LIVY BEREG (Left Bank) is a Ukrainian news analysis and opinion website media founded by the independent Gorshenin Institute in 2009.
Andriy Olenin

Destination Chernobyl? Radioactivity, Jobs And Tourism

Ukraine's leaders face toxic land-use challenges 35 years after the world's worst nuclear accident.

KYIV — What is perhaps the best-known — and certainly, the most dangerous — place in Ukraine is referred to as the "Chernobyl Exclusion Zone." And now, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky is promising major changes to the site of the worst civilian nuclear disaster in history.

More than 35 years after the tragedy, much has changed in what locals call the "Zone," but life continues. People who'd returned to their native villages after being forcibly evicted in the aftermath of the 1986 accident still live there. But life has been troubled in these specially designated towns and communities: contaminated areas are often located alongside their vegetable gardens, new infrastructure cannot be built, and there is virtually no work.

To change lives in these communities and to attract investment in the area, projects to transform the Chernobyl zone have already been designed, and are now up for approval before Ukraine's Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources.

Currently, the Chernobyl zone is divided into three zones, linked to the proximity to the reactors. The first one is 10 kilometers around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where the catastrophe happened. The "Shelter" object and the town of Pripyat are located there. This area is called "forever lost" because the radioactive elements that have accumulated there will need at least 20,000 years to dissipate.

The second zone is a buffer zone and a zone of unconditional (compulsory) resettlement. The villages there have been evacuated, while construction and cultivation of crops, fishing, gathering berries, and hunting are forbidden.

The third zone refers to guaranteed voluntary resettlement. It has the same prohibitions as the second zone, but people live there, both locals and those who work in the Zone on a rotational basis. Residents of these communities cannot renovate their own homes, plant vegetables, get land or inherit property.

There are 10,000 hectares of wasted land

The territory of guaranteed voluntary resettlement includes 800 settlements that fall into the third and sometimes even the second zone. There is practically no work here, and business activity and tax revenue is non-existent.

In the community of Naroditsy, there are 10,000 hectares of wasted land. But they grow crops on some of them, which is both illegal and unhealthy. According to the State Environmental Inspection, 5,000 hectares of contaminated land are being used to plant crops in the Zhytomyr region alone.

Community leaders explain their actions as follows: they don't know if these lots are polluted or not, because they have no corresponding maps. To know for sure they ask to carry out studies. According to the State Exclusion Zone Management Agency, $1 trillion would not be enough to study all contaminated lands.

The transformation of the exclusion zone and the unconditional resettlement zone was mentioned back in 2015 by the then Minister of Ecology Igor Shevchenko, but it went no further. Since the 2019 election of President Zelensky, three decrees have been signed related to the transformation of the zone. In April 2021, a draft law was registered that will allow regional state administrations to grant permits for the use of currently contaminated land, after expert evaluation, to build new infrastructure facilities and to expand existing ones.

The iconic Ferris wheel in the ghost town of Prypiat, Ukraine sits abandonedVolodymyr Tarasov/Ukrinform/ ZUMA Wire

Olga Vasilevskaya-Smaglyuk, a member of Parliament and co-author of the bill, says changes and new building permits are needed for local communities to survive. "We need tourism and economic development. Tourists who go to the Chernobyl zone should have a place to eat or fill up their cars," she said. "

Caution, however, comes from members of the Parliament's main Scientific-Expert department, who say it may lead to uncontrolled use of lands and construction of new enterprises on the radioactively contaminated lands, which could of course lead to health problems.

The proposed project is divided into three phases. The first will last from 2021 to 2030 and provides for the restoration of the degraded ecosystem within a 30-kilometer zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant and the restoration of the natural barrier function.

During this time, it is necessary to eliminate dead wood and forest fires, which account for 30% of the total area of the zone, plant new trees and transfer water sources to the nature protection zone. The territory that cannot be used for living beings will become an industrial zone to dispose of contaminated wood.

The Shelter facility requires special attention: under its roof lies the ruined fourth unit, which continues to deteriorate. It should be dismantled and buried before it starts to collapse in unpredictable places and on an unpredictable scale.

The second phase will last from 2031 to 2050. The uninhabitable part of the Zone must be turned into an open economic zone, in particular, to build the infrastructure for the nuclear fuel of Westinghouse (the company that supplies fuel to a number of Ukrainian nuclear power plants).

The territory that cannot be used for living beings will become an industrial zone.

Also in the second period, environmentalists have proposed developing tourism, to create a museum-archive of folk culture to form a regional Chernobyl scientific-information fund of ethnocultural heritage.

The third stage will last from 2051 to 2071. During this time it is planned to transfer the restored land plots for economic use, to completely decommission three Chernobyl units, and create environmentally friendly and waste-free nuclear technology.

Instead of the remaining three power units, ecologists propose to install 12 NuScale Power modular reactors with a capacity of 50 MW. The technology for small power modular reactors itself is at the testing stage. The first such reactor in the world is planned to be launched in 2026 in Idaho.

Another plan for the exclusion zone is a proposal to build a plant to recycle lithium-ion engines and produce hydrogen energy.

There are proposals to develop multipurpose testing grounds for domestic and foreign scientists, to provide comfortable working conditions for scientists by establishing an innovative Chernobyl research hub of science and innovation.

But while officials are reviewing the plans, the Chernobyl zone continues to degrade, and the people who live there are forced to violate the law: they say it's for a different kind of survival in the face of joblessness and poverty.

Alexander Demchenko

Putin's Blunt Message For Germany: Forget Ukraine

The Russian president's article on the 80th anniversary of Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union can be read on multiple levels. But one thing is sure, his mind is fixed on the future.

KYIV — The title itself is catchy enough: "To be open despite the past." True, it had nothing to do with the War or post-War years. The article, printed in the German newspaper Die Zeit is rather a call to Germans to forget about the Ukrainian issue and to engage as soon as possible in real, profitable policies, such as the launch of Nord Stream.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to convince the Germans to be open-minded, regardless of the past. But the past he urges Germans to forget has nothing to do with Nazism. Here the Russian president understands that Germans are still bound by the politics of memory, and are unlikely to allow themselves to change history any time soon.

Putin is also aware that the thought viruses propagated by Kremlin propaganda are effective enough to bind the Russian population together in a single aggressive impulse. What he wants the German people to forget about is another, not-so-distant and yet also unpleasant past: the war in Ukraine and the occupation of its territories.

In his Die Zeit article, the Russian president once again recalled the so-called coup d'etat in Kyiv in 2014, saying that he considered Ukraine's breakaway from Russia a tragedy, that there was no occupation of Crimea, but only a split in Ukraine that led to the separation of the peninsula. He recalled many of the old tropes of Kremlin propaganda. The same lines that he has been trying to introduce into the information space of Europe for eight years now.

One could say that Putin's article is an ode to Germany's ruling elite

Yet Putin's current article is not only aimed at the German and Russian masses, but more particularly at Germany's current political elite. The Russian leader is sending them a different message: an offer to pay off the Germans today in exchange for forgetting about Ukraine in the future.

"Russia stands for the restoration of a comprehensive partnership with Europe. We have many topics of mutual interest. These are security and strategic stability, health and education, digitalization, energy, culture, science, and technology, solving climate and environmental problems," Putin writes.

One could say that the text is an ode to Germany's ruling elite, and especially to the Social Democrats, who were able to include a clause in the German government's coalition agreement committing to complete the Nord Stream gas pipeline. It is also noticeable that the Russian president is trying to influence the conservative part of the German electorate, which supports the ruling elite. He understands that Russia's economic projects in Europe can only succeed if the current political landscape in Germany remains intact.

"It was German entrepreneurs who pioneered cooperation with our country in the post-War years. In 1970, the USSR and Germany struck a deal of the century on long-term supplies of natural gas to Europe, laying the foundation for constructive interdependence and giving rise to many subsequent grand projects, including the Nord Stream gas pipeline," Putin writes.

Welders working on the Nord Stream gas pipeline — Photo: Bair175

Naturally, a large part of Putin's article was devoted specifically to Russian-European relations. It was a counterargument against the U.S., with the Russian president advocating for security-building without Washington, the freeing of NATO's expansion to the East, and further integration and cooperation in Europe.

In general, his speeches on further expansion of NATO to the East are not just a reaction to U.S. President Joe Biden's words regarding the possible integration of Ukraine into the alliance without Crimea and Donbas. It is a request to the German elite to guarantee, as in 2008, that Kyiv will not be able to move forward on the issue of rapprochement, or join the alliance.

Putin speaks of a deteriorating security system, of excessive tension, and mentions the risks of a new arms race. What is he suggesting: cooperation? Not if you can read between the lines. When he mentions the concept of a Greater Europe — from Lisbon to Vladivostok — he certainly remembers its founder. No, not General de Gaulle, but philosopher McKinder, who said that Russia is a European heartland, which should influence Europe and manage its geopolitical processes.

When the president of the Russian Federation calls on the German elite for unification, he recalls Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, the course that the German chancellor chose to take in the 1970s to normalize relations between West Germany and East Germany, the Soviet Union and Poland. This was precisely what served to form Europe's single energy space when oil and gas transportation systems were built that linked the Western part of the continent with Soviet energy resources.

When Putin suggests cooperation, he means not a united Europe, but a Europe that depends on Russia.

"We are missing out on the enormous opportunities that cooperation gives us," he writes. "(It's) all the more important now that we are all facing common challenges: the pandemic and its dire socio-economic consequences."

When Putin suggests cooperation, he means not a united Europe, but a Europe that depends on Russia. This is the real point of his current article.

Vladislav Surkov, former deputy head of the Russian presidential administration, once said that Russia's main goal was to make Ukraine boring for the West. As Putin's current article showed, Russia's key goal is to make Europe actually forget about Ukraine.

Now it cannot be stated that the West has forgotten about Ukraine. Today's Europe, despite its economic ties, is to a certain extent afraid of further Russian aggression. It benefits from defending Ukraine for the sake of its security. However, this does not mean that Russia will stop trying to remove the Ukrainian issue from the European agenda. And this is why Kyiv needs to hurry up and figure out what its counter-strategy should be.

Alexander Demchenko

What Ukraine Has To Lose In Biden-Putin Talks

Joe Biden's Geneva meeting with Vladimir Putin cannot avoid the Nord Stream 2 pipeline standoff. Kyiv will be watching every step.

KYIV — Before the series of visits and talks, President Joe Biden wrote in a column for the Washington Post that he wanted to improve relations with Russia, but was also ready to work with Europe to deal with Moscow's undermining of security on the continent — especially the so-called Ukrainian issue. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin practically expressed hope that the United States would disintegrate.

Ukraine's hopes are too high for the June 16 meeting between Putin and Biden in Geneva, Switzerland. It is good that the U.S. President found time to talk to Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the phone before his talks with the Russian counterpart. This can only make us happy. It's a shame that our country has little to do here — and the White House has already shown this ahead of time by letting Russia complete the first section of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

The U.S. administration refused to impose strict sanctions against the gas pipeline operator, in large part a sign of Biden's unwillingness to harm relations with Germany and his fear that Berlin could impose additional duties on American goods at the European Union level. But an even greater reason Biden is softening the U.S. posture on the Russia-to-Germany pipeline is the desire to open a dialogue with Russia from a position of power, being able at any moment to block the construction of the Russian pipeline.

But this creates other problems, first of all for Ukraine. If Russia launches the pipeline bypassing Ukraine, it will simply have no need for any part of the Ukrainian transport system. The blackmail will begin even before the end of the contract on the transit of Russian gas, which expires at the end of 2024.

The German side is reassuring: Nord Stream 2 will remain in force if transit through Ukraine is preserved. The only question is what these supplies will be and whether they will exist at all.

Putin has already made it clear that he is ready to pump gas, give a discount on it and increase transit figures, but only on one condition — the restoration of Ukrainian-Russian relations. "We have a contract with Ukraine regarding the pumping of our gas. Within the next five years, we will pump up to 40 billion cubic meters. In the best years, we pumped up to 200 billion cubic meters," he said. "If we had normal relations, we would pump a significant part of it through Ukraine, but there are problems there, not in politics, but in economics."

"What can Russia do if Ukraine does not agree to the Kremlin's proposals?"

Translated into plainer language, this means that the Kremlin will use the Ukrainian GTS transport system only if Russian influence, which has been lost in some places, is fully restored in Ukraine. At the same time, the Russian president makes it clear: Kyiv will not be able to use the profits from gas transit to develop the Ukrainian army and counteract Russia in the contested region of Donbas.

What can Russia do if Ukraine does not agree to the Kremlin's proposals? It can destroy the infrastructure to deliver gas through the Ukrainian GTS. And there's no need to think that this is impossible. Moscow did it when it undermined the gas infrastructure in Ossetia in 2006 by blocking the gas supplies to Georgia; when it destroyed the oil corridor from Azerbaijani Baku to Turkish Ceyhan in 2008; when in 2009 it organized an accident on one of the sections of the Central Asia-Center pipeline (CAC-4) pipeline, preventing Turkmenistan from making a huge supply of "blue fuel" to Iran.

Moreover, the Kremlin does not always act directly: sometimes it uses the services of militants, saboteurs, mercenaries. And we should not forget that the Ukrainian gas transportation system was the minimum guarantee to prevent a full-scale Russian attack on Ukraine. Moscow simply did not want to accidentally destroy the infrastructure, which brings consistent profits, while angering the Europeans. Once the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is completed, Moscow's hands will be untied.

Minister-President of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania Manuela Schwesig and Russian ambassador in Berlin Sergei Netsheyev visiting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on April 29 — Photo: Jens Büttner/dpa/ZUMA

Of course, a lot of questions will remain concerning further European regulation of gas supply, and the situation with the elections in Germany, whereas Americans and Ukrainians hope, the Greens will come to power after Chancellor Angela Merkel's departure.

The situation will become more or less clear immediately after the talks between Putin and Biden. If the U.S. administration does not impose sanctions and allows the Russians to complete the pipeline, it will mean that the U.S. and Russia were able to agree that Washington is not interested in Kyiv's position. That it is more important for it to keep Russia from more radical actions, from rapprochement with China, and to keep Germany from aggressive trade actions against the United States.

In general, it seems strange to hear from Ukrainian politicians the phrase about betraying Ukraine's interests. If you look at the trade turnover between Russia and the U.S. ($24 billion) and Ukraine and the U.S. ($6 billion), you will understand how silly such statements are. Look at the level of investment inflows, at how American big companies develop Russian gas and oil fields, how they open large commodity networks, how they create hundreds of thousands of jobs by building various factories. American money (and interest) is in Russia, not in Ukraine. That's why we can't expect any breakthroughs in the negotiations.

So far, these are just words.

In his column in the Washington Post, Biden says that he was going to work with the Europeans to counter the security challenges that Russia was creating on the continent. And here he brought Ukraine to the forefront.

"We (the United States and Europe) are united in addressing Russia's challenges to European security, starting with its aggression in Ukraine. And there will be no doubt about the determination of the United States to defend democratic values, which we cannot separate from our interests," writes Biden.

So far, these are just words. It is unlikely that the U.S. leader will be able to convince Putin to get Russia to withdraw from Crimea and leave the territories of Donbas. Most likely, Biden simply needs to achieve two things. The first is to get guarantees from Putin that Russian troops will withdraw from the Ukrainian border and the situation will return to what it was before the escalation. The second is to agree on security on the northern border of Ukraine, where we have points of contact with Belarus.

This is the only possible positive achievement for Ukraine that President Biden can get in talks with Putin. And it is not a given that he will achieve it. But we must also clearly understand that there will be concessions from the U.S. side — and they will be painful for Kyiv. And we have only one thing left to do: to finally engage in the construction of a normal, strong state, instead of constantly complaining about those who step over the line. It's time to become adults.

Alexander Demchenko

Ukraine: Zelensky Doesn't Understand The Rules Of Realpolitik

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is delusional in believing that the U.S. and Europe will force Moscow’s hand, so long as Russia holds so many cards.

KIEV — While President Volodymyr Zelensky awaits NATO membership, he has released his own vision to assert Ukraine with its more powerful European neighbors: As Zelensky outlined in an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, this "Plan B" is aimed at deescalating the conflict with Russia in the contested Donbas region in order to move toward a comprehensive treaty to guarantee Ukraine's military, economic and energy security through an accord with the United States, the European Union and the Russian Federation.

The Ukrainian President argues that the ongoing Normandy Format (between Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France) will not be an alternative, but will be integrated into a broader process.

As Zelensky says in the interview, "Ukraine can have a Plan B once its territorial integrity is ensured." Such conditional agreements like the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances are insufficient because they've been regularly violated, the President added, noting that the commitment of the U.S. and EU to consolidate the status of Ukraine is crucial. Zelensky told the German daily that he was scheduled to talk to U.S. President Joe Biden about this plan.

Unfortunately, Zelensky's administration still has not understood that any agreements are impossible without Moscow's consent. And Moscow has very different — imperial — plans for Ukraine. The problem with the Budapest Memorandum (which aimed to protect the political independence of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan) was neither its quality nor its international legal status; the problem was that Russia did not give a damn about any agreements when it came to former Soviet republics, especially those intending to leave its orbit.

"What kind of treaty can you sign with a country that occupies part of your territory?"

There are no people in the halls of Kiev power who remember that from 1992 to 1994, before the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine signed a series of documents of varying legal quality that dealt with the dismantling of the country's nuclear capability in return for security guarantees from Washington and Moscow. A few months before Leonid Kuchma was elected president, the Ukrainian, American, and Russian leaders (Leonid Kravchuk, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin) signed a general statement that became a prologue to the Budapest Memorandum. Both Washington and Moscow gave Ukraine security guarantees at the time. Then the Americans "helped" Kiev get paltry compensation from Russia for its enormous nuclear complex.

Most have forgotten that U.S. leaders came to the Ukrainian leadership with threats. They forgot that the Budapest Memorandum was not about the security of Ukraine, but about the security of the United States, which feared a possible uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons, or even the appearance of another ambitious member of the nuclear club. It was to Washington's advantage to concentrate everything in the Russian Federation.

Did the Budapest Memorandum alone provide security guarantees? The 1997 Partition Treaty on the Status and Conditions of the Black Sea Fleet — which Ukraine, unlike Russia, has not denounced — appoints Russia as a guarantor of Ukraine's territorial integrity. It did not say that this guarantor would take from Ukraine the peninsula where its military base was stationed. There are few documents of this kind still in force, but it is possible to find them.

A lot of good international agreements can be written. The U.S. and the EU can even put their signatures on them, but these documents will be meaningless if they do not have the approval of the Russian President. And what kind of treaty can you sign with a country that occupies part of your territory?

Then U.S. Secretary of State Kerry speaks with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Deshchytsia in 2014 — Photo: US State Dept

Volodymyr Zelensky also says that the Normandy Format will be an element, an addition to this Plan B. But as Zelensky points out, there is a problem: the position of both Russia and the two moderators, France and Germany.

In the interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Zelensky says that at the last meeting of the advisors to the leaders of the Normandy four countries, Russian representative Dmitry Kozak asked the European partners whether Russia was a party to the conflict.

"The representatives of Germany and France did not answer directly that Russia was a party to the conflict," says Zelensky. "They again included such ‘cautious' diplomacy, which Ukraine does not agree with, because Russia is a party to the conflict, and we understand that."

It is important to say here that the Normandy Format cannot be part of Plan B. Because this format is the stepchild of the poisoned Minsk Protocol, which Ukraine agreed to only under the threat of a full-scale invasion. Zelensky is outraged — and rightly so — that NATO countries, especially Germany, are blocking Ukraine's accession to the alliance and are not even providing arms. Instead, they pander to Russia, trading with the country and building joint energy projects that are detrimental to Ukrainian security.

By the way, it is telling that Konrad Schuller, the German journalist interviewing Zelensky, kept asking: If Ukraine joined NATO, could it guarantee that it would not ask the alliance for help in its war with Russia?

"All those Russian billions flowing into EU banks every year ... the Europeans can't do without them now."

Schuller incidentally forgot to mention that in 2008, the German and French leaders, despite U.S. support, blocked an action plan for Ukraine to become a NATO member. Six years later, Europe had a major problem: a war with Russia already on its borders. And this is just the beginning.

It is not Zelensky's fault that the NATO countries do not want to get involved in a confrontation with Russia. But it is important to understand their reasoning. This is not merely because Europeans are frightened by the military might of Russia. The EU, which is used to an expensive and measured existence, does not want to quarrel with the country that provides it with so much financial support. All those Russian billions flowing into EU banks every year, the common energy projects, the participation of European companies in mining operations in Russia, the corrupt EU politicians and officials – the Europeans can't do without it now. It is part of their lives.

It also seems that the U.S. needs a lot from Russia nowadays, such as giving up the alliance with China. And that the Biden administration may even agree to the status quo, to what it was before the escalation in Donbas. Yes, we should always hope for the best, but we should have no illusions.

Ultimately, there is no one to blame but ourselves for the fact that we could not properly build our state. Everyone has their own interests. Every country stands up for itself. As far as Russia is concerned, the Americans will be biding their time, just as they did in the days of the Soviet Union. Ukraine, too, will be waiting for a convenient moment — waiting for many years. At least, this time can be spent on creating a fully developed, European country. That is the real Plan B.

Alexander Demchenko

Minsk Or Normandy? Russia Prefers Impasse With Ukraine Instead

In order to circumvent French and German mediation, the Kremlin is leaking secrets to the press as a defacto policy of stalling in its seven-year-long conflict with Ukraine.


KYIV — Due to their sensitive nature, international negotiations come with certain requirements: first, don't disclose their details; and secondly, what has not been signed and agreed upon is not fit for implementation.

The Russian newspaper Kommersant has published details of what should have been confidential communications among the so-called Normandy Format negotiating countries (Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France) regarding new approaches to finding a peaceful settlement of the contested region of Donbas.

Since its creation in 2014, the Normandy Format has managed to ink several deals on prisoner exchange, yet has repeatedly failed to end the war in the eastern Ukrainian territory between Kyiv and pro-Russian insurgents. Ceasefire agreements are constantly broken and there are weekly reports about injured or killed Ukrainian soldiers who remain on the borderline of the occupied territories.

While Germany and France are clearly in the role of mediators, and Ukraine as participant, Russia tries to present itself as a mediator, even while clearly representing the rebel military groups. Yet, neither Ukraine nor European countries acknowledge rebels as lawful representatives of Donbas.

At the same time, there is another forum for trying to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian conflict within the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), dubbed the Minsk Protocol, after the capital of Belarus where the meetings between Russia, Ukraine, and OSCE were held.

Moscow doesn't need any progress on peace.

And while all sides continue to study the current written proposals of France and Germany, it looks increasingly as though the Normandy negotiations are frozen, with the center of conversation shifting to Minsk.

Still, for the past several months, there have been Normandy Four talks at the level of advisors to update the Minsk agreements and implement them in blocks. The Germans and French most likely intended to move contentious issues such as border control, elections, withdrawal of troops into a separate discussion, while trying to resolve other points around humanitarian and economic issues.

Kyiv has been trying to reverse some of the agreements that it had to accept at the time of catastrophic losses on the battlefield. According to the Ukrainian side, it was necessary to first solve the problem of the freeing of territories, the withdrawal of foreign troops from Donbas, and control over the common border with Russia; only after that does Kyiv believe they can move on to holding elections and temporarily introducing a special status of the territories. The Minsk agreements, on the other hand, are exactly the other way around.

At a meeting of the Normandy Four leaders in Paris in November 2019 — Photo: Eliot Blondet/Abaca via ZUMA Press

Here it is worth recalling that in 2016, after the summit of the leaders of the Normandy Format in Berlin, the parties signed a communiqué. There it was proposed to develop a road map for resolving the situation in Donbas, but Russia froze the process and no map was created.

On March 16, 2021, in an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax, Dmitry Kozak, a Russian negotiator and close ally of President Vladimir Putin, blamed the "very strange confidentiality of the Normandy negotiations' for blocking progress.

"Ukraine is in favor of confidentiality. Germany and France support it in this with references to diplomatic traditions. We are in favor of abandoning this tradition, which is harmful in this case, and for full openness of the negotiations," Kozak said. "If it were possible to change this principle, then you, and through the media and all interested citizens and states, would be able to assess for yourselves whose "creative ideas," "proactive position" or "strong moves' are the real reason for the lack of any progress in resolving the conflict."

In other words, this major Russian power broker was issuing a public warning to all sides of the Normandy Four that Russia would leak information about the talks. Why? Because Moscow does not need any progress on peace. It prefers to constantly hold Ukraine by the gills. It actually likes neither negotiations at the level of the Normandy Format nor the Minsk agreements. That is why it is very likely that the documents that were leaked to Kommersant were sent directly from the Kremlin.

Now, Moscow is pushing Berlin and Paris to freeze the Normandy Format indefinitely. But Russia's attack is also aimed at Ukraine, where public opinion is not necessarily in favor of negotiations. This all makes a long-awaiting peace deal seem even more impossible than before.


The Latest: Taiwan Train Crash, Gay Marriage Anniversary, Salty Mountains

Welcome to Friday, where a train crash in Taiwan leaves dozens dead, Niger has historic peaceful transfer of power and Egypt has a salty new tourist attraction. Ukrainian news website Livy Bereg also reveals why Russia is leaking secrets to the press about the international negotiations trying to resolve its conflict with Ukraine.

• Dozens dead in Taiwan train crash: A train crash killed at least 48 people and left 66 injured in eastern Taiwan. The express train, carrying about 500 passengers, derailed in a tunnel after hitting a construction vehicle that had rolled onto the tracks.

• Toll in Tigray: Nearly 2,000 victims have been identified by researchers studying the conflict since it exploded, last year. Those killed include infants and people over 90, the report says.

• Aung San Suu Kyi charged: Myanmar protesters call for "guerilla strikes' as country faces a new wireless internet shutdown and following charges filed against detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi for violating state secrets, punishable by up to 14 years of prison.

• Peaceful transition in Niger: Mohamed Bazoum gets sworn in as Niger president in the country's first peaceful transfer of power since its independence in 1960. The inauguration comes just days after the government says it thwarted a military coup attempt.

• Dutch leader Rutte survives vote of confidence: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte narrowly survives a no-confidence vote over accusations he lied about coalition talks.

• G7 to double help for poorer countries to cut CO2 emissions: Deputy secretary general of the UN, Amina Mohammed calls on the world's richest group of countries to double their financial support to poorer countries to help them cut their CO2 emissions.

• Egypt's salt mountains become a tourist attraction: Images of people sliding down "snowy" mountains of Port Fouad went viral on the internet. The salt mountains quickly became a tourist hit, attracting Egyptians from all across the country to enjoy the unique landscape.

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Nataliya Shimkiv

Home Again In Ukraine: Dark Tales From A Donbas Prison

The New Year's Eve prison exchange between Russia and Ukraine was a rare softening of hostilities in the occupied region in eastern Ukraine. Here's the story of one of those released.

On New Year's Eve, 76 people returned to Ukraine as part of the exchange of prisoners negotiated with Moscow: 64 civilians and 12 military personnel. Under various circumstances, all these people had been captured by the pro-Russian militia of the self-proclaimed Donbas and Lugansk People's Republics (LNR/DNR). Here is one man's story.

KYIV — A tall thin man meets us near the hospital. He is 52, there is a small scar on his face, in his hands an electronic cigarette that he will smoke almost the entire time that we speak. He is now undergoing treatment in a hospital near Kyiv. The interview is conducted during a walk through the woods near the hospital. He smiles and says: "I dreamed of walking freely like this. You can't imagine what happiness this is!"

Andriy Yarovoi is a human rights activist for the Alliance of Public Health charity foundation, and was detained on August 26, 2018, at the checkpoint by LNR fighters, while he was traveling to the occupied Donbas area on a monitoring mission. Then the connection broke: the basement, the local pre-trial detention center and the penal colony. He spent 489 days in captivity. We will let Yarovoi tell his story:

The way to the hospital where Andriy is receiving treatment after detention, Feb. 2020. — Photo: Maks Levin/LB

The mission

It was not the first time I traveled to the occupied territory as a representative of the Alliance since 2015. I've been to Donetsk, Lugansk, and to small towns as well. My mission was to study the situation of HIV/AIDS, viral hepatitis, and tuberculosis.

The trip usually lasted three to four days. I obtain information from local health system employees and communicate with those groups that are high-risk: drug users, sex workers, LGBT. The main question is whether they get the help they need in terms of screening, contraceptives, treatment.

Every year it's getting worse in Donbas.

Monitoring of the uncontrolled territories is critical: Every day, thousands of people cross the contact line between Ukraine and the occupied territories of Donbas in both directions. Every year it's getting worse in Donbas: The local government doesn't consider these people there, and nobody helps them.

After my detention, no one from the Alliance wants to go to the occupied territories, and in 2019, all HIV prevention programs supported by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS in the Lugansk region were closed.

The detention

Why did they detain me? I had pharmaceutical pills with me. In the past, I used heroin, but since 2009 I went to an opioid substitution therapy program and quit. Since then, medicines have always been with me; there have never been problems with "crossing the border." I had permission from the Kyiv hospital with me. But that time at the checkpoint, LNR fighters explained that substitution therapy in LPR, as well as in Russia, is prohibited, my pills are just dope, and all the papers are not important.

They took my passport and told me not to worry, "everything is fine, we'll talk to you tomorrow." The next day they took me to Lugansk for a "conversation." As we arrived at the local government building, representatives of the Ministry of State Security of the LPR took away my phone, handcuffed me, and put a bag on my head.

Andryi in the forest near the hospital during the interview in Feb. 2020. — Photo: Maks Levin/LB

The basement

The next six months I spent in the "basement."

There are no windows, very bright light round-the-clock, many cameras and a very strict set of rules — you can't even talk too loudly. You understand what time it is only when the food is brought. And, of course, by the interrogations. They were carried out only at night. Those who were in the "basement" before say that the conditions are much better compared with the past.

If the interrogations night is coming — it's better not to eat in the evening, easier to go through that way: They handcuff you and put a bag on your head then they start to beat the information out of you.

They are all angry there.

At first, they suspected me of cooperating with the Security Service of Ukraine, asking what kind of information and for what purpose I gathered for the Alliance. Finally, they suspected that I worked for British intelligence. The parent organization of The Public Health Alliance is located in Brighton, UK.

The voices of those who beat us constantly changed. I only remember one, a young voice, always angry like a dog. They are all angry there.

Andryi in the hospital during the interview. — Photo: Maks Levin/LB

The investigation

On October 15, 2018, I first met with an investigator from LNR, the only face I'd seen. There was already a lawyer in the office hired by the Public Health Alliance. He lives in Lugansk and collaborates with international organizations.

The investigator smiled and asked if anyone had touched me? I calmly answered: "No, no one." They let me sign a document saying that the LNR security officers did not exert physical or psychological pressure on me. A lawyer sitting next to him with a serious face asked if this was true. Of course, what else are underground cells made for?

Besides "smuggling," they charged me with "possession and transportation of drugs," and no matter what I said, the prosecutor's final answer was that such a charge would be better for the exchange of prisoners. I have the feeling that I was seized to replenish the "exchange fund."

In February 2019, I was transferred to the "Lugansk pre-trial detention center," I was there for almost two months, before the "trial." After the basement, the detention center seemed amazing: There was a window, you could see the sky, walk, and there was even a TV with local and Russian channels.

Andriy hugging his mother on Dec. 23, 2019 in Boryspil, Ukraine. — Photo:

The trial and the colony

On April 19, there was a "trial." I did not deny that this is my medicine, but no one paid attention to papers with permission to use them. I got ten and a half years. I learned that the criminal code in Lugansk was 90% percent taken from the code law of the Russian Federation. I was sent to a high security penal colony.

Now there were barracks instead of the cells, 70-80 people in each, no free movement between the barracks. There is no running water in the camp, so it was brought in barrels, and five convicts pushed this one and a half tons to the barrack. There is no sewage, and toilets are outside; in winter, we'd heat stoves with coal. This zone was built in the early 1950s, and so it remained like it was in Stalin times.


I learned about the exchange just a few days prior, there were no expectations for this year, although I was in the exchanging lists from the very beginning. There were also talks that the Minsk talks broke down again, and I thought that I would certainly be in the camp for another New Year.

Now I need to get over what happened, get used to the world.

Even after the exchange, there are still many people left who somehow helped Ukraine. There is organized human trafficking going on there. When we were driving to the checkpoint for the exchange, LNR fighters were constantly asking if someone wants to stay in the occupied territory.

Near the hospital outside of Kyiv — Photo: Maks Levin/LB

In Boryspil​, my younger brother and mother came to meet me. While I was away, my father died of cancer.

It is very difficult to lose contact with the world. The lack of replacement therapy pills also affected my mood, and depression is constant. In the hospital, they offered a psychotherapist, but I have not yet talked to him. Now I need to get over what happened, get used to the world, and somehow forget everything that was there. I have a few more medical procedures and that's it, I need to return to work. Until now, I have not fully believed that I am home..

Vladimir Mesamed

Iran: How Weak Is The Regime?

After the U.S. assassination of General Soleimani and Tehran's accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet, rising economic and political pressures have put Islamic rule in its most fragile state in memory.


Iran has been shaken by major protests that undermine the very foundations of the Islamic regime. The assassination of the so-called "people's' general Qasem Soleimani, the second highest ranking leader in the military-political hierarchy of Iran has created vacuum in the regime's power structures, and at the level of decision-making, for both domestic and foreign affairs.

Soleimani was in some ways no less relevant than the supreme religious leader of the country, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Compared to the aging cleric, Soleimani's decisions reached wherever the Shia Crescent had interests — in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Palestine.

A year and a half before the next presidential election in May 2021, the late general had been boldly considered as a possible successor to the current head of the Iranian executive branch — and was indeed far superior in popularity to President Hassan Rouhani, considered by many to be too liberal and incapable of decisive action. On the international stage, Soleimani was also immeasurably more influential than the Western-educated and high-profile Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

All of this now leaves Iran in its most unenviable situation in 40 years of Islamic rule: introduction of new U.S. sanctions after the Islamic Republic withdrew from the nuclear agreement, the grave state of the economy as oil export operations drop toward zero, weakened national currency, unprecedented unemployment and runaway inflation.

The death of General Soleimani was, of course, followed by the accidental shooting down of a civilian Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 people aboard. Iranian authorities initial denied any responsibility, and the government's actions ultimately sparked the recent rounds of student-led protests.

Iran is probably even ready to agree to different terms for a nuclear agreement.

Yet, neither the scope of the current wave of protests nor the tone of slogans demanding a regime change, have reached the point to create an immediate existential risk for the Islamic Republic. The swift repression is a sign that the regime understands the severity of the political and economic situation. It therefore follows that to help guarantee its domestic and foreign policy goals, the government will see that it needs to possess nuclear weapons — and according to experts, that will take no more than two years to happen.

Iran's decision to exit the 2015 accord sends a signal to the other signatories of this agreement that the regime would be ready to return to the Vienna agreements if they are helped to overcome US sanctions. In so doing, Iran aims to provoke a confrontation between the United States and Europe.

Iran is probably even ready to agree to different terms for a nuclear agreement, aimed at ending the constant domestic confrontation between fundamentalists and liberals. Yet, this will require unity around the Islamic regime, which is very unlikely to happen in light of recent events. For example, when the media wondered in November who initiated the introduction of higher fuel prices that sparked popular protests, the military-political elite almost unanimously blamed Rouhani's government. Only later it turned out that Khamenei personally approved the action, as he did with the violent crackdown on protesters. The protests at the end of 2019, in fact, were far more significant than those in 2017-2018, having touched all but two provinces in Iran.

Recent events also provoked hotheads in Israel to take advantage of the weakening of Iranian influence in the region to take decisive steps to eradicate the military presence of the Islamic regime in Syrian territory by bombing military targets on the Syrian-Israeli border. The Israeli news website Ynet declared that the liquidation of Soleimani is great news for country's security, and will undermine the Iranian military presence in Syria, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Step by step, if Iran loses its foreign satellites in the region, it will be left to face the inexorable deepening of problems at home.

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Sergiy Fotіev*

How To Renovate Kyiv: Start By Replacing All Soviet-Era Slums

There's an old joke about the apartment complexes named after Khrushchev​.

KYIV — Bed bugs are dining at "Khrushchyovkas," a cramped and grim low-cost apartment building named after the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev.

It's just another achievement for the Soviet goal of eliminating all excess in design and construction. These three- to five-storied buildings were assembled quickly and cheaply: The only thing required was that the size of the staircase and the radius of rotation on the steps allows the transport of a coffin. All other space was designed to be as limited as possible.

Nikita Khrushchev personally tested the toilet in such an apartment and delivered a verdict: "If I can do it, everyone can!" In response, a joke circulated about Khrushchev's apartments: He managed to combine the toilet and bathroom, but couldn't figure out how to combine the floor with the ceiling ...

Since 1957, entire neighborhoods have been built cheaply and quickly in Kyiv, with the current housing stock of the Ukrainian capital at 15% Khrushchevkas. It is no longer news that these old, low-quality buildings require major renovation. According to the preliminary general plan, about 3,055 Khrushchevkas, housing 200,000 families, have to be demolished.

Khrushchyovka on the big alley in Kyiv — Photo: Marjan Blan

The task is challenging but also gives an opportunity to rethink the infrastructure and living spaces of the city, as has been done for decades in urban areas of the U.S., Japan, China, Hong Kong, Great Britain and even Russia. City authorities either buy out apartments at the market price or provide new housing. In European countries and Israel, it is common to repair and renew buildings, adding more space, changing communications, improve energy efficiency, and adding a modern design for facades. Sometimes such works can even be carried out without resettling the residents.

In terms of financing, mass renovations of buildings in Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have been carried out in recent years with state support, along with programs for subsidies and benefits for individuals affected.

Of course, it is almost impossible to garner 100% support for renovations among residents of the old buildings. Authorities must thus come up with measures to somehow "push" people out. In the UK, a "demolition payment" is introduced to compensate residents of dilapidated buildings. In France, if residents insist on remaining, they will have to pay for the maintenance of the whole building.

The government must ensure security.

But the most straightforward and secure renovation algorithm is applied in Istanbul. People are notified of the dates in which they must leave their apartments. Property owners choose the developer themselves. Houses are built at the expense of developers who can sell vacant apartments in a new house. Construction is carried out for a year and a half, during which time the state pays rent to temporarily evicted people. A cash payment of $20,000 is also possible. At the end of construction, people move into new homes at the same address.

Khrushchyovka in Kyiv. — Photo: Marjan Blan

Construction in Istanbul is carried out according to the strictest regulations. Upon delivery of objects, all technical specifications are carefully checked. Particular attention is paid to the protection of the structure from seismic risks. Modern houses are sometimes equipped with swimming pools, excellent infrastructure, and other amenities.

In Moscow, residents of old Khrushchevkas are offered a renovated apartment in a new house in the same area. Moreover, the number of rooms can't be fewer than in the old apartment, while the total area is larger due to more spacious common areas (kitchen, hallway, corridor, bathroom, toilet). If a resident is not ready to move to an equivalent apartment, he can receive monetary compensation.

At every stage, the government must ensure security. And for Ukraine, this is the most vulnerable spot. People are afraid of legal paradoxes and complicated relationships between the mayor's office, developers and citizens. Housing scams of recent years also ruined the reputation of construction companies, and people are afraid to be left on the street.

A system is needed to decide how and where to relocate all of those living in obsolete Soviet blocks, and Ukrainians need strong legislation. And it should start with the passage of a bill heading into Parliament, called: the Comprehensive Reconstruction of Microdistricts of Obsolete Housing.

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Anna Akage

When Zelensky Met Putin : How It Looked In Kiev, Moscow, Paris

An end to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine doesn't necessarily seem closer, though at least it's not farther away.

PARIS — They are called the "Normandy Four," an allusion to the French region where the plans for future peace negotiations between the four parties was first proposed. That was back in 2014, but it's been three years since the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France last met. This week in Paris they finally sat down to discuss a way to end almost six years of armed conflict between Moscow and Kiev in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas.

Those expecting a miracle were disappointed by Tuesday's encounter between Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. Still, as one observer noted, it was already good news that the first meeting ever between Putin and Zelensky didn't actually make matters worse. Not surprisingly, the views on the one-day summit from Ukrainian, Russian and French media didn't always align.

Good Cop Putin? View from Ukraine — Livy Bereg, Alexander Demchenko

Despite the general pathos of the speeches of each of the participants, there are no losers and no winners. The most important thing the two presidents agreed on was an agreement to negotiate. After the meeting, even skeptics admitted that Zelensky did not give ground on his positions. The Ukrainian President publicly stated his "red lines' in front of the Russian leader: there will be no "federalization," (accepting Donbas as an independent territory within Ukraine), no trading occupied territories for peace, and no changes in the country's goals of moving closer to the European Union.

The Russian side also held its strategic stance. Ukraine agreed to extend the law on the special status of Donbas for one more year and implement the Steinmeier formula (this is a document based on letters from the former Foreign Ministers of Germany and France for how to resolve the situation in Donbas). Putin also stuck to his current position on the Ukrainian-Russian border in Donbas, which means it is still under Russia-aligned separatists' control.

Yet, what is most confusing is the behavior of the Russian President, who was obviously guided by his KGB officer's instincts. He seemed to be most interested in pleasing and appeasing the Ukrainian President. After all, the massive Russian army could attack Ukraine tomorrow and capture most of it. But Putin is now playing the role of a good cop. He talks about a warming relationship, offers Zelensky a 25-percent discount on Russian gas, and agrees with the outlines of proposals of the Ukrainian President.

But this, in fact, is the greatest danger. Because Good Putin is Unpredictable Putin, and that is even more dangerous than Evil Putin.

The Impossible Ceasfire: View from Russia — Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev

At the summit in Paris, the leaders of the "Normandy Four" could not agree on a further settlement of the conflict in the Donbas. The Russian and Ukrainian presidents expressed opposing views regarding the consolidation in the constitution of a special status for the two unrecognized republics within Ukraine. Putin said that special status should be enshrined in the Ukrainian Constitution. Zelensky said that Kiev would never agree to amend the constitution of Ukraine this way.

Also, the final document does not mention the separation of forces of the two parties along the front line, without which a complete ceasefire is impossible. This is not the first attempt to silence the weapons. Over the years of the conflict, such calls have been made repeatedly. Indefinite truces have been declared more than once, violations of which inevitably arrived.

Moreover, there was no decision on elections in this territory, and the summit showed that further problems are almost guaranteed to arise. The Ukrainian President emphasized that elections in the Donbas are possible only by Ukrainian laws and international OSCE standards. But the unrecognized republics are unlikely to agree on these terms. An unconditional achievement of the meeting in Paris can be considered the agreement of the parties that Kiev, on the one hand, and the Donbas republics, on the other, should carry out the exchange of prisoners.

Sovereignty Or Security: View from France — Les Echos, Jacques Hubert-Rodier

Hosting the quartet, French President Emmanuel Macron got what he wanted: "a lucid, robust and demanding dialogue with Russia." Still, Russia and Ukraine are far from settling their differences, not only on Donbas and Crimea but also on gas transfer across Ukraine to Western Europe. Putin and Zelensky agreed to extend the ceasefire, begin de-mining along the frontline, as well as the continuation of prisoner exchanges.

But none of this can solve the Ukrainian question. Vladimir Putin, according to a diplomat, even told Zelensky that there were no Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian Donbas. Also, the question of Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 was totally outside the scope of discussions. At least officially.

Zelensky did not get what he wanted: the deployment of the Ukrainian army along the border before local elections are held. But Russia did: as in Georgia in 2008 after the Russian invasion of South Ossetia, Vladimir Putin once again wins a timid dialogue, where the word "sovereignty" is replaced by "security." Because the Ukrainian Donbas — like the two Georgian regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which proclaimed their independence from Tbilisi — will remain one of his assets in Europe, allowing him to spread his influence around the Russian Federation's neighborhood. And beyond.

Igor Ilyash

Just The Two Of Us: Why Belarus' Lukashenko Is Betting On Putin


MINSK — Following the Nov. 17 elections for Belarus" lower house of parliament, independent observers and opposition politicians unanimously rated this campaign as one of the dirtiest in the 25 years of Alexander Lukashenko's rule. The 65-year-old president of Belarus has once again demonstrated that he is not going to adjust the eastern tilt of his country's development: the West's democratic values ​​clearly scare him far more than the threat of anschluss from Russia.

Opposition campaigns, television programs and the written press were rudely censored or banned altogether if any direct attacks on Lukashenko were spotted. The turnout data was significantly overstated, the independent observers were deleted, and the process of counting votes was utterly opaque. "These elections have demonstrated a complete lack of compliance with democratic commitments," said Margaret Soderfelt, head of the local mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors elections.

A cold shower for all optimists.

The final composition of the parliament looks to carry no true political weight: 110 loyal deputies and not a single oppositionist got into the lower house. Attention was reserved for only new face: Maria Vasilevich, the 22-year-old "Miss Belarus-2018."

The election's outcome came as a cold shower for all optimists who dream of gradual democratization. A minimum nod of decency and the admission of 3 or 4 opposition members to parliament could have sufficed to help in negotiations with the European Union. However, the Belarusian authorities decided that there was no such need.

Counting the voices during the July 2019 snap parliamentary elections in Ukraine — Photo: Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Ukrinform/ZUMA

Five days before the election, Lukashenko paid an official visit to Vienna. The Austrian voyage was just the second trip of the Belarusian leader to Europe over the past 10 years, after a purely symbolic 2016 visit to Rome. There was every reason to expect more from the current visit to Austria, because Belarus is facing extreme pressure from the Kremlin, and desperately needs Western support, including financial aid. However, meetings with top officials of Austria turned out to be insignificant, as Lukashenko mainly advertised the Belarusian order and discipline and also convinced interlocutors that everything is fine with human rights in his country.

Of course, no one expected Lukashenko in Vienna to announce Belarus' intention to join the EU. But he could have, for example, declared a readiness to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty to join the Council of Europe (Belarus is the only European country that is not a member of the Council of Europe). However, Lukashenko made it clear that there will be no change in the course. "We do not ask the Council of Europe. If you take us, thanks. If you don't, we'll wait. Don't set conditions for us," said Belarusian president.

Still, Lukashenko is also sharpening his tone with the Kremlin, threatening to refuse to sign an integration agreement with Moscow. "If our fundamental issues are not resolved (regarding the supply of hydrocarbons, the opening of proper markets for our goods, the removal of barriers, etc.), no road maps can be signed," he said.

There is growing alarm about the country's sovereignty in the face of Russian ambitions.

Across Belarus society, there is growing alarm about the country's sovereignty in the face of Russian ambitions. After the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Belarusian president realized that Putin poses a real threat. But for Lukashenko, Moscow is only one of the threats to his power along with the West and the domestic opposition. And he may consider Russia to be the least of the dangers.

Moreover, today's Russia shares a mentality with Alexandr Lukashenko: the cult of power, contempt for human rights, anti-Westernism and a certain nostalgia for the USSR.

So what has this most recent, and notably filthy election campaign told us? It seems that Lukashenko is nervous. When the Belarusian regime felt confident, he could afford to at least pretend to lean toward liberalization and allow a couple of critics into parliament, as he did in 2016. Now the real threat of takeover is looming, economic prospects are dim, and Lukashenko himself, for a long time, has lost faith that the people actually support him.

Thus, any freedom frightens him, and there can only be one solution: tighten the screws inside the country, while negotiating for the best deal possible with the Kremlin.

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