UD. 22 April 2017.  

By Iryna Terlecky.

Europe opens its doors, while Russia’s proxies openfire.

Visa-free and where next

11 June was the first day of visa-free travel for Ukrainians holding biometric passports, covering travel for up to 90 days in the Schengen area – ie Europe excluding the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Under the visa-free regime, Ukrainians cannot stay longer than 90 days in an 180-day period and are not allowed to work in the EU.

Apart from having abiometric passport, Ukrainians are required to show their return tickets, proof of accommodation, medical insurance, and sufficient funds to cover their trip.

As of 5 pm on 11 June, some 8,200 biometric passport holders had entered the EU, including 1,300 people without visas.

Only five people were denied entry, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, due to previous violations of the rules of the regime and overstaying their Schengen visa.

With the visa-waiver agreement now in effect, the power of Ukraine’s passport is rising, according to data compiled by Passport Index.

Ukraine’s passport power will jump to 32nd place from 50th worldwide, overtaking that of the Russian passport.

Ukraine’s visa-free score — the number of nations that Ukrainians can travel to without visas — increases to 119 from 85, while Russia’s visa-free score is 106.

The start of the visa free regime followed a long period of consideration and debate, during which Ukraine had to show clear evidence of progress on reforms to satisfy EU requirements.

There were also setbacks, primarily a referendum in the Netherlands during which anti-EU political parties campaigned successfully for a no vote, which was only recently overturned by the Dutch Senate.

Nevertheless, the first day of the new regime was a day of celebration for the Ukrainian government and its closest EU supporters.

At weekend celebrations to mark the changes, President Petro Poroshenko told a crowd in Kyiv that the move “signifies our state’s final break from the Russian empire, and the Ukrainian democratic world from the authoritarian Russian world’.”

Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said that visa liberalization would “bring down a barrier between the people of Ukraine and the people of the European Union . . .making a difference to our citizens’ everyday life.”

Hugues Mingarelli, the head of the EU delegation in Kyiv, said “we are very pleased that as many Ukrainian citizens as possible can visit EU member states. Ukrainian citizens do not represent a threat to the EU. They bring opportunities and hope for the EU.”

EU Council leader Donald Tusk said: “The last three years have seen the birth of a new Ukraine, that advances its democracy and economy through sometimes very tough reforms. Additional assistance from Europe should help Ukraine in strengthening its democratic path.”

Sputnik News, however, predictably struck a sour note, saying that the EU’s move turned a blind eye to the many failings of the Ukrainian government, including its ‘radical dictatorship’, and said that the regime would risk the depopulation of Ukraine as thousands would flee to work in the EU illegally.

Visas for Russian citizens?

Amidst the celebration, Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin said measures were being taken to ensure people who were part of the Russian-backed separatist militia that control parts of two eastern regions were not allowed to enter the EU.

Amid growing debate on whether Ukraine should tighten entry rules for Russians, Mr Klimkin said he favoured a system under which Russian visitors would file information online about planned visits to Ukraine.

However, there are some who are pressing for the introduction of a full visa regime for Russian citizens, saying that while Russia wages war on Ukraine through its proxies, the privilege of free movement should be denied. 

This would inevitably bring retaliatory measures that would have adverse consequences for Ukrainians living and working in Russia, or with families spread across the two countries, as well as additional significant costs to a Ukrainian economy which remains fragile.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was clear about the implications of any such move.

“We said quite consistently that such actions, as a rule, receive a reaction based on the principle of mutuality. Therefore, there is nothing new here, but of course we can say that there will be a response.”

The war gets uglier

On the eve of the introduction of the visa-free regime, Russia’s proxies launched new attacks on hotspots along the frontline.

Ukrainian combat units defending Avdiyivka, Pavlopil and Krasnohorivka were shelled with82- and 120-millimetremortars, and with 122- and152-millimetre artillery.

In fighting overnight into 11 June, three Ukrainian servicemen were killed and another seven wounded, the military said.

The Ukrainian military press centre said the three Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in a single direct hit on their position by a mortar round. 

In total, 7 Ukrainian soldiers were killed over a period of three days. Four were killed and 14 more reported wounded over the weekend of June 10-11, with the heaviest bloodshed occurring overnight into June 11.

Another two soldiers were killed before dawn on June 12, and one after daybreak, the military reported, as well as at least two civilians injured by enemy fire.

The army’s death toll over just three days is the highest since the deadly upsurge of fighting for Avdiyivka in late January early February 2017.

And the attacks continue, in the Mariupol, Donetsk and Luhansk sectors – with no further deaths so far, but with several civilian houses hit by continual shelling and mortar fire.

Up to 382,000 people in Donetsk Oblast have lost supplies of running water amid the upsurge offighting.

Local authorities and emergency services report that 14 cities and 58 towns are currently without running water after Russian proxies shelled a pumping station, damaging the South Donbas water pipeline which has been dry for five days. 

Emergency repairs are hampered by continued shelling…

While almost every meeting of diplomats, in every format imaginable, continues to call for Russia to abide by the Minsk agreements, there appears to be a total impasse and it is clear that Russia has no intention of making any moves towards peace in Ukraine.

The real victims

Hromadske TV has published a poignant account of what Russia’s continuing war means for the civilians caught up infighting on the front line, particularly children.

School No.3 in Krasnohorivka, was shelled on the night of May 25, 2017,just before the last day of school.

After shelling in 2014, the school was repaired with the help of international organisations, volunteers, and the schoolchildren themselves. Now it must berepaired again.

Although the School Director, Nina Yurchenko, hopes classes will resume soon, it is still unclear whether the children will be able to return to the school in the autumn. 

She saidthat the children are scared, although they are used to the fighting.

Psychologists work with the students and teachers, but Nina claims their advice works poorly in practice.

“They sent us for training about how to behave during shelling,” she explained. “But once the shooting or bombing starts it’s frightening, when the windows and walls are shaking. When my grandson says ‘Grandma, what do we do?’ I can’t answer because my teeth are chattering.”

“Before the war all the children would write to each other about what they were going to wear on the last day of school,” Sonya,a student from Krasnohorivka School No.3 toldHromadske. 

“But this year we all said ‘did you hear? There was shelling near the school.’”

In April, the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers approved a proposed social programme called “The National Action Plan to Implement the UN Convention on Children’s Rights” which they are aiming to implement by 2021.

The programme pays special attention to children’s rights during armed conflict and plans “to ensure the protection of children who are in the zone of hostilities or armed conflict, implement comprehensive measures to create conditions for regular life and provide socio-psychological rehabilitation of children affected by hostilities or armed conflict.”

However, despite the efforts of UNICEF and other international agencies, thousands of children have already suffered psychological trauma from the war and support programmes will be needed for many years to come to heal those wounds.

And finally…

It remains unclear what the US President’s position in relation to Russia really is.

However, a very clear message came from the US Senate, which voted overwhelmingly to enact new sanctions against Russia and make it difficult for President Trump to lift them.

The ruling includes new sanctions in a number of categories, including those of “conducting malicious cyber activity on behalf of the Russian government” and “supplying weapons to the Assad regime.”

While Secretary of State Tillerson expressed concern about moves that would make it more difficult for the administration to work towards a better relationship with Russia, Republican Senator John McCain stated categorically, “The United States of America needs to send a strong message to Vladimir Putin and any other aggressor that we will not tolerate attacks on our democracy.”


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