UD. 11 June 2016.  By Iryna Terlecky.

War intensifies and the death toll rises while Putin’s apologists in Europe call for easing sanctions.

The worst month

May and the beginning of June have seen a sharp increase in attacks on Ukrainian military positions along the whole of the front line, with 20 Ukrainian soldiers killed in action in a month and many wounded in almost 140 attacks in the last week alone. 

The Russian-backed separatists are reported to be using heavy weapons that, according to the Minsk agreements, should have been pulled back.

In the last week of May, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) recorded a 10 percent increase in ceasefire violations compared to the previous week, which in itself had seen a 50 percent increase on the week before that. 

Three quarters of all ceasefire violations last week were recorded in the Avdiivka-Yasynuvata-Donetsk airport area. 

Alexander Hug, First Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine said that both sides are failing to withdraw weapons from the security zone. 

“On 5 June, in government-controlled Pervomaiske, for instance, monitors saw craters caused by 120-mm mortars, one just four metres from a kindergarten building and another in the adjoining playground.  In “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DPR”) -controlled Dokuchaievsk, our monitors saw a tree in a children’s playground – 35 metres from a residential building – cut in two by a powerful impact”.

Monitors have also observed heavy fighting in the area around Mariinka, where a gas pipeline has just been repaired after being damaged in fighting, and said that they recorded 117 explosions there on just one day. 

The OSCE are also monitoring people’s freedom of movement. 

According to Alexander Hug, people in western Luhansk region told OSCE monitors that they were prevented by the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic” (“LPR”) from reaching Novooleksandrivka, the nearest settlement to them. 

“This restriction on their basic right to move freely within their own country – and even within their own locality – means they have trouble accessing food and medicine,” he said. He believes that this experience is typical of many others. 

Colonel Andriy Lysenko, Ukrainian Armed Forces spokesman, said that the separatists are using 82-mm and 120-mm mortar launchers prohibited by the Minsk agreements, anti-aircraft mounts, grenade launchers and small arms. 

He also reported that the separatists are denying the OSCE monitors access to their occupied areas, including arms storage facilities. 

Security and censorship

On 7 May, the website Mirotvorets (“Peacemaker”) published part of the separatists’ accreditation records  - names and personal contact details for around 4,000 journalists, including freelancers and accredited media correspondents, labelling  them “terrorist collaborators”. 

Condemnation of the list followed from organisations including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

Ukraine’s ombudsman called for the website to be blocked. 

While the Mirotvorets website was taken offline for a while, there was support from prominent members of the government, including Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who declared his support for Mirotvorets and accused those who criticised the publication of the list of harbouring separatist sympathies. 

The website is now back online and has posted additional journalists’ contact information. 

The editors stated that they would not listen to the “whimpering” about “freedom of speech.” 

An adviser to the head of the Ukrainian Security Service announced that the journalists on the lists were being investigated as potential spies.

President Poroshenko was noticeably initially absent from the debate. 

Finally, on 6 June, he tweeted, “Freedom of speech is one of the great achievements of Ukraine since the Revolution of Dignity.” 

This came after Poroshenko banned 17 Russian media executives and journalists from entering Ukraine as part of the fight against Kremlin propaganda or Russia’s “information war,” – a move which has also been widely condemned. 

Freelance journalist Ian Bateson, who has reported many times from the occupied territories, including after the MH17 disaster, said in the New York Times, 

“The website and its supporters in government are suggesting that journalists can be divided into two camps: those who support the state and those who are against it, with the implication that journalists who criticize the government should be silenced… As corruption and nepotism threaten the hope of Ukraine’s revolution, journalists are being told that they are helping the enemy just by doing their jobs.”

While there is some sympathy for Ukraine’s position, as it is constantly bombarded by state-financed Russian propaganda, financed by a budget that Ukraine cannot hope to match, there are also suspicions that Ukrainian politicians are using ‘hybrid warfare’ to explain away any published criticisms of what is actually happening in Ukraine. 

And as Ian Bateson points out, in trying to encourage “patriotic” journalism, in which the state always receives the benefit of the doubt, Ukrainian officials are actually fostering a journalism culture similar to Russia’s.

He calls for Ukraine’s government to act in accordance with the European values they claim to believe in so that Ukraine does not sacrifice press freedom in its struggle to survive war.

More on European values

The Kyiv Pride march is due to be held on 12 June under the banner of “The march of equality”, initially with fears that events of 2015 would be repeated when the march had to be abandoned following violence and attacks against the marchers. 

The fear was fuelled further by Artem Skoropadsky – apparently a spokesperson for the OUN movement, who wrote on his Facebook page. 

“Our colleagues from the OUN movement have released a strong statement about the gay parade in Kiev. In short, on June 12, there will be a bloodbath in Kiev. The organizers of the march still have time not to hold the march,” he wrote. 

There was immediate outrage at the statement, with many wondering why Skoropadsky was not being investigated for hate speech – although given attitudes in Ukrainian society generally, there were many who had sympathy for the message, if not the threat of violence.

To their credit, the Ukrainian police were quick to react. 

Kyiv police Head Andrii Kryshchenko said in an interview with, 

“We are serious about ensuring security. There is public interest and we must show that our society with its values is tolerant and ready to pursue the European path regardless of someone’s opinion on this Pride march…It is not about the pride festival, but the fact that the people have the right to express their thoughts. They will tackle not only this [LGBT] issue, they will raise the issue of the possibility to freely express one’s thoughts, which we all strove for two years ago,” Kryshchenko said.

Kyiv’s police and city administration are mindful that the world will be watching and that this will be seen as a test for the greater challenge of ensuring security for next year’s Eurovision final. 

Nevertheless, the Pride March will demonstrate that when it comes to European values, not everyone is yet ready to accept the wide tolerance that those values imply.

The Kremlin’s European friends

The EU is due to decide on whether or not to maintain the suite of sanctions against Russia. 

However, the number of dissenting voices is growing from some elements of Europe’s political leadership.

At the end of May, President Putin and his entourage visited Greece, whose Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras made clear that he considers Russia to be a critical partner and voiced his opposition to continuing sanctions;

“We have repeatedly said that the vicious circle of militarisation, of Cold War rhetoric and of sanctions is not productive. The solution is dialogue.”

In France, the French Senate overwhelmingly voted to urge the government to lift economic sanctions on Russia. 

The resolution to “gradually and partially” lift sanctions was approved by 302 votes for and 16 against after hours of debate “ and despite the opposition of France’s Socialist government.

France’s junior minister for European affairs, Harlem Desir, told senators restrictions could only be relaxed following the “full implementation” of the Minsk peace deal for Ukraine.

“When the Minsk agreements are implemented, sanctions will be lifted,” he said.

Wednesday’s vote is nonbinding, but it’s a barometer of European frustration with the sanctions which are seen to be damaging businesses while not leading to a resolution of the Russian-backed conflict in Ukraine.

The likelihood is that sanctions will be extended for a further six months, but there is an acknowledgement that it is becoming more difficult to maintain European unity on the issue – a faultline that the Kremlin will continue to exploit.

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