UkraineAlert

Of all the stories that I've written about Ukraine, none has provoked and continues to provoke choruses of thank yous than this piece I wrote three years ago about the life and legacy of Roman Kupchinsky. Each time I go to Kyiv, I meet another young journalist who Roman quietly mentored. 

On Monday, as the United States celebrates Memorial Day, my family and I will visit Arlington Cemetery to remember Roman.  

Four years after Russia annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas, Roman's voice and vision are sorely missed and needed now more than ever before.  

Вічна Йому пам'ять!

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Perhaps no one in Kyiv faces a more difficult task than First Vice-Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada Iryna Herashchenko. Herashchenko is Ukraine's lead negotiator tasked with freeing Ukrainians held captive in the Donbas. The Ukrainian government and Russia's separatist proxies in eastern Ukraine exchanged nearly 400 prisoners in late 2017—a notable achievement for which Herashchenko deserves her nation's gratitude. 

Herashchenko now faces an even thornier issue; she must track the fate of the approximately seventy Ukrainian citizens held as de facto hostages on Russian territory. While Herashchenko is not officially responsible for securing their release, she understands its emotional resonance in Ukraine. In an interview with the Atlantic Council, Herashchenko laid out the obstacles to freeing these hostages.

Russia remains determined to use the Ukrainian hostages as a weapon in its hybrid war against Ukraine, forcing Kyiv to make concessions on fundamental issues of sovereignty that no Ukrainian government could accept, she said.

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Anatoliy Hrytsenko, Ukraine’s defense minister from 2005 to 2007, is finally having his moment in the sun.

The latest poll shows that 12.7 percent of Ukrainians who have made up their minds would vote for Hrytsenko in the first round of the 2019 presidential election. This is progress compared to his previous results. The 2019 race will be the third attempt in Hrytsenko’s political career to become president; he scored 1.2 percent of the vote in 2010 and 5.5 percent in 2014. However, at least 29 percent of Ukrainians are still undecided, so take these numbers with a large grain of salt.

Hrtysenko’s political party, Civic Position, is also enjoying the same success. It polls second with 11.5 percent support, which is a massive improvement from its performance in the 2014 parliamentary elections, when it garnered 3.1 percent.

How did Hrytsenko and his party manage to climb the polls in a few short years?

Hrytsenko has one feature which sets him apart from other major Ukrainian politicians.

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Populists are flourishing almost everywhere. The demand for simple solutions in a complicated world makes their messages resonate.

Ukraine is no exception. The country’s situation with numerous security and economic hardships provides fertile ground for populists.

Over the last four years, Ukraine has embraced a number of painful structural reforms that have been partially successful. But so far they have not improved the wellbeing of ordinary citizens, although they may bring positive effects in the future. In the short-term, the poor often face worsening economic conditions.

According to a recent poll by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, 74 percent of Ukrainians say the country is moving in the wrong direction, and 50 percent identify higher prices with stagnant wages as the biggest problem.

Populists are seducing precisely these types of people.

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Showing solidarity with other G7 countries following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Japan imposed sanctions on Russia—albeit reluctantly. The Ukraine crisis occurred amid Japan's efforts to reinvigorate Japan-Russia relations in the hope of solving the long-standing territorial dispute over the Northern territories (the Kuril Islands in Russian). Subsequently, maintaining Japan’s balance between other G7 countries and Russia became one of the main challenges for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. 

While Japan felt obliged to support the international community and to impose sanctions, the geopolitical dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region forced it to take a conciliatory approach to Russia. This delicate balance resulted in Japan’s symbolic sanctions and in different narratives promoted at home and in Ukraine.

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Ukraine’s opposition is a mess—but this is hardly news. Through Ukraine’s nearly three decades of independence, its opposition has never gotten its act together. Consequently, the same corrupt elite continues to govern the country of 45 million to its detriment.

Ukraine managed to squander the gains of its street revolution in 2004, and as the country approaches the second presidential and parliamentary elections after the 2014 Euromaidan that ousted pro-Russian former President Viktor Yanukovych, it’s seeming possible that the country will face a similar outcome.

The 2019 presidential election doesn’t look promising. Ukrainians are sick of their leaders—sick enough to consider electing inexperienced rock star Slava Vakarchuk or comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Incumbent president Petro Poroshenko is tanking in the polls, but it’s still quite possible he could be reelected for a second term, despite the fact that Ukrainians traditionally don’t like incumbents; voters have only given one president a second term since 1991. The other real possibility for the presidency is wily and everlasting politician Yulia Tymoshenko. Neither outcome would be good for the country’s long-term health or for US national interests.

Subsequently, hopes are high for reformers. There are at least six political parties or movements vying for that vote, which makes up 15 percent of the electorate, but no leader to unify them. In Kyiv, three names are being discussed to lead the Maidan opposition movement.

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Ukraine wants to reframe its approach to resolving the ongoing conflict with Russia. Beginning last month, the military is now in charge of ground operations.

The launch of the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) replaced the four-year Anti-Terrorism Operation (ATO) and marks Ukraine’s shift to a more active defense. President Petro Poroshenko thinks that the new combat operation should more effectively coordinate the defense and security agencies and restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the long run. The move also demonstrates that Poroshenko’s administration hasn’t abandoned the Donbas and is serious about winning it back.

Covering a much larger area from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to the Azov seashore, the JFO is a set of military and legal measures to counter Russian aggression.

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No state can function without justice, and Ukraine is no exception. 

For years, corruption and the absence of justice, together with Russian military aggression, have held back the country.

After four years of struggle and numerous pieces of legislation, there has been little progress.

Ukraine started out with a good idea: reformers wanted to create a new Supreme Court from scratch and vet the remaining judges through a comprehensive procedure, checking their competence and integrity. The process failed in its implementation however.

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Kyiv’s preparations to host the 2018 Champions League Final on May 26 have been something of a rollercoaster ride that has highlighted the very best and worst of Ukraine. The international media buildup to the big match began with a flurry of negative stories criticizing Ukrainian hoteliers and apartment rental services for inflating prices to astronomical levels. Absurd increases of 1000 percent and higher risked pricing fans out entirely and turning the prestige event into a complete farce. However, by May 10 the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper was positively jubilant as it reported, “Liverpool fans rescued by Kyiv locals after Champions League hotel price hike.” Elsewhere, Reuters added to the optimistic mood with the memorable headline, “Ukrainians offer Champions League fans free bed and borscht.”

The sudden change was due to an online initiative launched by Kyiv residents who responded to evidence of price-gouging tactics by inviting football fans into their homes.

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“Finding myself in Kyiv now, I smell blood and diesel from time to time. These triggers will always be there,” says Alina Viatkina, a paramedic for the volunteer Hospitallers Medical Battalion. “But you can’t lose control for three days every time. You are learning how to calm yourself: OK, this is the smell of blood. But you’re in Kyiv. There is no blood here.”

When Ukrainian fighters come back from the unfinished war in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, they must learn how to live in a different reality. Many discover their way and find new passions. They live their lives. They become successful businessmen, artists, actors, or scientists.

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