March 25, 2021



Sanctions over Nord Stream 2 ‘possible’
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has told his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, that U.S. sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline are a real possibility. Mr. Blinken, speaking in Brussels on March 24 after private talks with Mr. Maas the previous day, reiterated U.S. President Joe Biden’s concerns about the pipeline from Russia to Germany. He said he told Mr. Maas that companies involved in the project risked U.S. sanctions. U.S. officials argue that the pipeline, which would transport 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually directly from Russia to Germany across the Baltic Sea, will make Europe too dependent on Russian energy supplies. It will also bypass Ukraine, a Western ally, potentially depriving it of valuable transit fees. Mr. Blinken declined to give more details about his meeting with Mr. Maas but said the United States was closely monitoring construction of the pipeline under the Baltic Sea, which is about 95 percent completed, and could be finished by September, according to experts. Germany is pushing for the pipeline’s completion despite sustained U.S. opposition over more than a decade. So far, Washington has only imposed sanctions on the Russian company KVT-RUS, which operates the pipe-laying vessel Fortuna. These measures were announced by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump shortly before the end of his term in January. Mr. Blinken last week denounced the pipeline as a “Russian geopolitical project intended to divide Europe and weaken European energy security.” Supporters of the pipeline have long accused the United States of undermining the project in order to increase sales of its liquefied gas in Europe. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, and dpa)

Jehovah’s witness detained in Crimea
Authorities in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea have detained another Jehovah’s Witness amid an ongoing crackdown against the religious group. Russia’s Investigative Committee said on March 24 that a 30-year-old resident of the city of Kerch, whose identity was not disclosed, was detained on suspicion of being a member of the group, which was labeled as extremist and banned in Russia in 2017 but is legal in Ukraine. The announcement came two days after prosecutors in the Crimean city of Sevastopol asked a court to sentence another Jehovah’s Witness, Viktor Stashevsky, to seven years in prison on a charge of “organizing the activities of an extremist group.” Since the group was outlawed in Russia, many Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned in Russia and Russia-occupied Crimea. On March 23, prosecutors in the western Russian city of Smolensk asked a court to sentence three Jehovah’s Witnesses, Yevgeny Deshko, Ruslan Korolyov, and Valery Shalyov, to prison terms between eight and nine years on similar charges. The Jehovah’s Witnesses said earlier that a fourth man in the case, Viktor Malkov, died in pretrial detention after he was denied assistance for his medical condition. The United States has condemned Russia’s ongoing crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses and other peaceful religious minorities. For decades, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin. The Christian group is known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, rejecting military service, and not celebrating national and religious holidays or birthdays. According to the group, dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been either convicted of extremism or are being held in pretrial detention. The Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center has recognized dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses who’ve been charged with or convicted of extremism as political prisoners. (RFE/RL’s Russian Service)

Ukraine introduces new visa-free regime
Ukraine has introduced a temporary visa-free regime for Chinese tourists. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a decree lifting a visa requirement in order to “develop friendly relations between Ukraine and China, intensify bilateral cooperation in the field of tourism,” his office announced on March 23. Under the decree, Chinese citizens will be allowed to stay in Ukraine visa-free for 30 days between April 1 and September 30. China has become Ukraine’s largest trading partner since Kyiv’s relations with Moscow nosedived after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and backed separatists in the east of the country. Ukraine is in the middle of a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, with several cities including the capital, Kyiv, under lockdown. Under new restrictions, foreigners arriving in the country must show a negative COVID-19 test. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by Kyiv Post and Reuters)

Ukraine sanctions Russian officials, entities
Ukraine has placed sanctions on dozens of Russian officials and entities, including businesses and media. President Volody­myr Zelenskyy signed a decree on March 23 targeting 26 foreigners and 81 legal entities, blocking their assets and restricting travel or operations in the country. The sanctions, announced after a decision by Ukraine’s national security body, also target Russian state-controlled media RT, the TASS news agency,,, and others. In the case of media, the sanctions also restrict or terminate the use of telecommunications services. The list of companies targeted include insurance giant Rosgosstrakh and a raft of firms operating in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. Among the sanctions-hit Russian citizens are officials in the Interior Affairs Ministry, security services, and lawmakers. The list also includes French members of the European Parliament who visited occupied Crimea in 2020 without permission from Ukrainian authorities. Kyiv has announced several rounds of sanctions on Russian persons and entities since relations nosedived after Moscow seized the Crimean region and backed separatists in the east of the country. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

Police probe rally backing Sternenko
Police in Kyiv have launched a probe into protests by supporters of Serhiy Sternenko, the controversial former leader of a far-right Ukrainian paramilitary group who was sentenced to seven years in prison on robbery and illegal weapons charges last month in a high-profile abduction case. The Kyiv police department said on March 21 that the investigations were being launched into hooliganism and the damage done to the building of the president’s office by Mr. Sternenko’s supporters the previous day. According to the police statement, one of the protesters, an individual born in 1995 whose identity was not disclosed, was arrested for possessing an illegal weapon. On March 20, hundreds of Mr. Sternenko’s supporters rallied in front of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office with torches and fire-crackers demanding the immediate release of Mr. Sternenko and several other pro-Ukrainian activists. During the rallies, the walls of the building were painted with graffiti while firecrackers and flash grenades were thrown into the building’s windows. The president’s office estimated damages caused by the protesters to the late-19th century building at 2 million hrv ($71,500). A court in Kyiv on February 23 found Mr. Sternenko, who once led the Right Sector group in the city of Odesa, guilty of kidnapping, robbery and the possession of an illegal weapon in a case involving the abduction of a local lawmaker in 2015. The court at the time ruled that, due to the statute of limitations, Mr. Sternenko could not be sentenced for kidnapping. It did, however, sentence him to seven years in prison on the other two charges. Mr. Sternenko is also a suspect in another high-profile case that has been challenged by his supporters for years. He is accused of premeditated murder and of possessing an illegal-bladed weapon in the killing of a man almost three years ago. Mr. Sternenko claims he acted in self-defense while being attacked by two men late in the evening on May 26, 2018. As he fought off the attackers, suffering numerous head injuries and a cut to his arm in the process, Mr. Sternenko injured one of the assailants who later died in a hospital. Investigators say that, after Mr. Sternenko defended himself using his knife, the attackers fled the scene. But Mr. Sternenko, whose life and health were no longer in danger, then reportedly chased one of them and stabbed him several times, inflicting wounds that led to the man’s death, investigators say. The attack was the third against Mr. Sternenko in three months. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

PM reiterates plans to join EU, NATO
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal says his country has accelerated reforms as it continues to move toward its goal of membership in the European Union and NATO. Speaking during an official visit to Germany on March 19, Mr. Shmyhal said during talks with German Foreign Affairs Minister Heiko Maas that “Ukraine’s membership in the EU in the medium term is a win-win situation not only for the Ukrainian people, but also for Germany and the EU as a whole. Gradual integration into the EU internal market is on our priority agenda at the moment. In particular, it concerns the integration of Ukraine into the digital and energy markets of the European Union,” Mr. Shmyhal said. Mr. Shmyhal also expressed gratitude to Germany for support in helping Ukraine obtain the status of a NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner in June 2020. “At this point, we have stepped up the reform process to receive an invitation and join the NATO Membership Action Plan as the next step. We will be grateful to our German partners for their support and assistance in that matter as well,” Mr. Shmyhal said. He did not specify which reforms he was referring to. Kyiv’s aspirations to join NATO and the EU have increased since Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and threw support to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s east, where more than 13,000 people have been killed in the ongoing conflict since April 2014. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

Record-high COVID-19 deaths, infections
Ukraine has reported a record daily number of coronavirus-related deaths, while Bulgaria registered the highest daily rate of infections since the start of the pandemic, as European countries battle a new wave of COVID-19 cases. Ukrainian Health Minister Maksym Stepanov said 342 people had died of COVID-19 over a 24-hour period on March 24, a record number for the second day in a row. The previous high of 333 deaths was reported on March 23. Mr. Stepanov said 14,174 new infections were reported over the previous 24 hours. Ukraine has reported a total of 1,579,906 coronavirus cases and 30,773 deaths. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by AP and Reuters)

Ukraine sanctions Yanukovych, others
Ukrainian security and defense officials have imposed sanctions against exiled former President Viktor Yanukovych, ex-Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, and nearly two dozen other individuals active under the administration that fell when Mr. Yanukovych fled to Russia under pressure from street protests in 2014. The National Security and Defense Council named other individuals including a former education minister, oligarch Serhiy Kurchenko, the Moscow-backed leader of Crimea after its annexation by Russia seven years ago, and a former Ukrainian prosecutor who became a Russian lawmaker, Natalia Poklonskaya. The council also named an entrepreneur whose companies were being sanctioned, Vitaliy Lupeto. All are accused of aiding Russia’s control of Crimea since the peninsula was annexed by Russia in 2014 and the ongoing control of Russia-backed separatists of swaths of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Messrs. Yanukovych and Azarov both fled Ukraine to Russia after the pro-democracy protests sometimes referred to as Euro-Maidan. The council approved the sanctions on March 19 after a recommendation from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). “In 2014, great responsibility was placed on the leaders of the state, but they allowed the worst to happen – the Russian invasion of our territory,” SBU Chairman Ivan Bakanov said. “So, they have to answer for it. And it doesn’t matter what they were doing at the time: fleeing to Rostov or calling on Russia to ‘save’ the Russian-speaking population.” National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov stressed that “some of these people, the majority” targeted in the new sanctions “are now Russian citizens.” Mr. Yanukovych was sentenced in absentia to 13 years in prison for treason in Ukraine in 2019. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, Reuters, the Kyiv Post and Interfax)