The deadly chaos behind Putin’s mysterious acts

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Two distracting but telling events have occurred in Russia recently. First, President Vladimir Putin disappeared for ten days, then suddenly reappeared. Second was the killing of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, under very murky circumstances, on Feb. 27. Both events showed how utterly dependent on one man Russia, and its nuclear arsenal, have become.

Beneath the dramatic events in Russia recently – the disappearance of President Vladimir Putin for ten days, and the killing under murky circumstances of opposition politician Boris Namtsov – an even more dangerous narrative has emerged involving Mr. Putin’s use of Chechnya.

At heart is Mr. Putin’s personal and essentially feudal arrangement with Chechen despot Ramzan Kadyrov. There is said to be a tension between the Russian security hierarchies and Mr. Kadyrov, who personally controls some 15,000 to 20,000 armed men (an unprecedented number outside state countrol in Russian history outside of civil war) and has used them to support Mr. Putin’s Ukrainian aggressions. The British war-studies professor Sir Lawrence Freedman calls this relationship a Faustian bargain and it certainly looks like one; the two men have their hands on each others’ throats. Mr. Putin (or someone claiming to act for him) could have Mr. Kadyrov killed at any time (and, quite possibly, vice versa), but Mr. Putin still needs Mr. Kadyrov to control the North Caucasus from his base in Grozny.

That might not stop rival elements of the security forces in Moscow who have every reason to hate Mr. Kadyrov. This was in evidence in the immediate arrests of several Chechens close to Mr. Kadyrov in connection with the Nemtsov murder. But if relations are bad they seem to be a long way from hitting the boil. However, in a regime based on faction and management-by-chaos, there can be very unexpected turns.

Two other things have emerged in recent days. One is a ‘documentary’ film bragging about Moscow’s invasion and takeover of Crimea last year, in which Mr. Putin said that he had been prepared to put Russia’s strategic nuclear forces on alert. What a comment like that is worth one year after the event is probably not very much; in any propaganda film talk is cheap, but it does mean Mr. Putin can’t even be bothered to lie about it anymore. The second is more important: a major ‘snap’ exercise (which ended Friday) conducted by about 38,000 troops in the northwest Arctic region of Russia, which if nothing else is one way of sneering at the 5,000 troops that Norway just put into its Exercise Joint Viking, which ended March 18.

Military analyst Pavel Felgengauer, who is not a Putin supporter, is taking the current snap exercises very seriously indeed in the current state of ultra-nationalism that is being stoked in Russia. He commented on March 19: “The massive ‘sudden exercises’ of the Russian military this week carry a clear message: Moscow is not ready to stand down and is threatening the use of force, including nuclear weapons.”

The problem with demonstrative military exercises is they are flamboyant, they show what the enemy may be capable of and training for, but they are still exercises – until they become the real thing. A perfect example is the G20 Brisbane summit of November 2014; Putin sent four warships to the region, everyone ignored them, they steamed in circles and went home. The current exercise is a great deal more serious because it involves major force in an area where classic force projection is a realistic possibility.

The real danger is of an accident occurring, especially since Russia is pushing very hard with its strategic bombers in Baltic airspace. We have no way of knowing whether they are carrying nuclear weapons, but flying in heavily-travelled airspace with transponders off is looking for trouble. What they might do in the event of an incident (besides blaming everyone else and especially NATO) is frankly unknowable, since we have no way of knowing advance intent.

The problem with Mr. Putin’s Russia is: you really do not know anything. The same sense of entitled grievance combined with KGB-rooted addictions to secrecy and misdirection and a penchant for extreme violence characterized the Soviet Union, but were kept under some kind of control by the collective and innately conservative authority of the Communist Party. There is no such moderator in the reactor now, only shifting and virulent power-bloc rivalry.

The unmistakeable impression of chaos lurking beneath the surface, combined with an economy that is manifestly in trouble, makes it even more disturbing that the Russian armed forces also have a long-standing doctrine with the Orwellian term of ‘nuclear de-escalation.’ Basically what that means is that a political objective (a de-escalation) is attainable by the graduated application of nuclear force, in six neat steps, from an attack on a single unpopulated target to a massive continental strike. As often happens in any nation’s war scenarios, the enemy’s vote is not always given its due weight. The scenario simply assumes that the enemy must capitulate at one of the stages. The consequences of its failing to do so seem not to have been seriously weighed.

It remains that an exercise is only an exercise until suddenly it isn’t one. But there is one other point worth bearing in mind: since Mr. Putin’s accession to power in Russia in 2000, he has never yet encountered a problem – excepting the economy – that he could not resolve satisfactorily by force. His world includes ‘military solutions.’


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Former adviser to Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, Alexander Nekrassov said on Tuesday that Russia should declare war on the Baltic States and Poland via a tweet.

The former TASS correspondent and presidential adviser has actively conveyed the Kremlin’s views in the western media for the past year.

Last year, Nekrassov told Australian media in an interview that he “was always against people who are calling for a nuclear free world. These nuclear weapons, they protect us from any serious conflict in Europe,” and that “there might be a regional war, yes.”

After the murder of Boris Nemtsov, Nekrassov’s voice echoed the typical Kremlin talking points posthumously discrediting the Russian pro-democracy leader in the western media. In an Al Jazeera piece he wrote that Nemtsov’s “achievements were not so numerous and his so-called attempts to “root out corruption” rarely brought any results, if any at all.”

Nekrassov’s statements about a declaration of war come at a time of increasing tension in the Baltic Sea region. They follow nuclear threats issued by Kremlin diplomats against Nordic countries who plan on participating in NATO’s planned missile shield.

Senior Ukrainian official arrested on corruption charges during Cabinet of Ministers meeting

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Serhiy Bochkovskiy had served as head of Ukraine’s State Emergency Service since April 2014

Senior Ukrainian state official Serhiy Bochkovskiy has been arrested during today’s session of the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers. Bochkovskiy is accused of corruption and embezzlement connected to the procurement of fuels and lubricants for the State Emergency Service. Bochkovskiy’s first deputy Vasyl Stoyetskiy was also detained.

According to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, State Emergence Service chief Bochkovskiy used private offshore accounts in order siphon off state funds while making government purchases.

Lifting the visa barrier for Georgians should be the EU response to Russia’s bullying tactics

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A first and immediate step to respond to Russia’s objective to annex the territory of the former Soviet Union is visa liberalisation, writes David Bakradze.

David Bakradze is State Minister of Georgia for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration

The signature of last week’s “treaty” between Russia and South Ossetia was only the last in a series of events showcasing an extremely alarming trend: the objective of Russia’s so called Near Abroad policy is to annex as much as possible of the territory of the former Soviet Union. To achieve this, Russia has no hesitation in using hard power – bullying its neighbours and undermining their territorial integrity. How should the West respond? Realize a new vision of regional relations that is based on freedom, and not the threat or use of force. A first and immediate step to this end is visa liberalization.

In the case of Georgia, visa liberalization can help towards conflict resolution. The citizens of Georgia, including those of occupied Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Regions, will be able to benefit from a “freedom” – that will be actually and immediately perceptible. In addition this will also be a concrete manifestation of the “more for more” approach, which awards those partners who are willing and able to deliver on their commitments. For the people of the occupied regions, it will be a symbol of what stands to be gained from removing the barbed wires across our land. For other Eastern Partnership countries, it will offer a clear incentive for further reforms.

Georgia has been recognized as a front runner and a success story of the Eastern Partnership Initiative. Benefiting from the EU’s principle of “more for more”, we negotiated and concluded the Association Agreement, including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, in record time. We are determined to take full advantage of this agreement and implement fully our association agenda, because there is a strong belief in the EU”s transformative power and a political consensus that this is the objective worth pursuing against all odd. That is why Georgia stands out in the region as a stable and vibrant multi-party democracy, a reliable partner for the EU and NATO and contributor to international security, and an attractive and safe destination for foreign investment. Trade volumes are rising vis-à-vis EU partners. Reforms over recent years have completely overhauled every aspect of the Georgian political, economic, judicial and social landscapes.

In this context, visa liberalization for Georgian citizens is the next logical step, facilitating tourism, business travel and academic mobility. Georgia is a country with transparent governance, low levels of corruption and crime, a trustworthy efficient justice system, a sound corporate tax system and a business friendly environment. The European Commission acknowledged our progress in 2014, concluding that we meet the first-phase requirements of the Visa Liberalization Action Plan (VLAP). We are currently in the second, implementation phase of the VLAP and we hope to be ready for the Riga Eastern Partnership Summit in May.

Georgia, the EU and the wider region have much to gain by completing this process sooner rather than later. Visa-free travel will mean more tourism, more cultural and student exchanges, and more civil society partnerships. It will help further develop Georgia and anchor the next generation’s aspirations on the developing of a “European Neighbourhood.” And this is precisely why visa liberalization is so significant: it has a grassroots effect.

As the shadow of a new Iron Curtain threatens Europe, it is crucial that we offer an alternative, qualitatively different, vision of the future to the people of the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood. By opening borders, promoting travel, trade, professional, student and cultural exchanges, we can drive real change at the level of communities. This course of actions responds to threats with tangible prospects for democratic, economic and cultural development in an environment of peace and stability.

As Russia continues to hand out passports on the one hand and close borders on the other, it is no exaggeration to say that the future of a Europe that is truly free and whole depends upon it.

Russian imperialism: Only a bare majority of Russians wants Russia to stay within its current borders

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ED: Im not sure how much I believe this….but worth a read.

Only 57 percent of Russians say that their country should be satisfied with and continue to live within its current borders, while nearly a quarter – 23 percent – say that Moscow should use all means, including military force, to bring under its control the former Soviet republics, although 65 percent disagreed, according to a new Levada Center poll.

At the same time, the new survey found, only one Russian in ten – 10 percent – says that Russia does not have the right to annex what are now foreign territories to its own and that it must act according to international law governing any such border changes.

Eight percent said they supported Russia keeping its current borders but incorporating Belarus, another eight percent said they backed Russia’s expansion to include all the former USSR, “except the Baltics,” and yet another eight percent said that Moscow should include the Baltic countries as well.

Smaller shares of the Russian population favored lesser expansions in the borders of their country: Four percent wanted to join Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan to Russia, three percent only Belarus and Ukraine, and one percent only Ukraine. According to the pollsters, “10 percent of the respondents found it difficult to answer this question.”

With regard to the justification for such territorial expansion, nearly half of all Russians – 47 percent – said that Moscow does not have the right to invoke the mistreatment of ethnic Russians in these countries. But at the same time, 34 percent said Russia was right to “defend its own” by annexing Crimea.

At least three things about this poll are disturbing:

First, 24 years after the disintegration of the USSR, large numbers of Russians have not accepted that as final and thus form a major base of support for Vladimir Putin’s revisionist and revanchist foreign policy as now in the case of Ukraine.

Second, the poll suggests, by its granularity in terms of what borders Russians would like to see, that this is not a superficial attitude but one that among significant portions of the Russian population is a matter of almost existential concern, a reality that underscores that these attitudes are going to be a source of problems for the Eurasian region and beyond for a long time to come.

And third – and this is perhaps the most worrisome thing of all – many in the West seem to be taking such attitudes in stride, as somehow natural given what Russians have gone through. Just how outrageous that is becomes obvious if one imagines how the international community would react if any other country on the face of the earth had a population with similar views.

No one would tolerate such attitudes in another country, and everyone would mobilize to oppose them and it. Failure to do so in the case of Russia will not create conditions under which these views will somehow “go away with time,” as some commentators suggest. Instead, that failure will only encourage those who think that Russia has the right to do what no one else does.

That in turn will encourage the worst elements in the Kremlin, including in the first instance Vladimir Putin, to continue to violate the international rules of the game, and reinforce such attitudes and the vicious authoritarianism they support within Russia and where Russian forces may go.

Russia’s Military to Get 16 New Ka-52 Alligator Attack Helicopters This Year

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The Russian military will receive 16 new Kamov Ka-52 attack helicopters this year as part of Russia’s ongoing rearmament effort, Deputy Defense Minister Yury Borisov said Monday.

Visiting the factory where the helicopters are built, Borisov said that “beginning in April they will start being accepted into the military and delivered to the troops,” according to news agency TASS.
The Ka-52 Alligator (NATO reporting name: Hokum-A) is Russia’s newest attack helicopter, having only gone into service with the military in 2011.

The helicopters are adept at close air support for ground troops, and the navy selected them to outfit two Mistral-class helicopter carriers ordered from France in 2011. However, Paris froze delivery of the ships last year due to Russia’s alleged support of rebels in Ukraine.

According to Borisov, the Defense Ministry is working closely with the Ka-52’s manufacturer, Progress, to ensure deliveries take place throughout 2015, rather than having the entire stock of 16 choppers simply “dumped at the end of the year” into the military’s hands.

The 16 helicopters are part of a larger contract for the delivery of 146 Ka-52 helicopters to the Russian military by 2020, when the state’s massive 20 trillion ruble ($325 billion) rearmament program wraps up.

Putin Sacks 2 Top Kremlin Officials Amid Rumors of Turf Wars

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President Vladimir Putin dismissed two senior officials on Monday in a surprise move that followed recent rumors of feuding at the heart of the Kremlin.

The twin sackings come less than a month after the killing of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, which had exposed rarely seen tensions between various factions within Putin’s inner elite.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Oleg Morozov, 61, was leaving his post as head of the president’s domestic policy department because of family reasons.

Peskov also announced the departure of head of the international cooperation department, Sergei Bolkhovitin, but gave no reason for his removal. His department deals with technical aspects of foreign cooperation.

Morozov was replaced by Tatyana Voronova, who previously headed the youth section of Putin’s ruling United Russia party, served as a lawmaker and sat on the country’s central elections committee before moving to the Kremlin in early 2013.

Analysts said Voronova is a protege of Vyacheslav Volodin— Putin’s first deputy chief of staff who was blacklisted by the European Union last year for what the bloc said was his role in the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Commentators saw her appointment as a possible signal that the Kremlin was gearing up for local elections due in some regions later this year as well as national parliamentary polls due in 2016.

No successor was named for Bolkhovitin.

The sense of intrigue at the Kremlin this month was heightened when Putin vanished from public view for 10 days. The president laughed off his disappearance when he finally re-emerged at a public event on March 16.

Dispute Between Poroshenko and Billionaire Governor Threaten Ukraine Alliance

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A dispute between President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine and the billionaire governor of one of the country’s regions over control of two state-owned energy companies widened Monday, confronting the new Ukrainian government with its most serious internal crisis since coming to power last year.

Until the dispute burst into the open last week, the governor, Igor V. Kolomoisky, had been among the Kiev government’s staunchest allies. Militias financed privately by him have played a crucial role in stopping pro-Russian separatists waging war in the east from advancing into the heart of Ukraine.

That alliance, however, appeared to be in jeopardy as Mr. Poroshenko and Mr. Kolomoisky clashed in recent days over the future of the two companies, UkrTransNafta and Ukrnafta, and as the president announced that he would take steps to incorporate militias like those controlled by Mr. Kolomoisky into Ukraine’s regular military.

The enmity comes as Mr. Poroshenko remains under tremendous pressure to demonstrate stability in spite of the continuing war and a collapsing economy that is being bailed out with tens of billions of dollars in international financing.

As the animosity rose on Monday, Mr. Poroshenko ordered the Ukrainian state security service to arrest armed men, believed to be loyal to Mr. Kolomoisky, who have occupied the offices of UkrTransNafta and its parent company, Ukrnafta, in Kiev, the capital, since late last week.

Some prominent lawmakers called for Mr. Kolomoisky to be dismissed from his post as governor of Dnipropetrovsk, while at least four members of Parliament announced that they were quitting Mr. Poroshenko’s party, apparently out of loyalty to Mr. Kolomoisky.

At the heart of the dispute is a law passed by the Ukrainian Parliament last week that reduced Mr. Kolomoisky’s power as a minority shareholder in the companies and permitted a management change that he had previously blocked.

Late Thursday night, masked men with guns swept into the offices of UkrTransNafta, apparently in support of the dismissed chief executive, Oleksandr Lazorko, an ally of Mr. Kolomoisky, who has refused to leave.

Mr. Kolomoisky emerged from the building soon after, to say his men had just thwarted an attempt by “Russian saboteurs” to take control of UkrTransNafta. Confronted by journalists about his unusual presence there at such a late hour, Mr. Kolomoisky cursed at them in a ferocious diatribe that was captured on video, as was the raid itself.

The government says there was no attempted sabotage.

Mr. Kolomoisky’s ability as a minority shareholder to control management decisions is an example of the murky dealings between the government and the country’s richest business titans that have hobbled the Ukrainian economy for years.

More alarmingly, however, the dispute has emphasized the potential threat that private militias pose to the fragile new government.

Highlighting that risk, Mr. Kolomoisky in his remarks to reporters noted that on his command, 2,000 armed men could be brought to Kiev within hours. Still, the commander of Mr. Kolomoisky’s main paramilitary group, Dnepro-1, denied any involvement.

By Monday, no armed men were visible outside, though the group loyal to Mr. Kolomoisky apparently still occupied the building. Valentin Nalivaichenko, the director of the security service, told reporters on Monday that his agency would help the police arrest the men occupying the building.

“We confirm that the police and journalists have noticed illegal actions by people with weapons” in the capital, Mr. Nalivaichenko said. “We have a strict order from the president that every person in UkrNafta be disarmed.”

In another sign of mounting tensions, Mr. Nalivaichenko said his agency had also questioned two subordinates of Mr. Kolomoisky in the Dnipropetrovsk governor’s office, about their possible roles in the murder of one Ukrainian security agent and in the kidnapping of another.

Dnipropetrovsk is widely considered Ukraine’s most important industrial region, and its capital of the same name, located about 300 miles southeast of Kiev, is the country’s fourth-largest city. Mr. Kolomoisky was one of several oligarchs, considered too rich to bribe, who were appointed to leadership positions in a bid to stabilize Ukraine.

In a statement posted on his website Monday in response to the standoff, Mr. Poroshenko said the volunteer battalions should be “vertically integrated” into Ukraine’s regular army, which the government has been struggling to rebuild.

Mr. Kolomoisky, widely known as a pugilistic character even as he is admired for his patriotism, has shown no signs of backing down. In an interview on the 1+1 television station, which he owns, Mr. Kolomoisky said he had spoken to Mr. Poroshenko and they had agreed “that this is not the way this should happen.”

Critics of Mr. Kolomoisky, however, said his actions showed his first allegiance was to his own wealth. Mustafa Nayem, a young member of Parliament from Mr. Poroshenko’s party, urged the president and Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk to oust Mr. Kolomoisky.

“Igor Kolomoisky has no right to wear the title of a public servant,” Mr. Nayem wrote in a blog post. “And the president and prime minister have all the levers to correct the error.”

House passes resolution urging Obama to send arms to Ukraine

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The House on Monday overwhelmingly approved a resolution urging President Barack Obama to send lethal weapons to Ukraine to protect its sovereignty in its fight against Russian-backed rebels.

The resolution was approved 348 to 48.

There is bipartisan support in Congress to provide the arms to Ukraine forces battling the rebels. Russian President Vladimir Putin denies arming rebels in the war in eastern Ukraine, which began last April after Moscow annexed the mostly Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula.

State Department officials say Obama administration officials are discussing lethal assistance but are waiting to see whether the agreements that led to February’s cease-fire are implemented.

‘The United States Must Stand Up to Putin’: House Dems, GOP Slam Obama’s Inaction in Ukraine

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The House sent an unmistakable message to President Barack Obama Monday night — send defensive weapons to Ukraine, and send them now.

Congress passed legislation in December authorizing Obama to give Ukraine defensive weapons to protect itself from the ongoing invasion of its country by Russia. But Obama has dithered, and has essentially done nothing other than sending Ukraine about $60 million in non-lethal aid.

Just last week, for example, senior officials admitted that they are still considering whether to send lethal defensive weapons, and haven’t made any decisions on whether to help train Ukrainian troops. More immediately, the Obama administration has watched for more than a month as Russia violates a ceasefire in Ukraine, and seems mostly to be hoping things get better — there are no signs the administration is about to pursue tougher sanctions against Russia at this point.

On Monday night, the House had enough, and passed a Democratic resolution calling on Obama to implement last year’s law by sending Ukraine munitions before it’s too late. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who sponsored the resolution, warned that failing to act against Russia would put all of Europe on a course similar to what it experienced during World War II.

“We cannot view the crisis in Ukraine as just some faraway conflict or someone else’s problem,” he said. “This war has left thousands of dead, tens of thousands wounded, a million displaced, and has begun to threaten the post-Cold War stability of Europe.”

“This war poses the greatest threat to European security since World War II, and we shouldn’t take it lightly, and we shouldn’t be idle, and we shouldn’t sit back, and we shouldn’t let other countries tell us what to do,” he said.

Engel was joined by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who lamented that Obama has “chosen inaction in the guise of endless deliberation.”

But Democrats sounded just as tough on Obama as the Republicans did. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) said the U.S. simply must act to save Ukraine from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“There are some times, in my view, you’ve just got to stand up to the bully,” Scott said. “The United States must stand up to Putin, and let him know that there’s a light in this world, and the United States is going to show the way.”

The House passed the resolution 348-48 — only 10 Republicans voted against it, and the rest of the “no” votes were from Democrats. The resolution makes several findings that Russia is illegally intruding on Ukraine’s sovereignty, and says Obama should move quickly to help defend the embattled country.

“The House of Representatives strongly urges the president to fully and immediately exercise the authorities provided by Congress to provide Ukraine with lethal defensive weapon systems to enhance the ability of the people of Ukraine to defend their sovereign territory from the unprovoked and continuing aggression of the Russian Federation,” it reads.

But despite the overwhelming vote, it’s not clear whether Obama will act any time soon to help Ukraine. A decision to do nothing would seem to fit in with Obama’s general preference of relying on negotiations for all issues, regardless of whether it’s on Ukraine, Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East, despite growing criticism that this tactic is not working.

Last year, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke to Congress, and warned that the blankets the U.S. was sending were not enough to win the war.

“Blankets, night-vision goggles are also important,” he said. “But one cannot win the war with blankets. Even more, we cannot keep the peace with a blanket.”