March 19, 2021



Ukraine sees record number of COVID deaths
Ukraine registered a record daily high of 289 coronavirus-related deaths over a 24-hour-period on March 17, leading the prime minister to urge local authorities to impose stronger restrictions to contain its spread. Ukraine last month prolonged a lockdown until the end of April but allowed regions with fewer COVID-19 cases to ease some curbs. Health Minister Maksym Stepanov said a record number of Ukrainians were taken to hospitals with COVID-19 on March 16: 4,887 people, almost 15 percent more than the previous highest figure of 4,250 people registered on March 11. The number of hospitalizations did not exceed 2,000 during the country’s late 2020 peak of the pandemic. Mr. Stepanov said 11,833 new infections had been registered over a 24-hour-period on March 17. Ukraine has reported a total of 1,489,023 coronavirus cases and 28,986 deaths so far. “The situation with the coronavirus is disappointing, there are a lot of hospitalizations and severe cases. New strains spread quickly and lead to more dire consequences,” Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told a televised government meeting. “A local government has the right to increase restrictions and therefore I urge local authorities not to wait for any instructions, but to make the necessary decisions. If you see an increase in the number of sick people – the number of hospitalized – introduce additional restrictions.” The authorities in the largest Western Ukrainian city of Lviv are introducing a strict lockdown from March 19, closing cafes, restaurants, non-food stores and introducing a ban on public events. Last week, authorities also closed the country’s largest ski resort in the Carpathian Mountains. (Reuters, with reporting by Pavel Polityuk)

Ukraine accuses Russia of fresh cyberattack
Ukraine’s State Security Service (SBU) said on March 16 it had prevented a large-scale cyberattack by Russian hackers targeting classified government data. The SBU said the aim was to “get access to classified data of the highest institutions of state power of Ukraine” and accused the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) of being behind the hackers who it said had carried out the attack. Kyiv has previously accused Moscow of orchestrating large cyberattacks as part of a “hybrid war” against Ukraine, but Russia denies this. The FSB did not immediately comment on the latest accusation. The SBU did not say whether any damage had been caused in the latest incident, which it blamed on an FSB-controlled hacker group it identified as Armageddon. In February, Ukrainian cyber authorities accused unnamed Russian Internet networks of attacks on Ukrainian security and defense websites, and of trying to disseminate malicious documents through a Web-based system. Relations between Kyiv and Moscow have been strained since Russia illegally took control of Crimea from Ukraine seven years ago after sending in troops, seizing key facilities in February 2014, and staging a referendum weeks later that was dismissed as illegitimate by at least 100 countries. Moscow also backs separatists in a war against Ukrainian government forces that has killed more than 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, with reporting by Reuters)

Journalist arrested on espionage charge
The authorities in Crimea have arrested a man for allegedly spying on behalf of Ukraine, a move Kyiv characterized as propaganda ahead of the seventh anniversary of Moscow’s forcible annexation of the region. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said on March 16 that Vladislav Yesypenko, who holds dual Russian-Ukrainian citizenship and is a freelance contributor to Crimea.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, was arrested on suspicion of collecting information for Ukrainian intelligence. According to the FSB, an object “looking like an explosive device” was found in Mr. Yesypenko’s automobile during his apprehension. It also said he confessed to collecting data for the Ukrainian Security Service. Mr. Yesypenko, along with a resident of the Crimean city of Alushta, Yelizaveta Pavlenko, was detained on March 10 after the two took part in an event marking the 207th anniversary of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko the day before in Crimea. Ms. Pavlenko was later released. Mr. Yesypenko’s lawyer, Emil Kuberdinov, said on March 15 that he had not been allowed to meet with his client since his arrest. “At a time when the Kremlin is employing harassment and intimidation against any possible alternative voice in Russia-annexed Crimea, the recent detention of Vladislav Yesypenko, a freelancer for RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, is deeply troubling. Mr. Yesypenko should be released immediately, so that he can be reunited with his family,” RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in a statement. Russia annexed 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. The Ukrainian Foreign Intelligence Service said in a post on Facebook that with the arrest, the FSB was trying create the atmosphere the Kremlin needs to “celebrate the anniversary of the occupation of Crimea. Such propaganda on the eve of the anniversary is a convenient attempt to distract the attention of the population away from the numerous internal problems of the peninsula. Russia is deliberately inflating the situation, trying to shift responsibility for the settlement process in eastern Ukraine to Ukraine.” Moscow also backs separatists in a war against Ukrainian government forces that has killed more than 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014. On March 15, the Russian-imposed authorities in the Black Sea peninsula temporarily lifted coronavirus pandemic restrictions to mark the seventh anniversary of the region’s annexation with a variety of events organized by the pro-Kremlin Night Wolves motorcycle club/gang, as well as patriotic events at schools and military schools on March 18. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

Iran issues report on Ukraine plane crash
Iran’s civil aviation body blamed a misaligned radar and an error by an air defense operator in a final report into the shooting-down of a Ukrainian passenger plane in January 2020 that killed all 176 people aboard. The report on March 17 into the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 “makes no attempt to answer critical questions about what truly happened and appears incomplete,” Canada said in a statement. Many of the victims killed in the crash were Canadian citizens or permanent residents. “There will be no solace for the families because the whole story, the complete story with the hard evidence to back it up is not being provided,” added Ralph Goodale, an advisor to Canada’s prime minister on PS752. Ukraine’s foreign affairs minister also criticized the report, calling it a cynical attempt by the Islamic Republic authorities to cover up the true reasons for the crash, which Ukraine suspects was intentional. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shot down the Ukraine International Airlines flight on January 8, 2020, shortly after it took off from Tehran Imam Khomeni International Airport. The Iranian government later declared that the shooting-down was a “disastrous mistake” by forces who were on high alert during a regional confrontation with the United States. The Iranian report said: “The plane was identified as a hostile target due to a mistake by the air defense operator…near Tehran and two missiles were fired at it,” according to the agency’s website. “The flight’s operation did not have a role in creating the error by the air defense battery,” the report added. Iran was on edge about possible attacks after it fired missiles at Iraqi bases housing U.S. forces in retaliation for the killing days before of its most powerful military commander, Qassem Soleimani, in a U.S. missile strike at Baghdad International Airport. As in a preliminary report issued last June, Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization said the error arose from a misalignment of a battery’s radar and a lack of communication between the air defense operator and his commanders.

“Following a tactical relocation, the relevant ADU (air defense unit) failed to adjust the system direction due to human error, causing the operator to observe the target flying west from IKA (airport) as a target approaching Tehran from the southwest at a relatively low altitude,” the final report said. “Without receiving a go-ahead or response from the command center, he (operator) came to identify the target as a hostile one and fired missile(s) at the aircraft against the procedure planned,” it said. Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba lambasted the report in a post on Facebook. “What we saw in the published report today is nothing more than a cynical attempt to hide the true reasons for the downing of our plane,” he said. Mr. Kuleba said Iran’s investigation did not follow international practice, ignored evidence supplied by Ukraine and drew selective conclusions. Ukraine and an independent United Nations investigator have previously raised questions about whether the downing of the airliner was intentional rather than accidental. The U.N. last month also said the Iranian government’s explanations contained inconsistencies. Separately Ukrainian prosecutors have launched their own investigation into possible willful killing in connection with the crash. Canada said it will soon disclose the results of its own investigations. The Tehran government has allocated $150,000 for damages to be paid to families of the crash victims and said several people have been put on trial over the disaster. Ukraine has said the compensation should be set through talks, taking into account international practice, once the causes of the tragedy are established and those responsible are brought to justice. Habib Haghjoo, an Iranian-born Canadian who lost his daughter and granddaughter in the crash, said by phone the report failed to answer key questions and didn’t say anything new. “It’s unacceptable.” (Reuters)