23 October 2016

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Ukrainian interest. Visa issue, purposeful Nuland, and optimistic Hahn

The arrest in Moscow of a Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko sparked another round of discussion on the need to introduce a visa travel regime with Russia. Victoria Nuland is set for a diplomatic feat. Johannes Hahn is optimistic about Georgia and Ukraine getting a visa-free regime with the EU.


Russia's foreign policy in the past several years was often tasked with forming in the minds of the Russian citizens a sense of living in a "besieged fortress". Vladimir Putin and his entourage have been taking measures to prevent any protest activity, eagerly playing on patriotic feelings of the Russians with no real sentiment. The arrest of a French-based correspondent of Ukrinform news agency Roman Sushchenko in Moscow, where he arrived for a private visit, also serves the cause of imposing a spy-hunt agenda. The journalist was unfoundedly labeled a"Colonel of GUR [the Ukrainian military intelligence]" and charged with espionage. At the same time, his Russian relatives were obliged to sign non-disclosure papers. It was Mark Feygin, former lawyer of Nadia Savchenko, who took up the case to protect Sushchenko. The lawyer stressed that the there were practically no chances of the man’s acquittal.

What happened to Roman Sushchenko made Ukrainian officials re-consider the issue of lifting a visa-free travel between Ukraine and Russia. The legislators broke many spears over the issue over a course of several days, but the Verkhovna Rada eventually failed to take any decision on this high-profile matter.

From among the arguments voiced in the debate, we should note those about the already-traditional nature of such a way to demonstrate deterioration of bilateral relations, as well as the anxiety for the fate of Ukrainian citizens remaining in Crimea, and a 400-kilometer stretch of border with Russia in Donbas beyond government control. One may also consider the fact that several million Ukrainians are still working in Russia, and their forced return to their historical homeland could trigger social unrest because there are not so many jobs left in Ukraine to get.

Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russsian militants disengaged forces and hardware in the area of Petrivske. It is too early to say that the idea of disengagement has been successfully implemented, but Ukraine’s western partners will try to use this fact to their advantage anyway. Victoria Nuland, who visited Moscow and held talks with Vladimir Putin's advisers, apparently discussed with her counterparts the prospects of Donbas settlement. This line of U.S.-Russia bilateral relations is the only one left where Washington and Moscow can expect to find common language. At the same time, the prospects of infringement of Ukrainian national interests does not seem to bother the United States, encouraging Russia at the same time. However, a noticeable deterioration of the situation in Syria makes the idyll of Russian-American foreign relations virtually impossible. The Obama administration will have to make a diplomatic feat to achieve from the official Kyiv any real concessions to the separatists under the present conditions.

Several high-ranking Western policymakers gave surprisingly harsh assessments of Russia’s actions. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on the international community to investigate war crimes of Russian troops in Syria, while Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte urged Moscow to stop talking nonsense about the results of MH17 international investigation. Such tone is anything but an indicator that Vladimir Putin is a “peacemaker” indeed. This is once again confirmed by a statement of the American intelligence accusing Russia of hacking attacks on DNC.

Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to expect to get a visa-free travel with the EU this fall, encouraged by the recent decision of the European Parliament’s profile committee. EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn assured that the issue of a visa-free regime for Georgia and Ukraine will be resolved positively, however he did not  predict the exact terms for such a decision to be made. The most optimistic scenario is that it will happen after the completion of the parliamentary election campaign in Georgia, where Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement is trying to push aside Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream.

Yevgeny Magda

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