilitation paradigm.”

Crimean Tatar leaders Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, who were sentenced to prison by Russian courts on the occupied peninsula in September, were released from custody on October 25 and arrived in Turkey, Ukrainian officials, legislators and lawyers said.

However, a court in Russia-occupied Crimea on September 22 found RFE/RL contributor Mykola Semena guilty on a charge of separatism and handed him a two-and-a-half-year suspended sentence in a case criticized by the West as politically motivated.

Mr. Poroshenko argued for a U.N. peacekeeping mission to enter Ukraine to quell fighting in the Donbas while addressing the U.N. General Assembly in September. Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite emphasized that Russia is an aggressor state at the same U.N. gathering. “Despite Russia’s special responsibility to protect international peace as permanent member of the Security Council, it violated the U.N. Charter by attacking Georgia, illegally annexing Crimea and directly participating in the war in eastern Ukraine,” she said.

The national president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) had called on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take the lead in a U.N. peacekeeping mission. Following a September 22 meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Toronto, Prime Minister Trudeau told reporters at a joint news conference with both leaders that a U.N. mission could ensure that “people are able to live their lives in peace and security in a way that upholds the principles of international law that, quite frankly, Russia violated with its illegitimate actions.”

A month later, on October 6, the Verkhovna Rada passed a law in the first of two readings that names Russia as an aggressor state pursuant to international conventions and enables the Armed Forces of Ukraine to better defend the country’s sovereign territory. Previously, the war was nominally deemed by law as an “anti-terrorist operation” that was de jure supposed to be led by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) – as actually was the case in the early stages of Moscow’s covert invasion starting in April 2014, when Kyiv lost control of numerous cities and towns in the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.

Now, the law “catches up with reality on the ground,” according to a note to investors by Kyiv-based Dragon Capital. The bill also deems areas not controlled by Kyiv in the Donbas as “temporarily occupied,” like a similar law currently in force regarding the Ukrainian territory of Crimea that Moscow forcibly took over in March 2014, following a sham referendum held on the peninsula in the presence of its disguised armed forces. “The law also gives more leeway for the president to enact martial law in the non-government-controlled areas of the Donbas,” Mariya Zolkina, political analyst for the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, told The Ukrainian Weekly.

It also, according to experts like Ms. Zolkina, legally solidifies Ukraine’s position to absolve itself of “what happens to its citizens in the occupied Donbas, whether financially, on a human or civil rights level… it places the onus” on the occupiers.

Ukrainians were reminded in 2017 that Russia is waging war on Ukraine throughout the country, not only in the Donbas.

Odesa-born Amina Okuyeva, 34, an ethnic Chechen, Donbas war veteran and overt critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was fatally shot in the head on October 30 in Kyiv Oblast.

www.inforesist.org

Odesa-born Amina Okuyeva, 34, an ethnic Chechen, Donbas war veteran and overt critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was fatally shot in the head on October 30 in Kyiv Oblast.

An Odesa-born medic and sniper of Chechen heritage who fought in the Donbas war was fatally shot in Kyiv Oblast. A bullet to the head killed Amina Okuyeva, 34, on October 30 while she was in the passenger side of a vehicle driven by her husband, Adam Osmaev, who was also wounded by automatic gunfire, authorities said. A day later, the SBU said it had detained a 29-year-old woman who planted a remote-controlled bomb that killed the deputy head of the spy agency’s counterintelligence unit in Donetsk Oblast on March 31.

Others alleged to have been Russian targets have died in car explosions. Col. Maksym Shapoval of military intelligence died in his vehicle when a bomb was set off in Kyiv in June. Authorities said a “Russian trail” was behind his death also.

All together some 1,600 Ukrainian law enforcement personnel and high-ranking government officials have been targets of assassinations that were prevented by the authorities, the chief military prosecutor, Mr. Matios, said on November 1.

Russia engages in lies on an industrial scale packaged as actual news stated Yevhen Fedchenko, 41, director of the Mohyla School of Journalism. In a November interview, he said he and his colleagues noticed the practice during the Revolution of Dignity that ended in February 2014. A month later, Mr. Fedchenko and his like-minded team took action when he noticed that amid a “news vacuum” on Ukraine, where there was “no government, no news makers, …immediately that vacuum was filled with fake news, a fake reality” – allegedly by Russia.

Soon, the StopFake group that he co-founded to debunk hoax news would become aware of the scope of Russia’s large cottage industry, complete with a troll factory in St. Petersburg, automated “bots” and fictitious social media accounts created to spread lies and disinformation on Ukraine.

Four years after the Euro-Maidan Revolution erupted in November 2013, political and sociological experts still believe that the following year, 2014, was a breakthrough year for Ukraine that firmly set the country’s course of development towards democratization and embracing European values. An “absolute majority” of 62 experts that the Kyiv-based policy center Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives polled in November said the main achievement of the popular uprising is European integration and the signing of a far-ranging political and free-trade agreement with the European Union, as well as the overthrow of Kremlin-backed former President Viktor Yanukovych and his cohort.

Canadian Ambassador Roman Waschuk told The Ukrainian Weekly that Ukraine had outlived its legacy of the 1990s. Back then, Leonid Kuchma was in his first of two terms as president and starting to build the corrupt, oligarchic economic model that the nation’s post-revolutionary government inherited in 2014 and has been replacing incrementally ever since.

Today, however, people in the West “need to modernize their view of the country” because “Ukrainians are able to feel they are owners of the cities in which they live,” Ambassador Waschuk said in an interview with The Ukrainian Weekly on November 29. “They help codify the space. They’re not takers, they’re also makers. That, for me, if you compare the 1990s to now, that’s a huge difference.”

At the end of the year, the U.S. special envoy for the Ukraine conflict said 2017 was the deadliest year in the region since the outbreak of violence three years ago. Ambassador Volker’s comments on December 19 came as international monitors reported intense shelling overnight near the town of Novoluhanske, part of the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas.

“A lot of people think that this has somehow turned into a sleepy, frozen conflict and it’s stable and now we have… a ceasefire. It’s a problem but it’s not a crisis,” Ambassador Volker said in a speech at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “That’s completely wrong. It is a crisis. This has been the most violent year, 2017, and frankly last night was one of the most violent nights, certainly since February, and possibly this year,” he said.

Russian shelling from occupied Horlivka damaged a kindergarten in Novoluhanske in Donetsk Oblast on December 18, a day before St. Nicholas Day.

Defense Ministry of Ukraine

Russian shelling from occupied Horlivka damaged a kindergarten in Novoluhanske in Donetsk Oblast on December 18, a day before St. Nicholas Day.

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