UkraineAlert

In July, residents of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk marked the first anniversary of liberation from the occupation of Russian-backed separatists. Both cities experienced their rule for nearly four months in 2014. In the last year, marches, concerts, and city lights with slogans promoting peace have helped reinforce a growing sense of national pride. And yet a strong feeling of distrust toward the central government in Kyiv persists. The government has been slow in dealing with the aftershocks of war while assistance to internally displaced persons remains a steep challenge.

Hundreds of volunteers from around the country have tried to fill the communications and humanitarian gap in the Donbas. Over the last year, I have been privileged to work in eastern Ukraine as part of the Lviv Education Foundation's efforts. I found eight initiatives that demonstrate that volunteerism is on the rise in the Donbas and they—along with the people that I've met—give me cause to be hopeful for eastern Ukraine.

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No Instagram account is more entertaining, more dumbfounding, and more terrifying than that of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. On any given day, one is guaranteed to see video clips ranging from Kadyrov praying before dawn in the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque to playing soccer at the FC Terek facilities (Kadyrov was the President of FC Terek from 2004 to 2011) to speaking to visibly shaken construction employees at delayed project sites. Kadyrov's Instagram account is a vivid reminder that his control of Chechnya is absolute and unparalleled among the heads of state in Russia's twenty-two republics. Recent developments in eastern Ukraine suggest that Kadyrov's power is increasingly unrestricted; the involvement of his personal security guard—officially called the Security Service of Akhmat Kadyrov—in Crimea and the Donbas is case and point.

The involvement of Chechen soldiers fighting in eastern Ukraine devoutly loyal to Kadyrov has broad implications for Kremlin policy. Not only does it reinforce Moscow's reliance on "informal paramilitary-style forces" that shift blame for controversial operations away from the Kremlin, it also provides an example as to how Russian President Vladimir Putin may use Kadyrov to solidify his own power.

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Ukraine's system of agricultural production is paternalistic, dating back to the Soviet era, when bureaucrats constantly intruded into the production process. Such a strategy may have suited the planned economy, but in Ukraine's market economy it has only spawned widespread corruption, because authorities cannot inspect every farm and business in person. EU standards allow producers more leeway in this regard, but this implies more responsibilities. So even though inspections continue, the regulatory agencies' job is to check quality and standards—not meddle with the production process. Taras Kachka, former acting President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, expressed optimism over the prospects for Ukrainian agriculture after the implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) between Ukraine and the European Union in a 2014 TV interview—noting that despite tremendous differences in production standards, Ukrainian legislation is catching up to the EU.

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On July 29, Russia vetoed a draft UN resolution seeking to set up a tribunal to prosecute those responsible for shooting down a Malaysia Airlines jumbo jet more than a year ago.

By exercising its Security Council veto against the resolution, Moscow has lost control of the process, committing a possible error that may ultimately lead to convictions of rebel leaders and Russian officials—and a new round of sanctions against the Kremlin. This appears to be a massive strategic misstep, which the West may exploit.

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The Congress of National Communities of Ukraine's latest reports on xenophobia in Ukraine have struck another blow to Moscow's persistent attempts to present the country as a hotbed of anti-Semitism. The reports make no mention of the "pogroms" alleged by the Russian Foreign Ministry, nor do they back Russian President Vladimir Putin's assertion of a "rampage of reactionary, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces."

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In March 2015, the Atlantic Council and Freedom House published a report by Crimean journalist Andrii Klymenko showing how Russia's occupation and annexation of Crimea has unleashed an ongoing chain of human rights violations across the peninsula.

Five days after release of the report—Human Rights Abuses in Russian-Occupied Crimea—Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) charged Klymenko with challenging the annexation's legitimacy and threatening Russian sovereignty. Under Article 280 of Russia's criminal code, Klymenko faces up to five years in jail. Yet Klymenko wasn't told about the charges; he learned about them in April, when the FSB began searching and interrogating his former colleagues.

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Ukraine finds itself in an economic crisis of massive proportions. In the past twelve months, its GDP has contracted by over 7.5 percent, the national deficit exceeds 10 percent, its currency has lost more than 50 percent of its value, its banks are insolvent and the national debt-to-GDP ratio has ballooned to more than 100 percent—causing a drastic drop in the standard of living for Ukraine's citizens.

Undoubtedly, Russia's hybrid war against Ukraine has largely triggered this crisis. But the root cause of Ukraine's economic malaise is its culture of corruption, which has persisted for decades and has earned Ukraine the dubious distinction of being ranked among the most corrupt economies in the world.

The moment is fast approaching when President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk change course, undertake serious reforms, and cement their legacy as great leaders or risk being remembered as self-interested politicians—and possibly triggering a new Maidan. The system of bureaucrats, police, prosecutors, judges, and politicians controlling governance for the oligarchs' benefit must be broken or Ukraine will sink under the weight of a totally failed economy.

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Nadiya Savchenko, Ukraine's most famous female military officer, has languished in a Moscow prison for more than a year since Moscow-backed separatists captured her in eastern Ukraine last June and smuggled across the border to Russia shackled, her head covered by a sack. Now her captors have moved her again—and again under the cover of secrecy—to a detention facility in the southwestern Russian city of Novocherkassk, said to be the worst criminal prison in the Russian Federation, only twenty kilometers from the rebel-controlled area of eastern Ukraine.

It is in the nearby city of Donetsk (not be confused with the Ukrainian city of the same name now controlled by pro-Russian separatists) that Savchenko appeared in a pre-trial hearing on July 30, a legal move that is yet another step in a Kafkaesque exercise reminiscent of 1930s Stalinist show trials. The celebrated helicopter pilot is facing murder charges.

Held behind closed doors, the hearing was off limits not only to press but also to official Ukrainian representatives, whose access to Savchenko has been extremely limited since her capture. In a statement published on their website, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry protested the secrecy of the trial and demanded to be granted access to Savchenko.

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On a recent warm summer night, Ilya Lukash sat in a bar near Kyiv's trendy Kontraktova Square, drinking a beer and chatting with his friends in Ukrainian, Russian, and English. In a red T-shirt emblazoned with patriotic Ukrainian slogans, he could easily have been any one of the countless young, educated, pro-democracy Ukrainians who in February 2014 came out to support the Euromaidan movement that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych.

But Lukash, 28, wasn't in Kyiv for the Maidan, he's not from Ukraine, and eighteen months ago, he didn't even speak Ukrainian. Rather, Lukash is a citizen of Kyrgyzstan—and a pro-Western blogger who supported the Euromaidan from afar, and paid a high price for it. In March 2014, as Russia's "little green men" were quietly seizing the Crimean peninsula, he fled Kyrgyzstan after Kyrgyz nationalists pilloried him as a "gay activist" during an anti-Western protest.

Caught between fighting for his beliefs and Russia's deteriorating ties with the West, Lukash chose to support Ukraine—the land of his ancestors—as it struggles for a European, democratic future. Meanwhile, his native Kyrgyzstan has been moving closer to Moscow, and the Ukraine crisis seemed to confirm the government's growing alignment with the Kremlin. Lukash didn't know it, but he was on a collision course with his country's changing politics.

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How would the West react to a major escalation of the war in eastern Ukraine? What would Brussels and Washington do if Russia continues to send troops there?

Even though analysts often suggest arming Ukraine with defensive weapons, what people sometimes forget is that the West is still, by far, Russia's largest trade and investment partner. Current sanctions against Moscow only forbid the export of a limited number of services and technology to Russia—leaving most of Russia's trade with the West intact. In particular, they do not limit Russia's crucial energy exports to the European Union.

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