By far the biggest news in Ukraine last year was the formation of a canonical self-governing Ukrainian Orthodox Church that saw 39-year-old Metropolitan Epifaniy (Serhiy Dumenko) elected as its primate on December 15. A presidential policy goal, the seismic shift further divorced Ukraine from Moscow and ended over 300 years of the hostile neighbor’s spiritual sway over the country. Consequently, the Church’s establishment reverberated throughout the Christian world and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine – the name of the newly unified Church – awaited the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s official granting of a Tomos bestowing autocephaly on January 6, 2019.
Russia opened another war front when its far superior naval forces attacked three Ukrainian vessels in the Black Sea and took 24 servicemen captive on November 25. The escalation added a dangerous dimension to the war in which Ukrainian ships lost the ability to freely navigate waters in the Azov and Black seas. Commercial shipping has been choked, and Kyiv now constantly faces the threat of a naval blockade.
The open act of war prompted authorities to impose martial law for a one-month period that ended on December 26 as the army faced an invasion force of 80,000 Russian soldiers stationed near its borders and reinforced with weaponized armor and aircraft.
In response, the U.S. authorized an additional $10 million in foreign military financing “to build Ukraine’s naval capabilities,” according to the State Department. Britain and Lithuania also pledged to increase their security assistance.
More than 1,600 Russians weren’t allowed into the country during the one-month period, according to the Border Guard Service. The National Security and Defense Council indefinitely extended an entry ban for Russian males age 16-60 after martial law had expired.
Ukraine and Russia exchanged a new round of tit-for-tat sanctions late in December. Russia also completed a 37-mile border fence on the Ukrainian territory of Crimea on December 27 that separates the annexed peninsula from mainland Ukraine.
More than 130 Ukrainian soldiers were killed on the frontline in the easternmost Luhansk and Donetsk regions, according to the General Staff. More than 2,900 military personnel have died since 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko said on December 17. In total, more than 10,400 people have been killed, and 1.5 million displaced – the largest internal displacement of people in Europe since World War II.
While addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 26, Ukraine’s president urged the global organization to send international peacekeepers to Ukraine to finally bring peace to the Donbas.
Mr. Poroshenko began his speech by stating, “We shall never forget that the raison d’être of this organization is to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,’ ” and noting, “Unfortunately, my fellow citizens have become a part of that one-fifth of the world population who is experiencing the horrors of war.”
A current truce brokered in the Belarusian capital of Minsk has failed to take hold.
The economy grows
Despite war in its backyard, Ukraine’s economy grew by more than 3 percent, based on estimates by various government agencies and international lenders like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Ukrainian airports reported that a record 20 million passengers flew last year, twice the number that took to the skies in 2015, according to the Infrastructure Ministry. Six new airlines entered the market as regional airports upgraded their capacity.
In farming, Ukraine harvested a record high 70.1 million tons of grain and remains the world’s top sunflower producer, according to the Agrarian Policy and Food Ministry. This accounted for 12 percent of economic output and about 80 percent in foreign currency earnings.
The promising information technology industry continues to blossom, contributing an estimated $4 billion to the economy. In banking, the sector posted profits of $530 million following four years of losses dating to 2014, according to the National Bank of Ukraine.
More than $20 billion in foreign currency reserves are on hand thanks to a new 14-month loan agreement with the IMF that unlocked further lending from other sources. Ukraine already received $1.4 billion of the total $3.9 billion to maintain macroeconomic stability.
And, some 3.2 million Ukrainians work full time abroad, the Social Policy Ministry said towards the end of the year.
The aggressor state
The Verkhovna Rada commenced its work after the winter break in mid-January 2018 by passing a bill that pro-presidential lawmakers said aligns legislation to realities of the ongoing Russia-stoked war in the Donbas. It names Russia as the aggressor and places responsibility on Moscow for the fate of Ukrainians living in an occupied area of roughly 21,000 square kilometers, or 35 percent of the region’s territory. It allows for the deployment of armed forces without declaring martial law and transferred command authority from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) to the military in what is officially called the Joint Forces Operation (JFO).
“Significantly, the bill names February 20, 2014, as the starting point of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that began with the occupation of Crimea, which Moscow annexed a month later,” The Ukrainian Weekly (UW) wrote on January 21. “A separate United Nations resolution dating to March 2014 didn’t recognize a sham referendum that enabled the illegal annexation.”
Russian leader Vladimir Putin has admitted to ordering his troops to seize Crimea. Former Russian lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov testified to the fact on February 14 in a Ukrainian court.
However, the law on temporarily occupied territories doesn’t explicitly call the armed conflict a war against Russia and terms like “reintegration” or “de-occupation” are missing.
Election watchdogs, and political and civil society experts voiced concern that the law had granted Mr. Poroshenko more powers. In particular, authority to determine the borders of the occupied territories and define the boundaries of three “zones” near the frontline that designate various degrees of security and safety. They also feared that the military would act without oversight and have powers that supersede those of local governments in the three zones located near the frontline.
Pro-Ukrainian Crimea native Volodymyr Balukh was transferred to a penal colony in the Russian-occupied peninsula’s Kerch city on October 19. The political prisoner ended a 200-day hunger strike earlier that month. Russia’s security service, the FSB, had arrested him in December 2016 for allegedly harboring weapons and explosives – charges that human rights groups say are fabricated. Mr. Balukh maintained a patriotic stance after Moscow invaded the Crimean peninsula. He had “erected a Ukrainian flag in his yard and affixed a sign to his house that read ‘18 Heavenly Hundred St.’ ” in memory of the protesters who were shot during the Euro-Maidan Revolution, The Weekly wrote in an editorial on May 13.
Since Moscow illegally seized the peninsula in March 2014, dozens of Crimeans have been prosecuted on trumped-up charges as part of a campaign to crack down on dissent. Between 800,000 and 1 million Russians have been relocated to live in Crimea, thus altering the demographic make-up there, according to Mustafa Dzhemilev, Ukrainian national deputy and longtime Crimean Tatar leader. Housing is being built in the cities of Symferopol, Yevpatoria and Sevastopol to accommodate the Russian migrants, he added.
The Crimean Tatar cultural heritage has been systemically targeted for destruction since Russia took over the peninsula. An article by Paul Goble published in this newspaper on August 19 states that the Russian campaign aims to deny Crimean Tatars their history and claims that they are not an indigenous people of the peninsula.
“To that end, the occupation forces are not only dismissing important cultural figures, but they are destroying cultural monuments, often in the name of ‘restoring’ them as is the case with the khan’s palace in Bakhchysarai, or undermining the survivability of the Crimean Tatar nation by destroying the environment, including water supplies, the nation needs,” the article noted.
On December 22, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution that calls on Russia to end human rights violations in the Crimea. Significantly, it also recognizes Mr. Balukh as a political prisoner, along with Emir-Huseyn Kuku and imprisoned filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, who was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought last year.
Mr. Sentsov, who supported the Euro-Maidan pro-Western cause, was arrested on May 11, 2014, on politically motivated terrorism charges and subsequently given a 20-year prison sentence in Russia. Amnesty International characterized the political prisoner’s prosecution as “an extremely cynical show trial.” He has endured hunger strikes in a show of defiance for his extra-judicial incarceration. World leaders, celebrities and human rights groups have consistently called for Mr. Sentsov’s release. On June 1-3, a worldwide freedom campaign was organized by Let My People Go, a coalition of civil society groups, that spanned three continents in over three dozen cities. Mr. Sentsov is currently held in a high-security prison above the Arctic Circle.
Another politically motivated case has been that of Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko, who was sentenced to 12 years in a Russian prison on June 4 ostensibly for spying. Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the journalist was a “hostage to Russian aggression.” He was the Paris correspondent for the state-run Ukrinform news agency and was arrested in 2016 in Moscow purportedly for gathering classified information.
In total, Russia holds nearly 100 Ukrainian prisoners of war and political prisoners, according to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. The SBU says there are over 100 additional POWs and civilian hostages in the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
During the year, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation included occupied Crimea and the Donbas in its “captive nations” report.
Russia’s maritime stranglehold on Ukraine began on May 15 with the completion of a 19-kilometer bridge that links Russia with Crimea. Its height limits the clearance of ships that could pass underneath in the Kerch Strait. Thus, shipping capacity was reduced by 30 percent, Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelyan told The Ukrainian Weekly
Mr. Poroshenko said that “the illegal construction of the Kerch Bridge is the latest evidence of the Kremlin’s disregard for international law.” That same month Russian military ships started to arbitrarily detain and inspect commercial vessels sailing to and from Ukrainian ports. Ukraine’s Navy has since started building a naval base along the Azov Sea coast and aims to form a mosquito fleet. Still, the local economy has suffered, sustaining some $350 million in damages since the de-facto blockade began, the Infrastructure Ministry said. Turnover in the Mariupol and Berdyansk ports has halved since 2014.
Events culminated with the November attack on three Ukrainian vessels. Kyiv argued for more sanctions on Russia following the open act of war. In an opposite-editorial (op-ed) commentary published in The New York Times on December 5, Mr. Poroshenko said that Russia can’t be allowed to get away with its brazen aggression against Ukraine.
The occupied territories
Meanwhile, thousands of residents in Crimea and Kherson region were evacuated starting in late August following a chemical leak at a titanium dioxide plant located close to the northern Crimean town of Armiansk. Russian-occupying Crimean authorities acknowledged the release of sulfur trioxide into the air only 10 days after the accident.
Additional evidence surfaced that Russia continues to arm forces in the occupied Donbas, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Charged with monitoring a failed truce in the war, the OSCE’s drones spotted convoys of military trucks pouring across the Russian-Ukrainian border at night in August-October.
A Moldovan observer of the organization’s monitoring group died in a road accident on January 18 near the Donetsk Oblast town of Kramatorsk. (Previously, an American monitor had been killed in April 2017 after driving over a land mine in a vehicle.)
Open-data sleuth Bellingcat reported in May that nine Russian officers had led an artillery attack on the Azov Sea coastal city of Mariupol in January 2015 that killed 30 civilians and injured 100 more. Donetsk Oblast’s second largest city, Mariupol is located 30 kilometers from the frontline.
The report was subsequently filed as evidence at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In August, Mr. Poroshenko ordered the creation of an inter-agency coordinating body to sue Russia over its occupation of Crimea and parts of the Donbas in international courts. In November 2016, the International Criminal court had determined that Russian-Ukrainian clashes constitute an “international armed conflict.”
NATO and the EU
Ukraine’s first wartime president also succeeded in having NATO and European Union accession declared a strategic goal that was enshrined in the Constitution with a November 22 parliamentary vote that amended the document.
NATO and Ukraine have stepped up cooperation since 2014 with the goal of upgrading Kyiv’s Soviet-era military. Ukraine received aspiring NATO member status on March 10, the defense bloc stated on its website.
In May, the military started training with the highly sophisticated Javelin tank-killing devices that it purchased from the U.S. Kyiv has approval from America to purchase 37 launchers and 210 missiles of the “fire-and-forget precision” apparatus.
Ukraine’s own arms producers delivered 3,500 units of weapons and equipment in first nine of months of 2018, including over 2,000 units of new and modernized weapons.
An end-of-year poll conducted by the Kyiv-based Democratic Initiatives Foundation showed that 70 percent of Ukrainians support NATO membership and 75 percent are for joining the EU if a referendum were held in December. Mr. Poroshenko described NATO integration as a “civilizational choice” while visiting the defense bloc’s headquarters in Brussels on July 12.
A further break from the Soviet past came on August 24 when the president changed the army’s military greeting to “Glory to Ukraine – Glory to the Heroes” during the 27th anniversary celebrations of the country’s independence.
More ties were severed with Moscow when Parliament on December 6 voted not to extend a 10-year friendship treaty with Russia that was due to expire this year.
In a bid to clamp down on propaganda and disinformation – an integral component of Russia’s hybrid war toolbox – Kyiv raided two Moscow-controlled media outlets. The local chief editor of the Russian state-run RIA Novosti was detained on suspicion of high treason.
The SBU sealed access to over 300 “Internet resources” that “Russia used to wage hybrid war against Ukraine,” the security agency announced on December 22.
It also staged the May 29 assassination of Arkady Babchenko, an exiled Russian journalist working in Ukraine, that was allegedly directed from the Kremlin.
Diplomatically, Ukraine stayed on the West’s agenda with numerous high-profile officials visiting the country. They included the EU’s main foreign policy envoy, Frederica Mogherini, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker and others.
Mses. Merkel and Mogherini praised Kyiv for pushing ahead on reforms and backed the EU’s sanctions against Russia. Both mentioned that much remains to further improve governance and the rule of law, especially on fighting corruption.
The battle against corruption
A new anti-corruption court, created with a parliamentary vote on June 14, is not expected to start functioning until after the March 31 presidential election.
Aside from being an IMF lending benchmark, fighting graft was a key demand of the Euro-Maidan popular uprising that ousted disgraced ex-President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.
A poll of civil society, political and economic experts released by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation on November 5 noted that the public’s perception of rampant graft has led to an “abysmal level of distrust” of government. Based on a rolling yearly survey of experts, the findings showed that reforms have stagnated after the first two years of the revolution. A key outcome of the movement is that Ukraine firmly has chosen a course of embracing democratic values and integrating with Western institutions and political bodies.
Anti-corruption activists have noted that no former or current high-level official has been convicted of wrongdoing since the Euro-Maidan or those of the same caliber who committed crimes leading up to and during the revolution.
Alarmingly – especially since nearly 100 protesters were lethally shot during the protests – impunity has remained. The 55 attacks on journalists, civic activists and corruption whistleblowers in 2017-2018 that civil society groups have tracked have gone unsolved.
Notably, activist Kateryna Handziuk died on November 4 in a Kyiv hospital after being doused with acid outside her home in Kherson.
In the judicial sphere
Mr. Yanukovych, the suspected main culprit behind the shootings of protesters during the Euro-Maidan uprising, was hospitalized in Moscow on November 18, a day before he was to remotely give a final statement in his treason trial in a Kyiv court.
Prosecutors seek a 15-year prison sentence for betraying Ukraine on charges that the ex-president was complicit in Russia’s invasion of Crimea and subsequent incursion into the Donbas in 2014. Mr. Yanukovych currently lives in Moscow, where he fled after abandoning office in February 2014.
As the wider world has uncovered the wide-ranging reach of covert Russian activity, some link back to Ukraine. They include the alleged lethal poisoning attempt of double Russian-British agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter on British soil in March. The two suspected assassins were revealed to be officers of Russia’s GRU military intelligence. According to Bellingcat, Col. Anatoliy Chepiga and Dr. Alexander Mishkin received their country’s highest state award in the latter half of 2014 after visiting Ukraine. Kyiv joined the international community to punish Russia for the failed hit by banishing 13 Russian diplomats – an additional 151 envoys were expelled by 27 NATO countries.
“Kyiv took further action on March 27” when the SBU said it had “banned the 23 Russian diplomats that the U.K. expelled in response to the Salisbury attack,” The Weekly wrote on April 1.
Former Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili and Odesa governor was also ejected from Ukraine – on February 12. He was forcibly deported to Poland after his college chum, Mr. Poroshenko, stripped him of Ukrainian citizenship. Both had a falling out soon after the president appointed Mr. Saakashvili to head Odesa Oblast in May 2015. The latter started to accuse the president and his inner circle of corruption, whereas Mr. Poroshenko publicly complained that the former Georgian president wasn’t focusing enough on his duties as governor.
Hero of Ukraine and former National Deputy Nadiya Savchenko was arrested on charges of plotting a coup and planning terrorist attacks on March 22. She has since gone on a hunger strike while in pre-trial detention and maintains her innocence. After enduring 709 days of Russian captivity, she was released on May 25, 2016. She had been captured by Russian-led forces in the Donbas war zone.
Another event tying Ukraine internationally was the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in which 298 people died after the plane was shot down from Russian-controlled territory of the Donbas on July 17, 2014. A Dutch-led international investigative team concluded in May that a sophisticated anti-aircraft projectile system that shot down the aircraft came from Russia. Many of the passengers were Dutch.
Holland’s Foreign Minister Stef Blok in December told his country’s Parliament that the government is considering “taking potential next step,” including “submitting the matter to an international court of organization,” to bring Russia to justice for the disaster, The New York Times reported. An Amsterdam law firm furthermore in November filed a formal complaint against Russia in the ECHR on behalf of the relatives of 55 people who died in the MH17 shootdown, dutchnews.nl reported.
In other international courts, Russia’s state-owned Gazprom lost a three-year dispute with Ukrainian energy conglomerate Naftogaz Group in the Stockholm arbitration court. Gazprom was ordered on February 28 to pay $2.56 billion to the Ukrainian state-controlled company for refusing to supply Kyiv with natural gas for which it had prepaid. Adjudication between two energy giants is still ongoing on related matters.
Historic events, historical findings
On a centennial scale, various cities across Ukraine marked the historic Battle of Kruty on January 29. The crucial clash in 1918 saw a student battalion of the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen and cadets face a Bolshevik force of more than 4,000. About half of the 400-500 Ukrainians were killed. Fighting allowed for Ukraine to hold Kyiv and conclude the Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
Also solemnly observed was the 99th anniversary of Unity Day on January 22. It commemorates a proclamation that united Ukrainian lands on both sides of the Dnipro River – territory that was part of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian tsarist empires.
“Although short-lived, in 1919 the Ukrainian National Republic based in Kyiv, which stretched as far as the Kuban region to the southeast, united with the Western Ukrainian National Republic that comprised most of eastern Galicia, parts of Bukovyna and the Carpathian Mountain region,” The Ukrainian Weekly wrote on January 28.
The bodies of 134 victims who were killed during the Soviet Union’s occupation of western Ukraine in 1939-1941 during World War II (and before Nazi Germany invaded the USSR and its erstwhile war ally) were given a proper burial in Ivano-Frankivsk on March 24.
“They were discovered in the summer of 2017, when, while laying cables along the street, engineers stumbled upon several human remains,” a story published on April 1 stated.
Another site uncovered last year dates to the 11th-12th centuries of the Kyivan Rus’ era. Archeologists had discovered ancient 1,500-square-meter living quarters with two bisecting streets in 2015. It was at the site in Kyiv’s Postal Square district along the Dnipro River’s western bank where developers were building an underground shopping mall. Scientists and local lawmakers want to build a museum on the site. After the Kyiv City Council in April froze construction and decided to create a museum, it reversed its decision June 21. Activists gained the upper hand in early December when the local legislature voted to cancel its investment contract with the shopping mall developer, thus halting any further construction on the site. The fate of the historical finding remains unclear.
Cultural diplomacy initiated
Kyiv officially started cultural diplomacy on June 12 when Volodymyr Sheiko started work as the head of the newly formed Ukrainian Institute under the purview of the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
The new institution now joins the ranks of such entities as American Councils, British Council, Institut Francais and Germany’s Goethe-Institut.
It will promote the country “internationally through culture, science, education and language,” the nation’s chief cultural diplomat told the UW on May 29. “There has never been a better time for Ukraine to work in culture.”
Looking ahead, Ukraine will hold presidential elections on March 31 and a new Parliament is expected to be voted in five months later. As many as 22 candidates may run in the presidential race.
The next president will have less policy flexibility because of increased Russian pressure and Western insistence that Ukraine continue embarking on reforms that have mostly stagnated.
“Ukraine has few options at this stage to embark on a path independent of the IMF reform agenda,” wrote Timothy Ash, a London-based senior emerging markets sovereign strategist for Bluebay Asset Management. “Russian actions in the east should be watched, and Ukrainian autocephalous status and tensions in the Sea of Azov are definitely things to watch.”
This year Ukraine faces a peak in foreign debt payments worth $4.2 billion out of a total $10 billion in funding needs.
Militarily, experts polled by Defense One, a news portal devoted to U.S. national defense and security, said that Russia will escalate war with Ukraine this year.
“They predict that the situation between Russia and Ukraine will worsen,” Defense One wrote at the end of December. “Some expect an imminent attack against Ukraine after a prolonged military tank build-up on the border. Others were more conservative in the estimates of when and how large new hostilities would flare.”