Reuters reports: Some Russian soldiers are quitting the army because of the conflict in Ukraine, several soldiers and human rights activists have told Reuters. Their accounts call into question the Kremlin’s continued assertions that no Russian soldiers have been sent to Ukraine, and that any Russians fighting alongside rebels there are volunteers.
Evidence for Russians fighting in Ukraine – Russian army equipment found in the country, testimony from soldiers’ families and from Ukrainians who say they were captured by Russian paratroopers – is abundant. Associates of Boris Nemtsov, a prominent Kremlin critic killed in February, will soon publish a report which they say will contain new evidence of the Russian military presence in Ukraine.
Until now, however, it has been extremely rare to find Russian soldiers who have fought there and are willing to talk. It is even rarer to find soldiers who have quit the army. Five soldiers who recently quit, including two who said they left rather than serve in Ukraine, have told Reuters of their experiences.
One of the five, from Moscow, said he was sent on exercises in southern Russia last year but ended up going into Ukraine in an armored convoy.
“After we crossed the border, a lieutenant colonel said we could be sent to jail if we didn’t fulfil orders. Some soldiers refused to stay there,” said the soldier, who served with the elite Russian Kantemirovskaya tank division. He gave Reuters his full name but spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he feared reprisals. [Continue reading…]
Leonid Bershidsky writes: Russia’s toxicity for investors is suddenly so 2014. Western money is returning to Moscow’s equity and bond markets, and private Russian companies are again able to borrow, albeit at a premium to Western peers.
The main cause for this reversal of fortunes is the cease-fire in Ukraine, even though it isn’t really holding militarily or moving forward politically. That’s a paradox that may shed light on how events in eastern Ukraine will develop.
The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that “investors have taken Russia out of the penalty box.” According to the global fund tracker EPFR, the influx of cash into mutual and exchange-traded funds targeting Russian securities so far this year has almost wiped out last year’s outflow. Indeed, the rebound in the Russian stock and bond markets since December’s panic over a free-falling ruble has been spectacular: [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press: The United States now sees the Ukrainian rebels as a Russian force.
American officials briefed on intelligence from the region say Russia has significantly deepened its command and control of the militants in eastern Ukraine in recent months, leading the U.S. to quietly introduce a new term: “combined Russian-separatist forces.” The State Department used the expression three times in a single statement last week, lambasting Moscow and the insurgents for a series of cease-fire violations in Ukraine.
The shift in U.S. perceptions could have wide-ranging ramifications, even if the Obama administration has cited close linkages between the pro-Russian separatists and President Vladimir Putin’s government in Moscow since violence flared up in Ukraine a year ago.
Melik Kaylan writes: Today’s news that Iran’s navy impounded a Western ship illustrates the severe impediments to a nuke deal. With so much going against it, the most powerful argument for completing the agreement still hasn’t been uttered by anyone. Astonishing, you might think. Not really. The central figure on whose shoulders falls the task of selling it to Americans — President Obama — will not tell you. Arguably, he cannot. Meanwhile, his initiative has to survive incessant media barracking about centrifuge numbers, breakout thresholds, regional proliferation, threats to Israel, plausible monitoring and much else.
Even George W. Bush came out of obscurity this weekend to lend his threadbare authority to the naysaying chorus. He added, for good measure, that withdrawing from Iraq was a strategic mistake. It didn’t take long for the Twitterverse to respond that invading in the first place was the greater mistake. We won’t get into that here. Suffice to say that on George W.’s watch, Putin invaded Georgia, China became a global superpower, and Venezuela’s Chavez got a guarantee of security from the US in exchange for uninterrupted oil supplies. Obama’s soft approach to world affairs hasn’t righted things. But the proposed nuclear framework agreement with Iran may be his first big venture to do just that.
The clue — overwhelmingly conspicuous yet everyone ignores it — comes in the form of Russia and China’s reaction. I know something about this having published a book in September entitled “The Russia-China Axis.” When the preliminary stage of talks concluded positively, Moscow immediately announced an agreement to build 50 more nuclear power stations for Iran. This time around, they announced the sale of S-300 missiles.
As for China, here’s a statement by Iran’s official news agency about Beijing ramping up massive investments in Iranian oilfield development and the like. Subtract the propaganda and hyperbole and you still get a clear enough picture. China never abided by the sanctions, becoming Teheran’s main trading partner in recent years. In essence, the sanctions gave China exclusive access to cheap Iranian oil. Iran was among the first nations to join the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. And now as a possible lifting of sanctions looms, the Chinese are piling it on. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Some of President Obama’s email correspondence was swept up by Russian hackers last year in a breach of the White House’s unclassified computer system that was far more intrusive and worrisome than has been publicly acknowledged, according to senior American officials briefed on the investigation.
The hackers, who also got deeply into the State Department’s unclassified system, do not appear to have penetrated closely guarded servers that control the message traffic from Mr. Obama’s BlackBerry, which he or an aide carries constantly.
But they obtained access to the email archives of people inside the White House, and perhaps some outside, with whom Mr. Obama regularly communicated. From those accounts, they reached emails that the president had sent and received, according to officials briefed on the investigation. [Continue reading…]
CNN: Russia is paying a hefty price for supporting the break up of Ukraine — $106 billion, to be precise.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gave the first official estimate of the cost in a speech Tuesday. He said the decision to annex Crimea had sparked a crisis that turned out to be “more difficult” than even the most pessimistic expectations.
Western sanctions imposed over Crimea and Moscow’s support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine had cost Russia $26.7 billion in 2014. This year, the costs could balloon to $80 billion, he said.
“There should be no illusions. Today we are faced not only with a short term crisis,” Medvedev said.
Jill Dougherty writes: From his first days as president, Putin moved quickly to dominate the media landscape in Russia, putting not only state media but privately owned broadcast media under the Kremlin’s influence.
“The limitations on the media have existed for the 15 years that Vladimir Vladimirovich has been in power,” Alexey Venediktov, editor in chief of Echo of Moscow, Russia’s only remaining independent radio station, told me during a December visit to the Russian capital. The war in Ukraine, he added, has solidified Putin’s view of the media: “It’s not an institution of civil society, it’s propaganda. [The Russian broadcasters] First Channel, Second Channel, NTV, Russia Today internationally — these are all instruments for reaching a goal inside the country, and abroad.”
Early in his presidency, Venediktov said, Putin told him how he thinks the press works: “Here’s an owner, they have their own politics, and for them it’s an instrument. The government also is an owner and the media that belong to the government must carry out our instructions. And media that belong to private businessmen, they follow their orders. Look at [Rupert] Murdoch. Whatever he says, will be.”
Putin pursues a two-pronged media strategy. At home, his government clamps down on internal communications—primarily TV, which is watched by at least 90 percent of the population, but also newspapers, radio stations, and, increasingly, the Internet. State-aligned news outlets are flooded with the Kremlin’s messages and independent outlets are pushed — subtly but decisively — just to the edge of insignificance and extinction. At the same time, Putin positions himself as a renegade abroad, deploying the hyper-modern, reflexively contrarian RT — an international news agency formerly known as Russia Today — to shatter the West’s monopoly on “truth.” The Kremlin appears to be betting that information is the premier weapon of the 21st century, and that it can wield that weapon more effectively than its rivals.
When Western news outlets report on a “takeover” of the press by the Russian government, it usually evokes images of Putin, a puppet master behind Kremlin walls, ordering armed men to break down doors and haul away journalists. But in Russia, there are other ways to control the media — less dramatic, less obvious, but just as potent [Continue reading…]
Mark Galeotti writes: The current crisis in relations between Russia and the West and the attempt to respond to it through economic sanctions illustrates how hard it is to answer a fundamental question: what does Putin really want? That, after all, is the key to predicting the Russian president’s next move, giving us the best chance of formulating a policy able to make the right concessions. Moreover, it’s the only way to hit the pressure points that will produce movement.
Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy (Simon & Schuster, 2014), a meticulous exploration of the myriad economic crimes associated with Putin and his friends, allies and cronies, brings this challenge to the fore and illustrates both what can be divined from the evidence at our disposal — and what we may just be assuming.
How do we know what we think we know? Putin rarely gives interviews, and when he does, they are artfully choreographed to present him in the best or most appropriate light and to convey the message of the day. The people closest to him — and we do not even have a definitive list of those who might truly be called the inner circle — rarely speak openly about what they tell him, much less what he says to them. Two things Russia does well are message control and counter-intelligence, so both the aboveboard and underhand methods of knowing what really goes on inside the black box are severely limited in utility. And so, like Soviet-era Kremlinologists reborn, we tend to pore through what statements, gossip, visual clues and other snippets of information we can find, to piece together our best working assessment. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press: Russia’s leading environmentalist whose fierce campaigning once threatened the interests of some of the country’s richest men has moved to Estonia to ensure she is not separated from her children.
Yevgenia Chirikova, 38, is best known for a 2010 campaign opposing the construction of an $8bn road linking Moscow and St Petersburg. Chirikova’s investigations shed light on some of the murkier aspects of a project that is partly owned by president Vladimir Putin’s childhood friend.
As her allies and environmentalists from other Russian regions face increasing government pressure, Chirikova has opted to leave her homeland.
“It is difficult to work in Russia because they can come for you at any moment like they blackmailed me once with my children,” she told The Associated Press on the phone from the Estonian capital of Tallinn. “Now I’ve eliminated my biggest vulnerability by leaving for Estonia.”
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…]
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…]
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.
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]