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Ukraine prosecutor says there are no plans to revisit Burisma probes

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Ukraine’s top prosecutor said on Friday (18 February) investigations into Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings Ltd, a matter closely tied to a scandal that led to former US President Donald Trump’s first impeachment, have been closed with no plans to reopen them, write Karin Strohecker and Matthias Williams.

Ukrainian prosecutors in recent years had looked into the actions of Burisma, a company on whose board US President Joe Biden’s son Hunter had served from 2014 to 2019, and its founder Mykola Zlochevsky.

“Everything that prosecutors could do, they have done,” Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said in an interview with Reuters by video link from Kyiv. “This is why I don’t see any possibilities (or) necessity to come back to these cases.”

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Venediktova also said US authorities had made no requests of her office since Biden took office last month.

The US House of Representatives impeached Trump in December 2019 on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress over his request in a July 2019 phone call to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, for an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter. The US Senate voted in February 2020 to keep Trump in office.

Trump made unsubstantiated corruption allegations against both Bidens. U.S. Democrats accused Trump, a Republican, of soliciting foreign interference in an American election by trying to get a vulnerable ally to smear a domestic political rival, using American aid as leverage. Biden defeated Trump in the November US election.

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As vice president under President Barack Obama, Biden oversaw US policy toward Ukraine and sought the removal of the country’s top prosecutor at the time, who the United States and Western European countries had viewed as corrupt or ineffective. Trump and his allies made unsubstantiated claims that Biden did so because the prosecutor had been looking into Burisma while his son served on the board.

Zlochevsky, a former Ukraine ecology minister, is now living abroad.

One Burisma probe had related to suspected tax violations. Burisma said in 2017 investigations into the company and Zlochevsky had been closed after it paid an additional 180 million hryvnias ($6.46m) in taxes.

Venediktova, in her post for just under a year, said she wants to take a different approach in her job than predecessors she described as being “too political”.

Asked about Ukraine’s fight against corruption, Venediktova dismissed concerns that the independence of the national anti-corruption bureau, known as NABU, had been undermined after the government drafted new legislation on its status that the bureau said would harm its ability to fight high-level graft.

“NABU is now an independent body and will be an independent body in future,” Venediktova said.

Corruption has been a longstanding issue for Ukraine, and any threat to the independence of NABU, set up with the backing of Western donors, could further derail the flow of foreign aid at a time when its economy has been hammered by lockdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The International Monetary Fund has told Ukraine it needs to adopt more reforms to unlock further funds from its $5 billion IMF programme.

Venediktova also said she is hopeful that legal cases surrounding PrivatBank would come to a conclusion before the end of the year. The central bank declared PrivatBank insolvent in 2016 and said its poor lending practices blew a $5.5bn hole in its finances before it was taken into state hands. The lender’s former owners dispute this and have fought to reverse the nationalisation.

($1 = 27.8492 hryvnias)

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Russia

Ukraine seethes as Putin's party courts voters in separatist-held Donbass

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Russian and separatist flags flutter in the air as lively music blares and soldiers from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic sit listening to speeches. Members of the Russian nationalist Night Wolves motorcycle club mill around nearby, write Alexander Ermochenko, Sergiy Karazy in Kyiv and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow.

Russia will hold parliamentary elections on 17-19 September and for the first time, United Russia, the ruling party that supports President Vladimir Putin, is campaigning in eastern Ukraine on territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.

Up for grabs are the votes of more than 600,000 people who were given Russian passports after a Kremlin policy change in 2019 that Ukraine decried as a step towards annexation.

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"I will vote for sure, and only for United Russia because I think with them we will join the Russian Federation," said Elena, 39, from Khartsysk in the Donetsk region.

"Our children will study according to the Russian curriculum, our salaries will be according to Russian standards, and actually we will live in Russia," she said, speaking at a United Russia rally in the city of Donetsk.

In 2014, after street protests ousted Ukraine's Kremlin-friendly president Viktor Yanukovich, Russia swiftly annexed another part of Ukraine, the Crimean Peninsula. Pro-Russian separatists then rose up across eastern Ukraine, in what Kyiv and its Western allies called a Moscow-backed land grab.

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More than 14,000 people have died in fighting between separatists and Ukrainian forces, with deadly clashes continuing regularly despite a ceasefire that ended large scale combat in 2015.

Two self-proclaimed "People's Republics" run the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, in a part of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbass. Moscow has cultivated close links to the separatists but denies orchestrating their rebellions.

In Donetsk, election billboards with images of Russian landmarks such as Moscow's St Basil's Cathedral are dotted around. The Russian rouble has supplanted the Ukrainian hryvnia. Kyiv, meanwhile, is furious at Russia staging an election on separatist-held territory.

"There is a total 'Russification' of this region going full steam ahead," Oleskiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine's security and defence council, told Reuters in Kyiv.

"The other question is why is the world not reacting to this? Why should they recognise this State Duma?" he said in an interview in Kyiv, referring to the Russian parliament's lower house that will be chosen in the vote.

Russia says there is nothing unusual about people with dual Russian and Ukrainian nationality voting in a Russian election.

Donbass residents with Russian passports were entitled to vote "wherever they live", Russia's TASS news agency quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying on Aug. 31.

Kyiv and Moscow accuse each other of blocking a permanent peace in the Donbass. A mass mobilisation of Russian forces near Ukraine's border earlier this year caused alarm in the West.

Across Russia itself, United Russia is expected to win the parliamentary election, as it has never failed to do in the Putin era, despite opinion poll ratings that have sagged lately over stagnant living standards. Opposition groups say their candidates have been denied access to the ballot, jailed, intimidated or pushed into exile, and they anticipate fraud. Russia says the vote will be fair.

Although the Donbass is small when compared with the overall Russian electorate, the ruling party's overwhelming support there could be enough to secure extra seats.

"Obviously United Russia's rating there is much higher and the protest vote is much lower there than across (Russia) on average," said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speech writer turned political analyst.

"That's why they are mobilizing Donbass."

Yevhen Mahda, a Kyiv-based political analyst, said Russia was letting Donbass residents vote not only to boost United Russia, but to legitimise the separatist administrations.

"Russia, I would put it this way, with great cynicism, is exploiting the fact that most of the people living there have nowhere to go to get help, nobody to rely on, and often a Russian passport was the only way out of the desperate situation that people found themselves in on occupied territories."

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Ukraine

Ukraine marks Independence Day vowing to reclaim annexed territory

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Ukrainian service members take part in the Independence Day military parade in Kyiv, Ukraine August 24, 2021. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivers a speech during the Independence Day military parade in Kyiv, Ukraine August 24, 2021. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Ukraine held its first military parade in several years, celebrating the 30th anniversary of its independence and declaring it would reclaim areas of its territory annexed by Russia, writes Pavel Polityuk, Reuters.

Units of the Ukrainian army, tanks, armored personnel carriers, missiles and air defence systems marched along the central street of Kyiv, while a parade of Ukrainian Navy units took place in the Black Sea port of Odessa.

"We are fighting for our people, because it is possible to temporarily occupy territories, but it is impossible to occupy people's love for Ukraine," President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said at a ceremony before the parade.

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"People in Donbass and Crimea will return to us, because we are a family," he said.

Relations between Kyiv and Moscow collapsed after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and the outbreak of war between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people in seven years.

On Monday, more than 40 countries took part in the Crimea platform, a summit in Kyiv designed to keep international attention focused on the return of Crimea. Read more.

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Energy

Ukraine says discussed guarantees with US and Germany over Nord Stream 2

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The logo of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project is seen on a pipe at the Chelyabinsk pipe rolling plant in Chelyabinsk, Russia, February 26, 2020.  REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov//File Photo

The energy ministers of Ukraine, the United States and Germany discussed guarantees for Ukraine about its future as a transit country after the construction of Russia's Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, Ukraine's energy chief said on Monday (23 August), write Pavel Polityuk and Matthias Williams.

Kyiv fears Russia could use the pipeline, which will bring Russian gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea, to deprive Ukraine of lucrative transit fees. Several other nations also worry it will deepen Europe's dependence on Russian energy supplies.

The three ministers discussed "a number of steps that can be taken together in terms of real guarantees for Ukraine regarding the preservation of transit," Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko said.

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"We proceeded from the position that was declared and voiced by the president of Ukraine - that we cannot allow the Russian Federation to use gas as a weapon," he told reporters.

Ukraine is bitterly opposed to a deal between Washington and Berlin over Nord Stream 2, which will carry gas to Europe while bypassing Ukraine. U.S. President Joe Biden's administration has not tried to kill off the project with sanctions, as Ukraine lobbied for.

"From today's perspective we shouldn't reject any suggestions, but also not create any insurmountable obstacles," German Economy and Energy Minister Peter Altmaier told reporters.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Zelenskiy in Kyiv on Sunday to offer reassurances Ukraine's interests would be protected, but Zelenskiy called for greater clarity on what steps would be taken. read more

Monday's meeting took place on the sidelines of the Crimea Platform, a summit in Kyiv designed to keep international attention focused on returning the Crimea peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014, back to Ukraine.

"I will personally do everything possible to return Crimea, so that it becomes part of Europe together with Ukraine," Zelenskiy told delegates from 46 countries.

Addressing the summit after the gas talks, Altmaier accused Russia of repression in Crimea. "We will not allow Crimea to become a blind spot," he said.

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said sanctions on Moscow would remain until Russia ceded back control of the peninsula, adding "Russia must be held accountable for its aggression".

Relations between Kyiv and Moscow collapsed after the annexation and the outbreak of war between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people in seven years.

Ukraine has accused Russia of trying to sabotage the summit by pressuring countries not to attend, while Russia has criticised the West for supporting the event.

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