(Ukrainian military near Donetsk, Feb. 10, 2017; Oleksandr Klymenko, Reuters)
Another ceasefire was worked out by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine this past weekend in an attempt to quell recently increased violence in the Donbass. According to a report from Reuters:
Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine agreed on Saturday to use their influence to implement a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from Monday in eastern Ukraine.
Fighting has recently escalated between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in the region, refocusing global attention on a simmering conflict that has strained relations between Russia and the West.
“On Feb. 20 the ceasefire regime will start and withdrawal of heavy military hardware will also start … We have actively supported this decision and obviously expressed a conviction that this time, failure should not be allowed to take place,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after talks with his Ukrainian, German and French counterparts in Munich.
Meanwhile, the news agency of the United Nations (UN) is reporting that one million children are in need of aid in Eastern Ukraine – double this time last year – due to the continuing periodic fighting near the contact line that has created a general deterioration of life, in terms of health, safety and education. Of course, this has intensified with the recent uptick in attacks by the Ukrainian military. The UN News Center provided the following details:
This is an invisible emergency – a crisis most of the world has forgotten,” said UNICEF’s Representative in Ukraine, Giovanna Barberis, in a news release. “Children in eastern Ukraine have been living under the constant threat of unpredictable fighting and shelling for the past three years. Their schools have been destroyed, they have been forced from their homes and their access to basic commodities like heat and water has been cut off,” she stated.
The release attributed the increase – an additional 420,000 girls and boys – to the continued fighting and the steady deterioration of life in eastern Ukraine, where some 1.7 million people have been internally displaced, and many families have lost their incomes, social benefits and access to healthcare, while the price of living has sharply risen.
Hundreds of daily ceasefire violations put children’s physical safety and psychological well-being at risk. The situation is particularly grave for the approximately 200,000 girls and boys living within 15 kilometres on each side of the ‘contact line’ in eastern Ukraine, a line which divides government and non-government controlled areas where fighting is most severe. In this zone, 19,000 children face constant danger from landmines and other unexploded ordinance and 12,000 children live in communities shelled at least once a month. Thousands of children are regularly forced to take refuge in improvised bomb shelters.
Teachers, psychologists and parents report signs of severe psychosocial distress among children including nightmares, aggression, social withdrawal and panic triggered by loud noises. More than 740 schools – one in five in eastern Ukraine – have been damaged or destroyed.
The DPR and LPR have announced a humanitarian aid program for people in parts of Donbass that are under the control of the Kiev government, including medical and educational services and the payment of pensions. The Donetsk News Agency reported last week:
DPR head Alexander Zakharchenko and LPR head Igor Plotnitskiy announced in a joint statement on February 17, “We have decided to implement a programme of humanitarian aid and environmental safety for our brothers and sisters living in Ukraine-controlled Donbass areas.”
“The main guidelines for humanitarian assistance are medical and education services, pension payments and assistance to divided families,” the statement said.
The programme envisions humanitarian foundations for financial assistance and joint cultural, education and sporting events involving residents on both sides of the contact line.
Zakharchenko and Plotnitskiy noted that Kyiv-controlled Donbass areas are on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. Economic production is being discontinued in the zone of Kyiv’s so-called “anti-terrorist operation”, living standards are plunging and infrastructure facilities are in disarray.
“We insist on the possibility to inspect water pumping systems at operating and non-operating mines, the Popasnaya water utility, Lisichyansk refinery, Zarya (Rubezhnoye) and Azot (Severodonetsk) companies, Voda Donbassa water company, water treatment plants, chlorine storages, Avdeyevka coking plant, Konstantinovka state-owned chemical plant and Dzerzhinsk phenol plant,” the republics’ leaders said.
They also demanded unhindered access for humanitarian organisations to Kyiv-controlled territory for monitoring, power, water and gas supply facilities.
And the next day, Putin signed an executive order officially recognizing documents pertaining to identification and vital information provided by the DPR and LPR. This met with criticism by Ukraine and other nations. Alexander Mercouris provides analysis at The Duran:
The documents in question are things like driving licences, birth and marriage certificates, travel documents and the like.
The Ukrainian authorities are already complaining that Russian recognition of these documents amounts to Russia’s de jure recognition of the two People’s Republics. The carefully worded Executive Order signed by President Putin however shows that this is not the case:
Being guided by universally recognised principles and standards of the international humanitarian law and in order to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals, the President has resolved that temporarily, during the political settlement period of the crisis in certain districts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions pursuant to the Minsk Agreements, personal identification documents, education and (or) qualification certificates, birth certificates, marriage, divorce, name change and death certificates, vehicle registration certificates, and vehicle registration plates issued by the corresponding authorities (organisations), valid in the specified district, will be recognised in the Russian Federation as valid for Ukrainian citizens and stateless persons permanently residing in those areas.
Pursuant to the Executive Order, Ukrainian citizens and stateless persons permanently residing in certain districts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions can enter and leave the Russian Federation without applying for visas upon showing identification documents (birth certificates for children under the age of 16), issued by the corresponding authorities which are valid in the said districts.
The Government of the Russian Federation has been instructed to take the necessary measures to implement this Executive Order.
The Executive Order will come into effect upon its signing.
Russian recognition of the documents in part reflects traditional Russian political and diplomatic practice of recognising and accepting realities.
The Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics unquestionably exist irrespective of whether or not they have been recognised internationally. As the Executive Order says, it is inhumane to consign the people they administer to an international legal limbo because the two People’s Republics are not internationally recognised.
Recognising the documents they issue seems first and foremost intended to make it easier for the people who live in the territories of these two republics to travel to Russia, where many of them have relatives and where many of them go for work.
At the same time recognition of the documents of the two People’s Republics highlights a point the Russians have long been making, which is that the longer Kiev delays reaching a political settlement of the conflict, the further from Kiev’s orbit the two People’s Republics will go.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov politely sat through speeches at the recent Munich Security Conference given by Washington (e.g. Vice President Mike Pence) and its allies who provided the usual mumbo jumbo about the U.S.-led world order being natural, exceptional and as righteous and cuddly as unicorn hugs. Then he took to the podium and gave his own perspective on what had just been heard. A few choice excerpts follow:
Ladies and gentlemen,
Ten years ago, President of Russia Vladimir Putin addressed this conference with a speech that many in the West saw as a challenge and even a threat, although what his message emphasised above all was the need to renounce unilateral action in favour of honest cooperation based on mutual respect, international law, joint assessment of global problems and collective decision-making. Unfortunately, the warnings he sounded then about the negative consequences of attempting to obstruct the emergence of a multipolar world have become reality.
Humanity stands at a crossroads today. The historic era that could be called the post-Cold War order has come to an end. Its main result, as we see it, was the complete failure of the Cold War institutions to adapt to new realities. The world has become neither ‘Western-centric’, nor a safer and more stable place. This is evident in the results of ‘democratisation’ in the Middle East and North Africa, and in other places too.
NATO expansion has created a level of tension in Europe unseen in the last thirty years. Yet this year marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Russia-NATO Founding Act in Paris, and 15 years since the Rome Declaration on a new quality of Russia-NATO relations was adopted. These documents’ basic premise was that Russia and the West took on a joint commitment to guarantee security on the basis of respect for each other’s interests, to strengthen mutual trust, prevent a Euro-Atlantic split and erase dividing lines. This did not happen, above all because NATO remained a Cold War institution. It is said that wars start in people’s heads, but according to this logic, it is also in people’s heads that they should end. This is not the case yet with the Cold War. Some statements by politicians in Europe and the United States seem to confirm this particularly clearly, including statements made here yesterday and today during this conference.
….What kind of relationship do we want to establish with the United States? We want relations based on pragmatism, mutual respect, and understanding of our special responsibility for global stability. Our two countries have never been in direct confrontation with each other. Our history is steeped in friendliness more than confrontation. Russia did a lot to support the independence of the United States as it proceeded to become a united powerful state. Constructive Russia-US relations are in our common interest. Moreover, America is our close neighbour, just like the European Union. We are divided by just 4 km of the Bering Strait. The potential of our cooperation in politics, the economy, and the humanitarian sphere is enormous. But, of course, it has to be tapped. We are willing to go ahead and do so inasmuch as the United States is prepared to do so on its part.
….Today, more than ever, we need a dialogue on all complex issues in order to find mutually acceptable compromises. Actions based on confrontation and the zero-sum-game approach will not cut any ice. Russia is not looking for conflicts with anyone, but it will always be in a position to uphold its interests.
Read the full speech and the Q&A that followed at:
Russia’s second most well known diplomat, UN envoy Vitaly Churkin, passed away suddenly on Monday from what many are speculating was a heart attack. Reuters reports:
Russia’s combative ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, died suddenly in New York on Monday after being taken ill at work, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
The ministry gave no details on the circumstances of his death but offered condolences to his relatives and said the diplomat had died one day before his 65th birthday.
It declined to comment on reports that Churkin had been taken to a hospital shortly before his death.
A U.S. government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the case, said that Churkin had died of an apparent heart attack.
A federal law enforcement official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that there appeared to be nothing unusual about the ambassador’s death.
An article has recently appeared in Foreign Policy magazine reporting on the illicit use by Washington of depleted uranium in airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.
Officials have confirmed that the U.S. military, despite vowing not to use depleted uranium weapons on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, fired thousands of rounds of the munitions during two high-profile raids on oil trucks in Islamic State-controlled Syria in late 2015. The air assaults mark the first confirmed use of this armament since the 2003 Iraq invasion, when it was used hundreds of thousands of times, setting off outrage among local communities, which alleged that its toxic material caused cancer and birth defects.
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesman Maj. Josh Jacques told Airwars and Foreign Policy that 5,265 armor-piercing 30 mm rounds containing depleted uranium (DU) were shot from Air Force A-10 fixed-wing aircraft on Nov. 16 and Nov. 22, 2015, destroying about 350 vehicles* in the country’s eastern desert.
Earlier in the campaign, both coalition and U.S. officials said the ammunition had not and would not be used in anti-Islamic State operations. In March 2015, coalition spokesman John Moore said, “U.S. and coalition aircraft have not been and will not be using depleted uranium munitions in Iraq or Syria during Operation Inherent Resolve.” Later that month, a Pentagon representative told War is Boring that A-10s deployed in the region would not have access to armor-piercing ammunition containing DU because the Islamic State didn’t possess the tanks it is designed to penetrate.
It remains unclear if the November 2015 strikes occurred near populated areas….
According to a February 20th AP report, Defense Secretary Mattis admitted that the U.S. will likely be in Iraq for quite a while still:
BAGHDAD (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Monday he believes U.S. forces will be in Iraq and in the fight against Islamic State militants for a while, despite some rocky times between the two nations.
Speaking at the end of a day of meetings in Baghdad with military commanders and Iraqi political leaders, Mattis said he is open to any request from his military commanders to aid the battle to retake Mosul and launch a major battle to oust IS from the base of its so-called caliphate in Raqqa, Syria. He would not provide details.
….”I imagine we’ll be in this fight for a while and we’ll stand by each other,” Mattis said.
I keep hoping that the hysterical claims against Russia and its purported inappropriate relationship with the Trump administration will die down so I will have less material to sift through. Now that the election hacking story has lost some steam due to no evidence being presented, a storm has erupted about Michael Flynn’s phone conversation with the Russian ambassador prior to Trump’s inauguration but after Flynn’s designation as his National Security Adviser. The best analysis I’ve seen on this brouhaha is by Daniel Lazare over at Consortium News. I highly recommend that you follow the link and read the whole article, but here are some key excerpts:
High-level wrongdoing! Colluding with the enemy! Shock and incredulity! It’s enough to make a concerned citizen reach for the nearest bottle of 151-proof rum. But it’s all nonsense. Liberals are working themselves into a crisis mode on the basis of zero evidence.
Let’s begin with what The Nation’s Joan Walsh regards as the key issue: what do we know and when did we know it?
Well, we know that on Thursday, Dec. 29, Barack Obama expelled 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives for allegedly interfering with the presidential election and imposed sanctions on Russia’s two leading intelligence services. We also know that Flynn had called the Russian ambassador a day earlier to discuss sanctions in general and that although he “never made explicit promises of sanctions relief,” according to unnamed government officials cited by the Times, he “appeared to leave the impression it would be possible.”
In Times-speak, “appeared to leave the impression” means that the paper is unable to pin down anything that Flynn did that was specifically wrong, but still believes that the conversation was somehow unseemly.
According to The Washington Post, the key phone call came after Obama’s Dec. 29 decision to expel the Russian diplomats when Kislyak reached Flynn by phone while the national security advisor-designate and his wife were vacationing at a beachside resort in the Dominican Republic. “As a veteran intelligence officer,” The Post said, “…Flynn must have known that a call with a Russian official in Washington would be intercepted by the U.S. government, pored over by FBI analysts and possibly even shared with the White House.”
In any event, whatever he told Kislyak must have been reassuring since Vladimir Putin announced later that day that he would not engage in a tit-for-tat retaliation by expelling U.S. diplomats.
Irritated by such maturity, the American “state security organs,” as the KGB and other Soviet intelligence services were once called, pounced. Having intercepted the Russian ambassador’s phone call, the FBI relayed the contents to Obama’s Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who authorized it to interrogate Flynn about the conversation. Flynn may have lied or not given a complete account or forgotten some of the details about what he and Kislyak discussed. He also may have given a similarly incomplete account to Vice President Mike Pence, which apparently upset Pence and led to Flynn being tossed overboard.
But if Trump and his team thought that would satisfy the sharks, they were wrong. The press went into a feeding frenzy. But the substance of the complaint against Flynn adds up to very little.
As Obama administration holdovers in the Justice Department searched for a legal justification with which to accuse Flynn of wrongdoing, the only thing they could come up with was the Logan Act of 1799 forbidding private citizens from negotiating with a foreign government that is in dispute with the United States. Adopted during the presidency of John Adams, the law was prompted by Dr. George Logan’s unauthorized negotiations with France, contacts that were praised by the Jeffersonians but anathema to the Federalists.
But invoking the Logan Act in any instance is a stretch, much less this one. It has never been used to prosecute anyone; it has never been tested in a court of law; and its constitutionality couldn’t be more questionable. Moreover, if the law is dubious when used to threaten a private citizen engaged in unauthorized diplomacy, then using it to go after a designated official of an incoming presidential administration that has been duly elected is many times more so.
As journalist Robert Parry points out, the Logan Act has mainly been “exploited in a McCarthyistic fashion to bait or discredit peace advocates” such as Jesse Jackson for visiting Cuba or House Speaker Jim Wright for trying to end the Contra war in Nicaragua. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Trump Caves on Flynn’s Resignation.”]
Of course, the Obama holdovers at Justice also said that Flynn might be vulnerable to Russian blackmail. But if Flynn assumed that the U.S. intelligence was listening in, then the Russians probably did also, which means that both sides knew that there was no secret dirt to be used against him.
In other words, there’s no there there. Yet anti-Trump liberals are trying to convince the public that it’s all “worse than Watergate.”
….But whether Flynn is a criminal is another matter. As Ronn Blitzer observed in a smart article at Lawnewz.com: “Between the details of the communications being unclear and the complete lack of historical guidance for prosecutors to work off of, chances are slim that he’ll face any legal repercussions.”
Lying to the FBI is another matter, of course. But grilling someone about whether he violated a moldy old law that should have been repealed centuries ago is the equivalent of giving someone the third degree over whether he washed his hands after using a public restroom. It raises questions about civil liberties and prosecutorial abuse that used to concern liberals – before, that is, they went bonkers over Russia.
Moreover, taking a call from the Russian ambassador is not only legal but, with the inauguration only three weeks away, precisely what one would expect a newly designated national security advisor to do. If the call indeed happened while Flynn was on vacation – and hence without the usual staff support – it’s not that surprising that he might not have had total recall of what was discussed. For FBI agents to question him weeks later and test his memory against their transcript of the conversation seems closer to entrapment than a fair-minded inquiry.
The whole area is a gray zone regarding what is and isn’t proper for a candidate or an incoming administration to do. Eight years earlier, Barack Obama reached out to foreign leaders to discuss policy changes before he was even elected.
In July 2008, candidate Obama visited Paris to confer with then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy about Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan and NATO. In late November – after the election, that is, but before the oath of office – he telephoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss how his country might achieve greater stability.
Yet as Robert Charles notes at the conservative Townhall.com website, no one thought to mention the Logan Act or accuse Obama of overstepping his bounds by engaging in private diplomacy.