For several weeks now, official government media of the Russian Federation have proudly reported that the Russian Federation has negligibly low morbidity and fatality rate from coronavirus as compared to the whole world, and particularly to the US and the EU states. It’s morbidity rate is so low that they even managed to send medical professionals and health care supplies to Italy which is down on its luck with its fruitless struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic. By all means, the Russian Federation should have both an excellent culture and top-level medical system which is capable of addressing pandemic crisis of such a scale.

Or perhaps not.

In fact, the health care system in Russia is in trouble. Medical facilities slip into a decline, personnel’s incomes are disappointing and all of them feel shortage of modern efficient healthcare equipment. As Deutsche Welle stated in a story of December 2019, “According to surveys conducted by various medical unions, Russian doctors actually earn the equivalent of €600 per month (about $648.00), even less than a courier. ”Visiting a Russian medical facility can be quite stressful and even terrifying experience. Exceptions were made for the top-level patients who may be treated in recently built medical facilities where the price for medical care is not affordable for the usual Russian citizens. In fact, an ordinary Russians have not a gaudy lot, as the only option available for them in a health care system is the level of Soviet-time public hospitals built throughout the state.

The 26 years-old Icelandic girl who turned into the hospital in Russian suburb to treat the chest pain told The Independent her story, and that is not for those weak-nerved! As she wrote in her blog, currently deleted, “The floor was soaking wet and muddy, and the toilet was jammed full of urine and feces.” She tried to avoid touching anything in a restroom, since “the sink was full of blood.” To cope with the stink she had to string a jumper to her nose. Doctors proposed to make an operation to ascertain that her body organs are okay. She refused and signed out from the hospital, she has been diagnosed heartburn later…

And this is quite a common experience.

Russian resident Svetlana confirmed a lot of the details of the story above based on her experience of applying to the Russian medical facilities. “Most public clinics are from Soviet Union times. They are very old and need renovation. Paint is peeling, ceilings often have holes and water marks where the rain pours in, lights are broken, patients sit or lie on the floor in hallways, and bathrooms are disgusting. If they have modern medical equipment, which is rare, no one knows how to use it so it sits unused. Doctors and nurses are rude and tell you only basic facts about your medical condition and get angry if you ask questions. You cannot even see your own medical file. You must wait for weeks or months for an appointment.”

“Except for expensive private dentists, dental patients in public clinics do not receive anesthesia for any dental procedure, regardless of how complicated or painful.” Difficult to believe, isn’t it? However, other Russian citizens confirmed Svetlana’s words about the lack of anesthesia in dental clinics and general condition of the health care system as well. They also add that no one Russian goes to a clinic or dentist unless they have intolerable pain or some severe life threatening illness. In all other cases the use the advice from their friends and relatives, as well as take them from the web.

Well, if an average Russian fears the health care system like the plague and treat the viral symptoms (low-grade fever, sore throat or runny nose) by themselves, they have no chance to be tested for coronavirus. Even if they wanted to get tested, there are not enough hospitals to provide them with such aid. Report of the Russian State Statistical Service published by Borgen Magazine in 2018 showed lack of critical facilities in Russian provinces, “In rural areas, 17,500 towns and villages have no medical infrastructure whatsoever. According to the State Statistics Service, the number of health facilities in rural areas fell 75 percent between 2005 and 2013. This number includes a 95 percent drop in the number of district hospitals, and a 65 percent drop in the number of local health clinics.” The situations with hospitals has slightly improved for the past several years, though it is still disastrous in terms of health care staff, as far as significant loss of doctors was caused by low wages.

In this context it worth turning to the question about low COVID-19 morbidity rates. On April 1, the statistics confirmed 2237 cases with 23 deaths. President Putin immediately boasted that situation in Russia is a lot better than in Europe and generally is kept “under control.” Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin was not the same optimistic admitting that “The testing volume is very low, and nobody knows the real picture.” At least someone called it what it is.

The truth is that the real number of Covid-19 cases and death toll in Russia are beyond the statistical data of the Russian authorities, because the majority of the Russian citizens prefer home treatment and visit doctor in an extreme case, if ever. That is, none of them has been tested for the Covid-19. It’s quite simple. Also, a lot of them consider obeying rules and keeping social distances and safety precautions something more than necessary, especially when it comes to some inconveniences to their way of life. With the latency period enduring for 2-3 weeks and a great many of Russians sitting now at home it is highly probable that increasing number of those suffered from coronavirus is a matter of time.

Needless to say, given the fact that Russians get used to home self-treatment and disregard the restrictive rules introduced to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, the real extent of crisis caused by COVID-19 may be unknown for a long time. Such obscurity plays into hands of the Russian authorities, which are not willing to tell the truth to their citizens and to the world as well. However, nothing is secret that shall not be made manifest, though by that time our world may become a very different place of living.


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On February 20, during his message to the Federal Assembly, Russian president Vladimir Putin devoted most of the time to internal state problems, however the international context was not disregarded. As for the internal Russian developments, we won’t deepen into the words of the Russian leader. After all, that is Russians themselves, who should deal with it. We may only notice that, notwithstanding Putin mentioned deteriorations by some indices, his report based generally on quite optimistic statistical figures. Let’s set aside the fact that the parallels for some reason were drawn with early 2000s, instead of the third presidential term (2012-2018) when oil was more expensive and sanctions have not exerted the real effect yet. Well, that is business of Russians themselves and their elite.

We are much more interested in a foreign policy part of Russian president’s message. The first to mention is a big attention to the new Russian arms. It seems that specification of new “Kinzhals” and “Neptunes”, “Zircons” and “Peresvets” sparked particular interest of the Russian leader, and was pronounced with special aspiration. However, the main message of the speech was that it is the US and not Russia who used to infringe the INF Treaty, and Russian armament is response to aggressive actions of Americans. That was covered with the most peaceful statements:

“We are not interested in confrontation and we do not mean it, especially with such global power as the United States of America… We realise that we deal with active, very talented people, however a lot of those from ruling class are excessively keen on the idea of their uniqueness and superiority over the rest of the world”.

At the same time the Russian leader snatched an opportunity to hint that rockets would be directed at the decision-making centres, that is Washington and Brussels. Actually, Putin resorted for the first time to threats against the USA. He did not lay aside the European countries in his threats as well. First of all, he meant Poland and Romania where elements of missile defence system are placed and where the US rockets may appear.

“I will speak frankly and overtly to make everything clear: Russia will be forced to create and place such types of arms which will be able to reach not only the territories which pose the threat to us, but also those which make the relevant decisions. We are going to implement it as soon as threats become real”.

Well, such rhetoric has nothing in common with the olive branch of peace. However, we should be aware that, regardless of all threats to the USA and NATO, primarily they are aimed at internal audience. Actually, most of the Russian high rank officials who listened to President’s speech and fought against sleep possess the real estate and have their families living in these states.

In his statements, the Russian leader tried to remind once again the ordinary Russians that Russia is surrounded by enemies. However, Russia is able to react and for this purpose Russians should line up for the strong leader. Well, such anti-Western rhetoric becomes less effective day by day. This message was meant by the Kremlin political strategists to raise Putin’s rating (according to the Russian sociologists, current level of credibility to the President is about 33,4%, being the lowest since 2006). Sure enough, sober-minded Russian would have to think that spending money for building school infrastructure is much more efficient than spending them for rockets. Actually, the President himself found unexpectedly at the 20th year of his ruling that 200.000 students study in unheated premises without water supply and canalization. That is in energy superpower, by the way! Still crisis phenomena in the Russian economy increase; therefore, there is no question of improvement of Russians’ welfare.

To reiterate, the probability of the Russian aggression against NATO member states is extremely low. Well, it is not impossible, but insignificant. Besides it, the most part of samples of the latest Russian arms mentioned by Putin are still at a development stage. That means the Russian government shall be realistic in such estimates of possible outcomes of confrontation with the USA, therefore such bravado seems to be rather information noise and blowing of cheeks.

Further self-isolation of Russia from the world is probable. New “Iron Curtain” gradually falls on the state. Currently Russians consider the possibility of creation of their own, autonomous Internet. Access to information from independent sources shall be blocked. Still these measures are inefficient; however, that is only the beginning. Further, the situation will only be aggravated: Russians will live gradually worse, yet they will not know that the other life is possible. Well, they will have powerful rockets. We can make already some parallels. One such state exists on our planet: it occupies a northern part of the Korean peninsula…

And the last but not least. President Putin in his speech told a witty joke as it appears to him about the US and NATO allies who are “oinking along with”. Well, it seems that it would be Russians themselves who will oink, since they are purposefully turned into a herd of pigs.

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No doubt, the Olympic Games are one of the most tremendous and well-known sport events in the world. Nevertheless, the doping scandal of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics have damaged the reputation of these competitions. It clearly showed that sport is the tool of global policy for Russia.

The results of WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) investigation confirmed the facts of substitution of Russian sportsmen’s doping tests. It proves that they used controlled drugs during preparations to the Olympic Games. The special report, done by Canadian professor of law Richard McLaren, contains the full scheme of doping test substitutions and the facts that sportsmen were forced to take banned drugs by their coaches and officials of Russian Olympic Committee. It was also proved that officials of Russian Olympic Committee and Ministry of Sport of Russian Federation tried to avoid the investigation of WADA and even more – there were facts of tampering evidences of doping test. Another significant issue is the activity of Russian security services, the officials of which put pressure on Russian sportsmen and their coaches to tamper the evidences of doping tests substitutions and numerous facts of its illegal usage.

Why is the topic of doping scandal-2014 still actual?

In 2014, Russia breached the basic principles of the Olympic Games – integrity and similar opportunities for all sportsmen-participants with no regard to their nationality or flag. Being the country-resident of the 2014 Winter Olympics Russia tried to boost its prestige using the sport goals, achieved in wrong way and violated the basis of international sport challenges. It caused the forfeit of Russian sportsmen awards and life ban for use of drugs for most of them.

The issue of increasing international prestige with sport achievements is also the instrument to maintain the internal stability of Russia. The USA and EU sanctions make Russian economy weaken and it directly affects the life of average Russian citizens. Now the government ordered sportsmen to get the maximum number of Olympic awards in Tokyo, 2020. Kremlin figures that the sport triumph can increase the belief in “glory of Russia”. Russian government is sure that the end justifies the means.

That is why international sport community should undertake some important measures – simply to prevent another doping tests substitutions before the 2020 Olympic Games get started.

After the evaluation of doping tests substitutions done by RUSADA (Russian Anti-Doping Agency) and the numerous facts of using dope by Russian sportsmen, the reputation of agency was completely lost. To except the possibility of further substitutions during the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, WADA should take all doping tests under its control, so it ought to do all analyses and tests of Russian sportsmen.

It is worth mentioning that sportsmen in Russia are just tools of state policy and most cases of doping were connected with rough psychological pressure (including direct threats to ruin sport career of particular participant), done by coaches and officials. That is why the IOC must select the laboratory, which can check all the Olympic Games participants. If Russia rejects these requirements, it means that Russia rejects to take part in the 2020 Olympic Games.

Doping, any type of threats to make sportsmen use it and participation in the Olympic Games are just mutually exclusive events.

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Not so long ago, last fall, I was surprised to read an article by the acclaimed Associated Press, claiming that radical and nationalist values are being imposed on children in Ukrainian camps.

The piece was authored by a Belarus national Yuras Karmanau, who covered the story one-sidedly and manipulatively, thereby putting the AP in an embarrassing position. This resulted in AP ultimately issuing a correction to the story as an apology.

An apology is fine, of course, but back then, in 2018, Karmanau’s article (not) surprisingly sounded to the tune of Russian propaganda, much to the pleasure of the latter. And although the Associated Press admitted the mistake, very few people in the post-Soviet space are aware of this because Russian mass media have flooded the information space with translations of the initial text. They didn’t do so with AP’s refutation piece though. So the myth created by Karmanau is still alive in the Russian Internet segment.

However, as you understand, this is only a prelude. A prelude to realizing that the same journalist’s article titled «Ukraine ex-PM accuses president of corruption» published Feb 4, where one of Ukraine’s presidential candidates Yulia Tymoshenko accused President Petro Poroshenko of corruption, is not simply a campaign thing but, once again, a play into the hands of the Kremlin propaganda.

First, Yulia Tymoshenko’s statements have long featured in plenty of journalistic investigations with a notion that this politician is more likely to lie than tell the truth.

Second, the Associated Press platform is once again used beyond its intended purpose – not as an impartial news resource but as a playground for political PR and – I’ll say this again – indulging Russian propaganda. After all, it is common knowledge that Petro Poroshenko is a leader who is extremely inconvenient for the Kremlin, so Moscow is ready to support any other runner for Ukraine’s top post other than the incumbent president. To be more exact, any of them, but it better be «theirs.»

Thirdly, it is difficult to take seriously the words of someone, whose work as prime minister was marked with a volume of funds siphoned from Ukraine doubling.

According to a research by FactCheck, when Viktor Yanukovych was prime minister in 2007, some $7.18 billion was illegally withdrawn from the country, while in 2008, when Yulia Tymoshenko took the reins, it was already $16.92 billion. In total, the amount of funds siphoned from Ukraine throughout the period of Yulia Tymoshenko’s premiership reached $33.12 billion

Fourth, and most important, is that this article not only highlighted a subjective opinion of the interested party, but also, along with the infamous story about children in Ukrainian camps being radicalized and taught to kill, worked in favor of Russian propaganda, which has become very keen on exploiting corruption-related topics in its hybrid infowar against Ukraine.

In a matter of hours, hundreds of Russian bots joined their efforts in spinning the Tymoshenko piece across social networks. The article was shared and republished, for a certain fee, in all sorts of media, forums, and information sites. I wonder whose money it was. And it’s big money, too!

These are the shares and reprints that will not go anywhere even if the Associated Press releases another correction. These are the shares and reprints that for another two months will be maintaining an information background, being revived in new references of all sorts.

It’s a shame that yet another Kremlin narrative has been sown in the minds of readers worldwide, and it is very unfortunate that the Associated Press platform has become a direct participant in the distribution of such unprofessional and manipulative content, which is very beneficial for the Kremlin, one of the parties to the Ukraine conflict.

Sergei Bolotin

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Shortly before the new year 2019 the issue of tax maneuver in the oil sphere and its aftermaths for the interstate Russian-Belarusian relations became a stumbling stone.

Russia’s manipulations of oil prices are not a novation in the Russian-Belarusian relations, similar steps have been taken earlier. Without revealing details, it should be noted that a main point of this maneuver is gradual decrease (within 6 years) of the customs duty on export of oil and oil products down to a zero rate accompanied by growth of mineral extraction tax. Let’s refrain from estimating the effect of such decision of the Russian government on domestic market of oil products, yet response of Belarus, Russia’s neighboring state and the closest ally, to this oil maneuver was immediate and jerk. Well, there are several reasons to that.

We must admit that so-called “economic miracle” of Belarus, namely rather high (compared with other former Soviet Union states) standard of public social security, stable prices for food and essential commodities, is to a great extent resulted from special import conditions of the Russian oil (at the internal Russian prices). Belarusian oil refineries produce rather qualitative oil products, the sale of which in international market makes a considerable part of Belarus state budget.

Such state of affairs appeared to be acceptable for all parties up to a point, as far as Belarus presented itself as a state moving towards establishment of the Union State with Russia. Now, the tax maneuver in the oil sphere will deprive Belarus of getting profit as domestic Russian oil price will grow making it unprofitable to purchase oil in Russia for its subsequent processing at the Belarusian oil refineries.

Negotiations with Putin as for possible loss compensations came to a deadlock. It’s no wonder, since the actual purpose of Russia’s tax maneuver with oil export duties is resolving rather political than economic issues. That is fostering integration of Belarus into the Union State, which was unequivocally reiterated by the Russian president at a recent Moscow meeting with Lukashenko. Thus, Kremlin keeps using economic blackmail as one of the main tools in a geopolitical game.

Well, what is the purpose of such unexampled pressure upon Belarus? The answer is quite obvious – establishment of the Union State amid international isolation may become one of the safe ways to preserve and delegate the power, as well as an opportunity for strengthening of Russia’s geopolitical positions in the region.

However, it seems also obvious that this would not turn into the equal union of two states, but to absorption, i.e. actually soft annexation of Belarus. At this year’s first governmental meeting Lukashenko stated that to his mind the Union State is a voluntary association, which has no common with absorption and pressure, which means that such short-sighted policy may cost Russia the only ally. The position of Belarusian leader is clear: he is not ready to change state independence for any economic concessions.

Lukashenko’s attempts to come into contacts with the West, such as visit of Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Vladimir Makei to London, negotiations with Poland and Lithuania on strengthening cooperation, etc. extremely irritate the Russian government. They demonstrate that the Belarusian leader would rather not giving up.

The actions taken by Kremlin with the purpose of Belarus absorption are logical continuation of Russia’s imperial policy. However, you should not ignore the fact that they pose new threats for the Baltic States and Poland. Belarus has played a role of “a buffer zone” between Russia and Europe until now and its transformation into one of Russian regions will increase probability of the new hybrid conflicts involving Russian Federation, similar to those in the Crimea and in the east of Ukraine.

For this reason, the problem of maintaining political and economic sovereignty of Belarus has vital value for its nationals; furthermore, it plays an important role in supporting peace and stability throughout all European continent. Notwithstanding serious problems faced by Belarus with respect to observance of civil rights and freedoms, its determination to defend sovereignty and freedom deserve support of the world community.

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Russians have a proverb – ‘Mend your sails while the weather is fine’, this means that success of the business largely depends on preparation for it.

It seems that the Russian president is far from disregarding this conventional wisdom especially given the fact that he has a power over a huge and resourceful state in his hands and he needs to retain it in the times of aggravating crisis. Therefore, the country leaders often use mythical threat from the outside as mobilization strategy.

Despite of the record votes gained by Putin following spring 2018 elections, people’s dissatisfaction with his domestic policy grows proportionally to exaggerating of economic and social problems: fall of manufacturing, rapid tax growth, unpopular pension reform, restriction of civil liberties, abrupt fall of people’s income etc. Still there is a little cause for optimism, even despite of a tendency towards increase of oil prices, which is the main resource fundamental for the Russian economy for many years.

Kremlin realizes that only success beyond the state may distract people’s attention and boost state leader’s rating. It is proven by Russians’ response to annexation of the Crimea in 2014, when Putin’s rating skyrocketed (86%). However, Kremlin is aware that today a “small victorious war” abroad bears certain risks especially for the state, which has already got bogged down in East Ukraine and Syria facing sanctions and international isolation. Authorities decides to act quietly and, whenever possible, using non-military methods.

Present Kremlin’s rhetoric suggests the conclusion that Belarus will become the next candidate for Russia’s “foreign policy success”. For a long time, its independence from Russia has been nominal. Though both states exist within association named the ‘Union State’, Belarus depends on Russia economically, in particular, in supply of the Russian oil (at below market price), which makes one of the sources of budget income after its processing and reselling to the foreign markets. As a result, Lukashenko is bound to correlate his internal and foreign policy with Moscow. While the Belarusian President affords criticism towards the Russian authorities from time to time, he always supports Kremlin’s actions in the international field. Resonance UN votes on issues disputable for Russia may serve as a prove as far as the Belarusian delegation has always taken the part of Moscow.

Quite recently, in the middle of December, 2018, the Russian Prime Minister Medvedev demanded from the Belarusian leadership in rigid, almost categorical manner strengthening of “integration” between two states. Referring to the treaty on the ‘Union State’, the head of the Russian government declared the beginning of the process of supranational structure’s creation for implementation of the unified legislation and tax system. By the way, the treaty provides establishing a single parliament and creation of single currency and national symbols.

To tell that Minsk was taken aback by such statement – not to tell anything. The Belarusian President urgently arrived to Moscow to negotiate with Putin, but apparently, they did not yield desirable result. And four bags of the Belarusian potato presented by Lukashenko to the Russian colleague did not help. The Belarusian President counted that he will manage to ensure smooth transition of the power to “crown prince” (the illegitimate son Nikolay) …

All these are jokes, but in fact, a process of Belarus absorption has already started. Certainly, it is not a question for one day, but Putin has quite enough time for implementation of his plans. This process most likely will have been completed by 2024 and the same year the next presidential elections are taking place in Russia. Probably Putin counts that peaceful “accession” of Belarus will allow to improve his personal rating, to distract attention of electorate and under the guise of elections of the head of new ‘Union State’ to carry out safe transit of the power. Let’s say once again, the Kremlin does not consider an option of force accession of the neighboring state today, and intends to make everything silently and, as if, voluntary. Naturally, in so doing nobody will ask the opinion of the Belarusian leadership and, in particular, of the Belarusian people…

Except for obvious ignoring of all international standards and laws such absorption bears in itself serious threats for safety of the European continent. First, Russia receives some kind of military base, especially in opposition against Ukraine and the Baltic states. Secondly, it strengthens its position in the European market as exclusive supplier of energy carriers, having an opportunity to dictate its terms. Such silent annexation is dangerous, because it also stimulates the aggressor to further actions. It is worth reminding that in the thirties of the last century a well-known tactics of “pacification of an aggressor” allowed Hitler at first to seize some countries without blood and any consequences and then to launch the world war resulted in tens of millions of victims and the destroyed continent. Therefore, perhaps, it is worth changing tactics of a pacification of an aggressor to more effective measures for preventing grand plans of Kremlin’s “gatherer of the lands”, otherwise it may be …

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The 2018 G-20 Buenos Aires summit came to the end. Leaders of the main world powers once again sounded global problems already known, but did not propose any rational solution, having made a joint photo they left. The main intrigue of this summit consisted in other thing – whether presidents Putin and Trump would meet. Results of the geopolitical totalizator are known to us – they did not meet and even could not communicate normally two minutes near the lavatory to what for some last years the Russian leader has already got used. The American president did not even vouchsafe the Russian counterpart with nothing significant than simple handshake.

The official reason of such cool welcome is caused by aggressive actions of the Russian militarymen in the Strait of Kerch: attack and seizure of the Ukrainian vessel a week before. The summit in Buenos Aires was similar to that held in Australia in November, 2014 in terms of the attitude towards Putin. That time Putin had to run away with shame, without having waited for its end. Let’s remind that summit happened against a background of invasion into Ukraine of active forces of the Russian army and crash of MH17 Boeing. In Buenos Aires the situation was similar, if not to take into account inappropriate jokes of the Russian president about impossibility of the NATO ships’ pass to the Ukrainian ports by the Sea of Azov. Though for recent years Putin has already said more than once about impossibility of what that after took place. It is worth remembering advantage of sanctions or prevention of raising of a retirement age in Russia. But in practice …

It is very important to specify that in realities of the Russian political elite when everything is bad in domestic policy, the negative is hidden under “achievements” in the external policy. And here a such failure! So paid propagandists of federal mass media had to be content only with calculation of number of the summit participants who stood between Putin and Trump. And they really were engaged in it! “Between them four more people, if it is interesting, stood” – that undoubtedly points to a brilliant geopolitical victory of Russia. It is a sarcasm.

There is also good news! Incidentally or intentionally, but at G-20 summit Putin was put near the crown prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad who now is listed among “pariahs” because of his implication in murder of the oppositional journalist Jamal Khashoggi in last October in the territory of the Saudi Embassy in Turkey. They could also talk and perhaps discuss important questions, for example, what it is like to be in isolation. Thereby they pointed to Russia its real place in the modern world once again. It should be taken into account that Saudi Arabia, though is a rich country, but its real influence on world politics is insignificant, even in own region. So diplomatic progress of Putin looks even less significant.

There are many princes and other pretenders to the throne (and after Khashoggi’s case Mohammad has a small chance to receive the crown) in Saudi Arabia. That is a problem! Russia has only one president as official propaganda claims. While he is engaged in the game “Russia-superstate”, Russia will remain further among pariahs and a raw appendage for other countries.

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Russia is making little effort to disguise its leadership role in the self-proclaimed people’s republics in eastern Ukraine. Putin needs the regions to blackmail Kiev.

Does anyone still remember Donetsk? Europe, it seems, has long since forgotten the place. And yet there’s still a war going on there — one that has lasted longer than Hitler’s campaign against the Soviet Union. Soldiers and civilians on both sides die there almost daily.

On Sunday, Donetsk was back in the headlines because of elections held in the self-proclaimed Peoples’ Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. The European Union and the United States aren’t recognizing the vote because it represents a violation of the Minsk agreement. Kiev has described it as a farce, saying the elections have nothing to do with the will of the people. And Russia? Moscow is once again trying to convey the impression that it nothing to do with the ballot.

Sunday’s election does in fact deserve attention, because this time they were less a provocation than the product of political negligence. It goes back to Aug. 31, the day of the assassination of Alexander Zakharchenko, the head of state and prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic. When he and a handful of supporters entered a cafe that evening just around the corner from the government’s headquarters, an explosive device went off above the entrance.

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There is much to learn from what happened in the wake of the Donetsk assassination. First and foremost: Russia doesn’t particularly care about honesty when it comes to its dealings with the people of the eastern Ukrainian separatist republics.

After the explosion, Moscow — which always seems to view offense and the best form of defense — immediately accused Kiev of murder. The elimination of Zakharchenko, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, meant that Ukraine was transforming the hostilities in the Donbass region into a “bloody war.” The head of Russian parliament, the Duma, said he viewed the ongoing peace negotiations as having ended in failure and that the assassination “resets the meaning of the Minsk agreements to zero.” The same day, security forces in Donetsk reported they had arrested “Ukrainian saboteurs” responsible for the murder and that they would soon reveal the men behind the slaying. But that never happened. Soon, there was no longer any talk of the alleged saboteurs either. There is now broad consensus that Zakharchenko was either killed by Russian forces or by people from within his own camp.

Zakharchenko, who took power as prime minister of the Donetsk Republic in 2014 and later declared in an interview with DER SPIEGEL that he wished for a “Russian spring” in Donetsk and Crimea, was considered obstinate and difficult to control. Insiders in Moscow say that for the months before his assassination, he had been under a kind of house arrest. In an hours-long meeting with a high-ranking Western diplomat, which would prove to be his last with a foreigner, Zakharchenko said he was soon planning to step down from his post. By that point, however, he no longer had things under control.

As with Zakharchenko, a number of high-ranking separatists and commanders have either been sidelined or toppled in recent years. At the end of last year, it was the turn of Igor Plotnisky, the leader of the neighboring Luhansk People’s Republic. He wasn’t killed, but he fled to Russia. Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky are both signatories to the 2015 Minsk Agreement, alongside François Hollande, Angela Merkel, Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin. They were supposed to be guarantors of peace in eastern Ukraine.

Cleaning Up

It was a role they never lived up to. Instead, they did as they pleased and relied on criminal methods to secure their power. And all of it was accepted by Moscow in order to maintain their story that local representatives of the people governed in Donetsk and Luhansk. Then came the assassination. Even Putin’s own people can’t seriously believe in the idea of a Kiev-backed conspiracy. Particularly given what has happened since: an ongoing purge of the separatist leadership in Donetsk. The deputy head of government was arrested and people close to him left the republic “for security reasons.” The minister for taxes and duties — who was considered to be one of Zakharchenko’s closest friends — also disappeared.

A special commission is now examining “illegal” expropriations said to have been initiated by the minister. Among other things, he is said to have confiscated the property of a large Donetsk merchant market with armed fighters last year, embezzling 850 million rubles in the process. Specialists with Moscow’s domestic intelligence service, the FSB, are investigating further cases of corruption, and armed separatist units have been placed under Russian control.

Taken together, the steps would seem to confirm longstanding claims made by Igor Girkin, the officer — suspected of being a member of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service — who started the war in Donetsk in 2014. He would later become “defense minister” of the People’s Republic of Donetsk. Girkin claims that “bandits” took power in both republics, and that the Donbass region is “simply getting robbed.” Many of the recent murders may have been part of a brutal battle for influence and riches.

Girkin claims Moscow is to blame. He says Putin’s Donbass representatives sucked the region dry and brought the most important specialists to Russia, thus doing serious damage to the economy. He claims Moscow never had the intention of turning the areas into independent countries and that they were just using them as levers in the dispute with Kiev.

That seems to be the case. Contrary to all its propaganda, Russia has never really done anything for the people living in the separatist areas. The economy is struggling badly, and in the mines that are still operating, miners only earn 15,000 rubles, about 200 euros, per month, not even a third of what miners in Russia earn. Electricity and water are frequently switched off, as is the mobile phone network.

Moscow’s Direct Influence

Still, it’s not in Moscow’s interest for the regions to implode completely. Which is why the assassination of Zakharchenko is not unwelcomed to the Kremlin. Now, Moscow is pulling the strings in Donetsk directly — and it isn’t really even trying to hide its influence anymore.

On the night of Oct. 1, OSCE observers documented for the first time how a convoy of trucks carrying anti-aircraft guns crossed the border from Russia to the separatist region on a dirt road. After the assassination, important Donetsk decision-makers were also put on buses and driven to Rostov-on-Don in Russia, where representatives of the Moscow presidential administration informed them of the future course of the “People’s Republic.” Russian officials also chose Zakharchenko’s successor, Denis Pushilin, who previously served as the head of the local parliament. He was brought to Moscow specifically for this purpose.

Upon his return, he announced increases in wages and pensions — the usual means Russia uses to calm the people. Voters formally elected Pushilin on Sunday in a vote that has been described as a sham by the United States and the European Union. Popular figures who have their own ideas about the future of their “people’s republics” were kept from running under spurious pretexts.

Pushilin has been installed to ensure that order returns to the separatist territory and that it functions at least halfway like an ordinary Russian constituent republic. This isn’t because Russia cares about the welfare of the people there — it’s because eastern Ukraine remains an instrument Moscow can use to foment unrest in the remainder of the country, also because the people in the east would likely lean back toward Ukraine if conditions became worse there than in the west over the long term. Even now, 63 percent of residents of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic support reintegrating their territory into Ukraine.


The east, in other words, is only a means to an end. Russia is doing little to hide that fact. What, for example, does Ukraine’s decision to break away from the Moscow Patriarchate and establish an independent Orthodox Church have to do with the Donbass? Nothing really. But the uproar in Moscow has been considerable, since it will result in Russia losing significant influence in Ukraine.

Respresentatives of the Moscow presidential administration have threatened that it would worsen negotiations over the return of the Donbass region if Kiev were to carry out the plan. But connecting the one issue with the other is tantamount to blackmail. Worse yet: This blackmail goes hand in hand with calls by Russian state television for parishioners of churches in Ukraine that have thus far been under the control of Moscow, to rise up against Kiev — essentially a call for civil war.

Moscow issued the same appeal to eastern Ukraine after the 2014 Maidan uprising. That’s also how it played out in Crimea. Moscow wasn’t interested in the people there, either. Russia only ever saw its own strategic interests. It needs Crimea as a military post against the West and the Donbass region to be able to blackmail the regime in Kiev. Can Putin succeed? It’s difficult to answer the question with a clear “no.”

by Christian Neef, Spiegel

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Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has won the case in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Navalny’s case concerned seven illegal administrative detentions in the period of 2012 – 2014, when he was arrested and found guilty of administrative offenses.

Alexey Navalny’s defence insisted on political motivation of the Russian authorities and the ECHR would recognize Article 18 violation of the European Convention on limits of restrictions on Alexey Navalny’s rights. This article is a mechanism for restricting an abuse of power, especially against political opponents. Applying this and several other articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Court in Strasbourg has come to a decision on political motives of the Russian authorities behind Navalny’s persecution.

It should be noted that the ECHR very rarely acknowledges violations of Article 18. The last time it was in 2004 “in the case of Vladimir Gusinsky”.

The initial court’s decision in Navalny’s case was announced in February 2017. The Court recognized that the Russian opposition leader’s rights for liberty and security of person and fair trial (Articles 5 and 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights) had been violated six times from seven. The Court has also noted violation of Article 11 (a freedom of assembly and associations).

The Russian Ministry of Justice appealed against the initial February decision. On 15 November 2018, the ECHR Grand Chamber reached a verdict that cannot be appealed. Grand Chamber not only confirmed the previous decision, but also recognized violation of the Article 18 of the European Convention on Human Rights concerning Navalny which forbids the state to impose restrictions on the rights guaranteed by other articles (in this case – on the right of a freedom of assembly and security of person). Moreover, the ECHR “recommended that (Russian) government took the measures guaranteeing the right for a freedom of peaceful assembly in Russia”. The ECHR determined that Russia should pay 50,000 euros in “moral compensation”. The remaining sum was calculated from material and legal costs. In total – 63,000 euros ($71,000).

Alexey Navalny considers this decision as a victory that is of great importance for all those people in Russia whose rights are restricted by the authorities. It is especially important now when the situation with human rights in Russia is promptly worsening. The State Duma of the Russian Federation is going to adopt a number of laws depriving Russians, and in particular youth, the rights to peaceful assembly (will consider a question of introduction of penalties for “involvement of minors” into protest actions, and even deprivation of the parental rights is possible) in the near future. The purpose of the Russian authorities – to narrow opportunities for protest and to increase “cost” of participation in it.

The ECHR decision in the case of Alexey Navalny actually recognizes that human rights violations in Russia are politically motivated. At the same time, this victory can be considered as a serious support for the Russian opposition, all those political and civil activists who assert believes, rights and freedoms in Russia with risk for their own lives.

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Russia extends its aggression in the Azov/Black Sea region

Act of military aggression by Russia near Kerch strait constitutes the new phase of Russian aggressive policy of de-facto occupation of Azov Sea. On November 25, 2018 Ukraine’s warship group was blatantly attacked by the Russian border guard patrol near Kerch strait. Three Ukrainian military ships were shot at and seized by the Russians in neutral waters on their way back to Odesa port. 23 Ukrainian servicemen are captured (the navy suffered casualties: 6 wounded, including 2 in critical condition).

Russia’s provocations clearly fall under the UN definition of the aggression. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea guarantees the rights of Ukraine as a coastal state in waters near the Crimea and the Kerch Strait. Thus, according to Article 2 of the Convention, sovereign rights of Ukraine as a coastal state extend to its territorial waters (within 12 miles) around the Crimean peninsula, even despite unlawful temporary occupation of it by the Russian Federation.

The actions of the Russian Federation regarding the prevention of the passage of warships in the territorial sea of Ukraine, including the attack on the Ukrainian naval forces’ ship «Yani-Kapu», constitute a violation of Article 2 of the Convention.

The next step of Russia on November 25, 2018 was blockade of three Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait. The Russian Federation artificially created obstacles for the passage by ships through the Kerch Strait, which is an international duct in the sense of Article 38 of the UNCLOS, and therefore Russia’s actions constitute blocking of navigation through international duct, which is a violation of Articles 38 and 44 of the Convention.

Actions in the Kerch Strait are also a violation of the bilateral Agreement on the use of the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait, which envisages free passage of the parties’ warships through the Kerch Strait. By its actions, Russia has actually recognized that the Treaty is null and void.

Ukrainian ships have left the Kerch Strait and were moving towards Odesa, after their exit from the territorial waters in the exclusive economic zone of Ukraine they were attacked, stopped and then detained by the Russian Federation. These actions constitute a flagrant violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, namely the interference with and prevention of free navigation and freedom of navigation in the exclusive economic zone, guaranteed by Articles 56, 58, 88, 92, as well as violations of the immunity of warships, envisaged by the Article 32 of the UNCLOS.

The attacks by the Russian Federation on the Ukrainian naval forces’ ships, which moved towards the port of Berdyansk initially in the Black Sea, and then also in the region of the Kerch Strait, constitute another fact of ongoing aggression against Ukraine.

In accordance with UN GA resolution 29/3314 of 14 December 1974, notwithstanding the declaration of war, the act of aggression is an attack of the armed forces of one country on land, sea or air, or on the naval or air forces of another country (article 3d).

Martial law is a critically necessary response to Russian escalatory policy. Russia is trying to turn it into its internal lake by blockade of Berdiansk and Mariupol and by military buildup in Crimea and Azov Sea. Russia has switched from hybrid to overt military aggression. Shooting to kill in Ukrainian sailors and ramming Ukrainian boats, which conducted a legitimate and peaceful maneuver, is a blatant and barefaced use of military force.

As Ukraine enters a critical phase of elections, Russia increasingly activates its hybrid toolbox. Military escalation is one of such tools of meddling.

Fake elections in Donbas in November 2018 reset a spiral of instability and violence. Last time in 2014 fake elections became a preparation for Debaltsevo full-fledged attack.

Actions in the Kerch Strait indicate the creation of prerequisites for the complete blockade of the seaports of Berdyansk and Mariupol, as well as the preparation for a possible full blockade of the Black Sea coast of Ukraine by Russia.

Thus, on November 26, 2018, the Parliament of Ukraine adopted the martial law for limited period – 30 days, in 10 regions of Ukraine in order to create all prerequisites for proper counteraction to Russian acts of aggression.

Prompt and consolidated international reaction must ensure that Russian aggression will not go unpunished. The Russian Federation is fully responsible for the escalation in the Azov and Black Seas and undermining the peaceful settlement of the Russia-Ukraine armed conflict. On the request of Ukraine, the special meeting of the UNSC was held. Nobody believes Russia, isolation of Russia is obvious.

Dramatic escalation of the situation in the region needs a prompt reaction to:

demand Russia to immediately release 23 captured Ukrainian soldiers and 3 ships;

de-escalate security situation;

ensure sustainable unblocking of the free crossing of the Kerch-Yenikale canal and freedom of navigation in Azov sea according to international law;

elaborate of a new set of sanctions aimed at addressing the situation in the region, including against the Russia’s Azov ports, imposition of additional individual, economic and sectoral sanctions;

ensure permanent posture of allies, including NATO military ships, in the Black Sea;

conduct with NATO joint trainings in the Sea of Azov;

provide Ukraine with effective radar to monitor the maritime situation in the region, as well as with naval defense systems;

establish OSCE SMM monitoring in the area of the Sea of Azov and Kerch strait;

support Ukraine’s UN GA draft resolution on the militarization of the Crimea and the Sea of Azov;

Escalation of aggression by Russia is a clear evidence that NS2 should be immediately blocked. If Ukraine will lose its significance as a transit country may encourage Putin to wage a full-scale war to take over Ukraine.

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