Let Putin save face

The Russian leader hates being lectured. A change of tack could persuade him to disown Ukraine’s rebels
Angus Roxburgh
The Guardian | Monday 21 July 2014

Reading Vladimir Putin’s mind is notoriously difficult. But watching his latest video address, devoted to the aftermath of the Malaysia Airlines catastrophe, I was struck by his appearance. The video was recorded hurriedly, at 1.40am, straight after Putin had been subjected to a barrage of not-very-diplomatic telephone calls from world leaders, threatening reprisals if he did not force his proxies in eastern Ukraine to act in a civilised manner regarding the victims of MH17.

No Botox could hide the bags under his eyes, nor powder his sweating skin, and his demeanour suggested he was fizzing with rage.

I suspect his fury is aimed not only at the Ukrainian government, which he continues to blame for creating the situation that led to the downing of the jet, and not only at the west for demonising him as a monstrous killer – but also at the band of rag-tag Russian separatist gangsters whose sheer incompetence has landed him in such deep ordure.

It is, of course, ordure of his own making. The rebels in eastern Ukraine took their lead from Putin’s annexation of Crimea; they derive succour from the Russian media; and they are fighting for a cause Putin backs. His security services provide intelligence and military supplies – including, most likely, the Buk missile that brought down the plane.

Whatever theories the Russian media may be spreading about Ukraine’s responsibility for the disaster, Putin himself must know the truth – that the bandits operating in his name are responsible.

The fact that they did it by mistake only makes things worse. It turns out that the Kremlin handed missiles to a bunch of drunken, gun-toting hotheads, incapable of doing what anyone with a smartphone app can do – identify a plane flying overhead.

This is not what Putin wants to align himself with, and I suspect he’s had fears about the leaders of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” all along. Back in May, he asked them to postpone their referendum on independence, and when they went ahead with it he declined to recognise its results.

The fact is, Putin does not want the Russian-speaking regions to break away from Ukraine. He has always spoken in favour of a federalisation of the country which would guarantee the language and civil rights of Russians living there.

This in itself is enough to infuriate Kiev, which sees the demand as interference in its internal affairs or as the thin end of a wedge. But the suggestion itself is not unreasonable. And it could provide the kind of get-out clause that would prevent the current terrifying situation from careering out of control.

The west needs to put pressure on Putin – but it needs to be the right kind of pressure. If there’s one thing I took away from three years of working closely with Kremlin officials, it was that Putin detests being lectured by outsiders, and tends to react badly to all criticism. There is not a single instance of his bowing to criticism by doing what the west demanded. There are plenty of instances of his doing the opposite. So David Cameron was right this weekend to combine his threats of further sanctions with a recognition that “there must be protections for Russian-speaking minorities” in Ukraine.

Putin must be looking, desperately, for a way to save face. If the MH17 trail leads, as it surely will, back to the rebels, he may disown them and say it had nothing to do with Russia itself.

The trick then will be for the west to steer him towards real engagement by promising constitutional talks with Ukraine, provided he takes resolute action to kick out the separatists – who, he has now discovered, are nothing but a liability.

Putin could well be president for the next 10 years, and we cannot afford a decade of cold war. It’s time to swallow hard, and bring the region’s dominant powerbroker inside the tent, to help ensure the integrity of Ukraine – and peace in Europe.




Blurred Lines Between War and Peace
Ukraine, Russia, and the West all have their own reasons for not calling the ongoing conflict a war, just as they all have different views of what would constitute an acceptable peace
Lilia Shevtsova
The American Interest | July 11, 2014

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has kicked off his “Peace Plan” by ending the ceasefire and resuming military actions against pro-Russian forces. True, he promises to continue negotiations with the separatists, but this looks more like an attempt to soothe an openly irritated Kremlin, as well as grumpy Berlin and Paris. War and Peace in Ukraine have now acquired a paradoxical dimension: Not all efforts to pursue another ceasefire would be a step in the direction of achieving a sustainable peace.

Once upon a time it had seemed that, by creating (EU and NATO) mechanisms to prevent wars, Europe had found a remedy to the problems that had plagued the continent over the course of the blood-soaked 20th century. But the events in Ukraine have exposed a fundamental flaw in these efforts that Europe, and the West as a whole, isn’t ready to deal with. The flaw is plain for all to see: Russia and Ukraine maintain diplomatic relations. They participate in international forums together. They cooperate on economic matters, albeit less actively now. People and goods cross the border. Their leaders talk on the telephone. And yet these countries are at war with one another, and this is not just a war of soft power (information warfare) but hard power as well. How else would you describe Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory than as a hard power conflict? How else to describe an armed struggle conducted on one side by Russian citizens, on Ukrainian territory, under Russian banners, with weapons and funding supplied by Russia? Dozens of paratroopers from the 45th Guards Spetsnaz airborne regiment have been buried recently in Moscow—where and why did they suddenly die in such numbers?

This is a war that no one wants to name as such. The West doesn’t want to call it war, since it would then have to take concrete measures against the aggressor, a nuclear state. Who would dare to do that? Ukraine isn’t ready to press the world to call the conflict a war out of fear of contradicting the West. And it’s quite clear why Russia wouldn’t want to acknowledge that it’s fighting a war: Moscow retains room for maneuver as long as the war goes undeclared, retaining the ability to switch out its aggressor’s hat for the peacemaker’s hat at will.

While the Kremlin will not recognize that Russia is at war with Ukraine, it won’t normalize relations with Kiev either. This blurring of the lines between war and peace when it comes to states parallels the blurring Putin has done within Russia itself, by turning to militarism and coercion to sustain the Russian System. The ongoing crisis merely represents the application of this model to Russia’s relations with Ukraine. And Ukraine isn’t an end in itself for Russia, but merely an instrument for the Kremlin. By destabilizing Ukraine, Russia is fighting a proxy war with the West. Putin has been perfectly candid about his reasons for wanting to do this, stating time and again that Russia is a unique civilization that seeks to contain the West not only inside Russia but outside it too.

The current developments should not come as a surprise to anyone. The blurring of the borders between war and peace occurred as Europe entered a phase after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that many have described as postmodern. This phase has been characterized by furtiveness on the part of the liberal democracies when it comes to living up to their principles in crafting policy: “Nothing’s sacred, everything is on the table,” Europe has seemed to say. After it lost its great rival and adversary, it no longer wished to focus any time or effort on preaching values. But the postmodern, transactional leaderships of Europe today find themselves poorly equipped to respond to the challenges posed by the Russian System, which is why their responses inevitably slide into accommodationism.

Western leaders are only too willing to be convinced that Kiev’s problems are merely an internal affair and nothing more, and they have pressured Kiev to accept the same assessment. While the West has demanded that Moscow end its support for the separatists, it refuses to name Russia as a party in this conflict and therefore does not consider it an “aggressor.” The West’s leaders believe (or pretend to believe) that if they talk to the Kremlin and engage Russia, they will change the Kremlin’s behavior. And Putin, a master at pretending to be accommodating while in fact forcing others to play his game, has offered his Western counterparts all the evidence they need to satisfy themselves that they’re right: See, he isn’t invading Ukraine after all! Nor is he supporting the separatists. Western decisiveness has prevented a new Russian incursion, Western observers gleefully say. In fact, Putin never intended to annex Ukraine’s southeast; he doesn’t need the added headache! It’s sufficient for Kremlin purposes to turn the southeast into a new Transnistria. If he can remove the threat of new sanctions and other troubles by “conceding” something he never wanted in the first place, why not let the Western leaders think it was their decisive leadership that made him change course.

Thus today the Kremlin actively supports Ukraine’s peace talks. Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov says that the rebels are “ready for constructive dialogue,” and that Ukrainian authorities should not try “to subordinate them to Kiev.” To whom, then, should they subordinate themselves?

Who wouldn’t support the idea of ending all combat operations? No one, of course—except we’re missing something, aren’t we? The recent truce Poroshenko declared at the end of talks initiated by the Europeans with OSCE participation has actually benefited the separatists. They refused to recognize the truce and continued attacking Ukrainian forces. They breached the ceasefire constantly. Thus, the truce worked against Ukraine and aided those who were undermining its territorial integrity. Facing a loss of popular support and the further demoralization of the Ukrainian army, Poroshenko had to end the ceasefire. Now Berlin, Paris, and Moscow are once again urging Kiev to renew the ceasefire, just as Ukrainian forces are beginning to gain the upper hand against the separatists. Would Moscow still be calling for a truce if the separatists were the ones capturing Ukrainian cities?

What would a new truce mean now that the Ukrainian army is beginning to liberate territory from the separatists? Poroshenko would be doomed! He would lose the support of those who want the country to remain unified. A new truce would evaporate the Ukrainian army’s recent morale gains, and it would allow the separatists to regroup and establish new supply lines. Moreover, including the separatists in the negotiating process would legitimate their political role and force Kiev to make concessions to them on the subject of Ukraine’s future constitutional structure, where they see themselves as independent actors.

Moscow, meanwhile, is attempting to wear the peacemaker’s hat without ever doffing its battle helmet. It may indeed succeed in this attempt, given that the lines between war and peace remain fuzzy, and given that the Europeans are ready to involve the Kremlin in the negotiating process at any cost. (Sometimes I’m not certain who wants the “peace” agenda most: Moscow, Berlin, or Paris?) With some help from the Europeans, Moscow may also be able force Kiev to agree to the special status of the Donbass region, thus lodging a permanent thorn in Ukraine’s side. The list of concessions that would be expected from Kiev could be long, and it may include energy deals and carve-outs of the juiciest chunks of Ukrainian territory.

In fact, an endless negotiating process is in Moscow’s interests (provided the separatists helped by constantly fanning the flames of conflict). To the Kremlin, “the goal is nothing, the movement is everything,” as a famous German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein once said. Moscow clearly hopes that the Ukrainians will soon grow unhappy with the country’s new leadership, thus giving Russia more tools for influencing Ukrainian developments.

This scenario requires that Europe make Poroshenko come to the negotiating table before Kiev concludes its anti-terrorist operation. Here is what one Ukrainian observer wrote on this account:

It turns out that the EU leaders have short memory. What is surprising, apart from their lack of resolve to impose sanctions on Russia, is that they seek to turn the situation in Donbass into a strictly Ukrainian problem. Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande are vigorously twisting Petro Poroshenko’s and Pavlo Klimkin’s arms demanding that they restrain their military, apparently forgetting how Russia occupied Crimea and ignoring the flammable concoction of weapon shipments and mercenary missions that the Kremlin generously poured onto the smoldering Donbass region.

Peace talks would be productive if a compromise between the warring factions were possible. But if Moscow isn’t about to stop destabilizing Ukraine, and if the separatists are intent on occupying part of the Donbass region, then what can they accomplish? Any Ukrainian leader who agreed to a compromise under these terms would immediately lose his legitimacy and popular support. The only talks that are possible aren’t truce talks, but talks for a separatist surrender. Anything else would just prolong the confrontation and continue the disintegration of an already fragile Ukrainian state.

Western leaders find themselves in a difficult situation. On the one hand, they want to return to the past format for dealing with Russia and are already looking for ways to bring Russia back into the G8. On the other hand, they are trying to find mechanisms that will force Putin to stop his bullying. The peace talks that Moscow insists on would give the West and the Kremlin a chance to return to business as usual and forget the recent past. One can’t help feeling that Europe is eager to make a deal endorsing the new status quo. Thus, Poroshenko has to agree to legitimizing the separatists and granting a special status to the territories they control (and other concessions too). If Kiev balks at this proposal, Europe may drag its feet on providing financial aid to Ukraine. What would the Kremlin have to do? It would merely have to pull its troops away from the border and promise not to repeat the Crimea scenario, which Putin had no plans to do anyway. A deal would thus give the Kremlin the tactical advantage through a negotiation process supported by the European leaders and an international institution (the OSCE).

It’s possible that Kiev may be forced to support the idea of granting Donbass “special status.” There are still powerful figures in the region, including the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, who would like to secure autonomy and continue their dialogue with the Kremlin. The Ukrainian authorities may decide to get rid of the chaos-plagued part of Donbass that would resist transformation. But this scenario would not strengthen Ukrainian statehood. The separatist-controlled territory would become a black hole—a breeding grounds for violence that would spread to the neighboring countries, including Russia.

Incidentally, Moscow does not want the separatists it has nursed to become too strong. If they grew too powerful, they might draw Russia into their risky business. But Moscow doesn’t want the separatists to lose either. I believe that legitimating the separatists by means of their installation as heads of local governments, virtually independent from Kiev, is actually Moscow’s best-case scenario. In any event, Moscow will close Russia’s borders to its mercenaries and will not allow them to return to Russia. What are they going to do in Russia? Accuse Putin of betraying the cause of the Russian World? No—rather, Moscow will try to keep them in Donbass, which will allow the Kremlin to constantly destabilize the Ukrainian state.

Now Moscow is trying to undermine pro-Russian warlords who went rogue and raised their voices against Putin and the Kremlin for betraying them and idea of the “Russian Spring” —among them Igor Girkin (Strelkov), self-proclaimed Commander in chief of the Donbass separatist forces. You can begin to see the first brushstrokes of the master plan: Setting aside the warlords, he’ll now turn to a new kind of figure: political technologists with management experience and hands untainted in the recent bloodshed, most of them Russian citizens, are now prepared to take part in the negotiations process. Among this new set are the head of the Lugansk People’s Republic, Marat Bashirov, and the head of the Donetsk Republic, Alexander Borodai. Moscow is prepared to undertake its New Project in Ukraine, and one can’t exclude the possibility that this project will gain the approval of the Western peaceniks.

All of the above explains why allowing Kiev to restore the country’s territorial integrity is the best way to bring real peace to Ukraine. Pressuring Kiev to declare a new ceasefire that will give the rebels another break will only prolong the conflict. True, after winning the war with the pro-Russian forces, Kiev will have to win another war—for the trust of those Donbass people who don’t trust Kiev today.

Of course, if Kiev were successful in its “anti-terrorist operations,” this would raise another interesting question: What would it do with the pro-Russian rebels and their leaders? It would hardly want to detain all of them. Russia, for its part, wouldn’t want to let them return home; the Kremlin has no interest in welcoming home a slew of frustrated mercenaries who not only have proven themselves willing to fight for the idea of the Russian World but also view Putin as their betrayer. This means that they will have to die where they are fighting for the “right cause”, and after their deaths they will be used as martyrs in Russia to beef up the waning military-patriotic mobilization.



Igor Girkin (Strelkov) Gives Odd Account of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 Crash

Associated Press | July 22, 2014

MOSCOW (AP) — A top pro-Russia rebel commander in eastern Ukraine has given a bizarre version of events surrounding the Malaysian jetliner crash — suggesting many of the victims may have died days before the plane took off.

The pro-rebel website Russkaya Vesna on Friday quoted Igor Girkin as saying he was told by people at the crash site that “a significant number of the bodies weren’t fresh,” adding that he was told they were drained of blood and reeked of decomposition.

The Malaysia Airlines Boeing-777 was shot down Thursday, killing all 298 people aboard. The plane was flying 10,000 meters above an area where Ukrainian forces have been fighting separatist rebels. Each side accuses the other of downing the plane.

U.S. intelligence authorities said a surface-to-air missile brought down the plane, and U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told the U.N. Security Council in New York on Friday that the missile was likely fired from a rebel-held area near the Russian border.

Girkin, also known as Strelkov and allegedly a former Russian military intelligence agent, said he couldn’t confirm the information. But it’s sure to add to the intense emotions surrounding the crash, with the rebels accused of shooting down the plane.

Girkin said “Ukrainian authorities are capable of any baseness.”

He claimed that a large amount of blood serum and medications were found in the wreckage.


This Is The Former Russian Military Officer Who Might Be Behind The Shooting Of MH17
Pamela Engel
Business Insider | Jul. 18, 2014

A retired Russian military officer is suspected of being involved in the attack that downed a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane in eastern Ukraine on Thursday.

Igor Girkin, who is also known by his pseudonym Igor Strelkov, has been called "one of the most powerful separatist figures in eastern Ukraine." He’s a Russian citizen from Moscow and has declared himself the Minister of Defense of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), according to Radio Free Europe.

The Ukrainian government says Strelkov is a covert agent of Russia’s GRU military intelligence. In documents posted on separatist websites he has asked Russia to provide military assistance to the DPR.

Strelkov is a veteran of both the Soviet and Russian armies, according to Reuters.

A Reuters article from May describes Strelkov as "the top Russian operative in the separatist east:"

He moves through the streets in a black Mercedes, his face with pencil moustache hidden behind tinted windows, and his aim is to "destroy" Ukrainian forces that venture onto his territory.

In a leaflet distributed in the rebel Donetsk region, "Colonel Igor Strelkov" assumed command of all rebel forces there and called for Russian army help to ward off what he calls the threat from the Kiev "junta" and from NATO.

Strelkov’s history and his powerful position within the separatist movement in the east could be taken as proof that Russia is assisting or even coordinating the separatist uprising.

Russia denies this, but in a news conference on Friday, President Barack Obama said that the separatists "have received a steady flow of support from Russia," and Ukraine’s government claims that Strelkov has been taking orders from Moscow.

Strelkov was reportedly present during the Russian annexation of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in March. He then moved to eastern Ukraine as the situation in that part of the country escalated.

Before he came to Ukraine, Strelkov was involved in conflicts in Yugoslavia and Chechnya, according to the BBC.

Russian media claims that he used to work for the Russian Federal Security Service within the Directorate for Combating International Terrorism.

But in April, the European Union put Strelkov on its sanctions list and described him as working for the GRU, according to Reuters.

Around the time the Malaysia Airlines plane went down, Strelkov posted a statement on Russia’s largest social network that seemed to take responsibility for the attack. The post was later deleted, and it’s now widely thought that the separatists mistook the Malaysia plane for a Ukrainian aircraft.

U.S. officials have said that pro-Russian separatists fired the fatal missile, but no group has claimed responsibility so far. Nearly 300 people died in the attack.


MH17 disaster: Is this the man who shot down the plane?

Daniel Flitton
SMH | July 18, 2014

The prime suspect goes by the name Strelkov – or "shooter". Real name Igor Girkin, the former Russian intelligence officer has shot his own troops for insubordination. He may have just shot down a passenger plane with 298 people on board.

“We did warn you – do not fly in our sky," he reportedly posted to a Russian social media page just hours ago.

This chilling message was most probably aimed at the Ukraine government, Girkin’s target in a vicious separatist war.

But that post has now been deleted as it has become clear the jet was from Malaysia Airlines, not a military transport aircraft of the type Girkin has brought down in recent weeks.

No amateur can bring down a passenger jet streaking across the sky. A trained operator must work the sophisticated surface-to-air missiles required.

Don’t be lulled into believing any trooper with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his shoulder could carry out this attack.

The professionalism required points to Girkin and his Russian-backed separatists as the most likely suspects.

They have captured missile batteries mounted on trucks, and are suspected to have been supplied Russian-made "needle" portable launchers that can be carried by a man.

But it is far from clear whether Moscow condoned this atrocity.

The conflict in Ukraine has boiled for months since Russian commandos in Februrary seized control of the Crimean peninsula.

A referendum in March – widely dismissed as a farce – saw the territory incorporated into Russia.

Ever since, Girkin and his ilk have been fighting in the east of Ukraine, with persistent reports of Russian forces staging strikes across the nearby border.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin has steadfastly denied any further claims on Ukraine.

Lilia Shevtsova, a highly regarded Russian analyst, wrote this week that no one has been willing to call this conflict for what it is – an international war.

“The West doesn’t want to call it war, since it would then have to take concrete measures against the aggressor, a nuclear state. Who would dare to do that? Ukraine isn’t ready to press the world to call the conflict a war out of fear of contradicting the West. And it’s quite clear why Russia wouldn’t want to acknowledge that it’s fighting a war,” she said.

There have been plenty of peace overtures, sanction threats and fruitless diplomacy.

But as Shevtsova puts it in a pungent remark: “Moscow, meanwhile, is attempting to wear the peacemaker’s hat without ever doffing its battle helmet.”




The Most Dangerous Man in Ukraine Is an Obsessive War Reenactor Playing Now with Real Weapons
Oleg Kashin
New Republic | July 22, 2014

The face now of the pro-Russian separtists in Eastern Ukraine is 43-year-old Igor Strelkov. The Russian media fell in love with Strelkov this April, when his armed group took control of the town of Slavyansk, escalating the conflict from a war of nerves into an actual full-fledged war. And Strelkov has become a fixture in the Western media too ever since pro-Russian separatists shot down Malaysian Flight 17. Western journalists and commentators, from the New York Times to the State Department, glean facts from Strelkov’s page on the Russian social-media network “VKontakte.” That’s where the message about the downed Ukrainian military transport plane first appeared: “We warned them not to fly in ‘our sky.’”

But in fact, Strelkov does not run the social media pages that generate these quotes. He never has. Since April, he has only published his messages on an Internet forum dedicated to the antique trade, http://forum-antikvariat.ru. He writes under the username “Kotych” (“Cat”). Others then take Strelkov’s messages and copy them on to Facebook, VKontakte, and Livejournal. Some of these pages are maintained by Strelkov’s sincere fans. Others are run by Ukrainian activists, still others just by pranksters. As a result, it can sometimes be difficult to divine authentic quotes from fabrications. For example, “Strelkov” once ordered his subordinate Cossacks to dress less provocatively in order to avoid provoking sexual desire among gay Caucasians. The virtual “Strelkov” also ordered the troops to lay down their arms and to leave for Russia in civilian clothes. Amazingly, even after four months of war, most Russian journalists have not learned to tell the real Strelkov from the impostors, and now this mistake has crossed the ocean and spread through the American media.

But why does Strelkov communicate with his fans through an antiquing forum in the first place? It’s very simple: for many years, this forum has been his main online refuge. Before he became a military star in Ukraine, Strelkov was already a star among war reenactors. These men arm themselves with old weapons, dress in military uniforms, and gather in deserted places to act out long-ago battles. Strelkov “the cat” particularly loves the 1918-1920 battles of the Russian civil war, where he usually plays the role of a White Guard officer. Essentially, he is now playing the same role in Ukraine: his haircut, his mustache, his manners, and even his military tactics are almost all copied from images of White Guard officers in Soviet films.

One of Strelkov’s idols is the White Guard general Mikhail Drozdovsky, killed in a battle with the Bolshevik army in the south of Russia in 1919. While Strelkov’s soldiers held on to Slavyansk, the entrance to the city was decorated with an enormous banner blending allusions to the “Drozdovites” with images from the film “300.” Another fun fact: When Strelkov rewarded his fighters with St. George’s Crosses (the main award given to soldiers in czarist Russia), he thanked on the antique forum a friend who runs a Moscow antique shop for providing him with authentic crosses for free. It is unclear if Strelkov has any real military experience: He is said to have fought in Chechnya, though that is unconfirmed.

They say that real actors dream of playing the greatest roles in real life beyond the confines of the stage. This may also the dream of war reenactors who play at battle while fantasizing about the real thing. What had once been a game for Strelkov has now become a real war, with real deaths, real shootouts, and real assaults. If Putin does not want to become a sponsor of international terrorism in front of the whole world, he will have to do all he can to stop Strelkov. The Ukrainians think this is very simple: Putin orders Strelkov to return to Moscow, and the Donbass is at peace. To me, this does not seem very realistic: I doubt Strelkov would take orders from Putin.

I met Strelkov in Crimea in February, several hours after the “polite people” in unmarked Russian military uniforms took control of key points of the peninsula. I didn’t know his first or last name—only one and a half months later, after seeing him on television, did I realize I had been speaking with Strelkov—but I observed his role as an emissary from Moscow when he accompanied Crimea’s new Prime Minister, Sergei Aksenov. Dressed in a dark green civilian suit that somewhat resembled a military uniform, Strelkov led the negotiations between Aksenov and the Ukrainian seamen who were to give themselves up to the Russian side. Russian naval officers also took part in these talks, and next to them Strelkov looked like a real diplomat, clever and subtle. The Russian officers insisted on negotiating from a position of power: “if you don’t surrender, we’ll destroy you.” But Strelkov preferred to speak of an officer’s honor and an officer’s oath, which he respects. It was precisely this tactic that led Ukrainian Admiral Denis Berezovsky, now serving in the Russian navy as deputy commander of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, to be one of the first to come over to the Russian side.

During these negotiations, I got to talking with Strelkov’s bodyguard, a former special services soldier from Moscow. This soldier was quite sociable, and even told me Strelkov’s first name and patronymic, Igor Ivanovich. But even he didn’t seem to know which Russian security agencies Strelkov was representing in Crimea. Volunteers from the Crimean people’s militia, loyal to Moscow, told me that Strelkov was in the GRU—Russian military intelligence. The Russian officers, in turn, thought that Strelkov probably worked for the FSB.

Through all the years of Putin’s rule, Russian politics had become a dull play, with fictitious political parties and a Parliament in Putin’s pocket. Political journalists were forced to write day after day about meaningless initiatives and empty statements. Everything changed when the Ukrainian crisis began: For the first time in many years, there was an epic drama involving imperial ambitions, business interests, history, geopolitics, and warfare. Reenactor Igor Strelkov became the main hero of this drama. He has, perhaps, more fans in Russia now than any politician of the older generation, of whom the Russian television viewer has long grown weary. The Russian journalist Andrei Arkhangelsky conducted a special study of Russian talk radio stations and has come to the conclusion that Strelkov’s name is mentioned even more frequently than Putin’s. Arkhangelsky even speaks of a “Strelkov generation” that has come to replace the “Putin generation”—but this is an exaggeration. Putin needed Strelkov in order to rattle the new Ukrainian authorities. Thanks to him, part of the Ukrainian territory has remained volatile, and this has allowed Putin to claim that Kiev is not in control, that Ukraine’s revolution is a dead end.

But now that Strelkov is suspected of international terrorism, Putin will not need him much longer. Probably in the coming days, Vladimir Putin will do everything possible to get rid of an ally who has become a deadly danger, whose war games now force Putin to make midnight phone calls to Western leaders and to publically justify himself in a way unheard of in Putin’s Russia.

This article was translated from Russian by Ilya Lozovsky.


Russian special services planning to kill Girkin, Bezler, Bolotov – interior minister’s adviser

Interfax-Ukraine | 23.07.2014

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry has information that the Russian special services are planning to kill the leaders of militants as unwanted witnesses, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister, Zorian Shkiriak, has said.

”Based on the information we have received, we can assume that the Kremlin is ready to ‘shoot’ some leaders of Russian terrorist groups operating in Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine," he told Interfax-Ukraine on Tuesday.

He said that first and foremost, the issue concerns FSB (Federal Security Service) and GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate) officers, militants Igor Girkin-Strelkov ("Strelok"), Igor Bezler ("Bes") and one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, Valeriy Bolotov.

"The only one of the terrorist leaders who retains the possibility of returning to Russia is Borodai as the Kremlin’s personal political strategist," Shkiriak said.

The Interior Ministry said that after a "monstrous terrorist attack against the Malaysian Boeing over Torez" committed by Russian military air defense experts, together with Bezler’s militants, "these people have become unwanted carriers of impressive compromising evidence against the Russian president”.

Shkiriak said that Russian border guards had been ordered not to allow militants to enter Russia and kill them if they attempt to cross the border. He recalled that cases of such mass executions of separatists by defensive squads of the Russian border troops on the Ukrainian-Russian border had already been reported.




Three pro-Russia rebel leaders at the centre of suspicions over downed MH17
Igor Strelkov, Igor Bezler and Nikolai Kozitsyn reportedly discussed the shooting down of a plane soon after jet exploded
Alec Luhn in Moscow
The Guardian | Sunday 20 July 2014

As the world searches for answers over the Malaysia Airlines flight downed in eastern Ukraine, suspicion has fallen on the leaders of the pro-Russia rebels who have shot down three government planes in the past week.

Attention has centred on rebel leaders who reportedly discussed the downing of a plane shortly after MH17 exploded and crashed: Igor Strelkov, an alleged Russian intelligence agent leading the military forces of the self-declared "Donetsk People’s Republic", and Igor Bezler, a notorious loose cannon who rules the town of Horlivka with an iron fist. A third suspect is Nikolai Kozitsyn, commander of a group of Cossacks, the traditional military caste that once protected the borders of the Russian empire.

Shortly after the Boeing 777 went down with 298 people aboard, a Russian social networking page that has been uploading messages from Strelkov for weeks published a post saying rebels had shot down a plane outside Torez, near the location of the wreckage of MH17.

The post, which was later deleted, appeared to incorrectly identify the aircraft as an AN-26 military transport plane, lending credence to the theory that the rebels mistakenly downed the Malaysian airliner. "We warned you not to fly in our skies," it read. Rebel leaders later denied their forces had shot down the plane.

Strelkov (his real name is Girkin) is an avid historical battle re-enactor from Moscow and a former colonel in Russia’s Ffederal security service who recently admitted he was asked to lead the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, although he wouldn’t say by whom. He fought as a volunteer in Bosnia and in Transnistria, a Russian-backed breakaway republic in Moldova, and was seen advising separatist leaders in Crimea before the peninsula seceded from Ukraine and was annexed by Russia.

Strelkov is good friends with Alexander Borodai, the political analyst from Moscow who leads the government in Donetsk, and both previously worked for a company owned by nationalist oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev, who reportedly funded separatist activity in Crimea.

On Friday, Ukrainian authorities released recordings of what they said were intercepted phone conversations between rebel leaders. In the first, a voice claimed to be Bezler’s says a rebel group had shot down a plane and was investigating the crash site. In the second, a rebel commander reports that Cossacks shot down what was later discovered to be a "100% civilian aircraft" and that documents of an Indonesian student had been found.

Sound analysts and rebel leaders quoted on Russian television have argued the recordings were falsified by combining unrelated conversations, and a pro-Russian blogger claimed they were originally created before MH17 went down.

A final conversation allegedly records a rebel reporting to Kozytsin that "the plane shot down in the area of Snizhne-Torez … is a civilian one".

"That means they were carrying spies," the man alleged to be Kozitsyn responds. "They shouldn’t be flying. There is a war going on."

Bezler, a former funeral home director nicknamed Bes (Demon) and renowned for his ruthlessness, first emerged after angry pro-Russia protesters stormed the police station in Horlivka, during which he was seen in a video identifying himself as a "colonel in the Russian army".

In a later interview with Russian Forbes magazine, he said he was a Russian citizen from Crimea whose ancestor died in the Charge of the Light Brigade, commemorated by Alfred, Lord Tennyson during the Crimean war.

In Horlivka, he is known as a "cruel but effective" commander, and rumours hold he summarily executed four men accused of raping a girl, according to Ruslan, a local taxi driver. Bezler himself has filmed captured Ukrainian special agents with tape wrapped around their bloodied heads, and his men have been involved in many of the ugliest clashes with Ukrainian troops.

He is also known as a loose cannon liable to fight with the leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic, which said it was considering placing him before a war crimes tribunal after he appeared in a video executing two Ukrainian officers by firing squad. (It was later admitted that the men were firing blanks.)

In June, Bezler’s men seized the regional police headquarters in downtown Donetsk, sparking an hours-long shootout with local rebel forces.

The final rebel commander under suspicion, Kozitsyn was born in the Donetsk region and took part in military actions in the Russian-backed separatist republics of Transnistria, and Abkhazia in Georgia, according to a Russian nationalist website. He reportedly received a medal from the Russian security services, the FSB, for engaging in talks with former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who was later tried for war crimes.


Ukraine: Summary of attacks on media [July 2014]

Reporters Without Borders | 22 July 2014

Besides its regular press releases, Reporters Without Borders is maintaining a Ukraine news feed in order to summarize the violations of freedom of information constantly taking place in Ukraine.

21.07.2014 – Ukrainian journalist to spend 10 days in solitary in Russia

Yevgeny Agarkov, a Ukrainian reporter for “Spetskor,” a programme broadcast by Ukrainian channel 2+2, was arrested by Russian immigration officials near Voronezh, in southwestern Russia, on 18 July for not being accredited with the Russian foreign ministry. Later the same day, an administrative court convicted him of “working illegally as a journalist” and sentenced him to a fine of 2,000 roubles (40 euros), expulsion from Russia and a five-year ban on reentering the country.

The court stipulated that his expulsion would take effect on 28 July, pending which he was to be detained. He was transferred to a detention centre 160 km from the city of Voronezh and was placed in solitary confinement.

Agarkov’s prolonged detention is disproportionate, especially as he is being held in an isolation cell,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “This journalist is being treated like a criminal although all he did was contravene the administrative code. We urge the Russian authorities to free him and return him to Ukraine without delay.”

Agarkov went to Voronezh to cover the case of Nadezhda Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot who is being held there for alleged complicity in the deaths of Russian journalists Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, who were killed by mortar fire in the Luhansk region (in eastern Ukraine) on 17 June.


20.07.2014 – Rebels arrest ten journalists outside Donetsk morgue

Around ten journalists were arrested by the security services of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk (PRD) when they tried to enter the morgue in Donetsk on 19 and 20 July as part of their coverage of the downing of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 on 17 July, in which 298 people died.

Those arrested outside the morgue on 20 July included Kevin Bishop, a British reporter for the BBC, Anna Nemtsova, a Russian reporter for The Daily Beast, Simon Shuster, a US reporter for Time Magazine, Italian journalist Lucia Sgueglia, and two reporters for the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, Paul Hansen and Jan Lewenhagen. They were all taken to the local headquarters of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), where they were questioned and then released a few hours later. A Russian TV crew with Russia Today that was arrested in similar circumstances on 19 July was held overnight before being released.

Nemtsova said the rebels posted outside the morgue had been given orders to arrest all journalists trying to go inside. When a Russia Today cameraman asked PRD Prime Minister Alexander Borodai at a news conference why he had spent a night in detention, Borodai responded with a joke: “You’re not a real journalist if you haven’t spent a night in the SBU.”


17.07.2014 – Bomb hoaxes at two national TV stations

The Kiev police received an anonymous message on 17 July warning that a bomb had been left inside the premises of Inter, a national TV channel owned by oligarch Dmitri Firtash. A search of Inter revealed nothing suspicious. The police are trying to identify the source of the anonymous call.

Earlier in the day, an anonymous message reported that a bomb had been left at 5 Kanal, a national TV station owned by President Petro Poroshenko. Its offices were evacuated and searched but no trace of explosives was found. It was the third false bomb alert at 5 Kanal this month. The previous ones were on 4 and 15 July. Each time 5 Kanal was forced to interrupt programming.


16.07.2014 – Rebels seize Luhansk news site’s computer equipment

Serhiy Sakadynski, the editor of the Luhansk-based news website Politika 2.0, revealed on 16 July that anti-Kiev rebels removed all of its computer equipment, cameras and video cameras during a raid on its offices on 10 July. The raid took place after they caught a Politika 2.0 reporter taking photos of Luhansk railway station, accused her of spying, and decided that Politika 2.0 was “gathering information about the rebels.” They gave Sakadynski a beating during the raid and took him with them when they left, releasing him the next day after influential persons intervened. The equipment has not been returned.


11.07.2014 – Heavy toll on journalists in first half of 2014

The Institute of Mass Information (IMI), a Ukrainian NGO partnered with Reporters Without Borders, has released figures for media freedom violations during the first half of 2014. According to IMI’s tally, six journalists were killed in connection with their work, 249 were injured or attacked, and at least 55 were taken hostage or detained arbitrarily. The toll was much higher than in 2013, when a total of 101 attacks on journalists were registered during the entire year, half of them in connection with the Maidan Square protests in November and December.

“Physical attacks against journalists and other media workers currently pose one of the main challenges for the media profession,” said IMI director Oksana Romanyuk. “The authorities also face the challenge of investigating all these [attacks] and punishing those responsible. Ending impunity […] and defending the public’s right to information should be one of the main items on the new president’s agenda.”

Read the IMI report (in Ukrainian).


10.07.2014 – Luhansk TV channel suspends broadcasting

A Luhansk-based TV station called Luhansk Cable Television (LKT) has suspended broadcasting because of the ongoing fighting in the city. The stations’s CEO told employees on 10 July he could not longer guarantee their safety and was putting them all on leave until further notice. The wife of LKT’s legal adviser, Igor Zazimnik, was killed by a stray bullet on the balcony of her apartment the same day. Two other local TV broadcasters, IRTA and LOT, have also had to suspend operations.


08.07.2014 – Ukrainian TV crew under mortar fire near Luhansk

Roman Bochkala, a reporter for the Ukrainian national TV channel Inter, and his cameraman, Vasyl Menovshchikov, found themselves under mortar fire near Metallist, a village ten kilometres outside Luhansk, on 8 July while covering operations by the Ukrainian army’s 30th regiment.

Bochkala broke an arm and tore tendons while scrambling over a 5 or 6 metre embankment in search of shelter. After being treated in a field hospital, he was transferred by helicopter to a hospital in Kharkov. Two soldiers were killed during the mortar bombardment.


05.07.2014 – Masked men attack national daily in Kiev

Around 50 masked men attacked the Kiev headquarters of the Russian-language newspaper Vesti on 5 July, pelting it with stones and setting off teargas before dispersing quickly. Some of them injured a security guard while trying to enter the building. The stones they threw broke windows and damaged computers.

The attack was claimed by Oles Vakhni, an ultra-nationalist who served a six-year jail term on charges of armed robbery and violence. The police said they were treating it as a case of “vandalism.” Vesti owner Igor Guzhva linked it to the demonstration that parliamentarian Igor Lutsenko staged outside the newspaper the week before with the declared aim of “ending the dissemination of anti-Ukrainian propaganda.” Lutsenko said the protest would be “the last peaceful action” against Vesti.


04.07.2014 – Rebels take control of Luhansk regional state broadcaster

Armed rebels in combat fatigues representing the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Luhansk stormed into the headquarters of the Luhansk region’s state radio and TV broadcaster on 4 July. After they had taken control of the premises and negotiated with the CEO, Rodyon Miroshnik, all the employees were allowed to leave. One of the rebels said the regional broadcaster’s various channels were now “closed” and would remain so until they resumed “under a different format.”

The previous week, local cable TV operators LKT and Triolan dropped most of the Ukrainian TV news channels from what they offer, replacing them with Russian news channels.


02.07.2014 – Two journalists held for two days in Luhansk

Ukrainian citizen TV station Hromadske’s well-known reporter, Anastasia Stanko, and her cameraman, Ilya Beskorovayny, were released by representatives of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Luhansk (PRL) on 2 July after being held for two days in Luhansk.

After trying for a long time to obtain PRL accreditation without success, they arrived in Luhansk on 30 June hoping to obtain permission on the spot to do a report there. They were put in touch with a security unit, which promised to protect them in return for financial compensation. But they were arrested by another unit, the NKVD, and were held in the basement of a downtown building. PRL Prime Minister Vasil Nikitin said he suspected them of spying for the Ukrainian army.

Their detention prompted a great deal of concern in both Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked the relevant authorities to do everything they could to obtain their release as quickly as possibly. But it was thanks to the intercession of the heads of Russia’s three leading pro-government broadcasters – Pervy Kanal, VGTRK and NTV – that the PRL finally decided to free them. Stanko said that, on the whole, they were treated properly aside from being threatened with decapitation.


01.07.2014 – Two Russian journalists injured in Luhansk region

Denis Kulaga, a staff reporter with Russia’s REN-TV, and his cameraman, Vadim Yudin, were treated for shock in a Luhansk region hospital on 1 July after a mortar shell exploded close to them when they were about one kilometre from the Russian border, near the Izvarino border post.