Russia ‘accidentally reveals’ number of its soldiers killed in eastern Ukraine

Whilst Russia continues to deny that its troops are fighting in the ongoing Ukrainian conflict, a respected news site in Russia seemingly inadvertently published secret figures that detail deaths and causalities of forces on the ground.

According to Forbes, Russian news site Business Life (Delovaya Zhizn) revealed what seem to be official figures detailing the number of Russian troops killed and injured in “Eastern Ukraine.” The site, which generally focuses on coverage of markets, finance and leisure, posted a piece entitled “Increases in Pay for Military in 2015,” that at first glance would be uncontroversial.

But the article appears to detail the numbers of Russian deaths, as well as the figures for those injuried. The content was hastily removed, but it was webcached by the Ukrainian journal Novy Region (New Region).

Putin decreed in May this year that all military deaths are to remain state secrets. In the past, only deaths in wartime were classified. At the time, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the decision was connected to fighting in Ukraine, simply stating that the law change was part of “the improvement of the state secret law.”

But this leaked information, subsequently translated by Forbes, reveals that families have been receiving three million rubles (£27,500) in compensation for an individual dying in military action, whilst those who are injured would be awarded one and a half million (£13,700).

“A payment of 1,800 rubles is envisioned for contract “fighters” for every day of their presence in the conflict zone,” Paul Roderick Gregory continues in his translation, “as of 1 February 2015, monetary compensation had been paid to more than 2,000 families of fallen soldiers and to 3,200 military personnel suffering heavy wounds and recognized as invalids.”

James Nixey, the head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, suggests this leak is just another “nail in the coffin” in proving Russia is engaged in military action.

“I don’t think it’s anything new, there is verifiable photographic, satellite, and personal testimony evidence that shows Russia is involved in military action in Ukraine.”

“Ultimately when you have a sustained campaign on this scale, errors slip out, and people do slip up. This is a mistake on the part of the Russian, more grist to the mill for people trying to get the word out that Russia is not a third party semi interested player, but is one party to a major international war.”

In February 2014, after months of protests in Ukraine, President Victor Yanukovych was forced out of office, and just a matter of days later armed men opposed to the Ukrainian Euromaidan movement, believed internationally to be Russian forces, entered Crimea, Eastern Ukraine.

Russia continues to deny military involvement in the area, although it supports the cause of the rebels in the Donbass region of Ukraine, but says none forces are involved in the fighting.

“This webpage will presumably be claimed to have been forged,” suggests Nixey, who is an expert on the conflict, “as has been the case with dog tags, passports, satellite imagery, prisoners confessing and other evidence seen. They argue it is Western propaganda.”

“Any country in a long term war that a state can’t extract itself from will see support start to erode at home; whether it’s an autocracy or democracy, and Russia is no different.”

When asked what this news meant for the long term strategy of Putin, with seemingly high figures of deaths and casualties, Nixey argues that over time, Russian involvement in the fighting “will become a lot less popular.”

“If you look at the polls, yes, Russians at first glance seem broadly supportive of the war, but that’s propaganda. If you ask more specifically, should Russia should become embroiled in a war that will cost lives in Ukraine, support drops dramatically below 50 per cent.”

“There is no exit strategy for Putin, he’s in a war that he can’t afford to lose, but is incapable of being won; an impasse for Russia as the economy declines as does the popularity of the war.

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Shokin’s return as prosecutor general is story of day in Ukraine

Remember international financial institutions and civil society movements had called for Shokhin to be removed as a step towards cleaning up the public prosecutor’s office.

The problems run much deeper than one individual though.

President Petro Poroshenko asked Shokhin to resign and he “usefully” went off on holiday (on Feb. 16, a day after Deputy Prosecutor General Vitaliy Kasko resigned, citing ongoing obstruction of justice by Shokin.)

This seemed to calm criticism down a bit – buying time perhaps for Poroshenko to regroup.

Now Shokhin has returned to work, and the Rada needs to vote to remove him.

I am hearing that there may not now be a majority, in fact, to remove him, which will be a huge disappointment to the reformers, and the international financial institutions.

I think if one issue acts as a clarion call now for the future of the technocrats in any future administration, it is what happens to Shokhin and reform in the Prosecutor General’s Office more generally.

If Shokhin stays, then many people will really question Poroshenko’s commitment to rule of law as they will argue that the old guard remains in charge.

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Russian Lawyer demands Russia investigate Kremlin-backed militant leader’s war crimes in Donbas

Following the public admission by Igor Girkin [Strelkov] that he ordered extrajudicial killings during his period as military leader of the Kremlin-backed militants in Donbas, a St Petersburg lawyer, Arkady Chaplygin has demanded that Russia initiates criminal proceedings against Girkin for committing what are undoubtedly war crimes in eastern Ukraine.

Interestingly, the interview which Girkin gave to the pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda in 2016 has now been removed. It was, however, widely reported, and there are undoubtedly plenty of copies around of Girkin’s admission to war crimes.

He was asked how they had fought looting, and answered “through executions. Because during a war, especially in conditions of siege, all courts… “ He then claimed that they had a ‘military court’ and imposed the legislation introduced by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1941 (when Nazi Germany invaded the USSR). “On the basis of that legislation, we carried out trials, executions. In all four people were executed during my time in Sloviansk.” One, he says, was “an ideological supporter” of the Ukrainian nationalist ‘Right Sector’.

This may have been the first time that Girkin admitted to the executions, but his aide, Igor Druz had informed the BBC of them back in August 2014. While Girkin admitted only to killing ‘looters’, Druz was entirely open, saying that the militants had killed a number of people “to prevent chaos”.

It is possible that other admissions in Girkin’s interview prompted its removal by a channel which is unfailingly obedient to the Kremlin. Girkin openly admitted that his men had provoked the conflict in Donbas. “The first shots, albeit in the air, were from the rebels, carried out by our unit”.

Chaplygin has lodged a formal statement with the Russian Federation Central Investigative Department. He writes that the crime is under the jurisdiction of Russia’s investigative bodies since it was carried out by a Russian national, and the foreign state (Ukraine) had not passed any sentences. Chaplygin says that he will appeal against any refusal to initiate criminal proceedings, and that they will seek a proper investigation, collecting information for this.

There is, in fact, plenty of evidence, including ‘death sentences’ signed by Girkin himself, which were found by foreign journalists after the militants fled in early July 2014.

Girkin himself expresses confidence that he does not need to fear the International Criminal Court in the Hague “since this is an instrument in the hands of the victors”. He also suggests that he would never end up there since he knows too much.

He certainly knows too much for Russia to initiate criminal proceedings against him. Girkin is believed to have been a GRU or Russian military intelligence officer until at least 2013. He was heavily involved in Russia’s invasion of Crimea, before moving to Donbas where he led the heavily armed men who seized control of Sloviansk in April 2014. He later acted as ‘defence minister’ of the so-called ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [DNR].

He and Alexander Borodai, another Russian DNR leader, were removed in late summer when it became politically expedient for the Kremlin to install Ukrainian nationals in top posts. In Girkin’s case, this had become particularly desirable after the downing of the Malaysian airliner MH17. Although the claims that the reports on his social network page were fakes, there is ample evidence that the militants triumphantly reported downing a Ukrainian military transport plane. The reports on Russian media about this showed footage from the MH17 disaster. They were later removed, though not quickly enough for the Kremlin.

One of the most disturbing parts of the Komsomolskaya Pravda program was the way Girkin was introduced to the audience as “hero of the Russian Spring” who “defended Donbas” as the audience’s ancestors had once defended Russia.

It seems that KP or their masters in the Kremlin have understood that some ‘heroes’ need to be censored.

During the months that Sloviansk was under militant control, it was hard to keep up with the abductions and hostage-taking and there were a large number of cases of torture and killing as well as extrajudicial executions. At least one mass grave was found after the militants fled.

Girkin had his headquarters in the Sloviansk SBU [Security Service] building. Hostages were held in the basement there, as well as in the central police building, and in both places were subjected to torture. ‘Executions’ were carried out in the police investigators’ offices on the basis of the so-called ‘death sentences’. The ‘military tribunal’ was made up of militants referred to as “Nos” [Nose], Sedoy [Grey-haired], etc.

Girkin was either lying about the ‘executions’ he reported, or only mentioning some. 31-year-old Oleksy Pichko was ‘sentenced to death’ and shot by firing squad for stealing two shirts and a pair of trousers from a neighbour’s home. Vitaly Solovyov was 36 when he was arrested in the home he shared with his elderly grandmother, accused of looting and sentenced to death by the same grotesque ‘tribunal’. Another such ‘trial’ and execution order was of a 25-year-old student who had arrived in Donbas to defend his country.

The mass grave included the bodies of four members of the Evangelical Church of the Transfiguration in Sloviansk: the two sons – Reuben and Albert – of Paster Oleksandr Pavenko, and two deacons of the church Viktor Bradarsky and Volodymyr Velichko. The four were abducted from the Trinity Sunday festive service on June 8, and are believed to have been tortured and then killed the next day.

There were many other victims of Girkin and his men, such as Volodymyr Rybak, Deputy of the Horlivka City Council, who was abducted while at a rally in support of Ukrainian unity. There is a video of him being dragged away by militants after he tried to pull down the DNR flag hoisted over the seized building. His tortured and mutilated body was found a few days later together with those of 19-year-old student Yury Popravko and 25-year-old Yury Dyakovsky.

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Former Putin Aide Involved in Fight Before Mysterious Death – Reports

The mysterious death of Mikhail Lesin, former presidential aide and media tycoon, took a new turn on Thursday when U.S. forensic specialists reported new evidence that he died from a “blunt force trauma to the head.” In addition to head injuries, the autopsy determined, Lesin suffered blunt injuries to his neck, body and upper and lower limbs.

The Kremlin and Foreign Ministry reacted to the news by stating they expected Washington to “provide more details” on the case. In a statement on Facebook, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said the Russian Embassy in the U.S. was awaiting more “substantial information” from the U.S. side.

Later reports referring to two anonymous sources “close to Lesin,” suggested that the controversial former minister may have been involved in a fight on the night of his death. One source said that Lesin had been a boxer in his youth, and was “known to get into conflicts.”

“This is his character, he’s stubborn,” the source is reported as saying.

The news comes four months after Lesin was found dead on the floor of a room at Washington D.C.’s Dupont Hotel on Nov. 5, 2015. Then, Lesin’s relatives reported that he had died of a heart attack.

At the time, U.S. police and medical experts did not report any signs of a violent death, only stating that there were no gunshot wounds on the body.

Mikhail Lesin was an influential leader of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. From 1999 to 2004, he was a minister for the media, overseeing an aggressive government policy that saw control installed over the country’s mass media.

Following that, he was a presidential media advisor, and was credited with the creation of a new, English language pro-Kremlin television channel RT. Between 2013 and 2014, he headed the Gazprom-Media media holding company, before quitting abruptly, citing family matters.

Between then and the day of his death, however, Lesin fell out of favor. Some reports suggested he had quarreled with Yury Kovalchuk, a major Gazprom Media shareholder and Putin’s personal friend. Some suggested that Lesin owed Kovalchuk a large amount of money.

The new evidence has fueled speculation about Lesin’s murder.

Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, majority owned by Gazprom-Media said he had not believed the earlier version that Lesin had died from a heart attack. “Relatives couldn’t know that at the moment of publication as an autopsy had not been carried yet,” he said.

However, this didn’t mean Lesin was killed on purpose, says Venediktov: “This has the appearance of an accidental death. Lesin no longer possessed state secrets, he was paying the money back to Kovalchuk, and was of no interest to the Americans.”

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Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro’s inquiry into Russian trolls stirs up a hornet’s nest

Soon after Jessikka Aro poked the trolls, they started to stir.
In one of the early calls, someone phoned her mobile and fired a gun.

Undaunted, she kept poking. And the growls have been getting louder.

Last spring someone sent her a text message pretending to be from her father – who died 20 years ago – telling her he was “watching her”.
Another wrote a song, mocking her as a bimbo “James Bond” NATO agent with a drug habit. There is even a music video online, with Aro portrayed by an actress in a leotard and wig. It would be funny if it wasn’t dripping with venom.

And just a few weeks ago there was a blog post. Someone had trawled through old court records and found a copy of Aro’s 12-year-old fine for amphetamine possession, twisting it into outrageous claims of addiction and drug dealing.

Personal attacks on journalists are nothing new. But the case of Jessikka Aro is considered extraordinary by European Union officials familiar with this and other cases.
They told Fairfax Media it was a case study of Russia’s escalating “information war” against the West, an increasingly sophisticated and well-resourced operation that already counts the annexation of Crimea among its successes.

Aro is an investigative journalist with Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle. All her life she has been fascinated by Russia, she says – “it’s my favourite topic, really” – she finds Russian society “interesting, fascinating and also a bit scary”.

Finland’s history makes its bigger, stronger neighbour an enduring presence in its culture and politics.

Aro had been writing about jihadist propaganda, and noticed reports about Russia’s “troll factories”, reportedly Kremlin-funded set-ups pumping out fabricated news and propagandist social media commentary: regurgitated misinformation from the bowels of the internet.

So in September 2014 she crowdsourced an article, asking Finns “to help look for trolls, [tell me,] how do the trolls act, how do they work, what is their influence in Finnish public opinion?

“I got something like 200 responses and information,” she says. “I also got so much trolling.”

A few days later Finnish pro-Russian activist Johan Backman got involved. Last year he was appointed the “official representative” of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies in the Nordic countries. RISS was founded by Russian President Vladimir Putin, as a think tank/lobby group funded by the Kremlin to promote its policies and interests, domestically and in Bulgaria, Turkey, Finland and France.

But Aro says Backman was doing more than just disagreeing with her journalism.

“He started to fill the internet … with disinformation about me being some kind of helper of the United States and Estonia and other countries’ intelligence services or security and police services,” Aro says. “[He was] claiming – lying – that I am collecting some kind of illegal database of Putin supporters in Finland. And that it’s criminal.
“He was doing very active campaigning against me.”

Fairfax Media put a list of questions to Backman but he had not responded at the time of writing.
According to a report from a Finnish news agency, police last week launched an investigation into Backman and the chief editor of a news blog, MV Online, in relation to the persecution and defamation of Aro.

Backman stirred up the trolls, Aro says. Soon after she began to receive “very disturbing messages, absurd messages, trolling messages” in Russian, English and Finnish, on the internet and by phone. And over time – as she has written more stories about their activities – they have just become worse.
“All these horrible things [they say] have given me this feeling of fear sometimes. They stalk me all the time. They stalk everything that I do on social media. They take my pictures and add them to [false blogs].”

They “repurposed” her holiday photos, they emailed editors and politicians to call for her sacking. They even stalk her friends.

At one point, one offered to “play down” the hate speech against her if she apologised and promised to stop writing about pro-Russian trolls – an offer Aro considered blackmail.
Such trolls, Aro says, are having an unhealthy impact on freedom of speech and democracy more broadly.

Aro says she has spotted some “high-profile officials” in the Finnish parliament lurking on troll groups on social media.

And she says ordinary Finns who are exposed to troll misinformation have “told me that they have started to lose touch with what is true and what is not true … for example, in the Ukraine crisis they don’t know what is a fact and what’s not, because trolls mess up the conversation”.

Some of those attacking her say they are just exercising freedom of political speech. Aro has no time for that argument. In fact they are trying to suppress other people’s free speech through aggression, she says.

An EU official who has been studying Russian propaganda – and who spoke to Fairfax Media on condition of anonymity – says Aro’s case is “quite extraordinary”.
“I’m actually surprised this is happening in the EU,” he says.

The amount of resources being put into an attempt to bully Aro was remarkable. “Not only money but also people. The purpose: intimidation … to kill the debate.”
However, Aro is far from the only victim, nor the only topic of pro-Russian trolling, misinformation and propaganda, the official says.

“You go through the disinformation stories around the continent and you see the very same article launched at some minor Russian blog site, then multiplied by 15, 20 different web pages and then gets back to the Russian media who can say, ‘Oh, ISIS fighters have joined the Ukrainian armed forces.’
“It is organised to serve the purposes of the Kremlin.”

The official says the propaganda takes different forms in different countries: in Britain it exploits the Brexit issue, in the former Soviet bloc it tries to drive a wedge between countries over Middle Eastern refugees.

Prior to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the official says, a flood of disinformation clouded claims that Russian troops had entered the Ukraine province.
“It showed that disinformation can affect our political decision-making,” he says.

More recently, a claim emerged – since admitted false – that a 13-year-old Russian-German girl was raped by a Middle Eastern or North African refugee in Berlin. The claim was spread and outrage stoked by pro-Russian trolls, even sparking a protest on the streets of Berlin, and then was stirred further by the Russian Foreign Minister before the whole story was found to be a hoax.

“This is a serious problem that doesn’t just affect the Ukraine or Baltic states but also a huge part of Europe,” the official says.

He puts credence in a theory that the troll network is used to “road-test” conspiracy theories, seeding six or seven competing pieces of propaganda or misinformation and letting the Darwinian world of online information exchange prove which is the hardiest – which is then republished by more conventional media. It’s a system applied, for example, to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014.

“One of the biggest problems is we don’t have a clue how much money they put into this,” the official says. “We do not have clue how much media there are, how many people they target, how many people they reach. We can only guess from the results.

“The aim is not to make you love Putin. The aim is to make you disbelieve anything. A disbelieving, fragile, unconscious audience is much easier to manipulate.”
But Aro says she is undaunted, going up against these foes.

“The best thing I can do is to just publish everything that happens to me. That’s also what my audience wants.

“I don’t want to be portrayed as some kind of crying victim. Yes, I cry sometimes, but most of the time I just do my articles and don’t care.”

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Vladimir Putin Just Gained a Potential New Adversary

Russian President Vladimir Putin got a possible new adversary on Friday when the Defense Department tapped Army General Curtis “Mike” Scaparrotti to led U.S. and NATO forces in Europe.

Scaparrotti, who has served as the head of U.S. forces in South Korea for the last three years, will take the reins from Gen. Phillip Breedlove as the commander of European Command and Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. This is at a time when the Obama administration is looking to boost support to eastern European allies in the face of Russian aggression.

The Pentagon requested four times the amount spent on the so-called European Reassurance Initiative for fiscal year 2017, which covers training and for U.S. and European forces, raising the total outlay to $3.4 billion.

Most of that money, $2 billion, will go toward putting an armored brigade combat team in the region 24/7 on a rotational basis. The addition to a Stryker vehicle brigade and an infantry brigade already in Europe means 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. troops will continually rotate throughout NATO countries, so as not to violate the coalition’s charter that prohibits a permanent military presence.

If approved, the increase in U.S. boots on the ground will surely rankle Moscow. There’s no question Putin and his regime have enjoyed keeping Washington on its toes in the two years since it’s lightning-fast annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

The Kremlin has caused the White House no small amount of headaches with its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the overt saber rattling surrounding the modernization of its sprawling military arsenal and its aggressive air campaign in Syria.

While some could argue that the administration’s moves are too little, too late, and that Putin will merely shrug off the increased American presence, though the increased forces might just be the beginning of a bigger commitment that will be carried out by the next president.

The years of tension between the former Cold War opponents have raised serious questions about the utility and effectiveness of NATO in light of Russia’s advances–questions that will have to be addressed soon if the 28-member organization is to carry on as bulwark against Moscow.

As for Scaparrotti himself, he leaves the Korean Peninsula at a hair-raising time. In response to large-scale U.S.-South Korea military exercises and new round of economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations, Pyongyang in recent weeks has embarked on a new campaign of belligerence.

The Hermit Kingdom has launched multiple short-range rockets into the sea, and on Friday, the state’s official news agency reported that leader Kim Jong Un had ordered another nuclear test.

The four-star will likely need all the skills he’s learned over his three-year stint in Korea to divine, and possibly counter, moves by Russia–something Defense Secretary Ash Carter alluded to his statement announcing Scaparrotti’s nomination.

Scaparrotti has “demonstrated his excellence as a soldier-statesman, skills he will need as he works closely with our most trusted Allies and partners in Europe.

“General Scaparrotti is one of the U.S. military’s most accomplished officers and combat leaders, and it is my hope that the Senate will act quickly on his nomination,” Carter said.

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Russia ‘trying to oust Angela Merkel by inciting unrest against refugees in Germany’

Russia is trying to oust German chancellor Angela Merkel through a propaganda network aimed at provoking anger over the refugee crisis, according to Nato’s most senior expert on strategic communications.

Nato analysts have reportedly identified these attempts to topple the German leader, who has been a leading advocate of economic sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Jānis Sārts, director of Nato’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, told the Observer it had gathered evidence of Russia interfering in Germany against Merkel, adding that Russia already had a track record for funding extremist forces in Europe.

Mr Sārts said: “[Russia] is establishing a network that can be controlled. You can use it as they have tried to do in Germany, combined with the legitimate issue of refugees, to undercut political processes in a very serious way.

“Angela Merkel has been a very adamant supporter of continued sanctions against Russia if it was just punishment, that would be OK – but it is testing whether they can build on pre-existing problems and create a momentum where there is political change in Germany.

“I think they test whether they can – in such a big country, with not so many vulnerabilities in normal times – actually create a circumstance through their influence where there is a change of top leadership. They are using Russian speakers, social media, trying to build on the existing fault lines. Use the far right narrative and exploit that.

“In general terms, you can trace Russian funding to the extreme forces in Europe. Either left or right – as long as they are extreme, they are good to come into the Russian picture as of possible use in their tactics.

“We saw it in Germany. The best misinformation tool is when your opponent doesn’t notice. That is when it is most effective. I would submit that there are a number of countries who have not yet noticed, or have chosen not to notice.”

Germany has welcomed more than one million refugees over the past year – a large proportion fleeing from Syria’s civil war – who have been encouraged by Ms Merkel’s announcement that she would not put a limit on the number who could settle in the country.

Alternative für Deutschland, Germany’s right wing populist party, has had a surge of support as a result of the refugee crisis. But Ms Merkel, a hitherto widely supported leader, has received criticism – with a recent poll suggesting 81% of German citizens believe the Chancellor has lost control of the situation. Support for her is now at a four-year low.

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The world is Vladimir Putin’s stage, but cracks appear on the Russian President’s homefront

The news on state television shows Russia advancing on every front. Top of the bulletin, most nights, are images of Russian soldiers in Syria, apparently monitoring the wobbly ceasefire there. Then come clips of meetings between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and foreign dignitaries such as United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon. Later are scenes from Ukraine, a country portrayed as descending into chaos since turning its back on Moscow.

The message is easy to grasp for viewers across all 11 time zones of this sprawling country: Russia is back.

The West tried to isolate Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea and failed. It is too big and too powerful to be ignored.

Much of what passes for the news on the television here is outright propaganda – independent media outlets having been marginalized or taken over by the state more than a decade ago – but the messaging works because it nonetheless contains more than a kernel of truth.

In Syria, seven months of Russian air strikes have tilted the conflict back in favour of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and have put additional pressure on the European Union by sending fresh tides of refugees in that direction. (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s top commander in Europe accused Russia and Syria this week of “deliberately weaponizing migration” as the continent braces to receive hundreds of thousands of refugees again this year.)

The week-old ceasefire in Syria happened because Russia wanted it to. The appearance of a foreign war being halted, however briefly, by Washington and Moscow – the two superpowers of old, alone at the bargaining table – delivered a massive boost to Russia’s prestige on the world stage.

In Ukraine, where the conflict between Russia and the West began in earnest with the fall of Viktor Yanukovych two years ago, another ceasefire is holding around the Moscow-backed separatist enclaves in the southeast of the country, a peace of sorts that puts the country’s Western-backed government in a difficult corner while granting the Kremlin many of its key aims.

At home, a domestic opposition has been trembling since last year’s killing of former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. A Kremlin adviser told The Globe and Mail last week that it was “95 per cent” certain that Mr. Putin would serve six more years in the presidency after his current term runs out in 2018.

So, two years on from the annexation of Crimea, is Mr. Putin winning his high-stakes showdown with the West? The short answer is yes. So far.

“Russia has showed that it’s much stronger than it had been regarded by international media and the international elites,” said Sergei Markov, a member of the country’s Public Chamber that monitors government decisions. In both Syria and Ukraine, “Russia has shown that it’s an actor without which it’s impossible to resolve the situation,” he said.

The longer reply is that the Russian leader, while advancing on the global stage, may have left himself exposed on the home front. And his victories abroad may soon look Pyrrhic unless his foreign-policy gains are followed by a domestic economic turnaround.

Low oil prices (Russia is the world’s second-largest oil producer, after Saudi Arabia) and Western sanctions over Ukraine have shoved the economy into a tailspin, threatening the key social compact of Mr. Putin’s 16-plus years in power: Kremlin-managed economic stability in exchange for the public’s passive support for its agenda.

“The model of development that was pretty successful in the 2000s and started to stagnate in the 2010s now has been exhausted,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Moscow-based foreign-policy journal Russia in Global Affairs.

“In the foreign-policy game, [Mr. Putin] is pretty successful, but the general course is pretty unclear.”

Going into Syria

Russia’s military move into Syria took the West by surprise. The Kremlin, it had been assumed, was isolated and overstretched by its involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, incapable of providing anything more than diplomatic support to Mr. al-Assad, a long-time ally.

As with the seizure of Crimea – another move no Western leader seemed prepared for – Mr. Putin’s gamble has altered the rules of the game.

The gains from Russia’s intervention in Syria have been many. Most obvious has been a break in the prolonged stalemate between Mr. al-Assad’s army and the assorted rebel groups – some backed by the United States, others by Sunni Arab powers, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey – arrayed against the regime. With their opponents battered by Russian air strikes, Mr. al-Assad’s forces have been on the advance in recent months, encircling the main rebel-held city of Aleppo just before the ceasefire took hold on Feb. 27.

Mr. al-Assad, whose area of control was at one point reduced to just Damascus and the Mediterranean coast heartland of his Alawite sect, now speaks of recapturing all of Syria.

But the most important victory has been the restoration of the idea that Russia matters. The next U.S. president – whether it’s Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or someone else – will have to talk to the Kremlin about Syria. Ignoring Moscow is no longer an option.

“Russia’s presence [in Syria] changed almost everything in terms of the situation on the ground and the political dimension, which was absolutely not expected and not envisioned by Western counterparts. Russia basically escaped isolation,” Mr. Lukyanov said.

And that has implications for Ukraine, the other front in this Cold War-esque struggle.

The West’s official position is that sanctions against Russia – targeting its defence, energy and banking sectors – will remain in place until Moscow fulfills its obligations under a peace deal signed last February in the Belarussian capital of Minsk. Among other measures, the Minsk deal calls for the Ukrainian government to regain full control of its border with Russia, a step that would make it far more difficult for Moscow to supply its allies in the mini-states of Donetsk and Lugansk. Nothing like that has happened. Meanwhile, Russia says that it’s the government in Kiev that hasn’t fulfilled the Minsk deal.

Mr. Lukyanov said the Kremlin is happy with the stalemate in Ukraine. Crimea is in Russian hands. The existence of the Donetsk and Lugansk “people’s republics” effectively blocks Ukraine from joining NATO. And the political situation inside the country is deteriorating on its own, with President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk – co-leaders of the pro-Western revolution that deposed the Russian-backed Mr. Yanukovych two years ago – turning on each other with accusations of corruption. There’s growing fatigue in Western capitals with the slow pace of reforms in the country.

There are already signs that Western solidarity over Ukraine and the sanctions is cracking. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi raised eyebrows in Washington and Berlin when he announced two weeks ago that he would attend the annual St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June, a traditional showcase for Russian businesses. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has suggested that he may do the same.

Western diplomats whisper that the Kremlin may prevail simply because it cares more about Ukraine than the West does.

An end to the sanctions row would allow Mr. Putin to turn his attention back to what Mr. Lukyanov called Russia’s “existential, conceptual deadlock” over what to do next.

TV vs. fridge

Russia’s economists and political scientists talk of a battle between “the television set and the fridge.” The TV – which largely skips over the large and mounting economic troubles, or blames them all on external enemies – has been successful in convincing Russians that their country is getting stronger and that they should therefore be proud of their government.

Their increasingly bare fridges tell a different story. The unanswered question is how long Russians are willing to listen to the arguments from one appliance over the evidence in the other.

So far, the TV set rules. The Russian economy is forecast to shrink for a third consecutive year in 2016. The era of high oil prices appears over, at least for now. The ruble is worth less than half what it was during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, before the revolution in Kiev, the seizure of Crimea and all that has come since.

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama extended sanctions against Russia for another year. Canada, despite the Liberal government’s stated desire to resume contacts with Moscow that were suspended by the Conservatives, is moving slowly on the relationship and is likely to follow the White House’s lead on sanctions.

Yet Mr. Putin’s approval ratings remain near 85 per cent.

“In some senses, people are eating this feeling of being a great power, in addition to real foodstuffs. It’s a substitute for a good economic performance,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, chair of the domestic politics program at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “People feel themselves in a besieged fortress. They feel Stockholm syndrome affection toward Vladimir Putin, and they try to find external enemies, such as the West.”

But the problems are real and piling up. Oil prices remain well below $40 (U.S.) a barrel, down from more than $100 when Mr. Putin signed the papers to formally annex Crimea, and much lower than the $50 assumed in Russia’s budget forecasts for 2016. (More than half of government revenues traditionally come from oil and gas exports.)

The ruble has correspondingly plunged from 33 to the U.S. dollar before the Crimea takeover to more than 80 earlier this year before recovering to just over 72 to the dollar on Friday. Ordinary Russians have been hit hard in the wallet: Official inflation was 15.5 per cent last year. Fruit and vegetable prices rose at double that pace.

With Mr. Putin unwilling to trim back on military adventures, the cuts have come elsewhere. In January, all departments – except the Ministry of Defence, which accounts for roughly a quarter of all government spending – were told they needed to cut 10 per cent from their budgets. State pensions, normally sacrosanct, were quietly de-indexed from the inflation rate, as Finance Minister Anton Siluanov warned that the country risked depleting the $50-billion remaining in its Reserve Fund, one of two coffers the government has built up as buffers against financial collapse, perhaps by the end of the year.

While the unemployment rate remains steady at 5.8 per cent, that number is considered misleading as many Russian companies have reduced hours – asking employees to come in for only two or three shifts a week, instead of five – rather than resorting to layoffs. On Wednesday, the government warned that 500,000 factory workers were “at risk” of losing their jobs outright in the months ahead.

“People don’t seem to connect the President’s activities with the economy,” said Stepan Goncharov, an analyst at the Levada Analytical Centre, which conducts regular polls of Russian public opinion. “The President remains a figure who is not to be criticized. He’s connected with the successes in foreign affairs. People think he is increasing the international prestige of Russia.”

While the centre’s surveys show that support for Mr. Putin is undiminished, the responses to other questions its pollsters asked reveal that the economic crisis is starting to bite. Seventy-five per cent of Russians said the country’s standard of living fell in 2015, up from the 57 per cent who said it fell in 2014.

The last time Russians felt this gloomy about their personal economic situation was the height of the financial crisis of 1998.

“Putin seems to be winning right now, in this situation, because he pays a lot of money for defence, for his foreign policy. But when you provide this hard-line foreign policy, and you don’t provide [domestic] reforms, things can change drastically and suddenly,” said Dmitry Gudkov, the lone Kremlin critic in Russia’s 450-seat parliament, the Duma.

“We have a lot of conflicts in our society, a lot of contradictions that are not being solved.”

Cracks at the base

There were maybe 100 of them, white-haired pensioners all, blocking a street in the former Olympic city of Sochi to protest against government plans to cut their transportation benefits. The same mid-January day, a different group of pensioners staged a similar protest in Krasnodar, another south Russian city. In December, it was truck drivers who were up in arms, choking highways around Moscow to protest the introduction of new toll roads that the government said were needed to raise revenue.

The protests, though small, were nonetheless significant because they represented cracks – however tiny – in what some here call the Putin Majority. These were not the Moscow intelligentsia who take to the streets for occasional rallies, including a march on Feb. 27 to mark the anniversary of the Mr. Nemtsov’s killing just outside the Kremlin walls.

Pensioners and truck drivers – working-class Russia – are Mr. Putin’s support base, people who have voted for him at every opportunity since he appeared on the political scene at the end of the chaotic 1990s. They admire his tough style of leadership, and don’t share Western concerns about issues such as media freedom or gay rights in the country. They’re the ones who say they’re willing to tighten up spending to help pay for the return of Crimea and the restoration of a powerful Russia.

The pensioners and the truckers were careful to make it clear that they were not protesting Mr. Putin, only appealing to him for help. Still, the demonstrations have given the opposition hope that working-class Russians may soon – though not yet – be ready to listen to its argument that Mr. Putin is the problem, rather than the man with all the answers.

Duma elections are scheduled for September, and while few expect the vote itself to produce change, the last elections in 2011 – and evidence of fraud favouring the pro-Putin United Russia party that came to light – brought hundreds of thousands into the streets of Moscow and other cities, briefly shaking Mr. Putin’s grip on power.

Mr. Markov, the government adviser, said the Kremlin saw those protests as an American-funded effort to oust Mr. Putin, and expects another push either this fall or around the presidential elections, which are scheduled for 2018, the same year Russia is due to host soccer’s World Cup.

“I think it will be a repeat of what happened before,” he said, referring to how the protests of 2011 and 2012 largely ran out of momentum on their own. “Those who will go to protest will be strong, but also their isolation in society will be much bigger this time.”

However, he warned that Mr. Putin would never capitulate the way Mr. Yanukovych eventually did when faced by swelling street action in Kiev. He said the Kremlin would use “all means” to defeat a U.S.-backed “coup.”

Mr. Putin recently told the heads of Russia’s FSB (the former KGB) that they needed to be ready to “quash” any efforts to “split our society” during the election period.

Opposition figures say such talk reveals how nervous the Kremlin, despite all its successes, really is about what might come next. Some believe that the television set is slowly losing its edge over the reality in Russians’ refrigerators.

“This is not the behaviour of a government that has 80-per-cent support, or whatever they say,” said Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition figure who survived a severe poisoning last year that he believes was an attempt to kill him. “This is a regime that is afraid of the slightest challenge to its authority. I think they have a right to be.”

From –

Poroshenko Orders Ukrainian Military Focus On Crimea, Black Sea

Ukraine is planning a “substantial enhancement” of its military position around the Black Sea and on the border of Crimea as part of a strategy of regaining the territory that Russia annexed two years ago.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced the initiative on Friday, commemorating the second anniverary of the Russian annexation. “Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of the Ukrainian state and the country-criminal will be forced to return the loot,” Poroshenko said.

“I am confident that we will certainly return these two administrative territories under the Ukrainian sovereignty. This extremely complex and promising process has already begun. Today, I have instructed to organize a special session of the National Security and Defense Council to clarify our strategy for the reintegration of Crimea,” he said.

This strategy will include building up Ukraine’s military capacity along the Black Sea and the Kherson oblast, which borders Crimea, Poroshenko added: “The Ministry of Defense and the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine are instructed to submit proposals for substantial enhancement of military capacity of Ukraine in Kherson region and along the entire Black Sea coast. Russia has increased its military presence in the region, completes the peninsula’s transformation from a flourishing international resort into a big military base, which poses a nuclear threat not only to Ukraine, but also to all countries of the Black Sea region.”

This would appear to be somewhat of a shift in Ukraine’s military strategy, which has, understandably, been focused on fighting a civil war with pro-Russia militants in the eastern part of the country. Ukraine has lately been working on developing a new overall military strategy, which has been criticized from some quarters for an excessive focus on the so-called “anti-terror operation” in the Donbass and ignoring other potential Russian threats.

Also this week, Ukraine’s interior minister Arsen Avakov said that his ministry is preparing new units that will be able to take back Crimea. “We need a new army, a new national guard, new police. That’s what the government of Ukraine is doing right now. And you have to understand that. We should rebuild them and then, when we want, Crimea will be with us. I have no doubts about that,” he said in an interview with Ukrainian television station 1+1.

This plan will include Crimean Tatars, as well, Avakov added. “Together with Mustafa Cemilov and Refat Chubarov [Crimean Tatar politcal leaders] we’re preparing guys as special separate units of the national guard. The project is being prepared in order to be ready to return Crimea to us. I’m sure that it will happen when we’re strong, and when we’re ready.”

Meanwhile, Russia continues to strengthen its military position in Crimea, and the U.S. is stepping up its efforts to train and equip the Ukrainian armed forces. U.S. ambassador to Kyiv Geoffrey Pyatt said last week that the U.S. plans to give Ukraine $335 million in training and equipment to Ukraine this year, compared with $266 million in such aid over the past two years.

From –

How Vladimir Putin lost Ukraine

Putin’s war cost Russia its centuries-long shared identity with its neighbour. Now, Kyiv risks betraying the spirit of the Maidan revolution.

When the Russian inquest finally comes, the answer will be clear. It was President Vladimir Putin who lost Ukraine – after a millennium of shared east Slav identity. When the Ukrainian inquest into who lost the ­Euromaidan’s “Revolution of Dignity” finally comes, the answer, on the present evidence, will also be clear. It was an elite core of politicians and oligarchs who first worked a miracle in fighting Russia’s military Goliath to a stalemate – only to revert to kleptocratic business as usual when the acute threat eased.

Ukrainians’ consolidation of a distinct national identity after centuries of being regarded as a fuzzy subset of the dominant Russians – and after a quarter-century of independence – began in February 2014. It sounds banal to say that when one nation attacks a neighbour, especially if the two have regarded each other as brothers for a thousand years, the victims feel aggrieved and pull together against the attacker. But this is what happened when Putin launched his undeclared war on Ukraine, sent hooded “little green men” to take over Crimea’s regional parliament by intimidation, and then annexed the peninsula. The mutation of this early tactical success into strategic failure is best traced by reviewing the players and the dynamics as Ukraine held off Russia and crystallised its singular new identity.

On the Russian side only one actor matters: Putin. When the old Soviet Union split apart in 1991, its kleptocracy was replicated in its two biggest east Slav successor states. By 2015 Russia ranked a joint 119th out of 167 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Ukraine was 130th. A Wild East capitalism prevailed, in which emergent oligarchs carved up the state’s wealth through murky privatisation deals. But there was one main political difference between the two countries. Putin quickly restored the primacy of politicians over Russian tycoons after he became president. In Ukraine, oligarchs were able to use their new wealth to dominate politics.

When Putin suddenly broke out from Europe’s seven-decade peace order in February 2014, Western policymakers asked the diminished number of Kremlinologists in their midst why he was acting this way. Some, such as Dmitry Gorenburg, an associate at Harvard’s Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies and a military analyst, pointed to fear as the Russian president’s root instinct. Putin has shown little interest in economics; he has not worried about looming inflation or capital flight, or Russia’s distorting reliance on oil and gas revenues. What he was afraid of, it seemed, was unchecked democratic contagion: as transmitted from Poles in the 1980s to restive East Germans and then Czechs in 1989, to Ukrainians in the mid-2000s, and even on to Muscovites in 2011/12 before Putin managed to stop their street protests.

This analysis is plausible. In 1989, as a young officer of the Soviet Committee for State Security, Putin was serving with the KGB’s Dresden outpost. He saw the Berlin Wall fall – overnight, under the press of East Berliners who mistakenly thought it had been officially opened. He later faulted the then Soviet Communist Party chief, Mikhail Gorbachev, for failing to intervene militarily when the wall crumbled, or when protesters stormed the Stasi headquarters across the street from his office to halt the incineration of incriminating files by East Germany’s adjunct of the KGB. He watched Moscow’s 20 top divisions, which encircled Berlin for half a century after the glorious Soviet victory over Hitler in 1945, retreat ingloriously a thousand miles to the east.

Putin further witnessed the swift break­away of Moscow’s external empire, in the stampede of the freed central Europeans, from Estonia to Romania, to join the European Union and Nato, and the 1991 break-up of Moscow’s internal Soviet empire. He called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. And as late as 2008 – 17 years after more than 92 per cent of Ukrainian citizens, including the 21 per cent ethnic Russian minority, had voted for independence – he told President George W Bush, “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country.”


Most agonising of all, in his first term as Russia’s president in the 21st century, Putin had to listen to American triumphalism about the series of pro-democracy “colour revolutions” in the streets of ex-communist Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. For him, as a career secret policeman, these revolutions represented no broad social yearning for “dignity”, as the Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa first phrased it. Rather, it was an inexplicable victory by American CIA manipulations – in what was Moscow’s own sphere of influence, by right – over the manipulations of Russia’s FSB, successor to the Soviet KGB.

The uprising that aroused the most angst in the Kremlin was the Orange Revolution on Kyiv’s main square, or maidan, where protesters demanded and won a repeat of the 2004 election after blatant vote-rigging in favour of the then prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian heir apparent to the Ukrainian presidency. It was bad enough for Moscow when the west Slavs in Poland and Czechoslovakia instantly ditched their Slavic identity for a European one in the 1990s: Poland uprooted systemic corruption, built robust democratic and judicial institutions, and went from having a poverty rate that matched Ukraine’s to a per capita GDP three times the size of its neighbour’s today. It was devastating when the Little Russians, too, began to do so, rejecting Yanukovych and Russia’s network of control in the rerun of the vote in 2004.

In the event, Putin need not have worried. The Orange Revolution self-destructed in the fratricide between its two top leaders, who forfeited leadership to Yanukovych in the reasonably fair 2010 election.

On the Ukrainian side of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, four figures stand out. The two chief rivals are the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko (worth $979m, and number six on Novoye Vremya magazine’s 2015 list of the richest Ukrainians), and the then governor of Dnipropet­rovsk in central Ukraine, Ihor Kolomoyskyi (number two on the list, at $1.9bn).

Poroshenko was a second-tier oligarch who had served briefly as foreign minister in the Orange Revolution government and as minister for trade and economic development under Yanukovych in 2012. He helped fund the pro-Europe, anti-corruption protest against Yanukovych’s authoritarian rule from the movement’s spontaneous inception in November 2013, and his TV news outlet Channel 5 gave full coverage to the three-month agora and its estimated one million participants.

After Yanukovych finally sent his special police to suppress the protest by killing dozens of the demonstrators in late February, the Ukrainian president’s own Party of Regions deserted him. He absconded to Russia overnight with an estimated personal fortune of $12bn, amassed in four years in office. Parliament, by a majority that suddenly included the Party of Regions, appointed an interim president and government and set presidential elections for May 2014. The “Chocolate King”, as Poroshenko was nicknamed for his confectionery empire, was duly elected president of the new Ukraine with a 54 per cent majority.

Kolomoyskyi, who also holds Israeli and Cypriot citizenship, was called back to Ukraine from his Swiss residence by the improvised government just as Russia was annexing Crimea. He was appointed governor of his own regional stronghold of Dnipropetrovsk with a mandate to mount a defence against the Russia-stoked secession brewing in neighbouring eastern Ukraine. Kolomoyskyi was famed for his hostile takeovers of rival banks as well as oil, media and other firms. He quickly raised and underwrote several militias among the 40 to 50 volunteer battalions that sprang up to fight against westward spread of the start-up separatist Donetsk (DPR) and Luhansk (LPR) People’s Republics. These battalions were instrumental in holding the line against separatist/Russian forces and giving the Ukrainian state time to rebuild the army that Yanukovych had bled of its budget.

Two oligarchs who did not cast their lot in with post-Euromaidan Ukraine were Rinat Akhmetov (at $4.5bn still the richest Ukrainian, even after losing more than half of his wealth over the past year) and Dmytro Firtash, whose net worth has fallen to $1bn. Both had been leading supporters of Yanukovych and his party, and since his departure they have hedged their bets between Kyiv and Moscow. Their recent losses have resulted partly from a redistribution of their wealth to other oligarchs.

Akhmetov, the son of a coal miner who rose to become the “godfather” of the Donetsk clan – and the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk football club – has his coal and iron base in the war-ravaged Don Basin (Donbas) and relies on Moscow’s goodwill there. Firtash, who under President Yanukovych controlled the lucrative distribution of Russian gas through Ukrainian pipelines to Europe, is also dependent on Russia. In spring 2014, he asked the Russian oligarch Vasily Anisimov to pay a record Austrian bail of €125m ($141m) in cash to get him out of jail. Under the bail terms, Firtash is barred from leaving Austria as he awaits the final legal decision on a US extradition request on charges of international bribery. Yet from Vienna he still wields his political clout, funds several Ukrainian parties across the political spectrum and, it is widely reported, brokered a division of power between Poroshenko and Vitaly Klitschko in the run-up to the May 2014 presidential election, in which Klitschko stood down as a candidate. (The former world heavyweight boxing champion is now mayor of Kyiv.)


Putin no doubt saw his annexation of Crimea – and his follow-on campaign to reconquer Catherine the Great’s “Novorossiya”, comprising the eastern 40 per cent of today’s Ukraine – as compensation for the abrupt downfall of his acolyte Yanukovych, and thus the end of Russia’s rightful suzerainty over all of Ukraine. Europeans, Americans and Ukrainians, on the contrary, saw the first formal takeover of a neighbour’s land in Europe since the Second World War as Putin’s return to a 19th-century concept of “might makes right”, as well as a violation of international law and treaties Moscow had signed to respect Ukrainian borders.

The West was cautious in reacting. It baulked at getting sucked into another intervention in a theatre of complicated logistics and little geopolitical interest. It knew as well as Putin did that Moscow enjoys escalation dominance in its home region by virtue of geography, its claim to a vital interest in Ukraine that the West lacks, and the Russian president’s willpower in a world of European peace and US exhaustion. It had no desire to put Putin’s repeated brandishing of his nuclear weapons to the test over a second-order confrontation. The West therefore responded by imposing financial rather than military sanctions, which Putin prematurely scorned as a pinprick.

In addition, Putin misread Ukraine’s military resilience. Easy success in Crimea – and strong domestic approval of his boasts that he was restoring Russia’s greatness in the world – emboldened him to probe further in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s ragtag army had put up no resistance in Crimea, for three reasons. First, years of embezzlement of defence budgets had left it with only 6,000 combat-ready soldiers and with two-decade-old weapons. Second, it was subverted by the many Ukrainian officers who were loyal to Moscow rather than Kyiv. Finally, there was Ukrainians’ sheer disbelief – despite Stalin’s mass starvation of Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s – that Russians would actually shoot at their proclaimed younger brothers.

Putin expected an equally cost-free operation in the Donbas. He seemed to believe his own propaganda that disgruntled Russian-speaking citizens of eastern Ukraine were Russians manqués and would rush to rebel against Kyiv, if only the charge were led by a few Russian commandos. Eastern Ukraine was, after all, the part of the country in which identity was most blurred; easterners paid little attention to differences between Ukrainians and Russians in everyday life, and most had cousins in both Russia and western Ukraine. In a way, the region was the ideal test of Putin’s construct of a unifying goal to fill the vacuum left after futurist communist ideology evaporated. The campaign was first presented as Putin’s dream of a Eurasian Union, but that was dropped once it became clear that Ukraine would not be a part of it. Thereafter it was repackaged as gathering in fellow ethnics left outside the “Russian world” by the Soviet collapse, and then as retaking the tsarist Novorossiya.

At first, the Russian-backed secessionists took quick control over roughly two-thirds of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, or provinces. Putin, however, overestimated the warrior zeal of the easterners and the usual gripes of any province about the meagre payouts it gets from central government. In the early days, the local people warmed to the promises of higher pensions made by the separatists. And grandmothers visibly enjoyed acting as civilian shields by surrounding local administration buildings that were occupied by separatists and preventing Ukrainian soldiers from reclaiming the offices. But as the novelty wore off and the hardship of war increased, Moscow and the secessionists it sponsored increasingly had to rely on a motley band of mercenaries and Donbas criminal gangs that did well in firefights only when they were assisted by Russian “volunteers” and armed with the heavy weapons the Russians were shuttling across the border.

In purely military terms, Putin probably could have escalated in the spring of 2014 from the kind of limited, disguised and therefore deniable warfare that the West calls “hybrid”, replacing the hooded “little green men” with regular Russian soldiers in marked uniforms in an all-out invasion of the Novorossiya oblasts. That was certainly the Russian president’s threat in massing 80,000 troops on the northern, eastern and southern borders of Ukraine and exercising them on high alert.

As late as September 2014 Putin boasted to President Poroshenko that if he so desired, “Russian troops could be in Kyiv within two days – and also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, or Bucharest.” But he did not invade when Ukraine’s provisional government was still shaky – and still reeling under the Russian show of force.

Three reasons for Putin’s decision not to order an invasion in spring 2014 might be inferred. The first was a tactical reduction of his bellicosity at a time when the European Union was still debating financial sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea. The second was the weakness of the novice Ukrainian government, which could foreseeably have collapsed and left Kyiv with a political vacuum the Russians could fill without firing a shot. The third was perhaps a premonition in the Russian army that it was being overstretched and that an occupation of its neighbour, given Ukraine’s strong military tradition, might turn into a quagmire of messy guerrilla warfare.

Putin’s military threats to Ukraine were counterproductive and stoked Ukrainian anger. In May 2014 a Pew survey found that 77 per cent of Ukrainians, including 70 per cent of those living in eastern Ukraine outside the Donbas war zone, thought that their country should remain united instead of breaking up. And in early July, even before the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines MH17 civilian jet by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from insurgent territory, Pew reported that 60 per cent of Ukrainians had a general negative view of Russia. It was a sharp reversal from 2011, when 84 per cent of Ukrainians had viewed Russia positively.

The Euromaidan spirit drew in ever more Ukrainians who had been politically passive. Volunteers flocked to enlist in the army, in the revived National Guard and in the private militias raised and paid for by Kolomoyskyi and other oligarchs. Civilian volunteers cooked and delivered food to recruits. Techies designed and built their own surveillance drones from scratch to observe border areas that Ukraine no longer controlled.

Ukrainian veterans who had once formed the backbone of the Soviet army’s rough equivalent of Western non-commissioned officers, together with local Afgantsy – veterans of the Soviet army’s doomed expedition in Afghanistan in the 1980s – gave the rookies accelerated basic training. Weapons factories in Ukraine that had once supplied the Soviet army managed to repair 20-year-old tanks and build new ones even as the battles raged. And morale was vastly better on the side of Ukrainian defenders against a threat to their very existence than it was among opportunistic rebel mercenaries and criminal gangs. By mid-August 2014, Ukrainian troops had recaptured most of the rebel territory and reduced the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to two small pockets.

That was too much for Putin. At the end of August, he signalled his red line in the sand: he would not let his proxies be defeated. He sent elite airborne troops into the Donbas to mount a counteroffensive alongside separatist/Russian ground forces armed with Russian heavy weapons. Within days, they broke the Ukrainian siege and restored the secessionists’ control of about half of the territory that the DPR and LPR had ruled at their height.

President Poroshenko understood the message and immediately proposed a truce, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, brokered the Minsk ceasefire of 5 September. The shaky agreement at least reduced the scale of violence for five months, until the separatist/Russian forces made a fresh effort to break through strengthened Ukrainian lines in January and February of 2015 – and failed. A further shaky “Minsk-2” truce followed. But on 1 September 2015 the heavy guns abruptly fell silent and, for the most part, remained silent. For the first time in a year, overjoyed babushkas in the separatist Donbas enclave could walk across the front lines to reach Ukrainian-held towns seven kilometres away and buy salo (pork rind), butter and eggs at far cheaper prices. They returned to tell journalists that their greatest wish was simply for the fighting to stop.


At the end of September Putin opened a front in Syria, and reportedly redeployed some special forces from Ukraine to the new battlefield. Ukraine dropped off Russian TV bulletins. The war there had
caused 8,000 deaths and forced 2.4 million people from their homes. It was clear that Putin was belatedly acknowledging that the war also had strategic costs for Russia.

He had first lost all of Ukraine, with the exception of Crimea, to the Euromaidan that he despised. He had failed to salvage Novorossiya for Russia. He had failed, too, to maintain the shelled and charred Donbas region in any form he wanted to annex or subsidise – and keeping it as a zone of frozen conflict for future mischief-making wasn’t much of a consolation prize. He had provoked the West into resuscitating Nato and imposing sanctions that damaged the Russian economy. He had alarmed Belarus, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan into distancing themselves somewhat from Moscow.

Moreover, the Russian war in Ukraine raised the spectre of the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that killed 15,000 Soviet soldiers in the 1980s and gave birth to the Russian Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, which tries to ferret out facts about their dead sons. Last May, after many inquiries by the committee about Russian casualties in Ukraine, the Duma passed legislation banning the spread of information about Russian casualties across the border. In this context, it seemed unlikely that Putin would risk incurring a rise in Russian deaths by resuming heavy fighting in Ukraine.

This appraisal, however, takes the pressure off the Ukrainian oligarchs to grow beyond the robber-baron stage and become patriotic philanthropists. On the present evidence, they no longer sense much urgency with regard to implementing reform legislation, installing the rule of law, building democratic institutions and rooting out kleptocracy as opposed to exploiting it.

Putin has surely lost Ukraine. The Ukrainian oligarchs have not yet surely lost their own country. But how ironic it will be if he manages to melt their urgency into complacency by easing the pressure on Ukraine, thus paving the way for that final loss of the Revolution of Dignity. It would give the last laugh to Georgy Arbatov, the Kremlin’s leading Americanist who prophesied as the Cold War ended: “We are going to do to you the worst thing we possibly could – we are going to take your enemy away.”