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Olena Starik

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Photo of Ukrainian writer, Volodymyr Vakulenko
FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Despair, Love, Betrayal — Then Death: A Ukrainian War Diary

Volodymyr Vakulenko was a Ukrainian writer killed by the Russians during the invasion. He left behind a diary that is intensely personal, yet encompasses much of the tragedy of his nation.

KYIV — Volodymyr Vakulenko lived in the Ukrainian village of Kapitolivka near Izyum, with his 14-year-old son who has autism. Volodymyr was abducted by the Russians back in March, in the weeks after the invasion. For months, his family, investigators, fellow writers, journalists and volunteers searched for him in vain.

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Volodymyr recounted in his diary, which was later found, the first weeks of the Russian invasion of the Izyum region in eastern Ukraine. Kyiv-based media Livy Bereg takes a look back at Volodymyr's life and publishes excerpts from his diary, the original of which is now kept in the Kharkiv Literary Museum.

This is his story:

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Photo of a Russian flag during Unity Day celebrations
Russia

No Putin, No Russia? Why Losing The War Wouldn't Destroy The Russian Federation

Predictions about the collapse of Russia are as old as the country itself. Yet a consistent centralization of power has gone on for decades, weakening Russia's territories and republics. The war in Ukraine changes everything and nothing.

-Analysis-

The prediction “Russia is about to fall apart” has been a mainstay of the political science-futurist genre for the 30 years since the end of the USSR and establishment of the Russian Federation.

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Now, the war with Ukraine has drastically reduced the time-frame for such apocalyptic forecasts to come true. First, because it turns out that Russia can very well lose the war; and secondly, a defeat would weaken Vladimir Putin’s regime — and who knows if he will retain power at all?

“No Putin, no Russia” is a more recent refrain.

This line of thinking says that the weakening of the central government will push the regions to act independently. Yet noted political scientist Alexander Kynev explained in an interview with Vazhnyye Istorii why he doesn't believe anything like this will happen. The collapse of Russia is unlikely even if Putin loses.

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photo of a gate opening to a light blue mansion
FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Kremlin Kids, Inc: How The Children Of Russia's Elite Keep Busy Avoiding The War

The offspring of Russia's elite were used to luxury loft apartments, expensive cars and carefree living. So how did Putin's mobilization for new troops impact them? As independent Russian news platform Vazhnyye Istorii found out, life essentially continues as normal.

There's a famous quote about war by the late Russian General Alexander Lebed that is universally true: “Let me recruit a platoon of the children of the elite, and the war will be over in a day.”

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Vazhnyye Istorii, as one of the few remaining independent Russian news platforms, decided to investigate what the offspring of the Russian elite thought about Russia's "partial mobilization" that was announced in late September, and whether any of them had been called up.

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Photo of a Russian Army reservist​ in western Russia
FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

One Russian Mother's Plea To Putin To Find Her Soldier Son

Thousands of Russian mothers exchange messages every day online in desperate bids to find their missing sons serving in the Russian army. This is the story of one such mother who has been looking for her son for seven months.

Irina Chistyakova lives in Petrozavodsk, Russia, a city about 300 kilometers northeast of St. Petersburg. Her 20-year-old son Kirill was called up on the eve of the war, signing the enrollment contract without his mother knowing.

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The last time he called her was on March 22 from a basement in Malaya Rogan, a village near Kharkiv, as his unit was getting ready to retreat.

Since then, Chistyakova has looked through hundreds of photos of corpses, and in several cases identified the sons of people she knew. But not her own. Kirill is neither on the lists of the dead, nor on the register of missing people.

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Belarus To Kazakhstan: Russia's Weakness Is A Powder Keg In Ex-Soviet Lands
FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Belarus To Kazakhstan: Russia's Weakness Is A Powder Keg In Ex-Soviet Lands

Russia has always claimed to be a kind of sheriff on the territory of the former USSR, a zone the country considers as its "privileged interests." Now it has lost both strength and authority in the war with Ukraine.

Since the collapse of the USSR, thirty years ago, the post-Soviet regions regularly brought bad news to the world. This included everything from regional conflicts and civil wars to ethnic clashes and military coups. But until recently, this never had merged into one continuous stream.

In 2020 we began to see how the instability and simmering conflicts could converge and take a bloody turn: Hostilities resumed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Belarus bubbling, with popular protests against strongman Alexander Lukashenko, border skirmishes turned deadly between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan; another coup d'état took place in Kyrgyzstan in October.

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Fast-forward to today: We are seeing how Russia's war with Ukraine has worsened the region's security.

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Russian traditional matryoshka nesting dolls depicting first Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars of the Soviet Union Vladimir Lenin, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin, first President of USSR Mikhail Gorbachev, and first President of Russia Boris Yeltsin, and Russian President Vladimir Putin
Geopolitics

The 'Union State' — Inside Putin's Plans To Rebuild The USSR With A 1990s Treaty

What are Vladimir Putin's long-term goals in Ukraine? An overlooked treaty from the mid-1990s reveal that his ambitions go far beyond Ukraine to building a Russian Empire 2.0.

What does Vladimir Putin want?

One big clue is the “Union State”, a supranational organization consisting of Russia and Belarus that was founded in 1996. The union aimed to gradually create a single political, economic, military and cultural space.

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But Putin’s vision for the union doesn’t stop with Belarus. He has been quietly but diligently building the formations of the USSR 2.0 for decades.

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a man stand in the middle of the crater left by a russian rocket on a kids' playground in Kyiv
Ukraine

Terror As Strategy: Is There A Method To Putin's Vengeance?

This week’s massive strikes by Russia on Ukrainian territory brought back the terror of the first days of the invasion across the entire country. Were they strategic strikes, or simply a retaliation for Ukraine’s attack on a strategic bridge in Russia-occupied territory in Crimea?

-Analysis-

KYIV — The toll continues to rise after Russia's massive missile strikes across Ukraine, including the capital. Emergency services say 19 people were killed, 105 were injured and there was widespread damage to the country's energy infrastructure.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia had struck "with precision-guided weapons at energy, military command and communications facilities."

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But it was clear from the beginning that the strikes also struck residential buildings, civilians and vehicles, which the United Nations warned may amount to a war crime. Indeed, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Russia had two goals: energy facilities and people.

“This is perhaps the most massive blow to Ukraine since the beginning of the war,” says Russian military expert Yuri Fedorov.

Still, Ukrainian military expert Oleksandr Kovalenko put the strikes into perspective, saying that no attack could be as strong as those of Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine.

“Russia will not be able to repeat that," he said. "It simply will not be able to overcome a one-time blow of that magnitude.”

The question lingers after scenes of bloodshed in cities far from the front line: was there a strategic rationale behind the strikes? And will October 10 represent the beginning to a new phase of the war.

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Time's Up, Lukashenko: Belarus Prepares To Join The War Against Ukraine
Geopolitics

Time's Up, Lukashenko: Belarus Prepares To Join The War Against Ukraine

Staunch Putin ally Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has recently tried to distance himself from an escalating war. But a series of events over the past month look set to drag him into Moscow's war with all the risks that entails for his small country.

This article was updated Oct. 10 at 2:30 p.m EST

-Analysis-

The announcement Monday by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that he would deploy his troops alongside Russian forces near Ukraine is the clearest sign to date that Belarus is prepared to enter the war.

The 68-year-old strongman, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, cited the Saturday bombing of the Kerch bridge and the risk of a similar such attack on his country, for joining forces with Russia near the border.

"We have been preparing for this for decades. If necessary, we will respond," Lukashenko said.

Even before the bombing of Russia' bridge connecting its mainland to Crimea, the Kremlin's decision last month to hold pseudo-referendums in the occupied territories of Ukraine and the announcement of a partial mobilization had already already deprived Lukashenko of the opportunity to maintain the status quo.

It will no longer be possible to remain a passive participant in the Russian aggression: now it is necessary either to sharply take its distance from Russia or join a total war. And the news Monday of a joint operation with Moscow looks like Lukashenko's attempts to avoid joining the conflict have come to an end.

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Minsk's reaction last month to the news about the pseudo-referendums and mobilization indicated a continued desire to distance itself from the upcoming escalation.

On the day of announcement of the Russian mobilization, in Moscow there was a meeting between the Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus, Alexander Volfovich, and the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, Nikolai Patrushev. The main topic, obviously, was the war and “tension” on the borders of both Belarus and Russia.

But no concrete decisions were announced, and any hints of a possible mobilization in Belarus were rejected at that time. “Mobilization is not about us, the people of Belarus and the country are already mobilized,” Volfovich assured.

Lukashenko himself spoke on this topic only on September 24, but also quite ambiguously. “There will be no mobilization. We are not going to mobilize," he said. "This is a lie.”

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Photo of Vladimir Putin entering through a door in Grand Kremlin Palace 2022
FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

When Did Putin "Turn" Evil? That's Exactly The Wrong Question

Look back over the past two decades, and you'll see Vladimir Putin has always been the man revealed by the Ukraine invasion, an evil and sinister dictator. The Russian leader just managed to mask it, especially because so many chose to see him as a typically corrupt and greedy strongman who could be bribed or reasoned with.

-OpEd-

KYIV — The world knows that Vladimir Putin has power, money and mistresses. So why, ask some, wasn't that enough for him? Why did he have to go start another war?

At its heart, this is the wrong question to ask. For Putin, military expansion is not an adrenaline rush to feed into his existing life of luxury. On the contrary, the shedding of blood for the sake of holding power is his modus operandi, while the fruits of greed and corruption like the Putin Palace in Gelendzhik are more like a welcome bonus.

In the last year, we have kept hearing rhetorical questions like “why did Putin start this war at all, didn't he have enough of his own land?” or “he already has Gelendzhik to enjoy, why fight?” This line of thinking has resurfaced after missile strikes on Ukrainian power grids and dams, which was regarded by many as a simple demonstration of terrorism. Such acts are a manifestation of weakness, some ask, so is Putin ready to show himself weak?

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However, you will not arrive at the correct answer if the questions themselves are asked incorrectly. For decades, analysts in Russia, Ukraine, and the West have been under an illusion about the nature of the Russian president's personal dictatorship.

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Destroyed building Kharkiv
FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Missiles And Euphoria: The Folly Of War On Full Display In Kharkiv

As Ukraine's counter-offensive gathers steam, the city of Kharkiv is targeted by Putin's forces. Here's a view from up close, during heavy shelling that has sparked power and water outrages, even as the liberation of territory sets off scenes of joy and elation.

KHARKIV — For several years, a woman has been sitting on the corner of my street selling flowers almost every day. On Sep. 9, our neighborhood was shelled for the first time – and have no doubt that an hour and a half after the missile hit our street, she was sitting right there in her usual place. People were cleaning up broken glass and cutting tree branches 50 meters from her. Some came to buy flowers.

In some way, this is all you need to know about life right now in Kharkiv.

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We are hostages of geography: the time it takes for the missile to reach Kharkiv from Belgorod, Russia, as air defense officers tell us, is 43 seconds. None of our existing defense systems are able to prevent their arrival in our neighborhood.

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Ukrainian soldiers in Donetsk in May 2022
FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Russia's Next New Strategy: Try To Stall Until 2023

Russia's progress on the frontline has stalled. But without weapons promised by the West, Ukraine has not been able to carry out decisive counteroffensives. The West's indecisiveness risks the war being dragged out until next year — which is exactly what Putin wants.

-Analysis-

KYIV — For about a month, the front line has remained almost unchanged. Russian troops have gone as far as they can.

Obviously, this situation annoys the Kremlin, forcing it to look for new, rather unconventional ways to replenish human reserves and worn-out weapons. But Moscow is also playing for time, believing that the onset of cold weather will play into its hands, as an impending energy crisis spreads through Europe.

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Moreover, Putin needs time to restore the Russian army’s ability to fight. For this very reason, a day after Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced a deliberate slowdown in the military campaign in Ukraine, purportedly to reduce civilian casualties, Putin issued a decree to increase the size of the Russian army.

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Putin in wheat field
FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Overselling The Russia-Ukraine Grain Deal Is One More Putin Scam

Moscow and Kyiv reached a much hailed accord in July to allow transport of Ukrainian agricultural output from ports along the Black Sea. However, analysis from Germany's Die Welt and Ukraine's Livy Bereg shows that it has done little so far to solve the food crisis, and is instead being used by Putin to advance his own ambitions.

-Analysis-

Brokered by Turkey on July 22, the Grain Deal between Russia and Ukraine ensured the export of Ukrainian agricultural products from the country's largest sea ports. Exports by sea of grains and oilseeds have been increasing. Optimistic reports, featuring photos of the first deliveries to Africa, are circulating about how the risk of a global food crisis has been averted.

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But a closer look shows a different story. The Black Sea ports are not fully opened, which will impact not only Ukraine. The rest of the world can expect knock-on effects, including potentially hunger for millions. Indeed, a large proportion of the deliveries are not going to Africa at all.

As with other reported "breakthroughs" in the war, Vladimir Putin has other objectives in mind — and is still holding on to all his cards.

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