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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Russia’s leading human rights group Memorial Society reports that Russian authorities have sent a former separatist fighter who fled to Russia back home to Lugansk after he was jailed for stealing a sausage.
Roman Koshelya, 34, a Russian-speaking citizen of Ukraine, joined the “militia” or Russian-backed separatists last June in Lugansk because he said he “didn’t agree with the position of official Kiev.” He took part in combat until October but then decided to leave the war, saying he did not want to fight on either side.
Roman told Memorial that young men are forced to join the Ukrainian army and any that fight on the side of the militants “are destroyed,” he said. Fearing for his life, he decided to flee to Russia and crossed the border illegally in Izvarino, then made his way to Moscow. He had lost his ID in battle and tried unsuccessfully to restore his passport — Russian police told him he needed to return to Ukraine.
He then decided to try his luck in Tambov, a suburb of Moscow and appealed to the Russian federal migration service on January 13. There, he was told to go back to Moscow authorities.
By this time, Koshelya was tired and had not eaten for several days. He went to a local Magnit store and stole some sausage worth 310 rubles (about $5). He wound up getting arrested and at first the October District Court ordered him to be held for two days in jail on charges of petty theft.
Then on January 16, police took him to district court where he was now sentenced on charges of violating migration law and fined 2,000 rubles ($32) and ordered to be forcibly deported from Russia — although they never established his identity as he had had never restored his passport. He was taken to a special facility for detaining foreign citizens known by its Russian initials as SUVSIG.
A Memorial lawyer is now appealed his sentence and is trying to prevent his deportation to Ukraine, where it is believed his life is in danger.
Koshelya is not listed on the Ukrainian government’s site to report “pro-Russian terrorists, separatists, mercenaries, war criminals, and murderers,” nor is he listed at LostIvan. So likely he is too low-profile to have come to anyone’s attention before now. He is like numerous young of draft age men who have fled Ukraine whose future is uncertain as the Russia’s accommodation of refugees may end if the ceasefire holds.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Russia’s opposition has agreed to hold a march against the economic crisis and the war in Ukraine on the outskirts of Moscow instead of in the center near the Kremlin, Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK) reported. The march is planned for March 1 and is hoping for 100,000 people to participate.
The concession still hasn’t yielded a permit for the march, however, although opposition leaders hoped that it would convince the Mayor’s Office to issue a permit, said MK.
Yesterday we reported that organizers Alexey Navalny, head of the Anti-Corruption Fund , and Sergei Davidis, leader of the Solidarity movement in Russia, as well as other opposition leaders disagreed about whether they should accept the compromise offered to them by the Mayor’s Office.
Navalny, now serving a 15-day jail sentence for unauthorized protests, said he didn’t mind marching in Maryino, where he lives — although now he will be unable to participate. Davidis said it was “an insulting proposition” to keep the protesters out of view.
As Davidis told MK (translation by The Interpreter):
“Yes, I and the rest of the organizers believe as before that the proposal to move the march from Tverskaya [in downtown Moscow] to Maryino is insulting because it violates our right to freedom of assembly. But still, our goal is to hold a public event. And better to agree to such a proposal from the government then be rejected completely from holding the march.”
Skeptical of the effect the opposition march may have, MK asked how it could stop the crisis, and whether the opposition “would, with just as much success, hold a march against winter frosts”?
“Frosts are a natural phenomenon. But the crisis we have is man-made,” said Davidis. He said Russia had interfered in Ukrainian affairs and denied MK’s claim that the crisis was caused by the price of oil and US sanctions:
“What has the American government got to do with this? Their sanctions are a response to our foreign policy. And the most painful for our population are the food sanctions — Russia introduced them against itself. We ourselves created the shortages in our own market.”
MK pointed out that the popular “Crimean consensus” had undermined the opposition, and we could add, also split it, as some favored keeping the forcibly-annexed Ukrainian territory. Davidis said the price had been too high and Russia had suffered too much for such a dubious achievement.
Navalny’s lawyer visited him in jail and discovered that the police had said they were told Navalny was being brought to them even before his court hearing.
Translation: At the detention center @navalny was told that police had been called even at 6 pm the night before and had been told that he would be brought, that is, even before the beginning of the court hearing!
Translation: I visited Alexey @navalny at Detention Center No. 2. Everything is fine, he sends everyone his greetings. He is in with Shelkovenkov, who got 45 days.
Aleksandr Shelkovenkov was sentenced to 45 days of jail on January 26 for protesting in defense of abducted Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko and other political prisoners, grani.ru reports.
Shelkovenkov, 19, a sympathizer of the Mikhail Pulin’s National Bolshevik Platform, was recently gained fame as setting the record for the longest of such administrative jail sentences. He also was previously detained for a solo picket with a sign saying “Putin – Shame” and blocking a road during December protests against health care cuts.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Nalyvaichenko said the accusation was based on reports obtained during interrogations of the officers of the SBU’s Alfa special division, who were charged with taking part in the shooting of some 100 protesters.
A staple of Russian war propaganda in the last year has been that ultranationalists among the Maidan protesters allegedly shot at Ukrainian police, which forced them to fire on demonstrators and ultimately compelled former president Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia in fear for his life. Recent reports in BNE and the BBC, based on the testimony of Ukrainian activist Volodymyr Parasiuk, now a member of parliament, and other anonymous informants indicate some activists did shoot at police after law-enforcers shot at them first.
These facts are only the part of the complicated story of Ukraine’s revolution, however, and leave out factors leading up to the events of February 21, by which time pro-Yanukovych parliamentary members had already switched to defend a new reformist parliament and some members of the Berkut riot police had defected to the Maidan, thus seriously threatening Yanukovych’s political base. The violence began when-president Yanukovych himself ordered draconian new laws and a crackdown on the Maidan participants, yet protesters refused to leave the square or accept a compromise offered to them by Ukrainian politicians and EU diplomats.
Now the SBU is fighting back against the Kremlin’s narrative by highlighting the Russian role in the shootings. According to Nalyvaichenko, Alfa members “gave concrete testimony about the location of foreign snipers’ groups which targeted both the demonstrators… and officers of the Interior Ministry” or police (translation by The Interpreter):
In the framework of this investigation, there are job titles, names, copies of passports, dates of entry and exit, which communication they used, and in which buildings they were located in, as Surkov, adviser to President Putin, was directing them in Kiev.
He said three groups of FSB operatives visited Kiev from December 2013 to February 2014 to organize the dispersal of the Maidan activists.
Nalyvaichenko also declared that many of the officers of the SBU “turned out to be traitors and collaborators of foreign special services” by which he meant Russian intelligence. As an example, he cited Pyotr Zima, former head of the SBU for Crimea, who he said helped Moscow’s FSB agents to annex the Crimea.
Nalyvaichenko also said more than 100 former Ukrainian intelligence agents were suspected of treason, and 10 of them had already been arrested. He also said his predecessor, Aleksandr Yakimenko had sent documents with his signature to conduct the “anti-terrorist operation” using force against the Maidan protesters.
Oleg Makhnitsky, then acting prosecutor general of Ukraine, announced in
April 2014 that 12 persons had been detained on suspicion of shooting
protesters, all from Berkut. Later, three others were detained,
including Dmitry Sadovnik, commander of a Berkut company, who then fled
from house arrest and went into hiding.
Surkov is formally assigned to Russia’s relations with the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but has also been reported to be involved in Ukraine. As we reported, Gazeta.ru interviewed Kremlin sources on dismissals of some of the people in Surkov’s office last year which shed more light on its Ukraine operations. Surkov also travelled to Minsk during negotiations about the ceasefire in Ukraine and was spotted talking to the heads of the self-proclaimed “People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk,” Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky.
It was Surkov who brought to the Minsk meeting a document that was then discussed by Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, says slon.ru.
This draft agreement was ultimately not used because the Russian-backed separatists refused to sign it. Instead, another document with the original September signatories of the Minsk agreement was used, with a press release indicating the four leaders, meeting in what is known as the “Normandy format” had approved “the Minsk package” to implement the ceasefire.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
As we reported yesterday February 19, FSB director Aleksandr Bortnikov arrived in the US for a two-day conference at the White House titled “Countering Violent Extremism” that mainly focused on ISIS.
Unlike the EU and Canada, the US has not placed sanctions on the Russian intelligence chief, which enabled the Russians to select him to head the delegation. As the New York Times reported, the White House did not specifically invite Bortnikov, but sent a general invitation to the Russian government as it did to other states. Russia in turn chose Bortnikov and other Russian officials to come to Washington.
Bortnikov’s visit drew criticism from David Kramer of the McCain Institute, Naureen Shah of Amnesty International and Benjamin Weingarten of the Blaze, all of whom questioned the wisdom of inviting the chief of an agency known for its human rights abuses, who is sanctioned by allies, to the US.
The two-day conference brought a number of law-enforcement officials and specialists from around the world to discuss the threat posed by Islamism and other global extremist movements.
Curiously, Bortnikov’s US counterpart, FBI Director James Comey was not invited to the meeting, the Times reported, which is part of what has made the conference controversial in the US.
TASS published a story on Bortnikov’s trip with the misleading headline “Russian, US Special Services Interested in Interaction – FSB Director.”
But in fact there was not any announcement from US officials to this effect, but only Bortnikov’s assessment:
The special services of Russia and other countries, including the United States, are interested in cooperation, Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) director and chairman of the National Antiterrorism Committee Alexander Bortnikov said Thursday.
“We are interested not only in exchange of information but also in joint work,” Bortnikov told Russian journalists after a working visit to Washington.
Professionals everywhere understand and admit that, including in the United States, he said.
Yet as the New York Times pointed out:
The service [FSB] also declined to provide American counterterrorism and intelligence officials with information before the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings that would probably have led to more scrutiny of one of the suspects.
At the conference, Bortnikov said that up to 1,700 Russian citizens may be fighting in Iraq on the side of the Islamic State (ISIS) but said there were even more citizens from other states, Moskovsky Komsomolets and other media reported.
He said foreign fighters in the Iraq conflict had increased from 13,000 to 20,000 (translation by The Interpreter):
We must organize work to prevent their departure, and on the other hand, do everything possible after the return of these countries to the countries of their origin…do everything so as not to permit terrorist raids and attacks.
But he also chastised the US for supporting moderate opposition fighters.
Translation: FSB Director Borotnikov: “Managed” Syrian opposition is acting in concert with the extremists.
Russia’s partnership in counter-terrorism is viewed ambivalently
given its agression against Ukraine and its crackdown on opposition at
home, using a definition for “extremism” elastic enough to encompass
protest against the war in Ukraine to actual violent Islamist attacks.
Russia has also by its own admission killed more than 300 suspected
Islamic militants, mainly in Dagestan, and interrogated or arrested
thousands of people.
against the west.
Fifteen years on, Putin is now seeking to turn
Muslim anger to his advantage by pushing for a united front against what
he sees as a U.S.-led conspiracy to dominate the world. Putin is also
trying to neutralize the threat posed by the return of Russian jihadis
currently fighting for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, a task
complicated by his growing isolation over the war in Ukraine, officials
and analysts in Moscow say.
“The protest was an attempt to meld
Muslim opinions with Russian-wide views about the Western world, a lever
to unite the population around Putin,” said Alexei Malashenko, a Middle
East analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center.
Last month in
Grozny, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, an ardent Putin loyalist,
organized a march of nearly a million Muslims to protest the Charlie
Hebdo’s cartoons after terrorists killed five of its cartoonists.
Putin’s manipulations begin at a time when ISIS has turned its attention to Russia
“Russia is the Islamic State’s new target,” Caucasian Knot chief Grigory Shvedov told Bloomberg. “The process has begun.”
November, Kadyrov said the Islamic State commander known as Omar the
Chechen had been killed in Syria after threatening to strike Russia. He
didn’t elaborate. The FSB didn’t respond immediately to an e-mailed
request for comment on the threat posed by the group.
Reshetnikov, who ran the information and analysis directorate at
Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, from 2005 to 2009, said
the video looks fake because there’s no blood and the confessions aren’t
Still, the Islamic State’s message is real: “We will
be as merciless with your agents as we are with the Westerners,”
Reshetnikov said in an interview.
Reshetnikov has also been
involved in briefing the presidential administration on Ukraine and
advising on the Minsk agreement, as we reported last week.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick