This month, diplomats and MPs struck a deal to end an internal EU dispute, which will result in the EU soon letting Ukrainians and Georgians visit the bloc without needed a visa. The dispute had been holding up the promised measures.
Agreement on a mechanism to suspend such visa waivers in emergencies has effectively ended mounting embarrassment for those EU leaders who felt that the bloc was reneging on pledges to former Soviet states that it has promised to help as they try to move out from Moscow’s shadow. The move came after the European Council President warned that the EU was risking its credibility by failing to reward Georgia and Ukraine for painful reforms. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has since hailed the move as “encouraging news from Brussels.”
The prospect of easier travel to Western European countries has been used by governments in Kiev and Tbilisi in order to win popular backing for painful, EU-sponsored reforms. However EU leaders got cold feet about opening doors to 45 million Ukrainians after the public backlash that followed last year’s refugee crisis in Europe. Furthermore, facing strong challenges from anti-immigration parties in elections next year, leading powers France and Germany demanded strong controls before any visa agreement was signed. Late-night talks have since resulted in the European Parliament conceding that governments can reimpose visa requirements quickly, with MPs’ approval.
Georgia, which has only 5 million citizens, has long been seen as being ready for visa liberalization. However many believe that its failure to achieve such as agreement has been due to the EU’s hesitation over Ukraine, which is bigger, closer and currently stuck in conflict with Russia. A similar plan to ease travel for Turkey’s 75 million citizens, which is part of a deal whereby Ankara has helped the EU shut out Syrians and other people seeking asylum, has added to political sensitivities in Brussels about the issue. The process with Turkey has been frozen because of Ankara’s failure to fulfil all the EU conditions, coupled with anger across Europe at Turkey’s crackdown on opponents following a coup attempt in July.
The bloc has disclosed that any new visa waivers can only come into force after the EU has increased an emergency brake to suspend any free-travel deals in emergencies. However talks on exactly how that “snap-back” mechanism would work have dragged on for months. It will now allow the executive European Commission or a majority of EU states to suspend swiftly a country’s visa exemption for nine months if there is a sharp rise in its citizens overstaying their permitted time in the EU making multiple asylum requests or other problem for th European. The EU would be able to extend the suspension period for a further eighteen months in some cases, however through amore complex procedure that would also give a say to the European Parliament.
An international team of prosecutors investigating the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014 released its findings on 28 September, stating that the missile, which downed the plane “came from Russia.”
The Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which has been investigating the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine and which includes prosecutors from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine, disclosed Wednesday that the Buk missile that hit the plane was transported from Russia. According to chief Dutch police investigator Wilbert Paulissen, “based on the criminal investigation, we have concluded that flight MH17 was downed by a Buk missile of the series 9M83 that came from the territory of the Russian Federation.” He added that the missile launcher, which fired one missile from the village of Pervomaysk, was later taken back to Russia. During a news conference, prosecutors played recordings from intercepted phone calls. They further stated that witnesses reported seeing the missile launcher move from Russia into Ukraine and presented pictures and videos, adding that the launch site was pinpointed by “many witnesses.” Prosecutors noted however that it was not clear whether an order had been given for fighters to launch the missile or whether they had acted independently. The investigative team has identified 100 people who were described as being of interest to them however they have not yet formally identified individual suspects.
An earlier inquiry by the Dutch Safety Board concluded that a Russian-made Buk missile had hit the plane. The Safety Board (DSB) report disclosed in October 2015 that the missile was fired from a 320 square kilometre area southeast of where the plane came down, with the head of the DSB disclosing that the area was under rebel control.
Pro-Russian rebels have been blamed by Ukraine and the West for shooting down the plane. At the time of the incident, Ukrainian government forces were involved in heavy fighting with pro-Russian separatists. Wednesday’s findings will challenge Moscow’s suggestion that the plane was brought by the Ukrainian military. In the past, Russia has denied any involvement, including allegations that the Buk missile launcher had come from Russian territory. Repeating those details on Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated, “first-hand radar data identified all flying objects, which could have been launched or were in the air over the territory controlled by rebels at the moment,” adding that “the data are clear-cut…there is no rocket. If there was a rocket, it could only have been fired from elsewhere.” Investigators have noted that they did not have access to the new radar images on which Moscow was basing its latest statements. Separatist rebels have also denied their involvement. Eduard Basurin, military deputy operational commander at the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, told Interfax news agency, “we never had such air defense systems, not the people who could operate them…Therefore we could not have shot down the Boeing (flight MH17).”
After the attack, the European Union (EU) and the United States extended sanctions on Russia that had been initially introduced after the Ukraine conflict began. Earlier this week, Russia produced radar images, which it argued depicted that the plane could not have come from rebel-held areas. Critics however have pointed out that Russian officials have given three versions of events since the plane was shot down over two years ago.
All 298 people on board the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 died when the plane broke apart in mid-air while it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Most of those on board were Dutch citizens.
According to a new report compiled by a Cluster Munitions Coalition, more than 400 people were killed by cluster bombs in 2015, with most of the deaths being reported in Ukraine, Syria and Yemen.
Cluster bombs scatter explosives a wide area and often fail to detonate on impact. The report indicates that 248 deaths were recorded in Syria, followed by Yemen (104); and Ukraine (19). Civilians made u 97% of the death toll while more than a third of the casualties recorded from 2010 – 2015 have been children, who are at a particular risk. The report indicates that the weapon is not banned in all three of these countries, adding that they are not signatories of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of the weapons.
The Syrian military has denied possessing or using cluster munitions and in December 2015, the Russian Defense Ministry, which supports the Syrian government, also insisted that “Russian aviation does not use (cluster munitions).” The report however suggests that despite Russia’s denial, “there is compelling evidence that it is using them” in Syria.
Ukraine’s security service reported this month that it had blocked channels that were being used by jihadists travelling to fight with the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, adding that they detained an ‘IS recruiter’ from one of the former Soviet republics.
In a statement, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) disclosed that “the Ukrainian security service, prosecutor’s office, police and migration service have blocked several channels for the transit of foreign fighters to the IS international terrorist group throughout state’s territory,” adding that the discovery was made in a wave of security sweeps that were carried out across several major cities in the country. The SBU further reported that an apartment in the government-held northeastern city of Kharkiv was being used as a temporary shelter by alleged IS members who intended to travel to both Syria and Iraq. The statement says that “this ‘transit point’ had four nationals from Asian states,” adding, “two of them had been earlier deported from Turkey in connection with their involvement in terrorist activity.” The SBU also disclosed that they held several fake passports from various countries and that two of them had been waiting to receive forged Ukrainian documents so that they could enter Syria through Turkey. The Ukrainian service indicated that the four were being financed and assisted by foreign countries, however they did not reveal which ones, adding, “two of the foreigners have already been expelled from the territory of our state…Investigations into the other two are continuing.”
The SBU also disclosed that it had also detained an “IS recruiter from one of the former Soviet republics that was being sought by Interpol” pan-European police organization. It reported that security agents had detained another “IS supporter” in the Kiev region who had undergone training in “Syrian terrorist camps.” The individual, who has not been named, is facing a court hearing and has not yet been charged.
In January and June the SBU disclosed that it detained four alleged IS fighters headed for Europe from Central Asia and Russia.
Ukraine has been riven by a 27-month pro-Moscow insurgency in its industrial east that has claimed the lives of more than 9,500 people and left around 400 kilometres (250 miles) of its southeastern border with Russia under rebel control. Ukraine’s security service has been under increasing pressure to show its strength as the pro-Western government in Kiev ties to meet President Petro Poroshenko’s pledge to apply for EU membership by 2020. Some EU nations and leaders however have called the bid far too optimistic as Ukraine not only lacks control of its separatist east and the Russian-annexed Crimea peninsula, but it also remains riddled with other security threats. This includes what appears to be the increasing use of Ukraine and its porous borders to ship IS fighters to stage attacks in Europe or to joint he group in Syria and Iraq.
The European Union (EU) has extended for another year the sanctions, which it imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
In mid-June, the 28 EU member states renewed a ban on economic ties with Crimean businesses, which include a block on EU tourism and investment in the Black Sea peninsula. Other EU sanctions target top Russian officials over the Ukraine insurgency.
The annexation, which occurred after pro-Russian forces seized Ukrainian bases in Crimea and then held a referendum, drew international condemnation. While Crimea has a Russian-speaking majority, the referendum was organized by the new authorities and was deemed illegal by the West. After the Crimea annexation, pro-Russian insurgents seized power in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine in April 2014. The EU, United States and some other countries then ratcheted up their sanctions against Russia.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia retained control of the important Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol. However Ukraine had control of the rest of Crimea until the 2014 crisis.