Saturday, February 28, 2015

Putin Blames Enemies of the State For Nemtsov's Murder; Obama Demands Kremlin Investigate Itself

Vladimir Putin describes the Russian state as a power vertical, in which power is exercised at the very top. All authority descends from Putin himself and those below carry out his orders. According to this self description, nothing of importance can happen without the approval of the person atop the vertical. Under this logic, the contract killing of a major opposition figure falls under the direct responsibility of Putin. Calls by Merkel and Obama for justice are therefore really demands that the Kremlin investigate and bring itself to justice. Another case of Alice in Wonderland.

Boris Nemtsov, a leading opposition figure, age 55, was shot dead Friday night as he walked across a bridge connecting the Kremlin with the embankment district of central Moscow. The youthful and handsome Nemtsov was accompanied by his 23-year-old girlfriend, a Ukrainian model. According to initial BBC reports, he was shot four times by several men emerging from a white car and then speeding away. Nemtsov’s death was confirmed at the site by an aide, who reported that Nemtsov’s corpse lay in front of him on the street, surrounded by police. Contacts in Moscow reported that the murder scene was mobbed by mourners bringing flowers. Nemtsov’s female companion was taken away to be interrogated at police headquarters. (See video) Let’s see how long she’ll remain in custody.

Nemtsov served as Deputy Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin. He was also mayor of Nizhny Novgorod before joining the liberal opposition to Putin. During his tenure under Yeltsin, Nemtsov was considered a possible successor, but handicapped by the fact that he was Jewish.
Nemtsov had expressed fears of being murdered shortly before his death. His last tweet to the people of Moscow read:

"If you support stopping Russia's war with Ukraine, if you support stopping Putin's aggression, come to the Spring March in Maryino on 1 March."

Nemtsov’s murder has the typical features of a Russian contract killing, similar to the still unsolved murder of investigative journalist Anna Politovskaya. The killing of a prominent opposition figure in central Moscow cannot be passed off as a random act of violence. Even the Kremlin identified the murder as a contract killing.

A possible motive, other than being a thorn in the Kremlin’s side: Opposition figure (and Putin’s God daughter), Ksenia Sobchak, said that Nemtsov was preparing a report on Russian troops in Ukraine at the time of his death – a subject that is strict taboo under Putin.

The Putin propaganda machine immediately began its spin. Kremlin spokesman stated shortly after the murder that Putin regards “this cruel murder (as having) every sign of being a contract killing, which has a solely provocative nature.”  In a condolence telegram to Nemtsov's 86-year-old mother, Putin vowed to do “everything to ensure that the perpetrators of this vile and cynical crime and those who stand behind them are properly punished." Putin’s notorious star-chamber Investigative Committee spoke of Nemtsov as a "sacrificial victim” of those who oppose the state and echoed Putin’s murder as a “provocation" against the state. Kremlin-friendly media darkly identified his companion as a Ukrainian model 30 years his junior, as if suggesting Kiev had something to do with the murder. The Investigative Committee, noted for its indictments of dissidents on trumped-up charges, also revealed it was looking for a Ukrainian or even Islamic extremist connection.

The Kremlin’s obvious strategy: Kick up the dust of confusion. Surely, they say, the “provocation” was instigated by Putin’s enemies (Take your pick: Ukraine, NATO, the CIA, "hohol" Nazis, ISIS, etc.). Putin, at least had the sense not to dismiss Nemtsov, like he did Politovskaya, as an insignificant person. Instead Putin damned Nemtsov with faint praise as someone “who occupied significant posts in a difficult time of transition.”

The unfortunate predictable reactions of Western leaders only contribute to the Putin narrative of sinister forces out to get the Kremlin. Angela Merkel called on President Putin “to ensure that the murder is cleared up and the perpetrators brought to justice.” Barack Obama echoed Merkel in “calling upon the Russian government to conduct a prompt, impartial, and transparent investigation into the circumstances of his murder and ensure that those responsible for this vicious killing are brought to justice.” Do not Merkel and Obama realize they are conceding Putin’s defense. By declaring Putin’s Kremlin responsible for finding the murderers, they are ruling out the possibility that the Kremlin itself ordered the hit.

Western leaders are reluctant to recognize what Putin and his regime are capable of. Scholars John Dunlop and Karen Dawisha have chronicled the strong evidence that Putin was behind the 1999 apartment bombings that killed almost 400 Russians that brought him to power. Ordering the killing of one irritating opposition figure pales in comparison to this and other acts of violence.

In my own view, there are two possible explanations of Nemtsov’s murder: One is that the murder was ordered by the Kremlin itself to signal a new phase of clamp down on opposition figures. To date, figures like Nemtsov, Gary Kasparov, and Mikhail Kasyanov have been roughed up and jailed but none murdered.

My second explanation would be a rogue element within the Kremlin, perhaps an overzealous oligarch, but an act of violence of this import would be an unlikely move for subordinates operating within Putin’s fabled vertical of power. I do not know how such things are arranged, but they are done most likely through a wink and a nod with no paper trail.

Note that a murder, basically on Kremlin grounds on a street traveled by Putin’s motorcade rigged with security cameras and security police, requires a degree of official cooperation or looking the other way. The professional murderers chose the Bolshoi Moskvrechky Bridge leading from the Kremlin, a landmark that allows better escape from the crime scene. The assassins in the white car, however, would have had to risk getting caught in Moscow’s notorious 24 hour traffic jams in their escape attempt. Without such safeguards, Russia’s notorious contract killers would not have done the deed. In any other metropolis, the murderers would have been apprehended within minutes or would have been identified through leaks, eye witnesses and security cameras within a short period of time.

There will be no justice for Nemtsov. An expert on Russian contract killings explains that they are rarely solved “because of the interwoven nature of criminality and Russian officialdom.” In the best case, some lower-level gangsters will confess and will quickly disappear within the Russian penal system. They and their families will likely be well paid.

If my suspicions are correct (and we will likely never know the truth), the murder of a major opposition figure on the eve of a major rally shows the supreme level of confidence Vladimir Putin has in his hold on power. He has annexed Crimea, has de facto taken much of eastern Ukraine, and has stared down the intimidated West. What's one murdered opposition figure, more or less?

We will see how the people of Moscow react to this vicious murder. Will they conclude that Putin is behind it? After all, his message to the Russian people is that he is responsible for all that is good. If so, would he also not answer for this cowardly act of murder by contract?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What If Ukraine Decides To Stop Fighting?

Putin’s goal is the destruction of NATO. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an integral part of this strategy, it is only a sideshow to the main event. If Ukraine decides to stop fighting, NATO, Europe and the United States are all on their own. Ukraine’s “friends” must decide: Do we want Ukraine to fight for us or are we prepared to fight for ourselves? To avoid this choice, they must give Ukraine the means to defend itself.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Putin is Operating a Counterfeit, Propoganda TV Station in East Ukraine

BBC Ukraine reports that Ukrainian television broadcasts have disappeared from viewer screens in the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk.
They have been replaced by Russian and by regional channels operated by separatists (or, should I say, by their Russian puppeteers). Ukrainian efforts to reach viewers in occupied territories via more powerful signals and equipment supplied by Poland have been stymied by the fact that two thirds of viewers in occupied territory watch cable or dish-TV, which can only be serviced locally.
The BBC report does not mention a more subversive form of information sabotage – the operation of a counterfeit station that pretends to be Ukraine’s popular 1+1 channel. 

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Friday, February 20, 2015

Russian Correspondent Openly Reveals Role of Russian Soldiers in the East Ukraine Battlefield

In his article, In the Pampases of Donbass, special correspondent for "Kommersant" Ilya Barabanov reports on his interviews with the young Russian soldiers who fought at Debaltseve. What follows is a translation of his article, which shows, among other things, that 1) the Russian soldiers were actively recruited by political commissars to fight in Ukraine, 2) They were actively encouraged by their commanding officers to go to Ukraine after signing papers resigning from the Russian army, 3) They wore Russian uniforms without insignias, 4) They did not like that reporters were directed to interview local militia (miners), while they did most of the fighting, 5) They were told that by fighting against the Ukrainian junta, they could prevent war from coming to Russia.

Here is Barabanov’s article:

20-year-old Misha was born in Yekaterinburg, 21-year-old Alex in Mozdok, Artem 22 years old is from the Slavyansk-on-Kuban and 23-year-old Dima is from Vladikavkaz. The other guys are from Chita, Norilsk, and Ulan-Ude.

Until recently, they were in military contract service with the motorized infantry brigade in city “N.” In December and January they were posting photos of themselves on the Russian version of Facebook.

Two to three weeks ago, everything changed, and these young guys are now posting pictures of themselves in uniforms without insignias clustered on a square in (the east Ukrainian city of)  Gorlovki, sitting atop an armored vehicle somewhere on the road to Debaltseve, or posing in front of a destroyed tank at the entrance to the ruined (east Ukrainian) city of Uglegorsk.

They all came to Donbass after January 20, when active hostilities resumed. They came on an open-ended mission. Their commanders (in “N”) did not oppose their coming. On the contrary, the commander was quick to convince them why they should go to Donbass to protect their (Russian) homeland.

The young men went to Donbas in groups of three as a crew. Upon arrival, they asked if their friends already there were still alive. They are assigned to different army units already formed in the DNR (people’s republic of Donetsk).

The young soldiers’ role in military operations was to perform combat missions on behalf of  either the self-proclaimed republics, or "separate regions of Donetsk and Lugansk region" (as it is written in the Minsk agreement). They know how to fight. They carry out their duties and then return to headquarters. In the commandant's office and at checkpoints, they can see journalists talking to local militia who claim to be miners. You are supposed to get the impression that it is “locals” who are fighting the (Ukrainian) junta, but then  someone blurts out:

- We have the Buryats (a local people of eastern Siberia) for cannon fodder.

- And what about  the Buryats?

- Well, they are the Donbass Indians.

Everyone smiles and understands. In the days before the final assault on Debaltseve, the reporters do their best to conceal the presence of the “Buryats” by closing the entrance to the city of Uglegorsk, from which the assault on Debaltseve is being launched. After the battle and Debaltseve has fallen, the miners again will man the check points and journalists will again be allowed in on the open road.

Everyone knows the strategic significance of  Debaltseve as a direct road connecting Donetsk to Lugansk, and the largest railway junction and offering high ground for artillery. About how many hundreds on both sides have been killed during the month-long assault, we will not learn soon.

After the taking of Debaltseve, it may be possible that the  Minsk ceasefire agreement will be observed. The  shelling may stop completely or at  least subside for a month or two until someone decides that the self-proclaimed republics can not go on living without Mariupol, Artemivsk or Lysychansk . Then “political commissars” will be activated throughout the military units in Russia to tell stories about how important it is to protect the freedom-loving West Donbas from aggression. No one will be forced – only volunteers will go.

Michael, and Alex, and Artem, and Dima signed a letter of resignation before leaving for Ukraine. If anyone of these guys is “very unlucky” (killed) in the assault on Debaltseve, they are out of luck. Such volunteers will have no relationship whatsoever to their military units (back in Russia).

[The reporter goes on to write that the same thing happened to Soviet “volunteers” during the Spanish civil war where Soviet officer died under Spanish names.]

The reporters then asks the young soldiers:

“Were you told that you were being sent to military exercises in the Rostov (Southern Russia) region or were you directly told that we were going to fight in Ukraine?”

They told us right away (we are going to Ukraine). See for yourself. These grunts  do what they are told. I do not serve in the army in order to learn to sew and dig.”

“Is your "trip" for a long time or does it go on indefinitely until you leave?”

“So far, I am here. I want to either to end the war, or  fight to my last breath.”

“And why are you doing this?” The reporters asks one of them.

We were told that we can help to stop the war here.”

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Farce Goes On: Europe Petitions Putin To Use Influence Over His Own Forces

In a phone call late Monday (February 16), German Chancellor Angela Merkel and  (I imagine a very reluctant) Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to use his influence on the separatists to convince them to stop the fighting. After sitting 15 hours with Putin in Minsk, they surely recognized the futility and disastrous symbolism of going to Putin hat in hand. Merkel’s appeal was not effective. Putin’s response was to advise the Ukrainian troops to surrender, and today (February 18) Poroshenko announced the “orderly withdrawal” of Ukraine forces from the besieged city, after they incurred massive losses. In their wisdom, leaders of Germany, France, and (a reluctant) Ukraine again have scheduled a phone call with Putin, as if that will make a difference. Well, he might be more accommodating after achieving his military goals. I guess Merkel et al have not heard of “don’t shut the gate after the horse has bolted.”

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Europe And The United States Finally Declare that Russian Soldiers Are Fighting In Ukraine

The European and American separate declarations that Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine is a rejection in clear language of the Kremlin’s phony narrative of a civil war fought by separatists and Russian “volunteers” deprives them of the “excuse not to believe.” It also means that Europe and the U.S. have labeled the leader of another country, one Vladimir Putin, a liar. The first step in solving any problem is to clearly define what it is. Europe and the U.S. have reluctantly taken this step. The next is to act.

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Putin Gives Away Nothing in Minsk

Putin can keep troops in Ukraine, rebels got recognition, Europe can say they go a peace deal. Ukraine has to pay for occupied Donbass, and goes away with $17.5 billion from the IMF.

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Friday, February 6, 2015

Kerry Delivers Hot Air Speech To Ukraine While Putin Supplies Tanks, Missiles And Troops

Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks in Kiev yesterday must have boosted spirits in the Kremlin. Ukraine expected to hear that the United States is stepping up to the plate to provide defensive weapons against the Russian-led offensive. Instead of meaningful reassurance, they got the standard Obama-administration platitude: “I am here specifically to bring you the support and friendship and goodwill of the President of the United States, of the Administration, but most importantly the American people.” There’s not much there that Kiev can take to the bank.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Putin Shrugs Off Oligarch Opposition To His 'Holy War' And Policies

Russia’s oligarchs have let it be known they are not happy with Putin’s holy war against Ukraine and the West, which has cost them one quarter of their wealth. Putin is unimpressed. He knows he can destroy any one of them through his control of the power ministries. We shall see if Putin’s confidence is justified.

go to forbes,com