August 23, 2019



Putin, Macron discuss peace prospects

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, have discussed efforts to advance negotiations to curb the conflict between Ukrainian forces and Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Mr. Macron, who held talks with Mr. Putin at the Palace of Versailles near Paris in 2017, this time hosted him at his summer retreat at Bregancon Fort, near the village of Bormes-les-Mimosas. The talks lasted two and a half hours and touched upon the Syrian conflict, the situation in Libya, the Iran nuclear deal and “prospects” for a four-way summit on the crisis in Ukraine. The Russian president voiced support for the Normandy format for negotiations aimed at putting an end to the Ukrainian conflict and involving France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, though no date for further talks was set, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on August 20. “The leaders compared their stances on key aspects of bilateral and global agendas. That includes Ukraine. The possibility of organizing a Normandy-format summit was discussed in an expert and quite detailed way,” Mr. Peskov said. The Macron-Putin meeting comes after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this month urged his Russian counterpart​ to help halt the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where fighting between government forces and Russian-backed militants has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014. Insisting that peace can be returned to Ukraine only by way of diplomacy, Mr. Zelenskyy has also called for a new round of talks within the Normandy format for negotiations aimed at putting an end to the war. “President Zelenskyy has made offers to which – it seems to us – President Putin should respond in an encouraging way,” the AFP news agency quoted a French official as saying on condition of anonymity. Mr. Zelenskyy’s election in April “gives us some room to maneuver,” the official added. Kremlin foreign-policy aide Yury Ushakov said that the dialogue between Moscow and Paris had “intensified” in recent months and that Mr. Putin’s visit to France was the “logical continuation” of his contacts with Mr. Macron. The French president announced in June that he planned to host Mr. Putin “in order to explore all the forms of cooperation on key topics of destabilization or conflict, without naiveti but without closing the door.” The Russian president’s visit to southern France comes days before Mr. Macron and other world leaders are set to gather in the southwestern city of Biarritz on August 24-26 for a Group of Seven (G-7) summit. France holds the presidency of the G-7 this year. The grouping also includes Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States. Russia was part of what was called the G-8, but it was thrown out following its seizure of Crimea. At Bregancon Fort, Mr. Putin said that Russia “would not refuse” working within the previous G-8 format, adding, “Any contacts with our partners, in any format, are useful.” But Mr. Macron insisted that Russia’s return to the G-8 and “fully normalized relations” with the European Union, which has imposed sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine, “requires a solution to the Ukraine question.” (RFE/RL, with reporting by AFP, Reuters, DPA and TASS)


German FM: Direct, open dialogue needed

German Foreign Affairs Minister Heiko Mass acknowledged having “principally different positions with Russia on many issues” on August 21 before departing for Moscow to meet with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. He also urged Moscow to play a constructive role in reviving peace efforts for Ukraine. “We have hope for the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to issues of ceasefire, disengagement of forces and implementation of the Minsk agreements,” Mr. Mass said in Berlin regarding a ceasefire that hasn’t fully taken hold. “Now all sides need to demonstrate readiness for dialogue and action, or people will continue to die in this conflict.” To resolve the issue, “we need direct and open dialogue,” he added. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this month called for a new round of talks within the Normandy Format that includes Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France. The last Normandy meeting took place in Berlin on October 19, 2016. Ministers Lavrov and Mass spoke about Ukraine as recently as last month at the Petersburg Dialogue, a two-day bilateral civil society forum that was held in the German town of Konigswinter, near Bonn, Deutsche Welle reported. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by DPA, Deutsche Welle and TASS)


Volker: Russian propaganda hinders peace

The U.S. special envoy for Ukraine negotiations, Kurt Volker, says Russian propaganda is making it a challenge to solve the conflict in the east of the country. Speaking to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service in Washington, Ambassador Volker said Moscow’s denial of responsibility for its role in the battle between Russian-backed militants and Ukrainian forces in the eastern part of the country “makes it much harder for the international community to insist that Russia actually fulfill its obligations” under the Minsk peace agreements signed in 2014 and 2015 that were aimed at resolving the conflict. “To the extent that Russia tries to confuse the issue and deny what they’re doing, it complicates the effort to actually solve the problems,” he said. Some 13,000 people have been killed and 1.5 million more have been internally displaced in the smoldering conflict over the past five years, according to estimates by the United Nations. “It is not a case of some indigenous separatist conflict. It is Russia actually doing this. I think getting that narrative right and understood [to the] wider public is essential if we’re actually ever going to get the problem addressed the way it should be,” Mr. Volker said. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)


Trump for Russia’s return to G-8

U.S. President Donald Trump said he is in favor of letting Russia back into the exclusive Group of Seven (G-7) advanced economies when the United States hosts the event next year. His remarks came before a meeting with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis on August 20 in Washington and four days before he arrives at this year’s G-7 summit in the southern French resort town of Biarritz. “I could certainly” support that, he told reporters at the White House. “It’s much more appropriate to have Russia in. It should be the G-8, because a lot of the things we talk about have to do with Russia.” Mr. Trump noted, “if somebody would make that motion, I would certainly be disposed to think about it very favorably,” regarding the inclusion of Russia in the group. Russia was expelled from the old G-8 format in 2014 after invading and then annexing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. U.S. intelligence agencies also say Moscow interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been accused of ordering the murders of opponents at home and abroad, including in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, allegations that he denies. However, Mr. Trump said Russia was ejected from the exclusive club of nations because former President Barack Obama had been “outsmarted” by Mr. Putin. Mr. Trump has in the past blamed his predecessor for “letting” Russia take over Crimea. (RFE/RL, with reporting by DPA and AFP)


A psychological support hotline for veterans

On August 23, the psychological support hotline for veterans Lifeline Ukraine was to be launched, the Ukraine Crisis Media Center reported. The hotline is based on the Australian model of Lifeline Australia, which was founded in 1963. Paul Niland, founder of Lifeline Ukraine, stated: “This structure, which will work on a ‘peer to peer’ principle, is based on international best practices. Most of the team will consist of veterans. Right now there are almost 40 professionals, and we are continuing to engage people.” The project is non-governmental, however, the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Veterans Affairs are coordinating with Lifeline Ukraine. The project is supported by the British Embassy in Ukraine and the private sector. The idea for establishing the hotline came from Ukraine’s Acting Minister of Health Ulana Suprun. Dr. Suprun stated, “When, following the Maidan and the return from the front of the first veterans, the lack of proper psychological support for them became particularly noticeable, the first step was, with the support of the U.S. Embassy, to teach and train our psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and priests in the U.S. In time we realized that we can’t do this unless people come to them – if there is an anonymous way to speak to someone – this will be more effective. We thought that many people would hesitate to trust a hotline that is run by the state, and it’s better to establish a non-governmental organization that will take this on. Our task is to create a network of professionals who can help.” (Ukrainian Canadian Congress Daily Briefing)


Nine die, 10 injured in Odesa hotel fire

Authorities in the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa say nine people were killed and 10 others injured by a fire that broke out at a budget hotel during the early morning hours of August 17. Police initially reported eight dead but raised the death toll after finding another body inside one of the rooms of the Tokyo Star Hotel. Police say more than 100 people were evacuated from the building, adding that they have launched criminal proceedings into the fire. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on Facebook that he was taking the investigation under his personal control. Mr. Zelenskyy said that “those personally responsible for the fire will answer” for their actions – including the owner of the “so-called hotel.” He wrote on Facebook: “I will personally monitor that the punishment is in line with the law and justice.” Odesa’s Oblast State Administration declared August 18 as a day of mourning to commemorate those who died. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, DPA and TASS)


Court OKs probe of Poroshenko, Klimkin

A court in Kyiv has ordered Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau to launch a probe against former President Petro Poroshenko and former Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin on charges of abuse of power. Ukraine’s registry for court decisions placed the August 15 ruling of Kyiv’s Solomyanka District Court on its website on August 21, saying that the ruling cannot be appealed. It is not clear what charges Messrs. Poroshenko and Klimkin are facing. According to the court ruling, the case was initiated by an unidentified individual. In recent weeks, the former president was questioned twice as a witness by the State Bureau for Investigations in a tax evasion case. Mr. Poroshenko lost his re-election bid in April to Volodymyr Zelenskyy. A day after Mr. Zelenskyy’s inauguration in May, Andriy Portnov, a former deputy head in the administration of ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, returned to Ukraine from self-imposed exile abroad and filed several lawsuits against Mr. Poroshenko, accusing him of economic crimes and illegal attempts to retain power, among other things. A billionaire confectioner, Mr. Poroshenko and his party successfully ran on a pro-European, anti-Russian ticket in July parliamentary elections, winning 25 seats. (RFE/RL, with reporting by UNIAN and Ukrayinska Pravda)


Five Ukrainians might serve sentences at home

Five Ukrainian nationals held in Russia may be handed over to Kyiv to serve the rest of their sentences at home. Both the Interfax news agency and Kommersant cited sources on August 21 as saying that negotiations were being held about extraditing the five after they were transferred recently from different prison across Russia to Moscow. “The transfer of five convicts, who have been moved to Moscow, to Ukraine for continuing to serve the sentences pronounced by Russian courts is under consideration,” Interfax quoted an unnamed source as saying. “The format of this procedure is being discussed,” the source added. Kommersant also quoted a source as saying 24 Ukrainian sailors detained by Russian forces in November of last year near the Kerch Strait and charged with illegal border-crossing might be transferred to Ukraine as well. The Moscow-based Memorial human rights center said the day before that five Ukrainians held in Russia – Volodymyr Balukh, Stanislav Klykh, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Pavlo Hryb and Mykola Karpyuk – had been transferred from labor camps in several different regions to the Lefortovo detention center in Moscow. The United States and European Union have called on Russia to free dozens of Ukrainian citizens who are being held in prison or experiencing other conditions of restricted freedom in Russia, Moscow-annexed Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine that are controlled by Russia-backed forces. (RFE/RL, with reporting by Interfax and Kommersant)


Energy regulator faces price-fixing charges

A former head of Ukraine’s energy regulator accused of taking part in an alleged conspiracy to fix electricity prices for the benefit of the country’s largest privately owned power and coal producer says he will stay away from the country. Dmytro Vovk, who headed the National Energy and Utilities Regulatory Commission for nearly three years until May 2018, said in an August 19 Facebook post that that “as long as the head of the Presidential Office controls” the country’s anti-corruption law enforcement agencies, as well as the judiciary, “I’m not ready to come” back to Ukraine. Mr. Vovk’s whereabouts are unknown. He said, “I would gladly come to court, but am not ready to participate in a kangaroo court.” The National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) earlier this month accused Mr. Vovk and three regulators of colluding with several executives of electricity and coal producer DTEK to manipulate tariffs on electricity generated from coal that forced consumers to overpay by $747 million in 2016-2017. DTEK allegedly benefited by $560 million in the scheme. In a previous Facebook post, Mr. Vovk had dismissed the charges of abuse of office as “a wild goose chase.” There is “no legitimate basis for suspicions set out in the investigation,” DTEK said in an August 8 statement. A Kyiv court on August 14 set bail at $400,000 for one DTEK manager who wasn’t named. Ukraine’s richest billionaire, Rinat Akhmetov, owns DTEK, which is part of his holding company System Capital Management. The so-called Rotterdam+ pricing formula that NABU has been investigating since March 2017 was in place from April 2016 until July of this year. It based the wholesale price of electricity by Ukrainian thermal power plants on coal prices set in the Rotterdam port plus delivery costs to Ukraine. NABU alleges that at certain times it has not seen documented proof that the purchased coal originated in Rotterdam, maintaining that there was no justification for the price hikes. For more than a year, until December 2014, Mr. Vovk was the national manager in Russia for Ukrainian-based chocolatier Roshen, which is owned by ex-President Petro Poroshenko. He was a vice-president of the Kyiv-based Investment Capital Ukraine boutique bank from 2009 to 2013. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)


Kyiv pursues additional reverse gas flows

Ukraine’s state-run gas-transport company, Ukrtransgaz, is preparing to open another reverse-flow point for the import of an additional 1.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas by January 1 in anticipation of Russia halting gas transit through the country when their contract expires at the end of the year. In an August 19 news release, pipeline operator Ukrtransgaz said the fuel will come from Romania via Ukraine’s shared border with Moldova, where gas-metering stations will be upgraded on both sides to accommodate the expected volume of gas. “For Ukraine and Moldova, this project is of strategic importance, because by diversifying the gas-supply routes, both states will increase their dependability and the uninterrupted supply of gas to their customers,” Ukrtransgaz said. The additional volume is the equivalent of 15 percent of last year’s total imports. However, the 50-kilometer stretch of the modernized gas line will cross the Transdniester, Moldova’s pro-Russian breakaway region. Ukrtransgaz didn’t focus on the issue of Russia possibly interfering with this gas flow. Since Ukraine’s gas-transportation system is designed for output, pipelines need to be upgraded to open so-called reverse gas flows. Ukraine already receives gas this way from Slovakia, Poland and Hungary. Kyiv stopped importing gas from Russia in November 2015 after Moscow invaded Ukrainian territory and annexed its Crimean peninsula the previous year. Ukrtransgaz said it was currently in talks with its Romanian counterpart, SNTGN Transgaz, as well as other countries to receive the gas from the Trans-Balkan pipeline. In 2018, Ukraine imported 10.6 billion cubic meters of gas, or one-third of what the country consumed. Fears that Russia’s Gazprom will completely stop gas transit through Ukraine next year, when Moscow’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline network goes online, are forcing Ukraine to store higher volumes of gas in underground storage facilities ahead of winter. Ukrtransgaz operates 12 gas-storage facilities, all located in western Ukraine, that have a total capacity of 31 bcm. The company has completed upgrading five gas compressor stations that will allow them to pump gas from reservoirs in western Ukraine to eastern and southern Ukraine. The pipeline operator is owned by state-run Naftogaz Group, a vertically-integrated oil and gas company. (RFE/RL)


Russian author boasts of ‘killing many’

Best-selling, award-winning Russian author Zakhar Prilepin has said the military unit in which he served in the Donbas conflict of eastern Ukraine “killed many people” and that he has no regrets having fought. Speaking to Russian TV journalist Aleksei Pivovarov on August 15, Prilepin boasted that the battalion in which he was the deputy commander killed the most people of any other unit. “When all the documents are looked over, they’ll see the most people died where my battalion was stationed,” Mr. Prilepin said. When asked if he sees ghosts of the dead, Mr. Prilepin said, “I don’t agonize over anything.” However, Mr. Prilepin, 44, said he does ponder his combat experience in Ukraine. “I think about how I will come to terms with this in the future… because I led a subunit that killed many people, so now I think about how I will live with this,” he said. The writer, who did tours of duty in Chechnya, boasted he could travel anywhere he wants in Europe and that “I’ll never do jail time, no court will send me to prison” for what he did. The Digital Forensic Research Lab, a project of the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council, identified Mr. Prilepin’s unit as the 4th Reconnaissance and Assault Battalion. “My battalion wreaked total mayhem,” Mr. Prilepin said in the interview. Its leader was another Russian, Sergei Fomchenkov, according to the Digital Forensic Research Lab. Messrs. Fomchenkov and Prilepin were members of the banned ultranationalist National Bolshevik Party. When it became widely known that Mr. Prilepin was fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Dmitry Peskov, the Russian president’s spokesman, said on February 13, 2017 that he wouldn’t comment on Mr. Prilepin’s motivation for fighting. “Russian citizens follow their hearts and go to these unrecognized republics. I can only state this as a fact,” Mr. Peskov said. Officially, the Kremlin denies involvement in the Donbas war. Mr. Prilepin also was listed as an adviser to Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the former Donetsk separatist leader, in December 2015. Zakharchenko was killed in an explosion in August 2018. Mr. Prilepin left the conflict and returned to Russia in the summer of 2018, saying “these… years have been like eight or 10 years” and he “grew old, both physically and mentally” during his tour in the Donbas. However, if fighting escalates, “then I’ll return to the battalion,” he added. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, With reporting by Deutsche Welle, the BBC, UNIAN, Novynarnia, Texty and Reuters)


Ukraine catches suspected online drug dealer

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) said it had detained an Israeli-American suspected of heading a major online drug-dealing ring a day after he escaped while being extradited to Israel. Amos Dov Silver was apprehended “in one of the regions of our country,” the SBU said on its website. He will be “extradited in the near future in accordance with the current legislation,” the statement noted. Three SBU officers were also detained on suspicion of helping the Israeli escape from Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport to “avoid extradition,” the SBU said. Mr. Silver was arrested in March for allegedly running a network that spanned the United States, Ukraine, Israel and Germany, using Telegram, a popular encrypted messaging application. At the time, Israeli police said the network had a turnover of tens of millions of dollars. The arrest came a day before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official visit to Ukraine on August 18-20. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and AFP)