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The Russian Orthodox Leader at the Core of Putin’s Ambitions - The New York Times

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Credit...Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

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Jason Horowitz is the Rome bureau chief, covering Italy, the Vatican, Greece and other parts of Southern Europe. He previously covered the 2016 presidential campaign, the Obama administration and Congress, with an emphasis on political profiles and features. @jasondhorowitz

A version of this article appears in print on May 22, 2022, Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Spiritual Ally Offering Cover For Putin’s War. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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How one Russian brigade terrorised Bucha

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When the soldiers of Russia’s 64th Motor Rifle Brigade arrived in Bucha in mid-March, they brought a new level of death and terror to the city. Over the next 18 days, in just one corner of this Kyiv suburb where the brigade took control, 12 people were killed, including all of the inhabitants of six houses where the soldiers set up camp. Olha Havryliuk’s son and son-in-law, along with a stranger, were shot in the head in the yard of their house. Russian soldiers smashed the Havryliuks’ fence, parked their armoured vehicle in the garden and moved into the house. They cooked in the neighbour’s garden, killing and plucking chickens and roasting them on a barbecue while the men lay dead yards away across the alley.

By the time the troops pulled out at the end of March, two brothers, Yuriy and Viktor Pavlenko, who lived at the end of the street, lay dead in a ditch by the railway line. Volodymyr Cherednychenko was found dead in a neighbour’s cellar. Another man, caught by Russian soldiers as he ran along the train track and taken into a cellar of a house at the end of the street, was also found shot dead.

The story of Bucha and its horrors has unfolded in chapters as new revelations of Russian atrocities emerge, fuelling outrage among Ukrainians and across much of the world. But prosecutors and military intelligence officials were investigating early on, collecting evidence to try to identify the perpetrators responsible for the mass killings, torture and rapes in the once tranquil suburb.

Working with war crimes and forensic experts from around the world, Ukrainian investigators have reached some preliminary conclusions, focusing in particular on the 64th Brigade. They have already identified 10 soldiers from the unit and accused them of war crimes.

Ukrainian officials say that the brigade was formed after Russia struggled in a 2008 war with Georgia, and that it was awarded an honorary title by Russian president Vladimir Putin last month for its performance in Ukraine. Yet the brigade took little part in any fighting, coming in after other units had seized control of Bucha and then tasked with “holding” it. The troops established checkpoints throughout the town, parking their armoured vehicles in people’s yards and taking over their homes.

“They imprisoned our people,” said Ruslan Kravchenko, the chief prosecutor for the Bucha district, describing the actions of the accused soldiers. “They tied their hands and legs and taped their eyes. They beat them with fists and feet, and with gun butts in the chest, and imitated executions.”

The name of the 64th Brigade and a list of 1,600 of its soldiers were found among computer files left behind in the Russian military headquarters in Bucha, providing investigators with an immense resource as they began their investigation. Dmytro Replianchuk at Slidtsvo.info, a Ukrainian investigative news agency, soon found the social media profiles of dozens of the names, including officers.

Three victims who survived beatings and torture have been able to identify the perpetrators from the photographs, Kravchenko said. One of the victims was Yuriy (50) a factory worker, who lives near one of the most notorious Russian bases, at 144 Yablunska Street. On March 13th, a unit of the 64th Brigade came to search his house. He said that he had identified the soldiers when shown photographs by prosecutors. The soldiers were rough and uncouth, he said. “You could see they were from the Taiga,” he said, referring to the Siberian forest. “They just talk to bears.”

Yuriy managed to avoid suspicion, but on March 19th, the soldiers returned and detained his neighbour Oleksiy. Like several others interviewed for this article, the men asked to be identified by only their first names for their security. Oleksiy declined to be interviewed but confirmed that he had been detained twice by the Russian unit, interrogated in a basement for several hours and put through a mock execution when the soldiers fired a gun behind him. Still shaken, he said, “I just want to try to forget it all.”

Based in Russia’s far east, near the border with China, the 64th Brigade belongs to the Eastern Military District, long seen as the part of the Russian army with the lowest levels of training and equipment. The brigade has ethnic Russian commanders but consists largely of soldiers drawn from minority ethnic groups and disadvantaged communities, according to Col Mykola Krasny, the head of public affairs of Ukrainian military intelligence. In radio conversations that were intercepted by Ukrainian forces, some of the Russians expressed surprise that village roads in outlying areas of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, were paved with asphalt, he said. “We see it as a deliberate policy to draft soldiers from depressed regions of Russia,” Krasny said. Not a lot is known about the brigade, but Krasny claimed that it was notable for its lack of morality, for beatings of soldiers and for thieving. Drawn from a regiment that had served in Chechnya, the brigade was established January 1st, 2009, shortly after Russia’s war in Georgia, Krasny said. The goal was clear, he added: to build up a fearsome army unit that could instil control.

“The consequences of these politics was what happened in Bucha,” he said. “Having no discipline, and these aggressive habits, it looks like it was created to scare the population.”

The Russian government did not respond to a request for comment on the accusations against the 64th Brigade but has repeatedly claimed that allegations of its forces having committed atrocities in Bucha and elsewhere are false.

Killings occurred in Bucha from the first days that Russian troops appeared. The first units were airborne assault troops, paratroopers and special forces who fired on cars and civilians in the streets and detained men suspected of being in the Ukrainian army or territorial defence.

The extent of the killings, and the seeming lack of hesitation among Russian soldiers to carry them out, has led Ukrainian officials to surmise that they were acting under orders. “They couldn’t not know,” Kravchenko said of senior military commanders. “I think the terror was planned.” Many of the documented killings occurred on Yablunska Street, where bodies lay for weeks, visible on satellite images. But not far away, on a corner of Ivana Franka Street, a particular form of hell played out after March 12th.

Residents had already been warned that things would get worse. A pensioner, Mykola (67) said that Russian troops who first came to the neighbourhood had advised him to leave while he could. “’After us, such bad guys will come,’” the commander told him, he recalled. “I think they had radio contact and they knew who was coming, and they had their own opinion of them.”

Mykola left Bucha before the 64th Brigade arrived. The spring flowers are pushing up everywhere in Bucha, fruit trees are in blossom, and city workers have swept the streets and filled in some of the bomb craters. But at the end of Ivana Franka Street, amid smashed cars and destroyed homes, there is an eerie desolation.

“From this house to the end, no one is left alive,” said Havryliuk (65). “Eleven people were killed here. Only we stayed alive.” Her son and son-in-law had stayed behind to look after the house and the dogs, and were killed March 12th or 13th, when the 64th Brigade first arrived, she said. The death certificates said that they had been shot in the head. What happened over the next two weeks is hard to fathom. The few residents who stayed were confined to their homes and only occasionally dared to go out to fetch water from a well. Some of them saw people being detained by the Russians.

Nadezhda Cherednychenko (50) pleaded with the soldiers to let her son go. He was being held in the yard of a house and his arm had been injured when she last saw him. She found him dead in the cellar of the same house three weeks later, after the Russians withdrew.

“They should be punished,” she said of his captors. “They brought so much pain to people. Mothers without children, fathers, children without parents. It’s something you cannot forgive.”

Neighbours who lived next door to the Havryliuks just disappeared. Volodymyr and Tetiana Shypilo, a teacher, and their son Andriy (39) lived in one part of the house, and Oleh Yarmolenko (47) lived alone in the other side. “They were all our relatives,” Havryliuk said.

Down a side alley lived Lidiya Sydorenko (62) and her husband Serhiy (65). Their daughter, Tetiana Naumova, said that she spoke to them by telephone mid-morning on March 22nd. “Mother was crying the whole time,” Naumova said. “She was usually an optimist, but I think she had a bad feeling.” Minutes later, Russian soldiers came in and demanded to search their garage. They told a neighbour to leave, shooting at the ground by her feet. “By lunchtime they had killed them,” Naumova said.

She returned to the house with her husband, Vitaliy, and her son Anton last month after Russian troops withdrew from Kyiv. Her parents were nowhere to be found, but they found ominous traces – her father’s hat with bullet holes in it, three pools of blood and a piece of her mother’s scalp and hair.

There was also no sign of the Shypilos or of Yarmolenko, except trails of blood where bodies had been dragged along the floor of their house. Eventually, French forensic investigators solved the mystery. They examined six charred bodies found in an empty lot up the street and confirmed that they were the missing civilians: the Sydorenkos, the three Shypilos and Yarmolenko. Several bore bullet wounds but three of them had had limbs severed, including Naumova’s mother, the investigators told the families.

Her father had multiple gunshot wounds to the head and chest, her mother had had an arm and a leg cut off, she said. “They tortured them,” Havryliuk said, “and burned them to cover their tracks.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Russia’s laser weapon in Ukraine: Does it exist?

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A top Kremlin official recently said that Russia has deployed an advanced laser weapons system in combat in Ukraine.

In a conference aired on the state media Channel One on Wednesday, Yury Borisov, Russia’s deputy prime minister, said the country’s state-of-the-art laser weapon, called “Zadira,” is being used to shoot down Ukrainian drones.

“Zadira” could be part of an intercontinental ballistic missile system, which includes a laser component called Peresvet, Reuters news agency wrote on Wednesday.

Borisov said that Peresvet was already being widely deployed and could also blind satellites up to 1,500 km (930 miles) above Earth.

“If Peresvet blinds, then the new generation of laser weapons lead to the physical destruction of the target … they burn it up,” Borisov said, according to Reuters.

But military experts have expressed doubts about whether Russia’s claims are substantiated.

What are laser weapons?

A laser weapon generates a beam of concentrated light that can heat up and burn down an object.

A high-energy laser can burn a hole in a thick steel plate within seconds. The rays travel at the speed of light, have a much broader range than regular projectiles, and can hit their target with utmost precision. Such weapons can also work discreetly, as sending out light rays does not generate loud noises. Most importantly, they are very cost-effective, since no ammunition, apart from energy, is needed to shoot a beam. TNO, a Dutch research organization working on laser weapon technology says that every shot of the system they are developing costs less than a euro (about one US dollar).

All these factors have made laser weapons into attractive projects for militaries around the world. Last summer, the US army announced that it had tested an advanced laser weapon in a maneuver. In April, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet wrote on Twitter that his country’s armed forces had successfully tested “the world’s first” laser weapons system that could be used to shoot down drones, rockets, and mortars.

Many other countries, including France, the UK, and China have been reported to be working on their own laser weapon projects.

Is Russia using laser weapons in Ukraine?

“Several countries are exploring the technology and use of these kinds of weapons. Russia could likely be one of those countries,” Maarten Lörtzer, TNO’s spokesperson, told DW. “Because of the confidentiality of these kinds of projects, we have however no knowledge of the status.”

During a press briefing on Wednesday, a senior US defense official said that the United States has not seen any evidence to corroborate Russia’s claim that it is using laser weapons against Ukraine.

Russian laser vs Ukrainian drones?

But laser weapons, if they are usable, could help Moscow against one of its main menaces in Ukraine: Drones.

With its drones, the Ukrainian military has managed to catch the Russian army on the back foot on several occasions. In addition to the military drones delivered by NATO countries, Ukrainians have tracked and attacked Russian targets with its own self-made and commercial drones.

At Wednesday’s conference, Borisov claimed that Zadira had already shot down a Ukrainian drone in five seconds at a distance of 5 kilometers.

Russia says it could also use its weapon to dazzle satellites and military cameras and detectors. Lasers are also capable of permanently blinding soldiers, a function prohibited under a 1995 international convention that bans arms causing excessive and indiscriminate damages or injury.

Wonder weapons

Retired Australian army Major General Mick Ryan cautioned against taking Russia’s claims too seriously. The country has a record of boasting about its military power, he told the Washington Post on Thursday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy derided the claim in a video address published on Twitter on Thursday, saying it “clearly indicates the complete failure of the invasion” and proves that the Kremlin is “afraid to admit that catastrophic mistakes were made at the highest state and military level in Russia.”

He mocked the Russian leaders for seeking a “wonder weapon,” referring to propaganda that Nazi Germany spread about nonexistent weapons as a method of psychological war.

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After 3 months of war, life in Russia has profoundly changed – The Journal

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When Vladimir Putin announced Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the war seemed far away from Russian territory
When Vladimir Putin announced Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the war seemed far away from Russian territory

When Vladimir Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine, war seemed far away from Russian territory. Yet within days the conflict came home - not with cruise missiles and mortars but in the form of unprecedented and unexpectedly extensive volleys of sanctions by Western governments and economic punishment by corporations.

Three months after the Feb. 24 invasion, many ordinary Russians are reeling from those blows to their livelihoods and emotions. Moscow's vast shopping malls have turned into eerie expanses of shuttered storefronts once occupied by Western retailers.

McDonald's - whose opening in Russia in 1990 was a cultural phenomenon, a shiny modern convenience coming to a dreary country ground down by limited choices - pulled out of Russia entirely in response to its invasion of Ukraine. IKEA, the epitome of affordable modern comforts, suspended operations. Tens of thousands of once-secure jobs are now suddenly in question in a very short time.

Major industrial players including oil giants BP and Shell and automaker Renault walked away, despite their huge investments in Russia. Shell has estimated it will lose about $5 billion by trying to unload its Russian assets.

While the multinationals were leaving, thousands of Russians who had the economic means to do so were also fleeing, frightened by harsh new government moves connected to the war that they saw as a plunge into full totalitarianism. Some young men may have also fled in fear that the Kremlin would impose a mandatory draft to feed its war machine.

But fleeing had become much harder than it once was - the European Union's 27 nations, along with the United States and Canada had banned flights to and from Russia. The Estonian capital of Tallinn, once an easy long-weekend destination 90 minutes by air from Moscow, suddenly took at least 12 hours to reach on a route through Istanbul.

Even vicarious travel via the Internet and social media has narrowed for Russians. Russia in March banned Facebook and Instagram - although that can be circumvented by using VPNs - and shut access to foreign media websites, including the BBC, the U.S. government-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

After Russian authorities passed a law calling for up to 15 years' imprisonment for stories that include “fake news” about the war, many significant independent news media shut down or suspended operations. Those included the Ekho Moskvy radio station and Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper whose editor Dmitry Muratov shared the most recent Nobel Peace Prize.

The psychological cost of the repressions, restrictions and shrinking opportunities could be high on ordinary Russians, although difficult to measure. Although some public opinion polls in Russia suggest support for the Ukraine war is strong, the results are likely skewed by respondents who stay silent, wary of expressing their genuine views.

Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center wrote in a commentary that Russian society right now is gripped by an “aggressive submission” and that the degradation of social ties could accelerate.

“The discussion gets broader and broader. You can call your compatriot - a fellow citizen, but one who happens to have a different opinion - a “traitor” and consider them an inferior kind of person. You can, like the most senior state officials, speculate freely and quite calmly on the prospects of nuclear war. (That's) something that was certainly never permitted in Soviet times during Pax Atomica, when the two sides understood that the ensuing damage was completely unthinkable,” he wrote.

“Now that understanding is waning, and that is yet another sign of the anthropological disaster Russia is facing,” he said.

The economic consequences have yet to fully play out.

In the early days of the war, the Russian ruble lost half its value. But government efforts to shore it up have actually raised its value to higher than its level before the invasion.

But in terms of economic activity, “that's a completely different story,” said Chris Weafer, a veteran Russia economy analyst at Macro-Advisory.

“We see deterioration in the economy now across a broad range of sectors. Companies are warning that they're running out of inventories of spare parts. A lot of companies put their workers on part time work and others are warning to them they have to shut down entirely. So there's a real fear that unemployment will rise during the summer months, that there will be a big drop in consumption and retail sales and investment,” he told The Associated Press.

The comparatively strong ruble, however heartening it may seem, also poses problems for the national budget, Weafer said.

“They receive their revenue effectively in its foreign currency from the exporters and their payments are in rubles. So the stronger the ruble, then it means the less money that they actually have to spend," he said. “(That) also makes Russian exporters less competitive, because they're more expensive on the world stage.”

If the war drags on, more companies could exit Russia. Weafer suggested that those companies who have only suspended operations might resume them if a cease-fire and peace deal for Ukraine are reached, but he said the window for this could be closing.

“If you walk around shopping malls in Moscow, you can see that many of the fashion stores, Western business groups, have simply pulled down the shutters. Their shelves are still full, the lights are still on. They're simply just not open. So they haven't pulled out yet. They're waiting to see what happens next," he explained.

Those companies will soon be pressed to resolve the limbo that their Russian businesses are in, Weafer said.

"We are now getting to the stage where companies are starting to run out of time, or maybe run out of patience,” he said.

___

Follow all AP stories on the war in Ukraine at <a href="https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine" rel="nofollow">https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine</a>.

FILE - Few visitors walk inside the GUM department store in Moscow, in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 4, 2022. Three months after the Feb. 24 invasion, many ordinary Russians are reeling from those blows to their livelihoods and emotions. Moscow's vast shopping malls have turned into eerie expanses of shuttered storefronts once occupied by Western retailers. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - In this image made from video released by the Russian Presidential Press Service, Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. When Vladimir Putin announced Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the war seemed far away from Russian territory. Three months after the invasion, many ordinary Russians are reeling from blows to their livelihoods and emotions. (Russian Presidential Press Service via AP, File)
FILE - People walk past a McDonald's restaurant in the main street in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. McDonald's - whose opening in Russia in 1990 was a cultural phenomenon, a shiny modern convenience coming to a dreary country ground down by limited choices - pulled out of Russia entirely in response to its invasion of Ukraine. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - People walk past a currency exchange office screen displaying the exchange rates of U.S. Dollar and Euro to Russian Rubles in Moscow's downtown, Russia, Feb. 28, 2022. Ordinary Russians are facing the prospect of higher prices as Western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine sent the ruble plummeting. That's led uneasy people to line up at banks and ATMs on Monday in a country that has seen more than one currency disaster in the post-Soviet era. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - A woman stands in a currency exchange office in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Russians flocked to banks and ATMs on Thursday and Friday shortly after Russia launched an attack on Ukraine and the West announced crippling sanctions. According to Russia's Central Bank, on Thursday alone Russians have withdrawn 111 billion rubles (about $1.3 billion) in cash. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov from Russia poses for a photo as he works on his speech at his room in The Grand Hotel in Oslo, Norway Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. After Russian authorities passed a law calling for up to 15 years' imprisonment for stories that include "fake news" about the war, many significant independent news media shut down or suspended operations. Those included the Ekho Moskvy radio station and Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper whose editor Dmitry Muratov shared the most recent Nobel Peace Prize. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
FILE - Aeroflot's passengers planes are parked at Sheremetyevo airport, outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, March 1, 2022. Fleeing had become much harder than it once was - the European Union's 27 nations, along with the United States and Canada had banned flights to and from Russia. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - People stand in line to withdraw money from an ATM of Alfa Bank in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. Russians flocked to banks and ATMs shortly after Russia launched an attack on Ukraine on Feb. 24 and the West announced crippling sanctions. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - A man holds a poster with writing reading "No war" as people lay flowers near the site where Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down, with the Kremlin Wall, left, the Spaskaya Tower, center, and St. Basil's in the background, in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - People wait in a line to pay for her purchases at the IKEA store on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 3, 2022. IKEA, the epitome of affordable modern comforts, suspended operations. Tens of thousands of once-secure jobs are now suddenly in question in a very short time. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - Mannequins are seen through a window of closed Gucci boutique inside the GUM department store in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. Three months after the Feb. 24 invasion, many ordinary Russians are reeling from those blows to their livelihoods and emotions. Moscow's vast shopping malls have turned into eerie expanses of shuttered storefronts once occupied by Western retailers. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - An elderly couple walks in a main street in Moscow, Russia, Monday, March 14, 2022. Three months after the Feb. 24 invasion, many ordinary Russians are reeling from those blows to their livelihoods and emotions. Moscow's vast shopping malls have turned into eerie expanses of shuttered storefronts once occupied by Western retailers. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - A pedestrian walks along a closed Cartier boutique in the center of Moscow, Russia, Monday, March 14, 2022. Three months after the Feb. 24 invasion, many ordinary Russians are reeling from those blows to their livelihoods and emotions. Moscow's vast shopping malls have turned into eerie expanses of shuttered storefronts once occupied by Western retailers. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - Shipping containers from the Maersk company are seen among others at a transshipment terminal in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, March 24, 2022. Danish shipping company Maersk has suspended bookings for shipping to and from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus until further notice. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - People walk past closed Adidas, Reebok and other shops in a mall in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, March 24, 2022. Three months after the Feb. 24 invasion, many ordinary Russians are reeling from those blows to their livelihoods and emotions. Moscow's vast shopping malls have turned into eerie expanses of shuttered storefronts once occupied by Western retailers. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - A woman walks past a boutique in the GUM department store closed due to sanctions on Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Monday, March 28, 2022. Three months after the Feb. 24 invasion, many ordinary Russians are reeling from those blows to their livelihoods and emotions. Moscow's vast shopping malls have turned into eerie expanses of shuttered storefronts once occupied by Western retailers. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - People walk past a pharmacy and a currency exchange on a main street in Moscow, Russia, Friday, April 1, 2022. Three months after the Feb. 24 invasion, many ordinary Russians are reeling from those blows to their livelihoods and emotions. Moscow's vast shopping malls have turned into eerie expanses of shuttered storefronts once occupied by Western retailers. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - People walk past a currency exchange office screen displaying the exchange rates of U.S. Dollar and Euro to Russian Rubles in Moscow's downtown, Russia, Tuesday, March 29, 2022. Three months after the Feb. 24 invasion, many ordinary Russians are reeling from those blows to their livelihoods and emotions. Moscow's vast shopping malls have turned into eerie expanses of shuttered storefronts once occupied by Western retailers. (AP Photo, File)
FILE -Parishioners line up for Holy Communion after an Orthodox religion service celebrating the Palm Sunday in a church in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, April 17, 2022. The economic consequences have yet to fully play out. In the early days of the war, the Russian ruble lost half its value. But government efforts to shore it up have actually raised its value to higher than its level before the invasion. (AP Photo, File)
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Opinion | Putin Rules Russia Like an Asylum

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A psychiatric institution isn’t just full of patients. There are attendants, too. In Mr. Putin’s Russia, these roles are performed by government, defense and law enforcement officials, propaganda workers and wealthy businesspeople, all carefully controlled by security officials. Members of this cohort, sifted and filtered by the Kremlin, consider themselves the masters of the country and the country itself as their property. They have no ideology other than the servile worship of their superiors for their own gain.

Mr. Putin orders them to keep people in fear, to incite hatred, to stifle freedom of thought — and each of them contributes to that mission. Thanks to them, the state penetrates every corner. Across society, they build imitations of Mr. Putin’s regime — in local government, the charity sector, even volunteer associations — just to prevent anyone from starting something not subservient to the state. Mr. Putin forgives these people corruption, torture, you name it, as long as they successfully guard the ward. They all work in different ways, but together they sap citizens’ willpower and strengthen their obedience. As they say in Russia, half the country is in jail and half the country are the guards.

Of course, life is more complicated than any metaphor, especially in Russia’s atomized society. There are many people in Russia who are neither the patients nor the attendants in Mr. Putin’s penal asylum — as shown by the wide cross-section of society that immediately opposed the war. Scientists, students, charity workers, architects and even famous entertainers took to the streets and signed petitions. When this show of resistance was met with repression, many of the independent-minded left Russia altogether.

But the metaphor captures a fundamental truth about Russia today: Mr. Putin wields power not through consent but by coercion. Genuine enthusiasm for the president’s war, for example, seems to be missing. Otherwise he would not have called it a “special operation,” closed down the few remaining independent media outlets immediately after the war began, blocked social networks, introduced new draconian laws and persecuted people for the most trivial of antiwar gestures.

Mr. Putin also surely knows that he’s been sitting in the Kremlin too long and is losing some of his hold on the country. In February 2021, for example, 41 percent of respondents to a poll said they wanted the president to leave office after 2024 — an impressive result given the danger of speaking out. But Mr. Putin is not going to leave. He knows that no matter how great a historical figure he may have painted himself as, after his departure he will have to pay for his sins.

In just two years he will face another decorative election, for which he rewrote the Constitution. In Ukraine, he wanted a quick victory so that no one would even think of replacing him with someone else. His plan was to redirect the accumulated public frustration and aggression away from himself and toward his “enemies” — Ukraine and the West. That way he could validate his right to remain on the throne as a great leader who had changed the world order. But thanks to Ukraine’s stiff opposition, his bloodthirsty plan did not work.

It’s clear Mr. Putin plans to prolong his murderous war, in the hope of outlasting his opponents. The future is impossible to predict. But what can be said unequivocally is that Russian society, after so many years of Mr. Putin’s punitive psychiatry, will need a very long rehabilitation.

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Russian War Report: New fires and alleged sabotage operations across Russian territory

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Russian War Report: New fires and alleged sabotage operations across Russian territory 

As Russia continues its assault on Ukraine, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) is keeping a close eye on Russia’s movements across the military, cyber, and information domains. With more than seven years of experience monitoring the situation in Ukraine, as well as Russia’s use of propaganda and disinformation to undermine the United States, NATO, and the European Union, the DFRLab’s global team presents the latest installment of the Russian War Report. 

Security

New fires and alleged sabotage operations across Russian territory

Tracking Narratives

Russian media presents civilian evacuation from Mariupol as Putin’s success and Zelenskyy’s failure

Pro-Kremlin Telegram exploits Ukrainian reporting error

Russian Telegram channel undermines Ukraine-Poland relations with an apparently forged letter

Kremlin increases video content as a source for spreading disinformation and propaganda

Ukraine accuses Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan of negotiating with Russia to re-export Russian products

New fires and alleged sabotage operations across Russian territory

Over the past several days, numerous strategic facilities on Russian territory have caught fire. The reason of the fires in most cases were not officially confirmed, though many of them are suspected to be sabotage operations. At the same time, Siberia is experiencing massive seasonal wildfires, which Russia has lacked enough manpower to keep under control.

On May 3, videos surfaced showing a massive warehouse caught fire in Bogorodskoye, northeast of Moscow. Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations also provided photos showing the scale of the fire, which reportedly spanned an area of more than three hectares. The warehouse was reportedly leased by the Prosveshchenie publishing house, which manufactures most of Russia’s school textbooks. That same day, another video showed a polyethylene waste storage area burning in the region of Krasnoyarsk. The fire, which reportedly spanned around 500 square meters, was also covered by Kremlin media.

On May 2, videos captured a fire at a munitions factory facility in Perm, near the Ural Mountains, roughly 1,500km east of Moscow. The factory reportedly manufactured Grad and Smerch rocket munitions, which have played a significant role in destroying cities in Ukraine. And on May 1, videos documented fuel-oil tanks burning in Mytishchi. The location of the fuel depot is reportedly only thirty minutes from the Kremlin.

On April 30, a GRES-2 120-megawatt coal-fired power plant was reportedly sabotaged and caught fire in the Sakhalin region of the Russian far east. A video captured the massive destruction at the plant.

Meanwhile, photos surfaced on May 1 suggesting that a railway bridge in Russia’s Kursk region was destroyed due to sabotage. The bridge reportedly was used to transport Russian troops and military equipment to Ukraine. Kremlin media outlet RIA Novosti reported on the incident without providing the cause of the “partial collapse.” 

At the same time, Siberia is currently experiencing massive seasonal wildfires. Videos that surfaced on May 2 captured the enormous scale of the wildfires. Ukrainian journalist Denis Kazansky reported that the fires continue to burn as there is no one to put them out, because the military unit responsible for extinguishing fires in the region is currently fighting in Ukraine. But Russian officials insist they had extinguished more than six hundred fires encompassing 37,000 hectares nationwide as of last week.

Lukas Andriukaitis, Associate Director, Brussels, Belgium

Russian media presents civilian evacuation from Mariupol as Putin’s success and Zelenskyy’s failure

Ukrainian and Russian officials reported that around one hundred civilians evacuated from the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol over the weekend of April 30. The evacuation was carried out in collaboration with the United Nations and the International Committee of Red Cross after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited Moscow and Kyiv the previous week. 

On May 1, the Russian Ministry of Defense wrote that eighty civilians had been evacuated from Azovstal “thanks to the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin.” The statement claimed that evacuated civilians who “express a wish to go to regions under Kyiv regime control will be passed over to the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross.” 

This came less than an hour after Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy tweeted on Twitter that an initial group of one hundred civilians had been evacuated. “Tomorrow we’ll meet them in Zaporizhzhia,” Zelenskyy wrote. “Grateful to our team! Now they, together with #UN, are working on the evacuation of other civilians from the plant.” The UN separately noted that one hundred civilians had been allowed to leave during the first phase of the operation. 

According to Reuters, the first batch of civilians arrived in Bezimenne village in the separatist-controlled Donetsk People’s Republic. On May 2, Russia’s MoD wrote that “eleven liberated citizens” decided to stay in the breakaway territory “voluntarily,” while the remaining civilians were passed to the UN and ICRC and were heading to Zaporizhzhia. Ukrainian Military Police posted photos of “over a hundred” civilians arriving in Zaporizhzhia. 

Kremlin-owned Sputnik Kyrgyzstan portrayed the evacuation as solely a Russian rescue effort. Another Kremlin outlet, Vesti.ru, misleadingly wrote that Zelenskyy acknowledged the civilian evacuation from Azovstal “three hours later,” even though Zelenskyy’s tweet that came out an hour prior to the Russian MoD report about the mission. RIA Novosti, meanwhile, published comments by Azovstal employee Natalya Usmanova, who said that the Ukrainian military were not allowing civilians to leave the steel works factory after the corridor was announced. Usmanova was also cited by the BBC in Russian, which gave the additional context that that she came to hide in the factory bunker voluntarily but was not allowed to exit, as “the shelling was so intense that there was no oxygen by the exit of the bunker.” People “were afraid to go and get a fresh air,” she added. 

On April 29, pro-Kremlin outlet Voennoe Obozrenie claimed the evacuation is being used by the Ukrainian military to escape the siege and that Zelenskyy was not in control of the situation. The article falsely stated that Zelenskyy is unpopular in Ukraine and would lose support if the military surrendered Avostal. Recent independent polling in Ukraine suggested that Zelenskyy would receive 82.5 percent of votes if a presidential election were held again.  

The following day, Russian Duma member Viktor Vodolacky told media without evidence that evacuation corridors “may be used by the West to rescue foreign mercenaries” fighting in Ukraine against Russia. 

Nika Aleksejeva, Lead Researcher, Riga, Latvia

Pro-Kremlin Telegram exploits Ukrainian reporting error

On the afternoon of April 30, Ukrainian Telegram channel News Odesa and information agency UNIAN published a video of a ship presumably hitting a floating mine, with audio commentary remarking, “A Russian ship goes to hell.” Both channels, which published within a minute of each other, wrote, “Reportedly it is a Russian ship near Odesa. Waiting for official messages.” But their reports were incorrect. Twelve minutes later, News Odesa acknowledged the footage was actually six years old, depicting the deliberate sinking of a decommissioned US ship. UNIAN updated their reporting twenty-one minutes later, also clarifying that the original video was six years old, and the audio had been added recently. 

Multiple Ukrainian channels forwarded or copied the message from both channels, then later updated or deleted their initial posts within a short period after realizing the reporting was in error. Several channels provided corrections within minutes of their original publication.  

However, pro-Kremlin channels used the reporting error to “prove” that Ukrainian sources intentionally fabricate information. Kremlin-tied Telegram channel Legitimniy published a debunk of the story after News Odesa’s correction. Legitimniy claimed that some “media department” made up “victories” for Ukraine because there are no real ones that Ukraine’s presidential office could provide to these outlets.  

A few hours after the original outlets’ corrections, additional Russian Telegram channels entered the debate, blaming the Ukrainian side for intentional fabrications and claiming that it was Ukrainian propaganda. The Russian outlet Izvestia also covered the story. Meanwhile, the War on Fakes Telegram channel, which has become notorious for publishing pro-Russian disinformation framed as fact-checking, released an “investigation” into the incident the following day.  

As reporting mistakes are inevitable in the fog of war, it is vital that outlets acknowledge them in a timely fashion and provide corrections. Nonetheless, pro-Kremlin channels took advantage of this particular mistake to spin the narrative that Ukrainian sources should not be trusted in any context.

Roman Osadchuk, Research Associate

Russian Telegram channel undermines Ukraine-Poland relations with an apparently forged letter

On May 2, Kremlin-tied Telegram channel Gossip Girl published what appears to be a forged document ordering Polish armed forces to prepare airborne units to enter the Ukrainian territories of Lviv and Volyn oblasts and take critical infrastructure objects under their control. The document featured a Ukrainian Intelligence logo, presumably to allege that the agency intercepted it. The document was amplified by a pro-Kremlin propagandist, an open-source research account, and other Twitter accounts. Several accounts doubted its authenticity but shared it anyway. 

The document featured multiple elements suggesting its inauthenticity. First, the signature of Polish General Jarosław Mika is wrong and does not correspond with his actual signature. Second, the letter is addressed to Brigadier General Grzegorz Grodzki. According to the document, dated April 27, he is responsible for executing the orders contained within it, even though he has not been the commander of the airborne units in question since April 6. Third, the seals were most likely copy-pasted from another document, as Polish internet sleuths found signs of editing where text overlapped the seals on the second document. The signature of another general was stolen from this source document as well. Notably, Russian foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin claimed on April 28 that Poland intended to divide Ukraine.  

The Telegram channel Legitimate forwarded Gossip Girl’s post and claimed without evidence that Ukraine had already agreed with Poland that the latter would move its forces to the Western part of Ukraine to move Ukrainian troops to the frontline in the Eastern part of Ukraine. Legitimate also provided spurious “insider” information that Western countries prevented Ukraine from signing a peace agreement with Russia that would result in the loss of territory. The logic behind Legitimate’s claim is that Warsaw would benefit from the partition of Ukraine, annexing the western parts of the country. The Russian narrative that Western neighbors intend to partition Ukraine for their individual gain has been debunked multiple times.  

This would not be the first attempt by Russia to attack Polish-Ukrainian relations, as Russia consistently tries to undermine them. 

Roman Osadchuk, Research Associate

Kremlin increases video content as a source for spreading disinformation and propaganda

Amid YouTube’s blockage of Russian state-affiliated channels and Russia’s threats to ban the platform in the country, Kremlin media is expanding its video output through alternate means.  

On its website, the Kremlin-owned RT has launched a section titled “Join the Information Home Guard.” The section leads to the Telegram channel Videos in Different Languages, which currently has more than 35,000 subscribers. The channel was created on April 21 and became operational on the same day. In its about section, the channel states, “With your help, we will break through the information blockade around the events in Ukraine. The whole truth in the most important videos from Ukraine in 17 foreign languages. Share these videos with your friends abroad. Join the Information Home Guard!”  

Videos with short descriptions are posted in numerous European languages, as well as in Chinese, Turkish, Vietnamese, Persian, and Japanese.

Separately, in an attempt to justify Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine, RT released a “documentary” called “Maidan: Turn to War” (“Майдан: поворот на войну”), based on anti-Ukraine disinformation narratives long spread by the Kremlin. First released on March 5, it was promoted by RT Editor-In-Chief Margarita Simonyan on her Telegram channel nearly two months later. “On May 2, 2014, supporters of Euromaidan [the Ukrainian pro-democracy revolution] drowned pro-Russian protests in blood in Odesa,” she wrote. “Dozens of people died.” She added that “the terrible footage of the massacre” should be sent to “everyone who does not believe in [existence of] nationalism in Ukraine.”  

The RT video, available in Russian and English, is based on commentaries given by pro-Kremlin actors, including journalists and former officials. It spreads multiple Kremlin narratives, including that Ukrainian ultranationalists had been planning a revolution long before the 2014 Euromaidan protests, and that they were trained and equipped in military camps to suppress pro-Russian sentiments in Eastern Ukraine by killing and robbing Russian-speaking civilians.  

The video was uploaded by at least five YouTube channels on May 2. RT also promoted the movie that same day using more than fifteen different VK communities to amplify the content.

Eto Buziashvili, Research Associate, Washington DC

Ukraine accuses Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan of negotiating with Russia to re-export Russian products

On May 1, the Ukrainian MoD’s Chief Directorate of Intelligence said that Moscow is negotiating with Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to re-export Russian products to international markets. According to the statement, the supply is planned to be made under the guise of Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani products to avoid international sanctions. It also claimed that two hundred companies have already been registered for this purpose in the three countries. 

The Ukrainian MoD statement also said that Moscow plans to organize the production of component parts for the military and dual-use purposes in Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states. The CSTO is currently comprised of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia. According to the MoD statement, Armenia has created favorable conditions for Russian companies to do business there, especially in the IT sector.  

Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, commented that the MoD statement lacked evidence. “This is another sad case when such a statement is spread by the Ukrainian authorities without facts,” he said. “It also has a very simple reason – people who are in the radical opposition here [in Georgia], are in power there [in Ukraine].” 

Previously on April 4, the Ukrainian MoD accused Georgia of allowing Russia to smuggle illegal goods through its territory. Georgian authorities promptly denied the allegations.

Sopo Gelava, Research Associate, Tbilisi, Georgia

Related Experts: Eto Buziashvili, Sopo Gelava, Roman Osadchuk, Lukas Andriukaitis, and Nika Aleksejeva

Image: File photo of Russian firefighter. (Source: EMERCOM)

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