Here is a short digest of the past week’s milestones in Ukraine-related developments.
Church independence became closer
Last week’s Ukrainian pinnacle event occurred on the weekend. On 15 December the Unification Council of Ukrainian Orthodox Churches in Kyiv has established a unified church, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and elected its Primate who is going to receive the Tomos, or declaration of church independence, from the Patriarch of Constantinople on 6 January, the Orthodox Christmas Eve. However, most representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is subjugated to to the Russian Orthodox Church, stayed out of the unification process.
Nord Stream 2
At the beginning of the week, the US House of Representatives condemned the Russian Nord Stream 2 undersea natural gas pipeline, which will bypass Ukraine. The EU Parliament also called to stop the construction of the pipeline, which can undermine Europe’s energy security strategy. Meanwhile, German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier in his interview with Reuters again repeated the German position, saying that “this project can be justified if Ukraine’s vital interests are preserved at the same time,” meaning that Russia should guarantee substantial gas transit through Ukraine even after 2019.
Martial law and PoWs
The 30-day martial law imposed on 26 November in ten Ukrainian regions, following the Russian attack on three Ukrainian naval vessels and seizure of them and their crews, remains intact. President Petro Poroshenko said the press conference yesterday on 16 December that the Russian threat persists since less than 10% of the Russian troops earlier deployed near the Ukrainian borders have been withdrawn. However, Ukraine is not going to extend martial law and it will end shortly before the year-end if no large-scale Russian attack will occur in the coming days.
The war in the Donbas is far from being over or even suspended. No active offensive operations are taking place along the 400-kilometer front-line in the East-Ukrainian region of the Donbas. But the war remains trench warfare and skirmishes involving heavy equipment occur here on a daily basis.
Throughout 10-16 December, three Ukrainian servicemen were killed in action, six more were wounded in 90 fire attacks in the Donbas, according to daily communiqués by the press service of the Joint Forces Operation.
Meanwhile, the number of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) who still intend to return to their hometowns when the war ends decreases according to the polls. In September 2017, there were 32% of them, 28% this June, and only 24% this September. On the other hand, 38% of IDPs are not going to return home under any conditions, IOM poll shows.
Last week, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) learned that Serbian citizens fought in Ukraine’s Donbas as members of the Russian-hybrid forces, and identified eight units they had served in, including the private military company Wagner. According to BIRN, 45 Serbs were tried for alleged participation in military actions in the Donbas, 29 were convicted, 16 are awaiting trial.
CIS, EU, NATO
Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence Service started the procedure of pulling out of the CIS Intelligence Services Cooperation Agreement of 1992. The CIS (Commonwealth of the Independent States) is a Russian-led intergovernmental organization of the post-Soviet republics. Ukraine ended its participation in CIS as an associate member last May.
The EU and Ukraine signed an agreement on e-governance cooperation. According to the Ukrainian Mission to the EU, Ukraine will have access to the ISA² program, dealing with interoperability of electronic services.
The US urged Hungary not to try to block Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO. NATO member country Hungary has been blocking Kyiv’s efforts to move closer to the Alliance after it had decided that a new Ukrainian law on education violates the rights of ethnic Hungarian minority in Ukraine.
NATO provided Ukraine with secure communications equipment, and the Ukrainian presidential plane was used to deliver the shipment to Ukraine when President Poroshenko returned from his official visit to Brussels.
The Security Service of Ukraine recorded massive attempts by Russian security services to use open toolkits of Facebook and Twitter to meddle in future presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine.
The start of the presidential election campaign is set to 31 December, while the election is to be held on 31 March 2019. The parliamentarian election is scheduled for 27 October 2019. The Russian interference attempts are expected in both 2019 elections.
Is Putin going to annex Belarus?
Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev said Russia was ready to further deepen integration with Belarus. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka responded that “under the pretext of ‘deep integration’ Moscow wants to make Belarus part of Russia,” and assured that he would never agree to such a proposal.
Many experts, including a former Putin’s aide, see Belarus as the No. 1 target for further Russia’s aggression after its invasions in Georgia in 2008, and in Ukraine in 2014.
However, the latest Russian attack on Ukrainian vessels in the Sea of Azov and its threat of full-scale military invasion in Ukraine show that Russia is not going to suspend its further plans for Ukraine.