June 17, 2021



Zelenskyy wants clarity on NATO path
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on June 15 he wants a clear yes or no from U.S. President Joe Biden on giving Ukraine a plan to join the NATO military alliance. In a joint interview with Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Press, Mr. Zelenskyy said he received assurances that Mr. Biden would not use Ukraine as a bargaining tool in his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He called on the United States to provide economic support to Ukraine and urged both Mr. Biden and the International Monetary Fund to be understanding of Ukraine’s problems before placing “unfair” reform demands on his presidency. “If we are talking about NATO and the MAP, I would really like to get [from Mr. Biden] specifics – yes or no,” Mr. Zelenskyy said, referring to the Membership Action Plan given to candidate countries, a status which Ukraine has long sought. “We must get clear dates and the likelihood of this for Ukraine.” He was speaking on the same day as NATO members met for a one-day summit in Brussels. Ukraine has expressed disappointment in not being invited to the meeting. Mr. Zelenskyy has urged NATO members to accelerate Ukraine’s entry into the alliance after a standoff with Russia this year that saw Russia mass additional troops and military equipment near Ukraine’s borders. Mr. Zelenskyy said most of Russia’s troops had yet to withdraw, and that Russia was dragging its feet on facilitating a meeting with Mr. Putin for no clear reason. About 11,000 troops had left and 95,000 remained, he estimated. Messrs. Biden and Zelenskyy spoke by phone last week. Mr. Zelenskiy was granted a long-sought invitation to visit the White House next month, though he said he regretted not being able to meet Mr. Biden in person before Mr. Biden met Mr. Putin this week. “He [Mr. Biden] said ‘I will never trade … Ukraine’s interests,’” Mr. Zelenskyy said. Mr. Zelenskyy said Ukraine had done everything necessary to earn a NATO membership plan, which Ukraine sees as a vital deterrent against Russia but Moscow fiercely opposes. “Every day we prove that we are ready to be in the alliance more than most of the countries of the European Union,” he said. He expects Ukraine to secure a much-delayed IMF tranche by the autumn though added Ukraine could still “live normally” without one. Mr. Zelenskyy did not rule out another flare-up in the coming months in Ukraine’s conflict with Russian-backed separatists, though in his assessment Russia was not looking to provoke a “full-scale war.” Kyiv says the conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed 14,000 people since 2014. “Everyone should understand and be more flexible, understand that we are at war, that we are defending democracy in Europe and defending our country, and therefore you cannot just talk to us with phrases about reforms,” he said. (Reuters)

$150 million in military aid for Ukraine
The U.S. Defense Department announced on June 11 a new military assistance package for Ukraine. The Pentagon said the $150 million package would “enhance the lethality, command and control and situational awareness” of Ukrainian forces. The “defensive lethal assistance” includes counter-artillery radars, communications and electronic warfare equipment, counter-drone systems and training. The United States has provided more than $2.5 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since 2014, when Russia forcibly annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed separatists in the east, sparking a war that has killed more than 13,000 people. Although the latest package comes from funds already committed by Congress for the U.S. government’s fiscal year that ends in September, the Pentagon announcement details how the U.S. military will allocate assistance. In March, the Pentagon announced another tranche of $125 million, including additional armed Mark VI patrol boats. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have risen in recent months after the two countries blamed each other for an increase in fighting in eastern Ukraine amid stalled peace talks between Kyiv and Kremlin-backed separatists. Russia also amassed 100,000 troops on its western border with Ukraine and in Crimea, drawing Western condemnation and concern for what Moscow said was just a defensive exercise. Although Russia later announced a pullback, both Washington and Ukraine say that the withdrawal is not complete. The issue of Ukraine was expected to be high on the agenda when U.S. President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, held a bilateral summit in Geneva on June 16. Earlier in the week, the White House said that Mr. Biden has invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Washington this summer in a show of support for Ukraine as it struggles to implement reforms to advance its Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Ukraine is heavily dependent on U.S. support to counter Russian aggression and wants to join the NATO military alliance, something the Kremlin strongly opposes. (RFE/RL)

Ukraine roots out hacking ring
Police in Ukraine said on June 16 that they exposed a ring of hackers who targeted some of the most prestigious U.S. universities as well as commercial companies in South Korea. They said raids on the suspects’ homes had found some 5 million hryvnyas (around $185,000) in cash. But they didn’t say whether any suspects were detained. The group’s attacks caused at least $500 million in damage, Ukrainian authorities said. The hacks included the use of an encryption virus that blocked internal servers and network computers at four South Korean firms in 2019, at least some of which paid a ransom. The group also targeted financial and personal records at Stanford University Medical School and the University of California, among others. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by AP)

Time to ‘push back’ against Russia
European Union foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell says the EU needs to “push back, constrain and engage” Moscow. Speaking on June 16 shortly before Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden began a summit in Geneva, Mr. Borrell told reporters in Brussels that “a renewed partnership, allowing us to realize the full potential of a close cooperation with Russia, is a distant prospect.” “The EU, therefore, needs to be realistic and prepare for a further downturn of our relation with Russia,” Mr. Borrell said. He made the remarks while presenting a report detailing a proposed strategy to build a “more predictable and stable relationship” with the Kremlin. EU leaders will debate the report at a summit next week as they seek a common approach on Russia amid divisions between some EU members over how to deal with Mr. Putin. The proposed strategy includes details on future relations between Brussels and the six former Soviet republics in the EU’s Eastern Partnership program – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. It says the EU “firmly rejects the Russian pursuit of a privileged sphere of influence” over those countries. “The Eastern partners have a full, sovereign right to shape the breadth and depth of their relations with the EU and other international players freely,” it says. The report also notes that the Russian government “continues its confrontational policy, employing soft and hard policy tools to exert pressure.” As a result, it says, the EU will continue to “strengthen the Eastern partners’ resilience via bilateral agreements” that include EU Association Agreements and other trade treaties. It also says it will continue “important financial support” to the Eastern Partnership countries and others with a focus on “necessary reforms in the economy, governance and the rule of law, green and digital transformations and inclusive societies.” Relations between Russia and the EU have hit a new low since the EU imposed sanctions against Moscow over the arrest of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and Russian authorities responded by targeting officials in Brussels. “Time and again, the European Union has demonstrated unity despite attempts by Russia to divide us,” Mr. Borrell said. “This unity remains our biggest asset and needs to be even more robust.” (RFE/RL, with reporting by Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels, Reuters, AP, and AFP)

Soccer association approves slogans on jerseys
The Ukrainian Association of Football (UAF) has approved two slogans as official soccer symbols as it looks to reverse a UEFA decision forcing the country to remove the words from the team jersey because they had a political connotation. UAF President Andriy Pavelko wrote on Facebook that the slogans “Glory to Ukraine!” and “Glory to the heroes!” were unanimously approved by the UAF on June 11 ahead of the Euro 2020 championship. Ukraine’s jersey has aroused opposition from Moscow because it includes an outline map of the country that includes the Crimean Peninsula. After Moscow took Crimea by force, Russia tried to legitimize its actions with a referendum widely derided as a sham. The vote was conducted in a heavily militarized environment and was illegal under the Ukrainian Constitution. The result has never been recognized by most of the international community. Still, acting upon a complaint from Russia over the jerseys, European soccer’s governing body said on June 10 that, while the map was not an issue, the combination of the phrases “Glory to Ukraine!” and “Glory to the heroes!” was “clearly political in nature.” “The Executive Committee approved the official football status of the slogans ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ and ‘Glory to the heroes!,’ which for many years have been a greeting by millions of our fans in our native land,” Mr. Pavelko wrote, noting that the UAF was still arguing its case with UEFA on June 11. The committee also approved the image of Ukraine’s map including Crimea as the association’s official coat of arms, Mr. Pavelko added. Oleksandr Hlyvynskiy, the Ukrainian national team’s press secretary, told reporters that the jerseys should stand as they are and that UAF officials were continuing to meet with UEFA to keep the uniforms as originally designed. “They are approved by UEFA. All things have been approved by UEFA. All of the signs were approved by UEFA, and the chairman of the Ukrainian federation is now in Rome speaking with UEFA about this,” he said. The team jerseys are for the Euro 2020 championship, which was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and will be played from June 11 to July 11 in 11 cities including St. Petersburg, Russia, where Ukraine may play if it advances to the quarterfinals. (RFE/RL)

Biden, Putin won’t cut a deal on Ukraine
Ukraine does not see a risk of U.S. Presi­dent Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin cutting a deal on Ukraine behind Ukraine’s back, Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba told a briefing in Kyiv on June 16. Messers. Biden and Putin met in Geneva in their first meeting since Mr. Biden became president. Ukraine has told allies it would not accept any agreements reached in discussions where Ukraine was not present, Mr. Kuleba said. “We do not see any risks for this meeting to reach some kind of agreement on Ukraine behind our back,” Mr. Kuleba said in a briefing alongside Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Ann Linde. (Reuters)

Ukrainians being repatriated from Syria
Ukraine’s government is repatriating a Ukrainian woman and her seven children from Syria, an RFE/RL correspondent on the Syrian-Iraqi border reported. Officials said the operation has been organized by the government in Kyiv with the support of the authorities in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region. The family had been detained at the Roj camp in northeastern Syria since at least 2019. The woman identified as Amina told RFE/RL that she used to live in Crimea and fled the Black Sea peninsula after Russia illegally annexed it in February-March 2014. She then lived for some time in Ukraine’s western city of Lviv before moving to Syria. “I am very thankful to the Ukrainian government for not forgetting about us and bringing us back home,” Ms. Amina said. After returning to Ukraine, the authorities are expected to restore their documents. “It will be important for women and children to adapt to normal life,” said Vadym Skibitskiy, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate. This is the second such evacuation organized by Kyiv since December 2020, when two Ukrainian women and seven children returned to their homeland on December 31, 2020, after the security services checked they had not been involved in “terrorist activities.” Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Kyiv to increase consular assistance to and repatriate an estimated 40 Ukrainian women and children it says were being “unlawfully” held in “horrific” conditions in Roj and Al-Hol, another camp in northeastern Syria. The majority of them were children, some as young as 2 years old, the New York-based human rights watchdog said. According to HRW, the group was among nearly 43,000 foreigners with links to the Islamic State extremist group who were being held by regional authorities. Many countries cite the potential security risks posed by their nationals as a reason for not bringing them home. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

Government extends lockdown measures
Ukraine’s government on June 17 extended COVID-19 lockdown measures until August 31, but eased some of the restrictions, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said. Mr. Shmyhal said all Ukrainian regions are now in the “green zone” but the country “must be ready for any development.” Mr. Shmyhal did not specify which measures will be eased. On June 15, Ukraine registered 420 COVID-19 cases – the lowest daily number of new COVID-19 infections over the previous 24 hours for nearly a year. On June 17, the health ministry reported 1,045 new coronavirus cases with 78 deaths. Ukraine, which has a population of 41 million, has been among the most affected European countries, with around 2.23 million COVID-19 cases and 51,847 deaths as of June 16. (Reuters)