Congress can’t stop Iran sanctions unraveling

Barbara Slavin writes: For months now, Russia has been a constructive member of the international consortium negotiating with Iran, often proposing creative fixes to technical hurdles.

But this week, just as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was taking up sensitive Iran-related legislation, Russia announced that it was going forward with an old contract to sell Iran an air defense missile system that could make it less vulnerable to foreign attack.

The deal to supply the S-300 is not illegal under UN sanctions, which prohibit selling offensive heavy weaponry to Iran. The message the Kremlin is sending is that Russia is not willing to wait for the conclusion of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program to lock in the benefits of resumed trade with the Islamic Republic.

It is unfortunate that the government of Vladimir Putin didn’t wait a few months longer. Critics of the Iran deal have been quick to pounce on the announcement as proof that the Barack Obama administration was somehow duped by Moscow and that the Iran framework so laboriously negotiated over the past 13 months is a “sucker’s deal.”

A more insightful way to read Russia’s act is to see it as a recognition of reality that the elaborate web of multilateral sanctions imposed on Iran over the past five years is unraveling and only an egregious Iranian effort to break out and build a nuclear weapon could arrest that momentum. [Continue reading…]

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The Night Wolves — Putin’s biker friends — plan to descend on Berlin

night-wolves

The New York Times reports: Several hundred leather-clad motorcyclists from the Night Wolves, a club closely allied with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, plan to roar from Moscow to Berlin this month for the 70th anniversary of the Soviets’ victory over Nazi Germany.

Like the Red Army before them, the Night Wolves will have several countries to cross on the way, including Poland. And given the current tensions over Ukraine and widespread worries that Mr. Putin may have other aggressive designs on his neighbors, the prospect of hundreds of Russian bikers’ roaring across the Polish countryside — not to mention Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria or Germany — is not being greeted with joy in all quarters.

“I wish they would never come here,” said Monika Trzcinska, the mayor of Braniewo, a small Polish town a stone’s throw from the Russian border, which will be the first stop in Poland for some of the riders on April 25.

A Facebook page opposing the event had 11,000 likes by Wednesday afternoon with a logo featuring a Polish eagle with a lit match chasing a flaming wolf. Meanwhile, a petition calling for the motorcycle rally to be banned had attracted 4,000 signatures, and some Polish lawmakers were calling on their government to find some way to block the event.

Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz called the rally a “provocation” in an interview Tuesday on Polish radio, and said it would be up to Polish border guards to decide whether Russian bikers would be allowed into the country.

Some Polish biker groups said they intended to take to the highways to block the Russians, but others were more welcoming. [Continue reading…]

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Why has Russia lifted its ban on delivery of S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Iran?

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Kremlin lifted its self-imposed ban on the delivery of a powerful missile air-defense system to Iran on Monday, stoking sharp criticism from the White House and Israel and casting fresh doubt on the international effort to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.

U.S. lawmakers seized on Moscow’s announcement Monday to warn Russia was among a host of foreign countries using the prospect of a nuclear deal to begin seeking out lucrative business deals that could bolster Iran’s military and economy.

Any delivery of an air-defense system would complicate airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities by Israel or the U.S. should the diplomatic track fail.

Iran thinks that Russia will deliver the missile system this year, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, told the Interfax news agency in Moscow on Tuesday.

The U.S. Senate is set to vote this week on legislation that would provide Congress with the power to approve, amend or kill any agreement that seeks to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions.

Supporters of the bill, Republican and Democrat, said Russia’s lifting of its ban on the S-300 surface-to-air missile system could be just the beginning of countries testing the sanctions regime and a United Nations arms embargo on Iran.

“Before a final nuclear deal is even reached, [Russian President] Vladimir Putin has started to demolish international sanctions and ignore the U.N. arms embargo,” said Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), who sponsored legislation that seeks to impose new sanctions on Iran if a final deal isn’t reached by June 30.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the defensive systems didn’t come under the U.N. arms embargo, and that Russia implemented the S-300 ban voluntarily. “This was done in the spirit of good will to stimulate progress in the negotiations,” he said, adding that it was no longer necessary.

The State Department also said that the embargo imposed on Iran in 2010 didn’t prevent the delivery of S-300s. But the White House warned that the missile system, while defensive, could enhance Iran’s ability to challenge key U.S. allies in the Middle East, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

It said that Secretary of State John Kerry raised the issue with Mr. Lavrov on Monday.

Still, the Obama administration was measured in its criticism, noting that it didn’t believe the proposed missile sale would jeopardize the nuclear negotiations. [Continue reading…]

Some analysts may interpret Putin’s move as an effort to undermine the nuclear deal with Iran, but one can argue that on the contrary, the planned delivery of S-300 missiles may make the conclusion of the deal a fait accompli.

With an elastic clock, Benjamin Netanyahu has long favored a breathless time is running out narrative when it comes to closing the door on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

If no deal is signed and within a few months Iran’s newly-reinforced defense systems make its nuclear sites extremely difficult to attack, 2015 is probably the last year that Israel could launch or instigate air strikes on Iran. It has never been plausible that it could conduct such attacks on its own, but the timing for it to enlist the support of others has probably never been worse.

The U.S. and Iran are effectively on the same side in a war against ISIS. American forces currently in Iraq would definitely become very vulnerable if the U.S. soon started bombing Iran.

Moreover, as Yemen becomes a quagmire for Saudi Arabia, an attack on Iran would likely become the tipping point for the current matrix of regional conflicts to start hopelessly spinning out of control.

Putin’ intention in approving the delivery of S-300 missiles at this juncture might simply be to push Russia first out of the gate in the race to cash in on the rewards from the inevitable ending the economic embargo on Iran.

Those who currently argue that the framework agreement is not good enough are rapidly being confronted with the reality that either the deal gets struck by the end of June or within a fairly short period Iran will see dwindling incentives for making any deal. Time is on Iran’s side.

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How the U.S. thinks Russians hacked the White House

CNN reports: Russian hackers behind the damaging cyber intrusion of the State Department in recent months used that perch to penetrate sensitive parts of the White House computer system, according to U.S. officials briefed on the investigation.

While the White House has said the breach only affected an unclassified system, that description belies the seriousness of the intrusion. The hackers had access to sensitive information such as real-time non-public details of the president’s schedule. While such information is not classified, it is still highly sensitive and prized by foreign intelligence agencies, U.S. officials say.

The White House in October said it noticed suspicious activity in the unclassified network that serves the executive office of the president. The system has been shut down periodically to allow for security upgrades.

The FBI, Secret Service and U.S. intelligence agencies are all involved in investigating the breach, which they consider among the most sophisticated attacks ever launched against U.S. government systems. ​The intrusion was routed through computers around the world, as hackers often do to hide their tracks, but investigators found tell-tale codes and other markers that they believe point to hackers working for the Russian government. [Continue reading…]

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Meet Anonymous International, the hackers taking on the Kremlin

Daniil Turovsky writes: Around 10am on 14 August 2014, an unremarkable man walked into a café near Tishinskaya Square in Moscow. He ordered a coffee, sat down, opened up a cheap laptop and launched a few applications: a text editor, an app for encrypted chat, and a browser.

Then, he opened Twitter and wrote: “I’m resigning. I am ashamed of this government’s actions. Forgive me.”

The tweet immediately appeared on prime minister Dmitri Medvedev’s official Twitter account, visible to his 2.5m followers.

Taking a sip of his coffee, he wrote a few more tweets: “I will become a photographer. I’ve dreamed about it for some time”; “Vova [Putin]! You are wrong!”

The tweeter is a member of Anonymous International, better known as Shaltai Boltai (Humpty Dumpty in Russian), arguably the most famous hacker group in the country after claiming responsibility for a series of high-profile leaks.

In the past two years, they’ve gained access to documents detailing the Russian state’s game plan for a supposedly “grassroots” demonstration in Moscow in support of its actions in Crimea; details about how the Kremlin prepared Crimea’s secessionist referendum; and private emails allegedly belonging to Igor Strelkov, who claims he played a key role in organising the pro-Russian insurgency in Donetsk, Ukraine. [Continue reading…]

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In Russia, the struggle to un-recruit ISIS followers

The Daily Beast spoke to Sevil Navruzova, head of the Center for Countering Extremism in Dagestan, who spends her working hours on Skype interviewing Russian citizens who are fighting for ISIS: Most of the men and women interviewed each day by Navuzova and her staff say they are determined to die for their beliefs.

The “insane propaganda” on the Internet is the main source of information for the recruitment strategy of the so-called Islamic State, Navruzova said. Instructions tell them where to go and how to get the money for the trip.

Navruzova told The Daily Beast in a recent interview that some recruiters were local—Special Services had arrested at least two of them in the past two years, but that didn’t make a dent.

“The drain of youth is massive, it amounts to hundreds from Dagestan alone,” Navruzova said.

Young Russian Muslims watched videos of ISIS leaders and sheikhs calling to join the holy war. The travel package for a recruited Russian included an air ticket, $500 of pocket money and a backpack with T-shirts, socks and other basic needs.

“This is not just a popular trend, this is a lifestyle. Many in the Muslim community live day and night with the idea of joining the war, not for the sake of money but for pure hope to live for once in Sharia World. Recruiters say that the entire Muslim world has to be involved in the war now,” Navruzova said.

Male recruits are not the only ones who are leaving Russia. Women take off to join ISIS, too.

On the morning of February 27, Beke Gadzhiyeva, a 20-year-old from Derbent, seemed to be just another student at the local university, She had breakfast with her family, showing no sign of any plans to travel; a few hours later she was in a car driving across the Russian border to Azerbaijan. The last time she was seen was at Baku airport. “Somebody provided her with luggage,” said Navruzova, who now has to deal with Gadzhiyeva’s broken-hearted mother, looking for ways to bring her daughter back to Russia, “before she marries one of the fighters.”

It is one of Navruzova’s priorities to prevent widows of local insurgents from taking extreme actions against themselves or others, she said.

Nobody in ISIS has “zombified” the young Russian citizens, nobody offered them money: “On the contrary, insurgencies often recruit well-educated youths from wealthy, intelligent families,” says Navruzova. [Continue reading…]

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Russia hails Iran nuclear deal, but is a mixed blessing for Moscow

The Wall Street Journal reports: Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee for Russia’s upper house of parliament, wrote online that the deal was a “win-win” agreement that “proves international mechanisms are working.”

“This is very positive news that gives us hope not just on the Iranian issue, but on many others, including in the Middle East and in Europe (Ukraine),” he wrote.

Fainter praise from other politicians, however, underscored the diplomatic difficulties ahead for Russia, which may find its hand weakened as Iran and the West grow closer.

Alexei Pushkov, chairman for the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s lower house, suggested the achievement was overshadowed by the “significant dangers” posed by U.S. Republican lawmakers who have promised to reject the deal.

“It is the aggressive irresponsibility of the American Congress and its members, which is evident both in its attitude toward Russia and in its attitude toward Iran,” he said. “To what degree can we trust the American executive branch if part of Congress believes that it is possible to disavow an agreement with an American signature on it?”

Iran is one of Russia’s few remaining allies in the Middle East, along with the Shiite minority regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It has few friends among the predominantly Sunni nations in the region.

Under heavy pressure from the West, Russia was forced to scrap an $800 million contract to deliver the S-300 missile system to Iran in 2007. The military official told Interfax that a new contract could possibly include the S-300 system, as well as a range of other equipment. [Continue reading…]

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Putin: Try to take Crimea away and I will give you a nuclear war

The Times reports: The Ukraine crisis has brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any point for a generation, according to an account of a secret meeting between Russian and American military and intelligence figures.

As President Putin celebrated the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea on March 18 with an appearance at a concert outside the Kremlin, a group of retired Russian generals sat down in Torgau, Germany, with a group of their American counterparts. The assembled Russians once ran the interior ministry, the military directorate in charge of nuclear weapons, the GRU (Russian military intelligence) and the FSB (the main successor agency to the KGB). The American individuals present had similar backgrounds in the military, CIA and Defence Intelligence Agency.

Behind closed doors, over two days, the Russians delivered a series of blunt warnings from Moscow that reveal just how precarious Europe’s security has become over the past year, and how broad the gulf between the Kremlin and the West now is.

The US party at the Elbe Group talks appears to have been surprised to discover that Russian security experts believe that the US is bent on destroying their country — and that Russia is both entitled and fully prepared to use nuclear force to defend itself. That point of view reflects both Mr Putin’s assessment of Russia’s vulnerability and the KGB background shared by him and his closest advisers, according to Kremlin insiders.

Swaggering nuclear rhetoric has increasingly permeated Russian life. In a recent documentary, Mr Putin said that when he gave the instruction to annex Crimea, he also ordered that Russia’s nuclear forces be placed on full alert.

He has referred to Russia’s nuclear might many times since the Ukraine crisis began, including in remarks to a group of schoolchildren in August, when he reminded them that “Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers”, and “it’s best not to mess with us”. [Continue reading…]

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Russia launches next deadly phase of hybrid war on Ukraine

Newsweek reports: Pushing his baby daughter in a pram in front of him, 37-year-old Dmitriy Komyakov paused as marchers ahead adjusted their positions around a huge Ukrainian flag. It was a bright day in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. A good day for the hundreds in attendance to celebrate one year since Euromaidan demonstrators ousted president Viktor Yanukovych.

Just as the march moved off again, an explosion ripped into the crowd. Komyakov was close enough to feel the heat of the blast wave. As bloodied victims slumped to the floor, he searched for his wife and 12-year-old daughter among the panicked crowd. “I could see pieces of metal flying and people starting to fall,” he says. “First I checked the baby to see if she was injured, then myself, looked around and that’s when my wife and daughter ran to me.” Miraculously, the whole family had escaped unscathed. But four people, including two teenage boys, were killed in that blast and another nine seriously wounded.

Ukraine’s state security service, the SBU, says Russia has entered into a new phase of its campaign to destabilise Ukraine, with the 22 February attack in Kharkiv just one of a series of bombings orchestrated by Russian spy services, the FSB and the GRU. “It starts with the FSB’s security centres 16 and 18, operating out of Skolkovo, Russia,” says Vitaliy Naida, head of the SBU department responsible for intercepting online traffic. “These centres are in charge of information warfare. They send out propaganda, false information via social media. Re-captioned images from Syria, war crimes from Serbia – they’re used to radicalise and then recruit Ukrainians.”

He takes a suspected three-man terror cell from Dnipropretovsk who are currently on trial as an example and walks Newsweek through the evidence, including photographs and video of weapons with Russian serial numbers and intercepted communications. Passed instructions and weapons via dead-drops, the cell never met their handlers.

“They were recruited by the FSB. Instructions were initially given in private messages via internet and in some cases Vkontakte [a Russian social network],” Naida says. “When they were detained and arrested, in their houses we found explosives, grenades, means of communications and printed messages – where to set explosives, where they should be placed to create panic.” Naida’s unit monitors roughly 600 “anti-Ukrainian” social network groups with hundreds of thousands of members. So far it has intercepted communications between 29 prolific group administrators and individuals using accounts linked to the Russian security services. [Continue reading…]

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Vladimir Putin is fighting for political survival — by provoking unrest in Ukraine

John Simpson writes: Mikhail Vanin, the Russian ambassador to Denmark, looks like a shrewd little man, with fuzzy hair and sharp, Putin-like eyes behind rimless glasses. And he has quite a way with words. Speaking to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 21 March, he said: “I don’t think that Danes fully understand the consequences if Denmark joins the American-led missile defence shield . . . If they do, then Danish warships will be targets for Russian nuclear missiles . . .

“It is, of course, your own decision. I just want to remind you that your finances and security will suffer.” I don’t suppose that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most of us imagined that we would hear threats of this crudity being uttered in Europe again.

It is a little over a year since the west’s relationship with Russia seemed, if inevitably spiky, at least rational and manageable. Now here is a Russian diplomat publicly warning a small member of Nato and the EU of the possibility of nuclear war. How could things have got this bad in such a short space of time? How could the post-cold war consensus have vanished so utterly?

After Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Moscow Ukrainian government collapsed following the often violent protests of February 2014, Russia started to infiltrate Crimea with its forces as part of a plan that was worked out, we are now told, by Putin himself. They cut off Crimea from mainland Ukraine, annexed it and received the post-dated agreement of a large majority of its inhabitants. After that, the same combination of nasty civilian thugs (one whom I came up against in Crimea had “Rossiya” tattooed across his forehead) and serving soldiers in unmarked uniforms headed to eastern Ukraine. They are still fighting there.

The methodology goes back to the heart of the postwar Soviet era, with a few 21st-century touches. If Moscow’s grip on a country that mattered seemed about to loosen, excuses were found and fraternal forces were assembled to make sure that it didn’t happen – the hard way. Remember Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979 and now Ukraine in 2014. Keeping hold of what they have has always mattered to Russia’s rulers. If they let one part go, the whole structure might start to fall down. Above all, it suggests weakness and there will always be those inside or outside the system who might take advantage of it and bring the rulers down. As we shall see, some Putin-watchers think that this pattern is being repeated. [Continue reading…]

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Russian propaganda exploits Western weakness

Andrew Kornbluth writes: It is becoming clear that certain authoritarian models of government are capable of matching and, in some respects, even exceeding the accomplishments of their democratic counterparts. Whether Russia, with its dependence on energy exports and otherwise undiversified economy, should be counted among them is debatable, but there is one area in which the Russian state has so far demonstrated a clear mastery over its Western opponents: its propaganda or, to use the public relations term, its messaging.

But impressive as the information component of Russia’s current “hybrid war” over Ukraine has been, its success arguably owes less to its ingenuity than to ingrained flaws in Western democratic culture for which there is no simple solution.

The effectiveness of Russia’s spin is difficult to deny; in addition to the almost 90 percent of Russians who support their president and, albeit passively, his expansionist campaign, a large part of the Western public, especially in Europe, remains convinced that Russia bears little or no responsibility for the war in Ukraine.

Ironically, Russian messaging has worked by exploiting vulnerabilities in precisely those mechanisms of self-criticism and skepticism which are considered so essential to the functioning of a democratic society. The modern Western culture of self-doubt has proved particularly susceptible to manipulation in a 21st-century confrontation that strongly recalls its Cold War origins.

Four assumptions popular in contemporary Western democratic discourse have been co-opted by Russian messaging in the present crisis. The first is that all sides in a conflict are equally guilty. Never far beneath the surface, Europe’s suspicion of the leader of the Western alliance, the United States, has been reinvigorated by successive scandals over the war in Iraq, torture and eavesdropping. Everyone has committed crimes — so the thinking goes — so how can the West possibly reproach Russia?

Likewise, in this confused moral landscape, the “illegality” of the Ukrainian revolution is blithely juxtaposed with the illegality of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, while the enormous differences in nature, scale and motive between the subjects under comparison go unmentioned.

The second assumption is that there are “two sides to every story.” The desire to consult multiple sources and the unwillingness to accept just one narrative are part of a healthy critical outlook, but the system breaks down when one side is a fabrication. There is no middle ground, for example, between the claim that the Russian army is fighting in Ukraine and the claim that it is not. [Continue reading…]

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Right-wing groups find a haven, for a day, in Russia

The New York Times reports: A motley crew of representatives of fringe right-wing political organizations in Europe and the United States used a conference here on Sunday to denounce what they called the degradation of white, Christian traditions in the West. Their hosts used the conference to advance Russia’s effort to lure political allies of any stripe.

Railing against same-sex marriage, immigration, New York financiers, radical Islam and globalization, among other targets, one speaker after another lauded Russia and President Vladimir V. Putin as a pillar of robust, conservative, even manly values.

Mr. Putin has for some time sought international influence by casting Russia as the global guardian of traditional mores. Yet the effort has acquired new urgency, as Moscow seeks to undermine support in Europe for economic sanctions and other policies meant to isolate Moscow over its aggressive actions against Ukraine.

“Putin’s calculation is that Europe should change its attitude toward Ukraine, and it can easily happen when and if internal European problems outweigh Ukrainian events,” said Nikolai Petrov, a political scientist in Moscow.

“They can make friends with everybody who poses a threat to the ruling parties, including radical forces,” he said. “If the radical nationalists are increasing their weight in Europe, they can serve as good allies for the Kremlin.” [Continue reading…]

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Denmark threatened with nuclear attack by Russian ambassador

AFP reports: Russia’s ambassador to Denmark said Saturday that the NATO country’s navy could be targeted by nuclear missiles if it joins the Western alliance’s anti-missile shield.

The threat made by Ambassador Mikhail Vanin in an opinion piece he wrote for the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten sparked an angry reaction and came amid an increasingly Cold War-style standoff between Moscow and the West.

“I do not think that the Danes fully understand the consequences of what happens if Denmark joins the US-led missile defence,” Ambassador Mikhail Vanin wrote in the daily.

“If this happens Danish warships become targets for Russian nuclear missiles.”

Russia has long opposed NATO’s missile shield — launched in 2010 and due to be fully operational by 2025 — in which member countries contribute radar and weaponry to protect Europe against missile attacks.

Denmark has pledged to supply one or more frigates equipped with advanced radar to track incoming missiles.

The chairwoman of the Danish parliament’s foreign affairs, Mette Gjerskov told AFP that the comments were “very threatening and not necessary” as the missile shield was simply an “intruder alarm” and no danger to Russia. [Continue reading…]

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Inside Russia’s ‘Kremlin troll army’

Olga Bugorkova reports: Over the past year, Russia has seen an unprecedented rise in the activity of “Kremlin trolls” – bloggers allegedly paid by the state to criticise Ukraine and the West on social media and post favourable comments about the leadership in Moscow.

Though the existence and even whereabouts of the alleged “cyber army” are no secret, recent media reports appear to have revealed some details of how one of the tools of Russian propaganda operates on an everyday basis.

The Internet Research Agency (“Agentstvo Internet Issledovaniya”) employs at least 400 people and occupies an unremarkable office in one of the residential areas in St Petersburg. [Continue reading…]

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Dutch investigation concludes MH17 downed by Buk missile from Russian battery

IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly reports: Investigators from the Office of the National Prosecutor (OM) of the Netherlands have completed the first phase of their work in definitely determining the cause of the mid-aid explosion and crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17). Preliminary information leaked to the Dutch media has concluded that a Russian unit is responsible for the shootdown.

Most of the collected debris from the aircraft, a Boeing 777 that crashed on 17 July 2014 while en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with the loss of all 298 on board, is now spread out in hangers at the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s Gilze-Rijen airbase where investigators have been probing the wreckage for evidence.

The OM is part of a Joint International Team (JIT) conducting a criminal investigation charged with initially identifying what brought the aircraft down and from where. A second phase of the investigation is to then identify those responsible and bring them before a court with the proper jurisdiction.

According to all of the evidence the JIT has reviewed, which has included more than one million documents, photos and videos, the conclusions to date are that the MH17 was downed by a Buk-M1-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) launched from a Russian-owned battery that was most likely manned by a Russian crew. Photos and video evidence, as well as interviews with witnesses, prove that the battery was brought across the border from Russia into Ukraine shortly before the shootdown. [Continue reading…]

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One year after the annexation, a darkness falls over Crimea

Mark P. Lagon and Alina Polyakova write: On March 18, 2014, the Kremlin followed its illegal invasion of Crimea by officially annexing the peninsula. Crimea then faded from the headlines once Russia began its war in eastern Ukraine. That’s unfortunate because Russia is perpetrating human-rights abuses in Crimea that go underreported in the West in no small part due to the Kremlin’s efforts to hide them.

The annexation of Crimea marked the first time since the end of World War II that borders in Europe were changed by unilateral military force. President Vladimir Putin initially justified this blatant violation of Russia’s legal commitments and international law by claiming that the people of Crimea wanted to join Russia and were subject to repression by the government that took power when Ukraine’s unpopular President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev last February. More recently, in a forthcoming Russian TV documentary, Mr. Putin admitted ordering the annexation before a highly dubious referendum on the issue.

His claims about the desires of the citizenry and Ukraine’s repression are false. First, polls taken before the Russian invasion showed that only about 40% of Crimeans favored either independence from Kiev or joining Russia. Russian officials claimed that the “referendum” on March 16, 2014, conducted by the Kremlin and without independent international observers resulted in a 83% turnout, with 97% voting in favor of annexation. Yet the website of the President of Russia’s Council on Civil Society and Human Rights reported that turnout was only 30%-50%, with 50%-60% in favor of annexation.

Second, instead of improving human rights, Mr. Putin’s aggression has ramped up repression. Before the Kremlin’s invasion, the respect for political rights and civil liberties in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine was far from ideal. But there was an active civic life for ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars and adherents to all religions. The press was free and diverse. But a report this month by the Atlantic Council and Freedom House, “Human Rights Abuses in Russian-Occupied Crimea,” dissects a system designed to keep in check all groups that do not endorse Kremlin control.

The primary victims are the Tatars, a Turkic people who make up at least 12% of the population. Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, a famed Soviet-era dissident, has been forced into exile, along with other Tatar leaders. Thanks to common Kremlin tools of control—intimidation, harassment and selective application of the law—activists, journalists and religious leaders have been routinely detained, illegally searched and physically abused by Russian authorities. [Continue reading…]

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Putin prepared to put nuclear forces on alert ahead of preplanned annexation of Crimea

The Wall Street Journal reports: Vladimir Putin said he prepared to put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert ahead of Crimea’s annexation from neighboring Ukraine last year and ordered his inner circle to retake the peninsula days before any proclamation of a local referendum.

The Russian president made the comments in a prerecorded interview during a documentary, “Crimea: The Road to the Motherland,” aired on state television Sunday. It came a day before the first anniversary of the Russia-backed referendum on the peninsula, a vote the U.S., Ukraine and Europe denounced as illegal.

The remarks marked the first time that Mr. Putin had acknowledged that Russian authorities had been laying the groundwork for Crimea’s annexation weeks before a referendum. The Kremlin had presented the outcome of that vote as the basis for Russia to reclaim the land. [Continue reading…]

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Putin re-emerges and places 40,000 troops on full alert

The Wall Street Journal: Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered nearly 40,000 troops in northern and western Russia to be put on full alert early on Monday as part of snap-readiness exercises, official news agencies quoted Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying.

The maneuvers are the latest in a series of such checks in recent years and follow dozens of military exercises conducted over the past year since the start of the Ukraine crisis.

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