July 31, 2014
A surreal week with the Donetsk rebels
By Guy Chazan
A bizarre kidnap and escape illustrate the transformation of the city, says Guy Chazan
Alexei, a 28-year-old historian, was walking down the street in his home town, Donetsk, a couple of weeks ago when armed men from the “Vostok” battalion stopped him, bundled him into their car and drove off.
The incident was the start of a surreal week. Alexei had become the latest Donetsk resident to be abducted by pro-Russian separatists who have controlled the city since April. There followed six days of forced labour. He was brought to a rebel checkpoint in Pervomaiske, a small village northwest of Donetsk, and forced to dig trenches, fill sandbags and, occasionally, peel potatoes. He twice came under heavy shelling by Ukrainian troops, who were stationed close by.
Alexei is fairly forgiving of his captors. “At least they didn’t beat me up,” he says. They also fed him regularly and gave him cigarettes. People he knows who were seized by a different rebel unit – the Russian Orthodox Army – were physically abused and kept in a damp, dark cellar, while he slept in the relative comfort of an abandoned cottage.
Alexei’s story is not an isolated case. A UN report this week said eastern Ukraine was seeing a “total breakdown of law and order”, and accused armed groups of instituting “a reign of fear and terror”. The insurgents, it said, were continuing to abduct, detain, torture and execute people kept as hostages, exercising their power over the population “in raw and brutal ways”.
And the people of Donetsk have a new danger to contend with: intense fighting on the outskirts between rebel units and Ukrainian government troops, who have made tangible gains in the past two weeks. Every night the boom of shelling reverberates around the city. Every morning residents wake to find buildings ruined by bombardments that do not discriminate between combatants and civilians. The death toll is rising.
Donetsk has totally changed since the last time I was here two months ago. Then, it was hard to believe this city of 1m souls was at the centre of one of the worst east-west crises since the cold war. Its beautifully landscaped parks were full of people enjoying the spring sunshine. Outdoor cafés were overflowing: shops and markets were doing a roaring trade. People dismissed the rebels who had seized Donetsk’s regional government building in April as a bunch of clowns.
Not any more. The insurgents now provoke fear, not ridicule. Some of them have exploited the total absence of any police force to steal cars and loot shops. Vigilante justice rules: Alexei’s supposed offence was drinking beer in public.
Tens of thousands have fled the city. The railway station swarms with hundreds of residents queueing for hours to get a ticket out of here. The city centre is devoid of people. Shops are boarded up: many ATMs have run out of cash.
The circus-like atmosphere has also gone. The first wave of rebels – small-time activists and romantics who dreamt for years of union with Mother Russia – has been pushed aside by professionals from Moscow. Igor Strelkov, the rebels’ military commander, and Vladimir Antyufeyev, their security chief, are both Russian citizens. The latter used to be head of internal security in Transnistria, the Russian-backed breakaway region in Moldova.
Meanwhile, the barricades of tyres, barbed wire and sandbags that surrounded the occupied government building have been cleared, and the interior smartened up. Even the lifts work now. But popular disquiet with the rebel regime is widespread, even if still expressed mainly behind closed doors. A common graffito is a portrait of Mr Strelkov with a gun to his head and the words “Just Do It”.
Alexei escaped his captors by spinning an elaborate ruse. They thought, wrongly, that he was a drug addict. So he told them that, if they released him, he would cook them some crystal meth. He was released on condition he brought them the meth – but never returned.
He says about 10 per cent of men abducted by the rebels are persuaded to join the insurgency. That was never going to happen to Alexei. “I was worried they’d find out I was completely against them, that I support a united Ukraine,” he said. He contemplated running away to Ukrainian-controlled territory but feared being taken for a spy.
Since he was set free, the Pervomaiske checkpoint has been destroyed and the area is now controlled by Ukrainian troops. How does he assess the rebels’ chances now? “This whole thing will peter out soon,” Alexei says, “as soon as Russia stops paying them.”
July 31, 2014
Separatists’ Faults May Give Putin a Way Out
Russia may finally have a pretext for bailing out on Ukrainian separatists. But the pretext is not sanctions – it’s ethics. Still, the idea will be highly difficult for President Vladimir Putin to transmit, as there are few people who can take the moral high ground in the Russian establishment.
Putin, by popular admission, is caught between a rock and a hard place over eastern Ukraine. His backing of separatists there has earned him record ratings at home, but is increasingly alienating the West – a luxury that Russia, whose stagnating economy is heavily reliant on foreign trade, can ill afford.
But the Kremlin may denounce the separatists, despite their domestic popularity, if an international investigation proves that they shot down a Malaysia Airlines jet over rebel-controlled area earlier this month, prominent journalist Andrei Kolesnikov said Tuesday. “The children, the elderly people and adults slain for nothing are for him … a red line he would not cross,” Kolesnikov, known as “Putin’s favorite journalist,” said of the president in a surprisingly unequivocal op-ed on Kommersant FM radio that set pundits and bloggers in Russia abuzz.
“Yes, Vladimir Putin will renounce them,” Kolesnikov, the star of the presidential pool who has been following Putin from day one, said of the people he calls “resistance fighters” and whom Western politicians slam as terrorists. This is nothing short of a cop-out, given that the Russian leader has hardly been fazed by violence in the past. The deaths of more than 180 children in a bloody siege of a Beslan school seized by jihadi in 2004 is proof enough, but there is also the long history of atrocities during the two wars in Chechnya and the widespread and often disturbing police violence at home. Separatists’ track record on human rights, even before the Malaysia Airlines crash, was less than stellar. There is a war going on in Ukraine, and Putin can’t possibly have only realized it now.
But, regardless of whatever face-saving rhetoric Moscow wants to shroud the crash in, it is in Russia’s interests to have sanctions lifted, and the verdict of an international investigation into the disaster might prove to be a handy way out. Of even more interest, however, is the medium used to vent the idea, and what it says about the Russian leadership.
Few publications have a more impressive track record of criticizing Putin’s regime than the Kommersant publishing house. For years, it got away with pointing out the Kremlin’s mistakes and giving a voice to the opposition. Its professional reputation suffered after pro-Putin tycoon Alisher Usmanov purchased it in 2006, but it still retained a certain level of independence. The same could be said of Kolesnikov: Though his affiliation with Putin explains why his op-ed was widely understood as channeling the Kremlin and not just speculation, his ironic reports have always refrained from the sycophantic tone typical of state media coverage of Putin.
The Kremlin has never before needed outsiders to make its public statements. Policy suggestions could always be floated via loyal ministers, subservient lawmakers or the vast media empire comprising television channels with audiences in the millions, radio stations, newspapers, news agencies and public think tanks on a state payroll. Any of those could have said what Kommersant wrote, and yet the job was outsourced to a once-critical newspaper.
The problem is that none of the units in the Kremlin’s public empire are fit to take a moral stance. Most ruling elites worldwide are pretty weak on ethics, but Russia’s has been especially egregious in this regard. Lawmakers and state officials have tacitly and even ardently backed the Kremlin’s most outrageous initiatives – curbing freedoms, fanning homophobia, using orphans for PR gains. The state media deal in blunt propaganda, not journalism. And Putin himself spent 14 years building an image of a strong leader, not an ethical one. If the war ends because Putin denounces the separatists as immoral, it will be hypocrisy serving a good cause. But the very eyebrows raised by this excuse also show that the crisis of Russian leadership is, at heart, an ethical one – and that perhaps it is time to begin scaling back the cynicism on which the Kremlin has built its ideology.
July 30, 2014
The Kremlin Floats An Exit Strategy
By Brian Whitmore
Sometimes it’s a good idea to pay attention to what Andrei Kolesnikov writes.
The “Kommersant” columnist is one of the Kremlin’s anointed court scribes and is often described as President Vladimir Putin’s favorite journalist.
Ben Judah, author of “Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin,” recently wrote that the Russian president “pays particular attention” to Kolesnikov’s columns, which he enjoys “greatly and always reads right to the end.”
Kolesnikov regularly travels with Putin and is often a conduit for messages from the regime’s inner sanctum to the broader elite. It was in an interview with Kolesnikov in the summer of 2010, on an epic road trip across the Russian Far East in a bright yellow Lada, that Putin strongly hinted that he intended to return to the presidency in 2012 and that pro-democracy protesters should be beaten.
Both of these things, of course, happened.
So it didn’t go unnoticed when Kolesnikov wrote on July 29 that Putin was prepared to wash his hands of the separatists in eastern Ukraine if they were indeed proven to be responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
“If at some point it becomes evident that the insurgents had some connection to this, that would radically change [Putin’s] attitude toward them — even if it was a fatal mistake,” Kolesnikov wrote. “Children who died for nothing, as well as adults and elderly people, this is a red line he will not cross. He will not cover up for those who did this if he knows they did it. He will not have this sin on his soul.”
Kolesnikov’s argument should by no means be taken at face value. Who really believes that Putin is suddenly shocked that the separatists he has been sponsoring could have shot down a civilian airliner? And does anybody really believe civilian deaths are a red line he will never cross?
But Kolesnikov doesn’t write anything by accident. And it’s safe to assume he doesn’t write anything that is not Kremlin-approved. So with his July 29 column, he is clearly either floating a trial balloon or delivering a message from Putin to the elite that a change of policy is imminent.
There are other signals that a change in the Kremlin line may be coming. In an interview with CNN on July 22, Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin suggested reports that the rebels in eastern Ukraine thought they had shot down a military aircraft around the same time that MH17 crashed suggested they weren’t really culpable.
“According to them, the people from the east were saying that they shot down a military jet, so if it was [that they thought they] shot down a military jet, there was confusion,” Churkin said. “If there was confusion, it was not an act of terrorism.”
Kolesnikov’s column has also provoked a bit of hand wringing in the nationalist press. “Common people who read ‘King Lear’ think that court jesters exist to tell the monarch the truth with a smile on their face,” Yegor Kholmogorov wrote in “Vzglyad.” “The truth is that they are used to tell lies in the monarch’s name. Andrei Kolesnikov is one such person who is close to Putin who set off a storm among journalists who are accustomed to seeing signals every time he sneezes.”
It’s too early to tell whether this was a trial balloon, a signal of a policy shift, or a court jester telling noble lies for the king.
But the column’s timing, on the day when the European Union and the United States announced tough new sanctions against Russia’s financial and energy sectors, was certainly interesting.
It also comes at a time when Russia’s erstwhile defenders in Europe appear to be distancing themselves from the Putin regime — putting additional pressure on the Kremlin.
In a cover story last week titled “Stop Putin Now!” the Hamburg-based weekly “Der Spiegel” said that “52 percent of Germans said they would favor tougher sanctions, even if they would lead to the loss of many jobs in Germany.”
According to the article, Germany’s business community, which has close ties to Russia, “has also gotten the message. Although the initial sanctions had few direct consequences for them, many business leaders had warned against sanctions — drawing the ire of the chancellor and other politicians. Now they are changing their position.”
In a July 22 article, Yevgenia Albats, editor of the opposition magazine “Novoye vremya,” or “The New Times,” issued an emotional call to the Russian elite to persuade Putin to change course in Ukraine or be left “without a country.”
“Never before in its post-Soviet history has Russia been in such a horrific position as it is now. All possibilities — from a major war to a junta in the Kremlin — are possible,” Albats wrote, adding that Putin’s “Chekist entourage…has led him not just into a dead end,” but also “into a nightmare in which he will go down in history as someone who has the blood of innocent children on his hands.”
Maybe somebody in high places actually heard her call.