Kyiv moves to label Russia as aggressor in Donbas war

KYIV – Ukraine last week took a legislative step closer to reflect the fact that Russia is waging war against this nation of 42.5 million people – an unprovoked invasion that saw Crimea annexed and 3 percent of the easternmost Donbas region occupied by Kremlin-led forces nearly four years ago.

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 to better defend the nation’s sovereign territory.

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Neighbors balk at new education law that reinforces Ukraine’s state language

KYIV – Ukraine’s new law on education, which the Presidential Administration says is more inclusive towards minorities and will improve their integration into society, has received backlash from at least three countries in the region.

Russia, Hungary and Romania, all of which have sizable or concentrated minority enclaves in the country, have criticized the law that President Petro Poroshenko signed on September 25 and which went into effect three days later.

Mykola Semena

Semena handed suspended sentence in ‘separatism’ case

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. RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service said the 66-year-old Mr. Semena was also barred from “public activities” – apparently including journalism – for three years. RFE/RL President Thomas Kent condemned the verdict and sentence, describing them as “part of an orchestrated effort by Russian authorities in Crimea to silence independent voices.”

The European Union called the verdict “a clear violation of the freedom of expression and of the media.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said in a statement on September 22 that the verdict “represents another example of the deterioration of the human rights situation in the Crimean peninsula after its illegal annexation by Russia.”

The statement said that the EU remains “unwavering in its support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine” and called for the charges against Mr. Semena to be immediately dropped. Mr. Semena’s lawyer Emil Kurbedinov called his client’s sentence “a lesser evil” referring to its being suspended. “We will appeal the verdict and sentence at Crimea’s Supreme Court and other higher courts, but we will do that to officially exhaust all the appeals here to be eligible to refer the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

U.N. report on Crimea details grave human rights violations

GENEVA – The human rights situation in Crimea has significantly deteriorated under Russian occupation, says a United Nations report that details how residents there were affected when Ukrainian laws were substituted by those of Russia and Russian citizenship was imposed on tens of thousands of the peninsula’s residents. “Grave human rights violations, such as arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment and torture, and at least one extra-judicial execution were documented,” notes the report published on September 25 by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). “The citizenship issue has had a major impact on the lives of many residents of Crimea,” High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a press release. “As the report states, imposing citizenship on the inhabitants of an occupied territory can be equated to compelling them to swear allegiance to a power they may consider as hostile, which is forbidden under the Fourth Geneva Convention,” the high commissioner added. The report reiterates that the imposition of Russian citizenship affected tens of thousands of people, particularly three groups: those who formally rejected citizenship; civil servants who had to renounce their Ukrainian citizenship or lose their jobs; and Crimean residents who did not meet the legal criteria for citizenship and became foreigners.

Poroshenko to make repeat bid for U.N. peacekeepers in Donbas

KYIV – Historically, Ukraine has been in the top tier of contributors to United Nations peacekeeping missions in conflict zones worldwide. Now, one of the intergovernmental body’s truce contingents might land in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has waged an unprovoked war since April 2014, a month after it illegally annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was to leave Kyiv on September 15 to attend the 72nd session of the U.N. General Assembly, and he plans to address the U.N. Security Council next week. At the podium, post-Soviet Ukraine’s fifth president is scheduled to repeat the proposal he made more than two years ago: to send U.N. peacekeepers to the war-torn easternmost regions of Donetsk and Luhansk amid two internationally brokered ceasefires that never took hold since February 2015. Then, the West, namely Germany and France – which were integral in cementing a truce between Kyiv and Moscow – weren’t keen on the idea.

Mikheil Saakashvili in Przemysl (Peremyshl) in Poland before boarding a train bound for Ukraine on September 10. He is seen at a press briefing with Yulia Tymoshenko.

Saakashvili returns to Ukraine

Police serve him with notice on breaching border

LVIV – Ukrainian border-control authorities have formally read out a document to Mikheil Saakashvili on what officials said was his illegal entry into Ukraine on September 10. The ex-Georgian president and former governor of Ukraine’s Odesa region was served the notice on September 12 in front of a group of journalists and lawmakers outside of a hotel in Lviv, with police and border guards on hand. Ukraine’s state-run Ukrinform news agency reported that Mr. Saakashvili signed the document, acknowledging the allegations of an “administrative violation,” during the meeting outside the Leopolis Hotel in central Lviv, where he has been staying since September 10, when he and supporters broke through a line of Ukrainian border guards to cross from Poland to Ukraine. Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry was later quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that Mr. Saakashvili was in the country illegally but authorities were not intent on detaining him at the moment. Local media said he was ordered to appear at the Mostyskyi District Court of the Lviv region on September 18 for a hearing over the incident.

Akhtem Chiygoz

Crimean Tatar leader sentenced to eight years in prison after sham trial

SYMFEROPOL, Ukraine – A court in Ukraine’s Russian-controlled Crimea region has sentenced prominent Crimean Tatar leader Akhtem Chiygoz, to eight years in prison after what Amnesty International called a “sham trial.”

A court in the regional capital, Symferopol, sentenced Mr. Chiygoz on September 11 after finding him guilty of organizing an illegal demonstration there in February 2014. Mr. Chiygoz is the deputy chairman of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar assembly that was outlawed by Russia after it occupied and seized control of the Black Sea peninsula. In Kyiv, Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a strongly worded protest over the trial, verdict and sentence. It said Mr. Chiygoz was arrested for “his support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine and his fight for human rights.”

The case against Mr. Chiygoz was “yet another manifestation of Russia’s repressive policies on the Crimean peninsula aimed at suppressing dissent… and yet more evidence of discrimination against Crimean Tatars,” the ministry said.

Vasyl Bondar, 42, spent nearly nine months in the frontline town of Shyrokyne in Donetsk Oblast in a marine unit during his yearlong tour of duty.

Ukraine’s Donbas war veterans fight invisible foe of post-combat stress

KYIV – Vasyl Bondar faced a new foe when he came home from a tour of duty in a Ukrainian naval forces unit that included nearly nine months in the frontline Donetsk Oblast town of Shyrokyne where he often faced shelling from Russian-led forces.

Returning to civilian life in November 2016, the 42-year-old native Kyivan started fighting an enemy that was at once invisible and elusive.

Back-to-school ceasefire fails to take hold as Europe braces for Zapad military drills

KYIV – When the school year resumes on September 1, the more than 200,000 children living in the Donbas war zone will face life-threatening conditions. More than 54,000 children live in the Ukrainian government-controlled part of easternmost Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts alone, according to the United Nations. Like other interim truces within the larger Minsk peace agreement, the back-to-school ceasefire that was supposed to come into force at midnight on August 25 has failed to hold. Despite backing from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, who spoke by telephone on August 22, fighting continues along the 450-kilometer demarcation line in the war-torn area comprising 3 percent of Ukraine’s dismembered territory. One Ukrainian fighter from a volunteer unit has been killed so far, according to activists helping the war cause, and at least four have been wounded.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis with Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko. In the background are Kurt Volker, special representative for Ukraine negotiations, and Marie Yovanovitch, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

Mattis emphasizes support for Ukraine, says U.S. is considering lethal weapons

KYIV – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has accused Russia of seeking to “redraw international borders by force” and said that Washington is “actively reviewing” supplying Ukraine with lethal defensive weaponry. Mr. Mattis, the first U.S. defense chief to visit Ukraine in a decade, also reiterated that the United States “won’t accept” Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region. Mr. Mattis made the comments in Kyiv on August 24, the 26th anniversary of Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. “Have no doubt,” he said at a joint news conference with President Petro Poroshenko. “The United States stands with Ukraine.”

“On the defensive lethal weapons, we are actively reviewing it,” Secretary Mattis said, adding that he will inform Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump about his position on the issue “in very specific terms.”

“Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you are an aggressor, and clearly Ukraine is not an aggressor since it is their own territory where the fighting is happening,” Mr. Mattis said, appearing to signal support for Kyiv’s request for defensive weaponry, including possibly powerful anti-tank missiles.