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Crimea Marks 5 Years of Russian Annexation as Western Sanctions Bite

Residents and officials in Crimea have been staging events this week to mark the fifth anniversary of Russia’s forceful annexation of the region from Ukraine.

The United States and its allies imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Moscow following the invasion. Analysts say the economic impact is denting approval ratings for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Thousands of heavily armed fighters, dubbed “little green men” for their anonymous uniforms, stormed Ukrainian military installations and government buildings in February 2014. The fighters were clearly backed by Russia, but Moscow denied involvement.

On March 16, 2014, the new de facto authorities staged a referendum in which they claimed more than 95 percent of voters chose to return Crimea to Russian control. Putin hailed the annexation.

“After a hard, long, tiring trip, Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to their home port, to their native shore, homeward, to Russia,” Putin said in a ceremony in Moscow’s Red Square five years ago to mark the annexation, just weeks after the country hosted athletes from around the world at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

 

WATCH: Crimea Marks Anniversary of Russian Annexation

Putin returned to Crimea this week and praised the progress made.

New power stations have been built. A new bridge links Crimea to the Russian mainland, its limited height restricts shipping into Ukrainian ports. A rail service is to begin this year.

Crimea residents appear supportive.

“Well, it’s all good. Giant construction sites everywhere, you can see that,” one resident told VOA this month.

​Political cost

In the aftermath of the Crimean invasion, Putin’s approval ratings soared. They are now falling fast.

The U.S., Europe and several allies imposed economic sanctions in Moscow. Russian political analyst Maria Lipman said the economic noose has tightened.

“The Crimea syndrome, or Crimea consensus, is wearing out quite visibly,” Lipman said. “The announcement of the pension reform, and the raise of the retirement age, was a trigger when people began to realize — not that they hadn’t realized before — but they really began to feel that things were not right.”

Ukraine is about to hold presidential elections. The leading candidates have pledged to continue Kyiv’s path toward European Union and NATO membership. 

So, could Putin attempt further military action? Unlikely, said Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies.

“Russian politics is much exhausted with Ukraine. I definitely exclude any kind of military intervention, the closure of the Azov Sea, or military provocations in Donbas,” he said.

The U.S. and the European Union said this week that Crimea will always be considered part of Ukraine.

Critics say the West’s failure to confront Russia more robustly in 2014 led to Moscow’s intervention in other conflicts, including in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and in Syria.

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Crimea Marks 5 Years of Russian Annexation as Western Sanctions Bite

Residents and officials in Crimea have been staging events this week to mark the fifth anniversary of Russia’s forceful annexation of the region from Ukraine.

The United States and its allies imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Moscow following the invasion. Analysts say the economic impact is denting approval ratings for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Thousands of heavily armed fighters, dubbed “little green men” for their anonymous uniforms, stormed Ukrainian military installations and government buildings in February 2014. The fighters were clearly backed by Russia, but Moscow denied involvement.

On March 16, 2014, the new de facto authorities staged a referendum in which they claimed more than 95 percent of voters chose to return Crimea to Russian control. Putin hailed the annexation.

“After a hard, long, tiring trip, Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to their home port, to their native shore, homeward, to Russia,” Putin said in a ceremony in Moscow’s Red Square five years ago to mark the annexation, just weeks after the country hosted athletes from around the world at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

 

WATCH: Crimea Marks Anniversary of Russian Annexation

Putin returned to Crimea this week and praised the progress made.

New power stations have been built. A new bridge links Crimea to the Russian mainland, its limited height restricts shipping into Ukrainian ports. A rail service is to begin this year.

Crimea residents appear supportive.

“Well, it’s all good. Giant construction sites everywhere, you can see that,” one resident told VOA this month.

​Political cost

In the aftermath of the Crimean invasion, Putin’s approval ratings soared. They are now falling fast.

The U.S., Europe and several allies imposed economic sanctions in Moscow. Russian political analyst Maria Lipman said the economic noose has tightened.

“The Crimea syndrome, or Crimea consensus, is wearing out quite visibly,” Lipman said. “The announcement of the pension reform, and the raise of the retirement age, was a trigger when people began to realize — not that they hadn’t realized before — but they really began to feel that things were not right.”

Ukraine is about to hold presidential elections. The leading candidates have pledged to continue Kyiv’s path toward European Union and NATO membership. 

So, could Putin attempt further military action? Unlikely, said Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies.

“Russian politics is much exhausted with Ukraine. I definitely exclude any kind of military intervention, the closure of the Azov Sea, or military provocations in Donbas,” he said.

The U.S. and the European Union said this week that Crimea will always be considered part of Ukraine.

Critics say the West’s failure to confront Russia more robustly in 2014 led to Moscow’s intervention in other conflicts, including in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and in Syria.

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Finland Is World’s Happiest Country

Finland ranked as the world’s happiest country for the second consecutive year, in a new United Nations report. The other Nordic countries, as well as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, New Zealand and Austria also made the top 10 in the happiness survey of 156 countries. South Sudan sank to the bottom, and other war-torn countries also ranked low. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke has more.

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Finland Is World’s Happiest Country

Finland ranked as the world’s happiest country for the second consecutive year, in a new United Nations report. The other Nordic countries, as well as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, New Zealand and Austria also made the top 10 in the happiness survey of 156 countries. South Sudan sank to the bottom, and other war-torn countries also ranked low. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke has more.

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Ukraine’s Night Train to the Front Lines

The Soviet-era carriages decorated in the blue and yellow hues of the Ukrainian flag have seen better days. But as the passengers prepare to embark, the smartly uniformed staff takes great pride in the train. Windows and handles are given a last polish, coal-fired heaters are stoked for the cold night ahead, and fresh bed sheets are fitted into newly-refurbished compartments.

At precisely 4:32 p.m. local time, Train 84 “Azov” pulls out of the Kyiv station into the southern suburbs of the capital bound for Mariupol – a journey of more than 1,000 kilometers to the frontline of Ukraine’s war with Russia. On board for the night is a cross-section of Ukrainian society.

Amid preparations for Ukraine’s presidential elections at the end of this month, VOA joined this epic journey to the east to talk to passengers heading for the key strategic port.

Thirty-one-year-old Sergey Ivanic has undergone eye surgery in Kyiv and is returning home to Mariupol with his wife Lena, who enjoys the slow pace of the night train. “You can lie in bed and sleep and relax and you arrive in the morning full of energy,” she says.

Sergey Ivanic laments that many young Ukrainians are leaving in search of a better life.

“The main issue is to stop the torrent of young people leaving to go abroad, to create stable jobs.”

After five years of war, Lena wants an end to the divisions in Ukrainian society.

“Ukraine is divided between east and west and we are always being made to fight each other. But in reality, normal people live on both sides. So I want the new president to unite us as a nation.”

Outside, dusk falls over the fields of Ukraine’s vast steppeland. Epic journeys are second nature for Gennadiy Syuzev, a merchant seaman on his way to Mariupol’s huge commercial port.

“In my mind, it doesn’t matter who is going to be the next president. Nothing significant will change,” says Syuzev.

A series of sharp jolts brings us to a halt, one of 19 scheduled stops on the route. It takes 18 hours for the train to travel from Kyiv to Mariupol. Its days could be numbered.  

The current government has promised to reopen Mariupol’s dilapidated airport, which would put the city just an hour’s domestic flight from the capital  – an election pledge that’s attracting voters.

For others, night trains are part of Ukraine’s way of life.

The cheapest tickets buy you a narrow bed in an open carriage, effectively a dormitory on wheels. Chatting away to their neighboring passengers, Oksana Repetskaya and her daughter are returning from a dance competition in Kyiv.

“We got used to living with the conflict,” she says. “My eldest son is doing military service; he’s with the army in Dnipropetrovsk.”

“We still have the same faces in power and so I have strong doubts that anything will change. But I also really hope that new faces will emerge,” she adds.

Close to midnight, the conversations fade and the lights are dimmed.

By daybreak, the train is running parallel to the frontlines of the conflict with Russian-backed separatists, which lie just seven kilometres to the east.

Disembarking at Mariupol, the signs of the nearby conflict are clear. Heavily armed soldiers patrol the platforms with sniffer dogs. A few nearby buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes and shell damage sustained during the height of the war in 2014, when it appeared that the separatists might take the city.

That risk appears to have diminished for now. But the threat of renewed fighting looms constantly.

For Ukrainians returning home to Mariupol, the election offers hope of change. But few believe their next president will have a quick fix to end the war.

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Ukraine’s Night Train to the Front Lines

Ukraine is gearing up for presidential elections at the end of this month, a vote that holds huge implications for a country still at war with Russian-backed separatists. There are other issues on the agenda too – not least getting around this vast country. The dilapidated infrastructure means long night trains are the only practical transport. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell jumped on board to chat with some of the passengers heading east.

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Radovan Karadzic Faces Final Verdict in War Crimes Case

United Nations appeals judges on Wednesday hand down a final verdict in the case of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, a key figure in the Balkan wars who is serving a 40-year prison sentence for genocide.

The ruling will likely bring to a close one of the highest profile trials stemming from the series of wars in the 1990s that saw the bloody collapse of the former Yugoslavia and death of at least 100,000 Bosnians.

Karadzic, 73, was convicted in 2016 for the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces. He was also found guilty of leading a campaign of ethnic cleansing that drove Croats and Muslims out of Serb-claimed areas of Bosnia.

On appeal, prosecutors are seeking a life sentence and a second genocide conviction for his alleged role in that policy of targeting non-Serbs across several Bosnian towns in the early years of the war. Karadzic meanwhile is appealing against his conviction and wants a retrial.

The ruling, which is final and cannot be challenged on appeal, will have huge resonance in the former Yugoslavia, especially in Bosnia, where ethnic communities remain divided and Karadzic is still seen as a hero by many Bosnian Serbs.

The judgment will be read out at 14:00 local time (13:00 GMT) in The Hague at a U.N. court handling cases left over when the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia closed its doors in 2017.

A delegation of the association of Mothers of Srebrenica will be in the Netherlands for the judgment.

In hiding for nearly a decade, Karadzic was arrested and handed over to the court in July 2008.

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NATO to Receive First Northrop Surveillance Drone, Years Late

NATO is to receive the first of five Northrop Grumman high-altitude drones in the third quarter after years of delays, giving the alliance its own spy drones for the first time, the German government told lawmakers.

Thomas Silberhorn, state secretary in the German Defense Ministry, said the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) drone would be delivered to an air base in Sigonella, Italy, followed by four additional systems, including drones and ground stations built by Airbus, later in the year.

NATO plans to use the aircraft, a derivative of Northrop’s Global Hawk drone, to carry out missions ranging from protection of ground troops to border control and counter-terrorism. The drones will be able to fly for up to 30 hours at a time in all weather, providing near real-time surveillance data.

Northrop first won the contract for the AGS system from NATO in May, 2012, with delivery of the first aircraft slated for 52 months later. However, technical issues and flight test delays have delayed the program, Silberhorn said.

Andrej Hunko, a member of the radical Left opposition party, called for Germany to scrap its participation in the program, warning of spiraling costs and the risk that it could escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

“The drones are closely linked to a new form of warfare,” he said. “They stand for an arms race that will see existing surveillance and spy systems replaced with new platforms.”

Silberhorn, in a previously unreported response to a parliamentary query from Hunko, said NATO had capped the cost of the program at 1.3 billion euros ($1.47 billion) in 2007.

Germany, which is funding about a third of system, scrapped plans to buy its own Global Hawk drones amid spiraling costs and certification problems, and is now negotiating with Northrop to buy several of its newer model Triton surveillance drones.

Fifteen NATO countries, led by the United States, will pay for the AGS system, but all 29 alliance nations are due to participate in its long-term support.

Germany has sent 76 soldiers to Sigonella to operate the surveillance system and analyze its findings, Silberhorn said.

He said a total of 132 German soldiers would eventually be assigned to AGS, of whom 122 would be stationed in Sigonella.

NATO officials had no immediate comment on the program’s status or whether Northrop faced penalties for the delayed delivery.

No comment was available from Northrop.

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NATO to Receive First Northrop Surveillance Drone, Years Late

NATO is to receive the first of five Northrop Grumman high-altitude drones in the third quarter after years of delays, giving the alliance its own spy drones for the first time, the German government told lawmakers.

Thomas Silberhorn, state secretary in the German Defense Ministry, said the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) drone would be delivered to an air base in Sigonella, Italy, followed by four additional systems, including drones and ground stations built by Airbus, later in the year.

NATO plans to use the aircraft, a derivative of Northrop’s Global Hawk drone, to carry out missions ranging from protection of ground troops to border control and counter-terrorism. The drones will be able to fly for up to 30 hours at a time in all weather, providing near real-time surveillance data.

Northrop first won the contract for the AGS system from NATO in May, 2012, with delivery of the first aircraft slated for 52 months later. However, technical issues and flight test delays have delayed the program, Silberhorn said.

Andrej Hunko, a member of the radical Left opposition party, called for Germany to scrap its participation in the program, warning of spiraling costs and the risk that it could escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

“The drones are closely linked to a new form of warfare,” he said. “They stand for an arms race that will see existing surveillance and spy systems replaced with new platforms.”

Silberhorn, in a previously unreported response to a parliamentary query from Hunko, said NATO had capped the cost of the program at 1.3 billion euros ($1.47 billion) in 2007.

Germany, which is funding about a third of system, scrapped plans to buy its own Global Hawk drones amid spiraling costs and certification problems, and is now negotiating with Northrop to buy several of its newer model Triton surveillance drones.

Fifteen NATO countries, led by the United States, will pay for the AGS system, but all 29 alliance nations are due to participate in its long-term support.

Germany has sent 76 soldiers to Sigonella to operate the surveillance system and analyze its findings, Silberhorn said.

He said a total of 132 German soldiers would eventually be assigned to AGS, of whom 122 would be stationed in Sigonella.

NATO officials had no immediate comment on the program’s status or whether Northrop faced penalties for the delayed delivery.

No comment was available from Northrop.

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Spain Reopens Investigation of 2004 Train Bombings 

Spain this month marked the 15th anniversary of the 2004 train bombings that killed 193 people with calls to reopen investigations into the deadliest terrorist attack in the kingdom’s history, amid allegations the government covered up links between jihadist bombers and the Basque separatist group, ETA.

Spain’s highest jurisdictional court, the Audencia Nacional, announced last week it is instructing the attorney general to review classified information on the bombings and consider new evidence. Officials with the attorney general’s office have said they are forming a task force with about 200 law enforcement officers to handle the extensive analysis and security work that may be required if the the politically-charged case is reopened.

At remembrance services in Madrid, conservative opposition leader Pablo Casado called on the government to “declassifiy any information that helps get to the truth, which,” he warned,  “someone may try to conceal or use in some way.”

Jose Luis Avalos, a spokesman for the Socialist government, accused Casado of playing politics with the suffering of victims and said the conservative Popular Party had “built a great lie” around  the terrorist attacks that took place when it was in power.

At the time of the bombings, Popular Party prime minister Jose Maria Aznar initially blamed ETA.  Evidence later surfaced pointing to Islamic terrorists as the ones who put a total of ten explosive devices on commuter trains and at rail stations in various parts of Madrid, all going off within minutes of each other.  

Bombings just before elections

The attacks took place just three days before scheduled general elections which the socialists won handily by campaigning on the Aznar government’s  failure to identify the perpetrators of one of the worst terror attacks to ever hit Europe.

Al-Qaida claimed the coordinated bombings were punishment for Spain’s alliance with the United States and Britain for the invasion of Iraq in the second Gulf War. Immediately upon replacing Aznar, Socialist prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero withdrew the 5,000 troops that Spain had contributed to the U.S.-led multi-national force in Iraq. 

An investigation conducted under the socialist government assigned full blame for the bombings to a group of about 20 mostly Moroccan-born suspects who had records as petty criminals and drug dealers and who authorities said had been recruited by al-Qaida in Spain.

Some analysts have since cast doubts on the investigation, which critics say fell short of explaining how the attacks were organized and ignored evidence pointing to possible involvement by the Basque separatist group. 

“Zapatero did not allow the security services and the attorney general to weave the threads leading  to ETA  because it wouldn’t fit his needle hole,”  charged investigative journalist Luis del Pino, who has written a book and made a documentary on the bombings.

Link to ETA

The head of the Islamic cell charged with conducting the train bombings, Jamal Ahmidan, operated for years as an underworld drug dealer and gunman in the Basque city San Sebastian, an ETA stronghold.

Suarez Trashorras, the supplier of stolen dynamite used in the attacks, told police that Ahmidan had said he knew two members of ETA who had been arrested while moving tons of explosives days before he picked up the dynamite, according to the newspaper El Mundo.  

Ahmidan died along with the six other suspected train bombers when an explosion demolished their hideout during a siege by police. 

But a forensic analysis that raised suspicions of possible ETA links was omitted from an official report on the bombings submitted to a Spanish judge  leading the investigations in 2005 according to police officials. The same sources have told  journalists that traces of boric acid found at an apartment rented by one of the bombers had been only been detected previously at an ETA safe house.

Missing information

The analysts said that it was a rare method used to preserve or conceal explosives from detection. 

“This brings us  to the possibility that the author (or) authors of these acts are related among each other and/or may have had the same type of formation  and/or could be the same authors,” according to the forensic report prepared by the police scientific unit that later turned up among documents requested by former interior minister Alfredo Rubalcaba.

Former National Police Director General Agustin Diaz de Mera has said that police officials who elaborated the official report left out the information due to “political pressures.”

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Spain Reopens Investigation of 2004 Train Bombings 

Spain this month marked the 15th anniversary of the 2004 train bombings that killed 193 people with calls to reopen investigations into the deadliest terrorist attack in the kingdom’s history, amid allegations the government covered up links between jihadist bombers and the Basque separatist group, ETA.

Spain’s highest jurisdictional court, the Audencia Nacional, announced last week it is instructing the attorney general to review classified information on the bombings and consider new evidence. Officials with the attorney general’s office have said they are forming a task force with about 200 law enforcement officers to handle the extensive analysis and security work that may be required if the the politically-charged case is reopened.

At remembrance services in Madrid, conservative opposition leader Pablo Casado called on the government to “declassifiy any information that helps get to the truth, which,” he warned,  “someone may try to conceal or use in some way.”

Jose Luis Avalos, a spokesman for the Socialist government, accused Casado of playing politics with the suffering of victims and said the conservative Popular Party had “built a great lie” around  the terrorist attacks that took place when it was in power.

At the time of the bombings, Popular Party prime minister Jose Maria Aznar initially blamed ETA.  Evidence later surfaced pointing to Islamic terrorists as the ones who put a total of ten explosive devices on commuter trains and at rail stations in various parts of Madrid, all going off within minutes of each other.  

Bombings just before elections

The attacks took place just three days before scheduled general elections which the socialists won handily by campaigning on the Aznar government’s  failure to identify the perpetrators of one of the worst terror attacks to ever hit Europe.

Al-Qaida claimed the coordinated bombings were punishment for Spain’s alliance with the United States and Britain for the invasion of Iraq in the second Gulf War. Immediately upon replacing Aznar, Socialist prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero withdrew the 5,000 troops that Spain had contributed to the U.S.-led multi-national force in Iraq. 

An investigation conducted under the socialist government assigned full blame for the bombings to a group of about 20 mostly Moroccan-born suspects who had records as petty criminals and drug dealers and who authorities said had been recruited by al-Qaida in Spain.

Some analysts have since cast doubts on the investigation, which critics say fell short of explaining how the attacks were organized and ignored evidence pointing to possible involvement by the Basque separatist group. 

“Zapatero did not allow the security services and the attorney general to weave the threads leading  to ETA  because it wouldn’t fit his needle hole,”  charged investigative journalist Luis del Pino, who has written a book and made a documentary on the bombings.

Link to ETA

The head of the Islamic cell charged with conducting the train bombings, Jamal Ahmidan, operated for years as an underworld drug dealer and gunman in the Basque city San Sebastian, an ETA stronghold.

Suarez Trashorras, the supplier of stolen dynamite used in the attacks, told police that Ahmidan had said he knew two members of ETA who had been arrested while moving tons of explosives days before he picked up the dynamite, according to the newspaper El Mundo.  

Ahmidan died along with the six other suspected train bombers when an explosion demolished their hideout during a siege by police. 

But a forensic analysis that raised suspicions of possible ETA links was omitted from an official report on the bombings submitted to a Spanish judge  leading the investigations in 2005 according to police officials. The same sources have told  journalists that traces of boric acid found at an apartment rented by one of the bombers had been only been detected previously at an ETA safe house.

Missing information

The analysts said that it was a rare method used to preserve or conceal explosives from detection. 

“This brings us  to the possibility that the author (or) authors of these acts are related among each other and/or may have had the same type of formation  and/or could be the same authors,” according to the forensic report prepared by the police scientific unit that later turned up among documents requested by former interior minister Alfredo Rubalcaba.

Former National Police Director General Agustin Diaz de Mera has said that police officials who elaborated the official report left out the information due to “political pressures.”

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