UkraineAlert

Four years after the invasion of Crimea and the Donbas, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine continues unabated. For all the failures of the government in Kyiv to reform, Ukraine is still fighting our war. Were it not for Ukrainians’ willingness to defend themselves, NATO would be spending a fortune to reform its past structures and procedures and defend its members against Russian threats. For if Ukrainian independence and/or territorial integrity were suborned by Russia, NATO would be obliged to raise large defenses for Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia in addition to the Baltic detachments already in force. Yet in too many NATO capitals, there is an unwillingness to recognize that Putin is constantly escalating his war against the West as shown by the latest chemical warfare attacks in Salisbury, England. Therefore rendering Ukraine the help it needs even as we pressure it to reform continues to be in US national interests.

One neglected area where we can render material assistance to Ukraine and advance our own self-interest is the naval sphere.

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Of all nations, Germany must heed the lessons of history, both current and past. This begs the question as to why Germany would help Europe become more energy dependent on a country like Russia that ignores norms, contracts, laws, treaties, and borders.

And yet that is exactly what Germany is about to do if it approves Gazprom’s $11.5-billion pipeline gas megaproject called Nord Stream 2. Proponents argue that the pipeline is an “economic project” that simply will deliver cheaper gas to German industries and turn Germany into a European hub for Russian gas. They say this is the same gas, only a different pipeline.

But this is not an “economic” project and this is not just a different pipeline.

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There has been an ominous change in the state of freedom of association in Ukraine over the last year.

One of Ukraine’s leading activists, Vitaliy Shabunin of the Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC), is facing trial on criminal charges and could receive up to five years in prison. The charges are at best exaggerated and at worst politically motivated. Civil society argues that the facts of Shabunin’s incident in which he punched a provocateur posing as a journalist were intentionally distorted so that authorities could bring more severe charges against him.

YouControl, a platform that provides free access to government data registers used by anti-corruption activists and investigative journalists, was accused of trading classified information, among other charges. Over ninety Ukrainian organizations wrote a cease-and-desist letter to government authorities, requesting that they stop harassing YouControl. The SBU recently dropped the case because of an “absence of proof,” but the decision does not explicitly state that YouControl’s founder and his employees are not guilty. Similarly, three activists from the Auto-Maidan civil society group currently face criminal proceedings for throwing eggs at lawmaker Oleh Barna. Sergei Hadzhynov, one of Auto-Maidan’s leaders, believes this to be part of a larger political vendetta. If convicted, Hadzhynov and his colleagues could face four to seven years in jail.

Many key civic actors argue that the actions against AntAC, YouControl, Auto-Maidan, and others are not isolated incidents, but attempts on the part of President Petro Poroshenko to muzzle key voices of dissent in advance of the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.

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Four years ago, Russia illegally annexed Crimea.

Those who hoped the situation there would improve after Russia took control were wrong. There has been no economic miracle in Crimea, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s promises. The rights of the Ukrainian minority and of Crimean Tatars are constantly violated, the economy is stagnating, and hundreds of thousands of residents are voting with their feet.

Russia is militarizing the peninsula, threatening NATO’s freedom to move forces through the region. And the construction of the Kerch bridge could cut off the Azov Sea from the Black Sea and choke off Ukrainian ports. This is happening at the same time as the Kremlin continues to sponsor its undeclared war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

The West has already unequivocally stated that it will never accept the illegal annexation of Crimea, but we need to go beyond declarations and focus on concrete steps that could end Russia’s aggression in both Crimea and the Donbas.

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Diplomatic relations between the United States and Ukraine are eminent. As former US Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer writes in his new book, The Eagle and the Trident, they have almost always been good. Ukraine’s outstanding sacrifice was to give up the third largest nuclear force in the world.

An unfortunate consequence was that Russia started a war of aggression against Ukraine in 2014, annexing its southern peninsula of Crimea and occupying part of eastern Ukraine with irregular Russian troops. The United States responded with limited military supplies and eventually lethal weapons.

But the United States should do more for Ukraine.

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Since Russian troops began seizing government buildings in Crimea four years ago, the international community has become accustomed to encountering new acts of Russian aggression on an almost daily basis. Whether it is masked men in eastern Ukraine, a chemical weapons attack in the English countryside, or an attempted coup in the Balkans, the process is more or less the same—faced by a fresh round of accusations, the Kremlin denies everything and declares, “You can’t prove it was us.” If the evidence pointing toward Russia is particularly damning, Moscow then insists that those involved were non-state actors operating entirely independently of the government. Vladimir Putin opted for this position during his recent NBC News interview, dismissing indictments against thirteen named Russians for meddling in the 2016 US presidential election by saying, “So what if they’re Russians? They do not represent the interests of the Russian state.” It was a similar story when an undisclosed but apparently large number of Russian troops died during an attack on US forces in eastern Syria in early February 2018. As news of the debacle began to leak, Kremlin officials downplayed the scale of the Russian losses while stressing that those involved were private citizens and in no way connected to the Russian armed forces. Even in such apparently open-and-shut cases as the recent assassination attempt in Salisbury, England, Moscow denies everything and then plays the Russophobia card.

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On March 13, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was sacked. US President Donald Trump plans to replace him with former CIA director Mike Pompeo.

UkraineAlert asked its experts the following: What does Pompeo think about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aggressive foreign policy? What does the leadership change mean for US policy toward Ukraine and Russia? Do you expect any changes? Will he support US Special Representative for Ukraine Ambassador Kurt Volker’s efforts to bring peace to Ukraine?

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On February 28, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court ruled the bill "On the principles of the state language policy” unconstitutional and rendered it invalid. The law in question, adopted back in 2012 and known as the “Kivalov-Kolesnichenko language law,” granted Russian the status of a “regional language.” It was precisely the abolition of this law by the Verkhovna Rada on February 23, 2014, right after then-President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country, that Russia saw as an aggressive gesture against the “Russian-speaking population” of Ukraine and later used as a pretext to justify the annexation of Crimea and military aggression in the Donbas.

However, neither then-acting President Oleksandr Turchynov nor the subsequent president, Petro Poroshenko, signed or vetoed the law abolishing the Kivalov-Kolesnichenko language law. This means it was still in force until last month.

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Ukraine has changed in recent years. But, as is often the case, it’s two steps forward, one step back.

At numerous meetings with international partners and journalists, I’m often asked where the latest positive dynamic in government reforms is and which groups of reformers are likely to produce positive results. Having worked in the government for exactly 500 days, I can say with confidence one man can’t win a war and that we should put our trust in reform teams, like-minded people, and agents of change.

I can name six teams of reformers who have already achieved great success:

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An Anti-Corruption Court is the capstone that will complete an infrastructure to eliminate Ukraine’s systemic corruption and to attract massive investments.
President Petro Poroshenko’s current proposal misses the mark, and fails to meet the criteria stipulated by the International Monetary Fund and the Council of Europe's Venice Commission. Under Poroshenko’s bill, international experts will play only an advisory role in the selection of judges, and civil society has no role.

Without international oversight, the process is a sham.

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