Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
The previous issue is here, and see also our Russia This Week stories Ultranationalists Angry over âCapitulationâ of Minsk Agreement, âAnti-Maidanâ Launched by Nationalists, Cossacks, Veterans, Bikers, The Guild War â How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists? and special features Former Russian Intelligence Officers Behind Boisto âTrack IIâ Talks â and Now the Flawed Minsk Agreement and Johnsonâs Russia List Spreads Invented Story About Germany Preparing Sanctions Against Kiev
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David Kramer, senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute writes an op-ed today in the Washington Post, “U.S. Invites a Russian Fox into the Coop.“
President Barack Obama has allowed Alexander Bortnikov the head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the KGB’s successor, to come to the United States to attend a conference today and tomorrow at the White House called Countering Violent Extremism.
The optics of having such a figure come to the US at a time when the US is attempting to put pressure on Putin to stop its war on Ukraine certainly aren’t good.
Incredibly, Bortnikov isn’t on the current list of sanctions introduced against Russia over its forcibly annexation of the Crimea and continued war on Ukraine, although our allies have included him. Says Kramer:
Bortnikov is not on the U.S. sanctions list that denies dozens of
Russians entry to the United States either because of Russia’s
aggression against Ukraine or because of the 2012 human rights
legislation known as the Magnitsky Act. His name does appear, however, on the Ukraine-related sanctions lists adopted by the European Union and Canada.
should long ago have been included on the Magnitsky sanctions list
dealing with human rights abuses as well as the Ukraine-related list.
The FSB leads Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to eliminate
his political opposition, stifle civil society and independent media and
perpetuate the myth that the West, and the United States in particular,
are a threat to Russia. It is actively involved in the propaganda
effort in which the Kremlin spreads lies and misinformation to its
audiences via RT (formerly Russia Today) and the Sputnik news agency.
Its special forces are heavily involved in Ukraine.
How did this happen? As Kramer points out in his piece, it’s because we didn’t have Bortnikov on the sanctions list, and Putin took the opportunity to stick a finger in our eye and put his secret police chief at the head of the delegation. The White House then didn’t feel they could say “no” — although there is no reason they couldn’t have objected and asked the Russians to find another law-enforcement official.
Instead, by the White House refusing to take a stand even now, Putin could wink and say this official was required because of the topic of the conference — fighting extremism.
This is a topic Putin’s enforcer knows a lot about, as under Russia’s vaguely-worded “anti-extremism” law, hundreds of web sites have been closed and dozens of people have been jailed — some of whom we would agree are guilty of “incitement to violent action” (the US Supreme Court test for overcoming free speech guarantees to prosecute extremists) but some of whom are not — like people who have opposed the war in Ukraine.
Obama, author of the “re-set” with Russia, has always been reluctant to punish the top leadership of Russia, and opposed the Magnitsky Act when it was launched in the US Congress.
The conference itself was something that was postponed last year for reasons that have not been disclosed. It was put on again hastily, with some controversy as the Administration came under attack recently for how it has handled the challenge of ISIS in general, and specifically, for Obama’s recent remarks that the Paris terrorists who targeted Jews in a kosher deli had killed “random” people.
USA Today said the conference had “missed the mark” and critics were questioning what it would achieve.
“It’s bizarre,” says Naureen Shah, a former legislative counsel with
the ACLU who recently became the security and human rights director at
Amnesty International. “On the one hand they’ve been touting this summit
and trying to showcase the U.S. and global efforts to combat violent
extremism. But on the other hand, they’re not providing any information
about what’s going to happen.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen
Psaki declined to comment last week on whether Russia would be
participating in the summit, saying she did not currently have the list
of invitees. She anticipated that, in the days before the summit, “we’ll
do a briefing on the plans for the summit, what we hope to accomplish,
A State Department spokesperson confirmed Friday the
department had not yet finalized the list of attendees with the White
House, though an announcement later in the day said the attendees would
include “ministers, senior officials from the UN – including UN
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – and other multilateral organizations,
and private sector and civil society representatives.”
Obama wrote an op-ed piece explaining the conference, but didn’t mention Russia — it’s primarily aimed at addressing extremism in the Middle East directly threatening Americans.
But his involvement of Russian intelligence in this effort is highly troublesome because Russia deals harshly with its extremists, real or suspected, by violating basic rights of free speech, association and assembly and worst of all, by extra-judicial killing; more than 300 suspected Islamist militants have been gunned down by Russian forces, mainly in Dagestan, in the last year.
Strangely, even the Amb. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s envoy to the UN, questioned the White House conference and US leadership in leading the countering of terrorism. “It’s only going to attract extremiss,” the New York Times reported him as saying.
The White House conference bears a lot of resemblance to a conference process conceived by former State Department official Jared Cohen, who is now director of Google Ideas. In 2011, Cohen convened a conference of former members of gangs and jihadist groups to discuss ways in which extremism could be countered in the community. He has formed a global network called Against Violent Extremism.
There has also been an Air Force study on countering violent extremism and various other studies and trainings by the US government to grapple with the challenge of Islamism leading to this conference which has engendered controversy from left and right.
This debate will endure as the issues are complex, but it is hard to see why involvement of Putin’s intelligence apparatus will be helpful. While the description of US-Russian law-enforcement cooperation on cases like the Boston Marathon bombers is often described as involving a lapse on the part of the FBI, who failed to intercept the Tsarnaev brothers, in fact serious questions could be asked why our then-partners failed to tell the US that Tamerlan Tsarnaev were alleged by Dagestani intelligence to have contacted Islamist militants who were then later assassinated in Dagestan by Russian special forces.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Moscow authorities proposed that opposition organizers of a protest march to be held on March 1 should be moved from Tverskaya Street in the center of Moscow to the suburb of Lyublino, RBC reported, citing opposition group Solidarity representative and blogger Sergei Davidis.
“We received a verbal response from the mayor’s office with an offer to move the march to Lyublino, the organizing committee has not yet received official documents,” said Davidis.
Davidis said “Lyublino” because it is right next to Maryino.
He said the organizers planned to respond to the offer from the mayor’s office, but couldn’t say what the collective decision would be. “In my view, this is a completely unacceptable offer and even offensive.” Protesters don’t want to be exiled to the outskirts of Moscow where they will have less participation and less visibility.
The opposition filed a request for a permit for up to 100,000 people to march through the main street of Tverskaya near the Kremlin. Five leaders signed the request: Alexey Navalny, Aleksandr Ryklin, Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Police arrested Navalny this morning and a judge sentenced him to 15 days in jail for leafletting about the march over the weekend, and past unauthorized demonstrations. Thus he has been put out of commission for the planning, but Boris Nemtsov, another opposition leader of the march, said on his Facebook that the organizers intend to proceed.
Navalny indicated this evening on his blog that he would accept the move to Maryino, but said he was in the minority on this question among the organizers of the march. He also noted that the group didn’t have a formal explanation yet from the Mayor’s Office as to why they were rejecting the route in central Moscow.
Navalny said he wasn’t bothered by having a location on the outskirts of Moscow and listed a number of stops that were not so far from the center where people actually live.
The closer to people, the better. What, people don’t live there? In fact, I myself have lived in Maryino itself for 17 years, and it’s not a problem. So let’s hold the Anti-Crisis March in the very thick of the people, in the final analysis, Maryino has the largest population of any Moscow district. It will be a people’s march.
In fact, this time, too, I proposed holding it not on Tverskaya/Bolotnaya/Sakharova avenues but in the Vorobyev Hills or something like that.
The position, “I will go to the Chekhovskaya metro stop against the war and corruption, but no way will I go to the Maryino metro stop” looks a little contrived. It’s understandable that here there was a calculation that people will perceive such a route as an insult (and it is an insult) and emotions get the upper hand, but we must understand the intention.
We have to think not about how they are driving us mad with this route but we are driving them mad with such slogans.
The status of the march application is not clear, as some organizers don’t want to accept the option of a suburban location, yet the mayor’s office may not be persuaded to allow them to march in the center of Moscow.
Roman Rubanov also said that the Mayor’s Office had said they were missing letters from the organizers, which sounds like some bureaucratic red tape is being invoked to stall the permission.
Translation: The government of Moscow has said that they have not received anything from Navalny recarding #SPRING. And they say they seemingly didn’t receive any letters from him, Nemtsov and others.
Meanwhile, they also face the prospect of a counter-demonstration or
disrupters from a government-supported movement called “Anti-Maidan”
which has scheduled rallies in a number of cities for February 21, the anniversary of the
flight of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to Russia, RBC.ru reported.
In Moscow, the Anti-Maidan organizers had no trouble obtaining permission to march from Strastnoy
Boulevard along Petrovka Street to Revolution Square in the center of
town — although their theme is “No Revolutions,” as they contrast
themselves to Maidan movement which ultimately forced Yanukovych to flee
to Russia when confronted with his massive corruption and use of force
The action is titled “Never forgive, Never Forget” is being led by
nationalist Russian Senator Dmitry Sablin and other members of parliament. Activists in the government-created All-Russian National Front are
expected to participate along with and bikers’ clubs led by Alexander
Zaldostanov (“Surgeon”), head of the Night Wolves, who was put on the US sanctions’ list in December 2014 for his role in the forcible annexation of Crimea.
are planned throughout Russia’s provinces RBC.ru reported. Billboard
ads and commercials on federal television have appeared, evidently paid for by
Fighting Brotherhood, a government-funded organization with regional
chapters where Sablin serves as deputy representative.
Aleksei Solovov, representative of Fighting Brotherhood, told RBC
that the ads were paid for by “donations from members of the
organization.” RBC contacted Russ Outdoor, the billboard company and found 120 sites had been purchased in Moscow. Andrei Berezkin, general
director of the research company Espar-Analitik said that going by the
company’s web site, this could mean anywhere from 40,000 rubles ($645)
per site was spent to 25,000 rubles ($403) per site spent on the ad,
depending on what kind of space was purchased, i.e. billboard versus bus shelter ad. He cautioned that it was
hard to tell because the group may have received a deep discount due to
the slow winter season.
The Fighting Brotherhood is headed by
Boris Gromov, former Moscow Region governor and military hero, who has
received about 25 million rubles in presidential administration grants
as an NGO over the course of several years (currently about $403,000 but
worth double that last year). One of these grants (8 million rubles or
$129,000 at current rates) was received last year for a comprehensive
program to create a network of youths for the Fighting Brotherhood.
That’s why RBC believes that the organization would be able to pay for
ads from government funds, and in any event, while they may have raised
private funds for the ads, their general operating costs are already
covered by significant government grants.
Formally, the ruling
party United Russia and the All-Russian National Front are not
organizers of the Anti-Maidan protest, but a source close to the action’s planners said that their
members will “come on their own.”
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has just been sentenced to 15 days in jail for “repeated violation” of laws on rallies and demonstrations, TV Rain reports.
Police came to his home this morning and arrested him, then brought him to Presnensky Court for an administrative hearing.
Navalny has taken part in several unauthorized actions, including
the January 15 rally in his own defense in the Yves Roche case, where he
was given a suspended sentence of 3.5 years.
Thus the court,
based on police records, ruled that he should be handed the jail
sentence, and said that the defense’s counter arguments were
Translation: 15 days. I will miss all of Maslenitsa.
Maslenitsa is a week-long holiday in the Russian Orthodox calender like Mardi Gras, before the Lenten fast leading to Easter.
Earlier, on February 15, Navalny, Roman Rubanov,
the director of his Anti-Corruption Fund, Nikolai Lyaskin, head of the
Moscow section of the Party of Progress led by Navalny, and another 9
activists were detained for leafletting in the Moscow metro. The
leaftlets invited people to come to the March 1 rally. Police released
them after 8 hours.
The Russian opposition’s effort to
gain permission to hold a large rally on March 1 has become complicated
by Navalny’s arrest, not only because he cannot physically take part in
the organizing, but because the mayor’s office may say that the presence
of a convicted person on the application will be grounds for rejecting
Zakhary Agapishvili and Sergei Danilchenko, senior Naval officers were sentenced, along with two other servicemen, Levan Charkviani and Konstantin Yashin. The length of their prison terms was not known.
The Supreme Court of Russia sentenced the men in November 2014, but the news came out only now. They are charged with Art. 275, “state treason.” They were stripped of their military ranks and honors. According to the investigation, they passed top secret information to foreign government. No more details were available.
This is now the fifth such separate case that has come to light in the last year, involving now a total of 8 people.
On February 6, Gennady Kravtsov was arrested for handing secret information to the West, although nothing is known about the content or the specific country. He will remain in pre-trial detention until March 27.
On February 4, Vladimir Golubev, a former employee of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center, was arrested and charged with an article he published on explosives which was later said to contain secret information.
Last week Svetlana Davydova, a mother of 7 in Vyazma, was released from pre-trial detention in yet another treason case, this one related to allegations that she reported to the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow information about the deployment of the GRU troops near her home, likely sent to Ukraine.
Another case involves a former FSB agent named Yevgeny Petrin who reportedly infiltrated the Russian Orthodox Church as an employee and was ultimately arrested and charged with passing secrets to American spies.
Yesterday February 18, Ukraine war-watchers were preoccupied with trying to determine whether a man who appeared with the deputy defense minister of the self-proclaimed “Lugansk People’s Republic” (LNR), taking Ukrainian POWs out of encircled Debaltsevo was the same person as Lt. Gen. Aleksandr Lentsov, a Russian general stationed in the OSCE’s Joint Coordination and Control Center (JCCC). The JCCC itself had to be moved north in early February from Debaltsevo to Soledar due to intense fighting.
The blogger @DajeyPetros of Ukraine@War, a long time student of the Russian general’s controversial role in Ukraine, was the first to notice the similarity and claimed they were the same person.
The man appears in two videos from the front, appearing to be about 55-60 years old, wearing a battered ushanka (fur hat with ear
flaps), and counts off the Ukrainian POWs, then describes for reporters how he had
gone to talk them into surrendering.
These videos have been compared to known videos of Lt. Gen. Lentsov in meetings with the JCCC.
Irek Murtazyan of Novaya Gazeta also noticed the resemblance and published a story about this yesterday.
The men do look strikingly similar but there are several key differences.
First, their voices don’t sound alike when the various videos are compared. Lt. Gen. Lentsov has a distinctive lisp and way of pronouncing his “s” that the other man does not. He seems to speak Moscow Russian. The other man has more of a drawl in Russian, but not the accent of Russians native to Ukraine.
Second, while their noses and the lines in their faces and mouths seem similar, the distance between their nose and lips, known as the philtrum, appears different.
Of course, voices can sound different outside versus inside, facial features can be changed by very cold weather, and we are dealing with different camera angles in the videos so it’s hard to tell. They might well be the same person.
One argument in favor for saying that the man in the ushanka is the general is that he uses an odd word for a “people’s militia” man. He speaks of “our delegation” negotiating with the Ukrainians — something a man used to moving in diplomatic circles might use. A man in the “militia” might rather refer to his men or his unit.
On the other hand, the man in the hat speaks rather emotionally and also relays a wild tale (translation by The Interpreter):
I convinced them to surrender, so there would not be any bloodshed, I guaranteed them life from our command. The day before yesterday they deceived us. They met with us in the same way, we came to an agreement, but when our delegation left, there was an artillery strike against us, and we had losses, wounded and killed.
They tied local residents to a fence with barbed wire, and wouldn’t let us then shoot at the enemy. They poisoned all the wells, and poured diesel fuel everywhere…
There were numerous people who came out of Debaltsevo and no one else had this tale to our knowledge, and it seems unlikely that the Ukrainian soldiers, very short on supplies, would waste fuel on poisoning of wells, let alone tie human shields to fences that wouldn’t be visible any way. And it seemed the separatists weren’t disrupted at all in their firing on the town.
This emotional tale seemed unlike what Lt. Gen. Lentsov would say.
The big question then for us wasn’t why a Russian general would slip away from his cover position in the JCCC, get into a disguise, and go meet with the rebels whom Russia backs — and even supervise the offensive against Debaltsevo against Ukraine’s forces. That all seems to be a given in Russia’s “hybrid” war.
The larger question is why a general who wanted to go incognito and therefore donned a disguise and possibly even changed his speech would then also speak in front of the cameras for the press. Wouldn’t the whole point of such an exercise be to stay hidden?
Or was it in fact an even more twisted story of Russians wanting the world to know that they were disguising generals as assistants to deputy commanders — and would brazenly out themselves as needed?
Novaya Gazeta contacted the LNR to inquire who the man was — surely they’d be able to identify someone next to their deputy defense minister playing such an important role, negotiating for surrender, and handling the POWs escort from Debaltsevo.
But the LNR came back to Novaya and said they didn’t know the man’s name, but only knew his call sign, which they said was “Eustace” (Yustas).
That seemed strange – and even more suspect when we recall where we’ve heard that exact same famous call sign. “Eustace” (full name, “Eustace Alexu”) was the work name of the fictional Max Otto van Stierlitz (Shtirlits), a Soviet spy who infiltrated Nazi Germany and had many adventures, like James Bond.
Stierlitz was a character in the 1960s spy novels of Julian Simon, then the hero of a serial film, Seventeen Moments of Spring, popular in the Soviet era. The tag lines from the film inspired numerous jokes that became part of the Russian idiom. When Vladimir Putin ran for president, his image-makers constantly milked his similarity to Stierlitz — especially given that as a KGB officer he had served in East Germany.
Were the LNR just pulling Novaya’s leg?
Maybe they were recalling Stierlitz’s famous scene about his plan to “stop the stupefication of the masses.”
Lt. Gen. Lentsov said he had not been in Debaltsevo at all (translation by The Interpreter):
“It’s the purest lie. All the work that was done today, we went from Mayorsk to Gorlovka, and from Gorlovaka to Donetsk”
He said he was asked to make a rebuttal about whether he was in
Debaltsevo, and he added “”I simply physically couldn’t have been there
Some might not be inclined to believe a Russian general in a “hybrid war,” but he had an alibi.
Lt. Andrei Lishchinsky of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the head of the Ukrainian group in the joint group monitoring the ceasefire, vouched for Lentsov in the same appearance on Channel 1, saying that he had been with a group of monitors that went to Mayorsk and had been in Donetsk at noon; at 14:00 he was in a meeting with him; and had met with him again at 17:00.
Mayorsk is about 40 kilometers from Debaltsevo.
The OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission also reported on the JCCC’s meetings February 18 in Soledar, mentioning the presence of Russian generals, although it does not mention their names nor mention the rank which Lentsov has, so it’s not certain he was at the meeting. Soledar is about 54 kilometers from Debaltsevo, on snowy roads with constant fighting nearby, so it would be an ambitious trip to go from Soledar to Debaltsevo and then on to Mayorsk, then Donetsk (another 53 kilometers) before noon.
There’s also the question that such a trip would likely not go unnoticed by other OSCE monitors.
Until “Eustace” is found and both he and the general are seen
together, it is unlikely to put this story to rest — which now has a
meta-life of its own, as Aric Toler explains.
Add to this Lentsov’s controversial past in Chechnya, and the
propensity of the DNR and LNR to have numerous Russians fighting along
side them, this story became emblematic of an effort many have spent a
year on: trying to prove that the masqueraded Russian tanks and troops
in Ukraine are really from Russia.
We could also note that this episode wound up distracting from the
fact that Col. Vitaly Kiselyev, deputy commander of the “Lugansk
People’s Republic” and deputy foreign minister is as mysterious as
nothing has been found out about him before last year when he surfaced
in a series of promotional films for the “Army of the South East” in the LNR. He was shown taking charge not only of Russian fighters native to
Ukraine, but an assortment of volunteers from Southern Ossetia as well
as the Russian Federation.
Kiselyev was obviously close enough to the Russian Armed Forces to
pick himself up at least four BMP-97 armored border patrol cars (available only from Russia) and
train his men on them outside of Lugansk at Base 3035 — an exercise
which we geolocated and reported in January 2015.
While his accent is distinctly local to the Donbass, was he
trained in Russia? Was he formerly in the SBU? His cap shows his
identification with Soviet-style uniforms (there was a similar cap won worn
by Soviet border guards) and the red star of the Communist Party.
In any event, we are likely to hear more from Col. Kiselyev and his
aides, as they raised the flag of “Novorossiya” over Debaltsevo yesterday,
proclaiming that “yesterday’s coalminers and tractor drivers” had
defeated a trained army of “fascists.” Helping him was a soldier who
looked to be from Buryat Mongolia and another who sent greetings to his
son at the naval academy in Simferopol.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick