Tag Archives: Europe

Russia, Ukraine reach compromise over gas price and debt, Oettinger says | #Ukraine #Gazprom


by Anastasia Forina.
European Union Commissioner for Energy German Guenther Oettinger speaks during a press conference after talks on energy security with Russian Energy and Ukrainian Energy Minister on Sept. 26 in Berlin.European Union Commissioner for Energy German Guenther Oettinger speaks during a press conference after talks on energy security with Russian Energy and Ukrainian Energy Minister on Sept. 26 in Berlin. Russia warned Europe on Friday that Moscow could cut off its gas supplies because some European countries have been re-exporting gas to Ukraine to help Kiev through its latest energy war with Moscow. AFP PHOTO / ODD ANDERSEN © AFP

After a number of unsuccessful negotiations, Ukraine and Russia finally reached compromise at the talks with the European Union in Berlin on Sept.26. 

According to the preliminary agreement, Ukraine will have to repay $2.1 billion to Russian Gazprom in October and another $1.1 billion by the year end while the price for gas will stay at $385 per 1,000 cubic meters, Energy Commissioner of the European Union Gunther Oettinger said at the press-conference after the talks, Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported. Oettinger also expressed high hopes for the agreement to be formalized soon by the governments of Ukraine and Russia.

“By the end of next week we can have a binding protocol,” Oettinger was quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s minister of Energy and Coal Industry Yuri Prodan said that Ukraine is not happy with the way the price for Russian gas is formed. “This must be a commercial price, which is not dependent on the decisions of the Russian government,” Prodan said, according to Interfax-Ukraine.

Timothy Ash, senior analyst of emerging markets for Standard Bank in London is also skeptical about the deal.

“Its kind of interesting to see Oettinger eager to announce a gas deal, before an agreement has actually been signed and sealed – clearly the Europeans are desperate for Ukraine to accept almost anything so that West Europeans don’t freeze this winter,” Ash said in his note on gas talks.

Earlier today, just ahead of talks Russian energy minister Alexander Novak has warned EU states which reverse gas to Ukraine about cut-offs by saying that the contracts don’t foresee re-export.

The warning came after Hungary halted its reverse gas flows to Ukraine on Sept.25 citing technical difficulties.  Earlier in September Poland also suspended gas imports to Ukraine. Russia cut gas flow to Poland by 45 percent and to Slovakia by 10 percent in September. Slovakia hasn’t stopped reverse supplies to Ukraine, so far.

Import of gas from Poland, Hungary and Slovakia already saved Ukraine $500 million during three months, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced at the United Nations General Assembly meeting  in New York on Sept 25. To survive during the heating season Ukraine needs around 33 billion cubic meters of gas. The country already has around 17 billion cubic meters of gas in underground storage and hopes to get up to 15 billion cubic meters of gas from the EU out of 25 billion it used to get from Russia.

If Russia stops gas supplies to EU countries, it can lead to price hikes on EU market and make it unreasonable for Ukraine to reverse gas from Europe, even in comparison with Russian gas, Oleksandr Narbut, president of the Kyiv Institute of Energy Studies told the Kyiv Post.

Russia raised its gas price for Ukraine in April to $485.50 per 1,000 cubic meters from $268.50 and in June suspened its gas flow to Ukraine after Ukraine stopped buying. In response to that Gazprom filed suit to Stokholm arbitration court over Ukraine’s 4.5 billion debt for gas. Ukraine also appealed to the court against Russia for making it overpaying for gas since 2010.

While, it may take up to a yer to get the decision from arbitration court, Oettinger suggested Ukraine repay Gazprom $3.1 billion without waiting for arbitrage decision. Yatsenyuk, however said the arbitrage court decision is important for Ukraine’s gas talks with Russia.

“I won’t make any comments before the agreement is put on paper. But I want to stress that Ukraine will under no circumstances recall its suit from the Stockholm Arbitration Court,” Yatsenyuk said on Sept.26, according to Interfax-Ukraine.

(Kyiv Post staff writer Anastasia Forina can be reached at forina@kyivpost.com).


Kyiv Post.

Major terrorist attack is ‘inevitable’ as Isis fighters return, say EU officials | #ISIS #Syria #Iraq #EU


EU’s 28 governments are said to be struggling to respond to threat of Islamist fighters coming back from Iraq and Syria.

Ian Traynor in Brussels.
Gilles de Kerchove, the EU's counter-terrorism coordinator, said about 3,000 EU citizens were fighting in Syria.Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, said about 3,000 EU citizens were fighting in Syria. Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

A major Islamist terror attack in Europe is almost inevitable as European members of Islamic State (Isis) return from Syria and Iraq, according to senior EU officials familiar with the diplomatic, intelligence, and security planning taking place to try to counter the threat.

They said the EU’s bodies and its 28 governments were under intense US pressure to get to grips with the menace represented by thousands of European citizens fighting in Syria, but that Europe was struggling to develop coherent instruments to reduce the risk of an atrocity.

“It is pre-programmed,” said a senior official involved in the policy and security debate over the chances of an attack. “We have clear signals that this is what the foreign fighters are doing. This is the main threat we are facing.” Interior ministers from the 28 countries are to meet in Luxembourg in a fortnight to try to come up with a concerted policy.

“The home affairs council is very aware and very frightened of this … The colleagues in the police administration just don’t know how to cope. They all fear this could be totally out of control. It may already be too late,” the senior official told the Guardian and five other European newspapers.

In a separate interview, Gilles de Kerchove, the Belgian EU official who coordinates the union’s counter-terrorism policy, said executives from the big social media providers, including Twitter, Facebook and Google, would attend the interior ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg in an EU attempt to deprive Isis propagandists of their highly effective exploitation of the internet.

“We want these companies to develop a counter-narrative. There will be a big discussion with the internet players,” said De Kerchove.

He put the number of EU citizens fighting in Syria at around 3,000. “We don’t have harmonised statistics. But the flow of fighters has not dried up. It’s a significant number and it has not stopped,” he said.

Senior US intelligence and homeland security officials have been attending recent meetings of EU policy-makers, alarmed that some of the European fighters could be easily infiltrated into the US.

“The Americans are very worried about Europeans entering freely under the visa waiver programme. They are looking into this very seriously,” said De Kerchove.

In addition to the dilemmas posed by extremists returning to Europe, EU capitals and Washington are aghast not just at the brutal prowess shown by Isis in Syria and Iraq, but also at the claimed arrival in Syria of senior al-Qaida operatives from havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan grouped in the so-called Khorasan group. They are said to include the Saudi explosives expert Ibrahim al-Asiri.

“This guy seems to be one of the best bomb-makers in the world,” said De Kerchove. “This small group of veterans linked to al-Qaida is a concern. We know some flew from Afghanistan/Pakistan to Syria.”

Confronted with these dilemmas, EU interior ministry, intelligence and police officials are meeting regularly in various combinations. But the attempts to come up with a coherent policy and instruments are dogged by institutional, national and departmental rivalries and differing priorities, senior officials said.

The EU has been trying to come up with a counter-terrorism strategy for the past 18 months. The current emergency is jolting the process, but officials are intensely pessimistic that the results will be too little, too late.

Various schemes are under discussion, most notably an EU-wide Passenger Names Record (PNR) for all air travel within the EU supplying up to 15 parameters that are mixed in a computer algorithm to help identify suspects.

The scheme is opposed in the European parliament on civil liberties grounds as it would monitor millions of ordinary travellers. The Germans, sticklers for data protection, are also lukewarm on the idea but are keener on reintroducing tighter border controls within the passport-free Schengen zone.

“We think PNR is one of the few tools allowing detection of suspicious travellers,” said De Kerchove. “But many people think it’s a dangerous slippery slope, collection of data on the innocent.”

At recent EU meetings with his counterparts in the EU, Thomas de Maiziere, the German interior minister, has also been urging more rigorous screening of all passports and ID cards at airports, the officials said. The proposal was also opposed on the grounds that it would cause massive queues.

A police database known as SIS or Schengen Information System is also available as a tool for flagging up suspicious travellers and identities that have been entered into the system. The intelligence services, the sources said, are wary, however, of contributing information to this system for fear of compromising their material, thus rendering it less effective.

Britain, the source of around one quarter of the European jihadis believed to be in Syria, is not party to the SIS system because it opted out of all the instruments under the EU’s justice and home affairs portfolio and still has to negotiate what bits it will rejoin.

But according to De Kerchove, the British are nonetheless among the most active and insistent in pushing a tough concerted EU strategy.

“We should have the UK plugged into the SIS. That’s very important, but it has not happened yet. The Home Office says they want to be in. I was in London last week. They push and push. On counter-terrorism, the UK is one of the countries supporting us the most. They’re very, very committed and they have excellent information.”

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said the UK authorities believed “more than 500 UK-linked individuals have now travelled to Syria and Iraq since the uprising began. Obviously, it’s very difficult to give precise numbers on this.”

De Kerchove said he had asked Theresa May, the home secretary, and had not received precise figures. Nor was it clear how many had returned from Syria or Iraq to Britain.

According to the French authorities, the number of native jihadis in Syria and Iraq has soared from 555 to 932 this year. Of those, 118 have returned to France. According to experts consulted by European officials involved in the effort, an estimated one in nine of those returning represents a terrorist threat.

Officials point to the killing of four people at Brussels’s Jewish Museum in May as a portent of things to come and of the mishaps afflicting the Schengen system. The suspect awaiting trial in Belgium, Mehdi Nemmouche, 29, a French national of Algerian heritage, had spent a year in Syria. He flew from Turkey to Frankfurt in Germany. German customs officers identified him from the SIS system and alerted the French. He was allowed to travel further and allegedly came to Brussels where he is suspected of opening automatic machine-gun fire on the museum before being arrested later in Marseille.

The number of EU nationals fighting in Syria is put at 3-4,000. The senior official said that in post-9/11 Afghanistan there were an estimated 100 Europeans fighting with al-Qaida and the Taliban and that presented a big problem then.

Two Dutch nationals of Turkish origin were also arrested by the Belgians last month on their return from the Middle East, with Dutch television reporting at the weekend that they were plotting an attack on the headquarters of the European commission in Brussels. The officials said there was no evidence to support this.

On Thursday the mayor of Brussels, Yvan Mayeur, said the threat of returning jihadis “is not virtual for us, it is concrete, it is real”.

He said he was examining 14 files on the issue of suspected extremists from Belgium, which is believed to have the highest per capita rate in the EU of fighters in Syria.


The Guardian.

#Putin’s aggression has left #Europe in pre-war state, says top Russian writer


by Luke Harding.
Mikhail Shishkin, considered by many to be Russia's greatest living author, says Europeans are yet to grasp the 'new reality'. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty ImagesMikhail Shishkin, considered by many to be Russia’s greatest living author, says Europeans are yet to grasp the ‘new reality’. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images.

Russia’s pre-eminent literary novelist today warns that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine amounts to a “black hole” that threatens to suck in the whole of Europe.

In an essay for the Guardian, Mikhail Shishkin says that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has left the unsuspecting European continent in a state of “pre-war”. He says that unlike Russians – conditioned to expect violence by remorseless state propaganda – Europeans have not yet grasped “the new reality that has set in”.

Shishkin is considered by many to be his country’s greatest living author. He is the only contemporary writer to have won all three of Russia’s most prestigious literary prizes, including the Russian Booker. Resident in Switzerland, he faced official vitriol after refusing to take part on a Kremlin-sponsored literary tour of the US last year. Shishkin said he didn’t want to represent a country where “power has been seized by a corrupt criminal regime“.

The son of a Ukrainian mother and Russian father, Shishkin describes Russia’s president as a “one very lonely ageing man” and “an insipid colonel” terrified of losing power. He says the “demise of Hussein, Mubarak and Gaddafi” and the flight of Ukraine’s leader Viktor Yanukovych spooked Putin, and prompted his seizure of Crimea in the spring and attack on eastern Ukraine.

“The instinct of self-preservation kicked in immediately. The formula for saving any dictatorship is universal: create an enemy; start a war. The state of war is the regime’s elixir of life,” the writer says.

Shishkin suggests that under Putin – who denied there were Russian troops in Crimea, only to later admit with a grin that they were there – Russia has gone “back to the Soviet times of total lies”. The novelist says that ordinary Russians are complicit in this lying, with the survival instinct under which Soviet citizens “lived for decades” now emphatically back.

“When Putin tells blatant lies in the face of western politicians, he then watches their reaction with vivid interest and not without pleasure, enjoying their confusion and helplessness. He wants Kiev to return on its knees, like a prodigal son, to the fatherly embrace of the empire. He is sure that Europe will boil with indignation, but eventually calm down, abandoning Ukraine to brotherly rape,” he writes.

The novelist – whose latest work The Light and the Dark appeared in English translation last year – is sceptical that western sanctions will have any effect in Moscow. Rather, he says, Russia is ready and psychologically prepared for further conflict. It is already in “an undeclared war against the west”. His conclusion is bleak: “One needs to realise: post-war Europe has already become pre-war Europe.”


The Guardian.

The #Russians #protesting against the #Ukraine conflict


A small number of Russians have braved public disapproval and possible arrest to stand against Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. RFE/RL’s Russian Service spoke to some of them.

A man holds a sign during a protest against the conflict in eastern Ukraine in the centre of Moscow on 28 August. The sign reads: “No war” Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/ReutersA man holds a sign during a protest against the conflict in eastern Ukraine in the centre of Moscow on 28 August. The sign reads: “No war” Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

The Afghanistan veteran

Vladimir Barabanov is a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and heads a local branch of the Union of Afghanistan Veterans in Russia’s western Bryansk Oblast. Barabanov, a senior reserve lieutenant who served in Herat and Kabul between 1986-88, held a protest with fellow veterans on 5 September. A second demonstration is scheduled for 13 September.

“We remember perfectly how Afghanistan started. We don’t want those events to repeat themselves,” Barabanov says. “They told us, the last Soviet soldiers, that the war in Afghanistan war would be the last – that our losses weren’t in vain, that our colleagues died so that such wars would never be repeated. The war that is currently going on in Ukraine with Russia’s participation nullifies those losses”.

How will we look Ukrainians in the eye tomorrow?

“Authorities need to distract people from social problems using a small victorious war. I think that the reason for the war is social. People are unsatisfied, both in Russia and in Ukraine. They’re looking for someone to blame for our bad lives. All this looks like a special operation – as former soldiers, we can see that perfectly well”.

“How will we look Ukrainians in the eye tomorrow? The war will end, and a Ukrainian will ask: ‘And where were you, why didn’t you say anything? Didn’t your son fight against mine?’ The blame will be on all of us. Those of us who are going out on the square want to say that we have no relations to this filth. Why do they hide the loses of the Russian forces? The same thing happened in Afghanistan. There are a lot of analogies.”

(Interview by Arslan Saidov, read in full in Russian).

The retired geologist

Muscovite Irina Epifanovskaya, 59, is a retired geologist who now spends much of her time engaged in civil activism. She was arrested in central Moscow after she stood alone and holding a small sign reading “No war with Ukraine”.

Muscovite Irina Epifanovskaya was arrested in central MoscowMuscovite Irina Epifanovskaya was arrested in central Moscow Photograph: Irina Epifanovskaya.

“A lot of people simply walk by when you’re protesting. But since I’ve spent my entire summer doing this, I can say that I’ve seen an enormous shift since June and July,” Epifanovskaya says.

“In recent weeks, people have come up to me and shaken my hand two or three times; some thanked me or said they supported me. There wasn’t anything like that before. It’s because this undeclared war has entered a new stage, one whose traces are already clearly visible – the ‘cargo 200’ coffins [believed to transport Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine].”

“I’ve already lived most of my life. All of my basic needs are attended to. My children are grown. I had a profession, I had things I loved to do, and I still do. I’m beyond being afraid of what might happen to me when I protest. It hit me so hard, in the deepest part of my soul, that permission was given to send troops to Ukraine! It should be clear to any sensible person that Russia can’t fight with the nation that’s closest to it. I look at it as my personal affair and my personal grief.”

(Interview by Lyubov Chizhova, read in full in Russian)

The advocate

Aleksandr Osovtsov is a former lawmaker and director of the Open Russia fund. He offers free legal assistance to Russian soldiers who refuse to participate in military operations in Ukraine. He details the right of conscientious objectors under Russian law in a post on his Facebook page.

“I believe what’s going on right now is an absolutely full-fledged war,” says Osovtsov. “Maybe the parties have yet to use their full forces and means, but the United States didn’t use its full force in Vietnam or Iraq, and no one was arguing that the phrase ‘Vietnam war’ had no right to exist. It was a war, and it’s the same thing here. As soon as Russian military units were located on Ukrainian territory and engaging in hostilities, it was a war.

At the moment the chance of an anti-war movement in Russia is very small

“It’s legally possible for those who want to refuse to serve in Ukraine to do so. Every person should decide for himself. That, of course, won’t stop the war, but it can give people the chance not to participate if they don’t want to – and moreover to do it on an absolutely legal basis. I know of quite a few cases when Russian soldiers refused to participate in fighting in Chechnya, and not one of them faced criminal liability as a result.

Aleksandr Osovtsov is a former lawmaker and director of the Open Russia fund Photograph: RFE/RLAleksandr Osovtsov is a former lawmaker and director of the Open Russia fund Photograph: RFE/RL

“At the moment the chance of an anti-war movement in Russia is very small. I really don’t want to think like this, but logically I can’t imagine another situation. It will take the ‘Cargo 200’ and ‘Cargo 300’ – code for dead and wounded – before people start to think and realise that no one normal needs this war.”

(Interview by Mark Krutov, read in full in Russian)

The film director

Film and theatre director Vladimir Mirzoyev was among the signatories of a recent open letter published in Novaya Gazeta protesting the war in Ukraine and what they called Russia’s self-isolation and the restoration of totalitarianism.

“I understand that our population is deeply traumatised by the entire 20th century,” Mirzoyev says. “These are people who can easily fall into a state of maniacal euphoria and patriotic psychosis, and just as easily fall into depression. It’s a bipolar disorder, where people react to generally frightening things in a completely inappropriate way. They deny that a war is being waged. It’s possible, of course, to say that Russians are a victim of TV propaganda, but after all it’s still not that hard to get on the internet to find alternative information to compare and contrast the facts. But they don’t want to compare anything, they can’t accept the thought that their country, their homeland, is the aggressor.

Our population is deeply traumatised by the entire 20th century

“Of course, the catastrophes of the 20th century aren’t lost on the population. All these traumas have been absorbed by families, recorded in the memories of entire generations, and these people aren’t healed. Now that they’ve started pouring salt and sulfuric acid on the wounds, they’re breaking down completely. People are very sick. And so they’re giving an inappropriate response.”

(Interview by Andrei Shary, read in full in Russian)

The physicist

Mikhail Lashkevich is a researcher at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in the town of Chernogolovka, outside Moscow. He was detained by police in August after standing on a busy Moscow street holding a poster reading “Why is our country led by a raging idiot?” on one side, and “It’s not your war, but your children are going to die in it!” on the other.

“I oppose the war precisely because it’s Russia that’s unleashing it, because it’s so obviously a war of aggression,” says Lashkevich. “I recently read a definition of aggression that is used at the United Nations, and of the seven points, there’s only one that Russia hasn’t violated. There’s one aggressive action that it hasn’t taken – it hasn’t allowed its territory to be used by a third aggressor. But it’s done everything else. It’s annexed territory, it’s introduced its own troops, it’s supported terrorist groups on the territory of a neighbouring country, and so on.

Mikhail Lashkevich was detained by police in August. Photograph: Mikhail LashkevichMikhail Lashkevich was detained by police in August. Photograph: Mikhail Lashkevich.

“I don’t discuss my views at work. I talk about it only with colleagues that I’m close to. It’s a fairly liberal situation in this sense. There’s no trouble at work.”

(Interview by Lyubov Chizhova, read in full in Russian)

The activist

Natalya Tsymbalova is a founding member of St Petersburg’s Straight Alliance, a human rights organisation that aims to rally heterosexual activists behind the fight for equality for Russia’s LGBT community. On Ukrainian independence day on 24 August, she was berated by a hostile crowd for standing on a central street carrying a sign reading, “Petersburg congratulates Ukraine on Independence Day.” She has since applied for asylum in Spain following after receiving threats of violence. She spoke to RFE/RL before leaving Russia.

There’s a feeling that the battle is hopeless and that it’s only going to get worse

“What’s happening now shows that we were right – this was never limited to gays. [Authorities] honed their technology of manipulation and propaganda on the LGBT community… and now exactly the same thing is happening with regard to Ukraine… they’re all ‘banderovtsy’ and ‘fascists’. It’s an absolutely virtual concept that has nothing to do with reality,” Tsymbalova says.

“A lot of people in our circles are thinking about leaving [Russia]. Even that small minority who have always said that this is our country and we’ll fight to the last are thinking about emigration. There’s a feeling that the battle is hopeless and that it’s only going to get worse… It’s all very dangerous and unpleasant, and the main thing is there’s no hope, no hope at all.”

(Interview by Dmitry Volchek, read in full in Russian)


The Guardian.

#Putin Calls for Talks on East #Ukraine ‘Statehood'; #Kremlin Denies Endorsing Independence


 By Ukrainian border guards patrol near the small Ukrainian city of Novoazovsk, Donetsk Oblast on the border with Russia. © AFPUkrainian border guards patrol near the small Ukrainian city of Novoazovsk, Donetsk Oblast on the border with Russia. © AFP

MOSCOW/MARIUPOL Ukraine (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Sunday for immediate talks on “statehood” for southern and eastern Ukraine, although his spokesman said this did not mean Moscow now endorsed rebel calls for independence for territory they have seized.

The Kremlin leader’s remarks, which follow a feisty public appearance in which he compared the Kiev government to Nazis and warned the West not to “mess with us”, came with Europe and the United States preparing new sanctions to halt what they say is direct Russian military involvement in the war in Ukraine.

Ukrainian troops and local residents were reinforcing the port of Mariupol on Sunday, the next big city in the path of pro-Russian fighters who pushed back government forces along the Azov Sea this past week in an offensive on a new front.

Ukraine and Russia swapped soldiers who had entered each other’s territory near the battlefield, where Kiev says Moscow’s forces have come to the aid of pro-Russian insurgents, tipping the balance on the battlefield in the rebels’ favour.

Talks should be held immediately “and not just on technical issues but on the political organisation of society and statehood in southeastern Ukraine,” Putin said in an interview with Channel 1 state television, his hair tousled by wind on the shore of a lake.

Moscow, for its part, he said, could not stand aside while people were being shot “almost at point blank”.

Putin’s use of the word “statehood” was interpreted in Western media as implying backing for the rebel demand of independence, something Moscow has so far stopped short of publicly endorsing.

However, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no new endorsement from Moscow for rebel independence. Asked if “New Russia”, a term pro-Moscow rebels use for their territory, should still be part of Ukraine, Peskov said: “Of course.”

“Only Ukraine can reach an agreement with New Russia, taking into account the interests of New Russia, and this is the only way to reach a political settlement.”

Rebels have rallied behind the term “New Russia” since Putin first used it in a public appearance in April. Putin called it a tsarist-era term for land that now forms southern and eastern Ukraine. Ukrainians consider the term deeply offensive and say it reveals Moscow’s imperial designs on their territory.

Moscow has long called for Kiev to hold direct political talks with the rebels. Kiev says it is willing to have talks on more rights for the south and east, but will not talk directly to armed fighters it describes as “international terrorists” and Russian puppets that can only be reined in by Moscow.

The deputy leader of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, Andrei Prugin, said he was due to participate in talks in the Belarus capital Minsk on Monday. Past talks by a so-called “contact group” involving Moscow, Kiev and rebels have covered technical issues like access to the crash site of a Malaysian airliner shot down in July, but not political questions.

NEW ADVANCE

The past week has seen Ukrainian forces flee in the path of a new rebel advance, drawing concern from Ukraine’s Western allies, who say armoured columns of Russian troops came to the aid of a rebellion that would otherwise have been near collapse.

European Union leaders agreed on Saturday to draw up new economic sanctions against Moscow, a move hailed by the United States, which is planning tighter sanctions of its own and wants to act jointly with Europe.

Some residents of Mariupol have taken to the streets of the port to show support for the Ukrainian government as pro-Russian forces gain ground. Many others have fled from the prospect of an all-out assault on the city of nearly 500,000 people.

“We are proud to be from this city and we are ready to defend it from the occupiers,” said Alexandra, 28, a post office clerk wearing a ribbon in blue and yellow Ukrainian colours.

“We will dig trenches. We will throw petrol bombs at them, the occupiers,” she said. “I believe our army and our (volunteer) battalions will protect us.”

Ihor, 42, and his wife Lena, 40, were packing their car to flee with their five-year-old daughter. They had sheltered in Mariupol after battle came to their home city Donetsk in July.

“We will not wait for another repetition of war. We did nothing to provoke it and we do not want to be a part of it,” said Lena.

TROOP SWAP

The swap of soldiers overnight at the frontier was a rare gesture to ease tension, but Kiev and Moscow have given starkly opposing accounts of how their troops came to be on each other’s territory. A Russian paratroop commander said an unspecified number of Russian paratroops were swapped for 63 Ukrainian soldiers. Kiev said the Russian soldiers numbered nine.

Kiev and its allies in Europe and the United States say the new rebel offensive has been backed by more than 1,000 Russian troops fighting openly to support the insurgents. The rebels themselves say thousands of Russian troops have fought on their behalf while “on leave”.

Reuters journalists on the Russian side of the border have seen Russian troops showing signs of having returned from battle, with their insignia removed or rubbed out.

Despite the evidence, Moscow denies its troops are fighting in Ukraine and says a small party of soldiers crossed the border by accident. Russian Major-General Alexei Ragozin said the paratroops were handed back after “very difficult” negotiations.

“I consider it unacceptable that our servicemen were detained by the Ukrainian side for so many days. Our lads are upset about everything that happened. They will all receive the necessary psychological and other kinds of help. The lads will all be OK.”

Ragozin said Russia, by contrast, had promptly returned hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers who at various times have crossed the border when squeezed by rebel forces. He said the latest group of 63 had entered Russia on Wednesday.

Kiev has in the past said some of its soldiers crossed into Russia to escape from fighting on the Ukrainian side of the frontier, behaviour that contrasts with that of the Russians it says crossed the border to wage war in Ukraine. Ukraine’s military spokesman has mocked the idea that the Russians had “got lost like Little Red Riding Hood in the forest”.

SANCTIONS

The United States and European Union have gradually tightened economic sanctions against Russia, first imposed after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March following the ousting of Kiev’s pro-Russian president by protesters.

So far, however, the measures have done little to deter Putin, who gave a typically defiant public appearance on Friday in which he described Russians and Ukrainians as “practically one people” and compared Kiev’s attempts to recapture rebellious cities with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

Russia is a strong nuclear power, and foreigners should understand that “it’s best not to mess with us”, he said.

Moscow has responded to sanctions by banning the import of most Western foodstuffs, stripping French cheese and Polish apples from store shelves and shutting down McDonalds restaurants. The moves reinforce a sense among Russians that they are isolated from a hostile world, as in Cold War days.

Agreeing the Western sanctions has been tricky, not least because the 28-member European Union must take decisions by consensus and many of its countries depend on Russian energy resources.

Nevertheless, the EU has gone further than many had predicted, agreeing to impose sanctions on Russia’s financial and oil industries last month after a Malaysian airliner was shot down over rebel territory, killing nearly 300 people, most of them Dutch.

EU leaders agreed on Saturday to ask the executive European Commission to draw up more sanctions measures, which could be adopted in coming days.

The White House praised the move to “show strong support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. But in a sign of the difficulty in achieving an EU consensus, the leader of tiny Slovakia said sanctions had failed so far and threatened to veto any new ones that damaged his country’s national interest.

(Additional reporting by Richard Balmforth in Kiev, Vladimir Soldatkin in Chelyabinsk, Russia and Mark Trevelyan in Moscow; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Mark Heinrich).


The New York Times.