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 story The Guild War â How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists? and special features âManaged Springâ: How Moscow Parted Easily with the âNovorossiyaâ Leaders, Putin âThe Imperialistâ A Runner-Up For Timeâs âPerson of the Yearâ and It’s Not Just Oil and Sanctions Killing Russia’s Economy, It’s Putin.
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Russian diplomats are lying about the Russian military presence in Ukraine, says an independent Russian journalist. But the West won’t supply the proof of Russian tanks and troops demanded by Moscow.
The Telegraph has published an extraordinary story about how the National Security Agency (NSA) has obtained communications between key individuals in London and Moscow that prove that former intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko was the victim of a “Russian-backed ‘state execution”:
The disclosure comes ahead of the start of the
public inquiry into Litvinenko’s death in
2006, which will see hearings, many of which will be held in secret, carried
out over a nine-week period in the High Court from Tuesday.
The existence of the American intelligence material offers the first proof
that the Russian state was involved in the murder of the dissident and
explains why senior British politicians have been so confident in publicly
blaming the Kremlin for the murder.
It is revealed as part of a Telegraph investigation
unearthed an audio recording appearing to capture Litvinenko giving a
detailed account of his investigations into links between Vladimir Putin and
one of the world’s most dangerous criminals.
Past reporting on the Litvinenko case from The Interpreter:
So many other things happened in the last week in the Donbass — the fall of the Donetsk airport and the killing of the “Cyborgs,” the Ukrainian soldiers who defended the airport for 240 days; the shelling of another bus, killing 13 people and wounding dozens; the fall of Krasny Partizan; more civilians dying in Debaltsevo and elsewhere in the crossfire — that some may have missed the kidnapping of “People’s Governor” Pavel Gubarev by Chechens.
Yes, Chechens. The story sheds light on a stronghold of Chechens loyal to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in the Donbass.
It seems that Gubarev, who appears to have mainly recovered from an assassination attempt late last year in which he suffered traumatic brain injury, was perceived as having insulted Chechens. Apparently a fake article was put out which falsely claimed that Gubarev had insulted Kadyrov.
As Gubarev explains on his Facebook page, at 16:00 on January 19, 12-14 Chechens came to Gubarev’s office and put him in a car and drove him away. He could tell from their conversations they were upset about a belief he had accused Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov of the terrorist attack in Paris.
When they arrived at their base in Zugress, a town in Donetsk Region, Gubarev explained to them that the story was fake and that “our enemies do this in order to make us quarrel amongst ourselves.”
Gubarev published a picture of himself from a May video on Facebook and Kavpolit.ru, a news site on the Caucasus, in camouflage, with a rifle, sporting a St. George ribbon, and with pictures on the wall of Putin and the late Hugo Chavez.
He linked to an article in which he said “We must learn from our brothers, the Chechens.”
“In Ramzan I see the traditional rod which the Russian people have lost in themselves,” he said.
Kavpolit.ru had a question for him (translated by The Interpreter):
When you say that Ramzan Kadyrov will help you in “the military sense,” what do you mean?
First of all, that he is not hindering those people who want to come and defend us with weapons in their hands. Here the interests of Russia are being defended. Everyone has that understanding, including Ramzan.
The artists’ protest group gruppa-voina explained this as follows:
Translation: Here Donetsk has finally turned into this post-modernist Islamo-Russian Orthodox Somalia. Thanks to Putin’s strategies.
Kavpolit.ru had another pertinent question:
There is a very popular video on the Internet where the commander of an international armed group nicknamed “Diky” (“Wild”) recounts how a Chechen was murdered in Donetsk, and they are now investigating this incident and are expecting that the authorities will turn over whomever is responsible for this murder. And that supposedly, if the authorities leave this without attention, they will take measures themselves. What is this story about? Do you know about this?
I didn’t see that video and it’s hard for me to imagine what it’s about. I can say that with such a number of armed people in the republic and not all these armed groups are within the framework of a centralized command — some guys who act on their own do remain — then facts of such contradictions, quarrels and clashes on those grounds of course can take place.
But I’m hearing about this situation for the first time from you. Perhaps it’s because I have not followed events closely for two days. I have to read a lot and work on the drafting of a concept for the development of our territory for a long period ahead.
The controversial Russian-language blogger Anatoly Shary, who left Ukraine and now lives in Europe, posted an interview with Diky in December 2014:
Translation: Interview with representatives of a group that isn’t the largest but is one of the most dangerous operating on the territory of the Donbass.
Diky indicates that he and his 50 men, from Armenia, Georgia, Abkhazia, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan,and other regions of the former Soviet Union have taken over the strategically-important Ukrainian town of Krasnodon near the border with Russia, ended the lawlessness, kicked out the criminals and drunks and are “restoring order”. They claim to have rescued desperate families and orphans without jobs or food.
In the video, some of the townspeople are shown as welcoming such rough justice, while in the Twitter discussion, some people express dismay about their new overlords. Others say that Diky is helping to restore the kind of life they knew under the Soviet Union, complete with “friendship of nations.”
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Bloomberg has an interesting article showing evidence for a “fallout” between President Vladimir Putin and his main oligarch cronies.
The theory behind Western sanctions has been that they will put pressure will on Russia’s tycoons, upon whom Putin relies for projects from the overly-expensive $50 billion Sochi Olympics to construction of the Kerch Straits Bridge to the forcibly-annexed Crimea.
Then — so the hypothesis goes — as these oligarchs experience economic hardship and losses, they will place pressure on Putin to stop the war in Ukraine and renew cooperation with the West, which is good for business.
So far, the theory hasn’t quite worked, as if anything, the oligarchs
have only drawn closer to Putin and circled the wagons against a
hostile West, as Putin promises to make up their losses from Western
sanctions with lucrative domestic contracts (like the Kerch Straits Bridge for Rotenberg).
Chief among those supporting Putin has been Igor Sechin, head of
Rosneft, upon whom Putin in turn relies for negotiations with China and
the Strength of Siberia pipeline which is supposed to be Russia’s
bulwark against the West.
That deal has been described as less than meets the eye and not as advantageous to Russia as it first seemed, and has even led to an oped in the New York Times by Frank Jacobs saying China Will Reclaim Siberia (and its counterpoint by pro-Moscow blogger Vineyard of the Saker).
Bloomberg finds some evidence of influential figures in Russia cooling on Putin, however:
Yevgeny Primakov, a former premier, foreign minister and spymaster,
said Russia must avoid “self-isolation” over Ukraine and keep the door
open to cooperation with the U.S. and its allies in the North Atlantic
“We lose our country as a great power” without such collaboration, Primakov said in an article
published last week in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the state newspaper.
Primakov, who was born in Kiev in 1929, said that while Crimea is
non-negotiable, Putin should now respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity
and avoid sending troops to support pro-Russia militias.
longtime Putin ally, Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister who sits
on the president’s Economic Council, an advisory body, said last month
that Russia faces a “full-fledged” economic crisis if it doesn’t repair
ties with the U.S. and Europe.
Such comments show “a very high level of concern among a fairly wide circle of people,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst in Moscow who advised the Kremlin during Putin’s first two terms as president.
is a group of people in the upper echelons trying to protect themselves
from losses,” Pavlovsky said. “They are critical of Putin but they
can’t challenge him because he can easily crush them. That makes them
even more unhappy.”
These unnamed people may be influential, but they are not oligarchs. Do they matter?
Bloomberg mentions Gennady Timchenko, who managed to sell his
shares in Gunvor before sanctions were placed on him by the US over Russia’s war
Timchenko is quoted as saying earlier “he was ‘suffering’ for the
president and his policies” although he continued to support him. Yet he
declined to comment for Bloomberg’s current article. No evidence for
any pressure he might be putting on the president has been presented.
The brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, Putin’s childhood friends
and judo sparring partners, are also mentioned as sanctioned by the US and EU —
which even seized their luxury properties in Italy worth $28 million.
But the article doesn’t say that now they are complaining or putting
any pressure on Putin. There’s no evidence that they are.
Arkady Rotenberg’s spokesman, Andrei Baturin, even said “it would be untrue
to suggest Rotenberg is critical of the president’s policies,” reports Bloomberg.
The only evidence for possible pressure comes from some anonymous sources about anonymous people:
Businessmen close to Putin realize their debt to the president and will
avoid publicly criticizing him, but they don’t want his personal
ambitions to destroy their fortunes, one of the two people familiar with
the matter said.
Bloomberg cites an interesting development with Putin’s
cronies in St. Petersburg, where he went to law school and served on the
city council with Mayor Anatoly Sobchak in the 1990s. Putin fired
Vladimir Kozhin, described as a “close confidante” who has run the
Kremlin’s powerful property department since Putin came to power.
department is often overlooked as a seat of power, but to give an idea
of its importance, we can recall what happened to the official who held
this position under Gorbachev — he committed suicide after the coup was defeated.
Kozhin hasn’t defenestrated, but he has been demoted to aide for
military cooperation, which means he’s a “nobody” according to
Bloomberg’s source — and that makes sense in the current sanctions
climate. Kozhin was replaced by Alexander Kolpakov, a department head in
Russia’s presidential security service — yet another example of the
personalization of former state institutions to bring them under Putin’s
personal control, a la Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.
When he gave an influential speech at the Mercury Club last week, former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov appeared critical of the war in Ukraine.
Bloomberg‘s summary of Primakov’s speech indicated that he believed
that while return of the Crimea was non-negotiable, “Putin should now
respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and avoid sending troops to
support pro-Russia militias.
Translation: @a_torshin: Mercury Club. Yesterday.
Yet it’s worth seeing exactly what Primakov said so that we understand
the very real limits on this seemingly “anti-war” position (translation
by The Interpreter):
Thus, can we as before speak of a Russian interest in having
the southeast remain a part of Ukraine? I reply: I believe that it is
necessary. Only on such a basis can the settlement of the Ukrainian
crisis be regulated. Another question: should we include in the number
of “concessions” to the USA and their allies in Europe a renunciation of
the reunification of the Crimea and Sevastopol with Russia? I reply:
no, this should not be a bargaining chip in negotiations.
The next question: under conditions where the Minsk agreements
are not observed, can Russia in an extreme situation send its regular
army units to help the militia? I answer: categorically no. If such a
thing were to happen, it would be advantageous to the US, which would
exploit such a situation to keep Europe under itself for an entire age.
Meanwhile, such a position on our part does not mean a refusal to
support the militia which is seeking a recognition of the special
features of the southeast of Ukraine within the structure of the
That sounds like something shy of full-fledged regular army support
and a vague kind of political support but leaves unquestioned what’s
really going on: supply by Russia of tanks, troops, and armaments to the
separatists and thinly-veiled Russian military involvement as
“contract soldiers” or “volunteers.”
Putin’s recent moves don’t appear as if he is addressing pressure
from a putative oligarch lobby angry at sanctions, so much as appeasing lobbies even more conservative or nationalist than he is. This week Putin appointed a conservative deputy, Aleksandr Torshin, as chair of the Bank of Russia although he has not been involved in economic issues for years. Putin also tacitly blessed the creation of Anti-Maidan — a mob of titushki — as the thugs who provide the muscle against the opposition were called in Kiev.
Yet last month, Putin did renege on the prosecution of Yevgeny Yevtushenkov, head of Sistema, who was placed under house arrest in September and accused of fraud in the acquisition of Bashneft, a state oil company of Bashkortostan. Bashneft was seized and nationalized, but Yevtushenkov was ultimately freed from house arrest in December. Putin said an investigation found that he was not guilty of money-laundering.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
RFE/RL reports that the Russian State Duma has ratified a treaty with Abkhazia, the breakaway province of Georgia, in a move which many say effectively annexes the province. Georgia is strongly objecting to the move, calling it illegal:
The agreement puts Russian and Abkhaz forces under a joint command and provides for the joint patrolling of borders and territorial boundaries.
Giorgi Volsky, the parliamentary faction leader of the ruling Georgian Dream alliance, said the agreement has “no legal force” and “complicates” Russia’s position internationally.
He said ratification is a step by Moscow toward the “annexation” of Georgian territory.
International Business Times notes that the treaty was agreed to by the Kremlin and Abkhazian leaders in November, and Russian troops have been in the breakaway province since their invasion in 2008, but now the ratification of it means that Russian and Abkhazian troops will be guarding their mutual border:
Putin and Abkhazia President Raul Khadzhimba signed the agreement during a Nov. 24 meeting in Sochi, Russia. Aside from its military stipulations, the arrangement also paves the way for Abkhazia’s assimilation into the Eurasian Economic Union, Russia’s economic alliance with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia. Georgian leaders vowed to appeal the treaty to the United Nations and various other international governing bodies, the New York Times reported.
Georgian foreign minister Tamar Beruchashvili denounced the agreement as Russia’s attempt to counteract Georgia’s rapidly improving political and economic relations with the European Union. “The signature of the so-called treaty constitutes a deliberate move by Russia in reaction to Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” Beruchashvili said in a statement.
The Associated Press adds an important detail — the Russian and Abkhazian troops which will now patrol the border will be under joint command.
— James Miller
Aleksandr Mineyev, a correspondent for Novaya Gazeta in Brussels, asks where the Russian-backed separatists get so much heavy modern military equipment. “Where the inexhaustible supply of mortars, mines and fuel comes from remains a taboo for Russian diplomats,” he says (translation by The Interpreter):
Few believe in the diplomacy around the Ukrainian conflict, full of lies, hypocrisy, silences, twisted words and shopworn cliches. Those who mastered the simple maxim of “power at the barrel of a gun” are setting the tone in the events in eastern Ukraine. The diplomatic services of Berlin and Paris in the negotiation process are encountering the question: do the participants in the conflict want peace?
Yesterday we noted the gap between the statements of various US diplomats regarding Russia’s failure to keep to its obligations in the Minsk peace process — and its obfuscation of this fact — and yet the continued willingness of Western diplomats to believe that Russia will keep to the accord.
Mineyev points out that while both sides accuse each other of violating the Minsk agreement, it is hard to comment on this because some of the agreements were not publicized, and each side interprets them in their own way.
The last meeting in the “Normandy” format was in a phone conference on Wednesday night among the German, French, Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov promised to “have the necessary influence on the separatists,” says Mineyev. Lavrov said the main result of the meeting was “powerful support for the task of immediately removing heavy armament from the line of contact which was fixed in the Minsk agreements.”
The leaders said they would try to re-schedule a meeting in Astana postponed on January 15 due to the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. But first there has to be tangible process, they said.
Then at Davos this week, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said there were 9,000 Russian forces on Ukrainian territory, and that recently 2,000 soldiers with 200 tanks and other armored vehicles crossed the border.
Russia continues to deny its involvement in the “internal Ukrainian conflict,” and Lavrov continued to call this claim of Poroshenko’s “absolute nonsense.”
When journalists asked NATO’s General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, to confirm Poroshenko’s statement, he would only say there was no doubt that there was a presence of Russian troops on Ukrainian territory, but would not give the numbers or details. He said it was “impossible” to determine because they went back and forth over the border, and that there was a large concentration along the border.
Stoltenberg’s exact remarks do not seem to have received much mention in the Western press. Reuters summarized them in a line.
But Novaya Gazeta had a more detailed report. The Interpreter has a translation of the quote — which is a reverse translation of Stoltenberg’s remarks from Russian and may differ in the original:
But I can say that during the period of several months we have seen Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. I emphasize that we have seen even heavy armaments, we saw an increase in the number of Russian heavy armor in eastern Ukraine. And we are speaking about such armor as tanks, artillery, armored transport, modern anti-aircraft systems, and such a Russian military presence in eastern Ukraine does not foster a peaceful resolution through negotiations.
But as Mineyev points out, as long as Moscow demands proof of these claims, and the West doesn’t produce it, the “militia” as the Russian-backed separatists call themselves, can keep appearing as if their armor and training “come out of nowhere.”
So far, NATO and Western countries have not publicized their proof of the Russian military presence, beyond some satellite photos published back in June 2014, or even presented it privately in meetings behind closed doors. That enables Russia to keep lying about its actual involvement in the grabbing of Ukrainian territory and killing of civilians.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick