Category Archives: Europe

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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EU-Ukraine Free Trade Deal Comes Into Effect

Ukraine’s free-trade agreement with the European Union came into force on January 1, coinciding with the start of Moscow’s food embargo against Kyiv.

The free-trade deal, signed in June 2014, is part of the broader EU Association Agreement and stands at the heart of the drastic deterioration of Ukraine’s relations with Russia.

The deal grants Ukraine tariff-free access to the EU’s giant market and is expected to boost Ukraine’s struggling economy.

The European Commission said in a statement of December 31 that “the agreement will contribute to the modernization and diversification of the Ukrainian economy and will create additional incentives for reform.”

Ukraine, whose market has been traditionally oriented toward Russia, will now have to turn itself toward the European market and adapt to EU standards and rules.

Russia, furious at seeing its Soviet-era satellite turn to the West, has long been critical of the trade deal.

An initial attempt to finalize the pact had failed in 2013, sparking protests in Kyiv that led to the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, followed by Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, and a Russian-backed separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine.

Russia has taken retaliatory measures, suspending its free-trade agreement with Ukraine and banning the import of Ukrainian food.

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Russia hits Ukraine with trade sanctions over EU deal

Russia is tightening trade sanctions on Ukraine in retaliation for Kiev’s sanctions and its EU free trade deal.

Russia will apply new tariffs to Ukrainian exports from 1 January, when the free trade deal takes effect.

Earlier Russia announced a ban on imported Ukrainian food – also from 1 January – because Ukraine blacklisted many Russian banks, defence firms and airlines, in line with EU sanctions.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 triggered wide-ranging EU sanctions.

The EU has decided to extend the sanctions for another six months – until mid-2016 – because the Minsk peace deal, aimed at settling the eastern Ukraine conflict, will not be fulfilled as was envisaged by the end of this month.

The sanctions were ratcheted up after pro-Russian separatists seized a large swathe of eastern Ukraine and declared independence from Kiev in 2014. Russia has sent heavy weapons and troops to help them, Western leaders say – something that Moscow denies.

The US and some other Western countries also imposed sanctions on Russia, which retaliated by banning most imported Western food and drink.

Separately, the Russian government said on Monday it would take legal action over Ukraine’s failure to repay a $3bn (£2bn) debt.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk said Russia had refused to restructure the debt, unlike other foreign bondholders who had done so.

He also called the debt – incurred in December 2013 – a “political bribe” from Moscow to former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was facing mass street protests at the time. Mr Yanukovych fled to Russia in February 2014.

Closer EU ties

Russia argues that the EU-Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) threatens to turn Ukraine into a backdoor for cheap EU exports to Russia. So it is scrapping its preferential terms for Ukrainian exporters.

Russia says it has tried unsuccessfully to reach agreement on the issue “peacefully and in a mutually beneficial way”.

“Ukraine and the EU are not prepared to sign a legally binding accord that would take account of Russia’s interests,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said.
Later the European Commission blamed Russia for the failure of talks on the DCFTA. A new legally binding accord would “reopen” the DCFTA, the Commission said, but “the DCFTA cannot be amended – neither directly nor indirectly”.

In September Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko introduced sanctions against 388 Russian individuals and 105 firms and other organisations.
The proportion of Ukrainian exports going to the EU jumped from below 25% in 2012 to almost 35% in the first seven months of this year, the Financial Times reports, in contrast with shrinking trade with Russia.

Ukraine’s imports of Russian natural gas – for years a thorny issue in their relations – have also declined to a bare minimum. Ukraine’s gas dependency on Russia was reduced through energy efficiency measures and diversifying sources of supply.

EU resists Russian overtures on Ukraine

When Russia began air strikes in Syria in September, it said it was fighting terrorism, targeting so-called Islamic State (IS) fighters. But Moscow also had geopolitics in mind.
And while it clearly had other foreign policy goals, could Moscow now be using its involvement in Syria as leverage over EU sanctions linked to the crisis in Ukraine?
Diplomats in Brussels are adamant that that’s just what Russia is doing.

Since IS claimed responsibility for the Paris terror attacks and the downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai, EU officials say Moscow has been working diligently to try to convince individual member states that now is the time to engage with Russia and end its isolation linked to the war over eastern Ukraine.

The official collective position in Brussels, though, is that there will be no trade-off of issues.

The bloc will work hard to engage Russia on many issues without giving up its “very clear position” on Ukraine.
And that will change only when all parts of the so-called Minsk peace agreement are implemented.

But in the current climate that is more a fanciful aspiration than a realistic desire.
Flexible approach

It is nearly two years since the crisis in Ukraine began and the conflict in the east goes on, even though the firing of artillery is sporadic and restricted to specific parts of the front line.

Nine thousand is a conservative estimate of how many people have been killed.

EU sanctions on Moscow are due to be renewed this month for another six months and few in Brussels think that getting the necessary European consensus will be a problem.

EU sanctions on Russia

Russian state banks are excluded from raising long-term loans in the EU

Exports of dual-use equipment for military use in Russia are banned

Future EU-Russia arms deals are banned

The EU will not export a wide range of oil industry technology

Three major state oil firms are targeted: Rosneft, Transneft and Gazprom Neft, the oil unit of gas giant Gazprom, with limits placed on their access to capital markets

Dozens of senior Russian officials and separatist leaders are now subject to Western asset freezes and travel bans

How far do sanctions go?

However, wind the clock on a further six months, when the sanctions will be up for renewal again, and it is harder to predict what the thinking of European governments will be.

For a variety of economic and political reasons, southern European nations favour a more flexible approach.

Of the two main players, France wavers more than Germany.


Europe’s so far unflinching stance over Ukraine – and the alleged involvement of Russia in the war there – is partly explained by a principled protection of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
However, the unprecedented EU investment in the country, both in financial and political terms, means Europe’s reputation is at stake.

A huge team of European politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats is carrying out what it calls “impressive” reforms to overturn the Soviet-era hangover of bureaucracy, poor governance and ensuing corruption.

Since Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in February 2014 after violent demonstrations in Kiev, Ukraine’s new European-leaning political class has been on the receiving end of more than €7bn (£5bn; $7.7bn) from the EU in the form of loans and financial support.

If everything goes to plan, that figure will have risen to nearly €13bn over the next few years.

However, the EU’s support is conditional: Ukraine has to deliver its side of the deal.

Take corruption. The Ukrainian government has established new anti-corruption bodies but in reality they are still not up and running.

EU officials want to see real results. For example, they expect proper and transparent investigations into cases of fraud, embezzlement and other types of corruption.

In Ukraine, justice can no longer be a question of buying off the right prosecutor or judge.

So the European Commission is pushing through reforms of the judiciary – but it cannot be reinvented overnight.

Current officials need to be vetted, corrupt ones fired, and new ones recruited and trained. This all takes time.

Ukraine has also been slashing the number of state-owned agencies, which were supposedly used to regulate the economy or civil society, but in reality were often used to exact bribes.

Trade deal

There are some carrots as well as sticks.

On Tuesday the European Commission is expected to give the green light for Ukraine to be added to the list of countries whose citizens enjoy visa-free travel within the EU. This is expected to come into force by the middle of next year.

And a new free trade agreement between the EU and Ukraine will take effect in January.

Russia claims the deal is damaging to its own interests.

European officials say Russia has failed to produce any evidence that this will be the case, and point out that Moscow has been party to 13 rounds of talks on the issue.

So almost two years since former President Yanukovych backed out of an “association” deal with the EU, which sparked the current crisis, the deal is about to take effect.

All eyes will be on whether this potentially landmark moment in EU-Ukrainian relations will see another escalation of violence in the east.

Brussels believes Russia has total control over the rebel unrecognised republics in eastern Ukraine.

Russia might still react again.

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NATO invites Montenegro to join, angering Russia

Kremlin promises action in response to move to welcome Montenegro into NATO alliance as Russia rages over further NATO expansion

NATO on Wednesday invited Montenegro to become the 29th member of the US-led military alliance, defying Russia’s warnings it would have to respond to what it branded a threat to its security.

Russia quickly said it would be forced to react to NATO’s expansion eastward, with the invitation to the small Balkan country adding to bad blood between Moscow and the West over a host of issues including Ukraine.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, announcing the move at a meeting of the alliance’s foreign ministers in Brussels, insisted the “historic” invitation to Montenegro was no one else’s business and “not directed at anyone”.

“It is extremely important to underline once again that every nation has the right to decide its own path, its own security arrangements,” Stoltenberg said. “No one else has the right to interfere in that decision.”

Stoltenberg said he expected Montenegro’s accession talks to be completed early next year but ratification by the 28 NATO member state parliaments could take some time.

US Secretary of State John Kerry meanwhile played down any threat to Russia from NATO, which has responded to the Ukraine conflict with a military upgrade to reassure nervous ex-Soviet states they need not fear a more assertive Russia.

Montenegro’s Foreign Minister Igor Luksic said the decision reflected the great efforts his country had made to modernise and meet western civil society norms.

“It is a great day for my country and for the alliance … It is great news for the western Balkans, for its unity and security,” Luksic said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has bitterly complained of what he sees as a hostile NATO encroachment on his country’s borders and Moscow was blunt in response on Wednesday.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said NATO’s eastward expansion “cannot but lead to reciprocal actions from the east — that is, from the Russian side”.

Montenegro, a Balkans country of just over 600,000 people, won its independence in 2006 following the bloody break-up of what was Yugoslavia and the end of a federation with Moscow’s long-time ally Serbia.

Its army has 2,000 soldiers, and it has contributed 25 soldiers to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan since 2010.

Russia has traditionally been a close ally of Montenegro and several thousand Russians live there, but relations have soured since Montenegro joined EU-led sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.

The Montenegrin government has accused Russia of being behind recent violent protests in order to prevent the country from joining NATO.

Srdjan Milic, head of the opposition Popular Socialist Party which wants a referendum on the issue next year, said most people opposed NATO membership.

“To extend an invitation … represents an act of aggression against the peace, stability and security of our citizens,” Milic said.

The area has long been the site of tensions between Russia and the West, with a NATO-led air campaign in 1999 having forced Serbian forces out of its rebel Kosovo province, which went on to declare independence in 2008.

Most of the former communist states of the Soviet-era Warsaw Pact have joined NATO since 1999, and Balkan states Croatia and Albania were the most recent new members, in 2009.

Bosnia and Macedonia are also seeking to join along with Georgia.

Western diplomats say the decision on Montenegro was relatively “easy” but the position of the three others — especially Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 — was much more difficult.

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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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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.

Russia’s Fictions on Malaysia Flight 17

After an exhaustive, 15-month investigation, the Dutch Safety Board affirmed on Tuesday what has long been generally known or suspected — that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile.

Even Russia, which has spent much of those 15 months generating all kinds of implausible theories that put the blame for the crash and its 298 victims on Ukraine, and doing its best to thwart investigations, has had to acknowledge that this is what happened. But it now argues that the fatal missile was an older model that the Russian armed forces no longer use, and that it was fired from territory controlled by the Ukrainian government.

The five-nation team led by the Dutch Safety Board did not assign responsibility. That will be the job of Dutch prosecutors. But the board’s minutely detailed report is consistent with theories advanced by the United States and Ukraine as well as evidence collected by the independent investigative website, which hold that the fatal missile was fired from territory controlled by Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.

In one key detail, the Dutch report undermined Russia’s competing claim. The Russian corporation that manufactures Buk missiles, Almaz-Antey, held its own news conference on Tuesday at which it said it had detonated a warhead of the sort used to arm the Buk missile identified by the Dutch alongside a decommissioned Russian jetliner to demonstrate that this explosion would pepper the plane with bowtie-shape shrapnel, which it said was not found at the crash site. But in fact, the Dutch board said it had discovered fragments of that exact shape, including some in the bodies of the cockpit crew.

This fact is not something Russians are likely to learn; Russian television has presented only the Kremlin’s disinformation of what is going on in Ukraine and, for that matter, Syria. Propaganda works: A public opinion poll taken in July by the Levada Center found that 44 percent of Russians believe the plane was downed by the Ukrainian military, 17 percent thought it was by the United States, and only 3 percent believed it was the work of separatists.

Creating an alternative reality has been a big reason for President Vladimir Putin’s boundless popularity among Russians. He sees no reason to come clean for the shooting down of the Boeing 777. At the same time, Ukrainian authorities should also give some credible responses to the Dutch board’s criticism that Ukraine failed to close the air space over eastern Ukraine even though Ukrainian military aircraft had been shot down by Russian-backed rebels in the weeks before the downing of Flight 17.

Against Russia’s shameless deception, the Dutch, who lost the largest number of people in the tragedy, must be commended for the thoroughness and integrity of their investigation. The criminal investigation should be as clear and independent, no matter how hard the Kremlin tries to derail or mislead it.

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Ukraine to sit alongside Russia on UN Security Council

Ukraine won a seat on the U.N. Security Council on Thursday and immediately promised to use the platform to wage a political battle against Russia for annexing Crimea and supporting eastern Ukrainian separatists.

The 193-member General Assembly also elected four other countries — Egypt, Japan, Senegal and Uruguay — to the U.N.’s most powerful body. All five countries were unopposed in their bids for the non-permanent seats and will start their two-year terms on Jan. 1.

Fireworks are expected when Ukraine takes its seat alongside permanent member Russia.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin called the election a very important day for Ukraine and the United Nations in its struggle for peace “under Russian aggression — and fighting against Russian aggressions.” He said the country is proud of the 177 votes it received, calling the strong support “a sign of world solidarity with Ukraine.”

Klimkin was in New York earlier this week meeting with U.N. ambassadors and letting the world know that relations with Russia will be anything but conciliatory.

“Election to the Security Council is of special importance for us as a backdrop of the ongoing Russian aggression,” Klimkin told reporters on Tuesday. “For the first time, we have an absolutely unique and unimaginable situation … that a permanent member of the Security Council is an aggressor in Ukraine, waging a hybrid war against Ukraine.”

In an interview with The Associated Press after Thursday’s vote, Klimkin stressed that “the Security Council is not just about settling scores.”

It’s about promoting the U.N. Charter and its commitments to peace, sovereignty and human rights, he said, and Ukraine is ready to work with other council members “to bring stability and security” in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.

But Ukraine remains committed in its fight “against Russian aggression and showing that Russia is behind what is going on in entire of Donbas,” the eastern region controlled by pro-Russian separatists, Klimkin stressed.

He said Ukraine will make the case that Russian troops, mercenaries and weapons must leave the country’s east, that Ukraine must regain full control of its border with Russia, and that the international community, the U.N., and human rights monitors must have full access to the region.

Ukraine will also be working to keep up “political pressure on Russia to recognize that the Crimea is illegally occupied,” to strengthen U.S. and European sanctions, and to get human rights monitors into Crimea, Klimkin said.

“We need strong support of the whole international community to sort out the Crimean issue because the Crimea is Ukrainian and will be Ukrainian,” he said.

Klimkin predicted that “the Crimea will get back to Ukraine far earlier than many believe,” arguing that no one in the world can feel safe with Russia breaking international laws and rules which “is disrupting the whole world system.”

Russia had quietly campaigned against Ukraine’s bid, according to diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because discussions have been private.

In Thursday’s Council election, Senegal was the top vote-getter with 187 votes, followed by Uruguay with 185, Japan with 184 and Egypt with 179.

The new council could also see clashes between Japan and rival China, also a permanent member, as well as with Russia. Japan has territorial disputes with both countries.

Egypt will replace Jordan as the representative of Arab nations on the council. The government of army chief-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has been criticized by human rights groups for its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, other Islamists and protesters.

Although its seat was uncontested, Egypt campaigned heavily, inviting ambassadors to visit the country over the summer and hosting a gala dinner Tuesday night for about 500 people, including all U.N. ambassadors and their spouses. It was held at the Temple of Dendur in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a gift to the United States from the Egyptian government in 1965.

Senegal’s Foreign Minister Mankeur Ndiaye, noting that African issues account for 70 percent of the council’s agenda, said his country’s priorities will be tackling extremism including Boko Haram, health issues like Ebola, and the scarcity of water because “water can constitute a factor of peace but it can also bring conflict and war.”