What on Earth Just Happened in Ukraine?

The February 3 resignation of Ukraine’s Minister of Economic Development and Trade Aivaras Abromavicius sparked another political crisis in Kyiv, a crisis that deepened with a failed vote of no-confidence on February 16. The governing coalition in parliament is unraveling and early parliamentary elections look likely. Analysts fear that a populist or even radical government may come to power, undoing the progress that has been made.


Abromavicius performed admirably, cutting the bloat in his ministry almost in half and driving the privatization of corrupt state enterprises. In his resignation speech, Abromavicius accused Ihor Kononenko, a key player in the Poroshenko Bloc, of attempting to place his own deputy minister in Abromavicius’ ministry to be responsible for state gas and oil company Naftogaz and other state enterprises. By specifically naming Kononenko in his resignation speech, Abromavicius wanted to pressure President Petro Poroshenko and the political establishment to put reforms into high gear and draw the international community’s attention to problems within the government. Abromavicius’ short tenure shows just how difficult attempts to reform are in a country where clientelism and cronyism run deep.

The West’s reaction to the crisis has been both outspoken and frustratingly vague. The West has been unwilling to target the real causes of the crisis. Backing pro-Europe politicians because they support US interests does not mean that one can turn a blind-eye to their failures and flaws. Politicians must be responsive to their own citizens and the needs of their country.

Although a group of 10 ambassadors to Ukraine released a statement expressing strong disappointment at Abromavicius’ resignation and the unwillingness of the Ukrainian parliament to focus on the necessary reforms almost immediately after the minister resigned, the statement referred only to “parochial differences” among Ukraine’s leaders that need to be “set aside” and to “vested interests that have hindered the country’s progress for decades” that must be put “in the past.” On February 10, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde referred to “vested interests” and warned that the IMF could halt its financial support of Ukraine if the government did not do a better job fighting corruption, though she failed to mention any names.

Abromavicius’ high-stakes gamble worked, to some extent: the IMF suspended the next tranche of Ukraine’s $17.5 billion IMF program, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) has already opened an investigation into Abromavicius’s claims, and Kononenko has suspended himself from serving as first deputy chairman of the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko.

The international community also took notice. But the imprecise nature of its initial response opened the door to the high political theater of February 16, the consequences of which threaten to undermine reform significantly. In the morning of February 16, Poroshenko sacrificed Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, seen by many as protecting the interests of the old guard, and called for Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to resign. But Poroshenko was double dealing: he called for Yatsenyuk’s resignation while hoping that he would remain in office, albeit in a weakened state. On the evening of February 16, the parliament deemed the government’s work “unsatisfactory,” but, paradoxically, failed to push Yatsenyuk out in a no-confidence vote by 32 votes. No issues have really been addressed: Kononenko remains in the party, the coalition is fracturing, and the lack of reform has not been addressed.

The West, and especially the United States, has been loath to criticize Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk directly, having supported them as they worked to stabilize the country after disgraced former President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Moscow. The United States, like everyone else, craves stability and predictability. Ukraine’s government, however, is not stable; it is stagnant. Backing Poroshenko unequivocally is no longer the answer, as the greatest obstacle to reform may be that Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk never escaped from the old system that the Euromaidan hoped to dispel. They have not been able to defeat the oligarchic interests that far too often dictate policy in Ukraine, especially as their allies often represent those very interests. The West’s representatives in Ukraine must name names, including oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, and attach concrete strings to the support they are giving Ukraine.

Poroshenko must do more if he wants Ukraine to become a normal European country. His government is extremely unpopular, as a November IRI poll shows: 70 percent of Ukrainians disapprove of the job he is doing, 82 percent disapprove of the job Yatsenyuk is doing, and 83 percent disapprove of the job parliament is doing. Ukrainians want to see visible progress on corruption and reform, and they want their bottom line to improve. The West must support them by publicly pressuring Poroshenko to purge the elements in his bloc and government who are dragging their feet on reform, leaving sentimentality and “vested interests” behind. Unfortunately, Poroshenko himself may be caught too deep in the mire for this to be possible.

Simon Hoellerbauer is a research intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. He can be found on Twitter at @hoellerbauers

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Georgia’s Former President Saakashvili appointed the New Governor of Odessa: Implications for Georgia and Ukraine

President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko has appointed Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili the new governor of Ukraine’s key Odessa region. It is difficult to decipher the bizzare news, but considering the implications this move could have for both Ukraine and Georgia, the issue merits some meditation.


How are Georgians reacting?

What caused the biggest outrage in Georgia was the fact that by accepting the Ukrainian citizenship (required by Ukrainian law in order for one to take office in government) Saakashvili automatically lost, thus deliberately gave up, his Georgian citizenship. It is certainly an unorthodox move for a former president of one country to first give up citizenship of his own country, and second take political office in another country, especially a position that is of much lower rank than that of a presidential office.

Georgian citizenship is something Georgian politicians have taken lightly for a long time,[1] but we’ve seen it used as a tool of political maneuvering recently. In the 2012 parliamentary elections when the Georgian Dream Coalition was formed under the leadership of billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, his lack of Georgian citizenship became an issue. According to Georgian citizenship laws, one automatically loses Georgian citizenship when accepting another. However, it is viewed as a mere technicality, as Georgia allows its citizens to have dual citizenship, which is achieved by requesting to be “granted Georgian citizenship by law of exception.” Ivanishvili had become a Russian and a French citizen, and had never reapplied for Georgian citizenship. Legally he was not allowed to run for office. He later gave up his Russian citizenship and asked for Georgian citizenship—a process that was dragged out for months, and put on a public display by Saakashvili’s government, adding to the already high pre-election campaign pressures. To be sure, this was a process Saakashvili himself was directly involved in, as granting Georgian citizenship is the president’s job there.

Ukraine on the other hand does not allow dual citizenship. Whoever becomes a citizen of Ukraine has to give up his/her other citizenship within two years of obtaining Ukrainian citizenship. In a recent interview given to the Georgian television channel Imedi, Saakashvili, among many other things, explained the reasoning behind this move. It appears that: (1) he sees the issue of citizenship as a technicality to comply with the bureaucratic requirements of taking political office in Ukraine; (2) he does plan to return to Georgia with the hopes of reentering Georgian politics; and (3) he believes in his Georgian supporters more than they believe in him. He thinks all of this will be undone soon, with support of his Georgian voters.

In the interview Saakashvili said that “taking away my Georgian citizenship is the [Georgian] president’s prerogative [this would be in the form of the president rejecting Saakashvili’s application for being granted Georgian citizenship by the law of exception]. If he decides to take my citizenship away, I am sure, this will not be a deciding factor, because for the moment when I return to Georgia, and this will happen much sooner than many imagine, people will make them rescind the indictments against me as well as the act of stripping me of my Georgian citizenship.” Moreover, he went on to explain how he does not see the lack of citizenship as an obstacle. “Eduard Shevardnadze was not a Georgian citizen when he went to Georgia and became its leader; nor was Ivanishvili, when he was running around, conducting his pre-election campaign and became the leader of Georgia. Thus citizenship issue was never an obstacle for anyone, why should it become one for me?”

While he may be technically correct, Saakashvili may have strongly miscalculated this move. Let us set aside for a moment the implications this move will have on Ukraine. All along, Saakashvili has still believed that a comeback as Georgia’s leader was possible for him. He has been counting on the incompetence of the current government—if they bring enough poverty and setbacks to Georgia (which the current Georgian government has already partly achieved), Saakashvili and his party would then regain the people’s confidence, and would be “obligated” to return by popular demand. The Georgian Dream Coalition government may be losing approval ratings due to the worsening economic conditions in the country (the lari has been plummeting since November 2014), but this does not automatically mean that there will be popular demand for Saakashvili in Georgia any time soon (a recent National Democratic Institute poll shows that only 16% of Georgians would vote for Saakashvili’s party). Additionally, if there was any possibility of Saakashvili regaining popularity in Georgia by some miracle, those chances have now been severely diminished thanks to his Ukrainian venture.

The president in exile waited for the Georgian officials to drop charges, but ran out of patience. As he expressed,

…what does Georgian citizenship mean to me today?! Today for me Georgian citizenship means sitting in a prison cell, along with my other friends… therefore, this is purely a matter of formality, although I wanted to avoid it. … I cannot go to Georgia, whether I am a citizen or not, what difference does it make. Therefore as soon as the people make them [the government] void the indictments, when the time comes, they will also resolve the issue of my citizenship. I will distance myself from this formality, but I will always be nearby, whenever the Georgian people desire, if they need me for anything.

Browsing local headlines, this move appears to be seen as a betrayal by many Georgians. Saakashvili and his team are infamous for their impeccable PR skills, yet for someone who wants to return to Georgian politics one day, this is a huge miscalculation. Even his supporters, or what is left of them, are seeing this as a negative move. Georgian government officials have openly condemned his actions. The current president Margvelashvili called it “dishonorable behavior,” saying that with this move Saakashvili has “disgraced the country and the institution of presidency. … A former president should not have given up Georgian citizenship. … Values are more important than career, and these values include being a Georgian citizen. His behavior is incomprehensible to me.”

What does this mean for Ukraine?

So, what is Odessa inheriting from Georgia in Saakashvili? His reforms took Georgia from a nearly failed state to a booming tourist destination with a rapidly growing economy. Foreign direct investment began pouring in thanks to the highly favorable investing conditions Saakashvili created. Rampant corruption and crime disappeared and gave way to high GDP growth rates, free and fair elections, and westernization. The rapid reforms came at a high price for Georgia’s democracy, however. Saakashvili was never able to let go of the power that he had to concentrate in his own hands in the first place in order to effectively implement the reforms. Towards the end of his presidency it became clear that crucial democratic reforms had taken a backseat to the president’s insatiable appetite for contemplating and implementing major development projects in Georgia. At some point Saakashvili swapped out, or even mistook, development for democracy and became unapologetic about being the sole decision-maker in Georgia.

As we’ve already seen, American, Georgian (Saakashvili’s teammates), and Lithuanian individuals were granted Ukrainian citizenship since Poroshenko came into office, so they could take key positions in government. Saakashvili himself was Poroshenko’s advisor on a freelance basis until recently. He had been offered official government positions in Ukraine but had not accepted them. When asked why he turned down these jobs he cited various reasons. Sometimes it was the fact that he did not understand Ukrainian political culture and did not think he could be a part of it. He also said that he did not want to give up his Georgian citizenship (as he was still hoping the charges against him would be dropped and he would return to Georgia after the long exile). And lastly, in an interview earlier this year he expressed that he had reservations over the idea of “having to play nice with others” by working with other political actors in order to achieve consensus to get things done. It looks like the complete autonomy of power is something that Saakashvili is still strongly keen on. Based on Poroshenko’s speech announcing Saakashvili’s appointment, it looks like Saakashvili got exactly that, a full carte blanche to do what he pleases with Odessa, as long as he achieves there what he achieved in Georgia—rapid development and modernization through even faster and effective overnight reforms.

Putting the issue of democracy aside, Saakashvili is likely to achieve these goals in Odessa, but as with Georgia, what will be the cost of this success? Odessa is a region of high strategic importance for Ukraine, but also for Putin’s strategic agenda. Appointing Saakashvili as the head of that region is a direct insult to Putin who infamously despises Saakashvili.[2] If this is not a step back in Ukraine’s attempts at ending the war in its eastern territories, it is certainly not a step forward either. Additionally, now there is a new scenario where Saakashvili could be setting himself up for losing another war with Russia, this time in Odessa.

Yes, Ukraine is desperate for immediate reforms, and there is not enough capacity domestically to implement them effectively. Thus the international community should gladly welcome any bold steps that Poroshenko takes towards achieving that goal. However, the most baffling part in this story is that all of Saakashvili’s competence and expertise could be very effectively utilized from behind the scenes had he chosen to do so, without risking further worsening of already lethal Ukraine-Russia relations.


[1] Vast number of Georgian government officials, current and past, have dual citizenships. The practice of “bringing back” a successful Georgian from abroad and awarding them Georgian citizenship before appointing them to a government position was one that Saakashvili used quite frequently.

[2] For the second half of Saakashvili’s presidency Georgia and Russia did not even have diplomatic ties. The August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia got very personal between the two leaders and since then they do not attempt to conceal their hatred for each other in public. 

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Do sanctions on Russia create more problems than they solve?

The sanctions on Russia seem to be working. The sanctions, coupled with large victories by pro-Western parties in 2014 Ukrainian parliamentary elections, may contribute to a sense that matters are heading in the right direction for the U.S.

Why then did Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov say that the sanctions will fail? Partly, of course, he’s saving face. But he has a point. Politically, Putin is the strongest man in Russia. While the Russian oligarchs have immense power, they’re still not as strong as Putin. And even though Russian billionaires are steadily losing money, the reality is that Putin’s inner circle can probably weather the crisis, cossetted as they are by his influence. They’re wagering that the sanctions coalition and public approval for it will fracture before their fortunes decline.

So if the oligarchs can’t put enough pressure on Putin to leave Ukraine, what does that mean for Russia? The effects of economic sanctions are passed off to local consumers. The Russian ruble is at its lowest value since 1998. Its central bank has spent almost all of its cash reserves to keep the ruble afloat and may soon  raise interest rates, further damaging an economy that’s been going nowhere for a while. Inflation is on the rise. Capital flight reached $151.1 billion by the end of 2014. The Russian economy hasn’t looked any healthier in 2015.

In a fully functioning democracy, the people, feeling the economic pressure, would move to replace their leaders with ones more willing to deal with the West. Good luck in Russia. First, in Russia elections are not meaningful. There is no alternation of power. Second, Putin possesses an extraordinary ability to transmit a siege mentality through his control of the Russian media, which presents a unified image of the spiteful and jealous West as perpetrators of great injustices against a Russia that is simply assuming its rightful place. Nothing illustrates this better than how differently the downing of flight MH17 is perceived in Russia from the rest of the world. Because of his almost total control of the media, Putin can use the existence of the sanctions to distract from their effects, rallying the people against the “oppressive” West.

Another problem with the sanctions is that they are an attempt to force Putin to assume a position he cannot accept: that of Russia as a secondary nation. Although his speech in March 2014 in which he defended Russia’s involvement in Crimea was mainly a public-relations stunt designed to justify Russia’s actions, it demonstrated a worldview that is incompatible with the West. Through a flawed interpretation of history, Putin sincerely believes that Russia, after feasting at the main banquet, has been asked back to the children’s table.

Sanctions are a blunt weapon, whose effects are often hard to measure or to translate into political gains. However, there is no real alternative. Harsher sanctions could be imposed, but there is only so much to sanction, and cooperating with some of the European nations, whose economies are closer tied to Russia, has been difficult. Also, while isolating Russia economically and politically is the goal, Russia still has a role to play internationally. Sanctioning Putin directly would hamper attempts to work with him, further fuel his narrative of Russia as victim, and also could push him to take drastic action. The more options are taken away from a cornered man, the more likely it is that he will act irrationally. The only other option, military action, is out of the question.

So where does this leave us? The sanctions may have some significant negative side effects for long term U.S.-Russian relations, but they are also the only feasible way for the United States to defend its interests. Doing nothing would have a detrimental, trend-setting effect. Isolating Putin completely would probably create even greater problems. In the end, the United States must do two things. First, the West should try to do more to help Ukraine economically, to give it more stability. Of course, the internal stability of Ukraine depends very much on Ukraine. Ukraine is not the fifty-first state. It’s not even a member of the EU or NATO. Still, the U.S. can attach strings to its aid, such as necessitating anti-corruption measures, making use of the surge in pro-Western feeling in Western Ukraine. Second, the United States must continue to support NGOs in Russia and work to counteract Putin’s anti-Western rhetoric by introducing media of its own into Russia. Provoking the ire of the Russian people against Putin would be a huge coup for the West.

Simon Hoellerbauer is a research assistant intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. 

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Ukraine Crisis Timeline as of January 30, 2015

In July 2014 we published a post titled “Ukraine Crisis Timeline: Talk of Peace, Acts of War.” This updated version of that post makes clear the pattern of Vladimir Putin’s strategy of iterative deception and aggression.

We have marked in brackets the elapsed time between key events to highlight the hypocrisy of Putin’s words versus his actions in Ukraine.

I. Yanukovych’s Downfall; Putin’s Countermeasures

November 21, 2013: Yanukovych backs off from his tentative agreement to initial an association agreement with the EU at the Vilnius Summit – contrary to his campaign promises when he was elected in 2010. Popular protests in Kiev begin immediately and grow larger with each passing week. Yanukovych uses increasing violence to suppress the protesters, and Russian media portray the Maidan protesters as Western-instigated fascists. This deception and escalation continue for three months.

February 21-22, 2014: Yanukovych flees Ukraine; Maidan protesters take control of Kiev government buildings; an interim, pro-EU government is formed.   [3 months]

February 27: Pro-Russian separatists seize their first official building in Crimea; each day, new government buildings and military bases are surrounded and taken over by pro-Russian separatists backed by “little green men” (covert Russian troops).      [5 days]

March 5: U.S and reluctant Europeans announce minor sanctions against Russia for its actions in Crimea; Russia continues to deny involvement in supporting separatists; Ukraine military forces in Crimea crumble.

March 16: Self-appointed Crimean officials, also backed by anonymous green-uniformed men with guns, hold a referendum on Crimea’s secession from Ukraine; allegedly, 97 percent of voters wish to join Russia; Moscow quickly agrees to the request and moves to annex Crimea. [17 days]

March 20: U.S. and EU announce financial sanctions against additional Russian individuals close to Putin, in reaction to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.                                                  

March 31: In response, Putin promises to withdraw most Russian troops from Ukrainian-Russian border (but fails to do so).    [11 days]        

April 7: Separatists occupy government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for referenda on independence for these three major regions, and asking Russia to send “peacekeepers” to protect them.   [7 days]

II. Ukraine Fights Back; Russia Escalates and Claims “Historic” Rights

April 15: Start of Ukrainian military operations against pro-Russian separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk (Kharkiv uprising fizzles); EU remains hesitant to apply increased sanctions despite mounting evidence of Moscow’s backing for the separatists. [8 days]

April 17: Putin announces his concept of the historic “Novorossiya,” attempting to provide historical rationale for Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine.     [2 days]

April 20: US sends 600 troops temporarily to Poland and the Baltic States as a gesture of reassurance that NATO allies will be defended against similar Russian incursions. 

April 24: In response to Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operations” Russia begins new military exercises near its border with Ukraine.      [4 days]         

April 26: Russian political operative Alexander Borodai, the self-declared political leader of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic cedes control of separatist fighters to Russian military intelligence officer Igor Girkin, alias Ivan Strelkov (“The Shooter”).     [2 days]

May 2: Clashes develop between the separatist minority and the pro-unity majority in Odessa (very far from the Dombass enclaves), leaving at least 42 dead.

May 11: Self-appointed pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk hold referenda, not recognized by Kiev or the West; they declare independence.

May 25: Petro Poroshenko elected as Ukraine’s president on a reformist, pro-EU platform, with a 54.5 percent majority; but he also says he seeks negotiations with Putin.

May 26: Putin says he will respect the results of Ukrainian elections.

Late May-Early June: Separatists begin attempts to take the strategic Donetsk airport; Ukrainian forces fight back, with heavy casualties on both sides; continuing military clashes as separatists try to consolidate control of all of Luhansk and Donetsk regions; Russian armaments and “volunteers” strongly in evidence, despite Moscow’s denial of involvement

III. Separatist Offensive; Talk of a Peace Plan

June 4: Separatist rebels take two Ukrainian military bases in the eastern border region of Luhansk and fighting continues near the key rebel-held town of Sloviansk.             

June 9: Ukrainian Foreign Ministry says that Russia and Ukraine have reached an understanding on the implementation of a cease fire and peace plan for the East.

June 12: Ukrainians says three Russian tanks entered rebel areas in the east, along with other armaments; Russia denies the allegation.       [3 days]

June 14: Pro-Russian rebels shoot down a military transport plane, killing 49 Ukrainian troops, showing the sophistication of weaponry now possessed by the rebels; protesters in Kiev attack the Russian embassy.

June 16: Russia cuts off all gas supplies to Ukraine, economically reinforcing pro-Russian separatist actions in eastern Ukraine.    [2 days]

June 23: Poroshenko declares a temporary ceasefire based on Russian offer of negotiations for a peaceful political settlement between separatists and Kiev government; rebels officially agree one day later.

IV. Moscow Postures; Separatists Violate Ceasefire

June 24: Vladimir Putin officially rescinds power to use Russian military in eastern Ukraine as a gesture of his purported commitment to a peaceful settlement; nine Ukrainian servicemen die the same day when rebels shoot down an army helicopter.

June 27: The EU signs an Association Agreement with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

June 28: Rebels release eight members of OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) who had been detained since the end of May.

June 30: Poroshenko ends his unilateral ceasefire based on continuing violations by separatists with numerous Ukrainian casualties and the strengthening of rebel positions.

Ukrainian Government Takes the Offensive

July 5: Rebels are pushed out of their strategic bastion of Sloviansk; Ukrainian flag hoisted over city council building, fostering optimism for Ukrainian victory in Eastern Ukraine; pro-Russian rebels publicly criticize Putin for “lack of support.”

July 14: Ukrainian military plane shot down at 21,000 feet; Kiev government says missile came from Russian territory since pro-Russian rebels did not have adequate weaponry to hit plane at high altitude.    [9 days]

July 16: Obama warns Putin of further sanctions on Russia following continued violence in eastern Ukraine, with mounting evidence that Moscow is feeding this escalation,

V. Malaysian Airlines Shoot-down; Russian Denials, European Countermeasures

July 17: Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashes in eastern Ukraine killing 298 civilians, mostly Dutch and other Europeans and Australians; plane was downed by a sophisticated Buk surface-to-air missile supplied by Russians; separatists initially boasted they had shot down a large “Ukrainian military aircraft”; when the civilian nature of flight discovered they instead blame Kiev for the shoot-down; Moscow denies involvement.

July 25: EU announces plans for more hard-hitting economic sanctions that target Russian state banks, as well as Russia’s energy and defense sectors; Ukrainian government forces continue to push into Donetsk and Lugansk, although at the cost of hundreds of civilian casualties.   [8 days]

July 28: U.S. State Department releases photographic evidence of Russian artillery strikes into Ukraine; Russia denies authenticity of photographs.

July 31: as of this date nearly 1,200 persons have been killed in eastern Ukraine, with nearly 3,500 wounded since the separatist movement began in April; over 140,000 Ukrainian refugees have fled to Russia, with over 100,000 internally displaced.

August 3: Ukrainian Defense Minister proclaims that Kiev’s forces will defeat pro-Russian separatists shortly, citing success in reducing rebel controlled territory.

VI. Moscow Begins New Buildup, While Still Talking of Peace; Ukrainian Elections Confirm Kiev Government’s

August 5: Ukrainian military spokesman announce that Russia “has begun an enormous buildup of armored vehicles, aircraft, and personnel at the Ukrainian border” with over 45,000 soldiers, 160 tanks, 1,360 armored vehicles, 192 Russian warplanes and 137 military helicopters ready to be deployed across the Ukrainian border.     [2 days]                                                                                                                  
August 7: In response to European sanctions, Russia launches retaliatory sanctions against the West, banning food imports from Europe and the United States.

August 9: Ukrainian army surrounds Donetsk, leading to hopes of success.

August 15: Ukrainian government claims to have destroyed a Russian military convoy that had crossed into Eastern Ukraine – the most direct engagement to date between Ukrainian and Russian military forces. Putin continues to deny existence of Russian military conveys and troops in Eastern Ukraine.

August 22/23: A convoy of 280 Russian trucks crosses the Luhansk border claiming to provide “humanitarian aid” to the region. The Ukrainian government calls this a direct invasion; U.S. and Europe threaten additional sanctions if Russia does not cease support for separatists. Most Russian trucks return, but only after delivering substantial supplies.

August 25: Poroshenko dissolves parliament and calls for parliamentary elections to be held in October. Meanwhile, Russia escalates its operations against Ukraine, launching a new offensive in Novoazovsk, southeast Ukraine, thereby opening up a second front to create a land bridge between the Russo-Ukrainian border and Crimea.

August 26: Putin and Poroshenko meet in Minsk to discuss reconciliation, and agree on a “roadmap” to a ceasefire by closing the Ukrainian-Russian border to prevent movement of soldiers and military equipment into Ukraine – but hostilities continue.

August 29: Following escalating Russian activity in eastern Ukraine, Prime Minster Arseniy Yatsenuyk announces a course towards seeking NATO membership for Ukraine.

September 2: Putin privately boasts he could take Kiev in two weeks if he so wished.

September 5: Putin and Poroshenko reach ceasefire agreement at Minsk. Agreed points include a decentralization of power, OSCE monitoring of the Russo-Ukrainian border, release of all hostages, and measures to improve the humanitarian situation in Dombass.

September 6: Only one day after the Minsk agreements, the shelling of Mariupol begins. This is a key port city in south-eastern Ukraine previously cleared of separatists by local Ukrainian miners. Fighting also continues in Donetsk and Lugansk, despite the Minsk agreement.

September 18: Poroshenko addresses the US Congress seeking aid for Ukraine. President Obama promises $53 million aid package $46 million for Ukraine’s military, and $7 million for humanitarian aid.

October 2: World Back forecasts that Ukrainian economy will contract by 8 percent in 2014 due to disruptions and costs of the continuing crisis in the eastern regions.

October 12: As a purported token of de-escalation, Putin orders 17,600 Russian troops stationed in the Rostov region near the border with Ukraine to return to their bases. Putin has often shown signs of de-escalation in Ukraine right before intensifying aggression.

October 26: Ukraine holds parliamentary elections in which Ukrainians vote overwhelmingly for pro-Western parties: President Poroshenko’s bloc and the People’s Front headed by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk got 21.8 percent and 22.1 percent, respectively, although Poroshenko’s bloc won many more seats due to its better performance in single member districts.  The other pro-Western parties were Self-Reliance with 10.97 percent, the Radical Party 6.36 percent and Fatherland (led by Yulia Tymoshenko) with 5.68 percent. Total seats in new government coalition: 303 (0f 450) The Opposition Bloc (Yanukovich party’s remnants) got 9.43 percent.  Total seats in opposition, including independents: 79.

October 29: NATO officials report unusual Russian aerial maneuvers, signaling continued Russian hostility and military posturing. [3 days] 

October 30: Ukraine and Russia reach a deal on gas deliveries.

November 2: Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine hold elections one week after Ukraine’s parliamentary elections. Kiev and the West refuse to recognize these elections.

November 7: Russia sends a column of 32 tanks, 16 pieces of heavy artillery, and 30 trucks ferrying fighters and supplies into the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk. [5 days]

November 8: Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev states that the world is “on the brink of a new Cold War.”  Gorbachev blames the west for victimizing Russia and says, “I am absolutely convinced that Putin protects Russia’s interests better than anyone else.”

November 15: Putin meets with his fellow world leaders at the G-20 conference in Australia, where he receives heavy criticism and leaves early.

November 30: Russia sends another “humanitarian” convoy into Eastern Ukraine despite Ukrainian protest that humanitarian aid is a guise for further military assistance to separatists. This is the eighth such convoy Russia has sent into Eastern Ukraine.

December 4: Putin holds his annual state of the nation address in which he blames the Ukraine crisis on the “unlawful” ouster of Yanukovich and on Western support for “far-right factions” controlling the Ukrainian government. He calls Western sanctions a plot to keep Russia from achieving great power status.

December 8: After  a nearly six months hiatus, Russia resumes gas supplies to Ukraine, providing approximately 43.5 million cubic meters per day.                 

December 16: Despite a rise in interest rates from 10.5 to 17 percent, the ruble loses nearly half of its value. Although Western sanctions are an important part of the reason, the primary cause is the low price of oil (which stands well below $60 a barrel, when Moscow needs $100-plus to finance government budget and trade balance). Meanwhile, the U.S. implements additional sanctions on Russia.

December 18: In a three-hour television conference, Vladimir Putin blames foreign interference for the conflict in Ukraine and for Russia’s economic troubles.

December 24: Ukraine pays off $1.65 billion to Russia as agreed upon in gas deal signed in October. A bomb destroys a railroad track outside Odessa.

December 26: Eastern Ukrainian separatists and Ukraine exchange hundreds of POWs.

December 29: Ukraine signs a bill that drops its non-aligned status. Moscow calls this move a threat to Russia’s national security.

December 30: Opposition Leader Alexander Navalny and hundreds of protesters are arrested after an anti-Putin demonstration in Manezh square.

January 4, 2015: An explosion destroys the door and windows of the Euromaidan Coordination Center in Odessa. Ukrainian officials call the incident a terrorist attack. This attack is just one of five similar attacks in Odessa in the past month.

January 5, 2015: French President Francois Hollande suggests that international sanctions should be lessened if Russia makes progress on upholding peace in Eastern Ukraine. Similar statements are made by two top German officials the previous day.

VII. Separatists Return to the Offensive, Bolstered by Increasingly Visible Russian Military Intervention

January 11: Pro-Russian separatists begin an aggressive new offensive in the area surrounding the Donetsk Airport.

January 13: A rocket believed to be fired by pro-Russian separatists hits a bus in Volnovakha in the south of Donetsk, killing 13 civilians.

January 14: Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, proposes an end to sanctions if Russia ceases to destabilize eastern Ukraine. Key EU leaders quickly disown her statement, which she quickly “re-interprets”.

January 22: Under increasingly heavy assault Ukrainian military forced to retreat from the Donetsk Airport, which had served as a center of conflict since September 2014, due to both its symbolic and strategic value.   [11 days]

January 23: Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the Donetsk People’s Republic announces that separatist forces reject all forms of a ceasefire.

January 24: Grad and Uragan rockets fired by pro-Russian separatists kill 30 civilians and wound 100 others in Mariupol, in south-eastern Ukraine. Increasing evidence of direct Russian military intervention, involving more and heavier weaponry and as many as 9000 Russian troops.

January 27: The Ukrainian parliament formally labels Russia as an aggressor state and the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics as terrorist organizations.

January 28: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov states that Ukraine must remain neutral in order to avoid further territorial divisions.     [1 day]

According to the United Nations human rights office, the death toll from the war in Ukraine has reached over 5,000 with 10,948 wounded and over half a million Ukrainians displaced due to the continuing conflict.

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The Russo-Ukrainian War: Phase III

Given the launch in early January of a vigorous new separatist offensive in eastern Ukraine, backed by a reported 9000 Russian troops and abundant new armaments, it is now incontrovertible that Moscow is engaged in a full scale war in Ukraine.

Phase I of this initially undeclared war was the lightning Russian take-over of Crimea in March/April 2014, under the initial cover of a seemingly plausible separatist movement.

Phase II was the establishment of self-declared separatist governments controlling parts of the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, initially with crude attempts at plausible deniability as to the extent of direct Russian military involvement.

Phase III has now begun, with the separatists attempting to expand their enclaves to include the entirety of both of the contested provinces –this time with blatant Russian military backing on a larger scale.

Given Moscow’s now-familiar pattern of escalating military support for  the separatists each time the Ukrainian military seems to be gaining ground, this is now clearly a war that Ukraine cannot possibly win absent sharply increased U.S. and European backing.

For any Western intervention to succeed, it must include not just increased economic sanctions but also substantially enhanced military aid. It is true that the current financial sanctions have resulted in visible damage to Russia’s economy, and this damage has been multiplied by the precipitous drop in oil prices. However, Putin has obviously decided to double down on his aggression in Ukraine despite these economic setbacks–and, arguably, perhaps even because of them. This is not surprising, given that the war has been highly popular domestically and that it will be a long time before the mounting longer-term economic costs are fully apparent to most Russian citizens.

Phase I of Vladimir Putin’s undeclared war in Ukraine ended, from his point of view, in a resounding success. Russia’s stealth campaign in Crimea, triggered by the February 21 ouster of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich, took just one month to reach its triumphal conclusion.

By March 16, the entire province was under Moscow’s military control, and its puppet separatists held a sham referendum with an alleged 97 percent vote in favor of secession.

Crimea was formally annexed to the Russian Federation on March 21, thus permitting it to claim sovereignty over its major naval base in Sevastopol and a province that most Russians had long thought of as an intrinsic part of their country. At home, Putin’s popularity soared to over 80 percent in the polls, and it has remained in that range ever since.

The lesson for Putin was clear: given the weak Western response, he could score large geopolitical and domestic political gains with no significant price to pay internationally. Yes, there were numerous rhetorical condemnations by Western leaders, plus selective financial sanctions against a few members of Putin’s inner circle. But, for Putin, these were mere pinpricks, reminiscent of the initial outcries and minimal sanctions imposed on Russia after its 2008 war with Georgia. These minor costs have long since been forgotten, and Russia now enjoys full and unchallenged control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two provinces taken from Georgia via Putin’s intervention.

Despite this ominous Georgia precedent, many analysts and policy officials in both Europe and the US treated the Crimea annexation as a one-off event. They argued that Crimea was a special case, with a 60 percent ethnically Russian population and a strategic naval base on long-term lease that Moscow “understandably” wanted to secure permanently. Furthermore, Crimea had historically been a part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev transferred the territory to the then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, a decision that Putin argued was illegitimate.

Within just three weeks, however, this optimistic interpretation was proven to be delusional.

Phase II of the Ukraine war began on April 7, when pro-Russian separatists took over key government buildings in the capitals of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkhiv, proclaiming that these provinces would seek independence from Kiev. Although the Kharkhiv portion of the uprising fizzled, Russian-backed rebels in the other two capitals quickly expanded their territorial control. Only seven weeks later on May 11 the separatists held bogus referenda, with the polling centers surrounded by gunmen, “confirming” the two provinces’ secession from Ukraine.

Despite clear evidence that none of this could have happened without Russian instigation and strong (albeit semi-covert) military support, the EU temporized for months before deciding to join the U.S. in a significant escalation of economic sanctions. Brussels finally agreed to institute moderately punitive financial sanctions only on July 29. This was twelve days after the separatists had shot down Malaysian Airways Flight 17, killing 298 (mostly European) passengers. The shoot-down involved a sophisticated anti-aircraft missile system supplied by, and most likely directly supported by, the Russian military.

In August, the Ukrainian army launched an offensive to recapture territory held by the separatists, with some initial success. Since then, there have been both lulls and spikes in military action on the ground, with Putin at times giving the appearance of seeking a peaceful outcome. He and Ukrainian president Poroshenko agreed at a September 5 meeting in Minsk that they would both back a cease-fire. But the cease fire was repeatedly violated by the separatists and involved substantial casualties from shelling on both sides, despite the relatively stable battle lines that obtained through most of the fall. In retrospect, it is clear that Putin was simply buying time in which to help consolidate the rebel governments and their military positions in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Phase III began overtly in January with a new separatist offensive strongly backed by Russian soldiers and new heavy weaponry. On January 22, the separatists finally captured Donetsk airport, previously under siege for months. They also began shelling Mariupol, a key port city and transportation hub in the southeast corner of Donetsk province. Both places have major symbolic importance but they could also serve as strategic gateways for further expansion of separatist control into contiguous provinces.

Putin’s short-term goal is to ensure that the separatists gain full control of the two provinces whose independence they have proclaimed. Based on his well-established pattern of “two steps forward, one step (temporarily) back,” he might then order a pause in fighting, and he might once again go through the motions of seeking a negotiated solution while the separatists fully consolidate their new regimes.

In the middle term, however, if Putin succeeds in totally severing these two provinces from Kiev’s control his sights will most likely be set on a fairly prompt Phase IV. This fourth stage in the Russo-Ukrainian War would probably involve the establishment of a “land bridge” from Mariupol to Crimea, through the provinces of Zaparozhe and Kherson. There have also been signs that Putin may not have given up on Kharkiv, a key province immediately to the northeast of Donetsk and Luhansk.

And, for the longer term, there are continuing signs that Vladimir Putin still has his sights set on the eventual creation of a “Greater Novorossiya” stretching through Odessa all the way to Transnistria–the breakaway province of Moldova that was once part of Catherine the Great’s actual historic Novorossiya.

Unless the United States and its key European allies take prompt and decisive action, including major military assistance, there is every likelihood that the eastern and southern provinces of Ukraine will continue to be sliced away, one or two at a time. This would mean the dismemberment of Ukraine and the death knell of its Orange Revolution–once a beacon of hope for would-be democrats throughout post-communist Europe and Eurasia. It would also confirm the definitive end of the post-Cold War dream of a “Europe Whole and Free.”

Related Publications: 

Ukraine Crisis Timeline as of January 30, 2015 by Alex Fisher and Adrian Basora 
Georgia and Moldova Remain Fragile as Russian Aggression Continues by Maia Otarashvili 

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Belarus Proposes Donbas “Peacekeeping Force”

Live in peace—prepare for war.[1]

-Russian proverb.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko on Friday proposed sending troops to serve as peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region.[2]  Lukashenko made his proposal in an interview with online television channel Euronews, excerpts of which were published on Thursday 2 October.  He is hosting the Trilateral Contract Group[3] negotiations in Minsk, Belarus, which started in September.

Aleksandr Zakharchenko, Prime Minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic[4] declared in an interview with the Russian language website LOOK (ВЗГЛЯД) that he “is not in principle against the introduction of Belarus troops into the Donbas as peacekeepers.”[5]  Zakharchenko wants the Belarus peacekeepers to occupy a buffer zone to be established on the Ukrainian side of the border claimed by the DPR: “It depends whether they will be positioned outside Donetsk.  If so, we’d be pleased to see them come.  We believe that a large part of our territory is now illegally occupied” [by Ukrainian forces].[6]

Zakharchenko’s point was reiterated by Miroslav Rudenko, Deputy Chairman of the DPR’s Supreme Council, reiterated this during a transcribed radio interview with Moscow Speaks (Говорит Москва): “It would be great to see the Belarus military contingent positioned to disengage forces along Ukraine’s border with the DPR and the LPR [Luhansk People’s Republic], and to separate the territories of the two republics from Ukrainian territory.”[7]

However, as to the further meetings of meeting of the Trilateral Contract Group, Zakharchenko said there are “too many differences for the peace process to continue now,” especially “in light of the battle for Donetsk’s airport.”[8]  He elaborated in another interview, “The Ukrainian side absolutely does not control the situation with its armed forces.  It proclaims one thing at the Minsk meetings, but the result is completely different.”[9]

Ukraine Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebiynis peremptorily rejected Lukashenko’s proposal: “The Russian Federation must withdraw its troops form Ukraine’s territory.  Peacekeeping troops are not needed.  We are capable of restoring order in our own land if the foreign troops leave.”[10]

By most accounts, only symbolic gains have come so far from the Trilateral Contract Group process, most of which have accrued to Lukashenko.  One Russian outlet begrudgingly declared him the only “winner” so far, having convinced Ukraine to drop all trade restrictions before the Minsk talks ever commenced.  The nationalist Russian news outlet ИА REX[11] writes, “As the crisis in Ukraine deepens, so the role of intermediaries in the dialogue between the forces involved in the conflict will only increase.”[12]

[1] It reads in the original Russian: “Живи в мире – готовься к войне.”  The proverb was quoted by Donetsk People’s Republic Prime Minister Aleksandr Zakharchenko, who continued, “Now we have a truce, but we are preparing for war.  Not today, but tomorrow, the whole country will be attacked, so we need to be ready.” See: «Ожидается нападение на все государство». ВЗГЛЯД [online Russian language edition, 3 October 2014]. http://vz.ru/world/2014/10/3/708589.html. Last accessed 3 October 2014.

[2] “Белоруссия введет войска на краину. PolitiKlub.ru [Russian language online edition, 3 October 2014]. “http://politklub.ru/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=9274. Last accessed 3 October 2014.

[3] The Trilateral Contract Group is comprised of Ukraine, represented by former president and the current president’s presidential special envoy, Leonid Kuchmar; the Donetsk People’s Republic, represented by Prime Minister Alexsandr Zakharchenko and First Deputy Andrey Purgin; and the Luhansk People’s Republic, represented by its head, Igor Plotnitsky and Supreme Council chairman Alexey Karyakin.  Also participating are the Russian Federation, represented by its ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov; and Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

[4] The Donetsk People’s Republic is a self-proclaimed state in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.  It is commonly referred to in Russian and Ukrainian media outlets by the acronym “DNR”, from the Russian and Ukrainian transliterations.  Russian: Донецкая народная республика. Russian transl.: Donétskaya naródnaya respúblika. Ukrainian: Донецька народна республіка. Ukrainian transl.: Donets’ka narodna respublika.

[5] “Захарченко: Все зависит от того, где встанут белорусские войска. ВЗГЛЯД [online Russian language edition, 2 October 2014]. http://vz.ru/news/2014/10/2/708618.html. Last accessed 3 October 2014. The quoted text reads in the original Russian: “он в принципе не против ввода белорусских войск в Донбасс в качестве миротворцев”

[6] Ibid.

[7] “В ДНР приветствуют идею Лукашенко направить миротворцев на Украину.” Говорит Москва  [online Russian language edition, 3 October 2014]. http://govoritmoskva.ru/news/14247/. Last accessed 3 October 2014.

[8] Ibid.

[9]  The full quote reads in the original Russian: “Это плохо только для Украины, потому что украинская сторона совершенно не контролирует ситуацию в своих вооруженных силах. Украинская сторона на минских встречах декларирует одно, а в итоге выходит совершенно другое.”

[10] “Киев отказался от предложения Лукашенко ввести миротворцев в Донбасс.” ВЗГЛЯД [online Russian language edition, 3 October 2014]. http://vz.ru/news/2014/10/3/708737.html. Last accessed 3 October 2014.

[11] The slogan of which is “A Russian news agency, not a foreign agent” [ИА REX — российское информационное агентство, не иностранный агент].

[12] “ЛУКАШЕНКО – ПРОПАГАНДИСТ УКРАИНСКОГО ФАШИЗМА, МАССОВЫХ УБИЙСТВ НА ДОНБАССЕ И РУСОФОБИИ / АЛЕКСАНДР ЖИЛИН.”  ИА REX [online Russian language version, 3 October 2014]. http://www.iarex.ru/articles/48399.html. Last accessed 3 October 2014.

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Russia Warns Ukraine: Transdniestria Border Developments “Extremely Disturbing”

It is worth taking note of an article in today’s ITAR-TASS[1] in which Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin warned that Russia “will not allow a repeat of the Ukrainian scenario in Transdniestria.”  He cautioned unspecified “others” that they “should have no illusions as to whether Russia will defend its citizens,” and not “to try Russia’s patience or strength.”

At the same time, the Romanian news outlet Mediafax reported “The Tiraspol separatist regime leader Yevgeny Shevchuk and foreign minister Nina Shtanski are on a visit to Moscow for talks on the region’s economic situation following the signing of the Republic of Moldova’s Association Agreement with the European Union.”[2]

Rogozin, who doubles as President Putin’s special envoy to Transdniestria, added, “Russia will never forget the recent tragedy in Odessa nor the one that played out in southeastern Ukraine.”  The “recent tragedy in Odessa” is a reference to the 2 May 2014 incident in which, as described in the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry’s July 2014 White Book, “more than 70 people died in a fire after clashes between independence supporters and Kiev-backed forces.”

According to the Russian language website PMRF,[3] “the PMR[4] is on the brink of disaster.”[5]  The Russian Foreign Ministry has repeatedly accused Moldova and Ukraine of organizing a de-facto blockade of Transdniestria: as the ITAR-TASS report notes, Ukraine in July began excavating “a 450 kilometer long trench along its border with Transdniestria,” the purpose of which, ITAR-TASS claims, is “to provoke an escalation of tensions.”  The 3.5 meters wide by 3 meters deep security trench is part of “more intensive control of the border,” according to Ukraine’s Ambassador to Moldova, Sergey Pirozhkov, who added in a 15 September television interview with Moldova’s Publika TV, “Ukraine will never attack the unrecognized Transdniestrian republic.”

Rogozin’s warning today responded to Moldova’s Foreign Minister, Natalia Gherman’s appearance before the United Nations General Assembly last Thursday during which she demanded “The military of the Russian Federation had to leave the region, and peacekeeping arrangements should shift from the current military operation into a civilian multinational mission.”[6]  Gherman’s comments came a few days after negotiators from Moldova and Transdniestria announced the two sides failed to make progress on resuming their so-called “5+2 format” talks.  The “5+2” refers to “the 5″— Russia, Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union, and the United States— and “the 2″— Moldova and Transdniestria.  Last spring, Transdniestria suspended its participation in the talks when it accused Moldova of imposing an economic blockade on the region.

Russia maintains an estimated two thousand-man force in Transdniestria, which Ukraine sees as a staging ground to infiltrate and destabilize southwestern Ukraine, especially Odessa.  Russia does little to disabuse Ukraine of this suspicion: today, for example, an exhibition opened at Moscow’s Central Armed Forces Museum titled “Transdniestria: A Russian Frontier” which “emphasized the Transdniestrian region has become a natural part of the Russian economy and culture”[7] according to a Transdniestria government press release.

In response to the presence of Russian troops on its western border, Ukraine slowly deployed extra military personnel to the region; and recently, blocked Transdniestrian authorities from travelling abroad via Odessa as was their practice, forcing them instead to use Moldova’s Chișinău airport.  Small actions like this risk disproportionate effects, however: on 9 September, Transdniestrian deputy prime minister Maya Parnas, who was leading a governmental delegation to Moscow, was subjected to “an additional, all-out examination of her personal luggage by Moldovan customs officers,” who stated that they were fulfilling an “order from above” according to a statement by Trandniestria’s Foreign Ministry. The incident marked “the continuation of Moldova’s unfriendly and provocative steps aimed at further sharpening and escalation of differences between Tiraspol and Chisinau.”

[1] “Рогозин: Россия не допустит повторения украинского сценария на границах Приднестровья.” ITAR-TASS [online Russian language edition, 1 October 2014].  http://itar-tass.com/politika/1479280. Last accessed 1 October 2014.

[2]  Ioana Bojan (2014). “Rogozin: Rusia îşi va proteja cetăţenii în cazul unui conflict armat în Transnistria. Răbdarea şi forţa noastră nu trebuie puse la încercare.” Mediafax.ro [online Romanian language edition, 1 October 2014]. http://www.mediafax.ro/externe/rogozin-rusia-isi-va-proteja-cetatenii-in-cazul-unui-conflict-armat-in-transnistria-rabdarea-si-forta-noastra-nu-trebuie-puse-la-incercare-13359360. Last accessed 1 October 2014.  The full quote reads in the original Romanian: “Liderul regimului separatist de la Tirasol, Evgheni Şevciuk, şi ministrul de Externe din regiunea transnistreană, Nina Ştanski, se află într-o vizită la Moscova, pentru discuţii referitoare la situaţia economică a regiunii în urma semnării de către Republica Moldova a Acordului de Asociere cu Uniunea Europeană.”

[3] The website ПМРФ [pmr-rf.ru] describes itself as “a site dedicated to the inextricable link Dniester Moldavian Republic and the Russian Federation” [“это сайт, посвященный неразрывной связи Приднестровской Молдавской Республики и Российской Федерации”].  Even “the very name of the site can be traced this link: “DMR and RF” referring to, respectively, the “Dniester Moldavan Republic” (another name for Transdniestria) and the “Russian Federation”.

[4] Transdniestria’s official name is the “Pridnestrovian Moldavan Republic”.

[5] “В момент острой опасности для страны не время думать о монопольной власти.” http://pmr-rf.ru/all-articles/tseplyanie-shevchuka-za-vlast-na-poroge-katastrofyi.” ПМРФ [Russian language online edition, 15 September 2014]. Last accessed 1 October 2014.

[6] http://www.un.org/en/ga/69/meetings/gadebate/25sep/moldova.shtml. Last accessed 1 October 2014.  ITAR-TASS reported her comments under the headline “Moldova demands Russian peacekeepers in Transdniestria be replaced by international civil mission.”

[7] “Мария Кырмыз приняла участие в открытии музейной экспозиции в Москве «Приднестровье – русский рубеж!».” Government of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic [Russian language website]. http://gov-pmr.org/item/3178. Last accessed 1 October 2014.  Interestingly, the exhition is not mentioned on the Museum’s website [http://www.cmaf.ru].

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Ukraine Crisis Timeline: Talk of Peace, Acts of War

The destruction of Malaysian Airways flight MH17 has finally galvanized Western European leaders into taking serious action against Moscow’s continued attempts to dominate or to destabilize Ukraine. However, despite the significant sanctions announced on July 29 by both Brussels and Washington, based on his track record so far Vladimir Putin is unlikely to back down any time soon. Instead, we can expect several more rounds of peaceful statements and gestures from Moscow, followed each time by further de facto escalation in support of the Russian-led separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The chronology provided below documents Putin’s now-familiar pattern of action, denial, apparent pullback, and further escalation. That pattern had already become obvious over the past several months to those who followed the Ukraine crisis systematically. But until the July 17 shoot-down of MH17 all too many journalists, commentators and political leaders, particularly those in Western Europe, seemed to be taken in by Moscow’s strategy of steadily escalating its aggression while trying to maintain “plausible deniability.” Others may instead have been cynically hiding behind this smokescreen so as to avoid implementing serious economic sanctions against Russia that might risk mutual pain.

Below is the is the chronology of Putin’s strategy of iterative deception. We have marked in brackets the elapsed time between key events to highlight the hypocrisy of Putin’s actions in Ukraine.

Yanukovych’s Downfall; Putin’s Countermeasures

The crisis began last November when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych balked at signing a trade agreement with the EU, following heavy pressure from Moscow. He fled Kiev after three month of escalating popular protests in Kiev and western Ukraine. Then, only five days later, pro-Russian separatists (who Putin later admitted included anonymous Russian soldiers) began seizing military bases and official buildings in Crimea, quickly culminating in Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Three weeks later, when Western protests against this annexation seemed to be subsiding, pro-Russian separatists began taking similar aggressive actions in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkiv.

November 21, 2013: Yanukovych backs off on agreement with EU at Vilnius Summit; protests begin immediately and grow larger with each passing week; Russian media systematically portray protesters as Western-instigated fascists

February 22, 2014: Yanukovych flees Ukraine; Maidan protesters take control of Kiev administrative buildings; an interim, pro-EU government is formed; Putin calls the new Kiev government fascist and illegitimate          [3months]

February 27: Pro-Russian separatists seize their first official building in Crimea; with each passing day, new government buildings and bases are surrounded by pro-Russian separatists backed up by “little green men” (covert Russian troops)       [5 days]

March 5: U.S and Europe prepare sanctions against Russia for its aggressive actions in Crimea; Russia continues to deny any direct involvement in supporting separatists; Ukraine’s military forces in Crimea crumble.

March 16: Self-appointed officials upheld by anonymous men with guns hold referendum on Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and claim that 97% of voters wish to join Russia; Moscow promptly agrees to annex Crimea          

March 20: U.S. and EU announce minor sanctions against Russia after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea  [4 days]

March 31: Putin promises to withdraw most Russian troops from Ukrainian-Russian border (but fails to do so)      [11 days]              

April 7: Protesters occupy government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkiv, calling for referenda on independence for those three major regions and asking Russia to send “peacekeepers” to protect them        [7 days]

Ukraine Fights Backs; Russia Escalates and Claims Historic Rights

A week after these separatist incursions, the Ukrainian military began military operations to counter the rebels who had occupied steadily increasing portions of Donetsk and Lugansk. In response, Russia increased its covert support for the pro-Russian separatists, sending military personnel and weapons across the Russian-Ukrainian border and continuing military training operations. Putin provided a historical “justification” for the separatist/irredentist cause by musing upon the 18th century Russian conquest of Novorossiya. At the same time, he continued to deny directly supporting the rebels and made a public show of refusing to annex the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk republics as a sign of his “goodwill” towards the West.

April 15: Start of Ukrainian “anti-terrorist” military operations against pro-Russian separatists in Lugansk and Donetsk; EU remains hesitant on applying increased sanctions on Russia despite mounting evidence of its direct backing for the separatists   [ 8 days]

April 17: Putin launches his concept of the historic Novorossiya, providing an historical “justification” for Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine           [2 days]

April 20: Pentagon sends 600 troops temporarily to Poland and Baltic States as a sign of reassurance to these NATO allies that they will be defended against Russian incursions like those in Ukraine

April 24: Russia begins new military exercises near its border with Ukraine in response to Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operations”    [4 days]

April 26: Russian political operative Alexander Borodai, the self-declared political leader of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic cedes control of separatist fighters to Russian military intelligence officer Igor Girkin [alias: Ivan Strelkov]        [2 days]

May 2: Clashes between the separatist minority and pro-unity majority in Odessa (part of Putin’s historic Novorossiya) leave at least 42 people dead; signs of agreement between U.S. and EU on additional sanctions begin to emerge

May 7: Putin calls on the separatists to postpone their secession vote and pulls back troops from Russian border; separatists promptly say they will disregard Putin    [5 days]

May 11: Self-appointed pro-Russian separatist “governments” in Donetsk and Lugansk hold hastily-organized referenda, declare independence, and speak of joining Russia; referenda not recognized by Kiev nor the West      [4 days]

May 15: Steelworkers oust pro-Russian separatists in Mariupol, signaling to Putin that local support for Russian annexation of eastern Ukraine is low

May 16: Russian citizen Alexander Borodai is formally appointed Prime Minister of Donetsk People’s Republic       [5 days]

Presidential Elections

Putin’s May 24 statement that he would respect the outcome of Ukraine’s presidential election was taken by some as a turning point in the Ukraine crisis; many observers speculated that Putin had abandoned his bellicose intentions in eastern Ukraine. However, the day following the presidential elections, separatists launched an attack on the Donetsk airport, inflicting heavy casualties on the Ukrainian military. Several days of conflict ensued between Ukrainian government and rebel forces. To appease the West, Putin finally removed most Russian troops from Ukraine’s border.

May 24: Putin says he will respect the results of the next day’s Ukrainian election, despite previously having stated the opposite

May 25: Petro Poroshenko is elected as President by a strong majority on a reformist, pro-EU platform; seeks negotiations with Putin, hoping to end his support for separatists

May 26: Separatists attempt to take Donetsk airport; repelled by Kiev forces, with heavy casualties on both sides      [1 day]

May 30: To placate the EU, Putin temporarily withdraws most Russian troops from Ukrainian-Russian border (after earlier broken promises to do so)        [4 days]

New Separatist Offensive; Talk of a Peace Plan

Throughout June, pro-Russian separatists began to occupy more Ukrainian territory, buttressed by extensively using Russian military supplies and “volunteers;” Russia continued to deny that it was directly supporting the rebels and pushed for a cease fire and a “peace plan” while blaming the Ukrainian government for the conflict in Donetsk and Lugansk. Russia also cuts off gas to Ukraine to put economic pressure on the Kiev government.

June 4: Separatist rebels take two Ukrainian military bases in the eastern region of Lugansk and fighting continues near the rebel-held town of Sloviansk         [5 days]

June 7: Petro Poroshenko sworn in as president of Ukraine

June 9: Foreign Ministry of Ukraine says that Russia and Ukraine have reached an understanding on the implementation of a cease fire and peace plan in the East.

June 12: Ukraine says three Russian tanks entered rebel areas in the east, along with other armaments; Russia denies the allegation             [3 days]

June 14: Pro-Russian rebels shoot down a military transport plane and kill 49 Ukrainian troops, showing the sophistication of weaponry now possessed by the rebels; protesters in Kiev attack the Russian embassy

June 16: Russia cuts off all gas supplies to Ukraine, economically reinforcing pro-Russian separatist actions in eastern Ukraine             [2 days]

June 23: Poroshenko declares a temporary ceasefire; rebels officially agree to it one day later; Russian premise for the cease-fire is to permit negotiations for a peaceful political settlement between separatists and Kiev government

Moscow Postures; Separatists Violate Ceasefire

Poroshenko’s ceasefire lasted only one day before it was violated by a separatist attack on a Ukrainian army helicopter. In order to distance himself from the rebel attacks and to stress Russia’s “commitment to peace,” Putin formally rescinds his parliamentary authorization to use the Russian military in eastern Ukraine. Poroshenko ends the ceasefire ten days after it is announced, citing continuing rebel aggressions.

June 24: Vladimir Putin rescinds power to use the Russian military in eastern Ukraine as a purported gesture of his commitment to a peaceful settlement; nine Ukrainian servicemen die the same day when rebels shoot down an army helicopter

June 27: The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, thus confirming an important step towards greater integration with Europe

June 28: Rebels release eight members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who had been detained since the end of May

June 30: Poroshenko ends unilateral ceasefire due to continued violations by pro-Russian separatists, resulting in numerous Ukrainian casualties and the strengthening of rebel positions.

Ukrainian Government Takes the Offensive

In the course of July, the Ukrainian government recaptures several key rebel-occupied towns, making heavy use of combat aircraft. Some Western commentators see these victories as a sign of imminent Ukrainian victory in the region. But Kiev starts reporting Ukrainian military planes being shot down from Russian territory, plus other signs of escalating Russian support for the separatists.

July 5: Rebels are pushed out of their strategic bastion of Sloviansk and retreat towards Kramatorsk; Ukrainian flag hoisted over the city council building, fostering optimism over potential for Ukrainian victory in Eastern Ukraine; pro-Russian rebels publicly criticize Putin for “lack of support”

July 14: Ukrainian military plane shot down at 21,000 feet; Ukraine government alleges that missile came from Russian territory since pro-Russian rebels did not have adequate weaponry to hit plane at such a high altitude      [9 days]

July 15: Ukraine government and separatists blame one another over an airstrike in the Ukrainian town of Snizhne which killed at least 11 civilians

July 16: Obama warns Putin of further sanctions on Russia following continued violence in eastern Ukraine and mounting evidence that Moscow is feeding its escalation with heavier weaponry and other support

Malaysian Airlines Flight 17; Russian Denials, European Countermeasures

Faced with public outrage over the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 with over 200 Europeans aboard, EU officials accelerated their discussions of harsher economic sanctions on Russia. Putin continued to deny responsibility for the downing of the flight, despite increased evidence that pro-Russian rebels shot the plane with a highly sophisticated SA-11 Russian anti-aircraft missile. The Ukrainian government continued its offensive and occupied more rebel territory. Poroshenko predicted a total Ukrainian victory within a month – as long as Russia did not send military troops across the border. Pro-Russian rebels continued to shoot down more Ukrainian fighters and obstructed access to the MH17 crash site in the critical early days for a potential investigation.

July 17: Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashes in eastern Ukraine killing 298 civilians, mostly Dutch and other Europeans and Australians; plane was downed by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile almost certainly supplied by and possibly manned by Russians; separatists at first claim they shot down a large Ukrainian military aircraft, then when the civilian nature of flight is discovered they deny guilt and blame Kiev; Moscow denies involvement

July 22:EU announces its intention to marginally expand sanctions on Moscow over its role in MH-17 attack, but fails to target most significant Russian industries

July 23: Two Ukrainian Air Force Sukhoi-25 fighters shot down by pro-Russian separatists; rebel forces retreat from the villages of Karlivka, Netailove and Pervomaiske west of Donetsk       [1 day]

July 25: EU continues to announce plans for harder-hitting economic sanctions that target Russian state banks as well as Russia’s energy and defense sectors; Ukrainian government forces continue to push into Donetsk and Lugansk, although at the cost of hundreds of civilian lives

July 28: U.S. State Department releases photographic evidence of Russian artillery strikes into Ukraine;Russia denies authenticity of photographs; Russia bans milk and dairy product imports from Ukraine to place further economic pressure on the Kiev government

July 29: EU and U.S. impose harsher sanctions on Russia but do not target Russia’s natural gas exports; Russia remains defiant by asserting that international sanctions will only help the Russian economy become more self-reliant

As of July 31, nearly 1,200 persons had been killed in eastern Ukraine and nearly 3,500 wounded since the separatist movement began in April; over 140,000 Ukrainian refugees had fled to Russia, and over 101,000 Ukrainians were internally displaced. And the violence shows no signs of abating.


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Ukraine’s Elections — Further Dismemberment or a Second Chance for Democracy?

By Adrian A. Basora and Aleksandr Fisher

Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election has the potential to restore the country’s prospects for democratization – but there is also a substantial risk that it could prove to be a further step towards the dismemberment of Ukraine. The outcome will depend heavily on whether the Moscow-provoked crisis surrounding them is handled properly by both Ukrainian leaders and by the U.S. and its European allies. 


Precisely because the May 25 vote represents a prospect that all of Ukraine might be ruled democratically from Kiev, Vladimir Putin and his authoritarian elite in Russia had until recently strongly opposed holding elections at all. Putin’s longer-term goal has been de facto dominance of the entire country from Moscow – a goal that seemed within his reach until Viktor Yanukovich abandoned Ukraine’s presidency on February 21 in the face of the Maidan uprising. However, if Putin cannot restore his indirect dominance of Kiev through intimidation and/or negotiations, he is likely to resume his campaign to slice off Ukraine’s eastern provinces one or two at a time in order to bring them under direct Russian control, even if nominally independent. This could ultimately create Putin’s version of a “Greater Novorossyia” which would encompass about 45% of Ukraine’s population and two-thirds of its GDP.[1]

The pattern has already been set. After Yanukovich fled Ukraine on February 21, Moscow seized Crimea within a matter of weeks, working largely through local surrogates. The same scenario is well along in the much more populous and industrialized provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.[2] Their sham independence referenda on May 11 were designed to provide a pretext either to incorporate them into the Russian Federation, or to run them as nominally independent states (as with South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the Republic of Georgia since 2008). These two easternmost provinces constitute nearly 20% of Ukraine’s population and 22% of its industrial production. This is on top of the 4% of the country’s population already subtracted by Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Absent skillful maneuvering by Ukraine’s democratically-oriented leaders, backed by strong Western measures, there is a significant threat that Ukraine will subjected to gradual stealth dismemberment. Alternatively, if the new government in Kiev chooses to take military action to hold its eastern provinces, the country could be plunged into a prolonged civil war. In the latter case, Moscow’s current covert support for the minority separatist movement could well evolve into overt military intervention. Either scenario would have far more severe implications for democracy in the region, and for western interests more generally, than did Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.

The May 25 Election as an Existential Threat

Given these grim possibilities, the upcoming election on May 25, 2014 will be critical in determining Ukraine’s future. If the balloting is properly administered and monitored, this will have a powerful legitimizing effect on the Kiev government, not only in the eyes of the Ukrainian people but also throughout Europe and Eurasia and in the international community.

However, Moscow’s massive propaganda machine and its covert operations on the ground continue efforts to undercut the elections and cast doubt on their legitimacy. Russian-instigated groups agitating for secession have established either dominance or high levels of intimidation in several eastern provinces, leading to violent skirmishes and to dismantling of polling stations.[3] This violence and potentially low voter turnout in the east could then be used by Moscow to claim that the elections had failed to produce a legitimate mandate.

Similarly, the May 11 independence referenda in Donetsk and Luhansk could well be used to engineer these two key provinces’ secession from Ukraine – unless the new president accedes to Moscow’s demands either for a subservient Ukrainian government or for a loose confederation in which Russia could exert de facto control over the eastern provinces. To add still further pressure on the new government in Kiev, Moscow-inspired separatist movements in Kharkiv, Odessa and other provinces with a predominance of Russian speakers could be quickly re-launched.

How Can Dismemberment or Subservience be Avoided?

For the upcoming elections in Ukraine to have a positive impact on the stability, territorial integrity and democratic growth of the country, several factors will be critical:

First, the polls themselves must be well organized. Domestically, over 75,000 personnel, including 55,700 policemen and more than 20,000 volunteers will be on hand to try to ensure that the elections run smoothly.[4]  The Ukrainian interim government has also already set up 114 polling stations in 75 countries for the over 470,000 of Ukrainian voters who are abroad.[5]

However, the government has had some difficulty organizing its domestic electoral machinery, mostly in terms of finding reliable staff, due to the recent “secessions” of Donetsk and Luhansk. University of Kansas political scientist Erik Herron is correct in judging that “the quality of Ukraine’s election will ultimately be determined on the ground by the efforts of hundreds of thousands of election workers and security personnel, as well as the millions of Ukrainian citizens who come to the polls.”[6]

Second, there should be a large number of independent and well-deployed international election monitors to ensure that the elections are conducted fairly and without major incidents of fraud. Moscow will be sure to allege acts of fraud regardless of their actual occurrence and so, to maximize the perceived legitimacy of the elections, these claims must be quickly rebutted by a host of independent international observers. Thus, what will hopefully be the positive findings of the main electoral monitoring groups should be well-publicized.

As of mid-May, over 200 volunteers from the U.S. have gone to Ukraine to help ensure clean and fair elections. [7]  They will join over 1000 election monitors from the Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).[8] These actions by the international community and by the Ukrainian government are important steps in the right direction in helping to ensure a democratic and stabilizing outcome on May 25, but they should be bolstered by aggressive publicity and by strong statements of endorsement by Western governments and international organizations.

Finally, it would be highly propitious if one candidate were to win convincingly on May 25. If no candidate wins over 50% in the first round, Ukraine will have to wait until June 15 for the second round. A mud-slinging campaign could easily play into Moscow’s hands, and the period between the first and second rounds would also provide more time for Russian agents and their internal allies in the east to establish new facts on the ground.

In sum, it is in the strong interest of Ukrainian democrats and of their Western supporters to encourage the creation of a stable government as quickly as possible in order to minimize the opportunities for further Russian incursions.

The Candidates

According to the most recent poll, Petro Poroshenko, the “chocolate oligarch”, who played a fundamental role in funding and organizing protesters at Maidan, has a strong lead with 34% of the vote. He is trailed by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko at 6.5%, and pro-“federalization” candidate Sergei Tihipko at 5.8%, with 25% undecided.[9] Among voters who have made up their minds, Poroshenko is projected to receive 54.7% of the vote, which would allow him to win in the first round and avoid a runoff.[10] However, if enough Ukrainians abstain from voting, either voluntarily or as a result of intimidation from pro-Russian separatists, Moscow could threaten to brand the election of Poroshenko as illegitimate and use this as leverage to insist on subservience and/or greater autonomy for the eastern provinces.

A victory by Poroshenko in the first round would obviously give Ukraine the best chance for a more democratic and western-oriented Ukraine. His previous history of supporting democracy in Ukraine during the Orange revolution in 2004 – and his very early participation in the EuroMaidan movement last fall, long before its prospects for success became clear – make Poroshenko the most promising candidate to lead Ukraine’s democracy. Although he is himself an oligarch who had previously served in the Yanukovitch government, Poroshenko is now running on a platform of zero tolerance for corruption, Ukrainian integration into the European Union, and economic reform.[11]But he has wisely also said he would not seek NATO membership and is seen as someone who might be able to deal skillfully with Moscow.

Despite her current strongly pro-democratic rhetoric, Tymoshenko’s failures as Prime Minister (2007 to 2010) and shady earlier ties to Russia make her a dubious presidential prospect if Ukraine is to escape its legacy of autocracy and corruption. And Tihipko’s ties to Yanukovych’s former party, the Party of Regions, also make him a questionable candidate to lead a new independent and democratic Ukraine.

An Urgent Post-Election Agenda

Even if the elections are won convincingly by Poroshenko and strongly certified by international election monitors, the actions of the new government – and of the Western democracies – in the days and weeks after elections will be critical. Given Ukraine’s precarious economic and geopolitical situation, it is critical that democracy is shown triumphing over authoritarianism or separatist nationalism.

To do this, the Ukrainian government, with the strong backing and financial assistance of Western governments and international financial institutions,[12] must rapidly engineer a rescue of the bankrupt and stagnant Ukrainian economy. This requires making Ukraine’s economy more hospitable to business. According to the Heritage Foundation, Ukraine ranks last in economic freedom in Europe.[13] In order to restore economic growth and create jobs, the new Ukrainian government must eliminate the culture of corruption, promote domestic business growth, and encourage foreign investment. The IMF and the current Ukrainian government have already agreed on completing a comprehensive diagnostic study by July 15 that will cover “an anti-corruption framework, the design and implementation of key laws and regulations that may have impact on business climate, the effectiveness of the judiciary, and tax administration.”[14]

By creating a favorable business climate and encouraging economic growth in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government can demonstrate the advantages of democracy over Russia’s growing authoritarianism and economic stagnation (especially by showing higher rates of growth in Ukraine than in Russia-annexed Crimea). 

On the domestic political front, it will be essential for the new president to woo back and reassure the many disaffected Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine who have either backed the separatist movement or else been either intimidated or indifferent. And here the role of Russia could prove crucial. If Moscow continues to promote violent conflict between the new government in Kiev and the “independent” Donetsk and Luhansk regions or other eastern provinces, then the odds will be long for either economic prosperity or political stability.

There could now be a new chance for movement towards democracy and national unity in Ukraine — but only if strong leadership emerges from the election and receives prompt and solid backing from the European Union and from the United States.



[1]Adrian A. Basora and Aleksandr Fisher. “Putin’s “Greater Novorossiya” – The Dismemberment of Ukraine.” Foreign Policy Research Institute. /articles/2014/05/putins-greater-novorossiya-dismemberment-ukraine (accessed May 21, 2014).

[2] On May 11, two of Ukraine’s eastern regions with large Russian speaking populations, Donetsk and Luhansk, voted for sovereignty with 89% and 96% approval respectively.

[3]Miller, Christopher J. . “Gunmen seize control of district election offices in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, steal ballots and documents.” KievPost. http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/gunmen-seize-control-of-district-election-offices-in-donetsk-and-luhansk-oblasts-steal-ballots-and-documents-348578.html (accessed May 21, 2014).

[4] Interfax-Ukraine. “Over 55,000 police personnel, thousands of volunteers to maintain order on polling day.” KyivPost. http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/over-55000-police-personnel-thousands-of-volunteers-to-maintain-order-on-polling-day-348599.html (accessed May 21, 2014).

[5] Interfax-Ukraine. “114 polling stations set up abroad ahead of Ukrainian presidential elections.” KyivPost. http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/114-polling-stations-set-up-abroad-ahead-of-ukrainian-presidential-elections-347796.html (accessed May 21, 2014).

[6] Herron, Erik. “Is Ukraine ready to vote?.” Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/05/18/is-ukraine-ready-to-vote/ (accessed May 21, 2014).

[7] Selweski, Chad . “Local Ukrainian leader will help monitor election in homeland.” The Daily Tribune. http://www.dailytribune.com/government-and-politics/20140515/local-ukrainian-leader-will-help-monitor-election-in-homeland (accessed May 21, 2014).

[8] Interfax-Ukraine. “1,000 OSCE observers to oversee presidential elections in Ukraine.” KyivPost. http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/1000-osce-observers-to-oversee-presidential-elections-in-ukraine-347489.html (accessed May 21, 2014).

[9] Interfax-Ukraine. “Poroshenko way ahead of rivals in Ukrainian presidential race.” KyivPost. http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/poroshenko-way-ahead-of-rivals-in-ukrainian-presidential-race-348615.html (accessed May 21, 2014).

[10] Herszenhorn, David D.. “Front-Runner in Ukraine Election May Be Shifting Putin’s Stance.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/19/world/europe/frontrunner-in-ukraine-election-may-be-shifting-putins-stance.html?_r=0 (accessed May 21, 2014).

[11] Popova, Polina. “Petro Poroshenko: Is the Chocolate King Fit to Run Ukraine? – Foreign Policy Journal.” Foreign Policy Journal. http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2014/05/09/petro-poroshenko-is-the-chocolate-king-fit-to-run-ukraine/ (accessed May 21, 2014).

[12] The IMF has approved a $17 billion dollar loan to Ukraine which will focus on reforming exchange rate flexibility, banking stability, fiscal policy, energy policy, and governance. International Monetary Fund. “IMF.” IMF Survey : Ukraine Unveils Reform Program with IMF Support. https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/survey/so/2014/new043014a.htm (accessed May 21, 2014).

[13] The Heritage Foundation. “Ukraine.” Economy: Population, GDP, Inflation, Business, Trade, FDI, Corruption. http://www.heritage.org/index/country/ukraine (accessed May 20, 2014).

[14] Interfax-Ukraine. “114 polling stations set up abroad ahead of Ukrainian presidential elections.” KyivPost. http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/114-polling-stations-set-up-abroad-ahead-of-ukrainian-presidential-elections-347796.html (accessed May 21, 2014).


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Radiological Agitprop in Ukraine?

By John R. Haines

On Monday 5 May 2014, the Security Service of Ukraine[1] or “SBU” announced the seizure of a 1.5kg quantity of radioactive material containing suspected uranium in a car in southwestern Ukraine.

“The Counterintelligence Security Service seized in the Chernivtsi region a 1.5kg quantity of suspected radioactive material containing uranium.  ‘The hazardous material was brought into Ukraine from the self-proclaimed Transdniestria Republic in a car with foreign license plates, contained within a homemade canister,’ according to Marina Ostapenko, an SBU spokesperson.  Ostapenko stated the SBU detained 10 persons during the operation, one of whom is identified in initial reports as a citizen of the Russian Federation.  The SBU has not ruled out the possibility that the detainees intended to use the material to build a so-called “dirty bomb” for use in ‘mass actions’ in the southern and the eastern regions of Ukraine.”[2]

The SBU statement indicated that criminal proceedings had been initiated for “illegal handling of radioactive materials.”

This report is simultaneously disturbing and curious.  It is disturbing because the Black Sea littoral has long been the epicenter of nuclear smuggling, with some dozen incidents reported in Moldova alone, the most recent of which involved the June 2011 interdiction of a 1kg mass of uranium-235, and the August 2010 interdiction of a 1.8kg mass of uranium-238.  Yesterday’s report is not on its face implausible, given the widely held belief that one or more groups within Transdniestria possess quantities of illicit nuclear material, including some reports of Soviet-era military-grade radiologic weapons.

That being said, the report is somewhat curious on a couple of levels, including the observation that while it appears in the online Ukrainian language version of Ukrayinsʹka pravda (Ukrainian Pravda] it does not appear on the English language version of the website.  Given that any act of radiologic terrorism, successful or otherwise, would represent a serious, highly consequential escalation of the conflict within Ukraine, it is puzzling that the Ukrainian government has not actively disseminated the report, especially, for example, in English.  The sole English language reference to the incident is a cryptic report in today’s [6 May 2014] Kyiv Post under the headline “Tiraspol denies Transdniestrian origin of uranium found in Ukraine”:

“The Transdniestrian State Security Committee has refuted a statement of the Ukrainian Security Service alleging the Transdniestrian origin of uranium-235 found in Chernivtsi region.“[3]

The timing of the report also coincides with published reports of the Ukrainian government sending “an elite national guard unit to reestablish control” in Odessa, something consistent with its actions in Slovyansk, where Interior Ministry Omega and SBU Alpha anti-terrorist unit forces were deployed in the past few days.[4] 

Taken altogether, it may not be seen as unreasonable to question whether these events suggest a foreign flag-type operation, wherein a security service stages an incident as a provocation, something both sides in the conflict have alleged in other circumstances over the past several weeks.

[1] Ukrainian: Контррозвідка СБУ.  Ukrainian transl.:  Kontrrozvidka SBU.  The literal translation of the term is “Counterintelligence Security Service.”

[2] See: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine website [Ukrainian language version]. http://mvs.gov.ua/mvs/control/main/ru/publish/article/1042904. Last accessed 5 May 2014.  See also: “В СБУ розповіли про засідки снайперів та радіаційну ‘брудну бомбу’.” [“SBU describes sniper ambush and radiation ‘dirty bomb’.”]. Українська правда(Ukrainian Pravda]. Monday 5 May 2014 13:13.  Translated from Ukrainian by the author. http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2014/05/5/7024414/:. Last accessed 6 May 2014.

[3] http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/tiraspol-denies-transdniestrian-origin-of-uranium-found-in-ukraine-346483.html.  Last accessed 6 May 2014.  A Washington DC-based entity called the “Moldova Foundation” [https://www.facebook.com/pages/Moldova-Foundation/212816835275?sk=info] yesterday tweeted a link to the Ministry of Internal Affairs story [in Ukrainian].

[4] The tag “national guard” is a misnomer: Omega is a special unit within the Interior Ministry’s Kyev command and not part of the Ukrainian National Guard; similarly, Alpha is a special unit within the SBU.

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