NEWS FROM UKRAINE - SABOTAGE IN DONBAS, MORE FRONT LINE CASUALTIES, FOCUS ON SOFT AGGRESSION, TRADE BLOCKADE IN THE EAST, GOOD NEWS AMID THE GLOOM...

25.03.17


UD. 25 March 2017.  

By Iryna Terlecky. 

A week in which fighting and sabotage flare up in Donbas and Ukraine fights back against Russian manipulation.

Sabotage in Donbas

The Ukrainian military have said that unknown saboteurs blew up a warehouse storing tank and other ammunition at a military base in eastern Ukraine early on Thursday, but nobody was hurt. The base, which contained about 138,000 tonnes of ammunition, is located in the city of Balakliya about 100 km (60 miles) from the frontline of Ukraine’s war against Russian-backed separatists. The total area of the dump spans more than 350 hectares, and munitions from the depot are used to supply military units in the conflict zone in nearby Luhansk and Donetsk.

Rescue teams were evacuating nearby villages in the eastern Kharkiv region, the military said, affecting around 20,000 people. Airspace has been closed within a 50km (31 miles) radius of Balakliya.

«According to preliminary data ... as a result of sabotage, last night at 2.46 AM (0046 GMT), fire and explosions caused the detonation of ammunition at several sites storing rockets and artillery weapons,» Ukraine’s chief military prosecutor Anatoly Matios wrote on Facebook.

The authorities are investigating various ways the explosions may have been caused, Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak said, including the possibility of an explosive device being dropped from a drone, following an earlier attempt in 2015 to destroy the base using drones.

Military spokesman Oleksander Motuzyanyk said security around other bases was being stepped up. Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman was due to fly to the area later on Thursday.

And more front line casualties

While the situation in eastern Ukraine is calmer than during February, when attacks from Russian-led separatists intensified around Avdiyivka, there are still daily reports of separatist ceasefire violations and military casualties – again mostly in the Avdiyivka area, but with sporadic attacks across the front line in Donetsk and Luhansk and in the area around Mariupol.

At least five Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in action during March, with many more wounded, including civilians. Russian-backed separatists have been deploying shells and mortars, and have continued the tactic of firing from civilian areas, including a school playground.

As an indication of the volatile situation, on one day alone, 21 March, the Ukrainian military reported 33 ceasefire violations in the Donetsk area, 17 of which involved the use of heavy armaments; Russian occupational troops fired over 30 tank projectiles, around 60 mortar shells, and were widely using small arms and grenade launchers in the area around Avdiyivka; 16 ceasefire violations were recorded in the Luhansk area, with continued firing to provoke responses from Ukrainian units; and 27 attacks took place in the Mariupol region, with separatists firing about 70 mortar shells and three tank projectiles, together with small arms and sniper fire. 

According to data obtained by Ukrainian intelligence, the separatists are now preparing a “draft campaign” to staff their so-called “First Army Corps”. In the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions males up to 50 years old are to be summoned to the ranks in April-May.

Focus on soft aggression

The Eurovision song contest to be held in Kyiv this year has made the front pages as a result of Russia’s choice of representative. After much noise from the Russia government about Jamala’s win last year – which they considered a provocation – and threats about withdrawing from the competition, they announced on Russian television, the day before nominations closed that their representative would be Julia Samoilova. In previous years, the Russian entrant has been chosen in a TV vote – as is the case in many other countries – but not this year. 

Samoilova has been in a wheelchair since childhood, suffering from spinal muscular atrophy: a neuromuscular disorder causing muscle wastage. She took part in the Sochi Winter Olympics ceremony, and also appeared in a concert in Crimea in 2015. Russia denied that it was seeking to politicise Eurovision, and denied that the choice of Samoilova was a provocation.

Predictably, Ukraine’s State Security Service has now banned Samoilova from Ukraine for three years because she entered Crimea «illegally» - directly from Russia, not via Ukraine. The BBC reports that there is already a predictable chorus of fury. A Russian deputy foreign minister called the ruling outrageous, cynical and inhumane - no less. One MP is demanding that the contest is moved to another country while a second warns that Russia will boycott every Eurovision to come unless organisers intervene to resolve this.

The BBC concludes, however that some suspect this is precisely what Moscow wanted when it chose Julia Samoilova, knowing that she had travelled to Crimea.

Trade blockade in the east

The Ukrainian government has imposed a temporary freeze on rail and road cargo links to Russian-backed breakaway enclaves after militants in the far eastern Donbass region moved to seize control over strategically important steel and coal businesses.

The Financial Times reports that the suspension of trade links, ordered by President Petro Poroshenko represents an apparent U-turn after an official criticism of illegal blockades imposed by Ukrainian activists and war veterans who were demanding that the Ukrainian government ceased trading with aggressors. This followed moves from the separatists to seize control of steel, mining and other enterprises, in retaliation for the blockade. 

Mr Poroshenko ordered security chiefs to “temporarily close transportation corridors” with occupied territories in the east of the country. “It is to be in effect until the occupiers return stolen Ukrainian factories to Ukrainian jurisdiction,” Mr Poroshenko added.

Ukrainian officials have warned in past weeks that a loss of ties with businesses on separatist controlled territory could undermine a fragile recovery from a deep recession and cast the eastern regions further adrift economically from the rest of Ukraine. 

The developments are a major blow to the interests of Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and a native of Donetsk. He stands to lose operational control over several steel mills, coal mines and other businesses.

Boris Gryzlov, Russia’s representative in the Minsk accords, said Mr Poroshenko’s decision was a “direct” violation of the peace process. 

Alexander Zakharchenko, self-appointed leader of the Donetsk-based separatists, appeared unconcerned by the cargo blockade and said this week that mines under his control had started shipping coal to Russia.

Officials said civilians and humanitarian aid will be allowed to continue to cross front lines. Nevertheless, the human cost of the blockade and suspension will be felt by many. Many people have earned a living through small-scale trading across front lines, while tens of thousands continued to receive regular Ukrainian salaries while working at factories within the separatist region. These factories and employees continued to pay state taxes until being seized this month.

Past catches up with Manafort

Investigations into ties between US President Trump’s associates and Russia continue to rumble and become even murkier. 

After his name surfaced last August in a secret ledger listing millions of dollars in payments from ex-President Yanukovych’s party, Paul Manafort lost his job running Trump’s presidential campaign. 

This week, the intrigue took another turn, when Serhiy Leshchenko released documents that he said showed that Mr. Manafort took steps to hide the payments, which were tied to work for the discredited president. The documents included an invoice that appeared to show $750,000 funneled through an offshore account and disguised as payment for computers.

Manafort insists that the documents are forgeries and that Leshchenko is involved in a scheme to blackmail him – which is equally forcefully denied. However, the FBI has confirmed that Manafort and others are under investigation as part of the wider investigation into Russian meddling in the American presidential election. Although President Trump has said that Manafort was a ‘respected’ individual who advised and worked with many governments, this is a story that will not be going away any time soon.

Good news amid the gloom

On 15 March Ryanair, announced its first Ukraine flights, its 34th country, with 4 new Kiev routes to Eindhoven, London, Manchester and Stockholm, starting from October, which will deliver 250,000 customers per annum at Kyiv Airport. Five flights a week will link Stansted to Kyiv, with three flights a week from Manchester. Two flights a week will also be launched between Stansted and Lviv.

The news has been widely welcomed. Minister of Infrastructure, Volodymyr Omelyan, said: “The arrival of Ryanair in Ukraine is without exaggeration, a remarkable event for Ukraine. Negotiations lasted for several years, and I am proud that our team was able to successfully hold them. Today we officially declare - Ryanair is in Ukraine. I am convinced that Ryanair will be another bridge that connects the infrastructure of Ukraine with Europe and it will be a good signal for the world’s major investors.”


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