January 15, 2021

2020: In Ukraine: A pandemic, as war in the east continues

People in Kyiv, masked and unmasked, entering an underpass.


In this photo from late June, people in Kyiv, masked and unmasked, enter an underpass. As of August 17, Kyiv was designated as being in the yellow epidemiological zone for COVID-19. As of November 12, all of Ukraine was considered an orange zone.

As in most of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic did not spare Ukraine in 2020 and even reached a Chilean research center in Antarctica in December. In March, the same month that Ukraine recorded its first case of the coronavirus that originated in China in 2019, authorities in Kyiv imposed strict restrictive measures to stave off the spread of the highly transmissible disease.

Only essential stores were allowed to stay open, and even the Kyiv subway was closed; public transportation was limited for a while in the early spring. Medical workers were trained to treat COVID-19 patients, and special hospital wards were established as the country’s dilapidated health-care system braced for hospitalizations.

By the end of the year, exactly 1,064,479 people had been officially recorded to have tested for the virus, which had claimed 18,680 lives by January 1, 2021.

Toward the end of the year, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office announced it had pre-ordered nearly 2 million vaccine doses from China’s biggest vaccine maker. That vaccine is still awaiting approval from Beijing health officials and the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO).

In addition, Kyiv expects to receive at least 8 million more doses in the first quarter of 2021 through COVAX, a WHO-led initiative to distribute vaccines free to lower-income countries. And Health Minister Maksym Stepanov is in bilateral talks with Poland and other countries to purchase additional doses with the overall objective of inoculating half of the country’s estimated population of 44 million people throughout the year.

Cabinet of Ministers

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal discussed new COVID-19 measures during a Cabinet of Ministers meeting on December 9, while Minister of Health Maksym Stepanov joined the meeting via videoconference.

Ukraine also established a special $2.4 billion COVID-19 fund for combating the virus and to avert a severe public-health crisis, but opposition lawmakers and watchdogs like the Anticorruption Action Center have criticized authorities for how the money has been allocated.

By November 27, according to the Finance Ministry, only 59 percent of the fund had been spent, with more than half of the money going toward the president’s much-touted nationwide infrastructure project of building roads and bridges, and upgrading river and sea ports. Only $204 million had been distributed toward the construction or renovation of medical facilities and compensation for medical staff.

The same month, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said in a report that “masks, protective suits and ventilators are in short supply” in Ukrainian medical facilities.

COVID-19’s disruption in dollar figures means that economic output was slated to shrink to $146 billion by year-end, representing a yearly drop of 4.8 percent, Economy Minister Ihor Petrashko said in a televised briefing in late December.

Foreign direct investment (FDI) for the first nine months of 2020 amounted to only 22 percent of that in 2019, the U.S. Congress-chartered Wilson Center wrote.

Ahead of the 17-day stricter lockdown that was to start on January 8, 2021, taxpayers registered as self-employed and small business owners staged protest rallies in Kyiv in December, even setting up a makeshift tent city. As early as May, anti-lockdown protests started and mayors in Cherkasy, Ternopil and Lviv have been reported to flout the softer measures implemented over two weekends in November.

When little was known about the animal-to-human disease, an angry mob on February 20 attacked a bus transporting 47 Ukrainians and 27 foreigners who had been evacuated from China, then the epicenter of the virus. They were en route to a health recreation center in Poltava Oblast where they were placed under observation for two weeks.

About 20 protesters were arrested in a Poltava region village and authorities faced criticism for not properly informing the public while then-Health Minister Zoryana Skaletska said the widespread dissemination of “fake information” had caused the panic.


The Donbas war

Fifty-six Ukrainian military personnel, including one woman, died in the Russia-instigated war in the Donbas that encompasses certain areas of the two easternmost regions of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, or about 4 percent of the country’s land area. As Ukraine enters its seventh year in the unprovoked conflict, Mr. Zelenskyy’s administration brokered another truce that has remained fragile yet calmed the intensity of combat to a simmering level as of July 27.

Pursuant to a decision reached that month by the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG), consisting of negotiators from Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an agreement was made for a “full and comprehensive ceasefire.”

Since then, Ukrainian combat losses have decreased to a tenth of what they were, and the current 450-mile frontline facing armed elements that Russia leads, trains, supplies and fights beside is in a state of trench warfare consisting of sporadic artillery fire and sniper duels.

A prisoner exchange – the second during Mr. Zelenskyy’s tenure – took place on April 16, with 20 Ukrainian captives freed in place of 14 prisoners that Kyiv released to the other side. The swap took place at the Mayorske border crossing point in the Donetsk region and near the town of Shchastia in the Luhansk region.

A total of 3,253 people have returned from captivity over the years of the war in the Donbas.

Currently, 251 Ukrainian citizens are held captive in the temporarily occupied territories of the Donbas, according to Ukrainian ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova, and about 100 more are considered to be political prisoners in Russia and Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that the Kremlin illegally annexed in early 2014.

Three major peace agreements, two brokered in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, exist that call for an “all-for-all” prisoner exchange. Mr. Zelenskyy officially met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during the first year of his presidency in Paris as part of the Normandy format of peace talks with the leaders of Germany and France. They were supposed to meet again four months after their December 2019 meeting, but that has not happened.

During the past year, Russia increased its demands that Ukraine hold peace negotiations with its proxies in the Donbas through the TCG. In response, Kyiv in spring added displaced people to the TCG roundtable. They include notable journalist Denys Kazansky and doctor and lawyer Serhiy Harmash. Ukraine has been reluctant to hold direct negotiations with Moscow’s puppets in the Donbas over fears it would legitimize their authority and portray the war as a civil conflict instead of a covert Russian invasion and ensuing occupation.

In November, Oleksii Reznikov, deputy prime minister of Ukraine for reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories, reported in a commentary for the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank that “we opened two new [civilian entry-exit] checkpoints in Luhansk Oblast.” There are now six civilian checkpoints along the contact line, but they remain largely closed because occupying forces in the Donbas have shuttered them, ostensibly over the spread of the coronavirus from the Ukrainian government-controlled side, further isolating citizens living in occupied territory.

Both Kyiv and the Kremlin have exchanged blame over the stalled peace process in a war that has killed more than 14,000 people and displaced more than 1 million, causing a humanitarian crisis in the east.

The cumulative damage so far in the east will require a minimum of $21.7 billion for relief and recovery efforts, according to a report by the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies.


Crimea’s water problem

The inhabitants of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula continue to be persecuted, according to the United Nations. A resolution passed in September by the international body once again called on Russia to withdraw from Crimea.

Hundreds of Russian business entities and individuals still face financial and other sanctions from the U.S., the European Union and numerous countries over Moscow’s takeover of the territory, as well as over separate military action in the Donbas.

The nonbinding U.N. resolution “urges the Russian Federation, as the occupying power, immediately, completely and unconditionally to withdraw its military forces from Crimea and end its temporary occupation of the territory of Ukraine without delay.” It also calls on Russia to stop the transfer of advanced weapons systems, including nuclear-capable aircraft and missiles, weapons, ammunition and military personnel “to the territory of Ukraine.”

Arbitrary arrests of inhabitants of the peninsula by occupying Russian authorities have targeted Crimean Tatars in particular, rights groups like Amnesty International and the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group have stated.

Mr. Zelenskyy on May 18 remembered the victims of Joseph Stalin’s genocidal deportation of the Crimean Tatar people in 1944, when about 200,000 people were deported from the peninsula via cattle cars. In a statement issued on the solemn anniversary, the president said: “We believe that the day will surely come when Crimea will return to Ukraine. Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians will return to their native homes, gather at the same table to say together: ‘Bizim ve siziñ azatlığıñız içün! For your and our freedom!’”

Controversy followed in March when Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal mentioned the possibility of renewing water supply to Crimea. The peninsula was largely dependent on mainland Ukraine for fresh water, and Russia has failed, since taking over Crimea, to find a solution, including desalination efforts.

“The issue of supplying water to occupied Crimea is not a matter of trade with the invader. It is not a matter of business. It is a matter of humanitarian responsibility before people who live in Crimea. Failure to supply water will lead to a humanitarian catastrophe… We won’t turn the water off at the mainline… We cannot stop giving water to Ukrainians,” Mr. Shmyhal said then.

Former Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin then wrote on social media that supplying Crimea with water would be the “end of the fight for Crimea. It will not be a problem for Russia. For them, Crimea is a military base, and the people are mere appendages to it.”


Government reshuffles

Since being sworn into office in May 2019, President Zelenskyy has ushered in two governments, including one last year. In March, he dismissed his first Cabinet of Ministers, just half a year after taking office. The relatively unknown Denys Shmyhal was named prime minister. “Many senior members of the government also departed in the reshuffle, with new finance, foreign and defense ministers appointed,” the Atlantic Council wrote on its website.

The president blamed his previous Cabinet of cowing to Western countries that financially assist Ukraine by appointing foreigners to boards of state-owned companies. “With all respect to our international partners and with all appreciation for their help, the citizens of our country on governing boards of our companies are feeling like an ethnic minority,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in a speech in the Verkhovna Rada, where a vote was needed to dismiss the Cabinet.

While blaming the ministers, Mr. Zelenskyy also offered praise and thanks that none had become involved in a corruption scandal in the six months they had served.

Toward the end of the year, the president instituted a moderate reshuffle in the Cabinet of Ministers amid dwindling approval ratings in his job performance, multiple surveys showed.

Oleh Tatarov, the president’s deputy chief of staff responsible for law enforcement, said on December 21 that he would recuse himself of certain duties in order to cooperate with investigators and avoid a conflict of interest in a large-scale corruption case in which he is a suspect.

Another change in the Presidential Office that same day was the resignation of Yulia Kovaliv, a deputy chief of staff responsible for economics and investment. After 15 months on the job, she described her tenure on Facebook as “an unbelievable experience… in a complicated time for the country.”

The Verkhovna Rada on December 17 confirmed the appointment of Serhiy Shkarlet as education and science minister. The move was a promotion for Mr. Shkarlet, who had been serving as the acting education and science minister since June.

The academic community, including the independent National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and the National Agency for Higher Education Quality Assurance (NAQA), have opposed his appointment and accused him of plagiarism.

The Education Ministry and Mr. Shkarlet have denied the accusations.

Another stain on the president’s Cabinet came after Parliament in mid-December confirmed Roman Leshchenko’s appointment as agriculture minister. That same week, Ukrainian media learned that the Kyiv Commercial Court accepted a lawsuit that alleges he had embezzled $430,000 from a Ukrainian farming company owned by North Dakota farmer Kurt Jacob Grozhans. Mr. Leshchenko responded to the allegations by saying he had repaid “all debts to the American investor,” Ukraine Business News said in a daily note to the business community.

The 32-year-old agriculture minister pledged to make the national farm land registry more transparent, bringing millions of hectares “out of the shadows” into the taxable economy. “Everyone knows that in the Chornobyl zone they are engaged in agricultural production,” he said of clandestine farming in the exclusion zone. Subsidies should be targeted to professional dairy farmers, helping to import “high-quality heifers.”

At an extraordinary Cabinet session in December, another official from Mr. Yanukovych’s presidency was appointed to the government. Vadym Melnyk was named as the head of the State Fiscal Service (SFS) in charge of tax and duty collection. Until 2013, Mr. Melnyk headed the investigation department covering particularly important cases, and he also worked in the Ministry of Revenue and Duties. In 2014, he worked as deputy chief of the Main Investigation Department of SFS Financial Investigations, and later headed the department. He also had the rank of colonel of the tax police, an agency that no longer exists.

Former Naftogaz executive director Yuriy Vitrenko was named acting energy minister during the same Cabinet session.

Constitutional Court Chief Justice Oleksandr Tupytskyi was suspended for two months in a controversial move by the president. The judge is a suspect in a witness tampering and bribery case involving the privatization of an industrial plant in Donetsk Oblast more than a decade ago.

The court on December 30 declared the suspension “legally null and void,” further escalating a conflict between the executive and judicial branches of government.

Both were at loggerheads in October, when the court ruled to annul key provisions that dismantled a huge part of the country’s anti-graft architecture that was put in place to meet Western conditions for financial assistance, including a $5.5 billion lending program from the Washington-based International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The IMF aid remains frozen as analysts question more whether the once popular president still has the will and momentum to follow through on his campaign promises of reducing the influence that oligarchs have on the state and eradicating endemic corruption.

Specifically, a law making it a criminal offense for public officials to submit false information on their asset declarations was ruled unconstitutional. The court also ruled that judges and others filing asset declarations cannot have their assets or personal lives monitored. The ruling was based on court complaints filed by pro-Russian and oligarch-backed lawmakers who hold a minority of seats in the Verkhovna Rada. They also oppose Kyiv’s declared course of further integration with the European Union and NATO, and do not support cooperation with the IMF.

At the time of the ruling, several asset declarations of Constitutional Court judges, including that of Mr. Tupytskyi, were under scrutiny. He was under investigation for not declaring property in illegally annexed Crimea. Other inconsistencies in Mr. Tupytskyi’s asset declaration included ownership of lavish property in Kyiv Oblast.

After much outcry from pro-Western activists and lawmakers, Parliament passed a new yet softer version of the legislation in December that doesn’t foresee imprisonment for providing false information. Calling the watered-down version “a mistake,” Mr. Zelenskyy has since submitted his own bill to restore punishment for those who would break the law, but the legislature has yet to consider it and Parliament has adjourned for winter break.

Surveys commissioned and conducted by leading local think tanks and policy centers in Ukraine consistently find that the country’s unruly justice system remains the biggest bottleneck in establishing the rule of law.

Kyiv-based think tank Razumkov Center published survey data in mid-December in which 42 percent of respondents ranked Mr. Zelenskyy as the “political disappointment of 2020.” Sixty-seven percent of those polled said Ukraine was headed in the wrong direction. The president’s approval rating stood at 19 percent – a sharp drop from December 2019 when it stood at 41 percent.


Foreign relations

Over the year, Kyiv succeeded in taking another step in holding Russia accountable for its war-mongering in Ukraine that has led to about 7 percent of territory being chopped off.

On December 11, the International Criminal Court (ICC) recommend a full-fledged probe of Russia’s actions since there was enough evidence to “believe that a broad range of conduct constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity” have occurred, ICC Prosecutor Fatour Bensouda wrote.

The key findings came after the Hague-based court’s six-year preliminary examination, which was mostly based on Ukraine providing “detailed information” on events that encompass the pro-democracy Euro-Maidan protests that erupted in November 2013, Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in early 2014 and its covert invasion of the two easternmost regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.

The next step, the prosecutor said, is to “request authorization from the judges of the Pre-Trial Chamber of the court to open an investigation.”

Writing on Twitter on December 11, Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba described the news as a “historic decision,” saying that “international justice is not quick, but inevitable.” The ICC’s probe focused on alleged transgressions that include genocide, aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by individuals, not countries. “The day will come when Russian criminals will certainly appear before the court,” Mr. Kuleba said.

Following a six-year international investigation, prosecutors in the Netherlands have argued that the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) over eastern Ukraine in 2014 was done using a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile, which was transported from a Russian military base.

All 298 people aboard the aircraft were killed, and four suspects – Russians Sergei Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov, and Igor Girkin, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko – are being tried in absentia by the court for involvement in the tragedy. In November, the judge adjourned the case until February 1, 2021.

Much of the evidence in the case was provided by Ukrainian authorities; there was also evidence gathered by the British-based forensics group Bellingcat, journalists and independent investigators.

After the plane was downed on July 17, 2014, the EU widened its sanctions against Russia to include more individuals and targeted its defense industry.

In September, Ukraine joined a growing list of countries that have not recognized the legitimacy of the presidential election in Belarus. In August, incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed victory amid widespread allegations of election fraud, which led to more than 150 days of daily street protests centered in Minsk, the capital.

“Ukraine has never in any way interfered in the internal affairs of Belarus and will always support the Belarusian people. Considering the course of the election campaign in Belarus and subsequent events, today’s ‘inauguration’ of Alexander Lukashenko does not mean his recognition as the legitimate head of the Belarusian state,” Mr. Kuleba wrote on Twitter on September 23.

A growing list of European countries said they would not recognize Mr. Lukashenka’s presidency. Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Estonia all said they do not consider Mr. Lukashenka the legitimate president of Belarus.

“The minimum requirements for democratic elections were by no means met. They were neither fair nor free,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said after Mr. Lukashenka was sworn in. “Even after today’s ceremony, Mr. Lukashenka cannot evoke the democratic legitimacy that would have been the condition for him to be recognized as a legitimate president.”

Kyiv also joined the sanctions regime against Belarus imposed by the EU. At the end of December, the Ukrainian government took the additional step of simplifying the rules for Belarusian IT specialists and some other categories of professionals to obtain permanent residence amid a widespread crackdown on civil liberties in Belarus.

In August, Ukraine separately protested the return of Russian private military contractors by Belarus to Russia. Nearly three dozen Russian mercenaries were detained in Belarus on July 29. Many of them were found to have fought in the Donbas war and other hotspots where Russia is militarily involved, including Syria.

On New Year’s Eve, former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asserted that he had given the initial approval for luring the 33 mercenaries to Ukraine in a special operation in order to prosecute them on war crimes and other charges. He confirmed that Ukrainian intelligence services had started the operation at the end of 2018 when he was still president but that “specific individuals” in the Zelenskyy administration had betrayed the operation.

Ukrainian media, such as Ukrayinska Pravda and Censor.net, have reported that the operation came to a premature halt in Belarus due to a high-level mole in the Presidential Office.


On August 13, a rally near the Embassy of Belarus in Kyiv was held in support of the Belarusian people’s protests against falsified elections in the neighboring country.

On foreign trips, Mr. Zelenskyy secured trade deals and defense agreements with Turkey and Great Britain.

He visited Turkey in October and met with his counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both sides agreed to increase bilateral trade to $20 billion from $10 billion. Mr. Zelenskyy also announced plans to purchase 50 Bayraktar TB2 combat drones and set up a large-scale assembly line for unmanned aircraft targeted for export, in addition to other defense systems.

Polish President Andrzej Duda visited Kyiv the same month calling the trip “super important.” In Odesa, the Ukrainian and Polish presidents took part in an economic forum at which an agreement between the ports of Odesa and the Polish city of Gdansk signed an agreement to promote privatization in Ukraine.

A joint statement between the EU and Ukraine was signed at their yearly highest-level summit in October that stressed the necessity for Ukraine to continue reforming the judiciary, fight corruption and reduce the influence of oligarchs.

Presidential Office of Ukraine

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (left) in Brussels at the 22nd Ukraine-European Union Summit on October 6 with Charles Michel (center), president of the European Council, and Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.

As part of a busy foreign policy month in October, Mr. Zelenskyy visited London and signed a political, free-trade and strategic partnership agreement with Great Britain. Both parties also signed a memorandum to jointly construct military ships in British plants for Ukraine’s defense industry with Britain agreeing to provide a loan to finance the endeavor.

On December 31, Iran released its report on the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 back on January 8. All 176 people aboard the passenger jet shot down by Iran’s military minutes after take-off in Tehran were killed, including 11 Ukrainians, two of whom were passengers and the rest crew members. Iran’s report on the shoot down was given to Ukraine on December 31, Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Yevhen Yenin said Ukraine has 60 days to offer revisions or changes to the report.

Serhii Nuzhnenko/RadioSvoboda.org

On February 17, mourners laid flowers at the new memorial at Kyiv Boryspil International Airport to the victims of the downing on January 8 of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. On December 31, Iran released a report on the passenger jet’s shootdown by its military.


Wildfires and floods

Wildfires erupted in April in northern Ukraine and then in the east in July. The first incident in Zhytomyr Oblast and in the Chornobyl exclusion zone put Kyiv first in the Air Quality and Pollution City Ranking as the city with the worst air quality. Radiation levels, however, were within safe limits, Kyiv’s City Hall said in April.

Mr. Zelenskyy said six separate fires were extinguished in the area and that “there was no threat to the nuclear power plant [in Chornobyl], spent fuel storage and other critical facilities.”

In July, forest fires spread in easternmost Luhansk Oblast, killing at least six people and ravaging several villages. Water-bombing planes were deployed with hundreds of firefighters and military personnel dispatched to contain the fires. Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haydar posted on Facebook that he suspected the fires were the result of arson, although this was unconfirmed, according to reporting by the BBC.

Ukraine’s western regions experienced floods in late June due to torrential rain with hundreds of kilometers of roads, dozens of bridges and kilometers of coastal fortification damaged. Hundreds of people were subsequently displaced.

The government initially allocated more than $25 million to overcome the effects of the weather and asked the Verkhovna Rada for an additional $71 million for the purpose.

In the Carpathian Mountain range area, 263 settlements and more than 13,000 residential buildings were damaged; 20 of these buildings were completely destroyed. In addition, 201 kilometers of roads, 93 bridges and 80 kilometers of coastal fortifications were damaged.


Nationwide local elections

On October 25, Ukraine held nationwide local elections for the second time since embarking on decentralization – a reform that transfers powers from the national to local governments, including the nearly 1,500 amalgamated territorial communities that have since been formed encompassing several former township councils into one entity. The second round of the elections took place on November 22.

This has given local governments more decision-making and tax collection powers. Another phenomenon is the emergence of local political parties that are not affiliated with the five major national parties represented in parliament.

Overall, the ruling pro-presidential Servant of the People party secured a slight lead in the October elections based on quantitative indicators, an analysis by Oleksandr Kliuzhev, a senior analyst at the Opora civic network, found. However, it failed “to win mayoral seats in any oblast capital, including the big cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnipro and Lviv… which is telling,” Brian Mefford, owner and director of Wooden Horse Strategies, a Kyiv-based government relations and strategic communications consultancy, told The Ukrainian Weekly. Servant of the People, however, won enough seats in city councils “to remain relevant,” he added.

As the country moves toward a more decentralized form of government, this means that “the parliamentary and extraparliamentary victors in the local elections will be forced to build coalitions in local councils,” Mr. Kliuzhev wrote. “The dispersion of the newly elected council members will elicit unexpected political alliances between ideologically opposed political forces.”