Russia funds and manages conflict in Ukraine, leaks show

Aric Toler and Melinda Haring report: Hacked emails show that the Kremlin directs and funds the ostensibly independent republics in eastern Ukraine and runs military operations there. In late 2016, Ukrainian hacker groups released emails purportedly taken from the office of Kremlin official Vladislav Surkov, who oversees Ukraine policy for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Surkov leaks confirm what many have long suspected: the Kremlin has orchestrated and funded the supposedly independent governments in the Donbas, and seeks to disrupt internal Ukrainian politics, making the task of rebuilding modern Ukraine impossible. Russia has consistently denied accusations from Kyiv and the West that it is providing the separatists with troops, weapons, and other material support or meddling in Ukrainian affairs. The emails from Surkov’s office betray the official Kremlin line, revealing the extent of Russian involvement in the seizure of Ukrainian territory, the creation of puppet “people’s republics,” and the funding to ensure their survival.

There have been three tranches of information from Surkov’s account: a PDF document detailing plans to destabilize Ukraine, a dump of 2,337 emails, and a final dump of 1,000 emails. While the plot to destabilize Ukraine with its detailed plan to use energy tariffs to foment revolution has garnered attention, its veracity is disputed. The trove of 2,337 emails, released by the hacker group Cyber Hunta, covers the period from September 2013 to November 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and deployed separatist proxies in eastern Ukraine to start a war. The final dump dates from September 2014 to September 2016. We have analyzed the overlooked second and third troves. Here’s what we found. [Continue reading…]

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Ukraine accuses Russia of ‘state terrorism’ after former MP shot

Reuters reports: Ukraine accused Russia of “state terrorism” after a former Russian lawmaker and key witness in a treason case against former leader Viktor Yanukovich was shot dead in broad daylight outside a hotel in central Kiev on Thursday.

Russia called the allegation “absurd”.

Former parliamentarian Denis Voronenkov was killed by an assailant who was armed with a pistol and later died in hospital after being shot in the chest and head by Voronenkov’s bodyguard, police said. The assailant’s identity was not disclosed.

Voronenkov fled to Ukraine last year and was helping the Ukrainian authorities build a treason case against Yanukovich, Ukraine’s pro-Russia former president.

Voronenkov had also spoken out against Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, although he voted for the move at the time.

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko said the killing “is an act of state terrorism on the part of Russia, which (Voronenkov) was forced to leave for political reasons.”

“Voronenkov was one of the main witnesses of Russian aggression against Ukraine and, in particular, the role of Yanukovich regarding the deployment of Russian troops to Ukraine.” [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: In the plush, crimson-decked lobby bar of Kiev’s five-star Premier Palace Hotel, Denis Voronenkov, a Russian lawmaker who defected to Ukraine, knew he was in danger.

“For our personal safety, we can’t let them know where we are,” he said Monday evening as he sat with his wife for an interview with The Washington Post.

Less than 72 hours later, he was dead, shot twice in the head in broad daylight outside the same lobby bar. It was a particularly brazen assassination that recalled the post-Soviet gangland violence of the 1990s. His wife, dressed in black, sobbed as she stooped down to identify Voronenkov’s body, which lay beneath a black tarp in a pool of blood. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s former campaign manager hid payments from Ukraine party with Moscow ties, new documents say

The Washington Post reports: A Ukrainian lawmaker on Tuesday released new financial documents allegedly showing that a former campaign chairman to President Trump laundered payments from the party of a disgraced ex-leader of Ukraine using offshore accounts in Belize and Kyrgyzstan.

The new documents may revive questions about the ties between the Trump aide, Paul Manafort, and the party of the former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, who has been in hiding in Russia since being overthrown by pro-Western protestors in 2014. He is wanted in Ukraine on corruption charges.

Manafort, who worked for Yanukovych’s Party of Regions for nearly a decade, resigned from Trump’s campaign in August after his name in connection with secret payments totaling $12.7 million by Yanukovych’s party. Manafort has denied receiving those payments, listed in the party’s so-called “black ledger.” [Continue reading…]

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Monica Crowley lost White House job, now she’s got one with pro-Russian oligarch

The Daily Beast reports: A would-be Trump White House appointee who withdrew in the face of plagiarism allegations is now lobbying on behalf of a Ukrainian oligarch who has recently advocated greater concessions to the Russian government, according to newly filed documents.

Monica Crowley told the Justice Department’s National Security Division that she will represent billionaire Victor Pinchuk in discussions with U.S. government officials “and other policy makers” regarding “issues of concern to Mr. Pinchuk.”

Crowley, a Fox News contributor, was in line for a senior post at the White House National Security Council until reports from CNN and Politico reported that she had plagiarized large portions of her 2012 book What the (Bleep) Just Happened and her Columbia University Ph.D. dissertation.

Crowley dismissed the plagiarism allegations in her first public remarks on the controversy last week. “What happened to me was a despicable straight-up political hit job,” she said during an appearance on the Fox News show Hannity. “It’s been debunked, my editor has completely supported me and backed me up.” (It has not been debunked.)

She nevertheless withdrew from consideration for the post shortly after the allegations surfaced. Crowley will now be “providing outreach services on behalf of Mr. Victor Pinchuk,” according to a Friday filing with DOJ’s foreign agent registration office. [Continue reading…]

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The crook behind the Trump-Russia ‘peace’ plan

The Daily Beast reports: Felix Sater is an immigrant who did prison time for stabbing a man in the face with the broken stem of a margarita glass, and he would surely qualify for the label “bad hombre” were he from Mexico instead of Russia.

It was only by becoming a federal informant that Sater avoided an otherwise 20-year mandatory term for a $40 million fraud in which most of the victims were elderly, a number of them Holocaust survivors.

Sater’s father also became an informant after being convicted of joining a Mafia soldier shaking down small businesses in Brooklyn for nearly a decade.

None of that stopped Donald Trump from having extensive business dealings with Sater that included the high-rise Trump SoHo New York hotels and condos. Then, after Sater’s rap sheet was widely publicized, Trump said he hardly knew the man.

“If he were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn’t know what he looked like,” Trump says in court papers from a 2013 law suit.

Yet, even as the Trump administration was preparing plans to ramp up deportations, the president’s longtime personal attorney sat down for coffee in a Manhattan hotel with this Russian immigrant.

According to The New York Times, Trump attorney Michael Cohen and Sater were party to some amateur diplomacy aimed at settling the Russian war on Ukraine with a plan to push Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko out of office.

Cohen insisted to The Daily Beast that the Times account was wrong and that he had not been involved in the peace plan. He declined to comment on whether he was troubled by Sater’s criminal background and organized crime ties. [Continue reading…]

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Ukraine lawmaker who worked with Trump associates faces treason inquiry

The New York Times reports: Prosecutors in Ukraine are investigating whether a member of Parliament committed treason by working with two associates of President Trump’s to promote a plan for settling Ukraine’s conflicts with Russia.

In a court filing on Tuesday, prosecutors accused the lawmaker, Andrii V. Artemenko, of conspiring with Russia to commit “subversive acts against Ukraine,” in particular by advancing a proposal that could “legitimize the temporary occupation” of the Crimean peninsula. Russia forcibly annexed the peninsula in 2014, a step that Ukraine, the United States and other governments have refused to recognize; Mr. Artemenko said his proposal would allow Ukraine to formally cede control of the territory to Russia, at least temporarily.

Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, posted a copy of the court filing to his Facebook page on Tuesday with the statement “Ukraine’s integrity is above all else.”

Mr. Artemenko’s plan, reported on Sunday by The New York Times, outlines a series of steps meant to bring to an end the rebellion by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and to resolve the dispute over Crimea by allowing voters to decide whether to lease the peninsula to Russia for 50 or 100 years. [Continue reading…]

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A back-channel plan for Ukraine and Russia, courtesy of Trump associates

The New York Times reports: A week before Michael T. Flynn resigned as national security adviser, a sealed proposal was hand-delivered to his office, outlining a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia.

Mr. Flynn is gone, having been caught lying about his own discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador. But the proposal, a peace plan for Ukraine and Russia, remains, along with those pushing it: Michael D. Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, who delivered the document; Felix H. Sater, a business associate who helped Mr. Trump scout deals in Russia; and a Ukrainian lawmaker trying to rise in a political opposition movement shaped in part by Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager Paul D. Manafort.

At a time when Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia, and the people connected to him, are under heightened scrutiny — with investigations by American intelligence agencies, the F.B.I. and Congress — some of his associates remain willing and eager to wade into Russia-related efforts behind the scenes.

Mr. Trump has confounded Democrats and Republicans alike with his repeated praise for the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, and his desire to forge an American-Russian alliance. While there is nothing illegal about such unofficial efforts, a proposal that seems to tip toward Russian interests may set off alarms. [Continue reading…]

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Fake news, fake Ukrainians: How a group of Russians tilted a Dutch vote

The New York Times reports: Harry van Bommel, a left-wing member of the Dutch Parliament, had persuasive allies in convincing voters that they should reject a trade pact with Ukraine — his special “Ukrainian team,” a gleefully contrarian group of émigrés whose sympathies lay with Russia.

They attended public meetings, appeared on television and used social media to denounce Ukraine’s pro-Western government as a bloodthirsty kleptocracy, unworthy of Dutch support. As Mr. Van Bommel recalled, it “was very handy to show that not all Ukrainians were in favor.”

Handy but also misleading: The most active members of the Ukrainian team were actually from Russia, or from Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, and parroted the Kremlin line.

The Dutch referendum, held last April, became a battering ram aimed at the European Union. With turnout low, Dutch voters rejected the trade agreement between the European Union and Ukraine, delighting Moscow, emboldening pro-Russia populists around Europe and leaving political elites aghast.

It is unclear whether the Ukrainian team was directed by Russia or if it was acting out of shared sympathies, and Mr. Van Bommel said he never checked their identities. But Europe’s political establishment, already rattled by Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the election of President Trump in the United States, is worried that the Netherlands referendum could foreshadow what is to come. [Continue reading…]

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White House now wants to pretend Trump’s been ‘incredibly tough on Russia’

RFE/RL reports: The White House has said that President Donald Trump fully expects Russia to return control of Crimea to Ukraine.

Spokesman Sean Spicer made the remarks at a contentious February 14 news conference that focused largely on the abrupt departure of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

Flynn resigned less than 24 hours earlier, following news reports that said phone calls he held with Russia’s ambassador prior to Trump’s inauguration included discussions of sanctions imposed by then-President Barack Obama.

The Obama administration hit Russia with several waves of sanctions following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv’s forces and Russia-backed separatists.

Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly said he wants better relations with Russia and that he would consider lifting sanctions against Moscow.

Multiple news reports in the past week have said Flynn specifically mentioned the issue of sanctions in phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak weeks before Trump’s inauguration on January 20.

Spicer defended Trump’s approach to Russia, telling reporters on February 14 that the president “has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to de-escalate the violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea.”

“The irony of this entire situation is that the president has been incredibly tough on Russia. He continues to raise the issue of Crimea, which the previous administration allowed to be seized by Russia,” Spicer said. [Continue reading…]

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Russia’s arc of influence from Ukraine to Libya threatens Europe

Politico reports: When EU leaders began wrestling with how to confront Russia over its military intervention in Ukraine, there seemed little connection between events in Crimea and Donbas, the raging conflict in Syria and the outset of a second civil war in Libya.

As they gather Friday for an informal European Council summit on the island of Malta, a striking new geopolitical landscape has come clearly into focus: a crescent of Russian influence, arching from Donetsk in the east to Tripoli in the west.

Having cemented Russia’s role as the dominant belligerent against a pro-Western Ukraine, where the half-frozen conflict in the east has flared up in the past week, and in Syria where a fragile ceasefire has taken hold with Moscow’s ally Bashar al-Assad still in power, President Vladimir Putin has turned his attention to Libya.

For Europe, this raises the worrying prospect that Russia could gain control over the flow of migrants across the central Mediterranean, giving Putin leverage to destabilize Europe by unleashing a flood of refugees like the exodus from Syria that caused a crisis in Europe in 2015.

“It would have a tap to open when it needs something from us,” warned one Central European diplomat. [Continue reading…]

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The United States abandons Ukraine

Maxim Eristavi writes: The citizens of Ukraine have never had any illusions about the international community’s willingness to take their side in their bloody conflict with Russia. Ukrainians collectively roll their eyes whenever one of their well-meaning friends abroad expresses “grave concern” about Moscow’s aggression, because those fine-sounding words are so rarely followed by concrete actions.

But at least they knew they could count on the Americans. Ukraine and the United States have enjoyed friendly relations for a good 25 years now. And over for the past two years — ever since Moscow seized and occupied the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, and then launched its invasion of the country’s eastern territories shortly thereafter — Ukrainians always saw Washington as their most important diplomatic ally. That was especially true when it came to maintaining and imposing sanctions aimed at holding the Russian military in check.

Now that long-standing alliance appears to be over. On Jan. 28, President Trump spoke on the phone with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The conversation, by all accounts, was marked by an air of friendship and conciliation. In the hours that followed, the fighting in eastern Ukraine suddenly spiked. The number of explosions tracked by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) skyrocketed from 420 on Jan. 26 to 10,330 on Jan. 31, the sharpest increase ever recorded by the observers. Targeted attacks on civilian infrastructure have left potentially hundreds of thousands of people in the region without water even as they face temperatures well below freezing. Ukraine now confronts a major humanitarian crisis, as thousands of civilians in the government-controlled town of Avdiivka huddle in the dark and cold under intense shelling by combined Russian and separatist forces.

This appalling situation prompted a public outcry from several countries. But as the fighting escalated, many Ukrainians were desperately waiting for a strong statement of support from their biggest ally, the United States. It never came — at least not in the form they were hoping for. [Continue reading…]

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Ukraine: Major fighting around an industrial city in Donetsk raises questions about Putin’s intentions

The Daily Beast reports: Why is the war in Ukraine suddenly going from frozen conflict to scorcher? Is this Vladimir Putin’s way of testing Donald Trump, not two full weeks into his job as U.S. president, or is it just another provocation designed to keep Kiev weak and insecure after three years of invasion, annexation and occupation?

True, fighting has continued more or less constantly in east Ukraine, the industrial heartland known as the Donbass, ever since the fighting was meant to have stopped as a result of not one but two cease-fire agreements. But this week it escalated in a dramatic fashion, and with clear signs of Kremlin support. Into the fray on the pro-Russian separatists’ side have come heavy-duty armaments such as Grad rockets and the Buk missile system which shot down MH17. (And there’s only one place where the separatists can get this stuff). Also, Ukrainian soldiers are receiving ominous text messages on their cell phones, redolent of the kind of cyber-ops used against them before in the war, the technology and operators of which have been linked to Russian military intelligence hacking of the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s emails.

According to Ukrainian official reports, at least 12 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 57 wounded since Sunday, along with civilian killed and five wounded. The Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk report at least nine of their fighters and five civilians dead, though it must always be cautioned that the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic has form for exaggerating or even outright fabricating reports of civilian casualties. Nevertheless the fighting is the worst seen in an urban area in well over a year. [Continue reading…]

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How fake news turns 87 U.S. tanks into 2,000 tanks threatening Russia

I’m not really a fan of this expression “fake news.” For one thing, like any other pejorative it can too easily get hijacked by practitioners of the Trump school of political rhetoric.

So, when it comes to a website like Michel Chossudovsky’s Global Research, while it can reasonably be described as a chronic purveyor of fake news, I think it can just as accurately be described as a piece of crap.

Consider, for instance, this piece of “reporting” based itself on a “report” from actor Janus Putkonen’s, “Donbass International News Agency.”

Global Research reposts the article which begins:

The NATO war preparation against Russia, ‘Operation Atlantic Resolve’, is in full swing. 2,000 US tanks will be sent in coming days from Germany to Eastern Europe, and 1,600 US tanks is deployed to storage facilities in the Netherlands. At the same time, NATO countries are sending thousands of soldiers in to Russian borders.

Following Russian intervention in Ukraine, “Operation Atlantic Resolve” began in 2014 and was designed to “reassure NATO allies and partners of America’s dedication to enduring peace and stability in the region,” according to the Pentagon.

So what about these 2,000 tanks?

It seems like the Putkonen system of military analysis works like this: find a report that includes “2,000” and “tanks” in the same sentence and, voila! You end up with 2,000 tanks.

On January 6, Stars and Stripes reported:

The U.S. Army began unloading tanks and other weaponry in the German port of Bremerhaven Friday, marking the arrival of the first wave of gear that will support the rotation of an armored brigade in Europe.

Over the next several days, the equipment will be offloaded and moved by rail, commercial lines and convoy into staging sites in Poland.

The arrival of the military hardware and troops from the Fort Carson-based 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division marks the start of the first full-time presence of a tank brigade in Europe since the last armored units on the Continent were inactivated several years ago.

In all, the Fort Carson brigade will bring 87 tanks, 18 Paladins; 419 multi-purpose and 144 Bradley Fighting Vehicles; as well as some 2,000 additional vehicles and trailers.

Call me a stickler for accuracy, but I’d say there’s a big difference between 87 tanks and 2,000 tanks, but then again, who’s to say what the U.S. Army might be hiding inside its vehicle-borne portajohns.

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Germany accuses Russia of cyber attack on Ukraine peace monitors, as Kremlin dismisses U.S. intelligence claims as a ‘witch hunt’

The Telegraph reports: Russian hackers have targeted international peace monitors in Ukraine, according to German intelligence, as the Kremlin dismisses claims that it tried to influence the US election as a “witch hunt”.

Investigators have uncovered evidence that a notorious Russian hacking group believed to be linked to the Kremlin was behind an attack on computers of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) last month, Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s BfV domestic intelligence service said.

He named the group responsible as APT28, another name for Fancy Bear, a group of hackers that has been implicated in the theft of emails from Democratic Party servers in the US.

German intelligence also believes the group was behind a series of cyber attacks on the German parliament in 2015. [Continue reading…]

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How we fool ourselves on Russia

William J Burns (former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and a former Foreign Service Officer who has been called “the quintessential diplomat” and who served in five administrations) writes: In the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, profound grievances, misperceptions and disappointments have often defined the relationship between the United States and Russia. I lived through this turbulence during my years as a diplomat in Moscow, navigating the curious mix of hope and humiliation that I remember so vividly in the Russia of Boris N. Yeltsin, and the pugnacity and raw ambition of Vladimir V. Putin’s Kremlin. And I lived through it in Washington, serving both Republican and Democratic administrations.

There have been more than enough illusions on both sides. The United States has oscillated between visions of an enduring partnership with Moscow and dismissing it as a sulking regional power in terminal decline. Russia has moved between notions of a strategic partnership with the United States and a later, deeper desire to upend the current international order, where a dominant United States consigns Russia to a subordinate role.

The reality is that our relationship with Russia will remain competitive, and often adversarial, for the foreseeable future. At its core is a fundamental disconnect in outlook and about each other’s role in the world.

It is tempting to think that personal rapport can bridge this disconnect and that the art of the deal can unlock a grand bargain. That is a foolish starting point for sensible policy. It would be especially foolish to think that Russia’s deeply troubling interference in our election can or should be played down, however inconvenient.

President Putin’s aggressive election meddling, like his broader foreign policy, has at least two motivating factors. The first is his conviction that the surest path to restoring Russia as a great power comes at the expense of an American-led order. He wants Russia unconstrained by Western values and institutions, free to pursue a sphere of influence.

The second motivating factor is closely connected to the first. The legitimacy of Mr. Putin’s system of repressive domestic control depends on the existence of external threats. Surfing on high oil prices, he used to be able to bolster his social contract with the Russian people through rising standards of living. That was clear in the boomtown Moscow I knew as the American ambassador a decade ago, full of the promise of a rising middle class and the consumption of an elite convinced that anything worth doing was worth overdoing. But Mr. Putin has lost that card in a world of lower energy prices and Western sanctions, and with a one-dimensional economy in which real reform is trumped by the imperative of political control and the corruption that lubricates it.

The ultimate realist, Mr. Putin understands Russia’s relative weakness, but regularly demonstrates that declining powers can be at least as disruptive as rising powers. He sees a target-rich environment all around him.

If he can’t easily build Russia up, he can take the United States down a few pegs, with his characteristic tactical agility and willingness to play rough and take risks. If he can’t have a deferential government in Kiev, he can grab Crimea and try to engineer the next best thing, a dysfunctional Ukraine. If he can’t abide the risk of regime upheaval in Syria, he can flex Russia’s military muscle, emasculate the West, and preserve Bashar al-Assad atop the rubble of Aleppo. If he can’t directly intimidate the European Union, he can accelerate its unraveling by supporting anti-Union nationalists and exploiting the wave of migration spawned in part by his own brutality. Wherever he can, he exposes the seeming hypocrisy and fecklessness of Western democracies, blurring the line between fact and fiction.

So what to do? Russia is still too big, proud and influential to ignore and still the only nuclear power comparable to the United States. It remains a major player on problems from the Arctic to Iran and North Korea. We need to focus on the critical before we test the desirable. The first step is to sustain, and if necessary amplify, the actions taken by the Obama administration in response to Russian hacking. Russia challenged the integrity of our democratic system, and Europe’s 2017 electoral landscape is the next battlefield.

A second step is to reassure our European allies of our absolute commitment to NATO. American politicians tell one another to “remember your base,” and that’s what should guide policy toward Russia. Our network of allies is not a millstone around America’s neck, but a powerful asset that sets us apart.

A third step is to stay sharply focused on Ukraine, a country whose fate will be critical to the future of Europe, and Russia, over the next generation. This is not about NATO or European Union membership, both distant aspirations. It is about helping Ukrainian leaders build the successful political system that Russia seeks to subvert.

Finally, we should be wary of superficially appealing notions like a common war on Islamic extremism or a common effort to “contain” China. Russia’s bloody role in Syria makes the terrorist threat far worse and despite long-term concerns about a rising China, Mr. Putin has little inclination to sacrifice a relationship with Beijing.

I’ve learned a few lessons during my diplomatic career, often the hard way. I learned to respect Russians and their history and vitality. I learned that it rarely pays to neglect or underestimate Russia, or display gratuitous disrespect. But I also learned that firmness and vigilance, and a healthy grasp of the limits of the possible, are the best way to deal with the combustible combination of grievance and insecurity that Vladimir Putin embodies. I’ve learned that we have a much better hand to play with Mr. Putin than he does with us. If we play it methodically, confident in our enduring strengths, and unapologetic about our values, we can eventually build a more stable relationship, without illusions.

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Putin’s perfect storm

Brian Whitmore writes: One announcement came from Berlin. Another came from Washington. And they came weeks apart.

German intelligence warned in late November that Russia had launched a campaign to meddle in upcoming elections to the Bundestag. And in early December, the CIA said it concluded that Moscow had already interfered in the U.S. presidential election.

In any other year, either of these claims would probably have been astonishing, sensational, and even mind-blowing.

Not in 2016.

This was the year such things became routine as the Kremlin took the gloves off in its nonkinetic guerrilla war against the West.

It was the year Russia’s long-standing latent support for the xenophobic and Euroskeptic far right became manifest, open, and increasingly brazen.

It was the year cyberattacks moved beyond trolling and disruption and toward achieving specific political goals.

It was the year long-cultivated networks of influence across the West were activated.

It was the year the Kremlin expanded its disinformation campaign beyond Ukraine and the former Soviet space and aimed it at destabilizing the West itself.

It was the year Moscow turned Western democracy into a weapon — against Western democracy.

And most importantly, with the West suffering from one of its worst crises of confidence in generations, 2016 was the year Moscow began to see results. [Continue reading…]

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