UkraineAlert

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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Ukraine officially has 1,381,953 internally displaced persons (IDPs), the country's Ministry of Social Policy (MoSP) reported July 10. Overall, more than 2.3 million Ukrainians—including IDPs and those seeking refuge abroad—have been uprooted by conflict since March 2014.

Yet the actual number of IDPs remains unknown and is likely to be higher, since the official figure includes neither displaced people living in the non-government controlled area (NGCA) of Donetsk and Luhansk, nor IDPs whose registrations have been cancelled.

In fact, internal displacement is a relatively new phenomenon for Ukraine. Until fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine more than a year ago, the country's experience with forced migration had been limited to relatively small numbers. Any government faced with such a rapid and large-scale displacement would be hard-pressed to respond quickly and effectively. Unfortunately, experience suggests that displacement is likely to become a long-term problem.

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On July 24, Ukraine paid a $120 million coupon to service its sovereign debt. In many ways, this event is a moment of truth: it signals that there is a prospect of reaching an agreement with Ukraine's creditors.

Earlier this year, Ukraine signed a major deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF agreed to loan $17.5 billion over the course of the next few years in exchange for sweeping reforms and restructuring of the country's sovereign debt. While progress on the reform front is reasonably steady—the IMF is expected to approve the next $1.7 billion tranche at the end of July—negotiations with creditors turned out to be harder than anticipated.

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Western leaders pressing Ukraine to give into Russian demands and offer the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics autonomy would be well-advised to take note of the other parts of Ukraine which, according to Russian media, are also demanding self-rule.

On July 17, approximately twenty people in Lviv staged a blitzkrieg demonstration with banners demanding greater autonomy for Halychyna in western Ukraine. The action lasted no more than five minutes, but was presented on Russian pro-Kremlin channels as a 300-strong demonstration blocking one of the city's central streets. Rossiya 24's report deemed it "Kyiv's new problem."

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Ukrainian paramilitaries pose an increasingly existential threat to Kyiv. Earlier this year, Kyiv launched an initiative to bring them under their direct control. But despite their nominal subordination to Kyiv's security services, these groups operate with minimal supervision and maintain financial independence. Their fighting capacity breeds instability and violence. More recently, Right Sector is undermining Kyiv with acts of violence, battles over contraband, and even direct challenges to Kyiv's legitimacy on a political level. Ukraine and its partners must act to disarm the paramilitaries and to address the corruption which they exploit.

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"I come away from this visit to Odesa with a sense of optimism," wrote US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt after his recent trip there. After I posted Pyatt's article to my Facebook page in an attempt to diminish the growing fatigue of fellow Ukrainians over the mixed results of the new government's reforms, angry reactions followed. Some said positive changes are only visible to Americans, while others ridiculed the unnecessary window dressing and recommended that we distinguish between the loud statements about combating corruption with quiet but real acts to diminish it.

Faced with profound economic difficulties and the government's slow progress with reform, Ukrainians are critical of everything the government is trying to achieve. Day after day, contagious Internet memes paint a picture of doom and gloom, adding to the growing disillusionment with the Euromaidan. But it's too soon to lose faith, and it's time to look south.

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