April 23, 2021



Czechs detain five eager to fight in Ukraine

The Czech national unit to combat organized crime has detained at least five Czechs suspected of planning to travel to eastern Ukraine to fight alongside Russia-backed separatists against a backdrop of rising tensions between Prague and Moscow. Investigators from the state prosecutor’s office suspect the five of preparing to join a militant group that calls itself the Donetsk People’s Republic, which opposes Kyiv and controls part of eastern Ukraine near the Russian border, Czech state prosecutor Martin Bily said on April 21. Earlier reports suggested that around 20 people had been detained in the overnight operation by the NCOZ, a police unit to counter terrorism and extremism. But Mr. Bily said five people had been detained and no one had been charged yet. The roundup comes with the Czechs and Russians already embroiled in a flurry of diplomatic expulsions since the April 17 announcement that Czech authorities blame two Russian officers of a secretive GRU military intelligence unit for an explosion at an ammunition depot in 2014 that killed two Czech nationals. The explosives that detonated in Vrbetice, in the southeastern part of the country, were purportedly part of a planned shipment via a Bulgarian businessman to supply Ukrainian forces fighting the separatists. Prime Minister Andrej Babis rejected the label of “state terrorism” for the alleged Russian operation against his NATO-member state, triggering a national debate over relations with Russia. But his government ordered the expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats, eliciting denials from Moscow and a bigger expulsion of Czech nationals by the Russian side. Prague has since urged allies to carry out “collective action by EU and NATO countries aimed at solidarity expulsions” to support it in the ongoing dispute. Czech reports said hundreds of police officers took part in the overnight operations on April 20-21 against the Czechs suspected of planning to fight in Ukraine, and some were said to be members of paramilitary groups. The iDnes.cz news site said it wasn’t being ruled out that the suspects might have been in contact with some of the Russian diplomats, accused of being part of the military GRU directorate, who were targeted in the expulsions. Kyiv and NATO have raised alarm bells this month over a buildup of Russian military forces near the border with Ukraine that threatens a new chapter in the simmering war since Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and began backing the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk in early 2014. Moscow has consistently rejected accusations that it is actively involved in the eastern Ukrainian conflict despite years of evidence to the contrary, including captures of Russian troops in the war zone. Russian relations with the Czech Republic had already taken a public turn for the worse after local officials last year dismantled a statue in Prague dedicated to Soviet commander Marshal Ivan Konev. Russia threatened a response and opened a criminal case over what it viewed as a slight. (RFE/RL, with reporting by iDnes.cz, Respekt and Aktualne.cz)


Zelenskyy invites Putin to meet

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has invited his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to meet him in eastern Ukraine for talks on calming tensions between the two countries. “I go there every month. Mr. Putin. I am ready to go even further and invite you to meet anywhere in the Ukrainian Donbas, where the war is going on,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in a video released on the presidential website on April 20, amid a Russian military buildup along the border with Ukraine and in occupied Crimea. There was no immediate comment from Russian officials. The United States and NATO say the Russian military buildup is the largest since 2014, when Moscow illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed separatists holding parts of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The Kremlin denies its military movements are a threat and maintains it’s a sovereignty issue. A fragile cease-fire negotiated last summer in eastern Ukraine has also unraveled in recent weeks, with nearly 30 Ukrainian soldiers killed since the start of the year. Earlier on April 20, Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba called for a new round of economic sanctions on Moscow to make it clear that there will be “dire consequences” if it continues its buildup of Russian troops. “Moscow should hear from every corner, that it’s not two sides, Ukraine and Russia, who bear responsibility for the escalation,” Mr. Kuleba said in a conference call with reporters. “History proves that only painful economic sanctions can make a difference.” The cost of preventing Russia’s further escalation will be lower than the cost of stopping it and mitigating its consequences, he said, adding that it is critically important to signal this now to influence calculations in Moscow. The Ukrainian foreign affairs minister said Russian troops continue to arrive near Ukraine’s borders and are expected to reach a combined force of more than 120,000 troops in about a week. He said the military buildup includes paratroopers, electronic warfare systems, ballistic missiles and other potentially offensive capabilities. “This does not mean they will stop building up their forces at that number,” Mr. Kuleba said.  He acknowledged that when he called for an increase in sanctions at a meeting with his EU counterparts during a videoconference on April 19, they did not show much interest, but he concluded that they understand that “sectoral sanctions are a matter of time and Russia’s behavior.” After the videoconference on April 19, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called on Russia to pull back its troops. Mr. Borrell said no further sanctions were being proposed or are under consideration. Diplomats suggested that for the moment the EU would seek to apply pressure on Russia through more diplomacy. Top political advisers to the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany held separate talks under the so-called Normandy Format, but diplomats said they yielded no tangible results. Mr. Kuleba also said he wanted a diplomatic solution but that Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov declined a request for talks. The minister said that while Ukraine does not want conflict with Russia, the country has experienced Moscow’s unpredictability under President Vladimir Putin. “We in Ukraine have learned one thing about Mr. Putin’s actions. This lesson is that anything can be expected from the Russian leadership,” he said, pointing to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Mr. Kuleba also said Russia’s military buildup is driven by Mr. Putin’s desire to resolve the conflict in the Donbas in his country’s favor by ultimatum and to bolster domestic support in the face of declining ratings. He also wants to show that Russia can disregard Western condemnations over its “malign” activities, he said. (RFE/RL, with reporting by Reuters and AFP)


Ukrainian sentenced in U.S. hacking case

Ukrainian national Fedir Hladyr has been sentenced to 10 years in prison in the United States after pleading guilty to participating in the FIN7 hacking group. Mr. Hladyr, 35, was sentenced in the northwestern U.S. city of Seattle on April 16, according to a news release by the U.S. Justice Department. He was arrested in Dresden, Germany, in 2018 and extradited to the United States. In September 2019, he confessed to serving as a manager and systems administrator for FIN7 and pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit computer hacking. He originally faced 26 criminal counts before he agreed to plead guilty and pay $2.5 million in restitution. The 10-year sentence includes the three years Mr. Hadyr has already spent in custody. The Justice Department estimates that the FIN7 hacker group “caused over a billion dollars in losses to Americans and costs to the U.S. economy.” Prosecutors at the hearing said this was a “conservative estimate” and that the actual losses could be between $3 billion and $6 billion. The group breached computer networks in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia and stole more than 20 million credit-card records. (RFE/RL, with reporting by Cyberscoop)


Pope voices concern over tensions

Pope Francis has expressed concern over military activity in eastern Ukraine and called for de-escalation and peace amid rising tensions between Ukraine and Russia. The pontiff’s comments on April 18 at the Vatican come as Ukraine and Western powers accuse Russia of a provocative military buildup near Ukraine’s borders and in occupied Crimea. A fragile cease-fire in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Moscow-backed separatists has also unraveled in recent weeks, leaving at least 30 Ukrainian soldiers killed since the start of the year. “I am following with deep concern the events in several areas of eastern Ukraine, where in recent months violations of the cease-fire have multiplied, and I observe with great apprehension the increase of military activities,” Pope Francis told several hundred people gathered in St. Peter’s Square. “I firmly hope that the increase of tensions may be avoided and, on the contrary, gestures may be made that are capable of promoting mutual trust and fostering reconciliation and peace, so necessary and so desired,” he added. The pope also addressed the situation facing civilians in eastern Ukraine, where seven years of conflict have left 3.4 million people in need of humanitarian aid and protection, according to the U.N. At the end, he asked believers to pray for the suffering population. The United States and NATO say the Russian military buildup is the largest since 2014, when Moscow illegally annexed Crimea and backed separatists in the east of Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people. The Kremlin has rejected Western calls to pull back its troops from the border region, denying they are a threat and adding that military movements within Russia are a sovereign, internal issue. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters and Vatican News)


Russia and Ukraine expel diplomats

Russia has announced that it has expelled a Ukrainian consul in St. Petersburg, Oleksandr Sosoniuk, after detaining the diplomat on suspicion of trying to obtain classified information. Mr. Sosoniuk, who was detained on April 17 before being released and returned to the consulate, must leave Russian territory by April 22, the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry said in statement. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) accused Mr. Sosoniuk of attempting to obtain information from Russian law enforcement databases during a meeting with an unidentified Russian citizen. The Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry, which protested its diplomat’s detention as “illegal,” said it had expelled a senior Russian diplomat in response, without identifying the individual. “We totally exclude the charges pressed against the consular officer. Those actions of the Russian authorities grossly violate the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963 and again prove the policy of further aggravation with Ukraine chosen by Russia,” the Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement. The developments come at a time of heightened tensions between the two countries, with Moscow amassing military forces near their mutual border and in the Russian-annexed Ukrainian region of Crimea. Relations between Kyiv and Moscow have been strained since Russia annexed the Crimea region in 2014 and began providing military, economic, and political support to separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine. More than 13,000 people have been killed in the conflict in eastern Ukraine since April 2014. More than 25 Ukrainian soldiers have been reported killed since the start of the year, compared with 50 in all of 2020, when fighting in the conflict subsided as a new cease-fire deal came into force in July. (RFE/RL, with reporting by AFP, TASS, Interfax and Reuters)