April 30, 2021



Head of Naftogaz replaced

Ukraine’s government has replaced the head of Naftogaz, the country’s largest oil and gas company, after it posted a loss of nearly $700 million last year. The government’s press service said on April 28 that Andriy Kobolyev was dismissed from the post and acting Energy Minister Yuriy Vitrenko will take over the state-owned giant due to “unsatisfactory” results of the company’s operations in 2020. Deputy Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko will replace Mr. Vitrenko, the press service said. Earlier in the day, a lawmaker representing the ruling Servant of the People party, Olha Vasylevska-Smahlyuk, wrote on Telegram that the government fired Mr. Kobolyev “at last.”  Mr. Kobolyev, who led the energy giant for seven years, wrote on Facebook that he learned about his dismissal from the media and therefore could not comment on the situation. Naftogaz, one of the country’s largest companies by revenue, has long been the object of corrupt schemes by officials and oligarchs. The situation began to change after the 2014 upheaval that swept pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych from power. Ukraine’s Western backers tied financial aid to the country to concrete steps to clean up state companies such as Naftogaz, including calling for the creation of an independent supervisory board that would guard the company from political or oligarchic pressure. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)


Zelenskyy wary of troop withdrawal

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged the Ukrainian military to remain on alert despite Russia’s drawdown of its troops from the country’s borders, saying they could return “at any moment.” Kyiv has been battling Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014, following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. A Russian troop buildup in recent weeks near Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders and in Crimea has raised concerns of a major escalation of the conflict in Kyiv and in the West. But on April 23, Moscow announced that it had started withdrawing its armed forces.  “The fact that troops are withdrawing doesn’t mean the army should not be ready for the possibility that troops could return to our borders any moment,” Mr. Zelenskyy said while visiting Ukrainian military positions near Crimea on April 27. In Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the troop pullback had nothing to do with Western pressure, adding that Moscow will continue doing what is necessary to protect itself. Mr. Shoigu also voiced concern about the presence of NATO forces near Russia. “Some even warned us that our activities on our own territory will have consequences,” Mr. Shoigu said on April 27. “I would like to emphasize that we don’t see such warnings as acceptable and will do everything that is necessary to ensure the security of our borders.” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said recently that Washington had registered movements of some Russian troops away from Ukraine’s borders, but added that it was “too soon to tell” whether Russia was pulling back all forces. A cease-fire that took hold in July has been unravelling recently, with clashes sharply increasing between Ukrainian forces and separatists. Around 30 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the start of the year compared with 50 in all of last year, while the separatists have reported at least 20 military deaths. On April 27, the Ukrainian Army reported one soldier killed and three others wounded after their vehicle hit a mine. (RFE/RL, with reporting by Reuters, AFP and AP)


Security service says it foiled cyberattack

Ukraine’s security service (SBU) says it has arrested a local resident suspected of planning a Russian-ordered cyberattack on Ukrainian state institutions. “The attack targeted central and local governments, and the aim was to block the operation of information and critical infrastructure facilities,” an SBU statement said. SBU operatives “established that the special services of the Russian Federation acted through a resident of [the southeastern Ukrainian city of] Zaporizhia,” the statement said. The SBU said the hacker was meant to send a disguised file containing spyware to Ukrainian officials. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Last month, the SBU said it had prevented a large cyberattack by Russian hackers aimed at classified government data. Ukraine has previously accused Russia of orchestrating cyberattacks as part of a “hybrid war” against Ukraine. Russia denies this. Relations between Ukraine and Russia have been tense since Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and its involvement in a conflict in Ukraine’s east. Kyiv, its Western allies and NATO have accused Russia of a provocative troop buildup on Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea. (RFE/RL, with reporting by Reuters)


Kyiv expels Russian consul

Ukraine has declared the Russian consul in the Black Sea port city of Odesa as “persona non grata” after a second Ukrainian diplomat was kicked out of Russia in an ongoing diplomatic spat between the two countries. The consul must leave the country by April 30 at the latest, Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement on April 27. Amid already heightened tensions between Moscow and Kyiv, the latest diplomatic row was sparked by the arrest and subsequent expulsion of a Ukrainian consul earlier this month in St. Petersburg. Russian authorities accused the diplomat of trying to acquire personal data from secret service agents. In return, Kyiv expelled a Russian diplomat, prompting Moscow to respond by expelling a second Ukrainian on April 26. “We completely reject the unsubstantiated allegations that the declared ‘persona non grata’ Ukrainian diplomat allegedly engaged in activities incompatible with diplomatic status. The employee of the Embassy of Ukraine in Moscow did not carry out any actions that would go beyond his diplomatic and consular functions,” the Ukrainian statement said. “If the Russian side continues to provoke against employees of diplomatic missions of Ukraine in Russia, we reserve the right to take further action in response,” it added. Tense ties since Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and Russia’s backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine have been recently heightened by a buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine and military drills in the annexed region. For years, neither Russia nor Ukraine have had ambassadors in each other’s capital. (RFE/RL, with reporting by Reuters, dpa and AFP)


Zelenskyy marks Chornobyl anniversary

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelens­kyy called on the international community to work together to prevent a repeat of the Chornobyl disaster on the 35th anniversary of what is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history. “Our task is to do everything possible to bolster security and strengthen safety to avoid and never repeat a similar disaster in the future,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in a televised address on April 26 during a visit to the Chornobyl exclusion zone to mark International Chornobyl Disaster Remembrance Day. In the capital, Kyiv, dozens of people joined a ceremony and placed flowers at a Chornobyl memorial. Others gathered in the ghost town of Pripyat overnight and held a vigil with 35 candles in memory of those who lost their lives in the accident. An explosion and fire caused by a reactor meltdown at the Chornobyl power plant, located 110 kilometers north of Kyiv on April 26, 1986, sent clouds of lethal nuclear material across much of Europe. Pripyat, home to some 50,000 people, was evacuated along with other communities in a 30-kilometer exclusion zone around the radioactive wreckage. Dozens of people, particularly firefighters and other first responders, died as a direct result of the disaster, but radiation poisoning is believed to have killed thousands more across Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and other countries in the years that followed. In 2016, a crumbling “sarcophagus” used to contain radiation from the smoldering reactor was replaced with a $2.3 billion metal dome in a bid to stop future leaks. More than 200 tons of uranium remain buried inside. The area has attracted tourists, with flora and fauna taking over deserted streets and buildings, and Kyiv wants to make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “Our goal today is to transform the exclusion zone…into an area of renaissance,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in his address. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, with reporting by AFP)


Two theories on Czech arms depot blast

Czech President Milos Zeman has said there are two theories about what caused the 2014 arms depot blast that has sparked a severe diplomatic rift with Russia, and that both must be investigated. Speaking for the first time about the incident during a televised address to the nation on April 25, Mr. Zeman said that one version of events is that Russian intelligence was involved in the deadly explosion. The other version, he said, was that the blast was caused by inexpert handling of ammunition. “I take both lines [of investigation] seriously and I wish that they are thoroughly investigated,” Mr. Zeman said. Prime Minister Andrej Babis on April 17 announced that investigators from the Czech intelligence and security services had provided “unequivocal evidence” that there was “reasonable suspicion regarding a role of members of Russian military intelligence GRU’s unit 29155 in the explosion of the munition depot in Vrbetice in 2014.” Citing the report by the Czech Security Information Service, Mr. Zeman said that there was “neither proof nor evidence” that the two Russian GRU agents being sought regarding possible involvement in the explosion were at the arms depot. “I hope that we will determine the truth and find out whether this suspicion [of Russian intelligence involvement] is justified,” Mr. Zeman said. “If that is the case – although I support fair relations with all important countries – the Russian Federation would have to pay the price of this presumed terrorist act.” Mr. Zeman suggested that eliminating the Russian company Rosatom from consideration in a bid to construct a new nuclear plant would be one possible punishment. However, he also said that if Russia were cleared of responsibility it “could bear serious consequences for our internal politics.” Mr. Zeman, whose powers as president are largely ceremonial, has often expressed pro-Russian views and is seen as being friendly toward Moscow. The blast in Vrbetice on October 16, 2014, set off 50 metric tons of stored ammunition. Two months later, another blast of 13 tons of ammunition occurred at the same site. In response, the Czech government announced the expulsion of 18 Russian diplomats it considered to be spies, setting off a string of tit-for-tat moves between Prague and Moscow. In what is considered to be the worst spat between the former Cold War allies since communist rule ended in Czechoslovakia in 1989, the two sides exchanged ultimatums and hiked the number of diplomatic expulsions. On April 19, Russia announced that 20 employees at the Czech Embassy in Moscow would be expelled. On April 23, Czech Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhanek said that the number of people allowed by the Czech Republic and Russia at their respective embassies would be limited to 32, including seven diplomats. The Czech Foreign Affairs Ministry has given Russia until the end of May to cut the number of its personnel at its embassy in Prague by 63 people. Russia, which has denied any involvement in the arms depot blast, has pledged to respond. Czech media has reported that the ammunition and weaponry destroyed in the first Vrbetice blast, which killed two people, was intended for Ukrainian forces fighting against Russia-backed separatist troops in eastern Ukraine. The two Russian intelligence officers sought in relation to the explosion are the same GRU officers accused of a nerve-agent poisoning in England in 2018 that targeted former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal. Mr. Skripal and his daughter survived the attack carried out with what British investigators determined was the Soviet-engineered nerve agent Novichok. A British woman who accidentally came into contact with the substance died. (RFE/RL, with reporting by Reuters and TASS)