UkraineAlert

Experts anticipate a new cyberattack on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure this month; they have observed increased activity from the same hackers involved in a previous cyberattack. In the last two years, cyberattacks on Ukraine’s power grid coincided with the winter holidays, a sensitive time with a high demand for critical infrastructure. A cyberattack may target civilians to sow popular discontent with the state’s inability to stave off these disruptive attacks.

Since 2014, the country has experienced far more cyberattacks than in the past, and they have grown more sophisticated. In fact, experts consider Ukraine a “testing ground” for hackers to perfect their capabilities and tactics. Often, their digital fingerprints and motives imply Russian involvement.

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2017 has been the most violent year of the conflict in eastern Ukraine since it began, according to Kurt Volker, US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations.

"A lot of people think that this has somehow turned into a sleepy, frozen conflict and it’s stable and now we have...a ceasefire,” Volker said on December 19 during an event on peace in the Donbas at the Atlantic Council. “That’s completely wrong. It’s a crisis.”

But negotiating an end to the conflict is difficult because of the role that Russia plays.

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The claw back of reforms in Ukraine is alarming, and the latest blow was the dismissal on December 7 of hardworking Yegor Soboliev as chairman of parliament’s anti-corruption committee.

A former investigative journalist and Maidan activist turned politician, he has been at the forefront of reforms such as electronic asset declarations for state officials, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), and has singlehandedly impeded the passage of three hundred draft bills containing hidden corrupt practices.

“Soboliev proved to be one of the most effective and sincere drivers of anti-corruption reform in the parliament, he protects the independence of NABU, opposes the appointment of a loyal auditor, and advocates for the establishment of the anti-corruption court,” said the Anti-Corruption Action Center after his dismissal.

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Poland and Ukraine are frontline states for European security. That fact alone makes their mutual backsliding away from democratic reform—the indispensable precondition for their revival and security—so dangerous. The Polish government seems to want to return to its interwar model; at that time, it repressed its minorities and ultimately failed, ending up bereft of friends and allies when its crisis came. Yet its current leadership seems to have learned little from that lesson.

Polish security today depends on its membership in NATO and the EU, and those organizations’ support for it. In NATO, the United States is the leading power, and Poland’s relationship with Washington is the foundation of its security; the relationship involves billions of dollars allocated to Polish defense infrastructure, armed forces, and weapons for its defense against Russia. In the EU, Germany plays a similar role. But the Polish government seems intent on alienating precisely those states upon whose goodwill its security depends.

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The oligarchs still control the airwaves in Ukraine. Ten of eleven national television channels are directly or indirectly connected to politicians and oligarchs. More than 75 percent of Ukrainians regularly watch TV channels owned by Ukrainian oligarchs Viktor Pinchuk, Ihor Kolomoisky, Dmytro Firtash, and Rinat Akhmetov. In radio, the situation is even worse: the top four radio groups (which also belong to oligarchs) reach 92 percent of the market. It’s easy to see why Ukraine needs an independent public broadcaster.

There’s an effort underway to put one in place. While the government has adopted legislation to create the first-ever public broadcaster, it has encountered numerous problems, namely funding and independence.

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In a recent article the talented journalist Vitaliy Sych, editor of Ukraine’s reformist weekly Novoe Vremya, posits the emergence of a war between old Ukraine and new Ukraine.

He is right. Recent months have seen the escalation of a fight that pits anticorruption institutions and activists against segments of the state and ruling elite.

But this is understandable and predictable.

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It’s no secret that the Atlantic Council has been bullish on Ukraine’s reforms. In particular, we often cite gas reform as the one that massively curbed corruption in Ukraine since the Euromaidan. But after an hour-long conversation with Naftogaz CEO Andriy Kobolyev on December 8, I came away with a different picture.

Since the thirty-nine-year-old soft-spoken CEO took over in 2014, Naftogaz has turned a profit for the first time in five years. It has also become the biggest user of the ProZorro e-procurement system that has saved taxpayers more than $1 billion, and it beat Russia in the Gazprom vs. Naftogaz case at the Stockholm Arbitration Tribunal earlier this year. In other words, Kobolyev has had an incredible run.

But gas reforms have stalled. Kobolyev said that he hasn’t seen much progress since May 2016.

“Without [further] changes, nothing is possible,” he said during our interview in Washington.

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Ukraine got a serious black eye last week when its parliament dismissed the outspoken chairman of its Anticorruption Committee and nearly fired the head of its independent anticorruption bureau. But there’s a clear way it can recover. After anticorruption reform, fixing Ukraine’s dismal health care system is a second priority for the Ukrainian public. Pushing ahead with health care reform might help repair some of last week’s damage.

And luckily, there are distinct steps the government can take now to make real changes. On October 19, Ulana Suprun, the American-born doctor who is the acting Minister of Health in Ukraine, finally convinced parliament to pass far-reaching reform. There’s a big snag, however: President Petro Poroshenko hasn’t signed the bill yet, so implementation is delayed.

“There’s something going on within the presidential administration,” Suprun said in a December 11 interview; she was in Washington to meet with the World Bank and spoke with UkraineAlert for the first time since the bill passed.

Both Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman and Poroshenko publicly supported the bill, but she suspects there’s political infighting between the two factions who opposed the bill.

Health care committee chair Dr. Olga Bogomolets was and is the problem, said Suprun.

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This fall has been an ugly one for Ukraine. Throughout September, October, November, and December, Ukrainian authorities have illegally detained, persecuted, and expelled several foreign journalists and other foreign residents, causing observers to question whether Ukrainian leaders are actively violating human rights and willfully persecuting their political opponents in an effort to maintain their grip on power.

In fact, the Ukrainian authorities seem to be pursuing a policy of double standards, demanding that Russia liberate Ukrainian political hostages and journalists while simultaneously arresting dissenting activists, journalists, and political opponents.

The case of former Georgian President and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili captured the world’s attention on December 5, as special forces attempted to detain him. The law requires a court order for such an arrest to take place, which law enforcement bodies did not have. His supporters eventually freed him, but Saakashvili was later arrested on December 8 for allegedly "aiding and abetting a criminal organization." On December 11, a judge released him. Numerous observers and rights organizations view the ordeal as politically motivated.

Saakashvili soaks up international attention, but there are numerous other cases that have escaped notice and are also worrisome.

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Ukraine is a complicated, changing country. It’s far too easy to imagine that the proclamations and positions presented by Ukraine’s government and civil society represent those of the general public. In fact, a close examination of a range of recent national opinion polls—on topics like corruption, the health care system, migration, and Russia—show that the Ukrainian public is less optimistic and West-centric than the country’s leaders. Additionally, there is a wide gap in opinions between the residents of different regions, and between various generations.

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