Archive for January, 2017

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Continuing that telephone call via Avdiivka

January 31, 2017

The 28th January witnessed the anticipated (perhaps with extreme preemptive hyperbole) telephone conversation between President Putin and President Trump.

The repercussions of this telephone call were immediately witnessed in eastern Ukraine – and will undoubtedly unfold elsewhere too in due course.

Sanctions upon Russia were maintained which was not unexpected despite the preemptive angst.  It will be several months at least, possibly 6 months, before President Trump may make any significant changes to the current sanctions regime.  For somebody that considers himself the Alpha male and a wonderful negotiator The Kremlin would have to offer something meaningful to President Trump in return – his narcissistic character simply couldn’t cope with a global public crucifixion and the ridicule he’d receive from announcing a deal where he emerges as clearly the weakest and surrendering the most for the least.

(A reader can immediately dismiss any US nuclear arms reduction talk by the new Administration, for it is nuclear arms that is all that keeps President Putin relevant in the global arena – so why give any up when already modernising the Russian nuclear weapon arsenal?  It is a perceived strength within The Kremlin.)

Nevertheless, sanctions will probably end during 2017 via President Trump – unless President Putin overreaches somewhere and somehow.

The 28th January telephone call readouts from the White House and The Kremlin are striking in that The Kremlin’s is longer and more detailed vis a vis that of the US – and importantly for Ukraine, there is no mention of Ukraine in the US readout whereas there is in that of The Kremlin.

Whatever was or was not said about Ukraine in that 28th January telephone conversation, the following day, 29th January witnessed a significant uptick in the war in Eastern Ukraine around a small town named Avdiivka.

Details of the (on-going) serious battle are unnecessary for this entry, (but can be found here) – suffice to say the number of deaths, injuries and heavy armour employed mark a significant and deliberate escalation.

That escalation continued throughout 30th January and continues as of the time of writing.  Ominously The Donbas is back on Russian TV after months of more or less complete absence.

Clearly President Putin is continuing his conversation with President Trump (notwithstanding messaging Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister May who counseled (as far as is possible) President Trump prior to his call with the Russian President).

This conversation will continue to push the envelope in an attempt to see if there is any reaction from the Trump White House – where thus far there is none.  At the time of writing, not even a meaningless diplomatic statement of “concern” spews forth.

Whatever the European leaders say, whilst not entirely irrelevant, this conversation is one between The Kremlin and The White House which is being played out in Avdiivka – and if there is no reaction from the Trump White House, The Kremlin may decide (rightly or wrongly) to infer that lack of response as a de facto acknowledgement of a sphere of influence.

So much so expected – however that sphere of influence will not be limited to Ukraine if it is ceded.

There has also been a noticeable rise in Russian rhetoric regarding Belarus that will not have failed to register with President Lukashenko – something that will be irritated by the Zapad 2017 exercise being held in the Russian Western Military District and (perhaps groundless) speculation that it bodes ill for the future of Belarus.  An occupation is an extremely unlikely scenario – unless President Putin is absolutely certain he has indeed been granted his sphere of influence.

Nevertheless, a watchful eye on Belarus for the sake of caution may be wise.

(There is of course The Kremlin’s overt efforts in Syria, its covert shenanigans in Afghanistan and probably a further experimenting with PMC’s such as Wagner in Libya very soon as well.)

Regardless, the 28th January telephone call between President’s Putin and Trump continues – with President Putin doing the talking via Avdiivka.  It’s unclear whether President Trump is too busy on twitter or mitigating poorly crafted EOs to be listening though.

Meanwhile as predicted for Ukraine 2017 has started “hot” despite the freezing temperatures as President Putin prods and pokes seeking reaction – or not – from the Trump Administration.  With such an expected start to the year, the now predictable “guns of August” annual escalation in fighting looks set to be particularly fierce with such a January backdrop.

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Denmark takes point in Ukraine

January 30, 2017

With effect from 1st February The Kingdom of Denmark takes the EU lead when it comes to anti-corruption initiatives in Ukraine.

Naturally a reader wishes the Danish well in this endeavour.  It will have obvious allies in civil society, some in the media, and government members such as Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze – and it will face obstructionism and populism in equal measure from the usual quarters within domestic politics, State institutions, some in the media, and big business too.

Where the EU Ambassador (and staff) to Ukraine figure in all this by way of leadership – if anywhere – remains somewhat unclear.  Similarly the EEAS.

Clearly a decision within the EU has been made for Gov Denmark to officially take the anti-corruption lead within Ukraine – perhaps rightly.  Just how to mark the EU”s scorecard when it comes to its physical presence in Ukraine, and by extension its accomplishments and/or failures on the ground?

What programmes are active?  How are they benchmarked?  Which have concluded?  Were the goals achieved or partially achieved?  What about failures?  Why did they fail, and could they be tweaked to work within their scope?

Surely the results will not be as bad as many will think, but neither will it be as good as it could have been.  C’est la vie!

Has Gov Denmark agreed to take on this lead role as it is felt that Gov DK to Gov UA will garner more results than EU Ambassador to Gov UA?

If this works, is it possible that other governments will then take EU backed lead roles on other specific Ukrainian sectors (outside of corruption and military issues) to push a reticent and feckless elite along the Association Agreement path a little more swiftly?  Certainly some have already tried unilaterally, but perhaps an EU appointed lead focuses the minds of those in Kyiv a little more and makes excuses a little harder.

Let’s see how (a normally very capable) Denmark does.

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Kononenko poisoned (A who dunnit)

January 28, 2017

Numerous are the occasions that Igor Kononenko has been mentioned by this blog.  Not once has it been mentioned in a particularly positive way – in fact often the opposite.

Mr Kononenko is a long standing friend of President Poroshenko and is the President’s (metaphorical) leg breaker within the Verkhovna Rada.  He is a man who reflects the very worst of the old established methods of mixing business by highly dubious methods and politics.  He is a man whose appetites the President has not seen fit to rein in despite frequently being personally and directly informed of Mr Kononenko’s  questionable actions by numerous diplomats and a continuously unfavorable media.

He is, in short, loathed by large swathes of the Ukrainian constituency – including many of his parliamentary peers.

It is perhaps no real surprise therefore that immediately prior to New Year Mr Kononenko apparently involuntarily and unknowingly ingested mercury to a level 50 times that expected to be found in the blood.

There are of course questions.

Was it all ingested in one go, or did it accumulate over time?  (Mr Kononenko is somebody who being at the top of the food chain in Ukraine and therefore stupidly rich, can afford to eat that which sits atop of the food chain.  Is he particularly fond of fish?  Swordfish and Tuna being near the top of the seafood chain contain far more mercury than the smaller fish further down the food chain.  What does an oligarch eat, and how often to they eat it?

Is he addicted to dental work and has developed an amalgam habit?

Has the mercury come from an unhealthy interest in gaining control over coal mining and coal burning assets?  Too many (persuasive) site visits?

Other sources?  Gold mining or similar?

All the above would tend to be accumulative rather than a single shot mercury ingestion.

It seems very unlikely that sufficient mercury salts could be added to anything that would not raise alarm with taste buds in some form or another.

Quicksilver seems the most unlikely of all.

Then there is the question of absorption rates into the bloodstream vis a vis what is otherwise expelled by the body doing what the body does.

Indeed mercury vapour has the highest absorption rate, but how easy is it to expose somebody like Mr Kononenko deliberately to that amount of mercury in one go?  Air fresheners in a car?  (Would his driver and security not also be ill).  If he is asthmatic, tampering with his inhaler?

Indeed the FSB has been accused in very recent history of using mercury to poison people like Karinina Moskalenko and others but (despite polonium-210 tea exploits and  other toxic concoctions whipped up in the SVR laboratories in Yasenevo) it seems an unlikely method to go after somebody as loathed as Mr Kononenko and subtlety is not necessarily required.

An IED or similar explosive incident involving his motorcade, home or whatever/where ever could be easily blamed on The Kremlin by Ukraine and on Ukrainians by The Kremlin, on Mr Kononenko’s untamed business appetite and methodology regarding how he does business – or anything within the numerous shades of black and grey in which he moves.

It also has to be noted that the level of mercury apparently in his blood was not enough to kill him, but certainly enough to incapacitate him for a while.

It may be that if accumulated over time, it was discovered before continued exposure/ingestion became potentially lethal as the effects of mercury poisoning over time would undoubtedly take the afflicted to a Doctor before fatal dose was reached.

If ingested in one go and yet clearly an insufficient level required for a fatal dose but sufficient to incapacitate for a while, is it therefore more a matter of somebody sending Mr Kononenko a message that he is not untouchable nor unreachable?

If so, if discounting The Kremlin, considering just how universally loathed Mr Kononenko is, there will be quite a long list of those he has already wronged, and also a fairly long list of those who already know they are in his sights as he continues to feed his insatiable appetite for wealth, economic control and associated power via very questionable methods.

All of that said, it is necessary to state that Mr Kononenko deserves to be in jail – not assassinated or otherwise deliberately poisoned.  No amount of justification equates to legitimisation.

However as nobody of his stature (regardless of political party or deed)  goes to jail, perhaps somebody has decided to resort to a Plan B to send him a message he would otherwise brush off and ignore.

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Tymoshenko to (officially) visit the US

January 27, 2017

It seems that Yulia Tymoshenko, together with several others of her Batkivshchyna brand will make an official visit to the US between 29th January and 4th February.

Presumably this official visit has been organised by Ms Tymoshenko rather than those within “The Beltway” or on “The Hill” – particularly as the agenda for the official visit concern “the way to achieve peace and the restoration of territorial integrity, stabilization of the political and economic situation in Ukraine as a part of the security strategy of the European continent and the global world.

Additionally to be discussed are “the steps for a real fight against corruption for the consolidation of democracy in Ukraine and the welfare of Ukrainians.”

Well so be it.

So who is she going to see?

Apparently “representatives of legislative and executive authorities of the country, as well as leading experts on politics, economy and security.”  Precisely who however, is not clear.

Despite the upheaval within DC no doubt there will be some friends of Ukraine that will make time for her from among the US legislature – though to be fair just how welcome she will be is another matter.  (It has been more than a decade since this blog heard particularly hopeful or overly supportive messaging from the US diplomatic personnel regarding Ms Tymoshenko – other than when she was incarcerated by Mr Yanukovych).)

Which leading experts and “experts” on politics, economics and security has she arranged to see?  They are two-a-penny inside The Beltway.  Thus the question is perhaps whether Ms Tymoshenko is seeking guidance perceived as greater in authority and/or wisdom than that which is freely available from US Embassy Kyiv – or is she seeking experts and/or “experts” that will fit her existing political platform and pre-electioneering?

Perhaps most interesting of all considering a good number of the executive posts within the new administration remain unfilled at Tier 1, and much more worryingly at Tier 2 (where the work gets done), is who she will meet from that executive branch of power who will have any influence over issues Ukrainian?

Does the Trump administration even have a Ukraine policy, and if so, who heads it up in the US, and are they likely to engage with Ms Tymoshenko before they engage with the current Ukrainian administration in person?

It may be more interesting to see who she meets on this official trip, than any revelations that will come from it.  Nevertheless with Ms Tymoshenko having spent more on US lobbying than the State of Ukraine did in 2014, 2015 and 2016,  that money must open a few doors no?

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The Order of Liberty Ukraine & an unhappy Jewry

January 26, 2017

In 2008, Ukraine created a State award called the Order of Liberty.

Between its creation and the end of 2016, 50 individuals have received the award.  The very first was Carl Gustav XIV of Sweden.  Among other well known names without Ukraine other recipients include Anders Fogh Rasmussen, John McCain, Boris Nemtsov, George Soros, Stephen Harper, and Richard Lugar.

Domestically well known individuals such as Filaret Denysenko, Leonid Kravchuk and others also hold the award.

Thus far 2017 will see the award given to Refat Chubarov, Volodymyr Kolinets and Vasyl Krasnovskyi – at least according to the plan (and Presidential website), 27th January 2017 will see Vasyl Krasnovskyi given the award.

Of all recipients (international or Ukrainian) of this award however, it is difficult to recall an individual so almost entirely unknown and also who has generated a public appeal fore presidential reconsideration from a specific part of the Ukrainian demographic.

The Jewish community is clearly appalled by this award being given to Mr Krasnovskyi.  Chief Rabbi of Ukraine Moshe Azman is publicly incensed.

His reasons being that Mr Krasnovskyi’s published prose (he is apparently a poet) are unambiguously anti-Semitic.  The Rabbi contests that in his written work Mr Krasnovskyi blames the Jews for the repressions of the Stalin regime, destruction of Ukrainian culture, the Holodomor and the seizure of power in Ukraine today.

In short the Chief Rabbi appeals to President Poroshenko to cancel the award to Mr Krasnovskyi (who according to the presidential website gains the award as a “Political figure, Ternopil Region” – no more and no less) stating that Mr Krasnovskyi is nothing more than a “pathological anti-Semite whose books are imbued with hatred for Jews“.

A particularly direct and prickly statement from a Chief Rabbi who is normally extremely diplomatic in his public oratory.

Clearly a reader, no differently to almost the entirety of the Ukrainian constituency,  will be wondering how such an award with such a legacy of recipients is to be awarded to somebody that is entirely unknown and apparently a rabid anti-Semite too.

To give the benefit of the doubt to President Poroshenko, he like almost every Ukrainian will probably have no idea who Mr Krasnovskyi is either.  He will not have drawn up the list of award recipients published on the website any more than Queen Elizabeth II decides who gets awards in her “Birthday Honours” (and still no MBE for your author for years of dedicated below par blogging).

However somebody within presidential circles firstly knows who Mr Krasnovskyi is, and also had the influence to place him on that list.

Whether or not they realised that there would be a very public and very specific negative Jewish reaction is perhaps speculation without knowing precisely who engineered the award for Mr Krasnovskyi.

Further, it is questionable whether that individual also knew that should that award actually be given, that it occurs on the eve of International Holocaust Day (27th January) adding further indignation to the Ukrainian Jewry.

However, until this particular incident, the Order of Liberty has been an award that has remained fairly unsullied by way of the calibre and public recognition of its recipients – unlike other Ukrainian awards that have often been little more than distinctly domestic political tools.

Thus, the questions to ponder are why Mr Krasnovskyi is being given this award (regardless of his Antisemitism) when he is entirely unknown to the nation, who has engineered it, and why they decided to do so?

Somebody benefits from promoting this entirely unknown award recipient – aside from Mr Krasnovskyi who gets this particular State Gong – so who and how?

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Communication weaknesses – Ministry of Information

January 23, 2017

Over the however many years this blog has been running, when it comes to reoccurring themes that simply fail to be addressed, alongside consistently ineffective policy implementation, strategic communication (or what passes for it) both domestically and internationally has been ever present upon a list of national woes.

Despite Ukraine now having the most PR aware president in its independent history, effective (and) strategic communication domestically and internationally has hardly seen anything like the dramatic or consistent improvement the difficult circumstances Ukraine find itself faced with.

It therefore comes as no surprise that President Poroshenko’s chum, Information Minister Yuri Stets left a recent NATO-Ukraine Partnership and Collective Security Committee meeting commenting – “Apparently, Ukraine suffers the most from the latest methods of warfare, which Russia today employs. The weakness of public communications makes us extremely vulnerable and poses a threat to our partners. We have to catch up with the civilized world in the ability, and the ability, to communicate our position to the people, both inside the country and beyond it is aimed at within Ukraine’s efforts in strategic communications system development – and in this regard we need the help of the Alliance.”

He went on to bemoan the Kremlin orchestrated disinformation, misinformation, active measures and reflexive control operations (none of which is new and has been around since Octavious defeated Mark Anthony and before) pushed in the information sphere –“Information component has become one of the most important in ensuring the safety and development of any country. We all have to make new rules and approaches, lay them in new laws, to form a fundamentally new framework of reality.”

What The Kremlin does well is orchestrate its efforts with a holistic approach.  The entire national (not just State) machinery is engaged (notwithstanding outsourcing paid and via useful idiots), against those which it targets where ever and whenever and to the fullest extent possible – be that target Ukraine, NATO, the EU, specific European nations or the USA.

Aside from national counterintelligence agencies that rarely appreciate the public spotlight, at best those whom the Kremlin targets have (or eventually form) a small, under-financed department to man the information gates to call spurious bullshit and more insidious operations for what they are, sometimes bolstered by a few clear-eyed academics and journalists.  Clearly not the holistic and national approach engineered by The Kremlin.

Well so be it.

If the scale of the threat is not recognised, or if recognised not given sufficient resources to repel and/or neutralise the offensive actions in the information war that is long underway then losing it cannot come as a surprise.

That is not to say The Kremlin will long ultimately win any such war regardless of battles already won, for there is the issue of diminishing returns beyond any limited effectiveness regarding actions to counter.  Nevertheless current targets are certainly far from winning their individual info wars with The Kremlin – to say nothing of thus far meek and disjointed common efforts.

There will be some that see the words of Minister Stets as simply another less than subtly inferred request for cash and assistance – for his ministry is small, poorly funded and questionable as to effectiveness internally and externally of Ukraine.

He is however nonetheless correct.

The entire Ukrainian leadership, political class and the national institutions domestically continue to fail to effectively inform and engage with the domestic constituency – and it is here that the Ukrainian information war with The Kremlin has to find significant traction.  Perhaps particularly so as it appears a (probably duration limited) Kremlin charm offensive aimed at the Ukrainian people will be the next tactical maneuver.

There appears to be no leadership decisions regarding the universal nature of the messages emitted and how well those messages are bought into by the audience – particularly with domestic policy..

There still seems to be no real thought as to how messaging is disseminated to a wide audience and which channels are most appropriate.  The continued void where an independent State broadcaster would be is notable by its absence despite years of promising its arrival.

An inability to proactively communicate in preparation and/or synchronicity with the most basic of calendar issues, such as significant Verkhovna Rada votes, ever-shifting timelines for high profile (albeit mostly symbolic) issues like Visa-free, belie effective communication coordination, or at the very least communication discipline among ministers collectively and ministries individually.

Perhaps the most obvious question to ask is who is responsible, and thus ultimately has policy ownership, for strategic governmental communication?

If after more than 2 years of kinetic and non-kinetic warfare across the entire political, economic, social and cultural spectrum, a Ukrainian Information Minister leaves a NATO meeting stating Ukraine is still unable to communicate strategically either internally or externally, serious questions are already beyond asking.

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Trails in absentia – Ukraine

January 21, 2017

With most of the world currently peering through the looking glass at events in Washington DC and the inverted views to be seen, something worthy of note occurred in Ukraine.

Former President Yanukovych will stand trail for treason – in absentia.

On 21st January, Judge Tarasyuk satisfied the motion of the Military Prosecutor put before her at Pechersk Court in Kyiv.

Unfortunately it is only for treason that Viktor Yanukovych will be tried in absentia, and not for his vastly enriching criminality whilst in office which may yet raise issues over currently frozen assets returning to Ukraine – or not.

Nevertheless, hopefully the diplomatic corps and journalists alike will pay close attention to the daily proceedings once they begin a few weeks hence.

It is important that this case and the due process is properly witnessed – for in absentia proceedings within a judicial system as notoriously poor as that of Ukraine are demanding of special attention and rigorous scrutiny if any de jure verdict is to have any de facto evidence based and procedural legitimacy in the perceptions of the on-looking domestic and international constituencies.

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