Ukraine Bans Russian Social Media in New Sanctions Package over Crimea Annexation, Donbass War

Ukrainian soldiers carry an anti-tank grenade launcher in front of damaged buildings of the Butovka Coal Mine, after shelling in Donetsk area, Ukraine, 11 May 2017. Photo: Valeri Kvit/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

  • Ukraine has extended previously existing sanctions and has introduced new ones against Russia over the latter’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in Donbass.
  • Sanctions include for the first time three-year bans on popular Russian social networks VK.com and Odnoklassniki.ru, Russia’s top search engine Yandex, and email service Mail.ru.
  • They also provide for bans on key Russian TV stations which have been accused by Ukraine and Western countries of spreading anti-Western propaganda and disinformation.
  • Sporadic fighting continues to flare up alongside the frontline in Donbass.
  • Some 1.6 million people have been displaced in Ukraine as a result of Crimea’s annexation and the war in Donbass. Another 2.6 million are said to have gone to Russia as refugees.

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has moved to enact a decision by the country’s National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) for harsher sanctions against Russia over the latter’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and the ongoing pro-Russian insurgency in Ukraine’s Donbass region.

The sanctions including, among others, blocking access in Ukraine to Russian social networks which are very popular in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Led by President Vladimir Putin, in February-March 2014, Russia occupied and then annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea. The move was in reaction to the Euromaidan Revolution in Kiev which ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and promised to bring Ukraine closer to the West, including through EU and NATO membership.

Shortly after Russia’s seizure of Crimea, a pro-Russian insurgency possibly instigated and aided by Moscow began in the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine and has been raging ever since.

Putin’s government has denied any official involvement in Donbass, stating that any Russian citizens who might be partaking in the conflict do so at their own discretion.

In February 2015, the leaders of Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine – Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, and Petro Poroshenko – negotiated the so called Minsk II Agreement, under which warring parties are to stick to a full ceasefire, withdraw heavy weapons from the frontline to establish a security zone, and release all hostages on the basis of an “all for all” exchange.

The Minsk II ceasefire deal has been broken many times on the 400 km (250-mile) frontline between the Ukrainian troops and the forces of the so called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics established in the rebel-controlled zones.

Thus, in essence the war in Donbass has become a “frozen conflict” with “hot” fighting. A recent teleconference among Putin, Merkel, Hollande, and Poroshenko, the so called Normandy Four, or Normandy Format, underscored the lack of progress on ending the ongoing war.

The war in Eastern Ukraine has resulted in some 10,000 deaths, and millions of displaced persons.

Pro-Russian rebels prepare to ride armored personnel carriers during a military parade in downtown Donetsk, Ukraine, 09 May 2017. Leaders of self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) organized a Victory Day parade marking the 72nd anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Photo: Alexander Ermochenko/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

New Ukrainian Sanctions against Russia

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a decision for renewed and new sanctions against Russia taken by Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council on April 28, 2017.

It provides, among other measures, for blocking the two main Russian social media, VKontakte (“In Contact”) which can be described as the Russian equivalent of Facebook, and Odnoklassniki (“Classmates”), as well as for blocking a number of Russian TV stations and other media.

Ukraine as well as other European countries, including EU and NATO members, have often been accusing Russia of waging on them a “hybrid war” consisting of massive propaganda and disinformation efforts carried out through both mainstream and online media.

The two Russian social networks in question are very popular in the countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. VKontakte (vk.com) has 410 million user accounts and Odnoklassniki has some 200 million users accounts. VKontakte is estimated to have about 15 million active users in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s President Poroshenko moved to enact Ukraine’s Security Council decision on personal special economic and other sanctions against Russia by extending previous sanctions and introduced new ones, Ukrainian state-run news agency Unian reported.

The sanctions in question concern 1,228 individuals and 468 legal entities based in Russia, Ukraine and occupied areas in Crimea and Donbas.

In addition to Russia’s social media, the new Ukrainian sanctions also block Russia’s top search engine Yandex (its Russian headquarters and the Ukrainian-based division), and mail service Mail.ru.

What is more, the Ukrainian sanctions concern popular Russian anti-virus software developers as Kaspersky Lab (kaspersky.ru) and DrWeb (drweb.ru), as well as the 1C accounting software developer whose applications are widely used in Ukraine.

In particular, 1C will encounter the blocking of assets, a ban or limitation on handling foreign currency and cash, limitations on sale, measures aimed to prevent capital outflows from Ukraine.

Internet providers in Ukraine have been obliged to block access to the above-mentioned websites and services for the next three years.

Economic sanctions (an assets freeze, a ban on transactions and broadcasting) were also introduced against Russia’s federal channel TV Tsentr (tvc.ru), Russia’s State TV and Radio Broadcasting Company VGTRK (vgtrk.com), Russia’s first satellite TV operator NTV Plus, Russia’s federal TV Channel TNT (ranks among Russia’s top five popular TV channels), the federal channel REN-TV (ren.tv), and two “explicitly propagandist” TV channels Zvesda (tvzvezda.ru) and Russia Today (rt.com).

The Russian-based RosBusinessConsulting media holding is also subject to the sanctions but the Ukrainian authorities have decided not to block the website of Russian news agency RBC, rbc.ru, RBC reported.

Ukraine’s previously existing sanctions against Russia have been extended for one year only.

The Ukrainian President’s decree came into force from the date of its publication. It is to be published within 15 days since it was signed, i.e. no later than June 1, 2017.

War in Donbass

Meanwhile, in the ongoing war between pro-Russian separatists and Ukraine in Donbass, pro-Russian militants launched 37 attacks on positions of Ukraine’s armed forces over the past day, according to the press center of the so called Anti-Terrorist Operation, as the Ukrainian government refers to its fight against the separatists, state-run agency UkrInform reported.

Near the cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Mariupol, the Ukrainian forces came under mortar, grenade launcher, and machine gun fire in a number of locations.

As of May 15, 2017, Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy has registered 1,582,565 internally displaced persons (IDPs), who had been forced to move from Crimea and the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the Ministry said.

The figure, however, seems to reflect only the number of displaced persons who moved to other regions of Ukraine.

According to Russian state media, about 2.6 million people have arrived in Russia as refugees from the conflict in Donbass which is mostly populated by Russian speakers.

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