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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The threat of nuclear war is higher than at any time in the past 25 years

The Economist: In January 2007 Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn — two Republican secretaries of state, a Democratic defence secretary and a Democratic head of the Senate Armed Services Committee — called for a global effort to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons.

The ultimate goal, they wrote in the Wall Street Journal, should be to remove the threat such weapons pose completely.

The article generated an astonishing response. Long seen as drippily Utopian, the idea of getting rid of nuclear weapons was suddenly taken on by think-tankers, academics and all sorts of very serious people in the nuclear-policy business.

The next year a pressure group, Global Zero, was set up to campaign for complete nuclear disarmament. Its aims were endorsed by scores of government leaders, present and past, and hundreds of thousands of citizens.

In April 2009 Barack Obama, speaking in Prague, promised to put weapons reduction back on the table and, by dealing peacefully but firmly with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to give new momentum to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Processes could now be set in train, he said, that would lead to the worldwide renunciation of nuclear weapons within a generation. This speech, along with his ability not to be George W. Bush, was a key factor in landing Mr Obama the Nobel peace prize a few months later.

The following year he returned to Prague to sign an arms agreement with Russia, New START, which capped the number of deployed strategic warheads allowed to each side at 1,550. His co-signatory, Russia’s then president, Dmitry Medvedev, had endorsed Global Zero’s aims. A month later the NPT’s quinquennial review conference agreed a 64-point plan intended to reinforce the treaty’s three mutually supportive legs: the promise that all countries can share in the non-military benefits of nuclear technology; the agreement by non-weapons states not to become weapons states; and the commitment of the weapons states to pursue nuclear disarmament. There were hopes that, when the parties to the NPT met again in May 2015, there would be substantial progress to report.

Alas, no. Mr Obama’s agreement with Iran remains possible, even likely — but it will hardly be one that energises the cause of a nuclear-free world. [Continue reading…]

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Substance used to poison Litvinenko could only have come from Russia — inquiry

The Guardian reports: The rare radioactive substance used to poison Alexander Litvinenko in London could only have come from Russia, a world-leading expert has told the inquiry into the former spy’s murder.

Norman Dombey, emeritus professor of theoretical physics at the University of Sussex, said the polonium was produced at a closed nuclear facility in the city of Sarov, 450 miles south-east of Moscow. Its Soviet-era Avangard plant was the only place in the world with a polonium “production line”, he said.

“In my opinion, the Russian state, or its agents, was responsible for the poisoning,” Dombey said.

Litvinenko died after drinking a cup of tea laced with radioactive polonium-210, during a meeting in November 2006 at a Mayfair hotel. Two Russians – Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun – have been charged with his murder. The Kremlin has insisted that the polonium involved did not come from Russia. [Continue reading…]

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Chechens in Nemtsov murder investigation withdraw confessions, say they were tortured

The Interpreter: Zaud Dadayev, chief suspect in the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has essentially disavowed his previous confession to the murder of Nemtsov after a visit from the Public Monitoring Commission, Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK) reports.

Two other jailed suspects, the Gubashev brothers, also withdrew their statement. An MK reporter went along on the prison visit to Lefortovo, the FSB’s prison known as an investigation and isolation facility (SIZO).

The three Chechen men told the monitors of beatings and torture which had allegedly been used on them after their arrest and transport to prison

MK, which generally hews to a pro-government line, added that “the use of force in transporting especially dangerous suspects is considered permissible” and “invocation of unlawful methods of coercion is very widespread among criminals.”

Torture is poorly defined under Russian law and rarely punished, and cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners is rampant in the prison system, as can be seen from testimonies from former prisoners and the conclusions of the UN Committee Against Torture in reviewing Russia’s compliance with the international Convention Against Torture. [Continue reading…]

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The myth of the West’s threat to Russia

Alexander J. Motyl writes: Much Western thinking about the causes of the Russo-Ukrainian War is rooted in a myth. It posits that the West — or, more specifically, NATO — attempted to wrest Ukraine from Russia’s sphere of influence, thereby forcing Vladimir Putin to defend Russia’s legitimate strategic interests by going to war with Ukraine.

The logic is impeccable. The only problem is that there isn’t a shred of truth to this claim.

Was the West determined to integrate Ukraine into its institutions? Until the Maidan Revolution broke out in late 2013, Ukraine “fatigue” had characterized Western policy since about 2008, when the government of then-President Viktor Yushchenko lost the reformist zeal it had inherited from the 2004 Orange Revolution. Even before that, Western policymakers never talked of including Ukraine in the European Union. Indeed, the EU’s Eastern Partnership program and its offer of an Association Agreement to Kyiv were supposed to placate Ukraine without promising it even the distant prospect of membership in the EU. The reluctance to offer that prospect remains unchanged.

Was the West determined to transform Ukraine into a pro-Western democracy? The United States and Europe pumped several billions of dollars into Ukrainian civil society projects since 1991, while remaining indifferent to the Leonid Kuchma regime’s slide toward authoritarianism in the late 1990s, the abandonment by Yushchenko’s “Orange government” of its democratic reform agenda, and Viktor Yanukovych’s establishment of a full-fledged authoritarian regime in 2010-2013. Some Western policymakers supported the Maidan Revolution rhetorically and insisted that Yanukovych seek a compromise with the democratic revolutionaries; but most did not. No Western state actually provided any material assistance to the Maidan. And no Western presidents or prime ministers called on Yanukovych to step down during the revolution: quite the contrary, they travelled to Kyiv in late February 2014 with the express purpose of saving him. Once he abandoned his office, many Western policymakers welcomed his move — but that was after, and not before, the fact. [Continue reading…]

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Two charged with Nemtsov killing include Chechen officer: report

Reuters: Russian authorities said on Sunday they were holding five men over the killing of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, one of whom served in a police unit in the Russian region of Chechnya, according to a law enforcement official.

The five men were frogmarched into a Moscow courtroom on Sunday, forced by masked security officers gripping their bound arms to walk doubled over, a Reuters reporter at the court said. They stood in metal cages in the courtroom as television crews were ushered in to film them.

A judge ruled that all five should be held in custody and said that one of them, Zaur Dadayev, had admitted his involvement in the killing when questioned by investigators.

Dadayev served for a decade in the “Sever” police battalion, part of the interior ministry in Chechnya, Russian news agencies reported. They cited Albert Barakhayev, a senior security official in the neighboring region of Ingushetia, where several of the men were detained.

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Berlin alarmed by aggressive NATO stance on Ukraine

Der Spiegel reports: It was quiet in eastern Ukraine last Wednesday. Indeed, it was another quiet day in an extended stretch of relative calm. The battles between the Ukrainian army and the pro-Russian separatists had largely stopped and heavy weaponry was being withdrawn. The Minsk cease-fire wasn’t holding perfectly, but it was holding.

On that same day, General Philip Breedlove, the top NATO commander in Europe, stepped before the press in Washington. Putin, the 59-year-old said, had once again “upped the ante” in eastern Ukraine — with “well over a thousand combat vehicles, Russian combat forces, some of their most sophisticated air defense, battalions of artillery” having been sent to the Donbass. “What is clear,” Breedlove said, “is that right now, it is not getting better. It is getting worse every day.”

German leaders in Berlin were stunned. They didn’t understand what Breedlove was talking about. And it wasn’t the first time. Once again, the German government, supported by intelligence gathered by the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, did not share the view of NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).

The pattern has become a familiar one. For months, Breedlove has been commenting on Russian activities in eastern Ukraine, speaking of troop advances on the border, the amassing of munitions and alleged columns of Russian tanks. Over and over again, Breedlove’s numbers have been significantly higher than those in the possession of America’s NATO allies in Europe. As such, he is playing directly into the hands of the hardliners in the US Congress and in NATO.

The German government is alarmed. Are the Americans trying to thwart European efforts at mediation led by Chancellor Angela Merkel? Sources in the Chancellery have referred to Breedlove’s comments as “dangerous propaganda.” Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier even found it necessary recently to bring up Breedlove’s comments with NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg. [Continue reading…]

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Russian soldiers ‘dying in large numbers’ in Ukraine, says NATO

BBC News: Nato’s deputy chief says Russian leaders are less and less able to conceal the deaths of “large numbers” of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine.

Alexander Vershbow said Russia’s involvement was becoming more unpopular with the Russian public as a result.

Russian officials dismissed on Thursday a US claim that Moscow had sent “thousands and thousands” of troops to fight alongside separatists.

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Evidence mounting of Russian troops in Ukraine

Deutsche Welle reports: It was a surprising confession. In an interview with the opposition Russian newspaper, Nowaja Gaseta, (from Monday, March 2) a wounded Russian tank operator confirmed what many have long assumed: That contracted Russian soldiers are fighting alongside the separatists in Eastern Ukraine against the Ukrainian army.

And not just a few soldiers. A day after the interview was published, US General Ben Hodges said in Berlin that the US military was working on the assumption of 12,000 Russian troops in the region.

It’s not the first time such reports have surfaced. On Feb. 19, the Russian newspaper Kommersant published a surprisingly frank feature about the deployment of Russian soldiers in Eastern Ukraine. The article appeared in the online version of the paper, which belongs to oligarch Alisher Usmanov, known to be loyal to the Kremlin. Reporter Ilja Barabanov recounts how he met three Russians who had until recently been professional soldiers. In the second half of January, they went to Eastern Ukraine to fight.

The men said they had fought since Jan. 20 on the front in various units of the separatist army of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk.” Before they left, they applied to end their army contracts and be officially discharged.

Whether or not they were actually discharged, and what their current status is, is unknown. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. commander says some 12,000 Russian soldiers in Eastern Ukraine

RFE/RL reports: The U.S. military estimates some 12,000 Russian soldiers are supporting pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.

U.S. Army Europe Commander Ben Hodges said the Russian forces are made up of military advisers, weapons operators and combat troops.

Hodges also said some 29,000 Russian troops are in Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine last year.

Hodges said in Berlin on March 3 that helping Ukraine with weapons would increase the stakes for Russian President Vladimir Putin at home.

He added that “when mothers start seeing sons come home dead, when that price goes up, then that domestic support begins to shrink.”

Hodges said what Ukraine wants “is intelligence, counterfire capability and something that can stop a Russian tank.”

The White House still hasn’t decided whether to send arms to Ukraine, and Hodges reiterated Washington wanted a diplomatic solution. [Continue reading…]

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Alexey Navalny on the murder of Boris Nemtsov

Alexey Navalny, the opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger, writes (translation by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick): 1. I believe that Nemtsov was killed by members of a government (intelligence) or pro-government organization on orders from the political leadership of the country (including Vladimir Putin).

It is a question only of how this order was formulated:

– You must kill Nemtsov.
– You must do a hugely sensational action.

2. That’s enough repeating the nonsense about how “Boris was killed by an atmosphere of hatred.” What atmosphere, exactly, eh? We’ve had the atmosphere of hatred since 2007, and in recent months, we have seen the organized construction of pro-government extremist-terrorist groups, directly declaring as their goal combating the opposition where the police cannot. [Continue reading…]

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Kremlin Murder Inc.

Nina L. Khrushcheva writes: One by one, Putin’s critics have been eliminated. In 2006, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in an elevator, and Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who had been critical of Putin, died of polonium poison while in exile in London. In 2009, Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer campaigning against corruption, died in prison after being denied medical care for life-threatening conditions. The same year, another lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, a champion of human rights, was shot following a news conference.

The murder last week of Boris Nemtsov, a leading opposition politician and a former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, should come as no surprise. But it should come as a shock – and as a wake-up call for those Russians who until now have tolerated a culture of lawlessness and impunity, unseen since the darkest days of Stalin’s personal rule in the Soviet Union.

Before his death, Nemtsov was said to be working on a report titled “Putin and the War,” providing proof of Russia’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. He was scheduled to lead a protest against the war two days after his murder. Some have wondered if Putin was afraid of what Nemtsov had uncovered, and thus ordered the assassination.

That is unlikely, at least in terms of someone receiving a direct order from Putin. Simply put, orchestrating Nemtsov’s murder was not worth the trouble; after all, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine would have had little problem twisting Nemtsov’s report to Putin’s benefit.

Indeed, even Nemtsov’s brazen murder is unlikely to hurt Putin politically. His popularity now stands at 86%. For many Russians, Nemtsov’s opposition to the war in Ukraine made him a traitor, whose death was justified – indeed, almost demanded – by national necessity.

Putin has announced that he will personally oversee the investigation into the assassination. But those leading the effort have already indicated its likely conclusion: Nemtsov’s murder was an attempt to destabilize Russia. We can be all but certain that some culprit or another will be “found,” and that his crime will be part of a conspiracy by the CIA or Ukrainian authorities.

The Kremlin is no stranger to twisting the truth to fit its needs. Before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it argued that the United States had hired snipers to fire at pro-Western protesters in Kyiv in order to blame Russia for their deaths. When a Malaysian airliner was shot down over Ukraine – most likely by pro-Russia rebels – the official Kremlin story was that Western secret services downed it to undermine Putin’s reputation. Allegations like these have whipped up nationalism, hatred, and anti-Western hysteria, distracting Russians from Putin’s culpability for their country’s economic crisis.

As menacing as Putin’s Russia may be, however, nothing about it is original. In 1934, Joseph Stalin, too, ordered a thorough investigation into the murder of a rival: Sergei Kirov, the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad. The NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, orchestrated the assassination on Stalin’s order, but the inquiry gave the Soviet dictator a pretext for eliminating other opponents. The search for Kirov’s murderers eventually culminated in the Great Terror, a massive purge of Party leaders, military commanders, and intellectuals. [Continue reading…]

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