For aliyah promoters, Ukraine’s troubles provide a boost


Until April of last year, Julia Podinovskaya felt like she had a pretty good handle on where her life was going.

Born to a middle-class Jewish family in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, Podinovskaya, who is in her 20s, was volunteering with the local Jewish community while preparing to finish her bachelor’s degree in education at a local university.

Moving to Israel, or anywhere else, was not on her mind.

“Everything was planned,” she said in an interview at a Jewish summer camp near Tbilisi, the capital city of this republic. “On my father’s birthday, I already knew what I would give him the following year.”

But Podinovskaya’s life was turned upside down in the spring of 2014 when her city — and its Jewish community — were ripped apart in deadly fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government troops. When the university shut down, Podinovskaya began helping the Jews of Donetsk, restarting the besieged city’s cultural activities for Jewish children after their shuttering because of the war.

In February she left for Kharkiv, a city located 185 miles northwest of her hometown, joining hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Ukrainians.

Now, after spending the summer at the Zionist camp in Georgia, Podinovskaya is considering leaving Ukraine for Israel.

While not “instinctively attracted” to the idea of living in the Jewish state, Podinovskaya said, “I need to weigh my options because of the circumstances of my life.”

The summer camp she attended, Tchelet, is run by the Kiev-based Zionist Seminary, or Midrasha Zionit. It’s part of an effort by the Jewish Agency, which works to facilitate immigration to Israel and co-funds the camp, to reach out to Ukrainian and other Russian speakers who once had been resistant to the idea of moving to Israel.

“Generally speaking, those who wanted to leave left in the ’90s,” said Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, referring to the approximately 1 million Jews who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union.

But war has driven thousands more to Israel, or at least to consider the possibility. From January to August, 4,204 Ukrainian Jews immigrated to Israel — a 50 percent increase over the corresponding period the previous year. That’s on top of a nearly 200 percent increase in immigration to Israel, or aliyah, between 2013 and 2014. In the latter year, 5,920 Ukrainians moved to Israel. Only France, whose Jewish population is about twice that of Ukraine’s, sent more immigrants to Israel in 2014.

War and instability are also contributing to aliyah from neighboring Russia, where the economy is suffering from international sanctions connected to its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for separatists. The conflict also has unleashed a nationalistic resurgence that is making many Russian Jews uncomfortable.

Aliyah from Russia in the first seven months of 2015 was 3,756 people — a 52 percent increase over the same period last year. Sharansky told JTA that he expects 6,000 Russian Jews and 7,000 Ukrainians to make aliyah this year. The European Jewish Congress estimates that there are 260,000 Jews in Russia and 380,000 in Ukraine.

“In Russia there’s a serious increase from Moscow and St. Petersburg that we haven’t seen in the past, and that’s mainly businessmen, intelligentsia, people who are afraid to find themselves closed off from the free world,” Sharansky said.

Amid the increased interest in aliyah from Ukraine and Russia, the Tchelet camp expanded this summer to include families in addition to its usual groups of teenagers and young adults. This was also the first summer that Tchelet was taking place in Georgia; from 2008 to 2014, the camp was situated in Ukraine, near Kiev, where the Zionist Seminary was established in 2006.

The move to Georgia was part of a push by the Jewish Agency to relocate nearly 1,000 youths from Jewish summer camps in Ukraine. Recognizing an increase in demand for aliyah among populations of Ukrainian and Russian Jews, the Jewish Agency sent in dozens of extra workers to facilitate the influx.

Israel’s Immigrant Absorption Ministry, meanwhile, responded to the Ukraine war by simplifying aliyah procedures for Jews in eastern Ukraine. And the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews — a Christian-funded group that has facilitated aliyah as well as community life in the former Soviet Union and beyond — stepped in with extra funding of millions of dollars for relief operations and special aliyah flights from Ukraine.

At Tchelet, 140 participants — most of them young, single adults, but also some families — stayed for one to two weeks this month at a rustic mountain resort. The visitors — the majority were from Ukraine and Russia, but also some from Belarus, Israel and even France — attended mandatory discussion and workshop sessions led by a mostly modern Orthodox staff about the Jews’ biblical connections to the Land of Israel and their longing for it in the Diaspora.

But at the end of each day, groups of young men and women, many wielding guitars and sometimes a bottle of vodka or two, went down to the lake or stayed indoors as they sang a repertoire of Israeli, Ukrainian and Russian pop songs until the wee hours of the morning.

Despite the counselors’ declared commitment to promoting aliyah, some participants came in the hope of strengthening Jewish life in Ukraine, not Israel.

“This year I came here with the goal of finding a bride,” said Itshak Reynish, a 28-year-old Orthodox Jew from Kiev who has attended Tchelet for seven consecutive years.

Reynish said he does not intend to leave.

“Who said all Jews should leave? I think we should stay and make a strong community,” he said. “At least I intend to.”

Tchelet instructor Efraim Bogolyubov, who grew up in a secular home in Kiev but became religiously observant and made aliyah in 2012, said that despite the aliyah push, “we also give them the feeling it’s legitimate to stay and be Jewish back home.”

(The Zionist Seminary sponsored Cnaan Liphshiz’s trip to Georgia. It had no role in the writing or editing of this story.)

Jewish-Christian charity helps Ukrainians move to Israel


Tatyana Orul would have moved to Israel years ago if not for her job as a television journalist in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, which interested her too much to give up.

But when bombs started falling next to her house last year, she reconsidered. The war between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatist forces in the region had also put her husband out of a job. The airport where he worked now lies in ruins.

Last week at a hotel in the Ukrainian capital, Orul and her husband waited with packed bags for the plane that would take them the next morning to Israel to begin a new life. She would leave behind her newly married son; Orul said Ukrainian law prohibits newly married couples from emigrating.

For Orul, Israel was the only place she and her husband could go.

“My soul is in Israel,” Orul, 55, said through a translator. “It’s a very practical state. It has very warm people. It’s our historic home. I have no home to return to — for now.”

Orul and her husband were two of about 100 Ukrainian Jews brought to Israel on a March 24 flight sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), the charity run by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. Since its launch in December, IFCJ’s Ukraine operation has brought more than 500 Ukrainian Jews to Israel — four-fifths of them refugees from the east. The operation’s goal, director Ofer Dahan said, is not just to get Jews to Israel, but to help them stay there.

“To move to Israel, or a new country, or even a new house in the same neighborhood, is not easy,” Dahan told the immigrants at a briefing just a few hours before they departed for the airport. “So we offer you a network of absorption that will make it easier for you in the first days.”

The network includes a stipend of $1,000 per adult and $500 per child — in addition to the $17,000 that the Israeli government gives a Ukrainian immigrant family of four. The group also provides a head-hunting service that promises to find immigrants a job within three weeks and provides a phone number to call if they have questions. IFCJ follows up with the new arrivals a month after the move.

“The direction is to have them be more connected to the places they live,” Dahan said in an interview on March 26. “When you’re connected to your community, your culture, your decision to leave or stay is easier.”

Many of the Ukrainians are steered toward towns in Israel’s so-called periphery that have especially active immigrant absorption departments and substantial populations of fellow Ukrainians. More than two dozen Ukrainians who arrived on recent IFCJ flights were resettled in Ramla, a city south of Tel Aviv that is 30 percent immigrant and is home to 1,000 Ukrainians. Local authorities provide the immigrants with additional assistance, including workshops on business entrepreneurship and civics, as well as tours across Israel at a token cost. The city also has Russian-speaking staff in municipal offices and schools, and psychologists are on hand to help them adjust.

“Ramla is a city that absorbs aliyah,” said Liron Carmeli, head of the city’s immigration and absorption division. “Our knowledge in dealing with aliyah comes from years of experience, especially with Russia, Ukraine and the Commonwealth of Independent States.”

Despite the assistance, life isn’t easy for the new arrivals. Many have left behind relatives and come with no Hebrew skills or familiarity with Israeli culture. The refugees from eastern Ukraine often have already migrated through other Ukrainian cities. Marina Eifchanker, who manages Ukrainian aliyah for IFCJ, said that couples on the verge of divorce usually split after moving to Israel.

“Aliyah is no small crisis,” she said. “Aliyah does not make anything easier. There are problems of language, housing. Kids go to school, don’t know a word of Hebrew. They were in a [refugee] camp for half a year, far away from everything.”

Before December, the vast majority of Ukrainian Jews brought to Israel were facilitated by the Jewish Agency for Israel, which helped resettle 6,000 Ukrainian Jews in 2014. Some 1,400 others have come since January through the Jewish Agency, which also runs preparatory programs in Ukraine before departure and absorption services in Israel once they arrive.

IFCJ once was a major donor to the Jewish Agency. But in December, the fellowship split from the Jewish Agency, claiming that its bureaucracy made the immigration process too lengthy and that IFCJ’s support was not sufficiently acknowledged.

“In general, we consider it our responsibility to prepare immigrants for all aspects of life in Israel, teaching them Hebrew while they are still in Ukraine, ensuring that they are aware of their rights and benefits as immigrants, and helping them go through as much of the bureaucratic process as possible before they board the plane to Israel,” a Jewish Agency spokesman wrote in an email. Some of the immigrants leaving Ukraine on March 24 had few illusions about how hard the transition would be. But having escaped a place where bombs were killing their neighbors, they were happy to move to a country where they felt welcome.

“When you open your eyes every morning and your place is ‘boom, boom, boom’ every time,” said Andrew Segal, 28, who left Donetsk last year, “if you have the possibility to leave this place, to go to a place where you are safe, you have to do this right this second.”

Jewish woman killed by shelling in eastern Ukraine


A Jewish woman was killed in the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk when shells fired by pro-Russian insurgents hit her home.

Irina Gregoryivna Shelkayeba, a retiree, was killed Tuesday night, Donetsk community chairman Yehuda Kelerman told JTA.

She will be buried Thursday in the Jewish cemetery of Donetsk, Kelerman confirmed.

The attack came less than a day after two rockets hit the nine-story building housing the Hesed social welfare center in the eastern Ukraine city of Kramatorsk. The rockets failed to explode and no one was hurt.

Ukraine rebel leader uses anti-Semitic slur to describe country’s leaders


The leader of Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebels used an anti-Semitic insult to describe the country’s political leaders.

Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, during a news conference on Monday called the country’s leaders “miserable representatives of the great Jewish people.”

“I can’t remember a time when Cossacks were led by people who have never held a sword in their hands,” Zakharchenko added during the meeting with reporters in the eastern rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

Zakharchenko also said that the Cossacks, the country’s historic nationalists, “would turn in their graves if they could see who is running Ukraine.”

Leaders of Ukraine’s Jewish community have rejected claims of anti-Semitism by Ukrainian leaders since President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted nearly a year ago. At the same time, anti-Semitic incidents reportedly have increased in Russia.

Meanwhile, rebel leaders on Monday announced a mass call-up with the intention of increasing their military forces to 100,000 troops.

 

Worst east Ukraine shelling for month; cease-fire looks in doubt


East Ukraine's rebel stronghold Donetsk was pummeled on Sunday by the heaviest shelling in a month, and the OSCE said it spotted an armored column of troops without insignia in rebel territory that Kiev said proved Moscow had sent reinforcements.

A two-month-old ceasefire to end a war that has killed 4,000 people has appeared shakier than ever in the past few days, with each side accusing the other of having violated the terms of the peace plan.

Reuters journalists inside Donetsk, who have been there throughout the fighting, said the shelling sounded more intense than at any time since early October. Sunday's strikes appeared to come from territory held by both government and rebel forces.

Ukraine's military said its standoff with the Russian-backed separatists in the east had intensified in the past week, which saw the rebels swear in new leaders after elections the government says violated the terms of the truce pact.

Ukraine has accused Russia of sending a column of 32 tanks and truckloads of troops into the country's east to support the pro-Russian rebels in recent days. Moscow has long denied its troops operate in east Ukraine, although many have died there.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes Russia and Ukraine as well as the United States and NATO countries, operates in East Ukraine with the blessing of all sides and is widely seen as neutral.

Its statement that it spotted an unidentified armored column in rebel territory helps support Kiev's position that Moscow has been sending in reinforcements to protect separatist enclaves the Kremlin now refers to as “New Russia”.

NO DOUBT

In one 40-vehicle convoy, “19 were large trucks – Kamaz type, covered, and without markings or number plates – each towing a 122 mm howitzer and containing personnel in dark green uniforms without insignia,” the watchdog said in statement.

Ukraine said it had no doubt the new troops were Russians.

“Although the OSCE did not specify to whom the equipment and soldiers belonged, the Ukrainian military has no doubt of their identity,” said military spokesman Andriy Lysenko.

“The past week was characterized by an increase in the intensity of shelling and the transfer of additional force: ammunition, equipment and personnel, to terrorist groups,” Lysenko said.

Reuters reporters in rebel-held Donetsk said intense shelling by heavy artillery continued throughout the night and into the early hours, and then picked up again later on Sunday morning. The shelling could be heard in the center of the city, which had a pre-conflict population of more than 1 million.

“There have been rumors for a while that one of the sides is getting ready to break the ceasefire and go on the offensive,” local businessman Enrique Menendez said, describing Saturday's shelling as a “night of wrath”.

Large clouds of black smoke could be seen over the ruins of the airport, which is still under government control but which the separatists are seeking to seize.

Lysenko said three Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in the past 24 hours and a further 13 injured. The media service for the military operation said two policemen and one civilian had died in shelling on Sunday.

The White House National Security Council said on Sunday it was “very concerned” by the intensified fighting and reports, including from the OSCE, that separatists were moving large convoys of weapons and tanks to the front lines.

“Any attempt by separatist forces to seize additional territory in eastern Ukraine would be a blatant violation of the Minsk agreements,” NSC spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement, referring to a ceasefire deal reached on Sept. 5.

“We reiterate our call on the Russian Federation to honor all of the commitments it made in Minsk, including ending its military supply to the separatists and the withdrawal of all of its troops and weapons from Ukraine.”

OSCE Chairman Didier Burkhalter has also urged both sides to stick to the Minsk agreements.

TENSIONS

Lysenko said Ukraine's military believes Russia could stir up tension to provide grounds to “send in so-called Russian peace-keeping units”.

The United States and European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine since March, when Russia seized Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. Moscow has since backed separatists who rose up in east Ukraine, while denying the presence of its own troops.

The sanctions have hurt Russia's economy, already facing a fall in the price for its oil exports, and have helped drive a crash in the value of the Russian rouble.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday the United States and Russia had agreed to exchange information about the situation on the Russia-Ukraine border due to some “some disagreements about some of the facts on the ground”.

Although Russia blames the crisis on Kiev and the West, NATO has said it has overwhelming evidence that Russia has aided the rebels militarily in the conflict.

On Saturday, investigative journalists published a report on the downing of a Malaysian airplane over rebel territory in July in which 298 people died.

The Bellingcat report said there was “strong evidence indicating that the Russian military provided separatists in eastern Ukraine with the Buk missile” believed to have brought down the plane.

Reporting by Anton Zverev and Kazbek Basaev in Donetsk, Natalia Zinets in Kiev and Peter Cooney in Washington; Writing by Alexander Winning and Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Andrew Roche

For ‘hardcore’ Jews displaced by Ukrainian fighting, Israel beckons


Each time he dispatches a car into Lugansk, Rabbi Shalom Gopin readies himself for hours of anxious anticipation.

The scene of brutal urban warfare between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists, this eastern Ukrainian city now has no regular power supply, running water or cell phone reception. Mortar rounds can fall without warning. Much of the population, once 450,000, has fled.

But despite the risks, Gopin, the city’s exiled chief rabbi, has dispatched over a dozen cars to Lugansk, each one intended to quietly ferry Jews to a camp he runs for the internally displaced in Zhytomyr, near Kiev. More than 117,000 people are internally displaced within Ukraine, the United Nations reported earlier this month.

Over the weekend, Gopin welcomed several cars to Zhytomyr carrying a total of 13 passengers. For Gopin, each arrival brings relief, but also sadness over the disintegration of a community he has spent 15 years building.

Initially intended to provide temporary shelter for Jews fleeing the fighting in the east, the facility, which functions mainly as a summer camp, is now home to 250 displaced Ukrainians. Gopin says more than half have no plans to return.

“It’s a sad reality,” Gopin told JTA. “Many people are now realizing the bad situation may remain, so people who never even thought about making aliyah are going ahead with it. The city, my home, is emptying of Jews as it slowly consumes itself out of existence.”

The Jewish Agency for Israel, the quasi-governmental agency responsible for facilitating immigration to Israel, is expecting more than 3,000 arrivals from Ukraine this year — a 33 percent increase over the 1,982 Jews who immigrated in 2013. More than 1,550 individuals have immigrated from Ukraine in the first five months of 2014 alone, more than double the 693 who arrived in the corresponding period last year.

Hundreds of the new immigrants hail from Lugansk, a city of 7,000 Jews. Many others come from Donetsk, a rebel-held city with more than 10,000 Jews that is under constant shelling as government forces prepare to storm it.

“My sense is that 80 to 90 percent of the Jewish population of Donetsk already emptied out of the city, including my own family,” said Sasha Ivashchenko, who fled the city last month and is waiting to make aliyah with his wife. The couple married recently in a ceremony in Donetsk held with the background noise of bombardments by Ukrainian warplanes.

In Zhytomyr, Alexander, a refugee in his 50s who asked to be identified only by his first name, fled Lugansk after three men with rifles entered his small packing factory in the city’s industrial zone and informed him it had been “commandeered for the city’s defense.” One of the men, who Alexander believes were pro-Russian separatists, asked him to leave.

“So now even if the fighting stops, I expect there will be very little for me to come back to,” Alexander said. “I stayed here because this was my place, my business. Now there’s no point.”

When Alexander left the city late last month, public transportation was still operating. But rail traffic ground to a halt on July 26 following the shelling of the train station, effectively trapping much of the population — including hundreds of elderly Jews — in a city that many warn is the site of a looming humanitarian catastrophe.

Currently there are 47 urgent cases of Jews in need of rescue, according to Eleonora Groisman, the founder of a nonprofit that maintains a database of Jews seeking rescue. Among them is a woman in her 80s trapped inside her Lugansk apartment.

Getting such people out is a complex and risky operation that requires traversing a circuitous route through Russian territory and greasing the palms of forces encountered along the way. Using his contacts with rebel leaders, Gopin has established an escape route in which a driver picks up the evacuees in Lugansk, crosses the border into Russia and then returns to Ukraine farther north in an area not held by separatists.

“You have to understand, the rebel-held area and its surroundings are totally lawless,” Gopin told JTA. “So the car could get stopped and detained or turned back by rebels, suspicious government forces or even thieves preying on the helpless — complications that increase exponentially what is already a serious risk.”

To deal with such possibilities, Gopin provides his drivers with an envelope full of cash for bribes.

“Luckily, we’re talking about bribes at around the $50 or $70, so that’s still affordable,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jerusalem-based organization that has spent millions providing relief to Jews in Ukraine.

To outsiders — and even to some Ukrainians — the decision by thousands of Jews to remain in a war zone seems incomprehensible. But it’s no mystery to Natan Sharansky, the Jewish Agency’s chairman, who was born in Donetsk.

“The Jews that stayed, they are the hardcore,” Sharansky told JTA. “They’ve watched friends and family leave throughout the 1990s and after, choosing every time to stay. But there comes a time when reality trumps even the hardcore.”

Ukraine threatens rebels with ‘nasty surprise’ in new push


Ukraine's government kept up military pressure against pro-Russian rebels on Tuesday, threatening them with an “nasty surprise,” while the militants said they were preparing to fight back after losing their main stronghold.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, drawing confidence from the fall of the rebel bastion of Slaviansk at the weekend, named a new chief of military operations in the east following his appointment of an aggressive new defence minister who again demanded the separatists lay down their arms.

A security official said the government's plan to clear rebels from the two big towns of Donetsk and Luhansk would come as an “nasty surprise” for the insurgents.

But Poroshenko – whose officials have ruled out any more unilateral ceasefires – kept the door open to a further round of indirect peace talks with separatist leaders, naming a possible venue in a government-controlled monastery-town in the east.

Poroshenko on Tuesday visited Slaviansk, which lies in eastern Ukraine's industrialised Donbass region.

“Until today Slaviansk was a symbol of terror and violence. Today Slaviansk is a symbol of a free Donbass and I thank you for that,” he said on the city's main square in front of what was one of the rebels' main headquarters.

Meanwhile, signs emerged of a split in separatist ranks over the fall of Slaviansk with a powerful field commander critically questioning the pull-out from the rebel stronghold.

The rebels' loss of Slaviansk marks a major breakthrough in Kiev's three-month long fight against Russian backed separatists who are now calling in vain for military help from Moscow.

One rebel leader played down its loss as a military expedient and said the hundreds of fighters who were able to move from the town to the regional capital Donetsk were preparing a command structure to defend that city and hit back:

“We're not preparing ourselves for a siege. We are preparing ourselves for action,” Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told a Russian online newspaper during a visit to the Russian capital.

Sporadic shooting was heard from parts of Donetsk overnight. In Luhansk, a city on the border with Russia where rebels also control key buildings, two people in a minibus were killed by a shell that exploded nearby, a municipal official said.

“There is an exchange of fire among the separatists. They are shooting at each other,” Iryna Verigina told a Ukrainian television station by telephone from Luhansk.

Poroshenko, installed in office just a month ago, named Vasyl Grytsak to head the “anti-terrorist centre”, making him operational chief in the drive to crush the rebels.

The move continued his shake-up of the military and security leadership in which he has appointed a hardline defence minister to bring fresh vigour to the fight against the insurgency.

Grytsak, a 53-year-old police lieutenant-general and 20-year veteran of the state security apparatus, replaces Vasyl Krutov, who had headed the “anti-terrorist centre” since mid-April.

Despite some successes against the rebels, Krutov and other security officials have come under criticism for the patchy performance of the armed forces and big military losses including the downing by the rebels of an Ilyushin Il-76 plane in June with the deaths of more than 49 crew and servicemen.

FOCUS ON DONETSK

Pro-Russian rebels have been fighting government forces since April when they set up separatist republics in the Russian-speaking east after political upheaval in Kiev led to the ousting of a Moscow-backed president followed by Russia's annexation of Crimea.

They have brought down military helicopters and ambushed government forces on the ground in three months of fighting in which more than 200 Ukrainian troops have been killed, along with hundreds of civilians and rebels.

The fall of Slaviansk to government forces at the weekend has now swung the focus onto Donetsk, raising the question of how the Kiev military will go about breaking the resistance in a sprawling industrial city with a population of over 900,000.

Security officials in Kiev gave away nothing about their military plans. But a spokesman for the “anti-terrorist operation”, Andriy Lysenko, said: “There is a plan … under which we will be able to liberate these towns (Donetsk and Luhansk).

“We are not publicising details of this plan. It should be a nasty surprise for the terrorists,” he told journalists.

At a meeting on Monday with Poroshenko, Donetsk mayor Olexander Lukyanchenko urged him not use air strikes or heavy artillery to crush the rebels. Ukraine's richest man, coal-and-steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, made a similar appeal on Monday.

“We have a population in the town now of more than 900,000 people minus those who have left. It's impossible to evacuate them and there is nowhere for them to go. Their security must be guaranteed via negotiations at all levels,” said Lukyanchenko, according to his website.

Since hundreds of rebels flooded into the city at the weekend, armed men have been out on the streets, setting up new barricades and checkpoints.

Borodai brushed off suggestions that Slaviansk had been a defeat, portraying it as a successful tactical withdrawal, though Kiev says the rebels sustained heavy losses.

Borodai, who also scoffed at talk of Kiev having resources to blockade Donetsk and Luhansk, said Igor Strelkov, a Muscovite who commanded forces in Slaviansk, would take over as commander-in-chief for defending Donetsk.

But another rebel commander, Aleksander Khodakovsky of the so-called Vostok battalion – or eastern battalion – whose fighters also occupy positions in Donetsk was critical of the decision to pull out of Slaviansk.

“Frankly speaking, we didn't believe them when we got phone calls saying they were leaving Slaviansk,” he told a small group of journalists including Reuters.

“I hope Strelkov did not come here in order to go away,” he said. “There will not be one single commander here … because if Mr Strelkov suddenly chooses to leave Donetsk, with the aim of preserving the lives of the people of Donetsk and the lives of the volunteers, then we will not follow his order,” Khodakovsky said.

In the worst crisis between the West and Russia since the Cold War, Moscow has denied accusations of fanning separatism in Ukraine's east and allowing military equipment and fighters to cross into Ukraine to support the separatists.

Though Borodai said he had been in “consultations” in Russia, many rebels now reproach President Vladimir Putin's administration in Moscow, which is under threat from further Western sanctions, for giving them too little help.

The Ukrainian army's victory in Slaviansk has pushed peace talks involving separatist leaders off the agenda.

But Donetsk's mayor, Lukyanchenko, said Poroshenko on Monday had proposed that a further round of talks, involving the so-called “contact group” and the separatists, should be held in the town of Svyatohirsk, north-east of Donetsk, which is the site of a 15th century Orthodox monastery.

Additional reporting by Thomas Grove and Natalia Zinets in Kiev; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Giles Elgood

Fighting rages in eastern Ukraine town, residents flee


Ukrainian government forces battled separatists with artillery and automatic weapons on Wednesday in a second day of fighting in and around Slaviansk, forcing many residents to flee.

The Kiev government, trying to break rebellions by pro-Russia militias, said over 300 rebels had been killed in the past 24 hours in the “anti-terrorist operation” centered on the eastern town, a strategically located separatist stronghold.

Rebels denied this, saying losses among the Ukrainian forces during an offensive begun on Tuesday exceeded theirs.

At an army checkpoint on the edge of town, heavy artillery shelling could be heard while a plume of black smoke rose above the outskirts. Automatic gunfire rattled out from nearby fields.

Families fled the fighting through a barbed-wire checkpoint with only as much as they could carry. “It's a mess,” sobbed a young woman as she clutched her husband's arm. “It's war.”

Andrei Bander left with his four-year-old daughter. “We are going. We don't even know where. We will head to Russia though because it's clear we need to leave Ukraine,” he said, waiting for a taxi in a small a no-man's land between the two sides.

In support for the Ukrainian forces, acting President Oleksander Turchinov and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov paid an impromptu visit, clad in flak jackets, to another army roadblock on the far side of the encircled town on Wednesday.

A spokesman for government forces said two soldiers had been killed and 45 wounded since Kiev launched its offensive near Slaviansk with aircraft, helicopters and artillery.

POROSHENKO PLAN

Separatists controlling the town since early April denied the government's casualty figures and claimed to have shot down an army helicopter – something denied in turn by Kiev.

“Losses to the Ukrainian side were more than ours,” said Aleksander Boroday, “prime minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. He said nine had died and 15 were injured among separatists forces in Slaviansk.

At a news conference in the regional capital Donetsk, he said separatists would mobilize forces and train volunteers to fight in Slaviansk and defend their positions in Donetsk.

President-elect Petro Poroshenko ordered the resumption of operations by government forces soon after his May 25 election to quell the rebellion by militia in the Russian-speaking, where people were largely unable or unwilling to vote in the poll.

In Warsaw, where he met U.S. President Barack Obama, he said he would unveil a plan for a “peaceful resolution” of the situation in the east after his inauguration next Saturday.

Kiev says the fighting was stirred up by Moscow, which opposes its pro-Western course, and accuses Russia of letting volunteers cross into Ukraine to fight alongside the rebels.

Moscow denies this and renewed calls on Wednesday for Ukraine to open dialogue with the separatists. But the separatists look to Moscow for help.

“When is (Russian President Vladimir) Putin going to come help us?” asked a young man in fatigues at a rebel checkpoint.

ANTAGONISM TOWARDS KIEV

A few kilometers away, a man from central Ukraine said he belonged to a separatist group called the Russian Orthodox army. “This is our land. We will stand here until the last,” he said.

Slaviansk, a separatist stronghold of 130,000, has strategic value since it sits at the center of the Donbass region at the cross-roads of eastern Ukraine's three main regions.

Government forces appeared to be tightening their grip but it was too soon to predict the outcome. A government camp in Luhansk, further to the east on the Russian border, was evacuated after an attack by separatists on Monday.

The military operation has hardened antagonism against the present government that came to power when President Viktor Yanokovich was toppled in February after mass protests in Kiev.

“Our Ukrainian army is not protecting us, instead it is attacking us. Thanks to them I have to flee my own land,” said Larissa Zhuratova, a Slaviansk resident piling onto a bus full of refugees bound for Moscow.

Men were mostly not being let through the army checkpoint.

At a run-down dormitory in a village some 100 km south of the fighting, an eight-year-old refugee mimicked the sound of shelling. “It went ba-boom. We sat in the bathtub,” little Vitaly said, playing with toys gifted by local residents.

Additional reporting by Thomas Grove in Donetsk and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Writing by Alissa; de Carbonnel and Richard Balmforth; Editing by Tom Heneghan

Divided eastern Ukraine city calm after battle, rebels seek Russian help


An uneasy calm returned to the streets of Donetsk on Wednesday after the biggest battle of the pro-Russian separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine, a conflict transformed by the landslide election of a pro-European leader who vowed to crush the revolt.

Government forces killed dozens of rebel fighters on Monday and Tuesday in an assault to retake Donetsk International Airport, which the rebels had seized the morning after Ukrainians overwhelmingly elected Petro Poroshenko as president.

Pro-Moscow gunmen have declared the city of a million people capital of an independent Donetsk People's Republic. On Wednesday their leader appealed anew for Russia's help.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of pushing Ukraine into “the abyss of fratricidal war”, and reiterated his call for an end to Kiev's military offensive. Russia's Foreign Ministry urged Kiev to let it send humanitarian aid to civilians trapped by the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

“The residents of the Donetsk People's Republic are on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe,” said separatist leader Denis Pushilin in his appeal. “We are Russians and this is precisely why they are killing us. We want to become part of Russia.”

The rebels' plight puts pressure on President Vladimir Putin to act, even though he has reduced the number of forces he has massed on Ukraine's eastern border and has said he would recognise the outcome of Sunday's election in Ukraine.

Rebel fighters were strengthening their barricades with sandbags on the road to the airport near the hulk of a truck where many of them were killed by government fire on Monday.

The government assault in Donetsk on Monday and Tuesday was the first time Kiev has unleashed its full military force against the fighters after weeks of restraint. Morgues were filled on Tuesday with bodies of rebel gunmen. Some were missing limbs in a sign of the massive firepower used against them.

The separatist authorities say as many as 50 died, including a truckload of wounded fighters blasted apart as they were driven away from the battlefield. The government said it suffered no losses in the operation, which saw its aircraft strafe the airport and paratroops land to reclaim it.

Poroshenko, 48, a billionaire confectionary magnate who became the first Ukrainian since 1991 to win the presidency outright in a single round of voting, repeated his promise to restore government control rapidly over secessionist-held areas.

“We are in a state of war in the east. Crimea is occupied by Russia and there is great instability. We must react,” he told Germany's Bild newspaper.

“We will no longer permit these terrorists to kidnap and shoot people, occupy buildings or suspend the law. We will put an end to these horrors – a real war is being waged against our country,” said Poroshenko, who is expected to be inaugurated within two weeks.

His swift offensive has thrown down a challenge to Putin, who made defending Russians in other parts of the former Soviet Union a pillar of his rule since declaring his right to use military force in Ukraine in March.

While calling for an end to Kiev's military campaign, Putin has also announced the withdrawal of tens of thousands of Russian troops he had massed on the frontier. A NATO officer said on Wednesday thousands of Russian troops had indeed been pulled out, although tens of thousands were still in place.

Moscow says it is willing to work with Poroshenko but has no plans for him to visit for talks. It denies accusations by Kiev and Western countries that it is behind the rebellion.

“I have no doubt that Putin could end the fighting using his direct influence,” Poroshenko said. “I definitely want to speak with Putin and hold talks to stabilise the situation.” 

FEAR AND DEFIANCE

In Donetsk, the main shopping mall remained closed for a third day and streets were mostly empty. The mayor, Oleksander Lukianchenko, renewed an appeal for people to stay at home and also reported some gunfire coming from the area of the airport.

Lukianchenko's municipal government has remained in place even as separatists have proclaimed themselves in power in the province, a sign of the confused loyalties in the area.

A young man in a helmet at the airport road barricade who gave his name as Yuri said: “I am doing what I can to help our fighters resist the advancing Ukrainian troops. They haven't slept for a third day now and are really nervous, expecting a renewed attack from Ukrainians at any moment.”

Around 1,000 miners bussed in from around the eastern Donbass coalfield staged a demonstration in support of the separatists in Donetsk.

“Kiev does not rule us any more, we will no longer accept that,” separatist leader Pushilin told the crowd. A Ukrainian fighter jet roared overhead and some gunfire could be heard in the distance, apparently from rebels in the vicinity of the security building shooting at the plane.

A miner from the state-owned Abakumova mine attending the demonstration who gave his name as Valery said: “I want peace and to be able to work and make money. I want the occupying soldiers to leave and return to their Kiev junta.”

Russia and its state media which broadcast into eastern Ukraine have consistently described the government in Kiev, which took power after a pro-Russian president fled in February, as illegitimate and led by “fascists”.

But Moscow's position was undermined by the scale of Poroshenko's election victory, and Kiev now appears emboldened to act with less threat of Russian retaliation.

Poroshenko, a former cabinet minister under both pro- and anti-Russian presidents, won 55 percent of the vote, preliminary results show, in a field of 21 candidates. He commanded support across the east-west divide that has defined Ukrainian politics since independence. His nearest challenger won just 13 percent.

The separatists blocked voting in Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk provinces, but the 10 percent of voters kept away from the polls would not have made a difference to the final outcome.

Although many in eastern Ukraine are sceptical of the government in Kiev, opinion polls have shown most favour some sort of unity with Ukraine, despite referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk staged by the rebels on May 11 that recorded a vote for independence. The majority in the east describe themselves as ethnic Ukrainians who speak Russian as their primary language.

“We live in Ukraine,” said Mikhail, 31, a theatre manager. “I work at the Ukrainian Theatre in Donetsk. Would I work at the Donetsk People's Republic Theatre? That doesn't sound so good. I think all this mess is only temporary.

“I didn't vote because we could not vote here, but Poroshenko seems decent,” he said. “We will see. Many were elected as decent and then turned into bribetakers as a general rule. I hope he will not let Ukraine down.”

There was no word about the fate of a four-man team of OSCE monitors missing after approaching a roadblock near Donetsk on Monday. Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said separatists had abducted them. Western security sources believe the monitors, from Denmark, Estonia, Switzerland and Turkey, are being held near Antratsit, a small town south of the city of Luhansk.

Additional reporting by Lina Kushch and Yannis Behrakis in Donetsk, Gareth Jones and Richard Balmforth in Kiev and Stephen Brown in Berlin; Writing by Gareth Jones and Peter Graff; Editing by Peter Graff

The reality of Ukraine’s conflict in a Donetsk morgue


At the Kalinin morgue in Donetsk, where fighting has raged for two days between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists, the bodies were piled so high it was difficult to tell their number.

The separatists say these were wounded men being transported back to the city in a Soviet-era truck when they were struck by fire from the ground and air.

The Ukraine government was not immediately available to comment on this claim.

A day after the landslide election win of new president Petro Poroshenko on Sunday, Ukraine began an unprecedented strike against the separatists, who have been left largely undisturbed since seizing government buildings in Donetsk and other parts of the east in March, while Russia amassed troops on Ukraine's border.

More than 50 of the rebels have been killed in the operation.

As fighting continued on the outskirts of the city close to the airport, people stayed at home. Wide boulevards that are normally full of strolling families were empty, and few cars drove on the streets in the afternoon.

A group of residents who live next to the airport said they spent the night in a cellar amid sounds of fighting and managed to flee the area only on Tuesday morning, leaving their homes and valuables behind.

In the morgue, uncovered bodies showed clear signs of violent injury with heavy weaponry.

It was unclear why most of the corpses in the morgue were piled on top of each other in one room, or why several were laid out naked in a neighbouring room, injuries exposed. There were three rooms in total, with enough space to have laid the bodies out singly and covered.

Meanwhile, on the road to the airport, was a “Kamaz” truck that the separatists use, punctured with dozens of bullet holes and grim signs of carnage in and around the wreckage.


A local walks by a wrecked rebel truck in a Donetsk neighborhood on May 27. Photo by Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

Horrific images from such events have also appeared on social media networks, deterring many residents in this sprawling city of 1 million people from venturing out.

Schools did not close officially, but children either did not come or were sent home early. Shops were shuttered and restaurants locked.

In one school for 6 to 17-year-olds not far from the city morgue, armed separatists entered and demanded mattresses.

Pupils were told to go home and the separatists ultimately left empty-handed.

Later on Tuesday, rumours circulated that the authorities had given separatists an ultimatum to get out of the city by early afternoon, reflecting events of the previous day when fighting began within an hour of such an ultimatum.

Kiev-allied authorities in Donetsk denied any ultimatums had been issued, and though people stayed off the street, one Western businessman travelling from the city back to Kiev said there was no outflow of residents from the city by train.

“Everyone is hiding in their homes. We are hard-working people, we are not used to seeing such things, and the people are just afraid,” said Gleb, an engineer in his early forties.

Editing by Will Waterman

Israel rescues Ukrainian Jews stranded by fighting


Israel's Jewish Agency came to the rescue of two Jewish Ukranian families after rebels seized control of Donetsk airport as they were waiting to emigrate to Israel, an agency spokesman said on Tuesday.

The two families, numbering six people, were stranded at the airport when it was shut down on Monday. The agency then launched a “fast-paced operation, spokesman Avi Mayer said.

The families were driven to the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk then flown to Kiev where they boarded a plane for Tel Aviv, Mayer said. He gave no further details.

The Jewish Agency handles relations with Jews around the world and cooperates with Israel's Immigration Ministry.

Jewish immigration from Ukraine has more than doubled since the start of the year over 2013 figures, the agency said. Israel has seen 762 immigrants arrive from Ukraine between January and April, compared to 315 over the same period a year ago.

The agency is preparing to help facilitate the departure of more families from Donetsk should the hostilities there continue.

Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident who was born in Donetsk, said in a statement: “Due to the current situation in the country we have significantly expanded our activities, assisting those who wish to immigrate to Israel.”

An estimated 11,000 Jews live in Donetsk and about 130,000 in all of Ukraine.

An Israeli immigration official said some recent newcomers from Ukraine to Israel had flown in initially as tourists then asked for citizenship. Israeli law offers citizenship to any Jews who apply for it.

Sharansky himself was jailed for his human rights activities in the then Soviet Union and was freed in 1986 after nine years in prison as part of an East-West spy swap.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Ari Rabinovitch and Angus MacSwan

Political fever rises as Ukraine breaks apart


Cross the Crimean sparkling wine off the list. The lingerie from Luhansk and felt boots from Donetsk could be next.

Financial journalist Yulia Sarotsyna spent a year living only off products made in Ukraine for a relentlessly upbeat blog to promote local brands. On the road for five months, she found toothbrushes from Kharkiv, sausage in the north, and even snails in the capital Kiev: “I discovered that Ukraine produces absolutely everything for a comfortable life,” she wrote.

But two weeks after she finished her project, an uprising forced Ukraine's pro-Russian president to flee the country. Moscow responded by seizing and annexing the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea. Pro-Russian separatists have declared an independent “People's Republic of Donetsk” in the east and seized towns and cities while police were helpless to stop them.

Tens of thousands of Russian troops are massed on the frontier, with President Vladimir Putin openly threatening to invade to protect Russian speakers. A nation of 45 million people on a territory the size of France is falling apart.

Sarotsyna shelved around 20 of her product reviews because the tone seemed inappropriate when people were getting killed.

“We could not even agree whether it was right to write cheerful pieces about our latest offering because it may offend those people who are fighting for the right to live in a normal country and are suffering because of it,” she wrote.

Her later posts were given a more explicitly political slant. One is labeled: “Economic patriotism: How to defeat Russia without leaving the supermarket.”

EVERYTHING IS UNCERTAIN

Not only has Ukraine lost territory and found itself facing the threat of losing more, the crisis has undermined the entire concept of national unity in a country that has struggled to form an identity since emerging from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Questions that once seemed trivial now create intense political passion. Many Ukrainians describe a feeling of disorientation that has penetrated deeply into a young country that was still searching for its place in the world.

“Everything is uncertain now, and that gets to you,” said 42-year-old Oleksander Kleimenov, a television producer in the Ukrainian capital.

“It's hard to figure out who is speaking the truth and who isn't. Whether people are saying one thing but actually mean another, or say one thing to make you think they believe something else when actually they are doing a third thing. It is incredibly hard to know who to trust.”

Ukraine has a thousand-year history as a state, but spent centuries carved up by neighbors Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Austria. Its current borders were drawn by Bolshevik commissars out of provinces of the former Russian and Austrian empires.

It endured perhaps the worst 20th century of any place on earth. Millions perished in a famine engineered by Stalin in the 1930s, when Ukrainian peasants were forced into collective farms and shot for class crimes like owning a cow.

During World War Two, German occupiers wiped whole villages off the map, besieged Ukraine's cities and extinguished the entire culture of its Jews. Then, returning Soviet forces exacted revenge on suspected collaborators. New territories were annexed from interwar Poland and ethnically cleansed. Nationalist partisans kept fighting Soviet rule for decades.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, much of that grim history seemed to recede. Kiev became a pleasant capital city, with bars open late. Ukraine won the Eurovision song contest in 2004 and placed second twice since. In 2012 it co-hosted the European soccer cup jointly with Poland.

But the violent uprising that toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich in February and the loss of territory that followed have resurrected the animosities from its older history. People are now quick to describe their foes with the language of “treason”, “fascism” and “collaboration”.

In parliament debate is often reduced to cat-calling over who should take the blame for failing to crush the pro-Russian uprising in the east and for losing Crimea.

A security source said it was almost impossible to get direction from a chamber so deeply split. At a closed sitting last month to discuss Ukraine's flagging “anti-terrorist operation” in the east, the source said half the chamber supported bolstering it, while the other half wanted it eased.

After spending weeks avoiding the limelight, members of Yanukovich's Party of the Regions have regained confidence and are again asserting themselves as defenders of Russian speakers. While they do not support secession for the east, they blame Kiev for provoking separatism by ignoring legitimate demands.

“The authorities are dead to the demands of their own people,” Mykola Levchenko told a briefing on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, those who helped topple Yanukovich are growing increasingly angry at the government for failing to stop the east of the country slipping out of its grasp.

At Kiev's central square, where shrines memorialize the “heavenly hundred” killed during the final week of protests against Yanukovich, activists like Oleksei Kripkov call the Rada, or parliament, the “Zrada” – Ukrainian for “treason”.

A former miner, he said his house has been burned down in his native Luhansk, near the Russian border, because of his participation in the revolt against Yanukovich. He and other members of Ukraine's “self-defense force” will stand their ground, manning their green army tents and field kitchens until a presidential election due on May 25.

“If the new president is not to our liking we will get rid of him straight away,” the 39-year-old said. “They answer to us, we are the ones who turned things around, we got them in power.”

Two months after the fall of Yanukovich, the protest camp is starting to appear out of place as cafes along Kiev's main thoroughfare again put tables and chairs onto the pavements.

Some residents fear the activists' camp offers cover for criminals and thugs. One gay man, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, said he was attacked after talking to a man in an Internet chatroom. He later saw his attackers milling around the city center, carrying his rucksack and mobile phone.

The police said they had no information on the number of attacks in Kiev over the last two months.

MORE FRACTURES

Plans to hold an election for president on May 25 are likely to create more fractures in society, by pitting groups that had united to oppose Yanukovich against each other.

According to opinion polls, confectionary tycoon Petro Poroshenko, who briefly served as Yanukovich's economy minister but supported the pro-European uprising, is the frontrunner.

Yulia Tymoshenko, a divisive former prime minister who was imprisoned by Yanukovich, is a distant second. Some of her opponents suggest that she might try to prevent the election from taking place if she thinks she will lose, although her supporters deny she would do such a thing.

Both leading contenders are veteran oligarchs who became wealthy mixing business and politics in the chaotic post Soviet years. Ukrainians who hoped for new leadership are despairing.

“There is no choice. I just want to vote for someone who will take on the police and the courts. Without the rule of law there is no trust, and these are the most corrupt institutions,” Kleimenov said.

Sarotsyna, meanwhile, is still urging unity by promoting Ukrainian products. Last month she pitched domestic lingerie as a “pleasurable and patriotic” International Women's Day gift.

“Panties are our secret weapon in the struggle against the enemy,” Sarotsyna wrote.

Additional reporting by Sergei Karazy and Natalia Zinets in Kiev; Editing by Peter Graff

Ukrainian separatist TV channel to combat ‘zombie Zionists’


Ukrainian separatists pledged to combat “zombie Zionists” in what appeared to be a promotional video for a newly-launched pro-Russian television channel.

The video was one of the first materials shown by KPE TV, which was established on Sunday, the news website tvplus.dn.ua reported Monday.

Coming amid a string of anti-Semitic attacks and incidents in Ukraine, the video showed three men standing in what appears to be a broadcast room while boasting about the new television channel.

Twenty seconds into the video, one of the three unnamed men is seen describing the channel as “a powerful blow to the biblical matrix and zombie Zionist.”

The television channel is based in Slovyansk, a city located 60 miles north of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, where three unidentified men last week handed out anti-Semitic fliers calling on Jews to register with authorities and pay a special fee for what the fliers’ authors called Ukrainian Jews’ pro-Ukrainian sentiments.

Separatist leaders have denied any involvement in the distribution of the fliers, calling them a provocation.

Several areas in eastern Ukraine, where many millions of ethnic Russian live, have seen separatist rioting against the Ukrainian government, which came to power last month after the ousting of former president Viktor Yanokuvych in a revolution that erupted over his perceived pro-Russian policies.

Since the revolution erupted in November, Ukraine, which has relatively low levels of anti-Semitic violence, has seen several serious attacks including a stabbing and the attempted torching of two synagogues, most recently last week in Nikolayev.

The Ukrainian government and Russian government officials, as well as their supporters in Ukraine, have exchanged allegations of anti-Semitism.

“For the last two months Russian propaganda has promoted the idea that the new reformist government in Kyiv – which includes a Jewish Deputy Prime Minister, and two Jewish governors in major population centers – is anti-Semitic. Now the truth is out: many of the far-right pro-Russia separatists are anti-Semites with strong links to Russian fascist and xenophobic groups. They are now threatening Jews, Ukrainians, Roma, and other non-Russians. This is the set of allies and agents President Putin has put into play,” Adrian Karatnycky, co-director of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told JTA Tuesday.

A Toronto-based non-profit, UJE engages scholars, civic leaders, artists, governments and the broader public in an effort to promote stronger and deeper relations between Ukrainians and Jews.

Ukraine separatists reject diplomatic deal to disarm


Armed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine said on Friday they were not bound by an international deal ordering them to disarm and would not move out of public buildings they have seized until the Kiev government stepped down.

The agreement, brokered by the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union in Geneva on Thursday, seemed to be the best hope of defusing a stand-off in Ukraine that has dragged East-West relations to their lowest level since the Cold War.

Ukraine's acting president and prime minister offered some of their strongest pledges yet to strengthen constitutional rights to use the Russian language to try and defuse the protests but Kiev also said its efforts to root out the separatists would continue.

The Geneva agreement requires all illegal armed groups to disarm and end occupations of public buildings, streets and squares, but with the separatists staying put in the east and Ukrainian nationalist protesters showing no sign of leaving their – unarmed – camps in the capital's Maidan Square, it was not clear that either side would be willing to move first.

Enacting the agreement on the ground will be difficult, because of the deep mistrust between the pro-Russian groups and the Western-backed government in Kiev. This week has already seen several people killed in violent clashes.

The fact a deal was reached in Geneva came as a surprise, and it was not clear what had happened behind the scenes to persuade the Kremlin, which had shown little sign of compromise, to join calls on the militias to disarm. It rejects Ukrainian and Western accusations of orchestrating the gunmen.

Russian President Vladimir Putin overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy last month by declaring Russia had a right to intervene in neighboring countries and by annexing Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

That move followed the overthrow of Ukraine's pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich after months of street protests prompted by his rejection of a trade deal with the EU.

In Slaviansk, a city that has become a flashpoint in the crisis after men with Kalashnikovs took control last weekend, leaders of the pro-Russian groups met inside one of the seized buildings to decide how to respond to the Geneva agreement.

Anatoly, one of the armed separatists who have taken over police headquarters, said: “We are not leaving the building, regardless of what statements are made, because we know what is the real situation in the country and we will not leave until our commander tells us to.”

Two Ukrainian military aircraft circled Slaviansk several times on Friday. In front of the mayor's office, men armed with automatic rifles peered over sandbags that had been piled higher overnight. Separatists remained in control of the city's main streets, searching cars at checkpoints around the city.

In a joint televised address, acting President Oleksander Turchinov and Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk called for national unity, urged people to refrain from violence and said they would support constitutional change, decentralizing more power to local councils, including over their official language – a key demand of Russian-speakers.

Kiev also said the government was preparing a law that would give the separatists an amnesty if they backed down.

NO SURRENDER

The self-declared leader of all the region's separatists said he did not consider his men to be bound by the agreement.

Denis Pushilin, head of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, told journalists in Donetsk, the regional capital, that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “did not sign anything for us; he signed on behalf of the Russian Federation”.

First, he said, the prime minister and acting president who took power in February should quit their offices, as they took them over “illegally”.

But Alexei, another separatist in Slaviansk, acknowledged that the Geneva talks had changed the situation: “It turns out Vova doesn't love us as much as we thought,” he said, using a diminutive term for Putin, who is viewed by many of the separatist militias as their champion and protector.

In the capital, Kiev, people on the Maidan, the local name given to Independence Square, which was the centre of protests that eventually toppled Yanukovich, said the barricades would not come down until after the May 25 presidential election.

“People will not leave the Maidan. The people gave their word to stay until the presidential elections so that nobody will be able to rig the result. Then after the election we'll go of our own accord,” said 56-year-old Viktor Palamaryuk from the western town of Chernivtsi.

“Nobody will take down our tents and barricades,” said 34-year-old Volodymyr Shevchenko from the southern Kherson region. “If the authorities try to do that by force, thousands and thousands of people will come on to the Maidan and stop them.”

Right Sector, a far-right nationalist group whose violent street tactics in support of the Maidan helped bring down Yanukovich in February, saw the Geneva accord as being directed only at pro-Russian separatists in the east.

“We don't have any illegal weapons, and so the call to disarm will not apply to us,” said Right Sector spokesman Artem Skoropadsky. “We, the vanguard of the Ukrainian revolution, should not be compared to outright gangsters.”

ORDER RESTORED?

President Barack Obama said the meeting in Geneva between Russia, Ukraine and Western powers was promising but that the United States and its allies were prepared to impose more sanctions on Russia if the situation fails to improve.

“There is the possibility, the prospect, that diplomacy may de-escalate the situation,” Obama told reporters.

“The question now becomes, will in fact they use the influence they've exerted in a disruptive way to restore some order so that Ukrainians can carry out an election and move forward with the decentralization reforms that they've proposed,” he said at the White House.

Ukraine's government promises to devolve power to the regions and protect people's rights, notably in the east, to use the Russian language in public life. But it rejects calls for a federal structure that it says could lead to permanent Russian interference in the east and eventually break up the country.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Geneva that if by the end of the weekend there were no signs that pro-Russian groups were pulling back, there would be costs for Moscow, a reference to further EU and U.S. sanctions.

Russia said the threat of new sanctions against Moscow by Washington was “completely unacceptable”.

The Foreign Ministry accused U.S. officials of seeking to whitewash what it said was the use of force by the Ukrainian government against protesters in the country's mainly Russian-speaking eastern provinces.

The Geneva deal did not mention Russia's annexation of Crimea, though Western diplomats said they remained firm that Russia acted illegally and denied they had dropped the issue.

The fact the agreement did not address Crimea could put pressure on Ukraine's interim government from its own supporters, who are adamant that everything should be done to bring the peninsula back under Kiev's control.

The United States and EU have so far imposed visa bans and asset freezes on a small number of Russians, a response that Moscow has openly mocked. Western states say they are now contemplating measures that could hurt Russia's economy more broadly.

Some EU nations are reluctant to press ahead with more sanctions, fearing that could provoke Russia further or end up hurting their own economies, which rely on Russian gas.

The Moscow-led South Stream undersea gas pipeline project to bring gas to southeast Europe is still under way, and Russia has been discussing its implementation with Europe, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said on Friday.

He also said cooperation between Russian companies and international oil and gas majors was continuing despite Western sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine.

Royal Dutch Shell Chief Executive Ben van Beurden said he had told Putin at a meeting on Friday that the company was committed to expansion in Russia, and plans to expand Russia's only liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant with Russian partner Gazprom.

NOT LEAVING

Pro-Russian militants control buildings in about 10 towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their operation on April 6.

In Luhansk, a militia member called Andrei said his group had no plans to withdraw: “Everything on the ground is the same as it was yesterday and the day before and the day before that. We're not leaving.”

Seeking to reassure its eastern allies, NATO announced it was sending warships to the Baltic, while the United States approved more non-lethal military support for Ukraine.

Speaking on Russian television before the Geneva agreement, Putin accused the authorities in Kiev of plunging the country into an “abyss”.

Kiev fears he will use any violence as a pretext to launch an invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russian forces.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Tom Miles, Arshad Mohammed and Catherine Koppel in Geneva, and Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow; Writing by Christian Lowe and Richard Balmforth; Editing by Anna Willard, Alastair Macdonald and Will Waterman

Ukraine’s anti-Semitism: Real and not new


Over the last week there have been disturbing reports out of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, of leaflets being handed out by masked men to worshipers leaving Passover services at the Bet Menakhem-Mendel synagogue.  The leaflets demanded that Jews register with the authorities and pay a fine or risk being deported and having their property confiscated, haunting echoes of a not-too-distant history of the Jewish laws that developed before and during the Shoah.

Government officials in the region quickly denied responsibility and blamed Russian sources for cynical fear mongering.  Much has already been written about whether the leaflets were real or the result of a hoax and, as of this writing, the most plausible theory seems to be that they are fraudulent documents and that the officials named in them were clueless about any such requirements. 

What is less suspect, or even capable of dispute, is the visceral fear that must have visited those who were leaving the synagogue when they were handed the papers, as they were again confronted with an existential threat to their people.  Our people.

[Related: Anti-Semitic fliers in Ukraine: Who is responsible?]

Family legend has it that my own great-grandfather Max – who was born 90 miles northwest of Kiev in the city of Zhitomir, Ukraine – left town alone as a young teen in the 1880s and walked across Europe, making his way to London.  There he found work in a glass factory and earned enough money to gradually bring his brothers, and then the rest of the family, to England.  From there, our family dispersed like branches of a stream, one drifting toward New York, one toward Israel and the third remaining in London. 

In 1996, when I moved 3,000 miles west from New York to Los Angeles, I couldn't help comparing and contrasting the difference of buying a one-way ticket for a six-hour flight compared to what Max's journey must have been.  What would cause such a young person to strike out alone and leave his family behind in the way that he did?

In 2009, I was invited to join an international legal delegation of lawyers, judges and professors to take part in a conference in Kiev.  It was an impressive group that included lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and other jurists from courts around the world.  I was asked to speak to the prestigious group about trademark counterfeiting and intellectual property infringement, a welcome opportunity in my professional career.  However, part of why I agreed to go was that the trip offered me an opportunity to visit Max's hometown.

When I spoke about my plans with Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of my congregation, Temple Israel of Hollywood, he quickly put me in touch with the Chief Progressive Rabbi of Ukraine, Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, who in turn arranged for one of his congregants to lead me on a tour of our ancestral home. 

I have visited Yad Vashem and studied the Holocaust at the University of Massachusetts with David Wyman (author of “The Abandonment of the Jews”), and I and grew up in Riverdale, N.Y., home to a large population of survivors.  As the policy chair for Jewish World Watch, I also drafted the original bill that became ACR 144, adopted by the California legislature, to make our state the first in the nation to designate April as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month.  All this is to say, I have more than a working knowledge of what befell our people during the Second World War.  Still, I was ill prepared for what I saw when I arrived in Zhitomir on the rainy morning of March 24, 2009.

After riding for two hours in the cramped back seat of a small black car, I was excited when we arrived in town.  I suppose the romantic in me was expecting to find a shtetl and lots of brown burlap.  Instead, I found a modern, sophisticated city, rich in commerce and with plenty of modern conveniences.  The roads were well paved, the stores modern.  This was the new Zhitomir, not the city where 10,000 Jews were murdered in pits in 1941. 

Then we turned onto Velyka Berdychivska Street and stopped in front of the Old Jewish Cemetery.

The only path to the cemetery entrance was a muddy one that was puddling in the rain.  Behind unmarked painted-white cinderblock walls, I was shocked to find virtually every headstone toppled.  Surrounding the cemetery property were apartment buildings and businesses with windows overlooking the abandoned destruction. A few stones were designed to resemble old trees with sawed off limbs. Broken beer bottles had been strewn about, and many of the stones looked to have been deliberately broken.  I couldn't help wonder who would inflict this injury when there was such a large potential audience. 

The dates on the stones that remained standing appeared to be from the early 1940s, but the gravestones looked to have been broken more recently.  The littered bottles were certainly fresh.

My guide and I stood in the rain thinking of the hundred strangers buried here, and of their families.  We were helpless.  There was little we could do, so we simply recited the Mourner's Kaddish.

We decided to drive back into the main part of town to regroup and gather our thoughts before trying to find my family's old neighborhood.  But before we arrived, we came across a local Chabad, or at least the shell of one.  The synagogue was abandoned, its windows shattered, the points on the small Stars of David on the gate surrounding the building had been twisted into obscene shapes that appeared to be suffering.

And what was the response to all this?  Where were the police?  Where was the community support?  Nowhere.  No outrage, no protest; the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt put it, was apparent.  We stood in the rain and I photographed the site.  If nothing else, I could bear witness to what it looks like to be in a thriving community that has no place in its heart for Jews, that stands by and watches when the attacks come, that may erect monuments to victims of the past, but offers the living nothing but a shrug. 

In recent months, I have been taken by the reports out of Ukraine about whether the Russian or Ukrainian leadership is attempting to generate faux-anti-Semitism in the current crisis between those two nations, as if to suggest the political finger is pointing to a condition in name only, that concerns something that doesn't exist.  That version of the truth conflicts with what I experienced five years ago on that gray day in western Ukraine.  What I experienced was a haunting quiet, passive acceptance of decimation.  And it was all around us.


Peter Marcus is a partner with the law firm Berkes Crane Robinson & Seal LLP, where he specializes in civil litigation.

Fliers call on Ukrainian Jews to register religion, property


Pro-Russian separatists from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine denied any involvement in the circulation of fliers calling on Jews to register with separatists and pay special taxes.

The fliers were distributed earlier this week in the city, where pro-Russian separatists led by Denis Pushilin this month took over several government buildings and declared their secession from Ukraine as the Donetsk Republic amid a standoff with authorities.

[Related: Kerry condemns anti-Semitic leaflet in eastern Ukraine]

The fliers were official-looking documents that carried what was presented as Pushilin’s signature, but the news site tvrain.ru on Wednesday quoted Pushilin as denying any connection to the flyers, calling them a provocation.

On Tuesday, the news website novosti.dn.ua reported that the fliers were handed out that day by three unidentified men in balaclava masks carrying a flag of the Russian Federation. According to the report, the men distributed the fliers next to a local synagogue. The website quoted unnamed sources from the local Jewish community as saying that the fliers were an attempt to provoke a conflict and blame the attack on the separatists.

Several anti-Semitic attacks, including a stabbing and the attempted torching of a synagogue, have occurred in Ukraine since the eruption in November of a revolution over the perceived pro-Russian policies of former President Viktor Yanukvych. He was ousted from power in February.

Many supporters of the revolution blamed pro-Russian provocateurs for the attacks.

The flyers in Donetsk said all Jews who are 16 years old and above should register at the government building, which separatist protesters are occupying, and pay a registration fee of $50 by May 3.

“Jews supported the nationalistic gang of [Stepan] Bandera in Kiev,” the authors wrote in reference to the Ukrainian Nationalist leader who in the 1940s fought with Nazi Germany against Soviet troops before he and his men took up arms against the German occupation.

The fliers also said Jews were hostile to the Donetsk Republic.

They were required to report any real estate and automobiles, the fliers also said.

Anti-Semitic fliers in Ukraine: Who is responsible?


Secretary of State John Kerry condemned as “grotesque” on Thursday the distribution of leaflets in eastern Ukraine that appeared to call on Jews to register with separatist, pro-Russian authorities.

Though purported authors of the flier described it as a crude attempt to discredit them, Kerry said: “Notices were sent to Jews in one city indicating that they had to identify themselves as Jews … or suffer the consequences.

“In the year 2014, after all of the miles traveled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable; it's grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable,” he said in Geneva, where he met Russian, Ukrainian and EU counterparts to draw up a four-way agreement to work to defuse the crisis in eastern Ukraine.

Kerry said Russian Orthodox Church members in Ukraine had also received threats “that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was somehow going to attack them in the course of the next days.”

“That kind of behavior, that kind of threat, has no place,” he said.

Kerry said all parties at the Geneva meeting had condemned such threats and intimidation.

The origin of the leaflets in Donetsk was unclear.

On Wednesday, local news site Novosti Donbassa quoted unidentified members of Donetsk's Jewish community as saying three masked men handed them out near the city's synagogue on Monday, when Jews were celebrating the start of Passover.

Purporting to be issued by the Donetsk People's Republic, a pro-Russian group which last week took over public buildings and wants to end rule by the new Ukrainian government in Kiev, the leaflet said all Jews aged over 16 must register with a “commissar” at the regional government headquarters by May 3.

Failure to comply would lead to deportation and the “confiscation of property”.

Its preamble explained that action was being taken because Jewish leaders had supported the “junta” which took power in Kiev after the overthrow of the Moscow-backed president.

Kirill Rudenko, a spokesman for the People's Republic of Donbass, said the statement was “complete rubbish”: “We made no such demands on Jews,” he said. “We have nothing against Jews.

“This is just another attempt to tarnish our image … It is a crude forgery.”

Once home to a large Jewish population that was devastated by the Holocaust, Ukraine has seen a rise in attacks on Jews and on synagogues since unrest began five months ago.

Some Ukrainian nationalist groups which took part in the uprising in Kiev have been blamed for fanning anti-Semitic sentiment. Anti-Semitism is also apparent among some Russian nationalists.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in Washington that the United States was still trying to determine who was behind the leaflets and added: “We take any anti-Semitism very seriously.”

An influential U.S. congresswoman called the leaflet episode

“an unacceptable escalation of the crisis in Ukraine and cause for both grave concern and immediate action”.

Nita Lowey, the senior Democrat on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, said in a letter to Kerry that the singling out of Jewish communities for scrutiny and possible punishment “reeks of age-old anti-Semitic policies”.

“All of the parties involved in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine must understand in no uncertain terms that the world community will not tolerate such contemptible and atrocious behavior,” she said.

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, said Russian President Vladimir Putin “has accused the Ukrainians recently of being anti-Semitic, but now it is pro-Russian forces that are engaged in these grotesque acts”.

He urged Putin to denounce the anti-Semitic acts and use his influence to stop them.

Reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Geneva, Gabriel Baczynska in Donetsk, Alastair Macdonald in Kiev and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Eric Walsh