March 30, 2018



NATO expelling staff at Russian mission 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated, “The attack in Salisbury was the first use of a nerve agent on NATO territory. On March 14, NATO allies made clear their deep concern, and condemnation of this reckless breach of international norms. Since then, intensive consultations have taken place among allies, including here at NATO and in capitals. Those consultations have resulted so far in the expulsion of over 140 Russian officials by over 25 NATO Allies and partners.” Mr. Stoltenberg explained, “This is a broad, strong and coordinated international response. And as part of that response, NATO is unified in taking further steps. I have today withdrawn the accreditation of seven staff at the Russian Mission to NATO. I will also deny the pending accreditation request for three others. And the North Atlantic Council has reduced the maximum size of the Russian Mission to NATO by 10 people, in line with my decision. This will bring the maximum size down to 20.” He further noted: “This sends a clear message to Russia that there are costs and consequences for its unacceptable and dangerous pattern of behavior. …Our actions reflect the serious security concerns expressed by all Allies, and are part of the coordinated international effort to respond to Russia’s behavior. They are proportionate, and in line with our legal obligations.” (Ukrainian Canadian Congress Daily Briefing)

UCC welcomes Russian diplomats’ expulsion

The Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) on March 26 welcomed the expulsion of four Russian diplomats by Canada in response to the recent chemical attack in Salisbury, United Kingdom, perpetrated by the Russian Federation. The expulsions were announced by Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland. In addition to the four expulsions of diplomats known to be Russian intelligence officers, three applications by Russia for additional diplomatic staff in Canada were denied. “The Russian Federation continues to demonstrate its contempt for international law, the sovereignty of states, and the principles upon which the international order is based,” stated Paul Grod, national president of the UCC. “The threat to peace posed by the Russian Federation must be met with a strong and united response from Canada and allied nations.” The UCC went on to call on the government of Canada and allied nations to: 1. Use the tools provided by the Magnitsky Act to implement sanctions against Russian officials responsible for the abuse of the human rights of Ukrainian citizens illegally imprisoned by Russia; 2. Hold Parliamentary hearings on Russian interference in elections abroad and Russian disinformation campaigns; 3. Implement wide-ranging economic sanctions against Russia, including the removal of Russia from the SWIFT international payments system. (Ukrainian Canadian Congress)

Pretrial detention for Savchenko 

A Ukrainian court has authorized the detention in pretrial custody of lawmaker Nadiya Savchenko, a celebrated former military pilot accused of plotting a terrorist attack on Parliament with grenades and automatic weapons. The Shevchenko District Court on March 23 ordered that Ms. Savchenko be held for two months pending an official investigation into the case. Ms. Savchenko told the court she was innocent, that the charges against her were politically motivated, and that her detainment on March 22 at Ukraine’s Parliament was “illegal.” She also announced that she was starting a hunger strike. The court’s ruling to keep Ms. Savchenko in custody until May 23 came a day after fellow lawmakers voted to strip her of her immunity from prosecution and authorized her arrest. Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko has accused Ms. Savchenko and alleged accomplice Volodymyr Ruban of plotting to overthrow the government and carry out a “large-scale terrorist attack” in central Kyiv as well as kill senior officials. Mr. Ruban was detained earlier in March while crossing into government-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, allegedly with large amounts of weapons and ammunition hidden in a shipment of furniture. Ms. Savchenko said at the hearing on March 23 that “the weapons were being transported from the enemy”– a reference to Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of two eastern provinces – in order “to [forensically] study them.” Prosecutor Oleksandr Bannyk, who called for Ms. Savchenko to be remanded in custody for the two-month pretrial detention period, said she could be sentenced to life in prison if found guilty. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, with reporting by Merhat Sharipzhan)

UWC monitoring Markiv case

The Ukrainian World Congress (UWC) is monitoring the case of Ukrainian National Guard Sgt. Vitali Markiv, who was arrested in Italy on June 30, 2017, for the alleged murder of an Italian journalist on eastern Ukrainian territories controlled by the Russian Federation by virtue of its hybrid aggression against Ukraine. Although this is now a matter for the Italian judiciary, the UWC notes the concerns of its constituents, many of whom have joined the international call to action in support of Sgt. Markiv. “The Ukrainian World Congress will continue to monitor the case of Ukrainian National Guard Sgt. Vitali Markiv to ensure that he is treated according to internationally recognized high standards of justice,” stated UWC President Eugene Czolij. (UWC)

Sushchenko pleads not guilty 

Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko, whom Russia has charged with espionage in a case seen by rights activists as politically motivated, has entered a not guilty plea as his trial began in Moscow. His lawyer, Mark Feigin, wrote on Twitter that the Moscow City Court started the trial on March 27, and that his client pleaded not guilty. Mr.Sushchenko, a Paris-based correspondent of the Ukrinform news agency, was detained in Moscow in 2016 on suspicion of collecting classified information. Kyiv and rights activists say Russia has jailed several Ukrainians on trumped up, politically motivated charges since Moscow seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March 2014 and threw its support behind armed separatists in eastern Ukraine. A year ago, the European Parliament called on Russia to free more than 30 Ukrainian citizens who were in prison or other conditions of restricted freedom in Russia, Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine that are controlled by Russia-backed separatists. The list included Mr. Sushchenko and filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, who is serving a 20-year sentence in a Russian prison after being convicted of plotting terrorist attacks in a trial supporters called absurd. The list, which the European Parliament statement said was not complete, also included several leaders of the Crimean Tatar minority, which rights groups say has faced abuse and discrimination since Russia’s takeover. (RFE/RL)

FSB holds Crimean Tatar Activist 

Crimean Tatar activist Nariman Memediminov has been taken in for questioning by Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officers and may face charges of propagating terrorism, his wife says. Lemara Memediminova told RFE/RL that their house in the village of Kholmivka in the southern Bakhchysarai district was searched on March 22. “They took him to Symferopol to the Russian FSB headquarters for questioning and it will be known later if they let him go or not. They have launched a probe against him for his video he placed on YouTube as a blogger,” Ms. Memediminova said. She expressed concern that her husband may be charged with calling for terrorist activities via the Internet. Ms. Memediminova also said that the FSB officers were rude and confiscated a tablet, two mobile phones and several books from their house. Rights groups and Western governments have denounced what they call a campaign of oppression targeting members of the Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatar minority and others who opposed Moscow’s seizure of the Ukrainian peninsula in March 2014.

The majority of Crimean Tatars opposed the Russian takeover of their historical homeland. (Crimea Desk, RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

Spain breaks up cybercrime gang 

Spanish authorities have broken up a cybercrime syndicate of Ukrainian and Russian nationals that allegedly stole more than 1 billion euros ($1.24 billion U.S.) from bank accounts over more than four years. The Ministry of the Interior on March 26 said the gang’s alleged mastermind, identified as a Ukrainian and named only as “Denis K.,” was arrested in the coastal city of Alicante, along with three accomplices who it said were Russian and Ukrainian citizens. In a statement, the ministry said the group “infected with malicious software the computer systems of banks, mainly in Russia, but also in Belarus, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Taiwan, taking control of critical systems that allowed them to empty ATMs remotely, alter balances, or modify accounts.” Since it began operating in 2013, the group “managed to gain access to practically all of Russia’s banks and make withdrawals from ATMs in Madrid for half a million euros,” the statement also said. Earlier on March 26, Europe’s law enforcement agency announced that the cybercrime group’s suspected mastermind was arrested in Alicante following an investigation conducted by the Spanish National Police with the support of Europol, the U.S. FBI, Romanian, Belarusian and Taiwanese authorities, as well as private cybersecurity companies. Europol did not disclose the person’s name or nationality. It said in a statement that the gang used malware known as Carbanak and Cobalt to target more than 100 banks in more than 40 countries since late 2013. Europol said the group distributed the malware as e-mail attachments sent out to bank workers. The software gave the cybercriminals remote control of infected machines, providing them with access to the internal banking network and infecting servers controlling ATMs. According to the Spanish Ministry of the Interior, the criminals relied first on individuals linked first with Russian and then later with Moldovan organized crime to extract money from cash machines that had been targeted with the malware. The earnings were converted into Bitcoin at exchange houses in Russia and Ukraine, the ministry said. Financial platforms in Gibraltar and Britain were then used to “load prepaid cards with this cryptocurrency and spend them in Spain on all kinds of goods and services,” including cars and homes. The ministry said that police seized jewels worth 500,000 euros and two luxury cars during the raid in Alicante. Bank accounts and two homes valued at about 1 million euros were also blocked. (RFE/RL with reporting by AFP and Reuters)

Project focuses on women in peacekeeping 

The European Union is launching a project in Ukraine aimed at enhancing the participation of women in peacekeeping processes, providing protection to those who have suffered as a result of the conflict, as well as preventing and combating violence against women. “This project corresponds to the current tasks and problems that exist in Ukraine today. It is very important that due to this project there will be an opportunity to activate women and communities to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution No. 1325 [on Women, Peace, Security],” government commissioner for gender policy issues Kateryna Levchenko said at a press conference in Kyiv on March 28. The EU project “Women promote change, restore peace and prevent conflicts at the regional level in Ukraine” will last until January 31, 2020, in five pilot regions of Ukraine: Vinnytsia, Dnipro, Zaporizhia, Luhansk and Khmelnytskyi. It is expected that the project will support local administrations and public organizations in developing, implementing and monitoring the implementation of local action plans to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution No.1325 aimed at increasing women’s participation in peacekeeping processes, ensuring the protection of women and girls affected by the conflict, and preventing and counteracting violence against women. (Interfax-Ukraine)

Online military equipment market busted

Amphibious armored-personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, off-road transport trucks, tanker trucks and trailers were among some 200 objects that have been seized by Ukrainian police after being offered for sale online. Vyacheslav Pechenenko, regional police chief of the Zhytomyr region, said on March 27 that the vehicles were discovered by police while investigating an oil pipeline leak in the town of Novohrad-Volynskyi some two weeks ago. They were seized this week during raids by his officers and local military prosecutors. Police said the vehicles were for sale on the Internet. Chief Pechenenko said that “as of now, the origin of the hardware is being looked into, including when it was registered at military units.” Novohrad-Volynskyi is the headquarters for several Ukrainian military units subordinate to Operational Command North, including the 30th Mechanized Brigade, the 12th Operative Support Regiment and the 54th Scout Battalion, the Kyiv Post reported. It is still unclear if any of the seized military equipment came from any of those units. Police did not say where the military items had been advertised. An online search by RFE/RL revealed several listings for similar military materiel in Ukraine. Most were found on the OLX website, a popular online marketplace that revealed dozens of military vehicles and equipment for sale. The former presidential spokesman for the military operation in eastern Ukraine, Andriy Lysenko, who is now a spokesman for the Prosecutor General’s Office, claimed the police information was “untrue” and said the equipment had been “demilitarized.” He wrote on Facebook: “In fact, the equipment in question is not combat and is not military at all.” Presidential adviser Yuriy Biriukov, in a rambling post on Facebook, called the reports “fake news” and their authors “common liars, who rejoice in fake news, together with those who destroyed our army.” Punctuating his post, he added that they were “worse than the enemy.” Rather than having been stolen, Mr. Biriukov suggested the vehicles were more likely to have been military surplus bought by civilians under a government decree signed in 2008 by then-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, now the leading political opponent of President Petro Poroshenko. He claimed that none of those vehicles specifically had been recorded as ever having been used by the military in the past 10 years. Zhytomyr police said they were working to track down the origin of the equipment. (Christopher Miller of RFE/RL)