Arab League, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reject recognizing Israel as ‘Jewish state’
Sunday, March 9, 2014 12:21 EDT
The Arab League on Sunday endorsed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s rejection of Israel’s demand for recognition as a Jewish state, as U.S.-backed peace talks approach a deadline next month.
The United States want Abbas to make the concession as part of efforts to reach a “framework agreement” and extend the talks aimed at settling the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The council of the Arab League confirms its support for the Palestinian leadership in its effort to end the Israeli occupation over Palestinian lands, and emphasizes its rejection of recognizing Israel as a ‘Jewish state’,” Arab foreign ministers said in a statement in Cairo.
Arab governments, distracted by the upheaval convulsing the region since the 2011 Arab uprisings, have previously taken few stands on the floundering peace talks, leaving Abbas isolated.
Benjamin Netanyahu has been Israel’s first prime minister to make recognition of his country as a Jewish state a requirement for peace. The issue has lately overshadowed other stumbling blocks over borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
Palestinians fear the label would lead to discrimination against Israel’s sizeable Arab minority, while Israelis say it recognizes Jewish history and rights on the land.
“In recognizing the Jewish state you (Palestinians) would finally make clear that you are truly prepared to end the conflict,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday.
“So recognize the Jewish state, no excuses, no delays. It is time,” he said in a speech to the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby.
Abbas complained on Saturday that Palestinians were being asked for something that had not been demanded of Arab countries that have previously signed peace treaties with Israel.
“We recognized Israel in mutual recognition in the (1993) Oslo agreement – why do they now ask us to recognize the Jewishness of the state?” he asked.
“Why didn’t they present this demand to Jordan or Egypt when they signed a peace agreement with them?” Abbas added.
The United States is hoping to get the two sides to agree on some general points, including the “Jewish state” issue and a rough understanding on borders, as part of what it calls a framework deal that could lead to the prolongation of the talks, which have achieved little since they began seven months ago.
Israel captured Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war. Palestinians seek the land for their future state, and want Israeli soldiers and over half a million settlers gone.
(Reporting By Noah Browning in Cairo and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Alistair Lyon)
New law drives Uganda’s embattled LGBT community deeper into the shadows
Sunday, March 9, 2014 12:08 EDT
With a World Bank scholarship and top grades in the first year of her masters degree in agriculture, 27-year-old Cleo Kambugu should be well on the road to her goal of an academic career in Uganda.
Instead, she’s working out how to leave after the passing of a law that toughens prison sentences for homosexuality and a tabloid campaign to “out” gays.
“There is totally no hope right now,” said Kambugu, still legally a man despite a sex change in the last year that is not recognized by Uganda, a nation that now has some of the toughest anti-gay laws on a continent where 37 states ban homosexuality.
She worries about her safety on the streets after the newspaper Red Pepper slapped her picture on its front page under the headline “How we became homos”. The paper said such articles were in the public interest. Rights groups say it simply encourages people to take the law into their own hands.
The bill, signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni on February 24, has forced embattled gays deeper into the shadows, by threatening life in jail for “aggravated homosexuality” and a seven-year term for “aiding and abetting homosexuality”.
The United States has condemned the law and other donors have withheld aid. Some foreign investors are quietly reviewing plans. But it has broad backing from politicians and the public, while many popular churches preach against gay sex.
Fearing the worst, members of the gay community retreated. For weeks, Kambugu has stayed in her flat where she lives with her boyfriend. Her curtains are drawn and she rarely goes out.
“I can’t even open my windows,” she said, her breast implants, red lipstick and long hair belying her legal gender. “I don’t walk any more, I drive. I don’t want to overstep the little security I have.”
Many gay Ugandans are now torn about what to do next: stay in Uganda and risk going to jail or seek asylum abroad.
Some have already chosen to go. Julian Onziema Pepe, spokesperson for Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), said more than 20 gays had fled since the parliament first passed the bill on December 20, sending it to the president for his signature.
Gays report being harassed – one was even beaten. Beyonce Karungi, a transgender activist, was punched and kicked by a mob in January. “We’re going to chase you out of Kampala,” the men shouted, Karungi told Reuters when recounting the incident.
Passing the law has come at a cost for Uganda. The World Bank and donors – Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands – have withheld aid or loans worth more than $118 million. Uganda’s currency has tumbled on fears of further cuts to this vital source of hard currency. Investors are nervous.
“DESTROYING OUR SOCIETY”
The United States, a big donor, has called the legislation “atrocious” and compared it to anti-Semitic laws in Nazi Germany and apartheid in South Africa. It says it is reviewing ties.
But Museveni, a 69-year-old former rebel fighter, seems to have his gaze trained closer to home. Despite Western opprobrium, the popular law could help shore up support before a 2016 election. Though he has not said he wants to extend his 28-year rule, he is expected to run.
Only two MPs in the 260-seat parliament publicly criticized the bill.
“If you are a homo and you are destroying our society, you should be stopped,” said lawmaker David Bahati, author of the bill that had initially sought the death penalty for those considered the worst offenders when he introduced it in 2009.
Uganda officials have also brushed off Western criticism, saying threats to cut aid are tantamount to blackmail. Uganda will instead turn to China, Russia or India for loans or investment, as that support won’t come with strings, they say.
Homosexuality has been banned in Uganda since independence in 1962 from colonial power Britain, which at that time also had laws under which gays could be prosecuted. But Museveni still procrastinated about toughening the law. As he delayed, officials assured Western allies that it would be buried.
An official at the U.S. embassy in Kampala told Reuters that senior Ugandan officials repeatedly assured the U.S. ambassador Scott DeLisi they would “manage” the bill but urged the U.S. and other donors not to make a fuss so it could be quietly scrapped.
But when Museveni first suggested he planned to sign the law on February 14, it drew a swift response from U.S. President Barack Obama, who declared any such move a “step backward” for Uganda. About a week after those comments, Museveni inked the law.
“There’s now an attempt at social imperialism, to impose social values,” he said at the signing before foreign media. “We’re sorry to see that you (the West) live the way you live, but we keep quiet about it.”
Gays had hoped for a different outcome during the years of haggling between parliament and president over the bill. Geoffrey Ogwaro, a gay activist, said Museveni had been his “hero” for stalling the bill since it first emerged in 2009.
“Suddenly he’s my villain,” added Ogwaro, a 41-year-old man who was married and lived a double life for years because he feared the consequences of “coming out” in Uganda.
The chorus of anti-gay voices is not restricted to parliament. Influential pastors, who draw thousands to Sunday services, often openly denounce homosexual acts.
The huge stage at Kampala’s Watoto church is one place where the message is delivered in spectacular style, with smoke machines, disco lights and the throbbing beat of a gospel choir.
On a Sunday in March, during one of five packed services held that day to fit in the crowds, Canadian pastor Gary Skinner told worshippers not to “sexually sin against their own bodies”.
The church has hosted Scott Lively, president of the Abiding Truth Ministries and prominent anti-gay campaigner. Gays say U.S. evangelical churches have encouraged Uganda’s anti-gay clerics.
“The West says it’s a human right. Africa says it’s a human vice,” Martin Ssempa, a firebrand Ugandan pastor with links to U.S. evangelical groups, told Reuters.
Ssempa said he will launch mobile “rehabilitation” clinics for gays across Uganda, a nation with 34.5 million people.
Those with a different message can barely be heard. Former Church of Uganda Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, the country’s only openly pro-gay clergyman, delivers his sermons in the cramped garage of a small house on the edge of the capital.
Kicked out of the church for pro-gay views and stripped of his pension after nearly half a century of service, Senyonjo said the law has silenced voices who support gays.
“We are gagged,” Senyonjo said inside his simple office. “I think people will not speak out unless they are ready to sacrifice themselves, and not many people will do that.”
It leaves gays struggling to find a way forward in Uganda.
Kambugu, who wants to complete her studies abroad after she said her sex change made it impossible to do so in Uganda, advocates a tactical retreat by activists until there is a change in the febrile mood on the street.
“We will be of no help dead. We will be of no help in prisons,” said Kambugu. “Right now we are in a place where people are frothing at the mouth and not listening to anyone.”
She said activists should take a gradual approach, trying to educate public opinion and make sure gays were given security.
Western states might also need to calibrate their approach. David Mpanga, a lawyer who represented a British producer deported from Uganda for staging a play about homosexuality, said it was no use for the West to condemn the anti-gay law vocally if it then stayed quiet on other rights abuses.
Despite opposition to the anti-gay law and concern about corruption, Western nations’ criticism may be tempered because of Uganda’s readiness to send troops into places like Somalia to fight Islamists, easing pressure on the West to act.
Rights activists, meanwhile, say they will contest the law in court, though that will not address the broader issue of entrenched public opinion that sees homosexuality as wrong.
“The law did not bring homophobia to Uganda,” said Kambugu. “The law will not make it disappear.”
(Additional reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Will Waterman)
S.Africa Seeks Probe of 'Sexual Abuse' of Nationals in Mozambican Jails
by Naharnet Newsdesk
10 March 2014, 13:38
South Africa said Monday it will ask Mozambican authorities to investigate reports of sexual abuse of its female nationals held in the neighboring country's jails.
A local newspaper reported at the weekend that 15 South African female prisoners in Mozambique were suffering sexual exploitation by prison warders in exchange for food, sanitary pads, toothpaste and other basics.
The foreign affairs ministry said in a statement that it viewed "these allegations in a serious light" and will alert the Mozambican government.
"The matter will be brought to the attention of the Mozambican authorities for further investigations," said the ministry.
One of the prisoners told South Africa's Sunday Times that "sometimes, girls are forced to have sex with the warders in exchange for bread or bathing soap... we are just sex slaves."
Mozambican prison authorities said they were unaware of the allegations when contacted by Agence France Presse on Monday.
In 2012 Amnesty International inspected some Mozambican jails and cataloged a slew of alleged abuses ranging from prison overcrowding to arbitrary arrests and police torture.
The international rights watchdog found in addition to problems faced by Mozambican detainees, foreign nationals' problems were compounded by language barriers and that they faced even more difficulties to access legal assistance.
Amnesty International said without regular visits from families, foreigners did not have access to food to supplement "apparently nutritionally inadequate diet", or sanitary material where these are not provided by the prison.
While detainees from other countries were regularly visited by their countries consular officials at the time, "the South African women did not receive such visits," according to Amnesty International.
But the South African government on Monday claimed officials from its embassy in Maputo make regular visits to prisons to monitor the conditions of inmates.
During the last visit the South African prisoners complained about poor medical treatment and food, the government said.
U.N. Investigators Head to C.Africa amid Genocide Fears
by Naharnet Newsdesk
10 March 2014, 13:42
A group of U.N.-mandated investigators launch a probe Monday of human right violations in the conflict-ravaged Central African Republic amid fears of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
The three international investigators will spend two weeks travelling the country, speaking with victims, witnesses, and actors in the conflict, and expect to draw up a list of suspected perpetrators.
"We have to put an end to the impunity," said Bernard Acho Muna, head of an international Commission of Inquiry appointed by U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon in January.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva before leaving for Bangui, the Cameroon Supreme Court lawyer and former deputy chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for Rwanda said he hoped his mission could help ward off a feared genocide.
"We are hoping that our presence and the investigations we are doing will be a signal (that will prevent) the people who are making this hate propaganda (from moving) to action," he said.
The Central African Republic has been torn apart by bloody sectarian clashes since the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted president Francois Bozize in March 2013 and replaced him with their leader Michel Djotodia, who was himself forced out in January.
Violence has continued unabated since then, as mostly Christian anti-balaka vigilantes have taken their revenge.
Muna said Monday the "hate propaganda" on the ground was reminiscent of his time working with Rwanda, where a 1994 genocide left an estimated 800,000 people dead in the space of a few months.
- 'Genocide starts with propaganda' -
"Genocide starts always with propaganda, convincing the population that this group of people are evil, they are bad, they should be eliminated," he said.
In the Central African Republic, he said, the messages of hate could be surfacing due to the complete lawlessness on the ground.
"I hope that this is only noise and that when you can put the troops on the ground and law and order, this might disappear," he said.
If the international community shows it is ready to "take a firm stand to prosecute people who are already making hate propaganda and promoting indiscriminate tribal killings... I think it can be stopped. I really think so," he said.
Muna is along with his fellow investigators Jorge Castaneda, a former Mexican foreign secretary, and Fatimata M'Baye, a lawyer and leading Mauritanian human rights activist, set to arrive in Bangui on Tuesday.
They will spend about three days in the capital before travelling to the interior of the country.
During the two-week trip, they aim to speak with all different actors in the conflict, as well as victims and witnesses to crimes to get a better idea of the situation, Muna said.
They are set to present an initial report to the U.N. Security Council in New York in June, and a final report six months later.
"We hope we will be able to advise the Security Council on what to do," Muna said, adding that the reports might contain lists of suspected perpetrators for use in possible future prosecution.
Security Forces Attack Barricades in Venezuela
by Naharnet Newsdesk
10 March 2014, 08:33
People in the western Venezuelan city of San Cristobal say National Guard troops have attacked and dismantled barricades that protesters had raised at key intersections.
Local TV journalist Beatriz Font and other witnesses say guardsmen fired a lot of tear gas, including at nearby residential buildings. They say the attack began before midnight and continued into early Monday.
Font said the guardsmen had broken windows and several people reported from apartment buildings near the intersections that children and elderly people were being affected by the gas.
San Cristobal is where the current wave of anti-government unrest began early last month and has seen some of the most determined resistance.
Colombia Voters Give Lukewarm Support for Peace Process
by Naharnet Newsdesk
10 March 2014, 06:40
Colombian voters showed lukewarm support for peace talks with guerrillas Sunday by giving President Juan Manuel Santos a majority in Congress but also electing his conservative rival, ex-president Alvaro Uribe, to the senate.
Santos, who took office in 2010 after serving as the popular Uribe's defense minister, is engaged in talks with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels aimed at ending their half-century insurgency.
Uribe vehemently opposed the talks from the beginning, and was elected senator Sunday with strong support.
Nevertheless Santos's center-right coalition won 47 of the 102 senate seats, according to official returns with 87 percent of the vote counted.
In the lower chamber, Santos supporters won 91 of the 163 seats, official returns show.
The vote "is an important sign for the country and the whole world that the immense majority of us want peace," Santos, who is up for re-election on May 25, said late Sunday.
- Uribe's return -
Uribe's 2002-2010 tenure in office was characterized by a military crackdown that decimated the FARC's top leadership. He opposed all negotiations with them, and left office with high approval ratings.
While Uribe supporters will not have a legislative majority, he has become the de facto opposition leader and now has a bully pulpit to oppose the talks.
"The vote for Uribe is a punishment vote for Santos. It questions his negotiations with the FARC," said Vicente Torrijos, an analyst with the Rosario University.
The results "are not good for Santos," opined Mauricio Vargas, a top political columnist for the daily El Tiempo.
He wrote that Uribe's group has the largest presence in Congress as a single party, "while all of the parties belonging to Santos's coalition lose seats."
Campaigning on the slogan "No to impunity," Uribe became Colombia's first ex-president to seek a Senate seat.
Uribe, 61, accuses Santos of treason, saying he had turned the FARC into "political players" with a high-profile stage in Havana, where the talks are being held.
"Today we voted against the Castro-Chavismo that some want to bring, that the government is supporting," Uribe said Sunday, a reference to leftist regimes in Cuba and Venezuela.
The Harvard-educated son of a large estate owner killed by FARC rebels in 1983, Uribe is known for his prodigious energy and work ethic.
Voting is not compulsory in Colombia, and the abstention rate was nearly 60 percent, according to official estimates.
- Half-century of fighting -
Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Colombia's internal conflict, which involves two guerrilla groups, paramilitary fighters and criminal gangs. All sides have also been involved, directly or indirectly, in the drug trade.
Leftist parties, which are traditionally weak in Colombia, have failed to benefit from the peace talks. Although the parties are legal and democratic, fairly or not they are associated with the armed struggle, analysts say.
An added complication is the lack of a ceasefire between the government and the guerrillas during the peace process.
Jorge Armando Otalora, the People's Ombudsman or national mediator, has said that illegal groups including the FARC have exercised "pressure and intimidation" on voters to keep them from voting in at least one-fifth of the country.
Left, Right Parties Claim Win in Salvadoran Presidential Runoff
by Naharnet Newsdesk
10 March 2014, 06:39
The parties of both candidates in El Salvador's surprisingly tight presidential runoff clash claimed victory late Sunday.
Pre-election polls had showed ex-guerrilla commander Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) comfortably ahead of Norman Quijano with the conservative ARENA party.
But with 98 percent of returns tallied, the leftist candidate was leading on a razor's edge: 50.10 percent to 49.90, electoral authorities reported.
"The difference in our favor, rounding a bit, is slightly more than 8,000 votes. The Salvadoran people have made their choice ... and we have a victory to celebrate," said FMLN party chair Medardo Gonzalez.
But his ARENA counterpart was convinced its side had won.
"With the data from the electoral tribunal and our own tallies, of the utmost precision, we can say that we have achieved a victory for the Salvadoran people," ARENA chief Jorge Velado said.
Election officials told both sides to wait for final results.
"This tribunal recommends and orders that no party declare itself winner given such close results," said Supreme Electoral Tribunal president Eugenio Chicas in a TV and radio message.
-- Teacher, rebel, vice president --
Sanchez Ceren, 69, is El Salvador's vice president. A former teacher and ex-education minister, he was one of five top guerrilla commanders during El Salvador's bitter 1979-92 civil war, which pitted the FMLN against the U.S.-backed conservative government.
Conservatives were in power for two decades until 2009, when Salvadorans elected FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes, a former journalist, as their first leftist president.
The FMLN fell just shy of an outright victory in a first round vote last month, and Sanchez Ceren was expected to easily win the run-off vote.
Meanwhile Quijano, 67, the mayor of the capital city San Salvador, is a law and order candidate who campaigned on the country's high crime rate and the notorious "mara" street gangs behind much of El Salvador's drug dealing and extortion.
After the first-round vote, Quijano overhauled his image and talked more about keeping children out of gangs and rehabilitating those already ensnared by them.
Quijano however suffered from his links to ex-president Francisco Flores, a former campaign adviser, under scrutiny over $10 million donated by Taiwan that went missing during his 1999-2004 government.
ARENA removed Flores from his advisory job, but the controversy has damaged Quijano.
- A civil war legacy --
After the civil war, El Salvador found itself facing violence from the street gangs, which control whole neighborhoods and run drug distribution and extortion rackets.
Homicides were running at 14 per day until a truce was reached between the two main gangs in March 2012, which helped to halve the murder rate. But extortion and other crimes persist.
The maras are believed have around 60,000 members, 10,000 of whom are behind bars.
Sanchez Ceren wants to rehabilitate former gang members, but said he would fight those who refuse to give up street life.
Whoever wins and takes office on June 1 will face a shaky economy.
Forty percent of El Salvador's six million people live in poverty, and the country relies heavily on remittances sent by Salvadorans living abroad -- around $4 billion a year, or 16 percent of the country's GDP.
Sanchez Ceren vows to spend more money on social programs which he said he would finance via a "progressive fiscal policy."
"The main thing is to use those funds honestly," he has said.
Prehistoric grave-site could challenge our assumptions about the history of Bronze Age
By Maev Kennedy, The Guardian
Sunday, March 9, 2014 11:53 EDT
Some 4,000 years ago people carried a young woman’s cremated bones – charred scraps of her shroud and the wood from her funeral pyre still clinging to them – carefully wrapped in a fur, along with her most valuable possessions packed into a basket, up to one of the highest and most exposed spots on Dartmoor, and buried them in a small stone box covered by a mound of peat.
The discovery of her remains is rewriting the history of the Bronze Age moor. The bundle contained a treasury of unique objects, including a tin bead and 34 tin studs which are the earliest evidence of metal-working in the south-west, textiles including a unique nettle fibre belt with a leather fringe, jewellery including amber from the Baltic and shale from Whitby, and wooden ear studs which are the earliest examples of wood turning ever found in Britain.
The site chosen for her grave was no accident. At 600 metres above sea level, White Horse hill is still so remote that getting there today is a 45-minute walk across heather and bog, after a half-hour drive up a military track from the nearest road. The closest known prehistoric habitation site is far down in the valley below, near the grave of the former poet laureate Ted Hughes.
Analysing and interpreting one of the most intriguing burials ever found in Britain is now occupying scientists across several continents. A BBC documentary, Mystery of the Moor, was first intended only for local broadcast, but as the scale of the find became clear, it will now be shown nationally on BBC2 on 9 March.
Scientists in Britain, Denmark and the Smithsonian in the US have been working on the fur. It is not dog, wolf, deer, horse or sheep, but may be a bear skin, from a species that became extinct in Britain at least 1,000 years ago.
“I am consumed with excitement about this find. I never expected to see anything like it in my lifetime,” Jane Marchand, chief archaeologist at the Dartmoor National Park Authority said.
“The last Dartmoor burial with grave goods was back in the days of the Victorian gentleman antiquarians. This is the first scientifically excavated burial on the moor, and the most significant ever.”
It has not yet been possible definitively to identify the sex of the fragmented charred bones, though they suggest a slight individual aged between 15 and 25 years.
“I shouldn’t really say her – but given the nature of the objects, and the fact that there is no dagger or other weapon of any kind, such as we know were found in other burials from the period, I personally have no doubt that this was a young woman,” Marchand said. “Any one of the artefacts would make the find remarkable. ”
Although Dartmoor is speckled with prehistoric monuments, including standing stones, stone rows, and hundreds of circular hut sites, very few prehistoric burials of any kind have been found. What gives the White Horse hill international importance is the survival of so much organic material, which usually disintegrates without trace in the acid soil. Apart from the basket, this burial had the belt; the ear studs – identical to those on sale in many goth shops – made from spindle wood, a hard fine-grained wood often used for knitting needles, from trees which still grow on the lower slopes of Dartmoor; and the unique arm band, plaited from cowhair and originally studded with 34 tin beads which would have shone like silver. There were even charred scraps of textile which may be the remains of a shroud, and fragments of charcoal from the funeral pyre.
Although tin – essential for making bronze – from Cornwall and Devon became famous across the ancient world, there was no previous evidence of smelting from such an early date. The necklace, which included amber from the Baltic, had a large tin bead made from part of an ingot beaten flat and then rolled. Although research continues, the archaeologists are convinced it was made locally.
The cist, a stone box, was first spotted more than a decade ago by a walker on Duchy of Cornwall land, when an end slab collapsed as the peat mound which had sheltered it for 4,000 years was gradually washed away. However, it was only excavated three years ago when archaeologists realised the site was eroding so fast any possible contents would inevitably soon be lost. It was only when they lifted the top slab that the scale of the discovery became apparent. The fur and the basket were a wet blackened sludgy mess, but through it they could see beads and other objects. “As we carefully lifted the bundle a bead fell out – and I knew immediately we had something extraordinary,” Marchand said. “Previously we had eight beads from Dartmoor; now we have 200.”
The contents were taken to the Wiltshire conservation laboratory, where the basket alone took a year’s work to clean, freeze dry, and have its contents removed. The empty cist was reconstructed on the site. However, this winter’s storms have done so much damage the archaeologists are now debating whether they will have to move the stones or leave them to inevitable disintegration.
The jewellery and other conserved artefacts will feature in an exhibition later this year at Plymouth city museum, but although work continues on her bones, it is unlikely to answer the mystery of who she was, how she died, and why at such a young age she merited a burial fit for a queen.
In the USA...United Surveillance America
Robert Gates Explains There Was Nothing America Could Do To Prevent Pig Putin
By John Amato March 9, 2014 12:01 pm
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates rebuked Chris Wallace's assertions that President Obama emboldened Vladimir Putin to invade the Ukraine.
While most of the Beltway media is lapping up Republican talking points against President Obama and the Russian-Ukraine situation, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates brought some much needed sanity to the discussion when he flatly rebuked Chris Wallace's assertions that Obama emboldened Putin to act and stated the obvious:
GATES: Well, I think that, first of all, we have to look at the reality of the options. There really aren't any direct military options that we have. I think that some of the sanctions that are being discussed and the actions being taken, whether it's limitations on visas or travel, on potentially freezing assets of specific individuals, frankly I don't believe are going to be any deterrent for Putin.
I think -- I think our greatest response is to have our own strategy for countering this long-term strategy of Putin's to gather the states back under Moscow's control. I worry a lot about the Baltics. I applaud the dispatch of additional fire aircraft for the air patrols in the Baltic States, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. I think that's the right thing to do and we ought to be exploring doing more militarily with Poland. I think the Europeans, with our support, should now press ahead very aggressively with the southern pipeline that would get gas to Europe outside of Russian and Ukrainian territorial space. What we need to do is to show Russia that there are long-term consequences to this aggressive behavior on their part. Our tactical options are pretty limited.
If you listen to the likes of Rep. Peter King, conservatives and most of the Beltway media. Obama must breed fear into the heart of by nuking him with decisive (not necessarily Congressionally approved) intent or he's emboldening him.
WALLACE: You've defended President Obama's handling of the situation this week, but in January you said you thought that President Obama made a big mistake when he set the red line for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Here's what you warn. "If you cock the pistol you've got to be willing to fire it." By "cocking the pistol" whether it's on the red line in Syria or giving asylum to Edward Snowden or other issues. You're really -- and then not firing it, you really don't think that President Obama has emboldened Putin at all.
GATES: Well, all I would say is - what I was saying earlier in the week was simply that I thought in the middle of a major international crisis, that some of the criticism, domestic criticism of the president ought to be toned down, while he's trying to handle this crisis. My own view is, after all, Putin invaded Georgia when George W. Bush was president. Nobody ever accused George W. Bush of being weak or unwilling to use military force, so I think Putin is very opportunistic in these arenas. I think that even if -- even if we had launched attacks in Syria, even if we weren't cutting our defense budget, I think Putin saw an opportunity here in Crimea, and he has seized it. You know, the ouster of Yanukovych was a big strategic setback for Putin, and -- and I think it's -- it's testimony to how skillful he is or how agile he is that he's tried to offset that by the seizure of Crimea and throwing this whole situation into a very different -- into a very different light...
Republican hypocrisy over George Bush's response to Putin's incursion into Georgia is quite revealing, no? Gates is well respected in Republican circles and in the Beltway media so maybe they may take a cue from him and stop blathering on about this Putin nonsense.
Oh, wait, what was I thinking?
Rand Paul: My Ukraine foreign policy is ‘drilling every possible conceivable place’
By David Edwards
Sunday, March 9, 2014 9:55 EDT
Libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said on Sunday that he would have responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by “drilling every possible conceivable place” in the U.S. if he were president.
Following his Saturday win in the Conservative Political Action Conference presidential straw poll, Paul was asked by Fox News host Chris Wallace on Sunday if he was willing to let Russian President Vladimir Putin have the Ukraine peninsula of Crimea.
“If they annex Crimea, Ukraine will almost certainly come within the Western orbit,” Paul explained. “So, it will backfire on them. Because you will be taking Russian-speaking voters that have been speaking for Russian-speaking presidents of Ukraine, you’ll be taking them out of the population.”
“The other thing I’ve said is, that I would do something differently from the president,” the Kentucky Republican added. “I would immediately get every obstacle out of the way for our export of oil and gas.”
“And I would begin drilling in every possible conceivable place within our territories in order to have production we can supply Europe with if it’s interrupted from Ukraine.”
Pallin’ Around With Putin: Conservatives Jump the Patriot Shark With Moscow Pro-Life Summit
By: Sarah Jones
Sunday, March, 9th, 2014, 1:24 pm
Conservatives have jumped the patriot shark. Siding with Putin over Obama, conservatives justify holding their World Congress of Families summit meeting (referred to as the “pro-life Olympics”) in Moscow even after the Ukraine crisis because “Putin doesn’t threaten our national security, Obama does.”
Funding this little gathering of patriotic freedom lovers is a close Putin ally. Pallin’ around with Putin? The summit also includes a joint session with the Russian parliament, according to Right Wing Watch.
In an article titled, “U.S. Conservatives To Go Ahead With ‘Pro-Life Olympics’ In Moscow Despite Ukraine Crisis: ‘Putin doesn’t threaten our national security, Obama does,’ the communications director for the World Congress of Families wrote”, Buzzfeed reported:
The U.S. organizers of a World Congress of Families summit to be held in the Kremlin in September show no signs of canceling over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The World Congress of Families counts several leading U.S. conservative organizations among its affiliates, including the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, Alliance Defending Freedom and Americans United for Life. The Moscow meeting is described as the “‘Olympics’ of the international Pro-Life movement supporting the Natural Family” in a promotional brochure, and will bring together conservative activists from around the world. The meeting is funded in part by Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russia’s railroads monopoly and a close ally of President Vladimir Putin and supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Family Research Council attracts the big players in conservative politics — Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Mark Rubio, and more spoke at the Value Voters Summit, put on by the FRC last fall.
If being funded by a close ally of Putin isn’t enough to justify “pallin’ around”, but sitting on a board was, then Republicans might want to stop making such accusations.
On Saturday, October 4, 2012, the Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin said Obama is someone “who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.”
She said this in reference to university professors William Ayers, who was a radical in the 1960s. Obama was born in August of 1961. CNN pointed out, “Beginning in 1995, Ayers and Obama worked with the non-profit Chicago Annenberg Challenge on a huge school improvement project.” Oh, such a terrorist.
Also, both were “board members on the Woods Fund, a charitable foundation that gave money to various causes, including the Trinity United Church that Obama attended…” CNN concluded, “CNN’s review of project records found nothing to suggest anything inappropriate in the volunteer projects in which the two men were involved.” Their verdict was a big old “false” for Palin, noting that neither man was currently engaged in terrorist activity.
We can’t say the same of Putin. But it’s okay for conservatives to take money from a close Putin ally, while at the same time calling Obama weak for not nuking Putin. This is what happens when your number predominant values are hate, opposition and resistance to change.
Buzzfeed quoted Don Feder, the conservative World Congress of Families’ communication director, who thinks that Obama has weakened our military because of the gays. He wrote quite an essay working to justify, exonerate and extol Putin’s behavior, as well he should since Putin is behaving a lot like George W Bush.
I for one am glad to see conservatives just admitting that they want this kind of “leadership” and see it as “freedom”. In this essay in the American Thinker (you couldn’t make this stuff up), Feder’s headline is, “Putin Doesn’t Threaten Our National Security, Obama Does.” He is very disappointed that Obama is out invading countries on a whim. BAD OBAMA.
For this transgression apparently, the allegedly (not factually) pro-life Olympics will still take place in Moscow, where they really value life as much as conservatives do — which is to say, only if you agree with them. Sorta jumping that old American patriot shark there, but hey. At least it’s out in the open now.
In reality, the most effective way to reduce abortion rates it to provide contraception and family planning education. Conservatives are against both. The abortion rate has dropped considerably under President Obama, because a real culture of life deals with hard issues like unwanted pregnancy realistically in order to actually address the causes rather than use unwanted pregnancy as a way to punish women for having bodies that get pregnant.
A pro-life gathering in Moscow and wishing Putin were running America – this is what American conservatives have come to.
Kansas Republicans Want to Outlaw Any Free Speech They Don’t Like
By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Monday, March, 10th, 2014, 7:25 am
If Kansas Republicans have their way, our fact-based world will soon be illegal and reality’s liberal bias a distant memory. They have done all they can to resist facts short of simply making it illegal to teach them, and that oversight will be corrected with a new piece of legislation, Senate Bill 401, “AN ACT concerning crimes and punishment; relating to promotion to minors of material harmful to minors.”
And no, this bill, which is backed by the American Family Association, is not aimed at pornographers. It is a sort of “religious freedom” bill like those we have seen in Kansas and Arizona, but aimed at teachers rather than at gays and lesbians.
Harmful material, in case you’re wondering, also does NOT include a Bible filled with rape and murder and King Solomon’s lurid musings (e.g. Song of Songs 7:1-9). They do still definitely want to bring the Bible back to school in Kansas. Harmful material, in this case = reproductive facts and anything else they might not approve of.
According to The Wichita Eagle,
Senate Bill 401, approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, was drafted in response to a January incident at a Shawnee Mission middle school in which a poster used in sex education classes was put on a classroom door.
What were they thinking at Shawnee Mission middle school? Everybody knows babies come from God.
Yes, the reproductive system has been deemed pornographic. Sexual facts have been deemed pornographic. Boys do not have penises and girls do not have vaginas and never shall the twain meet in fundamentalist fantasyland.
Shawnee Mission district has removed the poster “pending a detailed review of the material.”
SB 401 has your typical Religious Right impetus behind it. Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook (R-Shawnee) who introduced it, has also introduced a bill requiring parental consent for sex education in public schools, SB 376. You’d think sex education would be a given – stay home if you want to believe in storks or a sex-free Jesus-based baby delivery system.
The Kansas-National Education Association is not impressed, pointing out that, “If this bill were to pass, it would provide more ammunition for anyone to petition to bring a teacher, librarian, or principal before a grand jury.” The KNEA makes clear that,
Senate Bill 401 removes from public, private and parochial schools the defense of literary or artistic merit or significance when someone accuses the school of exposing students to “offensive” materials.
The same applies to literature. For years people have tried to get books pulled from literature classes and school libraries. Huckleberry Finn, I Know Why the Caged Bird
Sings, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret are three examples of books that have been challenged over the years. But the defense of literary merit has been allowed. Senate Bill 401 removes that defense from public, private, and parochial schools.
If you think this only has to do with “obscenity,” you are wrong. While the bill does address obscene materials, its provisions also apply if “a reasonable person would find that the material or performance lacks serious literary, scientific, educational, artistic or political value for minors.” This language is so broad as to include almost anything.
Could someone challenge Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry as lacking “political value?”
Makes you wonder how these people deal with all the pornographic material in their Bibles, both violent and sexual. What the Bible has in it makes this poster seem tame by way of comparison.
What is interesting is that, where the Bible is concerned, the Religious Right is a big defender of the “free exchange of ideas.” In February 2013, the so-called Alliance Defending Freedom got upset that a Kansas school banned fliers with biblical verses. This prompted Legal Counsel Matt Sharp to say,
Public schools should encourage, not shut down, the free exchange of ideas. The law on this is extremely clear: school policies cannot target religious speech for exclusion. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech for all students, regardless of their religious or political beliefs.
The Alliance Defending Freedom lawsuit, K.R. v. Unified School District No. 204, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, explains, “Students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. Non-disruptive, private student expression is protected by the First Amendment.” Moreover, “the government may not discriminate against speech based on its viewpoint, regardless of the forum.”
The lawsuit also notes that the student’s posting of the material did not “interfere with the orderly conduct of educational activity within the school.”
“Marginalizing students of faith removes an important influence for good from the school community,” added Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “We hope the school district will revise its policy so that students can exercise their constitutionally protected freedoms.”
So…Free speech cannot be discriminated against “regardless of it’s forum” – unless that forum contains material the American Taliban does not like. Remember when right wing groups in Kansas tried to keep Harry Potter away from children? The First Amendment wasn’t a big deal then, was it?
Unless the content is Christian-specific, in fact, Religious Right groups care nothing at all for the First Amendment rights of the students, as demonstrated by a couple of examples, also from Kansas:
Books involving sexual relations, especially homosexual relationships, are often targeted. A 1995 federal court case involved the Olathe, Kansas, school board, which voted to remove the book “Annie on My Mind” from school libraries. The novel illustrates a lesbian relationship between two teenagers. The court found the school board violated the students’ rights under the First Amendment and the equivalent provisions of the state constitution. Although the school board originally said they banned the book because of its “educational unsuitability,” the court ruled that they actually objected to the book’s premise and principles and overturned the book’s removal. (Case v. Unified School District No. 233)
Another example of censorship based on homosexuality was the 2000 case of Sund v. City of Wichita Falls, Texas. Members of a church in Wichita Falls fought to remove two books, “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Daddy’s Roommate,” because they objected to the books’ descriptions of homosexuality. The city council voted to restrict access to the books if 300 people signed a petition asking for the restriction. Another group of citizens filed suit after the books were taken out of the children’s section and put on a locked shelf in the adult area of the library. The federal district court permanently stopped the city from enforcing the resolution permitting the removal of the two books because the resolution was not narrowly tailored, had no review process and was unreasonably content-based. (Sund v. City of Wichita Falls, Texas)
If Kansas Republicans have their way, King Solomon can fantasize about a woman’s breasts in class, but, in the words of the KNEA, “A teacher who takes a field trip to the state capitol and suddenly notes the bare breasted woman in the artwork in the rotunda can be accused of recklessly exposing students to nudity.”
So the First Amendment protects religious belief but it does not protect facts? By now the world should realize that whatever First Amendment these groups are citing, it is NOT the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Because THAT First Amendment most definitely states that the government shall not establish religion. Period. And it guarantees freedom of speech for everyone, not just jack-booted religious thugs trying to force their religious beliefs down the throats of others. It cannot be applied “as wanted” to those things they want read and withheld from the things they don’t like. That is not how it works, and it is to be hoped that Kansas voters will soon remind them of that. If not, you know the courts will.
Candy "just one more biscuit" Crowley Gets Caught Repeatedly Lying About Obamacare On CNN
By: Jason Easley
Sunday, March, 9th, 2014, 4:18 pm
While interviewing Charlie Crist on CNN’s State Of The Union host Candy "just one more biscuit" Crowley repeated numerous lies about Obamacare that came directly from Fox News and the Republican Party.
During an interview with Democratic candidate for Florida governor, Charlie Crist, CNN State Of The Union host Candy "just one more biscuit" Crowley said, “In the end, you did see that about 300,000 Floridians did lose the healthcare they currently had. They may have signed up by now. They have found alternatives, etc. But they had insurance that they liked, but it didn’t fit under the restrictions of what Obamacare wanted in an insurance policy. You also have this Medicare Advantage where it may see some cuts. We’re not sure how that will work out, but certainly in Florida, there is real fear that seniors who are using the Medicare Advantage plan will in fact see their list of doctors shrink.”
When Charlie Crist responded that he didn’t think that it would happen and that Republicans were using this as a fear tactic, "just one more biscuit" Crowley came back with another lie, “But some did lose their insurance that they had that’s a fact.”
No, it’s not a fact. Candy "just one more biscuit" Crowley was completely wrong. It turns out that she got her inaccurate information about Obamacare from an interview that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) did with Fox News in October 2013.
PoliFact graded that graded the idea that 300,000 Floridians lost their health insurance as mostly false, which on the warped PolitiFact grading system means that Rubio was totally lying. The 300,000 number comes directly from the Republican Party manipulating a notice the Florida Blue sent out to their policy holders.
"just one more biscuit" Crowley was not only passing off Republican lies as fact, but she also completely ignored the truth.
A report by Rep. Henry Waxman and the Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee found that the actual number of people who lost their insurance due to the ACA was 10,000, so it impossible for 300,000 Floridians to have lost their health insurance.
The numbers don’t add up.
Candy "just one more biscuit" Crowley also neglected to mention that less than a week ago, President Obama extended the period that people can keep their junk insurance policies for an additional year.
After "just one more biscuit" Crowley repeated the Republican lies as fact this morning, the RNC and the Florida Republican Party both released videos claiming that she “fact checked” Crist on Obamacare.
This is how Republicans play the game. They get mainstream media outlets to give their falsehoods legitimacy by reporting them as fact. Republicans then use this newfound legitimacy to claim that their false statements are the truth. The willingness to use Republican talking points as fact turns someone like Candy "just one more biscuit" Crowley into a information equivalent of a money launderer. They take dirty lies, and make them clean.
What "just one more biscuit" Crowley did wasn’t fact checking. She was passing off lies as fact, and it was an absolutely disgraceful performance that should have viewers demanding both a correction and an apology.
Ted Cruz Loses His Mind By Claiming Obamacare Can Be Repealed While Obama is President
By: Jason Easley
Sunday, March, 9th, 2014, 12:31 pm
On ABC’s This Week, Sen. Ted Cruz told a lie that was so dense only a Republican could believe it. Cruz claimed that Republicans can repeal Obamacare while Obama is president.
Cruz claims that it is possible for Republicans to repeal Obamacare while Obama is president. His explanation of how this would happen was the fantasy of an unhealthy man.
Sen. Cruz said, “The thing that unifies politicians of both parties is their top priority is preserving their own hide, and if enough congressional Democrats realize that they either stand with Obamacare and lose, or listen to the American people and have a chance of staying in office, that’s the one scenario could do it in 2015 if not, we’ll do it in 2017.”
Even ABC’s resident Republican propagandist, Jon, Benghazi emails, Karl thought this was nuts. He asked Cruz if he honestly believed that he could get every word of Obamacare repealed with Obama in the White House. Cruz responded with his same old Obamacare lies that the ACA is costing people their jobs and causing their healthcare costs to skyrocket.
It’s time for a reality check for Sen. Cruz. According to a poll released less than two weeks ago, support for repealing Obamacare has fallen to a record low of 31%. The vast majority of those polled want the ACA to stay in place, and be fixed. The latest data from the Commerce and Treasury Departments show that the economic impact of the ACA is the exact opposite of what Cruz suggested. In January 2014, the ACA boosted both personal income and spending.
It turns out that when people are spending less on healthcare and health insurance, they have more money to spend on other things. This is a simple economic reality that Ted Cruz has avoided like the plague. Cruz has lost his mind if he believes for one second that Democrats are going to stop supporting Obamacare, or that the president will sign a bill that repeals the signature achievement of his administration.
The truth is that repealing Obamacare is extremely unpopular and that it won’t matter if Republicans win back the Senate. The ACA is not going anywhere. Sen. Cruz’s lies today were the act of a desperate man, who is in full denial of reality.
The repeal Obamacare movement is dead and dying, and so is the political future of Rafael Edward Cruz.
Charlie Crist: Democrats Should Not Be Afraid To Support President Obama
By: Justin Baragona
Sunday, March, 9th, 2014, 2:58 pm
Charlie Crist, the former Republican Governor of Florida who is now running for the same position this year as a Democrat, was on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. In his conversation with Candy Crowley, he hit on a number of subjects, such as the state of the Republican Party, CPAC, Chris Christie’s 2016 chances and his own gubernatorial campaign. However, the subject he was most passionate about was how Democrats are not running strongly this year on the Affordable Care Act.
Basically, Crist used his time on the program to promote the ACA and point out that Democrats should not be fearful of using the health care law as a positive campaign issue. He stated that in the end the law will be very popular with the American people and those who supported it from the beginning will reap the rewards in subsequent elections. He also pointed out that Democrats should not be afraid of showing their support for President Obama.
Crist is absolutely right. He pointed out that there are Dems out there that are overthinking the upcoming midterms. They are concerned about poll numbers and approval ratings but doing nothing to bolster the public perception of either the President’s policies or the ACA. Many are running scared because they see negative ads being run against them, paid for by conservative billionaires.
The former Governor said that Democrats “ought to strengthen up.” Allowing conservatives to consistently set the narrative regarding the health care law, or other issues, forces Democrats to always be on the defensive. It means they are always reacting. This also allows the mainstream media to play along with the set narrative. Currently, networks like CNN are still talking about the ‘botched’ rollout of the ACA, or the anecdotal Obamacare horror stories that always end up false, rather than the constantly growing enrollment numbers or the shrinking insurance premiums millions are seeing.
Charlie Crist knows what he is talking about. He sees the GOP for what it is, a quickly shrinking political party that only knows how to run on fear and anger. That is why he left that party. He had this to say about the Republican Party on Sunday:
“This is a party now that is perceived as being anti-women, anti-minority, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-education, anti-environment. I mean pretty soon, there’s nobody left.”
Democrats should listen to Crist on this. He’s stating that the Republicans’ sphere of influence is disappearing, so Dems should not allow themselves to be bullied anymore on the campaign trail. Democrats should be on the attack and run on their record. Because, quite frankly, Republicans really have nothing to run on except obstructionism and inequality. If they had any actual ideas, they wouldn’t have to rely on billionaires spending millions on negative ads complaining about a health care law designed to help millions of uninsured Americans.
Ukraine crisis: Russia drafting counter-offer to US demands
Kremlin says Washington’s stance on negotiations unacceptable because it accepts ouster of
Yanukovych as fait accompli
Associated Press in Kiev
theguardian.com, Tuesday 11 March 2014 09.45 GMT
Russia has said it is drafting counterproposals to a US plan for a negotiated solution to the Ukraine crisis. The Kremlin denounced the new western-backed government as an unacceptable “fait accompli” and claimed Russian-leaning parts of the country had been plunged into lawlessness.
The Kremlin moves came as Russian forces strengthened their control over Crimea, less than a week before the strategic region is to hold a contentious referendum on whether to split off and become part of Russia.
In a televised briefing with President Vladimir Putin, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said proposals made by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, were “not suitable” because they took the situation created by the coup as a starting point, referring to the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Referring to a document he received from Kerry explaining the US view of the situation in Ukraine, Lavrov said: “To be frank it raises many questions on our side … Everything was stated in terms of allegedly having a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and in terms of accepting the fait accompli.”
Lavrov said Kerry had delayed a visit to Moscow to discuss the situation and Russia had decided to prepare new proposals of its own, though he did not say what they were. “We suggested that he come today … and we were prepared to receive him. He gave his preliminary consent. He then called me on Saturday and said he would like to postpone it for a while,” the minister said.
But in Washington state department officials said it was Russia’s refusal to discuss the American proposals that was hurting prospects for a negotiated solution, in particular the idea of direct talks between Russian officials and those of the new Ukrainian government.
“We are still awaiting a Russian response to the concrete questions that Secretary Kerry sent Foreign Minister Lavrov on Saturday in this regard,” Jen Psaki, a state department spokeswoman, said in a statement.
“Secretary Kerry made clear to Foreign Minister Lavrov that he would welcome further discussions focused on how to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine if and when we see concrete evidence that Russia is prepared to engage on these proposals.”
The US statement said Kerry, in weekend discussions with Lavrov, reiterated Washington’s demand that Moscow pull back its troops from Ukraine and end attempts to annex the Crimean peninsula. Kerry also called on Russia to cease what the statement described as “provocative steps” so that diplomatic talks could continue.
US officials described a series of diplomatic manoeuvres between Washington and Moscow over the weekend that initially led to an invitation for Kerry to meet with Putin on Monday. The offer expired, however, after the two sides could not quickly agree to a page-and-a-half outline for potential negotiations that, above all, demanded Ukraine’s borders remain intact, according to the officials who were not authorised to be quoted by name.
The US outline did call for ways to address any Russian concerns about the government turnover in Kiev that Moscow is calling a coup, and it introduced the potential for investigations into acts of violence by any party to the conflict, the officials said. Left unsaid, however, was precisely how those concerns might be assuaged or what government would be tasked with leading such an investigation.
The US outline also called on Russia to pull back from Crimea, both in military force and in influence, to halt the local government there from holding a 16 March vote on whether it should separate from Ukraine, the officials said. It further sought to gain Russian support for placing international monitors in Crimea, allowing the International Monetary Fund to work with Ukraine and backing a 25 May national election called by Kiev.
Ukraine’s foreign minister said on Monday that his country was practically in a state of war with Russia, whose forces have effectively taken control over the Crimean Peninsula in what has become Europe’s greatest geopolitical crisis since the end of the cold war. “We have to admit that our life now is almost like … a war,” the Ukrainian foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsya, said before meeting his counterparts from Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. “We have to cope with an aggression that we do not understand.”
Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is to meet with President Barack Obama in Washington on Wednesday.
On Monday the Russian foreign ministry denounced the lawlessness it said “now rules in eastern regions of Ukraine as a result of the actions of fighters of the so-called Right Sector, with the full connivance” of Ukraine’s new authorities. Right Sector is a grouping of far-right and nationalist factions whose activists were among the most radical and confrontational during the three months of demonstrations in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, that eventually led to Yanukovych fleeing the country.
Pro-Russia sentiment is high in Ukraine’s east and there are fears Russia could seek to incorporate that area as well.
Russia’s Grip Tightens With Shows of Force at Ukrainian Bases
By C. J. CHIVERS and NOAH SNEIDER
MARCH 10, 2014
CHORNOMORSKOYE, Ukraine — Russian forces raided a Ukrainian naval missile base here in the darkness of early Monday, scaling its outer walls and outmatching the surprised sailors inside without firing a shot, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and people familiar with the raid.
The seizure was one of a series of swift but thus far bloodless escalations as Russia tightened its grip on Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that the Kremlin is leading toward secession from Ukraine by a combination of military and political moves.
Russian forces also infiltrated an air base at Novofedorivka and took up position along a runway; took over a military hospital in the regional capital, Simferopol; and moved onto a Ukrainian base used by a motorized battalion in Bakhchysaray.
Russian soldiers penetrated the last base after firing in the air, said Vladislav Seleznev, a Ukrainian military spokesman in Crimea. No one was reported hurt.
These emboldened actions played out while diplomacy stalled, with Russia asserting that it cannot accept the “fait accompli” of the new Western-backed government in Ukraine and that Western proposals to defuse the crisis used a “situation created by the coup as a starting point.”
Continue reading the main story
A visual survey of the ongoing dispute, including satellite images of Russian naval positions and maps showing political, cultural and economic factors in the crisis.
That position came in a televised clip showing Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov briefing President Vladimir V. Putin about how Russia was preparing diplomatic counterproposals to serve “the interests of all Ukrainians.”
The United States and its allies have joined the Ukrainian government in declaring the Russian occupation of Crimea illegal and a Kremlin-backed referendum on whether Crimea should secede and seek to join Russia, set for Sunday, unconstitutional and nonbinding.
The military advances suggested how little influence the Western stance has had on the ground, and on the speed and tactical confidence with which Russia is consolidating its military position.
Here in Chornomorskoye, people familiar with the raid said that 200 to 250 Russian soldiers arrived outside the naval base’s walls early Monday morning and quickly scaled the fences and dropped inside.
The soldiers, variously described as members of Russian special forces or perhaps a paratrooper unit, rushed the base’s headquarters and seized the checkpoint at its entrance. They carried machine guns, automatic rifles, grenade launchers and sniper rifles, including new sniper rifles often carried by elite Russian units.
The Ukrainian naval contingent, perhaps 40 or 50 sailors and officers, belonged to a technical service that manages naval missiles and had only light weapons — mostly pistols and automatic rifles.
Outgunned and surprised, they did not resist, people familiar with the raid said. The Russian commander, described as a colonel, announced that “we are soldiers from the Russian Federation” who had come to protect the base and its equipment.
There were no further threats and no violence, people familiar with the raid said.
By daylight Monday, the Ukrainian sailors had placed their weapons in their armory and had been escorted off their base, leaving behind two officers, including the commander, a navy captain, to continue to negotiate with the occupying force.
Russian soldiers, some masked and others showing their faces, had complete control of the base. They could be seen guarding a main entrance beside a Russian military truck and roaming in knots among the buildings visible behind the gate.
A fire truck was also placed immediately behind the gate, ready to blast water at any protesting crowds. None appeared.
At one point, a lone Ukrainian sailor approached in civilian clothes, pressed his face against the fence and tried to draw the soldiers into an argument. “I serve here,” he said.
He made a brief effort to push his way back to his post, but two pro-Russian civilians grabbed him by the back of his collar and shoved him away. The soldiers watched, a few paces away, and chuckled. The apparent noncommissioned officer, who led the soldiers on guard duty, refused to answer questions from two journalists.
“No comment,” he said.
He added, “We will answer your questions after the referendum.”
Russian military forces also surrounded the Southern Naval Base, a Ukrainian installation on Donuzlav Bay, cutting off the troops inside and blocking the Konstantin Olshansky, an amphibious tank landing ship docked there.
(Last week, the Russians scuttled the Ochakov, a decommissioned ship, in the narrow entrance to the bay, effectively preventing the Konstantin Olshansky from leaving.)
The Russian soldiers at the base were supported with a backhoe, which they had used to settle in, digging fighting positions and piling a dirt wall around a large canvas tent.
Roughly 15 of the soldiers, armed and wearing masks, refused to answer questions and pushed journalists back toward the main road, walking behind them with weapons ready. “Go away,” their leader said.
In Chornomorskoye, the situation was tenser. A mix of about 20 local pro-Russian police officials and unidentified men in camouflage and ski masks abruptly intervened in an interview between two reporters and a local man.
The men demanded to know if the reporters were pro-Russian, then confiscated their notebooks and tore out any pages with writing on them. “We will translate these,” one of them said, pocketing the pages and handing back the now-blank notebooks.
They also examined the photographs in digital cards in a photographer’s cameras.
They clustered menacingly around the local man and said, “You keep giving interviews and you will end up in prison in Sevastopol,” the city on the peninsula’s southern shore that part of Russia’s Black Sea fleet uses as a home port.
They refused to allow the journalists to leave for about 15 minutes before ordering them to depart the city.
The Russian presence has been felt more heavily throughout Crimea as the referendum approaches, with at least five activists and journalists disappearing in the past two days.
Kateryna Butko a member of the Kiev-based opposition group AutoMaidan, as well as two journalists, Oleksandra Ryazantseva, an independent blogger, and Olena Maksymenko, a reporter with The Ukrainian Week, were stopped at a checkpoint on the Crimean border.
According to witnesses, the women were detained by masked men with guns and made to kneel at the side of the road, before being driven away to an unknown location. On Monday, AutoMaidan activists were searching Simferopol and Sevastopol fruitlessly for the women, who they believe are being held by local security services.
Andrei Shchekun and Antatoly Kovalsky, a trustee at a Ukrainian school in Simferopol, also disappeared on Sunday, hours before they were expected to speak at an antisecessionist rally. Mr. Kovalsky’s son said the men were abducted from the city’s train station by members of Russian Unity, the party headed by Crimea’s new separatist leader, Sergei Aksyonov.
“He’s been taken by these brigands that call themselves the authorities,” the son, Sergey Kovalsky, said.
Other Russian troops could be seen throughout the day and into Monday night, moving methodically down roads in convoys that included BTR armored personnel carriers, mobile electronic warfare vehicles and transport trucks with beds packed with troops in helmets. Their destinations were not clear.
In Yevpatoriya, on the peninsula’s west coast, a Ukrainian air defense base was presented an ultimatum in writing from the Russian-backed Crimean authorities, demanding that they set aside their weapons and cede the base by 10 p.m.
The deadline passed without incident.
Ukraine crisis: Russia sanctions could start this week, says France
Western officials meet in London to discuss asset freezes and travel bans to persuade Moscow to withdraw from Crimea
theguardian.com, Tuesday 11 March 2014 08.55 GMT
The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, has said that sanctions against Russia could begin as early as this week if Moscow does not respond to western proposals to solve the crisis in Ukraine.
"If they respond positively, [the US secretary of state] John Kerry will go to Moscow and then sanctions will not be immediate. If they do not respond or if they respond negatively, there will be a series of sanctions that could be taken as early as this week," he said on France Inter radio.
Western officials will meet in London on Tuesday to identify Russians who will be subject to asset freezes and travel bans that officials hope will persuade Moscow to withdraw from Crimea.
The British prime minister, David Cameron, has indicated that sanctions could be imposed within days, as tensions escalated in the Crimean peninsula where unidentified men reportedly fired warning shots as they moved into a Ukrainian naval base on Monday.
Kerry has sent Russia a series of proposals to try to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine, which plans to hold a referendum on Sunday over switching the region's allegiance from Kiev to Moscow.
But the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said in a televised meeting on Monday that the proposals "do not suit us very much", adding that Moscow would propose its own solution to the crisis.
Fabius said sanctions would involve "freezing personal assets of Russians or Ukrainians and sanctions on travel, regarding visas". He added that Sunday's referendum in Crimea was illegal.
The Kremlin, however, has denounced the new western-backed government in Kiev as an unacceptable "fait accompli" and claimed Russian-leaning parts of the country had been plunged into lawlessness.
Russia has said it is drafting counterproposals to a US plan for a negotiated solution to the crisis as Russian forces strengthened their control over Crimea.
In a televised briefing with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, Lavrov said proposals made by Kerry were unsuitable because they took the situation created by the coup as a starting point, referring to the ousting of Ukraine's pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Referring to a document he received from Kerry explaining the US view of the situation in Ukraine, Lavrov said: "To be frank, it raises many questions on our side … Everything was stated in terms of allegedly having a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and in terms of accepting the fait accompli."
Lavrov said Kerry had delayed a visit to Moscow to discuss the situation and Russia had decided to prepare new proposals of its own, though he did not say what they were. "We suggested that he come today … and we were prepared to receive him. He gave his preliminary consent. He then called me on Saturday and said he would like to postpone it for a while," the minister said.
In Washington, state department officials said it was Russia's refusal to discuss the US proposals that was damaging prospects for a negotiated solution, in particular the idea of direct talks between Russian officials and the new Ukrainian government.
"We are still awaiting a Russian response to the concrete questions that Secretary Kerry sent Foreign Minister Lavrov on Saturday in this regard," Jen Psaki, a state department spokeswoman, said in a statement.
"Secretary Kerry made clear to Foreign Minister Lavrov that he would welcome further discussions focused on how to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine if and when we see concrete evidence that Russia is prepared to engage on these proposals."
The US statement said Kerry, in weekend discussions with Lavrov, reiterated Washington's demand that Moscow pull back its troops from Ukraine and end attempts to annex the Crimean peninsula. Kerry also called on Russia to cease what the statement described as "provocative steps" so that diplomatic talks could continue.
US officials described a series of diplomatic manoeuvres between Washington and Moscow over the weekend that initially led to an invitation for Kerry to meet Putin on Monday. The offer expired, however, after the two sides could not quickly agree to a page-and-a-half outline for potential negotiations that, above all, demanded Ukraine's borders remain intact, according to the officials who were not authorised to be quoted by name.
The US outline did call for ways to address any Russian concerns about the government turnover in Kiev that Moscow is calling a coup, and it introduced the potential for investigations into acts of violence by any party to the conflict, the officials said. Left unsaid, however, was precisely how those concerns might be assuaged or what government would be tasked with leading such an investigation.
The US outline also called on Russia to pull back from Crimea, both in military force and in influence, to halt the local government there from holding a 16 March vote on whether it should separate from Ukraine, the officials said. It further sought to gain Russian support for placing international monitors in Crimea, allowing the International Monetary Fund to work with Ukraine and backing a 25 May national election called by Kiev.
Ukraine's foreign minister said on Monday that his country was practically in a state of war with Russia, whose forces have effectively taken control over the Crimean peninsula in what has become Europe's greatest geopolitical crisis since the end of the cold war. "We have to admit that our life now is almost like … a war," the Ukrainian foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsya, said before meeting his counterparts from Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. "We have to cope with an aggression that we do not understand."
Ukraine's prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was due to meet the US president, Barack Obama, in Washington on Wednesday.
On Monday, the Russian foreign ministry denounced the lawlessness it said "now rules in eastern regions of Ukraine as a result of the actions of fighters of the so-called Right Sector, with the full connivance" of Ukraine's new authorities.
Right Sector is a grouping of far-right and nationalist factions whose activists were among the most radical and confrontational during the three months of demonstrations in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, that eventually led to Yanukovych fleeing the country.
Pro-Russian sentiment is high in Ukraine's east and there are fears Russia could seek to incorporate that area as well.
03/10/2014 03:19 PM
Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski: 'Moscow Needs Our Money'
In a SPIEGEL interview, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, 51, argues Moscow is more vulnerable than many think, and that the EU should take a firmer stand against Russia in the Ukraine conflict.
SPIEGEL: You are viewed as being a proponent of taking a harder line against Russia. What are you calling for?
Sikorski: I have always supported working together with Russia when it is possible and when it serves the interests of both sides. But what we are dealing with right now is an attempt to change borders with the use of force. A course of action like that demands a clear response.
SPIEGEL: The European Union imposed very mild sanctions against Russia on Thursday. Isn't it true that Putin, with his gas exports, has far more effective means for countering that pressure?
Sikorski: Only about 30 percent of the natural gas in the EU originates from Russia. Norway is a larger supplier. I do not believe Russia can use it to put us under pressure. Moscow needs our money.
SPIEGEL: Do you feel that Europe is making a weak impression in this crisis? While EU leaders continued to discuss the issue in Brussels, Washington was already imposing stronger sanctions.
Sikorski: The Americans have done even more -- by relocating F-15 and F-16 jets to Eastern Europe, for example. In contrast to Europe, the US has a centralized government. We should learn from the current crisis that European integration must also continue when it comes to security policy.
SPIEGEL: Are you disappointed in the European Union?
Sikorski: The same thing applies to the Union as to the Vatican: God's mills grind slowly but surely. We have made mistakes. For example, when the negotiations over an association agreement between Ukraine and the EU were completed in December 2010, the lawyers and translators in Brussels took an entire year to work out the text. If both sides had signed faster at the time, Ukraine would be more closely connected with Europe for a long time now. Nor did we foresee at all what an irresponsible man President Yanukovych would prove to be - and that an even worse massacre could have potentially taken place on the Maidan (Independence Square). It was only our joint mediation initiative between Germany, France and Poland that prevented that from happening.
SPIEGEL: Has Ukraine already lost the Crimean peninsula?
Sikorski: The fact that the pseudo parliament there has already declared the peninsula to be a part of Russia is a clear violation of the constitution of Ukraine, a sovereign state. There are still Ukrainian military units and institutions there. In addition, the Russian majority there is not overwhelming. Almost 40 percent of Crimea's population is comprised of Ukrainians or Tatars. There are also Russian-speaking minorities in the European Union--- in the Baltic states, for example. It would be a disaster if Putin were to deploy the principles of his Ukrainian policies there.
SPIEGEL: In recent years, Poland has assumed the role of spokesman for Eastern Europe. Does the EU have too little interest in the East?
Sikorski: Every country brings its own perspective to the table. The Spaniards and Italians are more interested in the Mediterranean region, the British in the English-language world. But whether they are in the East, Ukraine or in Belarus, we cannot forget that there are people who live in these places who feel like Europeans and aspire to be a part of the EU. That is not, however, the case in the South - in North Africa, for example.
SPIEGEL: Why are the Poles so highly engaged in this conflict?
Sikorski: The Ukrainians are our neighbors. They are fighting for the same things we did back in 1989 - for a country that is more democratic, less corrupt and is European.
Titans in Russia Fear New Front in Ukraine Crisis
By ELLEN BARRY
MARCH 10, 2014
MOSCOW — When Vladimir V. Putin returned to the Russian presidency in 2012, one of the first messages he sent to his political elite, many of them heads of banks and large corporations, was that the times had changed: Owning assets outside Russia makes you too vulnerable to moves by foreign governments, he told them. It is time to bring your wealth home.
Nearly two years later, those words seem almost prophetic. After a week of escalating tensions between Russia and the United States, it has become clear that the conflict over Ukraine will move to the battlefield of finance. Those same business titans are now contemplating the damage that the crisis could inflict on Russia’s economy.
Twenty years into the project of integrating Russia into Western institutions, they now face the prospect that the process could slow, or even reverse.
Financial sanctions, which the United States and the European Union have suggested they will impose if the conflict escalates, are intended to test the cohesion of the political system. Mr. Putin demands complete loyalty from those who are allowed to lead Russia’s business empires, and he has made it clear that he will punish those who undermine him. His tough stance in Crimea, meanwhile, has been enthusiastically welcomed by the general public, including, insiders say, many of those in business. No one is breaking ranks.
Still, the prospect of losing access to Western finance is a frightening thought for Russian business leaders, whose voice in foreign policy decision-making is muted compared with the tight circle of Mr. Putin’s former K.G.B. colleagues, for whom economic factors may be secondary.
Anxiety over possible economic fallout has begun to radiate from business circles, and some wondered whether Mr. Putin had been warned clearly about the magnitude of the possible damage to the economy. One analyst described their mind-set as one of “cognitive dissonance.”
“I’ve seen 10 people from the Forbes list in the recent few days. They’re pale; they don’t understand,” said Aleksandr Y. Lebedev, a prominent banker who sold most of his Russian assets after public disputes with Mr. Putin. But the oligarchs realize, he said, that their interests carry no weight in this situation, especially if they, like Mr. Lebedev himself, own property outside Russia.
“It’s those who are here who will take the burden,” said Mr. Lebedev, speaking from Moscow. “They all keep their mouths shut.”
Last week, days after Russia took control of Crimea, the United States announced a modest first round of sanctions, and the European Union indicated it would follow suit, with both making it clear that there may be further rounds. Officials have suggested that a range of measures is being considered, leaving open, by implication, the most extreme one: barring Russian companies and banks from access to the Western financial system, similar to sanctions adopted against Iran.
President Obama has broad executive powers to declare sanctions without approval from Congress, and he would most likely consider the next steps after Crimea votes in a referendum on separating from Ukraine, scheduled for Sunday, said Michael A. McFaul, until recently the American ambassador to Moscow. “It needs to be spelled out as explicitly as possible, either directly to Putin or to the two or three people who could talk to him about this,” he said.
Russia may be betting, as many analysts do, that the United States and its allies will not follow through with draconian sanctions, and has made it clear that it would respond harshly and asymmetrically. On Friday, Gazprom hinted that it might cut off gas exports to Ukraine over unpaid bills, as it did in 2009, and an unnamed Defense Ministry official told Russian news agencies that it would consider stopping international inspections of its nuclear weapons.
Russia’s tycoons have been silent since the crisis began, apart from approving messages on social media. Many inside Russia’s large corporations are no doubt supportive of Mr. Putin’s moves in Crimea, which are widely seen here as correcting a historical error made by the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev, when he transferred Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Mr. Putin’s approval ratings are at their highest point since he returned to the presidency in 2012. If corporate leaders are complaining, they are doing it quietly.
“Of course they’re upset, but it doesn’t mean they are prepared to challenge Russia’s foreign policy,” said Mikhail E. Dmitriyev, an economist whose research group, the Center for Strategic Research, was originally founded to shape Mr. Putin’s economic platform. “This is a new reality. Even if somebody has reservations with regard to the policy’s effectiveness, I strongly doubt they would express it. This is a policy which, for the moment, is backed by the vast majority of the public. It’s not an exaggeration.”
In private conversations, though, several people described high anxiety within corporations, especially about the prospect of any sanctions’ affecting banks. Large Russian corporations have significantly increased foreign borrowing in recent years, and 10 were negotiating loans when the crisis boiled over, said Ben Aris, the editor and publisher of Business New Europe. Financial sanctions could set off a chain reaction of blocked transactions, frozen accounts and bank closings. “Those oligarchs who are already having trouble would be completely cut off,” he said.
Sberbank, the state retail bank, and the state investment bank VTB have actively expanded into Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, and own assets in Western Europe and the United States. Rosneft, the state oil company, has a deal with Exxon Mobil to drill in the Russian Arctic, the flagship project of Igor I. Sechin, a deputy prime minister and one of Mr. Putin’s closest aides.
Some pointed to a more long-term danger that the conflict over Ukraine, if it escalated, could culminate in a turn toward isolation for the Russian economy.
“It may be that we look back on the events of last weekend and remember it as an inflection point when Russia’s growing integration with the planet, which has been remorseless — Russia has integrated into the global architecture, and people feel they are part of the world — maybe we look back on this weekend as a time when there were a big set of steps back,” said Bernard Sucher, the former head of Merrill Lynch in Russia.
It is unclear how heavily Mr. Putin weighed the economic consequences when he decided to take control of Crimea. During his first years as president, Mr. Putin was known as an economic liberalizer, and one of his most trusted advisers was Aleksei L. Kudrin, the liberal-leaning former finance minister who gave him his first job in the Kremlin administration.
But Mr. Putin, whose return to the presidency was opposed by many urban liberals, now makes his most important decisions in an inner circle of men who emerged from Soviet security services. Among the first new projects in his new presidency was a push to “nationalize the elite,” requiring officials to sell off investments and properties outside Russia that could, in his view, undermine their loyalty in the event of a confrontation with the West.
Indeed, among the small group of people present when Mr. Putin made the final decision on Crimea, according to officials and analysts, were five or six former K.G.B. colleagues believed to have minimal assets outside Russia, and who were therefore not vulnerable to sanctions. Some of those now closest to Mr. Putin, like the head of the Russian Railways, Vladimir I. Yakunin, have long argued for Russia to turn away from Western economic models and toward Chinese-style state capitalism.
In a column in the Russian newspaper Vedomosti on Friday, the economist Yevgeny S. Gontmakher described a number of painful steps that might allow Mr. Putin to manage an economic contraction: increasing taxes on the rich and the middle class; reducing spending on education, health and social services; decreasing unemployment payments and subsidies to struggling factories; and reallocating the budget to support constituencies crucial to social stability, like pensioners and state employees. All of them, he pointed out, would require tightening social controls.
Mr. Dmitriyev, who has remained in touch with the economic officials who advise the Kremlin, said he believed Mr. Putin had a clear understanding of the potential for damage to the economy when he made the decision on Crimea.
“Economic risks are an important factor in the whole policy agenda, but of course this is not the only factor, and the Ukrainian events cannot be wound back,” Mr. Dmitriyev said. “This is a ratchet mechanism which unwinds in only one direction. This is one reason there is a lot of wishful thinking in the West.”
03/11/2014 11:34 AM
Help from Germany: Firms Could Soon Provide Gas to Ukraine
By Frank Dohmen
Ukraine's dependence on gas from Russia has often been used as a political weapon by Moscow in conflicts with its neighbor. German companies are now considering how Western European gas could be rerouted to Kiev if the Kremlin decides to cut supplies.
In geopolitical disputes between Moscow and Kiev, natural gas is a frequent tool used by the Russians to bring Ukraine back into political line. With frigid winter temperatures, Ukraine is heavily reliant on Russian gas to provide heating, and in recent years, the Russians have twice cut off gas supplies to the country.
That eventuality could play a role in the current crisis. Now Germany's major energy utility companies are developing strategies to help Ukraine fill the shortfall if Moscow decides to cut gas supplies. Companies including RWE and E.on are working on plans to supply Ukraine with weeks' worth of gas.
Currently, Ukraine taps around half of it gas needs from Russia. But last Friday, Russian Gas monopolist Gazprom threatened to suspend deliveries to Ukraine if the country doesn't pay its outstanding February bill of €1.7 billion ($2.35 billion).
In an emergency, the flow through Europe's pipelines could simply be reversed, with gas getting pumped from German reservoirs through the Czech Republic and Slovakia directly to Ukraine. Following this year's especially mild winter, Germany's reservoirs are much fuller than usual. Even long-term deliveries would be conceivable at the moment.
Ukraine already signed a framework agreement in 2012 with RWE to make the gas deliveries possible. Under the contract, the company has committed itself to delivering up to 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year to Ukraine, which the country was going to use this summer to fill its reservoirs for the coming winter. But RWE executives say they could provide deliveries much sooner.
RWE currently draws its gas from Norway or the Netherlands, both major suppliers in Western Europe. It would also be possible to redirect Russian gas from the Nord Stream Baltic Sea pipeline -- which connects Russia and Germany -- through pipelines in the Czech Republic and Slovakia to Ukraine. The Russians have included provisions in their supply contracts with Germany prohibiting such redirection, but a high-ranking energy utility executive told SPIEGEL these clauses are easily circumvented. "Once gas has been delivered to a storage facility, it is impossible to determine where it came from," the source said.
Around 35 percent of natural gas supplies in Germany originate from Russia, but that energy dependence could soon wane as a result of controversial fracking technologies in the United States. The country is currently extracting so much natural gas that it may soon begin exporting it in large volumes.
NATO to deploy recon flights over Eastern Europe as Ukraine crisis deepens
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, March 10, 2014 14:25 EDT
NATO said Monday it will deploy AWACS reconnaissance aircraft to overfly Poland and Romania as part of alliance efforts to monitor the crisis in Ukraine.
The flights “will enhance the Alliance’s situational awareness,” a NATO official said, adding: “All AWACS reconnaissance flights will take place solely over Alliance territory.”
“This decision is an appropriate and responsible action in line with NATO’s decision to intensify our ongoing assessment of the implications of this crisis for Alliance security,” the official said.
The NATO announcement comes as Washington and Moscow traded barbs over rival proposals to ease the crisis, with each challenging the other to show they were really interested in a peaceful outcome.
The AWACS — Airborne Warning and Control System — will fly missions from their home airbase in Geilenkirchen, Germany, and from Waddington in Britain.
The AWACS aircraft are one of the most sophisticated command and control vehicles in the NATO armoury, capable of monitoring huge swathes of airspace.
As the Ukraine crisis has deepened with Russian intervention in the Crimea, former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe have become increasingly nervous at President Vladimir Putin’s apparent willingness to up the ante.
The situation risks becoming more difficult if Crimea, now controlled by pro-Russian leaders, votes in a March 16 referendum to break all links with Kiev and become part of Russia.
Poland and the Baltic states in particular have taken a hard line as events have unfolded and last week, Warsaw called for urgent consultations with its NATO allies on the situation.
In response to Putin’s move into Crimea, home to a large Russian-speaking population and the Black Sea fleet, the US is sending a dozen F-16 fighter jets and 300 service personnel to Poland as part of a training exercise.
Last week, Washington also sent six additional F-15 fighter jets to step up NATO air patrols over the Baltic states.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said at the time of last week’s deployment that it was a sign that “NATO is responding promptly and fast”.
Since January, four US F-15 fighter jets have been assigned for air patrols over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Crimea Assembly Votes for Independence from Ukraine
by Naharnet Newsdesk
11 March 2014, 12:43
Pro-Moscow lawmakers in Crimea voted for independence from Ukraine on Tuesday in a precursor to a referendum this weekend for the region to become part of Russia.
The local assembly approved a "declaration on the independence of the autonomous republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol" with 78 out of 81 lawmakers present voting in favor.
The move by the parliament, which has been declared illegal by the new government in Kiev, appeared to be aimed at creating a legal framework for joining Russia as a sovereign state.
The parliament's press service said in a statement that independence would come into force after the referendum if the result is in favor of Crimea becoming part of the Russian Federation.
The declaration referred to Kosovo's separation from Serbia, adding that "the unilateral declaration of independence of part of a state does not violate any international laws."
If the referendum is in favor of Russia, "the republic of Crimea as an independent and sovereign state will apply to the Russian Federation to join it".
Ukraine crisis: US will not recognise Crimea referendum, says ambassador
Washington threatens further action against Russia if Vladimir Putin uses poll to legitimise military occupation, says Kiev envoy
Luke Harding in Kiev and agencies
theguardian.com, Monday 10 March 2014 12.41 GMT
America's ambassador in Kiev said the US would refuse to recognise next Sunday's "so-called referendum" in Crimea, and said Washington would take further steps against Russia if it used the poll to legitimise its occupation.
Geoffrey Pyatt said Barack Obama and the US secretary of state, John Kerry, had spent the weekend talking to European leaders. Obama also spoke to Russia's president, Vladimir Putin. The ambassador said the US and EU were in complete agreement that stronger sanctions could follow after next weekend's referendum, adding: "There is no daylight between us."
The ambassador said the White House was unbending in its view that Crimea was part of Ukraine. He said that in the runup to Sunday's referendum "gangs of pro-Russian thugs" were roaming the peninsula, beating up activists and creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Without mentioning Moscow by name, Pyatt said there was also an "active campaign right now" to stir up dissension and division across the country.
Ukraine's interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is due to travel to Washington on Wednesday for talks with Obama. The trip would be an opportunity to reaffirm the US's strongest support for the "new democratic Ukraine'", its integrity and the Ukrainian people, Pyatt said. They would also discuss Russia's invasion of Crimea.
His comments came after David Cameron and Angela Merkel agreed that any Russian attempt to legitimise Sunday's referendum in Crimea would result in further consequences, implying stronger sanctions.
The UK prime minister and the German chancellor agreed a statement after a working dinner in Hanover on Sunday night.
On Sunday, during separate telephone calls with Obama and Merkel, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, urged a political solution to the crisis in Ukraine and for all parties to exercise calm and restraint.
"The situation in Ukraine is extremely complex, and what is most urgent is for all sides to remain calm and exercise restraint to avoid an escalation in tensions," China's foreign ministry on Monday cited Xi as telling Obama.
"Political and diplomatic routes must be used to resolve the crisis," Xi added. China had an "open attitude" towards any suggestions or proposals that could ameliorate the situation and was willing to remain in touch with all parties including the US, he said.
Xi told Merkel the Ukraine situation was "highly sensitive" and needed to be weighed carefully, according to a separate Chinese statement.
FBI Helping Probe Ukraine 'Kleptocracy'
by Naharnet Newsdesk
10 March 2014, 19:17
U.S. officials including FBI agents are in Kiev helping a Ukrainian-led investigation into corruption under ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, the U.S. ambassador to Kiev said on Monday.
"We are doing what we can to unpack the enormous kleptocracy which surrounded the Yanukovych government," Geoffrey Pyatt said at a press conference in Kiev.
"We have already on the ground here in Ukraine experts from the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury," the ambassador told reporters.
Pyatt also said there were "a variety of other international governments" assisting in the Ukrainian investigation "to uncover the financial crimes that were committed by the previous regime and to see what can be done to recuperate some of those assets."
The European Union last week froze the assets of Yanukovych, ex-premier Mykola Azarov and 16 former ministers, businessmen and security chiefs -- all on grounds of fraud.
Swiss authorities have also ordered a freeze on the assets of both Yanukovych and his multi-millionaire son Oleksandr, as well as 18 other former ministers and officials.
Ukraine ranks 144th out of 177 countries on Transparency International's corruption perceptions index.
Yanukovych Says still President, Expects Return to Kiev
by Naharnet Newsdesk
11 March 2014, 12:06
Ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych on Tuesday said that he was still the country's legitimate president and commander-in-chief, predicting he would be able to return to Kiev soon.
"I remain not just the sole legitimate president of Ukraine but also commander-in-chief," he said in his first public appearance in over a week, in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.
"As soon as the circumstances allow -- and I am sure there is not long to wait -- I will without doubt return to Kiev," he added, speaking Russian.
In contrast to his lengthy press conference on February 28 when he re-emerged in Russia, Yanukovych gave only a seven minute statement in a conference hall in Rostov-on-Don, standing in front of several Ukrainian flags.
He then left the stage alone without taking questions.
He reaffirmed his belief that power in Kiev had been taken by a "band of ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists" who he said wanted to start a "civil war".
He said that presidential elections planned in May would be "absolutely illegitimate and illegal" and he would not recognize the results.
It is not clear what influence, if any, Yanukovych has on Russian policy on Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin said last week he was in theory still Ukrainian president but recognized he had no political future.
Yanukovych told the new pro-West authorities in Ukraine who took over after he fled to Russia last month that "sooner or later, most likely sooner" they would be held responsible for their actions.
"You will be made responsible for the suffering of the people. Ukraine is now going through a difficult time," he said.
He blamed them for the fact that Ukraine appears about to lose control of Crimea, which is set to be claimed by Russia after a referendum on March 16.
"Your actions have led to the fact that Crimea is separating and the people of the south and east are demanding respect, even in the face of machine guns," he said.
"We will get through this trouble, the people who have been deceived by you will see this and the country will rise up and unify," said Yanukovych.
However contrary to expectations, Yanukovych made no other reference to the crisis over Crimea in his statement.
There had been repeated rumors in the Russian press over the last week that Yanukovych had suffered a heart attack but he appeared to be in reasonable health, if looking strained and tired.
"I want to say that I am alive," said Yanukovych in a comment that provoked immediate ridicule on social networks.
"But I cannot say that I feel good as I cannot look at what is going on now in Ukraine without deep and terrible alarm."
He accused the West of ignoring the "fascist" tendencies of the new authorities in Ukraine.
"Have you gone blind? Have you lost your memory? Have you forgotten what fascism is?"
He said that the presidential elections would be illegitimate as they would proceed under the "total control of extremist forces".
03/10/2014 07:02 PM
Beyond Ukraine: Russia's Imperial Mess
By SPIEGEL Staff
Russia's occupation of Crimea has violated international law and created a new crisis among world leaders. Now the EU and the US are fighting over the best means to address Russia's reawakened expansionary ambitions.
Everything in Simferopol, the capital of the Ukrainian Autonomous Republic of Crimea, has suddenly changed. Shortly after noon on Thursday of last week, Cossacks from Russia sealed off the Crimean parliament building. The Russians, who had identified themselves as tourists a short time earlier, claimed that they were there to "check identification papers." Now Russia's white, blue and red flag flies above the building.
Two men accompany us as we walk up the steps to meet with the new premier of Crimea, who has taken over the office in a Moscow-backed coup. Under his leadership and with instructions from Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Crimean lawmakers have just voted to join the Russian Federation. Their decision is to be sealed with a referendum scheduled for Sunday, March 16.
Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov, 41, a former businessman with a highly dubious reputation, tries to make a serious impression, but so far, he has been unsuccessful in his attempts to shed his reputation as an underworld figure nicknamed "Goblin." Despite the Russian flag on display in the reception room, Aksyonov insists that rumors that he was installed by the Kremlin are nothing but lies. "The people here asked me to do it," he says. But he knows that neither Kiev nor the West will accept the annexation of Crimea. "No one dictates anything to us," he insists.
The new premier speaks rapidly, as if to drown out any skepticism. "We want no violence or casualties," he says, adding that everything should proceed peacefully. "However, we are not letting the Ukrainians out of their barracks, so that they can no longer act on any criminal orders from Kiev." He says that his people are in control of all of Crimea, but NATO experts claim that at least 2,000 Russian soldiers have been brought to the peninsula by air, for a total of 20,000 troops in Crimea. Another 20,000 are supposedly standing ready nearby.
"Nonsense," says Aksyonov, still insisting that Moscow has not sent in any soldiers at all. This, despite the fact that the men in ski masks and uniforms -- which have been stripped of Russian insignia -- are grinning under their disguises. If the situation weren't so serious, it would almost be comical.
At this point, no one is laughing. Russian soldiers have repeatedly prevented military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from entering Crimea. Pro-Russian "civil defense squads" have threatened United Nations special envoy Robert Serry in Simferopol. "Militarily speaking, Crimea is already lost," says a NATO general. "The Ukrainian army is fighting a lost cause." According to a German military internal situation report, the events in Crimea could be repeated in eastern Ukraine.
So far, Moscow's provocations in Crimea haven't resulted in any deaths. Nevertheless, all it takes is one murder or one gun battle to ignite the powder keg of tensions in the region. It begs the question: Almost 100 years after the beginning of World War I, and almost 25 years after the end of the Cold War and the realignment of Europe, could there possibly be a new military conflict between the major powers in Europe?
'Most Serious Crisis' Since Cold War
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called it the "most serious crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall" -- seemingly ignoring the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. US President Barack Obama characterized Moscow's intervention as a "violation of international law," while former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared Putin's alleged concerns over "ethnic" Russians in eastern Ukraine to Adolf Hitler's actions in Sudetenland in 1938.
Officials at NATO and the European Union have been meeting almost around the clock. Late last week, Obama spent more than an hour on the phone with Putin, who has shown no sign of backing down. The Western leaders now face the challenge of exerting pressure on Russia while simultaneously keeping the channels of communication open.
They are also being confronted with a different series of questions: What kinds of sanctions could even persuade Russia's aggressive leader to withdraw? What does Vladimir Putin want? Does he want to annex Crimea or even eastern Ukraine, or perhaps seize control of even more territory along Russia's borders? And are these merely the actions of a cornered fighter or does he truly believe he can create a modern reincarnation of the Soviet Union?
The United States and the EU approved initial sanctions against Moscow late last week, Washington sent military reinforcements to Poland and the Baltic countries and the German federal police promptly suspended half a dozen cooperative programs with Russia. On Sunday, the Polish Defense Minister announced that the US was sending 12 fighter jets to Poland.
But aside from these measures, the situation has thus far been characterized by a horrifying sense of helplessness. On the one hand, Russia is part of the globalized community of nations, tightly interconnected through regular political consultations, the economy and tourism. Russia's commodities exports to Europe make up close to half of the central government budget, and its connections to the rest of the world are obvious. But then, on the other hand, there is the Russian president, who is apparently trying to break ranks with this interdependent, civilized world.
Ignorance and Incomprehension
The events of the last few weeks have underscored a lack of understanding between East and West, as well as the West's crass ignorance and incomprehension of Putin's motives. As much as the leaders on both sides feel that they know each other, vast differences remain.
"Putin is living in another world!" German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly exclaimed in a phone call with Obama last week. Putin, for his part, voiced almost identical opinions about the West in a press conference with handpicked journalists, saying, "They sit there across the pond as if they're in a lab running all kinds of experiments on rats, without understanding consequences of what they're doing." By "rats" he apparently meant the new Ukrainian leadership, which Putin believes is being controlled by Washington.
But the Kremlin leader has succeeded in one respect: He has divided the West. This process began months before his foray into Crimea, when he granted temporary asylum to US whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden had leaked documents on the massive surveillance activities of the NSA, heightening the distrust among the Western allies to levels unseen since World War II. And the fact that Washington has made no effort to conclude a no-spying agreement with Berlin has only worsened the sense of alienation between the two countries.
Searching for the Right Measure
Germany is playing a central role in resolving the current Ukraine crisis. Both the United States and Russia see Merkel as the politician who is best equipped to defuse the explosive situation in Ukraine. She addresses Putin with the informal "du" in German, and has met with him dozens of times. Despite their many differences, their close partnership has created a bond between Berlin and Moscow. And with its aspiration to embark on a new, more active foreign policy, the German government has placed itself under more pressure to succeed.
But Europe's impotence and trepidation are not as clear-cut as they appear. Even though a reversal of the Russian takeover of Crimea may seem hopeless at this point, joint EU actions against Moscow could be promising in the long term. Putin is not as strong as he makes himself out to be, and Russia is vulnerable, particularly on the economic front.
It is merely a question of finding the most effective way to make an impression on Putin and curb his expansion plans -- and of whether the West has the will to follow a course of action that will be painful for everyone involved. Either way, the decisions now being made in Crimea, Kiev, Moscow, Brussels and Washington will shape policy in the coming years and possibly even decades.
In Kiev: Pride and Powerlessness
While Russians and Ukrainians continue to face off in Crimea -- with US President Obama threatening to skip the G-8 summit in Sochi in June and the Russian parliament, the Duma, considering the seizure of Western company assets in response to sanctions -- the new government is meeting in Kiev. Less than two weeks after entering office, it is desperately trying to regain control over the situation in Ukraine.
The seat of the government, located in a massive Stalin-era building on Kiev's Grushevsky Street, seems caught in the past. The hallway floors are covered with sound-absorbing green carpeting from the Yanukovych era, the names of the country's new leaders have already been engraved onto brass signs on the doorways.
Room 460, on the fifth floor, is the office of the new economics minister, Pavlo Sheremeta. The office hasn't been completely furnished yet, and there are only two pictures on the wall -- a portrait of national poet Taras Shevchenko and a photo, titled "Heavenly One Hundred," depicting the photos of the 67 people who died on Maidan Square. The view from the window is of a barricade on Grushevsky Street, now covered with flowers, where many of former President Viktor Yanukovych's opponents died.
"We owe a great deal to the dead," says Sheremeta. It angers him that Moscow is calling the change in government in Kiev a "coup" and the protesters "fascists." Radical right-wing agitators, he says, were clearly in the minority among the protesters on Independence Square.
Sheremeta is not a member of any party. He is part of the contingent of ministers selected by the Maidan protesters and his position is now probably one of the most important in Kiev. The 42-year-old economist teaches business strategy in Eastern Europe and Asia and, most recently, was president of the Kiev School of Economics. When he received the call asking him to join the new government, he was skiing in the Alps with his wife and two daughters.
He never saw his predecessor, who held his last meeting at 11 a.m. on Feb. 27 and then left the building. Sheremata was appointed at 2 p.m. that day. Since then, he and other members of the new government have been working around the clock.
A staff member walks into the room. He has brought along Ukraine's daily economic figures, which look like the fever chart of a deathly ill patient. Industrial production declined by another half a percent in January, while inflation is sharply on the rise, tax revenues are down 20 percent and the national currency, the hryvnia, continues to lose value.
"We are going to review government contracts, where corruption is taking a heavy toll," says Sheremeta. But first he has to meet with experts from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), who have been in Kiev since Tuesday to discuss a $15 billion (€10.8 billion) loan the country urgently needs. But natural gas prices will also be a topic of discussion. It is clear that, effective April 1, the Russians will reverse the substantial reduction in prices they had promised Yanukovich. It is also clear that Naftogaz, Ukraine's national oil and gas company, is unable to pay the current bill for gas deliveries, which has grown to $2.1 billion.
This means Ukrainians will now -- in accordance with the IMF's conditions -- have to pay up to three times as much for heat and hot water, a change which will hurt the new government's popularity and thus play into Putin's hands. "We have to explain this to the people. If we are not willing to pay more for the gas, then we truly belong in the East. But then what did those 67 men die for?" asks Sheremeta.
Chaos in Kiev
Three levels above Sheremeta's office, a cabinet meeting is beginning. The attendees include the governors of Ukraine's nine provinces, including the two oligarchs -- banker Igor Kolomoisky and steel magnate Sergey Taruta -- who will now be running the provinces of Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk. Many were surprised by the choice of the two men. They have experience and their wealth makes them seemingly unsusceptible to bribes, but, Sheremeta says: "I'm not happy with these choices. How are these people supposed to separate business and politics?"
The cabinet meets for three hours. It cancels 82 government projects, for a total cost of 48 billion hryvnia (€3.8 billion), and decides to auction off 1,500 official cars owned by ministries and other agencies. With funds in such short supply, government officials will now be expected to take the metro.
Then Sheremeta is called back to Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's office to attend a meeting with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. When he arrives on the seventh floor, he learns that the prime minister has just left in a hurry for Brussels. This leaves Sheremeta to negotiate alone with Bildt over a planned association agreement with the European Union. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party is demanding that the agreement, from which Yanukovich withdrew in November, be signed as quickly as possible. But now Brussels is stepping on the brakes, unwilling to rush into anything.
Sheremeta is no politician. This can work in his favor, but it can also be a drawback. He isn't caught up in the political games being played in the cabinet, between Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party and the nationalist Svoboda party.
'A Candid Investigation' is Needed
But he is working together with cabinet members about whom many have reservations. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, a former governor of the eastern city of Kharkiv, was suspected of abuse of office and spent more than two years in exile in Italy. Agriculture Minister Igor Shvaika is an ardent right-wing nationalist. Energy Minister Yuri Prodan and Minister of Social Policy Lyudmyla Denisova have both served in other governments in the past. And finally, there is Dmytro Bulatov, one of the leaders of the Maidan protesters, who disappeared for a period of time and was apparently tortured, and who is now the new minister of youth and sports.
Reporters from a Ukrainian television station come to see Sheremeta. Later, the new economics minister is smiling and seemingly in high spirits during a live interview with CNN. Only once does he become pensive, after hearing a rumor that the Estonian foreign minister had told EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton. The minister had claimed that it wasn't Yanukovych's men who had fired the shots during the bloody clashes on Maidan Square on Feb. 20, but members of the opposition.
On Wednesday, the new Ukrainian intelligence chief stated that the shots were fired by "snipers from foreign countries," but declined to elaborate. Sheremeta says that many questions remain unanswered. He believes the coalition government is not overly eager to investigate the bloody clashes. "Our government will fall under a shadow unless it conducts a candid investigation."
USA: Marbles and Chess
The American president is visiting Powell Elementary School in Washington, where he has come to talk about the importance of education. The children greet the president in a half-circle, and when he steps into a classroom, they chant in unison: "Good morning, Mr. President." Obama, with one of the little boys sitting on his lap, begins to talk about opportunities for the socially disadvantaged. But even here, the crisis in Ukraine is on everyone's mind.
When a reporter asks Obama for his assessment of the situation in Crimea, Obama's response reveals a great deal about his worldview: "The course of history is for people to want to be free to make their own decisions about their own futures. And the international community I think is unified in believing that it is not the role of an outside force ... to intervene in people trying to determine their own destiny."
This statement, directed at Russia, could double as the US government's maxim on the current crisis. Washington is currently grappling with the sustainability of Obama's approach to US military troop reduction. It is also wondering whether it is right for the most powerful man in the world to be taking such a cautious approach to this sort of conflict.
Major Test for Obama
The Crimean crisis is, more than any other event, testing Obama's policy of reconciliation with the rest of the world. Former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas R. Burns calls it the "most important, most difficult foreign-policy test of his presidency," noting that there is "no one in Europe who can approach him in power. He's going to have to lead."
Political scientist Ian Bremmer, president of the renowned New York-based Eurasia Group, a global political risk consulting firm, fears that the events in Ukraine could reflect a "broader geopolitical shift." Russia, Bremmer writes, will use the crisis as an opportunity to strengthen its ties with China. "We are in a world with a distinct and dangerous lack of global, coordinated leadership." Meanwhile, the Republicans are critical of the president for engaging in a foreign policy in which "nobody believes in America's strength anymore," as Senator John McCain bitterly notes.
Obama himself says that the impulse to expand, in terms of geography, economy and ideology, is a central part of the American identity. There is a nostalgia in Washington for the country's former strength, a desire for a more self-confident approach. "Putin is playing chess and I think we're playing marbles," says Republican Congressman Mike Rogers.
Obama perceives this is an outdated Cold War ritual, dating from a time when the world seemed divided into good and evil. Before he became president, he described his view of foreign policy by quoting from former President George Washington's farewell address: "Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?"
Words as Weapons
At Powell Elementary School, Obama responded to suggestions that Putin had been clever strategically by saying: "I actually think that this has not been a sign of strength. It will push many countries further away from Russia."
On Thursday, to ensure that no one misinterprets his mild words, Obama imposed the first sanctions on individuals held responsible for the crisis. They will be denied entry into the United States, and the assets of former President Yanukovych are being frozen. Obama also sent his Secretary of State, John Kerry, to visit Kiev.
Kerry was driven directly from the airport to Independence Square, where he engaged in a conversation with a woman about how the wealthy live in luxury, hiding their assets, while the majority of the population lives in poverty. These kinds of encounters feed into the American desire to be perceived as ambassadors of freedom. But Kerry has a problem: He only has weak weapons to use against the Russians. Those weapons are his words. "It is diplomacy and respect for sovereignty, not unilateral force, that can best solve disputes like this in the 21st century," Kerry said in Kiev.
But what if Putin continues to escalate the crisis? "Then," says Kerry, "our partners will have absolutely no choice but to join us to continue to expand upon steps we have taken in recent days in order to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically."
Reason and Roulette in Moscow
Is it possible to take a trip inside Putin's head? The CIA has experts who can provide the US president with psychological profiles of foreign leaders, which he can use as tools in making his decisions. They place Putin on a virtual therapist's couch and try to explain what makes him tick and what is truly important to him. It helps to look at the world through Putin's eyes, through the lens of his experiences and priorities.
Conversations with Putin's associates and his own remarks suggest the factors that shaped the wannabe czar: his childhood in a small, shabby apartment in a Leningrad working-class neighborhood, his father's stories about the Great Patriotic War against the Germans, his role as an outsider in school -- and his desire to be accepted into the KGB community.
Putin was 15 when then Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, in response to a "plea for help" from Communist Party leaders, sent tanks to mow down the reform movement in Prague. He was 37 and a major in the KGB when he was forced to defend himself against angry demonstrators in Dresden, following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Wearing civilian clothing, he went to the gate of the KGB villa and appeased the crowd by saying: "This is a property of the Soviet military, and I am the interpreter." In reality, as Putin would later relate, he had been burning secret documents inside the villa "until the furnace almost broke."
The Soviet withdrawal from East Germany was a humiliating moment for Putin. Beginning in 1989, the superpower he had served and in which he had believed was disintegrating everywhere. Soviet republics from the Baltic Sea to Central Asia were declaring independence. For Putin, it was especially painful to see Ukraine -- whose "Kievan Rus" had become the historic cradle of the later Russian Empire after the 9th century -- separating itself from Moscow.
He called the collapse of the Soviet Union the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." Since then, he has made it his mission to save -- or recapture -- whatever he can. To add insult to injury, in Putin's eyes, the West has flouted its commitment not to send NATO troops up to Russia's borders. Putin refuses to give up the dream of making Russia a superpower once again and the aspiration to make it an empire.
He has experimented with cooperation with the West. After Sept. 11, 2001, Putin hoped that by supplying arms for the campaign against the Taliban, he would secure a modicum of control over the former Soviet republics, expanding Russia's sphere of influence from the Kirghiz steps to Crimea. But the West had no intention of granting him his wish, especially now that countries like Georgia and Ukraine were demanding more autonomy and turning to the West.
At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin struck back, accusing the United States of having "overstepped" borders, partly through the "expansion of force." In 2008, the Russian army intervened in Georgia when Georgian troops, provoked by Moscow, launched a regional war of aggression on the breakaway republic of South Ossetia.
After five days, Putin had President Dmitry Medvedev declare the two breakaway republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as protectorates. Although only a handful of countries besides Russia recognize them as independent nations, the West accepts Moscow's control. Are they a potential model for Crimea?
Heir to the Russian Empire
When addressing the global public, Putin likes to portray himself as a champion of international law and the territorial integrity of countries. Again and again, most recently in the Syrian conflict, Moscow has used its veto to obstruct outside intervention in cases involving human rights violations. Putin does not accept the United Nations view of its "responsibility to protect" a threatened civilian population -- unless Russians are involved and he can determine whether they are being threatened, as he now claims is the case in Ukraine, allowing him to personally "rescue" them.
Russia's strong man only offers insights into what truly worries him when speaking to small groups. In October 2012, for example, activists with the pro-Kremlin People's Front for Russia met with Putin at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow. Referring to the appearance of an employee of the state-owned television station known for his strident polemics, he said: "I like this superpower way of thinking." This shows that Putin sees himself as the heir of the Russian Empire.
In 2013, Forbes named him the most powerful man in the world, ahead of the presidents of the United States and China. And it must have stroked his ego when everyone in the West claimed that without him, there could be no solution in the Syrian civil war and in the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.
In reality, his influence in these countries is limited. China outstripped Russia long ago in Central Asia and Africa. No one would hit upon the idea of referring to a "Russian model" worth imitating. And even Putinists often resignedly quote Russian national poet Fyodor Dostoevsky, who said: "In Europe we are mere Tatars." By Tatars, he meant provincial.
Russia's population has stopped growing. With its 143 million people, the world's largest country ranks ninth in population, behind Nigeria and Bangladesh. And the economy grew by a paltry 1.4 percent last year, despite the world's largest natural gas reserves, massive oil production and many natural resources, from nickel to gold.
Russia has little to offer other than its mineral resources, so Putin needs markets in the West. The oft-proclaimed diversification of Russian industry has never happened. In addition, Russia is ranked 127th in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, only 17 spots ahead of Ukraine, which Putin has just accused of being plagued with "unimaginable corruption."
Uncertain Future for Gas
There is also no guarantee that Russia's oil and gas revenues will remain strong. Given the recent emergence of fracking and oil shales, global market prices for these commodities will likely decline significantly in the future. If that happens, it has the potential to open up an enormous hole in the Russian treasury. If events unfold as many observers believe they will, then Putin will soon no longer be able to afford the kind of inflated and inefficient military he has today. He will be forced to freeze pensions and will no longer be able to offer the new middle class a better standard of living.
It's no surprise that Putin is seeking a breakthrough in foreign policy that would lead to a prestigious alliance of nations under his leadership. Ukraine was intended to be a key, perhaps even the most important, member of his planned Eurasian Customs Union.
But ever since Kiev began orienting itself toward Western Europe, Putin has seen his expansion plans in jeopardy. With only Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and possibly Moldova on board, Putin won't be creating much of an empire.
It is hard to explain why the leading politicians in the West failed to recognize, or perhaps were unwilling to see, the fact that the Russian president would not simply allow Ukraine to turn to the West.
An Imperial Twitch from a Shrunken Russia
Putin's decline began at the moment of his greatest triumph. The Russian president, who invested billions in Sochi, could no longer enjoy the magnificent Winter Olympics. And the next prestigious event in the city, the G-8 summit of the world's leading industrialized nations, is on the verge of being cancelled because of Russia's forceful actions in Crimea. Western sanctions would further decimate Putin's range of options, possibly even threatening his power. Travel bans imposed on a previously pro-Putin elite accustomed to Western luxury could trigger considerable resentment.
From his standpoint, the president has only one good card to play: He needs a successful operation in Crimea.
It is a high-stakes gamble, but perhaps the odds are better than in a game of Russian roulette. And in taking his current approach, Putin enjoys broad support among a largely nationalist public, with even liberal intellectuals celebrating the annexation. Hardly anyone is troubled by the highly dubious attempt to justify Russian intervention as "brotherly aid," and few believe that Putin also intends to march into eastern Ukraine for the same reason.
Still, merely the threat that the Russians could possibly come to the "aid" of ethnic Russians in Kharkiv and Donetsk is probably enough to prevent any Ukrainian government from becoming too cozy with the EU and NATO.
Putin's aggressive approach in Crimea and his actions, clearly in violation of international law, may remind Hillary Clinton of the Nazis' "Anschluss" of the Sudetenland. But Putin is no gambler, nor is he looking for excuses to raze cities to the ground.
And even though he is playing a high-stakes game of poker, he also isn't putting everything on the line. Instead, it seems highly likely that Putin will stop when he faces the threat of a major war. In this respect, he has not lost touch with reality in the way the German chancellor believes. Instead, he is ruthlessly exploiting all his options, taking things to a limit which he knows very well.
He is not doing so out of strength but out of weakness. In fact, this Crimean campaign could be the last imperial twitch of a Russia that has shrunk to the point of being a medium-sized power.
Germany Takes a Key Role to Little Effect
Germany is playing a key role in the Ukraine crisis. The chancellor has spoken with the Russian president by phone three times in the last few days, and the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has met three times with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in addition to almost daily telephone conversations. Last Monday, Steinmeier even made a trip to Geneva to speak with Lavrov in person and to keep the conversation going.
This is in keeping with the new, more active German foreign policy Steinmeier announced in January. At the same time, the German government is also clearly feeling the limits of this policy. "I don't know if we are prepared for this type of foreign policy," says a senior official in Berlin. He is referring to the mixture of the geostrategic Great Game of the 19th century and the intelligence methods of the 21st century, with which Putin is trying to protect his interests, and which stands in contrast with the Germans' more gentle diplomacy.
Merkel spoke with Putin by phone on the Friday before last, after pro-Russian militias had taken over government buildings in Crimea. Putin denied that Moscow was involved, and he would do so more frequently in the coming days. The German government's position was clear early on: An international contact group was needed as a forum for talks with the Russians.
A Familiar Relationship
In her phone conversations with Putin, Merkel repeatedly pointed out that if Russia hoped to avoid sanctions, it would have to agree to a contact group. But Putin proved to be unwieldy. He said he was not opposed to a contact group, but that the current Ukrainian government could not be represented, because it consists of fascists and is not democratically elected. Merkel replied that the government was elected by the Ukrainian parliament, and that Prime Minister Yatsenyuk had even appointed two members of the Jewish faith to his government.
The tone in Merkel's and Putin's conversation has been calm but clear. Officials in Berlin are convinced that Putin does not speak as openly with any other Western leader as he does with Merkel. He usually speaks German, only switching to Russian when important details are at issue. His words are then translated, even though Merkel understands Russian.
After years of interaction, the chancellor knows Putin well enough that she can readily draw a picture of his character and his motives. It is an image of a highly intelligent man interested in the world, but also a man with complexes and self-doubts. According to Merkel, Putin knows very well that he cannot modernize his country without Western investment. He also knows that under purely economic criteria, Russia would have no business being part of the group of the eight most important industrialized nations.
A Mood of Resignation in Berlin
In their telephone conversations, the chancellor and Putin have been unable to agree on any of the central issues, from events in Crimea to the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government. Putin is also offering no concrete commitments. During a conversation last Wednesday, however, he did indicate that he could perhaps agree to a contact group that would include the Ukrainian government.
So far, though, German efforts have not been truly helpful, leading to a mood of resignation in Berlin. Even cabinet ministers are saying "Crimea is gone," and that the West should now focus on preventing the Russian president from creating more precedents in eastern Ukraine. They warn that if Putin were to stir up separatist sentiments there, too, it would be a "game changer." Keeping eastern and western Ukraine together is currently Merkel's most important goal.
The planned G-8 summit in Sochi could be an opportunity to teach Putin a lesson. If there is indeed an independence referendum in Crimea next Sunday, Merkel will have no choice but to cancel her attendance. That, at least, is the current assessment of the situation within Merkel's cabinet and at the Chancellery.
Putin Prefers Risk of Sanctions
When German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel met with Putin in Moscow last week, he told the Kremlin leader that Russian would suffer considerably under sanctions. He also tried appealing to the Russian president on a personal level, saying it was now up to him, Putin, to prevent Europe from sliding into a new Cold War. But the Russian leader remained impassive.
On the previous day, the foreign ministers had met for several hours, but emerged from the meeting without having agreed on the format, the principles or the goals of a contact group. During the meeting, Lavrov left the negotiating table several times to speak with Putin by phone. In the end, it was clear that Putin would rather accept the risk of sanctions than make any concessions. This is why the German government believes Washington's push for a quick, tough reaction against Russia is the wrong approach.
When the EU leaders consult each other about sanctions against Russia, the association agreement with Ukraine, which triggered the crisis in the first place, is also back on the table. The interim government in Kiev is eager to sign the agreement as soon as possible.
The history of the agreement is a lesson in what happens when modern economic policy and classic power politics clash. Officials in Berlin already had their doubts when negotiations on the agreement began in 2009. Some argued that Ukraine was too fragile to be forced to choose between Russia and the West. But that concern never reached the department in Brussels in charge of European enlargement and neighborhood policy, whose officials negotiated the treaty. No one even hit upon the idea that Moscow might assert its influence in Ukraine as aggressively as it did, and yet there were warning signs.
At the very latest, officials in Brussels ought to have been paying closer attention after February of last year, when EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle visited the White House in Moscow, the seat of the Russian government. Füle raved about the progress being made in Ukraine. At that point, the EU's association agreement with the government in Kiev was practically in the bag. The official signing was to take place at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Lithuania in November. Füle spoke with great enthusiasm about Ukraine's efforts.
His audience in Moscow, the assembled Russian government, headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, was not nearly as enthusiastic. What effects, it asked pointedly, would such an agreement have on the planned Eurasian economic union, which Moscow was assembling with countries like Kazakhstan and Belarus, and possibly Ukraine?
"Looking back," says a senior official at the European Commission, "we could have sensed at that moment what was threatening to happen. But that would be against our nature. We EU representatives are always a little naïve and believe that our mission is bound to succeed, because we are fighting for the right values. We never plan for the worst case."
A Changed Man
After Füle's meeting in Moscow, Alexey Miller, the head of Russian energy giant Gazprom, suddenly noticed that Ukraine was behind in paying for its gas deliveries, and that the government in Kiev still owed the company $882 million. As a result, Miller said, Gazprom had to insist that Ukraine pay its debts on time. Then Russia's consumer protection agency suddenly claimed that the products of Ukraine's largest confectionary company contained carcinogenic substances, and its trucks were ordered to turn around at the border.
On Nov. 19, 10 days before the official signing of the agreement, Füle traveled to Kiev once again. He had already met with then President Yanukovych three times that year. The Europeans always had the feeling that the president, who was fond of telling stories from his childhood, was being completely open with them.
But on that day Füle felt that he was facing a changed man, someone who seemed to be acting on instructions. Indeed, Yanukovich had met with Putin in Sochi for hours before meeting Füle. When the EU negotiators met with Yanukovich in Kiev, the foreign minister, a glaring apparatchik, was sitting next to him, and they knew that this meeting would have a different outcome.
Suddenly Yanukovich was talking about "problems" and "costs." He said that a Russian expert had explained to him how high the price would be for turning toward Europe, noting that Ukraine would be losing $15 or $16 billion a year. Füle was speechless and switched from English to Russian, hoping to reach Yanukovich. But he merely held onto a piece of paper from which he was stubbornly rattling off figures indicating how far trade with Russia had already declined.
The meeting was over after an hour. The EU commissioner planned to make another trip to Kiev on Nov. 21, but the visit never took place. Füle was about to board his flight in Brussels when the Ukrainian government announced that it was unfortunately unable to sign the planned association agreement.
"They didn't even call us first," says Füle. When he met with Yanukovich again in late January, the meeting lasted only 30 minutes. The Ukrainian president spent 29 of those minutes speaking.
Heroes and Scoundrels in Crimea
The armed Russian and Ukrainian "brothers" will continue to face off until at least next Sunday, the day of the planned Crimea referendum. This is especially true in the Severnaya, or northern bay of Sevastopol, where the Black Sea fleet was divided up between the two newly created countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and where the Russian and Ukrainian navies have been docked, practically ship's side to ship's side, ever since.
From a forward observation post above the harbor, Oleg, a Russian elite soldier, has the officers of the Slavutych, a Ukrainian warship, within the range of his Kalashnikov. He can see that they have hung mattresses over the side of the ship to protect themselves against grappling hooks, and that they are using ropes to inconspicuously pull food on board. This is how the Ukrainians intend to hold out, as they have refused to submit to Russian demands to surrender.
Oleg calmly watches the spectacle below. Only his brown eyes are visible underneath a ski mask pulled down over his nose, and he speaks Russian. The soldier says he's from the area near Rostov-on-Don, but he refuses to provide any information about his unit. He has the muscular body of one of the elite fighters who were reportedly transferred directly to Crimea after the Olympics in Sochi.
Oleg and a dozen of his fellow soldiers are manning their posts to "help Crimea," as he calls it. "We will stay here at least until the referendum," he says. In early February, only 40 percent of Crimeans were in favor of joining Russia, even though ethnic Russians make up the majority on the peninsula. In the current mood, however, the vote is likely to shift much more clearly in Putin's favor.
When asked what will happen to the Ukrainians down below -- the ones he has in his sights -- he says, "If they want to get out of here, then no problem. But they'll have to leave their ships behind."
REPORTED BY NIKOLAUS BLOME, ERICH FOLLATH, MATTHIAS GEBAUER, CHRISTIANE HOFFMANN, UWE KLUSSMANN, WALTER MAYR, CHRISTIAN NEEF, RALF NEUKIRCH, MATTHIAS SCHEPP, FIDELIUS SCHMID, GREGOR PETER SCHMITZ, HOLGER STARK
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Germany: Baltic States Can Count on NATO and EU
by Naharnet Newsdesk
11 March 2014, 11:02
The three ex-Soviet Baltic states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia can count on the security provided by their membership of NATO and the EU, Germany said Tuesday amid East-West tensions over the crisis in Ukraine.
"I am here to say that the Baltic states will not be left alone. This is a joint problem for NATO and the EU," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in Tallinn, Estonia, ahead of talks in neighbouring Latvia and Lithuania.
Russia's moves to absorb Ukraine's Crimean peninsula have rattled nerves in all three Baltic states that joined NATO and the EU to guarantee their security a decade ago after breaking free from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991.
In an official translation from German to English, Steinmeier added: "If there is no change in Russian tactics until the weekend, the EU foreign ministers will decide about further measures at a meeting in Brussels on Monday."
The top German diplomat did not elaborate but France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday that sanctions against Moscow could come as early as this week if Moscow does not respond to Western proposals to solve the crisis in Ukraine.
Fabius said the sanctions would involve "freezing personal assets of Russians or Ukrainians and sanctions on travel, regarding visas."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that the West's proposals on Ukraine "do not suit us very much", adding Moscow would unveil its own solution to the crisis.
Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite warned last week that Russia could also target Moldova, Poland and the Baltic states, and compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
"This is about rewriting of the borders," Grybauskaite told an EU summit focused on the Ukraine crisis, describing Russia as "dangerous" and "unpredictable".
NATO has already ramped up security measures in its ex-communist countries bordering Ukraine and Russia.
The United States last week sent six additional F-15 fighter jets to step up NATO's air patrols over the Baltic states bordering Russia.
NATO also said Monday it will deploy AWACS reconnaissance aircraft to overfly Poland and Romania as part of its efforts to monitor the crisis in neighbouring Ukraine.
Washington is also sending a dozen F-16 fighter jets and 300 service personnel to Poland as part of a training exercise
Erdogan Rival Gulen Urges New Turkey Charter
by Naharnet Newsdesk
11 March 2014, 12:47
The exiled Turkish cleric at the heart of a bitter feud with embattled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for a new constitution and accused the government of holding the country to ransom.
Fethullah Gulen said in a comment piece published in the Financial Times on Tuesday that a new democratic constitution, drafted by civilians, was needed to restore trust at home and abroad.
Erdogan has accused supporters of Gulen -- once a key ally of his ruling party -- in the judiciary and police of launching a corruption probe to undermine his government ahead of local polls on March 30.
The Islamic-leaning government has retaliated by launching a purge of the police and prosecutors and moving to tighten controls over the judiciary and the Internet.
"A small group within the government's executive branch is holding to ransom the entire country's progress. The support of a broad segment of the Turkish public is now being squandered, along with the opportunity to join the EU," Gulen wrote.
Erdogan, who has been in office since 2003, is accused by critics of becoming increasingly authoritarian.
Followers of the Islamic cleric's Hizmet movement are said to number in the millions, owning a variety of businesses, media outlets, cultural centers and a school network both in Turkey and abroad.
In the latest development in the feud, Turkey's parliament earlier this month passed a bill to close down thousands of private Gulenist schools.
Gulen, 73, has lived in the United States since 1999 to escape charges in Turkey of "anti-secular" activities.
The Turkish parliament has hit deadlock in trying to draw up a constitution to replace a military-drafted post-coup charter in 1980.
Pakistan to pay parents in new polio vaccination drive
Parents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to get 1,000 rupees for each child who completes vaccinations after Peshawar declared largest reservoir of endemic polio
Jon Boone in Peshawar
theguardian.com, Monday 10 March 2014 12.45 GMT
Parents in one of Pakistan's most troubled provinces are to be paid to vaccinate their children against polio, the crippling disease the world is tantalisingly close to eradicating.
It is hoped some 2 million children from some of the most disadvantaged areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the north-western province wracked by Taliban violence, will benefit from the scheme.
Parents will be entitled to claim 1,000 rupees (almost £6) for each newborn child who completes a 15-month programme of vaccinations that will protect them against a number of diseases including measles, hepatitis and polio.
It is the first time the country has resorted to monetary incentives, which are rarely used around the world.
Public health officials battling childhood diseases face immense challenges in KP, where militant attacks are a daily routine, poverty is entrenched and many people are deeply suspicious of programmes enthusiastically backed by western powers.
"It has to be a good amount of money to be attractive, even in the very poorest districts of the province," said Janbaz Afridi, deputy director of the province's expanded programme on immunisation. "If it is a success we will extend it to every child in the province."
KP's government, backed by UN agencies, is currently on a war footing against polio in particular because Peshawar, the province's teeming capital, has become a global health problem.
The historic frontier city is one of the last remaining redoubts of polio, the virus that cripples and kills children and which has been eradicated in every country except Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
Cases from around the world, including China and Syria, have been genetically matched to the Peshawar strain.
Last month the World Health Organisation declared the city the "largest reservoir of endemic poliovirus in the world", a problem caused in part by the city's open sewage channels and broken water pipes. Polio is spread through contact with human faeces.
Within the neighbouring tribal areas, Peshawar acts as a central exchange and an "amplifier" for a disease carried in and out of the city by the tens of thousands of people who pass through every day, including a huge population of refugees who fled Afghanistan in the 1980s.
"The problem with Peshawar is that we always have cases there," said Bilal Ahmed, a senior Unicef official in the city. "In other districts the virus comes and goes, but it never leaves Peshawar, which tells us it's the source."
The WHO says more than 90% of cases around the country and in neighbouring Afghanistan are genetically linked to the city.
Of the world's three polio-endemic countries, Pakistan is the only one where the situation is getting worse and cases are increasing.
India, which this year gained its hard-earned status as polio-free, now turns away travellers from Pakistan unless they have a certificate proving they have been vaccinated. Other countries could follow suit.
The latest push in Peshawar is an attempt to give polio vaccine drops to almost every child under the age of five every weekend for three months.
It requires 8,000 health workers to hit the streets with the aim of vaccinating nearly 800,000 children in a single day.
Four thousand police officers will escort them to protect them against the gunmen who have killed scores of polio vaccinators around the country in recent years.
During vaccination sessions, entire neighbourhoods are put into lockdown, with motorbikes banned from the streets.
One threat is from the Taliban, who have used the global campaign to eradicate polio as a chip in their fight against the US.
In 2012 insurgent commanders in the restive tribal areas of North and South Waziristan banned polio teams from their territories in what they said was retaliation for US drone strikes. Some religious clerics argue the drops are part of a foreign plot against the Islamic world to make Muslim children infertile – a perception arguably made worse by international interest in the issue.
It's a major problem for a campaign officials say needs to reach 97% of children to stand a chance of eradicating the disease in the city.
Polio teams carry booklets of "fatwas", or religious decrees, by famous scholars who argue there is nothing wrong with the drops.
The government has also called on high-profile clerics to support the programme.
"In public the mullahs are all on the same page now," said one health official. "Many still don't like it but they don't preach openly against vaccination anymore."
Some vaccinators say that while fewer parents are refusing the drops for their children, many hide them indoors on vaccination days.
Public antipathy is still easy to find. Amir Zaada, a father visiting the city with his three children from a distant part of the province, said the vaccination programme was "just a game".
"There are other fatal diseases, so why is the government only talking about this," he asked, also raising the case of Shakil Afridi, a doctor who ran a hepatitis vaccination campaign in the town of Abbottabad.
The programme's motivation was not public health but an elaborate scheme by the CIA to discover whether Osama bin Laden was hiding in the town. His unmasking confirmed the worst suspicions of those inclined to see vaccinators as a western conspiracy.
Zaada said he had no regrets not vaccinating his children.
He said: "Look at them. They are fine and in good health. Only God keeps them safe and healthy."
Thailand Exposed as Crime Hub over Missing Flight Stolen Passports
by Naharnet Newsdesk
10 March 2014, 17:22
Thailand's role as a hub for criminal networks using false documents is in the spotlight after two unknown passengers on vanished flight MH370 used passports stolen in the kingdom, sparking fears of a terror attack.
Two European names were on the passenger list for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, which disappeared in the early hours of Saturday en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
But neither Christian Kozel, an Austrian, nor Luigi Maraldi from Italy, ever boarded the plane -- instead two mystery passengers used their passports, which had been stolen from the men in separate incidents in Thailand.
The revelation has triggered a terror probe by Malaysian authorities, who are working with other intelligence agencies including the FBI.
"Thailand has been used by some international terrorist groups as a zone of operation, to raise funds or to plan attacks," said Rommel Banlaoi, an analyst on terrorism in South-East Asia.
In 2010, two Pakistanis and a Thai woman were arrested in Thailand on suspicion of making false passports for al-Qaida linked groups, as part of an international operation linked to the 2008 attacks in Mumbai and the Madrid train bombings in 2004.
But Banlaoi stressed that the false passports used on the Malaysia flight "could also be linked to other criminal activities, like illegal immigration."
"Thailand is a destination for international crime organizations who use it to secure travel documents, financial documents," a Thai intelligence source told Agence France Presse.
"It's not just linked to terrorism but to other crimes. It's a complex network, connected to other networks."
The intricate web includes Thais and foreigners, passport thieves, counterfeiters, intermediaries and clients, he said.
Thai police have announced an investigation into a possible passport racket on the resort island of Phuket -- Maraldi's passport was stolen there in 2013 and Kozel's on a flight from Phuket to Bangkok, according to authorities in Vienna.
Flight information seen by AFP shows that two tickets in Kozel and Maraldi's names were issued in Pattaya, a beach resort south of Bangkok, on March 6, 2014, and were paid for in Thai baht.
So far little has emerged about the passengers who used the stolen passports to board the vanished flight, who have been identified by Malaysian airport video surveillance.
At a press conference late Monday, a Malaysian aviation official said authorities had confirmed that two people who boarded the flight with stolen passports were not of Asian appearance, as Malaysia's home minister had earlier said.
"It is confirmed now that they are not Asian looking males... The team of investigators have looked at the video footage (from airport CCTV)," Civil Aviation Department chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said, declining to give any other details on the men's appearance.
He said that security measures had been complied with, adding that there was the possibility of a criminal ring in operation.
"I have hereby to confirm that all security protocols have been complied with. But on another angle there is a possibility of... a stolen passport syndicate," he said.
Geographically well-placed and with a major international airport, Thailand is best known for being a hub for drug and wildlife trafficking, including elephant ivory from Africa.
But it also supplies documents to illegal immigrants moving within or passing through the region.
The route of the two unknown MH370 passengers -- from Kuala Lumpur via Beijing then on to Europe -- was "a typical path," for illegal immigrants one diplomatic source told AFP, adding that a large proportion of passports stolen from tourists in Thailand were then used for illegal immigration.
"They (the passports) are genuine, so they find someone who looks like the owner, or they falsify the first page," the source said.
The ease with which police officials can be paid off also helped the industry to thrive.
"The police can turn a blind eye if you have the money," he added.
Under Thai law, anyone caught selling or "owning in order to sell" an illegal passport can be sent to prison for up to 20 years.
But entering Western countries with a stolen Western passport "is not easy," said Ahmed Salah Hashim, Associate Professor at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
He gives credence to the theory that terrorists may have targeted MH370, particularly since the two stolen passports were under Interpol surveillance.
Thailand does not check passports against Interpol's Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database -- which has more than 40 million entries -- a senior Thai immigration police officer told AFP.
The international police organization has urged countries to screen all passports "for the sake of innocent passengers."
"I sincerely hope that governments and airlines worldwide will learn from the tragedy of missing flight MH 370 and begin to screen all passengers' passports prior to allowing them to board flights," said Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble.
"Doing so will indeed take us a step closer to ensuring safer travel."