November 10, 2017

Newsbriefs

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Proposal to cut ties with Russia

A lawmaker from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s party has told RFE/RL he plans to propose legislation that would sever diplomatic relations with Russia. Ivan Vinnyk spoke to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service on November 8, after reports that he had already submitted the proposal prompted criticism from Moscow. The proposal comes as the Verkhovna Rada considers a bill governing what lawmakers hope will be the “reintegration” of parts of eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists whose war against Kyiv has killed more than 10,000 people since April 2014. The single-chamber Parliament approved the bill in its first of two required votes on October 6. The second and final vote, which would send the bill to President Poroshenko if it is approved by the Rada, is expected next week. Mr. Vinnyk told RFE/RL that he has not yet submitted an amendment that would require Ukraine to cut diplomatic ties with Moscow but intends to do so. His proposal would “oblige the Cabinet of Ministers, within three months from the date of entry into force of this law, to denounce, terminate, withdraw the signature under the protocol on the establishment of diplomatic relations between Ukraine and Russia.” After that, he added, “diplomatic ties will be terminated. This does not mean that we will not be able to support a certain amount of trade relations if necessary, [or] that Ukrainians will not be able to travel to Russia.” The Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry declined to comment on the plan. Russian officials and pro-Kremlin politicians lashed out swiftly following reports that Mr. Vinnyk had proposed cutting off ties. “If such a decision is taken… it will further complicate the situation and… damage the interests of people both in Ukraine itself and in Russia,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. He also suggested it would undermine efforts to end the war in eastern Ukraine, which persists despite a European-brokered pact on a ceasefire and steps to end the conflict and restore Ukrainian control over separatist-held areas. Mr. Putin is likely to discuss the war in Ukraine with U.S. President Donald Trump at a possible meeting on the sidelines of a November 10-11 Asia-Pacific economic summit in Vietnam. The U.S. envoy for efforts to end the conflict, Kurt Volker, said last week that he plans to meet with Kremlin envoy Vladislav Surkov on November 13 in Belgrade. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, with reporting by Interfax and TASS)

U.N. warns of humanitarian impact

The United Nations has raised “extreme” concern that an escalation of fighting near water infrastructures in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk could lead to a deadly chlorine gas disaster. The U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, Neal Walker, said on November 8 that two water filter stations on both sides of the contact line separating government-held territory and separatist-controlled territory have been shelled over recent days. “The U.N. is extremely concerned about the possible release of hazardous chlorine gas stored at both filter stations,” a statement said. “If a single 900 kilogram gas container is hit, anyone within 200 meters might receive fatal dose of the poisonous gas.” The statement said that the Donetsk Filter Station has been shelled for three consecutive nights in the past six days, while the Verkhniokalmiuska Filter Station was hit more than 12 times in one single night. It also said that the recent escalation of hostilities near water, electricity and gas supply infrastructure in the Donetsk region threatens to disrupt essential services such as water and heating amid freezing temperatures. Some 1.1 million people on both sides of the contact line could be deprived of clean water as a result of the fighting, according to Mr. Walker. “Without sustained essential water supply, heating systems will stop and health conditions will deteriorate,” he said. “Children, the elderly, women, and people with disabilities may flee their homes in search of heat and shelter.” (RFE/RL)

Ceasefire violated with heavy artillery

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said on November 6 that Russia-backed militants have used heavy artillery in persistent ceasefire violations in the Donetsk region over the previous 24 hours. It said that two soldiers were wounded. A ministry statement said the militants violated the ceasefire 23 times, firing at areas near the towns of Avdiyivka and Opytne with rocket launchers, 82-millimeter mortars, and heavy machine guns. Ukrainian positions near the towns of Pisky, Novotoshkivske and Novooleksandrivka were targeted by mortar and artillery fire, the statement said. It also said the militants used anti-tank grenade launchers near the town of Vodiane. Fighting between Kyiv’s forces and the Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions has killed more than 10,000 people since April 2014. Several ceasefire deals announced as part of the Minsk accords – September 2014 and February 2015 pacts aimed to resolve the conflict – have reduced fighting but not stopped it. The latest ceasefire was agreed on August 22 in a phone call among the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine. (RFE/RL)

U.S.: implement full ceasefire

U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert noted at the Department press briefing on November 7 that two water filtration plants in eastern Ukraine have been subjected to shelling in recent days. “It is considered especially dangerous because some shells have fallen as close to as 50 meters from chlorine gas storage tanks at the facilities. A hit on the tanks would cause a major catastrophe, gassing people at the plant, possibly even those in nearby towns, as well as disrupting the supply of clean drinking water in the area,” she said. “The Minsk agreements call for a full ceasefire along the line of contact, a ceasefire that Russian-led forces have never fully respected. We call on the Russian-led forces to implement a genuine ceasefire and especially to cease shelling around the filtration plant and withdraw heavy weapons to the agreed-upon lines.” (Ukrainian Canadian Congress Daily Briefing)

Poroshenko, Tillerson discuss peacekeeping 

The Ukrainian presidential office says President Petro Poroshenko and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have discussed the possibility of sending United Nations peacekeepers to eastern Ukraine. A statement released on November 4 said Messrs. Poroshenko and Tillerson held a telephone conversation during which they “coordinated further steps for the deployment of an international U.N. mission” in the separatist-held parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, including the border between those areas and Russia, which Kyiv says is used to ship weapons and military personnel in from Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin in September proposed deploying U.N. peacekeepers on the contact line separating the sides of the conflict. The plan swiftly drew criticism from both Kyiv and the West, in part because of concerns that deployment only along the frontline would cement Russian control over separatist-held territory. According to President Poroshenko’s office, Secretary of State Tillerson informed him that Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell plans to visit Ukraine in November. (RFE/RL)

Shoigu meets new U.S. ambassador

The Russian Defense Ministry says Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman discussed bilateral relations and international security issues during a meeting on November 2. The meeting took place at the Defense Ministry in Moscow, a short statement said. It did not provide further details. Ambassador Huntsman took up his post in Moscow last month at a time of severe tension between Russia and the United States. Ties are badly strained over issues including Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, its actions in Syria, and what the U.S. intelligence community says was a concerted attempt to meddle in the U.S. presidential election in 2016. Receiving Mr. Huntsman’s credentials at a Kremlin ceremony on October 3, Russian President Vladimir Putin voiced dissatisfaction with the state of bilateral relations and said that Russia wants “constructive, predictable, and mutually advantageous cooperation,” but gave no indication whether Moscow plans to take steps in that direction. Speaking on October 7, the new U.S. ambassador to Russia said that he wants to improve relations with Russia, but he insisted the first step would be for Moscow to return Ukrainian control to territory within its internationally recognized borders. “This is an issue not only with the United States, but with Europe, Canada, and virtually every other developed country,” said Mr. Huntsman. (RFE/RL)

U.S. Army notes milestones in Ukraine

U.S. Army Europe reported, “Just this past month, a new grenade range was opened on the Yavoriv Combat Training Center, meeting yet another major milestone of the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine mission.” The report went on to note that Maj. Montana Dugger, the brigade engineer for the JMTG-U and the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, who oversaw the project from start to finish, said that the new training facility is a complete redesign and meets all NATO safety standards. It improves the training for the rotational unit and moves Ukraine closer to overall NATO interoperability, he explained. U.S. Army Europe also reported: “Ukrainian army battalions rotate through the CTC in 55-day training cycles, working their way through individual soldier tasks and squad-level training all the way up to a culminating battalion-level force-on-force exercise. Training is often in the spotlight, but direct training is just one small part of the overall JMTG-U mission. The mission actually consists of five lines of effort and each one is equally important to the long-term success of the CTC. The five main efforts are rotational unit training, operations group development, opposing force development, instrumentation, training aids, devices and simulators and simulations, commonly referred to as ITADSS, and lastly, facilities and range operations improvements. The completion of the grenade range falls under the lattermost effort.” (Ukrainian Canadian Congress Daily Briefing)

Canadian troops continue Operation UNIFIER

An update on Operation UNIFIER published by Canada’s Department of National Defense stated that, “With the arrival of the fifth rotation of Operation UNIFIER troops in September, a Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) Battalion has deployed to the International Peace Support Centre (IPSC) ready to receive training from a U.S. and Canadian training battalion.” The statement noted: “Members from two Canadian Mechanized Brigade Groups, based in Petawawa, are responsible to teach alongside UAF instructors as they run a Rotational Training Unit (RTU) through a 55-day training cycle. The aim is to improve training delivery among the UAF instructor cadre, build relationships among international partners, and further UAF and NATO compatibility. The Canadian staff are prepared to provide the expertise aimed at advancing UAF training delivery methods. Through and with Ukrainian instructors, Canadians will train UAF at the individual and collective levels. The training begins with first aid, military planning, small arms handling and firing, armor vehicle training and subsequently collective training. It culminates with a battalion-level field exercise. Canadians are willing to learn as well, and look forward to hearing about the tactics that UAF are employing in operations. These efforts also include working with UAF to determine what institutional changes are needed to move closer to NATO compatibility. …” (Ukrainian Canadian Congress Daily Briefing)

Minister’s son is detained, released

Reports from Ukraine said anti-corruption investigators had detained the son of Internal Affairs Minister Arsen Avakov on October 31. Sources in the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) after his home in Kharkiv was searched. The next day, the internal affairs minister’s son, was released on his own recognizance after agreeing to wear an ankle monitor and to hand in his passport. Minister Avakov had confirmed to the Ukrayinska Pravda news site that detectives “came to my son to conduct a search.” NABU said in a statement that it detained three individuals, including a former deputy minister of internal affairs and a businessman, in an embezzlement case. It said the investigation relates to the alleged embezzlement of 14 million hrv ($520,000 U.S.) of state budget funds allocated to the Internal Affairs Ministry to buy backpacks in 2014-2015. Earlier in the day, NABU confirmed Facebook media reports saying that searches were conducted at the residences of “individuals believed to be involved” in the case, but did not give any names. Meanwhile Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry said it considers NABU’s actions “grounded in politics rather than the law.” A statement said: “A hybrid war that is going on in Ukraine focuses on discrediting politicians and officials who firmly stand for reforming and improving state institutions, in particular the law enforcement system,” adding, “During his tenure as internal affairs minister, false information about the minister, members of his family and his closest colleagues has been disseminated to discredit Arsen Avakov.” In February, NABU had said that a probe into the alleged embezzlement of state budget funds allocated for purchasing 6,000 backpacks by the Internal Affairs Ministry for Ukraine’s armed forces fighting Russia-backed separatists in the country’s east was being concluded. The younger Mr. Avakov faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted of “embezzling, wasting, or obtaining assets through abuse of power.” (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, with reporting by AFP, AP, 112.ua and Ukrayinska Pravda)

UCC on Internment Commemoration Day

The Ukrainian Canadian Congress on October 28 released a statement on National Internment Commemoration Day. The statement reads: “In 2014, the Endowment Council of the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund and the UCC Internment Committee adopted resolutions designating October 28 as National Internment Commemoration Day in Canada. On this day, we commemorate Canada’s First National Internment Operations (1914-1920) – the forced internment of 8,579 Ukrainians and other Europeans, who were branded ‘enemy aliens’ and sent to 24 internment camps across Canada. Men, women and children suffered during Canada’s First National Internment Operations, not because of anything they had done, but only because of who they were and where they had come from. On this day, we remember the victims of this injustice. And we are united in our resolve to bring an end to prejudice and discrimination, wherever they may appear. We encourage all Canadians to mark this important day of commemoration in their communities.” (UCC)

Medvedchuk’s bodyguards attack journalists

Journalists working on a joint project by RFE/RL and Ukraine’s UA: Pershiy (First) television channel say they were attacked by masked bodyguards at Kyiv’s Zhuliany Airport while working on a report about the arrival from Russia of Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of the pro-Russian Ukrainian Choice organization. Mykhaylo Tkach, an RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent with the Skhemy (Schemes) project, said on Facebook that masked men attacked the journalists late on November 7 and prevented them from filming the arrival of the politician and his plane. “They elbowed us, pushed us, tripped us and kicked the camera out of our cameraman’s hands twice,” Mr. Tkach wrote. “They blocked our vehicle with a dashboard camera in it so that we were unable to film the landing of Viktor Medvedchuk’s plane arriving from Russia and him passing through the terminal.” Mr. Tkach said the masked men appeared to be the same bodyguards who work for Mr. Medvedchuk at Zhuliany Airport whenever he boards flights for Moscow or returns from visits to Russia. The chief editor of the Skhemy project, RFE/RL journalist Natalia Sedletska, said Mr. Medvedchuk’s bodyguards had been trying to disrupt her team’s work for several weeks. “This is the latest in a series of recent attacks targeting journalists with our investigative team Schemes, with the evident intent to intimidate them and deter their reporting,” said RFE/RL President Thomas Kent. “We demand a thorough investigation to identify the perpetrators and hold them accountable, and a credible response from the Ukrainian government to stop these attacks and ensure that our journalists can do their jobs safely and without fear,” he added. Mr. Medvedchuk is a Ukrainian politician who has close personal ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is a regular participant in negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists. There were no immediate official statements from Mr. Medvedchuk or from Ukrainian authorities about the reported attack. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

Russia denies house arrest for teenager

A Russian court has denied a house arrest request from a Ukrainian teenager held in custody on terrorism-related charges. The Krasnodar Regional Court on November 7 upheld a lower court’s decision to keep Pavlo Hryb in pretrial detention until January 4. Mr. Hryb, 19, went missing in late August after he traveled to Belarus to meet a woman he met online in what his relatives believe was a trap set by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). The FSB subsequently informed Kyiv that Mr. Hryb was held in a detention center in Russia on suspicion of abetting terrorism, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Mr. Hryb’s father, Ihor Hryb, has said his son was openly critical of Russian interference in Ukraine on social media. Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Maryana Betsa protested the teen’s continued detention in a message on Twitter. “There is no law in Russia… A human life does not mean anything [there]. We demand that Russia releases illegally detained Ukrainian P. Hryb,” Ms. Betsa wrote. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, with reporting by censor.net.ua)

City council member found dead 

Police in conflict-torn eastern Ukraine have launched a murder investigation after a city council member in the government-held Luhansk region city of Severodonetsk was found dead, his skull broken. Serhiy Samarskiy’s body was found outside his apartment building shortly after midnight, regional police spokeswoman Tatyana Pohukay wrote on Facebook on November 3. She said an investigation on suspicion of “premeditated murder” has been opened. Severdonetsk became the de-facto capital of the Luhansk region after Russia-backed forces seized control of the official capital, Luhansk, and several other districts in 2014. Mr. Samarskiy, 55, was a member of President Petro Poroshenko’s party. He initiated a 2015 decision by the Severodonetsk City Council to label Russia an aggressor country. The city is about 50 kilometers from the frontline in the conflict between government forces and the Russian-backed militants, which has killed more than 10,000 people in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions since April 2014. (RFE/RL)

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