UkraineAlert

As I was walking up Kyiv's colorful Andriyivsky descent on December 6, three explosions pierced the quiet evening. No one stopped examining the myriad souvenirs on sale in the booths lining the street, no one showed any fear or ran for cover. On the third explosion, one exasperated man exclaimed "Who the hell is blowing up those bloody firecrackers?" Thankfully, that's all they were.

The blasts brought home a reality that at times seems far from the chic shops and posh restaurants of Kyiv. Although hundreds of miles from the capital, the reality of annexation in the south and war and occupation in the east, a war that continues to claim lives almost daily, despite the Minsk ceasefire agreement, is a constant presence in Kyiv.

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"Today Russia is occupying sovereign Ukrainian territory. Let me be crystal clear: the United States does not, will not, [and] never will recognize Russia's attempt to annex the Crimea," US Vice President Joe Biden said in a December 8 address to Ukraine's parliament.

The parliament gave Biden a standing ovation. Geoffrey Pyatt, US Ambassador to Ukraine, described the atmosphere in parliament as "electric."

"Sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances," Biden said.

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Today the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reversed its "policy on not lending into arrears." IMF spokesman Gerry Rice said in a statement that “the IMF’s executive board met today and agreed to change the current policy on non-toleration of arrears to official creditors.”

Historically, the IMF has refused to lend to any country that has not serviced its debt to any sovereign. The IMF staff started contemplating a rule change in the spring of 2013 because nontraditional creditors, such as China, had started providing developing countries with large loans. One issue was that these loans were issued on conditions out of line with IMF practice. China wasn't a member of the Paris Club, where loan restructuring is usually discussed, so it was time to update the rules.

The IMF intended to adopt a new policy in the spring of 2016, but the dispute over Russia's $3 billion loan to Ukraine has accelerated an otherwise slow decision-making process.

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I recently met with Ilya Yashin, a Russian opposition leader, political activist, and former colleague of the assassinated politician Boris Nemtsov. When I asked Yashin what the West could do to help those brave enough to defy the Russian regime, his main point was that governments and organizations must support Ukraine.

The reason is obvious: Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine foremost because he was worried that the country's liberal revolution might inspire the Russian people to mount their own Euromaidan. Putin is therefore doing everything he can—including going to war—to demonstrate that toppling the strongman is a bad idea.

Thankfully, the West didn't simply stand by while European borders were being redrawn by force of arms for the first time since World War II, and Putin found himself in the cold. Now, however, he may have found a way out of it.

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Ukraine has made great strides in the last two years. The democratic and pro-Western Ukrainian leaders that gained power in February 2014 have returned democracy to Ukraine and have conducted three free and fair elections at all levels of power. The Ukrainian nation has come together and successfully defended itself against Russian aggression. After two years of decline caused by Russian warfare, the economy appears to have bottomed out.

Yet the situation is far from secure. Ukrainians are tired of poverty and suffering. The United States has provided the new Ukrainian leadership a fair amount of support, but more is needed. Our proposal is a bilateral inter-governmental commission under the leadership of Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko.

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Ukraine can play a key role in Europe's effort to decrease dependence on Russia's natural gas. Europe's over-weaning dependence on Russian energy is the focus of my new Atlantic Council study: Developing a Western Energy Strategy for the Black Sea Region and Beyond. Gazprom's—and Moscow's—energy clout has become a recognized challenge for Ukraine's and Europe's energy security, especially in East and Southeast Europe.

Currently, the EU imports about one-third of its gas from Russia, with almost half of that pumped through Ukraine's giant export pipelines. Countries that get most of their supply from Russia have become the most vulnerable. The Kremlin uses energy not just as a commodity to earn cash, but also as a means of increasing political pressure, an instrument of dependence and corruption. The last twenty-five years have demonstrated that Moscow uses its energy muscle to impose its foreign policy agenda on European countries, which import a large share of their natural gas from Gazprom. Since independence, Ukraine has suffered from the Russian gas diktat.

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On November 30, Ukraine took two steps forward in its fight against corruption. Member of parliament Mykola Martynenko resigned his position, and Nazar Kholodnytsky was appointed the nation's top anticorruption prosecutor.

Martynenko was the deputy head of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's People's Front party and the head of parliament's energy and fuel committee. According to Sergii Leshchenko, an investigative journalist and member of parliament, Martynenko was "one of the most influential people in Ukrainian politics," who "used his position in parliament for his personal enrichment."

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In the eighteen months since Russia annexed Crimea, the world has been alternately captivated and bewildered by the wild swings and sudden shifts that describe Russian foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin. Particularly alarming for those who fear a direct clash between Russia and the West has been Putin's tendency to swerve between antagonism and conciliation, or—even more bizarrely—to pursue both simultaneously.

In an attempt to put a name to this behavior, a variety of epithets, from "rogue state" to "spoiler," have been dusted off and applied to the present Russian government. But insofar as the current state of Putin's Russia represents a new kind of autocracy, none of these labels do justice to its innovative nature. Perhaps a better indication of what drives this system can be found in the Russian government's well-documented embrace of Internet "trolling," which corresponds surprisingly well to the seemingly random and contradictory fluctuations of the country's relations with the outside world.

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Built on a series of spits and peninsulas, the Ukrainian city of Mykolayiv feels surrounded by water. It is here that in 1789, Russian Prince Gregory Potemkin built the shipyards that would repair Russian Empire ships fighting the Ottoman Empire, shipyards that remained of such importance that the city was closed to foreigners for most of the Soviet period.

City politics had never been terribly active or competitive. Local bosses controlled the electoral process and citizens were often in the position of choosing between two evils. In both the 2005 and 2010 elections, the city and the surrounding region voted for now-disgraced former President Viktor Yanukovych.

Given this political history, and with Russian the city's most common language, when pro-Russian agitators popped up in cities along Ukraine's old imperial coast in early 2014, many expected Mykolayiv to go the way of Donetsk and Luhansk and join separatist movements. Instead, Mykolayiv joined the hundreds of other Ukrainian cities that toppled their Vladimir Lenin statues.

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Editor's Note: This piece is adapted from a speech Dr. Christoph Bergner, a member of Germany's Bundestag, gave at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Foundation on October 21, 2015.

I would like to thank the organizers of this event for making human rights issues in Crimea the main topic. Even if other news is currently making headlines, we must not lose sight of the circumstances on the peninsula and the consequences of Russia's unlawful seizure. In assessing the situation, the European Union and United States must take into account not only international law but also human rights concerns.

Several human rights issues currently occurring in Crimea have already been raised at this event, including restriction of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, pressure to become Russian citizens, repressive measures against Crimean Tatars, repressive measures against certain religious groups, and the legitimization and instrumentalization of paramilitary thugs.

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