Putin regime has two years at best, finance leaders say

KYIV – When the West imposed economic sanctions on Russia for its military aggression against Ukraine, its leaders assured the public that they would accomplish their goals of restoring order and peace better than a military response would have. Hence President Barack Obama’s restraint in supplying arms to Ukraine. Nearly two years later however, the Ukrainian public – forced to endure economic misery and possibly another military draft – is still anxiously waiting for the sanctions to force an end to the aggression. The latest forecasts that surfaced in recent weeks cite 2017 as the year when Vladimir Putin’s regime could begin to crumble. “I think it’s very clear that Russia is in a very, very weak position.

“Freedom in the World” 2016 report: Anxious dictators, wavering democracies

Ukraine rated as partly free, Russia appraised as not free

WASHINGTON – Economic downturns and fear of social unrest have led Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes to crack down harder on dissent, while mass migration and new forms of terrorism in 2015 fueled xenophobic sentiment in major democracies, according to “Freedom in the World 2016,” Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties. The report, which was released on January 27, marked 2015 as the 10th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. “In many countries with authoritarian governments, the drop in revenues from falling commodity prices led dictators to redouble political repression at home and lash out at perceived foreign enemies,” said Arch Puddington, senior vice-president for research at Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights. “Democratic countries came under strain from terrorist attacks and unprecedented numbers of refugees – problems emanating from regional conflicts such as the Syrian civil war,” Mr. Puddington said. The number of countries showing a decline in freedom for the year – 72 – was the largest since the 10-year slide began.

Donbas fields have frozen over, but for now the ceasefire holds

One year ago, bloody battles raged throughout the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. The traditional autumn “rasputitsa” (mud season) usually ends by January: The dirt freezes, allowing trucks, troops and heavy military equipment to maneuver through fields and use unpaved roads. By mid-January 2015, the Donbas separatist forces – armed, trained, led and often reinforced in battle by the Russian military – began a major offensive to capture the main terminal building of the Donetsk international airport, which was the scene of many months of pitched fighting. The joint Russian-separatist forces also attacked the crossroads town of Debaltseve, northeast of Donetsk, which had been held by Ukrainian troops deep inside separatist-controlled territory. By February 18, 2015, both military objectives were secured: the Ukrainian forces were defeated and fell back after suffering heavy losses.

Newsbriefs

Council of Europe to go to Crimea

STRASBOURG, France – Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland has announced he is sending a delegation to Crimea to assess the human rights situation on the peninsula. “More than 2.5 million people live in Crimea, they are all covered by the European Convention on Human Rights and should be able to benefit from it,” Mr. Jagland said in a statement on January 25. “However, for more than a year, no delegation from an international organization has been able to go there.” He stressed, “The mission will be conducted with full independence and will not deal with any issue related to the territorial status of Crimea.” Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 after a referendum dismissed in the West as bogus. Since Russia’s land grab, fundamental freedoms have “deteriorated radically” for many in Crimea, especially for pro-Ukrainian activists, journalists and the Crimean Tatar community. That was the finding of a report issued in September 2015 by the two bodies of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the High Commissioner on National Minorities.

Moscow shifting from direct aggression to building a fifth column in Ukraine

Given Moscow’s desire to get out from under the sanctions regime and the almost equal desire of some Western governments to declare victory and lift it, the Kremlin appears likely to do just enough to claim that it has fulfilled the Minsk accords and the West to accept that as sufficient to end the Ukrainian crisis. In that event, it is a near certainty the West will again focus on Moscow and look away from Ukraine even though Crimea will remain under Russian occupation. And as a result, Ukraine will be left largely on its own against what has always been part of the Kremlin’s strategy against it, and what seems certain to be the center of that strategy in the future: the use of a Russian-organized fifth column to subvert Ukraine and prevent it from making the kind of reforms that will allow it to integrate into Europe. Such a strategy will be especially useful to Moscow because it will seek to promote the idea that Ukraine’s problems are entirely of Ukraine’s own making, and that the West should view Kyiv as a poor partner, because whatever Vladimir Putin promises, he will take back whenever it suits him, counting on the West’s short memory and on its desire to have good relations with Russia. Further, the strategy is likely to work especially well in the short-term because of the enormous problems Kyiv will face in re-integrating the Donbas; problems that Moscow propagandists and their friends in the West can count on trumpeting to the world and exploiting to heighten other regional tensions in Ukraine (Segodnya.ua, January 25).

Girkin-Strelkov says he executed people in Sloviansk based on Stalin-era laws

For most of his 42-minute appearance on a radio talk show, former Russia-backed separatist commander Igor Girkin sounded like nothing more than a fanatic discussing a dream now widely dismissed as fantasy. He spoke of hopes for the creation of a “Novorossiya” – a New Russia stretching across much of Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Odesa, and one day joining a Russian empire including all of Belarus and Ukraine. It wasn’t until the last minute that the interview with Mr. Girkin went from surreal to chilling. Referring to his time commanding separatists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk in 2014, a host asks him how he stopped the rampant looting. “With executions,” Mr. Girkin said matter-of-factly.

Zakharchenko admits to razing Ukrainian village

A separatist leader in eastern Ukraine has admitted to burning down a village at the height of fighting more than a year ago, while praising a proposal for restoring the place. Aleksandr Zakharchenko’s remarks came as his pro-Russian separatist group, which calls itself the Donetsk People’s Republic, held a Youth Socio-Political Forum that was billed as a platform for local students to present a range of project proposals. Students from the so-called Donbas National Academy of Construction and Architecture presented their concept for the tiny village of Kozhevnya, once home to around 69 residents, according to census data. The area was the site of some of the fiercest battles between Ukrainian national forces and separatists in the summer of 2014. The Russia-backed separatists held the village until July 23, 2014, when troops loyal to Kyiv forced them to retreat.

A vision of home

As he lay dying in their Miami Beach condominium, my uncle kept asking his wife when they would go home. Home, of course, meant Ukraine. Perhaps he meant specifically the apartment they had bought in Lviv, where he would never live. Or perhaps he meant something more general  – “home” not just as a place, but as a milieu, an atmosphere, a sensation of familial well-being. He had known little of that.

What a difference a date makes

“We should live according to the European, world calendar, not the Muscovite one.” (Ukraine)

“It is not good to leave tradition. But, in order to separate ourselves from the Muscovites, we can try.” (Ukraine)

“I treasure January 6 and 7. For me it is a true Christmas with none of the commercialism.” (U.S.A.)

The issue had been dormant since the early 1960s, when many Ukrainian Catholic parishes in North America voted to adopt the Gregorian calendar instead of the Julian, which had been in practice for centuries in Ukraine and here. Then, all of a sudden, truly out of the blue this Christmas, discussion in Ukraine turned to having Ukrainian Churches celebrate Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar, on December 25. The Internet buzzed with statements (like the ones above) from politicians, religious leaders, prominent cultural activists and average citizens about the need for a change.

Astonished by UCCA response

Dear Editor:

I write to express astonishment at the UCCA’s post-State of the Union press release (January 24). During his speech, President Barack Obama said that “Russia is pouring resources in to prop up Ukraine and Syria – client states that they saw slipping away from their orbit.” Although Russia has intruded in both, it is supporting separatists in Ukraine and the government in Syria. Thus, the attempt rhetorically to capture the parallel damage between Russia’s two actions did not work and is regrettable. That said, the UCCA’s unhinged response to this mistake is beyond the pale. After quoting from the president’s speech (but in part misrepresenting what he had said, i.e., he did not say that Ukraine had slipped away from Russia’s orbit but that this was how Russia viewed it), the UCCA stated: “President Obama once again demonstrated a shocking ignorance of foreign policy hotspots.