Russian hackers harassed journalists who were investigating Malaysia Airlines plane crash

The Washington Post reports: Russian government hackers began targeting a British citizen journalist in February 2015, eight months after he began posting evidence documenting alleged Russian government involvement in the shoot-down of a Malaysian jetliner over Ukraine.

And then in February 2016, a group that researchers suspect is a propaganda mouthpiece of the Russian government — CyberBerkut — defaced the home page of Eliot Higgins’s citizen journalism website, Bellingcat.com.

That same month, CyberBerkut hacked the email, iCloud and social media account of a Bellingcat researcher in Moscow, then posted online personal pictures, a passport scan, his girlfriend’s name and other private details.

Russia’s information operations against Bellingcat are a taste of what may be in store for other media organizations whose reports anger the Kremlin, said a cyber-research firm that has extensively documented the effort. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Russia implicated in shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine

The New York Times reports: A Dutch-led investigation has concluded that the powerful surface-to-air missile system that was used to shoot down a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine two years ago, killing all 298 on board, was trucked in from Russia at the request of Russian-backed separatists and returned to Russia the same night.

The report largely confirmed the already widely documented Russian government role not only in the deployment of the missile system, called a Buk, or SA-11, but the subsequent cover up, which continues to this day.

The report by a team of prosecutors from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine was significant for applying standards of evidence admissible in court, while still building a case directly implicating Russia, and is likely to open a long diplomatic and legal struggle over the tragedy.

With meticulous detail, working with cellphone records, social media, witness accounts and other evidence, Dutch prosecutors traced Russia’s role in deploying the missile system into Ukraine and its attempt to cover its tracks after the disaster. The inquiry did not name individual culprits and stopped short of saying that Russian soldiers were involved. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Ukrainians fear President Trump will end their freedom

From Kiev, Anna Nemtsova writes: Perhaps you remember Ukraine. Perhaps you remember this war. But if you’re in the United States in the blur of the American presidential campaign, it must seem faint and far away.

For the people here, however, what they read and see coming out of Republican candidate Donald Trump sounds very loud, and clear, and tantamount to a death sentence for their country.

Adding despair to pessimism, they realize their own leaders aren’t really prepared if Trump wins.

It seems to them almost inconceivable that an American president would praise and be praised by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who illegally annexed Ukraine’s strategic Crimea Peninsula in 2014 then started a shadow war waged by proxy forces and unidentified Russian soldiers to carve off eastern Ukraine (Donbas) like a butcher cutting a roast.

Of course, the factions that have set up “republics” in the east think Trump is great, just as many Russians in the Motherland do after a steady diet of Moscow-generated praise for The Donald.

But that’s certainly no consolation here in Ukraine’s capital. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump is already helping Putin consolidate control of Ukraine

Anna Nemtsova writes: In living rooms and kitchens across Russia and Ukraine, the U.S. presidential election is as riveting to TV viewers as “Game of Thrones” is to their American counterparts. Every time Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump speak of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Crimea, Russian hackers or the Donbas (the disputed region of eastern Ukraine) — and it’s rebroadcast here, which it usually is — people in both countries sit up as if some crazy American reality show has just come on. Almost every day, television channels in both countries highlight America’s new scandals and intrigues involving Trump’s connections with post-Soviet oligarchs, or leaked DNC emails, or the endless hurling of insults and the constant debate over America’s supposedly disappearing greatness.

But the main reason the U.S. election has become must-see TV is not because it’s a great reality show, or because Putin and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine come up as issues in the campaign as often as Mexican immigrants, ISIS and Benghazi. It’s because the political rhetoric across the Atlantic is actually starting to change facts on the ground in Russia and Ukraine. In both countries, coverage of the political chaos in the United States — the north star of politics for both anti-American and pro-American figures in this part of the world — is stirring public discontent and doubt about the future in Ukraine, and a sense of confidence, even arrogance, in Russia.

In short, the rhetoric in the U.S. election campaign — especially Trump’s — is already altering policy in the region, hardening Moscow’s attitude toward Ukraine and at the same time frustrating and confusing the Ukrainians who want to stand up to Putin. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Feds investigate Manafort firm as part of Ukraine probe

CNN reports: FBI and Justice Department prosecutors are conducting an investigation into possible US ties to alleged corruption of the former pro-Russian president of Ukraine, including the work of Paul Manafort’s firm, according to multiple US law enforcement officials.

The investigation is broad and is looking into whether US companies and the financial system were used to aid alleged corruption by the party of former president Viktor Yanukovych.

Manafort, who resigned as chairman of Donald Trump’s campaign Friday, has not been the focus of the probe, according to the law enforcement officials. The investigation is ongoing and prosecutors haven’t ruled anything out, the officials said.

The probe is also examining the work of other firms linked to the former Ukrainian government, including that of the Podesta Group, the lobbying and public relations company run by Tony Podesta, brother of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Putin’s ‘war on terror’ — first he went after Muslims, now he targets Ukrainians

Anna Nemtsova reports: Tatars knew Remzi Memetov as a jovial cook who made the best traditional plov, a dish of rice and lamb, in the little Crimean town of Bakhchysarai. Memetov’s cooking was especially popular among Muslims coming to the local mosque to participate in religious festivals.

Nobody in the town’s sizeable Tatar community would have imagined that their favorite chef would be accused of terrorism.

At 6 a.m. the morning of May 12, the Memetov family heard a knock at the door of their house on Lazurnaya Avenue. The voice outside said: ”Open up, this is the Federal Security Service.”

The visitors were two FSB investigators, two official witnesses, who the FSB invited to be present while they searched the house, a camerawoman, and several people who did not identify themselves.

After a few questions, they looked through all the rooms in the house, confiscating a few religious books and a few CDs. As the investigators were taking Remzi Memetov away, his neighbors gathered around the FSB officers to ask why they were arresting a friendly cook everybody loved. An official said Memetov would just be away a few minutes, just enough to sign a few papers.

“Shame, Shame!” people chanted. And soon their worst expectations came: Memetovs wife and two adult sons learned he was accused of participating in terrorist activities as a part the Islamic movement Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in Russia. He was accused together with three more neighbors, who were arrested the same day. One of them, Enver Mammoth, had seven little children.

Soon after Moscow annexed what had been Ukrainian Crimea in 2014, Russian security agencies began to crack down on Muslims there, and after many arrests they knew only too well what happened when the FSB detained one of them. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Secret ledger in Ukraine lists cash for Trump’s campaign chief, Paul Manafort

The New York Times reports: On a leafy side street off Independence Square in Kiev is an office used for years by Donald J. Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, when he consulted for Ukraine’s ruling political party. His furniture and personal items were still there as recently as May.

And Mr. Manafort’s presence remains elsewhere here in the capital, where government investigators examining secret records have found his name, as well as companies he sought business with, as they try to untangle a corrupt network they say was used to loot Ukrainian assets and influence elections during the administration of Mr. Manafort’s main client, former President Viktor F. Yanukovych.

Handwritten ledgers show $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Mr. Manafort from Mr. Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party from 2007 to 2012, according to Ukraine’s newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Investigators assert that the disbursements were part of an illegal off-the-books system whose recipients also included election officials.

In addition, criminal prosecutors are investigating a group of offshore shell companies that helped members of Mr. Yanukovych’s inner circle finance their lavish lifestyles, including a palatial presidential residence with a private zoo, golf course and tennis court. Among the hundreds of murky transactions these companies engaged in was an $18 million deal to sell Ukrainian cable television assets to a partnership put together by Mr. Manafort and a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Alleged Ukrainian terror plot gives Putin excuse to pull out of upcoming meeting with Normandy group of Western nations

Owen Matthews writes: I was recently invited to appear as a guest on Channel One’s “Special Correspondent,” a news-related chat show, where I sat through two hours of increasingly wild theories linking the Olympic doping ban to a Western conspiracy to punish Russia for its “independent” stance in international affairs.

“Tell us, Owen, do you agree that the Olympic ban is payback for our having taken Crimea?” barked the quick-talking presenter Evgeny Popov. “Russia defied Washington’s hegemony and now its time for us to be punished?”

Then, on Friday, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB officer and long-time Putin ally, was removed from his post as head of the Presidential Administration and replaced by his deputy, Andrei Vaino, a minor apparatchik who made his way up in the Kremlin protocol service.

Ivanov’s sacking is part of a pattern. Russian President Vladimir Putin has consolidated his personal rule, purging long-time political allies in favor of young, faceless, but utterly loyal bureaucrats.

Earlier this year, Putin appointed two former bodyguards as the governors of the Tula and Kalinigrad regions, and he placed his former personal bodyguard, Viktor Zolotov, in charge of the powerful National Guard, a newly-formed law enforcement organ composed of 250,000 armed men and directly answerable to the Kremlin.

“Putin is purging old friends and replacing them with servants,” Kremlin-connected analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told fontanka.ru. “These people reminded [Putin] of a time before he was a boss, let alone President … Now he needs executors, not advisers.” In other words, Putin is removing anybody capable of standing up to him. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Putin’s latest Crimean gambit

Adrian Karatnycky writes: Curiously, it took Russia four full days after an alleged attack by Ukrainian special forces in Crimea to make a public statement about the event.

On August 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the airwaves to denounce “tactics of terrorism.” He stated the alleged killings of a soldier and an FSB security agency operative “will not pass idly by,” intimating a Russian military response, and he called on the United States and the European Union to rein in Kiev.

Russian news sources report that a unit of 20 Ukrainian soldiers engaged in the attack on August 6 after their plot to sabotage a Crimean highway was foiled; seven “saboteurs” are reported to have been apprehended. But the delay in reporting the event raises the question of why authorities did not make an effort to inform Crimeans of the potential danger or urge them to be on the lookout for a large number of armed men on the run.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called the accusations a “fantasy that serves as a pretext for the latest round of military threats against Ukraine.” Logic suggests that he is being truthful.

To begin with, it would be foolish for Ukraine to launch a violent attack, given the vast superiority of Russian military power. It would be even more foolish to provoke Russia at a time when its forces are mobilizing for massive military maneuvers along Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea.

Indeed, Ukraine is already on edge over signs of increased Russian military deployments near its eastern border and increased attacks on Ukrainian positions by fighters from the breakaway enclaves of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Last week, Ukraine placed its armed forces on a state of heightened readiness. On Thursday, President Poroshenko ordered these forces to be on “combat alert.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Is Putin preparing a new attack on Ukraine?

Anders Åslund writes: Observers have greatly feared that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin would start a small regional war this August. Russia has moved up its State Duma elections to September 18. Although only Putin’s parties are allowed to win, he has a predilection for “small and victorious wars” to mobilize his people.

In 1999, the second war in Chechnya preceded his rise to president. In August 2008, Russia attacked Georgia. In February 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, a move that was greatly popular in Russia. Its war in Syria has been an unmitigated success. For the last two years, Russia’s economy has been in recession, giving Putin all the more reason to mobilize his compatriots around a small war.

August is the best time for Moscow’s military action because Western decision-makers are on holidays. The Berlin Wall was initiated in August 1961, the invasion of Czechoslovakia occurred in August 1968, and the Moscow coup took place in August 1991.

The parallels with the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war are striking. That conflict started with the Olympic games in Beijing. The United States president was a lame duck amid the presidential election campaign. Russia was pursuing a large-scale military exercise called Caucasus 2008 in the Northern Caucasus. The Kremlin blamed Georgia for an implausible attack.

A war in August has seemed quite likely for domestic reasons, but where? In the last week, it has become clear that Ukraine will be the target. Major Russian troop movements with hundreds of tanks and heavy artillery to the Donbas and Crimea were reported during the weekend. They were part of a big Russian military exercise named Caucasus 2016. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Fears of full-scale war return as casualties mount in Ukraine

RFE/RL reports: Framed by a tiny cutout in the fortified bunker, this particular piece of no-man’s land is tinted a blood-reddish orange by the setting summer sun.

It’s hot as hell, and it’s about to get hotter. When the sun goes down, the guns start blazing. And all that separates the men at their triggers is a grassy patch of land the size of a soccer field that is heavily mined. If you’re a Ukrainian soldier here, you don’t need binoculars to observe the enemy — you just look in his direction.

It starts with a single shot from a Kalashnikov: Ziiip. Then another: Ziiip. And three more: Ziiip. Ziiip. Ziiip. Each shot whizzes dangerously closer. In the time it takes to boil an egg, the situation escalates as the rifles are joined by .50-caliber machine guns, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades that explode with hollow thuds against the earth or cottages where the soldiers eat and sleep, showering everything with shrapnel. Within an hour, shells from howitzers and tanks — and eventually surface-to-surface Grad missiles, whose name is Russian for “hail” — begin pummeling the scarred steppe.

The “disco,” as the soldiers and the few residents left in this forsaken town call it, is in full effect. The relative calm that dawn brings seems a lifetime away. All are at the mercy of the darkness.

This is eastern Ukraine 28 months after the start of a conflict that once seemed unthinkable, and a year and a half after the signing of a second cease-fire deal, known as Minsk 2, that was supposed to bring lasting peace to this war-torn edge of Europe and reintegrate it with the rest of Ukraine.

But the armistice is unraveling fast as fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists has escalated to levels not seen since more furious phases of the conflict in the Donbas — where the separatists hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions — in 2014 and 2015. Casualties, both civilian and military, are mounting. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

How Paul Manafort wielded power in Ukraine before advising Donald Trump

The New York Times reports: Few political consultants have had a client fail quite as spectacularly as Paul Manafort’s did in Ukraine in the winter of 2014.

President Viktor F. Yanukovych, who owed his election to, as an American diplomat put it, an “extreme makeover” Mr. Manafort oversaw, bolted the country in the face of violent street protests. He found sanctuary in Russia and never returned, as his patron, President Vladimir V. Putin, proceeded to dismember Ukraine, annexing Crimea and fomenting a war in two other provinces that continues.

Mr. Manafort was undaunted.

Within months of his client’s political demise, he went to work seeking to bring his disgraced party back to power, much as he had Mr. Yanukovych himself nearly a decade earlier. Mr. Manafort has already had some success, with former Yanukovych loyalists — and some Communists — forming a new bloc opposing Ukraine’s struggling pro-Western government.

And now Mr. Manafort has taken on a much larger campaign, seeking to turn Donald J. Trump into a winning presidential candidate.

With Mr. Putin’s Russia, and its interference in Ukraine, becoming a focus of the United States presidential campaign, Mr. Manafort’s work in Ukraine has come under scrutiny — along with his business dealings with prominent Ukrainian and Russian tycoons.

After disclosures of a breach of the Democratic National Committee’s emails — which American intelligence officials have linked to Russian spies — both men are facing sharp criticism over what is seen as an unusually sympathetic view of Mr. Putin and his policies toward Ukraine. That view has upended decades of party orthodoxy toward Russia, a country that the previous Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, called “our No. 1 geopolitical foe.”

On Sunday, Mr. Trump even echoed Mr. Putin’s justification of the annexation of Crimea, saying the majority of people in the region wanted to be part of Russia, remarks that were prominently featured on state news channels in Moscow. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail