September 6, 2019



Pence: U.S. supports Ukraine

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said the United States will continue to support Ukraine in the country’s conflict with Russia and its right to full territorial integrity. Washington “stands with the people of Ukraine and most especially since 2014, we have stood strongly for the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Mr. Pence said after meeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Warsaw on September 1. “And I can assure you that we will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine on your security, on territorial integrity, including Ukraine’s rightful claim to Crimea,” the U.S. vice-president said. The United States is an important ally for Kyiv, having imposed sanctions on Russia for annexing the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and backing pro-Moscow militants in Ukraine’s east. Vice-President Pence and President Zelenskyy were in Warsaw for commemorations to mark the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II. (RFE/RL)


EU envoys extend Russia sanctions

EU ambassadors on September 4 agreed to prolong the sanctions against 170 Russian officials and Russian-backed Ukrainian militants as well as 44 entities by six months. The extension of the measures, which include visa bans and asset freezes, to March 2020 will be formally approved next week, according to diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. The sanctions list was established after Russia seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014 and has grown over the following years as Moscow has continued to back forces in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014. People on the sanctions list include the Russian ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov; Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin; the head of the Russian Armed Forces, Gen. Valery Gerasimov; and state TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov. The entity list is dominated by Russia-backed battalions operating in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the Crimean peninsula, as well as companies from Crimea. (Rikard Jozwiak of RFE/RL)


Senators blacklisted in Russia to visit Ukraine

Two U.S. lawmakers who Russia says are banned from entering the country say they will still join the same congressional delegation that is going to the country but just visit Ukraine, Serbia and Kosovo. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted that “Russia wouldn’t let us in, but [Senator] Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and I will be visiting Ukraine, Serbia and Kosovo this week to demonstrate bipartisan support for the new Ukrainian government and continued dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina.” Sen. Johnson is co-chairman of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, a group of lawmakers who meet to pursue common legislative objectives. Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told journalists on August 28 that the list was established in response to the United States’ “unfounded restrictions against a significant number of members of the Federation Council,” Russia’s upper house of Parliament. Sens. Murphy and Johnson, who are vocal Kremlin critics, in late August said Russia had denied them visas to visit the country. In a post on his website on August 27, Sen. Murphy, who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commenting on Russia’s move said it is a “shame that Russia isn’t interested in dialogue” at “potentially a perilous moment for our two nations’ fragile relationship.” The previous day, Sen. Johnson said in a statement that “the path [President] Vladimir Putin has chosen for Russia is a tragedy of historic proportions.” The Russian Embassy in Washington called Sen. Johnson “Russophobic.” (RFE/RL, based on reporting by Voice of America)


Cabinet strips Kyiv mayor of some powers

Ukraine’s new Cabinet has decided to strip Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko of his powers at the head of the capital city’s state administration, ratcheting up a power struggle between the former world boxing champion and recently elected President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine has just decided to approve the dismissal of Vitali Klitschko as the head of the Kyiv city state administration. To me, this is an attack on local government and a very wrong decision,” Oleksiy Goncharenko, a deputy from the European Solidarity faction, said in a Facebook video post on September 4. Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, Mr. Zelenskyy’s hand-picked nominee who was confirmed by Parliament on August 29, confirmed the move. While Kyiv citizens elect a mayor, the president appoints and dismisses the head of the Kyiv City Administration at the behest of the government. Traditionally, the mayor has held both positions to allow smoother governing of the capital region. Andriy Bohdan, head of the Office of the President, has accused the mayor of enabling graft and of not controlling the Kyiv City Council. Alleging that Mr. Klitschko turned a blind eye to corruption in the city’s construction industry, Mr. Bohdan said on July 30 that a person speaking on behalf of the mayor called him to offer a $20 million bribe to let the mayor stay on. Mr. Klitschko has denied the allegations and in response said he had asked the National Anti-Corruption Bureau to investigate Mr. Bohdan’s bribery allegation. Mr. Klitschko has held the executive seat of Kyiv since June 2014, with his current mandate expiring in October this year. President Zelenskyy on July 24 asked the Cabinet of Ministers to dismiss Mr. Klitschko, who has vowed he “won’t give up.” On August 1, Vasyl Ryabchuk, spokesman for former Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, said the “current” Cabinet decided not to be involved in the issue, though he would not comment on whether a new Cabinet would take the same stance. Parliament approved a new Cabinet on the same day it confirmed Mr. Honcharuk to his post. A December 2003 Constitutional Court ruling said that the mayor has exclusive rights to select the city administration head. In an earlier interview with RFE/RL, Mr. Klitschko said that the actions of Mr. Zelenskyy’s staff “smell of authoritarianism,” adding that if he loses his city management powers, he’ll go to the courts, as well as to “the public” and will “take all the steps to prevent this.”  (RFE/RL)


Dutch prosecutors want to question prisoner

Dutch prosecutors say they want to question a “person of interest” in Ukrainian custody who they believe is directly connected to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 five years ago over eastern Ukraine. The individual, Ukrainian national Volodymyr Tsemakh, reportedly oversaw an air-defense unit among Russia-backed militants in a town near where the jet came down. He is currently thought to be among the prisoners being discussed in a potential prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia. All 298 people on board were killed when MH17 was shot down by a Russian-made missile from territory held by Russia-backed separatists as it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur in July 2014. “We would like to talk to Mr. Tsemakh and ask him questions, so we would rather have him available for the investigation in Ukraine,” Brechtje van de Moosdijk, a spokeswoman for the Dutch-led MH17 investigation, told AFP and the AP. Unconfirmed reports suggest the prisoner swap has stalled because Moscow is demanding Mr. Tsemakh’s inclusion. Kyiv is seeking the return of 24 sailors detained by Russia last year off annexed Crimea, as well as filmmaker Oleh Sentsov and others whom rights groups and the government in Kyiv say are “political prisoners” in Russia. Mr. Tsemakh is a Ukrainian citizen. “He is now in Ukraine, in a Ukrainian prison cell, and if he is being exchanged, of course it’s hard to say that we can still question him,” Ms. Van de Moosdijk said. An international Dutch-led investigation has already concluded that the commercial airliner was shot down by a Russian-made Buk missile that was fired in territory held by Moscow-backed forces. Investigators maintain the missile system belonged to a Russian military unit and that it was transported from and back to Russia after being used. Three Russians and a Ukrainian were indicted over the downing of MH17, and court proceedings in the Netherlands are scheduled for March, but the four suspects are most likely to be tried in absentia. Mr. Tsemakh is not one of the four indicted. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) apprehended him on June 27 in the Donetsk region city of Snizhne, which is held by Moscow-backed separatists and is 20 kilometers from the Russian border. According to the Dutch-led investigation, the Buk missile was fired 6 kilometers south of Snizhne. TV footage obtained by Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, showed Mr. Tsemakh claiming that he was in charge of an anti-aircraft unit and that he helped hide the missile system in July 2014. He also shows the interviewer where the civilian airliner fell. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, with reporting by AFP and AP)


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, Mr.  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)