Russian Soldiers Captured in Ukraine Feel ‘Abandoned’ by Moscow

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Two Russians captured in eastern Ukraine have said they feel abandoned by Moscow, which has not sent any envoys to visit them even while scores of representatives from major international organizations have come to the hospital where they are recovering from their injuries.

Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Alexander Alexandrov have both said that they were on a military mission in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine — which is the center of fighting between rebel militias and Ukrainian troops — and were hoping that Moscow would show more interest in their fate now that they have been captured by Kiev’s forces, according to video interviews with the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper published online Friday.

“I am just saddened by this situation, that we have been forgotten, abandoned, that they want to write us off,” Yerofeyev, who said he is a captain in the Russian army, told Novaya Gazeta.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, however, said earlier this week that its embassy in Kiev has asked to meet with the detained men and to provide them with “necessary help in accordance with the norms of international law.”

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry responded that it would “study and consider” the request, according to spokesman Oleksiy Makeyev, the Interfax-Ukraine news service has reported.

The soldiers may not have been aware of the diplomatic ping pong, expressing frustrations with Moscow’s failure to send its envoys, especially after scores of international organizations and even Russia’s media have done so.

“The situation is such that everybody has visited. The United Nations visited, the Red Cross visited, the OSCE,” Yerofeyev said from his hospital bed, flipping through a stack of business cards. “Everybody asked how I was doing, whether I was alive and well, whether I was getting treatment. Everybody came, except the embassy [of Russia].”

“I understand that they have abandoned me as an army serviceman, to hell with that,” he said. “But I am still a citizen of my country. And I would like to see some kind of a representative here.”

Alexandrov, who said he has the rank of a sergeant, told Novaya Gazeta that the only message he had for the Russian authorities was “maybe that they would visit me.”

“I think they know there are citizens of the Russian Federation here,” he added.

In another twist in a tangle of conflicting narratives that shrouds the Ukrainian conflict, both men insisted that they never resigned from the army and had been on active duty in eastern Ukraine — even while their family members in Russia said on state-run television that the men had resigned from the military around the beginning of the year.

“He was a contract soldier. He resigned in December,” Alexandrov’s wife, Yekaterina, told state-run Rossia television from the city of Togliatti, where he had served.

She said her husband had told her that he was offered a “good job” in Samara, and was leaving to complete some training courses “somewhere in Voronezh,” according to the televised interview.

Alexandrov said he was “shocked” by his wife’s account when told about it by a Novaya Gazeta reporter, adding that he has been unable to get in touch with her since his capture, because “calls don’t get through.”

The story of the soldiers’ supposed resignation — which matches a claim made by the Russian Defense Ministry — was seconded by Yerofeyev’s father, Vladimir, in a separate interview with the Rossiya television channel on Thursday.

Vladimir Yerofeyev said that his son had resigned from the military “after New Year’s” and was heading for Ukraine’s separatist Luhansk region.

“I didn’t try to dissuade him,” the father said. “He is an adult and an officer. He knows what he is doing.”

After being pressed by a Rossia correspondent as to whether his son was “really an officer,” Vladimir Yerofeyev added: “A former one.”

Alexandrov and Yerofeyev told Novaya Gazeta they were on an intelligence-gathering mission in eastern Ukraine, on the orders of the Russian military. Yerofeyev added that the mission was a “failure,” given their capture, and that “one of the best scenarios” for him would be to resign from the army when he returns home.

While Ukrainian officials said the men would face trial on “terrorism” charges, Alexandrov told Novaya Gazeta that he hoped they would be treated as prisoners of war, and exchanged for Ukrainians imprisoned in Russia.

“I would like to be a prisoner of war,” he said. “I like that status better than, say, the status of a mercenary or a bandit.”

Death of Novorossia: Why Kremlin Abandoned Ukraine Separatist Project

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Standing in front of a small Moscow church last September, President Vladimir Putin told journalists that he had lit candles inside for people who had been injured or given up their lives defending Novorossia.

The historical term, meaning “New Russia,” was first used by the president last April and was subsequently picked up by insurgents in Ukraine’s east to define their effort to spread their anti-Kiev rebellion across the country’s southeast — the same large region north of the Black Sea that became known as Novorossia after Russia conquered it during 18th-century wars with Turkey, and that became part of Ukraine after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

Russian conservative ideologists and Putin himself used the term to justify their claim that it was the Kremlin’s duty to protect the interests of ethnic Russians there.

In June, amid the pro-Russian rebellion in Ukraine’s east, Novorossia was proclaimed by rebels as a separate entity with its own parliament, flag and news agency. Novorossia was supposed to unite the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics into a confederation and also absorb other regions of Ukraine in the future.

But last week, Alexander Kofman, foreign minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, announced that the Novorossia project had been put on hold.

“The Novorossia project is frozen until a new political elite emerges in all these regions that will be able to head the movement. We don’t have the right to impose our opinion on [the Ukrainian cities of] Kharkiv, Zaporizhia and Odessa,” Kofman told the Vechernyaya Makeyevka newspaper published in the Donetsk region.

His words echoed those of Novorossia parliament head Oleg Tsaryov, a former deputy of Ukraine’s official parliament in Kiev. Last month, Tsaryov told the Kiev-based Vesti Reporter magazine that Novorossia’s activities had been frozen because they did not fit into the Minsk cease-fire agreements signed in February by Putin, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and the leaders of France and Germany. The official website of Novorossia’s parliament is now offline.

Change of Tune
During recent weeks, as though in a preplanned chain of events, Russian officials have become remarkably active in stating that the Russian government wants the self-proclaimed republics to remain part of Ukraine.

“At all levels, including the presidential one and in other formats, we say that we want [these republics] to become part of Ukraine,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta last week.

“They have unveiled their own constitution project in which they talk about their status as envisaged by the Minsk agreements: The republics will become part of Ukraine, followed by constitutional reform that will solidify this status into a permanent one,” he said.

A month earlier, Putin had something very different to say about the same subject. “I believe that — provided that the Minsk agreements are implemented — it is possible to find some elements for restoring a sort of common political field with Ukraine. However, in the long run, of course, ultimately the final say about how and with whom to live and on what terms should belong to the people who live in those territories,” he said during his most recent call-in show on April 16.

Leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic were already proposing their own amendments to the Ukrainian constitution back in February, suggesting that they intended to remain part of Ukraine.

Instrument of Leverage
Analysts interviewed by The Moscow Times said the change of rhetoric demonstrated that Russia had been using the prospect of the further expansion of the self-proclaimed entities into Ukraine’s southeast as leverage during negotiations with the West and Ukraine on how to resolve the crisis.

At the same time, Andrei Piontkovsky, an opposition-minded Moscow-based political analyst, said that Kremlin policymakers have realized that they had reached levels of tension with the West that they cannot afford.

“In order to maintain the level of tension, the Kremlin would have had to escalate the crisis further, which would have meant more victims among Russian soldiers and more sanctions,” said Piontkovsky, a senior researcher at the Institute of Systems Analysis of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Crimea Deal?
Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, noted that the end of the Novorossia project was announced shortly after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Putin in Sochi for the first time since the Ukraine crisis unfolded at the end of 2013. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland followed hot on his heels with visits to Kiev and Moscow.

In an article published on the Carnegie Center’s website last week, Kolesnikov said that it was possible that during those negotiations, U.S. neutrality or silence with regard to Russia’s annexation of Crimea was offered in exchange for Russian support for the reintegration of Ukraine’s rebellious regions.

Piontkovsky agreed.

“Putin has offered the Americans a draw: They close their eyes to the Crimea issue, while Russia freezes the conflict in Ukraine’s east. This is a lucrative option for the West, but Ukraine cannot like it,” Piontkovsky said.

In the same interview with Rossiiskaya Gazeta last week, Lavrov made a point of mentioning that the question of Crimea had not been brought up by Kerry during his meeting with Putin.

“Draw your own conclusions,” Lavrov said at the time.

According to Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a think tank with close links to the Foreign Ministry, pro-Russian insurgents in Ukraine’s east have realized that Moscow will not support their independence or make them part of Russia.

“Despite their declarations, they understand that they want to stay within a unified Ukraine. The Kiev authorities will reject them [the rebels’ reintegration terms], but in that situation they can portray themselves as proponents of peace,” Lukyanov told The Moscow Times in a phone interview.

As a result, analysts say, Russia and the West have reached a situation in which the crisis has been defused — at least for a while — with neither side losing face.

What remains unclear, however, is how the Ukrainian government will react if Russia and the U.S. really have reached a deal behind its back.

Putin Isn’t Reviving the USSR, He’s Creating a Fascist State

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has memorably called the breakup of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics a tragedy, and that has led many to believe that he is hoping to restore the old USSR as he consolidates control within Russia and projects military power outward into Ukraine and beyond.

However, the government Putin is building in Moscow bears little resemblance to Socialism, Communism, or anything that Karl Marx would have endorsed based on his thinking. Surely, the man who described religion as the “opium of the people” wouldn’t likely associate himself with a regime that has rehabilitated the Russian Orthodox Church as a key element of Russians’ patriotic identity.

No, the new Russia looks more like a copy of a totalitarian state from Europe’s dark past, dressed in 21st century clothing.

“When you hear the word Fascism you always have to ask yourself: what are they talking about, how are they using the word?” Oxford University Professor Roger Griffin, one of the world’s foremost scholars of Fascism, once warned in a 2012 interview. “The word ‘Fascist’ can be a simple way of insulting somebody, of saying that they are horrible, nasty, that they should go away.”

Indeed, it’s a favorite epithet of none other than Vladimir Putin, whose surrogates in the Russian leadership alternately accuse the government in Ukraine of either associating with Fascists or actually being Fascist.

What we have here, though, may be an example of what mental health professionals call projection.

A more precise definition of Fascism, according to Griffin, is a political ideology with three broad elements: populist ultra-nationalism, the claim that the country has become soft or ‘decadent,’ and a “rebirth myth.” The third is the promise, typically made by Fascist leaders, to restore a country to some sort of former greatness, usually taken from it treacherously by its enemies, either external or internal.

American scholar Robert Paxton has identified other elements of Fascism, including an obsession with reversing national decline, usually blamed on betrayal, through restriction of civil liberties, purification of the people, military strength, and national expansion. Violence, Paxton notes, is not seen as inherently bad in a Fascist system, and its use to eliminate challenges to the state is glorified.

Given the massive changes imposed on Russian society in the past several years, it’s easy to argue that, under Putin, the country is turning into at least a quasi-Fascist state.

The rebirth myth is a near-constant theme for Putin, who has for years now been feeding the Russian people a steady narrative about the global conspiracy to weaken Russia, and the need to rise to greatness again.

The erosion of civil liberties and the rise of ultra-nationalism are, likewise, obvious features of Russia in 2015. Over the past few months, Putin accused “the West” of being responsible for Russia’s economic ills. Then he piled on, alleging that Ukrainian troops were in league with NATO against the rebels and Russia. Putin’s propaganda war against the West finally hit home.

Last week, for example, Putin signed into law a new measure that allows government prosecutors to declare certain foreign organizations “undesirable” without trial or other approval by a judge, making it possible for Russian citizens to be punished for associating with them. The justification is that outside forces, mainly the United States and its NATO allies, are allegedly seeking to undermine Russia, and must be stopped.

Two weeks ago, one of the remaining English-language newspapers in Russia reported on the development of the “Safe Capital” project, in which vigilante squads made up of men drawn from military associations and groups like the ultra-nationalist Cossacks, would patrol Moscow to enforce public order. The squads, which will be uniformed, will be organized by United Russia – the party of Vladimir Putin, which controls the Russian parliament.

The government, meanwhile, has gradually consolidated control over the press by forcing foreign owners to reduce their holdings in Russian media companies while at the same time funding a growing network of government-run media outlets to feed Kremlin-friendly stories to both the Russian people and the rest of the world.

As for increased militarism and expansionist tendencies, the Russian government has greatly accelerated its spending on the military, even as its economy slides into recession. At the same time, it is occupying Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, continuing to support armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine, and regularly mounting threatening military patrols either inside or close to the territory of its neighbors.

Russians have also witnessed ongoing moves to purge the country of people seen as weak or threatening to the regime, from legislation targeting homosexuals, to the murder of prominent dissident journalists and politicians, most recently noted Putin critic Boris Nemtsov.

Another characteristic typical of Fascist states is the conflict of interest between the business community and the ruling political party. Enterprise and private profit are typically encouraged within the context of service to the state. It has been well established that many of the country’s top business leaders have close ties to Putin, and earlier this year, the Kremlin announced that members of Putin’s cabinet would begin to serve on the boards of directors of ostensibly private companies.

Finally, there is Putin himself.

Historically, Fascist governments have relied on strong, charismatic individual leaders in the mold of Hitler or Mussolini, while at the same time encouraging a sort of masculine ideal for the population at large – Hitler’s idealized Aryan, or Mussolini’s “new Man.” In today’s Russia, Putin seems to play both roles.

The Russian media routinely idolizes Putin as a model of masculinity, whether he is pictured toting a hunting rifle while bare-chested, practicing judo, or playing hockey. (Putin, who took up hockey in late middle age, scored an improbable eight goals last week, in a game with former professional hockey stars.)

In the end, whether Russia in 2015 really has transformed into a Fascist state, or is breaking new ground in the area of oppressive totalitarianism is a question for academics. Regardless of how the system is eventually labeled, the newly aggressive power on Europe’s Eastern doorstep is exhibiting many of the traits of past regimes that have caused untold human suffering. Today, the world should be paying close attention.

Russia Is Using Mobile Crematoriums to Hide Ukraine’s Dead

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Russia is so desperate to hide its military involvement in Ukraine that it has brought in mobile crematoriums to destroy the bodies of its war dead, say U.S. lawmakers who traveled to the war-torn country this spring.

The U.S. and NATO have long maintained that thousands of Russian troops are fighting alongside separatists inside eastern Ukraine, and that the Russian government is obscuring not only the presence but also the deaths of its soldiers there. In March, NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow told a conference, “Russian leaders are less and less able to conceal the fact that Russian soldiers are fighting — and dying — in large numbers in eastern Ukraine.”

Hence the extreme measures to get rid of the evidence. “The Russians are trying to hide their casualties by taking mobile crematoriums with them,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry told me. “They are trying to hide not only from the world but from the Russian people their involvement.”

Thornberry said he had seen evidence of the crematoriums from both U.S. and Ukrainian sources. He said he could not disclose details of classified information, but insisted that he believed the reports. “What we have heard from the Ukrainians, they are largely supported by U.S. intelligence and others,” he said.

Representative Seth Moulton, a former Marine Corps officer and a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, was with Thornberry on the Ukraine trip in late March. He tweeted about the mobile crematoriums at the time, but didn’t reveal his sources. He told me this week the information didn’t come just from Ukrainian officials, whose record of providing war intelligence to U.S. lawmakers isn’t stellar.

“We heard this from a variety of sources over there, enough that I was confident in the veracity of the information,” Moulton said, also being careful not to disclose classified U.S. intelligence.

Both Thornberry and Moulton agreed with Vershbow’s assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin was struggling to keep up the ruse that he has no soldiers fighting inside Ukraine. Moulton said the mounting evidence of dead Russian soldiers is causing a domestic backlash for Putin. Russian and Ukrainian bloggers and activists have been compiling lists of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine, including details of their service and circumstances of their deaths. New organizations in Russia representing soldiers’ families have sprung up to publicly challenge Putin’s narrative.

“Russia is clearly having a problem with their home front and the casualties they are taking from the war,” Moulton said. “The fact that they would resort to burning the bodies of their own soldiers is horrific and shameful.”

There had been unconfirmed reports of Russia using mobile crematoriums in Ukraine for months, including leaked videos purporting to show them. But never before have U.S. lawmakers confirmed that American officials also believe the claims.

The head of Ukraine’s security service, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, said in January that seven truck-mounted crematoriums crossed into his country over a four-day period. “Each of these crematoriums burns 8-10 bodies per day,” he said.

The next month, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko held up the passports of several Russian soldiers and intelligence officers he said were captured or killed in Ukraine, rejecting the Russian assertions that these troops had accidentally wandered over the border.

For many in Washington, the Russian casualties represent a rare vulnerability for Putin — one that should be exploited through providing weapons to the Ukrainian military. This is a position held by the top U.S. military commander in Europe, General Philip Breedlove, Secretary of State John Kerryand many top lawmakers in both parties.

Yet, in the face of European resistance, President Barack Obama said in March that he was still pondering providing defensive arms to Ukraine. More than two months later, he has yet to make a decision. The result has been a de facto policy of limiting U.S. assistance to Kiev to non-military items. Even that assistance has been delivered late, or in many cases not at all.

Thornberry said arming the Ukrainians would raise the price Putin pays for his aggression. As long as Putin feels the cost of his Ukraine policy is manageable, Russian fueled instability will continue, he said.

The recently passed House version of next year’s national defense authorization act contains explicit authorization for appropriations to support Ukraine’s military and provide it with defensive lethal weapons. This goes further than the action Congress took last year in passing the Ukrainian Freedom Support Act, which Obama signed but still has not acted on with regard to lethal support for Ukraine. The new legislation would set aside money specifically for the arms, and provide for increased production of items the Ukrainians want including Javelin anti-tank missiles.

“We’re doing anything we can possibly think of to get at legislatively forcing it to happen. How do we force the president to provide weapons to a country if he doesn’t want to?” Thornberry said. “I can’t find anyone who is against this except for President Obama.”

Moulton said that the West has a moral obligation to help the Ukrainians, and under current conditions, the Ukrainian military simply can’t face down the heavy weapons Russia continues to pour into Ukraine. He also said that if Putin isn’t confronted now, he will only become more aggressive later. “When a bear comes out of hibernation, he doesn’t have a few blueberries and go back to sleep. He is hungry for more,” said Moulton.

The Obama administration is understandably concerned that giving the Ukrainians arms will fuel the fire and risk a retaliatory Russian escalation. But if that’s the decision, Obama should let the Ukrainians and the American public know it. He then must come up with an alternative to the current, failing approach to stopping Putin’s murderous mischief.

Poroshenko fails exam in Riga

From –—political.html

“Poroshenko still has not understood what was done to him in Riga” is the title of the article by political scientist Viktor Nebozhenko, which has become very popular in social networks

“It’s a shame for the country, but I liked how Europe “dealt” with Ukraine of Poroshenko at the Riga Summit,” quotes the conclusion on the results of the Riga Summit.

Here is the full text of the article by Nebozhenko, published on the forum of the online news agency of Ukrayinska Pravda.

“Feeling himself a lucky seller of “Maidan’s air” and some Eastern European Talleyrand, successfully waltzing between Europe, the U.S. and Russia, Poroshenko did not understand what was done to him in Riga. The participants of the Riga Summit are top-notch politicians and they easily understood the words and postures of the nimble provincial business negotiator, “bargaining” prospects and problems of Ukraine. Poroshenko did not understand that it was not a meeting of equals, but an examination of the European political elite, which he failed.

All attempts of Poroshenko to pass off the non-fulfillment of his commitments to the EU as a difficult act that requires “strategic patience” from the EU, failed. Europe is not Ukraine. It does not like when politicians publicly lie or do not fulfill their promises to other politicians or voters. Poroshenko did not understand it. What is easily got away with in Ukraine will not take place in Europe.

In general, after Riga, Europe doubted that Ukraine has national politicians with European orientation and not oligarchs as the President, businessmen, deputies and demagogues, corrupt ministers, importunate visitors of the Ukrainian TV shows, shamelessly stealing and living well during war “in a new way” (“Living in a new way” was the slogan of the party of Petro Poroshenko before the presidential elections – Ed.). There are a lot of people, but Europe has no one to choose from.

The danger to Poroshenko is that a year of presidency has brought him huge profits, but also serious criticism from the part of society. His attempt to make money, control the country’s foreign policy, and win the war with Russia simultaneously, has failed. He is a “one-man band.” But the coincidence of negative domestic and foreign assessments is a bad sign.

President Poroshenko needs to do something. He needs either to start reforms, risking to lose power and property, but to gain the respect of the people for the courage and statehood.

Or he should find the lightning rod for his troubles: changes in personnel, local elections, cassette scandals, collapse of the Cabinet, or reformatting of the parliamentary majority, constitutional cramps, replacement of Lozhkin with Kovalchuk, noisy arrests, combat victory at the front, information tantrums, frame-up of the General Prosecutor’s Office, an attempt to escape from Firtash, “dirty dancing” (tango with Putin) in Minsk, and in the end, painting of presidential administration building in Kyiv, and so on.

This is the way the legendary Lazarenko behaved, when he did not know what to do with the country – he began to paint the facade of the Cabinet, naively thinking that he was copying with economic reforms.”

Diaspora organizations in US call on Obama to give Ukraine lethal weapons

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A number of associations mainly representing communities of various eastern European diasporas in the United States have called on U.S. President Barack Obama to provide lethal weapons to support Ukraine against Russian aggression, the American Jewish Committee said on Monday.

The associations strongly recommend that U.S. leadership to provide Ukraine with defensive lethal military equipment, which will allow the people of Ukraine to better protect them.

“The tragic reality is that, despite the strong diplomatic, economic and other efforts of the United States and the European Union aimed at changing the policy of the Kremlin, the annexation of the Crimea is continuing, the destabilization in eastern Ukraine is continued, Ukrainians continue to be victims of violence, inspired, if not provoked by the Russian Federation,” the organizations said in a letter to the U.S. president.

The letter noted the U.S. president’s own statement: “In the 21th century, we cannot idly watch as Europe’s borders are changing at gunpoint. We call on actively be engaged in protection of the rights of Ukraine and other countries of the region to live in freedom from unwanted external interference, to defend its sovereignty and independence, to choose your own friends.”

Among the specific measures that the activists call for, in addition to arms supplies, is the provision of additional financial assistance to Ukraine, as well as the strengthening of bilateral and multilateral sanctions against Russia.

“By doing so, you will have our full support, as well as the support of the majority of U.S. nation, who does not want to continue this threatening behavior towards a democratic state,” the letter reads.

The letter was signed by the heads of the American Jewish Committee, the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, the Polish American Congress, the Estonian American National Council, the Lithuanian American community, the Georgian Association in the USA, the Hungarian Coalition of America, the Association of Belarusians of America, the Armenian Assembly of America, the Czechoslovak National Council of America, the Joint Baltic American National Committee, the League of American Slovaks, and the Lithuanian Council of America.

Ukrainian prisoners in Donbas made slaves in Chechnya, relatives say

From 400 to 700 Ukrainians captured in the Donbas conflict zone have been taken to Russia, and many sold into slavery in Chechnya, Ossetia and Adygea, according to an open letter of the relatives of prisoners to the Russian human rights defenders published on the Web site of Open Russia public organization on Wednesday, a Ukrainian news broadcaster has reported.

“We assume that they could be there, because the missing himself or unknown people called relatives from Russian numbers, from Chechnya or Adygea. Some of the relatives received calls from human rights activists from Russia with a message that they had found their relatives in a Russian jail. Some of them, as we know, were sent to Chechnya or Adygea,” the letter says.

Not only the Ukrainian military but also civilians are among the missing, namely volunteers who provided humanitarian assistance to the needy, and those who visited their relatives who were called for service in the Ukrainian army during the mobilization.

Those who managed to escape from captivity told relatives of the missing people that since the summer the prisoners had been repeatedly transported to Russia’s Rostov region or deeper into Russia to work. They were transported across the border through different checkpoints, in particular through the Izvaryne checkpoint.

“Please note that we are not talking about prisoners of “republics” and “Cossacks.” These missing persons are not on the list of dead or among the prisoners to be exchanged in accordance with the Minsk agreements. At the moment, we’ve lost contact with them,” the letter reads.

Some relatives of the missing persons were offered by unknown persons by telephone or via the volunteers to return a prisoner for a large ransom. Some callers talked with an Eastern accent.

“Sometimes it sounded like this: “Your relatives were sold into slavery, and you will never see them,” the relatives of missing persons wrote.

“All those who were taken to the Caucasus – Chechnya, Ossetia and Adygea – are not likely to be held in a jail. From various sources we know that our relatives were taken and sold as a labor force. We cannot say with certainty that this is true, but such cases have been revealed by the various human rights activists and journalists,” the letter says.

At the request of relatives, the journalist Anna Nemtsova tried to trace such a trail in Chechnya. Her sources have confirmed that these events are taking place, but it is necessary to look for these “sold” people – and it’s not easy.

Relatives of prisoners have compiled a list of missing persons whose relatives or friends received calls from phones on roaming in Russia, particularly in Chechnya, Ossetia and Adygea. The list consists of 120 people, but apart from them, from 400 to 700 citizens of Ukraine may be in Russia, according to various estimates.

Moldova Eyes Russia’s Embrace as Flirtation With Europe Fades

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Daniela Morari, a Foreign Ministry official who has been traveling her country trying to nudge Moldovans toward the European Union, has heard it all. People are worried that “if you join the E.U., everyone becomes gay” and that Brussels bureaucrats “won’t let you keep animals around your houses,” an alarming prospect in a largely rural country.

It does not help that such views are encouraged on Russian television by growing pro-Russian political parties in Moldova and a deeply conservative Orthodox Church obedient to Moscow’s ecclesiastical hierarchy. “We go to a place for an hour or so, and then we leave and they all go back to watching Russian television,” Ms. Morari said.

Russian propaganda aside, however, Moldovans say they have more than enough reasons — not least widespread corruption here, the shadowy power of business moguls, and the war next door in Ukraine — to look askance at the European Union, which Ms. Morari fears is losing out to Russia in the struggle for hearts and minds in this former Soviet land.

Six years after the 28-nation bloc first targeted this country and five other former Soviet republics for an outreach program, that disenchantment, which is mutual, will be on display Thursday as European Union leaders join those from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine for a two-day summit meeting in Riga, the capital of Latvia.

Instead of enjoying a new European dawn, the prospective partners are deeply mired in their own troubles. Or they are veering closer toward Moscow, swayed by a contrasting combination of a Brussels bureaucracy focused on technical minutiae and President Vladimir V. Putin’s far more clear and assertive effort to return former Soviet satraps to Moscow’s fold.

When European leaders last held their Eastern Partnership meeting in 2013, they were hoping to prod Ukraine’s president at the time, Viktor F. Yanukovych, to sign a so-called Association Agreement. In coded bureaucratic language about “European aspirations,” they stirred hopes that former Soviet lands might one day, at least in theory, be allowed to apply to join the European Union.

Alarmed by what he saw as a Western plot to encircle Russia, Mr. Putin began his effort to annex Ukraine’s southern peninsula of Crimea, and subsequently backed rebel forces trying to tear eastern Ukraine away from Kiev. Chastened by the turmoil in Ukraine and the souring of relations with Russia, European leaders are now scaling back their eastward push.

Diplomats have spent months arguing over the text of a joint declaration to be issued at the Riga meeting, with some countries like Germany resistant to any wording that would raise unrealistic expectations in Moldova, Ukraine and elsewhere of admission to the European Union. A near final text circulating on Thursday acknowledges the “European aspirations and European choice of the partners concerned,” but leaders still needed to sign off on that timid endorsement of a possible road toward Europe.

It is the kind of waffling that has left many former Soviet subjects less than enchanted by European entreaties. “Russia doesn’t have to do anything,” said Yan Feldman, a member of a Moldovan government council set up to combat discrimination. “It just has to wait. The idea of Europe has discredited itself.”

Indeed, there is little to show from the six years of courtship of the former Soviet republics. Ukraine aside, Georgia is stuck in limbo amid fierce political infighting, and three other partnership countries — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus — have rebuffed Brussels’s inducements and moved closer to Moscow.

But nowhere is the gap between expectation and reality bigger than in Moldova, which last year secured visa-free travel to Europe for its citizens after being trumpeted by Brussels as the Eastern Partnership’s “top reformer.”

Today, Moldova’s feuding pro-European politicians, like their counterparts in Ukraine, are so tainted by their failure to combat corruption and create a functioning state that, to many here, Russia looks appealing.

“They called us the best pupils in the class,” said Iurie Leanca, a leading pro-European politician. “But we have lost the support of society.”

Mr. Leanca would know. He was prime minister, until elections late last year that brought a surge in support for the anti-European Socialist Party, now the biggest single party in Parliament. Its campaign slogan: “Together With Russia!”

Pro-European forces still managed to form a coalition government, but only with support from the Communist Party.

While insisting that Russian propaganda had played a big role in shaping opinions, Mr. Leanca acknowledged that his government was also to blame. “They saw good will but did not see any results on corruption or poverty,” he said of the voters.

A recent opinion poll carried out by the Institute for Public Policy, a Moldova research group, found that only 32 percent of those surveyed would support joining the European Union — an option that Brussels has no intention of offering — while 50 percent said they would prefer to join a customs union promoted by Mr. Putin. Over all, support for the European Union in Moldova has plummeted to 40 percent this year from 78 percent in 2007, according to the group’s figures, which were based on what it called a representative sample of Moldovans.

Chiril Gaburici, a former telecommunications executive recently installed as Moldova’s new prime minister after last November’s inconclusive elections, said he was “not happy” about Europe’s terminological retreat in the draft statement for the Riga summit meeting.

But, he added, Moldova’s pro-European politicians have themselves dashed many hopes, noting that ordinary people are disappointed after years of hearing leaders “talking about reforms and a better life but not seeing that much real change.”

A long series of scandals, including the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars from a leading bank, have provided powerful ammunition to pro-Russian forces.

One of those is Renato Usatii, a businessman turned populist political maverick who rails against corruption, spends much of his time in Moscow and drives a $350,000 Rolls-Royce. He was barred from competing in the November poll on what many viewed as a trumped-up pretext of registration irregularities.

“Even pro-European people who like the idea of Europe now hate the reality of what it has created,” Mr. Usatii said. Europe, he added, “is losing Moldova.”

A senior European diplomat, who asked not to be named so he could speak freely, complained that Moldova’s pro-European politicians were “very good at singing the European song” to impress Brussels.

But in reality, he added, “they have really mucked up,” discrediting both their own pro-European parties and the European Union. As a result, the diplomat added, many ordinary people now believe that “Russia cannot be any worse.”

That is certainly the conclusion of Alexandres Botnari, the mayor of Hincesti, a small town in central Moldova that the European Union has promoted as an example of the benefits to be had from drawing closer to Europe. Those were supposed to include funding to guarantee that all Hincesti residents have clean water and modern sanitation.

Unfortunately, Mr. Botnari said, shaking his head at a slick brochure about Moldova’s successes in partnership with Brussels, “reality is totally different.”

Only a third of homes in Hincesti have sewage pipes, many do not have drinkable water, and nearly all the roads outside the center of town are still pitted dirt tracks.

The mayor, despite being a member of the nominally pro-European Democratic Party, said Moldova would be better off, at least economically, joining Mr. Putin’s customs union.

While the European market is much bigger and richer than Russia’s, Mr. Putin imposed tight trade restrictions in 2013 on Moldova in retaliation for its flirtation with the West. For now, exports to Europe have not yet risen enough to make up for what was lost in Russia.

“We cannot live without the Russian market,” said Igor Dodon, the Socialist Party leader, as he sat in an office bedecked with photographs of himself meeting Mr. Putin in Moscow. Mr. Putin, he said, told him that Russia wants to revive trade and political ties with Moldova, but only if the country avoids moving toward NATO.

The European Union, Mr. Dodon said, “needed a success story and chose us. But now everyone sees this was all an illusion.”

Nonetheless, when measured by the highly technocratic criteria Brussels uses to assess success, Moldova is still the Eastern Partnership’s top reformer, having adopted 10,500 European standards for food, electrical goods and a vast range of other items.

But, conceded Ms. Morari, the Foreign Ministry official, success in changing sanitary norms and other arcane rules, while perhaps crucial to the creation of a modern country, “is difficult to communicate in a sexy way.”

Fighters captured in Ukraine admit to serving in Russia’s army: OSCE

From –

Kiev (AFP) – European mediators in the Ukrainian crisis said Thursday that two men captured by Kiev’s troops had confessed to being members of the Russian armed forces sent in to back up pro-Moscow separatist fighters.

The revelation by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) provides some of the strongest independent evidence to date of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in the 13-month war in the neighbouring nation.

Kiev and its Western allies have long accused the Kremlin of covertly coordinating the loosely organised rebel units’ tactics and backing them up with high-tech weapons and troops in their fight against Ukraine’s pro-Western government.

Russia denies the allegations and says the claims are part of a US-led campaign to topple Putin and contain Russia’s regional interests.

The OSCE said the two wounded servicemen said in an interview conducted at Kiev’s military hospital that they were armed when wounded and taken prisoner by Ukrainian government forces in the separatist eastern province of Lugansk on Saturday.

“Both individuals claimed that they were members of a unit of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. They claimed that they were on a reconnaissance mission. They were armed but had no orders to attack,” the security body said in a report.

“One of them said he had received orders from his military unit to go to Ukraine; he was to ‘rotate’ after three months. Both of them said they had been to Ukraine ‘on missions’ before,” the OSCE added.

There was no initial response to the findings from either the Kremlin or Russia’s foreign ministry.

But initial state media coverage of the findings suggest that Moscow may try to either downplay or ignore the report.

Russia’s TASS news agency misquoted the OSCE as saying that both Russians “claimed that they used to serve in a unit of the Russian Armed Forces.”

Ukraine has charged the captured men — identified as Captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Sergeant Aleksander Aleksandrov — with involvement in “terrorist activity” and promised to release them should they fully confess during a public trial.

Russian state TV aired an interview with Aleksandrov’s wife on Wednesday saying that the 28-year-old professional soldier had quit his army reconnaissance unit in December.

Putin has described Russians discovered fighting in Ukraine as either “volunteers” or off-duty soldiers who crossed into the war zone out of patriotic pride and to take on the far-right extremists who Moscow claims are running Kiev.

– Burning bridges –

The Ukraine crisis has chilled Moscow’s ties with Washington to a degree last seen in the Soviet era and driven the new pro-Western leadership in Kiev to treat Russia as an existential threat.

Kiev lawmakers on Thursday annulled five crucial security agreements with Moscow that had allowed Russia to transport troops to a separatist region of Moldova and purchase weapons that are only produced in Ukraine.

The deals were first suspended when Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in the wake of bloody street protests that toppled a Moscow-backed president in February 2014.

But Thursday’s decision means that legislative support from Ukraine’s dominant nationalist and pro-European parties would be required before such cooperation could resume once the separatist conflict is resolved.

It also underscores how little a truce deal brokered in February has done to rebuild trust between Moscow and Kiev.

“The chances of Ukraine and Russia resuming the type of military and technological cooperation that they enjoyed just a few years ago appear highly unlikely in the mid-term perspective,” independent military analyst Mykhaylo Pashkov said.

One of the cancelled agreements notably allowed Moscow to send peacekeeping forces across Ukraine to Moldova’s Russian-speaking Transdniester region.

Several senior Russian officials signalled their alarm at the sudden complication.

“There is no way for us to reach (Transdniester) other than through Ukraine,” an unnamed diplomat in Russia’s foreign ministry told Interfax.

A second politically-charged agreement cancelled by Kiev required the neighbours to protect each others’ state secrets. It was adopted with former spy Putin’s arrival in the Kremlin in 2000.

Another arrangement covered basic Russian military transports across Ukraine and a fourth concerned mutual arms purchases.

Ukraine inherited several huge Soviet-era arms manufacturing sites that once formed the backbone of Russia’s armed forces.

The final agreement covered intelligence sharing.

Getting Ready for Life After Putin

From –

There was a brief period during the tenure of former President Dmitry Medvedev when Russians like myself began to hope that the country would finally become a part of Europe. Now I feel nothing but fear.

Russia according to President Vladimir Putin is indeed following a “special path.” However, Putin does not afford Russian citizens the same freedom he grants himself: in questions of politics, they must obey the state and submissively follow the path chosen by politicians. That would be alarming enough even if the country were headed in a definite direction, but it is especially disturbing considering that Putin himself has no clear destination in mind.

The result is that Russia is driving down a road that has yet to be laid: workers add the next few feet of asphalt as they receive orders from the top — first in one direction, and then the next, with no clear plan or goal in sight.

Putin constantly reiterates that it is necessary to respect traditional values and that, when it comes to Russia’s interests, other powers should stay out of the way. And although Putin’s actions have shaken the established world order, he has given no indication of what type of order he believes should replace it.

Many in Europe and the United States are concerned about Russia’s actions in the international arena, not only because they dislike what is happening, but, worse, because they see no rationale or logic guiding the Kremlin. The West has become so nervous about Putin’s unpredictable behavior that at times it seems diplomats would feel relieved if the Kremlin pursued an openly destructive policy with understandable objectives.

How should the Russian people fill this vacuum? It is essential that the Russian people publicly discuss the future of their country. If that proves impossible, it is imperative that those who disagree with the status quo are able to find others who share their views.

We have certain advantages in this regard. Yes, state propaganda is ubiquitous and effective, but anyone can avoid it by simply turning off their television. By controlling the airwaves, the government managed to prevent earlier generations from gaining access to information it considered undesirable. However, we have the Internet, and that enables us to preserve our freedom of choice.

We should use every opportunity to discuss our ideas: social networks, personal meetings, universities and nongovernmental organizations such as the All-Russia Civil Forum. We should also use official venues when we have the chance for dialogue with state officials. We must defend our rights by all non-violent and legitimate means available.

The Putin era will eventually end. It has often happened in Russian history that the departing ruling elite has taken the old ideology with them, giving the country the opportunity to choose a new path. When that happens, we will need to employ all the skills and resources of civil society. Now is the best time to develop them.

How can the West help? First off, it can refrain from sending its experts to teach and advise their Russian counterparts. We have already been through that. Russians are capable of independent thought and are able to diagnose and correct these errors.

Russia must converse with the West as its equal, and not as its protege. Both share the same problems connected with democracy, market economy and social life. Russia should put itself in the mainstream by generating ideas that could guide liberal-democratic states around the world. Our goal is to improve Western political thought and not to simply assimilate it.

That is an inspiring goal, especially if Russians, Europeans and Americans will work on it together. The current cooling of relations is the result of a struggle between the imperfect Western system and the unpredictable Russian one. The only way to end that confrontation is to find an alternative to both.