UkraineAlert

Many were insulted by a letter from the International Monetary Fund to Ukraine’s presidential administration critical of the president's bill on the High Anticorruption Court. Ukrainian VIPs proved to be touchy. Considering how they take offense at critical newspaper articles, imagine what they think when clerks, whom they find inferior, start writing to them directly. This insult brought forth two claims. First, corruption is not a problem in the poorest and most corrupt country in Europe. Second, we don’t even need the IMF. Those who seriously advance the first claim should see a shrink. The second claim, strenuously exploited by those close to power and the opposition, is much older and more menacing.

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In 2017, for the first time ever, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that Russia be designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for the religious repression occurring there and for its exportation of such repression to Ukraine. USCIRF’s primary role is to monitor countries engaging in or tolerating "systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom,” and to recommend those countries that should be designated as CPCs. CPC designations open the door to a wide array of possible sanctions, though implementation is at the discretion of the State Department. Even without sanctions, the designation alone serves as a powerful signal to religious freedom violators of US disapproval. In its most recent announcement of CPC designations on January 4, however, the State Department did not include Russia.

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On July 28, the US Senate voted 98-2 to adopt the new Combating America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). President Donald Trump had little choice and signed it into law on August 2, although the main aim of the law was to make sure that the president could not revoke the sanctions against Russia because of its military aggression in Ukraine on his own.

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Oligarchs own the airwaves in Ukraine. More than 75 percent of Ukrainians regularly watch TV channels owned by Ukrainian oligarchs Viktor Pinchuk, Ihor Kolomoisky, Dmytro Firtash, and Rinat Akhmetov. But this is hardly news since TV serves as the primary source of information for 58 percent of Ukrainians.

While these oligarchs are the biggest media owners, they are not the only ones. A disturbing trend is that most newly established media are also linked to politicians. Espreso.tv has been linked to former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, and the NewsOne TV channel is linked to MP Vadym Rabinovych (also an oligarch) and his business partner MP Yevhen Murayev. The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders notes that Channel 112 “often broadcast[s] pro-Russian interpretation of events” and many regard the station as connected to the funds of former President Viktor Yanukovych’s close entourage. However, the channel’s official ownership documents show no such links and the channel denies any relationship to any political party.

Yet the picture isn’t entirely hopeless.

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In October 14, 2014, activists unveiled a three-meter high set of flesh-colored buttocks in front of Ukraine’s parliament. Giggles aside, the stunt was a serious one, meant to focus Kyiv’s attention on parliament’s foot dragging on corruption. An idiomatic expression in Ukrainian, “to be covered by an ass,” means that something awful will happen. Through a grotesque symbol that no one could look away from, activists warned parliamentarians that something awful would happen if they didn’t pass a raft of anti-corruption measures, including the creation of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine and a law that would require public officials to disclose their assets online.

It worked. The bills passed, and are now seen as some of the country’s most notable reform measures.

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On December 22, 2017, the Trump administration approved supplying Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, capping a nearly three-year debate in Washington over whether the United States should provide lethal defensive weapons to counter further Russian aggression in Europe. A few days prior the US Department of State announced that senior officials had authorized a sizeable export of US-made snipers, ammunition, and accessories. The shift in US policy under the Trump administration has been misunderstood. The US government is directly supplying lethal defense hardware to the Ukrainian military for the first time, although US-made lethal weapons have been in Ukraine since 2015.

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One day remains until the second round of the Czech presidential election, and polls show a tie with 10 percent of voters undecided. The race pits the current president, Miloš Zeman, against the former chairman of the Academy of Sciences, Jiří Drahoš.

New reports allege that there’s a hidden scheme to support pro-Russian president Zeman—at least 8 million Czech koruna has been provided by the secretive organization Friends of Miloš Zeman—in the tight race. The whole scheme is organized by Zeman’s chief adviser, who has direct Kremlin links.   

Zeman is an anti-immigration populist who aims to win voters by supporting a referendum on the country’s continued membership in the EU and NATO, and by presenting himself as the only defender of the nation. He is well known for his vulgarity, and above all for his support of stronger ties between the Czech Republic and China and Russia. Jiří Drahoš, meanwhile, presents himself as an anti-populist candidate who intends to return dignity and a pro-Western orientation to the Prague Castle. He largely defines himself in opposition to Zeman.

For Russia, this is an important election.

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Voltaire reportedly said that those who can persuade one to believe absurdities will lead one to commit atrocities. In contemporary politics Russia’s stance on Ukraine represents a cardinal example of the enduring validity of his remark. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently restated three lies: there are no Russian troops in the Donbas, the conflict in eastern Ukraine is a civil war, not a Russian invasion, and the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014 had nothing to do with Russian forces. All of these are bold-face lies. No amount of prevarication can obscure fact, although the Kremlin has tried mightily. (For an in-depth look at how Russia has changed its MH17 narrative, Aric Toler’s analysis is first-rate.)

Lavrov’s and his government’s continuing mendacity are so relentless that many have come to take for granted that Russia as a state is defined by its habitual lying. And along with it goes the never-ending refrain that Russia is always the victim of others’ nefarious activities, never the author of its own misfortunates. But my purpose is not simply to point out that the Russian government and media lies, but to show that this recourse to mendacity and self-absolution betrays the fact that despite negotiations with the US representative on Ukraine, Ambassador Kurt Volker, and the Normandy Four (Ukraine, France, and Germany), Moscow has no intention of getting out of the Donbas or returning Crimea.

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The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine on July 17, 2014, transformed a localized post-Soviet conflict into a major global crisis. With victims from eleven different countries including 189 Dutch citizens, the international backlash was prompt and marked a clear escalation in the confrontation between Russia and the West over the war in Ukraine.

Initial analysis of the incident identified Russia as the likely guilty party. A major multinational investigation has since confirmed these conclusions, with Russia now accused of supplying the BUK anti-aircraft missile system responsible for the tragedy. Court proceedings against individual suspects could proceed in the Netherlands this year.

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2017 was a pivotal year in Ukraine, but not the way we expected.

We were supposed to get a brand new Supreme Court to replace four old cassation courts that were synonymous with corruption and abuse.

Instead, it was new only on paper.

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