February 28, 2020



White House extends Russia sanctions

U.S. President Donald Trump has extended for one year a series of previously imposed sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine, in particular, forcibly annexing the Crimean peninsula and further destabilizing the country. The president’s executive order was signed on February 25 and includes a package of sanctions that have expanded in scope over time since March 6, 2014. They were first introduced by the administration of former President Barack Obama and broadened three more times in 2014 as well as in 2018. Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the order to invade Crimea in early 2014 after the Moscow-friendly Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, abandoned office and fled the country amid a popular uprising that opposed his increasingly corrupt and authoritarian rule. Moscow then started supporting militants in eastern Ukraine in a war that has killed more than 13,000 people and uprooted more than 1.5 million people from their homes in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Mr. Trump’s order says Russia’s actions, including its “purported annexation of Crimea and use of force in Ukraine… undermine democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine; threaten its peace, security, stability, sovereignty and territorial integrity; and contribute to the misappropriation of assets.” To “deal with that emergency,” the sanctions “must continue in effect beyond March 6, 2020,” the executive order says. (RFE/RL)


U.S. deputy secretary meets with Prystaiko

The below is attributable to U.S. State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus on February 21 said Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun had met with Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Vadym Prystaiko in Washington. She noted: “Deputy Secretary Biegun and Foreign Minister Prystaiko discussed their mutual desire for a peaceful settlement to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The deputy secretary congratulated the foreign minister on the progress his government has made to combat corruption and institute reforms. The two also discussed opportunities for further integrating Ukraine’s military, investment and trade with the Euro-Atlantic community. (U.S. Department of State)


Crimean Tatar TV seeks EU funding

Ukraine’s only remaining Crimean Tatar television channel, ATR, has submitted a plea to the European Parliament and European Commission asking the institutions for financial support as it faces imminent closure due to lack of funding. Posted on its website on February 24, ATR’s request cites a resolution by the European Parliament from February 4, 2016, that “deplored the wrongful closure of the ATR media outlet” on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula due to Russia’s annexation two years earlier. According to ATR, the resolution called on the European Commission to provide financial assistance to the Crimean Tatar channel as well as other media in exile in Ukraine. “Nowadays, more than ever, ATR TV-Channel needs financial support from institutions of the European Union, because it is on the edge of closing and has lost all hope to receive financing in the nearest future from its own state,” the letter said in English, Ukrainian and Russian. The statement said that since 2015, ATR has been mostly reliant on funding from the Ukrainian government but lately it has encountered bureaucratic obstacles in accessing allocated money from this year’s state budget. “The state funds allocated to the ATR TV-Channel for the year 2020 are unavailable for us to receive and use due to some artificial bureaucratic hindrances, and controversial interpretation of laws by certain state authorities,” the letter said. ATR previously said it had received $610,000 on its account on December 28, 2019, but couldn’t access the money because banks were closed that day, so it had to return the money as required by law. A portion of the $2 million that was allocated this year was transferred to ATR’s account, but the channel said the state treasury had blocked access to it. ATR is a part of a media holding that is majority-owned by Crimean Tatar Lenur Islyamov and initially stopped broadcasting in Crimea after Russian authorities refused to issue a broadcasting license after annexing the peninsula. It resumed broadcasting on June 17, 2015, in Kyiv via satellite throughout Ukraine, including in Crimea, supported mostly with government money. Separately in January, Ukraine’s public broadcaster shut down international broadcasting and closed its Crimean Tatar, Arabic and English-language departments. (RFE/RL)


Surkov questions Ukraine’s existence

Vladislav Surkov was once the Kremlin’s “gray cardinal” and ideologist and who oversaw Ukraine policy during the now six-year war that has killed more than 13,000, displaced more than 1 million, and ruptured ties between Moscow and the West. He was central to Moscow’s line that the government that assumed power in Kyiv after the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych was illegitimate. In his first interview since his surprise departure from the Kremlin on February 18, Mr. Surkov questions the very idea of a Ukrainian state. “There is no Ukraine. There is Ukrainian-ness,” he said. “That is, it is a specific disorder of the mind, sudden passion for ethnography, taken to its extremes.” Mr. Surkov commented: “Local history there is so bloody. It’s a muddle instead of a state… there is no nation. There is only a pamphlet: ‘The Self-Styled Ukraine,’ but there is no Ukraine. The only question is, is Ukraine already gone, or not just yet?” The interview was conducted by Aleksei Chesnakov, a longtime confidant of Mr. Surkov, and published on February 26 on the little-known Russian news site Actual Commentaries. In another part of the interview, Mr. Surkov said he considered himself optimistic for Ukraine’s future. “Oddly enough, I’m an ‘Ukro-optimist.’ That is, I think that Ukraine does not yet exist. But over time, it will. Ukrainians are stubborn folks, they will make it happen,” he said. “However, what kind of Ukraine it will be, what its borders will be, and even, maybe, how many Ukraines there will be, these are open questions. And one way or another, Russia will have to participate in resolving these issues.” And he suggested that Ukrainians historically were upstarts who needed to be restrained by force. “Relations with Ukraine were never simple, even when Ukraine was part of Russia. Ukraine has always been troublesome for the imperial and Soviet bureaucracy,” he was quoted as saying. “Forceful coercion for brotherly relations, this is the only method that has historically proven effective when it comes to Ukraine. I do not think that any other will be invented.” The comments elicited anger in Ukraine. “Surkov, with his pearls about Ukraine, looks like a self-hating ‘strategist’ who thinks more about himself than is wise, like that mutt trying to bark at an elephant, feeling his greatness in it,” Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Minister Arsen Avakov said in a response posted to Twitter. “Do not make noise, sir. Ukraine lives on, regardless of the idea of a retired chauvinist.” (Mike Eckel of RFE/RL)


Sentsov speaks with members of Congress

Ukrainian film director and former Kremlin captive Oleh Sentsov told members of the U.S. Congress on January 28 about his prison term in Russia. He also addressed overall conditions in Russian penitentiary facilities and spoke about the confessions of the Russian military involved in seizing from the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, the Voice of America reported. According to the Ukrainian film director, the Russian president grabbed Crimea when Ukrainian citizens toppled the regime of “Putin’s direct subordinate” Viktor Yanukovych. Speaking about grave conditions in Russian prisons, Mr. Sentsov said: “One of the kinds of torture in Russian prisons is strangulation with a plastic bag. I had seen this in American movies, and I couldn’t understand why people break down. But your primal instinct kicks in when you’re deprived of the ability to breathe. And then you are overwhelmed with this extraordinary animal fear, which is hard to fight.” The Ukrainian filmmaker added that it was in prison where he met with a Russian military intelligence operative who had been involved in the annexation of Crimea: “In prison I met a convicted GRU officer who told in detail how the Crimea seizure unfolded. He took part in this. Then this officer fought in the Donbas – he said that it was the Russians who were most brutal towards the Ukrainians.” Earlier, Mr. Sentsov called on the United Nations to fight for the release of the rest of Ukrainian captives held in Russia. Mr. Sentsov, who was freed by Russia in a prisoner swap with Ukraine in September 2019, was on a trip to the U.S. to meet with State Department officials and members of Congress, and to attend a meeting of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, RFE/RL had reported. Russia still holds 96 political prisoners, most of whom were detained in Crimea, including 69 Crimean Tatars, according to Ukrainian NGOs. Anywhere from 101 to 184 are still held in the occupied Donbas, according to NGOs and the Ukrainian government. (UNIAN)


Milan Consulate closed over virus fears

Ukraine’s Consulate in Milan has said it will stop seeing citizens and accepting documents until further notice starting on February 25 due to the outbreak of the virus in the Lombardy region. The Italian sports minister announced late on February 24 that upcoming soccer matches in Italian Serie A and the Europa League would be played without spectators at venues located in areas affected by the virus. Seven people have died and more than 220 have caught the virus in Italy as of February 24; the country has the most confirmed cases in Europe. The country’s National Health Commission on February 25 reported 71 new virus deaths and 508 new confirmed cases for the previous day. World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned against using the word “pandemic,” saying it did not fit the facts. “We must focus on containment while preparing for a potential pandemic,” he told reporters in Geneva, adding that the world was not threatened by an uncontained spread or large-scale deaths. The epidemic in China peaked between January 23 and February 2 and has been declining since, the WHO said. (RFE/RL, with reporting by various news media)


Bulgaria OKs suspect’s extradition

A Bulgarian court has approved the extradition of a Ukrainian man suspected of co-organizing an acid attack on a Ukrainian activist that eventually led to her death. The February 22 ruling on Ukrainian national Oleksiy Moskalenko (Levin) was based on an extradition request from Ukrainian Deputy Prosecutor General Viktor Trepak. Mr. Moskalenko, 42, was detained in the Black Sea coastal city of Burgas on January 24 without resistance and was identified by his fingerprints, Bulgarian police said. He was wearing a disguise that differed from the picture included on the red Interpol notice issued by Ukraine. Bulgarian police said the suspect crossed by foot into Bulgaria from Romania in 2018 and was living in an apartment rented by a woman from Ukraine. On July 31, 2018, an assailant poured acid on Ukrainian activist Kateryna Handzyuk in Kherson, a city 560 kilometers south of Kyiv. She died of her injuries three months later. An official in the City Council and an adviser to Kherson’s mayor, Handzyuk often spoke out against public corruption in the city. Investigators say she was killed for accusing local politicians of stealing from the local budget and of illegal logging in the region. Five men were convicted last August and sentenced to prison for carrying out the attack. Mr. Moskalenko is charged with “intended grievous bodily injury, which caused [the] death of the victim,” according to the Interpol notice. (RFE/RL’s Bulgarian and Ukrainian Services, with reporting by Hromadske and Ukrayinska Pravda)


Marie Yovanovitch signs book deal

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who played a key role in the House of Representatives hearings on the impeachment of President Donald Trump last November, has signed a deal to write a book about her career. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt told the Associated Press news agency on February 21 that it had struck a deal with Ms. Yovanovitch to publish her planned memoir. The book, currently untitled, will focus on her long diplomatic career, in which she served in places such as Kyiv and Mogadishu, Somalia. It is expected to be published in early 2021. Ambassador Yovanovitch was abruptly recalled from Kyiv in May 2019 following an intense campaign to oust her that was coordinated by Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. After her recall following a 33-year career in the foreign service, Ms. Yovanovitch retired from the State Department in January. In November 2019, Ms. Yovanovitch testified before the House impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s actions with Ukraine, accusing Mr. Giuliani of organizing an “irregular channel” of diplomacy in Ukraine that was aimed, in part, at promoting Mr. Trump’s domestic political interests. “Shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want,” the 61-year-old Ms. Yovanovitch told the inquiry. Mr. Trump denied any wrongdoing and was acquitted in a historic Senate impeachment trial. Ms. Yovanovitch was appointed U.S. ambassador to Kyiv in 2016 by President Barack Obama. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by AP)