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« Reply #495 on: Jan 21, 2015, 06:52 AM »

Of course ... nothing more than a victim ...

West trying to overthrow Putin with ‘illegal sanctions,’ Kremlin official says

Agence France-Presse
21 Jan 2015 at 06:30 ET   

Western countries are trying to use the Ukraine conflict to topple President Vladimir Putin and wreck Russia’s economy, the president’s spokesman said in an interview published on Wednesday.

“In the West they are trying to kick out Putin, to isolate him in international politics, to throttle Russia economically due to their interests, to bring down Putin,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

“If it was not for Crimea, they would think up another reason,” Peskov claimed in an interview with Argumenty i Fakty weekly.

He insisted that Russia’s economic situation was under control despite
“illegal sanctions” over its annexation of Crimea and support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, which along with low oil prices have led to the ruble plunging in value.

“I’ll remind you what Putin said (in December): everything is under control, we know what to do, how to do it, and we have everything we need to do it.”

Peskov said Russia could not resolve the crisis in Ukraine as the West demands.

“Everything that Russia can do to end the conflict, it is already doing,” Peskov said, pointing to humanitarian aid and supplies of coal and electricity.

“But Russia cannot resolve this conflict within Ukraine.”

He said that Kiev needs “to start talking to its own regions.”

“Germany, France, Russia and the OSCE can act as guarantors for a settlement,” Peskov added.

“We hope the Minsk group will continue its work and as a result there will be grounds for a meeting of leaders…, which is planned to be held in Astana. But the meeting will only happen if it can give some concrete results,” he said.

Peskov conceded that despite euphoria over Crimea’s annexation, Russia was in “an anxious state” due to “open confrontation from countries in the West — an ideological, media, political and diplomatic (confrontation) but thank God not a military one.”

“This confrontation makes us all expect a crisis,” Peskov said.

The events in Ukraine “tore off the masks from international diplomacy,” he added.

He cited German Chancellor Angela Merkel as saying in an interview last week that Putin should not expect an invitation to a G7 meeting because the countries within it shared common values.

“By the way, Putin isn’t expecting one,” Peskov added.

“I’m sure the West will never get off our back,” he said, adding that “isolationism would be a mistake.”


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« Reply #496 on: Jan 21, 2015, 07:37 AM »

'Russian Forces' attack Ukraine Troops as Poroshenko Cuts Short Trip to Davos

by Naharnet Newsdesk 21 January 2015, 09:00

Ukraine on Tuesday accused Russian forces of attacking its soldiers after crossing over into the ex-Soviet state's war-wrecked separatist east in violation of a September truce deal.

The charges -- met with initial silence by Moscow -- should add further tensions to difficult talks in Berlin on Wednesday aimed at stemming a spike in fighting that has already killed 4,800 people and driven a million from their homes.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, on a visit to Davos for the World Economic Forum, planned to cut short his trip due to the "worsening situation" in his country's rebel-held east, his spokesman Svyatoslav Tsegolko said.

"In violation of all prior agreements, Ukrainian military units were attacked in the north (of the war zone) by regular units of the Russian armed forces," Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told a hastily convened press conference in Kiev.

The claim came only hours after Moscow called "absolute nonsense" an allegation by Kiev that about 700 new Russian soldiers had crossed over into eastern Ukraine to help the insurgents' latest advance on government troops.

Blasts of incoming and outgoing artillery echoed all night across the rebels' main stronghold of Donetsk -- a once bustling industrial hub now the crucible of one of Europe's worst humanitarian and diplomatic crises since the Cold War.

Rebel city administration member Ivan Prikhodko said two civilians were killed and eight were seriously wounded when a shell hit a bus stop on the northwestern edge of town.

"The bus stop itself and a store nearby have been levelled," Prikhodko told AFP by telephone.

Two top Western diplomats in Kiev said they believed the pro-Russian militias had made significant progress on the ground in recent days.

One of them added on condition of anonymity that the gunmen appear to be trying to undermine European peace efforts in order to win more ground before a final partition agreement is reached.

- New peace push -

The flare-up coincided with the warring sides' attempt to establish a demarcation line between their armies that would define the confines of rebel-controlled lands.

Moscow insists that the separatists have the right to a ruined airport near the rebels' main stronghold that the remnants of a Ukrainian force have been holding on to for months.

Kiev denies ever accepting such terms.

Ukraine has also set in motion a previously approved fourth wave of military call-ups since the start of hostilities in mid-April.

The 50,000 new volunteers and reservists will be mostly deployed in the war zone in stages stretching over three months. Their call-up also reflects Ukraine's increasingly frantic attempts to defend itself against what it views as Russian "aggression".

The blame game between Moscow and Kiev is being watched by European leaders who hope to see a quick end to a nine-month conflict that has plunged East-West relations into crisis and sparked a damaging sanctions war.

The Kremlin said the resumption of what Kiev now says is full-scale war means no peace summit between the neighbours' presidents and the leaders of Germany and France was likely any time soon.

But Germany said that the four countries' foreign ministers would still meet in Berlin on Wednesday to see if they could somehow find a compromise that could stem the violence.

"The chief aim now is to prevent a further deterioration of the military conflict and a renewed political escalation between Kiev and Moscow," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement. "This is worth every effort."

- Deadly airport battle -

The most bitter fighting focused on the international airport that Ukraine spent nearly a billion dollars rebuilding for the Euro 2012 football championship matches staged in Donetsk.

The rebel militias -- armed with heavy artillery guns and Grad systems that fire up to 40 rockets in less than a minute -- have pulverized the once gleaming structure.

They reportedly captured the airport on Monday after a weekend assault.

Ukraine's army claimed to be back in control by Tuesday but also admitted that the rebels had captured eight of its troops.

"There was a battle. There were deadly losses. And eight people were captured," Poroshenko's defense adviser Yuriy Biruykov wrote on Facebook.

Russian state television aired footage of the captured men's interrogation on its evening news shows.

Ukraine's defense ministry also said Tuesday that rebels had blown up the runway at the airport and reinforcements had been sent.

Source: Agence France Presse


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« Reply #497 on: Jan 24, 2015, 07:00 AM »

Report: U.S. Spies Link Litvinenko Killing to Kremlin

by Naharnet Newsdesk 24 January 2015, 09:29

U.S. spies intercepted communications between the chief suspects in the murder case of Russian former spy Alexander Litvinenko, linking his poisoning to the Russian state, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported Saturday.

According to the report, the National Security Agency (NSA) obtained electronic messages sent between London and Moscow shortly after the Kremlin critic was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 while drinking tea at a hotel in the British capital in 2006.

British authorities received the evidence, which is reported to directly implicate the Kremlin, but it is inadmissible in court, the Telegraph said.

However, Litvinenko's widow Marina has applied to the NSA to disclose the intercepts, saying they should be made available to former British judge Robert Owen, who is chairing a nine-week inquiry into the murder that begins in London's High Court on Tuesday, the Telegraph reported.

Litvinenko, 43, an ex-agent in Russia's FSB intelligence agency who turned against his former masters, said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin was involved in his killing after he publicly criticized the leader, himself an ex-Soviet KGB agent.

British police have identified Russian spy-turned-lawmaker Andrei Lugovoi as the chief suspect and have issued an arrest warrant for his fellow former agent Dmitri Kovtun, but Moscow has refused to hand them over. They both deny involvement.

Marina Litvinenko asked for "NSA intercepts of telephone communications of Mr Andrei Lugovoi and Mr Dimitry Kovtun from London, UK, in the period October 15 to November 1, 2006," in a Freedom of Information request issued last year.

Senior NSA official Paul Blaskowski replied that the NSA could not reveal "existence or non-existence" of the information, the British paper reported.

Source: Agence France Presse


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« Reply #498 on: Jan 24, 2015, 07:03 AM »

War Is Exploding Anew in Ukraine; Rebels Vow More

By RICK LYMAN and ANDREW E. KRAMER
JAN. 23, 2015
NYT

DONETSK, Ukraine — Unexpectedly, at the height of the Ukrainian winter, war has exploded anew on a half-dozen battered fronts across eastern Ukraine, accompanied by increasing evidence that Russian troops and Russian equipment have been pouring into the region again.

A shaky cease-fire has all but vanished, with rebel leaders vowing fresh attacks. Civilians are being hit by deadly mortars at bus stops. Tanks are rumbling down snowy roads in rebel-held areas with soldiers in unmarked green uniforms sitting on their turrets, waving at bystanders — a disquieting echo of the “little green men” whose appearance in Crimea opened this stubborn conflict in the spring.

The renewed fighting has dashed any hopes of reinvigorating a cease-fire signed in September and honored more in name than in fact since then. It has also put to rest the notion that Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, would be so staggered by the twin blows of Western sanctions and a collapse in oil prices that he would forsake the separatists in order to foster better relations with the West.

Instead, blaming the upsurge in violence on the Ukrainians and the rise in civilian deaths on “those who issue such criminal orders,” as he did on Friday in Moscow, Mr. Putin is apparently doubling down, rather than backing down, in a conflict that is now the bloodiest in Europe since the Balkan wars.

With the appearance in recent weeks of what NATO calls sophisticated Russian weapons systems, newly emboldened separatist leaders have abandoned all talk of a cease-fire. One of the top leaders of the Russian-backed rebels said Friday that his soldiers were “on the offensive” in several sectors, capitalizing on their capture of the Donetsk airport the day before.

“We will attack” until the Ukrainian Army is driven from the border of the Donetsk region, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic rebel group, said in comments carried by Russian news agencies.

“On our side, we won’t make an effort to talk about a cease-fire,” Mr. Zakharchenko said. “Now we’re going to watch how Kiev reacts. Kiev doesn’t understand that we can attack in three directions at once.”

For long-suffering residents of Donetsk, who have lived with constant shelling, chronic electricity failures and, since September, a cutoff of pensions and other government support payments from Kiev, the resumption of military action came as little surprise.

“It was pure illusion that peace could be achieved now,” said Enrique Menendez, a former advertising agency owner who now runs a humanitarian relief operation in eastern Ukraine. “None of the sides has yet achieved its goals. The only real surprise is that the fighting started in the winter instead of the spring.”

While the separatist forces now seem ascendant, analysts have little doubt that their fortunes are tied to the level of support provided by Moscow. In August, on the verge of defeat, they were rescued by an all-out Russian incursion that turned the tide on the battlefield and drove Kiev to the bargaining table. The same dynamics appear to be at work now, Ukraine and NATO say, with Russian troops in unmarked uniforms apparently joining the separatists in the assaults on Ukrainian positions.

While Moscow denies any role in the fighting, Sergei A. Markov, a political analyst close to the Kremlin, says it is not surprising that Mr. Putin has continued to support the rebellious republics of southeast Ukraine even in the face of economic pressure from the West. In fact, the intensity of the standoff, he said, has undermined the influence of Mr. Putin’s liberal economic advisers in government, rendering their voices almost mute in debates over Ukraine.

Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, echoed that point. “The influence of economists as a whole has completely vanished,” Mr. Sonin said of the Kremlin. “The country is on a holy mission. It’s at war with the United States, so why would you bother about the small battleground, the economy?”

Mr. Putin is said to watch his approval ratings closely, and they have risen to great heights recently with the annexation of Crimea and the tensions with the West over eastern Ukraine. In this respect, said Igor Shuvalov, a first deputy prime minister of Russia, continued fighting in Ukraine may actually help to solidify Mr. Putin politically at a time of deteriorating economic conditions.

“When a Russian feels any foreign pressure, he will never give up his leader,” Mr. Shuvalov said Friday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “We will survive any hardship in the country, eat less food, use less electricity.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Markov said, the stresses of juggling a war and the deepening economic crisis in Russia have left Mr. Putin noticeably preoccupied.

“We have much less time than before,” he said of a recent meeting between experts and Mr. Putin in which he participated. “It was clear to me that the thoughts of Mr. Putin were somewhere else, but not in our room.”

The slow grind of combat in southeastern Ukraine that began in April has now killed at least 5,086 soldiers and civilians, the United Nations reported on Friday. The world body bases its estimate on official morgue and hospital reports, and analysts believe that it understates the total death toll. The report said that 262 of the deaths occurred in the past nine days, making that period the deadliest since the September cease-fire.

Signs of the new belligerence were evident across eastern Ukraine on Friday.

Indeed, fighting has also flared beyond Donetsk, including a road and rail hub northeast of the city, as well as a strategic checkpoint near Luhansk, the other main rebel stronghold. Rebel commanders claimed on Friday to have captured the village of Krasny Partizan, north of Donetsk, which would be another setback for government forces.

In another worrisome sign, the rebels were not the only ones taking a more aggressive tone.

Speaking to security officials in Kiev after the loss of Donetsk airport, President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine expressed frustration with the broken peace process.

“If the enemy does not want to abide by the cease-fire, if the enemy doesn’t want to stop the suffering of innocent people in Ukrainian villages and towns, we will give it to them in the teeth,” he said.

Any major offensive by either side would clearly be a repudiation of the cease-fire signed on Sept. 5 and endorsed by the group’s main sponsor, Russia. That agreement, always shaky, began to break down several weeks ago. It had set the de facto borders of the rebel republic to encompass about one-third of the Donetsk region of Ukraine.

Mr. Zakharchenko has threatened to expand his territory before, but his warnings have not typically prompted much alarm. Now, with the war raging and his troops on the march, more attention is being paid.

As recently as a few weeks ago, peace seemed to be slowly seeping into the blood-soaked fields of eastern Ukraine. Russia seemed occupied with the drop in oil prices and the ruble’s collapse. The shaky cease-fire was holding. Language on both sides was noticeably more conciliatory.

That all seems a long time ago now on the war-rattled streets of Donetsk, where a main hospital was hit by a shell this week.

If one were to ask the remaining residents of Donetsk, even those who have been loyal to the Kiev government, whether they supported this new rebel advance, they would say yes, Mr. Menendez said — and not necessarily for political reasons.

“They just want to push the front lines out of the city,” he said, “to stop the shelling on them.”

**********

EU Tells Moscow to 'Assume its Responsibility' in Ukraine War

by Naharnet Newsdesk 24 January 2015, 09:25

The European Union called Friday on Moscow to "assume its responsibility" in ending the separatist war in Ukraine.

"Time is running out in eastern Ukraine where the escalation of fighting has caused far too many civilian as well as military casualties," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.

Mogherini said the deaths of eight civilians in the shelling of a bus in rebel-held Donetsk illustrated the urgency of halting the violence.

Hours before her statement, the pro-Russian separatists announced they would follow up their capture of Donetsk's ruined international airport from Ukrainian government forces with a wider offensive to win more territory.

"Those responsible for the recent escalation must now show that they are serious about their commitment to a political settlement," Mogherini said, calling for withdrawal of heavy weapons from the frontlines.

"We call notably on Russia to fully assume its responsibility. Public statements distorting the reality on the ground, inciting to hatred and further violence will not lead to the badly needed de-escalation," she said.

Russia denies arming or fighting alongside the rebels in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian and Western governments say Moscow backs the rebels with direct military aid, an accusation supported by multiple sightings of sophisticated Russian-issue military hardware, usually unmarked.

Mogherini called for implementation of the September Minsk accord that ordered withdrawal of heavy weapons and a truce. She also lashed out at the parading of wounded Ukrainian prisoners in Donetsk as a violation of humanitarian law.

She did not, however, mention the future of current EU sanctions imposed against Russia over its policies in eastern Ukraine and earlier annexation of the country's Crimea province.

Source: Agence France Presse


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« Reply #499 on: Jan 25, 2015, 09:02 AM »

Missile attacks kill at least 30 in Mariupol, east Ukraine

Pro-Russian rebels announce major new offensive in Ukraine, after attacks on crowded residential district

Chris Johnston and agencies
theguardian.com, Saturday 24 January 2015 11.12 GMT   

Shelling killed at least 30 people and wounded over 97 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol

Pro-Russian rebels announced a major new offensive in Ukraine on Saturday after missiles killed at least 30 people in Mariupol, a strategic city linking rebel territory with Russian-occupied Crimea.

The local mayor’s office said 97 people were also wounded in the attack, which struck a crowded residential district early in the morning and then again shortly after midday.

Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko said on Friday that he had withdrawn from all peace talks with pro-western leaders in Kiev. On Saturday he said his forces had launched “an offensive against Mariupol” but did not accept direct responsibility for the earlier rocket attack.

The European Union condemned the attacks and warned that the escalation in fighting would harm EU-Russia relations.

The offensive “would inevitably lead to a further grave deterioration of relations between the EU and Russia”, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said.

Ertuğrul Apakan, chief of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission, called for an immediate ceasefire. “Ukraine and its people need and deserve peace. The parties must return to the negotiating table without further delay,” he said.

Mariupol municipal spokesman Oleg Kalinin called on Russia to intervene to end the violence.

Oleksandr Turchynov, secretary of Ukraine’s national defence council, described the incident as “another bloody crime against humanity committed by the Russian military and the bands of terrorists under their complete control”.

A strategic highway that links rebel-held regions to the east and the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea that Russia annexed from Ukraine in March runs through Mariupol, which is home to about 500,000 people.

A massive rebel assault on the city in August was held back by government forces, but took a heavy toll and prompted Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko to agree to a truce in September.

However, more clashes followed costing the lives of at least 1,500 people.

Rebel forces have regained control over the remains of Donetsk airport, which has been controlled by the Ukrainians since the start of the conflict. The rebels appeared to be moving in on the town of Debaltseve, where Ukrainian troops are under siege.

One Mariupol resident said: “Everyone in the city is very scared. The rebels have already seized the airport. And now they are starting to destroy Mariupol itself.”

Poroshenko said this week there were 9,000 regular Russian troops in Ukraine. Russia has denied that there were any, and denied even supplying weapons to the rebels, despite the obvious evidence of such transfers on the ground.

The military rhetoric on both sides has intensified in recent days, with the Ukrainian leader saying on Twitter that if the rebels failed to abide by the ceasefire, Kiev’s supporters would “give it to them in the teeth”.

The UN human rights office said the conflict in eastern Ukraine has now left 5,000 people dead, including 262 in the past nine days.

***********

Obama Ramps Up Pressure on Russia after Deadly Ukraine Blitz

by Naharnet Newsdesk 25 January 2015, 14:20

U.S. President Barack Obama vowed on Sunday to ramp up pressure on Russia after rocket attacks blamed on Kremlin-backed Ukrainian rebels killed 30 and injured 95 more.

Saturday's surprise assault on the strategic eastern Ukrainian port of Mariupol threatened to open a new front linking separatist territory near the Russian border with the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea that Moscow annexed in March.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told an emergency security meeting that Kiev had intercepted calls confirming Saturday's barrage was carried out by separatist "terrorists who receive support in Russia."

And Obama said he would now look at all options -- short of military intervention -- aimed at restraining Russian President Vladimir Putin's alleged proxy war aimed at stripping Ukraine's pro-Western leaders of their vital eastern industrial base.

He pledged to "ratchet up the pressure on Russia" in cooperation with the European Union, which had been thinking of easing existing sanctions on Russia in the coming months.

"If Mr Putin and if Russia are hell-bent on engaging in military conflicts, their military is more powerful than Ukraine's," Obama said during a visit to India.

"The question is going to be whether they continue to pursue a path that not only is bad for the people of Ukraine, but is... bad for the people of Russia."

New European Council President Donald Tusk -- a former Polish prime minister who had long been suspicious of Putin -- also warned that the Mariupol attack showed that "appeasement encourages the aggressor to greater acts of violence.

"Time to step up our policy based on cold facts, not illusions," Tusk tweeted.

- 'No alternative to truce' -

The Kremlin flatly denies arming and funding the rebels, who have renounced all truce talks.

It had remained conspicuously silent about Saturday's offensive and Russian state media played repeated footage of a low-ranking militant claiming that the assault was ordered by the Kiev government.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Sunday that the latest upsurge in violence was the result of "constant shelling" by Kiev's troops.

"Lavrov pointed out that an escalation of the situation is a result of Ukrainian troops crudely violating the Minsk agreements by constantly shelling residential settlements," the foreign ministry said after Russia's top diplomat spoke to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry by phone.

Poroshenko told his top generals that he had asked the European Union to ramp up sanctions on Russia at a special session of foreign ministers on Monday.

The Western-backed leader -- looking tired after cutting short his attendance at the burial of the late Saudi king -- also insisted that the attack would not provoke Kiev into ordering a tough military response.

"Ukraine remains a firm proponent of a peaceful solution," he told a televised meeting of his National Security and Defense Council.

Regional police said 95 people were also wounded by dozens of long-distance rockets that smashed into a packed residential district and a market in Mariupol on Saturday.

"It is really dangerous here now," Mariupol resident Yulia Simina told Agence France-Presse.

The 27-year-old said she had moved to the city to avoid the daily bloodshed in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk that lies to the north.

But she lost her car in the shelling and just avoided being hit by shrapnel herself.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic's leader Alexander Zakharchenko claimed Saturday that "today we launched an offensive against Mariupol".

He later distanced himself from the rocket fire and denied ordering an actual invasion of the industrial port of half a million people.

But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the Grad and Uragan rocket fire came from two locations "controlled by the 'Donetsk People's Republic'".

- Link to Crimea -

Mariupol remained calm on Sunday as international monitors patrolled its muddied streets.

The Sea of Azov port of nearly half a million people provides a land bridge between guerrilla-held regions in the east and the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

It is also home to two of Ukraine's largest smelters and most of the southeast's vital coal and steel exports go through its docks.

A rebel assault on the port in early September saw Kiev repel the attack at such heavy cost that it prompted Poroshenko to pursue peace and offer the rebels three years of limited self-rule.

But the ceasefire was followed by further clashes that killed at least 1,500 people, and combat resumed in full in mid-January after a three-week lull.

Western diplomats linked the rebel advance to a new infusion of Russian troops -- denied by the Kremlin -- designed to expand separatist territory before the signing of a final truce and land demarcation agreement.

Ukraine claimed Monday that Moscow had poured nearly 1,000 more Russian soldiers and dozens of tanks into the southeast to secure control over factories and coal mines that could help the rebels build their own state.

"Taking Mariupol is a first step to a broader offensive. It is also an end in itself, anchoring the southern flank in the city," the U.S.-based Stratfor global intelligence company warned in a "red alert" issued to clients.

************

Pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk keep on the attack as war of words intensifies

Vladimir Putin blames ‘criminals’ from Ukrainian government for increased violence in east of the country

Shaun Walker in Donetsk
The Guardian, Friday 23 January 2015 16.24 GMT   

Pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk have said they plan to stay on the attack against Kiev’s forces, as the Russian president Vladimir Putin blamed “criminal orders” from the Ukrainian government for increased violence in the east of the country.

“There will be no more ceasefires,” said rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko at a meeting with students, a day after an attack on a trolleybus in Donetsk left up to 13 dead. Zakharchenko said Ukraine was currently mobilising recruits and had been planning a new assault.

“We took the decision not to wait for the Ukrainian army to attack. We will attack them until we have reached the borders of the former Donetsk region,” said Zakharchenko, indicating an area that includes a number of towns currently under Ukrainian control, including the port city of Mariupol.

The UN human rights office says the conflict in eastern Ukraine has now left 5,000 people dead, including 262 in the past nine days alone.

A ceasefire was agreed at talks in Minsk in September but has never really held. The Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers met on Wednesday evening in Berlin and again affirmed the document, calling on heavy artillery to be withdrawn from the front lines, but the situation on the ground has only got worse.

Already this week the rebels have regained control over the remains of Donetsk airport, which has been controlled by the Ukrainians since the start of the conflict, and appear to be moving in on the town of Debaltseve, where Ukrainian troops are under siege.

In televised comments, Putin blamed the renewed violence on Ukrainian forces: “The Kiev authorities have given an official order to start large-scale military operations practically throughout the whole line of contact. The result is dozens of killed and wounded, not only among the military on both sides but... among civilians,” Putin told senior state officials.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Igor Shuvalov, said: “The west does not treat Russia as an equal partner, and this will make the conflict in Ukraine a bleeding wound for decades.” He blamed the west also for sanctions against Russia, which have combined with falling oil prices to deal a hefty blow to the rouble in recent months. German’s chancellor Angela Merkel said this week that the sanctions should not be lifted yet.

The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, said this week there were 9,000 regular Russian troops in Ukraine. Russia has denied that there are any, and denies even supplying military hardware to the rebels, despite the obvious evidence of such transfers on the ground.

The military rhetoric on both sides has intensified in recent days, with Poroshenko taking to Twitter on Thursday evening to say that if the rebels did not abide by the ceasefire, Kiev’s supporters would “give it to them in the teeth”.

Much remains unclear about the bus attack in Donetsk on Thursday. Rather like an attack on a Ukrainian checkpoint this month that also left 13 dead, both sides have blamed the other. In the earlier incident, international monitors said it appeared that the bus had been hit by missiles fired by rebels.

This time, Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said the attack had been carried out by “Russian terrorists”, while rebels said a Ukrainian “diversionary group” operating behind rebel lines was responsible for carrying out the attack. However, no further information about the group, which rebels said they had detained, has been forthcoming.

************

Kerry denounces pro-Russia rebels' missile attacks in Ukraine

Reuters in Zurich
theguardian.com, Saturday 24 January 2015 21.05 GMT 

John Kerry, US secretary of state, said on Saturday he joined his European counterparts in condemning an assault by pro-Russia rebels on Mariupol, Ukraine, and called on Russia to end its support for the rebels.

At least 30 people died in Mariupol, a strategic city linking rebel territory with Russian-occupied Crimea, on Saturday. The local mayor’s office said 97 people were also wounded when missiles struck a crowded residential district early in the morning and then again shortly after midday.

“It is reprehensible that the separatists are publicly glorifying this and other offensives in blatant violation of the Minsk agreements they signed,” Kerry said in a statement issued while on a visit to Zurich.

Kerry said the separatists’ assault has been aided by Russia’s “irresponsible and dangerous decision to resupply them in recent weeks with hundreds of new pieces of advanced weaponry, including rocket systems, heavy artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, in addition to continuing operational command and control”.

“We call on Russia to end its support for separatists immediately, close the international border with Ukraine, and withdraw all weapons, fighters and financial backing. Otherwise, US and international pressure on Russia and its proxies will only increase,” Kerry added.

***********

EU Mulls Emergency Meeting over Russia-Ukraine Conflict

by Naharnet Newsdesk 24 January 2015, 17:39

The European Union is considering an emergency meeting to discuss the Russia-Ukraine conflict after rocket attacks killed at least 30 people in Ukraine's strategic Maruipol port on Saturday.

Latvia, which holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency until July, called for an emergency meeting of the EU foreign affairs council next week.

"I call for extraordinary EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting next week, fully support action by HR @FedericaMog addressing situation in UA," Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics said Saturday via Twitter.

In a separate statement the Latvian Foreign Ministry said it was increasingly evident that Russia "is not interested in a peaceful resolution of the conflict" in Ukraine in light of events in Mariupol.

"Those responsible for the aggression should be aware that the international community will undoubtedly and sharply react to further escalation," the statement said.

Earlier the EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini denounced the rocket attacks saying in a statement that the escalation would cause a further deterioration in relations between the EU and Russia.

On Saturday Alexandre Zakhartchenko, leader of the self-declared Donetsk republic, announced the launch of an offensive on Kiev-controled Maruipol.

That assault has already caused at least 30 deaths and injured 90 people, according to provisional counts AFP obtained from Mariupol municipal spokesman Oleg Kalinin.

Mogherini called directly on Russia to intercede and halt the carnage.

"I call ... openly upon Russia to use its considerable influence over separatist leaders and to stop any form of military, political or financial support," her statement said.

"This would prevent disastrous consequences for all. Those responsible for the escalation must stop their hostile actions and live up to their commitments."

Although the EU may adopt new sanctions against Russia in the event of continued escalation, thus far there has been no official debate on additional action beyond measures already approved and applied against Moscow after.

Source: Agence France Presse


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« Reply #500 on: Jan 26, 2015, 01:30 PM »

Russian Authorities Raid Crimean Tatar TV Channel

by Naharnet Newsdesk 26 January 2015, 17:31

Masked Russian riot police on Monday raided the office of a television channel for Crimean Tatars, a pro-Ukrainian minority group that opposed Moscow's seizure of the peninsula.

Dozens of armed masked men searched the headquarters of the ATR channel in the regional center Simferopol, seizing servers and other equipment, the broadcaster said.

"This is the first such raid," deputy general director of the channel, Lilya Budzhurova, told AFP. "They are practically in every room now."

Budzhurova is also a stringer for Agence France-Presse.

The region's Investigative Committee said the raid was to probe the deaths of two Russian nationalist activists who were beaten at a pro-Ukraine rally in February last year outside the local legislative assembly.

That rally came a day before armed men seized the assembly and raised the Russian flag during Moscow's takeover of Crimea.

The Crimean Tatars are a Muslim people native to the Black Sea peninsula. Up to half the population was wiped out when they were deported en masse by Stalin in 1944, and they were only able to return in the 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Most of the 300,000-strong group oppose Russian rule and boycotted a disputed referendum last March in which voters, most of them from the Russian-speaking majority, chose to split from Ukraine.

The new Russian authorities have detained Tatar activists, evicted them from their assembly and accused ATR, which broadcasts in Russian, Tatar and Ukrainian, of extremism.

The leader of the Crimean Tatar minority's assembly, the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov, claimed the rally was merely being used as an excuse to muzzle the channel.

"Occupation authorities cannot put up with the fact that journalists for whom honor and dignity trump fear are still working on the peninsula," he said on Facebook.

The raid came just days after a former separatist commander in eastern Ukraine said Crimea's local authorities were loyal to Kiev during Moscow's seizure of the peninsula and lawmakers had to be "corralled" into parliament for a vote.

The claims from former separatist defense minister Igor Strelkov contradict an official Kremlin narrative that Russia did not put any pressure on Crimean authorities and that they sided with Moscow of their own free will.

Source: Agence France Presse


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« Reply #501 on: Jan 27, 2015, 07:40 AM »

Alexander Litvinenko murder inquiry opens in high court

Public inquiry led by Sir Robert Owen expected to find Russia responsible for polonium poisoning of MI6 informant in London

Luke Harding   
The Guardian, Tuesday 27 January 2015   

A public inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko opens in the high court on Tuesday, eight years after the former Russian intelligence officer and MI6 informant was murdered in London with deadly polonium.

Hearings will take place in court 73 over the next 10 weeks, and there is worldwide interest in the case. The inquiry’s chairman, Sir Robert Owen, is expected to indicate where responsibility for Livinenko’s death lies. Owen has stated there is a “prima facie” case against the Russian state and its operatives.

Litvinenko was poisoned on 1 November 2006, after meeting two Russian contacts, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, in the Millennium hotel in London. The pair allegedly slipped radioactive polonium-210 into Litvinenko’s green tea. Litvinenko died in a London hospital 22 days later, after blaming Vladimir Putin for his Cold War-style assassination.

The Crown Prosecution Service has charged Lugovoi and Kovtun with Litvinenko’s murder. Putin, however, has refused to allow them to be extradited from Moscow. In 2007 Britain expelled four Russian diplomats in protest, with Russia following suit. Neither of the two suspects will take part in the inquiry. They say they are innocent.

Litvinenko’s widow Marina and son Anatoly – aged 12 at the time of his father’s death and now 20 – are expected to attend. The inquiry will hear for the first time from the Metropolitan police, whose officers interviewed Litvinenko in the intensive care ward of University College hospital, London, shortly before his death.

The Met is also likely to make public compelling forensic evidence showing a trail of polonium left by Lugovoi and Kovtun in their hotel, and in numerous other locations around London. Detective inspector Craig Mascall will give evidence on Wednesday, followed by two forensic pathologists, Dr Nathaniel Carey and Dr Benjamin Swift.

Some of the witnesses will give evidence anonymously in a closed court – including one expert identified only as “scientist A1”. Owen, a former judge, will not examine Litvinenko’s clandestine role with British intelligence. At the time of his death, Litvinenko was on MI6’s payroll and was also working as an informer for the Spanish security services.

Hundreds of journalists are expected to following the inquiry, with proceedings broadcast to an overflow room, with a five-minute delay for security reasons. Owen has forbidden tweeting in the main court. In 2013 an inquest into Litvinenko’s death effectively collapsed after the government refused to release secret files that apparently incriminated the Kremlin.

Marina Litvinenko appealed and the home secretary Theresa May agreed to an inquiry last summer, days after the shooting down of a civilian airliner, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, over eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian rebels. May had previously ruled out an inquiry on the grounds it might damage the UK’s relations with Moscow.

*************

Alexander Litvinenko told Met police Putin ordered his murder, inquiry told

Public inquiry into his death told that Russian dissident said he had no doubt whatsoever it was done by the Russian secret service

Esther Addley   
he Guardian, Tuesday 27 January 2015 10.45 GMT   

Alexander Litvinenko accused Vladimir Putin of personally ordering his murder in deathbed interviews with the Metropolitan police in the days before he died, the public inquiry into his killing has heard.

On the opening day of the inquiry into the Russian’s murder in 2006, the court was told that the dead man spoke to officers from his hospital bed, after being poisoned by radioactive polonium, in which he said he had “no doubt whatsoever that this was done by the Russian secret service”.

“Having knowledge of this system I know that this order about such a killing of a citizen of another country on its territory, especially if it is something to do with Great Britain, could have been given only by one person,” Litvinenko had told the investigating officer, Robin Tam QC, counsel to the inquiry, told the court on Tuesday.

Asked who that person was, said Tam, Litvinenko said: “That person is the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin. And of course, now while he is still president you won’t be able, because he is the president of a huge country crammed with nuclear chemical and bacteriological weapons.

“But I have no doubt whatsoever that as soon as the power changes in Russia, or when the first officer of the Russian secret services defects to the west … he will say that I have been poisoned by the Russian special services on Putin’s order.”

In another statement, Tam told the court, Litvinenko said he was “very upset that this criminal Putin sits at G8 as its chairman, at the same table as the [then] British prime minister, Tony Blair. Having sat this murderer next to themselves at the same table, western leaders have actually untied his hands to kill anyone, anywhere.”

Litvinenko died on 23 November 2006, 22 days after ingesting a fatal dose of the radioactive element polonium-210. “It is unusual,” Tam told the inquiry chair, Sir Robert Owen, “for a victim of murder, as Mr Litvinenko believed he might shortly be, to make a public statement about his own death.”

Litvinenko fled Russia in 2000 and was given political asylum in the UK; he became a British citizen a month before his death but remained a vocal critic of the Putin regime.

Reading from transcripts of his police interviews, Tam said the dead man told police: “Yes, they did try to kill me and possibly I will die. But I will die as a free person and my son and wife are free people.”

The court heard that Litvinenko told police he took his son Anatoly, then 12, to the Tower of London before he died, showed the boy the crown jewels and urged him to “defend this country in future until the last drop of your blood”.

The killing of Litvinenko gives rise to issues of the “utmost gravity” which have attracted “worldwide interest and concern”, Owen had earlier said. Opening the inquiry on Tuesday, more than eight years after the Russian dissident was murdered in London, he vowed to carry out “a full and independent inquiry into the circumstances of the death of Alexander Litvinenko”.

Owen has told previous hearings that he has seen evidence which amounts to a “prima facie case” that Litvinenko was murdered by the Russian state.

He would consider evidence relating to this allegation, he said, but confirmed that it would be heard in closed session because of security sensitivities.

The Crown Prosecution Service has sought to prosecute two Russian men, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, over Litvinenko’s murder, but Russia has refused their extradition. Litvinenko met with both men on the day of his poisoning in a London hotel. Both men deny involvement.

Owen said the two men would be invited to give evidence to the inquiry by video link.

The government originally refused Owen’s request for a public inquiry into the murder, admitting the decision was taken in part for fear of offending Russia. The dead man’s widow Marina Litvinenko challenged the decision in court and in February last year the high court ruled that Theresa May, the home secretary, should reconsider her decision.

The government announced in July that it would grant a public inquiry, under Owen, days after Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

The inquiry will hear evidence that Litvinenko had been ordered, as a senior officer in the FSB, to murder the Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky in 1997, Tam told the court on Tuesday. Litvinenko had disagreed with the order and warned Berezovsky of the plot, before protesting to the then head of the FSB, Vladimir Putin, in a meeting the following year, he said.

Litvinenko had spoken out publicly about corruption in the FSB in a press conference in 1998, after which he was subject to a number of attempted prosecutions.

Addressing Owen, Tam said: “You will need to consider whether Litvinenko’s sustained public attacks on the regime, on the FSB and on Mr Putin in particular, could have had any connection with his death.”

The inquiry is likely to hear evidence that the dead man was working for MI6 and for the Spanish security services at the time of his death, Tam told the court, though he said the British government had made clear that it would neither confirm nor deny the suggestion.

He said the chairman would need to consider whether this could have provided a motive for the killing, and would also be required to examine allegations that Berezovsky, a close friend and patron of Litvinenko in the years before his death, was behind the murder, as some have alleged.

Tam told the court that Litvinenko’s home had been firebombed in 2004, apparently by two Chechen men.

In addition, he said, the dead man’s friend, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered in October 2006, after which Litvinenko had made a statement at the Frontline Club in London in which he blamed Putin.

“Is it possible that there is any connection between this public statement and Mr Litvinenko’s poisoning less than two weeks later?”


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« Reply #502 on: Jan 27, 2015, 07:45 AM »


Russia downgraded to junk status for first time in decade

S&P says downgrade caused by reduced flexibility to cut interest rates and weakening of financial system as oil price drops

Jill Treanor   
The Guardian, Monday 26 January 2015 23.14 GMT   
   
Russia’s credit rating has been downgraded to junk status for the first time in a decade due to the collapsing oil price, the tumbling value of the rouble and sanctions imposed because of its intervention in Ukraine.

Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s said the downgrade was caused by the country’s reduced flexibility to cut interest rates and a weakening of the financial system.

The ratings agency said the Central Bank of Russia “faces increasingly difficult monetary policy decisions while also trying to support sustainable GDP growth”. It added: “These challenges result from the inflationary effects of exchange rate depreciation and sanctions from the west as well as counter-sanctions imposed by Russia.”

Attempts to shore up the value of the rouble have had only a temporary effect, Standard & Poor’s said, noting that the 750 basis point rise in interest rates last month to take interest rates up to 17% had only a limited impact on the rouble-dollar exchange rate.

“The rouble briefly appreciated against the dollar but has since continued to depreciate, reaching about 66 roubles to the dollar, compared to about 35 a year ago,” S&P said. The move pushed the rouble lower against the US currency on Monday , at 67 per dollar.

The ratings agency warned it had put the new rating on a negative outlook because of fears that the central bank’s ability to move interest rates could become limited, especially if the country imposed exchange controls.

“We could lower the ratings if external and fiscal buffers deteriorate over the next 12 months faster than we currently expect,” the agency said.

But it added: “We could revise the outlook to stable if Russia’s financial stability and economic growth prospects were to improve”.

The agency warned on 23 December that it was considering a downgrade because of concerns about the weakening the economy.

Rival agencies have not pushed Russia’s rating into junk territory although there are expectations that they will echo the S&P decision. The lower the debt rating the more expensive it is to borrow and makes its impossible for some investors to hold the debt at all.

The move comes after data showed the Russian economy contracted for the first time in five years in November, after warnings by economists that the country faced outright recession if oil prices kept falling.

The country is one of the world’s biggest energy exporters and the reduction in the oil price by more than half in the past six months to below $50 a barrel is reverberating through the economy. The central bank has warned that GDP could shrink by as much as 4.8% this year if oil prices fail to recover.

The banking system is already being bailed out and economists at the Capital Economics thinktank have calculated that further support may be need for the financial sector.

“Bank recapitalisations of between 1.2tn roubles (2% of GDP) and 2.5tn roubles (5% of GDP) might be needed to bring the banking sector’s capital adequacy ratio back to the regulatory minimum of 10%,” said William Jackson, the thinktank’s senior emerging markets economist. He said the rouble crisis appeared to have triggered deposit flight, which may have forced banks to sell assets at depressed prices while the forecasts for a fall in GDP could also cause a rise in bad debts.

“At this stage, it’s hard to tell quite how hard the hit to banks has been, but they’re clearly suffering,” said Jackson, adding that there could also be a credit crunch.

According to the analysis by S&P, inflation could rise above 15% this year and the banks will suffer an increase in bad debts on their balance sheets.


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« Reply #503 on: Jan 27, 2015, 07:55 AM »

Fresh Clashes in East Ukraine Kill 9 Soldiers in 24 Hours

by Naharnet Newsdesk 27 January 2015, 10:20

Fighting in east Ukraine over the last 24 hours has killed at least nine soldiers and wounded 29, the military said Tuesday, as rebels fought to secure more territory in the war zone.

The focus of the fighting remained the area around the city of Debaltseve, located halfway between the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk and where the pro-Russian separatists have launched attacks.

Ukraine's military said the rebels had fired 120 times at its positions over the past day.

"Nine soldiers were killed and 29 injured in the (war zone) during the last 24 hours," military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov said.

Clashes have intensified as a September truce has unravelled, with the main rebel leader in the Donetsk region last week announcing he would no longer take part in peace talks and planned to seize more territory.

International concern has mounted over the conflict and Russia has faced pressure to rein in the separatists it is accused of arming and backing with troops. Moscow firmly denies the accusations.

A rocket attack on a residential area in the strategic port city of Mariupol that killed 30 people at the weekend has drawn particular worry.

Rebels distanced themselves from the attack in Mariupol, the last major city in the country's two separatist provinces still controlled by Kiev and located away from the immediate front line.

However, a senior U.N. official told an emergency Security Council meeting on Monday that the deadly rocket barrage came from rebel-controlled territory and deliberately targeted civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law.

"Mariupol lies outside of the immediate conflict zone. The conclusion can thus be drawn that the entity which fired these rockets knowingly targeted a civilian population," U.N. Under Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman said.

"We must all send an unequivocal message: The perpetrators must be held accountable and brought to justice."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has remained defiant in the face of calls to rein in the rebels he is accused of backing.

On a visit to Saint Petersburg on Monday, he branded the Ukrainian army NATO's "foreign legion" whose objective was to contain Russia.

He also claimed Ukrainian men wanted to flee to Russia because they did not want to become "cannon fodder" in an army that he described as mostly "volunteer nationalist battalions".

NATO head Jens Stoltenberg later dismissed the comments as "nonsense".

Russia, whose economy is slowing because of a plunge in the price of its oil exports and pressure put on companies by Western sanctions over Ukraine, was stripped of its investment-grade credit rating by Standard and Poor's on Monday.

Source: Agence France Presse

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U.N. Says Ukraine Attack 'Targeted Civilians' as Putin Defiant

by Naharnet Newsdesk 27 January 2015, 07:14

The U.N. said Monday that a rocket attack that killed 30 people in a city in eastern Ukraine deliberately targeted civilians, as Russian President Vladimir Putin spurned Western calls to rein in a pro-Moscow insurgency.

A senior U.N. official told an emergency Security Council meeting that the deadly rocket barrage on the port city of Mariupol came from pro-Russian rebel-controlled territory and sought to strike a civilian population, in violation of international humanitarian law.

Putin earlier ridiculed the Ukrainian army as NATO's "foreign legion" after the Western alliance's NATO-Ukraine Commission met to discuss a surge in fighting that has led to a spate of civilian deaths and put pressure on Ukraine's troubled military.

Another 12 people were reported killed Monday, including seven Ukrainian soldiers, as Kiev accused the pro-Russian rebels of firing more than 100 times over the past day on both military positions and civilian areas.

Fighting was said to be particularly intense near the government-held city of Debaltseve, halfway between the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk, where the military said separatists were attacking with tanks and multiple rocket launchers.

Western governments and Kiev accuse Moscow of arming, training and fighting alongside the rebels. Russia denies any direct involvement, although repeated sightings of large numbers of sophisticated heavy weapons being used against Ukrainian forces has stretched the credibility of those denials.

U.N. Under Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman told the emergency Security Council meeting late Monday that a crater analysis by European monitors showed that the deadly rocket barrage was fired from territory controlled by pro-Moscow rebels.

"Mariupol lies outside of the immediate conflict zone. The conclusion can thus be drawn that the entity which fired these rockets knowingly targeted a civilian population," said Feltman.

"We must all send an unequivocal message: The perpetrators must be held accountable and brought to justice," he said.

- 'Cannon fodder' -

Putin, on a visit to Saint Petersburg, claimed Ukrainian men wanted to flee to Russia because they did not want to become "cannon fodder" in an army that he described as mostly "volunteer nationalist battalions".

"In essence, this is not an army, this is a foreign legion -- in this particular case NATO's foreign legion, which of course does not pursue the objective of serving Ukraine's national interests," Putin said.

He said the aim was "Russia's containment" and that the Ukrainian government was not interested in a peaceful settlement.

NATO head Jens Stoltenberg later dismissed the comments as "nonsense".

"The foreign forces in Ukraine are Russian," Stoltenberg told a press conference at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels. "So I think that is in a way the problem, that there are Russian forces in Ukraine and that Russia backs the separatists with equipment. And we have seen a substantial increase in the flow of equipment from Russia to the separatists in Ukraine."

The unravelling of a September truce deal has picked up pace in the past few days, with the main rebel leader in the Donetsk region last week announcing he would no longer take part in peace talks and planned to seize more territory.

Rebels distanced themselves from Saturday's rocket attack on a residential area of Mariupol, the last major city in the country's two separatist provinces still controlled by Kiev.

However, monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said the rockets were fired from the direction of separatist-held areas.

The leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, initially claimed Saturday to have launched an offensive aimed at taking Mariupol, but as the extent of the bloodshed became apparent he denied ordering an assault on the industrial port on the Sea of Azov. Mariupol remained calm on Monday.

- More sanctions? -

The 15-member U.N. Security council was meeting after Russia at the weekend blocked a statement condemning the violence in Mariupol and citing Zakharchenko's announcement of the offensive.

Russia is already under heavy Western sanctions over its alleged actions in Ukraine and the recent violence has led to threats of new measures against Moscow.

US President Barack Obama vowed to ramp up pressure on the Kremlin after Saturday's slaughter in Mariupol. Analysts say that if rebel forces did capture the city, they would then be close to creating a land corridor linking Russia to the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, another Ukrainian province that Moscow annexed last March.

Obama said he would look at all options -- short of military intervention -- to restrain Putin's alleged campaign to cripple Ukraine's pro-Western leadership by stripping away their country's vital eastern industrial base.

In a call to Putin, French President Francois Hollande declared he was "very concerned" by the rise in violence and stressed the necessity for an immediate end to the aggression, a position shared by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was also on the call.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told his top generals that he had asked the European Union to tighten its own sanctions on Russia when EU foreign ministers hold a special session in Brussels on Thursday.

Both sides on the ground accuse the other of endangering civilians by firing into built-up areas.

Source: Agence France Presse

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EU to Consider New Russia Sanctions over Ukraine

by Naharnet Newsdesk 27 January 2015, 11:22

European Union leaders have tasked their foreign ministers to consider a new wave of sanctions against Russia when they meet in Brussels Thursday, in the wake of fresh violence in eastern Ukraine.

In a rare joint statement on Tuesday, the 28 EU heads of government expressed concern over what they said was Russian support for pro-Moscow rebels who have launched a new military campaign near the city of Mariupol.

"In view of the worsening situation we ask the upcoming Foreign Affairs Council to assess the situation and to consider any appropriate action, in particular on further restrictive measures," the statement said.

The aim was a "swift and comprehensive implementation of Minsk agreements", it said, referring to a largely ignored peace plan dating from September.

"We express our concern about the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine. We condemn the killing of civilians during the indiscriminate shelling of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on 24 January 2015," they added.

"We note evidence of continued and growing support given to the separatists by Russia, which underlines Russia’s responsibility," the statement added.

The EU leaders would assess the situation at the next meeting in Brussels on February 12, they said.

Under EU procedures the foreign ministers would task the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, with drawing up new sanctions, which would then have to be approved by the leaders.

The EU has imposed a series of sanctions since Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in March, tightening them significantly after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July.

After the Mariupol attack on Saturday, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini announced the urgent meeting of European foreign ministers to map out the bloc's response to the latest violence.

Mogherini last week found herself in hot water after suggesting the EU should take a softer stance with Russia, sparking a sharp response from those who believe only a tough, uncompromising line will get Moscow to change its mind.

Source: Agence France Presse


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« Reply #504 on: Jan 28, 2015, 07:17 AM »

Putin ordered Alexander Litvinenko murder, inquiry into death told

Opening day hears Russian president called a ‘common criminal’ as lawyers lay out case surrounding former spy’s death

Luke Harding and Esther Addley
TheGuardian
Tuesday 27 January 2015 17.58 GMT   

Vladimir Putin is a “common criminal dressed up as a head of state” who presides over a mafia regime and who personally authorised the sensational murder eight years ago of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, a public inquiry heard on Tuesday.

On the first day of the inquiry at the high court in London, Ben Emmerson QC, acting for Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, said the Russian had been the victim of a “horrifying” political assassination. He said Moscow had decided to silence Litvinenko after he threatened to expose links between Putin and Europe’s largest organised crime group.

Two former KGB agents – Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun – allegedly murdered Litvinenko after meeting him on 1 November 2006 at the Millennium hotel in central London. They slipped radioactive polonium-210 into his green tea. That both men were the killers was beyond any “reasonable doubt”, Emmerson said.

In scathing terms, Emmerson suggested that Litvinenko was the victim of a dysfunctional state in which criminals and politicians had merged. “The trail of polonium traces leads not just from London to Moscow but directly to the door of Vladimir Putin’s office,” he said. “Mr Putin should be unmasked by the inquiry as nothing more than a common criminal dressed up as a head of state.”

Tuesday’s long-awaited inquiry follows the collapse of an inquest into Litvinenko’s death last year. The government refused to release its secret files on Litvinenko, who from 2003 worked as an MI6 informant. The home secretary, Theresa May, initially rejected a public inquiry but last summer – following a successful legal challenge by Marina Litvinenko – agreed it could go ahead.

The inquiry heard that Lugovoi and Kovtun had poisoned Litvinenko not once but twice. Laying out previously secret forensic evidence, Robin Tam QC, counsel to the inquiry, said that Lugovoi had made three trips to London in the weeks immediately before Litvinenko’s murder, with Kovtun visiting twice.

Two weeks before the ill-fated encounter in the Millennium hotel, the pair met Litvinenko in the Grosvenor Square office of a private security company. Analysis revealed large quantities of polonium on the table and chairs where the three men had sat. Later that evening Litvinenko vomited. Analysis of his hair showed he had come into contact with polonium for the first time that day, October 16 – though in a much smaller dose than the second one that would kill him.

After Litvinenko’s death detectives found polonium in all the hotel rooms where Lugovoi and Kovtun had stayed in London, as well as on Lugovoi’s plane seat from Moscow and in numerous other locations. The trail was like the “path of breadcrumbs left by Hansel and Gretel,” Emmerson said.

On one occasion Lugovoi had tried to “dilute” or “move it [polonium] from one container to another”, leaving massive contamination in his hotel bathroom, Tam said.

In a piece of extraordinary new evidence, Tam also disclosed that Kovtun had confided to an old friend that he had been sent by Moscow to kill Litvinenko. Kovtun travelled to London via Hamburg, where he had lived and worked for six years, and had been employed as a waiter in the city’s Il Porto restaurant.

On 31 October Kovtun met up with his old colleague. They went for a walk in Hamburg’s amusement arcade. Kovtun asked the colleague – identified as D2 – if he knew of any cooks in London who might “put poison into Mr Litvinenko’s food or drink”. “He [Kovtun] said he had a very expensive poison.” D2 knew of a cook in London and passed him his number.

During the conversation Kovtun described Litvinenko as “a traitor with blood on his hands who had deals with Chechnya,” Tam said. The following morning Kovtun flew to London’s Gatwick airport. In the hours immediately before Litvinenko was poisoned Kovtun used Lugovoi’s mobile to phone the cook, identified as C2, according to phone records. The cook told Kovtun he was busy.

Emmerson paid tribute to Marina Litvinenko, describing her in court as a “courageous and brave woman” who had struggled against government “intransigence”. Her only goal had been to uncover the truth about her husband’s murder, he said, in what was a “state-sponsored act of nuclear terrorism”.

The inquiry will invite Lugovoi and Kovtun to give video evidence from Moscow. It is unlikely they will agree. In 2007 the crown prosecution service charged both men with murder. They have protested their innocence. Emmerson dismissed as “absurd” and “ludicrous” claims by Lugovoi that British intelligence had killed Litvinenko, or that the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky was responsible.

Instead, Emmerson laid out possible motives for why the Kremlin had decided to have Litvinenko “liquidated”, as he put it. They included Litvinenko’s long-standing feud with his former spy agency, the FSB, and Vladimir Putin in particular. Litvinenko first met Putin in 1998, when Putin was the FSB’s boss.

This frosty encounter came after Litvinenko blew the whistle on the FSB and revealed that it had given him orders to kill Berezovsky, who would became Litvinenko’s friend and patron. Litvinenko wanted to expose corruption inside the FSB, breaking the agency’s code of silence, the inquiry heard.

In 2000 Litvinenko escaped to Britain with his wife and son, Anatoly, from where he continued to criticise Putin. In the years that followed Putin and the Russian government had formed “an intimate relationship” with Russian organised crime syndicates around the world, Emmerson said. So close were the ties that the two were “effectively indistinguishable”.

Emmerson went on: “A significant part of Russian organised crime is organised directly from the offices of the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a mafia state.” Litvinenko was murdered for trying to expose this “odious and deadly corruption among the cabal surrounding President Putin,” Emmerson suggested.

In one of two books written in exile, Litvinenko went further, accusing Putin of having links with the Tambov-Malyshev gang, one of Russia’s most powerful organised crime groups. The gang operated in Saint Petersburg in the 1990s, specialising in heroin smuggling, when Putin was the city’s deputy mayor. By the 2000s it had built up extensive operations in Spain.

Litvinenko had given useful information to Spanish investigators and intelligence, Emmerson said, and may have testified in a Spanish court about links between Putin and the gang. His whistle-blowing activities and remorseless criticism of Putin made him an inevitable target, he said.

The inquiry heard for the first time Litvinenko’s own chilling deathbed account of what happened in the Millennium hotel. He gave a series of interviews to detectives as he lay in the intensive care ward of University College hospital. He said that he met Lugovoi in the lobby of the hotel. Lugovoi ushered him into the small Pine bar nearby, where they sat in the corner. A silver metal teapot was already on the table.

According to Tam, a waiter in a white shirt and bow tie asked Litvinenko if he would like anything to drink. He declined, worrying about cost. Lugovoi then said: “ There is still some tea left here.” Litvinenko told police: “I poured some tea out of the pot. There was only a little left at the bottom. It was already cold. I swallowed some tea, about three or four times. I didn’t like it for some reason.”

Litvinenko said he realised “something strange” was going on. Kovtun then joined them at the bar, complaining that he had not slept the previous night. Lugovoi left to watch a football match at the Emirates stadium between CSK Moscow and Arsenal; his family had flown to London with him. As he left Lugovoi brought his eight-year-old son to meet Litvinenko.

Litvinenko recalled: “Lugovoi said “This is Uncle Sasha. Shake his hand.” We shook hands and he went.”

Lugovoi has pointed to the presence of his wife and children as proof that he was not a killer, arguing it was improbable he would put them at risk. According to Emmerson, however, the two Russians sent to London to carry out a “political assassination” were unaware of the type of poison they were carrying, or that it was radioactive.

Emmerson said the polonium had been manufactured in Avangard, a closed nuclear facility in Russia. The facility is under the auspices of Rosatom, the Russian atomic energy agency. He said it was highly unlikely an unauthorised group could have gained access to the polonium used to kill Litvinenko, which had a commerical value of “tens of millions of dollars”.

For the Russian state, however, this was a straightforward proposition, he said.

In a letter read after his death Litvinenko accused Putin of personally ordering his murder. There have been questions raised about the letter’s authenticity. Litvinenko’s testimony given to police and revealed for the first time on Tuesday, however, confirms its broad accuracy. He told detectives he had “no doubt whatsoever that this [his murder] was done by the Russian secret service,” with Putin signing off on the order.

“I have no doubt whatsoever that as soon as the power changes in Russia, or when the first officer of the Russian secret services defects to the west, he will say that I have been poisoned by the Russian special services on Putin’s order.”

The inquiry continues on Wednesday and is expected to last 10 weeks.
Who’s who at the inquiry

Sir Robert Owen

The inquiry chairman was initially appointed as coroner to oversee Litvinenko’s inquest, but concluded he could not conduct a “fair and fearless” investigation into who was responsible while the government refused to release intelligence information relating to alleged Russian state involvement, and requested the government grant a public inquiry, which was initially refused. Unlike an inquest, the current inquiry will allow him to consider that evidence in closed session.

Marina Litvinenko

The dead man’s widow, she has fought a dogged and dignified battle to have her husband’s case aired in court after years of delays. After Theresa May refused Owen’s request for a public inquiry in 2013, Litvinenko challenged the decision in court despite having no legal aid, putting her own home at risk. Her barrister paid tribute to her in court as “an extraordinarily brave and impressive woman”.

Theresa May

The home secretary was initially very resistant to granting a public inquiry, admitting in 2013 that a fear of alienating the Russian government was a factor in her decision, although she also cited the cost of an inquiry. Three high court judges ruled in February last year that the home secretary needed “better reasons” for her refusal, and ordered her to think again. An inquiry was announced in July, days after the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Anatoly Litvinenko

The 20-year-old son of the dead man, Anatoly was 12 when his father was murdered, and just six when the family fled Russia in 2000 after his father turned whistleblower on the FSB and subsequently came to fear for his family’s safety.

Now a student of contemporary Russian politics in London, he is expected to give evidence to the inquiry.

Andrei Lugovoi

One of two men whose extradition is sought by the Crown Prosecution Service in connection with the killing. Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun met Litvinenko on the two occasions on which police believe he was poisoned, and left a trail of polonium as they travelled from Moscow to London and around the Russian capital. Lugovoi, a former KGB and FSB officer, vehemently denies involvement and has suggested he may have been set up with the polonium by British security services or others. He is now a member of the Russian Duma, meaning he is effectively immune from prosecution.

Dmitry Kovtun

A lower-profile character than Andrei Lugovoi, with whom he is accused of killing Litvinenko, he also denies any involvement in the poisoning. The inquiry will hear evidence that Kovtun asked a contact in Hamburg for the number of a cook in London who could administer the poison, the court was told on its opening day. Like Lugovoi and Litvinenko, he is a former KGB and FSB officer.

Ben Emmerson QC

The high-profile barrister, who specialises in international and human rights, made a dramatic opening statement to the inquiry only a day after he had appeared before the Commons home affairs select committee as counsel to the independent child sex abuse panel.

A deputy high court judge and visiting professor in human rights law at Oxford University, Emmerson also holds the unpaid post of UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights. He offered to represent Marina Litvinenko and her son Anatoly pro bono after their backer, the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky, was forced to stop funding the case after he lost a multimillion-pound libel case.

Robin Tam QC

As counsel to the inquiry, the barrister’s role is to assist the chairman by laying out the evidence that he will be called on to consider and offer legal advice, and to lead the questioning of witnesses and interrogation of evidence.

• This article was amended on Wednesday 28 January 2014 to correct a quote from Ben Emmerson QC.


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« Reply #505 on: Jan 28, 2015, 07:21 AM »

Russia scorns ‘politically motivated’ downgrade to junk rating

Agence France-Presse
27 Jan 2015 at 12:14 ET     

Moscow on Tuesday slammed Standard and Poor’s for downgrading Russia’s credit rating to “junk”, saying the move was motivated by the West’s current standoff with Russia over Ukraine.

A Russian deputy foreign minister, Vasily Nebenzya, even claimed the S&P downgrade to BB+ was “ordered from Washington (in a) new wave of anti-Russian hysteria”, while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called ratings a “purely political instrument”.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies it was a “politicised” decision that will not sway “serious companies” because it does not reflect the “real state of affairs”.

The Central Bank’s first deputy chairman, Kseniya Yudayeva, said the downgrade would have little effect since the sanctions have already cut Russia off from foreign lending markets.

Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said it was based on “too much pessimism” and does not take into account the strengths of Russia’s economy such as its ample reserves.

Nevertheless, analysts said the downgrade would further hurt the economy by making borrowing even more costly.

Western sanctions and plunging oil prices have mired Russia’s economy into a contraction expected to reach up to five percent in 2015.

The Russian ruble on Tuesday was trading flat at 67.7 to the dollar after losing ground Monday, but was still a long way off from a record low of 80 to the dollar in December.

But the European Union is looking at piling further pressure on the Russian economy, with the bloc’s leaders tasking their foreign ministers to consider a new wave of sanctions in response to an upsurge in fighting in Ukraine blamed on Moscow.

The “junk” rating could also lead to more spending from Russia’s oil reserves on early repayment of foreign loans in the amount of up to $30 billion, according to Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev.

“There could be some political component in the decision, but… one must recognise that the situation is taking a serious turn for the worse,” said Igor Nikolayev, who heads the FBK Strategic Analysis Institute.

Moscow last week announced an anti-crisis plan amounting to 18 billion euros, part of which was approved on Tuesday.

- Prices skyrocket -

As part of the plan, the “volume of (government) spending will be less than planned,” Siluanov said, without elaborating on the planned spending cuts.

“We will carry out a reasonable budget policy and see our goal as reaching a no-deficit budget by 2017 with oil price predicted at $70 a barrel,” he said, according to Russian news agencies reports.

Inflation has risen sharply because of the weakening ruble, with authorities saying that checks carried out in supermarkets nationwide show that some food prices have soared six-fold since August.

Rising prices have been among Russians’ biggest fears since the 1990s, when the ruble was so volatile that prices were frequently set in dollars while purchasing power was eviscerated.

In another sign of the struggling economy, Russia’s biggest carmaker Avtovaz, which makes Lada vehicles, announced a 10 percent executive job cut.

“We expect to decrease the number of managers by 1,100, Avtovaz spokesman Stanislav Bereziy told AFP in an email. The company has about 10,000 managers on its staff.

Russia’s top opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Tuesday put concerns over the economy on the agenda of a new “anti-crisis” protest to be held on March 1, the first such rally focusing on economic demands.

“Time has been lost, money has been eaten up. Yesterday’s downgrade of Russia to ‘junk’ returned the country to the year 2005,” he wrote on his blog.

“Put March 1 on your calendars and don’t plan anything else. We will be saving Russia from crisis.”


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« Reply #506 on: Jan 29, 2015, 06:41 AM »

Gorbachev warns that US drawing Russia into new Cold War that could lead to armed conflict

Agence France-Presse
29 Jan 2015 at 06:38 ET                   

The last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Friday accused the United States of drawing Russia into a new Cold War and said he feared hostilities could escalate into armed conflict.

The United States “has already drawn us into a new Cold War, trying openly to achieve its main idea of triumphalism,” Gorbachev said in an interview with the Interfax news agency.

“Where will that lead all of us? A Cold War is already being waged openly. What’s next?” asked the 83-year-old former Soviet president who during his time in power eased relations with the West but is vilified in Russia for allowing the breakup of the USSR.

“Unfortunately I cannot say for sure that a Cold War won’t lead to a ‘hot’ one. I fear they could take the risk,” Gorbachev said, apparently referring to the United States.

Gorbachev in November last year warned that the world was “on the brink of a new Cold War.”

In his latest comments, Gorbachev criticized the West for imposing sanctions on Russia.

“All you hear is about sanctions towards Russia from America and the European Union. Have they totally lost their heads?” Gorbachev asked.

In December last year, Gorbachev in an article urged the US and the EU to “defrost relations” with Russia.

Gorbachev in the past has harshly criticized President Vladimir Putin for an “imitation” of democracy. But recently he has backed the Kremlin line, saying that the world should welcome the annexation of Crimea by Russia for correcting a historic mistake.


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« Reply #507 on: Jan 29, 2015, 07:05 AM »

Russian Mother of Seven Accused of Treason over Ukraine

by Naharnet Newsdesk 29 January 2015, 13:45

A Russian mother of seven has been accused of treason and faces up to 20 years in jail after she called the Ukrainian embassy with information about possible Russian troop movements.

Svetlana Davydova, 36, was detained last week when a group of men in black uniforms burst into an apartment she shares with her husband and children in the town of Vyazma, some 240 kilometers (150 miles) west of Moscow, her husband Anatoly Gorlov told Agence France Presse.

Accused of state treason, she has been placed in pre-trial detention at the notorious Lefortovo jail in Moscow, her lawyer Andrei Stebenev told Agence France Presse.

"She called where she was not supposed to call and said what she was not supposed to say," he said, adding that he could not comment further because the details constituted a "state secret."

Davydova's husband told AFP that his wife, who had taken an anti-war stance since the start of the Ukraine conflict, had phoned the Ukrainian embassy in April 2014 and said that the military base in Vyazma had become empty, suggesting that the soldiers had been deployed to Ukraine.

Davydova has four children with Gorlov and they are also raising three children from his previous marriage. She was still nursing her youngest child, a two and a half month old daughter, when she was arrested.

He insisted that his wife did not betray her country.

"She does not want our military to take part in some kind of plot," Gorlov said, adding that he and his wife opposed Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine nearly a year ago.

He said he was told to cooperate with the investigation or risk losing custody of his children and that the family's computers were seized when his wife was detained.

The fighting between Moscow-backed separatists and government troops broke out in eastern Ukraine in April.

The Kremlin has denied that Russian regular troops have been fighting the Ukrainian army alongside insurgents despite evidence to the contrary.

Source: Agence France Presse


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« Reply #508 on: Jan 29, 2015, 07:15 AM »

Ukraine Says EU to Consider 'Robust' New Russia Sanctions

by Naharnet Newsdesk 29 January 2015, 14:28

EU foreign ministers will consider further "robust measures" against Russia over the fighting in Ukraine when they meet in Brussels Thursday, Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin said.

His European counterparts are holding emergency talks on new sanctions after dozens of people were killed in clashes between Ukrainian forces and Moscow-backed rebels near the key port city of Mariupol.

"Ministers are ready to issue a forceful statement plus consider further robust measures," Klimkin told reporters after meeting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the alliance's headquarters.

"I talked to every minister in recent days, to many of them twice. I have a clear feeling that we have overall support for Ukraine, and clear understanding that another heinous terror attack could bring about a spiral of violence in a completely different direction."

He is due to hold talks with further EU ministers before the meeting starts at 1400 GMT.

EU leaders called the meeting in a statement on Tuesday in which they ordered the ministers to weigh up further sanctions following the fighting in Mariupol, the latest instalment in months of conflict in which have left more than 5,000 dead.

According to a draft statement seen by Agence France Presse, ministers will recommend that visa ban and asset freeze sanctions imposed against Russian and Ukrainian figures after Moscow's annexation of Crimea in March last year should be extended until September 2015.

They will also recommend that the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, draw up new names to add to the blacklist.

The Commission should also carry out "further preparatory work" on a new set of broad-spectrum economic sanctions against Russia, to add to those first adopted after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines jet MH17 in July, the draft says.

Diplomatic sources said earlier that while the EU was increasingly exasperated by Russian actions in Ukraine, there was as yet no overall consensus on adopting more economic sanctions which have proved divisive.

Greece, where a new anti-austerity government led by Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras took office this week, has raised objections over part of the draft, one diplomatic source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The foreign ministers meet again February 9, just ahead of a February 12 leaders' summit which will take up their recommendations.

Source: Agence France Presse

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U.S. Warns Cost of Russian Actions in Ukraine will 'Rise'

by Naharnet Newsdesk 29 January 2015, 07:14

The United States gave a clear signal Wednesday that Russia will face further sanctions for what the White House says is Moscow's role in fueling violence in eastern Ukraine.

Following a telephone call between U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, the White House condemned "Russian-backed separatists" and the "heavy toll that the Russian-backed offensive in the east was having on Ukraine's civilian population."

"As long as Russia continues its blatant disregard of its obligations... the costs for Russia will continue to rise," Biden was reported to have told the Ukrainian leader.

Late Tuesday President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the "significant increase" in violence in Ukraine and warned Russia would be held accountable.

"The two leaders expressed concern about the significant increase in violence in eastern Ukraine and Russia's material support for the separatists," a White House statement said.

"They agreed on the need to hold Russia accountable for its actions."

Western sanctions and a slide in oil prices have plunged Russia into recession and seen Standard and Poor's slap a "junk" rating on Moscow's foreign currency debt.

Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine last week defiantly pulled out of peace talks and promised an offensive on a strategic government-held port city that provides a direct land bridge to Ukraine's Russian-occupied Crimea peninsula.

Russia denies backing the eastern insurgents and says that measures against it are designed to undermine President Vladimir Putin's 15-year rule.

Obama has issued an executive order prohibiting trade with Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in March.

Two dozen people -- including Russians and separatists -- have also been added to a U.S. blacklist, subjecting them to travel bans and assets freezes.

Source: Agence France Presse


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« Reply #509 on: Today at 07:20 AM »

Opposition leaders launch Russian TV channel

Belarusian and Russian opposition leaders launch channel to combat Kremlin propaganda around eastern Europe

Alec Luhn in Moscow
Thursday 29 January 2015 15.28 GMT
Guardian
   
Belarusian and Russian opposition leaders are launching a Russian-language television channel in Estonia to combat Kremlin propaganda around eastern Europe.

For now, aru.tv is broadcasting three times a week online, but plans to expand its coverage from April, according to its founder, Belarusian activist Pavel Morozov.

It receives support from MyMedia, an initiative to promote independent journalism in Turkey and several former Soviet countries that is funded by the Danish government.

“Aru.tv targets people in Russia and the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, the Baltic States and Belarus,” Morozov told Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita. “The people behind this project consider its main mission to be providing information free of propaganda elements.”

A previous attempt by Morozov to launch aru.tv in 2009 was short-lived. Now the format has changed and will have a more “satirical direction”, he told the Estonian site Rus.err.ee.

The channel’s launch comes as Germany’s state-run broadcaster Deutsche Welle attempts to start a new international news service to counter Russian propaganda.

RT, a Kremlin television channel focused on foreign viewers, has been expanding around the world and has received warnings from British regulators for biased coverage of the Ukraine crisis. Late last year, the Kremlin announced SputnikNews, a radio and internet outlet that will also target foreign audiences.

Aru.tv is run mostly by political emigres. Morozov received political asylum in Estonia after he faced legal trouble in his homeland in 2005 for creating satirical cartoons of strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, and one of the main hosts is Artemy Troitsky, an acclaimed Russian music critic with outspoken views against Vladimir Putin’s government who has also relocated to Tallinn.

The three Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have Nato membership and pro-western governments, but their significant Russian-speaking minorities have been shown by polling to be more sympathetic to the Kremlin line. Most people in Ukraine and Belarus also speak Russian, and Russian state television is available across the Baltics and Belarus and in parts of Ukraine.

Since a new government came to power in Ukraine last February after huge street protests, Russian state-owned television channels at home and abroad have derided the regime as a “fascist junta” while giving sympathetic coverage to the Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Combined with longstanding local grievances against the Kiev government, their broadcasts have helped to inflame tensions in the country.

Russian propaganda and Ukrainian rumour fuel anger and hate in Crimea

In a broadcast available on the aru.tv website called “Trash Parade 2014”, Troitsky ridicules some of the most bizarre moves made by Russian lawmakers in 2014.

“The customs union [of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan] on the orders of the Trade and Manufacturing Ministry has banned the use of lace panties in customs union countries,” a sardonic Troitsky says, wearing a “Navalny’s Brother” T-shirt in support of embattled opposition leader Alexei Navalny. “I think most lace panties are produced in China, this is by all appearances a serious blow, a serious plot against the Celestial Empire.”

************

Russian propaganda over Crimea and the Ukraine: how does it work?

Vladimir Putin has put boots in the ground – over the airwaves, he is taking the west on a tour of the propagandist’s playbook

Alan Yuhas
Monday 17 March 2014 18.21 GMT

The occupation of Crimea by pro-Russian forces has been accompanied by a remarkable propaganda push by Moscow – an effort that has infiltrated western media and helped redefine the debate in Russia’s favor. On Sunday, a referendum in Crimea decided the peninsula’s fate.

Media pressure has mounted. By shutting down independent press, Russia controls more of the story; by spreading half-truths and rumors, the Kremlin not only confuses opponents but also sows unwitting support for its cause; finally, by pushing the boundaries with its version of events, Moscow’s leadership can force other countries to play by its own very pliable rules.

Win the “information war”, as one Russian MP calls it, and you can gain the upper hand without ever firing a shot.

1. Muzzle the press

Page one isn’t too original, but it’s proven. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has been silencing independent voices one at a time for months, effectively dismantling the press. In December, Putin ordered the “restructure” of the state-owned but historically independent RIA Novosti – liquidating most of the outlet, merging its remains with Russia Today and installing as editor in chief Dmitry Kiselyov, a TV presenter notorious for saying gay people’s hearts should be incinerated and playing up how Russia can turn the US into “radioactive ash”.

RIA was just the first. Dozhd, the country’s last independent TV channel, was “pushed off a cliff” right before the Winter Olympics. Then the radio station Ekho Moskvy had its director replaced by its owner, the state-controlled energy company Gazprom. Most recently, the editor-in-chief of Lenta.ru, a highly respected, independent news site, was suddenly replaced with a pro-Kremlin editor, a move apparently made through back channels with the site’s conglomerate owner. Though 69 employees and correspondents wrote an open letter protesting “direct pressure” from the government, even resignations would do little but scatter already disparate independent journalists.
Abby Martin, Russia Today presenter Abby Martin, the Russia Today presenter who railed against propaganda during a broadcast. Photograph: Russia Today

The Kremlin’s tighter grip on the media has coincided with the rise of Russia Today, which unapologetically skews news in Putin’s favor. After a news anchor had an on-air meltdown apropos of propaganda last week, the station’s head simply issued a statement reading: “American propaganda … is so strong that it is capable of brainwashing even the brightest and most ardent people.”

2. Rebrand the revolution

Putin, for whom recent events in Kiev have been not only unfavorable but a threat, wants to rebrand history in such a way that it protects him. To that end, a constant theme spouting from Russian sources has been the Ukrainian revolution’s alliance with “fascists” – a vague word that’s become a catchall for anti-Semites, terrorists, insurgents, anarchists and thugs.

Though there were nationalists and far-right nationalists among Kiev’s protesters, and there are some in the new interim government, there decidedly weren’t and aren’t many – if any – bona fide fascists. This line has been both taken up and debunked (thoroughly), but any discussion of fascists at all is a Kremlin win. If you’re busy trying to decide how anti-Semitic Ukraine’s right wing is, then you’re not busy watching Russian soldiers slip across the border. (Ukraine’s chief rabbi is stalwartly pro-Kiev, by the by, and has taken up propaganda-busting, pointing out that the diverse anti-Yanukovych coalition is now anti-Putin.)

Fear of fascists goes a long way in Ukraine, which suffered in the second world war. By definition, fear (“Fascists are coming for your family!”) and confusion (“Fascists? Are there fascists? What’s a fascist?”) matters much more in propaganda than truth (not so many fascists). It doesn’t have to make sense – in fact it’s better if it doesn’t. Incoherent theories of a gay, Jewish, Muslim fascist conspiracy in Kiev don’t matter so long as they’re riling someone up, like a man in Simferopol who told the Guardian: “I mean, I am all for the superiority of the white race, and all that stuff, but I don’t like fascists.”

    — Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock) March 9, 2014

    Referendum advertisements are popping up in the Crimea. "March 16, we decide!" Go Russian or go Nazi? pic.twitter.com/FQ7dplCP9n

Putin has also insisted that Yanukovych’s ouster was not just illegal but a coup, and he has pointed fingers at the west for orchestrating and backing the culprits. Again, slivers of truth work in Putin’s favor: Kiev’s parliament removed Yanukovych on constitutionally murky grounds, though everyone else has now accepted them; because Senator John McCain and European leaders visited Kiev, it looks like the west really did back those obstreperous radicals. Considering Russia’s control over media, this alternate version of events – it wasn’t a revolution, but a coup – is not only not absurd, but a direct appeal to skepticism toward the west and its history of meddling.

3. Sound furious, signify nothing

Skewed facts, half-truths, misinformation and rumors all work in the propagandist’s favor. By playing up a law that would diminish the Russian language’s official status, Kiev looks like it’s persecuting Russian speakers (though the vetoed bill does not ban Russian). By reminding everyone of a real military agreement, you can profess innocence while having military “exercises” overstepping their bounds. By removing insignias from Russian uniforms, you can pretend as long as you like that soldiers with Russian guns and vehicles, speaking Russian and occasionally admitting they’re Russian, are merely local “self-defense” bands.

The one thing the Kremlin loves more than misinformation is when the western media pushes oversimplified stories. The idea that Ukraine is evenly split between a pro-European west and a pro-Russian east actually fits with Putin’s preferred version of events; saying there’s any “one map” you need to understand Ukraine’s crisis” risks unwittingly spreading the Kremlin’s story. Peter Pomerantsev explains:

    The big winner from the conceptual division of Ukraine into ‘Russian’ and ‘Ukrainian’ spheres may well be the Kremlin. The idea that Russia is a separate political and spiritual civilisation, one which is a priori undemocratic, suits the Kremlin as it looks to cut and paste together an excuse to validate its growing authoritarianism. So every time a commentator defines the battle in Kiev as Russian language v Ukrainian, a Kremlin spin doctor gets in another round of drinks.

4. Bend the rules

When talking about Ukraine, Putin has insisted that Russia will have a security presence until the situation “normalizes”, though he hasn’t said what constitutes an acceptable “normal”. Putin’s first press conference after Russian troops moved into Crimea was a masterclass of saying everything and nothing: he placated the west (“We won’t go to war”); insisted he would use force “to protect Russians”; he rambled, mocked, waxed grave, brave and a little insane. Given this kind of performance, it’s no surprise that German chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly said Putin is “in another world”. But this kind of incoherence is useful.

Lilia Shevtsova brilliantly dissects these strategies as “Putin’s trap” – considering all the ways they undermine convention and work for the Kremlin. In short, it forces others – like Merkel or US secretary of state John Kerry – into engaging in a sparring match in which no rules exist that can’t be bent or broken. The more boundaries Putin pushes and lines he crosses, the more the west will accept a more extreme version of “normal”.

5. Follow your script

By spreading talk of fascists, of gangs of unknown armed men, of coups and self-determination and persecution – while sending armed men into Ukraine, egging on real and staged protests, bribing politicians and blocking the media – the Kremlin is enacting and realizing its propaganda on the ground. The Ukrainian government and military has shown remarkable restraint in not falling for the ploy, but Putin appears prepared to increase the pressure, especially as protester clashes grow more violent.

James Meek sums up the motives:

    The revolution on Maidan … is the closest yet to a script for [Putin’s] own downfall. In that sense the invasion is a counter-revolution by Putin and his government against Russians and Ukrainians alike.

Timothy Snyder explains the goal:

    Propaganda is thus not a flawed description [of reality[, but a script for action … the invasion of Crimea was not a reaction to an actual threat, but rather an attempt to activate a threat so that violence would … change the world.

Despite the obvious dangers of carrying on this way, the Kremlin looks committed to its path. But as any actor, propagandist or politician should remember, the law of unintended consequences means that not even Moscow can know where this ends.

***********

Crimea's referendum to leave Ukraine: how did we get here?

What does the Crimean referendum mean for Ukraine, Russia and the world, and why is everyone talking about it?

Alan Yuhas and Raya Jalabi
Thursday 13 March 2014 19.04 GMT
Guardian   

Why is Crimea a flashpoint?

Crimea is at the centre of one of the biggest geopolitical crises in Europe since the end of the Cold War, as Russia faces off with the west over Ukraine. Crimea is a hub for pro-Russian sentiment, owing to ties with the country which date back centuries. Crimea remains an important base for Russia, both strategically and ideologically, but not all Crimeans are sympathetic to their former ruler – including the historically anti-Russian Crimean Tatars.

• For more on Crimea's unique relationship to Russia, click here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/07/ukraine-russia-crimea-naval-base-tatars-explainer

This week, pro-Moscow authorities have begun preparations for a referendum on the status of Crimea, to be held this Sunday, 16 March. The campaign for annexation of Crimea began as tensions over Ukraine's recent tumult rapidly mounted.

Crimea and Kiev today are ideologically and geographically a long way apart. The referendum, instigated by the peninsula's regional government, was a direct response to the uprisings in Kiev which led to the ouster of a pro-Russian leader in favor of an anti-Russian interim government. In recent weeks, after pro-Russian groups seized government buildings in Crimea, Crimean MPs voted to join Russia. Sunday's referendum will serve to "confirm" that decision.

• For more on Ukraine's crisis and how it reached this stage, click here.
Recent events: how did Crimea get here?

• Pro- and anti-Russian rallies: on 22 February, Ukraine's parliament sided with Kiev's tenacious protesters and voted president Viktor Yanukovych out of office, after four months of civil unrest and political deadlock between demonstrators and Yanukovych's government. The Ukrainian legislature quickly reassembled an interim government as the pro-Russian leader disappeared.

Only days before Yanukovich's ouster, Russia announced surprise military maneuvers, which it then set in motion along the border and in the Black Sea. Immediately after the change in leadership in Kiev, pro-Russian rallies mushroomed in eastern Ukraine, especially in Crimea.

But the east is not uniformly pro-Russian. For instance, in Simferopol, Crimea's regional capital, 10,000 Crimean Tatars shouted "Ukraine is not Russia" before clashing with pro-Russians.

• Seizing buildings, hoisting flags: On 27 February, armed men seized government buildings including the regional parliament, putting Russian flags on barricades as they progressed.

Over the next two days, gunmen described as "local ethnic Russian 'self-defense squads'" stormed major airports, including a military-civilian facility in Sevastopol. The murky nature of the seizures – seemingly both methodical and lawless – was amplified when the Russian Night Wolves biker gang, which has close ties to the Kremlin, arrived to guard the latter.

Pro-Russian forces, in unmarked uniforms and equipped with Russian vehicles and weapons, then moved onto the peninsula en masse, surrounding Ukrainian bases and taking up positions in major cities.

• The Kremlin steps in: Russian propaganda and mixed local sentiment fuelled continued (and continuing) confusion, as outrage against western "fascists" mingled with discomfort at the Russian occupation. Though genuine pro-Russian sentiment and deep divisionsexist in eastern Ukraine, suspicions persist that Russia has bribed crowds (and violent gangs) – a tactic frequently used by the Kremlin to curb domestic dissent.

Meanwhile, Russia's parliament approved military intervention, though President Vladimir Putin insists Russian troops are neither acting illegally or in Crimea at all. The standoff with Ukrainian military has become increasingly tense, with warning shots fired and a truck smashed through a base's gate.
Seizure of Crimea's parliament and the referendum

• Out with the old, in with the new: After gunmen seized the Crimean parliament on 27 February, it quickly began ousting government chiefs and installing new ones including a new regional prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov, whose alleged ties to Ukraine's criminal underworld have bestowed him the moniker "the Goblin".

With gunmen still camped in and around the building, the regional government decided "the only possible way out of the situation … is applying the principles of direct rule", in accordance with the "underlying principles of democracy".

For example: to counter Kiev's vote to hold elections for a new government on 25 May, Simferopol voted to hold a regional referendum deciding Crimea's future on the same day. Aksyonov subsequently announced himself in charge of all Crimea's military and police and appealed for help from Putin.

Then, in a surprisingly brazen move, the Crimean parliament declared the peninsula a territory of Russia. The referendum would therefore would be moved to 16 March, and would serve only to confirm parliament's vote.

• International fallout: Ukraine's interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, dismissed the vote and referendum as "illegal" and said "no one in the civilized world" would recognize the vote. American and European leaders joined the chorus declaring it illegitimate, and threatened sanctions if Russia were to absorb Crimea, directly or indirectly, after the referendum.

But Crimea quickly entered campaign season, with referendum billboards springing up across the region. Most play on the Kremlin propaganda suggesting Kiev is full of fascists:

    — Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock) March 9, 2014

    Referendum advertisements are popping up in the Crimea. "March 16, we decide!" Go Russian or go Nazi? pic.twitter.com/FQ7dplCP9n

Crimean leaders, meanwhile, took a jaunt to Moscow, where they were met by crowds and the Kremlin elite. On the peninsula, international observers were kept from entering the region by armed men as pro-Russian crowds forced a United Nations envoy to flee.

Kiev has warned the Crimean parliament that it faces dissolution unless it cancels the referendum, but has also said it will not use its military to stop secession – possibly leaving Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea stranded – a precarious outcome for all parties.

    — greg white (@whitegl) March 7, 2014

    The ballot for the Mar 16 Crimea vote #ukraine RT @golosinfo Форма бюллетеня на общекрымском референдуме pic.twitter.com/TrT8E8Ncwr

• Please tick 'No': The referendum ballot itself, as posted a few days ago to the parliament's website, doesn't exactly give voters an option to say "No". The two choices are:

    "Do you support joining Crimea with the Russian Federation as a subject of Russia?"

    "Do you support restoration of the 1992 Crimean constitution, and Crimea's status as part of Ukraine?

This second option is somewhat contradictory: the 1992 constitution asserts Crimea is an independent state and not part of Ukraine (reference to autonomy within Ukraine was inserted at a later date). So by "supporting the restoration of the 1992 constitution" voters will actually support enhanced autonomy. No matter what, voters are ticking a box for independence from Ukraine.

What next for Crimea?

It's unclear how the referendum will go – rallies across Crimea have drawn large crowds for both Ukraine and Russia. Though Putin has said Russia is "not considering" annexing Crimea, the Kremlin has supported its right to self-determination and shown no signs of loosening its de facto occupation. On the contrary, pro-Russian forces have grown more aggressive in recent days.

The US and EU have threatened that the referendum will trigger sanctions – but what they can do, and whether they will do anything, is a complicated problem in its own right. Talks with Russia have stalled as the White House played host to Ukraine's interim prime minister Yatsenyuk in DC on Wednesday. The US administration stepped up its criticism of the referendum, in a joint statement by the G7 leaders which insisted the referendum "would have no legal effect", "would have no moral force" and would not be recognised by the international community.

Despite this, Nato is unlikely to react, although it has sent extra fighter planes to Poland and Lithuania and is conducting exercises.


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