Posts Tagged ‘Crimea’

Ukraine: Poroshenko’s promises, Merkel’s disappointment

November 2, 2018

Angela Merkel has visited Ukraine’s President Poroshenko, who is in the midst of an election campaign. There’s disappointment in Kyiv at his failure to implement reforms, and hopes of EU-style democracy are fading.

Ukraine Besuch Angela Merkel bei Petro Poroschenko (Reuters/Handout Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/M. Palinchak)

The German chancellor’s visit to Kyiv can safely be filed under the heading of “reliable diplomacy.” Since early 2016, when Angela Merkel committed Germany to long-term engagement with Ukraine by supporting the second Minsk peace agreement, there’s been plenty of contact between the countries’ leaders, in person and on the phone. Berlin and the majority of its EU partners have condemned both Russia’s annexation of Crimea — illegal under international law — and its military campaign in eastern Ukraine. The United States has even gone so far as to supply arms to the Ukrainian army.

Read moreSix stumbling blocks in German-Russian relations

Kyiv’s most important supporter in the European Union has announced she will not seek re-election in 2021. Merkel has demonstrated her commitment, but Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has been less conscientious about keeping his promises.

Ukraine Besuch Angela Merkel bei Petro Poroschenko (Reuters/Handout Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/M. Palinchak)Merkel is visiting Poroshenko in the midst of an election campaign and as disappointment rises in Kyiv at his failure to implement reforms.

Forthcoming Ukrainian election

Assuming Angela Merkel really does hang on until the end of her term in office, she may be in a position to welcome Poroshenko’s successor. Elections will be held in Ukraine in March and April 2019, and most opinion polls are placing Poroshenko fourth or fifth. This is predominantly his own fault.

As a successful chocolate manufacturer from the town of Vinnytsia, when Poroshenko was elected president after the pro-European Maidan protests in the winter of 2013/2014, he initially said he would sell his business empire. Becoming president was a remarkable career move. After all, as an economic expert, Poroshenko had been part of the inner circle of the previous, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was chased out of office in February 2014.

Oligarchs have increased their wealth

The president’s companies are reportedly now worth even more than they were when he took office. Since the publication of the Panama Papers, Ukrainians know rather more about their president’s morals. Poroshenko made use of a Cyprus connection and a trustee arrangement to ensure that, if his companies were sold, they could, in theory, be located abroad, making them tax-exempt. His advisers insist that all this was perfectly legal.

Poroshenko is in the same position as other oligarchs in his country. While many Ukrainians have been hit hard by the continuing fall in the value of the domestic currency, the hryvnia, oligarchs have remained unaffected. Most have stabilized their fortunes, or even managed to increase them, since the economic collapse that followed the Maidan revolution. So far, the system of the oligarchy is the only victor of the post-Maidan process.

Playing on national pride

However, the first post-revolutionary resident of Kyiv’s presidential palace has clearly developed a taste for the trappings of political power. Petro Poroshenko is playing the last card of the unpopular politician: He’s running a patriotic election campaign, appealing to Ukrainians’ national pride. The war cry of the Maidan revolution — “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” — has been made the official greeting for soldiers and police. Back then, it was a battle cry against the post-Soviet servitude of Muscovite imperialists under Putin, but it acquires an unsavory nationalistic flavor when shifted away from civil society to the state authorities. It also sounds very strange to secular European ears when Poroshenko positions himself at the head of a movement calling for the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

In a historic decision, the Kyiv Patriarchate was recently recognized by the Patriarch of Constantinople as an independent Orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox clergy in Moscow are furious. But why the secular President Poroshenko, of all people, should take the credit is a mystery. All this is clearly intended to distract from the fact that the post-Maidan politician still has not kept his most important promise: to turn Ukraine into a European-style democracy.

Economic success

However, three years after the Euromaidan there have been some successes, too. At the end of November, the third German-Ukrainian Economic Forum will take place in Berlin. German industry helped to found a German-Ukrainian chamber of commerce, where the two countries have equal status. Economic development has detached itself from the political problems, showing that new structures are emerging despite the powerful oligarchy.

In the capital Kyiv, for example, more and more foreign investors from Western countries are looking around for apartments in old buildings. They’re assuming that, over the coming decade, the Ukrainian property market will develop similarly to those of the central European countries that joined the EU in 2004. Whether this bet will actually pay off depends largely on political developments.

Right now, many Ukrainians have lost hope that things will improve in the long term. They have grown impatient. Rapprochement with Europe is not happening fast enough for them, so many are packing their bags and heading for Europe themselves. Ukrainians now top EU immigration statistics and are being swallowed up by the hungry job market in neighboring Poland. They’re unlikely to be tempted back by more of Petro Poroshenko’s empty promises.


Russia Puts Saving Before Growth; Follows China on Dead End in Face of U.S. Sanctions

October 31, 2018

Russia’s drive to fill state coffers to give itself a $200 billion buffer against threats like new U.S. sanctions is prudent, analysts say, but will come at the expense of economic growth.

With oil prices high, Russia has been steadily siphoning revenues from its major export into the National Wealth Fund (NWF). It has also raised oil industry taxes, hiked value-added tax and — in a move that has hurt President Vladimir Putin’s popularity — sharply increased the pension age.

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The Ministry of Finance believes those and other changes will almost quadruple the size of the NWF to 14.2 trillion roubles ($216.1 billion) or 12 percent of gross domestic product in 2021. That is close to the 16.9 percent of GDP the government plans to spend that year.

Under a “fiscal rule”, any revenue from oil prices higher than $40 per barrel goes into the NWF, which is part of Russia’s gold and foreign exchange reserves, held by the central bank.

Analysts say the savings strategy, which was set out in a 2019-2021 budget plan, is fiscally ultra-cautious and prudent.

Russian Rubles

But they also warn it prioritizes stability over development, will see Russia fall short of Putin’s goal of joining the world’s top five economies by 2024, and shows the Kremlin is worried about more sanctions.

“This is good from the budget and financial stability point of view, but bad from the economic development point of view,” said Vladimir Tikhomirov, chief economist at BCS brokerage.

“Our reserves are going to grow quickly but at the same time there will be less money that could be used to renew the economy.”

The government has said it plans to borrow money to fund development projects rather than dip into the NWF, suggesting money for investment will be tight.

“It’s a really tough budget policy,” said Alexandra Suslina, an economist with Russian consultancy Economic Expert Group. “There is no leniency here, no sense that a bright future awaits us except in a macroeconomic forecast.”

Russian officials have been open about their desire to hoard cash in case the economy is buffeted by an external shock like fresh sanctions or a new global financial crisis.

The United States is due to decide soon whether to impose a second wave of sanctions over the poisoning of Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain, a crime Russia denies.

And U.S. lawmakers have separately introduced legislation, nicknamed “the bill from Hell,” that if enacted would penalize Moscow further for its alleged meddling in U.S. politics and activities in Syria and Ukraine.

“For the first time in many years we are planning to run a budget surplus of around 2 trillion roubles (in 2019),” Andrei Makarov, head of parliament’s budget committee, said last month.

That will allow Russia to put aside enough money to “protect our economy from any gyrations caused by the situation on oil markets or from any fallout from sanctions which might be introduced on our country,” said Makarov.

“All of the government’s social obligations will be met and honoring the budget will not depend on any external factors.”


The strategy is designed to avoid a repeat of 2014 when Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea prompted the West to sanction Moscow and the rouble to plunge.

The central bank burned through a third of reserves trying to mitigate the impact and the economy was clobbered before returning to growth last year, a development one senior Western diplomat said showed the sanctions had been calibrated wrongly.

“This is more proof that the key priority for the Kremlin now is higher reserves and maximum macroeconomic stability, not economic growth,” Kirill Tremasov, a former senior economy ministry official and now head of research at Loko-Invest, said of the plan to build up the NWF.

The central bank has estimated GDP growth could reach 1.7 percent next year and 2.3 percent and 3 percent in 2020 and 2021 respectively, discounting external shocks.

Some of that is expected to be delivered by an infrastructure development program pushed by Putin which envisages spending 13 trillion roubles over six years. That will be partially financed by sales of OFZ domestic bonds.

But the state does not appear to expect private companies to help drive growth as in the past, say analysts. Instead, the state appears to view big business as a cash cow to be milked, they say.

Kremlin aide Andrei Belousov has proposed higher taxes on metals and mining companies — the only big part of the economy controlled by private business, not the state — but the discussions have stalled.

“In reality this means the state’s aim is to seize resources to a greater or lesser degree for its own needs,” Natalia Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank, said of the overall policy.

But while growth may not be boosted as much as economists want, Russia’s credit ratings may benefit.

Ratings agency Moody’s, which downgraded Russia after the first round of Western sanctions, said last week it might lift the sovereign to investment-grade as early as next year if Moscow keeps tight fiscal control.

($1 = 65.7000 roubles)

NATO begins biggest military exercises since end of Cold War

October 25, 2018

Norway hosts NATO’s biggest exercises since the end of the Cold War from Thursday, to remind Russia the Alliance stands united despite seeds of doubt planted by US President Donald Trump.

Some 50,000 soldiers, 10,000 vehicles, 65 ships and 250 aircraft from 31 countries are taking part in Trident Juncture 18, which is aimed at training the Atlantic Alliance to defend a member state after an aggression.

“In recent years, Europe’s security environment has significantly deteriorated,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, of Norway, said.

“Trident Juncture sends a clear message to our nations and to any potential adversary. NATO does not seek confrontation but we stand ready to defend all Allies against any threat,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

© Vincent Jannink / ANP / AFP | British troops arrive in the port of Hoek van Holland in the Netherlands on October 10, 2018, before heading to Norway to take part in the NATO exercise Trident Juncture 2018.

While the “potential adversary” has not been officially identified, Russia is on everybody’s minds.

The country, which shares a 198-kilometre (123-mile) border with Norway in the Far North, has repeatedly flaunted its military strength in recent years.

The Russian army has annexed Crimea, helped destabilise eastern Ukraine, beefed up its military capabilities in the Arctic, and conducted its biggest ever exercises in the Far East in September.

‘Anti-Russian’ exercise

The Russian embassy in Oslo said it considered Trident Juncture an “anti-Russian” exercise.

“Such activity … comes across as provocative, even if you try to justify it as being of a purely defensive nature,” it said.

For months, Moscow has been annoyed by the growing Western military presence in the region. The United States and Britain have been increasing their deployments in Norway to accustom their troops to cold weather combat.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, speaking in early October, condemned what she termed as NATO’s “sabre-rattling”, and vowed Moscow would take “retaliatory measures”.

“The main NATO countries are increasing their military presence in the region, near Russia’s borders,” she said.

“Such irresponsible actions are bound to lead to a destabilisation of the political situation in the North, to heighten tensions,” she added.

Tensions already flared on Saturday after Trump announced he was abandoning a Cold War-era nuclear treaty, a move which Russia warned could cripple global security.

Accusing Russia of developing a new missile, the SSC-8, Trump threatened to increase the US nuclear weapons arsenal.

Article 5 secured?

Despite concerns about Trump’s commitment to the Alliance — particularly regarding the “Article 5” mutual defence clause — the US military is contributing the biggest contingent to Trident Juncture, with more than 14,000 troops, including an aircraft carrier.

“We exercise in Norway but of course the lessons … from Trident Juncture are also relevant for other countries,” Stoltenberg said.

On Tuesday, four US soldiers were lightly injured when trucks delivering material were involved in a pile-up.

In addition to NATO’s 29 member countries, Norway’s neighbours Sweden and Finland will join the exercises, which run through November 7.

Two Russian and two Belarus military observers have been invited to watch the manoeuvres.

Stoltenberg said he hoped Russia would “avoid dangerous behaviour”.


Russian press warns of ‘Orthodox war’ over Church split

October 16, 2018

Russian media on Tuesday warned of one of the gravest crises in the history of the Orthodox Church after the Moscow branch announced it would break ties with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate.

The rupture on Monday came after the Istanbul-based clerics ruled to grant independence to the Ukrainian Church, a move Russia has long campaigned against.

Constantinople’s decision last week ended more than 300 years of Moscow’s control over Orthodox churches in Ukraine and affects millions of believers in Russia and Ukraine.

© Moscow Patriarchate/AFP | A meeting of the Holy Synod of Russian Orthodox Church in Minsk, shown in a picture distributed by the Moscow Patriarchate press service

The religious split comes amid deep political tensions, with Ukraine fighting a Moscow-backed uprising in its east.

RBK business daily warned of a “war between (Holy) Synods” on its front page, referring to the Churches’ ruling bodies.

A Russian expert on religion, Roman Lunkin, told RBK that Moscow’s move has created “two warring Orthodox worlds”.

Izvestia, a Kremlin-loyal daily, quoted the Moscow Church’s warning of a threat “of the destruction of the unity of global Orthodoxy”.

Monday will enter Orthodox history as “one of its darkest days,” wrote Izvestia.

The newspaper said the split between the Constantinople and Moscow Churches — the highest-status and largest Orthodox Churches respectively — followed on from the two greatest upheavals in Christian Church history.

The front-page article referenced the Protestant Reformation of 1517 sparked by German theologian Martin Luther, and the schism between the Eastern and Western Christian Churches in 1054.

Now each of the branches of the Orthodox Church “will have to choose with whom to be — Constantinople or the Russian Orthodox Church,” Izvestia wrote.

Media including government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta wrote with regret that Russians will no longer be able to go to pray at Mount Athos in Greece, a major destination for pilgrims and tourists that is under the jurisdiction of Constantinople.

The Ukrainian president and lawmakers have backed independence for the country’s currently divided Orthodox Church and see it as striking a blow against Moscow’s influence in Ukraine.

Relations broke down during the Maidan uprising of 2014 followed by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the subsequent separatist conflict in the east.

The Russian Orthodox Church’s head, Patriarch Kirill, is seen as a close ally of President Vladimir Putin.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that the Kremlin was watching developments “very carefully and with a great deal of worry”.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko meanwhile said the Russian Orthodox Church was following the Kremlin down a path of self-imposed isolation.

“Just as Russia opposed itself to the entire world community with its aggressive imperial policy, now the Russian Church is on the path of self-isolation and conflict with the world Orthodoxy,” he wrote on his Facebook page.


Trump: I sent weapons to Ukraine, Obama ‘sent pillows and blankets’

October 15, 2018

President Trump claims his administration has been tougher on Russia than his predecessor’s, arguing that former President Obama allowed Russia to annex Ukraine and only offered them “pillows and blankets.”

“I’m the one that gave Ukraine offensive weapons and tank killers. Obama didn’t. You know what he sent? He sent pillows and blankets. I’m the one — and he’s the one that gave away a part of Ukraine where Russia,” Trump said in a “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday evening on CBS.

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“I’m the one that gave Ukraine offensive weapons and tank killers. Obama didn’t. You know what he sent? He sent pillows and blankets,” Trump said.

Trump received a great deal of criticism for failing to denounce Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election while standing on the same stage as Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July.

“I think I’m very tough with him personally. I had a meeting with him. The two of us. It was a very tough meeting and it was a very good meeting,” Trump told “60 Minutes.”

Trump said he believes that Russia tried to “meddle” in the 2016 election, but stopped short of directly answering other questions regarding Putin’s regime, like alleged contracted hits on Russian dissidents. He did concede, however, that Putin “probably” is involved in poisonings and assassinations of his political rivals.

UK Is Practicing Cyberattacks To Black Out Moscow As A Nuclear Deterrent

October 9, 2018

Britain’s military has engaged in a massive cyber-strike war game scenario which envisioned an attack on Russia’s power grid which would black out all of Moscow.

The non-conventional military exercise comes as British defense officials have expressed increasing concern that the UK would be outgunned if under attack by Russia.

An alarming new report in the Sunday Times begins as follows:

Defence chiefs have war-gamed a massive cyber-strike to black out Moscow if Vladimir Putin launches a military attack on the West, after concluding that the only other way of hitting back would be to use nuclear weapons.

Senior security sources have told The Sunday Times they are concerned that Britain has a capability gap that has left commanders with too few weapons to meet Kremlin aggression short of firing a Trident nuclear missile.

Britain’s military is said to be exploring a host of alternative measures and “more options” that could constitute a significant blow to Russia’s defenses short of launching nuclear war. The Sunday Times continues:

Planning exercises on the threat posed by Russia have left officials “ashen-faced” at the speed with which confrontation with Moscow could escalate.

Whitehall officials have vowed to step up offensive cyber-capability, including the ability to “turn out the lights” in the Kremlin.

Apparently the non-conventional and cyber-weapons strike readiness are part of growing tit-for-tat actions and tensions after UK and US officials have accused the Kremlin of aggressive actions ranging from cyberattacks on Western targets to election interference, to the poising of a former spy on British soil.

But officials are concerned that they don’t have enough in the UK military arsenal for an adequate response that would halt and deter Russian aggression. One senior military source told The Sunday Times“If they sank our aircraft carrier with a nuclear-tipped torpedo, what is our response? There’s nothing between sinking their submarine and dropping a nuclear weapon on northern Kamchatka.”

The source explained further: “This is why cyber is so important; you can go on the offensive and turn off the lights in Moscow to tell them that they are not doing the right things.”

The Crimea had experienced a total blackout in June of last summer due to a power grid failure, according to Reuters. 

This comes as British troops recently participated in their biggest military exercise in a decade, which involved six navy ships and over 5,000 soldiers in the Omani desert. The UK military says it’s increasingly preparing for irregular warfare situations and engagement with Russian forces such as witnessed in recent years in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

NATO is also said to be beefing up its cyber-weapons and security capabilities, something United States is soon expected to announce it will make major contributions to in response to an alleged uptick in Russian operations. US intelligence officials have feared that Russia may be planning major hacking attempts ahead of the November midterms.

Late last week Dutch and other European authorities alleged Russian intelligence conducted four high profile cyber attacks, including an attempt to spy on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is the independent body responsible for investigating chemical attacks in Syria and in the UK.

Meanwhile Moscow for its part has dismissed what Kremlin officials have lately called “Western spy mania” while leveling its own accusations that the US, UK, and NATO are engaged in their own provocations that of necessity put Russia on the defensive.

Ukraine needs Azov Sea base to counter new Russian threat: military chief

October 1, 2018

Ukraine will build a military base on the Azov Sea and has sent more forces to the area to counter a worsening Russian threat, Ukraine’s armed forces head told Reuters, referring to an arm of the Black Sea that is a flashpoint of tensions with Moscow.

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Chief of the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces Viktor Muzhenko

Ukraine has been at loggerheads with Russia since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and more than 10,000 people have died in fighting between Ukrainian troops and Moscow-backed separatists. Ukraine and NATO countries accuse Russia of supplying troops and heavy weapons to eastern Ukraine, which Moscow denies.

Viktor Muzhenko, Chief of the General Staff, said Russia had moved beyond covert fighting in the Donbass region, home of a Kremlin-backed separatist insurgency, to building up its military presence on Ukraine’s borders and nakedly aggressive actions against ships sailing to Ukrainian ports.

The Azov Sea, a strategic arm of the Black Sea where Russia and Ukraine share the coastline, has become a flashpoint this year. Ukraine says Russia is preventing scores of vessels from reaching Ukrainian ports through spurious inspections and detentions.

Washington too has called on Russia to stop “harassing” ships, and supplied Ukraine with U.S. patrol boats. Moscow in turn says Ukraine might try to blockade Crimea.

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“All those actions that are being taken in the Azov Sea region, are elements of building up our presence in this region for an adequate response to possible provocations by the Russian Federation,” Muzhenko said.

He said Ukraine had already deployed more air, land, sea and artillery forces to the area.

Muzhenko ruled out suggestions that Ukrainian navy ships would escort commercial vessels across the sea to prevent them being stopped by Russian ships.

Russia says its checks on shipping are lawful.


“Russian checks on ships are intended exclusively to ensure security in the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait, they don’t contradict international law as it applies to this maritime area,” Maria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, told a news conference on Sept. 22.

Muzhenko was speaking to Reuters on Saturday aboard a military plane flying back from Tendrivska Kosa island on the south coast, on the last of five days of war games across different parts of Ukraine.

Part of those exercises took place on the Hungarian border, which caused consternation in Budapest. Ukraine and Hungary have become embroiled in a series of diplomatic rows over the use of Hungarian in Ukrainian schools and Hungary issuing passports to ethnic Hungarians across the border.

Muzhenko denied the wargames were a show of strength toward Hungary, and said they were intended to counter any chance of Russia attacking Ukraine from the west.

“First of all, this concerns the ability to respond adequately to threats from the Russian Federation. We are talking about protecting our communications, about a possible response to threats, including in the west,” he said.

Washington has continued to support Ukraine under the Donald Trump administration, including supplying Javelin missiles to Ukraine, a step President Barack Obama shied away from.

Muzhenko said the Javelins had been tested and his troops trained to use them, but they had not been deployed in battle yet. Asked whether Ukraine wanted to buy the U.S. Patriot air defense system, he said various options were being considered.

Additional reporting by Christian Lowe in Moscow, Editing by William Maclean


Crimea: Mysterious chemical incident evokes memories of Chernobyl disaster

September 6, 2018

People in Crimea are experiencing unusual symptoms after reports of an incident at a titanium plant. Authorities claim there is no threat to public health on the peninsula, but children have nonetheless been evacuated.

Children wear face masks in Crimea (picture-alliance/dpa/TASS/S. Malgavko)

It could be the biggest environmental disaster to hit the Crimea in years. Some two weeks after initial reports of a possible incident at a titanium plant in the north of the peninsula, authorities evacuated all the children from the nearby city of Armyansk.

The children are to be accommodated in sanatoriums and preschool children will be accompanied by their parents. The evacuation is purely a “preventive measure,” Sergei Aksyonov, head of the internationally disputed Republic of Crimea, said on Tuesday. Local authorities continue to insist that there is no danger to public health on the peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

On Wednesday, photos of buses taking children out of the city circulated on social media. The images, along with the slow release of official explanations, have evoked memories of the Chernobyl catastrophe.

Oily deposits on cars and roofs

Since August 24, citizens on both sides of the de facto border between Crimea and the Ukrainian mainland have been complaining of an oily, rust-colored coating settling on cars, roofs and other metallic objects such as cookware and jewelry. Leaves on the trees are said to have quickly withered and fallen off. Some people even claim to have seen a noxious cloud.

A sign at the entrance to Armyansk (picture-alliance/dpa/TASS/S. Malgavko)Children have been evacuated from the city of Armyansk

On Wednesday morning, residents of the village of Preobrazhenka gathered on the Ukrainian side of the border in front of a local ambulance as they waited for the latest advisory from the Ministry of Health in Kyiv regarding the incident. “Many people are experiencing respiratory difficulties, discomfort in their throat and allergic reactions,” said one doctor.

“This has been going on for over a week,” said Andriy, a Ukrainian border guard who arrived on the scene in civilian clothes Wednesday.

“Breathing masks have been distributed, but they don’t help much,” he added. “At night, when the humidity rises, your skin burns.”

Summer heat to blame?

Within the first few days, suspicion was directed toward the Krimsky Titan plant, one of the largest producers of titanium dioxide on the European continent. It is located in Russian-controlled Crimea, a few kilometers from the border. The plant is owned, through a network of various companies, by the Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash.

The Krimsky Titan plant (DW/I. Burdyga)Blame has been directed at the Krimsky Titan plant, near the de facto border separating Crimea and Ukraine

Titanium dioxide is a white substance commonly used in the manufacturing of paint, plastics, paper and sunscreen, among other things. Initially, the Krimsky Titan plant denied a possible incident.

In late August, local Crimean leader Aksyonov said that there was no reason to stop production at the plant. Then, on Tuesday, he announced that the titanium facility would be shut down after all, for two weeks. Aksyonov said a high concentration of sulfur dioxide had been detected in the air. He added that Russian authorities would soon investigate the incident.

The company’s reservoir of sulphuric acid is reportedly a possible cause, with the unusually long summer heat wave contributing to the partial evaporation of the protective water layer that covers it.

Efforts have begun to pump more water into the reservoir, but it remains a challenging undertaking. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian authorities stopped supplying it with fresh water, which was already lacking on the peninsula.

Ukraine: On the front line of Europe’s forgotten war

September 6, 2018

After four years, and 10,000 deaths, the conflict with Russia in the east of the country has slipped off the west’s political agenda

By David Bond and Roman Olearchyk in Avdiivka, Ukraine

Staring straight ahead, Anton Akastyolov describes what it feels like to be fighting on the frontline of Russia’s proxy war with the west. “Every day you think about death,” the 23-year-old Ukrainian private says, standing in a shattered residential block on the edge of the eastern city of Avdiivka.

This is Europe’s forgotten war, a conflict that has claimed more than 10,000 lives, almost one-third of them civilians, during the past four years, making it the bloodiest in Europe since the Balkans in the 1990s and one of the longest-running in almost a century.

Western powers blame Russian president Vladimir Putin for starting the conflict by illegally annexing Crimea in 2014 — the first appropriation of European territory since the second world war — providing the catalyst for Russian-backed separatists to seize the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Lugansk.

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Anton Akastyolov in Avdiivka © Charlie Bibby/FT

While Mr Putin says Crimea has always been part of Russia, his actions in Ukraine are seen as part of a growing charge sheet that includes US election meddling, military intervention to back the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the nerve agent attack on a former Russian double agent in the British cathedral city of Salisbury.

“In their hope to recreate what they view is a great Russia again, they are pushing forward west into Europe,” says Lieutenant General Serhiy Nayev, the commander of Ukraine’s joint forces. “Russia has no interest in bringing down the temperature, not with the western world, not with Ukraine.”

So while the war has reached stalemate, it still smoulders.

Bound by the terms of the 2015 Minsk ceasefire agreements, both sides are barred from using air strikes, tanks and heavy weaponry. This has created the conditions for an attritional land war which marks a throwback to another age, where soldiers fight in trenches with shells, grenades and sniper fire. Consequently, the death toll continues to rise. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitors the conflict, in August said that a total of 160 people had been killed on both sides so far this year.

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Lyubov Kolesova holds a portrait of her missing son Igor Grizenko at their home in Avdiivka

There are no signs of a resolution in sight. The war was barely on the agenda at the Helsinki summit between US president Donald Trump and Mr Putin in July. And despite attempts by the US and its allies to modernise and arm Ukraine’s 200,000-strong military forces, people in Avdiivka feel abandoned by the west.

“They don’t care,” says Lyubov Kolesova, a resident whose 28-year-old son went missing in the early days of the war. “If you don’t live here, you won’t understand.”

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Sunflower fields along Ukraine’s highway 20

Ukraine’s highway 20 cuts through seemingly endless fields of sunflowers, making it feel more like the south of France than Europe’s borderlands with Russia. Before the war, this road was one of the symbols of Ukrainian economic progress, built primarily for the 2012 European football championships.

Now it forms part of the front line. As the highway nears Avdiivka, about 20km from the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, it becomes too treacherous to continue. Access to the city can only be made via bumpy back roads.

Yet daytime in Avdiivka can be deceptively calm. Parents stroll the streets with young children while a group of pensioners has set up an impromptu market in the centre, selling milk and other produce.

But the war is never far away.

In the distance, occasional gunfire can be heard along with the deep boom of shelling. At the entrance to their Soviet-built flats on Semashko Street, Galya, 51, asks: “How much longer must we endure this? It’s been five years already. Will this continue another 20 years?”

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Pavel, a 45-year-old Ukrainian soldier, says the nature of the war has changed

Much of the fighting in Avdiivka takes place in an industrial area on the outskirts of the city, where troops on both sides are well dug in. Pavel, a bearded and battle-hardened 45-year-old Ukrainian soldier, says the nature of the war has changed.

“Instead of the heavy weaponry we have snipers, which can be even more dangerous because you relax a bit,” he says. “Then a bullet hits your head.”

Clutching his Kalashnikov rifle, which looks like a relic from the 1970s, his comrade Artur adds: “The faster you move, the longer you live.”

“The shortest distance between our positions is 70m to 80m,” he adds. “You can see their eyes.”

Sometimes, he says, they are so close to the enemy he can hear the distinct accents of opponents from “Russia, South Ossetia and Chechnya”.

His account backs claims — denied by Moscow — that Ukraine’s army is facing a hybrid force of Russian soldiers and local separatist militants under command from the Kremlin. “They created the military forces . . . [do] not make any mistake about it, the forces in the east are 100 per cent commanded by Russia,” says Kurt Volker, the US special envoy to Ukraine.

Eduard Basurin, deputy commander of the 20,000-strong Donetsk-based separatist forces, denies the claim. “Imagine if the Russian army were here. I think that the war would unfold differently,” he says. “Those that talk about this don’t provide facts to uphold them.”

Getting a clear picture of life on the other side of the war is difficult. Officials from the Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic — which is not internationally recognised — declined access to the Financial Times to report from the territory, but people from the DPR regularly cross the front line.

At a civilian crossing point at Maiorska near the separatist-held city of Horlivka, a dozen cars are queueing to cross into the DPR. The International Committee of the Red Cross said 1m crossings take place at points like this every month, which close periodically when fighting flares up.

Waiting in her car, Horlivka resident Svetlana explained that she often makes the journey to the Ukrainian-controlled side with her father, Nikolay, to collect his pension and buy produce, some of which is cheaper there.

“Everyone there on that side also wants this war to end,” Svetlana says, gesturing towards the Russian-backed territories. Her father adds: “We lived in peace and understanding before. Everything was fine.”

Underscoring dangers in the region that extend far from the front lines, Alexander Zakharchenko, self-declared leader of the DPR-based separatist militants, was last week killed by an improvised explosive at a Donetsk café. Russia rushed to blame Ukraine for orchestrating the “terrorist act”, while officials in the capital Kiev denied involvement, insisting turf wars and infighting within what they describe as the “Russian-occupied” region was to blame.

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Ukrainian soldiers visit a kindergarten near the town of Ivanivske as part of a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign © Charlie Bibby/FT

Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor of the OSCE mission to Ukraine, who visited Donetsk in early August, says: “If you go to districts in Donetsk, close to the contact line or the destroyed airport, life is very difficult. Living standards are bad, infrastructure is heavily damaged. Gas, electricity and water are hard to come by.”

For his part, Mr Basurin, the separatist commander, blames a Ukrainian blockade for these economic woes. “We are trying to revive the economy,” he says.

In Ukrainian-controlled areas, the authorities are not only trying to repel a Russian-backed enemy, they are also having to win the hearts and minds of Russian speakers. With this in mind, the army and other state institutions have blocked Russian television, and they visit kindergartens and schools to promote “patriotic teachings”.

“Battling with Russia is difficult as objectively it’s a bigger country with more military might,” says Major General Oleksandr Golodnyuk, visiting a kindergarten in the village of Ivanivske. “But winning the minds of our people is a battle within our grasp that must be won.”

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Lieutenant General Serhiy Nayev arrives at a training exercise in Pokrovsk, eastern Ukraine

In the opening phases of the war, Ukrainian forces were hampered by a lack of combat training and rusting Soviet equipment. They were also paralysed by another throwback to the cold war era: a top down command structure which caused the army’s middle ranks to freeze when their opponents used electronic warfare to jam communications.

Since then, the US and other western powers have been working to modernise Ukraine’s forces — including more than $1bn in financial support and the Trump administration’s move in March to provide 210 tank-busting Javelin missiles.

The weapons are seen by military analysts as a game-changer in the event of an all-out assault by Russian-backed forces. Lt Gen Nayev says western backing is necessary if Ukraine is to resist the Russian threat on Europe’s doorstep, but added that his own troops have already been transformed.

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Ukrainian soldiers are put through their paces in training exercises © Charlie Bibby/FT

The general, an imposing figure who commanded troops in the bloody battle for Donetsk airport in 2014, has come to a military training ground near the eastern city of Pokrovsk to watch soldiers test Ukraine’s homemade answer to the Javelin — the Stugna.

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Donetsk airport in 2014

He says Ukraine’s forces are now “not only capable but ready” to repel Russian-backed separatists, which he claims have [over] 400 tanks — more than the UK. Before testing the Stugnas, troops launched a series of Soviet-era weapons including Shturm and Fagot missiles, demonstrating clearly the handicaps they faced in the initial stages of the conflict.

Some rockets failed to launch. One fell off the side of an armoured vehicle while another misfired, smashing into the ground and leaving a training trench in flames. If this was a deliberate display of ineptitude, it felt a dangerous one. The Stugnas, meanwhile, hit the target four times out of four, prompting a howl of delight from Lt Gen Nayev. “Yes! You see . . . Ukraine made,” he shouted.

Newer equipment is filtering through, but some on the front line still complain of having to fight with Kalashnikovs older than themselves. One soldier revealed he and his fellow fighters had made a Javelin copy out of wood to fool the enemy.

For Ukraine’s western partners, the hope is that such improvisation will soon be a thing of the past, with its armed forces set to meet Nato standards on everything from governance to training and equipment.

To help Kiev achieve this, a group of more than 200 US trainers is based at Yavoriv, a vast military complex near Ukraine’s border with Poland. Here senior US soldiers, such as Staff Sergeant Jamah Figaro, instruct Ukrainian officers on how to train their troops. “They are very motivated,” Sgt Figaro says. “It’s their country. They are trying to get their land back.”

Sgt Figaro says the US is also learning from their Ukrainian counterparts.

“The US army was [used to] operating in contingencies like Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says, referring to offensive wars in which the US dominated the airspace. “[It’s] nothing similar to what the Ukrainians are facing, this [trench warfare] is like a more near-peer fight they are fighting.

“We haven’t seen something like that since world war two,” he adds.

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A couple say goodbye on the train platform in Kiev as the train departs for eastern Ukraine © Charlie Bibby/FT

In Kiev, more than 700km from the eastern war zone, Stanislav Fedorchuk raises his hand and places it tenderly on a picture of his friend Yuriy Matushcak. Nicknamed “the wind”, Matushcak died at the battle of Ilovaisk, a big defeat for Ukrainian forces, in August 2014.

His face is now one of hundreds on the outer wall of St Michael’s monastery in the capital, a reminder to those passing by on a balmy Sunday evening that this is a country at war.

“We were waiting one year to know if he had died or not. We had no body,” says Mr Fedorchuk, adding that his remains were later found and buried with other fallen soldiers. Mr Fedorchuk fled Donetsk in 2014 and is one of an estimated 1.5m people displaced by the conflict.

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Stanislav Fedorchuk at a memorial wall outside St Michael’s monastery in Kiev dedicated to those who have died in the conflict © Charlie Bibby/FT

As the war rumbles into its fifth year, the prospect of a military or diplomatic solution looks remote. The US and other western powers want Russian forces to leave Ukraine, but Mr Putin shows no sign of changing his approach. The US national security adviser John Bolton recently declared that when it comes to Ukraine, Washington and Moscow are going to “have to agree to disagree”.

The US has stepped up sanctions and the UK is pushing for more diplomatic action. Still, Lt Gen Nayev urges the west to wake up to the threat from Russia and even draws comparisons with 1930s appeasement. “We saw how this shameful appeasement brought upon world war two,” he says.

Back in Avdiivka, private Akastyolov struggles to find the words to sum up the future he and his country face. “Tell them we will win,” an army press officer prompts.

The young private rolls his eyes, saying, after a few seconds: “I don’t know if we will win.”

Thousands protest in Russia against plans to hike pension age

September 3, 2018

Vladimir Putin has called the reform a financial necessity as Communist party leader brands move ‘cannibalistic’

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Russian communists take part in a protest rally against pension reform. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

Thousands of people across Russia joined protests on Sunday against government plans to raise the pension age, despite recent promises by President Vladimir Putin to soften the unpopular measure.

The protests show that the proposed policy remains a politically sensitive issue for the government despite concessions offered by Putin in a televised address on Wednesday. During the speech, Putin took personal responsibility for the reform for the first time and described it as a financial necessity.

About 9,000 people gathered about a mile and a half from the Kremlin, according to White Counter, an NGO that counts participants at rallies. Moscow police put the numbers at 6,000.

Many carried the red flags and banners of the principal organiser of the protest, the KPRF Communist party.

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 A protest taking place in Russia over proposed pension reforms. Photograph: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP

A large banner reading “We do not trust United Russia”, Putin’s ruling party, was held up by the crowd and featured a drawing of a red fist punching the white polar bear logo of Putin’s party.

“Today we are holding an all-Russia protest against this cannibalistic reform,” veteran Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov said, addressing the crowd.

A separate gathering in the city, organised by the Just Russia party, attracted a further 1,500 people protesting against the pension reforms, Moscow police said.

In his address on Wednesday, Putin watered down the original draft pension reform legislation, introduced by the government on 14 June, which opinion polls showed was opposed by 90% of Russians and which has provoked a string of protests in recent weeks.

Polls by the Levada Centre show Putin’s personal approval rating has fallen around 10 percentage points since the pension reforms were proposed, although it still stands at around 70%.

Putin offered to cut the proposed retirement age for women to 60, from a retirement age of 63 first proposed by the government. Russian women currently retire at 55. Putin said that the proposal to raise the pension age for men from 60 to 65 would remain unchanged.

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 Putin’s personal approval rating has dropped since the reform plans were announced, according to polls. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

In St Petersburg, the Fontanka newspaper said that around 1,500 people gathered to protest, while the Interfax news agency said 1,200 joined a protest in Novosibirsk and 250 in Vladivostok.

In Yekaterinburg in the Ural mountains, around 450 people took part in a demonstration entitled the ‘Regiment of Shame’, during which protesters held portraits of politicians who have voiced their support for pension reform, local newspaper Nasha Gazeta said.

In Russia’s south, there were protests in the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, Astrakhan, Rostov-on-Don and in the capitals of the Caucasus republics of Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria, according to Interfax.

People also took to the streets in the town of Simferopol in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014, Interfax added.