The New York Times reports: A funny thing happened on the way to the United Nations General Assembly, where President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia will speak on Monday for the first time in 10 years.
In the weeks leading up to the meeting, the war in Ukraine all but disappeared from the state-run television channels that monopolize news coverage in Russia. In its place: War in Syria!
There was Dmitry Kiselyov, the infamous news anchor who repeatedly accused Washington of plotting every step of the Ukraine crisis, instead damning the Islamic State. “The barbarian caliphate in the Middle East is an absolute evil, slithering in the direction of Russia,” he said, “But we have a firm ally in the Middle East: Syria. To surrender it means inviting terrorists to come to us.”
With that, Mr. Kiselyov introduced a report by a prominent war correspondent, formerly stationed in eastern Ukraine, who filed the latest in a series of dispatches suggesting that the valiant Syrian military could not win on its own.
The Kremlin’s effort to change the conversation at home to Syria marks an important, if ultimately temporary, shift. It shows that Mr. Putin’s military and diplomatic moves leading up to the United Nations meeting are aimed as much at his domestic audience as the international front. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: There was a time when the arrival of Alexander Borodai and his posse of camouflaged gunmen could clear out a restaurant in just minutes.
But that was in Donetsk, Ukraine, in 2014, where Borodai was prime minister of a proRussian separatist government. Now, he is back in his native Moscow and, as he tells it, back to his old day job as a public relations consultant.
“When you are not on television, people start to forget what you look like,” he said, sinking into a creamcolored sofa in a tony Moscow restaurant for an interview. “And thank God for that. It was hard to go out on the street at first.”
It is an unlikely, perhaps unbelievable, transformation for the most prominent Russian citizen in the war in Ukraine and the possible target of a Dutch investigation into the missile attack on a Malaysian airliner in July last year that killed 298 people. [Continue reading…]
Paul Goble writes: A Moscow newspaper reported that Russia had lost “no fewer than 2,000” dead in the fighting in Ukraine and another 3,200 serious casualties by February 1, 2015, a story that stayed up until Kremlin censors removed those lines from the article lest it call into question Vladimir Putin’s constant refrain that there are no Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine.
In an article about increased pay for Russian soldiers in 2015, Delovaya zhizn reported these numbers, but they didn’t remain on the site for very long, according to Konstantin Zelfanov of Novy Region-2 yesterday.
But the original uncensored article remained accessible in a cached version, and the key passage of that reads as follows, Zelfanov says. “The government of the Russian Federation has taken an important decision about the monetary compensation of military personnel who have taken part in military actions in the east of Ukraine.”
“For the families of those who have died in the course of military actions in the east of Ukraine, monetary compensation has been set at three million rubles [40,000 US dollars] and for those who have become invalids during the military actions at 1.5 million rubles [20,000 US dollars].”
“In addition,” the original version said, Moscow plans to pay contract soldiers a supplement of 1,800 rubles [25 US dollars] for each day of combat. As of February 1, 2015, Moscow had already paid monetary compensation “for more than 2,000 families of soldiers who had been killed and for 3,200 soldiers who were seriously wounded and recognized as invalids.” [Continue reading…]
Eastern Ukraine has recently seen its worst period of attacks by Russian-backed separatists since they captured the town of Debaltseve in February. It had fallen in the days after the two sides reached the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement. Ukraine, Russia and the West have repeatedly underlined the importance of Minsk 2, but whether it has been implemented remains questionable. The latest conflict has coincided with a period of Russian military escalation that recently prompted UK defence secretary Michael Fallon to suggest that Moscow was preparing for war with NATO and the West.
The battle to control public opinion is taking place in parallel, as we have seen most recently with the case of Lyudmila Savchuk, a Russian journalist who went undercover in a Kremlin-backed agency whose staff were tasked with pushing pro-Putin views online. This has helped back up efforts by Russia in the traditional media to portray the heroic struggle of the self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk (DNR) and Luhansk (LNR) against the “Kiev Nazi Junta”, for example, while constantly denying any Russian military involvement.
Anna Nemtsova reports: Violence in eastern Ukraine is boiling over. The entire front line in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions known as Donbas is on fire with both enemies, Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed army, blaming one another for shelling populated areas with Grad rocket launch systems, killing civilians on both sides. Kiev, Moscow, and the Donetsk leaders are warning each other of even worse escalations, even more violence, despite the ceasefire agreement reached at Minsk last February.
But as the Ukrainian people learned of the casualties on their side, the Russians are kept in the dark about the dead among their forces.
We know that at least nine people were killed, both military and civilians, and over a dozen wounded on Sunday and Monday nights.
In the past, such escalations resulted in new ceasefire agreements in Minsk with European Union leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin drawing new “lines of separation,” but this time Moscow does not seem to believe in peace talks. [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast reports: After Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council draft resolution last week, many Russians started to panic.
Their beloved country, famous for groundbreaking novels and poetry, for fabulous nature, perfect ballet — for sending the first man into space! — looked like the odd man out on the global scene.
The resolution in question would have set up a tribunal to investigate and try those responsible for shooting down a Malaysian airliner, MH17, over Ukraine last year. All 298 people aboard were killed, and Moscow-backed rebels are widely thought to have launched the missile that blew up the plane.
So when 11 of the 15 members of the Security Council voted for the resolution, three abstained, and only Russia voted no, the move met with near-universal condemnation.
In the aftermath, many in Moscow began to wonder how far backward Russia is going to slide.
“The veto at the UN is a bright, clear sign of wild, medieval times coming to a once-great country,” independent political observer Sergei Porkhomenko posted on Facebook. He invited Russians to comment on a page discussing the new “medieval morals”; hundreds did, and examples poured in: [Continue reading…]
Al Jazeera reports: Russia has vetoed a United Nations resolution to create an international tribunal to prosecute those who shot down the Malaysian airliner MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014.
The lone “no” vote cast on Wednesday by Vitaly Churkin, Russian ambassador to the UN, effectively blocked the resolution. Russia is one of the five permanent UN Security Council members with veto powers.
Eleven of the 15 members of the council voted in favour of the resolution, which had been drafted by Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands, and Ukraine.
China, Venezuela and Angola abstained.
In his statement following the vote, Churkin accused other countries of politicising the vote, and accused Ukraine of blocking Moscow from being involved in the investigation.
Just an hour before the Malaysia-backed resolution was put to a vote, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he opposed the plan. [Continue reading…]
Ivan Sukhov writes: Modern Russia is not positioning itself as a welfare state: The government now sees it as a burden to feed millions of people directly dependent on the state. Modern Russia is ostensibly trying to invest in development, but its space program is crumbling with every failed rocket launch, and lawmakers are scaring away potential investors with ill-conceived laws.
Modern Russia is definitely not the free and prosperous country that dissidents dreamed it would become when the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991 — but, beyond a doubt, it is also not the Soviet Union. The contours of the social and political system now unfolding before our eyes are far harsher, the political taboos preventing society from degenerating into primitive obscurantism far fewer and the barriers separating the country from the rest of the world far higher.
Meanwhile, the honor guard embodying Great Russia continues marching at the Kremlin walls and the country’s nuclear missiles — capable of destroying half the planet — stand ready. [Continue reading…]
Adrian Karatnycky writes: In waging a clandestine war in eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has made a bargain with the devil. He has farmed out much of the fighting to warlords, mercenaries and criminals, partly in an attempt to simulate a broad-based indigenous resistance to Ukrainian rule. But Mr. Putin’s strategy of using such proxies has resulted in the establishment of a warlord kleptocracy in eastern Ukraine that threatens even Moscow’s control of events.
Surrogate fighters were recruited from four sources: local criminal gangs; jobless males who live on the fringes of eastern Ukraine’s society; political extremists from Russia’s far right, including Cossacks; and itinerant Russian mercenaries who fought in Chechnya, North Ossetia, Transnistria and other regional conflicts in the post-Soviet Union. They have been trained and equipped with modern weapons, and are often supported by Russian regular and special troops.
These irregular forces now form the backbone of the armies of Donetsk and Luhansk, two mostly Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine along the border with Russia. Those separatist enclaves are dominated by well-armed criminal networks whose leaders play key roles in local politics, both formally, as government leaders, and informally, as chieftains of gangs with their own turf. These men and women have supplanted the pro-Russian elite that had held sway in the area since Ukraine’s independence in 1991. [Continue reading…]
Reuters: A separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine is revealing increasing evidence, but not yet conclusive legal proof, of Russian state involvement, senior United Nations human rights officials said on Monday.
“We are speaking about increasing inflow of (unofficial) fighters and increasing evidence that there are also some (Russian) servicemen involved in fighting,” Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic told a news conference in Geneva.
Russia denies Western accusations that it is backing pro-Russian rebels with arms and troops.
The Moscow Times reports: Legal amendments introduced Thursday that classify as state secrets any losses sustained during peacetime special operations are further confirmation of Russia’s direct involvement in the Ukraine conflict, legal and military experts told The Moscow Times.
The amendments, signed by President Vladimir Putin, make “information disclosing the loss of personnel … during special operations in peacetime” a classified state secret.
Putin has repeatedly denied any involvement of Russian troops in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Asked to explain Putin’s move Thursday, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov had no immediate comment, Reuters reported.
Military servicemen who are killed, injured or go missing can be considered military losses, meaning their relatives will be forced to keep information about their deaths a secret, lawyers said Thursday.
“Even a death notification sent to parents or other relatives [of a soldier] can be considered a secret under this decree,” Ivan Pavlov, a leading lawyer in the field of government transparency who has successfully defended treason suspects, told The Moscow Times. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: From his hospital bed in the Ukrainian capital, Russian fighter Alexander Alexandrov feels abandoned by his country, its leaders and even the local Russian consul.
Alexandrov, 28, says he’s a Russian soldier who was captured in east Ukraine after being sent there on active duty with Russian special forces to help separatists fighting Kiev. He said he was serving on a three-year contract. “I never tore it up, I wrote no resignation request,” he said. “I was carrying out my orders.”
Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the face of widespread evidence to the contrary, has repeatedly said there are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine – only volunteers who have gone to help the separatists of their own accord.
So Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, another Russian who was captured with him, find themselves pawns in the deepest confrontation between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.
They believe they should be treated as captured servicemen. But Moscow will not admit they are any such thing, or that it has sent any soldiers into Ukraine to help wrest swathes of east away from Kiev’s control. To do so would undermine Moscow’s claims that the separatist uprising there is a spontaneous reaction by Russian-speaking communities against Kiev.
The Kremlin has described the two men as Russian citizens, and Russia’s defense ministry has said they are former soldiers who left the military before they were captured.
Disowned at home, the two men stand accused by Ukrainian authorities of being terrorists.
In an interview from his bed, Alexandrov, wearing a hospital-issue green T-shirt and with several days stubble on his face, told Reuters he felt alone and trapped between these vast forces. He said the Russian consul in Kiev had visited him and Yerofeyev, but had been a let-down. The two captives had hoped Moscow would get them home in a prisoner exchange, but they said the consul had been non-committal. [Continue reading…]
Michael Weiss James Miller write: The war in Ukraine may have faded largely from international headlines, but Vladimir Putin’s drip-drip invasion continues. In the last two weeks, forensic evidence, some of which has been reported by monitor organizations and senior Western diplomats, the rest corroborated by eyewitness photography and video, only confirms what the U.S. fears most: A summer offensive is inevitable.
On May 5, the Ukrainian government released new data which says that they have lost 28 towns to Russian-backed separatists since February 18. That was the day the strategic town of Debaltsevo, which guarded a key highway to separatist-controlled regions, slipped from Ukraine’s control. The map of separatist territory is as alarming as it is illustrative, especially when it is combined with the daily reports of ceasefire violations and fighting coming out of both the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and Kiev.
On May 6, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko addressed the National Security and Defense Council and warned that Russia has 50,000 troops on the border and its proxies have more than 40,000 fighters inside the country. That’s not only a combined 50% increase in possible invaders over July of last year, the month which proceeded the “Russian invasion” on the Ukrainian mainland. It’s more than enough soldiers to invade and gobble up a significant amount of Ukrainian territory. [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast reports: On May 11, delegates from Europe’s political fringes travelled to Donetsk, the occupied ‘capital’ of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), for a forum to mark the first anniversary of the proclamation of the Russian-backed separatist entities in Ukraine. This in itself is unsurprising since far-right politicians have been used on several occasions to lend a veneer of legitimacy to Russia’s puppet statelets and sham votes since the invasion of Crimea last year.
The attendance roster for this confab included some familiar pro-Putin faces such as French far-right Member of European Parliament Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, Italian nationalist Alessandro Musolino and German neo-Nazi journalist Manuel Ochsenreiter, who moonlights as Kremlin propaganda channel RT’s German “expert” on the Middle East. But this time there was one surprising name in the bunch: Emmanuel Leroy.
Leroy was billed as representing the French charity, Urgence d’Enfants Ukraine (UEU), led by Alain Fragny, a former member of the extreme-right Bloc Identitaire. UEU is a suspicious organization that promotes pro-Russian and pro-separatist propaganda on its websites and is rather opaque with regards to its structure and operations. Leroy was also named by the official site of the DNR leadership as one of the initiators of the forum back in March this year.
But this infamously reclusive figure on France’s far-right is a far more interesting and important figure than any of the other political outliers to have participated in pro-separatist events.
Leroy is a former member of GRECE (Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne, or the Research and Study Group for European Civilization), an extreme, ethno-nationalist think tank, formed in 1968 and headed by Alain de Benoist, whose name appeared in a leaked list of potentially sympathetic contacts purportedly drafted by the Russian ultra-nationalist, Aleksandr Dugin. GRECE promotes ethnic nationalism as a bulwark against race-mixing, placing great emphasis on pre-Christian Nordic culture, which left the group at odds with the Catholic mainstream of the Front National, France’s increasingly popular far-right party, which last year won two seats in the French senate. [Continue reading…]
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.
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.