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© Kyiv Post
In his address to the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russian parliament, President Vladimir Putin said on Dec. 4 that Crimea is to Russians what the Temple Mount is for Muslims and Jews.
He based his statement on the fact that Prince Volodymyr the Great, the ruler of medieval Kyivan Rus in the 10th century, was baptized in Crimea as he brought Christianity to his kingdom. The fact is that Volodymyr ruled in Kyiv. Putin’s remarks underscore Ukraine’s connection to the peninsula, not Russia’s.
President Vladimir Putin approaches to shake hands with his French counterpart Francois Hollande during a meeting at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, Dec. 6. Photograph: Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters
Alexey Eremenko, The Moscow Times.
The weekend meeting between the French and Russian presidents has given France a chance to become “the new Germany” for Russia, which lost its last Western ally after a falling-out with official Berlin, analysts say.
French mediation “is aimed at preventing Russia-EU relations from going to the dogs,” said Tatiana Kastueva-Jean of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) in Paris.
For France, reaching out to Russia has the benefit of boosting President Francois Hollande’s flagging rating and upholding Paris’ longtime strategy of relative independence in foreign affairs.
But the success of Hollande’s bid depends on both the Kremlin and the other Western powers, said Arnaud Dubien, head of the French-Russian think tank Observo.
“Everybody loses if no one acts now,” Dubien, whose think tank is affiliated with the French-Russian Chamber of Commerce, said Monday.
Hollande held a snap meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Saturday at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport.
The agenda was dominated by Ukraine, where fighting persists between a pro-Russian insurgency and governmental forces in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
“I very much hope that in the near future we will have a final cease-fire agreement” on Ukraine, Putin said after the meeting, Reuters reported.
He also endorsed the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine, indicating that Russia did not plan to annex the rebel-held regions as it did with Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in March.
For his part, Hollande spoke about a possible end to Western sanctions imposed on Russia over its involvement in Ukraine, linking it to the hopefully forthcoming cease-fire.
In an apparent follow-up, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko — whom Hollande reportedly consulted before meeting Putin — announced new talks with rebels starting Tuesday.
Experts said Moscow and Paris appeared to have found common ground on Ukraine — though under-the-table deals may have been thrown into the mix.
“France likely pledged to guarantee that Ukraine would not join NATO,” Dubien said. Kiev joining the alliance is a longtime fear for Putin’s government.
Don’t Mention the War(ships)
Though France has backed EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, it has taken a notably moderate stance toward Moscow.
Hollande was one of the few Western leaders who did not give Putin a hard time at a G20 meeting in Australia’s Brisbane last month.
Nor have French authorities pressured French businesses to cut connections to Russia like Germany did, said Sergei Fyodorov of the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Russia-France bilateral trade stood at an admittedly modest $15.6 billion, or 2.4 percent of Russia’s total foreign trade in the first 10 months of this year, according to Russia’s Federal Customs Service. It has shrunk during the past few years.
France’s willingness to go easy on Russia may have been due to the 3 billion euro ($3.7 billion) lawsuit Moscow threatened over the two Mistral-class helicopter carriers it commissioned in 2010.
Hollande said in September that the ships’ delivery was being postponed over Russia’s role in Ukraine.
Putin said that the Mistrals were not discussed during his meeting with Hollande over the weekend, Reuters reported — a claim that experts polled by The Moscow Times were inclined to believe.
Paris is apparently trying to prevent the single issue of the Mistrals from dominating the bilateral agenda, said Kastueva-Jean, who heads the Russia-NIS (New Independent States) Center at IFRI.
Germany Out, France In
Russia’s prime ally in the West until recently was Germany, whose bilateral trade with Russia, tellingly, stood at $56 billion (8.8 percent of Russia’s total) between January and October, according to customs figures.
Chancellor Angela Merkel had advocated a softer stance on Russia from the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine.
But last month she joined the hard-liners after extensive talks with Putin at the G20 summit, where she reportedly failed to sway him on Ukrainian separatists.
“Hollande’s reaching out to Putin is an attempt to balance out Germany’s influence in the EU,” Kastueva-Jean said.
“France is the last big country that can mediate between Russia and the West,” Dubien said.
There is a recent precedent for Hollande’s attempts to play peacemaker with Russia: In 2008, his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy brokered the end to the “five-day war” between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway province of South Ossetia.
Hollande, struggling with dismal approval ratings, is clearly keen to follow in Sarkozy’s footsteps, experts agreed.
But he is also enacting France’s general drive toward a relatively independent foreign policy, which dates all the way back to Charles de Gaulle, said Fyodorov of the Russian Academy of Sciences. De Gaulle dominated French politics from World War II to the late 1960s.
However, much depends on whether Putin will — or, indeed, can — really influence the ragtag band of rebels in eastern Ukraine, analysts said.
And just as vital is whether official Brussels and Washington would be willing to back France’s diplomatic effort, or whether they will stick to their hard-line position, Dubien said.
“We’ll know within days,” the analyst said. “But if we miss this chance to end the crisis, the window of opportunity will close for a long time, months at least.”
A man looks into a burnt-out car near the Press House building, a local media agency, in the Chechen capital Grozny on Dec. 4, 2014. Photograph: Stringer / Reuters.
Anna Dolgov, The Moscow Times.
At least nine Islamic militants and ten police officers have been killed in Chechnya’s capital Grozny as rebels seized a local media headquarters and raided a school, just days before the republic’s anniversary of the start of the first separatist war, a news report said.
Another 28 officers were injured in the anti-terror operation launched in Grozny overnight, Interfax news agency reported Thursday afternoon, citing Russia’s National Anti-Terrorist Committee.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said law enforcement officers were still searching for the bodies of other fighters who could have taken part in the seize, Interfax reported.
The violence broke out on the eve of President Vladimir Putin’s annual state of the nation address, prompting speculation on social networks about its possible political implications, with multiple Twitter users reporting helicopters viewings in central Moscow and Putin’s motorcade supposedly pulling up into the Kremlin in the middle of the night.
The so-called Press House in Grozny – which housed many media outlets in the republic – was seized by militants early in the night, and gutted by flames in the following hours, Kadyrov told Ekho Moskvy radio station early Thursday morning.
Kadyrov also said another group of militants had occupied a local school, which, according to the school’s deputy principal Islam Dzhabrailov, was vacant at the time, RIA Novosti news agency reported.
The Chechen leader, who earlier that night urged residents of Grozny not to leave their homes, had pledged on Instagram the militants would be suppressed by the morning, claiming that the city remained mostly “calm.”
Kadyrov said the militants had been “very seriously armed” with machine guns and grenade launchers – a statement that seemed to fly in the face of earlier repeated assurances that his administration would quickly retake control of the city streets.
Estimates of the scope of the violence and the militant forces diverged widely, with Kadyrov initially putting the number of men who seized the Press House at “supposedly five-six people,” according to a comment on his Instagram account, later raising the number to “between eight and nine” in his interview with Ekho Moskvy. He did not specify how many militants might be inside the school building.
Islamist groups claimed on social networks that forces numbering in the hundreds were supposedly waging battles around the city.
Islamist group Vilayat Noxciyco, describing itself as the “mujahideen [jihad fighters] of the Caucasus Emirate,” claimed responsibility for the attack. The Caucasus Emirate is an militant group that seeks to establish an Islamic state based on the strict Sharia law throughout the region.
“Battles are currently going on,” the group said on YouTube. “Many mujahideen have entered the city. This is an act of retribution … and we shall fight to the death.”
Shortly afterward, the group’s account on Russia’s largest social network, VKontakte, was blocked, but its claim has been reposted by other users on social networks.
Thursday’s clashes took place just days before the 20th anniversary of the start of Chechnya’s first separatist war in December 1994. An Islamist drive was not yet a major force in the first war, during which separatists primarily sought secession from Russia, but emerged powerfully in the second conflict, which began in 1999.
After the wars ended, Kadyrov, a Kremlin loyalist, has been ruling the republic since 2007.
Kadyrov Urges Calm
Kadyrov had sought to downplay the violence throughout the night, even while photos posted online by Grozny residents showed flames billowing on the top floors of the press house, and videos carried sounds of heavy gunfire. Another video showed a car engulfed by flames, which Grozny inhabitants claimed was a police car that had exploded during nighttime battles.
“All talk about militants running the show somewhere in the city are absolutely false,” Kadyrov said on Instagram. He added that the fighters “might have come from another region,” claiming that no armed groups “capable of this” remained in Chechnya.
“The Press House has burned down, but we will build another one, even more beautiful than what we had,” he added.
Police stand guard near firefighters extinguishing a fire at a market near the Press House building, a local media agency, in the Chechen capital Grozny on Dec. 4, 2014. Photograph: Stringer / Reuters.
First Officers Killed
Kadyrov claimed Thursday’s conflict arose when a road police patrol tried to stop a car at a checkpoint near the capital, whose passengers then opened fire. Three police officers were killed in the altercation, he said.
Russia’s independent Dozhd television cited an unidentified Grozny inhabitant reporting an explosion shortly before midnight, and then gunfire continuing intermittently during subsequent hours. The man also said that the authorities dispatched armored personnel carriers to the city center.
The unidentified resident also claimed that the militants had ordered taxi cabs to pick them up from Chechnya’s Urus Martan region, then overpowered the drivers and rode the cars to the massive mosque complex in the center of Grozny, where the first gun battle erupted, according to Dozhd.
The mosque, called the Heart of Chechnya, can host up to 10,000 worshipers and is widely seen as a symbol of Kadyrov’s attempts to restore the republic that had been ravaged by the separatist wars.
Putin says EU’s opposition scuppered project but Russian leader outlines plan to pump more gas to Turkey on visit to Ankara.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, left, and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, at the controversial new palace in Ankara. Photograph: Ria Novosti/Reuters
Russia has dropped plans for a pipeline to send gas to Europe, President Vladimir Putin announced on Monday, blaming the European Union for stalling the project.
Putin, speaking during a visit to Turkey, said the South Stream pipeline, which Russian officials have hailed for years as an important step towards improving European energy security, was over.
“We see that obstacles are being set up to prevent its fulfilment,” said Putin, speaking at a joint news conference with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “If Europe does not want to carry it out, then it will not be carried out.”
The pipeline, along with the North Stream pipeline that carries gas to Germany through the Baltic Sea, was meant to bypass Ukraine. Mikhail Krutikhin, a Russian energy analyst, said: “From the beginning this was a political project, and the goal was to punish Ukraine and cut it off from gas flows. It was never economical to spend so much on this pipeline.”
However, Moscow will boost increase gas supplies to Turkey and Putin said that instead of South Stream, a new hub could be built on the Turkish-Greek border to supply Europe with gas. He also issued a thinly veiled threat to Europe, hinting that since concluding a massive, long-term gas deal with China earlier this year, the European market was no longer that important for Russia, after a year during which the Kremlin has been targeted by western capitals for its role in Ukraine.
“We will re-concentrate our energy resources on other regions of the world,” said Putin. “We will work with other markets and Europe will not receive this gas, at least not from Russia.
“We think this is against Europe’s economic interests and is causing damage to our cooperation.”
Construction had already started on sections of the pipeline, which was due to carry its first gas at the end of next year. The pipeline was meant to take Russian gas across the Black Sea to southern Europe, via Bulgaria, but the European commission has said the pipeline needs to conform to European competition rules, and has put pressure on Bulgaria not to back the project in its current form.
“My Bulgarian partners would always say that whatever happens, South Stream will go ahead, because it is in the Bulgarian national interest,” said Putin.
“If Bulgaria is deprived of the possibility of behaving like a sovereign state, let them demand the money for the lost profit from the European commission,” he said.
Putin met his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, amid striking differences over the crises in Syria and Ukraine, but the leaders focused instead on their countries’ booming economic and trade ties. The Russian leader arrived in Turkey accompanied by a large delegation, including 10 ministers.
The two countries, which are major trading partners, have set an aim of increasing their two-way trade volume from £21bn ($33bn) to £64bn by 2020. Russia provides the bulk of Turkey’s gas and is set to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. Turkish construction firms are active in Russia, while millions of Russian tourists travel to Turkey each year.
A description of the project on Gazprom’s website said South Stream was “another step in Gazprom’s strategy to diversify the supply routes for Russian natural gas” and would “significantly improve the energy security of the whole European continent”.
But after Putin’s announcement in Ankara, Gazprom’s chief executive, Alexei Miller, confirmed that the plug had been pulled on South Stream. “The project is closed. This is it,” he told reporters.
Russia’s economy, which is heavily dependent on the export of oil and gas, has been struggling in recent weeks as tumbling oil prices combine with the effects of western sanctions to stoke fears and send the rouble tumbling. On Monday the currency hit new historical lows.
The Russian and Turkish leaders, often compared to each other for their drift toward authoritarianism, have opposing positions on Syria’s crisis, but were expected to set their differences aside during their meeting at Erdoğan’s new mega-palace, which has been strongly criticised by Turkish opposition parties, environmentalists and activists, who say the 1,000-room complex is too costly and extravagant.
Russia remains the closest ally of the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey supports Syria’s opposition forces. Turkey has also been a strong advocate of the Tatar community in the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia and has publicly supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Barred from Crimea by Russian authorities, Tatar leaders, who strongly opposed the annexation, are feted in Turkey. On a visit just a month after the annexation, Mustafa Dzhemilev, a Soviet-era Tatar dissident, was given Turkey’s highest award.
Little Green Men, a nickname for Russian personnel operating in unmarked uniforms that Western military officials gave them after appearance in Crimea. Yevgeny Razumny / Vedomosti.
When Russians crossed the border to fight with rebels in eastern Ukraine earlier this year, Moscow said the soldiers had not been deployed but had gone on their own vacation time.
When Estonia was the victim of a cyber attack in 2007 and blamed Moscow, the Kremlin responded that it could not always control patriotic Russian hackers.
Western strategists who built their defenses to counter a massive invasion, nuclear missiles or terrorism are still trying to work out how to cope with this sort of threat that disrupts and destabilizes from behind a mask of deniability.
After soldiers without insignia took control in Crimea last March, Western military officials developed their own nickname for Russian personnel operating in unmarked uniforms or in plainclothes: Little Green Men.
NATO is considering how to counter such “ambiguous warfare” techniques should President Vladimir Putin try something similar in the Baltic member states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
It has deployed some U.S. and allied tanks and planes there to signal NATO’s commitment to defend all its members with force and is considering bolstering police there, perhaps with officers from Nordic states, to help detect any Russian infiltration.
Effective Russian Strategy
Military experts say Russia’s unconventional strategy on its western flank, especially in non-NATO member Ukraine, is proving remarkably effective, and it has recently been combined with a global show of force on a scale not seen since the Cold War.
Russian warships probed the limits of Australian territorial waters before the G20 summit in Brisbane this month and Moscow said nuclear bomber patrols which have been overflying western Europe would now reach as far as the Gulf of Mexico.
Russia’s underlying point, Western analysts say, is clear: as it reasserts its influence over countries on its borders, it is reminding the West of how cataclysmic the consequences could be if military force were used to stop them.
“Putin is taking the measure of the West’s willingness to keep exerting pressure on Ukraine,” said Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
Many officials and experts say privately that both the West and the government in Kiev ultimately will have to accept greater federalism and a Russian influence in eastern Ukraine.
The issue will then be whether Putin interprets it as a sign of weakness and a green light to consider similar tactics against NATO members like the Baltic states.
Evolving Western Strategy
“It’s not quite a new Cold War, but it’s a very different situation to where we were a few years ago,” said Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official and now senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security. “I don’t think we’ve yet formulated a proper strategy for dealing with that.”
The West’s biggest response to Moscow’s actions has been financial sanctions on Russian firms and individuals and the new, if limited, military deployments in eastern Europe. Further measures are now being discussed in NATO meetings.
U.S. Supreme Allied Commander Philip Breedlove makes clear covert infiltration by Russia could draw a military response under Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, which sees an attack on one member as an attack on the alliance as a whole.
“If we see these actions taking place in a NATO nation and we are able to attribute them to an aggressor nation, that is Article 5. Now, it is a military response,” he said in an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt earlier this year.
The emphasis for NATO in Europe, home to more than half the world’s atomic weapons, remains detecting any Russian initiatives early and responding firmly to avert any risk of actual war.
“What you have to remember is that there is simply no option for a conventional war with Russia,” said one former official on condition of anonymity. “It is either unconventional like this or it is likely to become something much worse.”