UkraineAlert

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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A year ago today I felt as if a large circle in my life had been completed.

At a new memorial park near Amsterdam Airport dedicated to the 298 victims of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, I stood among the still-grieving families as the names of the passengers were read one by one. As I scanned the hundreds of people assembled, I noticed some children with just one parent, possibly an indication that they had lost a mother or father in the crash on July 17, 2014. It made me incredibly sad. The park features 298 trees for each of the victims and a large field of bright sunflowers, representing the crash site in eastern Ukraine. Because the site is located in an active war zone, few of the relatives have managed to visit in the search for some sort of closure.

Having been one of the first of a team of international observers on the scene in rebel-held Donetsk, we had very little connection with the victims. But that gradually changed, as through circumstances, I began to meet some of the families. Many have shared their tragic stories with me. But there is one thing that all the families are still desperately seeking, and that is justice.

What an eerie coincidence that the historic summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was held a day before the fourth anniversary of the downing of MH17. Ukraine, of course, is a major source of disagreement between the two presidents. One would have expected to hear the leader of the free world at least mention one of the worst crimes in aviation history. He did not. He didn’t even mention Ukraine.

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There’s no dancing around it. Donald Trump got schooled in Helsinki.

President Vladimir Putin put on a hell of a show. The masterfully prepared former spy buttered up the US president at every opportunity, and even tossed him a soccer ball from the just-completed World Cup that Russia hosted to lighten up the press conference.

Smart analysts knew that this was coming. Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia, pointed out in The Washington Post that Putin has a far better understanding of international affairs than Trump after two decades in power.

Laying all that aside, the Trump-Putin summit was a disaster for US interests and how the world perceives America. One commentator called it a press conference of platitudes. It was far worse. The right phrase is moral equivalency.

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US President Donald J. Trump on July 16 appeared to believe Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials over the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 elections, saying he saw “no reason why” Moscow would have acted in that way.

Speaking at a joint press conference following his first summit with Putin in Helsinki, Trump said: “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today” on meddling.

Trump also insisted that there had been no collusion between his campaign and Russia. On July 13, the US Justice Department indicted twelve Russian intelligence agents for hacking the Democratic National Committee and Trump’s Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton. On July 16, the Justice Department charged a Russian woman who tried to set up meetings between Trump and Putin in 2016. It made clear that the woman, Mariia Butina, was part of a Russian intelligence effort to influence the US elections.

Trump acknowledged that he had been told by some US officials, including Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, that Russia was behind cyberattacks in 2016. “I don’t see any reason why it would be,” he said. “We ran a brilliant campaign, and that’s why I’m president,” he added.

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When two members of Croatia’s World Cup squad recorded a nine-second video dedicating their quarter final victory over Russia to Ukraine, they chose to accompany it with the patriotic slogan “Slava Ukraini” (“Glory to Ukraine”). As former Dynamo Kyiv players, they appear to have believed they were sending a somewhat cheeky but essentially harmless message to their Ukrainian friends. However, to millions of horrified viewers in Russia, there was nothing innocent about the video. To them, it was a dire insult to national honor straight out of the Nazi era.

This historically illiterate interpretation of the phrase “Glory to Ukraine” is perfectly in line with modern Russia’s preference for viewing all things Ukrainian through the narrow and distorting prism of Ukraine’s World War II-era independence movement.

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On July 16, a historic summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will take place in Helsinki.

Many have speculated as to what the Master of the Deal will offer the Russian strongman. No one knows. Kyiv is legitimately worried that Trump will give away Crimea, Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula, that Russia illegally annexed in 2014.  

Trump set off speculation that Crimea may be up for grabs at the Helsinki meeting after he told reporters on June 29 that “we are going to have to see” if Crimea should be part of Russia. This was only days after he reportedly told world leaders that “Crimea is Russia because everyone there speaks Russian.” During a 2016 election rally, Trump stated that “Putin would not invade Ukraine” despite the fact that Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine have been occupied by regular Russian forces since 2014.  

One of the arguments Putin is likely to make is that Crimea has historically been part of Russia. Let’s check the facts. Crimea was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 when it was a part of the USSR. Sixty years later in February 2014 it was annexed by Russian military forces. Russian authorities organized a bogus “referendum” in March 2014 which began the process of incorporating it into the Russian Federation. Only a few countries recognized the “referendum,” and they don’t have sterling human rights records; the list includes Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and Afghanistan. The Obama administration immediately slapped sanctions on Russia after the referendum. 

Meanwhile, US policy on Crimea has been loud and consistent: Crimea is part of Ukraine and sanctions won’t be lifted until Russia leaves.

As president, Trump does have the authority to recognize Crimea as a part of Russia. But there will be serious consequences if he does. I see at least five.  

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