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Archive for the ‘Defiant Land of Ukraine’ Category

Putin, Ukraine’s leader talk about natural gas, prisoners

December 31, 2019

MOSCOW (AP) — The presidents of Russia and Ukraine have spoken by telephone to express satisfaction with a newly signed contract on natural gas transit and the recent exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia-backed rebels in Ukraine’s east.

A Kremlin statement says the Tuesday call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy took place on Ukraine’s initiative. Sunday’s swap of a total of 200 prisoners has raised hopes of an end to the five-year-long war in eastern Ukraine that has killed 14,000 people.

The new contract allowing Russian gas to Europe to be shipped through pipelines that cross Ukraine will ease European fears of an interruption in Russian gas supplies over the winter. Russia ships about 40% of its European gas deliveries by that route and the old contract was to expire Tuesday.

Zelenskiy’s office said the leaders also discussed establishing a list to look into freeing Ukrainians and Russians being held by each other’s countries. The Kremlin did not mention that issue.

Iran crash and missile claims put Ukraine president in bind

January 10, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — As allegations swirl and denials clash over what caused the fatal crash of a Ukrainian airliner in Iran this week, Ukraine’s president is caught in the middle. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Friday appealed to Western countries to present evidence for their claims a day earlier that an Iranian anti-aircraft missile downed the plane, killing all 176 people on board.

If that made Zelenskiy sound uninformed amid strident claims from all sides, he also appeared to be following an astute strategy for damage control. Ukraine knows all too well how an air catastrophe can stir up a maelstrom of rumors and disinformation.

The plane crash Wednesday near Tehran is the third time in 20 years that Ukraine has been linked to the violent destruction of a civilian plane, allegedly or demonstrably due to a missile strike. In each case, denials, unfounded speculation and political posturing clouded the search for the truth.

And the crisis has erupted as Ukraine — under the new leadership of a man with no political experience — is already entangled in other international and U.S. political disputes. Zelenskiy has found himself mired in the turmoil around President Donald Trump’s impeachment, which is based on allegations that Trump tried to pressure Ukraine into investigating Democratic opponent Joe Biden. Trump and his Republican political allies have pushed an opposing narrative that he wanted to investigate corruption in Ukraine, and by extension, that Ukraine, not just Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections.

The first airline disaster to ensnare Ukraine was on Oct. 4, 2001, when a Russian airliner disappeared over the Black Sea en route from Israel carrying 78 people. Coming just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, speculation on the cause initially focused on terrorism.

Within a day, U.S. officials said the plane likely was hit accidentally by a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile fired during military exercises. Both Ukraine and Russia initially rejected that claim. But the rejection by Russian President Vladimir Putin was based on what he had been told by Ukraine — at that time a Russian ally — and Ukraine several weeks later acknowledged that it was at fault.

The incident, and Ukraine’s denials and incorrect claims, were a significant embarrassment to the country, which fired its air defense chief and paid more than $15 million in compensation to victims’ families.

The next disaster killed far more people and sparked far more contention, pitting Ukraine against Russia with competing claims of responsibility. A Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down on July 17, 2014, over eastern Ukraine where Ukrainian forces were at war with Russian-backed separatists. All 298 people aboard died.

Although much suspicion initially fell on the separatists, bolstered by a reported claim by a rebel commander that a Ukrainian plane was shot down at the same time, Russian officials and Russian news media quickly launched an array of competing theories.

One of them focused on a man who supposedly was a Spanish air traffic controller at Kyiv’s Boryspil airport who said on Twitter that his radar screen had spotted two Ukrainian military jets near the Malaysian plane shortly before it went down. That dovetailed with an alleged theory that Ukrainian forces had mistaken the airliner for one carrying Putin.

The most vividly gruesome of the reports was a claim that the Malaysian plane had been filled with corpses before takeoff, then sent to its doom. On-the-ground investigative work to establish what happened was obstructed by the rebels, who did not give investigators full access to the crash site for days. Experts later abandoned the on-site work for several weeks because of concerns about their safety.

Nearly a year later, Russian arms-maker Almaz-Antey confirmed that the plane had been shot down by a Soviet-designed surface-to-air missile, but claimed that particular model was used only by the Ukrainian military.

Investigations led by the Netherlands — the flight originated in Amsterdam and more than half the victims were Dutch — concluded that the plane was shot down from rebel-controlled territory and that the mobile missile launcher used had been brought into Ukraine from Russia on the day of the attack.

Russia and the rebels continue to deny involvement in the downing. A trial is scheduled to start in March in the Netherlands of four suspects — three Russians and one Ukrainian — in the MH-17 downing, although none is expected to be handed over to face the court.

The Iran crash this week took place amid fears of imminent war between the United States and Iran after a U.S. drone strike killed an Iranian military mastermind and Iran launched retaliatory missile strikes.

Zelenskiy and Ukraine may be facing a country just as sensitive and obstinate as Russia was over the 2014 crash. Although Ukrainian investigators are in Iran, their access to the crash site was delayed until Friday. Iran is promising cooperation but still rejects reports that one of its missiles hit the plane.

Russia, which has close relations with Iran, appears to be taking a cautious stance. Russian officials have refrained from commenting on the claims that Iran was responsible, and pro-Kremlin lawmakers have been divided on the issue.

“There are no grounds for making vociferous statements at this stage,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Friday. “It is important to allow specialists to analyze the situation and make conclusions. Starting some kind of game is, at the very least, indecent.”

The catastrophe is a complex stew for Zelenskiy, who took office less than eight months ago with no prior political experience. His call for evidence in the plane crash and avoidance of strong claims could be the hesitancy of a novice, but it has so far prevented a smoldering crisis from bursting into open flames.

Russia and Ukraine trade prisoners, each fly 35 to freedom

September 07, 2019

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia and Ukraine conducted a major prisoner exchange that freed 35 people detained in each country and flew them to the other, a deal that could help advance Russia-Ukraine relations and end five years of fighting in Ukraine’s east.

The trade involved some of the highest-profile prisoners caught up in a bitter standoff between Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy greeted the freed prisoners as they stepped down from the airplane that had brought them from Moscow to Kyiv’s Boryspil airport. Relatives waiting on the tarmac surged forward to hug their loved ones.

Most of the ex-detainees appeared to be in good physical condition, although one struggled down the steps on crutches and another was held by the arms as he slowly navigated the steps. Among those Russia returned was Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, whose conviction for preparing terrorist attacks was strongly denounced abroad, and 24 Ukrainian sailors taken with a ship the Russian navy seized last year.

“Hell has ended; everyone is alive and that is the main thing,” Vyacheslav Zinchenko, 30, one of the released sailors, said. The prisoners released by Ukraine included Volodymyr Tsemakh, who commanded a separatist rebel air defense unit in the area of eastern Ukraine where a Malaysian airliner was shot down in 2014, killing all 298 people aboard.

Dozens of lawmakers urged Ukraine’s president not to make Tsemakh one of their country’s 35 traded prisoners. Critics saw freeing Tsemakh as an act of submissiveness to Russia, but the exchange “allows Zelenskiy to fulfill one of his main pre-election promises,” Ukrainian analyst Vadim Karasev told The Associated Press

Zelenskiy, who was elected in a landslide in April, has promised new initiatives to resolve the war in eastern Ukraine between government troops and the separatist rebels. The exchange of prisoners also raises hope in Russia for the reduction of European sanctions imposed because of its role in the conflict, Karasev said. Russia also is under sanctions for its annexation of Crimea in 2014, shortly before the separatist conflict in the east began, but that dispute is unlikely to be resolved.

At Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, the released prisoners remained on the plane for about 15 minutes for unknown reasons. When they came off, many toting baggage, a bus drove them to a medical facility for examination.

Russia said it would release a full list of its citizens freed by Ukraine but had not done so by Saturday night. The 24 sailors in the swap were seized after Russian ships fired on two Ukrainian vessels on Nov. 25 in the Kerch Strait, located between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov next to Russia-annexed Crimea.

Another passenger on the plane from Moscow was Nikolai Karpyuk, who was imprisoned in 2016 after he was convicted of killing Russians in Chechnya in the 1990s. “Russia was not able to break me even though they tried hard to do this,” Karpyuk said in Kyiv.

Kirill Vyshinsky, head of Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti’s Ukraine branch, also had a seat. Vyshinsky had been jailed since 2018 on treason charges. He thanked Harlem Desir, the media freedom representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe, for calling for his release.

The exchange comes amid renewed hope that a solution can be found to the fighting in Ukraine’s east that has killed 13,000 people since 2014. A congratulatory tweet from U.S. President Donald Trump called the trade “good news.”

“Russia and Ukraine just swapped large numbers of prisoners. Very good news, perhaps a first giant step to peace,” Trump’s tweet said. “Congratulations to both countries!” However, reaching a peace agreement faces many obstacles, such as determining the final territorial status of rebel-held areas. Russia insists it has not supported the rebels and the fighting is Ukraine’s internal affair.

A Russian Foreign Ministry statement welcoming the exchange touched on those difficulties, calling the war an “intra-Ukraine conflict.” “Obviously, the habit of blaming Russia for all the troubles of Ukraine should remain in the past,” the ministry statement said.

The prospect of progress nevertheless appeared to rise last month with the announcement of a planned summit of the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany – the four countries with representatives in the long-dormant “Normandy format,” a group seeking to end the conflict.

“We have made the first step. It was very complicated. Further, we will come closer to the return of our (war) prisoners,” Zelenskiy said of the prisoner exchange. In July, a tentative agreement for the release of 69 Ukrainian prisoners and 208 held in Ukraine was reached by the Trilateral Contact Group of Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; negotiations on fulfilling it continue.

Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign relations committee in the Russian parliament’s upper house, said the exchange represented a move “in the direction of crossing from confrontation to dialogue, and one can only thank those thanks to whose strength this became possible.”

Yuras Karmanau in Minsk, Belarus, contributed to this story.

Ukraine, Poland want continued sanctions on Russia

August 31, 2019

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Saturday he and Poland’s president have agreed that sanctions ought to continue against Russia until Ukraine regains the territory it lost in Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Zelenskiy, accompanied by some members of his Cabinet, was on his first visit to Poland as president for political talks and to attend ceremonies planned for Sunday to mark the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II.

He said he and Polish President Andrzej Duda had discussed the next steps needed to end the war in eastern Ukraine and to return the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine. “We have agreed on our next steps to stop the war in eastern Ukraine and to bring back occupied Crimea,” said Zelenskiy, who was a comedian who starred on a popular sitcom before his election in April.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 in a move that Ukraine and almost all of the world views as illegal. The European Union and the U.S. imposed sanctions. In eastern Ukraine, a deadly conflict between government forces and Russia-backed separatists has gone on for five years.

Zelenskiy said his and Duda’s “joint and principal position” is that the EU “sanctions should be reviewed only to be increased- not otherwise” unless existing peace agreements are fully implemented and “the territorial unity of Ukraine according to its internationally agreed borders” is restored.

Duda said he assured Zelenskiy of his support for continuing sanctions on Russia and protecting “Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.” Duda said especially in the context of Sunday’s World War II anniversary, “We must stress how very important it is that no one, in Europa or in the world, is allowed to change borders by force.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and dozens of world leaders also will take part in the anniversary ceremonies in Warsaw. The invasion of Poland by Nazi German troops on Sept. 1, 1939 marks the outbreak of World War II.

Poland remained under Nazi German occupation for more than five years and lost some 6 million citizens.

Trudeau promises support for Ukraine in wake of Russian ‘aggression’

Toronto, Canada (AFP)

July 2, 2019

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau promised Tuesday to support Ukraine in the wake of Russian “aggression,” after a meeting with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in Toronto.

The two leaders met while Zelensky was in Toronto on his first visit to North America to participate in a conference on Ukrainian reforms.

“In the wake of Russian aggression and attempts to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty, including the illegal annexation of Crimea, it’s all the more important for countries like Canada to stand alongside its partner,” said Trudeau during a press conference with the newly-inducted Ukrainian president.

“Russia’s actions are not only a threat to Ukraine but to international law,” Trudeau said.

The conference, which ends Thursday, brings together representatives from 30 countries, the European Union, and international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and NATO.

Trudeau added he was “dismayed” that Russia was reinstated in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), after the country was stripped of its voting rights in the pan-European rights body in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea.

Trudeau noted that the reinstatement came despite Russia “having not liberated the Ukrainian sailors” detained in the country since November 2018, as well as three Ukrainian naval vessels, which were seized in the Kerch Strait at the same time.

Zelensky said he was “disappointed” by the Council’s decision. In protest, Ukraine announced Tuesday it was withdrawing its invitation to PACE monitors to observe parliamentary elections to be held on July 21.

Trudeau and Zelensky also discussed Canadian arms sales and Canada’s military training mission in Ukraine.

In March, Ottawa renewed its mission of some 200 Canadian troops deployed to Ukraine until the end of March 2022.

Since 2015, Canada has so far trained nearly 11,000 Ukrainian soldiers.

Regarding Ukrainian reforms, Trudeau said there has been “much improvement” in the last few years, which he believes will continue, particularly in the fight against corruption.

The Canadian leader said he is convinced that with the election of Zelensky, a former comedian who took office in May, there will be “even more positive steps” in Ukraine.

“We will be patient because there is a lot of work to do,” Trudeau said.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland also announced $45 million in additional Canadian assistance to Ukraine in support of its reforms and a proposed national police force.

Since 2014, Canada — the first Western country to recognize Ukraine’s independence in December 1991 and home to a large Ukrainian diaspora — has provided the country more than $785 million in aid.

Freeland also condemned Russia’s decision to issue Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in the Donbass region, a disputed area in eastern Ukraine that is a hotbed of pro-Russian separatism.

“Starting today, Canada will take action to ensure that these passports cannot be used to travel to Canada. We encourage our partners to do likewise,” she said.

The armed conflict between Ukrainian forces and the pro-Russian separatists has claimed 13,000 lives since 2014.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Trudeau_promises_support_for_Ukraine_in_wake_of_Russian_aggression_999.html.

UN mission: Ukraine actions after Odessa fire inadequate

May 03, 2019

MOSCOW (AP) — Five years after 48 people died in clashes in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, a United Nations’ human rights monitoring mission criticized authorities Thursday for delays in investigating and prosecuting people for the violence.

The loss of life on May 2, 2014 started during a confrontation between demonstrators calling for autonomy in eastern Ukraine amid a Russia-backed separatist uprising and supporters of Ukraine’s government. Six people were killed during hours of street fighting.

The worst was yet to come. After pro-autonomy demonstrators retreated to a trade union building, government supporters threw fire bombs into the building; 42 people died inside or after jumping or falling from windows.

In a statement on the bloodshed’s five-year anniversary, the U.N. human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine said “authorities have not done what it takes to ensure prompt, independent and impartial investigations and prosecutions.”

In Odessa, residents marked the anniversary by laying flowers outside the trade union building and attending other events. About 4,500 people took part, according to police.

Putin derides Ukraine’s martial law as political trick

November 28, 2018

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s president donned combat fatigues to implement martial law in much of the country on Wednesday, a move Russia denounced as a cynical political trick as both sides ratcheted up tensions after a weekend standoff in the Black Sea.

Each side blamed the other for the bellicose turn of events, with Ukraine saying Russia is preparing for a full-scale invasion and Moscow calling it a political stunt by an unpopular president facing tough elections.

In Sunday’s confrontation, three Ukrainian naval vessels were heading from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov when they were blocked by the Russian coast guard near the Kerch Strait between Russia’s mainland and the Crimean Peninsula it annexed from Ukraine. After many tense hours of maneuvering, the Russians opened fire and seized the Ukrainian vessels and crew.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko responded by ordering martial law in much of the country, a move that went into effect with parliamentary approval. Poroshenko toured a military training center Wednesday in the Chernihiv region bordering Russia, one of the areas where martial law was imposed. Speaking to reporters as smoke billowed from a nearby shooting range, the camouflage-clad president pledged “not to allow the enemy to attack Ukraine” and announced a hike in salaries for servicemen.

Poroshenko initially sought to impose martial law for two months, a move that would have meant presidential elections scheduled for March would have to be scrapped due to election rules. Facing criticism in parliament, he halved the martial law time frame to a month, which would allow the election to go ahead as planned.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin bluntly accused his Ukrainian counterpart of provoking the naval incident in order to shore up his sagging popularity and sideline competitors ahead of the March election.

“The Black Sea incident certainly was a provocation organized by the sitting government, including the incumbent president ahead of the presidential vote in March,” Putin said, alleging that Poroshenko wanted to “exacerbate the situation and create obstacles for his rivals.”

Ukraine has insisted that its vessels were operating in line with international maritime rules, while Russia claimed they had failed to get permission to pass through a Russia-controlled area. A 2003 treaty between the two countries designated the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters, but Russia claimed the strait in its entirety after annexing Crimea in 2014 and has sought to assert greater control over the passage.

On Wednesday, Ukraine released what it said was the exact location where its ships were fired on by Russia, saying they were in international waters west of the Kerch Strait. Putin, meanwhile, insisted the Ukrainian vessels were in Russia’s territorial waters and refused to communicate with the Russian coast guard or accept a Russian pilot to guide them through the narrow strait.

“What were the border guards supposed to do?” the Russian leader said Wednesday. “They fulfilled their duty to protect the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. If they had done something differently, they should have been put on trial for that.”

Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy on Ukraine, told reporters in Berlin that Washington sees no reason to doubt the information from Kiev that its vessels were operating in line with international maritime rules. “There’s no conceivable justification that we can think of for the use of force in this scenario,” he said.

Ukraine, which insists its seamen are prisoners of war, has asked the International Red Cross to arrange a visit to see them. It said six of the sailors were wounded by Russian fire, while Russia said three Ukrainian crewmen were slightly injured.

A court in Crimea’s regional capital, Simferopol, has ordered all 24 Ukrainian crewmen to be held in custody for two months on charges of violating the Russian border pending trial. They face up to six years in prison if convicted.

The incident marked the first overt collision between Russian and Ukrainian militaries since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. It has fueled fears of a wider conflict and has drawn strong criticism of Russia by the U.S. and its allies.

U.S. President Donald Trump, in an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday, said he might cancel a sit-down with Putin during the G20 summit in Argentina over the Russian action. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that the meeting is on and that Russia has not received “any other information from our U.S. counterparts.”

Amid the tensions, the Russian military announced Wednesday that it would beef up its forces in Crimea with another batch of the long-range S-400 air defense missile systems to Crimea. The showdown came amid the long-simmering conflict between the two countries, in which Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and supported separatists in Ukraine’s east with clandestine dispatches of troops and weapons. That fighting has killed at least 10,000 people since 2014 but eased somewhat with a 2015 truce.

Vasilyeva reported from Moscow. Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.

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