That's about the most depressing headline we could imagine, but there might be something to it. Blackwater in Ukraine? That's the claim in German newspaper Bild am Sonntag, citing unnamed sources in the BND, Germany's intelligence agency. Actually, the company is now called Academi in the latest name-change game to stay ahead of bad press, and it is said to have 400 "mercenaries" in Ukraine. The Russian official press, e.g. Russia Today, jumps on the claims with glee, saying the mercenaries are "taking part in the Ukrainian military operation against anti-government protesters in southeastern regions of the country." (Note that the armed separatists are referred to as "protesters" by the same RT that played up the role of militias in the Maidan protests.) The claims have also been seized upon by the foreign press that is sympathetic to Russia (TeleSur) and the "alternative" press in the West (World Socialist Website, Indymedia). Acedmi in a press release denies everything, and also states that it "has no relationship with any entity named Blackwater or with the former owner of Blackwater, Erik Prince." But later in the press release, it states: "Erik Prince sold the company (which he had renamed 'Xe') in 2010 and retained the rights to the 'Blackwater' name. The new management of ACADEMI has made tremendous efforts to build a responsible, transparent company ethos..." So, it actually is the same company, under new management. Back on March 13, RT also aired claims that "mercenaries" were backing up the Maidan protesters—based on an interview with Yanukovich's ex-intelligence chief, Aleksandr Yakimenko, not exactly the most objective source.
The ominous story in the Los Angeles Times today, "Russia tests missiles as Ukraine militants defy call for vote delay," opens, without explanation: "A day after claiming to have withdrawn thousands of Russian troops from Ukraine's border, Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin presided over East bloc military maneuvers Thursday that included tests of Russia’s nuclear forces and live firing of intercontinental ballistic missiles." Excuse us? "East bloc"? What "East bloc"? The Warsaw Pact has been defunct since 1991, as the LA Times could easily glean from goddam Wikipedia. There isn't a clue in the text of the article as to what they mean by "East bloc," or whether any countries other than Russia participated in the maneuvers. The whiff of Cold War nostalgia around the Ukraine crisis is getting out of hand.
Ukraine's resurgent far right is sure providing plenty of fodder for the Russian propaganda machine that seeks to protray all Ukrainian nationalism as "fascism." Russia Today gleefully informs us that hundreds marched in the western city of Lviv last week to mark the anniversary of the formation of a Ukrainian SS division, which fought for the Nazis against the Soviet Union during World War II. Some 500 took to the streets to celebrate the creation of the SS Galician Division on April 28, 1943. Photos show marchers holding aloft banners with the division's insignia, a gold lion on a blue field (the national colors of Ukraine). The march culminated with a rally at the city's monument to Stepan Bandera, the wartime Ukrainian nationalist leader who briefly collaborated with the Nazis (although he had nothing to do with the Galician Division). But almost as ominous as the content of the RT report is its own terminology—refering to the city by its Soviet-era name of Lvov. Only the photo captions, lifed from AFP, use the contemporary name of Lviv. Some explanation is in order...
Ukraine's anarcho-syndicalist Autonomous Workers' Union has issued a "Statement on the Odessa Tragedy," calling the horrific May 2 violence there a "clash of right-wing combatants," with "football hooligans and Euromaidan self-defence on the one side; Stalinists, pro-Russian paramilitaries and local police force on the other." The clash climaxed when the pro-Russian ("Antimaidan") protesters fled into the city's Trade Union house, and barricaded the doors. The pro-Ukrainian forces besieged it; Molotov cocktails were thrown "both to and fro the roof of the building," which eventually went up in flames. Some 40 of those inside were killed, either burned or sufficating in the smoke.
Reuters reported May 5 that Russian pipeline monopoly Transneft stopped diesel shipments to Ukraine and Hungary last month "due to uncertainties over the pipe's ownership," with the Ukrainian prosecutor's office filing a claim of ownership over the Soviet-era duct. We are actually asked to believe that the stoppage is "unrelated to the Ukraine crisis." Meawnhile, Voice of Russia reports that Hungary is stepping in as the protector of minorities in the Zakarpatie region of western Ukraine (also rendered Transcarpathia). These are principally the ethnic Hungarians and the Rusyns (also rendered Ruthenians). The regional parliament, the Hungarian-Rusyn National Congress, is now seeking autonomous legislative powers under a proposed "Transcarpathian Regional Confederation of the Hungarian and Rusyn People." While ethnic Hungarians are considered a "national minority" in Ukraine, the Rusyns do not have such status, according to Denis Kiryukhin of the Kiev Center for Political Studies and Conflictology. "Problems with the Rusyns have come up for several years already," Kiryukhin said. "That is the only ethnic minority in Ukraine, which Kiev has always refused to acknowledge. The relations between Rusyns and Ukrainians have been complicated and remain such to date." Despite the fact that Ukraine does not recognize dual citizenship, Budapest has started issuing passports to residents of Zakarpatie—an open affront to Kiev.
Foreign Policy reports that the newly declared "People's Republics" of Donetsk, Luhansk and Odessa in eastern Ukraine have announced the return of "Novorossiya" (New Russia)—and are arguing among themselves as to who shall lead it. In the running is one Valery Kaurov, the Moscow-exiled leader of the Union of Orthodox Citizens of Ukraine—and a former businessman who is wanted in Ukraine for his calls for separatism. The Washington Post adds that Russian President Vladimir Putin has embraced the "Novorossiya" concept, recently saying: "I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya back in the tsarist days—Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa—were [sic] not part of Ukraine back then. The center of that territory was Novorossiysk, so the region is called Novorossiya. Russia lost these territories for various reasons, but the people remained."
Russia's upper house of parliament on April 29 approved a set of bills that apply new restrictions on the Internet and blogging, a move widely criticized by both pro-democracy activists and Russia's technology sector alike. Critics of the draft laws affecting the Internet, which are expected to be signed by President Vladimir Putin soon and enforced in August, have expressed fear that the legislation is an attempt by Putin to silence opponents on the Internet. The bill causing the most concern leaves bloggers subject to greater regulation and legal liability, equating them to media outlets. This bill, which would require bloggers with 3,000 or more page visits per day to reveal their identities and abide by many of the same requirements as the mass media, is one of three bills in the package that impose control over the dissemination of information on the Internet and online payments and inflicts harsher punishment for terrorism and extremism. The legislation also requires that social networking sites and blog hosts store data on site users for at least six months in case the authorities need access for investigations. Supporters of the bill, including the United Russia party, have stated that the restrictions are needed to fight online extremism.
What are we to make of this? The Czech-based Roma website Romea.cz cites a report on German news agency Die Welt about an April 22 attack on Roma homes in the eastern Ukraine town of Slavyansk by pro-Russian separatists, who reportedly menaced residents at gunpoint, broke windows and fired shots, demanded gold and money, and voiced their intention to "purge" the area of "gypsies." Die Welt's own account only seems to be online (at least in English) at the aggregator WorldCrunch. More mysteriously, the Romea.cz account quotes a local resident named Natasha Cherepovska describing the attack to the New York Times—yet a Google search for the name or the text of the quote brings up no New York Times story. The report is all too plausible, given the attacks on Tatars in the Crimea since the Russian seizure of the peninsula. But we note that there have apparently been attacks on Jews in eastern Ukraine both organized by pro-Russian agents to tar the Ukrainians and by Ukrainian agents to tar the pro-Russians. In other words, a completely murky, paranoid and poisonous atmosphere. We await more information on what happened in Slavyansk, and call upon Romea.cz to provide greater clarity—especially on the source of the cited Times story.