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Even as Russia shores up its illegitimate proxies in eastern Ukraine with weapons and troops, the West continues to behave spinelessly.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel discounted the possibility of further economic sanctions against Russia, opting instead to float the lame likelihood of individual visa bans and asset freezes against separatist leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. As the foremost leader of the 28-nation European Union bloc, Merkel’s unwillingness to more strongly confront Russia is disappointing. But abhorrent is the active opposition to more sanctions of such politicians as Hungary’s prime minister and the Czech Republic president. The United States, whose Congress is now in Republican hands, remains the best hope for Ukraine getting military aid and additional economic assistance.
The Russian assault on Ukraine is an assault on the international rule of law and the post-World War II order. It’s time to stop Vladimir Putin now. He is emboldened by the West’s weak response to his theft of Crimea and his attempts to dismember Ukraine.
The separatists destroying the infrastructure in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas have no lofty principles to uphold and don’t offer residents in Ukraine’s two most populous oblasts a better way of living. Rather, the violence and destruction is designed to bring Ukraine’s government in Kyiv to knuckle under to Putin’s imperial ambitions. Putin doesn’t want to absorb these territories, home to more than six million Ukrainian citizens before the war, into the Russian Federation. He just wants to wreak havoc and stoke fear.
The fact that Russia’s economy is tanking is testament to the fall in world oil and gas prices. To the extent the West is coordinating and assisting the drop in prices, its leaders are to be commended. But the drop looks to be more driven by the global economic slowdown and Saudi Arabia’s desire to undercut American competition.
The goal of Western sanctions has been to change Putin’s behavior. He remains undeterred. So further sanctions are essential, including a steep tax on Russian energy imports. Putin’s Russia should not be the venue for any international events. Crushing Putin’s economy is the fastest way to stop Putinism, bringing Russians closer to peace and prosperity.
A woman leaves a voting booth during the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic leadership and local parliamentary elections at a polling station in Donetsk Nov. 2. Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters
The recent elections in Ukraine’s self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics may have been slammed by Western governments, but they were praised by a ragtag group of “international observers” including a Spaniard who may not exist, a Nashville lawyer previously suspended for fraud, a far-right Serbian denied entry into Canada for his affiliation with convicted war criminals, and an Austrian nationalist renowned among U.S. neo-Nazis.
The list of observers released by Ukraine’s Interior Ministry the day after the vote — called “unfortunate and counterproductive” by the UN secretary general and described as a farce by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko — includes 18 names, though Russian media and foreign journalists present at the elections said the number of international observers was much higher, with estimates ranging from 50 to 70.
The organizations involved include the Eurasian Observatory of Democracy and Elections, run by Belgian neo-Nazi Luc Michel; the European Centre for Geopolitical Analysis, run by Polish far-right politician Mateusz Piskorski; and the Agency for Security and Cooperation in Europe (ASCE), which was founded the night before the vote and apparently dismantled immediately after.
That agency’s founder, Ewald Stadler, a far-right Austrian politician whose 2010 speech was dubbed “the most racist speech ever” in a European parliament by neo-Nazi website Stormfront.org, admitted in Donetsk that the ASCE did not legally exist, according to British newspaper The Telegraph.
Piskorski of the European Centre for Geopolitical Analysis previously worked as an election observer at the 2007 Russian State Duma elections.
But he is perhaps better known for publishing a magazine called Odala throughout the 1990s and early 2000s that openly praised Nazi Germany and featured various interviews with Holocaust deniers, according to Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde.
Piskorski is also a member of the International Eurasian Movement, founded by Alexander Dugin, an ultraconservative Russian political analyst with ties to the Kremlin.
In addition to European political figures with a track record of observing unrecognized elections, the list also included some more obscure but no less colorful figures.
One of them is U.S. national Frank G. Abernathy, listed as representing the Tennessee-based company EFS Investment Partners LLC, whose Facebook page says it offers “financial planning” services.
The company’s offices have closed, the phone is disconnected and no online reviews by clients could be found about the company’s services.
Abernathy is also the founder of the Law Offices of Frank G. Abernathy — whose phone has also been disconnected — and a practicing lawyer. But according to the Tennessee Bar Association, his license was only reinstated in 2011 after being suspended in 2002.
The Supreme Court of Tennessee fined and suspended Abernathy after he “used confidential information to his advantage” and “engaged in misrepresentation” to borrow a large sum of money from one of his clients.
Several phone numbers listed for Abernathy were found to be disconnected, including one for a Bermuda-based insurance company he claims to work for. A message sent to him on social media went unanswered by print time.
American-Serbian professor, writer and fellow observer Srda Trifkovic was easier to get a hold of.
Offering his impression of Sunday’s election, Trifkovic said that residents in Donetsk seemed eager to vote — but he conceded that that was “quite apart from the issue of the ‘legality’ of the election.”
He said he was invited by representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) a month in advance, and they “made the travel, board and lodging arrangements, but there was no honorarium involved.”
“Overall, the process was as democratically valid as could be expected under the extraordinary security circumstances,” he said, adding that “in view of the long, cold winter on the horizon and Ukraine’s ongoing financial and economic collapse,” the authorities in Kiev should “heed the dictate of expediency” and talk to the new DNR leaders.
Trifkovic said he also observed the Crimean referendum in March, which was likewise universally dismissed by Western governments and influential international organizations.
Like many of the other observers, Trifkovic has an extensive resume but a spotty reputation, having authored numerous books and done stints as a correspondent for the BBC World Service and U.S. News & World Report but being better known for his ties to the Bosnian Serb government in the 1990s.
In February 2011, he was denied access to Canada for having served as an unofficial spokesman for the Republika Srpska government in the 1990s and as adviser to Republika Srpska leader Biljana Plavsic, who was later convicted of war crimes for her role in the Bosnian War.
Trifkovic is also known for having testified as part of the defense for another convicted war criminal, Milomir Stakic, in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
Stakic was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in that trial.
An armed separatist guarding ballot boxes during Sunday’s vote in self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters
In contrast with the many observers with long, dramatic histories, there was one observer listed by the rebels themselves who could only be described as a ghost, with no record of him listed on the website of the company that purportedly sent him to monitor the elections.
Felipe Delgado reportedly observed the vote on behalf of the Spanish public relations firm Mediasiete Corporation, according to Ukrainian news site Novy Region and Ukrainian journalist Anton Shekhovtsov.
Oleg Bondarenko, a spokesman for the press center of Novorossia, the rebels’ self-proclaimed sovereign nation, confirmed to The Moscow Times that Delgado had attended as an observer, along with another representative of Mediasiete Corporation, Renato Landeira.
The participation of Mediasiete Corporation comes as no surprise, as the company earlier sent its president to observe the Crimean referendum in March.
But no information could be found on Delgado or his professional duties on the company’s website. Several phone calls to the company’s offices went unanswered, and an e-mailed request for comment on Delgado and Landeira’s participation in the elections went unanswered by print time.
A Moscow-based Spanish correspondent for Spain’s Telecinco TV network said he had an equally difficult time finding any record of Delgado.
“I have been looking for information on him along with other Spanish journalists, but there is none at all,” said Ricardo Marquina Montanana.
The sparse information on Delgado’s background sparked speculation as to whether or not he exists and highlights the murky nature of the election monitoring, with many of the confirmed observers openly saying they did not go through Ukrainian customs to get into the country.
Instead, they traveled to Moscow first and entered Ukraine through its lengthy border with Russia, bypassing border control stations.
While the group of international observers hailed the elections as having been conducted in an atmosphere of joy and unity — citing the ubiquitous free food and folk music — Western journalists painted a different picture.
U.S. journalist Christopher Miller wrote for the Mashable news agency that the polling stations were “guarded by camouflaged gunmen … in what closely resembled an event straight out of the Soviet Union, except for the fact that votes could also be cast online.”
Fabrice Beaur confirmed his attendance at the elections on behalf of Michel’s Eurasian Observatory of Democracy and Elections, as well as the participation of Piskorski’s ECGA.
He suggested that his group and the others represented at the elections — including the ASCE — were better than the Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe, from which the ASCE appears to have gotten its name.
“Our participation is free,” Beaur wrote in e-mailed comments to The Moscow Times. “Unlike the OSCE,” he said, the groups involved in monitoring the Donetsk and Luhansk elections didn’t take any “envelope,” apparently a not so subtle suggestion that the OSCE takes bribes to issue its approval of elections.
Beaur insisted that the election was fair, “a real grassroots movement to say no to the junta of Kiev.”
“The anti-fascist struggle is still relevant,” he said, echoing claims made by the separatists in eastern Ukraine that the new authorities in Kiev were Nazis.
While repeatedly leveling accusations of fascism, it was unclear how Beaur or the authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk have been able to reconcile themselves with the far-right leanings of most of the election observers present at Sunday’s vote, at least one of whom is widely reported to have openly praised Nazi Germany throughout his career.
Pensioners in Donetsk city queue at a polling station with an insurgent guard posted at the ready during the rebel-organized elections there on Nov. 2. © Anastasia Vlasova
DONETSK, Ukraine — To the sound of Soviet-era songs dozens of people stood inside a polling station located in a school in Donetsk’s downtown early on Nov. 2, while a bigger crowd of voters was queuing to buy cheap vegetables outside.
This was how the residents of the rebel-controlled parts of Donetsk Oblast were electing a prime minister and parliament of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Similar elections were held in neighboring Luhansk People’s Republic, which is the southern part of Luhansk Oblast not controlled by Ukraine.
Over 4,000 people have been killed, according to United Nations estimates, in these two Ukrainian regions in the past six months of the war between Russian-backed insurgents and mercenaries and Ukrainian troops. Western governments have said they will not recognize the illegitimate elections, while Russia, which has supported the insurgents since the very beginning with military personnel and weapons, is claiming that this is the solution to the bloody conflict.
The Ukrainian Security Service opened a criminal investigation on Nov. 2 into the leadership of the rebel-occupied territories for usurpation of authority. Kyiv brands these “republics” as terrorist organizations
The people who came to vote en masse say they expect the new government to bring them peace and start paying salaries and pensions, which they have not received in the rebel-controlled areas for several months.
“We are waiting for them (newly elected authorities) to give us pensions. I haven’t received mine since August,” said Raisa Tsevmat, 59, pensioner, who voted in the insurgent stronghold Donetsk, a city surrounded on three sides by Ukrainian forces. When speaking, Tsevmat continually glanced back at a truck loaded with fresh cabbages parked by the polling station. On that day, voters were able to buy a big sack of cabbages, carrots, beetroots or potatoes for just Hr 1 ($0.08).
Tsevmat said she gave her vote to Aleksandr Zakharchenko, current prime minister of DPR and leader of the Oplot paramilitary unit, the overwhelming favorite to win the ‘elections.’ Wearing a suit instead of his usual camouflage fatigues, Zakharchenko came to vote at the same polling station along with his wife and a group of Kalashnikov-armed men earlier that day.
The dozen people the Kyiv Post spoke with said they supported Zakharchenko and the Donetsk Republic, his political party. While Zakharchenko’s portraits were hanging on billboards all over Donetsk city and its outskirts, his two competitors, deputy speaker of DPR’s parliament Alexander Kofman and retired policeman Yury Sivokonenko, were little known to anyone.
“Of course Zakharchenko – we don’t know anyone else. It’s been only him on the TV advertisements,” said Oksana Galych, 36, who came to the polling station in Ilovaisk with her baby in a carriage.
Ilovaisk, a town of 16,000 people and a key road junction, experienced one of the fiercest battles of the war in August with hundreds of soldiers and civilians killed. The Ukrainian army was forced to retreat when the Russian army formally invaded the region on Aug. 24, Ukraine’s Independence Day. Most of the buildings in Ilovaisk have war damage. School No. 14, where the Ukrainian army held its position for weeks, is now a burnt out shell.
Up to 100 of Ukrainian soldiers are being held in Ilovaisk by insurgents as prisoners of war and forced to restore ruined buildings. Residents who fled Ilovaisk have mostly returned and are busy rebuilding their homes. They rely on the once-per-month humanitarian food aid supplied from Russia that includes canned meat, canned fish and sugar.
There were hundreds of people seen on the way to polling stations, and an almost equal crowd was formed by women selling cheap vegetables by the entrance.
Galych said that while the Russian aid wasn’t perfect, it was better than the nothing she received from the Ukrainian government. “The Ukrainian government didn’t pay me maternity benefits, so what the hell do we need them?!” Galych said. “We’d better separate.”
On the way to Ilovaisk the Kyiv Post spotted about ten of white trucks with the words “Humanitarian aid from Russian Federation” written on them heading towards Donetsk on the road from Russia. There was also nearly the same number of military trucks without license plates.
Most voters said they had no feeling of living in Ukraine anymore. They felt themselves rather in some separate country, which they called either Donetsk People’s Republic or Novorossiya, a Kremlin-proposed term for the entire Ukrainian southeast.
But some people still were visibly confused about their current state and their future.
Marina Selezneva, 22, who studies economics at Donetsk University, came to the polling station in Donetsk along with her elderly grandmother. Selezneva said she didn’t vote at the May 11 referendum that proclaimed separation of DPR from the rest of Ukraine because she believed it was illegitimate. But now she came to the elections saying they should determine who rules her region.
As an owner of a Ukrainian passport, Selezneva said she still didn’t know for sure to which country she belongs. “But after these elections, I will probably understand this at last,” she said.
And what are they going to do for money? Are the russians going to bankroll these two ‘republics’? After all you can not expect the Ukrainians to financially support them now that they have broken away, albeit illegally! – Global Newsstand
Ukrainian soldiers patrolled near Debaltseve, Ukraine, on Monday. Anatolii Boiko/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.
Andrew Roth reporting,
DONETSK, Ukraine — Deadly fighting has broken out again between the government and rebels around the strategically important airport outside Donetsk, a continuing source of friction that is testing the resilience of a recent cease-fire agreement.
Nine Ukrainian soldiers and three civilians were killed during heavy shelling on Sunday, government officials announced. Andriy Lysenko, an army spokesman, said seven soldiers died when a tank shell hit their troop transport. It was the deadliest attack since the cease-fire was announced on Sept. 5.
President Petro O. Poroshenko has called the cease-fire the keystone to his peace plan for the country, and in a nationally televised news conference on Thursday said he had “no doubt that the biggest, most dangerous part of the war is already behind us.”
But at important positions held by Ukrainian forces, like the airport and the city of Debaltseve, a crucial junction between the largest rebel cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, shelling has only intensified in recent days.
The upsurge in violence comes at a particularly critical moment, as Russian, Ukrainian and rebel military officials are meeting to work out the boundaries of a buffer zone of 30 kilometers, about 19 miles, that, when finalized, could mark a neutral area in a new, frozen conflict.
“The line drawn on paper does not correspond to the current positions,” said Andrei Purgin, the deputy prime minister of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, who participated in the talks in Minsk, Belarus, that led to the cease-fire.
In an interview, Mr. Purgin said that fighting was taking place at contested points on the proposed demarcation line, which he said amounted to 30 percent of the border between the rebel republics and Ukraine.
He also claimed that the Ukrainian Army was pouring in troops to defend the airport, which he likened to “a fetish.”
According to the cease-fire agreement, “the airport should be ours,” he said. “But they are not leaving it.”
A Russian Army delegation led by Aleksandr Lentsov, the deputy commander of Russia’s ground forces, has been in Ukraine since last week, and first met with Ukrainian and rebel military representatives on Friday, according to an official involved in the talks.
Russia has sought to minimize its public role in mediating the conflict, and on Friday the Russian Foreign Ministry denied it was a party to the talks.
On Saturday, however, Russian state television broadcast an interview with Mr. Lentsov in the rebel-held city of Horlivka, Ukraine.
“There are questions where we have found common ground, and some questions are problematic,” Mr. Lentsov said without elaborating in televised comments. “Our main task is a cease-fire. Both sides should understand that.”
Perhaps no question is more problematic than the Donetsk airport, which was renovated for the Euro 2012 soccer championship held in Ukraine and, if repaired, could be a vital supply line for either the fledgling rebel state or the Ukrainian military.
Speaking with several journalists on Saturday, Ihor Kolomoysky, the billionaire governor of the neighboring Dnipropetrovsk region, said that Ukraine had agreed to abandon the airport in exchange for a wide stretch of territory south of Donetsk, a quid pro quo that had previously been unreported.
Mr. Kolomoysky, who was appointed governor by Mr. Poroshenko, has played an important part in the Ukrainian war effort, bankrolling several pro-Ukrainian paramilitary battalions.
With Ukraine still reeling from a rebel counter-offensive in August, he said, the front lines will most likely remain static until spring.
Mr. Lysenko, the military spokesman, denied during a briefing on Monday that the army was planning to abandon its positions at the airport, saying it “was, is and will be under the control of the Ukrainian military.”
Nonetheless, he said, the decision belongs to his superiors.
“We have a high military command, and it decides where the Ukrainian Army moves,” he said.
While fighting raged in the east, thousands of pro-Ukrainian demonstrators in Kharkiv late Sunday evening toppled a 40-foot statue of Lenin, an anti-Russian gesture that raised the possibility of violence in what is the country’s second-largest city. Some of the protesters etched a wolfsangel, a symbol once used by the Nazis and now by Ukrainian ultranationalists, into the statue’s pedestal.
Kharkiv saw brutal street fights in March between supporters and opponents of the new Kiev government, but has quieted in recent months.
The city police made no effort to disperse the crowds. But they did announce an investigation into the episode at the same time that a protester was sawing through the leg of the statue with a chain saw.
Gennady A. Kernes, the city’s divisive and powerful mayor, promised Monday to restore the statue in an attempt to prevent a pro-Russian backlash in the city.
Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s interior minister and a rival of Mr. Kernes’s, barely hid his glee.
“Lenin? Let him fall,” Mr. Avakov wrote on his Facebook page.