Cybersleuth Points To Russian Tank Unit In Eastern Ukraine

An open-source researcher in Ukraine has become the latest cybersleuth to seemingly add a chink to Russia’s armor of denial about troop and arms deployments to support separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The researcher, who identifies himself as Askai707, details evidence on his LiveJournal blog of alleged involvement one year ago of Russia’s 6th Tank Brigade in a prominent strategic and symbolic battlefield win for the separatists.

Ukrainian forces suffered heavy casualties trying to capture the city of Ilovaysk in the Donetsk region in August 2014. Pro-Russian forces had encircled them, and an agreement was reportedly reached by both sides to allow the Ukrainians to evacuate from inside what became known as the “Ilovaysk Kettle.”

However, that deal was not honored and 366 Ukrainian soldiers, according to the Ukrainian military, were killed by pro-Russian forces while trying to escape in what many described as a massacre. It was one of the Ukrainian military’s most humiliating defeats in eastern Ukraine.

Kyiv accused Moscow of sending in troops and tanks to help the rebels, and this fresh research appears to back Ukraine’s claims.

Askai707 tracked down many of soldiers of Russia’s 6th Tank Brigade, following their cybertrail thanks to their own social-media postings, namely on VKontakte, the biggest Russian-language social-networking site.

“I think it’s very compelling. I think there’s a good range of different sources that clearly point to Russian tanks and soldiers crossing in this specific incident,” Elliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, which has used open sources and social media to carry out its own widely acclaimed probe of Russian military involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, including the downing of Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, says of Askai707’s findings.

‘100 Percent Certain’

Bellingcat posted an English-language version of Askai707’s post on its own site.

“Time and time again we’re finding Russian equipment and Russian soldiers we can identify in Russia and then they head to the border and suddenly we see them in Ukraine,” Higgins told RFE/RL in a telephone interview on September 23.

He noted the similarity to Bellingcat’s own research and said that “you find this time and time again with the Russian military.”

“Loads of young guys who are serving, posting lots of pictures, and photographs, and reports online about their activities as part of the unit,” Higgins said. “It probably seems innocent when they’re thinking, ‘Oh, it’s just one or two photos I’m posting,’ but when you’ve got 200 guys in the same unit posting one or two photographs you’ve got a massive amount of information,” Higgins said.

The report also tracks down a T-72B3 tank that was first captured by a Ukrainian unit and then seized back by the separatists.

“And what was interesting there was they pulled out a document from there that actually had the name of one of the soldiers [whom] the writer originally identified. When you’ve got those kind of documents being produced, as something separate from the actual investigation, I think that’s very interesting indeed,” Higgins said.

According to the website Military Today, the T-72B3 is an upgrade to the T-72B tank. The first versions of this tank were reportedly delivered to the Russian Army in 2013.

Higgins said the Askai707 posting on September 17 had encouraged others to come forward on the Russian tank division in question.

“In fact, after this article was published on the tank unit, someone sent me a video that was published by a Ukrainian military unit, which actually showed what appears to be one of the soldiers from that unit who was captured inside Ukraine. Of course, at the time, it’s very difficult to say, ‘Well, are we sure these are Russian soldiers?’ Because you don’t have this body of evidence we now have,” Higgins said.

“But now…we can be 100 percent certain, it’s the same person in the video and the information that was collected, and yeah, he’s definitely a Russian soldier because we have pictures of him serving in his unit and his tank.”

From –

Putin’s closest ally – and his biggest liability

On 27 February this year, Boris Nemtsov took his girlfriend out to dinner near Red Square. Nemtsov was 55, greying but boyish. He had served briefly as Russia’s deputy prime minister in the late 1990s, but thereafter had been in perpetual opposition. As Vladimir Putin’s grip on power strengthened, Nemtsov’s weakened. But he kept fighting, running for elections and exposing corruption and mismanagement. In February, he was investigating evidence that, despite Kremlin denials, Russian soldiers were fighting in Ukraine.

After dinner, Nemtsov and his girlfriend, a 23-year-old model – Nemtsov might have got older, but the ladies stayed the same age – walked home, across a bridge over the Moscow River. There weren’t many pedestrians around; a winter evening in Moscow is not an ideal time for a stroll. But the setting was spectacular: the Disney domes of St Basil’s Cathedral loomed over Nemtsov’s left shoulder, the Kremlin’s russet battlements over his right. It was a fitting stage for a brave man’s death.

An assailant jumped from a car, shot Nemtsov four times in the back and fled, leaving his body on the tarmac. Within a week, police officers identified a group of men who had been tailing Nemtsov, and on 6 March they arrested Zaur Dadayev, formerly a senior officer in the Chechen security services, and four other men with links to Chechnya. At least until late 2014, Dadayev had reported directly to Alibek Delimkhanov, whose cousin, Ramzan Kadyrov, is the leader of Chechnya.

On 8 March, Zaur Dadayev confessed to the murder. It seemed unlikely that the murder of a figure as prominent as Nemtsov could have taken place without the knowledge of more senior figures. Inevitably, suspicion turned to Kadyrov, who angrily denied any connection to the killing. Writing on Instagram on the day of the confession, Kadyrov speculated about the killer’s motive. He suggested that, as a devout Muslim, Dadayev had been offended by the Muhammad cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo magazine, and sought vengeance on Nemtsov, who had publicly supported the cartoonists. (Dadayev, however, later retracted his confession.)

On 13 March, Kadyrov took to Instagram to make clear that he was being unfairly victimised. “The United States and the west try first to hit those who are most devoted (to Putin),” he wrote. Nevertheless, the allegations have refused to go away. Kadyrov is essentially employed by Putin to stop Chechens from killing Russians, but he has also been linked to a long list of killings. The motives have tended to be, like Kadyrov himself, crude and straightforward: someone threatened his hold on power, and ended up dead. It is not easy to see why he would want rid of Nemtsov but, all the same, Kadyrov’s track record was sufficient for many people to view a motive as unnecessary. (Kadyrov’s spokesman, who I have known for a decade, did not respond to multiple requests via phone, text and email, for comment on this article.)

“The crime clearly leads directly to Kadyrov. I cannot imagine that these men could commit such a terrible crime without, at the very least, informing him,” said Ilya Yashin, a liberal politician and Nemtsov’s political comrade. He, like many Russians, thinks of Kadyrov as a guard dog that has slipped his chain. Putin used the Kadyrov family to crush Chechen separatism, but now Ramzan has broken free.

“Kadyrov stands above Russian law,” Yashin said. “Any attempt to remove him from his job, or to prosecute him, could provoke a new Chechen war. Putin is undoubtedly scared of such a development, which is why he can’t solve the Kadyrov problem.”

Ramzanism is almost the ur-expression of Putinism: equal parts bling, violence, nationalism, kleptocracy and religion
That is one explanation of why the leader of a region within Russia is able to act with such freedom. But it is not the only one, and not necessarily even the most likely. If it were true, Putin might be keeping Ramzan at arm’s length, but he is not. On the contrary: the president has said Kadyrov is like a son to him, while Ramzan says Putin is his idol. They meet regularly, converse warmly, praise each other. Politically, there is little to separate them. Indeed, Ramzanism is almost the ur-expression of Putinism: a philosophy that is equal parts bling, violence, nationalism, kleptocracy and religion.

So, if you’re worried that Ramzan is murdering with impunity and Putin can’t control him, consider the alternative: what if Ramzan is murdering with impunity, and Putin does control him?

* * *
The Chechen nation is Muslim, and lives in the mountains on Russia’s southern border. Conquered at the end of the 1850s, the Chechens chafed under both tsarist and Soviet rule and, after the collapse of the USSR, took the opportunity to declare independence. In 1994, Russian generals sent troops to crush Chechnya, but totally miscalculated their opponents’ resolve: the Chechen irregulars humiliated them. There were only around 750,000 ethnic Chechens when the war began, fewer than the one million Russian men who reached military age that year, yet they defeated this supposed superpower. Chechnya was a symbol of just how weak Russia had become. For the Chechens, it was a famous victory, but it was also a hollow one, since peace did not follow. By the late 1990s, Chechnya was outside anyone’s control – a haven for criminals, kidnappers, warlords and Islamists.

When Putin became prime minister in 1999, Chechnya topped his to-do list. He was a novice, but he knew that to re-impose Moscow’s will on Chechnya, he needed a local to give conquest a Chechen face. He found that person in Akhmad Kadyrov, Chechnya’s chief mufti – a man so troubled by the hardline, Saudi-style Islam spreading in his homeland that he was prepared to do a deal with the Russians to stop it. Akhmad had a rough, walrus-like manner, a bulbous nose and an earthy charisma. He organised a Chechen militia – known as the Kadyrovtsy – who helped Russian troops crush his erstwhile comrades.

Putin pacified Chechnya with extreme prejudice. Artillery shattered Grozny; FSB agents abducted thousands of young Chechen men, hundreds of whom were never seen again. The Russian electorate, deeply scarred by their country’s steep decline, loved it. In 2000, though barely known just a year earlier, Putin won the presidency. It was a victory he owed to Chechnya. And he owed Chechnya to Akhmad Kadyrov.

I first met Ramzan Kadyrov on 5 October 2003, his 27th birthday. He was standing outside a polling station in the village of Tsenteroi, in the thickly furred foothills of the Caucasus mountains. We were waiting for his father to vote in an election that would elevate Akhmad to the presidency of Chechnya. Ramzan was sandy-haired, with a low forehead. He had inherited Akhmad’s nose, but none of his presence. Standing in the yard, he looked a little like a teenager too nervous to go into a party, and waddled when he walked. We discussed the leaders of the lingering anti-Moscow insurgency. Ramzan, who ran the Kadyrovtsy on his father’s behalf, praised the insurgents’ military abilities. They should surrender and come to work for his dad, he said.

They did not take up the offer. Instead, on 9 May 2004, they assassinated Akhmad in a bomb blast in Grozny. Putin received Ramzan that same day, in a meeting aired on all Russia’s main news bulletins. The 27-year-old looked stunned, his blue tracksuit out of place amid the dark panels and glittering ornaments of the president’s office. Though sombre, that moment marked the start of a remarkable political career. With Akhmad gone, Putin had a vacancy for a Chechen satrap, and Ramzan was perfect for the role. Ramzan was not immediately given the top job but, thanks to his control of the Kadyrovtsy, he dominated the republic. In 2007, he assumed the presidency.

In 2010, however, he declared that he would no longer be called president of Chechnya, since Russia should only have one president. Kadyrov is now known, in Russian, as the “head of the republic”. In Chechen, he is called pachchakh, a corruption of the Farsi word padishah, meaning “king”. And he lives like one.

He has built himself palaces, one in Grozny and one in his home village of Tsenteroi, sparred with Mike Tyson, played football with Diego Maradona, and partied with Gerard Depardieu. He has posed with a tiger cub and acquired a stable of horses that race all over the world. He has organised beauty contests and wrestling bouts. He documents his life on Instagram, regularly treating his 1.2 million followers to images of himself praying, working out, meeting officials, hanging with his buddies – all of whom are men with significant biceps. His photos are accompanied by lengthy texts explaining his views on contemporary issues. He is vulgar, venal, vicious, venerated and very rich: somewhere between Uday Hussein and the Notorious B.I.G. None of this appears to bother Putin.

Last year, Kadyrov announced a new policy of destroying the houses of anyone whose relatives fight against the government, and then exiling them from Chechnya. “Kadyrov’s statement may have been a bit emotional,” said Putin in December, when challenged about his protege’s words. “I think emotions are understandable in such cases.”

* * *
Russia Day is on 12 June. This is a slightly ambiguous public holiday, since it marks Russia’s independence from the Soviet Union, something much of the country would prefer had not happened. Kadyrov, however, does not do understatement, and any public holiday is an occasion to showcase his ability to mobilise large groups of people. This year, from early in the morning, buses brought students, teachers and other state employees to central Grozny to hear speeches.

It was fiercely hot. The sun had soaked into the acres of tarmac and heat radiated into the soles of my shoes. Students sought out shade while they checked their phones. They carried professionally printed portraits of Putin, Akhmad and Ramzan Kadyrov, as well as banners declaring which institutions they studied at. I had hoped Kadyrov would address the crowd, but instead he sent a couple of underlings, who recounted modern Chechnya’s founding myth: how Akhmad rescued the Chechens from westerners, terrorists, Islamists and other malefactors; how Ramzan took on his mantle, and transformed the republic into something magnificent.

When Putin won the presidency in 2000, Grozny was a wasteland. To prevent a damaging battle, the Russian army had bombarded it until the guerrillas withdrew. Apartment blocks were smashed, steel beams scrunched and metal fences shredded by shrapnel. At least 8,398 Russian servicemen died in the two Chechen wars, according to conservative statistics provided by the Russian general staff and defence ministry. Estimates of the total number of Chechen deaths in the two wars have ranged from 150,000 to as high as 300,000. Even in 2003, when Chechen resistance was reduced to nocturnal raids, roadside bombs and suicide attacks, every intersection held a military post, an ugly tangle of breeze blocks and barbed wire. Foreign journalists could only visit Chechnya with a military escort, and spent the night in the Russian base at the airport.

Grozny is now unrecognisable. Kadyrov has spent billions making a city that proclaims his glory, and it shows. The airport accepts civilian flights; the markets are bustling; the apartment blocks have been repaired. At the centre of Kadyrov’s capital is a high-rise cluster called Grozny City, including a hotel reputed to be the only place in Chechnya that serves alcohol. The flank of the tallest tower bears the scrolling message “WE LOVE PROPHET MOHAMMED”, and above the message is a portrait of Akhmad Kadyrov. From there, Akhmad Kadyrov Avenue runs to the Akhmad Kadyrov mosque, and on to the huge gold obelisk of the Akhmad Kadyrov museum.

The museum minutely documents its subject’s life: his time at a seminary in Uzbekistan, his visits to the Middle East, his period as head of Chechnya, the day he died. Vitrines contain his tie, his shoes, a shirt, two jackets, a coat and a hat. There is also a Betamax videotape recording of him receiving an honorary professorship at the Modern Academy of the Humanities, an obscure Moscow university that offers distance learning.

On the day I visited, a woman in a pink headscarf was lovingly showing a replica of Akhmad’s office to a group of teachers. “Until the end, he was a devoted son of his people, a real man,” she said, while two of her audience filmed her on their iPads. “He gave his life, and peace came.” The museum contained no photos of Grozny in ruins, or of the separatist leaders, or of Russian troops in Chechnya. Its message was relentless: only the Kadyrovs matter.

Much of the money for Grozny’s transformation into a city-shaped tribute to the Kadyrov family has come from the Russian federal budget, which has sent the equivalent of billions of pounds to Chechnya over the last decade and a half. Even now, with the Russian budget squeezed by recession and sanctions, Chechnya receives around 57bn roubles a year from Moscow (about £550m).

Other cash flows from the Akhmad Kadyrov Fund, a non-transparent foundation headed by Kadyrov’s mother, Ayman, set up “to provide charitable assistance to citizens in need and to create jobs for the republic’s population”. The money comes from allegedly voluntary donations from businessmen and ordinary Chechens. Russia’s upmarket Kommersant daily has reported that the foundation has, among other things, paid for Chechens to go on the haj, equipped a hospital and bought motorbikes for the Night Wolves, a gang of Putinite bikers. The fund also paid for a lavish party which took place in 2011 on Kadyrov’s 35th birthday, which Seal, Jean-Claude Van Damme and violinist Vanessa-Mae attended, along with Hilary Swank. (Swank later apologised for having attended.)

In 2013 Kadyrov announced that Grozny would gain another skyscraper. Billboards bear pictures of a structure that will dwarf anything built to date. Shaped like one of the defensive towers that stud villages in Chechnya’s mountains, but faced with glass and almost 100 metres taller than London’s Shard, it will stand above a crescent-shaped swimming pool orientated towards Mecca. Its name: the Akhmad Tower.

* * *
It is hard to assess Kadyrov’s true popularity, since ordinary Chechens are understandably reluctant to speak their mind to strangers. Islamist websites call him an apostate, accuse him of selling his nation for Russian cash, and make clumsy puns on his surname with the Arabic word kafir (unbeliever). My oldest Chechen friends talk of his extravagance and violence with distaste. Many of them yearn for the dream of independence, but they also accept that life is far better now than it was before he took over. At least you can walk the streets after dark.

Much of the toughest criticism comes from the group that might be expected to approve of him most strongly: Russian nationalists. Anti-corruption campaigner and opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s slogan “Stop Feeding the Caucasus” plays on resentment in Russia over how much money has gone to rebuild Chechnya, suspicion that Kadyrov has stolen it for himself, and concern that ethnic Russian regions receive less.

“Kadyrov has managed to get himself in a position where he is the supreme decision-maker in Chechnya, and the spending of tremendous transfers [of money] goes pretty much unchecked by the federal authorities,” said Vladimir Ashurkov, a Navalny ally who was recently granted asylum in London. “The distinction between his personal money and government funds is blurred.”

The distinction between his personal powers and the government is blurred, too. Earlier this year, a teacher in Grozny gave a pile of poems to a contact who has access to government officials. The teacher wanted a new flat, and wanted the poems passed on to Ramzan. Among the poems’ titles were: “Ramzan, Thanks”; “Thanks, Ramzan”; “To Ramzan Kadyrov”; “To A Chechen Woman” (about Ramzan’s mother); “The First President” (about Ramzan’s father); and “Thanks, Ramzan” (again).

Such appeals have a long history in Russia, where peasants often asked the tsar for justice or gifts. Ordinary Russians do the same to Putin during a yearly phone-in (in this year’s show, he gave a schoolgirl a puppy, and offered to intercede for a young man whose girlfriend wouldn’t marry him). But this is new to Chechnya, which has always had a horizontal society, with prestige accorded to elders or religious leaders, not to politicians.

Before the Russian conquest of Chechnya, which was finally completed in 1859, Chechens lived in villages, without a central government to collect taxes and dispense favours. Thereafter, Chechens were not trusted to run their own territory. Well into the 1980s, non-Chechens outnumbered locals in all positions. The post-Soviet chaos meant there was no opportunity for serious patronage. Kadyrov is Chechens’ first experience of a local boy really being in charge, and he micro-manages.

In May, local television showed him scolding a group of men and women, who stood with their heads bowed in the hall of his palace, beside a model of the Akhmad Tower, for having spread a rumour that an ambulance had been called for a 17-year-old after her wedding to a police chief. “Take your women off social media,” he told the men. “If I hear of this again, it will not go unpunished,” he told the women. He stages such interventions regularly, but they have not stopped Chechens gossiping, and Kadyrov is their favourite topic. They talk of his multiple wives, of his palaces, of his wealth, and of his alleged killings.

One of the two underlings who addressed the crowd on Russia Day, was Jambulat Umarov, Kadyrov’s minister for external relations. I was unable to hear much of his speech over the sound of a secondary school teacher next to me talking to her sister on her gold iPhone 6. But from what I could gather, he seemed like a good person to ask about Kadyrov, in the absence of the man himself.

We met in Umarov’s office, where there was a wolf pelt over the back of the sofa. Umarov has decades of experience as an academic, and speaks Arabic and English fluently, but he was nervous, repeatedly checking with my translator (I don’t speak Chechen, which is unrelated to Russian) that he was staying on-message. It was a message that began with a 25-minute history lesson, delving back into the earliest days of Chechens’ relations with Russia, and addressing their repeated attempts to break free.

“This continued until we heard the sermons of the great preacher who became the father of the nation. That was Akhmad Kadyrov,” he explained, while he fiddled with a sheet of paper on his desk. “Now, thanks to Putin’s support, we have imposed order. No one interferes in our affairs.”

Is Kadyrov vastly wealthy?

“Look, if Ramzan has been given a horse, he doesn’t just sell it and pocket the $500,000. This horse instead expresses the glory of Russia, the glory of Chechnya. We are proud of the horses … Any present supposedly given to Ramzan Kadyrov, it is a present to the whole nation,” he explained.

And how many wives does Kadyrov have?

“I think any woman would dream of being his wife, even the fourth. He’s nice, good-looking, healthy, strong. He’s not poor. He could support a family well.”

* * *
Chechen resistance has shrivelled since its 1990s heyday, when the rebels could field thousands of men. The Putin-Kadyrov counter-insurgency strategy has been so ruthless that the opposition resembles a death cult: only people not just willing to die, but actively wanting to, will have anything to do with it. On 4 December last year, Kadyrov was in Moscow for Putin’s state of the nation speech. In the small hours of the morning, jihadist guerrillas killed three traffic policemen in Grozny and then took over the Press House, a glass-faced block that houses Chechnya’s state media.

Such attacks are rare, so it was embarrassing for Kadyrov that his security services had failed to prevent one on the eve of an important political event. Kadyrov scrambled home to take charge. According to Russia’s anti-terrorism committee, all 10 of the guerrillas died, but they killed 11 more officers, wounded dozens more, and wrecked the Press House. “Dogs will die like dogs,” Kadyrov wrote on Instagram, beside a photo of a man’s legs and lower torso, lying in a pool of blood.

It was at this time that Kadyrov pledged to destroy the houses of rebels’ relatives. When human rights activists complained, their offices were set on fire, and Kadyrov accused them of aiding terrorism. According to Memorial, a Russian rights group, security services detained dozens of young men suspected of assisting the guerrillas, identifying them by their style of facial hair. Kadyrov has declared that anyone who shaves his moustache, but not his beard, is an extremist.

According to activists from Russian and international human rights organisations (who prefer not to be identified by name, out of fear of reprisals), detentions go in waves, following a militant attack such as this one. First the attackers’ friends and relatives are picked up, and tortured. They incriminate other friends and relatives, who are picked up too. If detainees refuse to confess, they are killed. If they confess, the confessions are used in court, and the young men are jailed.

At least 250,000 Chechens have sought asylum in the west since 2000, and around 200,000 Chechens live in Russia, outside Chechnya. In total, therefore, almost half Chechnya’s prewar population of one million (of whom about a quarter were not ethnic Chechens) has left the republic. According to the 2010 census, the current population of Chechnya is 1.25 million, but that figure is probably inflated: more people in the census means more money for Kadyrov.

Among the exiles were the Tsarnaev brothers, who bombed the Boston marathon in 2013, as well as several hundred Chechens fighting with Islamic State. Others fight for Ukraine against pro-Russian separatists. The vast majority of Chechens abroad live peacefully, however, and in 2008, I spent several weeks travelling among them while researching a book. In Vienna, I found Umar Israilov. He had been a member of the armed resistance, but was detained in late 2003, shortly after Akhmad Kadyrov was elected president. His captors wanted him to confess to murdering security personnel. At one point, he told me, Ramzan Kadyrov himself came in and beat him. After Israilov revealed the location of a weapons cache, they put him through an amnesty system which allowed rebels to surrender without legal consequences (many of them joined Kadyrov’s own armed forces, as did Umar for a while). When the opportunity arose, he fled to Europe. Ramzan Kadyrov did not take that well, and sent officers to pick up Israilov’s father, Sharpudi.

“They had this big sports hall. That’s where they tortured people,” Sharpudi told me this year from his new home outside Russia. (His wife asked me not to reveal the location.) They tied one of Sharpudi’s legs to a billiard table, and eight men took turns beating him. Then they drenched him with water and produced a hand-cranked generator. “The faster the handle turned, the more voltage there was. You scream like a … I don’t know. It’s impossible to withstand this. It feels like every joint in your body is being torn apart.”

After four days, Sharpudi revealed his son’s whereabouts but was held captive in a basement for a further 11 months. When Sharpudi was released, he and Umar appealed to the European court of human rights. Umar wanted to make a home in Austria for his family, and he wanted to expose what Kadyrov had done. In January 2009, Israilov was shot dead on the street in Vienna. Three Chechens were jailed for the murder, and Austrian prosecutors accused Kadyrov of having ordered it. Kadyrov admitted in 2009 to having sent people to talk to Israilov, but denied having had him killed. “Umar personally saw how Kadyrov tortured people. For Kadyrov he was a very dangerous witness,” Sharpudi told me.

In Grozny, I drank coffee with a human rights activist who despaired of the vulnerability of Chechens picked up by Kadyrov’s officers. “We’re between the Islamists who want us to live by the sharia, and Kadyrov, who dreams of us living by his rules,” she said, and tailed off.

* * *
On 13 June 2015, a Saturday, Grozny’s newest sporting venue, the 5,000-capacity Coliseum, hosted an evening of mixed martial arts. The organisers had invited fighters from around the world to match lads from the local club, which was named after Akhmad Kadyrov. It was almost, but not quite, a full house. On a platform level with the octagonal cage in which the fighters would assault each other, was a row of gilded sofas, scattered with red cushions, which still lacked occupants. It was no secret who those places were reserved for, and why we were waiting.

At 6.47pm, there was a roar from the far side of the arena. The spectators stood; men lifted children. It was Kadyrov, looking squat in a burgundy tracksuit, bearded, followed by his usual gaggle of men. He settled into his sofa and looked up expectantly. Pounding Chechen turbo-folk ushered the first contestant into the ring. He was a Ukrainian, and lasted 1min 38sec. His conqueror jumped on to the cage wall and gestured in triumph. Kadyrov gave him a thumbs-up. The evening had begun well.

In bout two, a Kazakhstani fighter tapped out 15 seconds into the second round. In bout three, a Crimean didn’t last that long; a leg lock to the head finished him in 2min 49sec. By bout four, the turbo-folk, the strobe lights and the procession of outclassed foreigners was beginning to blur a little. In bout six, a Croatian got punched in the face and fell over. His Chechen opponent sportingly let him up again, then kicked him in the head. Kadyrov grinned widely. His neighbour mimed the fighter’s collapse, falling backwards on to the sofa cushions, like a felled tree.

Bout 14 featured a 40-year-old Brazilian, who looked terrified, the rolls of fat above his tight trunks shaking. After 42 seconds, the local boy – nicknamed the Lion of Dagestan – drove a punch through his guard. The Brazilian crumpled like a shot deer. I appeared to be the only person troubled by this increasingly dangerous farce. Kadyrov hooted with laughter and the crowd roared.

Kadyrov was constantly on his feet, gesturing his fighters to greater efforts. They rewarded him after each bout with a leap on to his platform and a cuddle. They did not embrace chest to chest as equals, however, but with an awkward bow, their right ears pressed to his right nipple. At last, almost four hours after the show began, the perma-tanned announcer ushered in bout 16, the big one, the finale. A Brazilian heavyweight, aged 32, was up against “the Chechen Lion”, Abdul-Kerim Edilov. Edilov came slowly, perhaps because he had Kadyrov’s seven-year-old son, Adam, on his shoulders – reason enough for anyone to take their time going downstairs. Adam waved a Chechen flag emblazoned with Akhmad’s face. Ramzan beamed; three generations of Kadyrovs acclaimed as one.

The bell rang; the fighters touched gloves. The Brazilian took a kick to the thigh, reeled back and fell. It was over in 26 seconds. Kadyrov pumped his fist and jumped into the ring. Adam was there too, dancing to the cheering crowd. Trainers and friends pushed in, posed for a photo, grinning. A cannon fired golden confetti on to their heads. The Brazilian was still down on the canvas, unable to stand. No one paid him any mind.

* * *
A full list of people Kadyrov is accused of having had killed would be long, but here is a selection: investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya (shot in Moscow in October 2006); FSB commander Movladi Baisarov (shot in Moscow in November 2006); rights activist Natalia Estemirova (abducted from Chechnya and shot in July 2009); pro-Moscow Chechen Ruslan Yamadayev (shot in Moscow in September 2008); Ruslan’s brother Sulim Yamadayev (shot in Dubai in March 2009; Interpol has issued a wanted notice for Kadyrov’s cousin, Adam Delimkhanov, in connection to the crime). Isa, a third Yamadayev brother, whose clan changed sides at the same time as the Kadyrovs and who were rivals for power in Chechnya, survived an assassination bid in July 2009. He wrote an open letter to the Kremlin, complaining that he was being hunted.

“This hunt is being conducted not by savages in the Amazon jungle, but in the capital of our country, by superficially respectable officials with $200,000 Bovet watches,” said the letter, which was published in the Russian tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets. (Kadyrov was well known for his Bovet watch at that time). “Can all of Kadyrov’s opponents be dubbed enemies of Russia and be killed?”

The Kremlin has awarded both Akhmad (posthumously) and Ramzan its highest decoration. They are heroes of Russia, and their official portraits invariably show them wearing their five-pointed stars. For heroes of Russia, the Kadyrovs have a distinctly anti-Russian past, however. If you look online, you can easily find footage of Akhmad alongside the most extreme anti-Moscow jihadis of the 1990s. When challenged by a journalist over whether he really said every Chechen should kill 150 Russians, Akhmad clarified his position: “I said kill as many as you can.”

It is unsurprising, therefore, that many Russians wonder just where Ramzan Kadyrov’s loyalties lie. Through the amnesty programme, Kadyrov has amassed an army at least as potent as anything the separatists fielded in the 1990s. The question is whether he has created an independent state via the back door. He denies it, of course, but it was a question I took to Magomed Khambiyev, once the defence minister of the breakaway Chechen government, now a member of Kadyrov’s tame parliament.

We met in the Al Pachino, Grozny’s closest equivalent to a hipster cafe. At 52, Khambiyev has grizzled hair, crows’ feet around the eyes and two gold teeth. He was simply dressed in a white linen shirt and still wore a heavy silver ring bearing the wolf-and-moon symbol of independent Chechnya.

Khambiyev surrendered in March 2004, after years hiding in the forest, trying to keep the resistance together. His surrender was not exactly voluntary. A relative came to him with the message that Kadyrov would exterminate his family if he did not give himself up. But, he said, he did not regret it. “If I had stayed there, in the forest, I would only have made things worse for my people and for myself, for my relatives, my neighbours,” he said. “My relatives would have long ago ceased to exist.”

In Chechnya’s parliament, he represents United Russia, Putin’s party. So, what does he think about Putin, the man who crushed his dreams of independence? “Our president is a Chechen, our interior minister is a Chechen, all the ministers are Chechens, and I speak to them in Chechen,” he said. “I don’t think about Putin. I think about Kadyrov. I don’t need to think about Putin. Honestly, I’m not interested in what’s happening in Russia.”

* * *
Putin cultivates an enigmatic, standoffish persona, but Kadyrov has no time for such subtlety. He has 300,000 followers on Mobli, 235,000 on Twitter, 241,000 on Vkontakte (a Russian site similar to Facebook), as well as a devoted audience on LiveJournal and Instagram – and he keeps them updated on his opinions several times a day. He spends a lot of time talking up the merits of sport and Islam, but the subjects he reserves most passion for are Putin and the west. Putin is responsible for all that is good in politics; the west is responsible for all that is bad.

Kadyrov has been criticising the west for seeking to surround and undermine Russia for years, but only recently has Putin caught up with him. He has long been a bellwether to national trends in other ways, too. In 2012, Putin won re-election amid huge protests against electoral fraud. In Moscow, thousands of activists observed proceedings and Putin won just 48% of the vote. In Chechnya, where few activists would dare observe anything, Putin won all but 616 of the votes cast.

This may be key to Putin’s continued enthusiasm for Kadyrov. There are times when you need every vote you can get, and it’s nice to know where you can find 611,578 without having to worry. And there are times when it is useful to have a few hundred plausibly deniable troops, such as the Chechens who went into Ukraine last year to stiffen the Donbass separatists’ resistance to Kiev’s army.

Kadyrov has had a lot to say about the “fascists” supposedly in power in Kiev (the European Union has imposed sanctions on him as a result) and, after Nemtsov’s murder, wrapped them into his conspiracy theory: “The sentence issued against Nemtsov in some western capital could have been carried out by the Ukrainian special services.”

Meanwhile, the man identified in June by Russian investigators as the murder’s mastermind, Ruslan Geremeyev, a Chechen police officer, was living openly in Chechnya after the killing, then left for the Gulf when Moscow officers began to look for him, Russian media reported in August. Investigators have said that Dadayev named Geremeyev as the man who ordered him to fire the fatal shots. Without Geremeyev, who is himself unlikely to have initiated the murder without orders, the investigation falls apart. Without Putin’s intervention, there is nothing investigators can do to force Kadyrov to cooperate. And it doesn’t look likely that Putin will intervene. On 9 March, the Kremlin awarded Kadyrov the Order of Honour, less than 24 hours after he had praised Dadayev as a “true patriot” on Instagram.

Andrei Soldatov, a journalist who has researched Russia’s security services since the earliest days of Putin’s reign, said this was typical of Putin, who has many uses for a blunt instrument. “Putin’s system can be flexible, and sometimes smart. There are times one needs someone like Kadyrov to do dirty things,” he said. “It’s a very good game, and all the players are happy to play their roles. The people behind Nemtsov’s assassination know how useful it is to use Chechens as executioners, given the predictable reaction from Kadyrov, it means the investigators never get further.”

That explains why, although Kadyrov has been fingered for the Nemtsov killing, many people blame someone higher: his boss in the Kremlin, the man who created the environment in which Kadyrov thrives.

“The government, with the help of the media, has spread hatred and aggression in society,” said Zhanna Nemtsova, Nemtsov’s daughter, in a newspaper column in June, just days after she left Russia for Germany, out of fear for her life. “The result is the deaths of thousands of people in the Donbass, attacks on opposition and human rights activists in Moscow, Grozny and elsewhere. My dad was a victim of this propaganda of hate.”

She has since sought to sue Russian investigators for failing to question Kadyrov. But even if they did, what good would it do? Once someone like Kadyrov has been let loose, could even Putin bring him back under control? It is classic Putinist ambiguity: perhaps even the president doesn’t know if he can rein in Kadyrov.

* * *
On 14 June 2015 it was a sunny morning high in the foothills of the Caucasus range. We were in Benoi-Vedeno, the Kadyrovs’ ancestral village. Men with guns took up positions; and soon there arrived a column of Nissan 4x4s, painted in forest camouflage. The Akhmad Kadyrov Fund had gifted bikes to 500 local boys, and boys and bikes alike waited in the courtyard of the mosque. The car doors opened, and Ramzan Kadyrov vanished into the crowd, pursued by his usual entourage.

Kadyrov wants to transform Benoi-Vedeno into a tourist magnet, and officials had organised a sports day: horse races, motorcycle stunt riders, barbecues, traditional games (next day’s headline: “Ramzan Kadyrov threw a sheep’s leg 10 metres”). That evening, there would be a concert by folk singer Rashana Aliyeva.

I had hitched to the village with some garrulous young men who were organising the concert. They had a relaxed attitude to security, and gave me an all-access pass as soon as I asked for one. That meant I could sit and observe Aliyeva rehearsing, and see when Kadyrov arrived to watch. She tried to look unbothered, but she straightened her back a little, lifted her breasts and moistened her lips. By now, it had started to rain heavily, but Kadyrov brushed away an umbrella. He watched avidly for six or seven minutes before striding off, his men scurrying after him. Aliyeva looked distraught as the rain splashed on to the uncovered front of the stage.

Alvi Kerimov, Kadyrov’s spokesman and the old acquaintance who had ignored my every attempt to communicate with him, noticed me and ran off in his boss’s wake. So I left too, walking back to the village, where thousands of feet had churned the verges into mud. There was a sign over the road, hanging between two lampposts and dripping a little. It read, in Chechen: “Welcome, Honoured King, Ramzan, Son of Akhmad”.

Russian-backed militants pledge war if Ukraine moves toward NATO

Recent polls find majority of Ukrainians favour joining NATO

UNIAN: The self-proclaimed leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) Alexander Zakharchenko threatened to withdraw from the Minsk peace agreement, if Kyiv starts the procedure of Ukraine’s accession to NATO.

“Statements by[Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko and his representative in the Minsk talks [Leonid] Kuchma about Ukraine’s need to join NATO are aimed at the destruction of the Minsk agreement. If Ukraine starts organizing a referendum on accession to NATO, or other procedures, the “DPR” will exit from the Minsk agreement immediately and proceed with the cleansing of the whole territory of Donbas from Kyiv’s occupation,” Zakharchenko said, according to one of pro-terrorist websites.

President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko plans to hold a NATO membership referendum. According to him, more than 60% of Ukrainians already support the accession, and the number of supporters is growing.

It was earlier reported that Zakharchenko urged to prepare for a new war with Ukraine.

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France Sells Egypt Warships Originally Destined for Russia

France has agreed to sell two Mistral helicopter carriers to Egypt after their sale to Russia was canceled in August and will not incur a financial loss in the transaction, government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said.

Cairo has sought to boost its military power in the face of a two-year insurgency based across the Suez Canal in the Sinai Peninsula and fears the conflict in neighboring Libya could spill over. Egypt’s allies are also keen to burnish its image in a region beset by turmoil.

“They agreed on the principle and the terms of the acquisition by Egypt” of the two Mistral warships, President Francois Hollande’s office said in a statement after he spoke to his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah Sisi.

An Egyptian delegation had been in Paris over the last few days to negotiate the price.

A diplomatic source said Cairo wanted to base one ship in the Mediterranean and another in the Red Sea, making it available for future operations in Yemen, where Egypt is part of a Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels.

The French government agreed to reimburse 950 million euros to Moscow last month after the Mistral sale to Russia was canceled as a result of the Ukraine crisis.

“I completely refute what has been indicated by some that there will be a loss with regard to this agreement compared to the hypothesis of a sale to Russia,” Le Foll told reporters.

The deal with Egypt comes as France has nurtured new links with Sunni Arab states which appreciate its tough stance on their Shiite rival Iran and similar positions on the region’s conflicts. France has also benefited from what some Gulf countries perceive as disengagement from traditional ally the United States.

One source close to the matter said in August that any deal with Egypt would likely be part-financed by Gulf Arab states.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia agreed at the end of July to work together to create a joint Arab military force.

The Mistral is known as the Swiss army knife of the French navy for its versatility. It can hold up to 16 helicopters and 1,000 troops.

Egypt last year bought four small Gowind warships, built by Mistral manufacturer DCNS, which is 64 percent owned by the French state and 35 percent by defense group Thales.

It also acquired a Fremm frigate as part of a 5.2 billion euro contract for 24 Rafale warplanes earlier this year, France’s first overseas export of the fighter jet.

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Russia’s Online Security Second-Worst in World

Russia suffered the second-largest number of confidential data leaks in the first half of this year but company employees themselves are to blame for most of them, the Kommersant business daily reported Tuesday.

The analysis center of InfoWatch, a Moscow-based online security company, said more than 262 million personal data records had been compromised as a result of 59 data leaks in Russia in the first six months of the year, Kommersant reported Tuesday.

The security breaches affected private and state-owned companies including mobile network operator MTS, VTB-24 bank and Russian Railways, as well as U.S. giants Apple, Google and Microsoft and Chinese tech firm Lenovo, the report said.

In 90 percent of the breaches, personal data records were compromised, including people’s payment details, the report said.

InfoWatch said that 65 percent of the breaches had been facilitated by the companies’ own employees, with targeted attacks such as phishing accounting for only 32 percent of overall cases.

“In one-third [of targeted attacks], leakers simply printed out the information and took it with them,” InfoWatch head Natalya Kasperskaya was cited as saying by Kommersant.

Meanwhile, spending in Russia on data loss prevention software, or DLP, is growing at a faster rate than the global average, increasing by 25 percent in 2014, Kommersant cited the head of analysis at security company Zecurion, Vladimir Ulyanov, as saying.

Overall, InfoWatch registered 723 public data leaks — a 10 percent increase compared to the same period last year, the report said.

The report did not specify which country had the most data leaks, but an InfoWatch report from 2014 showed the U.S. as taking up a leading position that year.

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US to begin training Ukraine’s active-duty military

U.S. paratroops will soon begin training members of Ukraine’s active-duty military, expanding a program in western Ukraine that began by providing support for the country’s newly formed national guard.

Troops with the Vicenza, Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade will train up to five battalions of Ukrainian soldiers as operation Fearless Guardian enters a second phase in November, U.S. Army Europe said.

“The training is part of our ongoing efforts to contribute to Ukraine’s long-term military reform and professionalism and to help improve Ukraine’s internal defense capabilities and training capacity,” said Donald Wrenn, a USAREUR spokesman.

Since April, the 173rd has been rotating soldiers through Ukraine for Fearless Guardian I, providing support for the country’s national guard.

The training was initially conceived as a beefed-up boot camp, with a focus on marksmanship and small unit tactical planning. But because many of the trainees are already hardened from front-line fighting against separatists in Ukraine’s east, the U.S. training has begun incorporating new subjects, including tips on how to counter drone surveillance.

The curriculum for Fearless Guardian II is still being developed, but instruction for Ukrainian soldiers will likely resemble the course work from previous training, USAREUR said.

“This training is part of our long-running defense cooperation with Ukraine and is taking place at the invitation of the Ukrainian government,” Wrenn said.

This additional program is expected to bring total security assistance committed to Ukraine since 2014 to more than $244 million.

Russia, which continues to back separatist fighters in Ukraine, has been critical of the Army’s training effort, calling it an unnecessary provocation.

U.S. military support for Ukraine has been on the rise since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. However, the U.S. has so far declined to provide the lethal arms that Kiev seeks.

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Media prohibited from mentioning Crimean Tatar Mejlis as Blockade sets in

In the latest move in an ongoing offensive against the Mejlis or Crimean Tatar representative assembly, Natalya Poklonskaya, de facto prosecutor in Russian-occupied Crimea has effectively warned the media against mentioning the Mejlis. A message was sent to all leading media from the ‘Ministry of Internal Policy on Information’, with the latter citing a letter from Poklonskaya. This asserts, in insulting manner, that the Mejlis does not officially exist.

“The Prosecutor of Crimea, citing information from the Central Department of the Russian Federation Justice Ministry on Crimea and Sevastopol informs that on the territory of the republic non-commercial organizations are not registered with the name or part of the name ‘Mejlis’ or ‘Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People’.

On the basis of this official letter, the said Ministry “strongly advises” the Crimean media “to stop using the name or parts of the name of non-existent organizations in news, articles, and interviews.”

It is true that the Mejlis has never been acknowledged full official status, but it is undoubtedly the Crimean Tatar self-governing body and enjoys widepread confidence.

The “strong advice” comes as Crimean Tatars under the leadership of Refat Chubarov, Head of the Mejlis, have initiated a blockade of the administrative border between mainland Ukraine and Crimea, allowing no trucks carrying goods to pass. The pro-Kremlin media have been careful to avoid mentioning Crimean Tatars at all, and try to present the blockade as being run by Ukrainian ‘radicals’.

It is, however, also part of a major offensive launched soon after Russian invaded and annexed Crimea. It began with the banning from their homeland of Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemiliev and Refat Chubarov, and harassment and threats against other members of the Mejlis.

With repressive measures increasing by the day against Crimean Tatars, the Mejlis felt compelled to call on Crimean Tatars to boycott the largely pseudo elections organized by the occupation regime in September 2014.

Two days after the elections, on Sep 16, armed men appeared at the Mejlis building in the centre of Sevastopol and blocked access while the FSB spent 11 hours carrying out a search. They were presumably hoping to find something ‘incriminating’. In the absence of anything, bailiffs turned up the following day with a court writ giving the Mejlis and the Crimea Fund – the charity which owns the building – 24 hours to vacate the premises. The pretext was feeble and in no way linked with the armed search the previous day. Details here: Crimean Tatar Mejlis given 24 hours to leave.

Then on Jan 29 2015, the occupation regime arrested Akhtem Chiygoz, Deputy Head of the Mejlis and most senior Mejlis figure left in Crimea, following the bans of Chubarov and Dzhemiliev. He was taken into custody on charges of ‘organizing and taking part in mass disturbances’, namely a demonstration 10 months earlier which had taken place the day before Russian soldiers seized control in Crimea, and 20 days before Russia formally – and illegally – annexed Crimea. Russia and its puppet government in Crimea are not only in breach of fundamental principles of law in pursuing such a legally absurd case, but are even violating Russian legislation. Almost 8 months later, Chiygoz remains in detention and there seems no plan to release him. Other members of the Mejlis face constant harassment and summonses for questioning. Details: Russia breaches own law to imprison Crimean Tatar leader

There have also been efforts to put malleable people, loyal to the Russian occupation regime, in top Mejlis posts. They have failed, and this new extraordinary ‘advice’ to not mention the Mejlis suggests that Russia is seeking to destroy, or marginalize and silence the Mejlis altogether.

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Not dead yet: Russia’s opposition rallies in first major protest since Nemtsov assassination

Russians took to the streets this weekend in the first major call to action by opposition politicians since their leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated seven months ago. The protest rally, themed “Change of Power,” was held in the residential district of Marino, on the outskirts of Moscow, after authorities denied access to a more central Moscow location. The rally was held on September 20, the 4-year anniversary of the so-called “castling” maneuver announced by then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in September 2011 that he would be the one running for president, for a third term, instead of sitting president Dmitry Medvedev, a move that triggered mass protests and civil disobedience. Russia hasn’t been the same since.

The “Change of Power” action comes amid more controversy and difficulty internally as well as externally for Russia. Not only has Russia been waging an openly covert war in Ukraine after it annexed Crimea by force, it is at this moment engaged in a buildup of forces in Syria. Russia is more isolated than it’s been in decades, viewed as a rogue and aggressive state threatening its neighbors and challenging settled international laws and protocols. As if a cruel irony, Russia this month has officially taken over the presidency of the United Nations Security Council which entitles it to play a pivotal role in setting the world organization’s security agenda. Putin himself is scheduled to fly to NYC to speak to the UN General Assembly on September 28, no doubt seeking legitimacy for his regime and policies on a world stage.

Putin’s foreign policy has had substantial impact inside Russia as well. International sanctions together with the dramatic drop in oil prices and subsequent slumping ruble have made everything from mortgages to heating and food more expensive for ordinary Russians. Government has been tightening its belt too. Medical professionals have been laid off, hospital construction has been delayed indefinitely. Even Russia’s propaganda industry budget has been reduced.

Government repression has ramped up as well, as if to keep a lid on the growing stagnation and dissent. Russian mothers burying their soldier sons are asked to stay silent about the circumstances of their deaths in Ukraine. Others have had to fight to receive death benefits. Human rights lawyers aiding these families have been targeted for prosecution. Bookstores are self-censoring, while non-governmental public education organizations, including world renown Memorial and Dynasty, have been designated “foreign agents.” Independent media as well as people are leaving Russia.

In March of this year, opposition leaders had planned an “Anti-Crisis Spring” protest march to address just these critical issues. Censored and ostracized from Russian TV, Putin critics viewed that rally as an opportunity for grassroots education and politics, a way to inform the propaganda-consuming ordinary Russian citizens that their troubles and Russia’s crisis are the direct result of their government’s actions. And Putin, as head of the government, bears the principal responsibility for foreign wars and related domestic crises, and therefore needs to go.

There was controversy concerning the Marino location among opposition leaders when the Spring March was being planned. Some were bitter that authorities wouldn’t permit the rally in a more central Moscow location. They felt classically “injured and insulted” by being pushed out literally to the edges of the capital. Others thought it would hurt the movement because less people would attend. In the end, they decided to go ahead and hold the march even if they couldn’t get approval in a more prominent central location. Better to have a voice somewhere than nowhere.

As it turned out, probably not coincidentally, those voices were silenced by tragedy, and the Spring March never happened. Its leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin in his own beloved central Moscow neighborhood on the eve of what promised to be a significant event attended by tens of thousands of people if not more. The Spring protest was cancelled. Instead March 1 became the day of Nemtsov’s mournful funeral march.

This dramatic turn of events seems better suited to an epic novel than the real world. But that’s where we are, in a kind of bipolar world of shock and trauma mixed with disbelief and determination.

Amazingly enough, and to the Kremlin’s dismay, the opposition is not dead yet. They sought to prove it this week with the “Change the Power” rally. It’s hard to say just yet how successful the action was. On the one hand, like getting back on the bike after a fall, just holding a rally which people actually attended is success in itself. On the other hand, there were many not in attendance, suggesting that the opposition is still divided, which makes their shared goal of transferring the reins of Russia to someone other than Putin in a future peaceful democratic election seems ever more distant.

Russia’s opposition has been notoriously divided from its very beginning. But after the assassination of their most prominent leader Boris Nemtsov in February, they showed laudatory and quick determination to unite in order to make some headway against Putin through elections. Still fresh from the trauma of losing their friend and colleague, they had meetings and conferences, which resulted in the formation of the “Democratic Coalition,” to pool resources and candidates to be competitive in elections. Their first test was to be this year’s regional and local elections, followed by next year’s important parliamentary election.

One week ago, Russia held regional and local elections and, unfortunately, but not too surprisingly, the opposition suffered a major defeat. Of course, the ruling party did just about everything imaginable to prevent opposition candidates from participating effectively if at all in elections, including rejecting signatures which disqualified candidates from ballots, raiding party headquarters, preventing independent observers, spreading disinformation, vandalizing cars, even arresting people on trumped up fraud charges. In the end, the opposition managed to get approved on only one election ballot, in only one distant region, Kostroma, and even there, by official accounts they received a paltry 2.5% of the vote. Despite irregularities and likely fraud, this result was still a stinging disappointment. Bloggers and politicians alike are still assessing the damage.

Whatever the results of the analyses, pulling off a large organized gathering in Russia under these conditions by people who are already embattled, exhausted and surely traumatized, still reeling from an assassination and a failed if unfair election, is nothing short of a miracle. There was unity, words from the heart, and of course, poetry.

Though kicked and brutalized and palpably hurting, Russia’s opposition is continuing its work. The mix of emotions on display in Marino was captured by bloggers, photographers and journalists in attendance. Many wonderful photos by Evgeny Feldman of Novaya Gazeta can be found here, and by Martin here.

I found Russia blogger’s Aleksey Nasedkin’s report particularly interesting because he captures so authentically not only the faces but importantly the tone and mood of ordinary Russians who have been struggling to build a democratic society in Russia. Below is Nasedkin’s photo report, with comments translated into English. To his words (italicized) I’ve added explanatory remarks as necessary.

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Ukraine and NATO ink a number of documents

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council (NSDC) signed a roadmap for strategic partnership in the field of communications.

The signing ceremony took place in Kyiv, on September, after the NSDC meeting.

The roadmap memorandum indicates that NATO is advising Ukraine on strategic communications, including how to fight propaganda.

“This document demonstrates the NSDC’s and NATO’s desire to work together in order to strengthen Ukraine’s capabilities in strategic communications,” the document says.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin and Stoltenberg also signed the agreement on the Status of NATO’s Mission in Ukraine.

Also, NSDC deputy head Oleh Hladkovskiy and NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General-Defense Investment Ernest Herold signed a joint declaration on strengthening Ukraine-NATO military-technical cooperation.

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Russian Railroad Circumvents Ukrainian Territory

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has signed an order authorizing construction of a railroad detour circumventing Ukrainian territory and passing through southern Russia.

The new railroad would connect the Russian towns of Zhuravka in the Voronezh region and Millerovo in the Rostov region, according to a document published on the government’s website Monday. Currently, the railroad between the two towns takes a more direct route, cutting through Ukraine’s territory, according to the document.

The order comes amid rapidly deteriorating relations between Moscow and Kiev over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Kiev imposed new sanctions this month, barring Russian airlines from flying over Ukrainian territory. The restrictions, which target most of Russia’s largest air carriers — including Aeroflot, S7 Airlines, Transaero, VIM Airlines, Rossiya, Ural Airlines and Orenair — extend flight times to popular destinations and could cost Russia tens of millions of dollars, the TASS news agency reported earlier.

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