That Time A Russian OSCE Monitor In Ukraine Got Drunk, Said Too Much

A Russian member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission in eastern Ukraine has lost his job after revealing his impartiality.

The Ukrainian-language TSN new channel, a partner of Ukraine Today, on October 27 aired video footage of a man identified as Maksim Udovichenko revealing his past as a Russian military officer and giving locals his opinion on the situation in Ukraine.

In one video, he is seen speaking to an elderly woman in a city identified as Severodonetsk, a government-controlled city in eastern Ukraine. “This is all rubbish, you know, your Ukraine is rubbish,” he says. “There is the great Russia, you know. It stands near.”

In another, an apparently drunk and secretly recorded Udovichenko is shown telling unseen individuals inside a hotel room that he is a retired lieutenant colonel with the Special Purpose Forces, known as Spetsnaz, and served as a commander of a military unit in Chechnya in 1994.

Holding a bottle of beer, Udovichenko says he retired from the Russian Army in 2010, and also explains the circumstance of how he came to be an OSCE monitor.

The Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMMU) issued a statement on its Facebook page shortly after the TSN report aired.

The OSCE’s SMMU announced that, “following an incident in Severodonetsk last week of highly inappropriate behavior”, immediate steps were taken to “separate the individual from the mission.”

“Following an incident involving a monitor in Severodonetsk last week of highly-inappropriate behaviour the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine took immediate steps the very same day to separate the individual from the mission.
The SMM took the action as the said monitor’s conduct, apparently involving alcohol, was a clear violation of the OSCE Code of Conduct. Unprofessional behaviour and violations of the code and the principle of impartiality cannot and will not be allowed under any circumstance.”

The OSCE says Udovichenko was fired immediately after the report appeared for the violation of the organization’s Code of Conduct.

“The Code of Conduct violation [in his case] was the abuse of alcohol and also the Code of Conduct requires all monitors to act with highest standards of professionalism and impartiality,” the mission’s spokesman Michael Bociurkiw told RFE/RL by telephone.

“His unacceptable conduct was observed and action was immediately taken to separate him from the mission, so he is no longer part of our mission,” Bociurkiw added.

TSN has boasted that it uncovered an agent from an “aggressor country” who “didn’t hesitate to promote the ‘Russian world.'”

Ukraine Today, meanwhile, has raised concerns that the videos “could spark concerns over the OSCE’s impartiality and objectivity, especially with Moscow’s influential role in the Ukraine conflict.”

Other Ukrainian media have portrayed Udovichenko as a “drunken Russian spy” who was exposed by journalists.

Bociurkiw said that the OSCE mission in Ukraine has nearly 600 monitors from more than 40 countries, including about 35 observers from Russia.

The spokesman pointed out that more than 50 percent of the monitors are former military personnel and members of law enforcement agencies.

“It would be very unfortunate if the conduct of one individual tarnished the reputation of the mission and entire work of monitors,” he said.

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Kyiv must use military means to recover occupied territories

Now that Vladimir Putin is focused on Syria and clearly unlikely to stop there, the Ukrainian government should take advantage of the situation by moving militarily to reclaim Russian-occupied territories in the Donbas and Crimea, according to Konstantin Borovoy.

“The attention of the Russian president has been distracted” for the moment by Syria, the Russian commentator says. “But he needs instability in Ukraine, that is his only goal, [and] for Putin the situation now is ideal: no one is trying to change anything, people are negotiating with him as if he were a real politician, and he feels himself someone who is making the decisions.”

No one else is particularly interested in helping Ukraine because “it doesn’t require anything and doesn’t want anything,” Borovoy argues. From the point of view of the international community, everything can continue unchanged for some time to come.

And that means, he continues, that Crimea and the Donbas will remain under occupation.” Indeed, “the situation will change only been Ukraine will begin to resist.”

The refugee crisis has driven Ukraine down to a second or third level in Europe, and there can be “no doubt” that Putin has exploited and accelerated the refugee flow even if it did begin before his bombing. “This is one of the means of creating instability in Europe – the technology of provocation and the technology of the special services.”

“I do not think,” Borovoy says, “this is the last provocation.”

Given that, one must “defend oneself” and not wait until something happens, he continues. “Inaction is very dangerous and even criminal” for European and Ukrainian politicians.

“Today, in spite of itself, Ukraine is fulfilling yet another indirect function: it is taking part in the defense of the international community against aggressive Russia. Putin will not stop at Syria. Provocations against Israel (and it is said this project is already working) and against the Baltic countries are possible.”

In that situation, Ukraine has a responsibility not just to silently sit by and wait for the occupation to somehow end. Some in Ukraine understand that. Among them are the Crimean Tatars. It is reasonable for Kyiv to be cautious, but it is dangerous when caution “becomes cowardice” or even the appearance of cowardice.

Russian citizens and voters, Borovoy argues, “are already tired of the military operation in the Donbas and in Ukraine itself. This propaganda serial has ceased to be interesting to viewers. Therefore, according to all the laws of mass media, an interval has been declared, but this does not mean that the theme is closed for Putin.”

Rather it means, Borovoy says, that Ukraine has an opportunity to being the liberation of the Donbas and Crimea by military means, military because there are no other realistic ones. If Ukraine doesn’t do something, “no one, no Merkel and no Hollande will try for a solution;” and neither will Obama.

Doing nothing as new in fact works to Putin’s benefit: it adds to instability and undermines the trust of Ukrainian citizens in their government. The decision of the Crimean Tatars to blockade Crimea shows that “citizens themselves are beginning to address government problems.”

And that means, Borovoy says, that “the next question which they will ask themselves is this: why do we need such a set of powers if we have to solve state problems ourselves?”

At present, many Ukrainians are saying and some even believe that Russia will eventually give up the occupied territories, but that is a mistake, Borovoy says. When things deteriorate even more, Putin will be even more ready to use military action to deflect criticism from himself.

And there is one other factor and a terribly important one that people in Kyiv need to keep in mind: “in Crimea and in the east of Ukraine are citizens who believe their country and president will at some point liberate them.” The longer time goes on, he implies, the fewer such people there will be.

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OSCE observers report about “Cargo 200” van heading to Russia

An OSCE observer team (OT) has reported about a “Cargo 200” van they saw crossing the Ukrainian-Russian border, according to an OSCE weekly report.

“On October 20 at 18:40hrs the OT observed a van arriving at the BCP [Border Crossing Point] from the Ukraine side with two men dressed in civilian clothes on board. “Cargo 200″ was written in Russian on the inside of the windshield. It remained at the BCP for 15 minutes and crossed the border to the Russian Federation,” the OSCE Observer Mission at Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk said in a weekly update based on information as of October 27, 2015.

“The OT could not ascertain whether there was a coffin on board or not,” it said.

On October 24 at 14:20hrs the OT observed a hearse cross the border from Ukraine to the Russian Federation and return 15 minutes later. “The vehicle was registered in Ukraine and had two persons on board. However, the OT could not ascertain whether there was a coffin on board while crossing to the both sides,” the update added.

During the reporting week, the OTs observed one ambulance crossing the border from Ukraine to the Russian Federation through the Gukovo BCP. The OTs also said they observed two ambulances at the Donetsk BCP during the reporting week. “The OTs could not ascertain whether there was any injured person inside any of these ambulances or not,” it said.

OSCE observers reported about “Cargo 200” vans at the Ukrainian-Russian border in September and two cases alone were reported early in October.

Russian trolls terrorize the West with old KGB methods

The activity of Russian trolls in the West has already gotten a lot of media coverage. However, sometimes it seems that the seriousness of the problem is underestimated both in Ukraine and in the European countries. It were internet users from Poland, the Baltic States and the United States of America that first drew attention to the seriousness of the effect of Russian propaganda on public opinion outside Russia and Ukraine.

It should be noted that “trolls from Olgino” take their duties very seriously. Focused on foreign public, Russian trolls have good knowledge of English, they are able to debate and they know how to easily confuse gullible Europeans or Americans. The most “qualified” trolls are not limited to leaving comments under online articles or amateur forums. They prefer professional societies, such as the world famous network LinkedIn, which is used for job searching and for the exchange of professional resumes; the network also involves a number of international government organizations.

Neither do Russian trolls shy away from reconnaissance communities created by veterans of foreign armies and secret services.
These communities are often visited by the foreign officials and analysts that are searching for up to date information. Kremlin propagandists prefer to use fake internet profiles and hide behind an assumed personality, making it virtually impossible to verify their true identity. For the Ukrainian audience the problem may at first seem to be far-fetched, since the country has been attacked by slanderous and aggressive propaganda for more than two years, leading the society to develop a protective response to libel. Most of us understand that it is useless to argue with internet trolls and we know that we are losing in numbers; we also comprehend that paid or brainwashed cyber-attacks are not worth our time and mental strain, and often we simply avoid pointless virtual battles. Moreover, very few people can out-survive the constant insults and threats without getting their spirits hurt.

But for the Western internet user this situation is somewhat different.
Europeans and Americans believe that the point of view of any person deserves to be heard and respected. Westerners pay close attention to proposed information and give an equal share of trust (and mistrust) to all media, and most importantly – they do not allow themselves to belittle anyone’s personal experience. Putin’s trolls take advantage of foreign internet users, and in one of the instances, the individual under the name of Frenchman Thierry Laurent, wrote in a number of international communities the story about the “horrors” of his visit to Ukraine, including that he was detained by the SBU during his trip and how he was personally confronted with the “Kyiv fascists.” As it turned out, “the Frenchman” wrote his creation from the area of St. Petersburg, and it turned out to be an ordinary fake troll profile.

The “higher level” trolls that focus on Europe and the United States, have a custom approach to different audiences. With the Germans, they prefer to play on the theme of German reunification and use a parallel with the “reunification” of Russia and the Crimea. With Hebrews, trolls talk about the horrors of “Ukrainian fascism” and they spread the lies about an alleged high anti-Semitism in Kyiv. Conversely, to please Muslim and radical-conservative parts of American society, they began to spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Feeding on the traditional democratic society’s distrust of private security services, the trolls are actively using the theme of “it’s the fault of the CIA” in the war in Ukraine as well as in the Syrian conflict, simultaneously pointing out that such “foreign policy” hurts ordinary Americans. Believers are reminded that in the Arab countries Christians are being destroyed and that Russia, by contrast, is “Christian” and, therefore, an American-friendly country. If confronted by any opposition to libel, trolls usually do not give up, and try as much as possible to discredit the opponent in the eyes of the online audience.

The Kremlin trolls are not afraid of threatening their opponents, however, in contrast to the Ukrainian audiences, they behave more cautiously in American online communities
The three favorite methods of trolls is disinformation, a personality or opinion attack, and distraction from the topic of the conversation.

Most of the troll attacks target Russian-speaking opponents – it is with them that trolls often break into promises of direct physical violence, but they are doing so in Russian, so that their American debaters are not aware about the essence of their threats. Some, however, bring up the topic in respect to historical events involving Native Americans, hoping to demoralize the enemy and to force Americans to give up the controversy.
“The most important method used by the Kremlin propagandists is distortion of facts and historical events. If you expose their lies, slanderous accusations to your personality will follow. To do this, trolls will carefully study your online profile and even do a Google search to find something/anything negative. In addition, they like to segment the groups of their opponents into different religions and nationalities, and then they look for contradictions between the groups in order to push them against each other” – recollects New Yorker and an expert on transport and logistics Cheikh Fall, who had encounters with Russian trolls in online expert communities, in an interview to Novyi Region, a Ukrainian online outlet.

“They also like to see your service record and will often visit your personal online homepage in order to cast doubt on the authenticity of your credentials. If they do not find any confirmation, the trolls go on to personal attacks, in order to knock you out of the conversation topic and to get you to focus on their insults,“ continues Cheikh.

“The communication style of trolls has nothing to do with intellectual debate.”
“Their job is to create chaos, to disrupt the conversation, to misrepresent and to confuse the audience in any way possible. They will attack you, your opinions, and your values, make you change the subject twenty times over and try to sow any seed of doubt into the minds of rational readers. However, there is also a second category. They are those who, unfortunately, either got under the influence of Kremlin trolls or succumbed to some other form of propaganda. They do not get paid, but the trolls are actively using them to promote the agenda. They are called “useful idiots,” and they may be persuaded by means of a debate,” says another frequent participant in virtual discussions and a web technology specialist from Washington, Serge Breslaw.

“The three favorite methods of trolls is disinformation, a personality or opinion attack, and distraction from the topic of the conversation. This is the same tactic used by some news companies here, in the US, with the only major difference being that here they face serious competition. In addition, private companies deal with money, and the impact of their work does not lead to death or torture, as opposed to Russian propaganda,” said the New York lawyer and co-chairman of the American Bar Association James Berger.

US intelligence veterans claim that there is nothing new in the tactics of Kremlin propaganda.
While for people living in the post-Soviet space the phrase “active measures” might not ring a bell, it is one that influenced US society greatly during the Cold War. With the help of “active measures,” Soviet foreign intelligence services carried out activities that impacted foreign public opinion, as well as the actions of individuals, government and public organizations.

The KGB supported pro-Soviet forces and tried to influence the opinions of some senior officials and to discredit opponents. It is important to understand that in democratic countries many political decisions depend on public opinion. Officials and politicians prefer to avoid unpopular actions, and therefore the actions of Russian trolls are successful, to a certain extent. At the same time, in Ukraine there are very few specialists with a good knowledge of English that specialize in explaining the real situation in the country to Western audiences and participants of online communities. In fact, the attacks of the Kremlin propagandists on foreign audiences are mostly rebutted only by a few volunteers – “troll fighters.” Paradoxically most of them are American-born.

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Russia admits to deploying army in Ukraine

Leading U.S. newspaper quotes unnamed Russian Ministry of Defense official confirming Russian army presence in Ukraine

The Wall Street Journal has published a report citing an unnamed Russian Ministry of Defense official confirming the presence of Russian army forces inside Ukraine. The revelations fly in the face of 18 months of consistent denials from the Kremlin. Moscow has repeatedly claimed that no Russian army forces have be deployed inside Ukraine despite widespread evidence to the contrary. These Russian denials have been central to the Kremlin-promoted narrative that the conflict in Ukraine is a civil war and not an act of Russian aggression.

The Wall Street Journal article, published on 23 October, focused on the redeployment of Russian Special Forces troops from Ukraine to Syria, and quoted an unnamed Russian Ministry of Defense official discussing the redeployment from east Ukraine in strikingly matter-of-fact manner.


‘Russia has sent a few dozen special-operations troops to Syria in recent weeks, Russian and Western officials say, redeploying the elite units from Ukraine as the Kremlin shifts its focus to supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia in late September launched a campaign of airstrikes in support of Mr. Assad’s government, and President Vladimir Putin has said Russian troops won’t play a role in ground combat. But Russian military experts and officials say small numbers of special-forces units—whose missions are rarely acknowledged publicly—are also on the ground in Syria.

“The special forces were pulled out of Ukraine and sent to Syria,” a Russian Ministry of Defense official said, adding that they had been serving in territories in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russia rebels. The official described them as “akin to a Delta Force,” the U.S. Army’s elite counterterrorism unit.

The Kremlin has long denied that its military forces, including special-operations troops, have been deployed in eastern Ukraine—as U.S. and other Western military officials have asserted.

But after the annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea last year, Mr. Putin acknowledged that Russian special-operations troops in unmarked uniforms, who became known as “little green men,” had helped secure the peninsula.’

Evidence mounts of Russian military role in east Ukraine

These latest Wall Street Journal claims will add to an already large body of circumstantial evidence pointing to direct Russian military involvement in the east Ukraine conflict. The official Kremlin position is that any Russian nationals fighting in east Ukraine are volunteers. A recent forum for Russian veterans of the east Ukraine conflict held in Moscow put the figure of Russian combatants in the 2014-15 conflict at between 30,000 and 50,000, but this figure does not include serving Russian army troops. Regular Russian army soldiers are widely believed to have been deployed to east Ukraine in significant numbers to undertake training, command and battlefield roles after having first removed all identifying insignias.

Ukrainian officials and Western intelligence agencies, together with a range of independent journalists and local eyewitnesses, have all provided evidence to support claims of direct Russian military involvement. This evidence includes testimonies from self-identifying Russian soldiers captured in the combat zone, eyewitness accounts of Russian army columns moving across the Ukraine-Russia border, confessions from Russian officers conducting training of insurgent forces in east Ukraine, and the presence of sophisticated Russian-only military hardware in the east Ukraine conflict zone. The Kremlin has admitted that some of those captured are indeed former Russian army personnel, but has claimed that they resigned immediately prior to deployment in east Ukraine.

Russian denials look increasingly ridiculous

These Russian claims have been met with increasing levels of disbelieve. Despite initial caution among many in the international community, few are now prepared to pay lip service to continued Kremlin denials. The latest round of EU sanctions unveiled in early 2015 specifically sanctioned members of the Russian military hierarchy for their role in conducting military operations in east Ukraine, while the OSCE observer mission has recently highlighted the presence of high-tech Russian-only military equipment in the combat zone. Meanwhile, Western leaders have long spoken openly about the Russian military presence in east Ukraine, brushing aside Russian denials without reference.

Putin’s hybrid war tactics are nothing new

There has been much media speculation over Vladimir Putin’s seemingly novel ‘hybrid war’ tactics in Ukraine, which have included the use of unmarked military equipment and Russian army troops without identifying emblems or insignias. In reality, these are long established Russian tactics. The only reason Russia has succeeded in catching the West by surprise is the fact that the Western intelligence community has paid so little attention to the Kremlin since the fall of the USSR. Old-school Kremlinologists have retired quietly, while the new generation of intelligence officers has been relatively clueless as to the smokescreens and deceptions typically employed by the Kremlin.

In reality, Russia’s so-called hybrid war tactics are nothing new. Moscow actually has a long history of deploying Russian troops in a stealth capacity to serve as unofficial invasion forces. Speaking to Reuters news agency in late October, former Soviet serviceman Valery Anisimov explained how he had been deployed to Syria in the early 1980s under similar circumstances. He was among a shipload of troops sent to the Middle Eastern country and told to pose as tourists. They grew their hair during the voyage and swapped their Red Army uniforms for civilian clothing. “We didn’t call each other ‘Comrade Major’ or ‘Comrade Colonel’. We greeted each other by name and patronymic, so no one would know we were Soviet officers,” the Reuters report quoted Mr. Anisimov as saying.

Long Russian tradition of unidentified troops and undeclared wars

Unidentified Russian troops disguised as locals are believed to have fought in foreign conflicts for decades, providing the Kremlin with geopolitical influence while at the same time providing plausible deniability in the event of setbacks. There are reports of such hybrid war tactics used in the 1920s in Mongolia, in the 1940s in the Baltic States and throughout Eastern and Central Europe, and more recently in Chechnya and Georgia. Ukraine is actually the latest in a long line of such undeclared wars fought by unidentified Russian troops.

In order to address the threat posed by Russia’s hybrid war tactics, the international community needs to address how it defines military aggression. If removing uniform insignias and painting over identification codes on vehicles is sufficient to deceive international intelligence agencies, then there will be little to prevent Russia employing the same tactics elsewhere in the region in places like Kazakhstan, Belarus and the Baltics.

Militants, their families planning to flee to Russia

Most of Russian-backed militants are planning to flee to Russia together with their families, the government’s Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) press officer Leonid Matiukhin said at a briefing on Tuesday.

Matiukhin claims that statements made by the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic terrorist organizations on the rescheduling of their local “elections,” the withdrawal of military equipment from the demarcation line and “the use by Russian supervisors of tough sanctions against the commanders of local gangs disagreeing with the ideology of the Minsk agreements have caused a panic among the militants.”

“Many of those who have participated in the armed conflict have been cherishing plans to move to permanent residence in the Russian Federation together with their families,” he said.
“The one whose hands are not stained with blood is getting rid of weapons,” he added.

Two power pylons supplying electricity to occupied Crimea blasted near Chonhar

Two power pylons supplying electricity to the peninsula were blown up by unknowns at night near Chonhar on the administrative border with the Russian-occupied Crimea.
The State Emergency Service of Ukraine in the Kherson region claims two power pylons of Melitopol-Dzhankoi power line were damaged but did not fall.

According to preliminary information, the explosion was caused by 82-mm mortar shells planted on the pylons. Two of them failed to go off and were neutralized by explosion engineers who shortly arrived at the scene.

The incident was reported by the activists blocking trucks heading to Crimea with food and commodities.

The activists of the civil blockade of the occupied Crimea are set to block the restoration of power pylons supplying electricity to the peninsula.

“Those responsible for the blast have not been identified, despite activists’ plans to start a power blockade after the food one. Nobody intended to explode anything, although there were activists proclaiming more radical steps than that of the organizers.” said the coordinator of the civil blockade of Crimea Lenur Isliamov.

“People who live in Crimea could actually do that. Besides, we have a country at war, where anything is possible, so it could be done by anyone. Even by those who want to portray our peaceful campaign as more radical and set Ukrainians against us,” Isliamov suspects.

“If the pylons are to be repaired, we will block the works without fail,” the activist promises at the same time.
He says that one of the pylons still has a mine attached to it, which has been neutralized, and the two blasted poles have to be utilized, with a new pylon to be planted instead.

How Putin’s Ukrainian Dream Turned Into a Nightmare

Kiev and the West are winning. Now is not the time to let Moscow off the hook.

atever the larger goal of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s armed intervention in Syria, it has succeeded in distracting the world’s attention from his ongoing aggression in eastern Ukraine. In his half-hour speech at the United Nations earlier this month timed to reach a prime-time Russian audience, he spent only a minute on the Ukrainian conflict, focusing instead on Russia’s constructive role in the Middle East.

Putin’s rhetorical redirection is not surprising. The Kremlin’s war in Ukraine is turning into a quagmire.The Kremlin’s war in Ukraine is turning into a quagmire. Militarily, it is a stalemate — which, given the vast imbalance between Russian and Ukrainian capabilities, amounts to a Ukrainian victory. Ideologically, the war is a bust, as the Kremlin’s hopes of converting southeastern Ukraine into “New Russia” have been effectively, and perhaps permanently, shattered. Economically, the war and occupation of both Crimea and the Donbas have imposed ruinous costs on Russia, whose economy has already been battered by declining global commodity prices and Western sanctions. Socially, both regions are on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe for which Russia would be blamed. In sum, Putin’s plans of weakening Ukraine have backfired. Ukraine is slowly getting stronger, while Russia is getting weaker.

Time is, therefore, on the side of Ukraine and the West. They should avoid offering Putin any relief as long as Russian and proxy troops continue to occupy Ukrainian territory: on the contrary, they can and should press for additional concessions. Given Ukraine’s strengthened military and the threat of further sanctions, Putin will be unable to escalate the confrontation. Ironically, Putin’s self-defeating aggression in eastern Ukraine is now limiting his scope of action more effectively than anything the West could have devised.

Much of Putin’s authority at home rests on his ability to deliver steadily improving living standards as the upside of his authoritarian rule. But Russians of all income classes are tightening their belts. The sanctions have already cost the Russian economy 9 percent of GDP, according to the IMF. Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea last February, the ruble has lost 50 percent of its value. In dollar-denominated terms, Russia’s GDP has fallen from $2.1 billion in 2013 to an anticipated $1.2 billion by the end of 2015. In dollar terms, the country’s economy has dropped from ninth in the world to thirteenth. Many Russian professionals are leaving the country, frustrated by its authoritarianism, corruption, and lack of interest in modernization.

Meanwhile, social and economic problems in the Russia-occupied Donbas enclave are mounting. Many of the territory’s economic links with Ukraine have been disrupted. Its GDP has contracted by over 80 percent. Much of its infrastructure and its banking and administrative systems are in ruins. Large swathes of the territory suffer from shortages of gas, water, and electricity shortages. Though it’s hard to know precise figures, unemployment is huge. A large proportion of the region’s skilled workers and professionals are internally displaced or in exile, mostly in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, inflation is high and poverty is growing.

In eastern Ukraine, Putin now has responsibility for a large population of about three million under de facto Russian occupation who are increasingly looking to Moscow to meet basic social needs. He must also cope with a rising criminal class in the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics. A parasitical conglomeration of local political bosses, powerful oligarchs, and criminal elements with roots in Soviet times have traditionally misruled this part of the Donbas. These elements are still around. At the same time, the collapsing economy has made contraband and smuggling, from Russia and Ukraine, one of the most lucrative and stable sources of income, thereby giving rise to new criminal entrepreneurs centered in the power structures of the republics. This development threatens to spread crime and instability into neighboring Russian regions. Statistics from Russia’s Ministry of Justice show a spike in the crime rate in parts of the country bordering on the occupied Donbas.

Adding to this litany of problems is the risk of further economic costs resulting from Russia’s aggression. In September, protesters belonging to Crimea’s beleaguered Tatar minority imposed a blockade on all trucks carrying goods to and from the occupied peninsula. On September 22, Ukraine announced it would launch aggressive international litigation, seeking $50 billion in compensation for the Russian takeover of property and assets in Crimea, and the damage inflicted by Russian weapons and fighters. As successful litigation by investors in the bankrupt oil company Yukos has shown, international courts have the ability to impose economic costs on Russia.

While Western pressure to facilitate a durable peaceful solution should remain a top priority for the European Union and the United States, forcing Ukraine into deep concessions to secure peace at any cost is a mistake. While Putin has dug himself and Russia into a hole, Ukraine is making steady, if unspectacular, progress toward reforming its economy, society, and political system, while retaining its democratic institutions, a free press, and a vigorous civil society. The banking sector is being fixed, energy subsidies have been reduced, and GDP growth is expected to be positive in 2016 — an enormous achievement after a contraction of over 20 percent in 2014-2015. Higher education and the police are being reformed. Government decentralization is being sharply debated and may soon be introduced. Corruption and the courts remain huge problems, but here, too, some inroads are likely to be made once a new National Anti-Corruption Bureau and Prosecutor get to work in late 2015. If the Prosecutor is genuinely independent, progress may be substantial.

The most serious counter-argument against maintaining the sanctions regime and continuing to insist on Russian concessions is that Putin would respond to a tough Western stance by escalating the war in Ukraine, creating additional global mayhem.

But all evidence points in the opposite direction. A ground offensive would be hard-pressed to succeed in the face of an increasingly strong Ukrainian fighting force. Today, 40,000 well-supplied forces, led by officers proven in combat, defend Ukraine’s front line with the Donbas enclave. Ukraine has also arrayed 350 tanks and hundreds of pieces of heavy artillery in the region. It has developed its own drone industry for better intelligence and surveillance. In short, the country is ready to withstand an offensive from the East, and any territorial gains would result in thousands of casualties among the Russians and their proxies. There are also reports of declining morale among the proxy forces as it becomes increasingly clear that they are stuck in a long-term frozen conflict. The time for Putin to have invaded Ukraine was in the spring of 2014, when Ukraine’s government and armed forces were in disarray. Now, short of a major invasion, Russia is stuck.

An all-out Russian invasion, entailing bombardment of Ukrainian cities and forces,would, however, trigger major new Western sanctions as well as embroil Russia in a second war. Hybrid war is one thing; the open use of the Russian air power and massive deployment of Russian forces is another. Russia could expect not only international condemnation, but also economic isolation, including its likely removal from the international SWIFT banking system.

This last measure, which would devastate the Russian economy, has been the subject of Western policy discussions and is thus perfectly possible. And Putin could expect a backlash at home. While Russian public opinion supports the separatist cause in the Donbas, it opposes by a stable majority direct Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, Putin’s propaganda machine has assiduously hidden the fact of a Russian military presence in Ukraine, and of substantial Russian troop losses, from citizens. Putin’s legitimacy among and support by the Russian policy elite would also suffer. Hard-line nationalists already regard his abandonment of the New Russia project as a betrayal of Russian interests.

In sum, Putin’s adventure in eastern Ukraine is now dragging him down. The temporary upside for his popularity is outweighed by the economic burdens of the occupation and the costs of further expansion. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Putin may be losing interest in the Ukraine project. A person party to the September 2 phone conversation between French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and Putin said that the Russian president appeared unengaged and was not in command of the nuanced details of the discussion. Instead, he was more interested in complaining that Ukraine was not buying Russian gas at a cheaper price than it gets from European and other international sources.

For the West, Putin’s quagmire in eastern Ukraine and his dangerous recent intervention in Syria are excellent news. Russia’s foreign policy rests on an eroding economic and political foundation, and the West need only sustain Russia’s Donbas mess for the Kremlin to become more pliant and amenable to compromise. It is as if Putin has himself contained Russia. The West need do little more than maintain the status quo.

The West should pursue two aims. First, it should keep Ukraine sovereign and stable and promote its reform process — which is exactly what the West has been and is doing anyway. Second, the West should maintain strong sanctions on Russia until all its forces and heavy weapons are withdrawn from occupied Ukrainian territory.

Just as importantly, the United States and Europe should clearly and unequivocally label Russia the occupying power in the Donbas and press Russia to provide adequate socioeconomic assistance to the three million Ukrainian citizens under its control. At the same time, the leaders in Kiev must make clear to its citizens in the Donbas that they will be ready to help them, but if and only if the Russian occupation ends. Until that time, Ukraine and the West must do all they can to press Russia to compensate Donbas residents for the damage it has inflicted upon them.

Western policy also should refrain from pressuring Ukraine to absorb the economic burden for rebuilding the Donbas, even if Russia withdraws all its forces, weapons, and bases. The costs must be shared between Russia, which caused most of the destruction, Ukraine, the victim of Russia’s aggression, and the international community. Russia’s cost sharing can be pitched as a face-saving humanitarian gesture by the Kremlin to rebuild the Donbas and save its population from disaster.

For the first time since Putin invaded Crimea, the West and Ukraine have the upper hand. They should play it and force Putin to agree to a genuine peace in Ukraine. He could do it. He started the war in 2014. He forced the separatists to accept a ceasefire on September 1, 2015. If confronted with a tough Western stance, he just might draw the right conclusion and actually end the war with Ukraine.

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Are Russia and the U.S. on the brink of a proxy war in Syria?

Russia’s campaign of air strikes against targets in Syria has seen the United States refuse offers of dialogue on cooperation from the Kremlin, instead supplying arms to groups opposed to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Could the situation develop into a proxy war between Moscow and Washington, played out in the deserts of Syria?

If anyone had any hopes that Russian-American relations would somehow improve after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent meeting with his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama in New York, it is safe to say that now they can be forgotten. And even if Moscow’s military intervention in Syria did slightly change the agenda with Washington toward a decrease of “toxicity” concerning Ukraine, it still has not helped to build cooperation – even when it comes to the crucial issue of fighting terrorism represented by the Islamic State (ISIS) radical militant group. The disagreements between Russia and the U.S. over Syria’s future have turned out to be too great.

A challenge to U.S. policy

Washington has perceived Moscow’s actions in the fight against various terrorist and Islamist groups in Syria (not only ISIS but also groups such as Jabhat al-Nusram, which essentially is an Al-Qaeda branch) not only as excessive autonomy, but also as a challenge to U.S. policy in the region. And all this despite the fact that not only has the broad international coalition’s months-long bombardment of ISIS forces not achieved any serious results, but on the contrary, the group has increased the territory under its control. Mass media have begun saying that Obama has handed the advantage to Putin, something that obviously has only worsened the emotional background for improving dialogue, especially since personal relations between the two presidents have never been marked by amicability.
If in the first days of the Russian bombardments in Syria the U.S. administration was still making statements that could have been interpreted as relatively positive, now it is only voicing criticism and condemnation: The Russians are bombing the wrong formations, they’re playing their own game in Syria and their main objective is not fighting ISIS but helping the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. There is no more discourse about how Assad could play a role in the transition of power. The U.S. refuses to have any consultations with Russia on issues of political regulation in Syria. Moscow’s proposals to hold high-level talks with the participation of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (who actually had decent relations with Obama) have been refused.
The only thing Washington is willing to do is hold talks between the countries’ militaries in order to prevent any accidental combat collisions in Syria’s airspace. After three videoconferences, both Russia’s Defense Ministry and the Pentagon are speaking about the convergence of positions on key issues for the preparation of a memorandum of understanding on flight safety over Syria.

The risk of arms supplies

Will such contacts lead to talks on political issues? In the near future, obviously no. America does not want to discuss with Russia its support for the so-called “moderate opposition” or even explain which groups, besides the semi-mythical Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is divided into tens of motley brigades, it considers moderate. Furthermore, with the failure of the $500-million program that prepared “moderate” fighters on location, the Pentagon has started sending massive weapons supplies to Assad’s enemies to combat him from the air.
But there is no guarantee that these weapons will not end up in the hands of ISIS or other “moderate” terrorists. This has already happened with a shipment of off-road Toyotas that had originally been sent to the FSA but wound up with ISIS – a scandal that flew around the internet. It seems that the U.S. is gambling on a decisive change in the battlefield, one that favors a broad coalition of anti-Assad forces proclaimed as moderate. And then, if necessary, the U.S. will start negotiations. Especially since, with the support of Russia’s air force, Syria’s government troops are now in a more offensive position, which obviously Washington would like to prevent.
In Syria the different groups are constantly forming and reforming alliances, including ISIS, and fighters migrate from one alliance to another – together with their weapons. In Hama province there is an army with several dozens of thousands of fighters that includes terrorist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusram, Ahrar ash-Sham and others. Now there is the risk that they will receive, even if indirectly, through third parties, American arms. At least for now, we are not talking about antiaircraft systems.

Upping the ante

America’s refusal to coordinate its distribution of weapons from the air onto regions occupied by Islamist groups means it is creating the prerequisites for starting a proxy war between Damascus, with its Russian support, and terrorists. This threatens to further worsen relations between Russia and America on all the other issues, to the point of the U.S. considering the introduction of new sanctions against Russia – now for its involvement in Syria. The fact that Washington has momentarily diverted its attention away from Ukraine and the strengthening of NATO forces in Eastern Europe is meaningless. The main battle has shifted to the Syrian desert.
For now this still cannot be called a confrontation in the form of a proxy war. It seems the U.S. believes the Russian campaign and Assad’s worn-out army, which has been fighting a four-year war, will fizzle out. Islamist sites are already showing how American missiles are burning Assad’s tanks in the provinces of Hama and Idlib. This is not the coordination on Syria that the Kremlin would like from the U.S. Also, Washington’s refusal to engage in political talks on Syria’s future can be interpreted by Moscow as a challenge, one that will result in Russia strengthening its alliance with Iran, which is also set on supporting Damascus with military force.

High Anxiety in the Baltics

Putin’s nervous neighbors.

In fall 1991, a member of the Slovenian parliament visited me at my office at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss her country’s campaign to join NATO. I recall the intensity of the conversation and how odd her zeal seemed to me at that moment. The Cold War was over. Slovenia’s fate as a peaceful little Switzerland hugging Austria, Italy, and the Adriatic Sea struck me as fairly assured. My guest insisted, however, that this mostly mountainous, relatively prosperous, southeastern European nation—formerly part of Communist Yugoslavia—needed an insurance policy to protect itself, should history come roaring back in the Balkans. The next spring, history returned. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic started his war against Bosnia, and soon much of the former Yugoslavia was engulfed in flames.

A quarter-century later, in northeastern Europe, there’s growing anxiety that history will grab Latvia and Lithuania by the throat again. Both have been NATO members since 2004. But they’re eager for more assurance these days.

That’s because Vladimir Putin has been working tirelessly to bring Russia back to its nationalistic, narcissistic glory, and the tiny Baltic states feel especially vulnerable. Both border Russia (Lithuania through the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad). Both have salient ethnic Russian populations. Both were occupied by Soviet forces and incorporated into the USSR in 1940. Moscow is clingy. This summer, the Russian chief prosecutor’s office, acting at the request of members of Putin’s United Russia party, announced it would examine whether the Soviet Union acted legally when it recognized Baltic independence in 1991. It sounds ominous. This is the same chief prosecutor that ruled in June that Russia’s 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine had been illegal.