February 26, 2016



Russian military command linked to MH17

LEICESTER, England – A team of open-source researchers investigating the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has published a report it provided to Dutch prosecutors linking the commanders of a Russian military unit to the plane’s downing. The latest report, released on February 24 by the British group known as Bellingcat, links higher-ups in Russia’s military chain of command to the tragedy and adds other details building on earlier investigations into the July 2014 downing of MH17. Its previous reports had identified Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade as being the likely source of the missile that Dutch aviation officials say brought down the jet, killing all 298 people on board. The new report details the chain of command for this battalion and adds to the growing body of circumstantial evidence suggesting Russian complicity. This includes personal information about Russian military officers and enlisted soldiers who Bellingcat alleges specifically knew of, and possibly even manned, the Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile system believed to have brought down MH17. Bellingcat said that, if its conclusion about the Russian Buk missile launcher that allegedly downed MH17 is correct, the Russian Defense Ministry “bears the main responsibility for the MH17 tragedy, shared with the military commanders and leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.” (RFE/RL)

Shokin resignation received by president

KYIV – Ukraine’s embattled top prosecutor has officially submitted his resignation, a spokesman for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on Twitter. The presidential administration has received an official letter of resignation from Procurator General Viktor Shokin, presidential press secretary Sviatoslav Tsegolko wrote on February 19. Calls for Mr. Shokin’s resignation mounted after Deputy Procurator General Vitaliy Kasko resigned on February 15, accusing Mr. Shokin of hindering corruption investigations. There were media reports that Mr. Shokin had resigned as early as February 16, but other reports said he had gone on an extended vacation. (RFE/RL, with reporting by Interfax and Reuters)

Biden commends anti-corruption efforts

WASHINGTON – U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden on February 18 called Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and commended him for passing anti-corruption legislation sought by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the White House said. “The vice-president urged President Poroshenko to continue on this positive trajectory, to include successful implementation of the new legislation and continued visible progress on anti-corruption reforms” backed by the United States and European Union. The IMF had threatened to halt delivery of Ukraine’s $40 billion bailout package from the IMF and European Union unless it cracked down on corruption. Mr. Biden also applauded Mr. Poroshenko’s efforts to replace Procurator General Viktor Shokin, “which paves the way for needed reform of the prosecutorial service,” the White House said. U.S. officials have long made clear their position that Mr. Shokin should resign to restore public confidence in Ukraine’s justice system. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by AP and Reuters)
Obama and Putin confer by phone

WASHINGTON – The White House reported that President Barack Obama on February 22 spoke by phone with President Vladimir Putin of Russia “at the Kremlin’s request to discuss efforts to establish a nationwide cessation of hostilities between the Syrian regime and its allies on the one hand and the armed opposition on the other.” According to a readout of the phone call issued by the White House, “President Obama also emphasized the importance of the fulfillment by combined Russian-separatist forces in eastern Ukraine of their obligations under the Minsk agreements, particularly honoring the ceasefire and permitting the Special Monitoring Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe full access to the conflict area including the international border. The president underscored the importance of quickly reaching agreement on modalities for holding free and fair elections in eastern Ukraine that meet OSCE standards.” (White House, Office of the Press Secretary)

American border control system installed

KYIV – American border control systems have arrived at customs and will start operating at the Ukrainian border in the nearest time, it was announced in Kyiv on February 15. The systems will provide border surveillance and are enhanced with an information exchange system. These automated technologies enable the creation of rapid response units that can respond to possible challenges. The project will start from Ukraine’s maritime border, said Roman Romanov, general director of the state-owned company Ukroboronprom, speaking on February 15 at a press briefing at Ukraine Crisis Media Center. According to Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D- Calif.), who is dealing with this issue in the U.S., Washington highly estimates the capabilities of Ukrainian professionals to quickly adjust the U.S. technologies and develop their own based on them. The U.S. will thus be emphasizing training, as well as sharing experience and technologies with Ukraine. “I would like to reassure everybody that there are many of us in Congress who are keeping an eye and working towards helping Ukraine and the rest of Europe to ensure that the aggressive posture that we have seen from Mr. Putin does not go unchecked,” emphasized Rep. Sanchez. (Ukraine Crisis Media Center)

Mexico returns Crimea ship to Ukraine 

KYIV – Ukraine’s state gas company says Mexican prosecutors have ordered a seized ship belonging to a Crimean company to be returned to Ukraine rather than Russia. Naftohaz Ukrainy, the ultimate owner of the ship, published the announcement on its website on February 18. The ship, Titan-2, belongs to Chornomornaftogaz, a Naftohaz subsidiary registered in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula whose forced annexation by Russia in 2014 triggered international condemnation and Western sanctions against Moscow. The vessel had been leased and subleased since 2003, until its latest operator, the Mexican company Oceanografia SA de CV, went bankrupt. Local financial institutions then seized the ship. “This is the first case that another country’s authorities have officially recognized the ownership rights of Chornomor-naftogaz, which was re-registered in Kyiv after the Russian occupation of Crimea, of its property,” the statement reads. Titan-2 is a crane vessel designed to assemble, service, and disassemble floating drilling platforms. The transfer of the ship to Ukraine would give Kyiv the decision on how it should be used going forward. Mexico’s prosecutor’s office has not publicly commented on the case. In the first 10 months after Russia’s takeover of Crimea, the Kremlin-imposed authorities on the peninsula seized more than $1 billion in real estate and other assets from Ukrainian owners, The New York Times has estimated. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said on January 6 that it would consider a case presented by Ihor Kolomoyskiy, Ukraine’s third-richest person, who claims that he lost $15 million after the annexation because he was deprived of the right his company had to operate a passenger terminal at Crimea’s Sevastopol International Airport until 2020. As of September 2015, Ukraine estimated its losses from the Crimean annexation to be 1.2 trillion hrv ($55.5 billion U.S.). In January, President Petro Poroshenko said Ukraine would file lawsuits against Russia in international courts over the Kremlin’s seizure of the peninsula. (RFE/RL)
Germany on Minsk deal’s reforms

KYIV – German Foreign Affairs Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that infighting among political parties in Ukraine’s governing coalition cannot be allowed to prevent the government from carrying out its reform obligations under the Minsk accords. Speaking at a joint press conference on February 23 with the Ukrainian and French foreign affairs ministers after talks in Kyiv, Mr. Steinmeier said the key steps on implementing the Minsk agreement still must be taken. He said Russia also must be ready to implement the Minsk deal. He said Germany and France will continue to support Ukraine’s reform efforts but expect Kyiv to continue with reforms in return to help revive the economy and carry out the Minsk deal, which was reached in the Belarusian capital a year ago. Mr. Steinmeier warned Kyiv that the International Monetary Fund was looking for political “stability” before offering further loans to Ukraine. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by Reuters, AP and AFP)

Kyiv protesters attack Russian banks 

KYIV – Demonstrators attacked two Russian banks in Kyiv as thousands attended ceremonies in the Ukrainian capital marking the second anniversary of the protests that brought down Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych. Protesters threw rocks through the windows at the offices of Alfa Bank and Sberbank, and ransacked furniture and equipment inside. Police did not intervene. Up to 1,000 protesters rallied in central Kyiv to demand the ouster of the government. The demonstrators set up six tents on Independence Square on February 21, saying they plan to stay there all night. February 20 marked the second anniversary of the bloodiest day of the months of protests, which had been sparked by then Mr. Yanukovych’s decision to spurn closer ties with the European Union. Ukraine now marks the occasion as the “Day of the Heavenly Brigade,” which refers to those who died during the protests. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by AP and Interfax)

Children summoned to mark ‘Crimean Spring’ 

SEVASTOPOL – Moscow-backed authorities in Crimea’s Sevastopol ordered schools to gather about 10,000 children to celebrate the so-called “Crimean spring” on February 22. The term is used by Kremlin supporters to refer to Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian Peninsula, which was finalized in March 2014. Clashes among Crimean civilians began on February 21. Local news reports quoted teachers as saying they suspect the call is an attempt by the de facto authorities to prevent protests by other pro-Russian groups that are in opposition to the Kremlin-imposed government. Crimea has a two-day holiday on February 22-23 to mark Defender of the Fatherland Day. According to ForPost, a local news site, one teacher said: “They wanted to have children there so that nobody else does anything in the center of Sevastopol at that time. They say there have been a lot of applications for various protests.” Order No. 66, dated February 15, came from Sevastopol’s Kremlin-backed Education Department Director Mikhail Rodikov. The document lists Sevastopol’s educational institutions, how many students each establishment must send to the celebrations, and the times children must be present on the city’s main Nakhimov Square. The document called for about 10,000 students to take part from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The document said student participation is mandatory “in order for the younger generation to develop civil-patriotic qualities, foster a sense of respect and [understanding of the] historical heritage of their native city, and preserve the traditions of valiant service to the fatherland.” Yevgeny Dubrovnik, the de facto deputy governor of Sevastopol, originally said that children’s participation at the event would be important. However, when teachers and parents began to file complaints to the education authorities, Mr. Dubrovnik backtracked, saying that the mandatory participation of children in the celebrations was his subordinate’s “uncoordinated” idea. According to Mr. Dubrovnik, children will participate in the celebration, but no one will force them. “Children will take part in exhibitions and concerts. [They] will show what they have done in two years of our Sevastopol spring, how they live,” he said. “The day, February 22, is dedicated to, among other things, our children’s creativity.” (RFE/RL)