aid envoy
Hundreds of trucks covered in white tarpaulin began rolling towards the Ukraine-Russia border recently, delivering aid from Russia to rebel-held portions of Eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian officials believe that the aid convoy is simply a “trojan horse,” designed to give rebels necessary arms and supplies to continue their fight against the Ukrainian army. Some reports have indicated that the convoy would stop at the border, and that the aid supplies would be unloaded and distributed to areas of need by the Red Cross.

According to the Russian foreign ministry, the aid delivery consists of 262 to 287 trucks and contains over 1,800 tons of “humanitarian supplies.” They specifically mentioned sleeping bags, medical equipment, electric generators and baby food. However, many in the west have been skeptical about the content and goals of the aid delivery.

The aid mission has caused many to fear an escalation in the already drawn out conflict. Western powers have repeatedly called the aid envoy a farce designed for Russian officials to sneak troops and/or weapons to the rebels, who have been losing ground to the Ukrainian military. Russia has denied these allegations, and has released statements declaring accusations by the West “absurd.” An official statement from Moscow said, “They continue to voice the absurd claim that the humanitarian convoy to help the civilian population of southeast Ukraine could be used as a pretext for Russian ‘military intervention.'”

The legitimacy of the aid envoy hinges on the Red Cross. Russian officials have claimed that the Red Cross has been coordinating with them on this mission, and that no military personnel or weapons are included. While the Red Cross has been working to help increase the amount of humanitarian aid being delivered into the region, they have denied involvement with this specific mission and have told news agencies that they have not been able to investigate the aid delivery.

Andre Loersch, the Red Cross spokesman in Kiev, told the media that “discussions are still ongoing” between them and Russia. He elaborated by saying, “The ICRC needs more details of what is in the convoy. The convoy is on the road and the ICRC has not had the opportunity to check what is inside.”

As of now, the aid convey still remains in limbo, with the full scope of its contents left unknown until the Red Cross investigates.

– Andre Gobbo

Sources: Al Jazeera, NY Times, ITV
Photo: Presstv

While the Ukrainian government has denied any use of Grad rockets — a high explosive rocket that can reach up to a range of 20,000 meters — a recent Human Rights Watch investigation proved both government and separatist forces have used the rockets in recent attacks.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Ukrainian government has killed more than 15 civilians and wounded numerous others in at least four separate attacks between July 12 and July 21. Separatist forces aren’t so innocent either. According to a statement made by the Pentagon last week, Russian forces were planning to transfer “heavy-caliber multiple-launch rocket systems” to Ukraine separatist forces. The rockets, which are in the 200mm+ range, pose as a looming threat for a country already proliferated with terror.

The use of unguided rockets in populated areas is a breach of international and humanitarian law and could result in war crimes. According to HRW, these crimes could be faced by both government and separatist forces. While the report certainly condemns government and separatist use of these rockets, it further criticizes separatists for not taking proper measures to avoid encamping in densely populated areas.

Senior Emergencies Researcher for Human Rights Watch, Ole Solvang, condemned commanding officers on both fighting sides for using the rockets, claiming that “[G]rad rockets are notoriously imprecise weapons that shouldn’t be used in populated areas.”

These most recent accusations come just a few weeks after the July 17 downing of the Malaysian Airlines Jet, MH17, in Ukraine. The crash, which was caused by a “massive explosive decompression” from a rocket, resulted in 298 deaths. The downing, which is still under investigation, was immediately addressed by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who hinted her suspicion that the attack may have been a war crime by the separatists.

More than 1,129 people have been killed and at least 3,442 others have been wounded as a result of the Ukrainian conflict since mid-April. The anti-government protests, which came as a result of former President Yanukovych’s failure to partner with Europe over a trade deal, have resulted in increased division among the country.

Fighting in Ukraine has only further exacerbated the country’s economic problems. With many families forced to vacate cities in major turmoil, displacement has caused an inevitable increase in unemployment and, predictably, poverty. One such city is Lugansk, which — at once a city of 420,000 — now occupies less than half of its original population.

Those left in the city are faced with an incredible lack of medical supplies, lighting and electricity. Those still living there, including retirees or families with small children with hardly any money, are basically trapped. Lugansk — and other Ukrainian cities — citizens are forced to endure inhumane conditions of fighting, violence and medical neglect. While a cease-fire from both ends is the country’s primary solution, Ukrainian citizens will continue to suffer until the violence is halted.

Nick Magnanti

Sources: Huffington Post, SOS Childrens Villages, RT
Photo: WN

Around 230,000 people have fled their homes due to the conflict in Ukraine between the Kiev government forces and self-defense forces.

As of July 18, around 100,000 have left the conflict-ridden area for other parts of Ukraine while nearly 130,000 have crossed the border into Russia.

The destinations of Ukrainians displaced by the conflict are camps in other parts of Ukraine or in southern Russia. Some have registered as refugees, while many are staying in Russia without visas after Moscow announced Ukrainians could stay for 180 days. Many Ukrainians have not applied for refugee status because they are afraid of punishment if they return to their homeland of Ukraine.

UNHCR spokesman Dan McNorton stated that there are many reasons for people leaving their homes, with the fear of being caught in the crossfire as a main reason.

The number of people escaping the fighting to other areas of Ukraine has nearly doubled since the end of June. That number includes 12,000 Muslim Tatars from Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow in March.

The number of people escaping the conflict in Ukraine and crossing the border to Russia has increased exponentially since the spring.

Thousands of Ukrainians cross the border into Russia everyday. Since the beginning of the military operation, about 517,000 refugees have come to Russia from southeast Ukraine.

More than 28,000 refugees from Ukraine have applied to the Russian Employment Office and almost 2,000 have been employed. Among the refugees, the largest number that have applied for jobs are education and health care specialists, blue-collar workers, construction workers, sales people and drivers.

Almost 30,000 Ukrainian refugees have applied for Russian citizenship.

Russian schools are preparing for enrollment of Ukrainian children who fled their homeland.

The legal procedures for Ukrainian refugees applying to receive Russian citizenship have also been sped up.

Young mother Natasha left home amid the conflict in Ukraine when her town of Krasnogorivka became the forefront in the battle between Russia and Ukraine. She said everyone who had the resources had to leave the town immediately. Natasha and her family are now in the refugee camp in the Russian city of Blagodatny.

“We left everything and fled in a hurry as they were bombarding the town,” she said.

In only three months, the eastern Ukraine conflict has taken more than 1,000 lives.

– Colleen Moore

Sources: NDTV, Ria Novosti, ABC News
Photo: Trans Conflict

Researchers on Flight MH17
Dozens of delegates, scientists and researchers on Flight MH17, en-route to an AIDS conference, were among the 298 victims of the crash in Ukraine after it was shot out of the sky over the war-torn area on July 17.

The five day AIDs conference in Melbourne, Australia was almost cancelled as it became evident that many of the dead passengers from flight MH17 were researchers and delegates heading to the conference, convened by the International AIDs Society. A silent, candle-lit vigil has been held at the conference to honor the victims.

Although not all the passengers have been named, it is believed that some of the world’s leading HIV/Aids researchers are among the victims of the doomed flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

Dutch-born former president of the International AIDS Society Joep Lange and his partner Jacqueline van Tongere have been confirmed as among the dead. Lange was a prominent HIV researcher and a professor at the University of Amsterdam due to speak at the conference. He was also a key researcher behind projects aimed at preventing mother-to-child AIDs transmission and an early advocate of bringing HIV medicines to the developing world.

Referring to her friend Joep Lange, U.S. public health doctor and journalist Dr. Seema Yasmin tweeted from the AIDs conference in Melbourne: “How do we measure how much a person has done for humanity? People like Joep change the course of epidemics.”

One of the nine passengers from the UK was Glenn Thomas. Thomas was a former BBC journalist working as the World Health Organization’s Media Relations Coordinator and was heading to Kuala Lumpur for his connection to Melbourne.

The current death toll stands at 298, which includes 189 Dutch nationals, 44 Malaysians, 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, nine passengers from the UK, four Germans, four Belgian passengers, three passengers from the Philippines, one Canadian and one passenger from New Zealand. The nationalities of the remaining four passengers are unknown at press time.

Executive director of UNAids, Michel Sidibe has tweeted: “My thoughts & prayers to families of those tragically lost on flight #MH17. Many passengers were en-route to #AIDS2014 here in #Melbourne.”

Flight MH17 was shot down on July 17  in Eastern Ukraine with anti-aircraft weaponry. Ukraine has been in turmoil since November 2013 when the former President Yanukovych abandoned an agreement on closer ties with the E.U. He was overthrown in February after months of violent protest in the capital, Kiev. Russia then moved to annex the Crimean Peninsula. Other areas in the south east of Ukraine are violently fighting to be independent of Ukraine; the rebels are believed to be supplied and financed by Russia.

International Reaction:

The U.S. has criticized Russia for arming separatist rebels in Ukraine who are widely held responsible for perpetrating the attack. President Obama, Joe Biden and John Kerry have, however, stopped short of directly blaming Russia.

Hillary Clinton has made the strongest criticism of Russia, saying that action was needed to “put [Vladimir] Putin on notice that he has gone too far and we are not going to stand idly by.”

Clinton spoke to Charlie Rose on the PBS network, saying, “The questions I’d be asking is, number one, who could have shot it down? Who had the equipment? It’s obviously an anti-aircraft missile. Who could have had the expertise to do that? Because commercial airlines are big targets, but by the time they got over that part of Ukraine they should have been high, so it takes some planning [to target such a plane].”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied Russian involvement in the crash and has said that Ukraine bears the responsibility of the crash. He has since called for opposing sides to lay down their arms and enter talks.

U.K. Prime Minster David Cameron has said it is too early to know who is responsible for the tragedy.

– Charles Bell

Sources: The Guardian 1, Vox, The Guardian 2, The Guardian 3
Photo: Global Research

The Russian Federation’s President, Vladimir Putin, has made a nasty habit of irritating the Western world. When he is not riding through the Siberian wilderness, shirtless and on horseback, Putin has found the time to annex land from a sovereign state, harbor an American whistle-blower and effectively silence most of his opposition.

Surprisingly, the invasion of Ukraine has been largely popular among Russians; recent polling suggests that 71 percent of Russians believe in aiding fellow Russians living in the Crimea. In fact, Putin has seen his approval rating grow to 86 percent—only two percent lower than at its peak in 2008.

Why do the Russian people favor a president with so little regard for human rights? The answer lies within the history of Russia’s economy, and that in the choice between poverty and tyranny, the latter is the lesser of two evils.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian economy was all but devastated. In an attempt to adjust to capitalism, the government enacted a series of mass privatizations via vouchers divided among the population. However, in a country where at the time a pair of stockings from Finland could afford a weekend of luxury in Moscow, a voucher meant much less to the average citizen than the small price it could fetch in criminal or ex-Soviet elite circles. It was during this period that many of Russia’s current oligarchs gained their vast wealth in buying up vouchers well below their value.

In this time of great despair, President Boris Yeltsin allowed the economy to run wild as he amassed his own fortune. So when then-unknown Putin took power on New Years Eve in 1999 without warning, the impoverished Russian people had little to lose.

Since taking office, Putin has brought some amount of economic stability to the country, confronted oligarchs, and reignited patriotism with the Sochi Olympics and Security Council vetoes of resolutions on Syria. Members of the older generation are quick to remind the youth that even in lieu of democracy, at least there is bread on the table. The $50 billion price tag for the Olympics and the annexation of Crimea inspire new waves of pride among Russians who hope to see Russia reclaim its status as a serious rival to the West.

Regardless of whether Putin’s reputation as a bold enough leader to challenge to West will sustain his popularity, his iron rule has far from solved Russia’s economic woes. With ever-increasing inflation and investors taking their business elsewhere, perhaps it is time for Russians to expect more from their government.

– Erica Lignell

Sources: Diplomatic Courier, NPR, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Bloomberg, The New York Times
Photo: Business Insider

A 10 day truce ended on July 1 when Ukrainian President Petro O. Poroshenko ended a unilateral ceasefire in Ukraine between the government in Kiev and separatist rebels. As a result, Ukrainian fighter bombers and tanks have already begun storming the eastern part of the country, which is home to 7 million people.

The truce, which was designed to help end the armed conflict between separatists that have been stoking an increasingly violent and complex movement for the region to gain more autonomy and have closer ties to Russia, was only tenuous at best and was violated several times over the course of its 10 day existence. The separatist rebels have been scattered throughout the eastern part of the country ever since Russia annexed Crimea in March earlier this year. There have been fluctuations in the amount of violence that this conflict has caused, but the statement by President Poroshenko opens the doors to a very wide scope of violence that is about to take over the eastern part of the country.

In his most recent address to the nation, Poroshenko said, “After examining the situation I have decided, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, not to extend the unilateral ceasefire. The separatists’ leaders have demonstrated their unwillingness and inability to control the actions of the terrorist units and marauding gangs under their control.” His statement came after a conference call with leaders from Russia, Germany and France who were all trying to convince Poroshenko to extend the ceasefire and continue indirect talks with separatist leaders.

As of now the 11-week conflict has already claimed at least 450 lives, halted a fragile economy that is largely dependent on coal mines and steel mills, and caused even more people to flee their homes. The death toll and amount of refugees and displaced persons only stand to rise in the wake of Poroshenko’s decision to halt the ceasefire. There have already been multiple reports of citizens fleeing over the border into Russia. Heavy tank battles have already started taking place in the Donetsk region, and other intense clashes have been reported throughout the eastern countryside. Because the separatist rebels have been using residential buildings for shelter, many civilians lack adequate safety and could potentially stand in harms way. Three residential buildings and a school in the Kramatorsk region have already been hit with heavy shelling.

While there has been no immediate word on the amount of casualties that this new offensive by the Ukrainian government has caused, the situation only stands to get worse from here.

– Andre Gobbo 

Sources: Al Jazeera, CNN, Reuters
Photo: Reuters

russia cuts off gas
On June 16, 2014, tensions between Russia and Ukraine worsened after Russia’s state-owned company, Gazprom, cut off gas headed for Ukraine.

June 16 was the final day for Russia and Ukraine to come to an agreement about the gas dispute. Representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the European Union met over the weekend but were unable to reach an agreement.

With no agreement about the unpaid $2 billion debt installment the company demanded for June 16, a portion of the $4.5 billion total debt that Ukraine owes the company led Gazprom to declare that  it will only deliver gas that has already been paid for.

Ukraine disputes the amount that Gazprom has stated it owes and also requests a new future price.

The main cause for the dispute can be traced back to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia that led to an 80 percent price increase of gas, reaching $485.50 per thousand cubic meters of gas in April. Although some reductions were made following recent talks, they were still above the average $377.50 per thousand cubic meters Gazprom charged other European countries in 2013, and more still than the previous $268 per thousand cubic meters Ukraine used to pay.

Russia has stated that it will continue to provide oil for the rest of Europe. More than 30 percent of Europe’s demand is supplied by Russia, of which half must pass through Ukraine.

Since the cut off has occurred in June, the vulnerability of Ukraine and the rest of Europe to a possible shortage are low. However, as the cut off continues, the urgency to find a resolution increases. When July comes around, Ukraine and the rest of Europe generally begin to completely fill their storage tanks in preparation for the winter.

Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have continued to increase in the backdrop of the failed deal. In addition to escalating violence in Ukraine, Gazprom has attracted controversy with its decision to build an exclusive gas route despite violating Europe’s open access laws.

With the continuing escalation, it is unlikely a resolution to the gas crisis will occur in the near future. Although E.U. leaders are expected to discuss the crisis during the summit in Brussels on June 26, the E.U. has told its members to conduct stress tests to examine the potential effects of a disruption.

A potential disruption could bode poorly for those in poverty throughout Europe, especially in the winter months. Hopefully an agreement will emerge before the cold comes.

— William Ying 

Sources: CNN, New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC
Photo: CNBC

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s message was hard to miss last Friday as he strolled through the streets of Sevastopol on Victory Day.  To invade a sovereign state, call its defenders “fascists” and blame its government for the resulting turmoil is all in a day’s work for Putin.  The twisted political masterminding that has been Russia’s reaction to the crisis in Ukraine is perhaps Putin’s way of reminding the world that Russia is once more a major world power.

Having achieved the political gains he sought, Putin now calls for new dialogue to replace the violence.  Instances of pro-Ukrainian forces attacking pro-Russian, such as that in Mariupol on May 9, will be portrayed in the Russian media not as Ukrainians defending their land from foreign invaders, but as violent militants killing Russians who desire only to return to the motherland.  Putin can thus use the violence to rally support at home for his regime against the incorrigible Ukrainians.

As busy as the Security Council has found itself with the troubles of Nigeria, Syria and South Sudan, the 15 members have certainly not overlooked Russia’s aggression.  One of the first to speak at the emergency Council meeting called in the wake of Friday’s violence in Odessa – where 46 persons, most of whom were pro-Russian, died when the headquarters was set ablaze – was Russian Representative Vitaly Churkin.  It is hard to imagine that more than a few eyes did not roll at the Russians’ first complaint: Ukrainians are attacking Russians.  This would seem to be expected when invading another country.

French Representative Gérard Araud spared no feelings in his response, going so far as to refer to the pro-Russian groups as “thugs terrorizing Ukraine.”  Both the United Kingdom and United States joined France in her condemnation of the Russians and praise for the Ukrainian government’s restraint – although this restraint likely stems from Ukraine’s limited military capabilities.  The delegate of Lithuania turned the discussion towards the hypocrisy of a Russia that will complain of Ukrainian conflict and remain indifferent to al-Assad’s regime’s attacks on its own people.  Finally, the Representative of Ukraine offered, on behalf of Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, that those who surrender soon will be granted amnesty.

The very next day, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe hostages were finally released in Slovyansk after having been held for a little over a week.  Yet, even as the Secretary General shared his approval with their freedom, he warned of growing tensions and the prolonged chaos.  Even if the Russians withdrew tomorrow, having made their point, the Ukrainian people would have years of reconciliation ahead.  For now, the world awaits the May 25 presidential elections, which will undoubtedly further change the situation.

– Erica Lignell

Sources: New York Times 1, New York Times 2, The Economist, UN 1, UN 2

United States President Barack Obama just signed Public Law Number 113-95, Support for the Sovereignty, Integrity, Democratic, and Economic Stability of Ukraine Act of 2014. Here’s three reasons why this is more important than you think.

1. It’s about winning hearts and minds

Ukraine’s infrastructure and economy are largely dependent on cheap oil from Russia for day-to-day operations. Kiev now owes Russia some $1.7 billion for this oil, a dilemma exacerbated after Russia increased the price of gas by an astounding 80 percent. The size of the debt puts a large amount of economic pressure on Ukraine, which is extremely dependent on this Russian oil. The aid package, along with support from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, seek to ease the burden on Ukraine and reduce their dependency on Russia. While Obama is working to increase the export of natural gas to Europe to reduce the power of Russian oil, this bill provides an emergency stop gap as the natural gas exports ramp up. By buying Ukraine room to breathe economically the west is promoting an agenda that will not only make friends within the Ukrainian population but reduce the Russian grip on the Ukrainian economy.

2. It’s about undermining the Russian power base

Make no mistake, this bill is an action against the Russians and Vladimir Putin just as much as it is for the benefit of Ukraine. Putin arguably gets a large portion of his power from just two sources. His inner circle consists of ex-KGB agents and Oligarchs who have flourished under his rule. The former, members of the Russian old guard who are extremely dedicated to a strong Russian identity, will only be swayed through military actions. For a few reasons, a military intervention in Crimea would be bad news for all parties involved. The latter, the oligarchs who have made their fortunes because of pro-western policy rather than despite it, are not-so-staunch in their dedication to a strong Russia. Millionaires like Gennady Timchenko, the man largely responsible for Russia’s massive oil export business, depend heavily on business with the west. Timchenko has been an outspoken supporter of Putin for some time, but has remained suspiciously quiet about Crimea. Economic sanctions like those outlined in the Ukrainian Aid Bill could end up costing men like him tremendous amounts of money, so it’s no wonder that Timchenko and the other oligarchs have remained cold Russia’s move into Crimea. By targeting these individuals Congress is effectively turning one of the most powerful interest groups in Russia against their leader.

3. It’s a great example of uncommon bipartisanship

Any time Washington acts in a bipartisan way, it is newsworthy. The approval of went through the Senate with a 98-2 vote. It then passed in the House with an overwhelming majority of 378 in favor and just 34 opposed. The very same day that the House voted the bill was presented to and signed by the president. This whole process took a mere 30 days from start to finish. This sort of speed is almost unprecedented in the current political climate and demonstrates the efficiency with which the government can act when motivated. Even better, it stands as shining example of team effort in a Congress usually ruled by strong tendentiousness to party dogma. All it took was the invasion of a sovereign nation by an old cold war enemy.

– Dylan Spohn

Sources: NPR, Newsweek,, The Hill
Photo: Forbes

Now that Crimea is officially a part of the Russian Federation, nations, especially those with borders near Russia, need to focus on the newly created border of Crimea and Ukraine. Unrest, illegal markets, and more training exercises or amassing of troops need to be watched carefully. Ukraine may not have a full army or the ability to support one, but that will not stop small guerilla groups or militias who are still sore about the event from causing trouble for innocents.

In regards to Russia and Putin, the American Intel and other nations must not simply believe that the buck stops here. Ambition is hard to kill. With Crimea obtained rather easily Putin may take this as a building block to strike at more countries and “reclaim” more territories. So be prepared and keep watch for the borders of all nations surrounding Ukraine and Russia which include Finland, Belarus, which already has armed Russian forces in it, Latvia, Estonia, Poland and nations in Central Asia.

Recently, Russia has been removed from G8 due to its activity and if this international shunning continues to take place, expect to see Russia become more aggressive and yet somehow isolationist in its foreign policies. The separation from trade will hurt the economy and force internal production, which may force the nation to close off and take on a North Korean attitude against the world, only emerging to take more nations. This is an extreme and slim probability, but one that should not be ignored.

So things such as decreased foreign trade, further removal from international organizations, increased domestic production and random or sudden contact with smaller nations not normally contacted should be things to have a close eye on. Besides these warning signs, something else to watch for is how well the integration process with Crimea and Russia itself goes.

The intelligence community, and maybe even the UN itself, will need to see how peaceful the process will be, examine the social and economic aspects and also watch for dissidents in either territory. The policy Russia implements and puts to action for the integration of Crimea must be reviewed to see if it will be fair for both parties and if it is equal and democratic.

-Matthew Price

Sources: NightWatch, National Post