March 4, 2021



Biden says U.S. stands with Ukraine
U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States will continue to back Ukraine against Russian aggression and will never recognize the Kremlin’s annexation of its neighbor’s territory. Mr. Biden made the comments of support on February 26 as Ukrainians mark the seventh anniversary of Moscow’s steps to seize Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. “The United States does not, and will never, recognize Russia’s purported annexation of the peninsula, and we will stand with Ukraine against Russia’s aggressive acts. We will continue to work to hold Russia accountable for its abuses and aggression in Ukraine,” Mr. Biden said. Russia in 2014 seized Crimea and backed separatists in two provinces in eastern Ukraine after protesters in Kyiv overthrew pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych. The war in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 13,000 people to date and continues to simmer. Mr. Biden played a key role in mobilizing U.S. support for Ukraine against the Kremlin’s aggression while serving as vice-president in the Obama administrat­ion from 2009 to 2017, making at least five visits to the region after the outbreak of hostilities. Mr. Biden last week reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine in his first foreign policy speech directed at a foreign audience. The U.S. president told the Munich Security Conference on February 19 that Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty was of “vital importance” to Washington and Brussels. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked Mr. Biden for his statement of support. “That’s what a real strategic partnership is for. Ukrainians highly value the #US support: from territorial integrity to strengthening defense capabilities & implementing reforms. United we stand – divided we fall,” Mr. Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter. Mr. Biden has yet to speak one-on-one with Mr. Zelenskyy since taking power on January 20. Mr. Zelenskyy has said he hopes for a close relationship with the Biden administration following tense ties with his predecessor, Donald Trump, who sought to improve relations with Moscow. During a conversation with reporters in 2018, Mr. Trump declined to rule out recognizing Crimea as part of Russia. However, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeatedly said the United States would never accept the annexation of the peninsula. In a move viewed as an attempt to improve the relations with the Biden administration, Mr. Zelenskyy on February 25 appointed Oksana Markarova as the new ambassador to Washington. Ms. Markarova, a former finance minister, is highly regarded in the United States for her pro-reform views. (RFE/RL)

$125 Million defense aid package
The Pentagon has announced a $125 million military aid package for Ukraine that includes two armed patrol boats to help the country defend its territorial waters. In addition to the two Mark VI patrol boats, the package also consists of radars for countering artillery, support for satellite imagery and analysis capability, and equipment to support military medical treatment and combat evacuation procedures. The Pentagon also said that the remaining $150 million in military aid approved by the U.S. Congress for the 2021 budget year will not be provided until the departments of State and Defense are able to certify to lawmakers that Ukraine has made “sufficient progress on key defense reforms this year.” The Pentagon said in a statement on March 1 that “the Department encourages Ukraine to continue to enact reforms that strengthen civilian control of the military, promote increased transparency and accountability in defense industry and procurement, and modernize its defense sector in other key areas in line with NATO principles and standards.” Ukraine has been locked in a dispute with Russia, which annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and threw its support behind separatists in eastern Ukraine. The conflict, now in its seventh year, has killed more than 13,200 people and devastated Ukraine’s industrial heartland. “This action reaffirms the U.S. commitment to providing defensive lethal weapons to enable Ukraine to more effectively defend itself against Russian aggression,” the statement said. The impeachment in December 2019 of former President Donald Trump centered on allegations that he withheld military assistance to Ukraine as part of a scheme to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden, who at the time was challenging Mr. Trump for the White House and in November defeated him in the presidential election. Mr. Trump was acquitted by the Senate in February last year. (RFE/RL, with reporting by the AP)

Russian court sentences pro-Ukrainian activist
A Russian court has sentenced a pro-Ukrainian activist from Moscow-annexed Crimea, Oleh Prykhodko, to five years in prison on terrorism charges that he and his supporters have dismissed as politically motivated. Ukrainian Ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova said on Telegram that the Southern District Military Court in the city of Rostov-on-Don on March 3 ordered Mr. Prykhodko to pay a 110,000 ruble (around $1,500) fine. Ms. Denisova called the court’s ruling “unlawful” and “based on fabricated charges of an attempted terrorist attack and plotting an arson attack against the Russian Consulate in [Ukraine’s western city of] Lviv in 2019.” In a statement, Ms. Denisova added: “I condemn the unlawful verdict by the Russian court and consider it retaliation from the occupying government for Oleh’s pro-Ukrainian stance [and] his public refusal to recognize Crimea’s annexation by Russia.” She also said that Mr. Prykhodko has a medical condition. “I call on the international community to continue its pressure on the Russian Federation and demand the immediate release of all Kremlin critics,” the statement said. Mr. Prykhodko was detained in October 2019 and charged with illegally fabricating handmade explosives with the intention of carrying out a terrorist act. He was charged later with possession of illegal explosives. Mr. Prykhodko denies all the charges, calling them politically motivated. Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries, after Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted amid a wave of public protests. Rights groups say that since then Russia has moved aggressively to prosecute Ukrainian activists and anyone who questions the annexation. (RFE/RL)

EU envoys prolong asset freeze on Yanukovych
European Union diplomats say ambassadors to the bloc have approved an extension of asset freezes imposed on former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and seven people in his inner circle over the embezzlement of Ukrainian state funds. Speaking on condition of anonymity, several EU diplomats who are familiar with the matter said that the 27 envoys agreed on March 3 to remove former Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov and former Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk from the sanctions list. They also gave their green light to a six-month rollover of sanctions against 177 individuals and 48 entities the bloc believes are responsible for the undermining of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Both sanctions regimes will officially be extended later this week. Brussels imposed the measures against Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin former president, family members and close political allies shortly after the collapse of his government in February 2014. Some of the people listed have challenged, and sometimes won court cases against the measure, leading to growing demands that the list should be pared down further or even scrapped. EU diplomats told RFE/RL that there were discussions about removing from the list the former minister for duties and revenues, Oleksandr Klymenko, and the son of the ex-president, Oleksandr Yanukovych, but that the pair will remain under sanctions for now. In 2020, sanctions imposed on former Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and ex-Energy Minister Eduard Stavytsky were lifted. Andriy Klyuyev, the former head of Mr. Yanukovych’s presidential administration, was delisted the previous year. (RFE/RL’s Rikard Jozwiak)

Pro-Kremlin blogger placed on wanted list
Ukraine’s Security Service announced on February 25 that it has put a pro-Kremlin blogger and politician on its wanted list after he failed to show up for questioning. Anatoliy Shariy was charged earlier this month with high treason and hate speech and ordered to come in for questioning on February 22. The SBU, as the service is known, claims he helped organize pro-Russia media campaigns. Mr. Shariy denies the accusations. Mr. Shariy is a former journalist who fled Ukraine for Spain in 2012 after authorities opened a criminal case against him for assault. He received asylum in Spain, where he currently lives. Though his initial investigative reporting targeted the government of pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych, he wrote critically about the revolution that deposed him and spoke out against the Western-leaning governments that followed. In 2019, he launched the Party of Shariy, whose candidates won a few local elections in 2020. Mr. Shariy is the latest pro-Russian politician to face trouble in recent weeks. Ukraine earlier this month sanctioned lawmakers Viktor Medvedchuk and Taras Kozak, who are considered to be close to the Kremlin. (RFE/RL)

Ukraine faces vaccine delays
A record number of COVID-19 patients were taken to hospitals in Ukraine over a 24-hour period ending on March 3 amid warnings from officials that there may be delays in the delivery of the vaccine developed by the Chinese company Sinovac. Health Minister Maksym Stepanov said on March 3 that 3,486 people were hospitalized over the past day – the highest number since the epidemic hit the country. Mr. Stepanov said 7,235 new cases were registered over the past 24 hours with 185 deaths. Health authorities have reported more than 1.3 million coronavirus cases and over 26,000 deaths to date. Speaking on television late on March 2, the minister said that shipments of the Sinovac vaccine would likely be delayed and warned that “dirty information attacks” on his ministry’s work were hampering negotiations with other vaccine suppliers. Mr. Stepanov said the Chinese vaccine had been due to arrive in the next few days, but he added: “I gave an order to clarify the situation with the counterparty, but something tells me that there may be a postponement.” The National Anticorruption Bureau has opened an investigation into the signing of a contract with a local intermediary to procure Sinovac vaccines that activists claim was too expensive. Mr. Stepanov has denied any wrongdoing. Ukraine started vaccinating its population after receiving 500,000 doses of the vaccine developed by the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca last month. It has been prioritizing health-care workers and soldiers. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had a coronavirus vaccine shot on March 2 during a visit to eastern Ukraine, where fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatists has claimed more than 13,200 lives since April 2014. (RFE/RL, with reporting by Reuters and RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

Diplomats accused of smuggling gold and cash
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) says it has disrupted a ring of former and current Ukrainian diplomats accused of smuggling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of goods – including gold and foreign currency. In a statement on March 1, the SBU said the diplomats, whose identities were not disclosed, used the diplomatic mail system and diplomatic documents to smuggle excise goods to and from the European Union. According to the statement, the group of diplomats illegally moved foreign currency, gold and tobacco items across the border. The SBU said its counterintelligence officers, along with investigators from the State Bureau of Investigations (DBR), stopped a truck with diplomatic license plates at the Yahodyn customs point on the Ukrainian-Polish border. Officials of the Foreign Affairs Ministry had tried to use the truck to smuggle to the European Union $140,000, 67,200 euros ($81,100), 11,600 Polish zlotys ($3,060), 16 kilograms of gold worth some $530,000, tobacco goods worth of $53,000 at black market, it added. The statement added that a probe has been launched into the affair, saying the suspects, the number of whom was not made clear, have not been officially charged. “It is important to shine light on such cases, make them public. We need to break the shameful approach of not taking the trash out of the house. It needs to be taken out or we will be living in trash,” Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a post on Facebook. (RFE/RL)