So here we go again. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka seems to be doing what he does best: flirting with the West, antagonizing Russia, and implicitly threatening to stray from Moscow’s orbit.
It’s the Lukashenka two-step. And it seems we’ve seen this movie before.
And every time the Belarusian strongman has tried this trick in the past, it’s worked like a charm. He gets some concessions from the West and Russia keeps feeding him subsidies.
But if Lukashenka has been a master gamer in the past, this time the game feels different.
With Minsk and Moscow at odds over gas prices, oil deliveries, food exports, Belarus granting visa-free travel to Westerners, Russia imposing border controls, and the Kremlin’s push for a new air base, this time it all feels much more dangerous.
If Ukraine’s east is a combustive mix of languages and loyalties, its west can be even trickier.
In Transcarpathia, many residents live within shouting distance of four EU countries. Inhabitants speak not only Russian and Ukrainian but Hungarian, Romanian, German, Slovak and Rusyn. Many of its 1.3 million inhabitants hold more than one passport.
It’s a region, in short, where loyalties don’t necessarily lie with Kyiv. So when armed violence broke out on July 11 between police and Right Sector nationalists in the Transcarpathian city of Mukacheve, it was an eerie echo of the Kremlin’s insistence that Ukraine’s problem is not outside meddling, but internal strife.
“[The Right Sector] has a thousands-strong military wing and its own command, but it does not report to the government,” the pro-government news channel Russia Today stated in its coverage of the Mukhacheve shoot-out, which left two people dead and several more wounded.
Sputnik International, a second Kremlin-backed outlet, ran articles describing Right Sector militants running amok, lowering EU flags in Lviv, hacking the Twitter account of the National Security and Defense Council , and heading en masse toward Kyiv.
Right Sector — a heavily armed militant organization branded by Russia as “neo-Nazis” and “fascists” for their ties to World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, who cooperated with German forces to fend off Soviet troops — is estimated to have as many as 10,000 members serving in volunteer battalions in the Donbas war zone and elsewhere in the country.
A sometimes uneasy ally of last year’s Maidan protesters, the group has since grown critical of the government of Petro Poroshenko, in particular for cracking down on volunteer units.
But one member, while confirming the group’s intention to protest in Kyiv, said they would not do so “with assault rifles and machine guns.”
The group has also sought to portray the weekend violence as fallout from the group’s self-described anticorruption efforts. Oleksiy Byk, a Right Sector spokesman, said police were to blame for the bloodshed.
“If we had started shooting first, there would have been many police among the victims,” Byk said during a July 12 press conference.Dmytro Yarosh
Dmytro Yarosh, the head of Right Sector, said on Facebook that his group was cooperating with the Ukrainian Security Service to stabilize the situation in Transcarpathia.
“I am asking you to ignore fake reports, which are disseminated to discredit Right Sector and provoke Ukrainians to shed blood,” he said.
Poroshenko, addressing an extraordinary meeting of the National Security Council’s military cabinet, appeared unswayed. Accusing Right Sector of undermining “real Ukrainian patriots,” the Ukrainian leader on July 13 suggested that fresh tensions in Donbas “have been mysteriously synchronized with an attempt to destabilize the situation in the rear — and not just any rear, but in a place 1,000 kilometers away from the front line.”
A KGB Favorite
Local reports suggest the Mukhacheve violence may have been the result of a business dispute. Cross-border smuggling of cigarettes and other contraband is said to be worth billions of dollars in Transcarpathia, with its easy ground access to Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland.
The region’s customs officials have been suspended in the wake of the violence, and at least one authority — parliamentary deputy Mykhaylo Lanyo, who has been accused of ties to smuggling networks — has been called in for questioning.
But it remains to be seen whether suspicions will trickle up to powerful local authorities like the so-called Baloha clan — revolving around Viktor Baloha, a former emergency situations minister and current parliamentary deputy — which is said to rule Transcarpathia with near-complete autonomy.
Some observers have suggested that the July 11 violence was little more than a battle for influence between Lan and Baloha.
Others say they suspect Russia of stirring the pot. During the Soviet era, Transcarpathia — with its mix of languages and nearby borders — was of special interest for the KGB, who used the region as a “window” to the west and the entryway for its armed invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
“The FSB has successfully picked up the baton,” he wrote. “For Russia, Transcarpathia and its surroundings remain an important region. Taking into account the blurred identity and ethnic diversity of the local population, the field of activities for these agents is quite fertile.”
The weekend unrest, with its threat of gang-style violence spilling over the EU’s eastern border, has put Ukraine’s goal of visa-free EU travel at immediate risk.
With the involvement of Right Sector, Kralyuk says, the clashes have given Russia “a wonderful gift.”
Transcarpathia, which during the 20th century was alternately ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary before being claimed by the Soviet Union, leans heavily on largesse from its western neighbors.
Budapest in particular has provided passports and special benefits to residents with proven Hungarian roots. The country’s pro-Russian prime minister, Viktor Orban, has set Ukraine on edge with professed concern for Transcarpathia’s Hungarian minority, which many see as shorthand for a Russian-style separatist conflict.
Moreover, the region has long shown an affinity for pro-Russian parties. In the 1990s, Transcarpathia was a solid supporter of the Social Democratic Party of Viktor Medvedchuk, the pro-Kremlin strategist with close personal ties to Vladimir Putin.
Before the Maidan protests, it put its weight behind Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, rather than pro-democratic “orange” candidates.
Political analyst Viktoria Podhorna says government negligence has only added to Transcarpathian exceptionalism. Poroshenko, who earned atypical support from Baloha, appears to have responded by involving himself only minimally in Transcarpathian issues.
“There’s some kind of trade-off between the central government and regional authorities, who are basically owned by local princelings,” Podhorna says. “And this is the foundation that can lead to conflicts like those in Donbas.”
The treacherous six-hour drive from Odessa to Bolgrad, the rural town where Petro Poroshenko was born, helps explain why in May the Ukrainian president entrusted the job of regional governor to Mikheil Saakashvili, the maverick reformer and former president of nearby Georgia .
In these agricultural heartlands, impoverished locals struggle to get produce to markets. With deep potholes and dirt tracks, roads are more torn up than in Ukraine’s war-torn breakaway east.
After years of neglect, the 244km ride from the cosmopolitan regional capital and Black Sea port hub of Odessa to this southwest corner of Ukraine is like navigating a minefield.
“We feel abandoned, cut off and left for despair . . . Leaders from Kiev, including Poroshenko, aren’t welcome any more,” said Viktor, a resident in the largely ethnic Bulgarian town. “But we like Saakashvili so far,” he added.
Last year’s clashes in Odessa city between pro-Russian and pro-Ukraine forces fed fears that the Moscow-backed separatism fomented in the Donbas region could spread to Odessa, which has a high proportion of Russian speakers and is an ethnic melting pot.
Some feared the arrival of Mr Saakashvili, a foreigner and pro-western politician who in 2008 clashed with Russia over control over two Georgian separatist enclaves, could stoke fresh geopolitical tension.
Kiev’s hope was that he would repeat his success in Georgia, where he helped turn the economy around, and thus neuter support in Odessa for Russia.
So far, the arrival of the straight-speaking Mr Saakashvili, who studied in Kiev and speaks Russian, Ukrainian and English, has injected fresh energy and hope into a region that faces some of the same challenges Georgia did when he took over more than a decade ago. He is now exiled from his country by criminal charges that he says are politically motivated.
In Odessa, road reconstruction has accelerated and Mr Saakashvili has sacked corrupt regional officials and promised investment and new jobs, swiftly winning over desperate locals.
Hopping into a crowded and sweaty Odessa minibus last week, with no notice and without bodyguards, Mr Saakashvili made one of his regular trips around the region to get a glimpse into what works and what doesn’t.
At first his presence stunned his fellow passengers, tourists and residents alike. But the locals quickly made their feelings clear, pleading for reforms.
Mr Saakashvili told them his top priorities are fixing infrastructure and boosting business and tourism, tasks that will be financed by a crackdown on corruption.
“The old system is collapsing,” he said, as the minibus bounced erratically over potholes. “Revolutionary reforms are the answer and we need to act fast.”
“We know Putin is plotting to foment separatism here,” he added. “Without Odessa, there will be no Ukraine. It will be cut off from the Black Sea . . . its exports will be choked.”
As the bus rolled into the resort town of Serhiyivka, residents launched into accusations against a once-feared mayor who has controlled the city for more than a decade. They took Mr Saakashvili on a tour of dilapidated infrastructure, pointing out the luxurious estates built by local officials.
Sergei Lutenko, a 26-year-old who hopes to challenge the mayor in forthcoming elections, said Mr Saakashvili’s presence had “broken fear and offered hope”.
Hours later, in the governor’s office, Mr Saakashvili called in the heads of anti-corruption departments for a televised cabinet meeting.
He swiftly fired them and their staff after one admitted he had brought no officials to justice for corruption since the beginning of the year.
“Have you not seen the roads?” said Mr Saakashvili. “Where did the money go? I’m firing you for doing nothing.”
The ruthless accountability demanded by Mr Saakashvili has regional officials in a panic: many have started repaving roads at their own expense.
“They know I will come to their town next, and they are trying to hold on to their jobs by covering up their wrongdoings,” Mr Saakashvili said.
Broader plans include streamlining local government from about 8,000 to 3,000 staff and clamping down on the rampant evasion of customs duty at regional ports.
This, he says, will free resources to improve governance by replacing fat-cat bureaucrats with more motivated — and often western educated — young people. His flamboyant style strikes a chord in a region known for its sense of humour.
“We need to move fast . . . It will be messy; mistakes will be made,” he said. His combative approach may yet anger entrenched mafia interests and even put him in danger.
“First they will try character assassination, to discredit me. After that they will come after me with other methods,” he said.
Echoing the views of residents across the region, Viktor, from Bolgrad, said:
“It was strange at first to have a former president from another country as our new governor, but in one month we see him doing more than anyone did for us in years.”
The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) has prepared a dossier laying out evidence for what it calls “Russian aggression against Ukraine.”
The report alleges there are some 9,000 Russian troops deployed in Ukraine, forming 15 battalion tactical groups. The force includes about 200 tanks, more than 500 armored fighting vehicles, and some 150 artillery systems, according to the dossier.
The SBU also identifies by name five Russian generals who it says are playing leading roles in commanding and coordinating the military forces of the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Speaking to Bloomberg, New York University professor and specialist in Russian security services Mark Galeotti said that by “embedding their senior officers,” the Russians are solidifying control over the separatist portions of Ukraine.
Russia has consistently denied any military involvement in the conflict there. RFE/RL takes a closer look at the six officers who have been implicated:
Major General Oleg Tsekov
Tsekov graduated from a military institute in Chelyabinsk in 1988. He then served in various parts of the Soviet Union and Mongolia.
He graduated from the Academy of the General Staff in 2011. The same year, he was appointed commander of the 200th motorized special-forces brigade of the Northern Fleet.
In September 2014, the volunteer information service InformNapalm published evidence that the unit had been mobilized from Murmansk Oblast to Rostov Oblast, together with evidence that service personnel from the 200th had been identified in Ukraine.
Tsekov was promoted to major general (equivalent of a U.S. two-star general) on February 21, 2015.
The latest SBU dossier charges that Tsekov commands the so-called 2nd brigade of the separatist forces near Donetsk.
Major General Valery Solodchuk
Born in Astrakhan, Solodchuk graduated from the paratroops institute in Ryazan in 1992. In 2012, he was named commander of the 7th guards air-assault division based in Novorossiisk. A media reference in 2014 identified Solodchuk as deputy commander of the 5th Army in the Far East.
Digital-forensic investigators have drawn attention to a soldier of the 7th guards air-assault division named Stanislav Ramensky. He posted on social media several photographs that seem to have been taken in Crimea in March 2014, when Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine.
He also published a photograph of the medal and certificate he was given on April 14, 2014, “for the return of Crimea,” which was signed by Solodchuk.
He answered that there are no such units and that the entire military is in a state of constant combat readiness. Asked if that meant that his unit is prepared to be ordered into battle at any moment, Solodchuk answered, “Exactly.”
The SBU dossier charges that Solodchuk is the commander of so-called 1st Army Corps of Novorossia in the Donetsk area.
Major General Sergei Kuzovlev
Sergei Kuzovlev was born in 1967 and graduated from the paratroops institute in Ryazan in 1990. He also studied at the Academy of the General Staff. He was promoted to major general in February 2014. Since 2014, he has been chief of staff of the 58th Army based in Vladikavkaz.
In January, the Ukrainian SBU released an audio recording that it alleged showed Kuzovlev organizing the military forces of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” in eastern Ukraine. The SBU says Kuzovlev goes by the pseudonyms “Tambov” and “Ignatov.”
Major General Aleksei Zavizion
Aleskei Zavizion was born in Narva, Estonia, in 1965 and graduated from a military institute in Chelyabinsk in 1986. He served in the Far East, in Chechnya, and as commander of Russian forces in Tajikistan.
In 2009, he began studies at the Academy of the General Staff.
In March, Ukraine’s SBU claimed Zavizion, using the nom de guerre Alagir, directed the shelling of Kramatorsk and Mariupol. Referring to Zavizion, SBU official Markiian Lubkivskyi wrote on Facebook that “a citizen of the Russian Federation…with the call sign Alagir is currently in Donetsk within the rotational assignment of running the Operational Headquarters since January 2015, coordinating military operations with the participation of representatives of illegal armed formations.”
“Alagir is the person in charge of the deployment of artillery, mobile rocket systems, and heavy equipment,” Lubkivskyi continued. “Major bloody attacks on Ukrainian cities, particularly on Kramatorsk and Mariupol, were carried out under his direct command and coordination.”
Lubkivskyi also wrote that Zavizion was scheduled to be replaced by Russian Major General Andrei Gurulyov.
Major General Roman Shadrin
Roman Shadrin was born in Rostov Oblast in 1967 and graduated from a military institute in Kazan. He served in the Soviet contingent in East Germany after graduating in 1988. In 1995, he was awarded the Hero of Russia medal for his service during the first war in Chechnya.
After service in Armenia and the North Caucasus, Shadrin was named deputy commander of Interior Ministry troops in the Urals region. In 2008, he served during the conflict with Georgia in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, after which he was promoted to major general.
In September 2013, he was elected to the Yekaterinburg City Duma from the ruling United Russia Party.
The SBU dossier says Shadrin is the so-called minister of state security for the self-proclaimed “Luhansk Peoples Republic” (LNR) in eastern Ukraine. According to a media report on July 3, Shadrin denies the allegation, saying he has only traveled to Ukraine’s Donbas region “with a humanitarian mission.”
The Yekaterinburg-based Novy Den news agency reported the same day that Shadrin has “repeatedly traveled to eastern Ukraine with humanitarian missions.”
It also noted that Shadrin resigned as chairman of the city legislature’s security committee in January and quoted an unidentified source in the Yekaterinburg Duma as saying Shadrin “holds one of the top positions in the security service of the LNR.”
The same source said it is not known when Shadrin will return to his duties in Yekaterinburg, but there have been no efforts to strip him of his mandate.
Illegal armed groups in the city of Donetsk kidnap local residents and force them to work for free, engaging in cutting scrap metal in the destroyed Donetsk airport, according to Donetsk’s local web portal.
Unlike the June 4 state of the nation address, Petro Poroshenko put Crimea front and center at his third news conference as president today on June 5.
Speaking to reporters in Kyiv outdoors during a breezy, sunny afternoon – ex-President Viktor Yushchenko was last president to venture outside to speak to journalists in 2009 – he said Ukraine will maintain diplomatic pressure to keep sanctions imposed on Russia.
Crimea is a “key priority” and making it a part of Ukraine is an “unbelievably difficult task,” he said, explaining its importance and why he didn’t want to “briefly” mention the peninsula during the state of the nation speech.
“We will do everything to return Crimea to Ukraine,” Poroshenko said.
He stressed that the country will continue working with international allies to maintain sanctions on Russia for taking over the peninsula in March 2014. “It is important not to give Russia a chance to break the world’s pro-Ukrainian coalition,” Poroshenko said.
Repeating what he told parliament the previous day, Poroshenko outlined his goal of distributing administrative powers and functions to regional and local governments, the priority of removing prosecutorial immunity from judges and lawmakers, and having open party lists during elections.
Scheduled for Oct. 25, the local elections would be another test for Ukraine’s democracy. They should stabilize the situation in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, he added. The easternmost region, known as Donbas, will remain a part of Ukraine, he said.
Poroshenko also warned that the number Russian troops positioned in Ukraine and near the country’s border is the highest since August 2014, when one of the bloodiest battles for the strategic city of Ilovaisk took place.
Ukraine’s army was defeated while advancing on the Donetsk Oblast city last summer when thousands of Russian troops, backed by advanced armor and artillery, joined the battle, leading to the first peace agreement in September. Although the Defense Ministry said 108 Ukrainian soldiers were killed, a Newsweek report on the battle stated “hundreds” had died.
Russia started another military offensive two days ago with an assault on the western Donetsk suburb of Maryinka.
At least four Ukrainian servicemen were killed in the battle. Poroshenko cited the attack –complete with Russians using banned tanks, artillery and multiple-rocket launch systems, as additional evidence that Russia is violating the second peace deal brokered in February.
The president said he would do everything possible to accelerate the process of deploying peacekeepers to Donbas.
“A United Nations support office will be opened in Ukraine and their first task will be to study the possibility of deploying peacekeepers,” Poroshenko said.
He also addressed his critics.
He continues to own the Roshen confectionary factory, his largest asset, and a number of other companies in violation of Ukraine’s constitution. Poroshenko said he will transfer his share in Roshen to a trust with Rothschild, a private financial advisory group.
He hired Rothschild to search for potential buyers as well, and the group conducting legal and financial due diligence on his assets. There are obstacles to selling his assets in Russia as the country seized the property of his confectionary factory in Lipetsk.
Poroshenko brushed off the accusations on existing agreements with businessman Dmytro Firtash after he met him and Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko in Vienna before the presidential election in 2014.
As reported, Firtash said during a court hearing in Vienna on April 30 on his extradition to the U.S. that he met with Poroshenko and Vitali Klitschko on the eve of the 2014 presidential election, and that the meeting was his idea and was aimed at preventing the presidency of Batkivschyna Party Leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
“I never denied a brief meeting with Firtash during the presidential election campaign,” Poroshenko says. “But I absolutely deny that there are any confidential agreements disclosed by Firtash. They does not exist,” he said.
Poroshenko also promised to monitor an ambitious construction project started in early September that aims to tighten security along the Russian border, which stretches along 2,295 kilometers.
Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has said defensive structures will include ditches, test-track lanes, vehicle-barrier trenches and optical surveillance towers to detect troop and vehicle movement from the Russian side.
The results so far of the construction weren’t “satisfactory,” according to Poroshenko. However, he said that the project was revised and the problems have been taken into account.
Kyiv Post staff writer Olena Goncharova can be reached at email@example.com.
Ukraine’s parliament granted a special status to some parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast, and defined the new border of those territories in a Tuesday vote that followed complicated negotiations among coalition members and the president, who authored the bills.
A total of 265 Ukrainian lawmakers backed the decision to give a special status to the territories, but only after clean and transparent elections are held on those territories under Ukraine’s law. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said in his twitter microblog that such a sequence was create to “prevent clever manipulations”.
The elections must be monitored and given a green light by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, following the Minsk- 2 agreements coined by leaders of four countries a month ago.
President Petro Poroshenko welcomed the parliament’s move, saying that “it occurred on the 30th day after the Minsk agreements have been signed in strict coordination with these Minsk deal.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov disagreed with this assessment, however. He said he would appeal to German and French colleagues, because the ultimate goal is the implementation of the Minsk agreements and the new draft law would change the special status in Donbas because of the elections.
German chancellor Angela Merkel praised Poroshenko’s initiative before the vote, however. “It was a very bold move of the Ukrainian President to introduce a bill on a special status to the government,” Merkel said after the meeting with Poroshenko in Berlin on March 16. “I understand that it was a difficult decision.”
Denis Pushilin, one of the separatist leaders, has indicated that he does not like the new law either. “(Self-proclaimed) republics won’t recognize any of the amendments to the law submitted by Poroshenko if those were not agreed with us,” said Pushilin. “Those (amendments) are legally meaningless and politically insignificant.”
The parliament has also voted for a separate law recognizing the specially defined territories as “temporary occupied”. On top of that, it approved Poroshenko’s appeal to the U.N. Security Council to sent peace keeping troops to Ukraine’s embattled east.
“Mobile Photography Tips” is the blog run by Alex Markovich. It is so obvious that our smartphones have become, first and foremost, instruments for taking pictures and surfing the net, rather than tools for making calls.