A Russian court has sentenced a Crimean Tatar man to 12 years in prison, drawing swift condemnation from Ukraine for what Kyiv called a politically motivated ruling.
Lawyers for Ruslan Zeytullayev said that in an April 26 verdict, a military court in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don convicted their client of establishing a cell of the Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir in Crimea.
While Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov implies Ukraine is “undemocratic” for voicing suspicions about Russia – which not only seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in March 2014 but has backed separatists in eastern Ukraine – Kyiv has valid grounds to implicate Russia in the murder of a Russian MP who fled to Ukraine fearing for his life, and who told reporters of threats made against him.
Voronenkov was a key witness in Ukraine’s treason case against deposed President Viktor Yanukovych. In January 2017, Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko announced that Voronenkov had given testimony about two letters written by Yanukovych in February 2014, one of which was registered with the UN Security Council by Russia on behalf of Yanukovych by the late Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, in which Yanukovych requested Russian troops to put down the Maidan demonstrations.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has arrived in Brussels to attend a March 31 NATO meeting that was rescheduled to allow him to attend.
A senior State Department official told reporters that Tillerson will push alliance members to increase their defense spending and will work with allies to press Russia to abide by the Minsk agreement to end the crisis in Ukraine.
Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has stated that he can bring troops into Warsaw, Vilnius and a number of other capitals of the EU and the NATO countries.
This information is revealed in a short message of the EU foreign policy service, a German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung writes.
As stated by the newspaper, Putin had told so to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.
In his turn, Poroshenko passed along the content of the conversation to the president of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso, “Evropejskaya Pravda” informs.
“If I had wanted, I would have brought troops within two days not only to Kyiv, but to Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest,” Putin told to Poroshenko.
Besides, as the German newspaper informs, Putin recommended the Ukrainian president “not to rely on the EU too much”, as if required, he can “influence and block passing a decision at the level of the European Council.”
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.”
Vilnius says other NATO members should follow Lithuania’s example
Lithuania’s ambassador to Ukraine says Vilnius is ready to start shipping defensive weapons to Ukraine to help the country stop Russia seizing more of its territory.
Marius Yanukonis told Ukraine’s Channel 5 that Lithuania wanted to be the first country to openly arm Ukraine and hoped it would set an example to other NATO countries which he said should follow suit.
The move came as US Senator John McCain, during a trip to Kyiv, piled more pressure on the Obama administration saying the US must do more to deter Russia from escalating its military operations in Ukraine. McCain said that the US must arm Ukraine without delay before Putin became more emboldened.
John McCain, Republican US Senator: “The House of Representatives feels the same, overwhelming majority of American people feel the same. I can’t answer for the president of the United States and his administrations, except to say that I know that this is shameful, shameful that we would not provide them with weapons to defend themselves. They are fighting with 20th century weapons against Russia’s 20st century weapons. That’s not a fair fight.”
NATO has been holding military drills across several Eastern European countries in recent weeks as a way of reassuring NATO-member countries there unnerved by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; but Kyiv is hoping for more US support.
Last week the US Congress passed the National Defence Authorization Act(NDAA) which includes a provision that would give President Barack Obama’s administration USD 300 million for Ukrainian security assistance if Obama signs the bill.
US military advisors are already training the Ukrainian military. About 300 US paratroopers arrived in Ukraine in April to train Kyiv’s National Guard.
Britain has already sent military personnel to train Ukrainian troops, while Canada and Poland have pledged to send 200 and 50 instructors respectively this year. But Western countries with the exception of Lithuania have so far declined its requests to supply weapons.
The ecocide case against ex-Deputy Prosecutor General Anatoly Danylenko in connection with a fire at an oil depot near Kyiv has been closed, Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin said on June 19.
The move followed the June 18 dismissal of State Security Service Chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, who has accused Danylenko of covering up alleged violations at oil firm BRSM-Nafta, which owns the oil depot, and co-owning it. The company denies any links.
Some critics attribute Nalyvaichenko’s sacking as SBU chief to his criticism of prosecutors.
His dismissal also triggered an uproar over alleged horse-trading at the Verkhovna Rada that led to it and allegations that either Nalyvaichenko or President Petro Poroshenko is linked to exiled tycoon Dmytro Firtash. Corruption accusations have also been made against Nalyvaichenko’s potential replacement Anatoly Hrytsak and other top SBU officials.
The case against Danylenko, who has been at the center of several major corruption scandals, is being halted as critics accuse the Prosecutor General’s Office of failing to investigate any high-profile graft cases.
“We have found out that Danylenko is not a co-owner (of BRSM-Nafta) and has not struck any deals,” Shokin said. “The ecocide case has been closed. It was started without proper grounds. Currently we have no questions for Danylenko.”
At the same time, the SBU cancelled an interrogation of Danylenko scheduled for June 19, UNN reported, citing the security agency.
Nalyvaichenko’s spokesman Markian Lubkivsky said by phone that he attributed his boss’s dismissal to what he described as his crackdown on corruption, including his accusations against Danylenko.
Accusations against Danylenko and his former boss, ex-Prosecutor General Vitaly Yarema, were made after Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said last week that in October the Prosecutor General’s Office halted a criminal case against BRSM-Nafta into the sale of hazardous substances and illegal sales of excisable goods.
The fire at the BRSM-Nafta oil depot that sparked the accusations was called the biggest in Ukraine for half a century. It continued for a week earlier this month and killed six people.
Danylenko was also at the center of a major corruption scandal in September 2014, when Nashi Groshi, an investigative TV project, reported that 140 hectares of land and ponds in Kyiv Oblast had been illegally privatized by a firm that used to be owned by Danylenko’s son Vyacheslav.
Alina Strizhak, a journalist at Nashi Groshi, said then that she and her family had been threatened by an unknown man shortly before the investigation was aired.
Nashi Groshi also reported last year that Vyacheslav Danylenko owned about five hectares of forestland in Kyiv Oblast and that companies linked to Danylenko’s family were running a real estate business in Kyiv.
Yarema said later an internal probe had found no wrongdoing on Danylenko’s part.
Andriy Demartino, a spokesman for the Prosecutor General’s Office, was not available by phone.
The latest scandal about Danylenko coincided with one about alleged backdoor deals reached before Nalyvaichenko’s dismissal.
Sergei Vysotsky, a member of the People’s Front parliamentary faction, confirmed in a Facebook post on June 19 that he had written a message about an alleged agreement between Lviv Mayor and Samopomich party leader Andriy Sadovy and Poroshenko on firing Nalyvaichenko. Vysotsky claimed, however, that the message was referring to a rumor and he had no factual information proving it.
According to a YouTube video of the June 18 Verkhovna Rada session recorded by journalists, Vysotsky texts blogger Karl Volokh on a smartphone:
“(Lviv Mayor and Samopomich leader) Sadovy was given the position of the Lviv prosecutor and the Lviv customs office in exchange for Valentyn (Nalyvaichenko).”
Sadovy referred to Vysotsky’s message as nonsense in a Facebook post on June 18.
Nalyvaichenko’s dismissal also re-ignited the outcry about allegations made in an Austrian court in April by Firtash, who faces racketeering charges in the U.S.
Firtash, an ally of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, claimed he had met with Poroshenko and Vitali Klitschko, who is now mayor of Kyiv, in Vienna before the May 25 presidential election and reached an agreement with them on getting Poroshenko elected as president. Poroshenko has confirmed that he had met with Firtash but denied the existence of any agreement.
In what was perceived as a veiled threat to Poroshenko and Klitschko, Nalyvaichenko told the Obozrevatel news site in a June 18 interview that all participants of the Vienna meeting would be taken to court in the U.S. and Austria.
The comments followed accusations by Poroshenko Bloc lawmaker Serhiy Leshchenko that Nalyvaichenko is a protégé of Firtash.
The people reportedly being considered as Nalyvaichenko’s replacement have also come under fire.
One of them – SBU Deputy Chief Vasyl Hrytsak, who was appointed as the agency’s acting chief – is in charge of SBU operations in the war zone.
“He’s responsible for smuggling through checkpoints, the trade in war zone permits (for civilians) and coal trains from the Donetsk People’s Republic to Ukraine,” Yegor Firsov, a member of Nalyvaichenko’s UDAR party and the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, wrote in a column for Obozrevatel on June 18.
Poroshenko himself addressed the problem of smuggling on June 18. “Countering smuggling is a direct responsibility of the State Security Service and there is nothing to be proud of. I am very disappointed with that,” he said at a meeting with SBU officials.
Ihor Kononenko, a Poroshenko Bloc member, defended Hrytsak on June 18, saying that he is “probably the only top SBU official that we have no complaints against.” Hrytsak spends most of his time in the war zone and is in charge of the highly efficient Alfa special forces unit, Kononenko argued.
SBU Deputy Chief Yury Artyukhov, who heads the SBU’s anti-corruption department, is another potential candidate to replace Nalyvaichenko, according to Firsov.
But on June 19 speculation about Artyukhov replacing Nalyvaichenko was effectively refuted by Poroshenko. He asked Hrytsak to prepare documents for firing Artyukhov, as well as SBU deputy chiefs Vitaly Tsyganok and Viktor Yahun, as well as Vasyl Vovk, head of the agency’s main investigative department.
Firsov wrote that “everyone knows that (Artyukhov’s) department covers up all corruption schemes in Ukraine.”
In May Tetiana Chornovol, a People’s Front party lawmaker, accused Artyukhov of running a protection racket for smuggling oil products from the occupied territories to Ukraine jointly with Yanukovych allies.
Earlier this month Chornovol also accused Artyukhov of illegally seizing a car dealership in Kyiv from a U.S. citizen. Artyukhov has admitted at a Rada committee hearing that Gennady Razumei, who reportedly owns the dealership now, is a friend of his, Serhiy Shcherbina, head of the INSIDER Internet news project, wrote on Facebook on June 18.
Shcherbina also said Artyukhov was closely linked to Poroshenko through a network of business interests and common friends one of which recently got the job of aircraft maker Antonov’s president.
Lubkivsky told the Kyiv Post he would not comment on corruption accusations against SBU officials, while SBU spokeswoman Olena Hiklianska was not available by phone.
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My observations as an artistic, writer, blogger, computer geek, humanist, mental health activist, lifelong learning and researcher of life living with lifelong severe depression, anxiety, social anxiety with agoraphobia, PTSD, A Nervous Breakdown, as well as a Survivor of Sexual Abuse and Rape.