UkraineAlert

In late February, the Constitutional Court of Ukraine declared the criminal code’s article criminalizing illicit enrichment unconstitutional. The response among activists, independent media, and Western embassies was unanimous: the decision was a massive step back for Ukraine. It undid the small but real progress that the country had made toward prosecuting corrupt officials.

However, this outcome was all too predictable. Ukraine is not ready to criminalize illicit enrichment. Now there’s pressure for Ukraine to put the article back into the criminal code, but this is the wrong approach. Instead, we should follow Romania’s example and abandon the attempt to criminalize illicit enrichment.

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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko recently advocated building intermediate-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles to target and presumably use against Russia. No doubt Poroshenko calculated that he might gain a political advantage during the final days of a tough campaign for reelection by adopting this hawkish stance. And he may have also thought it made military sense as well. It appeals emotionally to a population that has been fighting Russia for five years with little overt progress. And since this advocacy casts Poroshenko as an aggressive patriotic defender of Ukraine, this posture might conceivably yield him political dividends.

However, it would be a disastrous decision for both strategic and operational reasons.

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On November 25, the Russian Coast Guard attacked and illegally seized three Ukrainian naval vessels on international waters in the Black Sea. The twenty-four Ukrainian sailors on board were arrested for having violated Russian territorial waters and jailed in the nineteenth century KGB prison Lefortovo in Moscow.

These Ukrainian sailors were on Ukrainian vessels going from one Ukrainian port to another, while passing through Ukrainian or international waters. They did nothing wrong.

It’s important to understand what Russia is doing on the Black Sea. Russia wants to turn the vast Sea of Azov from a joint Russian-Ukrainian water, as agreed to in a 2003 bilateral Russian-Ukrainian agreement, into an exclusively Russian territory. International shipping into the two important Ukrainian commercial ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk is increasingly harassed and delayed by Russian inspections.

Many supporters of Ukraine called for early and firm Western sanctions on Russia to deter the Kremlin from further aggression in the Sea of Azov and for the release of the twenty-four Ukrainian sailors, but they kept wishing.

Almost four months after Kerch, on March 15, the West managed to do something.

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Eighteen-year-old Tetiana Tsunik, who grew up in a tiny village in eastern Ukraine, won a full ride to the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, a well-regarded prep school. There she’s taking two Advanced Placement courses plus six others. She’s part of the debate club, and is editor-in-chief of two student publications. Last summer, she spent two weeks as a reporter at the Kyiv Post, the top English-language newspaper in Ukraine, and wrote five stories.

Vlad Ivanchuk, a nineteen-year-old from Lutsk, just earned a full scholarship to Harvard after studying at Westminster School in Connecticut. Last summer, he worked on a cutting-edge research project in Lviv that combines behavioral economics and machine learning.

Yevhennia Dubrova, a seventeen-year-old from Donetsk oblast, loves Hemingway and wants to be an English-language journalist in Kyiv someday. She’s a scholarship student at St. Mark’s in Massachusetts who is taking three Advanced Placement courses plus Mandarin. This summer she will study writing at Cambridge University. 

Iryna Khovryak, a nineteen-year-old computer science student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, will spend the summer interning at Facebook in California. After she graduates, she wants to work in Lviv’s booming tech sector.

Oleh Shostak, an eighteen-year-old student from a village of forty-five people in central Ukraine, landed a spot at Choate, where he’s loading up on sports and taking just about every advanced math and science course he can find. Oleh sees Ukraine as a great place for engineering or computer science after he graduates from an American university.

Their secret: Ukraine Global Scholars, a private initiative launched in 2015 that helps prepare Ukrainian high schoolers for the competitive admissions process at the best US boarding schools and universities. The students all come from modest backgrounds: Tsunik’s father is a miner, for example; Khouryak’s mother works for a bank and her father is unemployed.

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Georgia and Ukraine have become close political allies over the last two decades. That closeness may be currently under threat, however. Despite the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s groundbreaking autocephaly, or independence, from the Russian Orthodox Church at the beginning of 2019, the Georgian Orthodox Church has failed to congratulate Ukrainian authorities or take any official position on the move, which also reveals tensions within the Georgian Orthodox Church. Given the importance of the Orthodox Churches in both Georgia and Ukraine, Tbilisi’s lasting silence on Ukrainian autocephaly could spill over into political affairs, and create a schism in diplomatic relations and strategic cooperation between the countries. 

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The last week of February was a great one for corrupt officials in Ukraine. They finally got off scot-free. Ukraine’s Constitutional Court (CCU) eliminated criminal liability for illicit enrichment. This decision is a major step back in Ukraine’s struggle to fight high-level corruption. (Incidentally, the US Ambassador to Ukraine agrees with this assessment.) And the timing is not accidental either.

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Fictional houses, “dead souls,” but real embezzlement — it sounds like the plot of a horror film. But it’s actually a corruption scheme that ran for over eight years in Ukraine’s Kirovograd Oblast.

From 2009 to 2017, the management of the regional gas distribution company, Kirovogradgaz, inserted hundreds of fictional addresses into its electronic billing system, according to a police filing. As a rule, the addresses were nonexistent houses with fake house numbers located on real streets. The fake houses were occupied by imaginary residents. Each fake house came with an account number, also fictional.

In those more than eight years, these “dead souls” — named after the novel by 18th century Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol — “consumed” 9.8 million cubic meters of natural gas subsidized for household consumers and worth around $2.83 million. While it is impossible to trace where that gas went, few have any doubts: it was resold to industry at a markup.

Energy sector specialists had long suspected that this scheme existed. However, it was only revealed after June 2017, when Ukrainian state gas company Naftogaz, which owns 51 percent of Kirovogradgaz’s shares, was able to wrest control of the company from its previous management.

This plot is the subject of my latest investigation for the Kyiv Post, and it offers a window into the type of scheme that many believe is still operating across Ukraine.

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Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy tops the polls in Ukraine and may be the next president. Some argue that Zelenskiy is the country’s only shot at reform and that he might be able to break the old system.    

Could Zelenskiy be a reformer?

The short answer is: No. Here’s why.

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Since having seized Ukrainian territory and energy installations in 2014, Russia and its gas company, Gazprom, have been waging systematic economic warfare against Ukraine in an attempt to destroy Naftogaz—Ukraine’s energy company and the single biggest source of state revenue—and the Ukrainian state. To date, however, Russia has failed. Indeed, Naftogaz won three arbitral awards against Gazprom in 2017 and 2018; these were about Gazprom’s efforts to divert gas using the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, blocking Central Asian gas from traveling through Ukraine. But Gazprom has refused to pay the $2.6 billion arbitration award granted to Naftogaz. Instead, Russia is blocking that award, building Nord Stream 2, and trying to use the pipeline to suffocate Ukraine’s economy and strengthen its grip on European energy supplies.

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Exactly five years ago, the country’s most important independent crisis communications center was set up in Kyiv in less than forty-eight hours. It started with a text message and a series of phone calls.

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