UkraineAlert

The ongoing political standoff in Venezuela offers an opportunity for Washington to get something it wants: a democratically elected president in Venezuela and one less vocal Russian ally in its backyard. The Trump Administration recently announced that it plans to leave Syria without any conditions. Russia is involved in both Venezuela and Syria, so if the United States thinks strategically, it can advance its interests by linking the two. The deal will be complicated but it’s worth a shot.

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In Ukraine, demand for a genuine fight against corruption is still extremely high. According to recent surveys, voters name corruption as one of the three biggest problems in Ukraine. Nine out of ten Ukrainians consider grand political corruption the greatest threat to the country, while 80 percent are convinced that the main reason for corruption is a lack of accountability. A majority of Ukrainians say that the president bears the largest responsibility for the fight.

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Ukraine’s presidential elections present a difficult choice for those who want to see the country of 44 million finish what it started in 2014. Sadly all reliable opinion polls indicate that experienced reform candidates have no chance of winning. Former Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko currently stands at around 8 percent and Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi at 4 percent. It is highly unlikely that either will significantly increase their appeal in the coming six weeks.

Two candidates with long experience in Ukraine’s politics have a chance of making it through the first round: President Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. However, they have poor reform credentials.

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The world is in turmoil, Russia occupies part of Ukraine, reforms in Ukraine still have a way to go, and democracy is in retreat in much of Europe.

One would think Ukrainians would be worried. One would think they would want an experienced person at the helm. Instead, they may be about to elect the 41-year-old television comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, as their next president.

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On February 7, hundreds of Facebook users in Ukraine posted videos with red nose filters. Everyone ended up looking like a clown, and that was precisely the point. Ukrainians are clowns because they’ve allowed the country’s political elites to rob them blind, keeping salaries and social benefits low. This was part of a flash mob started by Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a Ukrainian comedian and the surprise leader in the latest polls for the presidential election slated for March 31.  

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Elections may be on the horizon, but I firmly believe that reforms will continue through 2020 and beyond. Now that Ukraine has enshrined EU and NATO accession as the fundamental direction of the country, whoever comes to power, Ukraine’s pro-western economic development and orientation cannot be reversed.

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On February 1, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States would suspend its obligations under the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Pompeo said Russia had violated the treaty for years. The next day, the State Department notified the Russian embassy and the embassies of the other treaty parties, including Ukraine, of the US intention to withdraw from the treaty. President Vladimir Putin that same day said that Russia also would suspend its treaty obligations.

Unfortunately, the INF Treaty is headed for demise.

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The international community is preparing for the annual Munich Security Conference, which will host more than 500 guests, including forty heads of state and government. I too will attend. Before the conference, I spent part of the week in Kramatorsk, an industrial city in eastern Ukraine, which underwent Russian occupation but was freed by the Ukrainian army. Four years ago, on February 10, Kramatorsk was fired upon by a Russian Smerch Multiple Launch Rocket System in a salvo of attacks with prohibited cluster warheads. Seventeen people were killed, and sixty-four were wounded. 

In the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, we spoke about Ukraine’s recent decision to adopt a constitutional amendment, which consolidates Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and the importance of uniting efforts so that no one can prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the EU eventually.

When I go abroad, I am always asked about the status of the ceasefire. Here I don’t have good news. A ceasefire at the contact line, as envisioned in the signing of the Minsk arrangements, has not become a reality. Even though Russian President Vladimir Putin still maintains the fiction that his country is not involved in the Donbas, Russia is undoubtedly the aggressor state. Putin hopes for a more pliable president after Ukraine’s spring presidential elections.   

In Kramatorsk, we visited checkpoints, which function as de facto borders within a sovereign state. When Ukraine modernizes these checkpoints and increases the number of heating stations, waiting rooms, and windows for border guards, people told me that they fear that these checkpoints will remain forever. Here they understand the new global order has rapidly changed.

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In Kyiv, the word karandash (pencil) is an ordinary word one might encounter in an office supply store or an elementary school. But in eastern Ukraine, where the conflict between Ukraine and Russia has killed more than 10,000, displaced another 1.7 million, and injured thousands of civilians, karandash means something else. The Ukrainian military uses it to describe 122-millimeter grad rocket launchers.

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On February 11, Vladislav Surkov, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s key aides and ideologists, published a reveling article called “Putin’s Long State.”

It is not an ordinary piece; it makes the case for a new kind of Russian expansionism, and it should be read closely and taken seriously.

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