Crimean peninsula as playground for Russian-Ukrainian spy war

A Russian court in occupied Sevastopol back on November 16, 2017, sentenced Ukrainian former military expert Dmitry Shtyblykov to five years imprisonment in a strict penal colony (Regnum, November 16). Mr. Shtyblykov worked at the think tank Nomos, which, prior to the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, operated in Sevastopol. A year earlier, on November 9, 2016, he was apprehended in that Black Sea port city, together with two other suspects – Vladimir Dudtko and Alexey Bessarabov (the latter had also worked at Nomos) (Krymr.com, November 10, 2016). All three men are former Ukrainian officers. According to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), these “subversive and terrorist groups” of the Ukrainian Intelligence Service “were aiming to commit acts of sabotage on the military infrastructure facilities and livelihood of the Crimean peninsula” (Fsb.ru, November 10, 2016).

RFE/RL reporters faced ‘relentless pressure’ in 2017

WASHINGTON – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalists have been targeted in no fewer than 38 incidents in at least 12 of the countries they cover in 2017, in what the company has called “relentless pressure” on its journalistic mission. “We report on local politics, social issues, corruption, wars and extremist movements in places where both governments and non-state actors would prefer to control the media,” said RFE/RL President Thomas Kent. “Our reporters take enormous risks because they believe their work matters and that free societies need a free press.”

The number of incidents represents an increase over previous years and coincides with a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that says the record number of journalists jailed worldwide this year is indicative of “a global crisis in freedom of the press.” RFE/RL reporters work in many of the countries where CPJ documented imprisoned journalists, including Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Ukraine, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. Among the most serious cases, RFE/RL contributor Mykola Semena is serving a two-and-a-half-year suspended sentence following a conviction on “separatism” charges in Russia-annexed Crimea. On December 18, 2017, the peninsula’s Supreme Court let stand Mr. Semena’s conviction and sentence, but reduced a ban on his “public activities” from three years to two.

FBI investigation of Trump administration ‘deprives Putin of exit strategy on Ukraine’

The appointment of Robert Mueller as special investigator of Russian interference in the 2016 election may well prove to be the most significant event for the future of Russian-American relations because it “deprives Russia of a chance for an effective ‘exit strategy’ from its Ukrainian adventure,” according to Russian historian Vladimir Pastukhov. “Russia never was ready for and did not in fact want to ‘fall into’ a global conflict with the U.S. and the entire Western world” because neither its economy nor its military are capable of withstanding such a clash for very long, the St. Antony’s College (Oxford University) historian argues (polit.ru/article/2018/01/01/worldpolitics/). Such a confrontation in fact “threatens Russia with the very same outcome that it did the late USSR,” Mr. Pastukhov continues. The Kremlin in fact understood that when it began its Ukrainian adventure, but it believed the West and especially the U.S. were “inclined to ‘a big deal’ ” about spheres of influence as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or the Helsinki Final Act did.

U.S. special envoy says 2017 was deadliest year in Ukraine conflict and warns of spiking violence

The U.S. special envoy for the Ukraine conflict has said 2017 was the deadliest year in the region since the outbreak of violence three years ago, and warned that hostilities are again ratcheting up. Kurt 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. United Nations officials reported eight civilians injured and dozens of homes damaged, with winter temperatures complicating matters. “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.

Bellingcat identifies key figure in downing of MH17

A respected international investigative group says it has identified a senior Russian general as a figure of interest in the downing of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine in 2014. The Bellingcat investigative group – which uses sophisticated digital techniques to analyze open-source audio and visual data – issued a report on December 8 alleging that a man identified on intercepted communications as “Delfin” (Dolphin) is retired Russian Col. Gen. Nikolai Tkachyov, who is currently serving as the chief inspector of Russia’s Central Military District. The Dutch-led Joint Investigative Team (JIT), which investigated the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) over eastern Ukraine and issued its findings in September 2016, previously published audio files of five intercepted communications between individuals identified by the pseudonyms Delfin and Orion. The JIT is seeking additional information about the men, though it remains unclear what possible role they may have played in the downing of the airliner.

United Nations says fighting fuels ‘dire’ situation in eastern Ukraine

The United Nations says daily ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine have led to more civilian deaths and “further aggravated a dire human rights and humanitarian situation” as temperatures drop. In a report published on December 12, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that increased fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatists resulted in at least 15 deaths and 72 injuries among civilians from August 16 to November 15. In total, at least 2,818 civilians have been killed, and up to 9,000 others injured since the start of the conflict in April 2014. The death toll includes the 298 passengers and crew aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17), which was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 by a missile system that a Dutch-led investigation found had been brought into separatist-held territory from Russia and returned to Russia afterwards. The OCHCR recorded 10,303 conflict-related deaths between April 14, 2014, and November 15, 2017, the report said.

OSCE’s year-end conference fails to deal with ongoing conflicts

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has shown itself to be incapable of enforcing its own resolutions. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) annual ministerial conference, held on December 7-8, in Vienna, exposed yet again the 57-member international organization’s incapacity to hold its own against Russia. The latter used its veto power as a member to block any and all inconvenient draft declarations and resolutions during the Vienna conference or already in the run-up to it. The Russian veto pattern is a familiar one, but there have been some past cases when the OSCE’s chairmanship-in-office (the position rotates annually) would issue a Chair’s statement, which is veto-proof, for at least minimal redress to the organization’s reputation. At this Vienna ministerial, Russia vetoed references to Crimea and the war in Ukraine’s east – the most salient European security issue at this time – from the conference’s draft documents.

Kyiv concerned Council of Europe might cave to Russian ‘blackmail’

KYIV – Ukrainian officials and politicians have reacted with alarm to reports that the Council of Europe is considering lifting sanctions imposed against Russia over its military intervention in Crimea out of fears that Moscow might otherwise leave the body. “We are extremely concerned,” Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s ambassador to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), told RFE/RL from Strasbourg on November 27. “The issue now goes far beyond interests of Ukraine. It’s in the interests of the entire region to defend the Council of Europe from Russian blackmail and leaning toward Russia.”

Mr. Kuleba’s comments came after the Financial Times (FT) reported on November 26 that Moscow was demanding that its voting rights in PACE – which were revoked in 2014 in response to Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula – be restored, and that the secretary-general of the Council of Europe was lobbying in support of the idea. FT said Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland had been touring European capitals warning that Moscow could withdraw from the 47-member Council of Europe, which oversees the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), unless its demands were met.

Coveting thy neighbor: Russia’s Kerch bridge enabling seizure of Ukrainian oil and gas

In the heat of the spring and summer of 2014, a full-scale Russian invasion to create a land bridge to recently annexed Crimea appeared overwhelmingly likely. Such a move by Russia never materialized, though fears of its imminent possibility continued to crop up as violence and tensions along the Donbas frontline flared up periodically over the past several years (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, March 30). Yet, throughout this time, the Kremlin continued to seek to cement its hold on the Crimean peninsula. The long-dreamed-of Russian bridge to Crimea was seen as the solution, and planning began in March 2014 (TASS, April 21, 2016). The combined road-and-rail bridge that will link Russia proper with Crimea (whose only physical land connection is with Ukraine) is currently under construction.

Kremlin turns Belarus into bridgehead for anti-Ukrainian provocations

In recent months, Russia has repeatedly used Belarus for provocations against Ukraine. The latest example was the arrest of Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sharoyko by the Belarusian KGB – an incident in which the hand of Moscow is clearly perceptible. The Sharyoko case, as well as a series of separate episodes, illustrate that many of Minsk’s decisions concerning Ukraine are actually being developed in Moscow. Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sharoyko was detained by the Belarusian KGB in Minsk on October 25. He was accused of “espionage,” a standard charge for foreign correspondents (Interfax, November 17).