Ukrainian marchers in Kiev chant ‘Jews out’


Ukrainian nationalists in Kiev chanted “Jews out” in German at a New Year’s Day march celebrating the birthday of a Nazi collaborator whose troops killed thousands of Jews.

Thousands attended the event in the center of the Ukrainian capital celebrating Stepan Bandera, a leader of Ukraine’s nationalist movement in the 1930s and ’40s. They held up his portrait while an unidentified person shouted the anti-Semitic slogan on a loudspeaker, prompting many participants to repeat it, a video published by the Federal News Agency showed.

Bandera’s movement included an insurgent army which fought alongside Nazi soldiers during part of World War II. Supporters of Bandera claim they sided with the Nazis against the Soviet army, believing that Adolf Hitler would grant Ukraine independence. Bandera was assassinated in 1959 by Russia’s KGB in West Germany.

Oleksandr Feldman, a Ukrainian Jewish lawmaker and president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, called on authorities to investigate the march and prosecute those responsible for the hateful slogans.

“I still can’t get over hearing it at the rally in honor of Stepan Bandera’s birthday,” Feldman wrote in an emotional post on Facebook Tuesday. “I admit, I’m choking up with tears. I love Ukraine, love the Ukrainians.”

Adding that the chants came from a “gang of a few idiots who don’t represent anyone,” he nonetheless wrote: “I can’t ignore it when I, a man who worked so much for my country and city, created the hundreds and thousands of jobs, am being screamed at by some bastards to leave my homeland.”

Feldman also accused the Svoboda party, a far-right movement whose leaders and followers often have engaged in anti-Semitic hate speech, of being responsible for what he termed “a provocation” during the march.

Bandera is being celebrated across Ukraine as a national hero. In July he had a street named after him, also in Kiev, despite protests from the Jewish community.

Several other Ukrainian nationalists with ties to anti-Semitic acts and policies before and during the Holocaust have been the subject of veneration in Ukraine in recent years, especially after the ousting in 2014 of President Viktor Yanukovych in a bloody revolution over his alleged corruption and ties to Russia.

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

Ukraine claims more territory as fight intensifies with rebels


Ukraine said on Monday its troops had wrested more territory from pro-Russian rebels, advancing towards the site where Malaysian flight MH17 was brought down, which international investigators said they could not reach because of the fighting.

Troops recaptured two rebel-held towns near the crash site and were trying to take the village of Snezhnoye, near where Kiev and Washington say rebels fired the surface-to-air missile that shot down the airliner with loss of all 298 on board, Ukrainian officials said.

One pro-government militia said 23 of its men had been killed in fighting in the past 24 hours, while a rebel commander said he had lost 30 soldiers.

Analysis of black box flight recorders from the airliner showed it was destroyed by shrapnel from a missile blast which caused a “massive explosive decompression”, a Ukrainian official said on Monday.

Investigators in Britain, who downloaded the data, had no comment. They said they had passed information to the international crash investigation led by the Netherlands, whose nationals accounted for two-thirds of the victims.

In a report on three months of fighting between government forces and separatist rebels who have set up pro-Russian “republics” in the east, the United Nations said more than 1,100 people had been killed.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said increasingly intense fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions was extremely alarming and the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner on July 17 may amount to a war crime.

Western leaders say rebels almost certainly shot the airliner down by mistake with a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile. Russia accuses Kiev of responsibility.

The separatists are still in control of the area where the plane was shot down but fighting in the surrounding countryside has been heavy as government forces try to drive them out.

On Monday at least three civilians were reported killed in overnight fighting, and Kiev said its troops recaptured Savur Mogila, a strategic piece of high ground about 30 km (20 miles) from where the Malaysia Airlines Boeing hit the ground, and other areas under rebel control. Rebels denied Savur Mogila had been lost, saying fighting was continuing.

MILITARY OPERATIONS

A spokesman for Ukraine's Security Council, Andriy Lysenko, said Kiev was trying to close in on the crash site and force the rebels out of the area but was not conducting military operations in the immediate vicinity.

He said Ukrainian troops were now in the towns of Torez and Shakhtarsk, both formerly held by the rebels, while fighting was in progress for Snezhnoye and Pervomaisk. The towns are all located in rolling countryside near the wheat and sunflower fields filled with debris from the downed airliner.

Government troops were also readying an assault on Gorlovka, a rebel stronghold north of the provincial capital Donetsk.

“The Ukrainian military is conducting an active assault on regions under temporary control of Russian mercenaries,” Lysenko told a news conference in Kiev.

In Donetsk, local officials said artillery fire had damaged residential blocks, houses, power lines and a gas pipeline. The city, with a pre-war population of nearly 1 million, has largely become a ghost town since rebels dug in for a stand in the face of advancing Ukrainian troops.

In Luhansk, another rebel stronghold, local officials said 93 civilians had been killed in the last month's fighting.

The site of the crash of the Malaysian airliner has yet to be secured or thoroughly investigated, more than 10 days after the crash. After days in which bodies lay untended in the sun, rebels gathered the human remains and shipped the bodies out, and turned over the flight recorders to a Malaysian delegation.

But the wreckage itself is still largely unguarded, and much of it has been moved or dismantled in what the rebels say was part of the operation to recover the bodies. No full forensic sweep has been conducted to ensure all human remains have been collected. Both side accuse the other of using fighting to prevent the investigation.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said its observers attempting to reach the crash site with investigators from Australia and the Netherlands were forced to return to Donetsk for “security reasons”.

A rebel leader, Vladimir Antyufeyev, told reporters in Donetsk that separatist fighters escorting the international experts to the site encountered fighting and turned back.

Antyufeyev, who like most of the senior rebel leadership is an outsider from Russia, also blamed the “senseless” Ukrainian army for trying to destroy evidence at the crash site under cover of fighting.

He said government forces were advancing on Donetsk with the aim of encircling the city.

FURTHER SANCTIONS

The downing of the Malaysian airliner has led to calls for much tougher action against Russia from Western countries who had previously imposed sanctions but only on small numbers of individuals and firms.

European Union member states were expected to try to reach a final deal on Tuesday on stronger measures that would include closing the bloc's capital markets to Russian state banks, an embargo on future arms sales and restrictions on energy technology and technology that could be used for defence.

The EU added new names on Friday to its list of individuals and companies facing travel bans and asset freezes over their alleged involvement in Ukraine. It could agree to extend the list further as early as Monday.

Germany, which had been reluctant to agree tougher sanctions because of its trade links with Russia, said the downing of the airliner meant such measures were now necessary.

The leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the United States agreed on Monday that they would take further measures against Russia over Ukraine, France said.

Russia played down the impact of sanctions.

“We can't ignore it. But to fall into hysterics and respond to a blow with a blow is not worthy of a major country,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Washington says Moscow has stepped up its support for the rebels since the plane was shot down, including sending more heavy arms and firing across the frontier. The Russian Defence Ministry cast doubt on pictures Washington said showed Russia had shelled Ukrainian military positions.

Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kiev, Jane Wardell in Sydney, Alexei Anishchuk and Thomas Grove in Moscow, and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Peter Graff

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

Jewish group cuts funding for Kiev office over criticism of Putin


An organization representing Russian-speaking Jews cut funding for its Kiev office because of the office head’s criticism of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, or EAJC, in February stopped funding its Kiev office, which is run by Josef Zissels, he told JTA on Thursday.

“I don’t know for sure why they stopped the funding, but I think it may be connected to my statements on Russia,” said Zissels, chairman of the Vaad Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, and a vice president of the World Jewish Congress.

EAJC, which was founded in 2002 by Jewish leaders from Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, confirmed in a statement last week that the freeze was because of Zissels’ politics.

Zissels was outspoken against Russia’s actions in Ukraine, including its annexation on March 18 of the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine. Earlier that month, he was among the co-signers of a highly critical open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing him of disingenuously manipulating concerns about anti-Semitism to justify Russia’s actions.

Zissels placed the open letter on the website of the EAJC, though the organization distanced itself from the views expressed there.

In the EAJCstatement, president Julius Meinl wrote that his group suspended funding for several programs conducted by the Kiev office. He said Zissels’ repeated statements are liable to involve EAJC in the political process and are not directly related to Jewish social life.

“The position adopted by [the Kiev office] at a certain stage led to the suspension of the cooperation with EAJC vice presidents, which in turn damaged the Congress,” the statement said.

Zissels would not say how much money was cut, citing confidentiality issues.

“It is unfortunate, but this is not a tragedy because we are working on finding alternative sources of funding,” he said. “We will continue to work.”

Zissels also alleged that EAJC decided on the move “because many of its leaders have huge business interests in Russia.”

EAJC representatives declined to further comment on the issue when they were contacted by JTA.

 

Russia’s Gazprom reduces gas to Ukraine after deadline passes


Russian natural gas exporter Gazprom reduced supplies to Ukraine on Monday after Kiev failed to meet a deadline to pay off its gas debts in a dispute that could disrupt supplies to the rest of Europe.

Announcing that Ukraine will now only get gas it pays for in advance, Moscow put the onus on its neighbour to guarantee the European Union receives supplies that transit through Ukraine.

Kiev and Moscow failed to agree overnight on the price of future gas deliveries, with both sides refusing to abandon well-established positions: Russia offering a discount and Ukraine rejecting it as a tool for political manipulation.

Talks were already difficult but were also clouded by the worst political crisis between Russia and Ukraine since the Soviet Union collapsed, including the shooting down of a Ukrainian military plane by pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country on Saturday and accusations by the West that Russia is arming the rebels.

Russian officials said Alexei Miller, Gazprom's chief executive, and Energy Minister Alexander Novak would meet President Vladimir Putin later on Monday.

“Today, from 10:00 a.m. Moscow time, Gazprom, according to the existing contract, moved Naftogaz to prepayment for gas supplies … Starting today, the Ukrainian company will only get the Russian gas it has paid for,” it said.

Gazprom had demanded Kiev pay off at least $1.95 billion of a gas debt that it puts at more than $4 billion by the Monday morning deadline, or face supply cuts and the prospect of paying up front.

Gazprom said on Monday it had filed a lawsuit at the Stockholm arbitration court to try to recover the debt, while Ukraine's Naftogaz said it was filing a suit at the same court to recover $6 billion in what it said were overpayments.

A source at Gazprom said supplies to Ukraine had been reduced as soon as the deadline passed. EU data suggested that volumes were broadly stable as of 0630 GMT, but it could take hours for data on Russian gas flows via Ukraine to reflect any reduction in supply in Slovakia or elsewhere.

Any reduction of supply could hit EU consumers, which get about a third of their gas needs from Russia, around half of it through pipelines that cross Ukraine. Earlier price disputes led to the 'gas wars' in 2006 and 2009 and Russian accusations that Ukraine stole gas destined for the rest of Europe.

“The gas for European consumers is being delivered at full volume and Naftogaz Ukraine is required to transit it,” Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov told reporters.

Ukraine's Naftogaz declined to comment, saying it would issue a statement later in the day, but its pipeline operator Ukrtransgaz said it was operating normally.

SHARES FALL SHARPLY

Russian shares fell on the talks' collapse, which will increase tensions between Moscow and the West and could make it harder to arrange a truce in east Ukraine, where Ukrainian troops are fighting rebels who want the region to be absorbed by Russia.

At 0740 GMT, the dollar-denominated RTS index was down 2.2 percent at 1344 points, while the rouble-based MICEX slid 1.7 percent to 1,476 points, with investors fearful of growing tensions after the failure of talks.

Western countries see the talks as a gauge of Putin's willingness to compromise and had been looking for signs that he was trying to avert the threat of more Western sanctions.

Tensions were already high following Russia's annexation of Crimea after Moscow-leaning president Viktor Yanukovich was ousted and pro-Western leaders took over power in Kiev.

But they rose further at the weekend, when protesters attacked the Russian embassy in Kiev and NATO released satellite pictures on Saturday that it said raised suspicions about Russia's role in moving military equipment into eastern Ukraine.

The gas talks, brokered by the European Commission, broke down in Kiev in the early hours, with the sides unable to reach agreement on prices and on changes to a 2009 contract that locks Ukraine into paying the highest price in Europe. Kiev wants to pay $268.5 per 1,000 cubic metres of gas – the price it had been offered when Yanukovich was in power – but, in a compromise last week, said it would agree to pay $326 for an interim period until a lasting deal was reached.

Moscow had sought to keep the price at the 2009 contract level of $485 per 1,000 cubic metres, but had offered to waive an export duty, bringing down prices by about one-fifth to $385, which brings it broadly into line with what Russia charges other European countries.

Kiev says that waiving the duty rather than agreeing a new contract price means Moscow could use the threat of cancelling the waiver to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence.

European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said Moscow had declined a compromise proposal during the talks in which Kiev would pay $1 billion immediately and then make monthly debt payments to Gazprom. Ukraine would also pay $385 per 1,000 cubic metres in winter and around $300 in the summer months.

As Ukraine moves on rebel stronghold, residents live with sound of shelling


Only one of the Ukrainian army checkpoints encircling the separatist stronghold of Slaviansk, where a military operation was in its third day on Thursday, was letting traffic through – most on its way out.

Beyond it, the sporadic boom of heavy artillery shelling in the northern outskirts punctuated an eerie calm in the mostly unscathed center of the sun-drenched town, where residents on bicycles and pushing strollers weaved their way through rebel roadblocks of felled trees, sand bags and rusted cars.

Nobody jumped at the sound.

“We're learning to live with it,” Vlad Cherbanyuk, a car mechanic whose 6-year-old daughter was chasing pigeons under the gaze of a Lenin statue in the central square. She was dolled up in a pink dress for her godmother's birthday.

“Before yesterday, when they pounded all day – it was unbearable. We hid for hours in the cellar of the next-door home. You never know where or when it will fall. Every minute, ' Bam! Bam!' … Now it's quieter.”

The Kiev government, trying to break rebellions among Russian-speakers in the eastern flatlands, says over 300 rebels had been killed in the “anti-terrorist operation” since a new offensive in and around Slaviansk began on Tuesday.

The rebels have denied this, saying losses among the Ukrainian forces exceeded theirs.

With violence continuing in Ukraine's east and tension high between Ukraine and Russia, the crisis is certain to dominate diplomatic exchanges when President-elect Petro Poroshenko meets world leaders this week ahead of his inauguration on Saturday.

But at a hospital a few streets away, a bloodied grey-haired man was wheeled in after being hit by shrapnel in the districts where the fighting raged. He wore civilian clothes, rather than the camouflage favored by the pro-Russian militants.

“We have taken in some 15 people today. All with shrapnel wounds,” said Nina Akurova, a white-coated nurse.

Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said by telephone that a “mopping-up operation” was under way in Semyonovka and Krasniy Liman, two districts to the north of Slaviansk.

While many have fled the besieged town of some 130,000, which sits strategically at the center of the Donbass region at the crossroads of eastern Ukraine's three main regions, the streets were alive with people going about their shopping on Thursday.

SUITCASES SELLING WELL

In spite of the echo of the nearby shelling and store shelves emptied of fresh products such as milk, eggs and meat, store clerks stood behind their glass counters.

“Suitcases and batteries are selling well,” said Tatiana Khavrik, 40, while attending to two armed militia men.

In the heart of the city, many homes are without water after the local utility company said a water main was damaged by the shelling. Two men wheeled containers of water home on a pushcart.

“Our families are here, our graves are here. Where would we go? It's scary for the children, for the elderly, but if we leave, what do we come back to: ruins?” asked Antonina, 55.

“I pray that the politicians will negotiate for peace.”

Poroshenko ordered the resumption of operations by government forces soon after his May 25 election to quell the rebellion in the region, where people were largely unable or unwilling to vote in the poll.

Instead, thousands in the east voted in a makeshift referendum on self-rule organized by rebels, some of whom appealed to Moscow to annex the region as it has Crimea.

Although few of them are locals, the armed militia men are viewed benevolently by many residents who are opposed to the government that came to power after President Viktor Yanukovich was toppled in February after mass protests in Kiev.

“The situation is very tough,” said a moustachioed militant, guarding a roadblock near the hospital who said he was from Luhansk, a city further to the east on the Russian border.

“We are getting reinforcements. The locals have now woken up,” he said.

But with fighting at their doorstep and many out of work, some are wavering in their support for the separatist cause.

“The banks call and ask for payments and when we say, 'There is no work, there's a war here,' They don't care.” said Alexander Frayis, 27, a taxi driver in Slaviansk.

Even though she backed the referendum for self-rule, Larissa Akincheva, 50, said, she was no longer sure.

“Everyday things are worse,” she said. “If at first I thought, 'Yes, everything is great. We will be with Russia.' Then when they said they will 'mop us up', I began thinking maybe peace is better.”

MILITARY OFFENSIVE

The government forces appear to have tightened their grip, clashing with rebels in and around the main industrial hub of Donetsk and Luhansk with loss of life on both sides.

But it is unclear whether the Ukrainian military, backed by attack aircraft, is making real progress against the rebels, who are occupying strategic points in densely populated cities.

Young Ukrainian soldiers checking cars at the heavily manned checkpoint at Bilbasovka leading into Slaviansk appeared jumpy and worn out. The 50-some men were living out of eight armored personnel carriers and tents by the side of the road.

“Next time, I won't go. I'll quit. It's not worth risking my life for 600 hyrvna ($50 monthly salary). We are political chess pieces,” a smoothed-cheeked soldier who like others at the checkpoint said he was from the Western city of Lviv, a stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism in a country increasingly divided between east and west.

“It gets dark at around 10 o'clock, then the music and the disco lights start up,” he said wryly referring to what he said was nightly fire from separatists who appeared to come and go at will in the surrounding fields and villages.

Another soldier complained that their mission was doomed as long as the long and porous border with Russia remained easily crossed by what he believes are volunteer fighters and weapons from Russia.

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 has called on Ukraine to open dialogue with the separatists

Although Kiev has promised to clamp down on traffic over Ukraine's borders with Russia, no signs of additional reinforcement were visible on the Uspensk border crossing in Donetsk Province.

A border official, Sergei Pushkin, refused to comment, but said a newly installed trip wire was just for show.

“It's what you can call, an imitation,” he said.

Additional reporting by Thomas Grove; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Eric Walsh

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

Shaken by Ukraine’s turmoil, Kiev Jews form self-defense force


At an empty Chabad school near the banks of the Dnieper River here in Ukraine’s capital city, six uniformed Jews with handguns and bulletproof vests are practicing urban warfare.

Leading the May 21 training is a brawny man who at irregular intervals barks Hebrew-language commands at the men to test their drilled responses to different scenarios, including “ma’atzor” (firearm malfunction) and “mekhabel” (terrorist).

The men, who belong to Kiev’s newly formed Jewish Self-Defense Force, all have some combat skills from the Israeli or Ukrainian armies or background in martial arts, but they are clearly rusty. Living in a country that had been at peace since World War II, they hadn’t expected to have to use their skills to defend their local Jewish community.

But that changed with the recent turmoil in the country. Amid the months of upheaval, there have been scattered attempts to torch synagogues, as well as assaults on Jews. Two rabbis were stabbed near Kiev’s Great Choral Synagogue, one in January and the second in March.

Such incidents led to the creation and deployment of the self-defense force around some of Kiev’s Jewish institutions ahead of the country’s May 25 elections.

“We were naïve, I guess. We had thought this conflict would not affect the Jewish community, but now we know we are a target,” said Tzvi Arieli, the group’s founder and trainer in techniques he mastered in the Israel Defense Forces. “Honestly, we should have formed this force months ago.”

Arieli and his team are worried that their community has become a pawn in the fight that pro-Russian separatists have waged against the Ukrainian government since the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych in February.

“The separatists are on a mission to portray the Ukrainians as anti-Semites and to do that they are targeting the Jewish community,” said Gedaliah, another prominent member of the eight-man Jewish force who requested that only his first name be used. “Failing that, they’d love to illustrate how the Ukrainian government is helpless to protect the country’s Jews and harm its legitimacy.”

But that helplessness is real enough, according to Gedaliah.

“The message we got from meetings with high-level officials is that however much they’d like to protect potential Jewish targets, they are overstretched, understaffed and simply not up to the task,” he said. “They basically told us to take steps to defend ourselves.”

Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a chief rabbi of Ukraine who leads the Great Choral Synagogue, several weeks ago gave the green light to the formation of the self-defense unit under Arieli’s command.

The unit, its members say, has the backing of Ukrainian police.

“We have a direct line to police top brass in case any of our members are detained by police,” Arieli said.

The men are licensed to carry their own personal handguns for self-defense purposes. They also have five bulletproof vests that Arieli, a soft-spoken former emissary to Kiev of the Bnei Akiva Zionist youth movement, obtained from donors in Israel. The team also has baseball bats to wield as clubs but no helmets or proper first-aid kits.

Arieli is currently working to raise additional funds on Facebook to buy gear for new members seeking to join.

At the schoolyard, the men practice running for cover while their comrades fire imaginary shots at an abstract enemy, shouting “bam, bam, bam” while pulling the triggers of their empty firearms.

They are all friends in their 20s to 40s who know each other well, but there is little joking around. They go over the moves again and again, taking care to hug walls as they turn corners with their firearms extended until they secure the entire space.

Staggering under the weight of the 40-pound ceramic vest, Gedaliah shook his head and said, “This is going to take some getting used to.”

On election day, the men plan to deploy around the Great Choral Synagogue and another undisclosed Jewish institution in the city, which has dozens of Jewish institutions.

“We can cover a fraction of the potential targets and always be ready to race to wherever we are needed,” said Meir, a former anti-aircraft soldier in the Ukrainian army. “But we can’t secure all the Jewish institutions in Kiev.”

After separatist votes, Russia urges talks on Ukraine’s future


Russia called on Ukraine's interim government on Monday to debate the country's future structure after separatists in two eastern regions claimed victory in referendums on self-rule.

In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said “the Kiev authorities continue to display a criminal lack of readiness for dialogue with their own people” and urged the government to hold meetings with representatives of eastern and southern regions.

“The preliminary results of the ballot counts convincingly show a real desire on the part of citizens of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions for the right to independently make decisions about issues that are vitally important to them,” it said.

It stopped short of advocating independence for the regions or their absorption into Russia, saying: “We believe that the results of the referendum should be brought to life within the framework of dialogue between Kiev, Donetsk and Luhansk.”

Moscow has amassed troops near the Ukrainian border, prompting fears that it could seek to absorb eastern regions where Russian-speakers predominate after annexing the Crimean peninsula in March.

Russia denies it has such intentions, but some analysts suspect President Vladimir Putin wants to take advantage of separatist sentiment in order to keep Ukraine unstable and prevent the pro-Western interim government from gaining control.

Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Putin marks Victory in Crimea as Ukraine violence flares


President Vladimir Putin flew in to Crimea on Friday for the first time since it was annexed by Moscow, proclaiming as he marked the Soviet victory in World War II that incorporating the former Ukrainian territory had made Russia stronger.

In east Ukraine, where pro-Moscow rebels plan a referendum on Sunday to follow Crimea in breaking from Kiev, at least seven people were killed and dozens were wounded in chaotic fighting in the center of the port of Mariupol.

One of the most serious clashes yet between Ukrainian forces and separatists, it edged the former Soviet republic closer to civil war.

The head of NATO, locked in its gravest confrontation with Russia since the Cold War, condemned Putin's visit to Crimea, whose annexation in March has not been recognized by Western powers. He also renewed doubts over an assurance by the Kremlin leader that he had pulled back troops from the Ukrainian border.

The pro-Western government in Kiev, labeled “fascist” by Moscow, said Putin's visit was intended to escalate the crisis.

Watching a military parade in Sevastopol on the Black Sea, Putin said: “There is a lot of work ahead but we will overcome all difficulties because we are together, which means we have become stronger.”

Earlier in the day, he had presided over the biggest Victory Day parade in Moscow for years. The passing tanks, aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles were a reminder to the world – and Russian voters – of Putin's determination to revive Moscow's global power, 23 years after the Soviet collapse.

“The iron will of the Soviet people, their fearlessness and stamina saved Europe from slavery,” Putin said in a speech to the military and war veterans gathered on Red Square.

The United States said the trip to Crimea was provocative, the European Union said Putin should not have used the World War Two commemoration to showcase the annexation and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the visit “inappropriate”.

The head of the U.S.-led defense pact was speaking in formerly Soviet Estonia, one of a host of east European nations that joined after the collapse of communism, seeking refuge from the power of Moscow, which many in the region regarded as having enslaved them following its victory in World War Two.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, in office since an uprising overthrew the Kremlin-backed elected president in Kiev in February, rejects Russian allegations that his power is the result of coup backed by neo-Nazi Ukrainian nationalists.

“Sixty-nine years ago, we, together with Russia, fought against fascism and won,” he said after a Victory Day church service in the capital. Now, he added, “history is repeating itself but in a different form”.

Where Russia and Ukraine stood shoulder to shoulder in the past against Germany, now Germany was “standing shoulder to shoulder with us”, along with the United States and Britain.

Ukraine's SBU security service accused Russian saboteurs of setting a fire that briefly disrupted state broadcasts.

FIGHTING, BLAZE


A man jumps over a burning barricade outside the city hall in the southeastern port city of Mariupol on May 9. Photo by Marko Djurica/Reuters

In Mariupol, eastern Ukraine's main port on the Sea of Azov, regional authorities said seven people had been killed and 39 wounded in the course of an “anti-terrorist operation” – the term Kiev uses for its fight against the separatists.

Journalist Tetyana Ignatchenko said there was fierce fighting outside the police headquarters and video showed armored cars smashing barricades and soldiers exchanging fire with a gunman on the street while crowds milled around.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said about 20 “terrorists” were killed when pro-Russian militants tried to seize the city's police headquarters. A figure he gave earlier this week of 30 rebel dead in another city was not confirmed.

A member of Ukraine's parliament, Oleh Lyashko, gave a different account of Friday's events, saying eight rebels had been killed in clashes when Ukrainian forces attacked Mariupol's police headquarters to try to drive out pro-Russian militants.

A local photographer in Mariupol told Reuters the building was ablaze and that two bodies were lying in the street outside.

“One of them is definitely a police officer,” he said.

Ukrainian forces later withdrew from the town, a major industrial center with a population of about half a million.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after a telephone call with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday that Moscow hoped Washington would work with Kiev to end Ukraine's military operation against the separatists.

CRIMEAN DELIGHT

In Sevastopol, where Russia's Black Sea Fleet previously had to lease its base from Ukraine, servicemen and veterans marched in a parade before Putin's arrival that also included armored vehicles and anti-aircraft missiles. Banners read “Sevastopol without Fascists” and “It's our duty to remember”.

“I'm here to prevent any provocations from the fascists. I served in a self-defense unit during March, and I consider it my duty to be here,” said Natalya Malyarchuk, 52.

The ethnic Russian majority among Crimea's two million population broadly welcomed the Russian takeover that came in the wake of the Kiev uprising. Given by Soviet leaders to Ukraine only in the 1950s, many Russians long saw it as rightfully theirs. Western powers have imposed sanctions against Russia in response, but reactions have been muted.

Moscow says it has no direct control over the armed rebels in eastern Ukraine running Sunday's referendum on secession from Kiev for the mainly Russian-speaking region.

The European Union is likely to strengthen its targeted sanctions against Russia on Monday, Janusz Lewandowski, a member of the EU's governing commission, said on Friday. Diplomats said they would target about 15 people and several Crimean branches of Ukrainian companies taken over by Russians.

While Putin's redrawing of European borders has sparked great alarm across the continent, U.S. and European leaders are concerned not to harm their own economies by isolating Moscow.

And there is little popular support in the West for an armed conflict with Russia on behalf of Ukraine, a country that is not a member of NATO and where successive leaders have left a legacy of corruption, poverty and feeble state institutions.

In Sevastopol, factory worker Vasily Topol, 31, wearing a white T-shirt with an image of Putin in sunglasses and the words “Russia's Army”, said life was better since Crimea became Russian.

“We have the greatest admiration for Putin, we are morally and materially better off since Crimea became part of Russia,” he said, speaking on an embankment overlooking Russian warships.

EASTERN PARADE


Russian servicemen march during the Victory Day parade in Moscow's Red Square on May 9. Photo by Grigory Dukor/Reuters

In Slaviansk, the military stronghold of the separatists in eastern Ukraine, separatist “people's mayor” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov and a guard of militiamen led a march of around 2,000 people to lay flowers at a memorial to the World War Two dead.

Veteran Anatoly Strizhakov said: “Look at all these people – the children, the women, the pensioners… Today shows we've got the spirit to stand up to whatever the Ukrainians are planning.”

Ponomaryov, who fired a pistol three times in the air during the ceremony, reassured people it would be safe to vote on Sunday. Voters in the two regions, with a combined population of over 6 million, will be asked to vote Yes to the secession of self-styled “People's Republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Opinion polls in recent months have indicated that support for such a move is far from solid and it is unclear how many people will actually take part in voting. A referendum in Crimea in March, which many boycotted, backed secession by 97 percent.

Additional reporting by Nigel Stephenson and Katya Golubkova in Moscow, David Mardiste in Tallinn, Ralph Boulton, Pavel Polityuk, Aleksandar Vasovic and Elizabeth Piper in Kiev and Alessandra Prentice in Slaviansk; Writing by Alastair Macdonald and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Giles Elgood

Wounded Ukrainian mayor ‘stable’ in Israeli hospital


The mayor of eastern Ukraine's biggest city was in a stable condition on Tuesday in a hospital in Israel, where he was flown after being wounded in the highest-profile assassination attempt in the standoff between Kiev and Moscow.

Gennady Kernes, one of Ukraine's most prominent Jewish politicians, was shot in the back on Monday in Kharkiv, and underwent surgery in Ukraine on Monday. Officials had said his injuries were life-threatening.

“He is stable. That is all we can say right now,” a staff member at Elisha Hospital in Haifa, north Israel, told Reuters.

Israel Radio said Kernes was in Elisha's head injuries department and that doctors believed he did not require further surgery for now as his operation in Ukraine had been successful.

After protesters toppled pro-Moscow Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in February, Kernes, 54, supported calls for Kharkiv to become independent from Kiev's new, pro-European leaders.

But he changed his views after being accused of fomenting separatism and when Ukrainian police forced pro-Russian protesters out of administrative buildings in the city.

A Ukrainian local government official said Kernes was either riding his bicycle or jogging when he was shot by someone probably hidden in nearby woods. His bodyguards were following in a car but were not close enough to intervene.

The Ukrainian embassy in Tel Aviv said it was not involved in Kernes' hospitalization in Israel, which may have been privately arranged and funded. Israel Radio said an Israeli doctor examined him in Ukraine before he was airlifted out.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Andrew Heavens

Ukraine peace deal falters as rebels show no sign of surrender


An agreement to avert wider conflict in Ukraine was faltering on Monday, with pro-Moscow separatist gunmen showing no sign of surrendering government buildings they have seized.

U.S. and European officials say they will hold Moscow responsible and impose new economic sanctions if the separatists do not clear out of government buildings they have occupied across swathes of eastern Ukraine over the past two weeks.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Kiev, where he is expected to announce a package of technical assistance. The visit is likely to be more important as a symbol of support than for any specific promises Biden makes in public.

“He will call for urgent implementation of the agreement reached in Geneva last week while also making clear … that there will be mounting costs for Russia if they choose a destabilizing rather than constructive course in the days ahead,” a senior administration official told reporters.

Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States signed off on the agreement in Geneva on Thursday designed to lower tension in the worst confrontation between Russia and the West since the Cold War. The agreement calls for occupied buildings to be vacated under the auspices of envoys from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

But no sooner had the accord been signed than both sides accused the other of breaking it, while the pro-Moscow rebels disavowed the pledge to withdraw from occupied buildings.

An OSCE mediator held his first meeting with the leader of separatists in Slaviansk, a town which rebels have turned into a heavily-fortified redoubt. Mark Etherington said he had asked the pro-Russian self-proclaimed “people's mayor” of the town, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, whether he would comply with the Geneva agreement, but gave no hint about Ponomaryov's response.

Ponomaryov later told a news conference: “We did not negotiate, we talked. We told them our position, what happened here, and they told us about their plans.”

Etherington said he had also asked about people being held in Slaviansk, including the woman who was serving as mayor until the uprising. Her fate has not been made clear.

Separatists told Reuters they would not disarm until Right Sector, a Ukrainian nationalist group based in Western Ukraine, did so first.

“Who should surrender weapons first? Let us see Right Sector disarm first, let them make the first step and we will follow,” said Yevgeny Gordik, a member of a separatist militia. “We need dialogue. This is not dialogue. It is monologue.”

Russia says Right Sector members have threatened Russian speakers. Kiev and Western countries say the threat is largely invented by Russian state-run media to justify Moscow's intervention and cause alarm in Russian speaking areas.

Moscow blames Right Sector for a shooting on Easter Sunday morning, when at least three people were killed at a checkpoint manned by armed separatists. Right Sector denies involvement, while Kiev said Russia provoked the violence.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the attack as a crime, and said Kiev was failing to implement the Geneva deal. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia replied that his government was participating in talks led by the OSCE alongside Russian diplomats, who should have informed Lavrov of the steps Kiev was taking.

One European diplomat said the Geneva deal was a way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to buy time and undermine momentum towards tougher sanctions: “Talks and compromises are just part of his tactics,” said the diplomat. “He wants to have Ukraine.”

SOLDIERS FREE

The Slaviansk separatists released around a dozen Ukrainian soldiers in blue uniforms on Monday, without making clear the circumstances under which they had been held. Gordik said armored vehicles that were surrendered by a column of Ukrainian paratroops last week would stay in the town.

Putin overturned announced last month that Moscow has the right to intervene in its neighbors to protect Russian speakers. He then annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.

Moscow has since massed tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border, and Kiev and its Western allies say Russian agents are directing the uprising in the east, including the “green men” – heavily armed, masked gunmen in unmarked uniforms.

In his latest move, likely to be seen by the West as a further threat to the post-Cold War order, Putin signed a law on Monday making it easier for Russian speakers across the former Soviet Union to obtain Russian citizenship.

Eastern Ukraine is largely Russian-speaking and many residents are suspicious of the pro-European government that took power in Kiev in February when Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich fled the country after mass protests.

Separatists have declared an independent “People's Republic of Donetsk” in the east's biggest province and have named themselves to official posts in towns and cities, setting up checkpoints and flying Russian flags over government buildings.

There is also some support for Ukrainian unity in the region, but pro-Kiev activists have had a lower profile since the separatists took up arms.

One activist who helped organize a unity rally in Rubizhne, a town in the eastern Luhansk region, told Ukraine's Channel 5 television that separatists attacked it, forcing the rally to disperse. Local police said a policeman was hurt when unidentified people tried to disrupt the rally.

In Luhansk itself, Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted a man named Valery Bolotov as saying he had been elected “people's governor” of the region on Monday at a closed session of a “people's assembly” in the occupied building of the SBU state security service.

Bolotov is commander of a militant separatist movement called “the Southeast Army”. A similar move in neighboring Donetsk region earlier this month appointed a “people's governor” there.

The Ukrainian defense ministry said gunmen on motorcycles fired on an army checkpoint between Donetsk and Slaviansk shortly after dark on Sunday. The troops returned fire, wounding one attacker and capturing two, it said.

Ukraine announced an operation to retake rebel-held territory earlier this month, but that modest effort largely collapsed in disarray.

Kiev has declared an “Easter truce”, though it is far from clear it could muster any real force if it tried. The army is ill-equipped, untested and untrained for domestic operations, while the government in Kiev doubts the loyalty of the police.

The United States and EU have imposed visa bans and asset freezes on some Russians over the annexation of Crimea, measures explicitly designed not to have wider economic impact and which have been mocked as pointless by Moscow.

Washington and Brussels both say they are working on tougher measures they will impose unless Russia's allies in eastern Ukraine back down, although building a consensus is tricky in Europe where many countries rely on Russian energy exports.

The OSCE, a European security body that includes both NATO members and Russia, has so far deployed around 100 monitors and mediators in Ukraine and expects their number to rise.

An OSCE spokesman said the mediators were visiting separatist-occupied buildings with copies of last week's Geneva accord to explain it to the people inside.

“It's a mixed experience dealing with checkpoints and so forth and there is a varying reaction to teams. There is a hardened attitude in Donetsk or Slaviansk but some other areas are more accommodating,” spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said. “When teams go to smaller centers people are more willing to talk.”

Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets, Alastair Macdonald and Jeff Mason in Kiev, Dmitry Madorsky in Slaviansk, Alissa de Carbonnel in Donetsk and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; writing by Peter Graff and Philippa Fletcher; editing by David Stamp

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.

The real threat to Ukraine’s Jewish community


After years of fighting against anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and later in an independent Ukraine, the Ukrainian Jewish community is now confronting a new threat. This threat comes from an unprecedented effort by the Russian government and others to paint a false impression of the state of anti-Semitism in Ukraine.

The recent claims of growing anti-Semitism in Ukraine, and of pervasive neo-Nazi ideology in the protest movement and the newly formed government, exaggerate the effect of the crisis in Ukraine on its Jewish community and misstate the facts.

The concerns about the safety of the Ukrainian Jewish community are real. Since the beginning of the unrest in the country in November, four members of the Kiev Jewish community have been assaulted, a synagogue in Zaporizhia was firebombed and a synagogue in Simferopol was vandalized with swastikas and other anti-Semitic symbols.

The two most recent incidents took place in Kiev in recent weeks. The director of the Ukrainian branch of Hatzalah emergency services was attacked by two unidentified men who shouted anti-Semitic slurs, stabbed him and inflicted other injuries. The next day a Jewish couple was assaulted close to the Great Choral Synagogue in the Podol district of Kiev.

Several local Jewish community leaders, however, suggest that these incidents were most likely provocations designed to incite unrest and discredit the new Ukrainian government. The Ukrainian Jewish community is as concerned about provocations by pro-Russian groups, and Russia’s destabilizing role in Ukraine as it is about homegrown anti-Semitic groups.

Contrary to the allegations of growing anti-Semitism in Ukraine, there is no pattern of violence against members of the Ukrainian Jewish community. Moreover, the Ukrainian authorities swiftly responded to the most recent incidents and pledged to bring the perpetrators to justice. Ukraine’s acting prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, met with the leadership of the Ukrainian Jewish community and vowed to increase security measures for Jewish institutions.

The Ukrainian government’s guarantees to the country’s Jewish community are important to help alleviate concern about the presence of some radical elements in the opposition movement and the new government. But while the presence of the Svoboda party, the Right Sector and Spilna Sprava is alarming, radical and neo-Nazi ideologies do not represent the Maidan movement as a whole.

Although the Jewish community had been divided in its opinion of the movement, many Ukrainian Jews participated in the protests against what they believed to be a corrupt and criminal government.

Ukraine has a complicated past, and an even more complex history of ethnic relations. Since Ukraine’s independence, anti-Semitic sentiments have been used during elections and crises as a political tool to influence public opinion.

Similar attempts to use the Ukrainian Jewish community as a pawn in the bigger political game are occurring now.

To respond effectively to the crisis in Ukraine, the international community needs to be well informed and rational, distinguishing facts from rumors and innuendo. It needs to impress upon Ukraine’s new government that it is responsible for guaranteeing the safety of Jewish institutions and preventing legitimation of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

It must also recognize that Russia’s attempts to undermine the Ukrainian government’s legitimacy not only undercut Ukraine’s ability to stabilize the domestic situation, and to address the looming economic crisis and general security concerns, but also affect the Ukrainian government’s ability to combat anti-Semitism and ensure the safety of Jewish institutions.

The efforts by the Russian government and others to perpetuate a myth that anti-Semitism is an integral part of the new Ukrainian government’s agenda are alarming. The United States and others need to send a strong message that just as anti-Semitism and xenophobia are unacceptable, the cynical exploitation of concerns about these issues in order to advance a political agenda also will not be tolerated.


Mark Levin is executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.

Ukraine appeals to West as Crimea turns to Russia


Ukraine's government appealed for Western help on Tuesday to stop Moscow annexing Crimea but the Black Sea peninsula, overrun by Russian troops, seemed fixed on a course that could formalize rule from Moscow within days.

With their own troops in Crimea effectively prisoners in their bases, the new authorities in Kiev painted a sorry picture of the military bequeathed them by the pro-Moscow president overthrown two weeks ago. They announced the raising of a new National Guard to be drawn from volunteers among veterans.

The prime minister, heading for talks at the White House and United Nations, told parliament in Kiev he wanted the United States and Britain, as guarantors of a 1994 treaty that saw Ukraine give up its Soviet nuclear weapons, to intervene both diplomatically and militarily to fend off Russian “aggression”.

But despite NATO reconnaissance aircraft patrolling the Polish and Romanian borders and U.S. naval forces preparing for exercises in the Black Sea, Western powers have made clear that, as when ex-Soviet Georgia lost territory in fighting in 2008, they have no appetite for risking turning the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War into a military conflict with Moscow.

Diplomacy seemed restricted to a war of words. The U.S. and Russian foreign ministers did speak by telephone. But the U.S. State Department said Moscow's position offered no room for negotiation and the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning U.S. financial aid to the “illegitimate regime” in Kiev, which it calls ultra-nationalists with “Nazi” links.

That language echoed ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, who gave a news conference in Russia insisting that he was still the legitimate head of state. Toppled by protests sparked by his rejection of closer ties with the European Union in favor of a deal from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yanukovich blamed his enemies for provoking Crimean secession.

Parliament in Kiev, whose position is backed by Western governments, dismisses plans for a referendum on Sunday to unite the region with Russia as illegitimate and resolved on Tuesday to dissolve Crimea's regional assembly if by Wednesday it had not scrapped the plebiscite. There seems no chance that it will.

Moscow, which to widespread scorn denies its troops have any role in the takeover of the once Russian-ruled region, says people in Crimea, a small majority of whom are ethnic Russians, should have the right to secede. It has made much of anti-Russian sentiment among some Ukrainian nationalists – though many native Russian speakers in Ukraine are wary of Putin.

SANCTIONS, REFERENDUM

U.S. lawmakers are preparing sanctions against Russia and European Union leaders could impose penalties, such as bans on visas for key officials, as early as Monday.

By then, however, Crimea could already have voted – in a referendum not recognized by Kiev or the West – to seek union with Russia. The ballot paper offers no option to retain the status quo of autonomy within Ukraine.

Voters among the two million population must choose either direct union with Moscow or restoring an old constitution that made Crimea sovereign with ties to Ukraine. On Tuesday, the regional assembly passed a resolution that a sovereign Crimea would sever links to Kiev and join Russia anyway.

The Russian parliament has already approved the accession in principle of Crimea, which was handed to Ukraine by Soviet rulers 60 years ago. Still, it is not clear whether or how soon Putin would formalize such a union as he engages in a complex confrontation with the West for geostrategic advantage.

In disputes with Georgia, Russia has granted recognition to small breakaway states on its borders, a process critics view as annexation in all but name. It fiercely criticized Western recognition of the independence of Kosovo from its ally Serbia – a process which Crimea's parliament nonetheless cited as a legal precedent for its own forthcoming declaration of independence.

There seems little chance that Crimea's new leaders, who emerged after Yanukovich's overthrow as Russian-backed forces took control of the peninsula, will fail to get the result they want. A boycott by ethnic Tatars, 12 percent of the regional population and deeply wary after centuries of persecution by Moscow, will have little effect as there is no minimum turnout.

In Sevastopol, the Crimean home port of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, Valery Medvedev, the chairman of the city's electoral commission, made no pretence at concealing his own preference:

“We're living through historic times. Sevastopol would love to fulfil its dream of joining Russia. I want to be part of Russia and I'm not embarrassed to say that,” he told reporters.

There is little sign of campaigning by those opposed to the government line. Billboards in Sevastopol urge people to vote and offer a choice of two images of Crimea – one in the colors of the Russian flag, the other emblazoned with a swastika.

UKRAINIAN TROOPS

It is unclear whether thousands of Ukrainian servicemen, many of whom are native Crimeans but are effectively trapped on their bases and ships by Russian troops and local militia allies, will take part in the referendum.

One sailor, who declined to be named, said he would only vote if he got the order from his commander to do so, a position echoed by many other servicemen spoken to by Reuters. They all said they would vote for Crimea to remain part of Ukraine.

Elena Prokhina, an ethnic Russian planning to vote for union with Moscow, said she feared the referendum could lead to conflict with others in Ukraine, notably nationalists in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country of 46 million.

“Knowing what I know about the fanaticism of the western Ukrainians, we will have to defend our rights after the referendum,” she said. “They won't just let us leave.”

Around Sevastopol, Ukrainian military facilities remained under virtual siege on Tuesday. At an air defense base outside Sevastopol, dozens of men who looked like Russian soldiers were camping outside the gate, while an armed Ukrainian serviceman could be seen pacing the base's roof keeping a wary eye on them.

In the port, two Ukrainian warships remained on alert but unable to set sail because of Russian vessels and a cable strung across the harbor by Russian forces. Relatives of the sailors come to the dockside every day to converse and provide food.

A Ukrainian officer said there was a fragile understanding between the two fleets not to escalate the situation, but he said nerves were frayed: “The Russians have not troubled us until now,” he said. “But all it takes is one order and they will open fire. We won't be able to hold out long”.

CALL FOR HELP

In parliament, the acting defense minister said that of some 41,000 infantry mobilized last week, Ukraine could field only about 6,000 combat-ready troops, compared to over 200,000 Russians deployed on the country's eastern borders. The prime minister said the air force was outnumbered 100 to one.

Acting president Oleksander Turchinov warned against provoking Russia, saying that would play into Moscow's hands, as he announced plans to mobilize a National Guard, though he gave little detail of its size or expected functions.

Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, who will visit the White House and United Nations Security Council this week, said the 1994 treaty under which Ukraine agreed to give up its Soviet nuclear weapons obliged Russia to remove troops from Crimea and also meant Western powers should defend Ukraine's sovereignty.

“What does the current military aggression of the Russian Federation on Ukrainian territory mean?” he said.

“It means that a country which voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons, rejected nuclear status and received guarantees from the world's leading countries is left defenseless and alone in the face of a nuclear state that is armed to the teeth.

“I say this to our Western partners: if you do not provide guarantees, which were signed in the Budapest Memorandum, then explain how you will persuade Iran or North Korea to give up their status as nuclear states.”

Parliament passed a resolution he had proposed calling on the United States and Britain, co-signatories with Russia of that treaty to “fulfil their obligations … and take all possible diplomatic, political, economic and military measures urgently to end the aggression and preserve the independence, sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine”.

But Western powers have been careful to note that Ukraine, not being a member of NATO, has no automatic claim on their help and Ukrainian officials gave no details on what they hoped for. The wording of the 1994 treaty indicates that help is only required if Ukraine is threatened by a nuclear attack.

Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets, Pavel Polityuk, Richard Balmforth and Ron Popeski in Kiev; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Peter Graff

Reaching out to Ukrainian friends during crisis


Two years ago, on a visit to Kiev, following a trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg, I had the privilege of spending a weekend with an amazing Jewish family in the center of what I otherwise remember as a somewhat dark, depressing city.

Although they are foreign-born, they are major supporters of Kiev’s Jewish community, regularly hosting grand Shabbat meals in their wonderful apartment, which is housed in an otherwise nondescript, Soviet-style building in the heart of the city.

In recent weeks, as Kiev went up in flames following the violent crackdown of the now-deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, I often wondered how my Kiev hosts were doing. On March 3, as fears built of a Russian invasion of the country’s mainland, I connected via Skype with the father of the family at around 9:30 p.m. Kiev time.

Out of concern for his family’s safety in what he called a “volatile and unpredictable” security atmosphere, my friend asked that I not use his name.

The family’s apartment is only a few hundred meters from Independence Square, the epicenter of the protests that brought to power the current interim government, led by interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

[Related:  [

Kiev Jewish volunteers undergo disaster training


Jewish volunteers in Kiev underwent training on how to respond to multiple emergencies.

The training was given to about 15 volunteers this week by United Hatzalah and ZAKA — two emergency response organizations from Israel.

“The participants have been trained to provide first aid in mass casualty emergency situations, and include protocols for CPR, treating suffocation, injuries and diseases,” the two groups wrote in a joint statement Wednesday.

The training was part of the Jewish community’s preparations for dealing with emergency scenarios that may arise as a result of the still-unfinished revolution in Ukraine, and Russian incursions into Ukraine last week.

Moshe Azman, a Ukrainian chief rabbi, requested ZAKA and United Hatzalah give the emergency response seminar, which was prepared in cooperation with the Isralife Foundation.

Ukraine already has two unaffiliated quick-response teams that are made up of Jewish volunteers.

“We were pleased to come to the assistance of the Ukrainian community during their time of need and provide the emergency training their volunteers need to handle local emergencies in an efficient and timely manner,” said United Hatzalah’s president, Eli Beer.

The United States and Europe have accused Russia of “aggression” in the Crimean Peninsula, in southeastern Ukraine. Rabbi Misha Kapustin of the Ner Tamid Reform synagogue in the Crimean capital of Simferopol told JTA that Russian troops occupy the city, but on Friday Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russian troops were not in Crimea and suggested the uniformed men controlling key positions in Crimean cities belonged to local pro-Russian militias.

According to Israel’s Ma’ariv daily, several students from two religious seminaries in Kiev have been summoned to appear before reserves conscription offices set up by Ukraine in response to Russia’s actions, which included last week military maneuvers near the border with Ukraine.

The Ukrainian revolution began in November when demonstrators took to the streets to protest policies by the government of former president Viktor Yanukovych, which was seen to prioritize Ukraine’s ties with Russia over its relations with the European Union. Protests intensified, forcing Yanukovych to flee for Russia last week.

A temporary government was installed, and new elections were scheduled for May.

In Kiev, an Israeli militia commander fights in the streets and saves lives


He calls his troops “the Blue Helmets of Maidan,” but brown is the color of the headgear worn by Delta — the nom de guerre of the commander of a Jewish-led militia force that participated in the Ukrainian revolution. Under his helmet, he also wears a kippah.

Delta, a Ukraine-born former soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, spoke to JTA Thursday on condition of anonymity. He explained how he came to use combat skills he acquired in the Shu’alei Shimshon reconnaissance battalion of the Givati infantry brigade to rise through the ranks of Kiev’s street fighters. He has headed a force of 40 men and women — including several fellow IDF veterans — in violent clashes with government forces.

Several Ukrainian Jews, including Rabbi Moshe Azman, one of the country’s claimants to the title of chief rabbi, confirmed Delta’s identity and role in the still-unfinished revolution.

The “Blue Helmets” nickname, a reference to the U.N. peacekeeping force, stuck after Delta’s unit last month prevented a mob from torching a building occupied by Ukrainian police, he said. “There were dozens of officers inside, surrounded by 1,200 demonstrators who wanted to burn them alive,” he recalled. “We intervened and negotiated their safe passage.”

The problem, he said, was that the officers would not leave without their guns, citing orders. Delta told JTA his unit reasoned with the mob to allow the officers to leave with their guns. “It would have been a massacre, and that was not an option,” he said.

The Blue Helmets comprise 35 men and women who are not Jewish, and who are led by five ex-IDF soldiers, says Delta, an Orthodox Jew in his late 30s who regularly prays at Azman’s Brodsky Synagogue. He declined to speak about his private life.

Delta, who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s, moved back to Ukraine several years ago and has worked as a businessman. He says he joined the protest movement as a volunteer on Nov. 30, after witnessing violence by government forces against student protesters.

“I saw unarmed civilians with no military background being ground by a well-oiled military machine, and it made my blood boil,” Delta told JTA in Hebrew laced with military jargon. “I joined them then and there, and I started fighting back the way I learned how, through urban warfare maneuvers. People followed, and I found myself heading a platoon of young men. Kids, really.”

The other ex-IDF infantrymen joined the Blue Helmets later after hearing it was led by a fellow vet, Delta said.

As platoon leader, Delta says he takes orders from activists connected to Svoboda, an ultra-nationalist party that has been frequently accused of anti-Semitism and whose members have been said to have had key positions in organizing the opposition protests.

“I don’t belong [to Svoboda], but I take orders from their team. They know I’m Israeli, Jewish and an ex-IDF soldier. They call me ‘brother,’” he said. “What they’re saying about Svoboda is exaggerated, I know this for a fact. I don’t like them because they’re inconsistent, not because of [any] anti-Semitism issue.”

The commanding position of Svoboda in the revolution is no secret, according to Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Heritage Foundation think tank.

“The driving force among the so-called white sector in the Maidan are the nationalists, who went against the SWAT teams and snipers who were shooting at them,” Cohen told JTA.

Still, many Jews supported the revolution and actively participated in it.

Earlier this week, an interim government was announced ahead of election scheduled for May, including ministers from several minority groups.

Volodymyr Groysman, a former mayor of the city of Vinnytsia and the newly appointed deputy prime minister for regional policy, is a Jew, Rabbi Azman said.

“There are no signs for concern yet,” said Cohen, “but the West needs to make it clear to Ukraine that how it is seen depends on how minorities are treated.”

On Wednesday, Russian State Duma Chairman Sergey Naryshkin said Moscow was concerned about anti-Semitic declarations by radical groups in Ukraine.

But Delta says the Kremlin is using the anti-Semitism card falsely to delegitimize the Ukrainian revolution, which is distancing Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence.

“It’s bullshit. I never saw any expression of anti-Semitism during the protests, and the claims to the contrary were part of the reason I joined the movement. We’re trying to show that Jews care,” he said.

Still, Delta’s reasons for not revealing his name betray his sense of feeling like an outsider. “If I were Ukrainian, I would have been a hero. But for me it’s better to not reveal my name if I want to keep living here in peace and quiet,” he said.

Fellow Jews have criticized him for working with Svoboda. “Some asked me if instead of ‘Shalom’ they should now greet me with a ‘Sieg heil.’ I simply find it laughable,” he said. But he does have frustrations related to being an outsider. “Sometimes I tell myself, ‘What are you doing? This is not your army. This isn’t even your country.’”

He recalls feeling this way during one of the fiercest battles he experienced, which took place last week at Institutskaya Street and left 12 protesters dead. “The snipers began firing rubber bullets at us. I fired back from my rubber-bullet rifle,” Delta said.

“Then they opened live rounds, and my friend caught a bullet in his leg. They shot at us like at a firing range. I wasn’t ready for a last stand. I carried my friend and ordered my troops to fall back. They’re scared kids. I gave them some cash for phone calls and told them to take off their uniform and run away until further instructions. I didn’t want to see anyone else die that day.”

Currently, the Blue Helmets are carrying out police work that include patrols and preventing looting and vandalism in a city of 3 million struggling to climb out of the chaos that engulfed it for the past three months.

But Delta has another, more ambitious, project: He and Azman are organizing the airborne evacuation of seriously wounded protesters — none of them Jewish — for critical operations in Israel. One of the patients, a 19-year-old woman, was wounded at Institutskaya by a bullet that penetrated her eye and is lodged inside her brain, according to Delta. Azman says he hopes the plane of 17 patients will take off next week, with funding from private donors and with help from Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel.

“The doctor told me that another millimeter to either direction and she would be dead,” Delta said. “And I told him it was the work of Hakadosh Baruch Hu.”

Interfaith group sending $1 million to secure Jews in Ukraine


The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews said it will send $1 million to assist the Jewish community in Ukraine amid the country’s political upheaval.

The help, which will go toward security for Jewish institutions and for the elderly and impoverished, was announced Wednesday by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder and president of the fellowship.

“From the many conversations I’ve conducted this week with Jewish leaders in the Ukraine, we understood that the situation on the ground is critical,” Eckstein said. “Rabbis and communal leaders feel under threat and requested assistance with reinforcing the security around Jewish schools and communal buildings.”

The assistance is in addition to the annual aid that the fellowship sends to the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Earlier this week, the Jewish Agency said it was providing emergency assistance to increase security measures for the Jewish community in Ukraine hours after protests in the former Soviet republic forced President Viktor Yanukovych to flee Kiev.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, Yuriy Sergeyev, told reporters on Monday that attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions are not widespread. There is no “state anti-Semitism,” he said, according to The Jerusalem Post, and noted anti-Semitism was against the law in Ukraine.

Acting Ukraine President Oleksander Tuchynov assured Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, the president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine and a chief rabbi in the country, at a meeting Tuesday night that he would work to keep the country’s Jewish community safe, Israel Radio reported on Wednesday.

Ukraine Jews hunkering down amid turmoil


The turmoil in Ukraine has left one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities on edge.

After an outbreak of violence in Kiev last week that left dozens of protesters and policemen dead, President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital and parliament installed an interim leader to take the still-contested reins of power.

Like their compatriots, Ukraine’s Jews are waiting to see what the future holds for their country, but with the added fear that they could become targets amid the chaos. There have been a few isolated anti-Semitic incidents over the past few months of civil strife. On Sunday night in the eastern city of Zaporizhia, a synagogue was firebombed with Molotov cocktails, causing minor damage.

While Kiev has been relatively calm since Yanukovych fled the capital, the situation in the country’s eastern and southern regions, where he has his base of support, is more volatile. Tensions between the local governments and revolutionaries continue to rise in the eastern city of Kharkiv, which has a relatively sizable Jewish community.

“It’s still a very fluid situation,” said Mark Levin, chairman of the NCSJ, an American organization that advocates for Jews in the former Soviet Union. “The big concern, I think, is ensuring that there’s adequate security for Jewish institutions throughout the country, but particularly in the large cities. And I think that’s where much of the focus within the American Jewish community and Israel lies — that and making sure the flow of services continues.”

Levin also expressed concern that with elections slated for May 25, a future government could result in ultranationalists gaining power in Ukraine. Svoboda, a right-wing nationalist party, was prominent in the protest movement, and party officials have expressed virulently anti-Semitic sentiments.

Thus far, though, the conflict has not been marked  by incitement against Ukraine’s multiple national minorities, Oksana Galkevich, a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, told JTA from Kharkiv on Friday.

“The overall situation in relation to the Jewish community in Ukraine is tolerant and peaceful,” said Vadim Rabinovich, president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, in a statement issued Monday. “There have been no mass outbursts or exacerbation of anti-Semitism in Ukraine.”

Rabinovich rejected as untrue foreign press reports of mass anti-Semitism in the country and called them “not conducive to a peaceful life of the Jewish community.” He vowed that the Jewish community would participate “in building a democratic state and promoting the revival and prosperity of the country.”

Estimates of the size of Ukraine’s Jewish community vary widely. Some commonly cited statistics suggest the country has only 70,000 Jews, while the European Jewish Congress and the JDC say there are as many as 400,000.

Over the past few months, many Jewish institutions have simply gone into hibernation, suspending activity during the turmoil. But others have carried on their work under heavy security.

The Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, which runs the Orach Chaim day school in Kiev and several other institutions, has been paying $1,000 a day for round-the-clock security by teams from two private firms, one of which also provides security for the Israeli embassy in Kiev. Together, staff guard nine buildings, including four school buildings, a community center, a synagogue and a religious seminary, according to Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, the confederation’s president and a Ukrainian chief rabbi.

“Nobody goes alone at night, so we have three people doing escorts from the synagogue and back,” he told JTA last week. Meanwhile, security on the “Jewish campus” — the area around Kiev’s Podol Synagogue — is maintained by a team of nine people.

The guards have chased off a few trespassers but encountered no serious threats in Kiev. But the cost — 10 times what the community used to pay for security before the violence erupted — means the community cannot afford this level of security for much longer.

The Joint Distribution Committee also has promoted security measures to protect staff and volunteers. After the firebombing of the Zaporizhia synagogue, JDC reinforced security measures for its charity organization in the city.

The JDC has been continuing to provide assistance to elderly and homebound Jews living in areas of Ukraine that have been affected by the unrest.

With Yanukovych ousted and avoiding the acting government’s warrant for his arrest for alleged murder, many hope the situation will stabilize as the country prepares for the elections. But if it doesn’t, Bleich’s community may not be able to keep its institutions running for another month.

“We already paid the bill for January, and now we have to pay the bill for February, and it’s a big one,” Bleich told JTA on Friday.

His community has launched an online campaign on religious websites in the United States aimed at collecting additional funds. The Lauder Foundation is providing payment for security in three community-run schools.

“Most communities don’t do any activity that involves congregating,” said Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee. In January, his organization canceled its annual Jan. 27 Holocaust remembrance ceremony.

“For a few weeks it’s still OK,” he said, “but if this continues, then it will start to undo the fabric of the community and we will see damage to Jewish life, which has really progressed in this country.”

Rabbi Moshe Azman of Kiev, who is another claimant to the title of chief rabbi of Ukraine and heads Chabad’s activities in the country, advised Jews in media interviews to keep a low profile until the situation calms down.

Hillel Cohen, who is responsible for the Hatzolah Jewish first aid service in Kiev, did not heed Azman’s advice. On Friday, he and other volunteers were driving in the Hatzolah ambulance in an attempt to help Jews in need of medical attention.

But he conceded that driving last week amid the burning barricades of Kiev was at times a blood-chilling experience.

“Things began getting really uneasy when the rioters started setting up spontaneous roadblocks to keep police and army troops from reaching the action zone,” he told JTA. “It was very uneasy, being pulled over in a car full of Orthodox Jews by club-wielding Cossacks.”

While the prominence of ultranationalists within the opposition protests has caused concern, Jews also have been active participants in rallies held in Ukraine’s Independence Square, or Maidan. Tablet Magazine spoke to a source who noted that a rabbi offered a prayer for peace at the demonstration and that a klezmer band performed Yiddish songs in the square.

Bleich, who is visiting the United States, was asked in a radio interview on Sunday night, following Yanukovych’s ouster, about concerns over anti-Semitism within the ranks of the protesters.

“The majority of the protesters are grassroots, regular, everyday old people from Ukraine that were fed up with living in a corrupt society, and they came out to protest against it and to try and make change, and they were successful in making change,” he said. “There’s no question about that. That’s the majority. They’re not anti-Semites, they’re not right-wing, nationalist, neo-fascists or Nazis, the way the Russians have been trying to paint them.”

But Bleich cautioned that there is a minority element within the opposition that is anti-Semitic, citing Svoboda.

“The Jewish community has to stay vigil and see what’s going to be,” he said. “What’s going to happen with this new government? Are they going to be a part of the government?”

Bleich said he has received assurances from opposition leaders that they will not tolerate anti-Semitism.

Ukraine’s Jews again caught between a rock and a hard place


Shortly after the demise of the Soviet Union, I received an invitation to participate in a conference in the newly independent Ukraine. The organizers asked me to appear on the country’s version of “Good Morning America,” watched by millions of citizens. The anchorwoman interviewed me for nearly 15 minutes, in the 7 a.m. slot, neatly sandwiched in between a Bugs Bunny cartoon and the national weather. 

Having arrived at the studio while it was still dark, it was only when I left the TV station that I noticed I had been interviewed a few feet from the site of the infamous Babi Yar massacre, where, in one week during September 1941, at least 34,000 Jews were mass murdered in the ravine by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators. I confronted the head of the conference and said, “I never would have agreed to be interviewed in a building that literally stood astride where so many of my Jewish brothers and sisters were murdered. I would have demanded a different venue!” I will never forget her response: “My dear rabbi, what difference does it make? Here in Kiev, every second stone is dripping with Jewish blood.”

We are now witnessing the latest round of violence and tragedy in Ukraine. And, not for the first time, hundreds of thousands of Jews, perhaps as many as 400,000, find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

To be sure, the Jewish community has not been center stage in the epic struggle between opposing forces. The just-deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych, represents the still-powerful pull of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Putin has always made it clear he will not accept a Ukraine that is tied to NATO or the European Union. So far he’s used the economic carrot of cheap oil and other incentives, but possible military intervention in Eastern Ukraine, with its significant Russian population, cannot be dismissed.

On the other side are Ukrainian activists who rallied around a Euro-centric vision of the future. Anyone and anything insisting on a link to Moscow and the memories of 70 years of tyrannical Soviet rule is out of the question. Unfortunately, among the masses of people who braved beatings, bullets and death, were members of the nationalist Svoboda Party, which has neo-Nazi roots, and some of whose leaders have openly expressed anti-Semitic views.

Jews have not been a key target in this historic confrontation, though after last month’s serious beating of two Jews, and the escalating violence on the streets of the capital, Kiev’s chief rabbi has called on the city’s Jews to leave. Now comes word that on Feb. 23, unknown perpetrators hurled firebombs at the Giymat Rosa Synagogue in Zaporizhia, located 250 miles southeast of Kiev. Not surprisingly, Jewish institutions are bolstering security, and it has been reported that some public events have been canceled. One can only wonder what kind of Purim awaits our Jewish brothers and sisters in Ukraine.


Flowers at the site where anti-Yanukovich protesters were allegedly killed in recent clashes in Kiev. Photo by David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Simon Wiesenthal always said, “Where democracy is strong it is good for Jews, and where it is weak it is bad for the Jews.”

Historically, Jews in Ukraine have suffered disastrous losses during times of upheaval. During the Cossack uprisings of 1648-57, led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, between 15,000 and 30,000 Ukrainian Jews out of a total population of 51,000 were murdered or taken captive. The organized violence against the helpless and impoverished Jews in Ukraine in the 19th and early 20th centuries literally spawned a new word in the lexicon of hate: pogrom. Many of our grandparents fled Ukraine during that time, arriving on America’s shores penniless, with little more than a dream of a safe haven. During the Russian Revolution and ensuing Civil War (1917-22), another estimated 30,000 to 100,000 Jews were killed in the territory of what is now modern Ukraine.

The total civilian losses during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine in World War II is estimated at 7 million, with more than 1 million Jews shot by Einsatzgruppen killing squads and Ukrainian collaborators in Western Ukraine.

I am afraid my academic hostess in Kiev more than 20 years ago wasn’t using hyperbole when she spoke of a blood-drenched Jewish history in Ukraine. We can only hope and pray that calmer heads will prevail and that the forces of democracy and inclusion will win the day there. In the meantime, today’s Ukrainian Jews have an option their forefathers could only dream about. Israel is but a nonstop flight from Kiev. Look for those flights to be extra crowded in the days ahead.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Ukraine president says deal reached with opposition, France urges caution


Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich said on Friday a deal to resolve his country's political crisis had been reached with pro-European opposition leaders after the worst violence since Soviet times, but France urged caution.

After all-night negotiations mediated by visiting European Union foreign ministers, the presidential press service said an agreement would be signed at noon (1000 GMT) but gave no details.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who is involved in the mediation attempt, said the opposition needed to consult.

“The opposition wants to consult with some of its members, which is entirely understandable,” Fabius said in a live interview on Europe 1 radio. “In this sort of situation, as long as things haven't really been wrapped up, it's important to remain very cautious.”

Anti-government protesters encamped in Kiev's central Independence Square were deeply sceptical of any announcement from the Russian-backed president.

After 48 hours in which the fate of Ukraine was fought out in the square, with at least 75 people killed, the Russian-backed Yanukovich was rapidly losing support and faced the risk of civil war or even a break-up of the sprawling country of 46 million.

As the president's position weakened rapidly, the deputy chief of the armed forces resigned and opposition deputies in parliament voted to overturn severe anti-terrorist laws enacted by Yanukovich's government this month and ordered security forces back to barracks.

In another sign of the severity of the crisis, ratings agency Standard & Poor's cut Ukraine's credit rating for the second time in three weeks on Friday, citing the increased risk of default.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, in Kiev with his German and French counterparts, tweeted a few minutes before the presidential announcement that the talks had been suspended.

“After negotiations through the night, talks ended at 7:20 (0520 GMT),” Sikorski said via his Twitter account.

The ministers were trying to broker a deal on a temporary government and early elections this year after gun battles between police and protesters caused the worst bloodshed since Ukraine emerged from the collapsing Soviet Union 22 years ago.

Three hours of fierce fighting on Thursday in which protesters recaptured the square, known as Maidan or “Euro-Maidan”, left the bodies of over 20 civilians strewn on the ground, a short walk from Yanukovich's office.

France's foreign minister left for Beijing during the night after saying there was still no agreement over a proposed road map to ease the crisis, which erupted in November after Yanukovich abandoned a proposed trade deal with the European Union and turned instead towards Moscow.

“There is no agreement for now, the negotiations are very difficult and we are working to reach a peaceful solution,” Laurent Fabius told reporters.

Sikorski and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier stayed on in Kiev on Friday to try to secure a deal.

“We have to find every way to see how we can put a new government in place, think about elections and see how we can end the violence, but at this moment there is no solution,” Fabius said.

PETROL BOMBS

Earlier in the day, riot police were captured on video shooting from a rooftop at demonstrators in the central plaza. Protesters hurled petrol bombs and paving stones to drive the security forces off a corner of the square the police had captured in battles that began two days earlier.

The health ministry said 75 people had been killed since Tuesday afternoon, which meant at least 47 died in Thursday's clashes. That was by far the worst violence since Ukraine's independence.

The trio of visiting foreign ministers met Yanukovich and the opposition after EU colleagues in Brussels imposed targeted sanctions on Ukraine and threatened more if the authorities failed to restore calm.

In further diplomatic efforts, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel who in turn discussed Ukraine with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin “stressed the critical importance of an immediate end to bloodshed, the need to take urgent measures to stabilise the situation and suppress extremist and terrorist attacks” the Kremlin said – sharing Yanukovich's view that he faces a coup.

The White House said Obama and Merkel agreed it was “critical” U.S. and EU leaders “stay in close touch in the days ahead on steps we can take to support an end to the violence and a political solution that is in the best interests of the Ukrainian people”. Earlier this month, bugged and leaked diplomatic phone calls exposed EU-U.S. disagreement on Ukraine.

The EU plan “offers a chance to bring an end to violence,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said in Warsaw, adding that Yanukovich was willing to hold rapid elections to parliament and the presidency – the latter something Yanukovich has so far appeared reluctant to consider, a year before his term ends.

FALLEN COMRADES

In Kiev, demonstrators on Independence Square held a vigil after dark for fallen comrades, lit by mobile phone screens held aloft.

Medics carried bodies on stretchers through lines of protesters who chanted “Heroes, heroes” to the dead.

Though armed militants on the barricades tend to be from the far-right fringe, the opposition has broad support. But many Ukrainians also fear violence slipping out of control:

“This is brother fighting brother,” said Iryna, a local woman walking to Independence Square to donate syringes for blood transfusions. “We need to realise we're all one people.”

Kiev residents emptied bank machines of cash and stockpiled groceries, with many staying off the streets.

In a sign of faltering support for Yanukovich, his hand-picked head of Kiev's city administration quit the ruling party in protest at bloodshed.

Additional reporting by Richard Balmforth, Alessandra Prentice, Vasily Fedosenko and Sabine Siebold in Kiev, John Irish in Paris and Francesco Guarascio and Adrian Croft in Brussels; Writing by Paul Taylor; editing by David Stamp

We care about Ukraine


We Jews cannot forget millennium-long atrocities and persecutions, and we shall never forget about the Holocaust. But we also remember our struggle for freedom and independence. Zionism is a Jewish national movement that proved to be able to revive the Jewish national state on its biblical land. In the time of trials, not many states and politicians favored our national idea. Although almost alone, we fought for our future, our children and our freedom, and we succeeded. Support of a few nations in the War of Independence in 1948 was of utmost importance. The post-Holocaust Jewish nation enduring enormous difficulties prevailed. The State of Israel is an everlasting proof of the implementation of a national idea.

Nowadays, Ukraine is in flames. Its capital, Kiev, resembles a war zone. Ukrainian people rose up on Nov. 21, 2013, being deceived by their own government. This government was to sign an Agreement of Association with the European Union. A week before the Euro-integration summit in Vilnius, the government withdrew from the agreement. Political analysts regard this decision to have been a dictate from President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin. Instead of Euro-integration, an association with the Russian-led Custom Union came up as an alternative plan. Ukraine is an important factor in Russia’s geopolitical games of reviving the empire. Without Ukraine, Russia, in political terms, is reduced to an Asian power. For Putin, an image of Ukraine as a member of European Union equates with a geostrategic failure of retaining the former Soviet borders intact. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych accepted the Russian monetary credit in the amount of $15 billion that has negated a prospective Euro-integration.

A new generation of Ukrainians gathered at the Independence Square in Kiev in peaceful protest against the betrayal of their dreams to become part of Europe and no longer be politically and economically subordinated to the Russian Federation. During the protests, known as Euromaidan, the riot police brutally attacked and dispersed young people, using inadequate force. Many were severely beaten and ended up in hospitals. The violent force by the authorities only caused a rising resistance. 

Peaceful protesters ultimately lost patience on Jan. 16, when the government enacted laws resembling martial law. These laws were adopted with all possible violations of parliamentary procedures and regulations and by its very nature are unconstitutional. People took the protests to the streets. They began building a barricade in the government quarter and open clashes with riot police and military interior forces commenced. Since then, there have been at least five dead and many wounded on the protesters’ side.

Ukrainian people in the regions followed suit and started taking over the governmental administrative building, forcing the governors of the ruling political party (the Party of Regions) to resign. The government answered with unleashing the war-like police and internal military forces.

The world must realize that Ukrainian nationalists or Ukrainian radicals initiated the conflict. They are not seeking the power. It is true — they are in the first rows, confronting the riot police and internal military forces. However thousands of ordinary Ukrainians from all over the country are on the front lines as well. They are fighting for a free and democratic country; they are against the corrupt Russian government; they want to build a nation and an independent state. They want a secure future for their children.

The time has come to forget the old Soviet propaganda myths about the Ukrainian nationalists and Ukraine in general. Ukrainians, like Jews, want to live in a country of their own where they can freely speak the Ukrainian language, where they can make a European choice and ultimately live in a country no longer under Russian dictate.

We, the Jews, care about Ukrainian independence and Ukraine people. We can say, in the time of trials, the Jews are on the side of a free and democratic Ukraine. 


Dr. Vladimir Melamed is Director of Archive, Library and Historical Curatorship at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust

Jewish Agency to hold Kiev meeting despite qualms by some local Jews


The Jewish Agency and a chief rabbi of Ukraine have disputed claims that Kiev is ill-suited for hosting a Jewish Agency event due to rising xenophobia and civil liberties issues.

The allegations came in a letter to the Jewish Agency co-signed by 14 people, including Euro-Asian Jewish Congress President Vadim Shulman and Josef Zissels, chairman of Ukraine’s Vaad Association of Jewish Organizations.

Holding the Jewish Agency Board of Governers meeting in June in Kiev would “threaten the reputation of JAFI itself and Ukrainian Jewish community” and “provoke an increase in anti-Semitic attitudes,” read the letter obtained by JTA, which was sent last month to Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The authors wrote that “over the last three years, a great decline in the human rights situation has been recorded in Ukraine,” and that last year’s elections “are not indicative of the true choice of the Ukrainian electorate.” Gains by the ultra-nationalist Svoboda party with its anti-Semitic overtones have been an “indirect consequence” of this, they wrote.

But their claims have been disputed by Sharansky and Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a chief rabbi of Ukraine and president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, an organization which, along with Zissels’s Vaad, is an affiliate of European Jewish Congress.

“We believe it to be both wrong and irresponsible to politicize the upcoming meeting by relating it to issues of Ukrainian political discourse,” Bleich wrote in a statement.

Sharansky and Jewish Agency Board of Governors Chair James Tisch wrote: “It is important for the Board of Governors to demonstrate that the Jewish Agency is invested in the continued success of the Ukraine’s Jewish community.”

The agency’s statement also said the board would be hosted not by the government but by the Jewish community and that board members would meet with opposition as well as government figures and express their concern about “manifestations of anti-Semitism in the public and political spheres.”

Ukrainian Jewish businessman Vadim Rabinovich survives explosion


Vadim Rabinovich, a Jewish Ukrainian philanthropist and businessman, survived an apparent attempt on his life in Kiev.

According to the online edition of the Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, an explosive device was hurled into Rabinovich’s car near the Klovska metro station on Monday.

The daily said it was not yet clear whether Rabinovich, co-chairman of the European Jewish Parliament and president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, was in the car at the time of the explosion.

A Rabinovich associate told JTA that the businessman gave a statement to Ukrainian police. The identity of any attacker or motive is not known.

Igor Mihalko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian police, was quoted as telling the news site Comments.ua that no one was hurt in the explosion.

An unidentified woman told police she saw a young man of medium height wearing a baseball cap that covered most of his face flee the scene immediately after the explosion, the Comments.ua reported. Other witnesses said the explosion was strong enough to shatter the windows of nearby houses.

In addition to being involved in Jewish organizations, Rabinovich, 60, is an importer, energy magnate and president of FC Arsenal Kyiv, a professional soccer club in Kiev.

Jewish man in Kiev attacked after seder


A Jewish man was attacked after he left a seder at a synagogue in Kiev.

The man, 25, was found on Sunday night, nearly a full day after the attack, with serious head injuries believed to have been inflicted by glass bottles, Ynet reported. He is in critical condition in a Kiev hospital.

After a day of searching he was found in an area near the synagogue, where attacks by neo-Nazi groups have occurred in the past, Yaakov Zilberman, director of the Jewish community in Kiev, told Ynet.

The Kiev Jewish community is working to have the injured man flown to Israel for treatment.

Local police are reluctant to investigate the attack as an anti-Semitic hate crime, Zilberman told Ynet.

Zilberman says he believes the man was targeted because he was wearing a yarmulke when he left the synagogue.

Graphic photos chronicle Babi Yar massacre


A graphic photo exhibit chronicling the Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar is on display at a meeting against anti-Semitism in Canada.

The Interparliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism, being held in Ottawa through Tuesday, is focusing on such issues as anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of intolerance.

The Ukrainian delegation to the conference, headed by Jewish lawmaker Oleksandr Feldman, created the exhibit “to remind the worldwide participants that words and ideologies have consequences, and in the case of the Holocaust resulted in the murder of 6 million Jewish men, women and children in Europe,” Feldman said.

Babi Yar, a ravine in Ukraine just outside Kiev, will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the mass murder, in which 150,000 Jews were slaughtered over a three-day period, next year.

Feldman is creating a museum to record details of the massacre, and one of its central goals will be to locate and identify tens of unmarked mass graves from the Nazi era in Ukraine and Germany.

Among those participating in the second gathering of the Interparliamentary Coalition is Hannah Rosenthal, the top U.S. official monitoring and combating anti-Semitism.

The first gathering of the group, last year in London, resulted in the “London Declaration,” signed by lawmakers from around the world who pledged to “affirm democratic and human values, build societies based on respect and citizenship, and combat any manifestations of anti-Semitism and discrimination.”

School vandalism, flag burnings strike Kiev


A Jewish school in Kiev was vandalized, apparently by members of a local neo-Nazi group.

Vandals broke into the school building Tuesday night, spray-painting swastikas and slogans such as “Death to Jews” and “Death to Israel” on the walls, Chabad.info reported Wednesday. The name of a known neo-Nazi group also was painted on the wall, according to the report.

The school is run by the local Chabad organization.

Meanwhile, during an April 15 rally in Kiev, members of a far-right group burned Israeli, Russian and Polish flags.

The flag burning took place during a gathering of the Patriots of Ukraine, which regularly holds racist and anti-Semitic demonstrations, according to the Union of Councils for Jews in the former Soviet Union, citing a Ukrainian Jewish news Web site.

The gathering was held to mark the 242nd anniversary of an uprising by Ukrainian Cossacks against Polish landowners.

Police reportedly detained two of the demonstrators, who were charged with disobeying police. The demonstrators were not charged with a hate crime for the flag burning, according to UCSJ.