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Archive for: March 2022 - DIGEST UKRAINE

Month: March 2022

З перших днів повномасштабної війни РФ проти України сигнали оповіщення на Львівщині повідомили про 55 повітряних тривог

Moldova is watching the war in neighboring Ukraine with special concern. Like Ukraine, Moldova is not a member of NATO or the European Union, and it has a very large Russian-speaking population – factors that for some Moldovans have sown fears of becoming the next target of Russian ambitions. Jon Spier narrates this report from Ricardo Marquina in southern Moldova.

Georgia on Thursday denounced as “unacceptable” plans announced by pro-Moscow separatists in the breakaway South Ossetia region to hold a referendum on joining Russia.

South Ossetia was in the center of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 after which the Kremlin recognized the territory — along with another separatist region, Abkhazia — as an independent state and stationed military bases there.

On Wednesday, South Ossetian separatist leader Anatoly Bibilov said the statelet would hold a referendum on joining Russia shortly after the April 10 “presidential election” there.

Georgian Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani said Thursday “it is unacceptable to speak of any referendums while the territory is occupied by Russia.”

“Such a referendum will have no legal force,” he told journalists. “The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the Georgian region is occupied by Russia.”

Also on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow hasn’t taken any “legal” steps on the matter.

“But at the same time, we are talking about people of South Osseita expressing their opinion and we treat it with respect,” Peskov told reporters.

Bibilov’s spokeswoman Dina Gassiyeva told Thursday Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency that the decision to hold the referendum was “linked with the window of opportunity that opened in the current situation”, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Last week, Bibilov said that South Ossetia had sent troops to fight alongside the invading Russian troops in Ukraine, where thousands of people were killed and more than 10 million displaced.

In August 2008, Russia launched an assault against Georgia which was battling pro-Russian militia in South Ossetia, after they shelled Georgian villages.

The fighting ended after five days with a European Union-mediated ceasefire but claimed more than 700 lives and displaced tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians.

The United Nations chief said Wednesday that one-quarter of humanity — 2 billion people — are living in conflict areas today and the world is facing the highest number of violent conflicts since 1945, when World War II ended.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres cited conflicts from Yemen, Syria, Myanmar and Sudan to Haiti, Africa’s Sahel, “and now the war in Ukraine — a catastrophe shaking the foundations of the international order, spilling across borders and causing skyrocketing food, fuel and fertilizer prices that spell disaster for developing countries.”

He told the U.N. Peacebuilding Commission on Wednesday that last year 84 million people were forced to leave their homes because of conflict, violence and human rights violations. And that doesn’t include the Ukraine war which has already seen 4 million people flee the country and displaced another 6.5 million within the country, according to U.N. agencies.

Guterres said the U.N. estimates that this year “at least 274 million will need humanitarian assistance.” This represents a 17% increase from 2021 and will cost $41 billion for the 183 million people targeted for aid, according to the U.N. humanitarian office.

Guterres also cited the 2 billion figure of people living in conflict countries in a report to the commission in late January, which said there were a record number of 56 state-based conflicts in 2020. It doesn’t include the Ukraine war, which started with Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion and has affected almost all 40 million people in the country.

The secretary-general told the commission that conflicts are increasing “at a moment of multiplying risks that are pushing peace further out of reach — inequalities, COVID-19, climate change and cyber threats, to name just a few.”

He also pointed to an increase of military coups and seizures of power by force around the world, growing nuclear arsenals, human rights and international law under assault, and criminals and terrorist networks “fueling — and profiting from — divisions and conflicts.”

“The flames of conflict are fueled by inequality, deprivation and underfunded systems,” Guterres said, and these issues must be addressed urgently.

According to his report to the commission, the world is seeing the increasing internationalization of conflicts within countries, and this, together with “the fragmentation and multiplication” of armed groups linked to criminal and terrorist networks, “makes finding solutions arduous,” he said.

Consequently, Guterres said, “there are fewer political settlements to conflicts,” with Colombia a notable exception.

“Over the last decade, the world has spent $349 billion on peacekeeping, humanitarian relief and refugee support, he said. “And global military expenditures rose to nearly $2 trillion in 2020.”

The Peacebuilding Commission has worked to advance peace and prevent conflict in countries including Ivory Coast, Iraq, Africa’s Great Lakes region and Papua New Guinea, the secretary-general said, and the Peacebuilding Fund has grown, investing $195 million last year.

But it relies on voluntary contributions and peacebuilding needs are far outpacing resources, which is why Guterres said he is asking the U.N. General Assembly to assess the U.N.’s 193 member nations a total of $100 million annually for the fund.

“When we consider the costs of war — to the global economy but most of all to humanity’s very soul — peacebuilding is a bargain, and a prerequisite for development and a better future for all,” he said. 

Olga M. spent the first week of the Russian invasion hiding with her teenage son in a shelter in Kotsiubynske, a Kyiv suburb. As the shelling intensified in nearby Irpin, they fled, reaching Spain a week later.

“My legs are bloodshot” from standing on the trains and in lines, said Olga, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect family members, including her husband, who stayed behind.

Throughout her ordeal, she tried to talk about the war with her parents, who live in Ekaterinburg, Russia.

“Why are you so upset?” she recalled her father asking her on the first day. “We will bomb your military bases. What difference does it make to you?”

Olga said she stopped talking to him after that, but maintained relations with her mother, who avoids discussing the war that has made refugees of her daughter and grandson.

Olga’s father grew up in Ukraine but moved to Russia in the mid-1970s and married Olga’s mother, a Russian woman. Olga married a Ukrainian man and moved to Ukraine but still considers herself Russian and maintains Russian citizenship.

She said her parents have not visited her in Ukraine since 2008, insisting they would be thrown into jail for speaking the Russian language.

“I was telling it was not true. I don’t speak Ukrainian, and I still haven’t obtained Ukrainian citizenship,” Olga said.

‘Propaganda narratives’

As much as her communication with her parents pains her, Olga finds talking to her former classmates in Russia worse.

“They start with sympathy, saying they are on my side, but always follow with accusations,” she said. “They repeat the propaganda narratives, like that we have been bombing Donetsk and Luhansk for eight years, or that we bomb ourselves. They told me that the Ukrainian government handed out 10,000 guns to the citizens, and now we shoot each other.”

Only one member of her family in Russia, her brother, doesn’t need to be convinced. “He knows that it’s Putin’s fault,” she said.

Other residents of Ukraine with family in Russia tell similar stories.

Tatiana L., who evacuated with her 17-year-old daughter to western Ukraine from Hostomel, one of the hardest-hit towns near Kyiv, describes talking to her relatives in Moscow and the Ural region.

“First, I was sending them my videos explaining what was happening in Hostomel. They were not replying. I was sending videos of Borodyanka, Mariupol. On the second week of the war, they blocked me,” she said.

She recalled that they sent a message to her mother about the price of potatoes in occupied Kherson and what sounded like a pleasant life under Russian occupation. “After that, they blocked my mom,” she said.

Her Ural relatives, said Tatiana, explained to her that the bombing was the Ukrainians` fault. “They told us that we should have surrendered to avoid casualties, but we didn’t do that because we wanted to be heroes. They don’t even try to understand that we want to stay alive, live in our own homes, raise our children in peace.”

Some Ukrainian residents report getting a more sympathetic hearing from relatives in Russia.

Evolving opinions

Vladislav, a political scientist in Kyiv, said his relatives in Moscow clearly understand what is happening.

“On the first day of the war, they sent me a message saying they were ashamed,” he said. The relatives, originally from Ukraine, know the Ukrainian and English languages, follow the Ukrainian television channels and ask him questions. “They wish us victory,” he said.

Still others say their relatives in Russia are gradually changing their opinions as the war grinds on.

Olexander, currently serving in territorial defense in Kyiv, talked about his conversations with his father, who has lived in the Altai region of Russia for the last 10 years.

“When I called and told him that the war started, he told me that we deserved it because we were Nazis and bombed the Donbas; he was repeating all these television messages,” he said.

That began to change after Olexander helped his father install a VPN that allowed him to follow the Ukrainian television channels and official statements from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.

“Now he keeps silence and asks me if I have a bulletproof vest, tells me to be careful,” Olexander said.

He said he believed his father had been heavily influenced by seeing images on Ukrainian TV of dead Russian soldiers and their demolished tanks.

“Their military TV channel, Zvezda, broadcasts that the Russian army is [so] powerful, as no other,” he said. “After seeing the destroyed tanks and dead soldiers, he understood that they lied to him.”

Alex L., a pensioner who spent three weeks in heavily shelled Chernihiv before evacuating to Germany, said he believed that his cousin in Moscow also had changed her mind, but that he didn’t know for sure.

“She called me, asking what was going on,” Alex said. “I said we were bombed and shot at. ‘Who is bombing and shooting at you?’ ‘Russians.’ ‘You are making it up.’ I stepped outside and held my phone to the sounds of explosions. She still told me that it was fake.”

Alex said he stopped talking to his cousin but remained in contact with her daughter, who understood what was going on.

“Her daughter probably convinced her. She says that her mother understands now. But they are speaking so carefully. They are very, very afraid,” he said.

While Ukrainians were eager to describe their conversations with their relatives in Russia, they refused to put VOA in contact with them. They also asked to have their identities not revealed to protect their relatives.

Questionable polling

Russian opinion polling indicates that support for the war has been growing in Russia despite the lack of military progress. The All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center reported on March 23 that 74% of Russian citizens supported the decision “to conduct a special military operation in Ukraine,” up 9 points from a February 25 poll and 3 points since March 5.

But Natalia Savelyeva, a resident fellow at the Future Russia Initiative with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis, pointed out that polling in authoritarian countries is unreliable, especially during a crisis like a war.

“In autocracies, citizens are often afraid to answer pollsters’ questions, let alone questions about politics,” she has written. That tendency has been reinforced by a new law providing long prison terms for any candid discussion of Russia’s so-called “special military operation.”

Savelyeva points to an independent study conducted in Moscow by jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s organization, which “demonstrated that during the week from February 25 to March 3, the number of people who blamed Russia for the conflict and believed that Russia is an aggressor increased.”

Whatever the true numbers, it is evident from the experiences of Ukrainians with relatives in Russia that many Russians have accepted the narrative of the war provided by state-controlled media, even when it runs counter to what they are told by close family members.

“A person rejects information that contradicts their vision of the world, which is unpleasant. Even if this information comes from verified sources — from relatives, from friends in Ukraine,” said Maria Snegovaya, a political scientist and researcher at Virginia Tech, a research university in Blacksburg, Virginia.

She said people often choose to disbelieve the words of relatives because otherwise they would feel they must do something. “This motive is important for understanding why even liberals in Russia refuse to acknowledge their responsibility for what is happening,” she said.

Peter Pomerantsev, a senior researcher at Johns Hopkins University and an author of two books on propaganda, agreed, saying many Russians are experiencing cognitive dissonance — believing in mutually exclusive things and trying to push away doubts that make them uncomfortable.

Even so, he said, Russians understand that their government lies to them and can be convinced if their Ukrainian relatives persist with a sensitive approach. “Everybody in Russia has doubts,” he said. “Everyone, even the most fascist ones. None of them trust their government.”

In an interview with The New Yorker magazine, Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, who left Russia in 2020, pointed out some cracks in the Russian propaganda message were already beginning to appear.

“There are some cracks, but it’s not about more sympathy toward Ukrainians. It’s more killed soldiers, because the casualties are really big in the Russian military,” Soldatov said.

“I know from my relatives in the Volga region, quite far from Moscow, that now in small towns, they have people who have had their kids killed in Ukraine,” he said. “So, society started talking about it because there are so many deaths. But unfortunately, I don’t see any sympathy for Ukraine, which is a very hard thing to say.”

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights on Wednesday called Russia to immediately withdraw its troops from Ukraine and stop the war that she said had caused immeasurable suffering and grief for millions of people.

In a dramatic rendering of conditions in Ukraine to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Michelle Bachelet described the living nightmare Ukrainians have endured for more than a month and said the war must end.

She said at least 1,189 civilians had been killed and 1,900 injured. She said relentless bombing raids and the persistent use of explosive weapons by Russian military forces had caused massive destruction and damage to homes, infrastructure, hospitals and schools. She noted cities such as Mariupol had been nearly razed, while others had been mercilessly pummeled and no longer existed.

Bachelet said her office had credible allegations that Russian armed forces have used cluster munitions in populated areas at least two dozen times. She said her office also was investigating allegations that Ukrainian forces have used such weapons.

“Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes,” she said. “The massive destruction of civilian objects and the high number of civilian casualties strongly indicate that the fundamental principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution have not been sufficiently adhered to.”

Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Yevheniia Filipenko, condemned Russia’s unprovoked aggression against her country. She called Russia’s actions against a sovereign state an attack against the norms of the world’s rules-based order.

‘Flagrant violation’ of charter

“This step by the country occupying a seat in the U.N. Security Council and in the Human Rights Council has become a flagrant violation of the U.N. charter and fundamental principles of international law, which will have long-lasting implications for the future of the world order and humanity,” she said.

Yaroslav Eremin, first secretary at the Russian Mission in Geneva, dismissed the conclusions of multiple investigative bodies that have found Russia guilty of widespread violations and abuse.

He listed a litany of alleged crimes committed by Ukrainian soldiers. He said these included preventing civilians in Mariupol from seeking safety in Russia, using civilians as human shields, and blowing up a factory and blaming it on Russia. Speaking through an interpreter, he accused the Ukrainian military of torturing Russian prisoners of war and innocent civilians.

“All these atrocities against civilians were carried out with the use of weaponry supplied by the Western countries,” he said. “We urge the high commissioner and OHCHR [Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights] to give a due assessment of these facts.”

Nearly 50 countries that participated in the interactive discussion on Ukraine did not buy into Russia’s viewpoint. One by one they stood up and demanded that Russia stop what they called an illegal war.

Turkish-made drones have featured prominently in Ukraine’s resistance against Russia’s invasion, taking out significant Russian targets in the first few weeks of the war. But the conflict, and any possibility of a Russian victory, have cast a shadow over the future of Turkey’s rapidly growing drone industry, which relies on Ukrainian engines.

In one of many videos released by the Ukrainian military, a Turkish-made Bayraktar drone destroys a Russian tank to the cheers of the drone operators. But with the Bayraktar drone powered by Ukrainian engines, Samuel Bennet of the U.S.-based Center for Naval Analyses warns any Russian victory in Ukraine could set back Turkey’s rapidly growing drone industry.

“Russia sees Bayraktar’s TV2s in particular as a highly competitive weapon and technology not just in the former Soviet space, but in the global aerial vehicle market. Russians are nervous that Bayraktar are penetrating the former Soviet space, the Caucasus and Central Asia and now Ukraine,” Bennet said. “And so, if Russians were to sort of exercise the full extent of their powers in the outcome of the negotiations, they would probably seek to limit Ukrainian military cooperation with Turkey so as not to further Turkish growing advantage in certain technologies like UAVs.”

Ukraine provides cutting-edge engine know-how, and does not put restrictions on Turkish companies selling to third parties. Turkish drone use in conflicts like the Ethiopian civil war has drawn international criticism from rights groups.

James Rogers, assistant professor in War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, says the Turkish drone industry would not have the same freedom of use if it turned to its Western allies for engines.

“There are more restrictions when you deal with UK, European or American suppliers, and that is something Turkey will definitely keep in mind,” he said. “We know that the United States has been very select to who it sells drones and drone elements to around the world. This was one of the reasons why Turkey started its entire indigenous drone program because Congress wouldn’t approve the sale of Reaper-Predator generation medium altitude long endurance drones to Turkey.”

Earlier this year, a prominent Turkish military helicopter deal with Pakistan collapsed over Washington’s restrictions on the use of American engines. In addition, Congress has been enforcing increased controls on the supplies of military components to Turkey over Ankara’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system.

While Ankara has received praise from Washington over its support of Ukraine, Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, expects little change in Washington’s stance towards Turkey.

“One side is that Turkey is hostile to the United States. It’s no longer an ally, it’s (an) adversary. So, we should be treating it as such. And the other side is we misunderstand Turkey, and it needs a big hug because it’s so important. And the government is somewhere in the middle, and usually, current events reinforce positions on either side,” Stein said.

Given the challenges of finding an alternative to Ukrainian engines, Turkey’s drone industry will likely look for drones to thwart Moscow’s ambitions and secure both Kyiv and its future.

Russia said Wednesday there is still no sign of a breakthrough in peace talks with Ukraine.

Ukraine presented a list of demands Tuesday at the start of negotiations in Istanbul, Turkey aimed at ending the 36-day war, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said during a press briefing. An aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the two sides discussed the terms of a possible cease-fire, along with international security guarantees for Ukraine during Tuesday’s session.

Ukrainian negotiators also proposed that Kyiv would adopt a neutral status in exchange for security guarantees, such as not joining NATO or other military alliances.

Peskov told reporters that Moscow welcomed the fact that Kyiv has presented a written statement of demands, but said Russia has not seen anything promising that would lead to a final agreement.

Meanwhile, local officials in Ukraine say Russian forces have continued artillery attacks on the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv, and the northern city of Chernihiv, despite a vow to reduce operations in those locations as a sign of goodwill.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk earlier Wednesday announced the two sides had agreed to open three evacuation corridors. Vereshchuk said one corridor would be used for the evacuation of the besieged city of Mariupol and delivery of humanitarian aid to Berdyansk, located about 84 kilometers south of Mariupol, another for the delivery of humanitarian aid to – and evacuation from – the city of Melitopol, and a third for a column of people traveling from from Enerhodar to Zaporizhzhia.

Filippo Grandi , the head of the U.N.’s refugee agency, said Wednesday the number of Ukrainians who have fled their native land to escape what he called a “senseless war” has now exceeded 4 million people.

The U.N. says more than half of those who have left Ukraine since the start of the February 24 invasion have headed west into Poland.

Britain’s defense ministry says Russian military units fighting in Ukraine have been forced to return to Russia and Belarus to “reorganize and resupply” after suffering heavy losses fighting Ukrainian forces during the war.

“Such activity is placing further pressure on Russia’s already strained logistics,” the ministry said Wednesday in its latest intelligence report, “and demonstrates the difficulties Russia is having reorganizing its units in forward areas within Ukraine.”

The assessment comes a day after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russian troops will focus on the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine, which includes the Russian-controlled areas of Luhansk and Donetsk. Shoigu claimed the shift in strategy was because Russia had largely accomplished the first stage of its “special military operation,” including degrading Ukraine’s military capacity.

But Britain’s military says Russia’s decision to focus on Luhansk and Donetsk “is likely a tacit admission that it is struggling to sustain more than one significant axis of advance.”

The U.S. State Department issued a new advisory Tuesday urging U.S. citizens either traveling to or residing in Russia to leave the country immediately. The advisory cites a number of factors, including “the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials, the singling out of U.S. citizens…by Russian government security officials including for detention,” as well as limited flights into and outside of Russia and the limited ability of the U.S. Embassy there to assist U.S. citizens.

The State Department designated Russia a “Level 4: Do Not Travel” nation on its travel advisory list shortly after the February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

The invasion of Ukraine thrust its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, into the spotlight. Although many perceived the former actor and comedian as a probable lightweight, he rose to the occasion, capturing the world’s attention when he famously refused a U.S. offer to evacuate the conflict zone, reportedly saying, “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”

“I think that will go down in history,” says Kenneth Dekleva, a senior fellow at the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. “After two years of a worldwide pandemic where we’ve seen so many failures of leadership, both in authoritarian societies and in democratic societies in the West, Zelenskyy is a breath of fresh air. … Zelenskyy has inspired people, and he’s shown us that good leadership and courage, heroism — these kinds of core values — matter.”

Instead of going into hiding, Zelenskyy has made a point of remaining visible, appearing on social media and in footage released by aides since Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

Male leaders often attempt to project strength, masculinity and a sense of being destined to lead, according to Michael Blake, a professor of philosophy, public policy and governance at the University of Washington.

“Zelenskyy appears to be presenting a much more unusual picture of leadership in which his trajectory is not ordained by fate or some sort of political genius. Instead, it’s almost accidental,” says Blake. “His personal style of self-presentation is much less concerned with depicting unusual lack of fear or unusual physical prowess. Instead, he is perfectly willing to own up to being frightened and being occasionally overwhelmed.”

Zelenskyy is also shunning the usual leadership look. He’s put aside his dark suit and tie in favor of an olive-green T-shirt or jacket more associated with soldiers or rebel guerillas.

“I think it’s ultimately a symbol of, ‘I’m here. I’m authentically with you,’ and it’s been incredibly powerful,” says Samuel Hunter, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “I think he wanted to upset the people in the suits a little bit, to come across as a changemaker, this person that is doing things that other people are unwilling to do.”

Social media appeal

Like Donald Trump before him, Zelenskyy has learned to leverage social media to communicate directly with the masses. Trump broke the mold by cutting out the middleman, including his own spokespeople and the news media, by tweeting directly to his supporters. While Trump primarily used Twitter, Zelenskyy relies on the more visual Instagram platform.

“There was what felt like a direct line from what (Trump) was thinking to what others were seeing and hearing and reading,” Hunter says. “And I think Zelenskyy represents the next data point in that pathway, but it’s very visual and touches with a younger generation in a very compelling and interesting way.”

One of Zelenskyy’s strengths is that he appears to have cross-generational appeal.

“He’s probably someone that multiple generations can connect on in part because not only is he adept at dealing with this sort of social media world and speaks multiple languages and is sort of this Hollywood star per se, but because he’s sticking around in zones that are dangerous,” Hunter says. “The older generations — he’s earning respect from those, as well. I think he spans generations in ways that other leaders have not been able to.”

Zelenskyy isn’t the first former actor to connect with the masses. U.S. President Ronald Reagan was aware of image and presentation due to his acting background. Trump, who starred on a successful reality television show, is also very deliberate in how he presents himself.

“It is, I think, an under-noticed fact that politicians do have a fair amount in common with actors,” Blake says. “I think what’s really different here is that Zelenskyy is changing the role.”

New leadership model

A change that could usher in a new model of democratic leadership.

“When he appeared with unshaven cheeks and bags under his eyes and said, ‘I’m still here.’ Every time he came back to say, ‘I’m still here,’ it’s simply added to the thought that this could, in fact, be a model of leadership that would do the job,” Blake says.

Over the past few years, populism’s message has attracted a growing number of followers. Freedom House, which tracks the number of countries that are democratic, has noted a decline in functional democratic governance every year for the past 20 years.

“Some of this has been a result of the rhetorical strength of populism in a world fraught by fear of the undeserving ‘other’ coming in and undermining your economic status,” Blake says. “People are frightened of a slowdown in economic productivity, of widespread migration undermining cultural integrity. People are just plain frightened, and so, the populist has an easy sell, which is, ‘I’m here, touched by God, to return you to the former glory that was unjustly taken from you.’”

Blake says there hasn’t been a good counternarrative to that other than reasserting democratic platitudes — like the importance of the consent of the governed. But Zelenskyy demonstrates that democratic leadership has the capacity to be morally justified while also rousing people’s emotions.

“The fact that Zelenskyy appeals not just to the head, but to the heart, has been extremely promising, because it indicates that democracy might have rhetorical power as well as intellectual power,” Blake says. “We see someone who is willing to say, ‘This is worth fighting for. This is worth suffering for.’ And people are responding to it.”