The Flight of ‘The Demon’: A Brutal Russian Officer Reportedly Flees His Place In the Ukraine War

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As Ukraine’s army advances against the Russian proxy forces in southeast Ukraine, it has forced one of the rebels’ most prominent and brutal commanders, former Russian army Lieutenant Colonel Igor Bezler, out of his headquarters. Ukrainian troops and Bezler’s rebels fought battles at Horlivka yesterday, and Bezler left the city, turning his command over to one of his lieutenants, said Vasyl Budik, a local businessman who has spent the past three months as Bezler’s hostage – and, at times, his spokesman.

Bezler’s departure from Horlivka is being reported by Ukrainian media as his escape from the city, a move that would mark a further setback for the rebels. In any case, the arrival of Ukrainian troops at Horlivka – a satellite city about twenty miles northeast of Donetsk, the region’s metropolis – shows that they are severely constricting the rebel-held zone. Situation maps published online since yesterday by pro-Ukraine activists suggest that Ukrainian forces have cut the zone in two.

Since the Russian-backed rebels seized parts of southeast Ukraine’s Donbas region in early April, Bezler has been one of their most prominent commanders, known for seizing hostages and – in recent days – for the Ukrainian intelligence agency’s release of a telephone call in which it says Bezler is heard reporting to Russian military intelligence on the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Bezler – a wiry, moustached 49-year-old in camouflage uniforms – has cultivated an image of discipline and brutality. He has published a stream of videos showing off him barking orders and enforcing strict control over Horlivka, including a mock execution of Budik and another hostage. He uses the nom de guerre “Bes,” meaning “demon” in Russian.

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has published tapes and transcripts of Bezler’s phone calls during the war to other Russian officers in Ukraine and Russia, including Colonel Igor Girkin, the rebels’ overall commander, with whom Bezler worked closely. Ukraine’s government says Bezler has been operating at the instruction of Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU. In April, it published transcripts of intercepts it said recorded Bezler discussing his abduction and the subsequent murder, of Volodymyr Rybak, a Horlivka city council member who had opposed the rebels and tried to remove their flag from city offices.

Born in Crimea under the Soviet Union, Igor Nikolayevich Bezler served in the Soviet and Russian armies, specifically, the SBU says, as a military intelligence officer. Bezler neither confirms nor denies reports that he fought in the 1980s Soviet war in Afghanistan and in Russia’s 1990s wars to defeat the independence movement in Chechnya. Amid the Soviet Union’s collapse, Bezler took Russian citizenship, but after leaving the army moved to Horlivka where, Russian news websites have reported, he worked as a security officer at a tractor factory and as a funeral home director.

This year, as Russia prepared its invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Bezler joined other Russian army veterans in organizing the takeover, the SBU has said. When the Russian proxy forces began their attacks in Donbas, Bezler returned to the city where he had been living to seize control of it with his militia fighters.

During his rule over the city, Bezler held a clutch of hostages – seventeen at the most recent count, Budik said in several telephone or Skype interviews – whom he intended to use as bargaining chips in negotiations for the release of his allies arrested by Ukrainian authorities. Budik was one of those.

With Bezler’s reported flight from Horlivka over the weekend, the hostages were left guarded by one of the commander’s lieutenants, their situation uncertain amid the fighting in the city, Budik said.

Russia’s next moves in Ukraine after the downing of MH17

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From the moment the corrupt pro-Russian authoritarian regime of Viktor Yanukovich was overthrown in Kiev at the end of February, Russia, that is Vladimir Putin, has pursued three strategic goals: First, to punish, humiliate, destabilize, if possible, dismember and, ultimately, derail a Europe-bound Ukraine. Second, to prevent the West from imposing meaningful, biting sanctions. And finally, to continue to solidify Putin’s domestic political base by means of the rally around the flag effect.

The third objective is the most important one. By all indications, Putin is engineering a presidency-for-life. This is not an easy task in a Russia with a stagnant economy and possible slide into recession, rising food prices, enormous corruption and continuing decline in the quality of education and health care. As recently as the end of 2013, according to public opinion polls, the Russian people’s trust in Putin’s promises, his popularity, and the desire to see him as president again in 2018 all were at record lows of his effectively 14 years in power.
All, however, was forgiven and forgotten in the deafening din of the monopolistic propaganda that followed the annexation of Crimea and the by-proxy invasion of east-south Ukraine. The patriotic euphoria at the sight of these victories for the “just cause” of “saving ethnic brethren” from depredations by the “Nazi junta” in Kiev combined with an equally unbridled paranoia of NATO plots, from which only President Putin is capable of shielding the Motherland have proved irresistible.

Yet newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has quickly proved surprisingly successful not only in mobilizing political support for confronting Russia’s proxies, but also in rebuilding the completely demoralized and beggared Ukrainian armed forces. By early July he managed to engineer what looks like a successful Ukrainian ground offensive to recover sovereignty over the country’s industrial heartland, starting with the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk on July 5.

The unexpected Ukrainian advance has created a big political problem for Putin. As I have mentioned, the effort of the Russian domestic monopolistic propaganda machine has been very effective. But if one lives by propagandistic hysteria, one may also die, or at least be bled by it. The propaganda-induced mood cannot be tamped down quickly to justify giving up on the “forces of civil self-defense,” as the Kremlin calls an assorted rabble, armed and supplied by Moscow, and led and trained by professional Russian special troops, intelligence officers as well as Chechen and Cossack mercenaries. Putin knows only too well the history of the former Serbian strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, who had ridden similarly high in his fight against what he called Bosnian “jihadists” and Croatian “Catholic Nazi Ustashas” until he retreated.

Thus, retreat from, not to mention defeat in, Ukraine is not an option for Putin. So in the face of the Ukrainian advance since the beginning of July, Russia, in effect, has imposed a no-fly zone over east-south Ukraine.

This is the political and military context in which followed the downing of a Ukrainian military cargo plane and fighter jet earlier in the same week that Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down by a Buk M-1 (the SA-11 Gadfly in the NATO designation) surface-to-air-missile, fired from the Ukrainian side of the border. Last Wednesday, two Ukrainian SU-25 fighter jets were downed as well.

Simultaneously, Russia has escalated the movement of men and heavy equipment across its border with Ukraine, including Grad multiple launch rocket systems, T-64 tanks, infantry combat vehicles with automatic cannons and armored personnel carriers. At the same time Russian artillery began to pound Ukrainian army positions.

If these efforts notwithstanding Russia fails to stop the Ukrainian advance, Putin will be facing two options. First, he may declare that Ukraine “in the throes of a fratricidal civil war” necessitates Russia’s direct military intervention to protect “innocent civilian lives.” In doing so, Putin is likely to invoke the “Libya precedent,” which Moscow repeatedly hinted at as a justification for such an action: after all, Russia will only be following what the West did in Libya in 2011.

This option, however, is not without risks. First, the Ukrainian army is likely to put up a fight and, if Russian casualties begin to multiply, Putin’s domestic support may begin to erode quickly seeing that the almost half of Russians have repeatedly told pollsters that they do not want Russia to invade Ukraine.

Thus Putin’s preferred choice is likely to be a call for an immediate “cessation of hostilities” and, as it has done repeatedly in the past, “direct negotiations” between Kiev and its proxies. The West is also likely to put strong pressure on Ukraine to comply in the hopes of preventing the first open invasion of a major European country since the end of World War II 69 years ago.
Needless to say, by enabling the pro-Russian “separatists” to stay in control of the territories they hold today, the Russia-proposed “truce” would allow Russia to have its cake and eat it too: stopping the Ukrainian offensive and saving its proxies from defeat without resorting to an open invasion by regular troops.

The longer the truce, not to mention negotiations, the weaker the support for the activist Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko will be and the lesser the chance for an economic recovery in Ukraine. Given Ukraine’s post-Soviet political history, such a “frozen conflict” could lead to yet another cycle of domestic political instability and perhaps eventually to the realization of the Russian strategic goal of de-railing a Europe-bound Ukrainian regime. In the meantime, the truce can be quickly broken by the “rebels” on orders from Moscow, just as the most recent unilateral Ukrainian ceasefire was at the beginning of July.
Whatever the actual tactics, Russia’s strategy will continue to be shaped by the fact that a successful war on Ukraine is a key domestic political imperative of the Putin regime.
This, in turn, makes a protracted and bloody stalemate the likeliest outcome in both the short and perhaps medium term of the Ukrainian crisis.

Putin’s Losing Streak

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Putin’s march into Ukraine last spring did not change the world. It barely even changed Europe. The EU hesitated to label the aggression as an act of war. And, although the United States and the EU agreed to impose sanctions on Moscow, the real debate in Western capitals was not how to respond, but rather, how to express resolve while doing as little as possible.

And so, for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Crimean adventure was an amazing success. It was bloodless and bold, the perfect cover for the fact that the Kremlin had lost Ukraine during Kiev’s Euromaidan protest. Putin’s domestic support skyrocketed and his international prestige outside the West grew. In countries as diverse as Argentina, Egypt, and Israel, Putin was increasingly viewed as a decisive leader facing down weak and risk-averse politicians. He even had good reasons to expect that the West’s interest in sanctioning his entourage would dissipate as soon as he stepped forward, according to Kremlin plans, as the indispensable peacemaker for the Ukrainian East.

And then the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was brought down by what was widely presumed to be a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile, killing all 298 people on board. That spelled the end of Putin’s good luck.

This week, the United States and Europe stepped up sanctions on Russia. Further, with world attention focused on eastern Ukraine, it has become increasingly difficult for Russia to support the separatists while denying that it is doing so. Indeed, in recent days, the media has whipped itself into a frenzy reporting on Moscow’s most recent actions in Ukraine — activities that were not substantively different from those that it had been pursuing all summer.

Now, Russian troops might have to openly join the fray if Putin wants the rebel movement to survive. In Russia, Putin is already facing pressure to join the battle. Nationalists, including the ideologue Alexander Dugin, have started to criticize the president for encouraging pro-Russian separatists and then leaving them in the lurch. Yet, by getting more involved, as Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently warned, Putin’s actions could “light a fire that he loses control of.” Putin’s ability to take Crimea without a shot being fired bolstered his popularity at home, but in eastern Ukraine, he would be inserting the Russian military into what promises to be a grinding cross-border conflict with tenuous local support and no clearly defined goal.

If all that weren’t bad enough for Putin, Russia’s propaganda machine is flailing, too. It was easier to persuade a domestic Russian audience that Kiev is controlled by fascists than convince anyone that looting a poorly sealed-off crash site is essential to Russian national interests. Putin’s popularity inside Russia remains high for the moment, but it is buoyed by an idealized image of the Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, which may not survive international coverage of the crash.

In short, a single air disaster is redefining Russia’s place in the global order. But that raises a question: Why would the annexation of Crimea come with few consequences, while an accidental attack on a civilian airliner by semi-anarchical rebel forces, only loosely controlled by Moscow, lead to such an uproar?


The first part of that question is why the annexation of Crimea — a grave violation of international law — was such a nonevent, especially among the non-Western great powers. Brazil, China, India, and South Africa did not join the West’s efforts to punish Russia. They abstained in a UN General Assembly vote to sanction the country. Then, they used the standoff between Russia and the West as an opportunity to close some big commercial deals with Moscow. For them, the global order has always been a Western one; even when they acquiesce to it, they feel no obligation to defend it, especially when they stand to gain by not doing so.

In addition, many non-European powers were worried about Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych’s precipitous downfall in the face of street demonstrations in Kiev. They were particularly troubled that both the United States and the EU felt no qualms about supporting mass protests against a popularly elected leader. The idea of Western governments destabilizing and overthrowing a non-cooperative government was all too reminiscent of the colonial past.

Further, as soon as it was clear that the annexation would not provoke an open military clash — that the regime in Kiev was too weak to fight back and that the Western nations were not about to become directly involved — many rising powers took it as a sign that the United States and the West could be safely defied in other areas as well.

Finally, the annexation of Crimea never captured the imagination of non-Western societies. Too much European history was involved, and the victims of the subsequent Ukrainian crisis were ten times fewer than those killed and wounded in Syria. The conflict felt too remote, local, and insignificant — more or less the same as Europeans might think of a war somewhere in Africa.

Meanwhile, in the West, divisions within the EU and between Europe and the United States made it impossible to build a united front in response to the Crimea annexation. Europeans feared that the United States’ meager economic ties with Russia made it too easy for Washington to push for sanctions, while Washington feared that the governments of many EU member states were too dependent on Russia’s oil and gas to do what needed to be done. European public opinion was also confused. It was appalled by Putin’s annexation of Crimea, but it was wary of both U.S. and EU interventionism.


The second part of the question is why the shooting down of a Malaysian airplane suddenly turned the conflict into a global issue.

Violence on the ground in eastern Ukraine is local, but violence in the skies above that land is potentially global. Today’s global order is as much about the governance and security of transportation corridors, air spaces, and naval routes as it is about control of territories. The threat to international shipping posed by piracy off the coast of Somalia, for example, has triggered a robust and coordinated international response. Moreover, although the global middle class might not be able to identify with local rebels or civilians in Donetsk, it can easily identify with those who were killed when the plane was hit. Their deaths struck a blow to the heart of the interconnected world order.

For the same reason, the downing of flight MH17 has shocked the Western business classes who were previously more interested in economic relations with Russia than in the inviolability of international borders. But modern economic relations can’t exist when commercial air corridors, where business people live, are unsafe. By fostering chaos in eastern Ukraine, Putin is presumably trying to show that Kiev cannot control its own territory and that it needs Moscow to bring order. But he has apparently forgotten that disregarding national sovereignty would foment anarchy in the very spaces that the economically powerful care about most. Not surprisingly, therefore, after the downing of the Malaysian airplane, the German business association representing firms active in Russia had a sudden change of heart and began voicing support for new sanctions against Moscow.

The armed conflict in eastern Ukraine between Russia-backed separatists and the government in Kiev, it should be said, is fraught with ambiguity. It has never been easy for outsiders to understand who is right and who is wrong. By contrast, what happened in the air was unambiguously terrifying and unforgiveable. Innocent travelers were killed by the reckless forces unable to distinguish civilian from military aircraft. The moral outrage has been compounded by the squalid handling and even robbing of the strewn corpses. The fact that an Asian carrier was brought down has ensured that much of the non-Western world is tuned in this time.

But the main reason that the international community seems to be turning against Russia after the felling of the plane is that Russia, once widely seen as an advocate of global stability against the apparently destabilizing interventions of the West, is now seen to be one of the main sponsors of global instability. Russia, it is now understood, is a great power that irresponsibly transfers dangerous modern weaponry to trigger-happy local gangsters over whom it has little real control. In short, the annexation of Crimea allowed Putin to project an image of great and effective power. The MH17 disaster, however, makes him look like a weak and ineffective gambler.

The Malaysia airlines disaster, finally, reveals much about the modern world order. More than rivalries between states, social and political instability within the states matter. Whereas nation states once mobilized their domestic resources to acquire global influence, they must now mobilize global resources in order to secure social and political stability at home. And it is Putin’s revealed recklessness — not his dictatorial tendencies — that is now forcing non-Europeans and Europeans to see him as a threat to peace — a destabilizer. Putin was quickly forgiven for deliberately creating a dangerous international legal precedent, but he won’t get off quite so easily for inadvertently contributing to an accidental commercial airline disaster. In this case, at least, a tragic accident has done more than a defied precedent to redefine the global order.

Europe’s Ground Zero: Fairy Tales and Fabrications in Eastern Ukraine

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Alexander Hug isn’t really supposed to be here. He hasn’t seen his wife and three children, aged four, three and nine months, for weeks and his family came to Kiev for a short visit. Instead of Kiev, though, Hug now finds himself on a road some 650 kilometers (400 miles) away from the capital — in eastern Ukraine, among fields of wheat and sunflowers. The next village, about a kilometer away, is called Grabovo.

It’s the site where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, fell out of the sky, likely after having been struck by an anti-aircraft missile.
“I experienced the Balkan wars and the Middle East, but what happened here was very extreme,” the 42-year-old says, with typical Swiss understatement. But then he loses his composure after all. “This is an unbelievable tragedy of immense scope,” he says. “An airplane crashes over a war zone, totally innocent vacationers fall from the sky, and then access to the disaster site is hindered.”

Hug is the deputy head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission in Ukraine. He has been monitoring activities at Europe’s easternmost edge for months now — in the “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk that have been proclaimed by pro-Russian separatists. The expectation of the OSCE’s 57 member states is that Hug will provide an objective look at what is happening in the region.

Hug first arrived at the scene of the crash 24 hours after the Boeing 777 went down at 4:20 p.m. on July 17. Since then, he has driven the 60 kilometer stretch between Donetsk and Grabovo on a daily basis. On this particular day, he is accompanying three Malaysia Airlines experts, the first who dared travel to the crisis area. They were only allowed access to the site with the permission of the rebels.

The visit took place last Tuesday, five days after the aircraft had been shot down. The rebels claimed that the remains of all 298 of the dead had been recovered, but the stench of death among the wreckage told a different story. Hug says he has seen “body parts all over the place.”

Evidence for the depth of the tragedy that occurred here is everywhere. There is a Bali travel guide still lying there, as is the children’s toy that was shown on television. There’s also a folder with the floor plans for a new home — a dream that had nearly been attained by a young Dutch family that perished in the crash.

Investigation Will Determine Future Relations

Grabovo is Europe’s Ground Zero — a crime that must be resolved, because the findings are likely to determine how Europe deals with a Russian that is supporting self-proclaimed separatists in eastern Ukraine, both paying and equipping them. Europe has already indicated that it is losing patience with Moscow, and on Tuesday imposed the toughest round of sanctions yet.

Here, though, nobody seems overly concerned about the implications of the crime, with the exception of Hug, a tall man of 6’4″ wearing a blue-checkered shirt, a bullet-proof vest and a white OSCE armband as he directs the gaggle of journalists who have descended on the site. The other exceptions are the trio of Malaysian experts who can be seen roaming the fields with backpacks and cameras.

As had been the case for days, apart from Hug and the Malaysians, the crash site was devoid of any guards or teams of investigators and was open to anyone, including plunderers. The rebels have even taken away aircraft parts and presented them like trophies at checkpoints located kilometers away.

The world outside of eastern Ukraine may be shaken by this disaster — indeed, the UN Security Council showed rare unanimity when it demanded that an international investigation be conducted. But none of that is tangible on the ground here. So far, little has been done to clarify what happened. Instead there has been a lot of finger-pointing. What is clear is that the death of 298 people has opened a new round in the battle over Ukraine, with each side now feeling its position has been validated.

One gets a sense for this about 10 kilometers away from Grabovo, where parts of the fuselage and luggage bins lie. Village residents have placed signs along the road reading, “Stop the genocide in Donbass,” or “Rescue our children from the Ukrainian army!”

Rhetorical Polemics

You can also get a sense for it on a road near Grabovo, where a woman wearing a summer dress and high heels suddenly appears holding shell fragments in her hand. Speaking to the gathered journalists, who represent publications from all over the world, she says she comes from Shakhtarsk and claims her hometown had just been shelled with such projectiles by the Ukrainian army. That, she says, should be investigated, adding that it was much more important. How she managed to get to us from Shakhtarsk, located over 20 kilometers away, and why she appeared just at that moment remains unexplained.

Then a rebel “press officer” wearing an exotic uniform comes down the street and talks about the West’s crimes. “The usual rhetorical polemics,” Hug notes.

On the same day, the Security Council of Russia held a meeting in Moscow to address the crash of Flight MH 17. Yet again, Putin repeated his allegation that “neo-fascist, fundamentalist forces had used arms to seize power in Kiev.” He went on to describe the separatists as a “part of the population” that disagrees with the developments in Ukraine.

Russians Call the Shots

The disgruntled segment of the Ukrainian population that Putin refers to is represented near Grabovo by the woman in the summer dress and the 10 heavily armed men of the “People’s Republic,” who, while claiming to be protecting OSCE staff, are more likely present to keep watch over them. The armed men are wearing brand new camouflage uniforms with patches that read “Sevastopol, City of Heroes,” and “The Crimean Spring.” One, a young man with a headband and long hair holding a Kalashnikov in his hands and carrying a pistol in his waist belt, tells a Russian television team that he’s also from Moscow. When asked where, he says he’s from the city’s Cheryomushki district. When asked what he does there, he responds by saying he sings in the church choir — and he has the voice and looks to back it up. He means it seriously. But then he adds, “I’m here voluntarily.”

He’s just as Ukrainian as Alexander Borodai, the self-proclaimed prime minister of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk” who also hails from Moscow. When Borodai handed MH 17’s flight recorder over to the Malaysia Airlines experts, they referred to him as “your excellency,” just to play it safe. For some time now, it has been leaders from Moscow and not local forces who have been calling the shots in the separatist republic. It’s a subject that neither Putin nor the Russian media have shown much interest in addressing. Instead, the public defamation of Ukraine by Russia has reached new heights in the wake of the MH 17 crash.

That too is palpable in Grabovo. A correspondent for Russia’s Channel One does a stand-up report from the edge of the wreckage area for the evening news. In it, he claims that the government in Kiev has done everything it could to prevent international experts from getting to the crash scene. Then a Russian news agency issues a report claiming that the Malaysian aviation experts and their OSCE escorts came under fire by Ukrainian fighter jets on their way to the crash site.


The reports are just as untrue as the majority of what Russian television stations broadcast from the separatist republics each day. There is, for example, the report that air traffic controllers, located 270 kilometers away in Dnipropetrovsk, a city under the control of a governor friendly to Kiev, instructed Flight MH 17 to change its path in order to make it easier for Ukrainian fighter jets to shoot it down. European air traffic safety regulators have long since refuted reports of a course change and have stated that the aircraft followed its originally planned route. Few residing between Moscow and Donetsk are interested in hearing that, however. People even believe the most absurd reporting on the disaster, like stories claiming that MH 17 had been carrying corpses when it took off from Amsterdam. It’s a fairy tale that is repeated incessantly on countless Russian news broadcasts.

The separatists and Moscow alike have indignantly denied that a Buk surface-to-air missile shot MH 17 down. They have also vehemently denied that rebels could even have been in possession of the air defense system. They claim that evidence in the form of photos and recordings of conversations have been fabricated by the Ukrainians and the Americans.

But on Wednesday, Alexander Khodakovsky, a rebel leader in Donetsk and commander of the notorious Vostok battalion, told Reuters that rebels did in fact possess the Buk missile system and that it could have come from Russia. Khodakovsky later retracted his statements, but the recording of the interview shows that it is in fact precisely what he said.

OSCE official Hug has almost daily dealings with the rebels. Twice since April, he has had to intervene to secure the freedom of Western hostages held by them.

He says he only continues to speak with Borodai or his deputy, adding that they generally do what they say, “at least to a certain degree.” He notes that “we’ve known for some time now that there is quarreling among the rebels and that there are differences between the political level and their armed forces.” He describes it as a “thicket of alliances,” with many acting on their own.

War Continues Unabated

In exactly this moment, heavy shelling begins around 20 kilometers away from Grabovo in Snizhne, the town from which it is believed the rebels fired the missile that brought down Flight MH 17. The impact of the rockets in Snizhne is visible from as far away as the crash site. Despite the tragedy, the war continues unabated here.

Just a few days later, rebels in the area again shoot down two planes, Ukrainian Air Force SU-25 fighter jets. In recent weeks, they have shot down 14 aircraft. Evidence is overwhelming that the Malaysian Airlines Boeing was among them.

The developments have led to political radicalization in Ukraine as well. Last week, President Petro Poroshenko ordered a partial mobilization for the third time, saying he needed 60,000 soldiers for deployment in eastern Ukraine. At the same time, he also got the opportunity for new elections after the parties backing him quit the government coalition. It is now likely that the final remaining members of parliament from the party of Poroshenko’s deposed predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, will be voted out of office. In addition, the Communist Party, which remains strong in the separatist areas, is expected to be banned.

A ‘Russian Lockerbie’

Behind the scenes in the Kremlin, away from the official television propaganda, uncertainty is beginning to spread. Putin himself has seemed agitated and nervous in his latest television appearances.

Voices claiming that Russia’s intervention in eastern Ukraine has turned into a disaster are growing louder, as are those who consider the shooting down of MH 17 to be a turning point. Moscow-based journalist and columnist Yulia Latynina described the events as a “Russian Lockerbie.” And the editor-in-chief of the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta is even predicting Putin’s descent to the status of political “pariah” because he armed rebels in eastern Ukraine.

A program on radio broadcaster Echo of Moscow, which is at least half-way independent, came to the conclusion last week that the situation had blindsided Putin. Political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky said in the program that the president had come across as being quite optimistic prior to the shooting down of MH 17. The separatists had encircled the Ukrainian army south of Donetsk and Putin believed he was on the verge of being able to force the West to negotiate over Ukraine’s fate. That, Belkovski believes, was the goal of Putin’s interference in Ukraine all along. But the shooting down of the aircraft has altered the situation and Moscow’s support for the rebels wound up costing the lives of 298 innocent people. “This has made clear once and for all that Putin can no longer disentangle himself from the separatists.”

Alexander Hug is still at the site of the downed plane, with the wreckage in sight. He says he doesn’t want to comment on any of this. “The OSCE has no political agenda,” he says, “and that’s what makes it possible for us to be in the combat area of the rebels.” He says his most important mission is making sure that the world finally has access to the crash site in Grabovo.

In the meantime, supporters of the separatists continue living in their own world. On the way back to Donetsk, which was being shelled by the Ukrainian army at the time, a young man could hardly hide his excitement. He was very certain, he said, that Putin’s troops, “would invade” this week. “Finally.”

Putin’s Media Lives in an Alternate Reality

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I earned my degree in journalism back in the 1970s from universities in both Moscow and Warsaw. Instructors at both institutions used the same archetypal example to explain the nature of propaganda, saying that we can describe a glass as half-empty or half-full.

Both statements are true, but they serve opposing propaganda purposes. The first assertion carries a negative connotation, whereas the second is full of optimism. The idea was that we could effectively influence readers, viewers or listeners in this way without resorting to the use of lies.

That was essentially how all Soviet propaganda worked: The authorities interpreted objective facts to suit their own purposes.

Now everything has changed. The glass is empty, the world sees that it is empty, but the Russian media proclaims: “The glass is completely full.” And no sooner does the glass become full again than we hear: “It is empty. There is nothing there.” I worked for Soviet newspapers during the terms of four Soviet leaders, from Leonid Brezhnev to Mikhail Gorbachev, and this is the first time the authorities have lied so brazenly and shamelessly. They have truly reached a new low.

Here is an indisputable fact: A passenger plane was shot down over territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists. Everyone understands that it was a mistake and not an intentional act, and the separatists could have admitted as much.

In a similar situation, when Soviet forces mistakenly shot down a South Korean airliner in 1983, Soviet media did not deny the incident but focused all its propaganda efforts on explaining the context of how it happened, claiming, for example, that the South Korean crew had “provocatively changed course.”

This time the Kremlin-controlled media has repeatedly claimed that: the airplane was not shot down at all, but fell out of the sky by itself; a bomb exploded aboard the airplane; the airplane was hit by a Ukrainian missile fired from the ground; a Ukrainian air force fighter pursued and then attacked the plane; the U.S. shot down the plane in order to damage Russia’s reputation; no living people were aboard the plane as it flew on autopilot from Amsterdam, where it had been pre-loaded with “rotting corpses.”

Difficult as it is to believe, that last, completely ridiculous version of events, which was put forward by Igor Girkin, the commander of the pro-Russian terrorists responsible for the tragedy, not only aired on all state-controlled media outlets, but was the subject of serious discussion.

All of those versions of events were deliberate lies, and all of the reporters and commentators who authored and discussed them knew they were telling lies. And yet they still did it. At the same time, their behavior did not suggest that they were unaware of the existence of the Internet, where citizens could find ample evidence refuting their claims: videos, photos, recordings of intercepted telephone conversations and eyewitness testimony. For Russia’s state media journalists, it was not enough to simply twist the facts to their own purposes: They felt compelled to tell bold-faced lies.

An experienced, older journalist and I recently debated whether this practice is deliberate or the result of simple incompetence. After all, the authorities could just spin the facts to suit their propaganda goals. Why bother building a parallel universe? “In our time,” my companion said with a sigh, “we maintained higher standards,” attributing the problem to unprofessionalism.

But I think it is done deliberately. When propaganda is based on nuances of interpretation, the chance always remains that someone with a fresh perspective or a critical mindset can cast doubt on those claims. However, when the authorities base their propaganda entirely on lies, they achieve their desired result faster and leave no room for doubt. Thus, lies provide a quicker and more effective means to the end.

Times Report Casts Shame on Obama’s Handling of Ukraine Crisis

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To the surprise of many, but not to those who understand him, Vladimir Putin has upped his aggression against Ukraine in the wake of the shooting down of MH17 by his separatist allies. (For a definitive account of separatist guilt, see AP What Happened: The Day Flight 17 Was Downed.) The Russian military is now routinely shelling Ukrainian positions from across the border, hoping to elicit a response so they can claim a Ukrainian attack. Russia’s drones are targeting troop positions.

Even more sophisticated missiles are flooding across the border, ignoring the lesson of the Malaysian jet tragedy. Russian MIGs are shooting down antiquated Ukrainian SU fighter aircraft, depriving Ukraine of control of its own skies. (After shooting down MH17, a rebel commander called east Ukraine air space “our skies.”) Putin’s propaganda war continues unabated, spinning fantastic conspiracy theories and accusing Ukraine of war crimes as they fight back against professional Russian mercenaries. Russian state television informs its viewers that the true enemies are the United States and NATO. Ukraine is just a lackey carrying out orders from above.

Putin knows that Western intelligence sees that he is tripling down, but he no longer bothers to hide his actions. He has decided the West is too cowardly, divided, and interested in money to do anything.

The New York Times is noted for its access to the inner sanctums of the Obama administration. Four of its top reporters collaborated on its Pentagon Plan Would Help Ukraine Target Rebel Missiles, which elaborates the administration’s thinking on Ukraine. To the shame of many Americans, the Times report confirms that Vladimir Putin has sized up Barack Obama correctly. He does not understand Putin. He responds to strength with weakness.

The Times article describes the debate within the Obama administration over a Pentagon and intelligence agency plan to provide real-time specific locations of surface-to-air missiles in eastern Ukraine. (Even though Russia claims they are not there, I guess we can see them). The Times reports that the plan “hasn’t gotten to the president yet.” He is described as busy rallying support for sanctions and gaining access to the crash site. When he does get around to it, however, the Times reports that “it is unclear whether President Obama, will agree to give more precise information about potential military targets, a step that would involve the United States more deeply in the conflict.”

Administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, describe the plan as part of “the debate over whether to send a stern message to Putin by aggressively helping Ukraine target the missiles Russia has provided.” These missiles have “taken down at least five aircraft in the past 10 days, including MH17.” (I welcome that the administration has no doubts that the rebels shot down the passenger plane).

Pentagon officials and Secretary of State John Kerry are said to back the plan as part of the effort to support allied and partner nations in defending their territory without direct American military involvement. They fear that “if Mr. Putin does not encounter significant resistance to Russia’s moves in Ukraine, he may be emboldened to go further.” A senior military official opines that “we think we could do it (targeting missile sites) easily and be very effective … but there are issues of escalation with the Russians,” and the Ukrainians may lack the precision to strike Russian-supplied antiaircraft batteries.

Let me break down four arguments within the administration singled out by the Times against providing real-time missile targeting to Ukraine – an intelligence service we currently supply to Iraq.

First objection: One administration official raises the warning that “we’ve been cautious to date about things that could directly hit Russia — principally its territory,” but also its equipment.

What in the world does this mean? Are we buying Putin’s argument that suicidal Ukraine is poised to invade Russia? Is the only thing holding Ukraine back targeting assistance from us? Does the Obama administration not know that Russia threatened “irreversible consequences” of Ukrainian aggression against Russian territory after one stray shell, likely fired by separatists, killed one civilian? If Russia wants to invade Ukraine with regular troops, it will fabricate an excuse, just as Hitler did for invading Poland.

What does “our caution against hitting Russian equipment” mean? Is it not valid for pro-Ukrainian forces to use all means to destroy the tanks, armored personnel carriers, and missiles supplied by Russia, or are these weapons of death off limits because they came from Russia?

Second objection: Another official characterized the debate as “over how much to help Ukraine without provoking Russia.” It is as if there is some golden mean whereby we help Ukraine in denying Russia its most prized objective without upsetting Russia! What logic! And these are the experts advising Obama!

Does this official not understand that Putin has characterized the United States as enemy number one for more than a decade? According to Putin’s own public statements, the United States planned and paid for the Maiden revolution. Per Putin, the United States is supplying all the weapons that Ukraine has, and the CIA is calling all the shots, with NATO lurking in the background.

What are the costs to the United States of “provoking” Putin? The reset has failed. The hoped for Russian support for U.S. policies in Iran and Syria has not materialized. What more is there to lose? Are we really worried that Putin will retaliate with a nuclear attack? That seems to be the only thing left that he has not done.

Third objection: Another Obama administration official argues that “if any strikes (prompted by U.S. targeting) missed their targets, they could cause civilian casualties or land in Russia, giving Mr. Putin an excuse to enlarge the conflict.”

Does this administration official not know that the pro-Russian separatists routinely locate their headquarters in schools and hospitals and that they hide the BUK missile systems in a densely populated areas? There are enough civilians being killed by normal military operations as the rebels employ Putin’s recommended “human shields” strategy. (Putin: Let the Ukrainians “shoot their own people.”) True, Putin could use civilian casualties as an excuse to introduce Russian peace keepers, but too many would understand that Russian “blue helmets” are Russian troops tasked with decimating Ukrainian forces.

Fourth objection: Yet another senior administration official raises the possible objection to missile targeting that “Ukraine is not a NATO ally, complicating the question of how to support its government.”

As far as I recall, the anti-Khadafy rebels, whom we assisted with air power, were not members of NATO. We considered giving lethal assistance to the anti-Assad rebels before we discovered that many were Islamist extremists. We have not been queasy about supplying lethal assistance to any number of questionable regimes, yet when it comes to Ukraine, fighting an expansionist Russia on the West’s behalf but without its assistance, we suddenly must worry about the formalities of alliances? This does not sound right to me.

Despite compelling reasons, the Obama administration has allotted Ukraine the paltry sum of $33 million in nonlethal support such as meals-ready-to-eat, bomb-disposal equipment, night vision goggles, radios and engineering equipment – most of which has yet to arrive – as Senator John McCain pleads in frustration: “How can we not give them military assistance with all the Russian arms flowing in?” Bipartisan calls in Congress to supply weapons, ammunition, military vehicles and training go nowhere.

The internal Obama administration debate – it seems the president is largely absent – displays a shocking lack of understanding of Putin and his KGB state. They seem to think Putin is a normal head of state with normal objectives. The Economist understands Putin better than any of Obama’s advisors as a vain, power-hungry tyrant who could care less about his people, who bases his regime on a web of lies.

No matter what we do – placate or resist – we are the heavy in the Ukrainian conflict as far as Putin’s propaganda is concerned. Despite incredible setbacks, including giving up on the dream of New Russia, Putin knows only to escalate until he encounters resistance, and so far he has encountered none other than what Ukraine can mount with its meager resources. He is willing to tolerate the world’s opprobrium with MH17. Such things will pass soon, as the West moves on to other things and he stonewalls. He has his own apologists in Europe and the United States, who equate any military assistance as one step away from “boots on the ground.”

I don’t understand how we could lose by supplying military aid on a big scale. We would not lose credibility or get ourselves into a war as long as we make no commitments to put our troops into battle. If our assistance proves effective, Putin would have to escalate or lose. If he loses, great for Ukraine, the United States and the West in general. If he escalates, he might still lose. If he wins through a large escalation, he demonstrates that he intended an annexation regardless of the cost. In such an eventuality, we have lost nothing through our assistance, but we have gained two things. We make aggression costly and less likely to be repeated. I do not see any risk.

The Obama administration does not know how to make strategic decisions. Or perhaps they do not want to make decisions in general. If they would map out a decision tree, as is taught routinely in business programs, they would know this is a no-brainer.

Putin’s anti-American rhetoric now persuades his harshest critics

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People I know in Russia, members of the intelligentsia and professionals who have long been critical of President Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western stance, have suddenly turned into America-bashers. Many have been swept away by Putin’s arguments that the United States, not the Kremlin, is destabilizing Ukraine.

Since the current crisis broke in Ukraine over its efforts to side with the European Union rather than Russia, Putin has been at war with the United States. He seems intent on proving that a U.S.-centric world order is over and that Europe should decide on its own what its relations with Russia will be.

Putin’s big lie reached fever pitch after Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 went down over eastern Ukraine on July 17. Putin swiftly placed the blame on the Kiev government and its reputed U.S. masters — not even bothering to express proper condolences about the dead.

Instead, the Russian president disingenuously asked for transparency in the investigation into the downing of the plane. In his laconic statements, Putin promised cooperation but delivered little. He insisted issues of politics had to be kept out of the tragedy.

Such as the nature of autocratic propaganda: The lie has to be overwhelming.

In his 14-plus years in power, Putin has honed this skill. In the Kremlin universe, when any conflict takes place around the globe, it is the West — particularly the United States — that is to blame. After hearing it repeatedly, this belief is now widely shared by the Russian public.

My friends in Moscow look at the current crisis in the Middle East and the turmoil created by the Arab Spring 0f 2011, particularly the unrest in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak was forced out and the lawlessness in Libya after Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was killed. “These were your American-supported revolutions,” they angrily reproach me. “Now it’s a mess. The U.S. has been wreaking havoc on our doorstep in Ukraine. They are out to get Russia.”

What has become clear under Putin is that so much of Russia remains the Soviet Union. Under the communist dictatorship, all problems were blamed on the enemies of the people or on Western imperialism.

Consider that in Moscow today the prevailing story, circulated by the pro-Putin media and pundits, is that the CIA actually loaded Malaysia Flight 17 with dead bodies in order to blame the Russians. Meanwhile, Russian TV networks and newspapers run photos of pro-eastern Ukraine demonstrations in Europe, with protesters demanding, “Stop U-S-A, the contractor of mass killings!”

Countries like Iran seem only too happy to help disseminate these anti-American conspiracies. Its Press TV, for example, talks about the Kiev “junta” and America’s wicked designs to take over the world.

Given the conspiratorial nature of the schemes attributed to Washington, these stories don’t seem even slightly believable to most in the West. But they serve to absolve Putin of any responsibility to provide facts that could support his version of the truth. When the West’s actions are presented by the Russian leadership in the grandiose, absolute terms of us versus them, questions as to “Why the missile was fired?” or “Who fired it?” begin to matter little.

A (now former) friend recently told me, “How dare you look for answers when Russia is under the attack of the ‘new colonialism,’ ” — a “threat” that Putin first spoke of in 2007.

The Kremlin is banking on this time-tested totalitarian propaganda technique: Use overwhelming patriotic fervor against an enemy. Then your people, even if skeptical of you, will not believe the words of other governments.

Russians have long been able to forgive domestic woes if an outside enemy is lurking. Why was Joseph Stalin’s network of Soviet gulags never fully probed? Because, as horrible as the mass purges were, the public still held to the conviction that communist interests against imperialism justified any means.

One of the best depictions of the Gulag mentality, Repentance by Georgian film director Tengis Abuladze, presents a chilling story about an anti-Stalinist who reports extravagantly exaggerated crimes against the state that were committed by hundreds of his friends. His reasoning is that the claims he makes are so outrageous that no one could believe them. Besides, he says, too many people would have to be arrested.

But all those he names were arrested — and shot.

In real life there was Leon Trotsky, among millions of others. This fiery revolutionary was on every Soviet patriotic poster. Until he was not. When Trotsky opposed Stalin’s version of totalitarian communism in 1928, he was suddenly the Soviet Union’s worst enemy. He was soon expelled and ultimately murdered in Mexico City 12 years later. Stalin had a very long reach.

Despite all this, many Russians today continue to admire Stalin. They also admire, and even love Putin — because he has stood up to what they see as U.S. meddling in Russia’s backyard.

I was recently in Bulgaria, where I was told repeatedly that Bulgarians don’t approve of all that Putin is doing — but at least Russia, their Slavic brother, is now strong enough to curtail the actions of the United States. Mind you, Bulgaria is in the European Union.

Even Germany, the de facto leader of the European Union, has long been conflicted about a proper response to Putin’s actions in eastern Ukraine.

The Russian daily Izvestia, like newspapers in Soviet times, largely serves as a mouthpiece of the Kremlin, printing virtual propaganda that manipulates others’ discord to Moscow’s advantage. The paper called on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, to make a choice between Russia and the United States. It touted Merkel’s good relations with Putin and cited her disdain for Washington after the National Security Agency eavesdropped on German intelligence and read her email.

Yet, on Tuesday many members of the Russian intelligentsia are calling for a congress in support of Ukraine and hundreds of luminaries have signed the petition. The are many others I spoke with in Russia who are also incensed by the Kremlin’s callousness about Flight 17. Thousands of handwritten notes have been placed at the entrance of the Dutch Embassy in Moscow. Many plead for forgiveness, saying, “We are not killers.”

In the eastern Ukrainian villages surrounding the crash site, local farmers tried to preserve the dignity of the deceased, holding vigils and prayer services.

Now, when many Russians may feel guilty about the crash (even though Putin seeks to absolve them of all blame), is the time to test the theory that Putin cannot afford to alienate the entire West. For he still talks about a “strategic partnership with Europe.” After all, not only does Europe get roughly 30 percent of Russia’s oil and gas, the European Union is Russia’s top trading partner. Moscow needs this money because capital flight has reached an estimated $50 billion to $200 billion this year, and the national economy has grown only around 1 percent. Moscow’s Central Bank has raised interest rates from 5 percent to 8 percent, which has also stifled growth.

Until this week, the Europe Union was reluctant to damage its economic ties with Russia, but now both the United States and Europe are ready to start targeting whole economic sectors, including Russia’s banking system, defense industry and energy production.

Anybody who knows Russia (and Germany’s Merkel certainly does) must ultimately realize that if Putin is not strongly challenged, he won’t divert from his efforts to “splinter” the Western alliance. He will continue to aim at U.S. power, since Washington has often been the only one calling him to task.

Putin has already said that Russians should be prepared to accept sacrifices in economic growth for the sake of his foreign-policy objectives. But let’s see what happens when sanctions dramatically increase, and Russians are unable to get their favorite Italian wine or French lingerie. Will they finally wake up to the consequences of supporting Putinism?

The West Has Cornered Putin—and That’s When He’s Most Dangerous

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Today is not a good day to be Vladimir Putin. A game that the Russian president was winning so deftly in the spring has turned on him in summer: The Ukrainian military is bearing down on the pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine, and there’s word that it’s on the verge of splitting the rebel-held territory in two and that two major rebel leaders have fled. Putin’s supporting these guys because of a position he staked out months ago, even though they’ve just gotten him into a whole lot of trouble by mistakenly shooting down a plane full of Dutch people. Which is why the Europeans have finally stopped allowing Putin to divide and conquer them, and announced their toughest sanctions to date, slamming his finance, defense, and energy industries. That’s unfortunate, given that Europe is Russia’s biggest energy market and that Russia depends on Europe for some 40 percent of its food and medicine. And, in case that wasn’t enough, the United States piled on, too, sanctioning three major Russian banks.

And yet, there’s very little Putin can do. He’s trapped by a propaganda apparatus that has primed the Russian population to want blood and victory, so there’s not all that much room behind him to beat a retreat. Even if it weren’t for the media, he’s spent his entire 14-year tenure establishing Russia as a counterweight to American and European foreign policy. Has he been pushing back on Western righteousness and lecturing all these years just to back down now?

This is Putin today: a brash and unpredictable man backed into a corner with little, if any, way out. And it’s not a good Putin to be faced with.

His whole image mirrors that of the Russia he’s tried to create since he came to power in 2000: sovereign, strong, and unbowed by Western heckling. Putin, like the Russia he leads, likes to make decisions on his own terms. And he may very well lash out if the West demands he come out of that corner with his tail between his legs. This causes him to dig in his heels and resist at all costs, or to lash out. Because Putin, and Russia, do not follow commands, and they do not dance to the beat of Washington’s drum.

“Putin backed into a corner is not a great outcome for the West,” says Masha Lipman, a prominent Russian political analyst. She points out that boxing in the hard-to-predict leader of a massive military and nuclear power that has its fingers in various geopolitical pies that are of interest to the U.S. is quite risky. Will Russia retaliate by scuttling Iran talks? By forging a closer bond with China? And what will it make him do in Donetsk?

There have been many instances of Putin unpleasantly surprising his adversaries, who thought they had him cornered. There was the time that protests were growing over the construction of Moscow-St. Petersburg road (by a French company) as it was going to cut through a protected Russian forest. Putin halted construction, waited for public attention to shift away, and resumed the project. There were the anti-Putin protests that brought tens of thousands of Muscovites into the streets in 2011-2012. The authorities let everyone go home, even after the protest turned violent, thinking it had all blown over. Then, a couple months later, they started rounding up dozens of protesters and handing out hard prison time for throwing lemons at cops in Kevlar vests.

When it comes to Ukraine, Lipman and other Russian analysts observe that, these days, Putin is relatively measured in his statements about the Kiev government and the crash. Compared to the barking hounds in his government and media, Putin has been almost a voice of reason, refraining recently from calling the Ukrainian government fascists and not saying publicly that Kiev shot down MH17. He is clearly trying to leave himself some space to maneuver. This week’s developments, though, shut that space down. “We’re getting closer to irreversible developments,” Lipman says. “Sanctions might force Putin to pursue a policy he doesn’t want to pursue.”

To wit, there are now voices in Moscow saying that these sanctions are an attempt to force regime change in Russia. Others are calling for Putin to redouble his support for the rebels. “We need to demonstrate that there is no chance that you can forcibly beat the anti-fascist rebels,” says Sergei Markov, deputy of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Civic Chamber. “So we need to increase support for the rebels. We have to allow volunteers to go there. The Krasnodar Cossacks are upset that they can’t go fight.” He also thinks Russia should recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and supply them with even more potent materiel.

But Putin has also shown that, given the opportunity to make it look like he made the decision himself and to make himself look level-headed and benevolent, he will pleasantly surprise—at least those with an untrained eye. See, for example, how he handled last summer’s Syria crisis, facing down Western pressure to allow intervention by unexpectedly offering to help strip Assad of his chemical weapons. He turned himself from villain to hero overnight. The time pressure at home and abroad was building for Putin to release his arch nemesis, oil tycoon-turned-political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, from jail. Instead Putin let Russia’s prosecutor general leak information about a third Khodorkovsky trial—and the implication that it would result in a life sentence—and then, when no one expected it, released Khodorkovsky. (Though he kept his co-defendant in Russia as a guarantee of Khodorkovsky’s good behavior abroad.)

Sanctioning Putin is a gamble. Not because it will adversely affect the American and European economies, but because it’s hard to predict which way Putin’s going to dive. One way to coax him along in the right direction is to discreetly offer him an out behind the scenes, an out that may be an unpleasant compromise for the U.S.—for example, pledging not to accept Ukraine into NATO, or making both Ukrainian and Russian the official languages of Ukraine—but something that Putin can tout at home as a victory, rather than submission to the West.

According to senior administration officials, Putin has been repeatedly offered various off-ramps. “He’s been offered a lifeline every other day for months,” says one administration official. “That’s what all the phone calls with Obama and Merkel have been about.” Until now, Putin hasn’t taken it, but he also hasn’t been as boxed in. And while such a compromise may not be a total win for the West, it’s vastly better than the alternative: a cowed and angry Putin clawing his way to the exit.

Former CIA spy: Putin using Soviet tactics to confuse US

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Russian President Vladimir Putin does a “good job” confusing the West, as evidenced most recently by the leader’s denial that his country is firing rockets into Ukraine, according to one former top CIA spy.

Fox News National Security Analyst KT McFarland spoke to Jack Devine about U.S. strategy against Russia. Devine is a 32-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, along with being president of The Arkin Group, an international risk consulting and intelligence firm.

He says so far Putin’s regional strategy is working in Russia’s favor.

“Plausible denial does not mean credible denial, so he’s doing all the things that could have been anticipated. He is using agents of influence, using psychological warfare, and he is providing military support and denying it,” Devine told

Devine sees Putin’s playbook similar to how the Soviet Union dealt with crises. “If you look back in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, it was pretty much the same approach.”

Critics, including Devine, say the U.S. needs to expand its approach to the conflict.

“I’m advocating not only do we use diplomacy, we use covert action, we make sure we are using agents of influence and that we provide the support,” said Devine. “I agree no troops on the ground, but he [Putin] is really playing a hardball kind of game and we should match that.”

There are concerns that supporting Ukraine’s military is a risk, with possible Russian informants embedded with the Ukrainians. Devine dismissed this.

“The best way to know what is going on and [to] deal with things is to get in there and do it covertly.”

While the U.S. is hoping to garner European support to pressure Russia, Devine says, “by and large we are going to have to carry the burden of covert action as we always have.”

He warns that the possibility of further sanctions won’t change Putin’s position.

“I think he is sticking to his game plan — he doesn’t want to take the whole Ukraine; he knows that is not within his grasp because otherwise you’re going to have an insurgency of a different type.”

Devine, author of “Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story,” added, “Putin is in a fairly good position, so that’s why we shouldn’t let him run or we will end up with a neutral Ukraine which is not in our interests.”

Russia and the West’s Dangerous Clash: Time for NATO & EU Expansion East?

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As today’s news from Brussels and Washington shows, the European Union and America are at center stage in devising sanctions on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine and the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. Yet the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), while modestly buttressing defenses in member states in Central Europe and the Baltics, has left Ukraine out in the cold. The Alliance has spent treasure and dispatched legions to fight in faraway Afghanistan, but neglected security interests closer to Europe. At its summit in Wales on September 4-5, NATO urgently needs to define a bolder vision to secure them.

The West is struggling to understand Kremlin intentions, yet Russian president Vladimir Putin has made no secret of them. In April 2008, according to Russia’s Kommersant newspaper, he told President George W. Bush at a NATO summit in Bucharest: “You don’t understand, George, Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? Part of its territories is Eastern Europe, but the greater part is a gift from us.”

Putin seeks to establish a “Russian World.” It would bring together ethnic Russians, wherever they live, and protect, with armed force if necessary, those “who feel themselves to be part of the greater Russian community,” as he said on June 24 in Vienna. The next week, Putin proclaimed a right to intervene in other nations to “defend the rights of Russians, our compatriots abroad.” This is an expansive vision, but it ignores democratically expressed wishes of the countries concerned. Many of Russia’s neighbors are worried and seek more support from two main Western organizations—the EU and NATO.

They, too, have expansive visions, but of a different sort. They have an open door. The 1949 Washington Treaty states that NATO membership is open to any “European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.” The 2009 Lisbon Treaty says any European State that respects and is committed to promoting the EU’s values may apply to become a member of the Union. In other words, NATO and the EU define membership criteria based on behavior and values and the free choice of countries that want to join them, not on ethnicity, nationality or geopolitics. In the first two decades after the end of the Cold War, this merit-based vision enabled NATO to expand from sixteen to twenty-eight members, and the EU from twelve to twenty-eight (twenty-two states belong to both).

Soon after it gained independence, Russia began relations with NATO. Indeed, then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin wrote to then-NATO secretary general Manfred Woerner that Russian membership in NATO was a long-term political aim. In 1994, Russia joined the Alliance’s Partnership for Peace program; and in 2002, a high-level NATO-Russia Council was established.

In the late-1990s, however, Russia became bitterly opposed to NATO enlargement, which it saw (rightly or not) as motivated by Central European states’ hostility to Russia and, therefore, a potential threat to Russia’s security. In March 1997 at Helsinki, Yeltsin called expansion “a mistake, and a serious one at that.” Yet in some areas, such as multinational military exercises, Russia continued to cooperate with the Alliance.

Initially, Russia tolerated EU enlargement. As time went on, however, the Kremlin learned it had underestimated the inspiration of Europe’s democratic values, and the attractiveness of its rich market, to Russia’s neighbors. The Kremlin came late to realize Ukraine’s passion for the EU’s rules-based model and democratic freedoms. If they can be made to work in Ukraine, a country even more corrupt than Russia, according to Transparency International, the Kremlin fears the appeal of freedoms could threaten support at home for its increasingly authoritarian and corporatist rule.

The West should understand the determination behind Putin’s binary logic of forcing neighbors to choose between the West and Russia. This approach has major implications for the future of Europe. If the West were to acquiesce, it might abandon Georgia, Moldova or Ukraine, three young democracies. But if the West insists on the rights of peoples and states to choose their own future, it will have to show greater political courage in buttressing them.

To improve their security and economies, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine must commit to deeper reforms and the EU must help them succeed. The three countries have signed association agreements with the EU, but the hard part will be implementation. The EU will need to step up financial and technical assistance and political support, and do much better in explaining the costs and benefits of the agreements. The megaphone of misinformation pumped out by Russia, raising unjustified fears of a closer relationship with the EU, has far outweighed information available from EU delegations. America can reinforce the three countries’ reforms by expanding economic and security aid. This will require Washington to shift resources from other parts of the world.

The EU must apply standards and rules to Russia in the same way as it would to any other country, whether it is taking on Gazprom’s monopolistic, politically-driven gas pricing and supply policies, or combating Russian money-laundering through financial institutions in London, Cyprus or Austria, or preventing Russia from profiting from the annexation of Crimea. The newly expanded sanctions are important, but consistent enforcement of the rule of law will have a more long-term impact on Moscow.

In Wales, NATO leaders must decide how the Alliance can do more to secure Ukraine and other important nonmembers that seek support. In 2008 at Bucharest, NATO leaders stated that Georgia and Ukraine would become Alliance members, but failed to set out time lines or road maps. Four months later, Russia invaded Georgia and sliced off the separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Alliance should have learned a lesson about the risks of equivocating.

Since then, Georgia has been a major contributor to NATO operations in Afghanistan, made progress in defense reform, and had a peaceful change of government through the ballot box. Georgia is eager to join NATO. By comparison, Ukraine has never had a popular majority for this, although Russia’s intervention has spurred more support for closer ties with the Alliance.

In June, NATO foreign ministers decided that, at present, neither Georgia, nor any other aspirant should be offered NATO membership. This stance may cause Putin to err in thinking his policy of destabilizing neighbors has earned him a veto over NATO enlargement. Thus, it is vital that in Wales, NATO leaders reaffirm the open door.

They should also make explicit what more Georgia has to do to become a member, and commit to admission when it meets the standard. The criteria should include further democratic progress—politically motivated arrests of supporters of the previous government must end—and economic reform. NATO leaders should not condition admission on a resolution of the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia; this would only give Russia a further incentive to stir up trouble.

What is happening in Ukraine will not trigger NATO’s mutual-defense commitment. Yet the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, led by Russian intelligence officers and abetted by the potent weaponry and military strikes from Russia, is harming the credibility of the Alliance.

NATO members ought to realize that by refusing to supply defensive arms to Ukraine, they are harming not only its security, but also that of its NATO neighbors. At the upcoming summit, Alliance leaders should unveil substantial new measures to help Ukraine counter Russian aggression. For example, NATO and its members should do much more to help Ukraine gain control of its border with Russia, stem the flow of weapons to the rebels, and guarantee free navigation by merchant shipping into Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea.

In Wales, NATO must show that the eastern edge of the Alliance is not a cliff, beyond which the Alliance is impotent and uncaring. European Union leaders should not allow their continent to be defined by a new Berlin Wall, but by respect for universal values. Those in Europe’s east that share them will deserve more support than Ukraine is now receiving. And when ready, they will merit EU and NATO membership.

One day, even Russia may have a functioning democratic political system, treat its minorities and neighbors fairly, and seek the peaceful resolution of conflicts—at which point Western organizations could welcome it in.