UkraineAlert

"We brought down some Lenins in people's heads," says organizer Yuriy Didula

Days after Ukrainian forces retook the city of Kramatorsk on July 5, 2014, Yuriy Didula and two colleagues from western Ukraine piled into a car and drove building materials into the city.

"People in the east felt abandoned by the state," Didula said in a June 25 interview. The 25-year-old manages the Lviv Education Foundation's eastern Ukraine portfolio.

As a student at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Didula and his colleagues developed an exchange program that brought young people from eastern to western Ukraine for Christmas and Easter. Later, as part of Lviv Education Foundation, they organized a summer leadership camp for Kramatorsk youth. Having established long-lasting friendships with students in eastern Ukraine, Kramatorsk was a natural place to pitch in.

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Late June in Kyiv can be beautiful. With clear skies, temperatures peaking in the high 70s, the natural beauty of the city and its citizens, it can be easy to forget that the country is at war. In part that is a result of the country's success. A year ago, few would have predicted that the country's armed forces would fight the Kremlin and its separatist proxies to a standstill. Yes, Russian-backed separatists and Russian soldiers continue to press forward in the east, but their progress is measured in tens of meters and paid for in Russian and separatist blood. Despite a disinformation campaign that would make Joseph Goebbels, President Vladimir Putin's favorite propagandist, red with envy, the Russian people still oppose the use of Russian soldiers in a war that Moscow started.

A few months ago, few would have predicted that Europe would renew its hard-hitting sectoral sanctions this week. None of this means that Ukraine is out of danger. On the economic side, most reformers are waiting to see if the government implements the legislation that Ukraine's parliament passed in March at the insistence of the IMF as part of the process of securing a $17 billion loan. Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko is in a pitched battle with Franklin Templeton on the issue of restructuring Ukraine's debt, with a moratorium on payments a likely result if the creditors continue to insist that they should be exempt from any penalty for lending to the corrupt government of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

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The Transatlantic Alliance is in Trouble 

"We lived next to Russia for 500 years—listen to what we have to say," Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said at the Bratislava Global Security Forum on June 20. He's right. The West needs to pay attention and achieve strategic clarity in Europe and beyond before it's too late.

There are no shortage of crises and challenges—ISIS, the refugee crisis involving state failure in North Africa, Syria and Iraq, the rise of China, and Greece's potential exit from the European Union to name a few—facing the United States and its allies, but Ukraine and Russia are among the key tests to the transatlantic relationship.

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Russia's Foreign Ministry has banned US investigative journalist Simon Ostrovsky from working in Russia. On June 4, it denied a press visa for Ostrovsky, an Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist best known for his coverage of the Ukraine crisis for VICE News.

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On a scorching Saturday afternoon in the Pechersk district of Kyiv, a group of five young people take refuge in a cool alcove hidden at the back of the Ivan Honchar Museum for a free Ukrainian class. Together, for ninety minutes, they discuss that week's subject, studentstvo ("student life"), learning new Ukrainian words to describe lectures, dormitories, and professors. Three of the group members—the instructor and two others—are native speakers. The other two are foreigners trying to master spoken and written Ukrainian.

It may not seem like much right now, but the organizers of this initiative are sure that it is part of something much bigger. Germany promotes its culture abroad through the Goethe-Institut. China has the Confucius Institute. Now Ukraine has the Skovoroda Institute, a small, youth-driven organization named for the Ukrainian philosopher Hryhoryi Skovoroda. It strives to introduce foreigners to Ukrainian culture through the study of the language.

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Imagine Winston Churchill saying: "We've got to send Nazi Germany a clear signal. At the same time we have to recognize that the Germans do need their lebensraum." It's unthinkable.

But that's what the West keeps saying to Vladimir Putin's Russia. The most recent example is United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond telling the BBC: "We've got to send a clear signal to Russia that we will not allow them to transgress our red lines. At the same time we have to recognize that the Russians do have a sense of being surrounded and under attack, and we don't want to make unnecessary provocations."

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Three Russian television stations interviewed Andrei Petkov from a hospital bed in Nikolayev, Ukraine, in April 2014. Rossia 1 described him, with a bandage on his nose, as an ordinary citizen attacked by neo-Nazis and nationalists; NTV named him a German spy for a secret European organization; and the National Independent News of Crimea identified him as a pediatric surgeon who had saved the lives of more than 200 infants before getting caught in the crossfire. Similarly, Russian television has interviewed the same blonde woman as a native of five different cities in Ukraine. She has been a housewife, the mother of a soldier, and an exile living in Russia. In 2014, Russian state television showed a video depicting the murder of a pro-Russian fighter in eastern Ukraine by nationalists. But the video was a fabrication; it was made in the north Caucasus in 2012. The lies on Russian TV have become so numerous and egregious that one news outlet compiled a list of Russia's top 100 lies about Ukraine.

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Valentin Nalyvaichenko, head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), is in trouble again. On June 15, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he was "unsatisfied" with Nalyvaichenko's work. Three days later, Ukraine's parliament dismissed him.

At a time when the Minsk II ceasefire agreement is a ceasefire in name only and the threat of Russian espionage, sabotage, and invasion loom on a daily basis, sacking the country's intelligence chief for political reasons is risky. Then again, this is not the first time there has been speculation about Nalyvaichenko's dismissal. However, in each case, Nalyvaichenko's performance in fighting Russian aggression had kept him in the job. The fact that he's reportedly been offered at least two government posts suggests that Poroshenko still needs Nalyvychenko. So don't write his political obituary yet.

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The war in the Donbas is imposing large costs on Ukraine. According to Ukraine's leading investment bank Dragon Capital, in October 2014 the occupied territories in the Donbas accounted for 2.6 percent of Ukraine's territory, 7.3 percent of the population, 10 percent of GDP, and 15 percent of industrial production. This output has declined by roughly two-thirds, explaining two-thirds of Ukraine's decline in GDP in 2014. What will happen to the Donbas economy if the Minsk II ceasefire agreement collapses?

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Stimulating Ukraine's economy is a key goal of the reforms that are underway in Kyiv. Ukraine's Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) should enable better economic management and freer trade. But there's an important precondition for growth: investor confidence. Domestic businessmen and foreign investors must feel sufficiently motivated to spend their money, time, and energy to utilize, renew, and create Ukrainian production facilities. Russian President Vladimir Putin's strategy in Ukraine, in part, aims to deprive the Ukrainian state of its ability to offer credible physical and legal protection for private property and social stability. The two separatist areas in the Donbas have little value for the Kremlin in themselves, but they are important instruments that Moscow can use to stir up domestic unrest in Ukraine and unleash uncertainty that chases away investors.

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