Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Putin's Saber-Rattling Spooks Ukraine And The Baltic

KIEV, Ukraine -- As the late summer weather begins to cool, Russian military exercises have kept the tensions hot in Ukraine and across Eastern Europe.

A T-80 tank, operated by a Russian crew, is driven off a pontoon bridge during the Open Water competition for pontoon bridge units, part of the International Army Games 2016, in the city of Murom, Russia, on August 6. Nolan Peterson writes that Russian military exercises are like the smoke screens before the Russian stealth invasions of Georgia and Crimea.

Periodic flare-ups in the ongoing war in Ukraine’s embattled Donbas region this summer have renewed fears of a full-on Russian invasion and spurred an unprecedented post–Cold War redeployment of NATO military forces toward the alliance’s eastern flank to deter further Russian aggression in the region.

The latest headache for Kiev and NATO: Russian military exercises scheduled for Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region in September in addition to Russian snap military exercises launched August 25 in military districts near Ukraine and the Baltic countries.

“If there is an interest in Moscow in stability and predictability, then these exercises are not the way to go,” NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow said Monday.

Russia has staged about a dozen snap military exercises in the past two years, while NATO member countries have not held any since the end of the Cold War, according to news reports.

In September, Russia has plans for a large-scale strategic military exercise called Kavkaz-2016.

The exercise, which is an annual event, will include units deployed near the borders of Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan—including two Russian military districts in the Southern and Northern Caucasus, the Russian Black Sea Fleet (headquartered in occupied Crimea) and the Caspian Flotilla.

It is not immediately clear the exact size of this year’s exercise, but last year it comprised 95,000 troops, 7,000 vehicles and 150 aircraft, according to a report by IHS Markit, a U.K.-based intelligence and analysis firm.

“It is important to assess our capabilities for protecting national interests in the southwestern strategic direction amid the uneasy international military and political situation,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in January while commenting on plans for Kavkaz-2016, according to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

Some military experts say the combination of snap military drills with the planned Kavkaz-2016 exercise have the hallmarks of Russian military maneuvers that served as smoke screens for the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the hybrid warfare invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. 

Yet others argue Russia’s strategic military objectives have more to do with diplomatic leverage than military outcomes.

Alex Kokcharov, IHS Markit’s principal analyst for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, said the Kremlin is probably maneuvering to destabilize the post-revolution government in Kiev, and consequently gain leverage for negotiating sanctions relief at the G-20 summit to be held in Hangzhou, China, from September 4 to 5.

“War is a continuation of policy,” Kokcharov told The Daily Signal.

“And the Kremlin’s policy is to keep Ukraine sufficiently destabilized to stall the implementation of its reform agenda and economic recovery, and thus to engineer a fall of the current pro-Western government in Kiev.”

Fighting Seasons 

A combined force of pro-Russian separatists and Russian regulars has been fighting a limited war against Ukraine’s military in the southeastern Donbass region of the country since spring 2014.

One year ago, the war’s intensity dropped precipitously as both sides to the conflict renewed their commitment to the terms of the ineffectual second cease-fire, called Minsk II.

In theory, the war in Ukraine was supposed to end in September 2015.

But it didn’t.

On Tuesday, the Ukrainian military announced that during the previous 24 hours combined Russian-separatist forces had attacked Ukrainian positions with more than 690 mortars and 250 artillery shells, including a Grad rocket attack near the southern port city of Mariupol.

One Ukrainian soldier was killed, Ukrainian military spokesman Colonel Andriy Lysenko told reporters Tuesday in Kiev.

Attacks on Ukrainian forces have spiked several times this summer, most notably around the time of the NATO summit in Warsaw (during which NATO members proclaimed their support for Ukraine), and after the August 10 skirmish on the border of Russian-occupied Crimea and Ukraine.

The Crimean border incident was serious enough to prompt Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to place Ukraine’s military on its “highest level of alert,” and for Western media outlets to momentarily divert their attention back to the only ongoing land war in Europe.

In an August 24 interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Poroshenko compared Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine with the Russian bombing campaign on Aleppo, Syria.

Poroshenko claimed Russia’s overall objective was to “destabilize the global security situation” and for Ukraine to be “part of the Russian empire.”

Status Quo 

The war’s escalations this summer have not resulted so far in any significant change in territory or military offensives.

The war in Ukraine remains locked in a static artillery back-and-forth fought from within trenches and the artillery-blasted ruins of towns scattered along the front lines.

And domestic troubles inside Ukraine, such as the July 20 car bomb assassination of a journalist in downtown Kiev, also highlight the steep road ahead for Ukraine’s ongoing transition to a democratic society free of the vestiges of communism and the follow-on decades of corrupt oligarchic thug rule. 

The next potential inflection point for the Ukraine war is September’s G-20 summit in China.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely use the sidelines of the summit to discuss the Ukraine crisis with other world leaders and press for the lifting of sanctions put on Russia for its 2014 Crimean land grab.

“Russia certainly has the military capability to invade Ukraine, but the benefits of grabbing new land in Ukraine would be much smaller than the costs, both direct and indirect, such as potential new economic sanctions,” Kokcharov said.

He added: I still continue to hold the view that Putin aims to use intimidation to raise the stakes in the diplomatic game in order to push for negotiations on Donbass settlement that excludes the Ukrainian government from the negotiating table, by branding them illegitimate and terrorists.

Source: Newsweek

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

‘The War Won’t Be Over Soon’: Ukraine’s Long Fight Against Russia For Freedom

MARIUPOL, Ukraine -- For more than two years, Ukraine’s military has been fighting a ground war against a combined force of pro-Russian separatists and Russian regulars in the Donbass, Ukraine’s embattled southeastern territory.

Ukrainian soldier Borys Antonovich Melnyk, 75, a Red Army veteran.

As Ukraine prepares for the 25th anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union this Wednesday, the ongoing war in the Donbass highlights how the post-Soviet country is still fighting to establish its freedom from Russian vassalage.

“The dream of Ukrainian independence existed in the USSR, but we couldn’t talk about it,” Kovbel Vasyl Vasyliyovych, a 62-year-old Ukrainian soldier, told The Daily Signal.

“The environment was one in which you only tried to survive. You didn’t express yourself. I feel like now I can finally express sentiments that I’ve had bottled up inside me my whole life.”

The war in Ukraine is a bizarre, paradoxical fusion of antiquated fighting methods with modern technology.

It is a trench warfare battle, where heavy artillery is fired every day and drones orbit overhead.

Small units engage each other in no man’s land, but there are no serious attempts to take new ground.

The war is static, governed in its intensity by the terms of the Minsk II cease-fire.

It’s like two boxers sparring at half speed, sparing themselves for the main event.

It has been nearly 100 years since the Russian Civil War began, sparking events that led to the consolidation of Ukraine into the Soviet Union—a loss of independence that lasted until Aug. 24, 1991.

Today, many Ukrainian soldiers say they are still fighting for Ukraine’s independence from Moscow. 

“The separatists are the weapons of the Russians,” Borys Antonovich Melnyk, a 75-year-old Ukrainian volunteer soldier and Red Army veteran, said in an interview.

“They were turned by Russian propaganda against Ukraine,” Melnyk said.

“They are Russia’s weapons. They are the weapons, not the reasons. This is not only a war against the separatists, this is a war against Russia.”

It has also been about 100 years since combat airpower made its debut over the trenches in World War I.

Today, Ukraine’s air force now sits on the ground while its soldiers dodge artillery and tank shots.

And despite the front lines ending on the Sea of Azov, there is no naval component to the war, either. 

The last major offensive in the war was in February 2015.

In the days after the signing of the second cease-fire, known as Minsk II, combined Russian-separatist forces sacked the strategic rail hub town of Debaltseve, seizing it from Ukrainian government control. 

Since the Debaltseve battle, periodic upticks in violence predictably spur flurries of media speculation about whether a major Russian offensive is looming.

Yet, the war has not changed in any meaningful way in more than a year and a half.

No significant territory has changed hands, and the opposing camps have made scant progress toward achieving a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

And periodic spats between Kiev and Moscow, such as the Aug. 10 border skirmishes in Crimea, underscore how the conflict retains the potential to quickly spiral into something much worse.

Today, U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence sources estimate the combined Russian-separatist army has about 45,000 troops inside Ukrainian territory, with about 45,000 more Russian soldiers staged in Russia along the western border with Ukraine.

Russia also has about 45,000 military personnel stationed inside occupied Crimea.

Ukraine has deployed about 100,000 soldiers to its eastern territories.

“The Russian people are not the enemy,” Vasyliyovych said.

“Half of my relatives and friends live in Russia. It’s a political war. The Soviet propaganda is still there. And [Russian President Vladimir] Putin still uses it the same way as they did in the USSR.”

Ad Hoc War 

The Ukrainian army’s 92nd Brigade is hunkered down in trenches and in the basements of abandoned homes scattered throughout the artillery-blasted ruins of the village of Pisky, on the outskirts of the separatist-controlled Donetsk airport in eastern Ukraine.

Squads of Ukrainian soldiers on patrol carry at least one radio among them.

The radio, usually an off-the-shelf Motorola, is their advance warning system for incoming artillery. 

Spotters posted in front-line trenches continuously peer across no man’s land through binoculars and telescopes.

When they observe artillery fired in the Ukrainians’ direction, they have a few precious instants to radio a warning—the word “hole”—on a common frequency.

That’s the cue for all who hear it to take cover or to lay down flat on the ground if caught in the open. 

The radios the Ukrainian soldiers use are not encrypted.

Therefore, they share the airwaves with their enemies.

Due to the lack of encrypted radios and how frequently Ukrainians change their positions, which precludes setting up hardline communications, the Ukrainians sometimes use runners to carry handwritten messages scribbled on sheets of torn paper among various front-line posts.

In calm periods of bemusement, the Ukrainian troops listen to radio chatter transmitted from the opposite side of no man’s land; they pick out Russian accents from Moscow, or St. Petersburg.

The Ukrainians often chime in on the radio, employing the full breadth of the Russian language’s copious lexicon of curse words to taunt and mock their enemies.

At night, the dark sky is cut by the streaking red lights of tracer fire.

And there is the frequent whirring sound from the motors of Russian drones orbiting overhead.

The Ukrainian soldiers call them "sputniks."

During downtime, the soldiers scroll through their Facebook pages on their smartphones.

They listen to music or watch movies on their laptops.

They try not to cluster together when on their cellphones, however, due to reports of Russian signals technology that can pick out clusters of cell signals as a way to target artillery.

The soldiers use an app, loaded onto a tablet and developed by university students in Kiev, for plotting enemy artillery positions on a Google Earth map of the battlespace.

Without the possibility of airborne medevac, ground evacuation is the only hope for survival if a soldier is wounded.

Understanding the long odds against survival if wounded severely, many Ukrainian soldiers carry a grenade under their body armor as a means to commit suicide if they are ever mortally wounded. 

During the day, tanks on both sides periodically come out from their camouflaged hiding spots to lob a few artillery rounds across no man’s land.

Snipers take frequent potshots, and other weapons like automatic grenade launchers are often used.

In 2012, Ukraine was the world’s fourth largest arms exporter, selling more than $1.344 billion worth of conventional arms, according to a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Yet, apart from weapons and ammunition, almost all of the Ukrainian soldiers’ kits, food, and clothing are brought to the front lines by civilian volunteers.

Many Ukrainian soldiers have used their own money to buy uniforms and body armor off the internet.

One soldier said his wife gave him a body armor vest for his birthday.

Civilian volunteer groups raise money from internet campaigns to purchase items like individual first aid kits, sleeping bags, boots, and food for soldiers deployed to the front lines.

Volunteers, usually with no military training, deliver these supplies, exposing themselves to the same risks of artillery and sniper fire as the soldiers they are supporting.

One Dimensional Fight 

The southern terminus of the front lines is in the seaside town of Shyrokyne, on the Sea of Azov.

In the industrial city of Mariupol, about 20 minutes by car west of the front, the beaches are lined with troop barricades, barbed wire, and mines.

It is a scene reminiscent of fortifications in Normandy during World War II.

Separatist territory comprises about 20 miles of shoreline on the Sea of Azov (running from Shyrokyne to the Russian border), but there is currently no naval dimension to the conflict.

Air power is also almost nonexistent.

The Ukrainian air force was grounded as a condition of the first cease-fire signed in September 2014.

The Donbass is now among the most heavily defended airspaces on Earth.

The area is replete with modern Russian surface-to-air missile systems, posing a grave threat to Ukraine’s Cold War-era warplanes.

The July 17, 2014, downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over separatist-held territory by a Russian BUK surface-to-air missile, killing all 288 people aboard, highlighted the threat to aircraft in the region.

Three days prior to the downing of MH17, a Ukrainian An-26 transport plane flying at more than 21,000 feet over eastern Ukraine was brought down by a surface-to-air missile—the crew survived.

A month earlier, on June 14, 2014, a Ukrainian IL-76 transport plane was shot down near the Luhansk airport in separatist-controlled territory, killing 49 soldiers and crew.

According to news reports, combined Russian-separatist forces shot down seven Ukrainian fighter and attack aircraft, three transport aircraft, and at least nine helicopters over eastern Ukraine prior to the first cease-fire.

Ukraine has not lost any aircraft to enemy fire after September 2014 due to the halt in air operations.

Yet, according to the Ukrainian military, Russian air defense forces are still moving into eastern Ukraine.

On Saturday, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate reported that Russia had deployed a mobile air defense division to the Donbass, comprising 12 TOR-M2U short-range air defense missile systems and 170 personnel.

Additionally, combined Russian-separatist forces in eastern Ukraine currently have more tanks than the arsenals of France and the United Kingdom put together, according to Ukrainian defense officials. 

Life Goes On 

In Ukraine’s capital of Kiev one would hardly know there was a land war going on within a day’s drive from the city’s bustling cafés and restaurants.

There are new art spaces popping up across town, live music in the bars, festivals in the streets.

It feels like a carefree summer in any European capital.

Kiev’s main thoroughfare, Khreshchatyk, will be closed for a military parade on Wednesday as part of Independence Day celebrations.

Many Ukrainian soldiers admit they don’t want civilian life to grind to a halt because of the war.

They say it is a testament to their military service and the promise of the 2014 revolution that normal life carries on despite the war.

Kiev’s ubiquitous hipsters, the new coffee shops, the packed arena concerts featuring bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Muse make it feel like the revolution’s promise of a more Western European way of life is inching toward reality.

Ukrainian millennials wishfully describe Kiev as the “New Berlin.”

Yet, beneath the surface, life is harder in Ukraine than it was prior to the 2014 revolution.

The country’s economy is struggling.

Wages have remained stagnant despite the fact that the hryvnia, Ukraine’s national currency, has plummeted to less than a third of its pre-revolution value against the dollar.

Corruption is still rampant, from government halls to the minutia of daily life, like getting in to see a doctor.

And the war is no closer to a long-term solution today than when the second cease-fire was signed on Feb. 12, 2015, more than a year and a half ago.

The conflict is quarantined to the Donbass region, which comprises less than 15 percent of Ukraine’s total landmass.

And for many Ukrainians, the day-to-day hardships of the economic downturn trump concerns about the conflict, which has little tangible impact on daily life outside of the war zone.

News reports from the front lines have consequently faded from Ukraine’s domestic headlines.

Waning public attention to the war has left many returning veterans feeling isolated and frustrated when they return home.

There is a feeling among many veterans and active-duty soldiers that they are fighting in a forgotten war.

Not only forgotten by the world’s media, but by Ukrainians themselves.

“The war won’t be over soon,” Melnyk, the 75-year-old Ukrainian soldier, said.

“I don’t know when. Maybe Putin knows. Maybe [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko knows. But I don’t think it will be over soon.”

Source: The Daily Signal

More Of Kremlin’s Opponents Are Ending Up Dead

MOSCOW, Russia -- From a certain perspective, certainly the Kremlin’s, Vladimir Kara-Murza’s behavior in Washington could be seen as treasonous, a brazen betrayal of his homeland.

The funeral of Alexander V. Litvinenko, a Putin opponent who died of radioactive polonium-210 poisoning in London in 2006.

In a series of public meetings on Capitol Hill, Mr. Kara-Murza, a leader in the Russian opposition, urged American lawmakers to expand economic sanctions against the Russian government under a law known as the Magnitsky Act.

That would hasten political change in Russia, he argued.

Back in Moscow a month later, in May 2015, the changes Mr. Kara-Murza detected were going on in his own body.

Midway through a meeting with fellow dissidents, beads of sweat inexplicably dotted his forehead.

His stomach churned.

“It all went so fast,” he recalled.

“In the space of about 20 minutes, I went from feeling completely normal to having a rapid heart rate, really high blood pressure, to sweating and vomiting all over the place, and then I lost consciousness.”

He had ingested a poison, doctors told him after he emerged from a weeklong coma, though they could find no identifiable trace of it.

While Mr. Kara-Murza survived, few others in his position have proved as lucky.

He said he was certain he had been the target of a security service poisoning.

Used extensively in the Soviet era, political murders are again playing a prominent role in the Kremlin’s foreign policy, the most brutal instrument in an expanding repertoire of intimidation tactics intended to silence or otherwise intimidate critics at home and abroad.

Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, has made no secret of his ambition to restore his country to what he sees as its rightful place among the world’s leading nations.

He has invested considerable money and energy into building an image of a strong and morally superior Russia, in sharp contrast with what he portrays as weak, decadent and disorderly Western democracies. 

Muckraking journalists, rights advocates, opposition politicians, government whistle-blowers and other Russians who threaten that image are treated harshly — imprisoned on trumped-up charges, smeared in the news media and, with increasing frequency, killed.

Political murders, particularly those accomplished with poisons, are nothing new in Russia, going back five centuries.

Nor are they particularly subtle.

While typically not traceable to any individuals and plausibly denied by government officials, poisonings leave little doubt of the state’s involvement — which may be precisely the point.

“Outside of popular culture, there are no highly skilled hit men for hire,” Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an authority on the Russian security services, said in an interview.

“If it’s a skilled job, that means it’s a state asset.”

Other countries, notably Israel and the United States, pursue targeted killings, but in a strict counterterrorism context.

No other major power employs murder as systematically and ruthlessly as Russia does against those seen as betraying its interests abroad.

Killings outside Russia were even given legal sanction by the nation’s Parliament in 2006.

Applied most notoriously in the case of Alexander V. Litvinenko, a Putin opponent who died of polonium-210 poisoning in London in 2006, murders and deaths under mysterious circumstances are now seen as such a menace that Kremlin critics now often flee the country and keep their whereabouts secret.

Russia has never acknowledged using the authority under the 2006 law and has specifically denied any government ties to high-profile cases, including the Litvinenko murder.

Among those fleeing Russia recently is Grigory Rodchenkov, a whistle-blower in Russia’s sports doping scandal.

This is not without reason.

In the case over state-sponsored doping, two other officials with knowledge of the scheme died unexpectedly as the outlines of the scandal began to emerge.

Just this month, another whistle-blower, Yulia Stepanova, a runner in hiding with her husband in the United States, was forced to move amid fears that hackers had found her location.

“If something happens to us,” she said, “then you should know that it is not an accident.”

“The government is using the special services to liquidate its enemies,” Gennadi V. Gudkov, a former member of Parliament and onetime lieutenant colonel in the K.G.B., said in an interview.

“It was not just Litvinenko, but many others we don’t know about, classified as accidents or maybe semi-accidents.”

Most recently, a coroner ruled that blunt-force trauma caused the death of a Kremlin insider, Mikhail Y. Lesin, 57, in a Washington hotel room last year, not the heart attack his colleagues first said.

In July, the Russian Interfax news agency reported that Aleksandr Poteyev, 64, an intelligence officer accused of defecting and betraying a ring of Russian spies living undercover in American suburbs, had died in the United States.

Still, the Magnitsky Act, the law that Mr. Kara-Murza was in Washington urging lawmakers to expand, has proved to be perhaps the most lethal topic of all over the years.

Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer and auditor, was jailed on tax evasion charges while investigating a $230 million government tax “refund” that corrupt Russian officials had granted to themselves.

He died in 2009 after having been denied essential medical care in prison, earning the Kremlin widespread condemnation.

In response, William F. Browder, an American financier who was the target of the tax fraud during time he spent working in Russia and had employed Mr. Magnitsky, campaigned in Congress for a law punishing the officials involved in the misdeeds and subsequent mistreatment of the auditor.

The proposed measure, which eventually passed in 2012 as the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act, denied visas and blocked access to the American financial system for Russians deemed to have committed rights abuses and avoided punishment at home — including those involved in the Magnitsky tax fraud case.

Putin, perceiving an intrusion into his country’s affairs, campaigned hard against the measure.

When it passed, he retaliated by ending American adoptions of Russian children.

The law became a prototype for the blacklisting of prominent Russians accused of murders, human rights abuses and financial theft, among other violations.

The question of who was involved in the tax fraud became vitally important first to the investigation, and eventually to the final scope of the legislation.

Access to inside information became pivotal and, it turned out, lethal.

To date, five people who either handed over such information or were potential witnesses have died under mysterious circumstances that, in their sophistication, suggest state-sponsored killings.

One of the victims was Mr. Magnitsky, whose death was hardly the stuff of cloak-and-dagger security operations.

Two others died before Mr. Magnitsky.

And as the case gained greater prominence, others began dying under mysterious circumstances.

One victim whose death preceded Mr. Magnitsky’s, Valery Kurochkin, a potential witness whose name appeared on documents related to the fraud, fled Russia for Ukraine but died there of liver failure at the age of 43.

The other, Oktai Gasanov, a low-level figure in the fraud case but one who might have shed light on the group’s modus operandi, died of heart failure at 53.

Then, after Mr. Magnitsky’s death in prison, a fourth insider met an untimely end in a plunge from a balcony.

A fifth, a banker linked to the scheme, Alexander Perepilichny, made it to London in 2009 and passed wire-transfer records to Swiss investigators.

In 2012, however, at the age of 44 and in apparently excellent health, he suffered a heart attack while jogging.

Police were left scratching their heads over the body found crumpled on a road in a well-guarded housing development, home to Kate Winslet and Elton John.

An autopsy initially did nothing to clear up the questions.

It was not until 2015 that a botanist was able to identify the presumptive cause of Mr. Perepilichny’s death:

His stomach held traces of gelsemium, a rare, poisonous plant grown in the Himalayas and known to have been used in Chinese assassinations.

A coroner’s inquest is scheduled for September.

“All of this sounds like paranoid conspiracy theories,” Mr. Browder said in a telephone interview.

“But there are too many of these happening to important people. Captains of industry and lawyers are not dying left, right and center like this in the West.”

Poison has been a favorite tool of Russian intelligence for more than a century.

A biochemist, Grigory Mairanovski, labored in secret from 1928 on the task of developing tasteless, colorless and odorless poisons.

In 1954, a K.G.B. defector described a secret lab near the agency’s Lubyanka headquarters and “experiments on living people.”

The agencies developed an arsenal of lethal, hard-to-trace poisons that, analysts of Russian security affairs say, is still in use.

The Arab-born terrorist known as Khattab died in 2002 in his mountain hide-out in Chechnya after opening a letter laced with a form of sarin, a nerve agent.

In 1995, a Russian banker, Ivan K. Kivelidi, died after coming in contact with cadmium, which is deadly to the touch.

His secretary died of the same symptoms, apparently because the poison had been spread on an office telephone handset.

In 2008, Karinna Moskalenko, a Russian lawyer specializing in taking cases to the European Court of Human Rights, fell ill in Strasbourg, France, from mercury found in her car.

And in one case, a Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov, was killed on Waterloo Bridge in London in 1978 with an umbrella tipped with a pellet of ricin.

Mistakes abound.

In 1971, a year after he won the Nobel Prize for literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn survived a poisoning attempt.

Ricin, made from castor beans, was probably involved, according to news media accounts and a biography of the dissident writer.

Ukraine’s former pro-Western president, Viktor A. Yushchenko, was left with his face disfigured after a dioxin poisoning — likely concealed in a meal of boiled crayfish — that Mr. Yushchenko attributed to Russian assassins.

The attempt on Mr. Kara-Murza’s life turned out to be one of those mistakes, though that was not immediately certain.

As his colleagues looked on surprised, Mr. Kara-Murza’s sweat-covered head flopped down onto a table.

The poison threw him into a weeklong coma with a puzzling range of symptoms, from swelling in his brain to kidney failure, giving his legs and arms a blue hue, his wife, Yevgenia, recalled.

He endured nerve damage that left him limping, but has otherwise made a full recovery.

A French laboratory found heavy metals in his blood but was unable to identify a specific poison or explain how he might have ingested them accidentally.

Mr. Kara-Murza, 34, has insisted that police open an investigation.

He is convinced he ingested the poison during a flight on Aeroflot.

If so, it would not have been the first time such an episode occurred.

In 2004, the opposition journalist Anna Politkovskaya drank poisoned tea on an Aeroflot flight but survived.

She was shot and killed in her apartment elevator two years later.

“How can you protect yourself?” Mr. Kara-Murza’s wife asked.

“What can you do? Not eat? Bring your own lunch everywhere? How can you predict a poisoning?” 

Some do take precautions.

Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion and now an opposition figure, has long had bodyguards carry bottled water and prepared meals for him.

In a chilling epilogue to Mr. Kara-Murza’s ordeal, a warning appeared in February on the Instagram account of Ramzan A. Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya.

It showed Mr. Kara-Murza outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where he was speaking in favor of sanctions against Russia.

He was in cross hairs, with the caption:

“Those who haven’t understood will understand.”

Source: The New York Times

Monday, August 22, 2016

Tensions Mount Between Russia And Ukraine Following ‘Terror Incident’

KIEV, Ukraine -- By any standards, the drumbeat of growing tensions between Russia and Ukraine this month has been especially ominous.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signs graffiti in the youth educational forum "Tavrida" in Crimea on Friday.

It began as Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Kiev of embracing the “tactics of terror,” after Russia claimed to have caught Ukrainian saboteurs in Crimea.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko put troops on alert and warned that the country might have to move toward martial law and mobilization if the conflict in the east or Crimea escalated.

Russia is now set to hold large military drills in the region next month.

And in eastern Ukraine, the use of heavy weapons between Russian-backed separatists and the army has increased as opposing trenches have crept so close that opposing fighters can shout across the breach.

Analysts say tensions are at their highest since the signing of what are known as the Minsk agreements in February 2015.

And in Kiev, it is not unusual to hear once again that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine.

“We view it as a real threat,” said Mikhail Samus, deputy director for international affairs at the Kiev-based Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies.

He added that a Russian Security Council meeting led by Putin in Crimea this weekend increased concerns of an escalation.

“Putin is controlling the situation, and that makes it the most dangerous situation,” Samus said.

The incident earlier this month, the facts of which are hotly disputed, appeared to be a possible flash point.

Russia claims that Ukrainian intelligence staged a high-level raid led by a former soldier, Yevgeny Panov.

Ukrainian troops also fired across the border, Russia said, and two Russian servicemen were killed. 

Ukraine said the incident was invented.

Later, a senior military intelligence officer told Poroshenko that Russian soldiers had shelled themselves.

The truth likely lies somewhere in between.

“Whether Crimea happened or did not happen does not matter anymore,” said Michael Kofman, a fellow at the Kennan Institute of the Wilson Center who focuses on post-Soviet security issues.

“Russia can make it real by simply reacting to it as though it was real.”

Alex Ryabchyn, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, said Putin is looking to send a “signal to the West” to return to the negotiating table over Ukraine, believing that Kiev’s Western partners are losing patience with the country amid the U.S. elections, the migration crisis and other urgent issues.

“What will you do if I attack or take some anti-terrorist measures?” Ryabchyn said.

“Will you invade? Will you express concern? Let’s start negotiating, because I can choose to do this or not to do this at any time.”

Russia quickly used the attacks to refocus attention on the Minsk accords.

Putin, in remarks from Crimea on Friday, said the reason for the attack in Crimea was clear:

“Because Ukraine is either unwilling or unable for some reason to implement the Minsk agreements.” 

The accords include the approval of a “special status” for the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine and the holding of local elections whose terms remain disputed and largely favorable to Moscow.

Kiev, in turn, has demanded that rebels return control of the country’s eastern borders with Russia, a conduit for fighters, weapons and other contraband.

“Ukraine doesn’t have much interest in implementing Minsk,” Kofman said, noting a growing desire in Kiev to freeze the conflict in Donbass.

“And my sense of this Crimea incident is that the Russians are trying to find some kind of leverage with the Europeans,” who are part of the negotiations.

With new deadlines approaching for the European Union to renew sanctions against Russia and little progress so far on implementing the accords, Russia may have decided to “scare the hell” out of the West, he said.

Violence in eastern Ukraine has also risen during the summer months.

An International Crisis Group report released last week said the 310-mile line of separation between the Ukrainian and separatist sides is “not fit for purpose,” and that the Minsk agreements are “being violated daily and heavily.”

“All officers interviewed described the Minsk process as dead and strongly supported the idea, floated by some leading politicians, to seal off the separatist enclaves for the foreseeable future,” the report said.

Alexander Hug, a leader of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, said in an interview that OSCE monitors are increasingly denied access to the conflict zone.

The tempo of fighting is worse where front lines come within meters of one another, he said, adding that some heavy weaponry, which was supposed to be removed from the front and inventoried, has also returned.

As violence in the east heats up, Ukrainian officials have suggested that Russia may use upcoming military drills, called Kavkaz (Caucasus) 2016, as cover for military action against Ukraine.

The drills are the first to integrate the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, into the country’s military planning, and thousands of Russian troops will be brought in for air, land and sea exercises.

Ukrainian government analysts have recalled that exercises served as staging grounds for troop incursions in 2014, as did Russian military exercises held shortly before the Georgian war of 2008.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations suggested that Russia may have “bad intentions,” while the West has also said it would have liked observers to be present.

At the same time, Pentagon spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said that American officials “don’t necessarily see any evidence of troop movements that are so large that we’re concerned about those on their own.”

However, he said, U.S. officials are “extremely concerned” about escalating rhetoric between Russia and Ukraine.

Source: The Washington Post

World War 3 Soon: Russia Amasses 40,000 Troops On Ukraine Border, 'Perfect' Time For Invasion

WASHINGTON, DC -- Is Russia preparing to invade Ukraine? A build-up of Russian army forces along its long border with Ukraine has people in Washington, DC, a little worried about Russia’s intent and the very real potential for a full-scale war in eastern Europe.

Officials and experts alike see the bolstering of troops and war materiel as a sign of imminent conflict, and one arms expert says the coming month would be a “perfect” time for Russia to invade Ukraine.

The Washington Free Beacon reported August 17 that Pentagon officials have pinpointed eight separate locations along the Ukraine border with Russia where Russian Federations troops and war materiel have increased, resulting in a total deployment of 40,000 troops in the border region.

With more military exercises scheduled, the influx of men and armaments over the past year has led to worries that Russia might use the exercises as a cover for an attack on Ukraine.

And an attack on Ukraine could lead to an escalation in hostilities between Russia and countries aligned with NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), a potentiality many fear could roll into a conflagration that could possibly lead to World War 3.

A defense official told the Free Beacon, “Russian units will likely practice reinforcing the [Crimean] peninsula through such activities as amphibious landings and air defense exercises, and this may involve the change out of equipment and long convoys of military vehicles.”

The official’s warning echoes a report from the Atlantic Council issued just last month, wherein it was posited that with the Russian army’s constant running of military exercises and drills, in addition to its bolstering of its western border defenses in the past couple years, it was possible that the exercises might be used as a distraction to actually strike at weak targets like the Baltic States.

According to the Inquisitr, the report noted that with almost little or no warning, Russian troops could sweep through the small countries in a matter of hours, effectively moving the nation’s western border a few hundred miles westward to Poland.

The Pentagon’s wariness is understandable, according to a former arms control official, who now heads the Potomac Foundation, a foreign and domestic policy analysis organization.

Citing both the recent military maneuverings in Crimea, a part of Ukraine that Russia annexed in 2014, and on the Ukraine border itself, Dr. Phillip Karber is of the opinion that the timing is perfect for a Russian invasion.

“For the next month the terrain is perfect for armor moving cross-country and the skies are clear for air.”

Karber went on to reinforce the reasoning:

“The 24th of August is Ukraine’s Independence Day, which is when the Russians attacked in 2014. A successful campaign, with U.S. and NATO doing nothing but verbiage, re-establishes Russia as a major European power that has to be dealt with and increases Putin’s popularity at home.”

Recent developments have added to the tension as well.

Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB official that many think might have been a steadying hand on the Russian president, was fired last week.

In the same time period, as was reported by the Inquisitr, several videos were posted to the internet showing purported Russian troop movements and tank shipments into Crimea.

The killing of a Russian soldier on the border and the closing of two of the three border crossings between Crimea and Ukraine have also added to the mounting tension.

In fact, Dr. Karber said that an incident such as what he called the “trumped-up” charges from Moscow of a recent so-called Ukraine terrorist attack inside Crimea last week could be used as a pretext for an invasion.

Escalations in hardline rhetoric and increasing the number of military exercises in the past few years have led many to announce that the Russian Federation and NATO have re-entered a “Cold War” relationship, much like the adversarial political dance around the constant threat of a superpowers confrontation that existed from the end of World War II well into the 1990s.

Many also worry that the saber-rattling might well be a precursor to World War 3.

Barber blames the foreign policy of the administration of President Barack Obama for much of Russia’s increasing aggressiveness.

“The fact that a full scale Russian invasion is still a plausible scenario after 30 months of conflict is an abject repudiation of an American policy of ‘leading from behind’ and West European fetish for trying to find ‘off-ramps’ that Putin hasn’t the slightest interest in taking.”

Source: inquisitr

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Ukraine At A Crossroads: Could Putin Lose His Job Over Mishandling The Crisis?

KIEV, Ukraine -- One of the unintended consequences of Great Britain’s Brexit vote is that the European Community has put any future expansion of its membership on hold.

Vladimir Putin

Kiev had signed the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement on June 27, 2014, with high hopes that it would eventually lead to a full application to join the European community by 2020.

Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s then newly elected president, had described the 2014 agreement as a “first but most decisive step” toward joining the EU.

The initial agreement had been followed by Ukraine joining the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area on January 1, 2016.

That agreement gives selected Ukrainian business sectors access to the EU’s internal common market.

It also guarantees European investors in those sectors the same regulatory environment that currently exists within the EU.

Similar agreements have been signed with Moldova and Georgia.

The agreement is designed to bring the Ukrainian economy, its political governance and the legal system up to EU standards, and to pave the way for formal entry into the EU.

Now, in the wake of Brexit, any hope of becoming a full-fledged member of the EU has receded into the indefinite future.

In the meantime, of late, Moscow has been reminding Kiev of its strategic vulnerability by ratcheting up tension with Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on August 11, accused Ukraine of staging two “incursions” into Crimea to infiltrate “trained saboteurs” in order to target “critical infrastructure” over the weekend of August 5.

Russia has claimed that one of its soldiers and an employee of the FSB security agency were killed.

Putin used the alleged incident to cancel Russian participation in scheduled talks in Normandy, France to discuss the implementation of the Minsk Peace Accord between Russia and Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government labeled the Russian claim “a fantasy,” and accused Putin of deliberately escalating tensions in the two-year-old conflict between the two countries.

In the meantime, the Kremlin announced that the Russian Navy would be staging “war games” in the Black Sea.

Several days later the Kremlin also announced that it would deploy the advanced S-400 Triumph air-defense missile system in the Crimea, as well as stage additional military exercises along its eastern border with Ukraine.

According to Pentagon sources, Russia has deployed approximately 40,000 troops, along with tanks, armored personnel carriers and air force units, in eight separate staging areas along Ukraine’s eastern border.

In addition, an unspecified number of troops in adjoining rear areas are slated to also participate in the exercises.

Russian intentions are unclear.

The announced exercises could be nothing more than saber rattling on Moscow’s part or a prelude to a future invasion of Ukraine.

Russia conducted similar military exercises prior to its seizure of Crimea on February 27, 2014.

Moreover, the Kremlin has a long history of such saber rattling, both as a prelude to negotiations and as a prelude to a military intervention.

The upshot is that Kiev finds itself increasingly in an economic and diplomatic no-man’s-land, dangerously perched between Russia and the EU, dependent on both but not formally within either bloc.

Currently, about a sixth of Ukraine’s external trade is with Russia, a third is with the EU, and the balance with a variety of other countries.

For the Kremlin, Ukraine is simply too important strategically to ever allow it to become a full-fledged member of either the EU or NATO.

Ideally, Russia would want a pro-Russian government in power, but it could live with a neutral government.

A pro-Western government integrated into the EU and NATO, as has happened with the other former Warsaw pact states in Eastern Europe, would be simply unacceptable.

The Kremlin has made it clear that a NATO membership for Ukraine would immediately precipitate a Russian invasion.

That threat would persuade most NATO members to defer a Ukrainian request for membership rather than risk finding the organization being called on to defend its newest member from a Russian invasion.

Is Russia considering a second invasion of Ukraine?

Perhaps eventually, but probably not for the moment.

To begin with, the Russian military simply lacks the manpower to invade and occupy Ukraine.

Such an invasion would also kill any prospects of lifting the economic sanctions against Russia imposed by the EU and the United States.

It would also breathe new life and resolve into NATO at a time when the organization is uncertain about its ongoing role and mission.

A more limited invasion, say the seizure of Odessa, and/or the portions of the Black Sea coast between Odessa and Crimea, or the coastline along the Sea of Azov, would be more attainable militarily but would still precipitate the same consequences as a full-fledged invasion.

Instead what is more likely is that the saber rattling is part of a broader Russian strategy of keeping Ukraine unbalanced by alternating between the possibility of peace and the prospect of renewed fighting, while at the same time giving the EU and NATO a not so subtle warning that cozying up to Kiev will draw them into the middle of a hot war zone.

Moreover, the lack of a strong response by either NATO or the U.S. to the Russian escalation of tensions allows the Kremlin to send an equally unsubtle message to the former Soviet states and clients in the “Near Abroad” that they cannot rely on Europe, the United States or NATO should their security be threatened.

Vladimir Putin’s hold on the Kremlin may also be an issue here.

In recent weeks Putin has made significant changes to his inner circle, in what some intelligence analysts have described as a purge.

He abruptly replaced his longtime Chief of Staff and close confident, Sergei Ivanov, with Anton Vaino.

Additionally, a raft of high-level officials has been removed, some on the pretext of criminal activity, over the last few weeks.

Saber rattling in Ukraine allows Putin to project an image of power and authority, even if in the end it proves to all be a bluff.

Among the Russian elite, privately, Putin is blamed for seriously mishandling the situation in Ukraine.

Between 2012 and 2016, Kiev went from a pro-Russian government to a pro-Western government.

Russia was left with control of just Crimea and the eastern portion of the Donbass basin.

There is little doubt that the U.S. and its allies were responsible for encouraging and partially funding the Euromaidan protests that precipitated the 2014 revolution.

Those protests would never have started, however, had the Kremlin and the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych not overreached in trying to bring Ukraine into closer ties with the Russian Federation.

Beyond keeping tension in the region high, Russia has not managed to accomplish much in Ukraine since its 2014 invasion.

The Ukrainian Army has effectively contained the separatists from further expansion, even though it has not been able to roll them back in a significant way.

Only with significant ground support from the Russian military can the separatists hope to expand their enclaves.

In the meantime, the imposition of economic sanctions against Russia came at a time when the Russian economy was already reeling from the collapse of crude oil prices.

The sanctions have lasted longer than the Kremlin imagined they would and, coupled with ongoing low petroleum prices, their impact on the Russian economy has been profound.

Over the last two years the dollar-ruble exchange rate has gone from 36 rubles to 63 rubles to the dollar.

Foreign investment has virtually dried up and the economy and the standard of living has been contracting.

Ultimately, the Russian strategy toward Ukraine will be shaped by two, at times conflicting, objectives: the need to eliminate the economic sanctions against Russia and the need to ensure that the government in Kiev is ideally a pro-Russian or, at worst, a strictly neutral government.

A military intervention at this time may solve the governmental issue at the expense of aggravating the economic one.

For that reason, a military solution is the least desirable option and would only be used if Moscow saw Kiev slipping irreversibly from its grasp, i.e., joining NATO or a full membership in the EU. 

Alternatively, if a political or diplomatic solution can’t be found, Russia’s elite might opt to offer its own version of a “reset button,” ousting Putin and blaming him for the Ukrainian debacle and offering to “normalize” relations with Ukraine, Europe and the United States.

It’s unlikely that the Kremlin would ever give up its control of Crimea.

Some compromise over the status of the Russian separatists in the Donbass basin and a full implementation of the Minsk Peace Accords in return for keeping Ukraine out of NATO and stopping short of a full membership in the EU common market, might, however, lead to the elimination of the sanctions.

A more aggressive deployment of U.S. air forces in Eastern Europe and the prospect that they might be deployed to counter a Russian invasion of Ukraine would go a long way to taking the Russian military option off the table.

Such a move might prompt the Kremlin to find a political and diplomatic solution.

It would also be seen as a significant escalation by the United States, however, and could well precipitate a preemptive Russian military response before the U.S. deployment was operational.

In the end, it will be all about who blinks first.

So far Vladimir Putin has refused to blink.

Europe and the United States have followed suit, despite the wavering of a few countries.

Whether Russia’s elite, whose pocketbook is certainly being decimated by the impasse, will prove to be as steadfast as Putin remains to be seen.

Source: HuffPost

New US Ambassador To Arrive In Ukraine 'Next Week'

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine is expected to get a new United States Ambassador soon. After three years of service, Geoffrey Pyatt is going to be replaced by Marie L. Yovanovitch, who was nominated for this position in May.

Marie L. Yovanovitch

According to the US Embassy in Kiev, Yovanovitch will arrive in Ukraine's capital next week.

The announcement is published on the institution's Twitter page.

The new ambassador to Ukraine used to work as a Dean of the School of Language Studies at the Department of State's Foreign Service Institute since 2014.

The upcoming nomination is set to be her second term of work in Kiev.

Yovanovitch was a Deputy Chief of Mission at the United States Embassy in Ukraine from 2001 to 2004.

The replacement is a part of the usual rotation of US Ambassadors.

Geoffrey Pyatt is now moving to Greece.

He is going to become a head of the United States Embassy in the country.

Source: Ukraine Today

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Putin Steps Back From The Brink Of War

KIEV, Ukraine -- In a familiar cycle of brinksmanship, Russia and Ukraine once again edged toward the brink of open war last week, only for the bellicose rhetoric and military posturing to dissipate rapidly, leaving the conflict in eastern Ukraine no closer to a long-term solution.

A Russian corvette fires a missile during the Navy Day celebrations in Sevastopol, Crimea, on July 31. Nolan Peterson writes that last week’s Crimean incident was textbook Kremlin tradecraft—manufacturing an event to justify a large-scale military intervention.

Russia’s successor spy agency to the KGB, the Federal Security Service (FSB), claimed to have thwarted attacks on August 10 in Crimea, which Russian authorities pinned on the Ukrainian government.

In one incident, an FSB agent died during a raid on a terrorist cell.

A Russian soldier also died in a separate, cross-border firefight, the spy agency said.

Following the alleged incursions by Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a chilling message to Kiev, spurring fears of all-out war when he said Russia “would not let such things pass.”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko denied Russia’s accusations, calling them “insane.”

“These fantasies pursue only one goal,” Poroshenko said in a statement emailed to journalists in Ukraine.

“A pretext for more military threats against Ukraine.”

The United States backed up Kiev’s denials of involvement.

“[The] U.S. government has seen nothing so far that corroborates Russian allegations of a ‘Crimea incursion’ and Ukraine has strongly refuted them,” U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt tweeted on August 11.

A war of words followed between Kiev and Moscow, edging the two countries to the brink of a military conflict more serious than the ongoing one in eastern Ukraine.

Heightening fears of all-out war were reports of Russian troop movements inside Crimea, north toward the Ukraine border, as well as the buildup of Russian forces on the border with Ukraine’s embattled southeastern Donbass region.

Consequently, Ukraine’s military went on high alert, and Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations requested an emergency closed-door session of the U.N. Security Council last week.

Meanwhile, the spat threatened to derail the interminable talks to ease tensions in the more than two-year-old conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Putin said additional meetings among Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France—dubbed the “Normandy Four” format—were “senseless.”

Russia has supported two pro-Russian separatist republics in the conflict with the Ukrainian government.

According to Ukrainian and U.S. officials, as well as numerous media reports, Russian troops have participated actively in combat against Ukraine’s armed forces.

Moscow, however, denies having deployed troops to fight inside Ukraine.


Last week’s Crimean incident was textbook Kremlin tradecraft—manufacturing an event to justify a large-scale military intervention.

Ukrainian media highlighted past instances of such operations by Russia, including frequent references to a series of apartment bombings across Russia in 1999.

Those bombings boosted public support in Russia for the Second Chechen War, as well as bolstering the profile of Putin, then prime minister.

U.S. government officials and media reports have since suggested Russia’s Federal Security Service was likely behind the 1999 bombings, which killed 300, as part of an effort to gin up support for military action in Chechnya.

Some in Ukraine speculated that last week’s Crimean provocation might have been a Kremlin gambit to delegitimize Ukraine’s post-revolution government in order to pressure Western countries to lift punitive sanctions against Russia.

“Russia will fail to undermine Ukraine’s reputation [in] the international arena and press for lifting sanctions with such provocative acts,” Poroshenko said.

The U.S. and the European Union placed sanctions on Russia after its illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, based in Crimea, launched a three-day “anti-sabotage” exercise in the wake of the alleged Crimea incursion.

The exercise, in addition to reports of Russian troop movements, prompted Ukraine to place its troops in the east on the “highest level of combat readiness.”


While the rhetoric escalated between Ukraine and Russia, various intelligence estimates suggested a Russian offensive against Ukraine was unlikely.

Field camps, which would be needed to deploy Russian troops into eastern Ukraine during an invasion, had not been built on Russia’s border with eastern Ukraine.

Additionally, a civilian intelligence and security firm told The Daily Signal that Russian forces staged on the Ukraine-Russia border have fuel and ammunition for about one day of fighting—insufficient for a large-scale offensive.

Ukrainian officials, however, are not taking the Russian threat lightly.

Ukraine has about 100,000 troops deployed to its eastern territories.

This is roughly on par with the 45,000 pro-Russian separatists and regular Russian troops deployed inside eastern Ukraine and the approximately 45,000 Russian troops staged across the border in western Russia.

Ukraine has about 10,000 troops deployed in southern territories near the Crimean border; Ukrainian officials estimate Russia has about 45,000 military personnel inside occupied Crimea.

So far, the war in Ukraine has remained quarantined to the embattled Donbass region and has not spilled over into open conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

After two cease-fires, the prospect of open war between Russia and Ukraine has faded incrementally. 

At times, however, it seemed the two countries were on the brink of a major conflict.

In August 2014, Putin told European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, “If I want to, I can take Kiev in two weeks.”

In September 2014, Kiev residents were instructed to use the city’s subway system as a bomb shelter.

Spray-painted signs pointing to the nearest bomb shelter became common sights on the sides of buildings throughout the capital city as well as cities across the country.

Reborn Fears 

Last week’s spat over the alleged terrorist plots in Crimea temporarily revived dormant worries of a major Russian offensive.

Those worries paralleled a sharp uptick in the overall violence of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The war is at its most violent level in a year.

The cease-fire signed in February 2015, called Minsk II, markedly reduced the overall intensity of the conflict.

Yet the war never really ended.

Instead, it devolved into a static back-and-forth of artillery fire and small unit incursions, mostly fought from trenches and from within abandoned, bombed-out villages along front lines approximately 200 miles long.

Casualties, including military and civilian deaths, are still a weekly occurrence.

As part of the Minsk II cease-fire’s terms, heavy weapons and rocket systems are supposed to have been pulled back a prescribed distance from the front lines.

Yet the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the multinational group charged with monitoring the cease-fire, says the banned weapons are still frequently used.

According to U.N. data, 57 percent of the conflict’s 73 civilian deaths in July were due to heavy weapons presumably banned from the conflict under the cease-fire’s terms.

A wave of fresh violence in the Donbass followed last week’s flare up in Crimea, which fed into fears of a larger offensive in the making.

On August 14, the Ukrainian military reported that combined Russian-separatist forces launched a barrage of more than a hundred 122 mm artillery shells within one hour at Ukrainian positions near the village of Lebedynske, outside the southern industrial city of Mariupol.

That same day, the Ukrainian military reported nine heavy armor attacks against its positions in the area around Mariupol, as well as separate artillery attacks and firefights northward along the length of the front lines.

Cooling Off 

The crisis at the Crimean border brought the Ukraine war briefly back into Western media headlines and editorial pages.

But as it dissipated, the war quickly was overshadowed by news from the Olympics, the U.S. presidential campaign trail and the fight against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

Putin also added to the media noise drowning out the Ukraine conflict.

On August 9, the day before the Crimea incident, Putin hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for a meeting in Moscow.

And on Tuesday, Russia launched airstrikes in Syria from an air base inside Iran.

Once again, Putin’s diplomatic and military moves left foreign affairs experts and military analysts reading the tea leaves to speculate about the Russian president’s larger strategy.

The perpetual worry in Kiev is that Western resolve to deter Russian aggression will cave in the face of the EU’s economic appetite to end punitive sanctions against Moscow and the U.S. desire to court Russian cooperation in military operations against ISIS.

One week on, the threat of a Russian offensive on Ukraine appears to have cooled off.

On August 15, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia would not cut diplomatic ties with Ukraine over the Crimean incident.

“For now the main thing is not to give in to emotions, not to slip into taking some extreme actions, but to try to stabilize the situation with restraint and concentration,” Lavrov said following talks with his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg.

Lavrov and Steinmeier also discussed restarting the Normandy Four peace process, in an apparent move to walk back Putin’s threat to withdraw from the talks.

Source: Newsweek

FBI Said to Probe Ukraine Corruption With Possible Manafort Link

KIEV, Ukraine -- The FBI is aiding an investigation by Ukraine into possible corruption by its former president, a probe that includes a company controlled by Donald Trump’s ex-campaign chief Paul Manafort, according to a U.S. official.

Paul Manafort

The assistance, which is a joint effort between the FBI, State Department and Justice Department, is examining alleged corruption of the former government led by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Manafort, who resigned Friday as chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign, isn’t the focus of the investigation, according to the U.S. official.

The FBI, Justice Department and State Department declined to comment.

Manafort and Trump campaign officials did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

The U.S. assistance in the investigation was reported earlier by CNN.

The New York Times reported Sunday that Ukrainian government investigators found records listing $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments marked for Manafort from Yanukovych’s party from 2007 to 2012.

Manafort denied taking any off-the-books cash or working for the Ukrainian or Russian governments.

A Ukrainian lawmaker said Manafort should be questioned by investigators over funds he allegedly received from a secret account for working on behalf of the toppled president.

Ukraine’s anti-corruption bureau and prosecutors “should question Manafort by sending a request to the U.S.,” Serhiy Leshchenko, a former investigative journalist who heads a parliamentary subcommittee on fighting corruption, told reporters Friday in Kiev.

The FBI signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine earlier this year, agreeing to work together on crimes related to international money laundering, international asset recovery, and Ukrainian high-level officials’ alleged bribery and corruption.

Manafort worked with Kremlin-backed Yanukovych for a decade, helping him win presidential elections in 2010 that tilted Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit until a 2014 revolution ousted him from power.

His Ukraine connections and lobbying efforts in Washington have fueled criticism during the presidential campaign that he may have broken U.S. laws about disclosing foreign ties.

Democrats also have repeatedly accused Trump of adopting positions favorable to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Manafort has said he’s “never received a single ‘off-the-books cash payment”’ and that all money paid to him was for work in Ukraine by his political team for functions such as polling and television advertising.

He said in a statement that he hasn’t “ever done work for the governments of Ukraine or Russia,” and that his work in Ukraine ended after parliamentary elections there in October 2014.

Source: Bloomberg