Jail Alexei Navalny for 10 years, demand Russian prosecutors
Appeal against Kremlin critic’s suspended sentence is criticised as attempt to stifle political dissent
Alexei Navalny in shirtsleeves in front of a video screen in court in Moscow
Reuters in Moscow
Tuesday 17 February 2015 09.47 GMT
Russian prosecutors have called for the Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to be jailed for 10 years in an appeal against the suspended sentence he was given in a theft case last year.
The RIA news agency reports that Navalny, who led Moscow street protests against Vladimir Putin between 2011 and 2012, and his brother Oleg were accused last year of stealing 30m roubles – more than £300,000 at the current rate – from two companies, including an affiliate of the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher, between 2008 and 2012.
Oleg was given a three-and-a-half-year jail sentence, while Navalny was given a suspended sentence that prosecutors promised to appeal against. “We demand that Navalny be sentenced to 10 years in jail,” a prosecutor told the appeal on Tuesday at Moscow city court.
Kremlin critics and Washington have called the case an attempt to stifle political dissent.
Since being sentenced, Navalny has taken an increasingly confrontational stance, cutting off his house arrest tag and attending a rally of his supporters, who gathered on the day of his sentencing last year in violation of his detention. He has promised to lead 100,000 people on 1 March in protest against Kremlin policies, which he says are leading the country deeper into economic crisis.
Russian resurgence: how the Kremlin is making its presence felt across Europe
Moscow is influencing policy and shaping opinion all over the continent, with ties to both the far right and the hard left
Ian Traynor in Paks, Hungary, and Shaun Walker in Moscow
Monday 16 February 2015 15.38 GMT
Coming off the early shift at Hungary’s sole nuclear power station, on the Danube south of Budapest, Jozsef, a 30-year-old turbine engineer, is grateful to have a relatively secure job that pays considerably more than the national average.
Hungarians have never been big fans of the Russians. But Jozsef knows whom he has to thank for his job security – Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, who is making a rare visit to an EU country with a trip to Budapest on Tuesday.
Russia sealed a deal last year with Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to build reactors at the Paks power plant in return for €10bn (£7.4bn) in tied credits. Orbán has been one of Putin’s most consistent supporters within EU circles.
But it is not only in Hungary that the Russians are back. All over Europe, and particularly in central and southern Europe, the Kremlin is making inroads at a time when relations between Russia and the west are at their most tense and brittle in the post-communist era.
Russia is actively projecting its influences in the Balkans, particularly in Serbia and Bosnia, and has been noticeably cultivating ties with parties on the left and right further west in Europe.
In Hungary, there were no tenders nor a bidding war for the nuclear project, no public debate. Hungarians first learned of the news from Russian websites. “I only know what I see on television. I don’t know how the deal was done,” Jozsef shrugs.
“I did not know about it,” admits Attila Azódi, the Hungarian energy commissioner and a professor of nuclear engineering. “There were definitely reasons for that, if you look at the international situation. You have to ask the prime minister to understand the details.”
The Russians already supply 80% of Hungary’s natural gas. If things go to plan at Paks, in a little more than a decade Russian technology and expertise will also be supplying 56% of Hungary’s electricity.
Orbán appears entirely comfortable with that dependency. He is the leader of a country in the EU and Nato, but voices only contempt for western “liberal democracy” and holds up Putin as a leader to be admired and imitated.
When John McCain, the US senator, challenged him last year on his pro-Moscow leanings, Orbán, said a source who witnessed the exchange, replied: “I don’t care what you think. You don’t matter. Russia matters because of energy. Germany matters because of jobs.”
In Budapest, the Putin-Orbán bonding will be reinforced in what is only the Russian leader’s second state visit to an EU country since the Ukraine conflict broke out a year ago. The first was last year to Austria, where he was also sympathetically received by a government stridently opposed to EU sanctions on Russia.
If Ukraine has turned into the battleground between east and west, Budapest often feels like the conflict’s playground. Websites and social media hum with Russian propaganda, conspiracy theories and paranoia. The neo-fascist Jobbik party, second biggest in parliament, is avowedly and loudly pro-Russia, its most senior member in the European parliament accused of being a Russian agent.
“It’s surprising how open the Russian influence is,” said Péter Krekó, a Hungarian analyst at the Political Capital consultancy. “It’s not hidden. We are exposed. The Russians are making complete fools of us. Orbán has become a puppet of Putin. He thinks he can play east against west.”
Moscow’s influence extends far beyond Hungary. The Putin regime is bankrolling France’s National Front on the far right. On the hard left, it has close ties to the new Greek government of Alexis Tsipras whose leftwing foreign minister has said Greece could be Russia’s “military and economic ally”.
In Serbia and Bosnia, Russian politicians, military, and energy lobbies are said to be calling the shots, influencing policy, and disrupting both countries’ hopes of joining the EU.
Senior European and American diplomats and officials are also convinced, without supplying hard evidence, that the Russians have infiltrated, or are helping to fund, NGOs campaigning in Europe against fracking and the proposed free trade agreement between the EU and the US, and that they have also been quietly encouraging the Scottish and Catalan secessionist movements in Britain and Spain.
The talk among policymakers in European capitals struggling to counter what they see as the slick Kremlin operations aimed at dividing and enfeebling Europe is of “Putin’s useful idiots”.
Through its skilled and lavishly funded television, propaganda and social media operations, the Kremlin is influencing the arguments over Ukraine, often winning over European public opinion.
Now, like in the old days, it’s an advantage for a Hungarian diplomat to have studied in Moscow
“It’s beyond irony,” said a senior figure in the European commission in Brussels. “You can hear Putin say he had to act in Ukraine to stop fascism, while he’s financing fascists right, left, and centre all over Europe. We’re naive in the west.”
Another commission official dealing directly with Russia said: “These developments are part of an overall strategy going way beyond the conflict in Ukraine. The nationalist rhetoric has been developing in Russia for years. In helping the far right, the aim is to undermine our values and fundamentals. It’s very worrying.”
In cultivating the far right and the hard left in Europe – between them they now control more than a quarter of the European parliament – Kremlin strategists are activating a policy that is at least a decade old, say Russian experts.
“Links between Russian nationalists and the European far right go back to the 1990s,” said Anton Shekhovtsov, an academic who researches far-right movements, citing Russian figures such as the nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky or the neo-fascist ideologue Alexander Dugin. “The major difference is that in the 90s the cooperation was done by individuals and groups, and they did not really think the state would benefit.”
The Russian state became interested in cooperation with the European far right as early as 2004, he added. Elections in Kremlin-backed breakaway states such as Abkhazia or Transnistria, in Georgia and Moldova respectively, would be observed and validated by far-right politicians from the EU.
There was an ideological component to the partnership, given the increasing social conservatism of the Russian elite – homophobia, anti-immigration, opposition to the EU, anti-Americanism.
Konstantin Malofeev, a wealthy Russian oligarch, Putin-backer and extreme nationalist who has said Ukraine is an artificial creation, appears to be a central figure in the funding and wooing of Russian support in Europe.
He funded and attended a lavish event in a Habsburg palais in Vienna last year for leaders of the European far right, ostensibly devoted to marking 200 years since the alliance between the Russian tsar, the Austro-Hungarian emperor and the king of Prussia following Napoleon’s defeat.
Malofeev has been blacklisted by the EU for his role in Ukraine – he helped finance and supply the pro-Russia insurgency, some of whose leaders were his former employees – and cannot now travel to Europe. As he could not attend a wedding in Greece thrown by an oligarch friend, he invited the entire party of 90 to his estate south of Moscow in October. The attendees included Panos Kammenos, the new Greek defence minister and leader of the nationalist Anel party – Tsipras’s junior coalition partner.
Thewedding details emerged from a batch of 700 emails of a diplomat at the Russian embassy in Athens, hacked in December and revealed recently in the German weekly newspaper, Die Zeit. The emails reveal Russian diplomatic contacts with Greek and Italian neo-fascists.
They also show Nikos Kotzias, the new Greek foreign minister, corresponding with Dugin, a key Putin ideologue and extreme nationalist. Kotzias started his job as foreign minister a fortnight ago, questioning the latest round of EU sanctions against Russia.
Previously, as a politics professor at Piraeus University, Kotzias organised several studies and polls on Greek attitudes to Russia. He concluded that many Greeks were disenchanted with their western allies and inclined to favour Russia. “For Greeks, Russia is a potential military and economic ally whom they respect and seem to know relatively well,” he wrote, according to the hacked emails.
Alexander Lebedev, the Russian businessman who owns the Evening Standard and the Independent, says it is not always clear whether wealthy Russian ideologues cultivating politicians in Europe are acting on direct Kremlin orders or just currying favour with the regime.
“You can never tell whether they are trying to read the mind of their bosses in advance or whether they have been told what to do,” he said.
But a €9m loan to Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France from the Russians – disclosed a couple of months ago – could only come with strings attached, said Lebedev.
“What is the point of giving such a loan? The only way the party can repay the loan is by doing something politically.”
A Putin ally and MP from his United Russia party delivered a speech to a congress of the National Front in Lyon in November, in which he claimed Russia better understood the European people. “The will of the people of European countries is being subsumed by the will of a few little-known officials from the EU who in reality are simply American puppets,” declared Andrei Isayev.
“In Russia, we think that democracy should respect the rights of the minority, but should mainly be about the will of the majority, which is based on traditional values. I am certain that in Europe, the vast majority of people would agree.”
Le Pen would agree – as may Nigel Farage, of Ukip, who has voiced his admiration for Putin. But at present Orbán matters more because he heads a strong government with an unassailable two-thirds parliamentary majority and no opposition to worry about.
In the past year, he has purged around 200 diplomats from the Hungarian foreign ministry. Those remaining, say disgruntled former officials in Budapest, have been asked to detail the timings and contents of past contacts with US diplomats.
“Now, like in the old days, it’s an advantage for a Hungarian diplomat to have studied in Moscow,” said Krekó.
“It is clear that Russia is providing support for all these political parties all over central and eastern Europe,” said Tamás Lattmann, a law professor at Budapest’s National University of Public Service. “This is a very serious problem because when they get a certain amount of presence, if nothing else, then they can at least block, for example, the sanctions against Russia.”
Alone among western leaders, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has warned recently that in his drive to divide and weaken the EU from within, Putin is also targeting aspiring EU members in the Balkans.
Twenty years after the Bosnian war ended, the Russians for the first time abstained in November on a UN vote extending the EU peacekeeping mission in Sarajevo.
Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political analyst, told Radio Free Europe: “I do not mean military intervention, there are not going to be little green men in the Balkans. But in his attempt to disunite Europe, I believe that Putin can very well instrumentalise the lack of political stability and economic prosperity ... they see the Balkans as a place where they can use their power to disrupt.”
As Putin goes to Budapest for what has become a rare experience – being welcomed by a friendly EU government – the turbine engineer in Paks is aware of the contradiction, but is not bothered by it.
“Hungarians are prejudiced against the Russians,” said Jozsef. “But people are happy about the Russians being back here.”
Additional reporting: Kim Willsher in Paris and Daniel Nolan in Budapest
Ukraine: US accuses Russia of breaching ceasefire after fighting at key town
Some pro-Kiev troops pulling out of Debaltseve, say paramilitary units, as Moscow sharply criticised at UN
Ukrainian forces outside Debaltseve before the ceasefire took effect.
Alec Luhn and Oksana Grytsenko in Artemivsk
Wednesday 18 February 2015 09.23 GMT
The US has accused Russia of violating the ceasefire in Ukraine, amid reports that some Ukrainian troops are pulling out of the key strategic rail hub of Debaltseve.
The US joined other UN security council members in lining up to pour scorn on a resolution drafted by Moscow approving the truce.
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, said it was “ironic to say the least” that Russia produced the motion at the same time as it was “backing an all-out assault” in Ukraine despite the ceasefire.
Commanders of pro-Kiev paramilitary units said on Wednesday morning that some pro-government forces were pulling out of Debaltseve, which has been under siege from Russia-backed separatists.
Associated Press reporters on the road to the government-controlled town of Artemivsk saw several dozen Ukrainian troops retreating with their weapons from Debaltseve.
The separatists said they had taken control of the town and offered Ukrainian troops the opportunity to surrender and abandon their weapons, a claim Ukraine denied.
Anatoliy Stelmakh, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said in a televised briefing on Wednesday that the rebels had launched five artillery strikes on Debaltseve overnight, “grossly violating the peace accords”.
On Tuesday, pro-Russia forces seized parts of Debaltseve in intense street fighting, ignoring the shaky ceasefire agreement, as a deadline for removing heavy weapons from the frontlines went unheeded.
Rebels were closing in on government soldiers who were trapped in bombed-out ruins and running out of food and supplies after more than a week under siege.
The size of Debaltseve – it was home toabout 25,000 people before the war emptied its streets – belies its importance to rebels as the site of a rail junction connecting their strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ukraine pro-Russia forces seize strategic Debaltseve railway hub despite truce
Vladimir Putin sought to delay the ceasefire by 10 days because he wanted to give separatists time to capture the town, an EU summit was told last week.
The rebels have been trying to take the town for weeks, and on Tuesday Kiev’s forces appeared to be losing their grip on it.
“The railway station is partially under the control of the terrorist fighters,” said Ilya Kiva, the deputy head of Donetsk regional police. “Active fighting is going on inside the city, there’s essentially a struggle for every block and every street,” he told television channel 112 Ukraine.
Putin told Kiev to let its soldiers surrender to the pro-Russia rebels. “I hope that the responsible figures in the Ukrainian leadership will not hinder soldiers in the Ukrainian army from putting down their weapons,” the Russian president said.
Albert Sardaryen, a Ukrainian national guard medic in Debaltseve, told the Guardian on Tuesday that he had been trapped in the town since 5 February, when he turned up for a 12-hour shift and was not able to leave. The dead and injured are not allowed out, he said.
Pro-Russia forces were already in parts of the city and Sardaryen’s unit had exchanged close-quarters machine gun fire with rebels, he said, cutting the conversation short when mortar fire began landing nearby.
Joe Biden, the US vice-president, “strongly condemned” the violence and warned the “costs to Russia will rise” if it “continues to violate the Minsk agreements, including the most recent agreement signed on 12 February”.
The UN motion was passed on Tuesday night, with the support of the US, but a number of security council members condemned Russia’s stance. Shortly before the meeting the council issued a statement expressing “grave concern at the continued fighting in and around Debaltseve” and demanded that all parties to the conflict cease hostilities immediately.
Security council members have repeatedly accused Russia of backing the separatists in eastern Ukraine, which Moscow denies.
The British ambassador to the UN, Mark Lyall Grant, said there had been “flagrant disregard” for the ceasefire that started just after midnight on Sunday and called on Russia to “deliver on the promises it has made”.
Lyall Grant said the council, which has been deadlocked on Ukraine because of a possible veto by Russia, must play a full role in ensuring compliance with the ceasefire, including “willingness to take further steps in the event it is not implemented”.
The US blamed the violence on “separatist forces acting in concert with Russian forces”. Putin, however, said the conflict, in which more than 5,600 people have died, could not be solved by military means and urged Kiev’s troops to surrender.
The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, said in a phone conversation with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, that the assault on Debaltseve was a “cynical attack” on the truce brokered last week by Germany and France.
He called for the EU and international community to take a “tough reaction against the treacherous actions of the rebels and Russia”.
Kiev and pro-Russia rebels agreed a peace roadmap on 12 February after marathon negotiations in Minsk involving the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.
Europe cannot ignore Russia's role in Ukraine conflict, says Cameron
Prime minister warns Vladimir Putin that he could face sanctions, and addresses British business concerns during visit to Rolls-Royce factory
Patrick Wintour Political editor
Wednesday 18 February 2015 12.10 GMT
David Cameron has said Europe cannot turn a blind eye to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, as he warned Vladimir Putin that he could face sanctions that would have unacceptable financial and economic consequences for his country for many years to come.
Speaking at the Rolls-Royce car factory in Goodwood, West Sussex, the prime minister also warned that British business would have to face the consequences of a disrupted Russian export market, and argued that it was in its long-term interest to have a stable and secure Russia.
Cameron said there was a temptation for every European country to leave the responsibility for dealing with what is happening in Ukraine to someone else, but said “that would be a terrible mistake, so Britain has been leading the argument that Russia’s behaviour has been completely unacceptable, and consequences have to follow in terms of sanctions”.
He added: “In Ukraine, one country is effectively challenging the territorial integrity of another country because those Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine are using Russian rocket launchers, Russian tanks and Russian artillery. You cannot buy this equipment on eBay. It comes from Russia. We have to be very firm it will have economic and financial consequences for many years to come if you do not desist [sic].”
The prime minister said he knew it caused British business some concern and that it might take a short-term hit, but added, “We must not allow people to cause instability and bully their neighbours”.
Taking questions at a PM Direct event, he also rejected an immediate referendum on European membership saying: “That is a better choice than having an in-out referendum tomorrow.”
He wanted “a proper go at trying to get something better” in Britain’s relations with the EU.
Canada Hits Moscow with more Sanctions over Ukraine
by Naharnet Newsdesk 18 February 2015, 07:01
Canada announced Tuesday new sanctions against Moscow and its sympathizers, including the state oil giant Rosneft, as pro-Russian separatists defied a ceasefire and stormed a flashpoint town in eastern Ukraine.
Two months after sanctions took aim at Russian interests in its vital oil and gas sectors, Canada targeted a flagship of the Russian economy in Rosneft.
The new economic sanctions and travel bans target 37 Russian and Ukrainian individuals, as well as economic sanctions against 17 Russian and Ukrainian entities, including Rosneft.
"Our Government remains steadfast in its commitment to stand with the people of Ukraine in the face of the Putin regime’s ongoing military aggression, which has already cost the lives of more than 5,300 people," Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.
"Canada's position remains clear: we recognize the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and will never recognize the illegal Russian occupation of any part of the country."
The move was made in coordination with the European Union and the United States, which have also punished Moscow for what they say is its military backing of the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin rejects the accusation and describes the Russian fighters seen in Ukraine as "volunteers."
Ukraine early Tuesday appealed to the West to get "tough" on Moscow after separatists attacked Debaltseve, a transport hub, in violation of the three-day-old ceasefire.
"The collective sanctions imposed to date by Canada and its partners are putting real economic pressure on the Putin regime and its collaborators," Harper added.
"The cost to Russia will continue to rise if it persists in its escalation of the conflict and refuses to allow a peaceful resolution."
Source: Agence France Presse
Hungary Keeps Visit by Putin Low-Key as It Seeks to Repair Relations With West
By RICK LYMAN and HELENE BIENVENU
FEB. 17, 2015
WARSAW — When Vladimir V. Putin played host at the Kremlin early last year to Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, the notion of a reciprocal visit that would bring the Russian president onto European Union soil seemed perfectly in keeping with a whole series of stick-in-the-eye moves toward Europe by the two leaders in recent years.
But by Tuesday, when Mr. Putin and his entourage finally touched down in Budapest, the meeting seemed to demonstrate less a fresh diplomatic conquest than a demonstration of the Russian leader’s shrunken diplomatic reach.
The combination of a festering Ukraine crisis, Russia’s growing economic woes and Mr. Orban’s desire to repair relations with the West made this latest stop in Mr. Putin’s increasingly active itinerary — he traveled to Egypt earlier this month, and stopped in India, Turkey and Uzbekistan in December — into a low-key, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it event.
“I think it is not accidental that the Hungarian government did not want to over-promote this meeting right now,” said Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital Institute, a Budapest research group. “Orban realized quite late that while it was completely O.K. to do business with Russia before the Ukraine crisis, it is not the same since.”
It was a far cry from Mr. Putin’s triumphant reception in Serbia in October, when the state news media celebrated his arrival and leaders threw a military parade, complete with aerial acrobatics involving Serbian and Russian jets, and presented him with the Order of the Republic, Serbia’s highest honor.
In Budapest, Mr. Putin arrived Tuesday with an entourage heavy with energy officials and then kept largely out of sight.
He laid flowers on the graves of Russian soldiers killed in World War II, drawing some criticism because the same section of the cemetery contains a monument to Russian troops killed in 1956 while quashing an anti-Communist uprising. He had private meetings with Mr. Orban and with President Janos Ader of Hungary. Five bilateral agreements were signed.
But Mr. Putin’s only major public event was an evening news conference with Mr. Orban.
Mr. Putin confined the bulk of his remarks to economic deals between the two nations, and mentioned Ukraine and its fragile cease-fire only briefly, reacting mildly to a question about the United States’ possibly sending defensive weapons to Ukraine.
“I am deeply convinced that no matter what weapons you provide to Ukraine, it is always bad to supply arms to an armed conflict,” he said.
For his part, Mr. Orban refrained from his past praise of “illiberal democracy” and made no mention of his implacable opposition to “economic immigration.” Instead, he blandly praised the cease-fire agreement made in Minsk, Belarus, and advocated finding a way to repair Russia’s broken relationship with the European Union.
“We are convinced that the isolation of Russia from Europe is not feasible,” he said.
The cooler tenor of Mr. Putin’s visit to Budapest “will send a clear message to Russian politicians that this is not Serbia,” Mr. Kreko said.
The visit, arranged last month, had become more important to Mr. Putin, who wanted to demonstrate that at least one European Union leader was still open to a bilateral visit, said Zoltan Sz. Biro, a historian who served as foreign policy adviser in a previous Socialist government.
“Putin requested the visit,” Mr. Biro said. “Orban is embarrassed by it but couldn’t refuse.”
Since Mr. Orban drew sharp criticism last year from Western leaders for his pro-Russian rhetoric and growing authoritarian moves, which opponents compared to Mr. Putin’s governing style, his government has softened its stance — outwardly, at least — stressing that it continued to vote for the European Union’s sanctions against Russia.
“There is a definite sign of correction,” Mr. Kreko said. “You can see it in the rhetoric.”
Last year, Mr. Orban drew flak from Western leaders for calling the sanctions against Russia counterproductive and for voicing concerns about the autonomy of ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine in language similar to that used by Mr. Putin to justify his support for ethnic Russian rebels.
Now, he pointedly preceded the Putin visit with a trip to Kiev, where he met with President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine and reiterated his support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany visited Budapest this month in a high-profile event.
The idea of warmer relations with Russia is a thorny one for many Hungarians, especially older ones who remember the long years under Communist rule. But financially struggling Hungarians are also eager for any economic lifelines that might provide investment and jobs.
About 2,000 anti-Putin protesters gathered Monday evening outside Budapest’s eastern train station and marched through the streets to the western station.
The crowd waved Hungarian, Ukrainian and European Union flags and carried signs with slogans like “Russians Go Home!” while loudspeakers played “Back in the U.S.S.R.” by the Beatles.
Andras Nemeth, 31, an economist who joined the line of protesters, said he saw some disturbing similarities between Mr. Putin and Mr. Orban.
“They like to be at the center of power,” he said, “and use their charisma to keep control of their population and convey easy, populist messages.”
New attempt to enforce Ukraine ceasefire
Putin, Poroshenko, Merkel and Hollande agree by telephone that measures agreed last week should be implemented ‘strictly and in their entirety’
Alec Luhn in Artemivsk and agencies
Thursday 19 February 2015 11.31 GMT
The leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia agreed by telephone on Thursday to make a new push to impose an accord seeking to establish a ceasefire in Ukraine.
According to a French statement, the four condemned the ceasefire breaches of recent days and agreed that the package of measures agreed on 12 February in the Belarus capital, Minsk, should be implemented “strictly and in their entirety”.
“OSCE [Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe] representatives should meet the parties on the ground to quickly implement these measures,” the statement said, adding that foreign ministers from the four powers would discuss details of the plan later on Thursday.
During the phone call, Ukraine’s president said the rebel seizure of the strategic town of Debaltseve had been contrary to the ceasefire agreement.
Petro Poroshenko told the other leaders “not to pretend that what happened in Debaltseve was in line with the Minsk agreements”, according to his website.
The telephone conversation followed criticism by Moscow and pro-Russia rebels of a call by Poroshenko for international peacekeepers to enforce the ceasefire in the east of the country.
Poroshenko won approval late on Wednesday from Ukraine’s national security and defence council to invite UN-mandated peacekeepers into the country to monitor the frontline.
“We see the best format would be a police mission from the European Union,” he said. The decision has yet to be approved by Ukraine’s parliament.
Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, quickly responded by saying Poroshenko’s move “raises suspicions that he wants to destroy the Minsk accords”.
The co-leader of the rebel’s self-styled Donetsk republic, Denis Pushilin, flatly told the Interfax news agency that the appeal “is a violation … of the Minsk agreements”.
Fourteen Ukrainian servicemen have been killed and 173 wounded in the past 24 hours in fighting with pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, a Kiev military source told Reuters on Thursday.
Local military in Mariupol said separatists had launched mortar attacks on government-held positions on Thursday morning and are building up their forces there.
“Right now there are mortar attacks on Shyrokine,” a spokesman told Reuters, referring to a village about 19 miles east of Mariupol, along the coast of the Sea of Azov.
Ukraine pulled thousands of troops out of the encircled railway junction of Debaltseve on Wednesday after a sustained rebel assault.
Ukrainian soldiers share horrors of Debaltseve battle after stinging defeat
Weary soldiers who made it to Artemivsk, near the main Ukrainian lines, described leaving behind carnage and destruction in Debaltseve.
“There’s no city left, it’s destroyed,” said a soldier with the call sign Sailor. “Two hours after the ceasefire, awful things started ... Residents are in basements. Lots of bodies haven’t been picked up because the separatists are shooting.”
“It was a madhouse. It was Chechnya,” said another named Igor Nekrasov.
The British defence secretary, Michael Fallon, warned that Vladimir Putin could repeat the tactics used to destabilise Ukraine in Baltic members of the Nato alliance.
He said Nato must be ready for Russian aggression in “whatever form it takes” as he acknowledged tensions between the alliance and Moscow were “warming up”.
His comments came after the British prime minister, David Cameron, called on Europe to make clear to Russia that it faced economic and financial consequences for “many years to come” if it did not stop destabilising Ukraine.
Fallon said the Russian leader could attempt a repeat of the covert campaign used in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine against other former Soviet bloc countries such as Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia.
That could involve irregular troops, cyber-attacks and inflaming tensions with ethnic Russian minorities in nations Moscow sees as part of the country’s “near abroad”.
He said there was a “real and present danger” that such tactics could be used.
Britain also said on Thursday that it had scrambled Typhoon fighter jets to see off two Russian long-range Bear bombers from the south coast of England. The incident, which took place on Wednesday, was the second of its kind in as many months.
Wednesday’s retreat by Ukrainian forces from Debaltseve – which holds a highway crossing and a rail junction connecting Donetsk and Luhansk – marked a major strategic victory for the breakaway “people’s republics” based in those two cities.
Poroshenko said he had ordered a “planned and organised retreat” from the strategically important rail hub after the opposing side had denied access to European observers, but the withdrawal seemed anything but orderly.
Speaking in the government-controlled village of Luhanske, Yuriy Prekharia, a first lieutenant, said the decision to pull back had been made by the senior commanders on the ground when they saw that the situation was becoming catastrophic.
“We knew that if we stayed there it would be definitely either be captivity or death,” he told the Guardian.
Reuters and the Press Association contributed to this report
Ukrainian soldiers share horrors of Debaltseve battle after stinging defeat
Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers retreat from strategic town taken by pro-Russia separatists, leaving their dead and wounded comrades behind
Alec Luhn in Artemivsk, and Oksana Grytsenko in Luhanske
Wednesday 18 February 2015 19.21 GMT
A long line of military vehicles crawled north on the highway leading out of the abandoned government positions in Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine, pulling a motley assortment of half-destroyed ambulances, trucks without wheels and tanks without treads.
Those soldiers who had managed to get out of the ruins of the besieged town were immediately recognisable, their wide eyes staring out from a thick coating of grime as they waited for buses to take them back to Artemivsk. A group of national guardsmen fired their Kalashnikov assault rifles in the air to celebrate their close escape.
In what marks a strategic victory for pro-Russia forces and a stinging defeat for Kiev, thousands of government troops retreated from Debaltseve starting in the small hours of Wednesday, most of them on foot through the surrounding fields.
In the government-controlled village of Luhanske, which lies at the end of a deadly 10-mile stretch of highway out of Debaltseve, first lieutenant Yuriy Prekharia described how he led 50 men through the fields and forests to reach Ukrainian positions. “We knew that if we stayed there it would be definitely either be captivity or death,” he told the Guardian, as armoured vehicles passed by carrying hundreds of dirty soldiers. Heavy artillery boomed and rockets streaked through the sky as government forces tried to cover their comrades’ retreat.
Standing in front of the presidential plane in a camouflage coat before leaving Kiev for a visit to the front line, Ukraine’s leader Petro Poroshenko said he had ordered the “planned and organised retreat” from the strategically important rail hub after the opposing side had denied access to European observers.
But the withdrawal seemed anything but orderly, and Prekharia said the decision to pull back had been made by the senior commanders on the ground when they saw that the situation was becoming catastrophic. Other soldiers said artillery and ambushes had been waiting for them on their way out.
Combat medic Albert Sardarian said he had been woken up at 1am for a sudden withdrawal in armoured vehicles with about 1,000 other men. Pro-Russia forces ambushed the column in the morning, so the survivors had to continue on foot, leaving their dead and wounded behind.
“There was one guy whose hand had been blown off. I could only stop his blood and put him in a comfortable place, hoping that the armoured vehicles following us would pick him up,” Sardarian said.
Smoking cigarettes outside the hospital in Artemivsk, weary soldiers, many of them with light wounds, described leaving behind carnage and destruction in Debaltseve. “There’s no city left, it’s destroyed,” said a soldier with the call sign Sailor. “Two hours after the ceasefire, awful things started ... Residents are in basements. Lots of bodies haven’t been picked up because the separatists are shooting.”
“It was a madhouse. It was Chechnya,” said a soldier named Igor Nekrasov, referring to the bloody separatist conflicts in Russia’s Chechnya region.
Nekrasov said he expected the opposing side to continue attempting to take strategically important cities, echoing the doubts that many in Artemivsk hold after two previous failed truces.
An Ukrainian soldier rides on an armoured vehicle during the retreat from Debaltseve, which has fallen to Russia-backed separatists after weeks of relentless fighting.
“You can’t trust the Russians. They lie, lie, lie,” said Igor, a gunner in an armoured personnel carrier that was preparing to pick up more soldiers fleeing Debaltseve. “I don’t think this ceasefire will work.”
The Ukrainian authorities insisted that Debaltseve had never been surrounded, but army medics and soldiers who escaped the city told the Guardian that shelling and mines along the road had cut off the flow of ammunition, supplies and ambulances to Debaltseve for more than a week.
Kiev’s armed forces command said on Wednesday that 22 Ukrainian soldiers were killed and more than 150 wounded in Debaltseve in the past few days, although with many Ukrainian troops reported to still be in the city it could be some time before the real death toll becomes clear. The director of the Artemivsk morgue told the Guardian that the bodies of 23 soldiers had been delivered since Tuesday night. Many of them had bullet wounds, he said, suggesting close-quarters combat.
Russian state-owned television showed rebels hoisting their flag over a high-rise building in Debaltseve, as well as images of several dozen captured Ukrainian troops being led along a village road.
The spoils of war: pro-Russia rebels recover a tank (left) abandoned by retreating Ukrainian troops.
The seizure of the city, which holds a highway crossing and a rail junction connecting Donetsk and Luhansk, is a major victory for the breakaway “people’s republics” based in those two cities. “Coal from the DPR will go to Luhansk and other cities through this railroad junction,” Donetsk leader Alexander Zakharchenko told a Russian website from a position on the outskirts of Debaltseve on Tuesday. He was later injured in the ankle by an exploding mortar shell.
The fall of Debaltseve also represents a win for president Vladimir Putin, whose government has backed the pro-Russia forces with heavy weapons and soldiers. In Budapest on Tuesday, Putin called for Kiev to give up Debaltseve. The leaders of France, Germany and Ukraine, who met with the Russian president in Minsk last week to hammer out a peace plan for eastern Ukraine, told a European Union summit that Putin had attempted to delay the ceasefire for 10 days to force the city’s surrender.
But the end of weeks of fighting for Debaltseve could breathe new life into the stillborn ceasefire, which was broken by shelling in the area almost as soon as it began on Sunday. Rebel leader Zakharchenko had previously said his forces would observe the ceasefire everywhere except in Debaltseve, which he said rightfully belonged to the rebels.
Although both sides were supposed to begin withdrawing heavy weapons on Tuesday according to the Minsk agreement, Kiev and Donetsk said they could not do so while fighting was ongoing.
But in a sign of progress for the peace plan, Igor Plotnitsky, head of the Luhansk People’s Republic, said on Wednesday afternoon that his forces had begun pulling back heavy weapons and expected Kiev to respond in kind. Donetsk deputy military head Eduard Basurin said his forces were pulling back five self-propelled guns from Olenivka, south of Donetsk, as a “first step”.
But fighting reportedly continued on Wednesday afternoon near the coastal city of Mariupol, where Poroshenko said last week his forces had begun a “counter-offensive” to push the front line back to where it was before a September ceasefire. The local organisation Mariupol Defence reported that rebels had fired nine times with mortars and machine guns at the village of Shirokyne, which has reportedly seen tank and artillery battles in recent days, wounding two of Kiev’s fighters.
“What agreements can we have with terrorists? The main problem is that we sit at a table with terrorists and sign a paper, and then base our policy on this paper that is not worth anything,” said Ilya Kiva, deputy police chief for the Donetsk region, who also fought in Debaltseve. He complained that Ukrainian forces had only been allowed to open retaliatory fire after the ceasefire began. “Yet again these bandits used the ceasefire to make treacherous strikes against us.”
The ignominious retreat may have political fallout for Poroshenko’s government. Semyon Semyonchenko, a well-known MP and commander of the Donbass battalion, blamed the Kiev leadership for the defeat and said in a post on Facebook that he would call for the resignation of army commander Viktor Muzhenko at the next session of the security and defence committee.
“What hindered us in Debaltseve? We had enough men and material,” Semyonchenko wrote. “The problem was with the leadership and coordination of actions … What’s going on now is the result of incompetent management of our troops, even though they’re trying to cover this up with a propaganda storm.”
After separatists' victory in Debaltseve, will Putin stick or twist?
If Russia and the rebels continue to breach the ceasefire or otherwise overplay their hand, they are likely to face a much tougher US response
Wednesday 18 February 2015 16.50 GMT
Vladimir Putin has got what he wanted. The Kiev government can call it a “planned retreat” if that makes it feel better, but the watching world will join the Russian president in viewing the Ukrainian army’s withdrawal under fire from the strategic hub of Debaltseve as a highly significant victory for the Moscow-armed separatists.
The critical question now is: will this be enough for Putin, or will he and the rebels press their advantage and try to further enlarge the territory under their control? Despite last weekend’s ceasefire, fighting has continued along other parts of the frontline, around Donetsk and at the government-held southern port city of Mariupol.
With Ukraine’s army on the run, with President Petro Poroshenko politically wounded after making big concessions to achieve last week’s Minsk II peace deal, and with Kiev’s divided western allies fulminating impotently and uncertain what to do, Putin may calculate that he can keep on going until he chooses to stop.
Separatist leaders make no secret of their ambition to carve out a viable, self-contained entity encompassing the three eastern oblasts of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv that could, in time, become an independent state. Moscow may prefer an autonomous region inside Ukraine that does Russia’s bidding – another so-called frozen conflict.
But if Putin and the rebels continue to breach the ceasefire or otherwise overplay their hand, they are likely to face a much tougher, escalatory US response. Barack Obama and Nato have avoided any military involvement so far, partly at the bidding of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, the EU’s lead mediator. With Kiev reiterating its calls for western weapons and material and Putin’s proxies running amok, this restraint cannot last much longer.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, was on the phone to Moscow on Wednesday, warning of dire consequences. On Tuesday Joe Biden, the US vice-president, pointedly warned Putin to knock it off, and the Obama administration fiercely criticised Russian behaviour at an angry UN security council meeting.
Prodded awake by Washington, David Cameron unexpectedly waded in too. He urged European countries to stick together in facing down Moscow and not be afraid to jointly impose additional, painful economic sanctions – which is very much the American line.
Other factors could fuel an escalation. The US, the EU and Nato all roundly condemned the sack of Debaltseve as a clear ceasefire violation. They have a growing credibility problem, and not just with the Russians. If last week’s Minsk II peace roadmap is to have any chance of implementation in the longer term, they have to find a way – which has eluded them so far – of deterring and punishing transgressions without destroying the process as a whole.
It is unclear, too, how long Poroshenko can hold the line at home. He was forced to give much away in the Minsk talks – too much, according to some nationalist politicians. Now his forces have suffered a demoralising defeat. Some suggest he may try to reassert his authority by imposing martial law.
Semyon Semenchenko, a battalion commander and MP, accused the military command, and by implication Poroshenko, of betraying the country’s interests in Debaltseve. “We had enough forces and means. The problem is the command and coordination. They are as bad as can be,” he said on his Facebook page.
Even as the US and UK appear to be gearing up for a bigger confrontation, the Europeans are still desperately hoping Debaltseve will mark the de facto beginning of the ceasefire, not its end. Stephane Le Foll, a French government spokesman, said France would do everything it could to keep Minsk II alive. He hoped the separatists would now honour the deal. Some rebel leaders in Donetsk have indicated they will.
“We will continue, we know we have some problems, we know that not everything has been settled. But between the situation just before the Minsk agreement and the situation now … there has been progress,” Le Foll said. Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, took a similar line. He could not say whether Minsk II was alive or dead, but Berlin believed it was worthwhile “to keep working”, he said. Germany continues to oppose supplying weapons to Kiev.
To this end, presumably, Merkel and her principal collaborator, the French president, François Hollande, were due to talk by phone late on Wednesday to Putin and Poroshenko. Besides securing the ceasefire post-Debaltseve, they were expected to concentrate on the putative next stages – the withdrawal of both sides’ heavy weapons, and establishing a demilitarised buffer zone.
This approach may be characterised as either valiantly persistent or foolishly naive. Putin knows EU countries will avoid armed confrontation by all means, and are split on the question of tougher sanctions. Like all bullies, he despises weakness, and this may be what he sees in Franco-German attempts to keep talking. He may decide to bank his winnings and call a halt. Equally, he could be tempted to push his luck and grab more territory.
For their part, the Americans (and their British mouthpiece) are fast running out of patience. Merkel and Hollande, with only imperfect solutions available, are caught in the middle as never before. They may be the only two people standing between Europe and a wider war.
Russia a threat to Baltic states after Ukraine conflict, warns Michael Fallon
Defence secretary claims Vladimir Putin could repeat tactics used to destabilise Ukraine in Baltic members of the Nato alliance
Thursday 19 February 2015 00.21
Russian president Vladimir Putin could repeat the tactics used to destabilise Ukraine in Baltic members of the Nato alliance, the defence secretary has warned.
Michael Fallon said Nato must be ready for Russian aggression in “whatever form it takes” as he acknowledged tensions between the alliance and Moscow were “warming up”.
His comments came after prime minister David Cameron called on Europe to make clear to Russia that it faces economic and financial consequences for “many years to come” if it does not stop destabilising Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces pulled out from the strategically important town of Debaltseve after fierce fighting, which had continued despite the ceasefire agreed following international talks.
Six Ukrainian servicemen were killed during the withdrawal, the country’s president Petro Poroshenko said.
Fallon, who said he was worried about Putin, acknowledged the Russian leader could attempt a repeat of the covert campaign used in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine against other former Soviet bloc countries such as Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia.
That could involve irregular troops, cyber attacks and inflaming tensions with ethnic Russian minorities in nations seen as part of the country’s “near abroad” by Moscow.
He said there was a “real and present danger” that such tactics could be used.
The defence secretary said: “Nato has to be ready for any kind of aggression from Russia, whatever form it takes. Nato is getting ready.”
Fallon said he was “worried about his [Putin] pressure on the Baltics, the way he is testing Nato”.
This month two long-range bombers flew down the Channel off the coast of Bournemouth in an indication of Moscow’s sabre-rattling.
“It is the first time since the height of the cold war that has happened and it just shows you the need to respond each time he does something like that.”
Fallon, who was speaking to journalists accompanying him on a trip to Sierra Leone, said it was not a new cold war with Russia because the situation is already “pretty warm”.
The Times reported that he said: “You have tanks and armour rolling across the Ukrainian border, and you have an Estonian border guard being captured and not yet still returned.
“When you have jets being flown up the English Channel, when you have submarines in the North Sea, it looks to me like it’s warming up.”
His warnings about Russian ambitions came after Cameron warned Europe could not turn a “blind eye” to the Kremlin’s actions.
Cameron said in Ukraine “effectively one country is challenging the territorial integrity of another country”.
“Those Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, they are using Russian rocket launchers, Russian tanks, Russian artillery, you can’t buy this equipment on eBay, it hasn’t come from somewhere else, it’s come from Russia and we know that,” he said.
“So we have to be very firm and strong about the sanctions and say to Vladimir Putin: ‘What you are doing is unacceptable and it will have economic and financial consequences for many years to come if you do not desist with your behaviour’.”
Speaking during a visit to West Sussex, Cameron underlined his intention to keep pressure on European Union partners to maintain the sanctions regime against Russia despite the ceasefire agreement.
Cameron said: “Of course there’s a temptation for every European country just to say ‘Let’s go on trading exactly as we have done with Russia, let’s leave responsibility for what is happening in Ukraine to someone else and let’s turn away’.
“I am afraid that would be a terrible mistake and Britain has been leading the argument in Europe saying Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine has been completely unacceptable and consequences must follow that in terms of sanctions.”
The Guardian view on Debaltseve and the Ukraine ceasefire
The best response to Russian policy in Ukraine is to play the economic card
Ukrainian government forces pulling out of Debaltseve
Wednesday 18 February 2015 19.12 GMT
It was obvious as soon as the Ukraine ceasefire was agreed last week that both sides would fight hard in the time before it came into force to either seize or deny territory, particularly in Debaltseve. Such down-to-the-wire efforts are a feature of ceasefires everywhere, and they often go beyond the wire, as they have at Debaltseve, where the separatists have been able to squeeze the battered town so hard in the last few days that Ukrainian forces are now withdrawing, in what sort of order is not clear. Such land grabs are violations but they may also demonstrate an expectation that the truce will last. Why expend men and materiel to gain an advantage unless you expect to be able to lock it in? So the Russians and the separatists probably thought they could get away with it and then transform themselves into supposedly dutiful observers of the agreement afterwards.
So far that seems a correct calculation. In spite of protests and late-night phone calls to Moscow, the line seems to be that the ceasefire is damaged but not dead, in the words of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman. President Petro Poroshenko, for his part, is presenting Debaltseve as a something akin to Dunkirk, a heroic battle against the odds and an orderly withdrawal under fire, but not as a reason for entirely denouncing the ceasefire.
The phrase “you can’t win” must often, and bitterly, come to mind in Ukraine. The Russians can always up the ante when the Ukrainians do well on the battlefield. The way the struggle for Debaltseve went is only the latest reminder that the military situation in Ukraine is asymmetrical, and almost entirely favours Russia and the separatists. The economic confrontation, however, is also asymmetrical, and almost entirely favours Ukraine and its friends in Europe and North America. At the most local level, the rebel-held part of the Donbass region, although slightly more coherent after the capture of the Debaltseve rail junction, is not big enough or well-connected enough to be a viable economic entity even if its run-down and now war-damaged industries could be revived. Keeping Donbass on life support is not a burden that Russia, staggering under the double impact of sanctions and falling oil prices, wishes or is able to assume. It would prefer that Ukraine and its western allies pick up most of that tab. Potentially that hands some leverage to Kiev, particularly if Kiev begins to prosper economically.
The economic, social and political reform of Ukraine is indeed the top card in the hand events have dealt Kiev and its allies. But, as George Soros has said in a recent essay, that demands much more focus by Europe, the United States and international institutions on economic aid and fiscal assistance to the republic. Sanctions, he argues, are a necessary evil because, while they keep up the political pressure on Moscow, they damage both Russia and western countries. The economic collapse of Russia, it should be noted, is in no way desirable. The Russian default of 1998 was disastrous for everybody. Greater help for Ukraine, on the other hand, would not hurt Russia and would have only positive consequences for both the Ukrainian and the European economies. Economic relations within and with a prosperous western Ukraine might also help in time to soften the antagonism between nationalists and separatists and make President Vladimir Putin rethink his regional ambitions.
If that is on the outer edge of optimism, and it is, it is still the best way to go, making the most of Europe’s and America’s economic advantages and pulling away from the dangers of military escalation. That does not mean that some military preparations and a more consistent signalling of Nato resolve are not appropriate, but they are very much secondary. The fundamental aim must be to transform the conflict into a contest in which force is at the far end of the spectrum. Mr Putin could of course at any time revert to the war option. The ceasefire, which Mrs Merkel rightly described as offering only a glimmer of hope, could break down again, for example in a push to take Mariupol. But Mariupol would be a city too far and would lead to enhanced sanctions. So there is still a chance that the ceasefire will lead not to peace – that would be too much to suppose – but to a period when divergent objectives are pursued by non-warlike means.
Russian bombers testing the RAF hark back to cold war for Putin and the west
Tensions grow across Europe as Russian president exploits divides in Nato and EU in his efforts for paternalistic world order that rejects western ‘weakness’
Thursday 19 February 2015 19.53 GMT
The sight of Russian long-range nuclear bombers testing the RAF in the skies off Cornwall has brought home the perils faced daily by the inhabitants of eastern Ukraine and reignited inflammatory talk of a new cold war with Russia.
Against a background of overt and tacit threats to former satellite states, tit-for-tat spy expulsions, high-risk military games of chicken, gas supply cut-offs, and angry diplomatic exchanges, it seems the west is rapidly rewinding to the bad old days of confrontation with Soviet Russia.
And as the Ukraine ceasefire appears to unravel, the question on the lips of every western leader, army general, business analyst and spy chief is: what does Vladimir Putin want?
The Russian president’s apparent bad faith in honouring the Minsk peace accord is seen as part of a pattern of threatening behaviour that has raised tensions across Europe. Russia’s armed forces, both nuclear and conventional, are formidable, and have global reach.
Despite the falling oil price, sharp devaluation of the rouble and western economic sanctions, Putin continues, undeterred, to spend heavily on Russia’s military and its nuclear weapons arsenal. The country’s 2014 military budget was about $70bn, with only the US and China spending more. It is set to rise this year to $84bn.
Russia’s navy comprises the Northern Fleet, based at Murmansk, the Baltic Fleet, Black Sea Fleet, Caspian Flotilla, and Pacific Fleet, while the army, partly based on conscription, is believed to number about 300,000 men – Britain’s army totals about 86,000.
American estimates suggest Russia has approximately 1,500 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, plus more than 1,000 in reserve. It can also deploy 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads. Missile system platforms included land-based silos, submarines, and air-launched warheads.
Of particular alarm to analysts is Russia’s development of new nuclear-armed cruise missiles and long-range submarines as 1980s arms control treaties expire. So-called close encounters with Russia’s conventional military have grown exponentially in the past year, from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean.
Russia’s air force, of particular concern to Britain, comprises 38 advanced fighter squadrons, including MiG29s, 15 Su-24 bomber squadrons and 14 assault squadrons, plus other assets.
David Cameron, criticised for his silence over Russia’s actions, is now showing increased urgency. He waded in on Wednesday after it became clear the Moscow-armed separatists had Ukraine’s army on the run. “We must not allow people to cause instability and bully their neighbours,” he said.
Defence secretary Michael Fallon went further. He warned that the Baltic republics – Nato members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – could be next. “Nato has to be ready for any kind of aggression from Russia, whatever form it takes. Nato is getting ready,” Fallon said.
This all seems slightly hysterical. Looked at from Putin’s perspective, Russia is more attacked than aggressor. His narrative of national victimhood begins in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent “tragic” implosion of the Soviet Union.
Argument still rages over whether the then US secretary of state James Baker promised President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 that Nato would not enlarge up to Russia’s borders. Whatever people say now, Putin insists the promise was made – and cynically broken.
In Putin’s mind, Nato’s expansion is matched by EU enlargement into central and eastern Europe, which he views as little more than another American-inspired attempt to deny Russia its traditional spheres of influence in its “near abroad”.
Putin’s grievances, real and imagined, include overbearing US militarism in the Middle East, notably in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, and in its crude attempts to dictate the future of Syria and Iran.
Western domination of global political and economic forums such as the UN security council and the G7 have led him to alternative international structures such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
Putin is actively building bilateral ties with China, including big oil and gas export deals, as a way of off-setting US influence and reducing Russia’s dependency on European energy markets.
Yet Putin is not merely reactive and pragmatic. He is, equally, an opportunist and an ideologue – a passionate, patriotic Russian nationalist, fiercely proud of the Motherland (the beloved Rodina) and determined to restore lost greatness. It is this sense of mission that makes him truly dangerous and unpredictable.
Click to watch: <iframe src="https://embed.theguardian.com/embed/video/world/video/2015/feb/19/eastern-ukraine-struggle-world-food-programme-video
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But it is Putin’s belief in western, especially American weakness – even moral decadence – that is perhaps most threatening of all.
Peering out from his Kremlin perch, Putin sees a European continent divided between wealthy and poor countries, between north and south, and senses an opportunity. He sees a Nato alliance similarly riven yet, like the EU, united in its wish to avoid an open fight with Russia.
He sees a risk-averse US president who, his many domestic critics say, has abandoned America’s global leadership role. He sees, in the end of the American unipolar moment, a chance to forge a Bush-ian new world order conformable to his authoritarian, paternalistic philosophy.
Putin sees himself, above all, as a muscular champion and guardian of traditional, patriotic and national values and of familial, religious and sexual orthodoxy. The legacy he draws on is neither Soviet nor Marxist-Leninist, but imperial. What Putin wants is power and pre-eminence, personal and national.
In Russia, a tsar is born.
Russian expansionism may pose existential threat, says Nato general
British general Sir Adrian Bradshaw says Nato needs to develop fast-reacting conventional forces and capacities to counter Russian propaganda
Friday 20 February 2015 19.05 GMT Last modified on Saturday 21 February 2015 01.31 GMT
Russian expansionist ambitions could quickly become “an obvious existential threat to our whole being”, the most senior British military officer in Nato has said in a strongly worded speech.
General Sir Adrian Bradshaw, appointed last year as Nato’s deputy commander of forces in Europe, said the alliance needed to develop both fast-reacting conventional forces and capacities to counter Russian efforts at coercion and propaganda, as seen in Ukraine.
Talking of “an era of constant competition with Russia”, Bradshaw told an audience at the Royal United Services Institute that Nato had to maintain a cohesive system of deterrence on its eastern borders, something that would require help from the EU.
He said Nato was pushing ahead with plans for a very high readiness joint taskforce, “in order to convince Russia, or any other state adversary, that any attack on one Nato member will inevitably lead them into a conflict with the whole alliance”.
David Cameron has warned Vladimir Putin of “more consequences” if a ceasefire in Ukraine does not hold. Speaking on a visit to Govan shipyard in Glasgow on Friday, the prime minister said the responsibility for what had happened in Ukraine “lies absolutely squarely with Vladimir Putin and Russia”, and a strong response was needed.
Cameron said: “In terms of what Britain has done, we were the first country to say that Russia should be thrown out of the G8, and Russia was thrown out of the G8. We have been the strongest adherent that we need strong sanctions in Europe and we’ve pushed for those, achieved those and held on to those at every single occasion.
“What we need to do now is to deliver the strongest possible message to Putin and to Russia that what has happened is unacceptable, that the ceasefires need to hold and if they don’t there will be more consequences, more sanctions, more measures.”
In his speech, Bradshaw described Russia’s tactics as a “hybrid combination”, using fast-generated conventional military forces as well as “subversion by a number of means, both military and non-military”.
His strongest words came during a section of the speech introducing other threats faced by Nato, including that from Islamic State. He said: “While the threat from Russia, together with the risk it brings of a miscalculation resulting in a slide into strategic conflict, however unlikely we see that as being right now, represents an obvious existential threat to our whole being, we of course face threats from Isis and other instabilities to our way of life and the security of our loved ones.”
Bradshaw said the Nato summit in Wales in September 2014 had been dominated by the urgent need for change due to Russian behaviour. The “ambiguity” of Russian actions made a response all the more difficult, he explained.
“These are, firstly, the difficulty of identifying clearly the hand of a hostile state government in the subversive destabilising effects they bring to bear in the early stages of such a strategy,” he said. “Secondly, the danger that Russia might believe that the large-scale conventional forces that she’s shown she can generate at very short notice … could in future be used not just for intimidation and coercion, but potentially to seize Nato territory, after which the threat of escalation might be used to prevent re-establishment of territorial integrity.”
The best response was a new rapid reaction force, he said, currently being drawn up by the UK, France, Spain, Italy and Poland. This would not contravene Nato treaties with Russia by positioning major forces on its borders, Bradshaw said, but would “send a strong signal in the form of a sustained, multinational Nato presence” in the eastern states.
Nato’s plans would need to include not just conventional forces, he added, but countering “political agitation and subversion, cyber-attack, hostile propaganda and other destabilising effects”. This would need assistance from the EU, for example to produce Russian-language TV coverage as as alternative to “the hostile and almost laughably inaccurate propaganda beamed out every day to Russian domestic audiences”.
Russia's debt downgraded to junk by Moody's
Move follows S&P’s downrating as agency predicts Ukraine crisis, falling oil price and rouble plunge will bring further gloom
AFP in Washington
Saturday 21 February 2015 00.28 GMT
Moody’s has cut Russia’s debt rating by one notch into “junk” territory, saying the Ukraine crisis and the fall in oil prices and plunging rouble would further undermine Russia’s economy.
Just over one month since its last downgrade of Moscow’s credit rating, Moody’s said Russia “is expected to experience a deep recession in 2015 and a continued contraction in 2016.
“The decline in confidence is likely to constrain domestic demand and exacerbate the Russian economy’s already chronic underinvestment.”
Moody’s cut the rating on the country’s bonds by one step to Ba1, a “speculative” or junk grade. Previously it was Baa3.
The move also came after Standard & Poor’s provoked Moscow’s ire on 26 January by cutting its rating for the country to junk level.
Moody’s said on Friday that the government’s fiscal strength “will diminish materially” in the face of continuing capital flight, further lowering the country’s access to international capital markets.
The agency also said that there is an increasing risk – although it is low at the moment – that the government could respond to international pressure over its role in the Ukraine crisis by deciding to slow payments on its foreign debt.
Moody’s also attached a negative outlook to its rating, suggesting the country potentially faces another downgrade in the coming months.
“It seems more likely that Russia will face additional sanctions than that current sanctions are lifted in the coming months. The associated economic risks are also biased to the downside,” it said.
The downgrade followed a week of fighting in Ukraine that appeared to undermine a brand-new truce negotiated between the leaders of Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine and the pro-Moscow rebels.
On Friday, the United States, which has taken the lead in pressing for sanctions against Russia, delivered some of its harshest criticism yet, accusing Moscow of undermining the global order by supporting the rebels.
“We call upon Russia to honour its commitments immediately with decisive action before we see more cities decimated and more lives lost in eastern Ukraine,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
John Kerry threatens Russia with serious sanctions over Ukraine
US secretary of state condemns Russia’s ‘extraordinarily craven behaviour’ after ceasefire left in tatters despite prisoner exchange
Rebecca Ratcliffe and agencies
Saturday 21 February 2015 21.23 GMT Last modified on Saturday 21 February 2015 23.50 GMT
The US has warned it could level “serious sanctions” on Russia within days over breaches of Ukraine’s truce, which is in tatters despite pro-Moscow rebels and government forces exchanging scores of prisoners.
A separatist official said 139 Ukrainian troops and 52 rebels had been exchanged at a remote frontline location near the village of Zholobok, 12 miles west of the rebel-held city Luhansk.
Some of the released soldiers were wounded. A few had to walk on crutches through a landscape scarred and cratered by months of fighting.
The insurgents said the prisoners included some troops seized this week when they overran the strategic town of Debaltseve, located between Luhansk and the other rebel stronghold of Donetsk.
That bloody offensive – which killed 179 soldiers over the past month, according to one Ukrainian presidential aide – was the most egregious breach of the UN-backed ceasefire. About 2,500 Ukrainian troops had to flee Debaltseve under heavy rebel fire, and at least 112 were taken prisoner.
The Debaltseve assault and more than 250 ceasefire violations attributed to pro-Moscow fighters prompted a furious reaction from the US, which blames Russia for the 10-month conflict.
“If this failure continues, make no mistake, there will be further consequences including consequences that will place added strains on Russia’s already troubled economy,” John Kery, the US secretary of state, told a press conference in London.
He said Barack Obama would “in the next few days” decide what “additional steps will be taken in response to the breach of this ceasefire”. Kerry foresaw “serious sanctions” being imposed.
Kerry, who had been in talks with Philip Hammond, the UK foreign secretary, described Russia’s conduct as “simply unacceptable”.
“Russia has engaged in an absolutely brazen and cynical process over these last days,” he said. “We know to a certainty what Russia has been providing to the separatists, how Russia is involved with the separatists.
“We’re not going to sit there and be part of this kind of extraordinarily craven behaviour at the expense of the sovereignty and integrity of a nation.”
Hammond condemned the way in which the ceasefire agreement signed in Minsk had been “systematically breached”.
“We are going to talk about how we can maintain European unity and US-European alignment in response to those breaches,” he said.
This follows warnings from the Ukrainian military that it is bracing for a rebel attack on the port city of Mariupol – the largest city still under government control in the two rebellious eastern provinces.
Kiev military accused Russia on Friday of sending more tanks and troops towards the rebel-held town of Novoazovsk, further east along the Sea of Azov coast from Mariupol, expanding their presence on what it fears could be the next battlefront.
An attack on Mariupol would kill off a European-brokered ceasefire.
“The adversary is carrying out a build-up of military equipment, weapons and fighters in the Mariupol area with the aim of a possible offensive on it,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said.
“They are sending out small sabotage groups out almost every night. We can see the activities of the enemy around Novoazovsk where military hardware, fighters and ammunition are being amassed.”
Germany and France, which brokered the Ukraine truce, admit they “don’t have any illusions” about the difficulty in getting the agreement to take hold, but say it is the only hope of calming the conflict enough to find a lasting solution.
The UN estimates 5,700 people have died in the 10 months of war.
Under the truce, both sides are meant to observe a ceasefire, withdraw heavy weapons from the frontline by 3 March and carry out a prisoner exchange.
If those steps are met, they are then to conduct negotiations on greater autonomy in rebel-held areas, and eventually restore Ukraine’s control over all of its border with Russia.
But Kiev and the rebels continue to trade accusations of shelling, mortar rounds and rocket strikes targeting their positions.
Ukrainian defence officials allege Russia has deployed 20 tanks towards the port city of Mariupol and said a dozen enemy reconnaissance drones have been shot down.
The rebels claim to have already pulled back weapons in some areas, but there was no confirmation from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is monitoring the truce.
OSCE observers have been barred from entering Debaltseve to assess the situation, but the rebels promised they would finally be allowed in on Sunday.
Russia's debt downgraded to junk by Moody's
Moscow is already labouring under several rounds of US and EU sanctions over the crisis. But while they have accelerated Russia’s slide towards recession, they have thus far failed to change Vladimir Putin’s stance.
In one sign of the effects on Russia’s economy, rating agency Moody’s cut Moscow’s debt note by one notch into “junk” territory, just a month after its last downgrade.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s former pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych, whose overthrow early last year led to the insurgency raging in east Ukraine, said in a Russian TV interview excerpt released Saturday: “I’ll be back.”
The ex-leader has little support left in his home country, however, after it was discovered following his escape to Russia that he had been living lavishly, in a sumptuous palace with a private zoo, a replica pirate ship and pure gold fittings, while the country sank further into debt.
The most senior British military officer in Nato warned on Friday that Russian expansionist ambitions could quickly become “an obvious existential threat to our whole being”.
General Sir Adrian Bradshaw, appointed last year as Nato’s deputy commander of forces in Europe, said the alliance needed to develop both fast-reacting conventional forces and capacities to counter Russian efforts at coercion and propaganda, as seen in Ukraine.
Talking of “an era of constant competition with Russia”, Bradshaw told an audience at the Royal United Services Institute on Friday that Nato had to maintain a cohesive system of deterrence on its eastern borders, something that would require help from the EU.
Russia offers to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Iran
Tehran said to be considering offer, which could have an impact on nuclear talks approaching a deadline next month
A Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile system. The Russians are now offering Iran the Antey-2500 system, which is more advanced.
Julian Borger, diplomatic editor
Monday 23 February 2015 19.56 GMT Last modified on Tuesday 24 February 2015 00.35 GMT
Russia has reportedly offered to sell Iran powerful and advanced anti-aircraft missiles in a deal that could have an impact on nuclear talks approaching a deadline next month.
Sergei Chemezov, head of the Russian state arms conglomerate Rostec, was quoted by the Tass news agency as saying the firm was willing to supply Tehran with Antey-2500 missiles with the capability of intercepting and destroying ballistic and cruise missiles as well as aircraft. Chemezov said Tehran was considering the offer.
If the sale goes ahead, the missiles are likely to represent a significant defence against any future air strikes aimed at Iran’s nuclear facilities, and so could in theory diminish pressure on Iran to come to an agreement in nuclear negotiations.
Conversely, if the talks fail, a missile deal could raise pressure from Israel and from US hawks for military action before the delivery of the Russian weapons makes air strikes riskier and less effective.
Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is due to deliver an address to the US Congress next week in which he is expected to urge the administration to take a tougher line against Iran.
The planned sale of a less sophisticated and shorter-range surface-to-air missile system, the S-300, was cancelled in 2010 after concerted Israeli and US pressure on Moscow. But since then Vladimir Putin has returned to the presidency in place of the more conciliatory Dmitry Medvedev, Moscow’s relations with the west have dramatically worsened over the Ukraine conflict, and the sharp drop in the oil price together with western sanctions have left Moscow increasingly desperate to find new sources of foreign currency. Russian arms sales last year generated $13bn (£8.4bn).
“As far as Iran is concerned, we offered Antey-2500 instead of S-300. They are thinking. No decision has been made yet,” Chemezov said, according to Tass. “I don’t conceal it, and everyone understands this, the more conflicts there are, the more they buy off weapon from us. Volumes are continuing to grow despite sanctions. Mainly, it’s Latin America and the Middle East.”
In Geneva on Monday, nuclear talks adjourned after the latest in a long series of meetings between the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The negotiations are aimed at finding a formula by which Iran accepts curbs on its nuclear programme – particularly uranium enrichment – for a certain number of years, in return for sanctions relief. Kerry and Zarif were joined in Geneva for the first time by the head of the Iranian atomic energy organisation, Ali Akbar Salehi, and the US energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, in a development which negotiators described as necessary to confront the complex technical issues at the heart of the talks. Hossein Fereydoun, the brother of Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, also took part in the latest discussions.
Diplomats from US and Iran, as well as the other parties to the talks – UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – are due to reconvene in Switzerland next week in an attempt to reach a framework agreement before a deadline of late March. They have until the end of June to fill in all the details of what would be a complex but historic accord.
US and Iranian negotiators characterised the Geneva talks as constructive, with progress made but still a long way to go.
Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said: “It appears that the final touches to a mutually acceptable formula for curtailing Iran’s enrichment capacity were added by Iranian and American nuclear chiefs. What remains is a similar solution for untangling the intricate spider web of sanctions.”
The proposed missile sale appears to have been discussed by the Russian defence minister, General Sergey Shoigu, when he visited Tehran last month. The two countries have been in dispute since the cancellation of the S-300 delivery five years ago. The Antey-2500 is an improved version of the S-300 with a longer range and enhanced capabilities.
Nato labels the system as the SA-23 Gladiator. It is a mobile system, launched from tracked vehicles complete with radar and command post. It can launch a variety of anti-ballistic missiles, depending on the nature of the target it has to intercept. Its Russian maker claims it can stop not only missiles and fixed-wing aircraft but also drones and precision-guided bombs. Russia has sold the same system to China, Vietnam and Cyprus.
Sec. of State John Kerry: Russia is lying ‘to my face’ about having troops in Ukraine
24 Feb 2015 at 19:46 ET
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday accused Russian leaders of lying “to my face” about Moscow’s involvement in the conflict in Ukraine and denounced what he called Russia’s “propaganda.”
The top American diplomat refused however to say publicly whether he was in favor of sending U.S. weapons to Kiev to help the Ukranian military battle the pro-Russian rebels in the east.
“Russia has engaged in a rather remarkable period of the most overt and extensive propaganda exercise that I’ve seen since the very height of the Cold War,” Kerry told US lawmakers.
“And they have been persisting in their misrepresentations — lies — whatever you want to call them — about their activities there to my face, to the face of others, on many different occasions.”
Kerry has met multiple times in European cities with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov since the crisis erupted in early 2014.
Asked whether Russia was lying when it denied that there were Russian troops or weapons in Ukraine, Kerry replied: “Yes.”
“Russia is engaged in a massive effort to sway nations, to appeal to them, reach out to them, and fundamentally, tragically, sort of reigniting a new kind of East-West zero sum game that we think is dangerous and unnecessary, frankly,” Kerry said.
He insisted Washington was “doing a pretty good job of standing up for Ukrainian sovereignty.”
The US administration of President Barack Obama is discussing whether to increase its support to Kiev to include lethal weapons.
“Until the president makes his decision, I’m going to keep my consultations personal and private with him,” Kerry said, when asked whether he would support sending in heavy weapons.
But he urged the world and Congress to increase its economic support for Ukraine.
“We all need to be prepared to step up and be there economically for Ukraine as they reform and try to implement their dream and vision,” Kerry told the Senate appropriations committee at the start of two days of budget hearings.
“It’s not good enough to have (President Petro) Poroshenko come here and get 40 standing ovations, and then not step up and deliver what it’s really going to take to help him create the democracy he wants to create.”
The foreign ministers from France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine met in Paris Tuesday in a fresh push to salvage a crumbling peace plan for eastern Ukraine that they hammered out in the Belarussian capital Minsk 12 days ago.
The ministers renewed calls for a total ceasefire in eastern Ukraine as London announced it was sending troops to train Ukrainian government forces.
Early Memo Urged Moscow to Annex Crimea, Report Says
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
FEB. 25, 2015
MOSCOW — A memo drafted in the weeks leading up to the collapse of the Ukrainian government last year recommended that Russia take advantage of the chaos next door to annex Crimea and a large portion of southeastern Ukraine, a Russian newspaper reported on Wednesday, printing what it said was a document that had been presented to the presidential administration.
Russia has long contended that it acted spontaneously to reclaim Crimea, mainly to protect Russian speakers who it said were threatened, and to stave off what it suspected was an attempt by NATO to colonize the Black Sea region.
The report in Novaya Gazeta, one of the few often-critical voices still published in Russia, said that before the Ukrainian government collapsed on Feb. 21, 2014, the memo had already advised the Kremlin to adopt the policy it has since largely pursued in Ukraine.
The memo appears to have been drafted under the auspices of a conservative oligarch, Konstantin V. Malofeev, the report said. The memo laid out what it called the inevitable disintegration of Ukraine and suggested a series of logistical steps through which Russia could exploit the situation for its own good — steps not far from what actually occurred, though Russia has not annexed any territory in eastern Ukraine.
Sometime between Feb. 4 and Feb. 12 — while Russia was still voicing staunch support for its ally in Kiev, President Viktor F. Yanukovych — the memo predicted Mr. Yanukovych’s overthrow and suggested that Russia use the European Union’s own rules on self-determination to pry away Crimea and a significant chunk of eastern Ukraine.
Dmitry S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, dismissed the memo as a hoax. “I don’t know whether this document exists at all,” he said. “I don’t know who might be the author, but for sure, the document has nothing to do with the Kremlin.”
The authenticity of the document could not be independently verified. The newspaper did not publish any pictures of the memo or provide any proof that the policy described in it had actually been adopted.
The loss of Crimea had been a sore point in Moscow since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In addition, President Vladimir V. Putin suggested last year that much of southeastern Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Odessa, actually formed a distinct area known in czarist times as New Russia.
That talk faded as it became clear that only a minority of the population in and around just two cities, Luhansk and Donetsk, had any interest in joining Russia. But Russia has pushed for federalization of Ukraine, another recommendation in the memo, since the beginning.
In February, with the Yanukovych government teetering, the memo’s author recommended that Russia take advantage of the “centrifugal forces” tearing Ukraine apart to merge its east with Russia.
“The dominant regions for the application of force should be Crimea and the Kharkiv region,” it said, noting that strong groups there endorsed the idea of joining Russia.
Oddly, the memo left out the Donetsk region, now the separatists’ main center of power, speculating that the links between Kiev and the most powerful local oligarch, Rinat L. Akhmetov, were too strong for the region to break away.
The latest updates to the current visual survey of the continuing dispute, with maps and satellite imagery showing rebel and military movement.
Novaya Gazeta identified Mr. Malofeev as the mastermind behind the document, though it also quoted his communications team as denying any involvement by him.
The European Union has imposed sanctions on Mr. Malofeev over his support for the separatists, including his statements that eastern Ukraine, but not the whole country, could be incorporated into Russia.
The memo was dismissive of Mr. Yanukovych’s chances of bringing the situation under control.
“President Yanukovych is not a very charismatic person,” it said. “He is afraid to give up the presidential post and at the same time is prepared to trade the security officers for guarantees of keeping the post and of immunity after resignation.”
Men repaired a hole blown in the side of a bank on Wednesday in Debaltseve, Ukraine as the cease-fire seemed to be taking hold. Credit Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Moscow should abandon the Ukrainian leader, the report suggested. “There is no sense in further Russian political, diplomatic, financial or media support for the regime,” it said.
Among other reasons for keeping control over Ukraine, it said, was to maintain the gas supply routes that help Russia dominate European supplies. Russia again criticized Ukraine over the gas issue on Wednesday, with Mr. Putin saying Kiev was trying to decimate its own people by cutting off supplies to the southeast.
He spoke as a cease-fire in southeastern Ukraine seemed to be taking hold, at least for a day. “A cease-fire exists, but it is very fragile,” said Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, referring to the truce signed Feb. 12 in Minsk, Belarus. “If we all manage to make the parties concerned take the second and third steps in accordance with the Minsk agreement, then there is a chance for a sustainable cease-fire.”
Those steps include withdrawing heavy weapons from the front lines and beginning a political dialogue on the future of the separatist areas in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian military said that for a second night in a row, cease-fire violations had “significantly decreased,” and that the previous 24 hours had been the quietest since the signing of the cease-fire.
Yet concerns about the strength of the truce remained, with the Ukrainian military spokesman saying it could not move to the next stage, the withdrawal of heavy weapons, as long as the separatists continued fighting.
Rebel forces said they had already begun withdrawing weapons, including 100 howitzers, from the front on Tuesday. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a statement saying it could not confirm withdrawals by either side because it did not have a thorough accounting of the weapons that were there before the cease-fire.
Correction: February 25, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the date a cease-fire was signed in Minsk, Belarus. It was Feb. 12, not May 12.
Why Moscow's anti-Maidan protesters are putting on an elaborate pretence
Analysis: if enough B-list celebrities gather in one place and shout ‘fire!’ ordinary Russians will start to believe they are at risk, says Allison Quinn
Allison Quinn for The Moscow Times, part of the New East network
Thursday 26 February 2015 05.00 GMT
As tens of thousands of people gathered in central Moscow for an “anti-Maidan” rally recently, the Russian public was being asked to swallow an unsavoury pill: apparently the country is in such danger that its own security forces are not enough to prevent a coup d’etat. Instead it must rely on a team of ageing B-list celebrities to help fight off the west.
The rally, centred around opposition to the protests in Kiev a year ago that toppled former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, was organised by a movement apparently set up to prevent “colour revolutions” in Russia. But this raises the question of what a rag-tag crew of cultural figures could possibly do that the FSB, the foreign intelligence agency and numerous other security agencies couldn’t? Isn’t it the job of these bodies to preserve stability? Why bother having counterintelligence agents if you rely on minor celebrities to do your job for you?
Russia already has the framework in place to prevent a popular uprising, even one from within. This became clear in the case against Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who was not only sidelined from the opposition movement thanks to a flurry of criminal cases launched against him, but also discredited in the eyes of many activists. The imprisonment of his brother, Oleg, last December also acted as a powerful deterrent for other activists.
Why bother having counter-intelligence agents if you rely on minor celebrities to do your job for you?
But thinking critically about these issues is missing the point. This Anti-Maidan movement, spearheaded by Senator Dmitry Sablin, Night Wolves biker gang leader Alexander “the Surgeon” Zaldostanov, and mixed martial arts fighter Yulia Berezikova, could clearly never prevent any uprisings in Russia.
That simply is not within Anti-Maidan’s competencies. But it can put on a flashy show to draw as many people as possible into its ranks in a bid to make fear of the outside world a mainstream preoccupation. It does not seek to prevent uprisings; it seeks to malign members of the opposition, create the impression that Russia is under siege from the west, and present Vladimir Putin as the only solution — all in one fell swoop.
Saturday’s rally was the first manifestation of all three. Posters vilifying Barack Obama and opposition activists such as Navalny and Boris Nemtsov were in abundance, while pamphlets saying “Putin Won’t Allow Maidan in Russia” were handed out near metro stations.
Reports abounded of students being paid to attend and state workers being forced to participate — making it clear the organisers knew they had to provide an elaborate, sold-out show.
Many demonstrators were convinced that Russia’s government was at direct risk of being overthrown.
“We, the people, must fight for our country’s independence from America. That is why I came,” said Svetlana, who declined to give her surname. She said she also planned to attend an upcoming referendum for Russia’s “independence”.
Many demonstrators at the rally were convinced that Russia’s government was at direct risk of being overthrown
When asked who was in control if Russia was not currently independent, she said: “The US. Who else wrote our constitution when [Boris] Yeltsin was drunk? American ‘aides’. The same people working in Ukraine now.”
Svetlana was not alone. Many other demonstrators said they believed that the US had not only been responsible for the bloodshed in Kiev a year ago but had also meticulously infiltrated Russia using members of the political opposition.
While conspiracy theories are nothing new, Anti-Maidan’s purpose is to make them the norm.
It’s no surprise that Moscow authorities sanctioned the rally — held in the very centre of the city — just as it’s no surprise that the protest was crawling with state television reporters.
Nor is it a surprise that for perhaps the first time in recent history Moscow police overestimated the turnout, putting attendance at 35,000. Many journalists put it in the range of 20,000 to 25,000.
If there are enough people congregated in one place shouting “fire!” one might actually start to feel the flames.
And what better time than now, when Russia is stuck in the bowels of an economic crisis, to create a bogeyman for the people to stand united against? What better time than now, when ordinary Russians are starting to feel the effects of inflation and rising food prices?
These are precisely the sort of conditions that make a country ripe for popular protests — so what better way to nip them in the bud than by convincing the people that voicing discontent with the government would be playing right into the enemy’s hands?
Another rally was held over the weekend to mark the one-year anniversary of the uprising in Kiev. But that protest, held in Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv on Sunday and attended by about 500 people, was not a show intended to manipulate public consciousness. It was not staged to direct the public’s rage at an abstract bogeyman.
That rally was tainted by very real bogeymen, as the relatives of three people killed by a bomb blast during the march can confirm. Two policemen died at the scene, and a 15-year-old teenager passed away later in hospital after the peaceful protest was interrupted by an explosion that Ukraine suspects was a terrorist attack. At least another 15 were wounded in the blast.
Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov shot dead
27 Feb 2015 at 18:10 ET
Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, a fierce critic of President Vladmir Putin, was shot dead in central Moscow late Friday ahead of a major opposition rally this weekend, investigators and police said.
This story has been updated
“In central Moscow, a man with documents in the name of Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov was killed,” an interior ministry spokesman told AFP early Saturday, declining to give further details.
Russia’s Investigative Committee confirmed the death, saying it had opened a criminal probe.
“According to preliminary information, an unidentified person shot at Boris Nemtsov no fewer than 7-8 times from a car as he was walking along the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky bridge,” investigators said in a statement.
The committee, which reports directly to Putin, said that “experienced” investigators had been put on the case.
Nemtsov launched his political career as the governor of Nizhny Novgorod region in central Russia and became a vice prime minister in the late 1990s under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.
After leaving parliament in 2003, he helped establish and led several opposition parties and groups.
Nemtov’s murder comes ahead of a major opposition rally scheduled to take place on March 1.
The murder “bears the hallmarks of a contract killing,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Another interior ministry spokesperson, Yelena Alekseyeva, told reporters at the scene that Nemtsov was walking with a woman when he was shot.
The woman, who is from Ukraine, was now being questioned, she added.
Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev has taken charge of the criminal probe, she said.
Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister turned opposition leader, told reporters after viewing the scene: “This is payback for the fact that Boris consistently for many, many years fought for Russia to be a free democratic country.”
Russian opposition leader Nemtsov’s murder ‘meticulously planned’
28 Feb 2015 at 08:34 ET
The murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was carefully planned, investigators said Saturday, pointing to details of the weapon used and the killers’ knowledge of his movements.
“There is no doubt that the crime was meticulously planned, as well as the place chosen for the murder,” the powerful Investigative Committee, which has been put in charge of the probe, said in its first detailed statement on the drive-by shooting of the 55-year-old politician.
Investigators said they believed Nemtsov was shot in the back from a car using a Makarov pistol, used by the Russian military and police.
They said that six cartridges found at the scene were manufactured by different companies, making them harder to trace.
The murder was committed by someone familiar with Nemtsov’s plans, they added. “According to the investigation, Boris Nemtsov was going with his female companion to his flat, which is not far from the scene. And it’s obvious that the organisers and perpetrators of this crime were informed of his planned route.”
Boris Nemtsov: tens of thousands march in memory of murdered politician
Mood of quiet dismay as crowds mourn Vladimir Putin’s adversary who was gunned down near the Kremlin on Friday
Alec Luhn and Shaun Walker in Moscow
Sunday 1 March 2015 19.01 GMT Last modified on Monday 2 March 2015 00.53 GMT
They came with placards and plaintive cries of “shame” – a vast column of mourners snaking through central Moscow to commemorate the latest Russian opposition figure to meet a wretched fate.
But as tens of thousands trudged through the bone-chilling Moscow drizzle to pay their last respects to Boris Nemtsov, the adversary of Vladimir Putin, gunned down a stone’s throw from the Kremlin on Friday night, the mood was more one of quiet dismay rather than explosive anger.
It was the biggest Moscow demonstration since the protests of 2011 – 12, which shook Putin’s leadership to the core. Police estimates of about 20,000 participants were well short of the mark. Those who turned up said more with their quiet placards than with any bold actions.
“He died for the future of Russia,” said some, while others echoed the response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, saying simply: “I am Boris Nemtsov.” Sales manager Olga Sparber said: “We feel grief and depression that this kind of stuff is going on and will probably get worse. It gets harder and harder to believe anything can get better. Putin and his KGB team are to blame, just as he is to blame for the war in Ukraine.”
Many members of the democratic opposition blamed state-controlled television for whipping up patriotic paranoia. Putin himself has contributed to the atmosphere of suspicion by suggesting a fifth column is working to undermine Russia. “I’m part of the opposition, which they call fifth-columnists and national traitors,” Sparber said. “What happens on television and in the media is scary; there’s such hatred. They are pushing people toward aggression.”
Sergei Ryzhov, a retired defence factory worker, said he had not attended a protest since the 1993 standoff between the then president, Boris Yeltsin, and parliament, but said he wanted to commemorate a politician who should have come to power instead of Putin.
“When they kill such a person in the middle of Moscow, it’s awful, and now they’re saying it was a provocation against Russia,” Ryzhov said. “It got to the point that I couldn’t stand it … There’s nothing left over from the 1990s, not the freedom of expression or of entrepreneurship. A small group of friends became the owners of our country.”
Nemtsov, who was shot in the back four times in a brazen drive-by shooting on a city centre bridge, was the last recognisable opposition figure still at large in Russia, following the exile of some and arrest of others. Deprived of airtime and influence, he was more of a nuisance to the Kremlin than a direct threat, though he had promised an exposé of Russian involvement in the Ukrainian war. He is the latest in a string of Kremlin opponents to die violently.
The rally mainly went off peacefully, although a few people were detained, and the Ukrainian MP Alexei Goncharenko was arrested by police before it started. He wrote on Facebook: “Police have detained me. I did not shout anything, did not carry any banners or flags; they simply detained me over the T-shirt.” It featured an image of Nemtsov and “Heroes never die”, one of the slogans of the Maidan revolution in Kiev.
According to Russian officials, Goncharenko, who was passed by police to Kremlin investigators, may face charges as part of an investigation into the deaths of more than 40 pro-Russia demonstrators in Odessa last May. They died when the building they took shelter in was set on fire after clashes with Ukrainian activists. It is unclear what jurisdiction Moscow has to try a Ukrainian parliamentarian for alleged crimes carried out on Ukrainian territory. Late in the evening, he told Ukrainian media he had been released and was in the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow.
Members of several opposition parties were carrying political party flags, as were groups of nationalists, some of whom held the white-yellow-black imperial tricolour. “We didn’t agree with [Nemtsov’s] political views but he wasn’t afraid to oppose the regime,” said one nationalist, who did not give his name.
Prominent activist Leonid Volkov, one of the organisers of the march, said the occasion was a chance for the opposition to “get united again”. He said: “All of us have lost friends and relations because of the Crimea issue or all this talk of national traitors. It’s important for all these people to see they’re not alone. In fact, there is a huge crowd of us.”
Speaking as people gathered at the start of the rally, opposition politician Mikhail Kasyanov, who was once prime minister under Putin, said he believed the killing would galvanise people to change their opinions and force change in the country.
“I think this killing has exploded the minds of people and forced people to rethink the reality in which we live. The tragic death of Boris should be a turning point in our society, for those people who are not indifferent to what is happening in our country… I am certain that the situation will change within the next few months. Changes are inevitable.”
Economist Pyotr Lanskov predicted that Russia would soon see much wider unrest because of the economic slump which has been aggravated by western sanctions and the tumbling oil price. “The economy is getting bad. Soon even the stupid will understand that this is the fault of Putin’s regime if not through their brain, they’ll come to understand it through their stomach and join those who already figured it out.”
Russia’s investigative committee announced a reward of 3m roubles (about £31,500) for information leading to the capture of Nemtsov’s killers. However, investigators appear to have ruled out the theory that he was killed for his opposition views. Instead, spokesman Vladimir Markin said on Saturday that one of the main theories being investigated was that Nemtsov was killed by his fellow opposition politicians as a “sacrificial victim” to increase tension in society.
The female companion who was with Nemtsov when he was shot, Ukrainian citizen Anna Duritskaya, is being questioned by investigators. There were conflicting reports about whether she is free to leave her apartment and return to Ukraine, or not. Nemtsov will be buried at a Moscow cemetery on Tuesday.
**************Russia's opposition: who is left to take on Vladimir Putin?
Three years ago there were several intelligent, charismatic leaders railing against the Kremlin, but prison, exile and death has thinned the dissenting herd
Shaun Walker in Moscow
Sunday 1 March 2015 17.31 GMT Last modified on Monday 2 March 2015 00.05 GMT
With the murder of Boris Nemtsov, Russia’s beleaguered liberal opposition has lost one of its last audible voices. There was a brief period, after parliamentary elections in late 2011, when street dissent seemed on the rise, and large rallies gripped Moscow.
The optimism dissipated however, after Putin won another resounding victory in the March 2012 presidential elections. The day before his inauguration, a huge protest turned violent. In a sign that any radicalisation would not be tolerated, a number of protesters were put on trial, often for extremely minor offences, and threatened with years in jail.
Since then, the opposition’s mood has been on the wane, with urban liberals either making plans to leave Russia or simply getting on with life, feeling they have more to lose than to gain by protesting.
Russia’s parliament is dominated by the pro-Putin United Russia party but also has three parties nominally in opposition: Just Russia, the Liberal Democrats and the Communists. While these parties are given airtime on television and – especially in the case of the Communists – have a genuine electorate, they are best described as “systemic opposition”, managed by the Kremlin.
Among the “non-systemic” opposition, there are few politicians who have much of a national profile, with the restrictions of state television meaning it is hard to gain a real platform. Harassment, threats and fatigue have led many into either jail or exile. Now that Nemtsov has been silenced, here are a list of the main opposition figureheads.
Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky was jailed in 2003, on charges widely believed to be politically motivated after he began financing political parties. He spent a decade in prison but was released in December 2013 after Putin granted him amnesty.
Khodorkovsky was immediately flown to Berlin and now lives in Zurich. In December, he told the Guardian he believed he would be arrested if he returned to Russia.
He has set up the Open Russia Foundation and is prepared to go “all the way” to change the regime in Russia. However, although Khodorkovsky may have impressed some with his stoical handling of a decade in prison, most Russians have little regard for those who made billions in the 1990s, and it is also unclear how much he can influence politics from outside the country.
The former world chess champion became a fierce critic of Putin and was a frequent fixture at opposition events for many years, often being detained by police. In 2013, he announced at a press conference in Geneva that he had decided not to return to Russia as, after criminal charges were brought against Navalny and other opposition activists, he could be next.
A blogger and lawyer who gained a huge following for his investigations into corruption among Putin’s elite, Navalny came to prominence during the wave of street protests in Moscow at the end of 2011, and was widely seen as the brightest hope for the opposition.
Some are disturbed by his Russian nationalist views while others point out that they could help him gain broader support among Russians who would not normally support the opposition.
Since he came to prominence, Navalny has had to deal with a wave of bureaucratic and legal hassles, including two major court cases. At the end of last year, Navalny was given a suspended sentence in a fraud trial, but his brother was sentenced to 3and-a-half years in prison.
Navalny says authorities have effectively taken his brother hostage in an attempt to stop him working but he has vowed to continue. He was not at Sunday’s march in Moscow, having been jailed for 15 days when handing out leaflets advertising the event – back when it was still an “anti-crisis rally” and not a memorial for Nemtsov.
It has been suggested for a long time that the serious popular threat to Putin comes not from liberals but from nationalists, and these forces have been newly invigorated by the war in east Ukraine. Indeed, one theory is that rogue nationalist groups could be behind the killing of Nemtsov.
Strelkov, a fan of military re-enactments, fought for Russia in Chechnya and more recently helped coordinate the pro-Russian rebel movement in eastern Ukraine. Called back to Moscow after apparently going rogue, he has said he believes Russia will soon be engulfed by war.
“His analysis is simple,” said Alexander Borodai, another Russian leader of the Donbass rebels. “There is a crisis in the country, the government will fall soon, and in the inevitable civil war, Igor Strelkov will head patriotic forces and become the dictator of what is left of Russia.”
The scenario seems unlikely but there is no doubt that serious thought is being given as to whether the promotion of Russian nationalism in the armed conflict in Ukraine might have let a genie out of the bottle.
A familiar face at opposition protests for years, 38-year-old Udaltsov is a hardcore radical leftist, who has been detained on numerous occasions at rallies. He was charged as part of the “mass disturbances” case over a May 2012 rally that turned violent, and was sentenced to 4 and-a-half years in prison. From jail, he has said that liberals and leftists must go separate ways now, due to their different positions on the conflict in Ukraine, and while he still opposes Putin, he calls for a new union of far-left forces.
*************'Boris Nemtsov's murder marks a new era for Vladimir Putin and Russia'
Analysis: president has taken a step too far along a dark and dangerous path to be able to step back, says Mark Galeotti
Monday 2 March 2015 05.00 GMT
The shocking murder of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, literally in sight of the Kremlin, clearly marks the beginning of a new era in Russian politics and Russia-watching alike. And it is unlikely to be pretty.
Who was responsible for his death? At this stage it’s absolutely unclear. The government? It’s hard to believe Putin would actually order Nemtsov killed, not because Putin is a pacifist but because there’s no real advantage to him.
We all interpret the facts based on our assumptions about Russia and Putin
Already people are throwing around a parallel with the murder Sergei Kirov in 1934, which at one stroke did away with Stalin’s greatest rival and gave him a pretext for purging the elite. But Putin doesn’t needs any excuses for whatever repressions he may want to carry out, and Nemtsov was certainly no threat. (I doubt he had the kind of “smoking gun” information on Ukraine some have suggested.)
Besides, for a leader whose legitimacy is in part based on the way he ended the bespredel, the overt and violent lawlessness of the 1990s, this happening so close to the seat of power is an embarrassment. If anything, it I suspect is likely to galvanise the opposition.
Perhaps it was carried out by over-zealous security officers doing what they thought would please the boss? Maybe, but there’s no reason to believe that. Or was it nationalists or crazies inspired by the new mood of xenophobia and witch-hunting being stoked by the Kremlin? This is much more plausible. But suggestions that opposition figures wanting a martyr or, to go to the real extremes of the crazy spectrum, US agents stirring trouble are scarcely credible.
But no one knows. We know pretty much nothing but the facts, and so we are all tempted to interpret them based on our assumptions about Russia and Putin and the world. That’s human, and inevitable, and dangerous.
And it also points to the way this murder is something of a watershed, marking three things that have been processes rather than sudden events, but as is often the way they have become demonstrated at particular moments.
1. The death of neutrality
It is increasingly difficult not to be on one side or the other. We’ve already seen this over Ukraine (I’ve been castigated as a Kremlin stooge for not using the word “terrorist” to describe the rebels, and a western patsy for claiming that Russian troops are present, all for the same article), but it’s also happening with Russia.
Not to regard Putin as a murderous mafioso-fascist-tyrant-kleptocrat who kills for the hell of it is to be an apologist. To refuse to believe the American state department is actively trying to install opposition leader Alexei Navalny in the Kremlin makes you a tool of western “colour revolution”.
Not to regard Putin as a murderous mafioso-fascist-tyrant-kleptocrat is to be an apologist
Analysis increasingly takes second place to assertion of the world as the observer “knows” it to be.
2. The death of ‘stuff happens’
Nothing, it seems, is not part of a plan, a strategy, a ploy or a gambit. The downing of flight MH17 was a Ukrainian act of misinformation to demonise the rebels (arrant nonsense). Nemtsov must have been killed by the state because he was under 24/7 surveillance (very doubtful: that kind of surveillance would require a massive operation, out of proportion with his actual importance).
The truth of the matter is that politicians and the government are much less in control of events than they and we might think.
My working hypothesis is that Nemtsov was killed by some murderous mavericks – not government agents nor opposition fanatics. But the reason they felt obliged to go and gun down a frankly past-his-peak anti-government figure is highly likely to be precisely because of the increasingly toxic political climate that clearly is a product of Kremlin agency, in which people like Nemtsov are portrayed as Russophobic minions of the west, enemies of Russia’s people, culture, values and interests.
So to loop things round, Putin is guilty, I suspect – with all the caveats about the lack of hard evidence yet – the same way that tobacco companies are considered guilty of cancer deaths after they may have known about the risks. The same way any hate-speaker may be when some unhinged acolytes take their ideas and decide to turn them into bloody action. This implicitly points to a third casualty:
3. The death of optimism
How does a regime soothe such feverish sentiments? Indeed, can it do so? I do not believe Putin is intent on a third world war or wants to create a neo-Stalinist terror-state or do any of the other things the more extreme critics aver.
But I suspect that in the name of holding onto power (his greatest ambition) and asserting the true sovereignty of Russia (his second greatest), regardless of the opposition of liberals at home, Ukraine, the west, or whoever, Putin has taken a step too far along a dark and dangerous path for him ever to be able to step back or even, worst yet, stop walking forward.
@MarkGaleotti is a professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and former advisor to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The article first appeared on his site In Moscow’s Shadows
*************Boris Nemtsov interviewed hours before death: ‘Putin is a pathological liar’
Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov gives his last televised interview just hours before being shot dead near the Kremlin. In the interview, on radio station Ekho Moskvy in Moscow, Nemtsov calls for political reform in Russia and labels president Vladimir Putin a 'pathological liar', who he blames for starting an 'insane, aggressive [and] murderous' war in the Ukraine
Click to watch: <iframe src="https://embed.theguardian.com/embed/video/world/video/2015/mar/01/boris-nemtsov-interview-death-vladimir-putin-video
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