UD. 6 August 2016.  By Iryna Terlecky.

Ukraine back in the news, as the US election campaign continues to raise concerns about the Trump campaign.  

No sign of peace

July has been confirmed as the worst month for escalations of attacks on the Ukrainian military, with over 30 killed and many injured. 

However, August may break that grim record, with increasing numbers of attacks reported in the first few days, including from heavy equipment which should have been withdrawn from the front line.

Since 1 August, the Ukrainian Crisis Media Centre, reported that the Russian-backed separatists launched over 400 mortar shells and 34 artillery missiles in the Donetsk sector in the ATO zone. 

The attacks were conducted from long distances and from Horlivka and Donetsk residential areas – a situation seen before, which means that counter-attacks risk injuring or killing civilians.

Attacks have also increased in the Luhansk sector with 15 hostile attacks on 3 August alone, six of them involving use of heavy armour. 

In the Mariupol sector, separatists violated the armistice using heavy armour – mortar launchers and a tank.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Special Monitoring Mission (OSCE SMM) in Ukraine, continues to monitor the terms of the weapons withdrawal agreement, and has reported many violations: 15 anti-tank guns in “DPR”-controlled Zelene (28km east of Donetsk), two tanks missing from a permanent storage site, and some weapons missing from Ukrainian government storage sites. 

The SMM has also recorded ongoing restrictions to their freedom of movement with many instances where separatist forces have denied access, which seems to correlate with the areas from which attacks have been launched. 

A continuing problem is denial of access to border areas, except where agreed in advance – which means that Russian arms and troops can cross the border with impunity, allowing the SMM access only at times with no cross-border violations.

The civilian price of war

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented 69 civilian casualties in June, including 12 dead and 57 injured, and 73 civilian casualties in July, including eight dead and 65 injured, the highest figures since August 2015. 

The average of 71 for these two months was more than double the monthly average of 34 from September 2015 through to May 2016.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a press release, 

“The many casualties we have documented in recent weeks suggest that neither Ukrainian forces nor the armed groups are taking the necessary precautions to protect civilians.” 

He urged all sides to respect the ceasefire provisions, to remove combatants and weapons from civilian areas, and to scrupulously implement the provisions of the Minsk agreements.

UN human rights teams on both sides of the contact line have documented reports of civilian homes looted, schools and hospitals shelled or used by Ukrainian forces and armed groups.

An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people cross the contact line each day, using five crossings that are surrounded by inadequately marked minefields, according to OHCHR. 

In recent weeks, the situation has become even more dangerous as exchanges of fire have taken place between Ukrainian forces and separatist groups, particularly around the footbridge at Stanytsia Luhanska, the only crossing point in Luhansk region.

In total, from mid-April 2014 to 31 July 2016, the UN human rights office has documented 31,690 casualties, including 9,553 killed and 22,137 injured in the conflict area, including Ukrainian forces, civilians and members of separatist armed groups.

Putin not in Ukraine says Trump

The US Presidential campaign has not been out of the headlines for weeks, primarily because of the extraordinary statements that Republican candidate Donald Trump has been making. 

US media has characterised the last few days in particular as the worst three days in any presidential campaign in living memory.

In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on “This Week,” Trump said of Putin, “He’s not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want.” 

“Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?” Stephanopoulos responded, in a reference to Crimea, which Putin annexed from Ukraine in early 2014. 

The interview went from bad to worse, as Stephanopoulos interjected to note that Trump has suggested he could recognize Russia’s claim on Crimea over Ukraine’s - and Trump did not back away from that possibility in the interview.

“I’m going to take a look at it,” he said. “But you know, the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were. And you have to look at that, also ... just so you understand, that was done under Obama’s administration.”

Trump added: “And as far as the Ukraine is concerned, it’s a mess. And that’s under the Obama’s administration with his strong ties to NATO. So with all of these strong ties to NATO, Ukraine is a mess. Crimea has been taken. Don’t blame Donald Trump for that.”

The Clinton campaign responded later on the same day, with senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan saying: “What is he talking about? Russia is already in Ukraine. Does he not know that? What else doesn’t he know?”

Links to Russia

The official Democratic party position on Ukraine is clear, 

“We believe in strong alliances and will deter Russian aggression, build European resilience, and protect our NATO allies. We will make it clear to Putin that we are prepared to cooperate with him when it is in our interest… - but we will not hesitate to stand up to Russian aggression.”

However, some commentators have pointed out the Clintons’ close links with the Podesta Group, a US lobbying firm which worked for Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, which is majority owned by the Russian Central Bank and currently under EU and US sanctions. 

The lobbying group’s founder, John Podesta, was Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton and is now the Chairman of the 2016 Clinton campaign. 

The Trump camp’s position is more worrying. 

The Republican party policy document was changed a week before the convention to remove all supportive text for Ukraine, its sovereignty and Russian aggression against it. 

The ‘Ukrainian Weekly’ reacted with a strong statement saying, “…Donald Trump’s rhetoric and actions shows he would be dangerous for protecting human rights and democracy across the globe. Instead of rolling back support for our allies in Ukraine that would strengthen Russia’s hand, it is vital the U.S. act[s] to prevent Ukraine from descending further into chaos.”

There has also been an increasing focus on the Russian ties of Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, who was ex-President Yanukovych’s closest political advisor and has close ties to pro-Russian oligarchs. 

Hired in the mid-2000’s by the Party of Regions to help it with its electoral campaigns, Manafort’s task was to remake Yanukovych into an electable candidate. 

Several other Trump advisers have close links, through Gazprom and Gazprom media, with one, Carter Page, saying in an interview with Bloomberg that a Trump presidency would be financially beneficial to “some of his Russian associates who have been hurt by U.S. sanctions imposed in 2014 after Russia’s intervention in Ukraine,” adding that “there’s a lot of excitement in terms of the possibilities for creating a better situation.”

The implications for Ukraine

All of this is critically important for Ukraine. Mykola Murskyj, Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in International and Global Affairs and research assistant at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, where he investigates the peacebuilding process in the Donbas, has written about the challenges facing  Ukraine in the current climate of uncertainty about the outcome of the election. 

He concludes that, if Trump is expected to win, Putin may wait until after the inauguration on 20 January 2017 to make a big play in Ukraine: the Trump Administration will not object, and Germany will no longer have the OSCE chairmanship.

However, if the polls continue to show that Clinton is more likely to win — as of 28 July, a poll of polls shows that she has a 60.2% chance of winning — then the best time for strong moves in Donbas would be the two-month period between the election in November and the inauguration, given that outgoing Presidents are reluctant to taint their legacy with any involvement in an armed conflict.

And finally

In a period of continuing uncertainty, one bright spot is Prime Minister Teresa May’s strong reiteration of the UK’s support for Ukraine, maintaining sanctions against Russia and non-recognition of the annexation of Crimea – though the influence the UK will continue to exercise over the EU is unclear.

The Ukrainian flag has been raised in the Olympic village in Rio, with a team of 205 ready to compete and, hopefully, increase its medal tally from the 2012 London Olympics. 

The oldest member of the Olympic team, skeet shooting 2000 Olympic gold medalist Mykola Milchev, carried Ukraine’s national flag at the Opening Ceremony on 5 August  at the Maracana Stadium. 

We send the team all our good wishes!


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