UkraineAlert

Ukraine is a nation interrupted, its identity and promise stolen by predators for centuries.

The predation continues today as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s creeping invasion of Ukraine grinds on, resulting in the murder of 10,000 Ukrainians, destruction of two major cities and its industrial base, seizure of nine percent of its land, and flight of 1.6 million people from their homes since 2014.

This week, on screens around the world, a feature-length film called Bitter Harvest provides a broader context for this unfolding tragedy. The historical drama is set in 1931 during the harrowing genocide committed by Russia against Ukraine, a horror that remains one of the biggest secrets of the twentieth century. The Holodomor, or forced death by starvation, was a policy launched by Joseph Stalin to force Ukrainians into collectivizing their farms.

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We overlapped, Vladimir Putin and me. Putin arrived in Dresden in August 1985 as a 32-year-old KGB major. He was working undercover as a consular officer, recruiting academics, journalists, and business people to spy for the Soviet Union in the West. I was in Dresden and throughout communist East Germany often in those days; I was a twenty-six-year-old high school German teacher and doctoral dissertation writer focused on Marxist-Leninist language theory and education in the so-called German Democratic Republic.

We never met (as far as I know). But on some two dozen trips—and through acquaintances and good friends—I got a feel in the 1980s for the systematic and pathological perfidiousness of Putin's intelligence world. That's because Putin's KGB was maker, mentor, and master of the Stasi, the ubiquitous East German secret police. And while the KGB (and its successor, the FSB) may remain a bit of a mystery, we have a good deal of information about its prized pupil.

It's enough to know that a US president who has had business dealings with Russia extending back decades to the time of the Soviet Union may indeed have issues. This is a shadowy world of autocrats, kleptocrats, oligarchs, and organized crime—often with links to Russian intelligence.

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In the fall of 2013, students took to the Maidan (Independence Square) in Kyiv in protest. Their complaint was with then-President Viktor Yanukovych, who had reneged on his pledge to sign the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine and was instead negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Euromaidan was underway. Additional protesters streamed into the streets, pitched tents, and expanded the demonstration into a national protest against engrained government corruption.

As 2013 passed into 2014, the protests continued to grow; eventually, the embattled Yanukovych regime resorted to bloodshed in its effort to assert control and silence the protests. Those murdered by the regime before it fled Ukraine have been remembered as the Heavenly Hundred: peaceful protestors who died demanding the end of corruption and insisting that their government adopt the standards its politicians had been promising since independence more than two decades before.

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So far, US President Donald Trump’s Russia policy remains a mystery. Does he want to set in motion a US-Russia rapprochement? If so, sanctions against Russia may be increasingly difficult to sustain. The Trump administration might judge Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity to be a bothersome yet insufficient impediment to mending fences with Putin and, glossing over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, reduce or even lift all sanctions and resume business as usual.

In that case, the Trump administration should be reminded that international politics is less like that of a billiard table of bilateral transactions and more like a spider’s web, where a tug at one end will rattle its farthest corners. The web in which Ukraine’s territorial integrity is entangled is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), one of the most widely adhered-to international treaties, which was designed to curb the spread of nuclear weapons around the world.

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The Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) are self-proclaimed entities that emerged in spring 2014 in eastern Ukraine thanks to massive Russian support. Ukraine's attempts to retake them in spring and summer 2014 were stopped by a full-scale Russian military offensive that August. This more or less fixed the demarcation line between Ukrainian government-controlled territory and the pro-Russian separatist-controlled area under the Minsk agreements. Since then, the so-called DPR and LPR have had their own political institutions and economies dependent on Russian supplies and currency.

Based on regular monitoring of open sources, we analyzed some of the key trends in these secessionist territories last year.

Former leaders assassinated one by one

One of the major trends of 2016 and 2017 has been the gradual assassination of former leaders or key figures in both the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics. Some of them were killed in terrorist attacks on separatist-controlled territories, while others died under mysterious circumstances in Russia.

Mikhail Tolstykh ("Givi"), one of the key DPR war chiefs, was killed on February 8 in his office near Donetsk. His close companion Arseniy Pavlov ( "Motorola") was killed in Donetsk near his apartment last October. Oleg Anashchenko, a key LPR policeman, died in a car explosion on February 4. Valeriy Bolotov, the first head of the LPR, died in Moscow on January 27; he was allegedly poisoned. In September, Oleg Zhilin, the former head of the DPR military group Oplot, was killed near Moscow.

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Celebrating diversity: that's the official theme of the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest, which will take place in Kyiv this May. This is an inspired choice; Ukraine has been one of Europe's most diverse and multicultural lands for centuries. Since the Soviet collapse, this organic multiculturalism has played a disappointingly minor role in Ukraine’s nation-building efforts. However, it is perfectly in tune with the new and inclusive sense of national identity that has flourished in Ukraine thanks to the Euromaidan Revolution and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hybrid war.

By officially embracing the country’s demographic diversity at Eurovision, Ukraine can begin to consolidate its national identity gains of the past few years while denying Russia one of its most powerful propaganda weapons. With a global audience numbering in the hundreds of millions, the song contest is the perfect platform for redefining what it means to be a modern Ukrainian.

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The case against providing lethal weapons to Ukraine has rested on a simple argument: If the United States provides arms to Kyiv, Moscow will escalate the war in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin would up the ante with even more arms or intensify its military pressure on Ukraine. According to this logic, since escalation benefits no one except Russia, providing arms to Ukraine must be a bad idea.

The logic of this argument was always suspect; it rested on the assumption that Moscow was responding to Ukrainian or Western initiatives in Crimea and the Donbas. Accordingly, Ukraine threatened Russian interests by opting for democracy and the West—and poor Russia had no choice but to respond with violence. The West expanded NATO—and poor Russia had no choice but to invade Ukraine. That Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution was not directed against Russia and that Russia’s aggression turned Ukraine against it is conveniently ignored in this account. So, too, is the fact that NATO was moribund (until Putin’s war revived it) and never expressed a serious interest in Ukraine’s membership.

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On January 29, the fighting in Avdiivka, a town in eastern Ukraine within Ukrainian government-controlled territory, seriously escalated. The fighting began close to the demarcation line and six kilometers north of Donetsk (see map), and continued until at least February 3. According to official reports, thirteen Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 93 were wounded since the fighting intensified. Three civilians were killed and one wounded, and a British journalist was wounded and later operated on in the Dnipro hospital. Heavy shelling from the separatist-controlled territories also affected nearby residential areas. The town was cut off from electricity, heat, and water supplies, and repairs could not begin immediately due to continued hostilities, despite the brutally cold temperatures.

Now Avdiivka is slowly recovering. Water, heat, and electricity were finally restored on February 6. The Ukrainian government-controlled side’s response to the shooting targeted Donetsk and its suburbs; the city also suffered from cuts in water and electricity supplies, which were restored on February 6. Hostilities also escalated near the towns of Mariupol, Mariinka, Opytne, Pisky, Popasna, and others. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine reports of a drastic, unprecedented increase in the number of ceasefire violations within the Avdiivka-Yasynuvata-Donetsk airport triangle since January 29.

We examined the key factors, both global and local, that might help explain the current escalation.

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Russian disinformation is working overtime to undermine European democracies. Much of the disinformation in 2016 came from original Russian sources that presented poorly digested information designed to provoke and to push an agenda that the Kremlin finds favorable. It aims to disconnect ordinary European citizens from supranational EU institutions and national politicians.

With key elections in the Netherlands, Germany, and France this year, it is clear that Russia will try to use the refugee and migrant crisis that has battered Europe for its own foreign policy goals. By promoting the idea that the EU and local politicians no longer listen to ordinary people, encouraging inter-state disagreements among EU member-states, and implying that Europeans cannot help Ukraine, the Kremlin aims to weaken the EU’s internal cohesion, force it to drop sanctions, and accept Russia’s hegemony over its former republics in Eastern Europe.

This assault can have serious long-term consequences for Europe, which may soon have hardline anti-EU parties and politicians in power. Thus, identifying major narratives in Moscow’s disinformation campaign and debunking fake news and sensationalist false stories is crucial in the battle to combat foreign propaganda and disinformation.

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In China, women are poetically referred to as “half the sky.” During the most dangerous hours of Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, when tanks and water cannons and snipers were trained on protesters, roughly half of the Ukrainian activists were females of all ages.

Now, the new film “Women of Maidan” beautifully portrays the critical role that females have played and continue to play in the Ukrainian struggle for democracy and freedom.

Created by US filmmaker Olha Onyshko and producer Petro Didula, the production documents the shift in attitudes and roles that took place during the Euromaidan. The emotions, empathy, and steely resolve of Ukrainian women are illuminated in wonderful and moving interviews and scenes that reveal the depth of the society’s desire for freedom.

The revolution was a turning point, which is why many documentaries have captured the courage of the crowd and the violence against it. It began in November 2013, when former President Victor Yanukovych opted out of an agreement to join Europe in favor of joining Russia. Spontaneous gatherings of students in Kyiv’s central square grew without changing the government’s trajectory. Then on November 30, 2013, police waded in with clubs and fists and shields, corralling the students in a tight, vulnerable circle.

“Girls, get behind us,” shouted a leader as the beatings created havoc and injuries. The mayhem was televised and inspired more to join the cause. And the girls didn’t stay behind the boys.

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