Putin claims Russian forces ‘could conquer Ukraine capital in a fortnight’

The Guardian reports: Vladimir Putin has said Russian forces could conquer the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, in a fortnight if he so ordered, the Kremlin has confirmed.

Moscow declined to deny that the president had spoken of taking Kiev in a phone conversation on Friday with José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing president of the European commission.

Yuri Ushakov, a Kremlin foreign policy adviser, said on Tuesday that the Barroso leak had taken Putin’s remarks out of context.

“This is incorrect, and is outside all the normal framework of diplomatic practice, if he did say it. This is simply not appropriate for a serious political figure,” he said of the Barroso leak, according to the Russian Interfax news agency.

EU leaders held a summit on Saturday to decide who should run the union for the next five years, but the session was quickly preoccupied by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and how to respond.

Barroso told the closed meeting that Putin had told him Kiev would be an easy conquest for Russia, according to the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica. According to the account, Barroso asked Putin about the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. Nato says there are at least 1,000 Russian forces on the wrong side of the border. The Ukrainians put the figure at 1,600.

“The problem is not this, but that if I want I’ll take Kiev in two weeks,” Putin said, according to La Repubblica. [Continue reading...]


Putin ‘urges talks on statehood for east Ukraine’

BBC News reports: President Putin has called for talks to discuss “statehood” for eastern Ukraine, Russian media report.

He said the issue needed to be discussed to ensure the interests of local people “are definitely upheld”.

His comments came after the EU gave Russian a one-week ultimatum to reverse course in Ukraine or face sanctions.

Russia denies Western accusations that its forces have illegally crossed into eastern Ukraine to support separatists there.

Mr Putin said it was impossible to predict the end of crisis. [Continue reading...]


Russia pushing Ukraine conflict to ‘point of no return,’ EU leader says

The New York Times reports: Warning that Russia was pushing the conflict in Ukraine toward “the point of no return,” the president of the European Union’s executive arm said on Saturday that European leaders meeting in Brussels would probably endorse new and tougher sanctions in an effort to make Moscow “come to reason.”

After morning talks with the visiting president of Ukraine, Petro O. Poroshenko, the head of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, voiced Europe’s growing alarm and exasperation at Russian actions in Ukraine and the risks of a wider war.

Mr. Poroshenko, speaking at a joint news conference with Mr. Barroso, said Ukraine still hoped for a political settlement with Russian-backed rebels in the east of his country but said a flow of Russian troops and armored vehicles into Ukraine in recent days in support of rebels were stoking the fires of a broader conflict.

“We are too close to a border where there will be no return to the peace plan,” Mr. Poroshenko said, asserting that, since Wednesday, “thousands of foreign troops and hundreds of foreign tanks are now on the territory of Ukraine, with a very high risk not only for the peace and stability of Ukraine but for the peace and stability of the whole of Europe.” [Continue reading...]


Inside Putinworld, secret club where aides fall like flies to wanton boys

Shaun Walker reports: Revered, even feared, to the point where no one will contradict him; aloof, isolated, a digital hermit who is never out of touch; broadly supported, but very narrowly advised by an ever-tighter group of confidantes. This is the picture of Vladimir Putin and his leadership style painted by a number of people with knowledge of the inner workings of the Kremlin, at a time when such things matter more than at any time since the collapse of communism.

Putin’s Ukraine actions this year have turned him once again into arguably the world’s most fascinating leader. But just as Kremlinology comes back into vogue, the walls of Putin’s central Moscow redoubt are becoming as opaque as they were during the time of Brezhnev.

One anecdote about Putin’s Kremlin reveals a tantalising glimpse of what it is to be a presidential adviser. Putin himself receives briefing information on printed sheets inside red folders; he very rarely uses the internet. According to one source, requirements for his briefing notes have changed significantly in recent months. The president now demands notes on any topic to be no more than three pages long and written in type no smaller than 18 point. [Continue reading...]


How the U.S. is assisting Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Christopher Dickey writes: The senior military commanders at NATO, officials at the State Department, and, yes, even the president of the United States proved Thursday that they have a perfectly clear idea what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine. They just don’t want to say the word out loud.

So they talk about “interventions” and “incursions” but not, heaven forbid, “invasions.” This, even though they estimate considerably more than 1,000 Russian troops are operating in Ukraine to bolster separatist rebels who were incited, aided, and abetted by the Russian secret services; even though those troops have brought with them heavy weaponry, including motorized artillery and T-72 tanks; even though their anti-aircraft missile shot down a civilian airliner with almost 300 people aboard in July; and even though, in the last few days, they have opened up a new front near the Black Sea coast and engaged in direct, ferocious combat against the Ukrainian army. No, it seems that somehow “invasion” is too strong a word for all that.

“Our focus is more on what Russia is doing, [and] what we’re going to do about it, than what we’re calling it,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

But by playing semantic games, the Obama administration and European leaders are playing Putin’s game. “Confusion,” as a NATO briefer explained Thursday, “is part and parcel of this Russian hybrid warfare strategy.” We are watching an invasion using subversion, coercion, and somewhat limited military action. But it’s an invasion nonetheless. And when you refuse to call things by their real names, you are not only confusing the people who hear you, you’re accepting Putin’s obfuscations. You are sending a signal that says any Western response to his actions will be inconsequential. [Continue reading...]


Snowden granted 3-yr residence permit

RT reports: Edward Snowden has received a residence permit in Russia, which is valid for three years, starting on August 1, the former NSA contractor’s lawyer announced.


Scientists may have cracked the giant Siberian crater mystery — and the news isn’t good

The Washington Post reports: There’s now a substantiated theory about what created the crater. And the news isn’t so good.

It may be methane gas, released by the thawing of frozen ground. According to a recent Nature article, “air near the bottom of the crater contained unusually high concentrations of methane — up to 9.6% — in tests conducted at the site on 16 July, says Andrei Plekhanov, an archaeologist at the Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard, Russia. Plekhanov, who led an expedition to the crater, says that air normally contains just 0.000179% methane.”

The scientist said the methane release may be related to Yamal’s unusually hot summers in 2012 and 2013, which were warmer by an average of 5 degrees Celsius. “As temperatures rose, the researchers suggest, permafrost thawed and collapsed, releasing methane that had been trapped in the icy ground,” the report stated.

A crater located in the permafrost about 18 miles from a huge gas field north of the regional capital of Salekhard, roughly 2,000 kilometers northeast of Moscow, on June 16, 2014. AFP/Getty Images

Plekhanov explained to Nature that the conclusion is preliminary. He would like to study how much methane is contained in the air trapped inside the crater’s walls. Such a task, however, could be difficult. “Its rims are slowly melting and falling into the crater,” the researcher told the science publication. “You can hear the ground falling, you can hear the water running; it’s rather spooky.”

“Gas pressure increased until it was high enough to push away the overlaying layers in a powerful injection, forming the crater,” explained geochemist Hans-Wolfgang Hubberten of Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, adding that he’s never seen anything like the crater.

Some scientists contend the thawing of such terrain, rife with centuries of carbon, would release incredible amounts of methane gas and affect global temperatures. “Pound for pound, the comparative impact of [methane gas] on climate change is over 20 times greater than [carbon dioxide] over a 100-year period,” reported the Environmental Protection Agency.

As the Associated Press put it in 2010, the melting of Siberia’s permafrost is “a climate time bomb waiting to explode if released into the atmosphere.” [Continue reading...]


Video: Russian Grads moving towards Ukaine


Russia steps up help for rebels in Ukraine war

The New York Times reports: Rather than backing down after last week’s downing of a civilian passenger jet, Russia appears to be intervening more aggressively in the war in eastern Ukraine in what American and Ukrainian officials call a dangerous escalation that will almost certainly force more robust retaliation from the United States and Europe.

Russia has increased its direct involvement in fighting between the Ukrainian military and separatist insurgents, moving more of its own troops to the border and preparing to arm the rebels with ever more potent weapons, including high-powered Tornado rocket launchers, American and Ukrainian officials said on Friday.

The officials, citing satellite images and other military intelligence, said that Russia had positioned heavy weapons, including tanks and other combat vehicles, at several points along the border where there has been intense fighting. On Thursday, Russia unleashed artillery attacks on eastern Ukraine from Russian territory, officials in Washington and Kiev said. While Russia flatly denied accelerating its intervention on Friday, American and Ukrainian officials said Moscow appeared anxious to stem gains by government forces that have succeeded in retaking some rebel-held territory. [Continue reading...]


Russian paper issues front page apology to Netherlands for MH17

Foreign Policy: In the aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, many Russian media outlets have put forth a variety of ridiculous conspiracy theories to explain the plane’s demise. In the face of overwhelming evidence that Moscow-backed separatists shot down the plane, the Russian media stubbornly insists that the thugs armed, funded, and led by the Kremlin could not possibly have done such a thing. On Friday, a corner of the Russian media offered them all a powerful rebuke.

In a striking front-page design that serves as a testament to the power of that dying medium, the liberal Novaya Gazeta offered an apology to the people of the Netherlands, which lost 193 citizens in the crash. “Forgive us, Netherlands,” reads the headline.

Novaya Gazeta is one of the few — if not the last — liberal newspapers operating in Russia. It has a small circulation and its readership is mostly limited to Moscow. Anna Politkovskaya, the legendary war reporter who chronicled the horror of Russian military operations in Chechnya only to be murdered for running afoul of the regime, wrote for the paper. Mikhail Gorbachev is a shareholder.

But it’s hard not to think that this front page will land the paper on the Kremlin’s blacklist.


Putin is responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

Fred Kaplan writes: Apart from its tragic horror, the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has two strategic consequences. First, it reveals that the Russian military—and, therefore, President Vladimir Putin—is deeply involved in the separatists’ fight against the Ukrainian government. Second, it transforms that fight from a confined civil war to a clash affecting the whole continent; Europeans can no longer so easily ignore it or avoid holding Russia accountable.

The proof of Russian involvement lies in the weapon used to down the plane. The SA-11 radar-guided surface-to-air missile is not like the shoulder-mounted rockets that many rebels use to fire against low-flying aircraft worldwide. Rather, it’s a complex system that requires three vehicles and about a dozen personnel, most of them specially trained as a team. The system’s warning-radar detects an incoming plane; calculates its speed, range, and altitude; and passes that information to the missile battery’s “acquisition radar,” which tracks the plane. When the plane is within ideal range, the missile is fired. Then, the “target-tracking radar” guides the missile to the target.

A U.S. Air Force officer familiar with the SA-11 says, “There is no way that some guy, who was a miner or truck driver before the war, can all of a sudden operate this system.” It takes several weeks to learn how to use it, six months or so to get proficient. John Pike, a weapons specialist with GlobalSecurity.org, puts it this way: “If some separatists had started learning how to use the SA-11 late last year, by now they might be up to speed.”

Since the conflict with separatists in eastern Ukraine started just this past spring, this raises the question: Are the people who shot down the Malaysian airliner pro-Russian separatists—or are they Russian air-defense officers who trekked across the border to assist their ethnic brethren? Either way, it’s not the case that Putin simply encouraged the rebels to fight and supplied them with missiles, making him indirectly responsible for the shoot-down; it’s that his officers are directly responsible, either by training the separatist shooters or by being the shooters themselves. [Continue reading...]


Ukraine rebel commander acknowledges fighters had BUK missile

Reuters reports: A powerful Ukrainian rebel leader has confirmed that pro-Russian separatists had anti-aircraft missiles of the type Washington says were used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

In an interview with Reuters, Alexander Khodakovsky, commander of the Vostok Battalion, acknowledged for the first time since the airliner was brought down in eastern Ukraine on Thursday that the rebels did possess the BUK missile system.

He also indicated that the BUK may have originated in Russia and could have been sent back to remove proof of its presence.

Before the Malaysian plane was shot down, rebels had boasted of obtaining the BUK missiles, which can shoot down airliners at cruising height. But since the disaster the separatists’ main group, the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk, has repeatedly denied ever having possessed such weapons. [Continue reading...]


Obama’s reluctance to arm rebels elsewhere stiffened by attack on MH17

Bloomberg reports: The downing of a Malaysian passenger aircraft in Ukraine may stiffen Obama administration resistance to providing heavy armaments to rebels — or even besieged governments — seeking U.S. help in hotspots around the world.

In the wake of the Malaysia Airlines disaster, President Barack Obama has raised the risk that weapons could be misused in his discussions with aides about the U.S. possibly arming fighters it supports, according to an administration official familiar with the discussions.

The U.S. says a Russian-made missile probably fired by the pro-Russian insurgents brought down the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet in Ukraine, killing 298 people.

The separatists also have shot down military aircraft. In the latest attacks, separatists downed two Ukrainian fighter jets in Donetsk, the same eastern region where flight MH17 was hit, the Ukraine defense ministry said today.

The lethal success of the Ukrainian rebels now is playing into White House calculations of U.S. arms assistance. Aid to the Syrian opposition, as well as to the governments under siege in Ukraine and Iraq, is part of the discussion, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. [Continue reading...]


How Russian hackers stole the Nasdaq

Bloomberg Businessweek reports: In October 2010, a Federal Bureau of Investigation system monitoring U.S. Internet traffic picked up an alert. The signal was coming from Nasdaq. It looked like malware had snuck into the company’s central servers. There were indications that the intruder was not a kid somewhere, but the intelligence agency of another country. More troubling still: When the U.S. experts got a better look at the malware, they realized it was attack code, designed to cause damage.

As much as hacking has become a daily irritant, much more of it crosses watch-center monitors out of sight from the public. The Chinese, the French, the Israelis — and many less well known or understood players — all hack in one way or another. They steal missile plans, chemical formulas, power-plant pipeline schematics, and economic data. That’s espionage; attack code is a military strike. There are only a few recorded deployments, the most famous being the Stuxnet worm. Widely believed to be a joint project of the U.S. and Israel, Stuxnet temporarily disabled Iran’s uranium-processing facility at Natanz in 2010. It switched off safety mechanisms, causing the centrifuges at the heart of a refinery to spin out of control. Two years later, Iran destroyed two-thirds of Saudi Aramco’s computer network with a relatively unsophisticated but fast-spreading “wiper” virus. One veteran U.S. official says that when it came to a digital weapon planted in a critical system inside the U.S., he’s seen it only once — in Nasdaq.

The October alert prompted the involvement of the National Security Agency, and just into 2011, the NSA concluded there was a significant danger. A crisis action team convened via secure videoconference in a briefing room in an 11-story office building in the Washington suburbs. Besides a fondue restaurant and a CrossFit gym, the building is home to the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC), whose mission is to spot and coordinate the government’s response to digital attacks on the U.S. They reviewed the FBI data and additional information from the NSA, and quickly concluded they needed to escalate.

Thus began a frenzied five-month investigation that would test the cyber-response capabilities of the U.S. and directly involve the president. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies, under pressure to decipher a complex hack, struggled to provide an even moderately clear picture to policymakers. After months of work, there were still basic disagreements in different parts of government over who was behind the incident and why. “We’ve seen a nation-state gain access to at least one of our stock exchanges, I’ll put it that way, and it’s not crystal clear what their final objective is,” says House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan, who agreed to talk about the incident only in general terms because the details remain classified. “The bad news of that equation is, I’m not sure you will really know until that final trigger is pulled. And you never want to get to that.”

Bloomberg Businessweek spent several months interviewing more than two dozen people about the Nasdaq attack and its aftermath, which has never been fully reported. Nine of those people were directly involved in the investigation and national security deliberations; none were authorized to speak on the record. “The investigation into the Nasdaq intrusion is an ongoing matter,” says FBI New York Assistant Director in Charge George Venizelos. “Like all cyber cases, it’s complex and involves evidence and facts that evolve over time.”

While the hack was successfully disrupted, it revealed how vulnerable financial exchanges—as well as banks, chemical refineries, water plants, and electric utilities—are to digital assault. One official who experienced the event firsthand says he thought the attack would change everything, that it would force the U.S. to get serious about preparing for a new era of conflict by computer. He was wrong. [Continue reading...]


Russia’s anti-West isolationism

Maxim Trudolyubov writes: Russia’s quasiwar in eastern Ukraine is in no small measure a product of long-felt anti-Western tensions within Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin that are rapidly spiraling out of control.

With the downing of the Malaysian airliner over territory controlled by pro-Russian insurgents, the rift between Russia and Ukraine has become an international conflict. Citizens of the Netherlands, Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, Britain, Belgium and other countries have been killed in a war that many people in the West might have thought had little to do with them.

We do not know who pulled the trigger, but we know that the armed rebels operating in the east of Ukraine have always had the vocal support of high-ranking Kremlin officials. Since late February, when Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled Kiev, Russia’s official media has been bending over backward to present the new Ukrainian government as a fascist junta manipulated by the West while the Kremlin pursues its twin goals — keeping NATO and Western economic influence in check.

The virulent, anti-American, anti-Western rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin has been one of the main drivers of Moscow’s support for the Ukrainian conflict. This antipathy has its roots in the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the dashed hopes and disillusion that fueled an unprincipled scramble for wealth and power in the anarchy that followed. [Continue reading...]


China is driving the BRICS train

Pankaj Mishra writes: Rarely has an acronym led such a charmed life as BRICS. Casually invented by former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. economist and Bloomberg View columnist Jim O’Neill to label emerging markets of promise, it actually brought together leaders from the disparate countries of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Last week in Brazil, they took a decisive step toward building institutions that could plausibly challenge the long geopolitical and economic ascendancy of the West.

The New Development Bank, headquartered in Shanghai, would finance infrastructure and development projects. This would be the biggest rival yet to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as the economic architecture designed by the U.S. in Bretton Woods in 1944.

There are good reasons why China is working hard to establish it. The BRICS countries contain more than 40 percent of the world’s population and account for a quarter of the world’s economy. China itself may shortly bypass the U.S. to become the world’s biggest economy (based on domestic purchasing power). Yet leadership of the World Bank and the IMF remains the exclusive preserve of the U.S. and western European countries.

The promised reforms to these institutions have not materialized; China now clearly wants to build its own global system with the help of the BRICS. A new “special relationship” with its closest economic partner in the West — Germany — and the recent establishment of Frankfurt as a clearinghouse for the renminbi is part of the same Chinese attempt to break the hegemony of the dollar as a payments and reserve currency. [Continue reading...]


Could the shoot-down of MH17 be a tipping point for Putin’s Russia?

Sergey Radchenko writes: The shoot-down of the Malaysia Airlines plane puts Vladimir Putin in a situation comparable to that of his role model, [Soviet leader Yuri] Andropov. Like in the early 1980s, Russia today faces international isolation and Western sanctions over its actions in Ukraine. There is a widening gap between Moscow and the West in terms of understanding the other side’s perspective and likely actions. And in some ways, things might even be worse for Putin. In the early 1980s, the Soviet public was generally unaware of the deep crisis in East-West relations. Today, Russia’s public opinion has been inflamed by a torrent of vicious anti-Western propaganda amid rising nationalism, which severely constraints Putin’s ability to maneuver.

What really undermined the Soviet position in 1983 were the regime’s blatant lies and unwillingness to cooperate in an international investigation. Putin’s record in this respect is far from reassuring. Memorably, his presidency started with deception in the August 2000 sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine, which Moscow initially blamed on NATO while refusing foreign help in rescuing the crew. Putin then lashed out at a then-still-free Russian media for criticizing the government response and infuriated grieving families with his comment on the fate of the submarine: “It sank,” he said with a callous smirk.

At a time when Russia’s relations with the West are at their lowest point since 1983, it is not surprising that Putin blamed the Ukrainian authorities for the disaster. The Russian media, in an attempt to shift the onus from Russia-sponsored separatists, has aired stories claiming that the Ukrainian air force downed the Malaysian airliner. While Ukraine’s responsibility cannot be discounted pending investigation, Putin is making a big mistake by pre-emptively pointing the finger at Kiev. By refusing to acknowledge the possibility that the pro-Russian militias may be responsible for the disaster, the Russian president risks losing moral ground by becoming an apologist and an accomplice to the crime.

If the investigation reveals that the separatists were responsible, only unequivocal denunciation of the perpetrators will save Putin from moral bankruptcy. Yet doing so will mean a drastic reversal for Russia’s support for the separatists, a prospect too painful for the Kremlin to contemplate. Accustomed to deception and disinformation, Putin evidently hopes to muddle through this latest setback. But this will only lead to a deeper crisis in Russia’s relations with the West. Memories have not faded yet of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and certainly not of the 1983 war scare. There were no catastrophes then — but this third time the world could be unlucky. [Continue reading...]


Ukraine video claims proof of Russia-supplied anti-aircraft system

McClatchy reports: The Ukrainian security ministry on Friday released a video in which officials claimed they have evidence proving pro-Russian separatists had the capability to shoot down the Malaysian Airlines jet that killed 298, including one American.

The video claims that earlier Thursday, on the day of the attack, Ukrainian counterintelligence received what it had considered reliable information that separatists had received both the BUK anti-aircraft system thought to have brought down Flight 17, and the Russian military staff that would know how to operate it.

The video begins by showing scenes of the wreckage and noting, “The Security Service of Ukraine has established certain circumstances of the terrorist act committed on July 17.” It goes on to note that “the available information allows to assert that the Boeing 777 was shot down by terrorists of the Donetsk People’s Republic with the use of BUK anti-aircraft missile system capable of hitting aircraft at high altitudes.” [Continue reading...]