UkraineAlert

In November 2016, the Atlantic Council published the first volume of The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses, detailing the extent of Russian-linked political networks in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. That report has since become a guide to those seeking to understand how the Kremlin cultivates political allies in Western European countries in order to undermine European consensus and sow divisions. In a new report, The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses 2.0, we trace the extent of Russian political penetration in Europe’s southern flank—Greece, Italy, and Spain.

These countries bore the brunt of Europe’s major crises in the last decade: the 2008 economic crisis and the 2015 refugee crisis. In the aftermath of the economic crisis, Greece, Italy, and Spain experienced double digit unemployment and income drops, coupled with reductions to social safety nets. The EU’s response was to impose austerity measures. And while these policies helped shore up the countries’ economies, they also bred domestic resentment against the EU, mainstream parties, and liberal democracy. Then Syrian refugees began arriving by the thousands on the Italian and Greek shores, further exacerbating social tensions.

It is this volatile climate that has proven to be fertile ground for Russian overtures, while providing an opening for political parties oriented toward the East.

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As they say in real estate, location is everything. Thus Ukraine, the biggest country in Europe and one that is advantageously located, has a major role to play as an international transportation hub. Ukraine has one of the longest railroad systems in Eurasia, and its transportation capacities are superseded only by China, India, and Russia. The country sits at the crossroads of the main trans-European corridors, uniting Eastern and Western Europe, and the Baltic States with the Black Sea region.

Ukraine also has the potential for becoming an airline transit hub. After the slump of 2014-2015, the sector is quickly making up for lost ground: total growth in the first half of 2017 was 28 percent for domestic and 23 percent for foreign airlines, exceeding the average European growth rate.

Yet poor transport infrastructure and obsolete technologies, as well as deep-rooted corruption, are holding back the nation’s transport sector from gaining its well-deserved place on the European route map.

There are reasons to be hopeful.

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As Ukraine continues to defend itself against Russian aggression in the east, there is one thing Kyiv can do to improve its odds for military success: reform its corruption-riddled defense sector. Transparency International's most recent Government Defense Anti-Corruption Index gives Ukraine a D grade, indicating a high risk of corruption.

It’s not difficult to see why. For one thing, Ukraine's state-owned arms conglomerate Ukroboronprom is a cesspool of corruption. In one case, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine discovered a fraudulent scheme to buy old outdated engines for T-72 tanks instead of new motors while a recent audit found numerous financial violations and inefficient resource management totaling 557.8 million hryvnas (approximately $21 million).

The high level of secrecy surrounding the country's defense expenditures constitutes a major corruption risk, says Transparency International’s Independent Defense Anti-Corruption Committee Secretary General Olena Tregub. And these problems in the defense sector have real-world effects.

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Ukraine’s internally displaced persons (IDPs) have struggled. After having fled their houses due to military conflict and living with the uncertainty of whether they will ever regain that property, some have been poorly regarded in their new host communities. How the displaced were received often depended on where they came from. In general Ukrainians have been more supportive of Crimean IDPs, victims of Russia’s annexation, than IDPs from Donbas, who were sometimes equated with compatriots who supported Russia’s invasion.

But several events in the last few months have shifted the terrain for Ukraine’s IDPs in positive ways, providing new avenues for political and legal justice for Ukraine’s 1.6 million IDPs.

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Imagine the scene: a patch of overgrown wasteland on the outskirts of an east Ukrainian rust belt town. Emergency services personnel are methodically excavating a large plot of earth while a huddle of journalists and aid workers look on. The date is October 2019. Another mass grave has just been uncovered.

This grim but all-too-conceivable scenario is perhaps the most compelling reason why Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent UN peacekeeper posturing over Ukraine is hard to take seriously. The desire to keep evidence of war crimes from reaching international audiences is just one of many reasons why the prospect of peace is not only impractical but also unpalatable from Putin’s perspective. While the Russian leader may genuinely wish to extricate himself from the quagmire he has created, it is difficult to see how he could do so without courting disaster.

First and foremost, any Russian withdrawal from the Donbas would open up a veritable Pandora’s box of revelations. The Kremlin’s general involvement in eastern Ukraine has long been the world’s worst kept secret, but details of Russia’s exact role remain clouded in hearsay and are subject to furious denial. This would change dramatically if Moscow pulled its troops out.

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Hockey superstar Alex Ovechkin’s November 2 announcement that he is creating a social movement to support Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be an ill-considered PR move by the Washington Capitals captain.

In the capital of a country awash in anti-Putin sentiment, Ovechkin is defiantly flaunting his loyalty to a leader who has supported military aggression in Ukraine, is implicated in assassinations of his political enemies, and approved massive subterranean interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

Ovechkin’s action is earning him scorn both among Washington Capitals fans and spectators around the NHL.

One can understand why many Russians who live in an information bubble of Kremlin-manufactured propaganda would support Putin. But Ovechkin has now spent the better part of the last thirteen years living, working, and getting rich in the United States. This means he has access to the truth about his president, and this makes Ovechkin's views especially deplorable. He knows about the Russian military’s direct engagement in eastern Ukraine, he has been exposed to evidence that it was a Russian military unit that downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing 298 passengers aboard, and he knows of the vast network of corrupt cronies that surround the Russian president.

Nor does Putin really need his help. How can a person living the United States and in the middle of a challenging hockey season be of domestic help to the Russian president’s March reelection bid?

Ovechkin's act is far more than a sign of loyalty and obeisance.

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It was nearly impossible to find an empty seat on the twice-weekly WizzAir flight from Berlin to Kutaisi this summer. The budget airline carries mostly German hikers to Georgia’s second largest city. From there, the hikers transfer in Zugdidi to reach their final destination, the remote and breathtaking Svaneti region, high in the Greater Caucasus. In Svaneti, most of these hikers undertake an established four-day hike from Mestia to Ushguli, one of the highest inhabited towns in Europe and home to striking UNESCO heritage sites. On the way, they stop overnight in three villages, which has boosted local economies.

Inspired by the success of the Mestia-Ushguli route, a group of nature-loving idealists wants to elevate the Caucasus in hiking circles and bring world-class trails to other parts of Georgia, as well as to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and eventually, the conflict zones of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin recently requested a UN peacekeeping mission for eastern Ukraine. While at home this looks like a peace overture, Putin is not motivated by the desire for amity.

The proposal is similar to Russian actions in Georgia prior to 2008, when it supported a UN observer mission in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone and an OSCE mission in South Ossetia in addition to its own “peacekeeping” force. Rather than achieving lasting peace, these moves were a prelude to Russia cementing its presence in Georgia’s conflict regions.

In the Donbas, Russia is using military force to create a permanent unresolved conflict. The war is putting intense pressure on the government in Kyiv, sapping momentum from its efforts toward reform and Euro-Atlantic integration. But if and when Ukraine, Russia, and the Russian-backed separatists reach a durable ceasefire agreement, temporary respite is all it will be.

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In April 2015, Ukrainian-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa was to perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. But the concert was abruptly canceled because she expressed, to her huge online following, hurtful anti-Ukrainian messages and support for pro-Russia separatists who had invaded and occupied eastern Ukraine.

"As one of Canada's most important cultural institutions, our priority must remain on being a stage for the world's great works of music, and not for opinions that some believe to be deeply offensive," said Toronto Symphony Orchestra CEO Jeff Melanson.

I was a director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at the time and fully supported the decision to cancel. She was paid, and has performed since in smaller venues in Canada.

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In an interview last October, Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman revealed that not a single x-ray scanner was operational at customs checkpoints in Ukraine, suggesting that corrupt customs officers had deliberately damaged the equipment to facilitate criminal activity.

The accusation speaks to the severity of entrenched corruption in the customs services of Ukraine, even amid a slew of post-Maidan reforms to improve the trade and investment climate. Perhaps no other economic hub captures this tension between vested interests and substantive change better than the Odesa ports on the Black Sea. The recent return of wholesale corrupt practices to Odesa ports demands attention: it underscores the necessity of sustained political will to implement reform and the ongoing threat to both economic prosperity and national security that corruption poses in Ukraine.

Odesa has been a key battle in the tug of war between reformers and spoilers in Ukraine. In 2015, President Petro Poroshenko brought on former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to serve as governor of the Odesa region, with a young political activist, Yuliya Marushevska, selected soon after to head the customs office overseeing the notoriously corrupt Odesa ports. Their publicly declared mandate was clear: to weed out corruption and boost economic efficiency.

During their short tenure, the team succeeded in some meaningful ways, minimizing opportunities for corrupt behavior and increasing international trade through the port.

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