Former separatist leader brags of executions, challenges Hague court

A former Russian-backed separatist commander has publicly boasted about ordering executions in eastern Ukraine and defiantly claimed he will never be tried in an international court.

Igor Girkin, otherwise known as Igor Strelkov, led separatist forces in Donetsk during some of the most intense fighting in the conflict. He gained a reputation for ruthlessness among even his own men, and he has been accused of involvement in the downing of flight MH17 in July 2014.

Rather than being shamed into silence, however, Girkin bragged about ordering executions in an interview with Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda radio station last week – inadvertently providing his first confession to possible war crimes – and a very public one at that.

“We had a military court, and legislation from 1941 was introduced, legislation by Stalin,” Strelkov said.

“On the basis of that legislation, we tried (people), held tribunals and carried out executions … In total, four people were executed during my time in Sloviansk,” Strelkov said.

News of the executions first surfaced in early July 2014, after Strelkov and his men surrendered Slovyansk to Ukrainian forces. Documents detailing the executions were found at that time and published by the Mashable news agency, though Girkin has never before commented on them. One of the men sentenced to death had merely stolen some clothing from an abandoned neighbor’s home, according to the Mashable report.

Soon after those documents came to light, Ukrainian authorities uncovered a mass grave in the area, suggesting Strelkov may have been responsible for more than just four executions.

Girkin is not the slightest bit concerned about being dragged to The Hague, however.

“International law absolutely does not worry me, because that is an instrument in the hands of the victors. If we are defeated, well, that means they will use the law against me.”

Asked whether he was prepared to stand trial in The Hague for war crimes, Strelkov said simply: “I’m deeply certain that I won’t end up there.”

“I know too much, as they say in a famous film. And second, I will try to do all that I can to ensure that doesn’t happen, on my part,” he said.

But Jan Pieklo, the director of the Polish-Ukrainian Cooperation Foundation, who helped to prepare a recent report detailing war crimes committed in eastern Ukraine in the hopes of getting justice, said Girkin shouldn’t be so certain.

Noting that Girkin believes he is “untouchable” because he is in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Pieklo said that he had previously worked as a war correspondent during the war in Yugoslavia and seen firsthand as Serb leaders displayed the same attitude as Girkin.

The feeling at that time, he said, was that “never ever would Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic be brought to justice.”

“But it happened, and Slobodan Milosevic himself was transported to The Hague, and he died in prison,” he said.

“Maybe one day we could even see Vladimir Putin facing justice,” Pieklo said. “It may be a long way off, it may take a long time, but it could happen.”

The Moscow branch of Human Rights Watch said “Russia can and should investigate this,” noting that the International Criminal Court was currently considering whether a formal investigation into crimes committed in eastern Ukraine was warranted under the Rome statute.

Scott Horton of the DLA Piper Global Law Firm declined to comment specifically on Girkin, but said those commanding Girkin could end up facing prosecution for his actions.

“A nation-state that fields an army, and that attracts and directs irregular forces of any sort, has responsibility for enforcement of the law of armed conflict over those forces. Non-enforcement of the laws of armed conflict has possible consequences up the chain of command under the so-called doctrine of command responsibility. If a command authority fails to apply the law of armed conflict by prosecuting and punishing offenders, and if it fails to do this systematically, then responsibility for the wrongdoing can be viewed as transposed from the original offender to the command authority,” Horton told the Kyiv Post.

“The cases turn heavily on the amount of evidence prosecutors are able to build about the command relationship,” he said.

Girkin has identified himself as a colonel of Russia’s Federal Security Service in numerous interviews, and a group of hackers released a tranche of emails purporting to back up that claim in late 2014. Ukrainian authorities have said Girkin is an officer of Russia’s GRU, the external military intelligence directorate.

Girkin is arguably the most notorious of the separatist commanders, having alienated even many of his own men during his time in Donetsk. Alexander Zakharchenko, the current leader of separatist forces in Donetsk, accused Girkin of recklessness in interviews with Russian media in late 2014, complaining that Girkin had been prepared to obliterate entire residential housing blocks for no reason whatsoever.

Shortly after the MH17 catastrophe in July 2014, Girkin was dismissed from his post as commander “at his own request,” according to separatist leadership. Many believed the Kremlin saw him as too much of a liability and asked him to leave, however.

He quickly relocated to Moscow, claiming in interviews with the Russian media that he was fulfilling a duty to protect Putin from enemies and traitors.

Human rights activists in Moscow had warned early on in the conflict that the war in Ukraine was not Girkin’s first time committing war crimes. In June 2014, the Memorial human rights group identified Girkin as the same man who had been known for committing forced disappearances and presumed executions of Chechens during the Second Chechen War in 2001-2002. Like many other crimes from the Second Chechen War, however, those murders were never solved.

Girkin’s press secretary did not respond to an inquiry on why the notorious separatist leader decided to confess to war crimes now, nor on whether he was concerned that although he “knows too much” to face trial, he might simply be killed for that very same reason.

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How Ukraine Weaned Itself Off Russian Gas

Not so long ago, Russia could bend Ukraine to its will by threatening to cut off natural gas supplies. Now, Russia is offering discounts, but Ukraine is not interested because it’s getting plenty of gas in Europe. This change reflects developments in the European gas market that don’t augur well for one of Russia’s biggest sources of export revenue.

The decline in Ukraine’s imports of Russian gas is partly the result of economic stagnation under former President Viktor Yanukovych, a huge drop in output after the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Ukraine’s gross domestic product has shrunk around 19 percent since 2013, and its industrial sector needs less fuel.

That, however, is not the most important reason for the decline in Ukrainian imports. The government is determined to end its dependence on Russia as the two countries are in a semi-official state of war. More than once, Russian threats to stop supplies or raise prices as winter approached forced Ukrainian governments to accept political concessions that slowed the country’s drift toward the European Union. In response, Ukraine sought “reverse supplies” from Slovakia in 2014.

It was a good year to experiment: The winter of 2014 was warm in Europe, and there was a surfeit of gas. In Slovakia, the gas was Russian, delivered by the state-owned monopoly Gazprom through the Ukrainian pipeline system. Gazprom had tried to ban resale, but those conditions were in violation of European rules. In April 2015, the European Commission cited such stipulations as an example of Gazprom’s abuse of its dominance in eastern and central European gas markets. Gazprom, which is trying to avoid steep fines and arrive at a settlement with the commission, could do nothing to prevent its customers from supplying Ukraine.

In the fall of 2014, Gazprom tried to cut exports to Europe to eliminate “reverse supplies,” but, according to a Ukrainian estimate, that cost $5.5 billion in lost revenue and another $400 million in discounts to customers as compensation for failing to meet contractual obligations. In March 2015, Russian exports resumed in full.

Europe has been diversifying its gas supplies for many of the same reasons as Ukraine — to deprive Russia of its energy weapon and to keep prices down. In the third quarter of 2015 — according to the most recent European Commission gas market report available — EU gas imports from Russia increased by 18 percent from a year earlier. Supplies from Norway and Algeria grew 26 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

Nonetheless, Russia remains Europe’s top gas supplier, with a 41 percent share of the market:

Russia’s monopoly status in eastern Europe is disappearing, however, as its former captive customers open liquefied natural gas terminals. Lithuania, for example, has built one and made a deal to import gas from the U.S., where prices are about half those in Europe. That should soon lower the gas price there from $263 per thousand cubic meters, the highest level in Europe. Thanks to LNG, growing supplies from Norway and North Africa, and the antitrust proceedings against Gazprom, the EU is much better protected from price gouging than it was even two years ago. The Russian company cannot attempt to manipulate with supplies to Europe for fear of losing share in a market that provides 52 percent of its revenue. That threat is all the more potent as Europe’s gas consumption is falling, in part thanks to advances in sustainable energy.

Gazprom is trying to negotiate the construction of a new pipeline to Germany, Nord Stream 2, which would bypass Ukraine, but the project faces political resistance in the EU. And its estimated cost of 9.9 billion euros ($10.7 billion) may be too high given current gas prices. If it is built, it will be for political reasons: Russia wants to take away Ukraine’s role as a gas transit route. Europe doesn’t really need the pipeline, though; given Gazprom’s record, it probably wouldn’t decrease prices much.

The net effect is that Gazprom has lost much of its leverage on Europe, and Ukraine can afford to be combative. On Sunday, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said his government wouldn’t buy Russian gas at the offered price of $212 per thousand cubic meters because supplies from Europe were available at $200. In 2015, Ukraine doubled gas imports from Europe to 10.3 billion cubic meters, and it now gets 50 percent more from the EU than it does from Russia.

Low energy prices have diminished Russia’s ability to use its status as an “energy superpower” to exert influence on its western neighbors. The efforts of Europeans to liberalize and diversify their gas market, however, have been at least as effective in curbing President Vladimir Putin and making it easier for Ukraine to break out of Russia’s grip. It’s too early, however, for Ukrainians to cry victory. If Ukraine’s economy rebounds strongly, they will probably have to negotiate with Moscow from a position of weakness again. Local production and European imports will not be enough to meet the needs of a rebuilt industrial sector, at least in the next two or three years.

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Five myths underpinning Russia’s chronic case of ‘Ukraine Denial’

Putin’s hybrid war in Ukraine is popular at home because millions of Russians continue to insist Ukraine is a manufactured nation artificially separated from Russia

Vladimir Putin is fond of declaring that Russians and Ukrainians are ‘one people’. It is safe to assume he does not mean all Russians are Ukrainians – instead, he is implying that Ukrainians are a component part of a broader Russian identity. He is not alone in this belief. Millions of Russians find it difficult to accept Ukraine as a sovereign state. Almost 25 years after the fall of the USSR, they remain inclined to view their neighbour as a manufactured nation artificially separated from Russia by the injustices of the Soviet collapse. Despite the passing of a quarter of a century since Ukraine declared independence, Russia is still in denial.

Understanding the roots of this ‘Ukraine Denial’ is vital if we are to appreciate why Putin’s hybrid war in Ukraine has proved so popular among Russian audiences. It encourages Russians to view Ukraine as an essentially domestic issue, removing it from the realm of foreign affairs and positioning all international involvement as unwelcome outside interference. When seen from this perspective, Ukrainian patriots become ‘extremists’ and ‘traitors’, while notions of Ukrainian self-determination take on an explicitly anti-Russian tone. In its most virulent form, ‘Ukraine Denial’ embraces the belief that Ukrainian independence itself is part of a fiendish plan to undermine Mother Russia.

Russians ignore post-1991 divergence

The widespread Russian belief that Ukraine is not a proper country finds support in Ukraine’s long history as a captive nation within the borders of competing empires. With no sustained period of independence prior to 1991, Ukraine is indeed among the world’s youngest sovereign nations. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s cultural closeness to Russia, encompassing everything from popular culture and generations of intermarriage to Orthodox religion and Slavic tradition, has also fuelled a sense that the two countries are far more than just neighbours.

These factors make Russia’s ‘Ukraine Denial’ in many ways understandable, but they fail to take the changes of the post-Soviet period into account. An entire generation has now grown up in independent Ukraine. They may still listen to Russian pop music and watch Russian TV shows, but they also have their own perspective on history, their own contemporary reality, and their own sense of identity.

The events of the past two years have served to highlight just how far Russia and Ukraine have diverged since 1991. Despite Kremlin expectations to the contrary, Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the south and east of the country overwhelmingly rejected the clarion call of Putin’s Novorossia (‘New Russia’) imperial project. Instead, an unprecedented wave of patriotism gripped the nation, with millions joining a volunteer army of activists, fundraisers, aid workers and frontline soldiers. As a result, a civic national identity has begun to take shape, replacing outdated notions of ethnic and linguistic Ukrainian identity with a new national idea rooted in the European values of democracy and rule of law married to ancient Ukrainian folklore and Cossack concepts of personal freedom. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Putin’s hybrid war has played a decisive role in Ukraine’s post-Soviet nation-building process. The Kremlin leader has inadvertently become chief architect of his own worst nightmare.

Predictably, there has been little recognition among Russian audiences of Ukraine’s diverging path and accelerated nation-building process. Instead, old stereotypes about a fundamentally Russian Ukraine remain the norm, while Putin continues to repeat his ‘one people’ mantra. With a diplomatic solution to the crisis still proving elusive, Business Ukraine magazine examines the five key myths that underpin Russia’s ‘Ukraine Denial’ complex and fuel the conflict in east Ukraine.

Myth 1: There were no Ukrainians before WWI

The Claim: Ukrainians only appeared in the history books during the tumultuous events of World War I as part of an Austro-Hungarian plot to undermine Tsarist Russia.

The Reality: As a subject people for hundreds of years prior to the twentieth century, Ukrainians where officially known by a variety of imposed administrative terms including ‘Little Russians’ and ‘Ruthenians’. It is absurd to argue that this somehow means they did not exist. On the contrary, the existence of these terms highlights the historic presence of a distinctive Ukrainian national community. Nor is the term ‘Ukrainian’ itself a modern invention – it entered the mainstream in the nineteenth century thanks to romantic nationalists at Kharkiv University and pioneers of literary Ukrainian such as Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko. However, it is much older than this – the first recorded use of the term is in the twelfth century, decades before the foundation of Moscow. Indeed, Russians who put forward the argument of ‘invented Ukrainians’ might want to bear in mind that the term ‘Russian’ itself is a relatively recent invention dating back just three centuries. Ivan the Terrible may be one of the most celebrated figures in Russian history, but he most certainly did not refer to his realm as Russia.

Myth 2: Foreigners to blame for Ukrainian ‘separatism’

The Claim: Ukrainians would be perfectly happy within the Russian sphere of influence if meddling foreigners did not insist on interfering and encouraging them to seek unnatural independence.

The Reality: There is little evidence that modern Ukrainians wish to be part of the Russian sphere of influence. All polls, elections, referendums and surveys since 1990 point to majority support across the country for Ukrainian independence. The December 1991 referendum on Ukrainian independence from the USSR is particularly enlightening: a national landslide of over 90% voted for independence, including clear majorities in supposedly pro-Russian regions such as Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea. Reunion with Russia has never enjoyed popular support in post-1991 Ukraine and has remained on the extreme political fringes. Even Ukrainian political parties regarded as staunchly pro-Russian, such as Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, felt it necessary to align themselves publicly with European integration. This does not mean Ukrainians harbor any animosity towards Russia – European integration is simply a far more attractive civilizational choice.

The specific charge that Western intelligence agencies orchestrated Ukraine’s two landmark post-Soviet pro-democracy revolutions relies on little more than innuendo. Both the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution where driven by Ukrainian civil society and relied on massive public backing. Without overwhelming popular support, these protest movements would simply have withered away. Rather than engineering regime change, Western support for post-Soviet Ukraine has largely focused on financial backing and institutional support for Ukrainian civil society – empowering Ukrainians to help themselves. In other words, the West ‘interfered’ in Ukraine in the same way social services ‘interfere’ in abusive marriages. Russians who find this objectionable would be better off asking themselves why reunion with Russia has proved so consistently unappealing to post-Soviet Ukrainians, despite the cultural closeness of the two countries.

Myth 3: Half of today’s Ukraine is Russian land

The Claim: the borders of modern-day Ukraine include many historically Russian regions with no links to ethnic Ukrainians. These lands were inexplicably ‘gifted’ to Soviet Ukraine by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s. Vladimir Putin made this claim himself during his landmark spring 2014 ‘Novorossia’ speech that paved the way for the hybrid war in east Ukraine.

The Reality: The borders of today’s Ukraine are extremely close to the borders claimed by the independent Ukrainian state that briefly emerged in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution nearly 100 years ago. Far from being a ‘gift’ from the Bolsheviks, these borders mirrored the ethnic and linguistic breakdown of the population at the time. The Russian Imperial census of 1897 – the last completed under Tsarist rule – identified Ukrainian-speaking majorities in virtually all the regions that would later form today’s Ukraine. There are some notable exceptions: many of the cities in today’s southern and eastern Ukraine have long had Russian-speaking majorities, but these populations have tended to be ethnically diverse rather than Russian-majority, with the predominance of spoken Russian reflecting the language’s status as the imperial tongue in both the Tsarist and Soviet eras. Crucially, these Russian-speaking urban populations continue to live alongside rural Ukrainian-speaking communities with regional roots stretching back generations.

Myth 4: Russian-speaking Ukrainians are Russians

The Claim: Russian-speaking Ukrainians are part of the Russian world and need to be protected against Ukrainian nationalists intent on ethnic cleansing and forced Ukrainianization.

The Reality: The Kremlin has skillfully exploited international ignorance of Ukraine in order to portray Russian-speaking Ukrainians as a distinct and oppressed pro-Russian minority. In reality, language is not an accurate indication of political sympathies in today’s Ukraine, while most Ukrainians enjoy a degree of fluency in both languages. Russian-speaking Ukrainians hailing from the regions targeted for takeover by the Kremlin have actually played a leading role in the resistance to Putin’s hybrid war. Thousands of Russian-speaking Ukrainians served as troops in the volunteer battalions that saved Ukraine in 2014, while millions more have been vocal in their rejection of Kremlin claims that they somehow need protection.

The international media has paid much attention to the failure of the Kremlin’s Novorossia project in predominantly Russian-speaking Ukrainian metropolises like Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Odesa, but perhaps the most striking example of Russian-speaking Ukrainian pride is Kyiv. The Ukrainian capital city is by far the largest Russian-speaking city in the world outside of Russia itself, yet it remains a staunchly patriotic and pro-European town. Kyiv served as the base for both the Orange and Euromaidan revolutions, providing the majority of protesters as well as endless supplies of food, clothing, accommodation and moral support. Nobody in Ukraine sees the Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriotism of Kyiv as a contradiction, but for some reason this rather obvious fact fails to register with Russian audiences.

Myth 5: Ukraine has always been Russian

The Claim: Ukraine has historically always been part of Russia and Moscow has a legitimate claim to continued control over the country.

The Reality: Few lands on the planet have experienced as many foreign conquerors as Ukraine. The country is the ultimate crossroads of the Eurasian continent. Over the centuries, it has been partially or completely occupied by everyone from the Mongols to the Nazis. Poles, Lithuanians, Habsburgs and Ottomans have all held sway over large parts of the country for extended periods. A generation before Hitler marched east, the German Kaiser’s troops briefly held Ukraine. Russia is just one of these foreign powers. The Russian impact has certainly been profound: many of southern and eastern Ukraine’s major cities where founded by the Tsarist authorities, while millions of Russians settled in Ukraine during the Tsarist and Soviet eras. Nevertheless, the Russian imperial imprint on Ukraine remains part of a much broader inheritance. The history of Ukraine is the story of imperial rivalries on Europe’s eastern border. This bloody and brutal experience has scarred the lands of Ukraine deeply, but it has also created a naturally multicultural environment that defies attempts to label the country as a mere Russian appendage.

Are Russians and Ukrainians the Same People?

To justify his meddling in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has claimed Ukrainians as Russian people. Is he right?
In the last few years Vladimir Putin has surprised many observers of the international scene not only by his actions, but also by his words.

In the middle of the Ukraine crisis, while the Russian media was vilifying the new government in Kyiv as nothing less than a “fascist junta,” he repeatedly went on record claiming that Russians and Ukrainians were one and the same people. What it meant in practice was demonstrated in March 2014, when the Russian troops took over the Ukrainian Crimea, which Putin declared a historical heritage site common to the Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians and the place where his namesake, Prince Vladimir (Ukr. Volodymyr) of Kyiv, had been baptized. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea made this allegedly common site an exclusively Russian possession.

The view of Ukrainians as constituents of the Russian nation goes back to the founding myth of modern Russia as a nation conceived and born in Kyiv (Kiev) in the tenth and eleventh centuries during the times of St. Vladimir. It was first widely disseminated in Russia by the Synopsis of 1674, the first printed “textbook” of Russian history, compiled by Kyivan monks seeking the protection of the Muscovite tsars.

Throughout most of the imperial period, Ukrainians were regarded as Little Russians—a vision that allowed for the existence of Ukrainian folk culture and spoken vernacular but not a high culture or a modern literature. That vision was challenged in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1917, when the Ukrainians were recognized as a distinct nation in cultural but not political terms.

The leaders of the Soviet Union recognised the Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians to be separate nations, but on the eve of the Soviet collapse, Alexander Solzhenitsyn had insisted that Ukraine, Belarus, and northern Kazakhstan should merge with Russia. This vision did not materialize after the fall of the USSR, but neither had it disappeared entirely.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian nationalist project has embraced the idea of the unification of the Eastern Slavs on the basis of the Russian language and culture. This vision of Greater Russia found a lot of government support and was backed by the Russian Orthodox Church through the “Russian World Foundation,” which has been tasked with the promotion of Russian language and culture abroad and the “formation of the Russian World as a global project.” Ukraine has become the first testing ground for the promotion of the new model of Russian identity outside the Russian Federation. The chances are it will not be the last. The revival of imperial-era Russian nationalism threatens not only the sovereign East Slavic states of Ukraine and Belarus but also other post-Soviet republics with significant East Slavic and Russian-speaking populations—Estonia, Latvia, and Kazakhstan.

So what about Russians in Ukraine?

The Russian annexation of the Crimea and the propaganda intended to justify Russian intervention in the Donbas have proceeded under the slogan of defending the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in general. The equation of the Russian language not only with Russian culture but also with Russian nationality has been an important aspect of the world view of many Russian volunteers who have come to Donbas. One problem with that interpretation of Russianness is that while ethnic Russians are indeed a majority of the population in the Crimea and make up large minorities in parts of the Donbas, most of the population of the projected New Russia consists of ethnic Ukrainians. While Russian and separatist propaganda has had an appeal for many ethnic Ukrainians, most have refused to identify themselves with Russia or with Russian ethnicity even as they continue to use the Russian language. That was one of the main reasons for the failure of the creation of a buffer state of New Russia by extending the rebel holdings in Donbas to Odesa and Kharkiv in southern and eastern Ukraine.

The expansionist model of Russian identity, which stresses the indivisibility of the Russian nation, closely associated with the Russian language and culture, presented a fundamental challenge to the Ukrainian nation-building project. From its beginnings in the nineteenth century, that project placed the Ukrainian language and culture at its center, but from the outset it also allowed for the use of other languages and cultures, as attested, for example, by the Russian-language writings of Taras Shevchenko, whom many regard as the spiritual founder of the Ukrainian nation. Bilingualism and multiculturalism have become a norm in post-Soviet Ukraine, extending membership in the Ukrainian nation to people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds. This has had a direct impact on the course of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

Contrary to the Kremlin’s expectations, Russia-sponsored “hybrid war” failed to mobilize the support of ethnic Russians outside the areas either directly controlled by the Russian army, as has been the case in the Crimea, or those parts of the Donbas seized by Russian mercenaries and Russia-backed insurgents. According to data provided in the middle of the crisis by the respected Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, with Russians constituting 17 percent of the Ukrainian population, only 5 percent of those polled considered themselves exclusively Russian: the rest gave their identity as both Russian and Ukrainian. Even those who considered themselves exclusively Russian often opposed Russian interference in Ukrainian affairs, refusing to associate themselves with Putin’s regime. “Ukraine is my Homeland. Russian is my native language. And I would like to be saved by Pushkin. And delivered from sorrow and unrest, also by Pushkin. Pushkin, not Putin,” wrote one of Kyiv’s ethnic Russians in her Facebook account.

The Russo-Ukrainian conflict brought to the fore important issues with historical roots and ramifications—the unfinished process of building not only a Ukrainian but also Russian modern nation. The Russian nationalist ideology harks back to the imperialism of prerevolutionary Russia, when Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians were viewed by the tsarist government as parts of one Russian nation. Because a modern, post-imperial Russian nation has not taken shape, there remains a strong constituency for the idea of a big Russian nation and the program of “reuniting” the lesser Little and White Russian branches—the Ukrainian and Belarusian nations—with the Great Russian trunk. The adoption of this vision attests to the inability of present-day Russian leadership to abandon the imperial way of thinking and accept the existence of other East Slavic nations. Russia today faces the difficult task of throwing off the historical legacy of empire, which prevents it from becoming a modern nation. The solution to the Russian Question lies not in the territorial expansion but in the formation of a law-based democratic society capable of living in harmony with its neighbors and playing a positive role in the modern world.

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Putin names condition for Ukraine’s retaking its eastern borders

Russian President Vladimir Putin says that Ukraine will be able to retake its eastern border with Russia only after constitutional reform has been introduced, according to Putin’s official website

“Paragraph 9 [of the Minsk II Protocol] – reinstatement of full control of the state border by the government of Ukraine based on the Ukrainian law on constitutional reform by the end of 2015, provided that Paragraph 11 has been fulfilled, which stipulates constitutional reform,” Putin cited the Minsk peace agreements in an interview with German daily Bild, which was recorded in Sochi on January 5.

“Consequently, the constitutional reform and political processes are to be implemented first, followed by confidence building on the basis of those reforms and the completion of all processes, including the border closure,” he said.

Putin insists that changes to the Ukrainian constitution should be permanent, as is stipulated in the Minsk agreements.

“The Ukrainian Government introduced the law on the special status of those territories, a law that had been adopted earlier, into the transitional provisions. But this law, which they incorporated in the Constitution, was adopted for the duration of three years only. Two years have already passed. When we met in Paris, both the German Chancellor and the French President agreed that this law should be changed and included in the Constitution on a permanent basis. Both the President of France and the Chancellor of Germany confirmed that. Moreover, the current version of the Constitution has not even been approved and the law has not become permanent. How can demands be made on Moscow to do what in fact must be done in line with the decisions of our colleagues in Kyiv?” he wondered.

As UNIAN reported earlier, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced late in 2015 that the Minsk agreements would be extended to 2016.

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Ukrainians say farewell to ‘Soviet champagne’ as decommunisation law takes hold

This past New Year’s Eve marked the last time Ukrainians could pop open “Soviet champagne”, as the Kiev factory that makes it has announced it is changing the popular drink’s name due to a law on decommunisation.

The regulations, which came into force last May, ban any street, town or product from having names that glorify communism. They also make it a crime to deny the “criminal character of the communist totalitarian regime of 1917-1991 in Ukraine”.

However, in the latest sign that many appear to be following the law in letter but not in spirit, the drink will be renamed Sovietov. “We have taken this step to save one of the main traditions of the new year celebration,” the company said.

Ersatz champagne with the “Soviet” brand name has been produced since 1937, when the brand was first introduced at the height of Joseph Stalin’s purges. It is a popular drink on New Year’s Eve and at other celebrations, and comes in sweet, semi-sweet and dry versions – and at a fraction of the price of real champagne.

More seriously, the new law means that all Ukrainian town and street names with links to Soviet leaders or officials will have to be changed, and statues of Lenin will have to be removed from town squares.

Kiev’s main Lenin statue was pulled down by protesters in December 2013 at the beginning of the Maidan revolution, and since then there has been a spate of Lenin downings across the country. Now, the move is official, though the first Bolshevik leader remains standing in some places, especially in the east of the country. In the town of Lisichansk, the monument has not been removed but was vandalised just before new year, with red paint poured over Lenin’s head and “I am the butcher of Ukraine” daubed on his body.

On 23 December, the Ukrainian parliament approved a list of 108 towns and villages that will have their names changed after local consultation, including Artemovsk, a major town in east Ukraine named after Comrade Artem, an early Russian revolutionary. The town will go back to its pre-revolutionary name of Bakhmut.

The biggest Ukrainian city affected by the law was Dnipropetrovsk, named after the Bolshevik leader Grigory Petrovskiy. However, in a sleight of hand, local politicians voted to rename the city in exactly the same way: Dnipropetrovsk. The proviso is that it is now named after St Peter, not Petrovsky. It is unclear whether the “new” name will be legally approved.

Kiev’s decommunisation law has caused controversy, with many criticising an addendum which states that Ukrainian independence movements during the second world war – some of which collaborated with the Nazis and were involved in massacres of Jews and Poles – should be respected as “fighters for Ukrainian independence”.

At a time when the country is embroiled in a war that has seen Russia-backed rebels take control of an eastern chunk of the country, the law does not seem to work to consolidate society, but rather the opposite. Many of those in eastern cities who are pro-Kiev are uneasy about Ukrainian nationalist heroes and disagree with removing the Soviet heritage. Critics have said the law itself is reminiscent of Soviet methods.

Last month, a Kiev court banned the Ukrainian communist party, accusing it of promoting separatism. The move was criticised by human rights organisations. John Dalhuisen, of Amnesty International, said: “The decision may be seen as dealing with the damaging vestiges of the Soviet past. In fact, it does exactly the opposite by following the same style of draconian measures used to stifle dissent.”

However, Volodymyr Viatrovych, director of Ukraine’s institute of national memory, said this was a false perception. “A lot of people think we don’t need to do anything with the Soviet past, that it will disappear of its own accord and a new generation will appear who don’t remember it,” he told the Guardian. “But the example of Russia shows us that if you don’t do anything with your Soviet past, it will resurrect itself. And we see a lot of people, even of the younger generation who were born after the Soviet Union collapsed, but they are absolutely Soviet and have a totally Soviet world view.”

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In Ukraine, Lenin Gets the Boot From Uncle Sam

KYIV, Ukraine—There’s a saying in Ukraine about the four stages of being poor. It goes like this: First, you don’t have any hryvnias (the Ukrainian currency). Second, you don’t have any food. Third, you don’t have any dollars. And finally, you don’t have your $2 bill.

For Ukrainians, dollars are a precious and jealously guarded rainy-day commodity. And for whatever reason, when the U.S. reintroduced the $2 bill in 1976, notes dated from that year became a popular good luck charm. Many Ukrainians still keep a $2 bill from 1976 in their wallet, with no intention of ever spending it.

But starting in 2014, as Ukraine’s currency fluctuated wildly against the dollar in the wake of revolution and amid a war against Russian-backed separatists, bank tellers reported a trend: Many Ukrainians were exchanging their $2 bills.

Some said it was a sign of how desperate the situation had become in the post-Soviet country. One Ukrainian journalist saw it more symbolically.

“They were cashing in on the American dream,” she said.

Ukrainian proclivity for American culture runs deeper than affinities for Big Macs, Nikes, and Hollywood flicks.

In the quarter-century since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has gone through revolutions and war to build a functioning democracy and free itself from Russian vassalage. Accordingly, for many Ukrainians, embracing American culture is a symbolic way to resist Moscow dating back to the Cold War.

Even today, Ukrainian rock bands sometimes play classic rock hits as a throwback to the Soviet days, when Western music was banned and rebellious musicians would sneak Western rock songs into their sets to the delight of crowds.

Psychological Operations

For some Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines of the ongoing war against Russian-backed separatists, American cultural symbols became a way to get under the enemy’s skin.

Over the summer in the front-line village of Artemivsk, four Ukrainian soldiers raised the Ukrainian flag in a pose remindful of the famous image of U.S. Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima.

One soldier in the photo was Denys Antipov, commander of a recon drone platoon in the 81st Airborne Brigade.

“Morale is good,” Antipov told The Daily Signal in an interview, describing conditions on the front line. “But we need a truck—it would be better if we had wheels to run away from shelling. We are a good target for the Russians.”

While the photo was partly a way “to have some fun,” Antipov said, the true purpose was “a kind of training before taking the same photo in Moscow.”

“It’s the future Kremlin flag photo,” he said. “This was just a rehearsal.”

In Pisky, a front-line city just outside the apocalyptic remains of the Donetsk airport, a Ukrainian soldier manning a machine gun emplacement in the trenches wore a T-shirt trumpeting the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

The soldier said he bought the shirt in Kyiv and was wearing it as a statement against Russia. When asked why he chose to wear that shirt into combat, he replied, “Reagan won the Cold War.”

He added: “And Putin would hate it.”

Over the summer in the Ukrainian village of Krymske, outside the separatist stronghold of Luhansk, Ukrainian soldiers renamed a street from that of a Soviet luminary to “John McCain Street.” They taped a paper printout with the U.S. senator’s picture to a power pole to make it official.

Canadian journalist and filmmaker Christian Borys asked the soldiers when they were going to name a street after President Barack Obama.

“When he sends us weapons,” more than one replied.


With sounds of gunfire audible in the background, 21-year-old Ivan Kharkiv, a soldier with the Ukrainian National Guard’s Azov Regiment, introduces himself in a clip on YouTube as “Thomas Miller.” A U.S. flag waves behind Kharkiv, a gift from a friend in New York City.

To Kharkiv’s right in the video is another Ukrainian soldier, whom Kharkiv introduces as “Ashton Kutcher.” The soldier nods approvingly and uncomprehendingly as Kharkiv speaks in thickly accented, staccato English.

“No vodka, no Russia, no Putin. Only Coca-Cola, only Barack Obama,” Kharkiv said.

“USA is OK,” he added.

Kharkiv, whose father fought with the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan, stood at a front-line position in Shyrokyne. The perpetual hotspot in the Ukraine war has seen more than a year of trench warfare, including heavy artillery attacks and tank battles. Ukrainian forces dug in here to stop a combined Russian-separatist offensive on nearby Mariupol, a key industrial city on the Sea of Azov.

Kharkiv told The Daily Signal that shortly after he raised the U.S. flag in Shyrokyne, combined Russian-separatist troops fired mortars at his position.

“It pissed them off,” he said. “The sad part is they probably thought, ‘Look, we were right. It’s the NATO legion; Americans really are fighting here.

“Their propaganda is so dumb, sometimes all we can do is laugh about it,” he added.

Blaming the Americans

Russian propaganda has painted the 2014 Ukrainian revolution as a CIA-sponsored coup to put in place a neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv.

Some Russian news reports have claimed that U.S. troops and weapons systems, including Apache helicopters, have been fighting for the Ukrainian government in the Donbas, Ukraine’s contested eastern territory on the Russian border.

Consequently, for some Ukrainians living in the Donbas with little access to news sources other than Russian ones, America is still the enemy. For them, as for many people living in Russia under the influence of the Kremlin’s propaganda, the Cold War never ended, and Soviet-era paranoia about global CIA conspiracies still runs deep.

In August 2014, this correspondent visited the Ukrainian city of Slavyansk less than a month after Ukrainian troops retook the area.

Evidence of the fighting was ubiquitous. The skeletons of tanks blown up by landmines sat on roadsides. Bullet and shrapnel holes pockmarked burned out buildings, making some walls look like Swiss cheese. Artillery craters dimpled the asphalt surface of roads like the surface of water in a rainstorm.

But the worst damage was in the small village of Semyonovka, just outside Slavyansk.

As they retreated from Slavyansk, combined Russian-separatist forces clashed here with Ukrainian troops. The residential blocks of this rural neighborhood resembled a scene from World War II.

Almost every house was destroyed. Windows were shattered and nearly every vertical surface was riddled by artillery shrapnel. Trees were stripped bare of branches and leaves, leaving behind only charred trunks.

The ground was churned into turbulent piles of black earth, interrupted every so often by the fins of unexploded mortars, which protruded above the surface. Everyday items like pots, pans, and toy dolls were scattered in ruined heaps where artillery detonations had blown them out from the interiors of homes.

It was a scene of absolute destruction and a measure of the intensity of this war.

Most residents had left before the battle, but a few stayed behind to ride out the fighting in their basements. About a month later, some residents were out on an overcast afternoon trying to salvage what was left of their homes.

Opposing Views

A simple survey with the help of a translator found that recollections of the battle varied widely among those who had been there for it.

Alexandra, 63, hid in her basement for the opening days. But she decided to flee when artillery shredded her home. She returned weeks later to find her home and the entire area in ruins.

She blamed the damage on combined Russian-separatist forces and said she was grateful that Ukrainian troops were back in control.

“At least it’s better than when the rebels were in charge,” she said. “Now the army is here, so nothing bad will happen.”

While Alexandra waited for a bus to take her into Slavyansk, across the street a middle-aged woman pushed a wheelbarrow loaded with concrete debris. Her husband and son were nearby, clearing away the walls of their home, which artillery had reduced to rubble.

“When the army leaves, there will be the People’s Republic of Donetsk,” the husband responded when asked about his allegiances, referencing one of the self-proclaimed separatist republics.

“This is all America’s fault,” his wife said while loading more rubble into the wheelbarrow. “The stupid people in the White House are causing problems all over the world.”

The husband said the family had hidden in their basement during the battle. When asked who had destroyed their home, whether it was combined Russian-separatist or Ukrainian artillery, the man’s response highlighted the power of Russian propaganda.

“It was the American CIA bomber planes that did this,” he said.

What led him to that conclusion, especially since he had witnessed the battle firsthand? The man responded: “I saw it on the news.”

Bye-Bye, Lenin

Under Soviet rule, American culture was a forbidden fruit in Ukraine and other Soviet states.

America, after all, was the enemy.

Inside a Soviet-era bomb shelter in Mariupol, the walls are lined with comic book-style illustrations of U.S. fighter jets dropping nuclear weapons on Soviet women and children.

“We were training to fight a war with America,” said Igor Bulgakov, 49, a former Ukrainian army lieutenant colonel who served as an officer in the Red Army during the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

In post-Soviet Ukraine, however, America and Russia have swapped roles.

In 2015, the U.S. Army began training the regular Ukrainian army and National Guard to fight combined Russian-separatist forces. The exercise, called Fearless Guardian, is ongoing at a former Soviet military base in Yavoriv, Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Kyiv passed a series of sweeping “decommunization” measures outlawing Soviet symbols such as statues of Vladimir Lenin, the hammer and sickle flag, and the Soviet national anthem.

“We are at war,” Ostap Kryvdyk, an adviser to the vice speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, told The Daily Signal in an earlier interview, adding:

The attack of Russia on Ukraine is not only a military attack, it is first and foremost an information attack that was started by the Soviet Union before and continued by Russia as the heir to the Soviet empire.

When Bulgakov was a lieutenant in the Red Army, he carried a picture of Lenin in his wallet. “Now I hate Lenin. I hate communism,” he said.

Bulgakov retired from the military in 2007, but supports the Ukrainian war effort by driving supplies to troops on the front lines.

“We’re in a war with Russia because they’re stuck in a Soviet mindset and we aren’t,” Bulgakov said. “We will never again be like brothers with Russia.”

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MH17 investigation: Russia has it coming

Malaysia, Netherlands, Australia, Belgium and Ukraine are eyeing the possibility of creating an independent international tribunal to investigate the downing of MH17 in July, 2014.

The proposal to create a tribunal surfaced when Russia vetoed July 30 similar Security Council resolution, Reuther’s reports, citing Netherlands’ FM representative.

“One of the variants is an international tribunal supported by the 5 countries,” the Dutch representative said.

Following the SC abortive vote, the Dutch FM Bert Kunders said the 5 countries will continue to look for mechanisms to bring to account those guilty of the MH17 catastrophe

There are satellite photos of MH17 downing, ex-SBU general says

Ex-head of SBU investigation department Gen. Vasyl Vovk says there exist the satellite imagery of how the Russian missile downed the MH17 passenger plane over Donbas.

Vovk released the information he had while in office to Russia-based Navaya gazeta Oct. 12, Ukrayinska pravda reports.

“There were no Russian satellites over the area at the time of the downing. Whose satellites were there? The imagery was made by one of the big powers,” he hinted.

“I stress that the imagery relates to the place and to the plane. Why they haven’t been published so far is anyone’s guess. The international investigators have not been given the photos, too,” the general said.

The imagery could prove a decisive evidence of the crime, he said.

The MH Boeing carrying 298 passengers and crew was shot down on July 2014 over Donbas.

EU-Ukraine Free Trade Deal Comes Into Effect

Ukraine’s free-trade agreement with the European Union came into force on January 1, coinciding with the start of Moscow’s food embargo against Kyiv.

The free-trade deal, signed in June 2014, is part of the broader EU Association Agreement and stands at the heart of the drastic deterioration of Ukraine’s relations with Russia.

The deal grants Ukraine tariff-free access to the EU’s giant market and is expected to boost Ukraine’s struggling economy.

The European Commission said in a statement of December 31 that “the agreement will contribute to the modernization and diversification of the Ukrainian economy and will create additional incentives for reform.”

Ukraine, whose market has been traditionally oriented toward Russia, will now have to turn itself toward the European market and adapt to EU standards and rules.

Russia, furious at seeing its Soviet-era satellite turn to the West, has long been critical of the trade deal.

An initial attempt to finalize the pact had failed in 2013, sparking protests in Kyiv that led to the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, followed by Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, and a Russian-backed separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine.

Russia has taken retaliatory measures, suspending its free-trade agreement with Ukraine and banning the import of Ukrainian food.

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Ukraine debates whether to celebrate Christmas twice

Ukraine, which marks Christmas on Jan. 7 according to Orthodox Christian tradition, has embarked upon a national debate about whether it should also celebrate on Dec. 25, a step that would bring it in line with Western Europe.

The debate – which reflects a re-examination of national identity under the impact of the falling-out with Russia – could sharply divide opinion and comes amid a heightened battle for influence between the Russian and Ukrainian branches of the Orthodox Church.

After Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea last year and pro-Kremlin separatists launched a rebellion in the east of the country, some Ukrainians began to re-examine their historically close cultural ties to Russia.

Activists in favour of making Dec. 25 – currently an ordinary working day in Ukraine – an official holiday have started two petitions which have appeared on the presidential web site.

If they garner enough support President Petro Poroshenko will have to consider the matter, though the Ukrainian parliament would have the final word.

Oleksander Turchynov, the secretary of Ukraine’s security council, has backed the idea, saying he favours a transition period during which Ukrainians could celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 as well as on Jan. 7.

The Russian Orthodox Church dominates Ukraine’s central, eastern and southern regions, while Catholics and Greek Catholics are concentrated in the west of the country.

“We, Christians of different confessions of Ukraine, without abandoning their own traditions and wanting to celebrate Christmas with the whole Christian world, ask for a holiday to be established in Ukraine on Dec. 25 in honour of Christmas,” one of the petitioners said.

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