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

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

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

Russia invaded Crimea a mere couple of weeks after the appointment of Ukraine’s new acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov. In response, Ukraine has threatened to mobilize troops which many believe will spark a revolution and civil war. A referendum is to be held this weekend in Crimea that will vote upon whether it should join Russia or stay with Ukraine.

Both sides of the crisis in Crimea view each other in a very negative light and there is a lot of difference of opinion on the matter. Crimea was passed from the Soviet Union to Ukraine in 1954 and the population living there was then and is now mostly Russian with a few minorities, like the ethnic Tatar, but much of the population would prefer to not be a part of Ukraine.

Russia partially wants Crimea because of its strategic position on the Black Sea where Soviet naval fleets were stationed, and also wants it because in the agreement that gave Russia access to facilities in Crimea, Russia was prohibited to own any territory. The Russian media is portraying Ukraine as neo-Nazis who have reportedly held non-peaceful protests, but at the same time, the Ukrainian media is accusing Putin of being a neo-Nazi as well because he is annexing Crimea.

The reason why either of these countries actually even wants Crimea is questionable in that there are significant shortcomings for both. Crimea has a majority of ethnic Russians who want their independence from Ukraine and want to be able to join their homeland again. There are many downsides to Russia continuing in its annexation of Crimea because if it remained Ukrainian, those in support of Putin would vote for pro-Russians candidates and/or parties in Ukraine’s elections. Also, Russia will have to invest a fair amount of money in rehabilitating what would be the newly-Russian Crimean economy.

The role that the West, especially the United States, is playing in this situation is an interesting factor to consider. Ukraine used to have around 900 nuclear weapons, but the U.S. convinced them to give them all up in exchange for a guarantee that they would maintain Ukraine’s territorial integrity and security. It is just that which has been compromised and now many people are turning to the U.S. to take action. Ukrainians have made signs that are in English so that the U.S. can see their message more clearly–that they need to hold up their end of the bargain.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot that the U.S. can even do because of the very delicate situation. The American people do not have enough interest in this issue to support spending billions to intervene, not to mention that the U.S. would be facing a very powerful enemy if it went up against Russia. The European Union cannot impose sanctions on Russia because they are the ones that are dependent on Russia for natural gas. It seems that the West will have to stay out of the crisis for the time being until another big event happens–the referendum.

– Kenneth W. Kliesner

Sources: National Journal, USA Today, CBS News
Photo: iLife Journey

As recent events in the Ukraine have shown, former soviet satellites continue to struggle for self-determination and modernization. Often torn between ties to the European Union and Russia, the former Eastern Bloc lags behind the rest of the continent in major areas of development—and none more so than Bulgaria.

Even though Bulgaria is now a member of the E.U., the nation still struggles with high rates of unemployment and catastrophic pollution. As of 2013, the European Environment Agency reports that four of the top six most polluted cites in Europe are in Bulgaria. The tremendous amount of air and water pollution is particularly damning for Bulgaria’s most vulnerable citizens, who are forced to brave the environment in order to scrape by.

In fact, it seems that poverty itself is fueling pollution, creating a perpetual cycle. Old, fuel-inefficient cars, outmoded factories and desperate fuels sources for warmth in the winter (such as raw coal and tires) make Bulgaria’s air the most polluted in Europe.

Beyond environmental factors, the transition to free markets has had troubling societal impacts that often break along ethnic lines. Corruption and organized crime have a firm grasp in the cities, Britain’s Daily Express reports, while the Roma minority lives on the outskirts in abject poverty. The scenes described in the Express from outside the capital city of Sofia bring to mind the most abysmal realities of poverty from across the globe.

The Roma, an ethnic minority, have long been persecuted on the continent, and their living conditions in Bulgaria attest to just how much the country struggles to keep up with the times.

Unemployment in Bulgaria is reported at 12 percent. The BBC suggests, however, that it may be much higher than that. A number of sources claim that governmental corruption is so pervasive that very little of state provided data can be trusted.

In response to the depressed economic conditions, a rash of self-immolations were reported. Several men of varying ages are said to have lit themselves on fire in protest of their living conditions.

For the E.U., these catastrophes hit close to home. The fact that the E.U. has now incorporated Bulgaria has turned Europe’s attention to the humanitarian crisis on their doorstep. With major Western news outlets now reporting on Bulgaria’s woes, perhaps international support will be able to generate some relief for the ailing nation.

– Chase Colton

Sources: Express, Daily Times, BBC
Photo: Plastic Pollution Coalitio

Military Crimea
The Russian region of Crimea is a region noted for its high Russian population and its continued support of recently ousted and currently missing president, Viktor Yanukovych. On February 28, it was reported that independent security forces entered the port towns of Simferopol and Sevastopol. The forces entered the region in army regalia, with no indicating patches, leaving their origins a mystery to Ukraine and many international observers.

Allegations are being placed against the Russian government. They are accused of hiring mercenary forces to take control of several airports in the area.

The alleged goal was to prevent pro-revolution protesters and forces from entering the area and preventing the semi-autonomous region of Crimea from falling under the control of the newly formed Pro-Western national government. Western Ukraine views lean primarily pro-Western, an ideological divide from the eastern portion of Ukraine, which shares a more cohesive bond with their Russian neighbors.

Russia had a critical interest in the overthrown government.

Yanukoyvch rejected a deal that would of brought the nation into closer relation with the European Union, a deal that the Russian government and Vladimir Putin were strongly against. The Crimean population is ardently against distancing relations with Russia, and with the nations autonomous attitude coupled with their own government structure, the forces were moderately welcomed.

To keep from creating an international incident and from preventing blame, unconfirmed sources claim Russia hired private security forces.

The forces are asserted to be from “Vnevedomstvenaya Okhrana a “private security contracting bureau inside the Russian interior ministry that hires mercenaries to protect Russian Navy installations and assets in Crimea.” Sergei Lavror denounced allegations placed against Russia, arguing Russia was in no way involved, and the only Russian or Russian-condoned forces in the area are in the Black Sea monitoring the ongoing situation.

Ukrainian government officials have condemned the actions, considering the “non-invasion” as a breach of “international norms” and as a way for Putin to enact Russian control in its former Soviet state. United States President Barack Obama quickly denounced the invasion by the Russian federation, stating it would be a “clear violation of Russia’s commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine and of international laws.”

Russian and U.S. relations have been at an all-time low, following revelations the U.S. was engaging in covert intelligence gathering in Russia through the National Security Agency as well as Russia’s refusal to hand over fugitive whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

A subtle warning was made by President Obama, stating there “will be costs” to an invasion. It is considered by some as a visible warning to Russia for military intervention, Other observers view it as a reminder that the invasion could further destabilize Ukraine, a nation that has already dealt with bloody and costly civil unrest.

– Joseph Abay

Sources: The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast World News, CNN, The Guardian
Photo: Dailymail