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  • Dozens arrested as protests in Yerevan continue

    In the aftermath of the capitulation of ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, a number of protesters were detained in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, on Sept. 22, RF/ERL’s Armenian service report Source : kyivindependent.com/dozens-ar…

  • Re There were protests in Makhachkala against power outages recently. Explosion of the petrol station could worsen the situation in the region

    Re There were protests in Makhachkala against power outages recently. Explosion of the petrol station could worsen the situation in the region Source : twitter.com/Liveuamap…

  • Viktor Yanukovych: Ukraine’s scandal-ridden ex-president

    Viktor Yanukovych: Ukraine’s scandal-ridden ex-president

    When reports emerged that the Kremlin had been allegedly planning to install former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in a leadership role in the event they captured Kyiv following the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, Ukrainians were in disbelief.

    Yanukovych, 73, had been flatly rejected by the Ukrainian people twice, first during a presidential run in 2004 and then in 2014 when he was ousted following the successful EuroMaidan Revolution.

    When Yanukovych, then serving as Ukraine’s fourth president, refused to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union in November 2013, choosing instead to forge closer ties with Russia, Ukrainians took to the streets to demand the president reverse course.

    The protests soon sparked a revolution that grew to demand not only Yanukovych sign the agreement but also an end to the endemic corruption and cronyism that the Yanukovych regime epitomized.

    After security forces in Kyiv killed nearly a hundred protestors in February 2014, Yanukovych fled the country, seeking exile in Russia.

    Yanykovych is Ukraine’s most controversial and infamous president to date.

    What did Viktor Yanukovych do before becoming president?

    Yanukovych was born in 1950 into a working-class family in the eastern Ukrainian city of Yenakiieve in Donetsk Oblast. His education and academic background have been the subject of scrutiny several times, with many seriously questioning his qualifications.

    According to his official biography, he is a graduate of a mining vocational school in Yenakiieve and holds a master’s degree in international law and a doctorate in economics from the Donetsk-based Institute of Economic and Legal Research of the National Academy of Science of Ukraine.

    An investigation by the Ukrainian media outlet Ukrainska Pravda revealed, however, that his classmates do not recall Yanukovych ever studying at that institute. The former president has also been accused of plagiarizing his alleged academic work.

    Yanukovych is also known for his criminal background. In his late teenage years and early adulthood, he was convicted and incarcerated for robbery in 1967 and assault in 1970. His criminal records were wiped clean in 1978 after the court reviewed the cases and ruled him not guilty.

    In his early professional career, Yanukovych worked as a gas engineer and further specialized as a car mechanic. During the first part of his political career, he worked in different management positions, such as the General Director of the large Donbastransremont and Ukrvuglepromtrans manufacturing companies as well as the Donetsk Regional Motor Transport Production Association.

    Yanukovych’s political career grew quickly after he became Vice-Head of the Donetsk Oblast Administration in 1996. A year later, he became governor of Donetsk Oblast.

    Ukraine’s second president Leonid Kuchma named him as prime minister in 2002, and in 2003, Yanukovych became the head of the Party of Regions, a popular pro-Russian political party.

    How did he become president?

    Yanukovych, at the time prime minister, first ran for president in 2004, competing against ex-Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko. Yanukovych and his campaign were accused of trying to rig the election results, igniting a series of protests now known as the Orange Revolution.

    The revolution, which brought together an estimated 500,000 protestors on the streets of Kyiv, resulted in Ukraine’s Supreme Court ruling that the level of fraud made it impossible to determine a winner, forcing a revote. Yushchenko won the election in January 2005 and was president until 2010.

    Following his defeat, Yanukovych and his Party of Regions – at this time now the opposition – began their battle against Yushchenko and the then-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, openly questioning their credibility and conducting campaigns to discredit them.

    A political rivalry between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko caused cracks in their relationship. The Party of Regions won the 2006 parliamentary elections, and throughout 2006-2007, Yanukovych served as prime minister of Ukraine.

    Yushchenko dissolved the parliament in 2007, and once again, a coalition of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko gained the majority in parliament, forcing Yanukovych to step down.

    After his defeat in the 2004 elections, few believed he would be able to come back victorious. Yet he won the presidency in 2010 with 48.89% of the vote, receiving three percent more than Tymoshenko.

    What policies and actions is he known for?

    One of the first things Yanukovych did when he became president was to change the form of government from a parliamentary-presidential system to a presidential-parliamentary one, greatly expanding the powers of the president. Many critics saw this move as an unprecedented power grab.

    During Yanukovych’s tenure, the parliamentary majority was held by his Party of Regions and their political allies or proxies. Yanukovych’s government was known to be extremely corrupt and was consistently accused of cronyism and lavish spending.

    The inner circle of Yanukovych’s administration, often referred to as “the family,” consisted of two of his sons, Oleksandr and Viktor, the godfathers of his children, and close friends, most of whom were from Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

    In the three years of Yanukovych’s presidential tenure, he and his clan managed to illegally seize over 7,000 businesses in Ukraine through coercive means, according to the Anti-Raiding Union of Ukrainian Entrepreneurs. The firms they took over illegally were often forced to pay a “tribute” from their corporate gains or completely cede ownership to the “family.”

    The former president and his son also illegally acquired the 350-acre Mezhyhirya Residence outside of Kyiv. It is unknown how much they paid for the property. The residence had a private zoo, stables, tennis courts, a golf course, fountains, and gold-laden furniture, including a toilet.

    Yanukovych, in attempting to strengthen the country’s ties with Moscow, signed one of Ukraine’s most ill-fated agreements—the Kharkiv Pact—with then-President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev on April 21, 2010. The document prolonged the stay of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea for another 25 years up until 2042 in exchange for a 30% discount on gas deliveries.

    The pact was signed without parliamentary debate or public discussion. The deal also allowed Russia to station its troops in Sevastopol, Crimea. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet took an integral part in Russia’s 2014 occupation of Crimea.

    Yanukovych also made attempts to distance Ukraine from its national identity, stressing that the Russian language was being “too politicized” and that a so-called “Russian-speaking minority” needed to be protected. This position echoed Russian propaganda that has been claiming falsely for years that Russian speakers in Ukraine were under threat.

    In 2012, Yanukovych’s government enforced a new so-called language law that allowed using Russian as an official language, particularly in regions where the number of Russian speakers was more than 10 percent.

    Today Moscow uses a fabricated “language problem in Ukraine” and the utterly false “need to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine” to justify its aggression against its neighbor. There has never been any proof to suggest that Russian speakers have been the target of persecution in Ukraine.

    How and why was Yanukovych removed from power?

    When Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union in November 2013, instead deciding to strengthen ties further with Russia, hundreds of people gathered in Kyiv’s central Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in protest against the government’s decision.

    The peaceful gathering took a turn when Yanukovych’s government sent the Berkut special police forces to force them out from the square. This violent response shocked the public. The next day, thousands of people gathered in the streets. Within weeks, the protests had swelled into a full-scale revolution.

    For the next three months, Ukrainians camped out on the Maidan, demanding that the country move toward European integration, a change of government, early presidential elections, and that those responsible for the violence be held accountable. The revolution involved several violent clashes between protestors and pro-Kremlin special services who attempted to clear the Maidan of the protestors on multiple occasions.

    Viktor Yanukovych: Ukraine’s scandal-ridden ex-presidentDemonstrators take part in a mass rally on Independence Square in Kyiv on Feb. 9, 2014 during the Euromaidan Revolution. (Martin Bureau/ AFP via Getty Images)

    In the midst of the revolution, on Jan. 16, 2014, the government adopted a series of “anti protests laws” that restricted freedom of speech and assembly. The move only added fuel to the fire as protestors refused to obey these new draconian laws.

    Between Feb. 18-20, the Berkut special forces gunned down more than 100 protestors in the streets of Kyiv. Those killed are now memorialized in Ukraine as the “Heavenly Hundred.”

    In an attempt to bring an end to the revolution, Yanukovych and leaders of the parliamentary opposition signed an agreement “to end the political crisis” on Feb. 21, 2014.

    The agreement called to return the country to a parliamentary-presidential style of government, early presidential elections, the removal of security forces from downtown Kyiv, and an end to the violence.

    But it was too late. The Ukrainian people continued to demand for Yanukovych’s resignation.

    Understanding that he had lost the support of the people, he fled to Kharkiv late on Feb. 21 and then sought exile in Russia, leaving behind his lavish Mezhyhirya estate.

    In his absence, activists gained access to the property, uncovering copious amounts of evidence of Yanukovych and his clan’s crimes against the state.

    What has Yanukovych been doing since he fled Ukraine?

    Once living in exile in Russia, Yanukovych supported the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in the spring of 2014 and Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine.

    The pro-Russian ex-president has been sanctioned by Ukraine and the European Union, and in 2015 was stripped of the title of President of Ukraine and all the benefits that come with it.

    Later on, in 2019, Ukraine found Yanukovych guilty of a number of crimes, such as treason and aiding Russia’s war, and sentenced him to 13 years in prison in absentia.

    When Moscow began its full-scale invasion of ­­­­Ukraine in February 2022, the Russian security services had reportedly planned to set up Russian proxy administrations which would control Ukraine, with Yanukovych potentially as a key leadership figure.

    According to the Washington Post, Yanukovych was in Belarus in March 2022, waiting for his chance to return to Ukraine in the event Russia managed to capture Kyiv.

    Viktor Yanukovych: Ukraine’s scandal-ridden ex-president

  • Belarus Weekly: Sanctions, new passports, as Belarusians mark third anniversary of stolen election

    Belarus Weekly: Sanctions, new passports, as Belarusians mark third anniversary of stolen election

    Tensions mount between Belarus, Poland, and Lithuania amid the growing presence of Wagner mercenaries and the Belarusian military’s exercises near their shared borders.

    Warsaw and Vilnius accuse Minsk of engineering a renewed migrant influx by forcefully funneling asylum seekers to the border.

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    Exiled political opponents of Lukashenko discuss alternative “New Belarus” passports to protect Belarusians from the regime’s new citizenship legislation.

    The European Commission adopts new restrictions against Minsk to prevent Russia from circumventing sanctions via Belarus.

    Italy suspends their “golden visas” for Russian and Belarusian nationals, which offers them residency permits in exchange for large investments.

    Poland, Lithuania increasingly concerned amid Belarusian border threat

    Warsaw and Vilnius have expressed growing concerns over the threat presented by Belarusian military drills and the Wagner Group’s presence in Belarus.

    Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda on Aug. 3 in the Polish town of Suwalki, which lies on the Suwalki Corridor – an 80-kilometer stretch that separates Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast exclave from Belarus.

    Speaking two days after the Belarusian helicopters briefly violated Polish airspace, Morawiecki said NATO allies should be increasingly vigilant as the potential for provocations by Belarus remains very high.

    Poland and Lithuania have both expressed concerns about provocations by Russia, Belarus, and the Wagner Group, especially near the Suwalki Corridor.

    “Russia and Belarus are increasing the pressure on the borders, increasing the number of provocations, and we must be aware that the number of these provocations will grow,” Morawiecki said.

    “The Wagner Group is extremely dangerous and they are being moved to the eastern flank to destabilize it,” Morawiecki said.

    “We are considering any steps that will be necessary to protect our territory, protect our citizens, including the full isolation of Belarus, including full closure of the border,” Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski said on Aug. 5.

    Belarus Weekly: Sanctions, new passports, as Belarusians mark third anniversary of stolen election

    Lithuania also said it plans to close two border checkpoints with Belarus due to the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries on Belarusian territory.

    Thousands of Wagner fighters were redeployed to Belarus at Minsk’s invitation following the mercenary group’s short-lived rebellion in Russia in late June.

    Minsk has claimed that the mercenaries are training the Belarusian military, with exercises taking place in the westernmost Brest Oblast close to the Polish border.

    As tensions between Minsk, Warsaw, and Vilnius rise, Belarus announced on Aug. 7 that it started military exercises at the borders with Poland and Lithuania, near the Suwalki Gap.

    The Belarusian Defense Ministry said the drills are based on experiences from Russia’s war against Ukraine, noting that it includes the “use of drones as well as the close interaction of tank and motorized rifle units with units of other branches of the armed forces.”

    NATO spokesperson Oana Longescu said on Aug. 8 that NATO has not observed an immediate military threat from Wagner’s presence in Belarus, noting that the alliance is closely monitoring their activity.

    Warsaw accuses Minsk of orchestrating new migrant influx

    Warsaw accused Minsk of orchestrating a new illegal influx of migrants into the European Union via the Polish border.

    “We’re talking about an operation organized by the Russian and Belarusian secret services that is getting more and more intense,” Polish Deputy Interior Minister Maciej Wasik said, adding that more troops are needed at the border.

    Lukashenko’s regime orchestrated a migrant crisis in 2021, allowing thousands of asylum seekers into the country with the promise of entry into the European Union.

    Human rights organizations have detailed the beating, extortion, and sexual abuse faced by migrants in Belarusian detention centers at the border.

    According to the Polish Border Guard, 19,000 migrants attempted to cross the Belarusian border with Poland in 2023 – this exceeds the 16,000 total attempts made in 2022.

    Wasik noted that, while the situation is “not as chaotic today as it was two years ago,” Poland will send an additional 2,000 troops to reinforce the border.

    Meanwhile, Latvia has also boosted its defenses after it accused Minsk of deliberately bringing migrants to the border to enter Latvia illegally.

    Belarus Weekly: Sanctions, new passports, as Belarusians mark third anniversary of stolen election

    Exiled Belarusian opposition present ‘New Belarus’ passports

    Exiled political opponents of Lukashenko met in Poland on the eve of the anniversary of the protests that followed the fraudulent 2020 Belarusian presidential election on Aug. 9 to discuss the Belarusian democratic opposition’s recent achievements, including the proposed creation of “New Belarus” passports.

    Legislation introduced by Lukashenko’s regime in July allows Minsk to revoke the citizenships of Belarusians living abroad accused of so-called “extremist activity” and “harming national interests,” two charges frequently used to target those who oppose the dictatorship.

    Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who heads the United Transitional Cabinet, urged exiled opposition forces to unite and support the “New Belarus” movement, including alternative passports.

    “We are now conducting negotiations on the recognition of this document,” Transitional Cabinet’s Foreign Affairs Representative Valery Kavaleuski said. “There are certain positive signals.”

    According to Kavaleuski, a sample of the passport is being prepared, after which negotiations with the EU to recognize it will begin.

    “It will be a difficult process. This project is being done for the first time,” he said.

    The EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, said “the EU will stand with Belarusians as long as it takes on their path to an independent, democratic, and prosperous country as part of a peaceful Europe.”

    EU adopts new restrictions on Belarus to prevent sanctions circumvention

    The European Commission adopted new restrictions against Minsk to prevent Russia from circumventing sanctions via Belarus.

    The European Commission announced on Aug. 3 that it has restricted the shipment of “sensitive goods and technologies which contribute to Belarus’ military and technological enhancement,” as well as the export of firearms and ammunition, and goods related to the aviation and space industry.

    According to the press release, the new measures “create a close alignment of EU sanctions targeting Russia and Belarus and will help to ensure that Russian sanctions cannot be circumvented through Belarus.”

    The European Commission also sanctioned 38 Belarusians for their complicity in Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, as well as three Belarusian enterprises linked to the war effort.

    The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said it was “disappointed” in the EU’s decision to adopt new sanctions, calling it a “continuation of the EU’s unfriendly policy toward our country.”

    While Minsk has yet to send troops to Ukraine to directly assist Russia, Belarus is a co-belligerent in Russia’s full-scale war, and has allowed Russia to attack Ukraine from its territory.

    Belarus Weekly: Sanctions, new passports, as Belarusians mark third anniversary of stolen election

    Italy suspends ‘golden visas’ for Russians, Belarusians

    Italy announced on Aug. 8 that it has suspended the Investor Visa program for Russian and Belarusian nationals.

    The program offered Russians and Belarusians Italian residency permits in exchange for investments of over 500,000 euros ($547,000).

    The decision was announced over a year after the European Commission requested EU countries to suspend their “golden visas” programs and investment-based residence schemes in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

    “Some Russian or Belarusian nationals who are subject to sanctions or are significantly supporting the war in Ukraine might have acquired EU citizenship or privileged access to the EU, including to travel freely in the Schengen area, under these schemes,” the European Commission said in March 2022.

    According to Italian magazine Altreconomia, Italian authorities issued at least 32 Russian citizens with two-year “golden visas.” It did not specify how many were issued to Belarusians.

    Stolen elections

    The Spotlight segment provides readers with the historical context of contemporary events in Belarus.

    Aug. 9 marks the third year anniversary of the mass protests that followed the fraudulent Belarusian presidential election in 2020.

    Belarus’ Central Election Commission declared Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko president for the sixth consecutive term, crediting him just over 80% of the vote.

    The election, dismissed as fraudulent by the international community, tightened Lukashenko’s grip on the country and sparked mass discontent among Belarusians.

    The world likely remembers the striking photos of crowds waving white-red-white flags, now a symbol of opposition against Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime. But for Belarusians, the day evokes hope and solidarity, which slowly descended into a subsequent three years of terror.

    As Belarusians gathered en masse at polling stations to demand that the votes be transparently recounted, everyone expected that the regime would make arrests – but nobody anticipated the deaths that followed.

    Human Rights Watch reported five killed and seven critically injured from Aug. 9 to 17.

    Aliaksandar Taraikouski, 34, was fatally shot in the chest by riot police during the protests on Aug. 10, 2020, in Minsk as he stood with his arms in the air to show that he was unarmed. While Lukashenko admitted Taraikouski was killed, no investigation was launched into his death.

    Belarus Weekly: Sanctions, new passports, as Belarusians mark third anniversary of stolen election

    Aliaksandar Vikhor, 25, was detained by Belarusian authorities on Aug. 9, 2020, while on his way to meet his girlfriend in Belarus’ Homiel region. He reportedly did not participate in the post-election protests. He died while in custody after being deprived of medical assistance in the back of the police car.

    Henadz Shutau, 43, was shot in an altercation with riot police in Brest on Aug. 11, 2020. He died after eight days in the hospital.

    Mikita Kryutsou, 28, went missing on his way to work on Aug. 12, 2020, and was found hanging by his neck from a tree in a Minsk park. While Belarusian authorities claim he committed suicide, Kryutsou’s family and friends say he was killed by Belarusian law enforcement. The last photos from when Kryutsou was alive show him standing with the white-red-white flag in front of riot police.

    Kanstatsin Shyshmakou, 29, a member of a local election committee in Belarus’ Hrodno region, refused to sign off on the alleged voting results. He reportedly called his wife on Aug. 15, 2020, to tell her he had resigned from his position and subsequently went missing. His body was found in a nearby forest on Aug. 18, 2020.

    Belarusian authorities have continued to crack down on those who oppose Lukashenko’s dictatorship. According to Belarusian human rights watchdog Viasna, 1,491 people have been deemed political prisoners since Aug. 10, 2020.

  • The origins of the 2014 war in Donbas

    The origins of the 2014 war in Donbas

    There is a reason why Ukrainians insist the world refers to Russia’s assault against Ukraine in 2022 as a “full-scale” invasion.

    Russia’s war against Ukraine did not begin on Feb. 24, 2022, but in 2014, with both the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.  

    While the Kremlin openly boasted of its annexation of the Crimean peninsula, it tried to conceal its involvement in the war in Donbas for years.

    Moscow instead spread the false narrative that self-organized “separatist” groups in eastern Ukraine were responsible for the aggression, despite no evidence to suggest that a genuine separatist movement existed in eastern Ukraine at the time.

    Many politicians, experts, and journalists around the world have played into Russian propaganda, framing the war in Donbas as a civil war. Russian military formations were often referred to as Ukrainian “separatists,” despite the documented presence of Russian military personnel and weapons in Ukraine.

    The West’s condemnation went as far as limited sanctions, which did little to stop Russia’s war. Ukraine was left alone to fight a war that killed thousands, plunged once-prosperous regions into chaos and poverty, and displaced over a million Ukrainians.

    For the Kremlin, the incursion into Ukrainian territory was an attempt to impede Ukraine’s democratic, pro-Western course, and a precursor of the full-scale invasion in February 2022.  

    How did Russia invade and occupy parts of Donbas?

    Just over a month before Russian military groups invaded Donbas in April 2014, the Ukrainian people successfully ousted Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych during the EuroMaidan Revolution.

    The Kremlin capitalized on the post-revolutionary chaos and sent its troops into the Crimean peninsula days after the revolution succeeded in February 2014. They immediately took the peninsula under control, and proclaimed its annexation in March 2014.

    Throughout March and April, demonstrations against the pro-Western revolution and in support of Russia began appearing in the east and south of Ukraine. Protestors demanded to hold local referendums on joining Russia – unconstitutional in Ukraine – among other pro-Russian demands. The demonstrations were small, numbering generally in the hundreds of people.

    Ukrainian authorities have gathered evidence that these demonstrations were organized by Russian citizens who collaborated with Kremlin-linked politicians in Ukraine.

    Sergey Glazyev, former advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, was tasked with organizing pro-Russian protests in Zaporizhzhia, Crimea, and Odesa, according to Ukrainian law enforcement findings in 2016. There were even reports of buses bringing crowds of Russian nationals to take part in the rallies.

    Around the same time, armed men without insignia also managed to take over government buildings in the regional capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk, but didn’t immediately take full control of the two regional capitals.

    The occupation of cities in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts came in phases. While armed men infiltrated or took over government buildings in cities across the two oblasts in March and April, militants led by former Russian FSB officer Igor Girkin moved to formally occupy Sloviansk on April 12 immediately followed by Kramatorsk, cities north of Donetsk.

    They were later kicked out by Ukrainian troops in July, moving to the regional capital of Donetsk, where they faced little resistance from the local or national forces.

    The origins of the 2014 war in DonbasRussian-backed militants guard a police station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk after it was seized by a few dozen gunmen on April 12, 2014. (Anatoly Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

    In an interview to a Russian media outlet in 2014, Girkin openly claimed responsibility for helping to ignite the war in Donbas and confirmed the presence of the Russian military and weapons on Ukrainian territory. He has repeated these claims.

    On May 11, 2014 militias coordinated by Russia proclaimed a sham referendum on the independence of what they refer to as the “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics,” the name given to the Russian occupied, proxy-led parts of Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.

    Russian proxies then announced around 90% support for independence in both oblasts. Ukraine and much of the international community have deemed these so-called referendums illegal and illegitimate.

    How did Ukraine respond to the invasion?

    In April, the Ukrainian government announced an “anti-terrorist operation,” often referred to in Ukraine as “ATO,” in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. The Ukrainian military and special forces then began engaging in armed clashes with Russian-led units in eastern Ukraine.

    Ukraine was severely underprepared for the invasion. Decades of corruption had left the military nearly in ruins, while the government still wasn’t fully formed after Yanukovych was toppled in February.

    Moreover, when the invasion started, Ukraine didn’t have a president. Parliament’s chairman Oleksandr Turchynov temporarily assumed the presidency after the revolution. Petro Poroshenko was elected president in late May, as battles in Donbas were already underway.

    Over the summer of 2014, a Ukrainian counteroffensive into the areas around Sloviansk and Kramatorsk liberated big swaths of land, forcing Russian-backed forces to flee south-east to Donetsk.

    What were the Minsk agreements?

    The first peace plan to try to stop the fighting, the Minsk Protocol, was signed in September 2014. Just a month prior, more than 350 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the Battle of Ilovaisk when Russian forces massacred Ukrainian fighters that were retreating through an agreed-upon corridor.

    Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) agreed on a 12-point ceasefire deal, with OSCE playing a monitoring role. Germany and France mediated the talks.  

    The protocol failed. Russia broke the ceasefire almost immediately, eventually reigniting the fight for the Donetsk Airport – one of the bloodiest and memorialized battles of Russia’s war in Donbas. Ukrainian forces also suffered huge losses in the Battle of Debaltseve the following winter.

    A revised version of the protocol, Minsk II, was signed in 2015, but it also failed to stop the war for all the same reasons. Russia again breached the ceasefire and didn’t move back its heavy weapons, as was required.

    Highly contentious provisions of the Minsk agreements included amnesty for all those involved in the fighting, decentralization in Ukraine to give more power to local authorities in Donbas, as well as local elections in Ukraine’s eastern territories.

    Many believe that the agreements were null from the very beginning. Ukraine was already under attack by an outnumbered enemy, with no help from the West, and was thus pressured to sign even ill-advised deals to prevent further destruction.

    Although the front line remained static after 2015, crossfire battles continued killing soldiers and civilians for the next seven years.

    Why did Russia invade?

    Russia’s invasions of Crimea and Donbas are seen by many as a reaction to Ukraine’s pro-Western course.

    After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was re-establishing itself as an independent, democratic state after decades of communist rule.

    In 2004-2005, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution led to an overturning of presidential election results after people took to the streets to protest against election fraud. The candidate accused of rigging the election was no other than Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych, later elected in 2010 and toppled in 2014 during the EuroMaidan Revolution – followed by the annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas.

    Ukrainian society, slowly but surely, was coalescing around democratic ideals. Civil society grew larger and louder. Meanwhile, Putin’s Russia was moving towards authoritarianism and wished to keep Ukraine under its influence.

    The Kremlin never truly accepted the independence of Ukrainian land, culture, and history. Ukraine’s rejection of Russian superiority and pro-European course, as well as the risk of spilling revolutionary ideals across the border, was seen as a catastrophe in the Kremlin.

    The origins of the 2014 war in Donbas

    The invasion of Donbas and Crimea is seen by many as an attempt to force Ukraine to give up its Western aspirations.

    Is the war in Donbas a civil war?

    The war in Donbas is not a civil war, as it was instigated and coordinated by Russia.

    Although the Kremlin consistently framed the war as an internal Ukrainian struggle, international organizations and journalists have found direct proof of Russia’s involvement.

    From the pre-war spread of secessionist sentiments to the fighting itself, all forces that fought against the Ukrainian government were fully or in part coordinated and financed by the Kremlin – and some simply were Russian, including the regular Russian army.

    For instance, Bellingcat has documented Russian artillery attacks and Russian military vehicles in Donbas.

    Amnesty International said in 2014 that there was “evidence that the fighting has burgeoned into what Amnesty International now considers an international armed conflict.”

    An extensive report on Russia’s involvement by the D.C.-based think tank Atlantic Council also discusses the Russian army fighting in Donbas, supplying militias, and otherwise supporting the war.

    The origins of the 2014 war in DonbasPro-Russian protesters holding Russian, Soviet, and Russian proxy paramilitary units flags gathered in front of the seized and barricaded Donetsk Oblast regional administration building in downtown Donetsk on April 4, 2014. (Alexander Khrebet/The Kyiv Independent)

    The European Court of Human Rights said in a ruling that “areas in eastern Ukraine in separatist hands were, from May 11, 2014 and up to at least Jan. 26, 2022, under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation.”

    And in 2021, Russia was even caught admitting to stationing units of the Russian Armed Forces on Ukraine’s occupied territories in court documents.

    What has been the cost of Russia’s invasion of Donbas in 2014?

    Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts were industrial powerhouses before Russia’s invasion, with dozens of metallurgical, coal, chemical, and mechanical engineering enterprises that exported products all around the world.

    The region brought around 15.7% of Ukraine’s GDP, and 14.7% of Ukraine’s population lived there, according to the London-based consulting firm Centre for Economics and Business Research.

    The work of many of these enterprises came to a standstill as Russian attacks damaged industrial property, millions of locals fled the hostilities, and blockades between Ukraine and Russian-occupied territories abolished trade. The invasion also led to a fall in Ukraine’s international exports and foreign investment.

    The Centre for Economics and Business Research found that Ukraine suffered a total of $102 billion in losses from Russia’s war in Donbas from 2014 to 2021. This means that annually, Ukraine was losing around 8% of its pre-war GDP just due to Russia’s invasion of Donbas.

    At least two million people were forced to flee their homes because of the fighting. And roughly the same amount of people continued to live under Russian occupation – amid complete poverty, Kremlin indoctrination, and crossfire along the front, as Ukraine fought off continuous Russian attacks.

    Thousands of Ukrainians were held hostage in Russian-occupied territories, including civilians. They were reportedly beaten, tortured, and held in prisons that many described as concentration camps.

    At least 3,900 civilians and 4,200 soldiers died in Donbas as of February 2021, according to the U.N. Almost 20,000 civilians and soldiers were injured.

  • 9 years and counting. How Russia began its aggression against Ukraine in 2014

    After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, international media went on to announce the “beginning” of war, the latter a term long-banished to existence in history textbooks alone.  Yet, Russia’s war against Ukraine started years earlier. 

    The misconceptions appearing as non-recognition of the continuity of Russian aggression in Ukraine occurred not by accident. Starting with the Russian illegal annexation of Crimea and later the armed aggression in Donbas, Russia has denied the involvement of its troops in every possible way. Moscow made considerable efforts to create a myth in the information field in the West about “an internal Ukrainian conflict.” Russian foreign-language propaganda channels, such as Russia Today, contributed to the active spread of these myths.

    Let’s recall how Russia’s war against Ukraine really began. Delve deeper into the background and key events of the beginning of the Russian war against Ukraine in our special material.

    Chapter I. Protests

    The beginning of 2014 was one of the most challenging years in Ukraine’s modern history. The Revolution of Dignity continued and the domestic situation remained tense. A few days later, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia, with some Ukrainian ministers and officials to follow.

    On Feb. 23, 2014, Ukraine’s Parliament Speaker Oleksandr Turchynov was appointed as acting President, and the parliament began forming a new government. As the revolution continued and the consequences of Yanukovych’s escape settled in, Russia began to realize its long-prepared “script”  the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

    After illegally annexing Crimea, Russia did not stop. At the beginning of spring 2014, Russia launched an active disinformation campaign to undermine the situation inside Ukraine, particularly targeting the country’s eastern and southern regions. 

    In March 2014, protests began in Donetsk and Luhansk regions with both, pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian rallies held. Pro-Russian rallies had Russian citizens as attendees

    On March 3, 2014, Russia moved military equipment and set up refugee centers on the border with Ukraine. Military equipment had been spotted on Russian territory bordering Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk regions. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry warned that Russia is planning the next invasion.

    On March 5, 2014, a 10,000-strong rally against the war and in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity took place in the center of Donetsk.  Four days later, a rally was held in Luhansk to mark the 200th anniversary of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko’s birth. People with Ukrainian flags recited Shevchenko’s poems and sang the national anthem. In both cases, pro-Ukrainian protesters were attacked by pro-Russian activists.

    Meanwhile, pro-Russian rallies continued in cities. In Donetsk, pro-Russian protesters seize the regional state administration and put up the Russian flag on April 6, 2014. On the same day, in Luhansk, pro-Russian activists broke into the building of the regional Security Service of Ukraine office and seized it. From then on, a pro-Russian armed uprising began in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

    Chapter II. Anti-Terrorist Operation

    The violent seizure of government bodies by pro-Russian demonstrators went on to take place in other cities of Donbas. Local authorities in the east of Ukraine were attacked by hybrid armed formations. The operations were led by Russian army officers. 

    For example, the capture of Sloviansk in the Donetsk region was managed by Russian military man Igor Girkin, an ex-Federal Security Service of Russia (FSB) employee. 

    Over time, these pro-Russian hybrid forces took control of most major cities in Donbas. Half of the Donetsk and Luhansk region were occupied

    In response to the violent developments in eastern Ukraine, acting President of Ukraine Oleksandr Turchynov announced the launch of an Anti-Terrorist Operation, which involved the Armed Forces of Ukraine,  units of the National Guard and volunteer battalions.

    With the arrival of Russian proxy forces, political repression began in Donbas. On April 17, 2014,  in Horlivka, Donetsk region,  deputy of the city council Volodymyr Rybak was kidnapped as he had tried to remove the Russian flag from the building. For this act, he was kidnapped, tortured and ruthlessly murdered. As the Security Service of Ukraine later reported, a representative of the Russian Armed Forces ordered to “neutralize” Rybak.

    In June 2014, members of Russian proxy forces tortured and killed Stepan Chubenko, a 16-year-old resident of Kramatorsk, Donetsk region. Prior to murdering Chubenko, the  Russian-led militants found a ribbon in the colors of the Ukrainian flag and a scarf of the Karpaty Lviv football club in his backpack. 

    Chapter III. The war that will not end

    After the start of the Anti-Terrorist Operation, the gradual liberation of the captured cities and villages of Donbas began. 

    In early July 2014, the Ukrainian forces changed their tactics and launched a rapid counter-offensive. On July 5, 2014, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in Donetsk region were liberated, followed by Bakhmut the next day, and later Toretsk, Avdiivka and other cities. By mid-August 2014, Ukrainian forces had liberated a significant portion of the Russian militant-controlled territory.

    By then, the Russian army had entered the war in full. On July 11, 2014, Russian troops launched a missile attack from Russian territory targeting the Ukrainian forces near Zelenopillya, Luhansk region. During July and August 2014, Russia fired artillery shells from its territory into Ukraine. Residents of the border town of Gukovo in Russia even filmed a rocket attack on video.

    The end of August 2014 became a turning point of the beginning of Russian aggression against Ukraine. Then, Russia sent regular troops into Ukraine, halting the Ukrainian counter-offensive.

    In August 2014, the Ukrainian military fought for an important strategic object – the city of Ilovaysk, Donetsk region. The Ukrainian forces had almost managed to liberate the city, but after a direct intervention by Russian regular troops, the Ukrainian military were surrounded. According to official figures, 366 Ukrainian soldiers were killed, and 158 more are missing to this day.

    This eventually led to the loss of de facto control over certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. 

    In September 2014, agreements on a ceasefire and the establishment of a demarcation line were signed in Minsk. The Russian side systematically violated them.

    Chapter IV. To be continued 

    Russia did not plan to abide by any peace treaties. It continued to violate Ukrainian sovereignty following the Minsk agreements and it continues to do so to this day. 

    An overview Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression from 2014 onwards can be found in our special historical project OPIR. 

    On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale armed invasion of Ukraine. 

    And so the war continues, nine years and counting. 


  • Defense Ministry: Russian forces aim to maintain control over land corridor into occupied Crimea

    Russian forces are focusing on maintaining control of the land corridor to occupied Crimea in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, the Defense Ministry's Military Media Center reported on July 29.

    Russia occupied Crimea in 2014 and orchestrated pro-Moscow protests and the seizure of several cities in Donetsk Oblast, aiming to secure a land corridor that runs from Russia's southwestern cities all the way to occupied Crimea.

    Ukrainian military operations to liberate Mariupol and several other settlements in the south of Donetsk Oblast in the spring of 2014 dashed the Kremlin's longing of establishing such a corridor for years.

    When Russia unleashed its full-scale invasion in 2022, its forces occupied the southern parts of Kherson, Zaporizhzia, and Donetsk Oblast, including Mariupol, setting up the land corridor up to the occupied peninsula.

    The Military Media Center also reported that Russian forces are striving to prevent attacks on their fleet and fortify Black Sea and Azov Sea naval bases.

    Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces are conducting their summer counteroffensive in at least three directions, including two sectors in the southeast that could potentially cut off the land corridor to Crimea.

    The bulk of the Ukrainian forces committed to the counteroffensive has been deployed southeast, two unnamed U.S. officials told CNN on July 27.

    The report indicates that the counteroffensive has breached Russian defensive lines in the southeast, prompting the swift deployment of reserve units to seize the advantage.

    On the same day, Ukraine's military General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces are holding down their new positions in the southeast, in the Melitopol and Berdiansk directions, after making gains during the counteroffensive.

    Read also: Ukraine’s counteroffensive lurches forward: Key moment looms as more forces committed

  • Belarus Weekly: Minsk, Moscow abduct Ukrainian children

    Belarus Weekly: Minsk, Moscow abduct Ukrainian children

    The head of the Belarusian Red Cross admits the branch helps Russia abduct children from Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine. He says the organization has, is, and will continue to be actively involved.

    Thousands of Wagner Group mercenaries arrive in Belarus.

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    Lukashenko says that the Wagner troops stationed in Belarus are eyeing Poland, as Warsaw continues to up its defenses amid the mercenaries’ arrival.

    The EU ambassadors agree to adopt “restrictive measures” against Belarus due to its complicity in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

    Minsk says it applied to join BRICS, a grouping of the world’s leading developing economies, back in May.

    Belarus’ Red Cross head admits involvement in abducting Ukrainian children

    The head of the Belarusian Red Cross, Dzmitryi Shautsou, admitted the organization’s involvement in the forced deportation of children from Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine to Belarus.

    “When they accused the Republic of Belarus of kidnapping children who come to us for rehabilitation – frankly speaking, the Belarusian Red Cross has been, and is, and will be actively involved in this,” Shautsou said during an interview with Belarusian state TV in the Russian-occupied city of Lysychansk.

    He claimed the abductions were so-called “recreational trips” to help the children “forget the horrors of the war.”

    Belarus Weekly: Minsk, Moscow abduct Ukrainian children

    Shautsou was shown wearing military clothes adorned with the letter Z, which is a pro-war symbol for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

    The Belarusian Red Cross is the largest humanitarian organization in Belarus and is part of the international Red Cross movement.

    The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) issued a statement saying that it was “not made aware” of Shautsou’s visit to occupied Lysychansk and not “involved in any of the (Belarusian branch’s) activities, including with children.”

    “It is essential that all components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement maintain their independence from governments and weapon bearers,” the IFRC statement said.

    The Red Cross’ Ukrainian branch has asked the IFRC to consider excluding the Belarusian branch from the organization.

    Russia has systematically deported children from Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine during its full-scale war. According to official estimates, over 20,000 children have been abducted, although the real figure is likely much higher.

    Belarusian authorities have reportedly confirmed hosting over 1,000 children from Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.

    Under international law, the deportation of civilians is considered a war crime. The forced transfer of children from one place to another amounts to genocide.

    The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova for organizing the illegal transfers.

    The European Parliament called on the ICC to issue a similar arrest warrant against Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko for his complicity in the crime, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged the ICC to do the same for Shautsou.

    Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office said it has launched an investigation into the Belarusian Red Cross’ involvement in the deportations, noting that the organization’s actions constitute a violation of international law.

    Belarus Weekly: Minsk, Moscow abduct Ukrainian childrenDzmitryi Shautsou, Head of the Belarusian Red Cross, near the Polish border in 2021 (Photo by Ulf Mauder/picture alliance via Getty Images).

    Belarus, Wagner mercenaries hold joint training near Polish border

    The Belarusian military and the Wagner Group’s troops held a four-day joint training exercise in Brest Oblast near the Polish border amid the arrival of thousands of mercenaries to Belarus.

    “For four days, special tactical training classes are being held at the Brest training ground with the involvement of the Wagner Group fighters,” the Belarusian Defense Ministry said, adding that the exercises are aimed at modernizing the Belarusian military.

    The announcement came after Prigozhin claimed on July 19 that the Wagner Group will make the Belarusian army the “second (best) army in the world.”

    According to Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service spokesperson Andrii Demchenko on July 22, around 5,000 Wagner troops have arrived in Belarus since the mercenary group’s aborted mutiny in late June.

    Belarusian Hajun, a monitoring group that has tracked the Russian military’s movement in Belarusian territory since the start of the full-scale war, said the 11th Wagner convoy arrived in the village of Tsel.

    The column reportedly included at least 29 vehicles, namely a UAZ-Patriot, two Ural-4320 trucks, two KAMAZ trucks, six truck tractors with six excavators and a pickup truck, an offroad vehicle, and 11 other trucks.

    According to the monitoring group, the vehicles moved along Belarus’ P43 highway toward Tsel.

    The status of the Wagner Group’s mercenaries in Belarus is uncertain. Following the Wagner Group’s failed mutiny in Russia, Lukashenko allegedly brokered a deal with Prigozhin to allow them to relocate to Belarus.

    Putin said Wagner mercenaries that did not participate in the armed insurrection would be incorporated into the Russian military.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Department said on July 21 that Wagner mercenaries stationed in Belarus are being reassimilated into the Russian military.

    “We’ve certainly seen Wagner forces get sort of reintegrated within the Russian military,” U.S. Defense Department Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said.

    However, the Wagner Group announced via Telegram that it will close its recruitment center in Russia’s Krasnodar Krai, instead opening a temporary center in Belarus.

    According to the Institute for the Study of War, “Wagner forces in Belarus pose no military threat to Poland or Ukraine… until and unless they are re-equipped with mechanized equipment.”

    Belarus Weekly: Minsk, Moscow abduct Ukrainian children

    Lukashenko says Wagner troops want to invade Poland

    During a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on July 23, Lukashenko reportedly joked that the Wagner Group mercenaries stationed in Belarus are eyeing Poland.

    “The Wagner guys have started to stress us. They want to go west. ‘Let’s go on a trip to Warsaw and Rzeszow,’” Lukashenko is quoted as saying.

    “Of course, I keep them (Wagner mercenaries) in the center of Belarus, as agreed,” he added.

    Lukashenko also presented Putin with what he claimed was a map of Poland’s plan to attack Belarus. “As we can see, the ground is being prepared,” Lukashenko claimed.

    The dictator also accused Poland of wanting to “annex western Ukraine under the guise of NATO enlargement.”

    Poland is one of Ukraine’s key backers in defending against Russia’s war.

    U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller called the claim “another irresponsible statement by Lukashenko.”

    “I would say that there is only one country in the region that has demonstrated not only the intention but also the willingness to invade its neighbors, and that is Russia, not Poland or any other country,” he said, adding that NATO will defend Poland if necessary.

    Warsaw decided on July 19 to move troops to eastern Poland after the reported arrival of Wagner troops to Belarus.

    Earlier, Putin accused Poland of having territorial ambitions in the former Soviet Union, stating that any aggression toward Belarus would be met by Russia with “all the means at our disposal.”

    Warsaw denied any territorial ambitions in Belarus.

    Putin also claimed that the western part of Poland was a gift from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and that Russia would remind Warsaw of it.

    “Stalin was a war criminal, guilty of the death of hundreds of thousands of Poles. Historical truth is not debatable,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted on July 21, apparently in reference to Putin’s claim. “The ambassador of the Russian Federation will be summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

    Following Putin’s remark, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on July 23 that Kyiv and Warsaw will “always stand united.”

    “Unlike Russia, Poland and Ukraine have learned from history and will always stand united against Russian imperialism and disrespect for international law.”

    EU ambassadors to adopt ‘restrictive measures’ against Belarus

    Ambassadors from the European Union’s member states agreed on July 26 to adopt “restrictive measures” against Belarus due to its complicity in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

    “Today, EU ambassadors agreed on adopting restrictive measures in view of the situation in Belarus and the involvement of Belarus in the Russian aggression against Ukraine. The measures will include listings of individuals and entities,” the Spanish Presidency of the Council of the EU said in a Tweet.

    No further information was provided.

    Politico reported on July 18, citing unnamed EU diplomats, that the EU informally agreed to impose a set of military sanctions against Belarus.

    The proposed package reportedly includes restrictions on battlefield equipment, including aviation parts, and will parallel the sanctions imposed on Russia in an attempt to mitigate Moscow’s rerouting of sanctioned goods via Belarus.

    Meanwhile, Deutsche Welle said on July 18 that the EU is preparing new sanctions for the anniversary of Belarus’ fraudulent presidential election in August 2020, which tightened Lukashenko’s illegitimate grip on the country.

    Belarus says it applied to join BRICS

    Belarus applied in May to join BRICS, a grouping of the world’s leading developing economies comprised of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, Belarusian state media said on July 25.

    “This decision was an absolutely logical step in the context of… expanding cooperation in multilateral formats with traditional partners and friendly states,” the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said.

    The BRICS countries have all refused to join Western economic sanctions against fellow member Russia following its full-scale war against Ukraine.

    The Belarusian Foreign Ministry claimed that BRICS is discussing a framework for cooperation with non-member states along the lines of “friends of BRICS” or “BRICS partner countries.”

    BRICS is due to hold a summit in South Africa in August.

    Putin’s attendance at the upcoming BRICS summit has been contentious since the ICC issued a warrant for his arrest over the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children. As a signatory of the Rome Statute, South Africa is obliged to detain the Russian president if he enters the country.

    South Africa’s Presidential Office announced on July 19 that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will attend the summit in Putin’s stead.

    Enemies of the regime – Ales Bialiatski and Human Rights Center Viasna

    The Spotlight segment provides readers with the historical context of contemporary events in Belarus.

    Human Rights Center Viasna became one of the United Nations Human Rights Award recipients on July 20. The prize is given once every five years to “send the signal of appreciation of the human rights activists’ work.”

    Meanwhile, Ales Bialiatski, founder of Viasna, began his third year in a Belarus jail on politically motivated charges.

    The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bialiatski, his deputy Valiantsin Stefanovich, and human rights activists Uladzimir Labkovich and Zmitser Salauyou were accused of “financing actions grossly disrupting public order.” Bialiatski received a 10-year prison term, and his colleagues were punished for 7-9 years.

    Viasna-96 emerged in the aftermath of the series of demonstrations against Belarus’ integration with Russia that took place in 1996 and resulted in nearly 200 arrested protesters.

    The organization started providing them and their families with legal help, observing the elections, and documenting the regime’s misconduct.

    By 1996, Bialiatski was the director of the Maksim Bahdanovich Literary Museum. He recalled combining museum work with human rights advocacy as he did not believe the organization would last long.

    “I thought that in 2-3 (maximum 5) years, there would be no need for it, and we would return to our usual work — museology, literary, scientific, and political studies. Unfortunately, I was wrong,” Bialiatski once said.

    After the 2001 presidential elections, the pressure on civil society increased. In 2003, Viasna Center was deprived of registration and decided to continue the work regardless.

    The first criminal case against Bialiatski was opened on August 4, 2011, after Lithuanian and Polish authorities disclosed information about the foreign bank accounts of Belarusian activists to the Belarusian authorities.

    These accounts accumulated financial aid for victims of Belarusian regime repressions.

    Bialiatski was accused of concealing profits on a particularly large scale and sentenced to 4.5 years of imprisonment. He pleaded not guilty and was recognized as a political prisoner.

    After serving three years of his term, he was released on amnesty.

    During his imprisonment, Bialiatski wrote books with his views on Belarusian culture and history and his experiences in prison, which were later published.

    In 2020, Viasna monitored the elections and documented violations. The human rights center also recorded cases of administrative and criminal persecution of Belarusians that took part in protests afterward.

    Viasna began tracking politically motivated arrests and now keeps count of political prisoners in the country, monitors the conditions of their detention, and helps their families.

    On February 16, 2021, Belarusian law enforcers searched the main office of Viasna, alleging the organization financed the 2020 protests. On July 14, 2021, Bialiatski and several of his colleagues were arrested.

    The wife of Ales Bialiatski, Natallia Pinchuk, is uncertain if she will see her husband again.

    “Given the prison conditions, a ten-year term is a life sentence,” she said.

    Like other high-profile political prisoners, Bialiatski is held without the right to correspondence, and his location and condition have been unknown since April 2023.

    Viasna Human Rights Center continues its work on helping the oppressed and documenting the regime's crimes.

  • Tkachenko dismissal: Why was Ukraine's culture minister controversial?

    Tkachenko dismissal: Why was Ukraine's culture minister controversial?

    On July 27, Ukraine’s Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, dismissed Oleksandr Tkachenko from the post of minister of culture and information policy in a vote of 321 to 2.

    The issue came to a vote after the Parliamentary Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy rejected Tkachenko’s resignation on July 26.

    On July 20, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that he had asked Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal to consider replacing Tkachenko.

    Later that evening, the minister himself announced that he was resigning from his position, claiming there was a “wave of misunderstanding about the importance of culture in wartime.”

    In his resignation statement, Tkachenko highlighted the importance of culture during the war and added that funds spent on culture “are no less important than on drones, because culture is the shield of our identity and our borders.”

    His words drew a mixed response on Ukrainian social media, with one Ukrainian soldier tweeting, sarcastically, that his fellow fighters should be grateful to Tkachenko and saying that drones are not necessary in the trenches: “What do you really need? That’s right. A good movie!”

    Who is Oleksandr Tkachenko?

    The minister was an unpopular figure for many in the Ukrainian cultural sector and his resignation comes after months of complaints. A petition calling for his dismissal reached 25,000 signatures in June, the minimum amount needed for consideration by the government.

    On June 19, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said in response that there were currently not enough grounds for his dismissal.

    Tkachenko was appointed minister of culture in June 2020, after becoming an MP for the Servant of the People party in the parliamentary elections of July 2019.

    Prior to joining politics he held influential positions in the media, including as director of 1+1 Media Group. The company is owned by Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky and 1+1 channel regularly screened Zelensky’s comedy shows during his acting career. During his presidential campaign, the channel aired his shows more frequently, arguably trying to give his campaign an extra boost.

    Tkachenko wrote a letter of resignation in November 2021, in part due to his dissatisfaction with the allocated budget for culture for 2022. He stayed in his post, however.

    Calls for dismissal

    Tkachenko’s tenure was marked with a few scandals, each of them leading to calls for his dismissal.

    In August 2022, protests erupted when it was announced that the Dovzhenko Center, an organization that houses Ukraine’s largest film archive, would be reorganized and moved to a new location. Tkachenko was blamed in role in this decision, but he claimed the State Film Agency had moved forward without consulting the Culture Ministry.

    According to Open Democracy, opponents to the reorganization claimed the choice “had been influenced by property development interests,” as the center occupies a lucrative area of Kyiv that the state film agency can exploit for rental income.

    The President of the International Federation of Film Archives, Frédéric Maire, wrote a letter to express his concern to Tkachenko, Zelensky, Shmyhal, and Maryna Kuderchuk, Head of the Ukrainian State Film Agency. He stated the decision undermines “the country’s national interests” and labeled it a threat to Ukraine’s moving image heritage.

    In October 2022, a petition calling for the decision to be reversed reached over 25,000 signatures, but the government refused to intervene.

    At the Arsenal Book Fair in Kyiv on June 23, protesters interrupted an event Tkachenko was participating in by holding up placards that read “Tkachenko must go” and “Tkachenko destroys culture."

    According to Suspilne, Tkachenko met the protesters after the event to discuss their concerns. They referred to frustrations at instances where cultural workers were refused official permission to leave Ukraine for professional reasons.

    The Dovzhenko Center and the lack of protection of monuments and museums during the war were also brought up as concerning issues.

    Tkachenko dismissal: Why was Ukraine's culture minister controversial?Protesters interrupt an event at the Arsenal Book Fair in Kyiv on June 23, calling for Oleksandr Tkachenko to be ousted as the minister for culture. (Bohdana Neborak)

    Tkachenko’s budgets

    Over recent weeks Tkachenko received increasing backlash for his decisions on what the Culture Ministry should be focusing its time and budget on during wartime.

    Much on the criticism was towards the ministry’s television policy. Since the first day of the full-scale invasion, the state has financed a national telethon for disseminating information in wartime. Tkachenko stated that the telethon will end only when the war ends. However, the fact that the state is running television programming in such a way has created concerns about freedom of information and expression.

    Hr 1.94 billion ($52.8 million) has been set aside for “production and broadcasting of television and radio programs for state needs” and Ukrainian state broadcasting for 2023.

    On July 19, Tkachenko’s ministry announced that it will spend Hr 448 million ($12.19 million) on the production of Ukrainian television series, again drawing criticism.

    The ministry released a statement that television series production is “a matter of state information and cultural security.” It claimed that Ukraine must produce “high-quality domestic series and films,” or else risk that viewers chose to watch Russian-made content.

    However, the subject of one of the series in the works – a comedy on two IT workers from Kharkiv who try to escape to Lviv, but end up in a village in Kirovohrad Oblast – drew criticism, as well as its Hr 33 million ($898,000) budget.

    Tkachenko also defended his decision to allocate a Hr 500 million ($13.54 million) budget to finish the construction of the National Memorial Museum of Holodomor, which had also criticized as exorbitant spending during wartime.

    On June 13, the State Inspection of Architecture and Urban Planning revealed that the Culture Ministry had approved the new trident design for the Motherland Monument’s shield. In early May, Tkachenko announced the Soviet hammer and sickle the statue would be dismantled.

    The project is set to cost Hr 28 million ($762,000). The minister stated that the funding for the project comes from private businesses and the state budget will not be used.

    Tkachenko dismissal: Why was Ukraine's culture minister controversial?

    Reasons for dismissal

    Zelensky stressed that his decision was related to the minister’s decisions on allocating state funds.

    “I would also like to appeal to all local authorities in our country: people should feel that budget resources are used fairly and properly,” Zelensky added. “Everyone understands what we are talking about. Paving stones, city decorations, and fountains can wait till after the victory."

    Zelensky proposed that funding for cultural projects that are “genuinely necessary” should be found from private sources “as there are potential supporters around the world.”

    Ivan Kozlenko, a former director of the Dovzhenko Center, claimed that Tkachenko had been fired “not for incompetence”, or failure to evacuate museum collections in wartime, but for “insufficient loyalty” to the President’s Office. He wrote on Facebook his fear that “Tkachenko will be replaced by an even more unprincipled” minister, who will be incapable of forming a coherent policy for the cultural sector.

    Mykyta Poturaev, an MP and Chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy, said in an interview with Glavkom that the situation was a “perfect political storm."

    Poturaev believed that Zelensky’s decision came from the deep disapproval of Tkachenko’s budgets among the general public. He ultimately wanted to calm the increasing tension that arose from Tkachenko’s unpopular policy decisions.

    For Tkachenko, Poturaev said, when he considered how he was to do his job amidst the growing calls for a stop to his spending. “Why work as a minister,” he posed, “if you cannot do anything in this position?”  

    Tkachenko dismissal: Why was Ukraine's culture minister controversial?

  • Parliament committee rejects culture minister's resignation

    Parliament committee rejects culture minister's resignation

    The resignation of Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko was not supported by a vote by the Parliamentary Committee on Humanitarian and Information Policy on July 26.

    The committee stated that the issue will therefore be voted on by the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament.

    On July 20, President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that he had asked Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal to consider replacing Tkachenko.

    Later that evening, Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko announced that he was resigning from his position, claiming there was a “wave of misunderstanding about the importance of culture in wartime.”

    Zelensky said that his decision was related to the minister’s decisions on allocating state funds.

    On July 19, Tkachenko’s ministry announced that it will spend Hr 448 million ($12.19 million) on the production of Ukrainian television series. The high budget for the series created backlash, as did his previous decision to allocate a Hr 500 million ($13.54 million) budget to finish the construction of the National Holodomor Memorial Museum.

    The costs of the projects have been criticized as unjustifiable during wartime.

    “I would also like to appeal to all local authorities in our country: people should feel that budget resources are used fairly and properly,” Zelensky stated. “Everyone understands what we are talking about. Paving stones, city decorations, and fountains can wait till after the victory."

    The minister’s resignation comes after growing protests against him. A petition calling for his dismissal reached over 25,000 signatures in June, the minimum amount needed for consideration by the government.

    However, on June 19, Shmyhal said in response that there were currently not enough grounds for his dismissal.

    At the Arsenal Book Fair in Kyiv on June 23, protesters interrupted an event Tkachenko was participating in by holding up placards that read “Tkachenko must go” and “Tkachenko destroys culture”.

    Workers in the cultural sector were concerned by the lack of protection of monuments and museums during the war and issues relating to obtaining official permission to leave Ukraine for professional reasons.

    Tkachenko was also partly blamed for the Ukrainian State Film Agency’s unpopular decision to reorganize the Dovzhenko Center, an organization that houses Ukraine’s largest film archive. In October 2022, a petition calling for the decision to be reversed reached over 25,000 signatures, but the government refused to intervene.

    Tkachenko previously wrote a letter of resignation in November 2021, in part due to his dissatisfaction with the allocated budget for culture for 2022. He stayed in his post, however.

    Parliament committee rejects culture minister's resignation

  • Protests in France. Moscow awaits the victory of the far-right in Europe

    Personal attacks against Macron Russia is anticipating a destructive conflict between multiculturalism and nationalists Hooligans armed with weapons from Ukraine Russian propaganda paid significant attention to the unrest in France, which broke out on the night of June 28. While the streets of French cities were restless, Russian propagandists launched a fireworks display of manipulation […]

    The post Protests in France. Moscow awaits the victory of the far-right in Europe appeared first on Uaposition.

  • In Lukashenko’s Belarus, Belarusian culture is not welcome

    In Lukashenko’s Belarus, Belarusian culture is not welcome

    While Belarusian is one of the two official state languages in Belarus, the decision to speak, read, and write it can be a dangerous choice for Belarusians.

    Growing up, the Belarusian poet and translator Valzhyna Mort was aware of how the Belarusian language was perceived in her country.

    “Belarusian was mocked for its ‘village sound,’ and was generally considered useless – a language that couldn’t possibly express daily life in Belarus. This is a sad irony, of course,” Mort told the Kyiv Independent.

    The truth was that “the Russian language didn’t express what it means to be a little girl in Soviet Belarus and then, after the Soviet collapse, living in a colonial schizophrenia of waking up in your country in which nothing is actually yours,” Mort added.

    In spite of more than two centuries of Russification policies imposed on the country, Belarusian writers say that their language and culture have quietly persevered.

    After the eruption of mass protests in 2020 against Alexander Lukashenko’s fraudulent presidential election “victory,” more Belarusians became curious about their heritage and how it sets them apart from Russia.

    Those publicly doing so might now face imprisonment in Lukashenko’s Belarus.

    People who speak Belarusian are considered to be against the regime and have been arrested, fined, or imprisoned on politically-motivated charges. Despite that risk, many see preserving the Belarusian language and culture as continuing their fight for a democratic and truly independent country.

    Belarusian language’s precarious status in Lukashenko’s Belarus

    After years of oppression, there was hope that a Belarusian cultural revival would follow the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, that brief window of opportunity was shut by Lukashenko’s rapid accession to power.

    After gaining independence in 1991, Belarus' national white-red-white flag and the Pahonia emblem – now symbols of resistance against Lukashenko’s dictatorship – were made official symbols of the country, and the Belarusian language enjoyed support from the state.

    For a brief moment, Belarusian was the country’s sole official language.

    After Lukashenko took power, a hardline approach toward the country’s culture and language was introduced.

    Lukashenko became president in July 1994 and, in 1995, he put forward a referendum that would also make Russian an official state language.

    The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) later released a report suggesting that Lukashenko’s government had purposefully attempted to influence the outcome of the referendum, as well as the parliamentary elections held that year.

    The legality of the 1995 referendum has been questioned by legal scholars and human rights organizations, as well as members of the Belarusian opposition.

    Lukashenko has also been publicly challenged over the years by politicians and journalists alike for favoring the Russian language over Belarusian.

    Additionally, he has said that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has “thanked” him for “not demonizing” the Russian language as Putin claimed had been done in other countries.

    Despite his assertion that using either language is a legitimate choice, Lukashenko has conveyed on numerous occasions that he perceives the Belarusian language as inferior.

    “People who speak Belarusian cannot do anything, because nothing great can be expressed in Belarusian. The Belarusian language is a poor language. There are only two great languages in the world: Russian and English,” he famously said back in 2006.

    In 2023, you will rarely hear Belarusian on the streets of Minsk and other major cities, while the white-red-white flag and the Pahonia emblem can land you in jail.

    Centuries of Russification

    For generations, Belarusians have been discriminated against, attacked, and even killed for embracing their culture.

    Tsimokh Akudovich, a Belarusian historian who works with the media platform Belsat, told the Kyiv Independent that Belarusian nationalism has always been deeply rooted in the unique sense of Belarusian cultural identity and shaped by the Belarusian language.

    “The Belarusian language has always defined the geographical boundaries of our nation and became a place of accumulation of intellectual resources and images. All of Belarus’ political movements during the last 100 years were strongly tied to the Belarusian language and culture,” Akudovich said.

    According to Akudovich, this is why every power that set out to subjugate the nation was keen on attacking the language and those who spoke it.

    During the Soviet Union, authorities made a point of targeting Belarusian cultural figures.

    While there was a brief period in the 1920s when Belarusian language and culture were permitted to thrive, it was followed by two decades of brutal repressions. As a result, only a handful of Belarusian writers, musicians, and academics managed to survive – many were sent to the gulags or killed outright.

    The Holocaust also devastated the Belarusian Jewish population. According to Swedish-American historian Per Anders Rudling, Belarus used to have one of the largest Jewish populations per capita in Europe.

    Prior to that, the Soviets targeted the Yiddish cultural revival in Belarus. Yiddish was once a language commonly heard spoken in major cities and towns, in addition to Belarusian, Polish, and Russian.

    In his article “The Invisible Genocide: The Holocaust in Belarus,” Rudling wrote that no less than 800,000 Belarusian Jews perished in the Nazis’ efforts to conquer Europe.

    After World War II, the Soviets undertook a significant urbanization project in Belarus, forcing the rural population to move to cities and learn Russian. This reshaped the linguistic makeup of Belarus.

    “Former villagers brought their language with them, but it was not welcomed. Russian was the language of the state and power and of the comfortable urban life,” Belarusian poet and translator Julia Cimafiejeva said.

    This led to a rise in the usage of “trasianka,” a mixture of Belarusian and Russian that is still commonly heard today and incorporates Russian vocabulary with Belarusian grammar and phonetics.

    It is a similar linguistic phenomenon to “surzhyk” in Ukraine, which is a mix of Ukrainian and Russian.

    During the post-war period, the Soviets employed subtle tactics to undermine the importance of the Belarusian language.

    Scholar Lieanid Lyč wrote that in the late 1950s parents were allowed to petition for their children to be transferred from Belarusian- to Russian-language schools.

    “The architects of such an anti-national language policy in the education field understood very well that if only the Russian language prevails in all higher and secondary educational institutions in Belarus, if all types of official records are conducted exclusively in it, then practically none of the parents will insist that their children were taught and brought up in their native Belarusian language,” he added.

    This fostered a belief among many Belarusians that knowing Russian had more value.

    By the start of the 21st century, some Belarusians worried that the Belarusian language would disappear from everyday usage.

    However, Russia “could not completely destroy the roots of Belarusian national identity” and “despite ongoing pressure from Moscow, there has been a gradual expansion of the Belarusian language and culture,” Akudovich said.

    Two Belarusian literary scenes

    Julia Cimafiejeva and Alhierd Bacharevič, the husband and wife literary duo who currently live in exile, took part in the mass protests of 2020 and have explored what it means to be Belarusian in their bodies of work.

    Cimafiejeva was born in a village along the Belarusian-Ukrainian border that was evacuated in 1986 after the nuclear fallout from the Chornobyl disaster. When she entered school in Homiel, the second-largest city in Belarus, “learning to speak Russian competently and correctly was a necessary, although not prescribed, condition to be accepted,” she wrote.

    However, both noted that the Belarusian language could always be heard somewhere on the radio or TV, or read in newspapers and magazines, while they were growing up. Predominantly Belarusian-language schools also existed, although they were usually in villages.

    Belarus has never been perceived in terms of strictly Belarusian- and Russian-speaking regions. The use of either language typically depended on your background and where you wanted to be in life, Cimafiejeva added.

    Bacharevič echoed that sentiment, adding that the Belarusian language was never a “dead language,” but it remained, for a long time, deeply undervalued.  

    “We studied Belarusian language and literature at school, but most people did not understand why. After all, the Russian language dominated,” he said.

    In the 2010s, the Belarusian literary scene of which Cimafiejeva and Bacharevič were an active part existed in two separate realities.

    The Union of Writers, established in 2005, was backed by the Lukashenko regime. Its members enjoyed privileged access to state-controlled media outlets, such as TV channels and newspapers. They also received frequent invitations to appear at educational institutions.

    Their language of choice was Russian. However, choosing to write in Russian has never been a definitive marker of being aligned with Lukashenko’s regime. Cimafiejeva, Bacharevič, and Mort have all worked in both Belarusian and Russian during their careers.  

    Additionally, Belarus’ most famous writer, the 2015 Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, writes predominantly in Russian. Most of her work has been published outside of Belarus, given her longstanding history of publicly opposing the Lukashenko regime.

    Despite state-level support, those belonging to the Union of Writers “could not provide a bright image of the new future of the dictatorial state,” according to Cimafiejeva.

    Meanwhile, independent authors existed “in a kind of cultural ghetto,” she added.

    Since their work was exposed to a much smaller audience, this relative obscurity actually provided Belarusian writers with a certain degree of freedom for a period of time.

    Belarus’ independent cultural sphere launched various initiatives during this period to cultivate interest in Belarusian language and literature, where writers had the chance not only to connect with their peers but engage with their readers.

    Belarusian authors also faced the daunting task of competing against the massive influence of the Russian market. Cimafiejeva told the Kyiv Independent that the majority of the books sold in Belarus in 2019 were imported from Russia.

    By contrast, Belarusian-language books, most of which were educational materials, were far less common.

    Initially, the Belarusian cultural movement was not perceived as a threat by Lukashenko’s regime. However, following a series of protests against fraudulent elections over the years, that started to change. Literary magazines, publishing houses, and other cultural institutions soon found themselves under growing scrutiny and became targets for closure.

    The writer’s association PEN Belarus told the Kyiv Independent that there is essentially a ban on the profession for those who speak out against the regime.

    This is because the cultural and artistic initiatives undertaken by Belarus' independent cultural scene over the years influenced, to a certain extent, the protests and shaped the political consciousness of the people, according to Cimafiejeva.

    “They helped their audience to feel the urge to self-identify themselves as Belarusians and be freer in a political sense,” she explained.

    Repressive measures further escalated after the mass protests that began in 2020, which led to the exile of Cimafiejeva, Bacharevič, and countless others.

    According to PEN Belarus, there is “permanent discrimination on the basis of the Belarusian language” given that it is associated with opponents of the regime.

    “Not only do we live in exile; Belarusian publishers also live in exile, our readers live in exile, a lot of people have left Belarus and for the last few years we all try to survive and develop our culture in these difficult conditions,” Bacharevič said.

    In 2022, Bacharevič’s novel “Dogs of Europe” was banned by the Belarusian authorities as “extremist literature.” It’s an expansive novel with several interweaving storylines that unfold over several decades. Set in a dystopian world, it depicts a reality where Russia has taken over Belarus and several other countries to become a dictatorial superstate.

    Bacharevič wrote on Facebook in July that he’d learned Belarusian authorities planned to plow over confiscated copies of the book with tractors.

    His novel “The Last Book by Mr. A” was also banned in 2023, he said in a recent interview.  Merely possessing a copy of these books in Belarus can now land an individual in trouble.

    Meanwhile, PEN Belarus told the Kyiv Independent that there are 132 members of Belarus’ cultural sphere currently being held in Lukashenko’s prisons, which amounts to an estimated nine percent of all political prisoners in the country officially registered by Viasna human rights group.

    However, Lukashenko’s crackdown has targeted not only Belarus’ literary sphere but the artistic sphere as well. People from all walks of life in Belarus face imprisonment, torture, and murder for daring to want to live in a democratic country.

    The renowned artist Ales Pushkin died from “unclear circumstances” in prison on July 11. He was arrested on politically motivated charges in 2021 after the Belarusian authorities claimed one of his paintings “rehabilitated and justified Nazism.”

    In 1999, Pushkin famously marked the five-year anniversary of Lukashenko’s ascent to power by dumping a red wheelbarrow full of manure at the main entrance of the Presidential Office in Minsk, placing a photo of Lukashenko on top of the manure, and piercing it with a pitchfork.

    He also flew the historic white-red-white flag over his home and said back in the 90s that Lukashenko did nothing good for Belarus and its people.

    “Ales was an incredibly talented, provocative, and courageous artist – and a good man,” Bacharevič wrote.

    “He will remain an artist and a person who was killed in prison, killed by this government. He was killed for language, talent, and bravery – for being Belarusian,” Bacharevič said, adding that “this murder cannot be forgiven.”

    An ongoing cultural revival

    Despite increasing attacks on those who dare to speak the language, an increasing number of Belarusians are writing in Belarusian, speaking it, reading it, and realizing why they need it.

    This is critical given that there is no state-level support for the Belarusian language and Lukashenko’s regime is destroying Belarusian culture, PEN Belarus told the Kyiv Independent.

    Cimafiejeva started using Belarusian more frequently back in 2006. Like many other Belarusians, it was a conscious decision made in the climate of protests against election fraud.

    She also started working for Belarusian-language independent media and entered an educational institution that taught mostly in Belarusian.

    “I had a quite wide circle of people speaking Belarusian, but it was a learned language for them all,” she said, given the prevalence of speaking Russian, especially in Belarus’ major cities.

    Only in the past 20 years have more children born in cities been raised to speak Belarusian as their native language, according to Cimafiejeva.

    “I’ve become more optimistic about the fate of the Belarusian language, especially if you compare today’s situation with the situation we had in the 1980s or even the 1990s,” she said.

    Although Belarusian cultural initiatives lack state support, and much of their work is being done in exile, they are dedicated enthusiasts who believe in what they are doing and are trying to spread it to wider audiences.

    Embracing the Belarusian language and culture can also be a means of comfort when processing the impact of having lived through a failed revolution, being faced with exile, and witnessing the outbreak of Russia’s genocidal war in neighboring Ukraine, of which the Lukashenko regime is an unofficial participant.

    “People are seeking clarity in ideas and in language, which is to say in literature, and in the language of the arts in general. Emotions are intense and it’s music and visual arts that can reflect that intensity without putting on labels, without naming. So, in these periods of crisis, the demand for art is high,” Mort said.

    Likewise, Bacharevič explained that a lot of Belarusians realized after 2020 that the system they lived in “was built on lies and violence.”

    “In 2020, these people started reading more Belarusian literature because they need answers to their painful questions: who we are, how this (political) disaster became possible, what our past is, and where we are going now,” he said.

    Despite Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine being one of the factors that have influenced many Belarusians to establish closer ties with the Belarusian language and culture, not all Belarusians are ready to cut the Russian language out of their lives completely.

    Belarus has never been a monolingual state, and Cimafiejeva does not expect Belarusian to be the only language spoken in the country.

    “Although I do want to see a better future for it,” she added.

    Previously, Bacharevič translated many of his novels into Russian himself. He is of the belief that knowing many different languages is always beneficial, but he still considers himself first and foremost a Belarusian speaker.

    “I think in Belarusian and dream in Belarusian,” he said. “The Russian language is our colonial heritage. I have not forgotten it, but I rarely speak it, mostly when I speak with Russians.”

    Mort said she doesn’t consider the Russian language itself a problem but rather those who promote the destructive ideology of the Russian regime.

    Her main issue with the Russian language has always been that it doesn’t allow her to express herself as freely as the Belarusian language does and that it has denied Belarusians a sense of pre-Russian history and agency.

    “The Russian language doesn’t understand the Belarusian countryside,” she said.

    In Lukashenko’s Belarus, Belarusian culture is not welcome

    Note from the author:

    Hi, this is Kate Tsurkan, thanks for reading this article. Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there’s been a lot of talk about Ukraine’s cultural revival. However, Belarusians and people from other neighboring countries are reckoning with years of Russian colonialism as well. Culture has taken on an even more important meaning during wartime and if you like reading about this sort of thing, p

  • Protests in France: Russian Propaganda Awaits Far-Right Victory in Europe

    Russian propaganda devoted quite a lot of attention to the unrest in France, which broke out on the night of June 28. While the streets of French cities were restless, the ruscists launched fireworks of manipulation into the information space.

    The Kremlin regime gloated and tried to compensate for its image losses after Prigozhin’s putsch. Russian propagandists predict a conflict between the ideas of multiculturalism and nationalism that will tear Europe apart. They are glad that this will be facilitated by the wave of emigrants to Europe.

    Here are the messages and narratives of propaganda that it used during the riots:

    • The clashes are evidence of the decline of Western civilization.
    • In France, the civil split is between the descendants of immigrants from former colonies and nationalist France. These are the consequences of the “dirty colonial pages of Paris.”
    • NATO operations and support for Ukraine led to an influx of migrants.
    • There will be a nationalist response from France. Following it, the crisis will come to Italy and Germany; in these and other countries, the ultra-right will come to power.
    • In France, weapons that the West supplied to Ukraine were seen in the clashes. The riots were also attended by “Bandera” activists from Maidan.
    • In the West, the rally is dispersed by force, and Russia is hypocritically criticized for similar actions.
    • With the support of Ukraine, France deserved havoc in its cities.
    • The clashes were provoked by US financiers, who thus wanted to undermine Europe economically.

    Personal attacks against Macron

    At the same time, the Russians personally attacked French President Emmanuel Macron. “What is the reason for such instability in France? The answer lies in the policy of the current President Macron, wrote the head of the State Duma Volodin. Confidence in Macron is decreasing. The ratings have fallen to a minimum. If the presidential election were held now, it would be won by Marine Le Pen.”

    Via Telegram, Macron’s video was distributed with the comment that he was having fun at a concert at Elton John’s when unrest began in the country. A video was also shown with protesters burning a dummy with Macron’s photo with a comment: “In France, the public ‘executions’ of President Macron continue.”

    Propaganda attacked the entire system of the authorities in France as a whole, convincing that the protests were the result of the fact that they “do not hear the people.”

    Former Russian President Medvedev, in his usual manner, wrote on Twitter: “Macron has said several times that he is on the side of Ukraine. Perhaps it is time to put an end to this verbal diarrhoea and take the side of France.” In Telegram, Medvedev quoted Gogol about the events in France: “I can see nothing — only pigs’ snouts instead of faces, nothing else…”

    Russia is waiting for a destructive conflict between multiculturalism and nationalists

    The key propaganda line is to present the social order of the West as its fatal vulnerability. Allegedly, that this is because of an unsuccessful migration policy, multiculturalism that has failed, and Europe that has lost its culture. Russian propagandist Elena Kondrateva-Salgero, who works in France, said that the current events were being used by all left-wing countries to raise people. According to her, these clashes “finally allowed almost all live TV channels to call things by their names — those that were absolute taboos — and this is very good.”

    Propagandist Solovyov quoted French politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who, according to Ukrainian journalists from Texty.org.ua, systematically disseminates Russian narratives. The politician said that “France needs to leave the Schengen zone to prevent new riots.”

    Henry Sardaryan, dean of the Governance and Politics Department at MGIMO, said on Russian Television that this is “a failure of the open-door policy, the integration policy — if you destroy your culture, then there is nowhere to integrate people. This is a farewell to the illusion that Europe can be a melting pot and accept everyone, this is a defeat of the policy of multiculturalism. This is the defeat of the political system that has developed in France. But let no one fixate on France because the same thing will soon happen in Italy and in Germany. We will soon see such a situation in almost all large countries where there are problems with illegal migration. … There are catastrophic problems all over Europe. Italy has the Lampedusa island… In these 3 days, 20 times more migrants arrived there than the average for 22 years… The authorities are not able to cope with this… Very soon, both in France and in Italy, we will see the growth of far-right radicalism. Because when you, like in France, see how houses and entire streets are burned down, the natural reaction of the average voter — a European tradition — when people are scared, they vote for the right, when they are very scared — for the far right. We will see a big shift in these states towards radical and marginal policies.”

    LDPR leader Leonid Slutsky also focused on illegal migrants and stated: “The increase in the influx of refugees and illegal migrants to the countries of the Old World is directly related to the invasions of NATO coalitions in Iraq, Libya, Syria, as well as support for the neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine. The French leadership got carried away with helping Ukraine and completely forgot about its country, which had accumulated a lot of problems.”

    Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, at a briefing held on June 28, just one day after the first night of unrest, accused France of neocolonialism, mirroring accusations against Russia and its behaviour in African countries in her usual way. “The world community remembers the dirty pages of the colonial policy of Paris, which seeks to exploit the resources of the continent today, masking its neocolonial methods and schemes with false rhetoric and imaginary concern for the welfare of Africans.” This is how she reacted to Emmanuel Macron’s words that Russia is “the only colonial state of the 21st century” that is waging an imperialist war and destabilizing African countries.

    At a briefing on July 6, Zakharova hinted that the violence began because of police chauvinism and the growth of racism in France. “Any form of police violence against citizens is unacceptable, especially if it is motivated by a person’s ethnicity. One cannot but pay attention to the recent increase in xenophobia, hostility towards migrants, manifestations of anti-Semitism in France.

    The French authorities must take seriously the growing radicalization of society and be attentive to the growth of xenophobic and racist sentiments in the country.”

    At the same time, propaganda seemed to suggest an answer to the French, quoting Marine Le Pen: “While our country was robbed, before the economic and judicial chaos, would you agree that there can be only one answer – nationalist?”

    These narratives show how Russian propaganda simultaneously promotes two opposite positions for their collision and radicalization.

    On the one hand, there is a nationalist message about the failure of multiculturalism and an absurd emigrant policy, in particular, through NATO, and on the other hand, the opposite international one, about the growth of xenophobic and racist sentiments and the “colonial guilt,” in this case, of Paris. It is clear that Moscow does not care about any principle, except one — the promotion of its dominance through the sowing of chaos and the weakening of others. It can be assumed that Putinism will continue to try to play a racist card, inflating interethnic conflicts.

    The idea is imposed that France deserved the havoc in its cities because of its support for Ukraine. Host Gia Saralidze “burned bridges” with France and displayed “righteous anger” — why it does not allow Russia to simply destroy Ukraine: “When they send weapons that kill our people in the Donbas and our soldiers — there will be no empathy, the worse — the better. Let it burn. Paris, Lyon, Nantes — let them burn. There is no empathy. All the idealistic pictures that evoked stories about France, French literature — they are in the past.”

    Hooligans with weapons from Ukraine

    Propaganda tried to spread a fake that would directly undermine assistance to Ukraine. It was mentioned at a fairly high level because Zakharova made a statement about it: “I will raise another topic for reflection in Paris. The weapons that were delivered to Kyiv end up in the hands of the same protesters and are used against the police there in France.”

    The message was also spread by other channels of disinformation. Thus, the “war correspondent” Alexander Kots, a mythmaker about the “glorious Hostomel heroes” near Kyiv in March 2022, quoted the French pro-Russian politician Éric Zemmour (who is also in the database of Ukrainian investigative journalists as an agent of Russia’s influence in Europe). “Today, in the context of the conflict in Ukraine and the uncontrolled circulation of weapons sent by NATO to help Ukraine, it is obvious that these weapons are actively used in France during the current riots.” A narrative that is created to intimidate Europeans: “not only assault rifles, but also compact modern sniper rifles, as well as Javelin anti-tank missile systems enter the black market of Europe.”

    Referring to a site allegedly from Poland that had already been exposed as fake, propagandist Solovyov’s Telegram spread the following quote: “Opening borders for Ukrainian refugees was a fatal mistake. It’s like opening a gateway to hell, from which the devils now emerge”: the Polish magazine Niezalezny Dziennik Polityczny reports that Ukrainian refugees participated in mass riots in France for money.

    During the riots in France, Ukrainians take an active part in the so-called ‘paid attacks.’ In other words, the former protesters of the Maidan are ready to accept any side of the conflict for money, but the destructive side, of course, is more attractive to any Bandera activist.”

    This intersects with the established ruscist narrative that tries to demonize Ukrainian refugees. The message about Ukrainian weapons during the riots did not spread in France, but it can be expected that it will continue to appear in the future, in the hope of attracting the attention of the public, prone to uncritical consumption of information and conspiracy thinking.

    A similar message is about foreign volunteers who fought for Ukraine and now pose a threat to Europe: “But the most interesting thing is that Europe suffers from mercenaries who have tasted blood in Ukraine. In April, two of them were detained in France. They took cartridges and clips for automatic rifles with them to their homeland. Last November, five members of the local neo-Nazi group Order of Hagal, which maintained contacts with the Ukrainian Azov regiment, were arrested in Italy — they were planning an attack on a police station in Naples.”

    Moreover, the Russians tried to manipulatively equate the unrest in France, the purpose of which was to create disorder and robbery, with protests in the former USSR for democracy and the European path, in particular, the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine.

    Propagandists argued about the alleged danger of France losing control over nuclear weapons, mirroring the comments that were made about Russia after Prigozhin’s military coup.

    One of them, Nikolai Starikov, once again “exposed” the American conspiracy and said that the clashes were inspired by the United States to move production to America. “Europe’s economy will die down. Europe will turn into a country of green lawns, with goats and cows grazing. The factories will be located in the United States.”

    The manner of covering the protests in France generally fits into the Russian narrative about the weakening of Europe and the coming to power of far-right politicians, “friends of the Kremlin.”

    The post Protests in France: Russian Propaganda Awaits Far-Right Victory in Europe appeared first on Centre for strategic communication.

  • Belarus Weekly: Lithuanian president calls Belarus a ‘Russian province,’ urges increasing defense

    Belarus Weekly: Lithuanian president calls Belarus a ‘Russian province,’ urges increasing defense

    As NATO’s anticipated 2023 Vilnius Summit makes headlines, the alliance’s members urge Minsk to end its complicity in Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine.

    Meanwhile, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda urges NATO to bolster its eastern flank, claiming Belarus is “no longer independent’ but rather a “province of Russia.” Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya criticizes his comment.

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    Prominent Belarusian artist and political prisoner Ales Pushkin, jailed in 2021 for politically motivated charges, dies in intensive care “under unclear circumstances.”

    A bill permitting Minsk to revoke the citizenships of Belarusians living abroad accused of so-called “extremist activity” and “harming national interests” comes into effect.

    Belarusian authorities release political activist Zmitser Dashkevich, only to re-imprison him for alleged “disobedience.”

    The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) votes to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in the Asian Games in China amid criticism.

    NATO urges Belarus to end its complicity in Russia’s war at NATO summit

    NATO leaders urged Minsk to end its complicity in Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and adhere to international law at the Alliance’s 2023 Vilnius Summit on July 11-12.

    “Russia’s deepening military integration with Belarus, including the deployment of advanced Russian military capabilities and military personnel in Belarus, has implications for regional stability and the defense of the alliance,” the Vilnius summit communiqué read.

    “NATO will remain vigilant and further monitor developments closely, in particular the potential deployment of so-called private military companies to Belarus,” it continued, adding that the alliance calls on Belarus to “stop its malign activities against its neighbors, to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to abide by international law.”

    Meanwhile, exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhaniuskaya called on NATO member states to include a democratic Belarus in their projected security architecture.

    She noted that, while Ukraine should be “in focus” during the NATO summit, Belarus should also be high on the agenda, adding that there can be no security for Ukraine without freedom for Belarus.

    NATO’s 2023 Vilnius aummit in Lithuania took place a few kilometers from the Belarusian border.

    After Russia announced the transfer of Wagner Group troops to Belarus, as well as that of tactical nuclear weapons, neighboring EU states such as Lithuania called on NATO to reinforce its eastern flank.

    Lithuanian president calls Belarus ‘Russian province’ at NATO summit

    Belarus is “no longer independent,” and is rather a “province of Russia,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said ahead of NATO’s 2023 Vilnius Summit on July 11.

    “I told President Biden that Belarus is indeed becoming a problem,” Nausėda said after a meeting with the U.S. President Joe Biden, “This is not the Belarus that it was in 2020. Now we should have no illusions, this country is no longer independent, it is another province of the Russian Federation.”

    Directly referencing Russia’s deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus and the migrant crisis orchestrated by Belarus, Nausėda urged NATO to take decisive action.

    “All this taken together shows that the security situation in our region is unstable, it is not improving, but worsening,” he said.

    Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya responded to Nausėda’s statement, emphasizing the importance of recognizing that the erosion of Belarus’ independence is happening against the will of the Belarusian people.

    “The United Transitional Cabinet believes that this (Nausėda’s interpretation) creates the wrong perception of Belarus in the world and contributes to an even greater isolation of our country and our people,” Tsikhanouskaya’s United Transitional Cabinet said, “Belarus is not a province of Russia, and the Belarusian people will not allow it to become one.”

    Nausėda urged NATO on July 25 to strengthen its eastern flank in the aftermath of the Wagner Group’s armed mutiny and the anticipated transfer of Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus.

    “If Prigozhin or part of the Wagner Group ends up in Belarus with unclear plans and unclear intentions, it will only mean that we need to further strengthen the security of our eastern borders,” he said.

    Prominent Belarusian artist dies in prison ‘under unclear circumstances’

    Prominent Belarusian artist and political prisoner Ales Pushkin died in a Belarusian prison’s intensive care unit “under unclear circumstances,” his wife Janina Demuch said on July 11.

    Belarusian authorities sentenced the 57-year-old to five years in prison for “desecrating state symbols” and “inciting hatred” in 2021. During his closed trial, Pushkin slit his stomach in a sign of protest.

    At the time, Belarusian prosecutors said Pushkin’s charges were related to his painting of Jaŭhien Žychar, a member of the Belarusian anti-Soviet resistance, shown at an exhibition in the Belarusian city of Hrodna. Authorities claimed the painting “rehabilitated and justified Nazism.”

    Belarus Weekly: Lithuanian president calls Belarus a ‘Russian province,’ urges increasing defenseAles Pushkin, a prominent Belarusian artist who died in prison on July 11, 2023, "under unclear circumstances," according to his wife. (Photo: Ales Pushkin / Facebook) 

    Pushkin was admitted to his prison’s intensive care unit unconscious on July 10, according to Radio Svoboda. In his last letters, he reportedly said he had lost 20 kilograms in a short period of time. Local media said Pushkin had a perforated ulcer for which he was not given assistance in prison. He reportedly died of sepsis and multiple organ failure.

    In response to his death, Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called Pushkin’s work the “embodiment of the indomitable spirit of the Belarusian people.”

    “Ales used his art to fight for freedom and build a new Belarus without tyranny,” Tsikhanouskaya said, “He dreamed of a free and democratic Belarus. Now we must continue his work and make his dreams come true. Dictators fear artists. Why? Because they have the power to express thoughts and ideas that challenge the regime’s lies.”

    Pushkin has been at the forefront of Belarus’ national revival for decades, also having taken part in the mass protests that followed the fraudulent Belarusian presidential election in 2020.

    In his most famous work, “Dung for the President,” for which he was sentenced to two years in prison, Pushkin overturned a wheelbarrow of dung across from the presidential building in Minsk in 1999.

    Human rights watchdog Viasna reported in April that the official number of political prisoners in Belarus has reached 1,500, noting that the figure is likely much higher.

    In December 2022, Maria Kalesnikava, a symbol of Belarusian civil society’s resistance to Lukashenko’s regime, was admitted with a similar diagnosis as Pushkin, although she managed to survive.

    Bill allowing Minsk to revoke exiled Belarusians’ citizenships enters into effect

    A bill that permits Minsk to revoke the citizenships of Belarusians living abroad accused of so-called “extremist activity” and “harming national interests” came into effect on July 11.

    On Jan. 5, Lukashenko signed a bill amending Belarus’ citizenship law, permitting the stripping of citizenship from Belarusian nationals living abroad who are accused of so-called “extremist activities.” It was set to enter into effect in July.

    Belarusians who enlist in a foreign state’s military, security service, or law enforcement may also have their citizenship revoked. This will affect Belarusians who have joined Ukraine’s military to fight against Russia.

    The amendment also introduced a compulsory oath for those seeking Belarusian citizenship, which obliges them to inform Belarusian authorities about foreign citizenship, residence permits, or other such documents.

    Lukashenko initiated a bill in July 2022 permitting trials in absentia for a series of violations, including charges of treason, terrorism, genocide, mercenarism, and participation in “extremist activities.” If found guilty, individuals may have their assets seized or be deprived of their Belarusian citizenship.

    The measure violates the country’s constitution and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, prohibiting stripping citizenship of those who obtained it by birth.

    Authorities re-imprison political prisoner after serving full sentence

    Belarusian authorities reportedly gave recently released political activist Zmitser Dashkevich an additional prison sentence on July 11.

    According to his wife, Nasta, Dashkevich had served his full prison sentence. Upon his expected release, Belarusian authorities launched a new criminal investigation into Dashkevich for alleged “disobedience” while in jail.

    Nasta was sentenced to a year in prison for having participated in protests following another rigged presidential election in 2010 and became the first Belarusian woman to receive the U.S. State Department’s International Women’s Prize for Courage.

    Dashkevich was initially imprisoned in March 2022 for having participated in the mass protests that took place in the aftermath of the fraudulent Belarusian presidential election in 2020. Nasta was charged in the same case and sentenced to three years of house arrest as she was expecting their fourth child.

    “I don’t know what to tell the kids who are waiting for their dad today,” Nasta said.

    It is not uncommon to justify extending politically motivated prison sentences in Belarus with charges of “disobedience,” especially after Minsk cracked down on those who oppose Lukashenko’s regime after 2020.

    Russian, Belarusian athletes allowed to participate in Asian Games

    Russian and Belarusian athletes will be permitted to participate under a neutral flag at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, in the fall, the event’s organizers said on July 8.

    The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) voted on July 8 to allow up to 500 athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete, noting that they will not be allowed to win medals at the event.

    In January, the OCA said it was open to allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as neutrals, suggesting Asia as a potential route to get past bans from European regional competitions. At the time, OCA acting president Randhir Singh told reporters that the athletes “won’t interfere in our medal system or Asian quota for the Olympic Games”

    Participating in the Asian Games will reportedly help the athletes earn points to qualify for the upcoming 2024 Paris Olympics.

    The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has received a lot of criticism for recommending that Russian and Belarusian athletes that do not actively support Russia’s war be allowed to participate in international sporting events under a neutral flag.

    On June 22, the Council of Europe urged the complete ban of Russian and Belarusian athletes participating in the Olympics “as long as Russia’s war of aggression” against Ukraine persists, calling on the IOC to uphold its prior decision to ban the athletes from the Olympics and “all other major sporting events.”

    Politically-motivated murders

    Belarusians voted for Lukashenko in the country’s first and only presidential election the international community recognized as fair on July 10, 1994.

    However, Lukashenko’s rule in the 1990s and early 2000s would soon be marred by fraudulent elections, the dismantling of democratic institutions, and politically motivated arrests and murders.

    For example, former Interior Minister Yuryi Zakharanka disappeared on May 7, 1999, after he announced the creation of the Officers’ Union, which opposed Lukashenko. Similarly, opposition politician Viktar Hanchar and his friend, businessman Anatoly Krasovsky, also went missing.

    Meanwhile, July 7 marked 23 years since the kidnapping of Dzmitryi Zavadski.

    In 2000, Belarusian journalist Dzmitry Zavadsky went to meet his colleague at the airport and was never seen again. His empty car was parked next to the airport, and his body was never found.

    Dzmitry Zavadsky started his career as a cameraman on Belarusian TV and worked with the selected group of reporters that followed Lukashenko on his official visits.

    Zavadski left for the Russian ORT channel and started working with Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarusian journalist critical of the regime.

    His reporting annoyed Lukashenko and caused a rift in Russia-Belarus relations. Sheremet was soon deprived of accreditation and was detained along with Zavadsky, his cameraman. The duo was sentenced to 1.5-2 years of imprisonment, postponed for a year. Both continued their work.

    Zavadsky made several reports about Russia’s Chechen War and returned to Minsk right before he was kidnapped.

    In 2001, the former Belarusian prosecutors Dzmitry Petrushkevich and Aleh Sluchak, who were in charge of the Zavadsky case, emigrated to the United States, fearing for their lives and revealed that Lukashenko’s opponents’ disappearances were the result of work of the so-called “Death Squad,” a special unit created by Luakshenko to deal with any task including murder.

    The Squad had to develop a procedure of kidnapping and killing the opponents of the regime without leaving a trace. The murders were carried out with a gun dedicated to executing death penalty sentences in Belarus.

    The Belarusian KGB tried to investigate and uncover the group.

    But as KGB Chairman Vladimir Matskevich and Prosecutor General Oleg Bozhelko have arrested the group’s commander Dzmitry Paulichenka and demanded the resignation of the country’s Secretary of the Security Council, Viktar Sheiman, the two were fired instead.

    Paulichenka was released from KGB prison and continued his service.

    Their story matches that of another whistleblower, Yury Garavski, a member of the squad, who fled to Belarus.

    A 2004 special report of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe found that Viktor Sheiman, Yury Sivakov, Vladimir Naumov, and Dmitriy Pavlichenko were involved in the disappearance of Zakharanka, Hanchar, Krasousky, and Zavadsky.

    They were banned from entering the territory of the European Union and the United States and remain persona non-grata to this day.

    Up until 2021, Sheiman was heading Lukashenko’s administration. Pandora Papers revealed Sheiman is actively involved in Lukashenko’s deals with Zimbabwe.

    Dmitry Pavlichenka is retired from service and is heading a veteran's organization in Minsk.

    No bodies were found.

  • Former NATO envoy to Moscow: ‘Potential escalation with Russia is a myth’

    Former NATO envoy to Moscow: ‘Potential escalation with Russia is a myth’

    The West failed to understand the Russian regime before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Robert Pszczel, the former NATO envoy to Moscow from 2010-2015, said on the sidelines of the Warsaw International Summit in Kyiv on July 7.

    Once the punching bag of Russian propagandists during his appearances on Russian TV, the outspoken 60-year-old official doesn’t mince words.

    “The constant problem is not looking at Russia as it is, but dealing with Russia as we would like it to be,” Pszczel told the Kyiv Independent. “And that’s one of the biggest mistakes people still make.”

    Pszczel called Russia’s war against Ukraine “a direct attack on international law,” saying that “one should not fall into the trap of being ambiguous.”

    “Russia has, with this invasion, destroyed the international security architecture,” he said.

    The Kyiv Independent spoke with Pszczel just days before the NATO summit in Vilnius, where Ukraine’s bid for membership is high on the agenda.

    Failed reset

    “I think we have gone too quickly back to business as usual after the invasion of Georgia,” Pszczel said, referring to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 that led to the ongoing occupation of about 20% of its territory.

    When Pszczel took his office in 2010, NATO, led by the U.S., was still looking at a “strategic partnership” with Russia, he said.

    Back in 2009, then U.S. President Barack Obama called for a “reset” of relations with Russia.

    The policy resulted in the “New START” treaty to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenal in 2010 after Washington dropped the George Bush administration’s plan to build a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, denounced as a threat by Russia.

    “So the plan was to cooperate when it suits us, and that’s the only way. If it suits them, the Russians want to do something for us. And by engaging, you kind of hope to achieve something.”

    Former NATO envoy to Moscow: ‘Potential escalation with Russia is a myth’U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin after their bilateral meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, on June 18, 2012, on the sidelines of the G20 summit. (Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images)

    The “reset” policy would prove one-sided, as Russia would annex Crimea and invade the Donbas in 2014.

    Pszczel didn’t hesitate to call the illegal annexation of Crimea “Anschluss,” comparing it to Adolf Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938 under Nazi Germany.

    “If we are serious about international law, Crimea is part of Ukraine, full stop,” he said.

    Russia’s annexation of Crimea marked a turning point between NATO members and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s regime, Pszczel said.

    “It was a brutal use of force and you have to have an IQ of 15 to believe that there was any kind of democratic (process),” he said, referring to Russia’s sham referendum.

    “It was a shock to the system,” said Pszczel. “Business as usual was over.”

    The annexation shook the alliance’s eastern flanks member states, including the Baltics and Poland, which had no illusion over the fact that Putin had orchestrated the invasion of Donbas involving paid militias in 2014 to sow chaos.

    “They were saying, look, guys, this is getting out of hand, not only by the Anschluss of Crimea but, of course, the intervention in Donbas,” he said.

    “I mean, again, you have to be an idiot not to understand what they had to do with it, it was engineered, they sent these thugs, they paid for them, so this had implications for the security of member states.”

    Former NATO envoy to Moscow: ‘Potential escalation with Russia is a myth’Russian personnel wield guns in Sevastopol’s Nakhimova Square in Russian-occupied Crimea on March 19, 2023. (Photo by Vladimir Aleksandrov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

    NATO’s response

    Pszczel believes NATO should have been more firm with Russia since the invasion of Georgia in 2008.

    “You don’t draw a line and say: This is the line, if you cross, you will be hurt. And then the line is crossed and there are no consequences – that is terrible,” he said.

    Yet, the annexation of Crimea was the beginning of a wake-up call for the alliance, he said.

    “The romantic vision of Russia had just gone out in smoke,” he said.

    NATO had to adapt to this new reality, thus laying out the groundwork for helping Ukraine in the following years.

    Still, Pszczel admitted to NATO’s slow response.

    “NATO’s like a tanker. And because democracy is like this, genetically speaking, they don’t know how to deal with (the war). NATO is made of democratic countries, so they are always reluctant to look confrontational.”

    Former NATO envoy to Moscow: ‘Potential escalation with Russia is a myth’NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at a press conference ahead of the annual NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 10, 2023. (Photo: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

    However, the alliance increasingly started to listen to member states who had warned for years about Russia’s expansion threat, such as Poland and the Baltic states.

    Pszczel said NATO has seen “a dramatic” change, with more and more countries admitting that NATO’s eastern members were right all along.

    “But, you know, at the end of the day, the intellectual pleasure of being told you were right is kind of short-lived,” he said. “The most important thing is what happens now.”

    Russia’s fascist state

    During his five years for NATO in Moscow, Pszczel saw first-hand Russia plunging into an increasingly fascist state while most alliance members failed to grasp the scope of Moscow’s threat to security in Europe.

    “Putin’s regime in so many domains is a disaster for Russia,” he said. Putin started to get scared in 2011, when protesters marched through Moscow and “outside the Kremlin wall,” demanding fair elections.

    “Suddenly you have these big crowds which nobody controls,” Pszczel said.

    The regular protests continued into 2012, but soon dwindled, achieving nothing.

    “Then the usual pattern of reaction came back, of course you whip out the enemy,” instead of dealing with “domestic issues.”

    “They had to come up with more aggressive propaganda, and disinformation that the enemies always surround the country,” he added.

    The increasing militarization of Russia’s society shocked him the most through his mandate. Another thing was Russia’s penchant for distorting history, often seen in history textbooks, to justify its aggression against neighbors by denying their very existence.

    “I traveled quite a bit in universities all across Russia, and every time I asked, “can you show me some of your textbooks?” And this was just staggeringly, incredibly bonkers,” he said.

    Former NATO envoy to Moscow: ‘Potential escalation with Russia is a myth’

    Another sign of this deterioration was how Russian diplomats' discourse behind closed doors gradually became the same as on Russian propaganda TV.

    “Russian diplomacy became almost a misnomer: If you have a foreign ministry, it’s supposed to smooth relations,” he said.

    “Who in their right mind could trust any kind of thing Russian officials say?” he asked, pointing out Russia’s long history of disinformation at its higher level.

    “There’s nobody to discuss or negotiate with,” he said. “If Russia were a company, it would be insolvent, and nobody would give it any credit.”

    Russian diplomats gradually became more aggressive, with fearmongering officials advocating for “Armageddon” – the biblical battle between good and evil at the end of the world – becoming increasingly mainstream.

    “That’s really scary, but that is modern Russia.”

    And yet, Pszczel said there is one reason for optimism – Putin’s will to last and his cowardice.

    “I don’t believe Putin is suicidal, he has accumulated too much wealth,” he said.

    “Putin is a coward, the man who is ready to be laughed at because of the length of his table over Covid-19. If you’re such a coward, do you really want to die in a nuclear exchange?”

    Former NATO envoy to Moscow: ‘Potential escalation with Russia is a myth’

    Support for Ukraine

    Pszczel said that at the moment, NATO’s strategy toward Ukraine lies on two pillars.

    “The gist of the policy strategy is: one, we don’t want to go to war with Russia,” he said. “That’s Washington, but many countries are hiding behind it.”

    “The second part is we will support Ukraine to the maximum possible extent.”

    As of April 23, NATO allies have delivered more than 150 billion euros in aid, including 65 billion euros in military assistance, to Ukraine since March 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

    However, getting nearly every type of weapon, from tanks to long-range missiles, has been a result of diplomatic ordeal, with Kyiv constantly asking for more. The West has been extremely cautious not to provoke a so-called “escalation” with Russia.

    Russia’s war against Ukraine is “black and white,” he said, calling looking for nuances “not acceptable” and saying that the whole world must wake up.

    The situation should call for the whole world’s reaction, not just NATO, he said.  

    “If you don’t, then by your inaction or by following this trap of kind of nuance, you actually are undermining the principle which should serve the global order.”

    “Why is Russia still in the U.N. Security Council?” he asked.

    “It’s difficult to understand why we still have to deal with the obscene moral situation when you have Russian and Belarusian tennis players participating in Wimbledon.”

    The diplomat dismissed the widespread discourse over potential escalation with Russia as a “myth."

    “And this escalation myth is still there.”

    Former NATO envoy to Moscow: ‘Potential escalation with Russia is a myth’

  • Prominent Belarusian artist dies in prison 'under unclear circumstances'

    Prominent Belarusian artist dies in prison 'under unclear circumstances'

    The prominent Belarusian artist Ales Pushkin died in prison in Belarus “under unclear circumstances,” his wife Janina Demuch reported on July 11.

    Pushkin was charged by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in 2021 with “desecration of state symbols” and “incitement to hatred, according to human rights watchdog Viasna.

    At the time, Belarusian prosecutors said that the reason behind this was his painting of Jaŭhien Žychar, a member of the Belarusian anti-Soviet resistance, shown at an exhibition in the city of Hrodna. Authorities claimed that the painting “rehabilitated and justified Nazism."

    Pushkin was in Ukraine for another exhibition when he found out about the charges but did not cancel his return flight home. He was arrested the next day.

    “I remember how terrified I was that night when he went on a flight from Kyiv to Minsk in March 2021,” the poet Julia Cimafiejeva wrote, calling his death “a great loss for Belarusian culture and art."

    Pushkin’s trial began on March 10, 2022. The court found him “guilty” on March 30, 2022, and sentenced him to five years imprisonment in a penal colony.

    While the verdict was being read, Pushkin loudly protested and undressed to reveal a self-inflicted wound on his stomach in the shape of a cross, according to Viasna.

    Ales Pushkin took part in the mass protests of 2020-2021 that were spurred by Lukashenko fraudulently claiming victory in the presidential election. Authorities began jailing many of the protestors, while others fled into exile.

    “Ales was an incredibly talented, provocative, and courageous artist – a good man. And it will stay that way for us. The rest doesn’t matter anymore. He will remain an artist and a person who was killed in prison, killed by this government. He was killed for language, talent, and bravery. For being a Belarusian,” the writer Alhierd Bacharevič said, adding that “this murder cannot be forgiven."

    Viasna has established that there are 1,500 political prisoners in Belarus, but some human rights activists believe that the actual number is at least three times higher.

    Prominent Belarusian artist dies in prison 'under unclear circumstances'

  • Investigative Stories from Ukraine: EU’s inability to ramp up production behind acute ammunition shortages in Ukraine

    Investigative Stories from Ukraine: EU’s inability to ramp up production behind acute ammunition shortages in Ukraine

    Welcome to Investigative Stories from Ukraine, the Kyiv Independent’s newsletter that walks you through the most prominent investigations of the past week.

    If you are fond of in-depth journalism that exposes war crimes, corruption and abuse of power across state organizations in Ukraine and beyond, subscribe to our investigative newsletter.

    If you’re enjoying this newsletter, consider joining our membership or supporting us with a one-time donation. Start supporting independent journalism today.

    The Kyiv Independent’s exclusive

    EU inability to ramp up production behind acute ammunition shortages in Ukraine

    The European Union’s failure to make sure Ukraine has enough ammunition heavily impacts the country’s ability to withstand Russian aggression, according to the cross-border investigation released by the Kyiv Independent and partners.

    Red tape and subsequent shortages thwart military operations, and delay the counteroffensives that Ukraine is being pressured to accomplish.

    Together with colleagues from other European newsrooms, the Kyiv Independent spent months looking into the causes of ammunition shortages in Ukraine.

    Having spoken to diplomatic, military, and industry insiders, the journalism consortium found that even now, over a year into the all-out Russian war, the EU didn’t manage to implement any solid ammunition production ramp-up plans – due to member states’ protectionism and bureaucracy, among other reasons.

    As a result, Ukraine ends up using from three to 10 times less ammunition than Russia does, which is still several times more than Europe can produce.

    Even the small volumes of ammunition Ukraine has are a mess which shows how fragmented standards in the EU in arms and ammunition are: A 155mm shell for a German howitzer won’t fit the Italian launcher of the same caliber, for instance.

    Read the full story here.

    Top investigative stories

    OCCRP: Shell firms used for Ukrainian grain exports, depriving Kyiv of wartime revenue

    The Russian maritime blockade has damaged Ukrainian grain export — but domestic corruption made it even worse.

    Ukrainian authorities are investigating over 300 companies over alleged irregularities in how they documented grain trading and tax payments, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and RISE Project found. Many of these were established after the Russian full-scale invasion.

    Prosecutors said that the Ukrainian budget lost $140 million because of these companies in 2022.

    Despite the seizures, certain companies persist in their efforts to reclaim the grain through the courts while continuing operations, according to the report.

    Customs officers operating at ports in the Odesa Oblast, the central hub for Ukrainian grain exports, were accused of running a tax evasion scheme with multiple high-ranking officials.

    Since Russia blocked or occupied Ukrainian seaports last year, Ukraine sought to scale up overland exports through the European Union, which led to protests by European farmers and a temporary ban on Ukrainian grain.

    During the initial seven months of the Russian full-scale invasion, 80 dubious Ukrainian companies transported a minimum of 1.7 million tons of grain, worth $495 million, to murky firms in Romania, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

    Read the full story in English.

    Bihus.Info: Municipal manager’s family has lavish villa in French Riviera

    Investigative outlet Bihus.Info found a $21-million villa on the French Riviera owned by the wife of Ihor Kushnir, long-time head of Kyiv’s municipal construction company.

    Oksana Kushnir purchased the 850-square-meter mansion in France’s Villefranche-sur-Mer through her Cypriot company Koksi Holding LTD in 2020, according to the report.

    Since 2012, Ihor Kushnir has been the president of Kyivmiskbud, Kyiv’s top construction company that’s 80% owned by the municipality.

    Kushir denied owning the villa in a comment to Bihus.Info.

    Watch the full video with English subtitles.

    Bihus.Info: Top Ukrainian athlete’s company sells oil to Russian government, proxies

    Russian company Montblanc, owned by former Ukrainian pole vaulter and Olympic champion Serhii Bubka and his brother, sold $9,000 in petroleum product coupons to the Russian government and the Russian proxies in the occupied Donetsk Oblast, Bihus.Info found.

    The coupons could be used at six Montblanc-owned gas stations in the Russian-occupied parts of Donetsk Oblast, according to the report.

    All contracts for the coupons were signed by Vasyl Bubka, the older brother of Serhii Bubka, former Ukraine’s National Olympic Committee chairman, journalists found.

    The Montblanc company, previously operating in Ukraine-controlled territory, was registered in the Russian database after Moscow annexed Donetsk Oblast in October 2022.

    After the story broke out, Serhii Bubka’s lawyer reportedly said the athlete would sue the journalists, saying the story was distorted.

    Watch the full video with English subtitles.

    RFE/RL: Energy Ministry official helps former PM-affiliated firm to seek millions from the state

    A company associated with former Prime Minister Mykola Azarov is trying to sue grid operator Ukrenergo for $4 million, according to the Schemes, the investigative project of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian branch.

    The claim concerns a substation built by the company, Ai-Tek-Ukraina, in Odesa Oblast, in 2011. Though the state fully paid the contractor in 2019, Azarov’s cronies claimed the company was no longer under their control when that happened, according to Schemes.  

    Azarov, accused of treason, fled to Russia after the 2013-2014 EuroMaidan Revolution.

    Journalists found alleged sham debt documents and evidence that an official in the Energy Ministry, which owns Ukrenergo, could have been colluding with the company.

    These include the Energy Ministry’s 2022 audit favoring Ai-Tek-Ukraina claim for the money. The audit was conducted by the ministry’s Internal Audit Department, including Chairman Maksym Ponomariov.

    Ponomariov represented Azarov’s company in courts prior to joining the ministry, according to the report.

    If Ai-Tek-Ukraina wins, the state company will have to pay the firm Hr 47 million ($1.27 million) and around Hr 100 million ($2.7 million) in penalties.

    The Energy Ministry dismissed the Schemes' investigation as a “misinterpretation of documents and court rulings” when the story was published.

    Read the full story in Ukrainian here.


    Ukraine sanctions Russian oligarch’s firms following RFE/RL investigation

    Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council sanctioned 18 Russian companies of Mikhail Fridman, a Ukrainian-born Russian oligarch under international sanctions, following a Schemes (RFE/RL) investigation.

    The sanctions targeted the parent banking firms and insurance businesses co-owned by Fridman, operating in Russian or Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine.

    Schemes reported in early May that Fridman’s Russian companies extensively support the Russian war effort against Ukraine.

    Fridman’s company, Alfa Insurance, provided insurance coverage for vehicles of Russia’s National Guard deployed to Ukraine, and offered services to Putin’s Main Office of Special Programs, which guards the Russian dictator, among other things.

    Another company, X5 Retail Group, has a joint project with the Russian Defense Ministry, operating grocery shops that collect goods donated to the Russian military.

    Meanwhile in Russia

    Journalists estimate 47,000 Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine in 15 months

    Russia has had around 125,000 casualties, including 47,000 killed in Ukraine, since Feb. 24, 2022, according to a joint study by Meduza and Mediazona, Russian independent media outlets.

    Journalists accessed a restricted but non-classified database of inheritance cases and compared trends to those evident in publicly available mortality data from Russia’s State Statistics Service, records from the Russian Probate Registry, and obituaries.

    The Kremlin classified Russian war casualties. Russia’s Defense Ministry reported in late September 2022 that only 5,937 Russian troops had been killed in Ukraine.

    According to American and other Western officials, the number of Russian troops killed and wounded in Ukraine may be approaching 200,000.

    The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces reported that Russia has lost over 234,000 troops in Ukraine since Feb. 24, 2022.

    Read the full study in English via this link.

    Russia now assembles kamikaze drones domestically with Iranian components

    Russia started to assemble Shakhed kamikaze drones on its soil, according to the joint investigation by Protokol and RZVRT, Russian investigative outlets.

    Journalists found the facility in the Alabuga special economic zone in Russia’s Tatarstan region, where the drones are assembled with Iran-supplied components.

    The sources cited in the investigation estimated that the contracts with Iran could be worth around $1.45 billion, with the funding allegedly coming from Andrey Kostin, the CEO of state-owned VTB bank.

    The Russian technicians received training in Iran, while Tehran provided Moscow with plans, equipment lists, design documentation, and blueprints, among others.

    Russia assembles the drones using ready-made parts. However, Moscow aims to establish its own Shakhed production capabilities.

    The production of some components will be transferred to Alabuga in 2024, while several Russian companies could become manufacturers of drones and components, according to the sources and documents obtained by the journalists.

    British intelligence reported on June 13 that Russia is setting up domestic production with Iranian assistance.

    Read the full story in English using this link.

  • Russia approves 284 new flights per week to Georgia

    Rosaviatsiya, Russia's Federal Air Transport Agency, issued approvals on July 5 for 284 flights per week from Russia to Georgia.

    Some flight routes, such as from Sochi to Tbilisi, Batumi, and Kutaisi, will be increased from three to seven times per week.

    Other Russian cities have newly-established flight routes to Georgia. The newly-approved flight routes include flights from Rostov and Krasnodar.

    However, given the cities' geographical proximity to the Ukrainian border, civilian flights have been suspended since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

    In late May, protests broke out in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, after direct flights between the two countries resumed.

    The Russian government previously suspended all flights to Georgia in 2019 following anti-Russia protests in Tbilisi. However, the decision was reversed, and Russia also reinstated its 90-day visa-free arrangement with Georgia.

    Regarding the decision, Georgian Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili acknowledged in late May that there was a "political motivation" behind the Russian government's decision.

    However, he also said that "the more countries a Georgian citizen can visit without a visa the better."

    According to Papuashvili, Georgian authorities would also be monitoring any potential security concerns associated with an influx of Russians visiting the country.

    However, critics have been wary of the Georgian government's continued diplomatic ties to Russia, with Papuashvili even saying that it was not a "policy of concessions" but rather a "strategic policy of patience."

  • OCCRP: Ukrainian grain exported through tax-avoiding ‘shell firms,’ robbing country of wartime revenue

    OCCRP: Ukrainian grain exported through tax-avoiding ‘shell firms,’ robbing country of wartime revenue

    Editor’s note: This investigation was initially published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. It was reported with the support of Journalismfund Europe. As an OCCRP member center, The Kyiv Independent reposts it with permission.

    Reporters looked into who imported millions of euros of Ukrainian “black grain” into the European Union. They found liquidated companies, proxies — and multinational agribusiness giants.

    Key findings:

    • Ukraine is investigating hundreds of firms, many created since Russia’s full-scale invasion scrambled the grain market, for allegedly failing to properly document their trading in Ukrainian grain or to pay taxes on it.
    • Some of the EU companies that imported this grain from Ukraine raise serious questions themselves.
    • Several had been ordered shut down by Hungarian authorities but continued trading. Some of the men listed as their owners and directors were patients in psychiatric hospitals; one is an aspiring TikTok influencer.
    • The Romanian subsidiaries of major international agribusiness traders — COFCO International, Bunge, Viterra, and Ameropa Holding — also imported grain through Ukrainian companies under investigation.

    This April, hundreds of Romanian farmers used tractors to block the Halmeu border crossing with Ukraine, protesting a flood of cheap grain from their war-torn neighbor. “We want to help, but not at any price!” they chanted.

    “The imports from Ukraine are a big loss for us,” said David Gheorghe, a farmer who is also the mayor of the nearby town of Moftin. “They’ve filled the country with Ukrainian grain, and for us this is unfair competition.”

    With Ukraine’s seaports blocked since Russia’s full-scale invasion last year, the number of grain trucks crossing Halmeu has skyrocketed: From just 10 per month in the early days of the war to 1,600 per month last fall.

    In response to the farmers’ protests, Romania and other countries temporarily banned Ukrainian grain imports.

    Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has criticized the European restrictions as a threat to his country’s economy.

    But Ukraine’s agricultural sector has also been damaged by the country’s own corruption, a new investigation by OCCRP and RISE Project, OCCRP’s Romanian member center, has found. Trade data obtained by reporters shows that, in the first seven months of Russia’s full-scale invasion, much of the grain passing through Halmeu and other border crossings was exported by dubious Ukrainian companies that are accused of tax evasion and other crimes.

    These companies are among more than 300 under investigation by the Ukrainian authorities since last September. Prosecutors say they defrauded the state of at least $140 million last year alone.

    As part of the investigation, authorities have seized tens of thousands of tons of grain from some of the companies, according to court records seen by reporters. Some have challenged these seizures, and the court cases are ongoing.

    Multiple high-ranking officials are accused of abusing their positions to help set up the tax evasion mechanism, including senior customs officers working at ports in the Odesa region.

    OCCRP: Ukrainian grain exported through tax-avoiding ‘shell firms,’ robbing country of wartime revenueCranes load grain into ships in the port of Odesa in July 2021. (Photo: Andrey Abryutin/Alamy Stock Photo)

    To better understand how much corn, barley, wheat, and other grains these companies are exporting to the European Union — and who is buying it — reporters cross-referenced their names with customs data from the trade data aggregator ImportGenius and information from Romania’s Food Safety Directorate.

    The available data, which covered the first seven months of the war, included 80 suspect Ukrainian companies. They delivered at least 1.7 million tons of grain, worth $495 million, to companies in Romania, Hungary, and the Czech Republic over that period. By comparison, Ukraine exported just over twice that amount of grain, worth about $1 billion, to Romania over the same time frame.

    “Most of the grain export that’s happening now is not even close to bringing Ukraine the benefits it should be bringing,” says Maryan Zablotskyy, a Ukrainian legislator who undertook his own investigation into the grain market four years ago.

    Reporters found that among the buyers of the grain were offshore companies, Hungarian companies that had been ordered dissolved for failing to file paperwork, proxy companies in Hungary and the Czech Republic, companies with a history of tax evasion, companies owned by or employing politically connected figures — as well as major international grain traders including COFCO International, Bunge, Viterra, and Ameropa Holding.

    A man who appeared in the paperwork as the owner of one of these importers told reporters he had been institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital and approached by someone who paid him to put his name to the company. He pointed to other patients who had also been exploited in the same manner.

    None of the suspect Ukrainian companies that OCCRP and its partners attempted to contact could be reached through their registered phone numbers. COFCO International said they had no record of transactions with the suspect Ukrainian companies listed in the data. Viterra said it had no record of “direct business relationships” with any of them. Bunge and Ameropa did not reply to requests for comment.

    OCCRP: Ukrainian grain exported through tax-avoiding ‘shell firms,’ robbing country of wartime revenueA local farmer prepares to spray his field of wheat in Mykolaiv Oblast in southern Ukraine. (Photo: Liliia Kucher)

    Strawmen selling grain

    The Ukrainian probe began when investigators noticed that a large number of suspicious companies, many of them newly established, were evading taxes while trading in grain worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

    Documents filed by prosecutors show hundreds of companies are under investigation for allegedly being registered by “unidentified persons,” showing signs of “fictitious behavior,” and avoiding tax payments.

    The people behind the scheme “transferred products from one ‘shell company’ to another … to ‘confuse’ the trade chains and avoid paying mandatory payments to the budget,” Ukraine’s Security Service said in January. The country’s Economic Security Bureau told reporters it could not provide any more information about the investigation, as it was still ongoing.

    But additional details about the “black grain” trade are available in a report published in April by a parliamentary commission, which painted a dismal picture of Ukraine’s customs service.

    The service failed to properly check over 600 potentially suspicious grain exporting companies it had been informed about by the taxation agency, the report said. These companies “had risks of tax evasion, failing to return their foreign currency earnings to Ukraine as required by law, and money laundering.”

    OCCRP: Ukrainian grain exported through tax-avoiding ‘shell firms,’ robbing country of wartime revenue

    These are precisely the factors that made “black” Ukrainian grain so cheap on the European market, the head of the commission and member of parliament Yaroslav Zhelezniak told reporters. Such crimes also lead to massive losses to Ukraine’s budget, he said.

    “There are zero, zero, zero taxes on it,” Zhelezniak said, naming various police agencies he said have a presence at Ukrainian customs posts. “What are these scumbag law enforcement agencies there for, if they don’t see it?”

    The companies were not systematically inspected, the commission’s report said. In some cases, it said, customs officers interviewed their directors only by phone or video chat and failed to verify their identities. The commission found that more than half of the exporters had filed no customs declarations at all, and a majority of those that had been filed were processed within 90 minutes of receipt. One declaration took just nine minutes.

    An easy mark

    To see who is importing “black grain” from Ukraine and how much, reporters cross-checked customs data against the list of Ukrainian companies accused of violations, the names of several known Romanian, Czech, and Hungarian importers of Ukrainian grain, and several offshore companies that import Ukrainian grain.

    The most prolific Ukrainian exporter on the list was Talstaktiv, a firm that prosecutors say “legalized income obtained by criminal means,” failed to pay income tax, and didn’t return its foreign-currency earnings. The company was established in February 2021, a year before Russia’s full-scale invasion.

    Some time this year, while it was under investigation, Talstaktiv changed its address and took the new name Technotrade Supply. Over its short existence, the company’s registered owners changed three times.

    According to customs data, the company exported more than $150 million worth of grain in 2021 and 2022 to two Hungarian companies that were ordered to be liquidated by a Hungarian court for failing to file financial documents and accurate contact information.

    OCCRP: Ukrainian grain exported through tax-avoiding ‘shell firms,’ robbing country of wartime revenueA close-up of a field of winter wheat in Mykolaiv Oblast in southern Ukraine. (Photo: Liliia Kucher)

    The court also prohibited these key Hungarian importers — called The Mark Global and Borko Trade — from conducting any further activity. Despite this, The Mark Global continued to trade. Between its dealings with Talstaktiv and other firms, the company imported 283 grain shipments worth $157 million between 2021 and 2022.

    From grain sales made just to Borko Trade — which imported some $336 million worth of grain between 2020 and 2022 — the Ukrainian state lost an estimated $20 million in unpaid taxes, according to prosecutors’ documents. Hungarian authorities proved unable to establish who was really behind the company. According to the country’s tax and customs directorate, Borko Trade’s legal successor and the taxpayer’s contact information were both unknown, and mail sent to the company was returned due to a false postal code.

    Apparent proxies from psychiatric institutions

    When reporters looked into who was behind The Mark Global, Borko, and two other associated firms, they found several young men listed as current or former shareholders or directors who appeared to be proxies, including an aspiring TikTok influencer. One of them told reporters he, and others, had been approached to put his name to the company while being treated in a psychiatric institution.

    The trail to these men led through the director of The Mark Global at the time of its dissolution, a Lithuanian named Sergiejus Kolobovas. Kolobovas has no record of properties or businesses in his home country.

    He was also the CEO of another Hungarian importer, Supstan, which bought sunflower oil from Ukraine worth $61.8 million in 2020 and 2021 before authorities ordered it to be dissolved in 2022.

    The man listed as owning the company before Kolobovas — while these transactions took place — is Ondrej Stana, a 27-year-old Czech national who makes personal development videos on TikTok.

    Stana told reporters he was being treated for bipolar disorder in the Czech city of Brno several years ago when a man named Albert approached him and other patients and asked them to “join” the companies.

    “All this for 400 euros a month, which I received about seven times over two years, at most,” he said. “Very quickly I realized it was a mistake, but I didn’t know what to do. I asked them to remove my name.”

    OCCRP: Ukrainian grain exported through tax-avoiding ‘shell firms,’ robbing country of wartime revenue

    A Ukrainian named Albert Yanishevskiy, who was just 23 years old when these companies were set up in 2019, appears to be behind the email address used by The Mark Global in the Hungarian company registry.

    Contacted by reporters, Yanishevskiy said he previously ran a law office in the Czech Republic that opened companies for a fee. He said The Mark Global was one such company, but said he had no role in it. He denied having approached anyone in a psychiatric clinic to open a company. Instead, he said he had contacted certain people to sign forms after being told by those setting up the companies “that this person will be the director of this company.”

    The CEO of The Mark Global was Matej Bartík, a 30-year-old Slovak citizen. He, too, Stana said, had been in the psychiatric hospital and been approached by Yanishevskiy. But when reporters reached Bartik, he denied that The Mark Global was his company and stopped responding.

    Bartik’s trail, reporters found, leads back to alleged criminal activity in Ukraine.

    At various times, he was both a managing director and a shareholder in a Czech computer and tech services company that had previously been owned by a Ukrainian man named Viktor Holovchyk.

    Since 2019, Holovchyk’s companies have been under investigation in several cases of alleged money laundering, one of which involved the help of bank officials from the National Bank of Ukraine.

    In one of these cases, prosecutors said that a Holovchyk company laundered money of illicit origin. In its defense, a lawyer for the company said the money in question represented advance payment from selling grain. The case is ongoing. Reporters were unable to reach Holovchyk for comment.

    OCCRP: Ukrainian grain exported through tax-avoiding ‘shell firms,’ robbing country of wartime revenueA screenshot from a personal development TikTok video made by Ondrej Stana, the previous owner of Supstan, posted on Facebook and since deleted from TikTok. (Photo: Facebook)

    A third man mentioned by Stana as a psychiatric patient who had been asked to put his name to a company was Lukáš Neradílek. Stana sent reporters a photo of himself with Neradílek; another photo of Neradílek appears to show him in the psychiatric hospital. His name appears on two companies that purchased grain from Ukraine: Resale Consult in Slovakia and GD Delivery Consult in Hungary.

    Resale Consult imported $43 million worth of grain from Ukraine’s Mykolaiv region between 2019 and 2021, and GD Delivery Consult bought soybeans worth $2 million in 2019.

    Between them, these five companies — The Mark Global, Borko, Resale Consult, GD Delivery Consult, and Supstan — bought over $600 million worth of grain and sunflower oil from Ukraine between 2019 and 2022. They then sold these products to companies in Turkey, Korea, Belgium, Romania, and several African countries.

    COFCO carries on

    The Ukrainian MP Zablotskyy, who undertook his own investigation into the grain market four years ago, told reporters that big international traders were behind the current underground deals — and that the best way to stop them was to try to have fines imposed on them outside Ukraine.

    “As practice has shown, it is very difficult to prosecute this in Ukraine with the law enforcement system we have and the corruption we have,” he said.

    Reporters found that COFCO International Romania, a subsidiary of the Chinese multinational agriculture business COFCO International , was one company that had imported grain through Ukrainian companies under investigation.

    COFCO’s Romanian subsidiary imported $2.3 million worth of sunflower seeds into Romania through Talstaktiv, paying just $0.40 a kilogram in May 2022 when the price on international grain exchanges was $0.67 per kilogram.

    In total, COFCO International Romania imported over $145 million worth of grain into the country in the seven months between February and September for which data is available. Of this amount, about 145,500 tons of grain, worth nearly $37 million, came through Ukrainian companies now under investigation.

    Of these, the largest of COFCO International Romania’s suppliers, exporting to it over $12 million worth of grain, is the Odesa-based Greenprime. At least for some shipments, the purchase price was much lower than normal: In August and September 2022, Greenprime exported rapeseed to COFCO International Romania for $0.38 a kilo, compared to $0.64 on the international market.

    Greenprime, founded in May 2021, also supplied a Romanian firm called Hercules which is controlled by the son of Gheorghe Bunea Stancu, the former head of the council of Braila county. Bunea Stancu was sentenced to three years in prison for abuse of office and for his involvement in the improper financing of a political campaign. Greenprime also exported grain to Bunge Romania, a local subsidiary of the American agri-business giant.

    OCCRP: Ukrainian grain exported through tax-avoiding ‘shell firms,’ robbing country of wartime revenueNearly $37 million worth of grain was imported by COFCO International Romania through suspect Ukrainian companies. (Graph: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP)

    COFCO International Romania did not respond to requests for comment. Its parent company, COFCO International, said that the Romanian subsidiary “has no record of, and has not entered into, any transactions with the companies you have listed. We strongly recommend you question the sources and records you have used to determine the claims made in your letter, which are not correct.”

    When reporters sent a follow-up email explaining that their findings had come from aggregated customs data and providing examples, the company wrote that its previous statement “remains valid” and questioned whether the data referred to “sellers” or “shippers” without elaborating further.

    (The ImportGenius data used by reporters indicates the exporter or “shipper” of every grain shipment, but this does not necessarily imply a direct business relationship with the recipient.)

    The Romanian subsidiaries of two other major international traders — Viterra (formerly known as Glencore Agriculture) and Ameropa Holding — were also importing grain through dubious Ukrainian firms.

    OCCRP: Ukrainian grain exported through tax-avoiding ‘shell firms,’ robbing country of wartime revenue

    Three Viterra subsidiaries imported $9.3 million worth of grain through dubious Ukrainian companies: In 2022, Viterra Rotterdam imported soybeans and sunflower oil through Тalskativ, one of the top suspected Ukrainian offenders, worth $3.5 million. Viterra Romania imported $4.4 million worth of grain and sunflower seeds through the Ukrainian companies over the same period. And Viterra Hungary imported sunflower seeds worth $1.4 million through another Ukrainian company now under investigation.

    Responding to questions, Viterra said it had “conducted a thorough internal review and can confirm that to the best of our knowledge, we have no record of any direct business relationships with any of the third parties mentioned in your enquiry.” The firm added it “has a zero-tolerance policy for illegal or corrupt business practices of any kind.”

    “Across our business, Viterra has extensive policies and procedures in place to ensure all counterparties we work with do not have any history of corrupt activities, including but not limited to tax evasion,” the firm said. It did not respond in time for publication to a follow-up email from reporters that explained the origins of the data.

    Meanwhile, from July to September 2022, Bunge Romania imported $5.6 million worth of grain through the dubious Ukrainian companies, including Greenprime, according to customs documents seen by reporters. Some $1.5 million of this was imported through Pretset, a company whose VAT certificate has been revoked by Ukrainian authorities. Bunge did not respond to requests for comment.

    A Romanian subsidiary of Ameropa Holding imported about $1.7 million worth of grain in Romania through companies accused of violations. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

    OCCRP: Ukrainian grain exported through tax-avoiding ‘shell firms,’ robbing country of wartime revenueA COFCO facility in the north of Romania, where grain arrives from Ukraine by train. (Photo: RISE Romania)

    Damalio gets busy

    One Romanian grain purchaser, connected to a disgraced former Moldovan minister, appears to have begun a brisk trade in Ukrainian grain after the 2022 invasion. A majority of its imports over the period for which reporters have data were made from Ukrainian companies under investigation.

    The company, Damalio RO, had no trading activity in 2021 but a turnover of almost $14 million the following year.

    According to Damalio RO’s website, security for the company is provided by Alexandru Pînzari, Moldova’s former defense minister and ex-chief of the National Police. Two years ago, Pînzari was arrested for abuse of office and a range of other charges.

    Damalio’s owner is a Romanian-Moldovan man with no public profile and who is also the co-owner of another company with Pînzari’s son.

    Between June and September 2022, Damalio imported 971 grain shipments valued at $3.4 million from Ukraine. Of these, 785 shipments, consisting of 19,556 tons and worth $2.8 million, came from companies under investigation.

    The biggest of Damalio’s suppliers is Podillya Agroservis, a company established in January 2022 that is also being investigated, in a different case, for allegedly breaking customs rules by trying to hide the origin of sunflower seeds. In August and September 2022 alone, Podillya Agroservis made 692 shipments of grain totaling nearly $4 million. Many of these shipments were sent to Damalio.

    Damalio’s cheapest supplier — at one of the lowest prices seen by reporters in this investigation — was Raikomia. In July 2022, Damalio imported corn from Raikomia at just $0.07 a kilogram, or five times cheaper than the international price.

    Raikomia shares a phone number with another company, set up in October 2022, from which Ukrainian prosecutors seized about 65,000 tons of wheat and corn in the Odesa region as part of their investigation into tax evasion. A court later ordered the grain to be returned.

    Mihai Pătraș, a commercial director at Damalio, confirmed that the company’s turnover consists of grain transactions from Ukraine. He said he bought grain from “brokers” that had been suggested by grain farmers, but would not elaborate further.

    OCCRP: Ukrainian grain exported through tax-avoiding ‘shell firms,’ robbing country of wartime revenue

  • Why Russian music is still popular in Ukraine; Explosives reported at nuke plant

    Editor’s note: We lost 1,000 subscribers after posting a story about a trans activist’s experience in Ukraine. Here’s how we responded: “we believe that subscriber numbers don’t mean anything if we don’t hold true to our values. We will continue to highlight marginalized communities and the people you don’t hear about in other outlets.”

    After putting out word about this, our community responded with an outpouring of support. This week we managed to fill in the gap and our numbers are back to where we were before this all started! We are grateful that you are here with us, reading about the intimate, real-life experiences of this war. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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    Serhii Fomenko’s journey from Ukrainian folk rock singer to a member of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force and documentarian is not, as one might expect, a simple story. 

    But in many ways, his career illustrates what Russia did to Ukraine’s cultural legacy and the steps that Ukrainian artists, writers and musicians are taking to reclaim it, even at great cost. 

    We spoke to Serhii a couple of days after one of Ukraine's most promising young writers, Victoria Amelina, succumbed to injuries she suffered on June 27 when the Russians slammed a missile into a popular restaurant in Kramatorsk, killing at least 12 more and injuring 60.  

    “In the last century, the Russians decided to carry out a large-scale genocide against Ukrainians,” Fomenko said. “They killed the intellectual and artistic elite… After one hundred years, they behave in the same way.” 

    Fomenko got his start busking on the streets of Kyiv shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union. Like most musicians, he sang in Russian back then, given the dominance of the USSR, but a few Ukrainian folk songs were tolerated. Soon he formed his band The Day Dies Young, a psychedelic punk band with artistic influences ranging from The Doors to The Cure. 

    After Ukraine shook off its Soviet shackles and gained its independence in 1991, Fomenko still sang mostly in Russian. The Day Dies Young even visited Moscow and St. Petersburg. He saw many of colleagues sign with Russian music labels and cash in. Their Soviet overlords were gone, replaced by Russian capitalists with cash to splash around. 

    “The whole media space, the channels, the TV, everything was silently occupied by the Russian side, by the Russian businessmen,” he said.

    In 1998, Fomenko, too, was offered a record deal by a Russian music label, he said – but only if he would sing exclusively in Russian. He refused, and, by then a solo artist, he switched to singing exclusively in Ukrainian. 

    He continued his singing career, earning a degree of fame in Ukraine. Ross, our Ukrainian colleague, was excited to do this interview because he remembered listening to Fomenko as a kid. Ross said his father was an even bigger fan. Fomenko smiled genially at this, used to the recognition, although he doesn’t encourage it.

    But like many things in Ukraine, 2014 changed everything. Around that time, Fomenko was one of the protestors who opposed President Yanukovych drawing Ukraine closer to Russia and not Europe.

    Fomenko performing in Maidan in November 2013, at the start of the protests. (MandryMusicUA

    ”I was on the Maidan,” he said. “I knew a few people who are now in the Heavenly Hundred,” referring to the some 100 civilians killed by government security forces. And then came the Russian annexation of Crimea and occupation of the eastern parts of the country. Fomenko knew he needed to do something else. 

    “After Maidan,” he said. “My will to do music disappeared.”  

    He started curating a traveling exhibition called Maidan. Ukraine. Road to Freedom, which showed in the U.S Congress and around the world.

    He said he wrote a couple of songs about the war in the east and a children’s musical about Ukraine’s version of Santa Claus. I got the impression that he felt creatively fallow in these years.

    And then, everything changed again. 

    On Feb. 26, 2022, two days after the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he enlisted in Ukraine’s 206th Territorial Defense Force battalion, which helped evacuate people from Irpin, Bucha, and surrounding towns. His was one of the first units into Bucha, where Russians had tortured and massacred civilians. “It was brutal,” was all he said. 

    He says he couldn’t understand why the Russians would do this. What do they have to gain?

    “They were welcomed here,” he said. “There were artists who were making huge money in Ukraine. Businessmen were making a lot of money. … There was simply no reason for this to start, ever.”

    He spent just three months in the Territorial Defense Forces  — he’s 51 with a wife and two young children — and after leaving the military, he has started new creative ventures. He is producing two documentaries about Mariupol, the strategic town in Donetsk currently occupied by Russia. It was under siege for three months before the Ukrainian fighters holed up in the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works factory surrendered. Ukrainian officials estimate some 25,000 civilians were killed in the siege. 

    This first documentary is called “People of Steel,” and will tell the stories of the defenders of Mariupol and their families. The second is called “The Mariupol Diary '' about 8-year-old Yegor Kravtsov and his family. Their house was bombed, trapping them until they were able to escape to Zaporizhzhia. Yegor kept a diary throughout the ordeal. Fomenko calls it a “powerful artifact and document of the occupation, genocide, and war crimes of the Russian army in the occupied Mariupol.

    Despite all that — nine years of war and the horrors of the full-fledged invasion — Russian-language music is still commonly found on Ukrainian pop charts. Out of the 100 songs on that list, 38 songs are in Russian and of those, 24 are by Russian artists. The rest of the 38 are by Belarusian and Ukrainian artists.

    “We are still a post-colonial society and I believe that a lot of people still have a lot of illusions regarding the Russians and the presence of Russians and their music,” he said. “A lot of people [Ukrainians] simply never discovered Ukrainian culture for themselves. … Some people simply missed it because they were, for example, watching Russian TV. It was only Russian there, you know, the Russian position, the Russian point of view. And so a lot of people, they simply missed whole layers of Ukrainian cultural development.”

    The Counteroffensive with Tim Mak is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

    Good morning to readers. Kyiv remains in Ukrainian hands. 

    There is a palpable sense of anxiety in the air as uncertainty surrounds the immediate fate of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). 

    In a national address late last night, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, "On the roof of several power units of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the Russian military placed objects similar to explosives." 

    Ukrainian emergency workers wearing radiation protection suits train in Zaporizhzhia to prepare for a possible disaster at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo by Andriy Andriyenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

    However, Mariana Budzherin, a senior research associate at the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, said these alleged explosive devices "will not lead to any actual radiological release of radionuclides into the atmosphere.” 

    “The occupiers can seriously damage the structure itself,” she said. “But in order to cause the actual …radiological emission of radionuclides, our invaders need to try very, very hard. In fact, it is not that easy to do.”

    Nonetheless, Ukrainian telegram channels have been posting frequently about the situation at the ZNPP. The Ukrainian government has been taking the threat seriously, with disaster response drills in Zaporizhzhia and the distribution of potassium iodide tablets. 

    A Ukrainian translation of the recommended CDC guidelines for radiation contamination posted by civilian channels.

    Based on casual conversations around town, there is a sense of doom about all this. Some Ukrainians we spoke with have interpreted the lack of an international response to the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam on June 6 as giving Russia the confidence to disable the ZNPP and cause a new ecological calamity. 

    "Thanks for another day without nuclear disaster," a Ukrainian meme reads.

    Roughly 100 employees of Russia's state nuclear agency Rosatom have reportedly left Enerhodar, the town closest to the power plant, as of July 2. The mayor of Enerhoda, said that there are still around 6,000 Ukrainian employees of the plant that have been forbidden from leaving by the occupying Russian authorities.  

    One question that hangs over all this is ‘Why?’ Today, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar posted on her official Telegram channel that “Terrorist acts and their direct perpetration are for the Russian Federation a tool for achieving military goals.” 

    She called for Ukrainians to remain calm and only trust official sources of information.

    Amid this anxious waiting, the Ukrainian counteroffensive continues to make small inroads in the east. The ISW's latest report says the Ukrainian forces are taking a deliberate pace to conserve their manpower while “gradually wearing down Russian manpower and equipment." 

    This is in contrast to the lightning Kharkiv counteroffensive in September when Ukraine recaptured thousands of kilometers of its territory from Russian occupying forces.

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    Greetings everyone. Chris here. This will be one of my last dispatches and musings for The Counteroffensive. Tim is returning soon. I envy that he gets to come back and cover this. 

    As a reporter and “a veteran war correspondent” — a sobriquet I never expected to have — Ukraine has been clarifying. Like any reporter, I want to cover big stories with big stakes. There are few stories that can approach the stakes of Ukraine’s struggle against Russia. I firmly believe that if Ukraine falls, it will embolden autocrats around the world and endanger the faith that citizens of the free world have in democracy. 

    I am not young—I remember well Ronald Reagan and his call to “tear down this wall!” But I was too green to cover the giddy Velvet Revolution or the Balkan bloodbath. I knew they were important, however. Instead, my generation of journalists got the Iraq War. Who was right and who wasn’t were fuzzy judgment calls, at best. We never had a moral clarion call to (figurative) arms. Saddam was bad, yes, but was the U.S. justified in its actions? No. It was a tough line to walk. 

    Chris reporting in Kirkuk on April 13, 2003.

    But Ukraine? There’s something here that calls to me, to a whole cast of characters who see a clear moral choice. Are we romanticizing it? More than a little, I’m sure. I’m equally sure that as this war drags on, the world will learn of more atrocities under the Law of Armed Conflict—from both sides. Endemic corruption within the Ukrainian government will no doubt come to light. People will be disappointed. 

    But the imperfections of the Ukrainians doesn’t mean they don’t deserve full-throated support against Russia. What is happening here is a bracingly crystal-clear moral struggle, a rarity in today’s social-media-soaked world and almost non-existent in the both-sides-ism of today’s American journalism industry. Like I said, I do believe failure to defeat Russian imperial designs will have global reverberations, whether here, in Europe, China or Washington.

    Chris at the Syrian-Iraqi Kurdistan border in July 2002.

    Perhaps it’s arrogance that one reporter or a small team can tell enough good stories (with dog pics), illuminate the horrors of modern warfare and shake enough people by their coat lapels, that they will put war correspondents out of a job. Perhaps it’s simply enough to bear witness. 

    Either way, it’s been an honor to report for you. It’s been an honor to tell the stories of Monro, Tasha, Serhii, and many others that will be published in the coming days. I hope to be back, but if not, keep supporting Tim and other journalists covering this war so they can keep informing you. 

    Tim and team are fortunate to be at the center of it all, and you, dear readers, are equally lucky to have Tim and team on the beat.

    Today’s cat o’ conflict is Bubula, courtesy of Klara Lisinski, a resident of Kyiv.

    Stay safe out there.