UkraineAlert

Editor's note: On July 27, it was announced that implementation of the gas transportation system code has been delayed until October 1. The problems that Kharchenko outlines below with the new code still apply. 

Christmas comes early this year for Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash. On August 1, the tycoon may pocket about $1 billion through a new change to the gas transportation system code (GTS Code). It sounds arcane, but Ukraine’s elites need to act fast to avoid awarding a giant windfall to an oligarch with ties to the Kremlin.

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This month, the Ukrainian magazine Novoye Vremya interviewed fifty experts to assess President Petro Poroshenko’s achievements after four years. The result was a score of just six out of twelve.

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Ukraine should have been a prosperous, middle-income country by now. Instead, it is one of the poorest in Europe. Ukrainians are only slightly richer than Moldovans.

Since Ukraine’s independence, we, as members of the diaspora, have had a keen interest in the country’s development. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there were great expectations that the economic stagnation imposed on Ukraine by the Communist system would be a thing of the past. With its abundance of natural resources and human potential, we thought that Ukraine would evolve rapidly into a prosperous European nation.

However, while other countries who found themselves behind the Iron Curtain have been able to substantially raise their living standards and integrate into Europe, Ukraine continues to stagnate. Its living standards which were once equal to those of neighboring countries like Poland, Slovakia, or the Baltics, have fallen far behind.

We are not blameless. The diaspora’s views are generally misguided and counter-productive when it comes to moving Ukraine’s economy forward.

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Exposing corrupt Ukrainian judges and prosecutors might sound dangerous, but for Kate Butko, it’s nothing compared to what she's previously dealt with. Butko runs PROSUD, an eleven-person project founded in 2016 by activists from the Automaidan, an anticorruption nongovernmental organization that organized car owners during the Euromaidan. Funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and the United Nations Development Program, PROSUD focuses on exposing corrupt judges and prosecutors.

But back in March 2014—days after Russian "little green men" had fanned out across Crimea—judicial corruption was the last thing on Butko's mind. Butko had journeyed to Crimea to see the situation first-hand but instead found herself kneeling in a ditch suffering beatings from former Berkut officers who had pulled her and a colleague from their car once they recognized Butko as a Maidan activist. Butko ended up in a jail cell in Sevastopol guarded by men with balaclavas and denied all contact with relatives or a lawyer. As the experience of the Kremlin's Ukrainian hostages like Oleg Sentsov demonstrates, things could have ended far worse; she was allowed to return to mainland Ukraine after three days of interrogations and threats.

Her experience in Crimea and a subsequent experience in Luhansk in May 2014, where she was dragged from a hotel by armed militia and interrogated for several hours, steels Butko against the frequent threats she and her colleagues receive.

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It’s no surprise that public opinion polls show that Ukrainians are largely disappointed with the same old faces and choices in politics. The candidates expected to run in the 2019 presidential election aren’t new. Out of frustration with the unaccountability of the current parliament, there was a big push this spring to switch to an open-list proportional election system for parliament. However, due to vested interests, the status quo is likely to prevail. What options do Ukrainians have for a better selection of candidates and a more democratic electoral system?

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Before the NATO summit in Brussels and the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, many observers were apprehensive about Ukraine’s prospects at these events. As it turned out, in Brussels, NATO strongly supported Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity. The alliance committed to further development of the bilateral partnership, encouraged Ukraine to make the best use of its opportunities for reform and for membership, and condemned Russia’s human rights violations and failure to live up to the Minsk Agreements. While this was not a 100 percent endorsement of Kyiv’s aspirations, it was a lot better than many expected. Those statements leave open the possibility of future NATO membership if Ukraine can find the means to move forward.

In Helsinki, surprisingly, the Ukraine issue apparently did not figure prominently in the discussions. This fact, however, is a mixed blessing for Kyiv; it could lead President Vladimir Putin to believe that President Donald Trump is not all that concerned with Ukraine. Moreover, developments subsequent to the Helsinki summit raise several potential alarms for Ukraine.

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The unarmed men and women in flak jackets and helmets who document Ukraine’s grinding war in the east for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have my utmost respect. In some senses, they are writing the first draft of history. Few Ukrainian or international journalists can observe the non-government controlled areas of Ukraine anymore and what we know about the conflict mainly comes from the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM).    

The problem is that while these individuals make great sacrifices, the mission itself is compromised by Russia. 

A recent investigative report by German broadcaster ARD has leveled new allegations about the role of the Russian observers in the mission; some of the Russian observers are spies with links to Russian military intelligence.  

According to the ARD report, these Russian individuals have been gathering personal information about other monitors, including personal information like mobile phone numbers addresses, and blood types. True to form, they have also been making notes on potentially damaging or compromising issues, such as drinking habits, sexual activity, and financial issues. 

The ARD report is consistent with conversations that UkraineAlert has had with former SMM observers who asked not to be named.

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Two events that took place in Brussels this month—the NATO summit and the EU-Ukraine summit—have once again brought attention to the Western position on Russia’s unlawful war on Ukraine. Although very supportive of Ukraine, the final declarations of both summits fail to use clear language recognizing Russia’s responsibility for its ongoing multi-vector war on Ukraine.

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On July 16, as US President Donald Trump met with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Trump revealed just how little he knows about modern Russia or its leader. While US intelligence agencies have said the Russians interfered in the 2016 presidential election, Trump shocked the world by siding with Putin, who denied everything. “I don’t see any reason why it would be [Russia],” Trump said in Helsinki. The next day, he tried to take it back and said he meant “would not,” but few are buying it.

When asked by a journalist if there’s anything he holds Russia responsible for, Trump said, “I hold both countries responsible.” Both countries are not responsible for interfering in numerous elections, the downing of flight MH17 that killed 298 people, the illegal annexation of Crimea, the invasion and occupation of the Donbas, the invasion of Georgia, and the poisoning of a former KGB agent in Britain. It seems the president might need to brush up.

We asked our experts and smart Russia hands for their top three books or articles about Vladimir Putin and modern Russia.

Christian Caryl, The Washington Post and Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2000 to 2004:  

Vladimir Sorokin, Day of the Oprichnik: A gloriously dark novel by Russia’s leading surrealist writer. In a not-too-distant future, a neo-tsarist Russia is run by a caste of secret policemen who are at once ultra-corrupt and hyper-nationalistic. Sound familiar? Precisely because it’s a satire, it captures the anomie of Putin’s Russia better than a host of more conventional books.

Edward Lucas, The New Cold War: A remarkably prescient book. Writing well before the Russian occupation of Crimea, Lucas mapped out the likely development of Putinism with eerie accuracy. Its conclusions remain highly relevant today.

First Person, Putin’s 2000 autobiography. Though it was intended as a PR project, this book is still one of the best guides to the man and his mentality. Among other things, it shows in detail how his career in the KGB shaped his mindset and his conception of Russia’s great power status.

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Ukraine tries to project a proud image of a Western country with enormous potential held back by Russia, which is absolutely true, but it’s also true that it often holds itself back.   

Take yesterday as an example. It was not a good day for Ukraine.

A peaceful demonstration in Kyiv meant to highlight the country’s inability to prosecute criminals and apply justice blindly turned ugly when counter-demonstrators disrupted the proceedings and assaulted a prominent activist

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