May 27, 2021



Ukraine disappointed over NATO progress
Ukraine has decried the lack of progress in NATO’s “open-door” policy to Ukrainian membership and said it could not comprehend why it wasn’t invited to the bloc’s summit next month. NATO meets on June 14 in Brussels in a push to improve transatlantic ties under U.S. President Joe Biden amid growing tensions with Russia. “We understand the desire of the allies to hold a closed summit … but we do not understand how it is possible not to invite Ukraine,” Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on May 26. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this month called on NATO to beef up its presence in the Black Sea region and asked Washington to back Kyiv’s bid for a NATO Membership Action Plan at the summit. Mr. Zelenskyy’s plea came as Russia earlier this year deployed more than 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine and in occupied Crimea – the biggest mobilization since Moscow seized the Ukrainian peninsula in March 2014 and war broke out in eastern Ukraine. The buildup prompted alarm in Western capitals over Moscow’s intentions amid an uptick in fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Kremlin-backed separatists in the country’s east. The conflict has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014. Speaking at a joint news conference with Helga Schmid, the secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who was visiting the Ukrainian capital, Mr. Kuleba said Kyiv was grateful to NATO for its “constant confirmation of the open-door policy,” but added that not a single step had been taken to implement it. At a 2008 summit in Bucharest, NATO said that Ukraine could potentially become a member in the future. “When we in Ukraine are accused of too slow reforms, what can we say about the adoption and implementation of the decisions of the alliance, which have been covered with dust for 13 years?” Mr. Kuleba asked. U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price recently restated the U.S. policy of supporting an “open door” to NATO for countries meeting “the standard for membership.” But Ukraine still must “implement the … reforms necessary to build a more stable, democratic, prosperous and free country,” Mr. Price said. (RFE/RL, with reporting by Reuters and AFP)

Rights group calls Tatars political prisoners
The Memorial Human Rights Center says it has recognized four Crimean Tatars being tried for their alleged association with a banned Islamic group as political prisoners. The Moscow-based group said the four are being illegally persecuted for political reasons after being arrested “in connection with their non-violent exercising of their rights to freedom of religion and association.” The group said in a statement released on May 20 that, “The Memorial Human Rights Center, according to international criteria, considers Seytumer Shukrievich Seytumerov, Osman Seytume­rov, Amet Suleimanov and Rustem Seytmemetov political prisoners, and Seytumer Veliyevich Seytumerov – illegally persecuted for political reasons.” The group added that, “Memorial calls for an immediate end to the prosecution of all those involved in this case and the release of those who are unreasonably detained.” The four were arrested on March 11, 2020, at their homes in Crimea. They were charged with creating a cell of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group that is banned in Russia, but is legal in Ukraine. “The persecuted Muslims were only guilty of the fact that, according to the investigation, they were members of a public religious association,” Memorial said. “They are not charged with preparing terrorist attacks or voicing terrorist threats,” it added. Russia took control of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 after sending in troops, seizing key facilities and staging a referendum dismissed as illegal by at least 100 countries. Moscow also backs separatists in a war against government forces that has killed some 13,200 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014. Moscow’s takeover of the peninsula was vocally opposed by many Crimean Tatars, who are a sizable minority in the region. Exiled from their homeland to Central Asia by the Soviet authorities under dictator Josef Stalin during World War II, many Crimean Tatars are very wary of Russia and Moscow’s rule. Rights groups and Western governments have denounced what they describe as a campaign of repression by the Moscow-imposed authorities in Crimea who are targeting members of the Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatar community and others who have spoken out against Russia’s takeover of the peninsula. (RFE/RL’s Crimea.Realities)

Russian passports a step toward annexation
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelens­kyy has called Moscow’s recent move to distribute Russian passports to residents in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk – jointly known as the Donbas – “a big problem” and the first step toward the annexation of the area. Speaking at a wide-ranging press conference on May 20 to mark his second year in office, Mr. Zelenskyy said resolving the ongoing conflict between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian armed forces in the Donbas, the “de-occupation” of Russia-annexed Crimea and the continuation of the fight against oligarchs remain his priorities. “This is definitely the first step, because the same thing happened once in Crimea, Crimea residents were given Russian passports. This is a big problem,” Mr. Zelenskyy said during the three-hour news conference. According to the official TASS news agency, more than 527,000 Russian passports have been distributed in the Donbas since April 2019. Relations between Moscow and Kyiv collapsed after Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014 and Russia-backed separatists took control of a chunk of eastern Ukraine that same year. They have worsened in recent months after the two countries blamed each other for an increase in fighting in eastern Ukraine, and Russia – in what it called a defensive exercise – massed troops on its western border with Ukraine and in Crimea. Mr. Zelenskyy said his government has plans on how to resolve the conflict in the Donbas and called again for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the issue to be held either in the conflict zone or “a neutral territory.” He lauded Ukraine’s Western partners for helping ease tensions in relations between the two countries and urged them to keep up their pressure on the Kremlin. “I held talks with [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron, a video talk with [German] Chancellor Angela Merkel and I feel their support… I think they are slightly softening their positions toward Russia… due to the economic situation and pressure inside their countries and from businesses,” Mr. Zelenskyy said. Mr. Zelenskiy expressed concern over reports that Washington plans to lift sanctions against companies involved in completing the North Stream 2 energy pipeline for Russian natural gas in Germany, saying there is a risk that this could hand the Kremlin “a serious geopolitical victory” and lead to “a new redistribution of power and influence” in the region. The Ukrainian president also vowed to continue his efforts to eradicate corruption among officials and pursue the “de-oligarchization” of Ukraine. He said he will free the country of influence from oligarchs, one of the first steps of which was to impose sanctions against Russia-friendly tycoon and lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk, who was placed under house arrest on a high treason charge recently. “The era of Medvedchuk is on its way out, the era of bribes and corruption is on its way out… We are cleaning [the country] of corruption. I am confident that we have taken many steps forward,” Mr. Zelenskyy said, adding that a special law to deprive oligarchs of influence on the Ukrainian economy, politics and media “has been almost outlined.” (RFE/RL)

MH17 wreckage viewed by judges
Judges overseeing the murder trial of four suspects in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over rebel-held eastern Ukraine viewed the wreckage of the plane on May 27, two weeks before prosecutors are due to present their case. MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was hit with a missile fired from territory held by pro-Russian rebels during fighting with Ukrainian government troops, international investigators have concluded. All 298 people on board were killed, two thirds of them Dutch nationals. The Netherlands, citing the use of a Russian missile launcher brought from a Russian military base, holds Moscow responsible for the deaths. Russia denies involvement. So far, the trial hearings, which began in March 2020, have been taken up by procedural issues, with no evidence heard or witnesses called. On June 7, prosecutors are due to make their opening statements in the case. They have brought charges against three Russians and a Ukrainian, all of them at large, accused of playing a part in shooting down the aircraft. The remains of the plane were recovered from the crash site and reconstructed in a hangar at an air base in the Netherlands, where they were viewed by judges, lawyers, prosecutors and relatives of the victims. Arlette Schijns, a lawyer representing the families, stressed the importance of giving the court a first-hand impression of the extensive damage. “We cannot get closer to the death of the 298 victims than this,” she said. Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said before viewing the wreckage: “This is a reconstruction of the aircraft in which their loved ones were travelling to a destination which they never reached.” The defendants – Russians Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Igor Girkin and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko – have not attended the hearings so far. Mr. Pulatov is the only one who has appointed a defense team, with the others being tried in absentia. Through his lawyer, Mr. Pulatov has denied any involvement. Under Dutch law, the defendants are not required to enter a plea. (Reuters)