TIME latvia

Latvia and U.S. Play War Games as Tensions with Russia Grow

Soldiers from the Latvian army participate in the Silver Arrow NATO military exercise in Adazi, Latvia, Oct. 5, 2014.
Soldiers from the Latvian army participate in the Silver Arrow NATO military exercise in Adazi, Latvia, Oct. 5, 2014. Ints Kalnins—Reuters

NATO members are beefing up their forces in eastern Europe, as Russia dials up its propaganda warfare and military intimidation

Over the sandbanks and marshes of northern Latvia, battle cries rang out late last month as U.S. and Latvian troops stormed a mock-up urban street, a training exercise one officer described as a “Stalingrad-type scenario” for soldiers more used to peace-keeping or fighting rural insurgents. After an €80,000 anti-tank missile and a volley of mortar and artillery fire launch the drills, a U.S. Black Hawk transports Latvian soldiers into the war games scenario, where they go house-to-house searching for a high-value target.

Not far away in the Latvian capital of Riga, officials were getting to work in the newly-inaugurated NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, a hub aimed at countering information warfare by enemies of the 28-member military alliance.

The endeavors are at opposite ends of the tactical spectrum, but reflect the challenges presented by the new hybrid warfare which analysts say is the Kremlin’s modus operandi under President Vladimir Putin. While Russian troops openly went into Crimea this year to annex it from Ukraine, some of Russia’s neighbors are grappling with more subtle meddling and mind games.

“NATO must be flexible,” Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis tells TIME, citing economic coercion, propaganda warfare and military intimidation along Russia’s Baltic borders as some of the new threats to emerge in the past year.

“During the last 65 years after the Second World War it was calm and silent in Europe… now the situation has changed this year due to Russian activities in Ukraine. We must be ready to adapt to the new situation, and ready to react to new geopolitical challenges in Europe.”

NATO members are beefing up their forces in eastern Europe as a result. Earlier this year 600 U.S. troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade deployed to Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia and this week, U.S. tanks returned to Latvian soil for the first time since the Second World War. Joint military exercises have increased in size and frequency. At a NATO summit last month, leaders pledged increased funding for cyber and information warfare units, while also announcing the formation of a Rapid Reaction Force which could deploy to allied nations within days.

Analysts say this is a good start, but there is concern that NATO needs to send a stronger signal that any Russian military intervention – not just a overt invasion – would provoke Article Five, by which an attack on one member demands reaction from all 28.

“This is time for NATO to be crystal clear,” says Matthew Bryza, a former US diplomat now working for the Estonia-based International Center for Defense Studies. “If you use military force in the Baltic states, there will be consequences, there will be war. It needs to be that clear.”

A return to the conventional warfare and military muscle-flexing of the past appears to be the easy part. The generation of military minds overseeing NATO’s transformation is steeped in Cold War history.

“My father was in the military, I grew up in Germany, and was in Berlin when the Berlin Wall fell, so (the context) is certainly not lost on my generation,” says LTC Robert ‘Todd’ Brown, a battalion commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade who designed the urban war games.

The resonance is even stronger in the Baltic states, which spent five decades as part of the Soviet Union. “We know what occupation means,” says Colonel Martins Liberts, Commander of the Latvian Land Forces. He says the joint exercises illustrate the changing focus from peace-keeping and nation-building abroad to multinational forces protecting home soil from conventional threats.

More than 100 of his troops are taking part in the live-fire exercise with U.S. troops over the sand dunes and marshes of Adazi Military Base about an hour’s drive from Riga. After an €80,000 anti-tank missile and a volley of mortar and artillery fire launch the drills, a U.S. Black Hawk transports Latvian soldiers into the war games scenario, where they go house-to-house searching for a high-value target. The street may be made from plywood, and their enemy cardboard silhouettes with balloons pinned to their chests, but the message the Latvians want to send Russia is very real.

“It is a strong political signal to Russia that we are part of NATO [and] Article Five will be enforced if it is be needed,” says Defence Minister Vejonis.

From Russia’s point of view, the war games are another example of NATO creeping closer to its borders, measures it feels are unnecessary and provocative. But Moscow has not held back from its own military posturing: since the start of this year Latvia has detected 170 cases of Russian fighter jets coming close to their border. That compares with about 50 such cases in the previous decade. Russian war ships and submarines have also upped patrols in the Baltic Sea.

The country’s neighbors have also been affected. Last week, Lithuania accused Russia of violating international law after its border guards seized a Lithuanian fishing vessel and its 30 crew whom they accused of illegally trawling for crab in Russian waters. Estonia – which in 2007 blamed Russia for a massive cyber attack on government websites – is currently locked in dispute with Moscow over a security official which its government says was kidnapped on its territory in a cross-border raid last month.

It is these kinds of subtle provocations that Bryza thinks NATO should respond to more forcefully, or risk giving Putin the confidence to escalate the meddling. Bryza also advocates permanent NATO bases on eastern European soil – a move also suggested in the past by Poland and Estonia, but one which would violate a historical NATO-Russia pact.

For now, Latvian officials say they are happy with the Rapid Reaction Force announced in September, but are keen to see it and other defensive measures come into force quickly. “We have been quite good in declarations so far, but implementation is important,” says Andrejs Pildegovics, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs.

“Seeing how deep Russia’s involvement in the war with Ukraine has been, seeing these militaristic statements by Russian leaders, seeing this speculation about how capitals can be conquered in the neighborhood – we think it should be really rapid.”

TIME latvia

Latvia Wary of its Ethnic Russians as Tensions with Moscow Rise

President Vladimir Putin during a government meeting in Moscow, Sept. 11, 2014.
President Vladimir Putin during a government meeting in Moscow, Sept. 11, 2014. Alexei Druzhinin—Itar-Tass/Corbis

Putin's pledge to protect ethnic Russians has the former USSR country on edge as it votes for a new parliament

For a woman Latvian intelligence services have named as a potential anti-state organizer, 29-year-old Margarita Dragile seems more worried about dinner than being a menace to society as she arrives at a Riga café for an interview with TIME this week.

Devouring her salmon and potato pancakes, Dragile wonders when she would have had time to plot against the nation last year when she was busy with the birth of her first child, and worries about the suspicion clouding the country’s Russian-speaking community as tensions with the Kremlin soar.

“We were perceived here as the hand of Moscow, even though we did nothing,” says Dragile. The teacher and social activist is singled out in the 2013 Latvian Security Police report issued in May for associating with two older activists accused of stirring unrest among the large ethnic Russian community. Her organization PEROM, which advocates for more rights for Russian speakers in Latvia, has also received financial aid from a Moscow-based cultural fund, Russkiy Mir (Russian World).

These are sensitive issues at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians in former Soviet states for territorial expansion. With a long history of Soviet occupation, a border with Russia, and the largest Russian-speaking community in the European Union, events in Ukraine have revived fears for Latvia’s own independence ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections this weekend.

The shadow of a resurgent Russia

While any military threat is remote, Russian fighter jets have been flying near Latvia’s borders, and Kremlin diplomats have upped their rhetoric about Riga’s alleged discrimination of the Russian-speaking minority. In response, Latvia has outlawed a Russian state TV channel, a Russian cultural festival, and a Moscow-based compatriot fund.

To the government, these are necessary measures as the country faces what Andrejs Pildegovics, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, calls “the largest crisis since the demise of the Soviet Union”.

“We cannot repeat events of the 1940s or 1930s when many countries in Europe lost independence because of illegal acts of big powers at that time,” Pildegovics says. “Many bells ring when we hear that a leader of a neighboring country is dismissing the independent choice of the Ukrainian people… when we hear about the legitimate right of Russian leaders to protect everyone who knows a word or a syllable in Russian.”

But to many members of Latvia’s Russian-speaking community – about 37% of a population of two million – it is not only the Kremlin but the Latvian government harking back to the days of the Soviet Union. “The security police report resembles the documents issued by the KGB many years ago,” says Boriss Cilevics, a parliamentarian with the Harmony Center Party, which is predominately supported by ethnic Russians in Latvia.

A country divided

The views of Russia are similarly cleaved along ethnic lines. A recent survey by Riga’s SKDS Research Center found that 64% of ethnic Latvians perceived Russia as a threat to the nation. Among Russian-speakers, that number plummeted to 8%, while over a third (36%) of the community supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The question now dividing the communities is whether that split on Russia is susceptible to Kremlin attempts to drive an ever deeper ideological wedge between them, and even foment separatist sentiment and trigger Russian intervention in Latvia — which, unlike Ukraine, is a member of both NATO and the E.U.

Right now, ethnic Russians are largely happy being part of a prosperous EU nation, and Arnis Kaktins of SKDS sees no indication of separatist sentiment. Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis blames speculation about independence movements on an information war from Russia.

This is a phenomena the government is struggling to tackle, as most of the Russian-speaking community get their news from Russian channels. “The fight is on for the minds of the Russian-speakers, and it is a very important fight,” says Cilevics, of the Harmony Center Party. “But if you want to gain trust you must show some respect.”

But trust among Russians in a government dominated by ethnic Latvians is in short supply. This suspicion is rooted in a historical grievance after the country’s independence.

The aliens at home

Sergey Tulenev, a 63-year-old political cartoonist and ethnic Russian, remembers the morning in 1991 when he woke up living not only on a new side of the Iron Curtain, but as a citizen of a different state to his wife. While she was a fully-fledged citizen of the new independent Latvia, which had just emerged from 51 years of occupation by the Nazis and then Soviets, he was now stateless.

Tulenev’s family were some of the 800,000 people brought in from elsewhere in the Soviet Union both to implement a ‘Russification’ of the Baltic State and to work in the factories, rail-roads, and on construction sites. He had voted for independence in the referendum of March 1991, but the new government decided that only descendants of people living in Latvia before 1940 would gain automatic citizenship.

In the intervening years the citizenship rules have been relaxed, but Tulenev’s bitterness has not subsided. “People like my parents were the people who built he factories, roads, trains,” he says. “They revived the country from the ruin of the war, and now their descendants are being blamed.”

Today, more than 300,000 people living in Latvia – most of them ethnic Russians who have been there for decades – remain non-citizens. They do not have the right to vote, and carry an “alien” passport. Many like Tulenev refuse to take the naturalization exam on principle, saying they are Latvian and do not need to prove it to the state. For the older generation, the Latvian language section is simply too difficult. Non-citizens’ children can however automatically become citizens.

Such tensions are readily exploited by the Kremlin. At a recent speech in Riga to a gathering of Russian Compatriots in the Baltic States, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s human rights representative, Konstantin Dolgov, told delegates that the issue of non-citizens in Latvia was “a gross violation of human rights at the very heart of civilized Europe”.

These sentiments find sympathy with people with Tulenev. He thinks Russia should help preserve their language and culture abroad through financial assistance, but laughs at the suggestion of military intervention: “No one speaks about tanks – these are just rumors from the United States of America and Barack Obama!” On balance, he says, he trusts Russian media more than Latvian or other Western channels.

A return to a ‘USSR mentality’

This increasing mistrust in the state is driving some voters towards the political fringes. At the last election in 2011, nationalist party the Latvian Russian Union got less than 1% of the vote. In European Parliament elections in May their support increased to more than 6%. At parliamentary elections on Saturday, they are hoping to reach the 5% needed to enter parliament.

The party openly supported Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. Election literature carries photographs of its vice chairman, Miroslav Mitrofanov, signing a cooperation agreement with Sergey Aksionov, the new Kremlin-backed leader of annexed Crimea. Party organizer Yury Petropavlovsky says they receive no support from Moscow and do not want any, but he was adamant about the right of ethic Russians to defend themselves and correct historical wrongs.

For a younger generation of activists, however, there is a desire to distance themselves from nostalgia for the Soviet era. Dragile attended the Riga compatriots’ conference, but disliked what she calls “the mentality of the USSR”. She says her group has now stopped taking money from Russkiy Mir after the backlash at home.

Another attendee, Aleksey Vesyoliy, who runs the Federation of Active Youth, was uncomfortable with political pressure exerted on delegates. “They want all compatriot organizations to follow Russian foreign policy,” he says. “Everyone should support Russian initiatives about the Second World War, about the First World War, and so then everybody is happy – your job as a compatriot is complete. I don’t agree.”

Pildegovics, the foreign affairs secretary, maintains that Latvia remains “an inclusive society which honors ethnic backgrounds and ethnic languages”, and anyone can become a citizen after a “very simple procedure”. But he says the government is ready to draw a line to prevent the spread of “subjects and values which don’t correspond to the mainstream values of the European Union.”

“Cultural diplomacy is important,” he says, “but we don’t like state-sponsored, state-run institutions which use culture as a pretext.”

TIME NATO

NATO’s Dilemma: How Tough to Get With Russia

Secretary-General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen gives a press on Sept. 1, 2014 in Brussels.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen gives a press on Sept. 1, 2014, in Brussels John Thys—AFP/Getty Images

The alliance must decide at its leaders summit this week how to react militarily to the incursions into Ukraine without getting into a dangerous standoff with Moscow

The NATO leaders’ summit taking place in Wales this week was always going to be a crucial opportunity for the alliance to redefine its role in a changing world. One year ago, it was expected to be dominated by soul-searching over its relevancy, with its troops finally gone from Afghanistan.

A lot changes in a year. Russia’s military incursions into Ukraine and forays across European borders once believed sacrosanct have inspired a new sense of purpose in the organization, which experienced its heyday in Cold War. Its diplomats are in their element, vowing protection for member nations and pledging support for Ukrainian sovereignty.

But beyond this largely rhetorical escalation, NATO’s leaders have a dilemma ahead of them this week: Do they respect the post–Cold War agreements which Moscow has apparently ignored, or forge a new combative path putting military resources right on Russia’s doorstep? And if it’s to be the latter, just how aggressive can they be?

One answer might be apparent in the creation of a rapid reaction force, announced Monday, ready to deploy within days should there be any military aggression against one of the 28 member nations. This military unit, numbering thousands of troops, will be on high alert at all times, with additional logistical support stations set up in Eastern European states.

“We cannot afford to be naive,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a presummit press conference in Brussels this week. “We are faced with the reality that Russia considers us an adversary and we will adapt to that situation.”

Analysts say it is the strongest show of force yet from the alliance in response to Russia’s resurgent military ambitions. “While they won’t be deploying outside NATO, what it does is send a message of confidence to NATO partners in Scandinavia, Poland and the Baltic states — the ones that are most worried by Russian aggression,” says Ian Keddie, an analyst with the military think tank IHS Jane’s.

But a day after Rasmussen outlined details of the rapid reaction force, Russia responded with a review of its own military doctrine. “The fact that the military infrastructure of NATO member states is getting closer to our borders, including via enlargement, will preserve its place as one of the external threats for the Russian Federation,” said Mikhail Popov, a Kremlin security adviser.

And so NATO now faces a delicate balancing act. While some nations on the front line demand the strongest possible reaction to Russia’s bellicosity, the alliance is erring toward a more measured middle ground — beefing up support for its allies but stopping short of any measures which could tip NATO into a dangerous standoff with Moscow.

The rapid reaction force may not go far enough for some. Poland has asked for 10,000 NATO troops to be stationed on its territory, but any new permanent bases could contravene the 1997 NATO Russia Founding Act, meant to reassure Russia about the post–Cold War borders. For dovish nations, including Germany, that would be a step too far.

Another sensitive issue is whether NATO invites new members to the alliance. While the Ukraine crisis began last year as a standoff between the European Union and Russia over which way the country would orientate itself, Russia’s real concern was that Ukraine’s political pact with the E.U. would be the first step to NATO membership.

Few issues antagonize Russia more. It was just months after NATO agreed in theory to eventual membership for Georgia and Ukraine that Russian tanks rolled over into Georgia in 2008.

The alliance has been more cautious since then, but Ukraine’s Prime Minister vowing to reopen their membership bid will force the issue into the debate once again, likely in vain. Georgia too will fail to get official approval of a Membership Action Plan in Wales. Instead, there will be a pledge for increased military co-operation and technical assistance.

That won’t end the calls for enlargement, though. Georgia’s ambassador to NATO, Levan Dolidze, tells TIME, “Georgia is ready to take the next step,” and says it is now up to NATO to lay out a timetable. At the same time, he urges the West to stand up to Moscow. “Stronger reactions are needed in general to oppose and to counter Russia’s aggression in the region,” he says.

One such reaction would be the provision of lethal or nonlethal military aid to the Ukrainians. U.S. politicians including Republican Senator John McCain and Democrat Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called this week for the U.S. to provide weapons to the Ukrainian military. That drastic option is unlikely to win the support across the array of political positions within NATO, however.

Ukraine is also not the only global crisis NATO will have to respond to: there is war and instability in Iraq, Syria and Libya, and reflection on a patchy campaign to bring peace to Afghanistan. Nations are expected to agree to increase defense budgets, but with so much on NATO’s plate, many countries may decide to forge their own policies outside the alliance, threatening a unified stance.

“If the summit turns out to be bland and useless,” says Andrew Wilson, from the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations, “then member states may take it upon themselves to do more.”

TIME europe

Only Gender Quotas Can Stop the E.U. from Being a Boys Club

Newly elected President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker is congratulated on July 15, 2014, in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.
Newly elected President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker is congratulated on July 15, 2014, in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. Frederick Florin—AFP/Getty Images

The European Commission's president has asked that EU member states nominate female candidates. Here's why gender quotas are necessary

Gender anxiety is enveloping the top levels of the European Union. By the end of this month, each of the bloc’s 28 countries is expected to put forward their candidate to sit on the European Commission, the powerful body that drives policy-making and enforces E.U. law.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission’s new president, has instructed member states to send female candidates, saying he wants more women in the top jobs. A social media campaign – #10orMore – is also under way to boost female representation at the E.U. to a record high.

Unfortunately, governments are not playing ball: so far only five countries have nominated women. Nineteen other nations have nominated a man, with four countries still to announce their candidates.

The goal of getting more women into top decision-making posts is simply common sense given that they represent more than half of the E.U.’s 507 million citizens. Right now this is not reflected by their visibility in politics, business or the media, meaning their interests are often sidelined.

The drive to change the status quo at the top echelons of the E.U. has attracted skepticism. On the Facebook page of Neelie Kroes – one of the nine women in the outgoing Commission and a co-founder of the #10orMore campaign – critics question why gender would qualify a person for one of the 28 commissioner posts.

Such knee-jerk accusations of tokenism greet most attempts to introduce gender quotas in politics or the boardroom. But while so many barriers stand between women and senior positions – and these range from sexism in the workplace, high childcare costs and the unequal distribution of maternity and paternity leave – quotas are one of the few measures that actually have an impact.

In 1997 the British Labour party introduced all-women short lists for parliamentary candidates in some constituencies. Later that year, a record number of women were elected, and Labour still has the highest proportion of female MPs in Britain.

Britain’s Conservative party, which formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, does not support all-women short lists, and a U.N. survey of women in ministerial positions earlier this year shows Britain languishing at around the halfway point, below Morocco and Cote d’Ivoire, with women making up just 15% of the cabinet.

There are other poor performers in Europe, with Greece, Cyprus and Hungary faring even worse, reflecting the problems Juncker is having in rallying enough women for his Commission.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, are Sweden and Finland, which are in the top three of the U.N. survey with over 50% female representation in their cabinets. France and Norway are close to reaching gender parity.

What the top performers have in common are long-term and often legislated programs to improve gender equality across society. In Sweden, political parties have since the early 1990s imposed voluntary quotas for election candidates. Norway was the first to introduce quotas for women on company boards, while France has legally-binding quotas for both politics and the boardroom. “Quotas are nobody’s first choice but where they are introduced they do improve representation, they do improve visibility of women,” says Clare McNeil, a senior fellow at the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research, adding that they work best when coupled with penalties for non-compliance.

Given the pool of female talent in the E.U., having just a handful of women in the Commission would be a pitiful performance. It is crucial now that efforts to increase female representation go beyond headline-grabbing promises. Juncker and the European Parliament, which approves the Commission, must make good on threats to reject the line-up if it is too male-dominated.

Hopefully quotas will not need to be in place forever. But right now Europe is so far from being a level playing field that radical measures are needed to kick-start lasting change in society.

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson is a writer and journalist based in Brussels.

TIME Belgium

World Leaders Gather in Liege to Commemorate World War I Centenary

BELGIUM-HISTORY-WAR-WWI-CENTENARY
Britain's Prince William, his wife Catherine, French President Francois Hollande, Queen Mathilde of Belgium, her husband King Philippe and German President Joachim Gauck attend on August 4, 2014 in Liege, Belgium, commemorations marking 100 years since the invasion of Belgium by Germany at the start of World War I. JOHN THYS--AFP/Getty Images

Heads of state from around the globe gathered to mark the centenary of World War I in the Belgian city where fighting started a century ago

King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium hosted dozens of heads of state and other international delegates on Monday to mark the centenary of the start of World War I. The dignitaries gathered on a forested hill overlooking the city of Liege, just a few dozen kilometers from the border where German soldiers took their first fateful steps 100 years ago, triggering a war which would engulf the world like none other before it.

Among the guests were Britain’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, King Felipe of Spain and US Secretary of the Army John McHugh. The speeches paid tribute to the fallen and included messages of reconciliation. But the remembrance was also tinged with anger that the world today is not quite as peaceful as many had hoped after the sacrifices of a century ago, and warnings that the ties that bind can so quickly be broken.

Speaking at the foot of Liege’s towering Allied Memorial, French President Francois Hollande spoke of the breach of Belgium’s neutrality a century ago, drawing parallels with the conflicts of today. “How can we stay neutral when people not far from Europe are fighting for their rights and territorial integrity?” he asked. “How to stay neutral when a civilian aircraft can be shot out of the sky in Ukraine? When there are civilian populations being massacred in Iraq, Syria, and Libya? When in Gaza a deadly conflict has been going on for over a month?”

German President, Joachim Gauck, also lamented that “millions of people are afflicted by violence and terror; millions have fled their homes.” He urged nations to remember the “terrible and bitter lessons” of a war which many once thought impossible.

The tumble into the Great War began with the bullet that assassinated Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28th 1914, putting the empire and its ally Germany on a collision course with Serbia and Russia, eventually dragging in Britain and France. No amount of diplomacy or warnings of a coming catastrophe were able to prevent the spiral of nationalism and paranoia. On August 4th, 1914, German soldiers crossed into Belgium, hoping for a swift advance to Paris. This triggered a British pledge to protect the small nation’s neutrality, and by 11 pm that night Germany and Britain were at war. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” said the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, at the time. “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

A day later, Liege would become the first battlefield of the first global conflict, which would eventually draw in 65 million combatants from 72 nations, with millions of them never making it home alive.

In 2014, the centenary’s resonance is keenly felt when conflict is blighting many corners of the world. Wartime leaders’ warnings of “monstrous slaughter” would not seem so distant to the Syrians today facing barrel bombs in a civil war that has now claimed more than 150,000 lives. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has its roots in the carve up of the Middle East after World War One, and the number of casualties are still rising by the day in Gaza.

Even the belief of lasting peace in Europe has been shaken by events in Ukraine, such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March and an increasingly bloody separatist insurgency which last month claimed nearly 300 lives – 211 of them, European – in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

Belgium’s Prime Minister, Elio di Rupo, also used the occasion to warn about the rise of anti-Semitism and extremism in Europe after the bruising economic crisis. “It takes a great deal of time and effort to bring peoples together and unite them in a common destiny,” he said. “However, it often does not take much to shatter this solidarity and revive the worst tensions.”

But there were also celebrations of how a continent overcame differences that once seemed insurmountable, and a reminder that reconciliation is possible, no matter how deep the animosities, how cruel the conflict, how many dead.

Later in the evening British and German delegates will stand together at Saint Symphorien cemetery in Mons, where fallen soldiers from both nations lie side-by-side. “The fact that the presidents of Germany and Austria are here today, and that other nations—then enemies—are here too, bears testimony to the power of reconciliation,” said Britain’s Prince William. “We were enemies more than once in the last century, and today we are friends and allies. We salute those who died to give us our freedom. We will remember them.”

TIME brussels

EU Preparing Further Sanctions Against Russia After MH17 Crash

The Bodies Of The MH17 Plane Crash Are Repatriated From The Ukraine To The Netherlands
A numbered coffin carried by Dutch military personnel contains an unidentified body from the crash of MH17 on July 23, 2014 at Eindhoven airport, Netherlands. Peter Macdiarmid—Getty Images

But it's unclear how potent any sanctions will be

For a continent determined to present a united message of outrage and reprisals after the downing of Flight MH17 killed 211 of its citizens, the signals coming from the European Union this week have been contradictory.

While its foreign ministers emerged from a meeting Tuesday vowing strong and unified action, a cross-channel spat over the sale of French warships to Russia exposed the depths of the economic conflicts which have prevented the EU from hitting Moscow with the toughest tools in its arsenal.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said it was “unthinkable” that the UK would continue with the $1.62 billion warship deal, as France has done, given the Kremlin’s alleged backing of the Ukrainian rebels believed to have shot down the plane. The leader of France’s ruling Socialist Party, Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, hit back: “When you see how many oligarchs have sought refuge in London, David Cameron should start by cleaning up his own backyard.”

For Stefan Lehne, a former Austrian diplomat who is now a visiting scholar with the Carnegie Europe policy center, the spat underscored a “lack of coherence” among the 28 member states, and one which is unlikely to be solved in the coming days or weeks, despite last Thursday’s tragedy.

“The shooting down of this airliner has of course increased urgency and support for doing something, but it has not changed anything fundamental,” he says. “There are still all the different interests of the member states.”

So for now, the EU has continued with its policy of inching forward with low-level sanctions while issuing more ultimatums, a cycle it has pursued since a political crisis in eastern Ukraine escalated into a full-scale insurgency earlier this year: First, add more names to a list of Russian and Ukrainian individuals and companies with their assets frozen and banned from entering the EU. Then threaten to move to the most damaging ‘Tier Three’ sanctions – which would hit whole sectors of the Russian economy like banking, arms and energy – unless the Kremlin moves to de-escalate a conflict which EU leaders say it is fuelling by supplying weapons and manpower.

Inevitably, Putin takes a few steps in the right direction, and EU leaders breathe a sigh of relief that they do not yet have to sacrifice their €400bn annual trade with Moscow. But slowly the Russian tanks return to the Ukrainian border, the ceasefires disintegrate, and more Russian-made tanks and weapons seep into the rebel strongholds — again and again the cycle has repeated itself.

Europe’s leaders profess that the plane crash has ended this cycle, and on Thursday it will become apparent exactly what has changed when the EU reveals who else is going to be added to a sanctions list first drafted in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March.

The list will go further than ever before, targeting people and companies providing material support to Putin. The EU will also review a set of proposals on potential Tier Three sanctions which could be implemented if Russia does not cooperate with an international investigation into the downing of MH17 and fails to halt the stream of weapons into the country.

Much of the discussion has focused on a potential arms embargo, but only for future sales. That would mean France could still sell Russia its two warships, while Russian money in Britain’s banks would be protected, German companies operating in Russia could continue their work relatively unimpeded, and eastern European nations which get 80% of their gas from Russia could be slightly more confident of the security of their winter gas supplies.

Carnegie Europe’s Lehne does not think the EU will move to any Tier Three sanctions on Thursday. Instead, he says it’s playing the long game. He believes that the gradual escalation of threats combined with an economic squeeze on key allies of Putin is having an impact on the Russian president’s decision-making.

Others think the time has come to get tougher. Elmar Brok, chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Tuesday that Putin left open no “possibility of finding a political solution” and the EU should proceed with stronger sanctions.

The Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaite, even made the comparison with appeasement in the Second World War. “In 1930s, Nazism wasn’t stopped, and now aggressive Russian chauvinism isn’t stopped and that resulted in the attack against a civilian plane,” she told a Lithuanian radio station.

Karel Lannoo, head of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, points out that Russia has more to lose than Europe from any restrictions on Russia’s energy sector, which accounts for 50 percent of Russia’s federal budget reserves.

“[The EU] can act in a coordinated way, just show they can have alternate sources of energy, that they are not too dependent on Russia,” he tells TIME. “It’s an oil and gas country, and the moment they don’t have these exports anymore, their economy will fall down.”

TIME Netherlands

Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: Families Left in Limbo

From the harrowing eyewitness accounts emerging from the Ukrainian countryside where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 went down, it seems hard to imagine that victims’ relatives would find any comfort among the scattered belongings and ripped clothing of their loved ones.

But perhaps it is preferable to a life in stasis at a sterile business hotel on the fringes of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. It is here that many relatives of the 298 people who died when the jet was apparently shot out of the sky have gathered, waiting for scant detail to seep out of Ukraine.

It is difficult to gauge the wishes of the relatives themselves: police keep a strict security cordon around the hotel to shield their grieving from the world. “Nobody can imagine what it means to them,” says Malaysia Airlines executive Huib Gorter. Gorter is convinced, however, that getting the relatives closer to the scene of tragedy will help bring some closure.

“There is a strong need from the next of kin who want to be there, so we are working on that as we speak,” he tells reporters. He admits the logistical hurdles are enormous: the crash site is about 500 km from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and the journey by road is a long one over difficult terrain. Then there are the rebel checkpoints, and the lack of facilities in an area gripped by a separatist uprising.

For now, the Ukrainian government is not even giving the airline permission to bring the relatives to Kiev, though a spokesperson at the Malaysia Airlines media center in Kuala Lumpur said they were in talks with the authorities. But the Dutch government agrees with Ukraine’s cautious stance. “The Ministry of Foreign affairs advised against it because its simply too dangerous for people to go there,” says Edmond Messchaert, a Dutch Ministry of Justice press officer. “This will probably take place at some later stage.”

So the relatives remain in isolation at the airport hotel, having to bear the painstakingly slow progress as investigation teams try and establish who shot down the packed jet. What Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has promised them is justice. At least 189 of the victims were Dutch, a huge loss to a country of 16 million people. Flags flew at half-mast Friday as the nation tried to process the tragedy.

“Let me make one thing clear — we want to get to the bottom of this tragedy,” Rutte said. “And if it becomes clear that the aircraft was attacked, I will personally make every effort to ensure that the perpetrators are found and punished. We will not rest until this is done. We owe that to the innocent victims and their next of kin.”

Dutch politicians have insisted that their team must have full access to the crash site, and many demanded a thorough and independent investigation into the causes. A team from the Dutch Safety Board headed to Kiev on Friday along with forensic experts who will start the process of identifying the dead.

“The Dutch people need to know the truth, therefore we need to have these teams in place … as soon as we can,” said Messchaert.

Also on Friday evening, a Malaysia Airlines plane carrying Malaysian military officials and forensic experts is expected to arrive in Kiev, as a multinational investigation team begins to form and start its work. That plane will then carry on to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport with a group of volunteers.

That plane may eventually be allowed to return to Kiev carrying the relatives closer to their loved ones, but for now, some are seeking comfort elsewhere. Floral tributes have started to build up along the wall outside Schiphol’s departures hall. “The world is in shock. This should never have happened,” reads one notice tacked to a bouquet.

And that is what 50-year-old bus driver Sheoratan Pradiep is pondering as he glances down at the tributes: How can his sister-in-law’s nephew have been killed so suddenly by a missile fired from country he knew so little about?

“I didn’t realize that it was a big conflict over there, so when I heard about the plane crash and the cause of it, I was shocked,” he says, explaining that the young man was heading to Malaysia on honeymoon with his new wife. “It’s very terrible … I hear from the news that the plane was shot down, and the people blame each other, so I don’t know what is true.”

TIME The Netherlands

Anguish in Amsterdam as Families of Flight MH17 Passengers Arrive at Airport

Official says 154 people from the Netherlands were on board the flight bound for Kuala Lumpur

Updated 4:55 a.m. ET Friday

The relatives started arriving at Schiphol Airport as the sun began to set on a warm Amsterdam evening. They gathered briefly, bewildered, at a bar area inside the departure hall before police ushered them onto airport shuttle buses to an undisclosed location in the airport, where they would start their anguished wait for news of family members they feared lost on Flight MH17.

Some of the men and women were tearful and clung to each other; most looked shell-shocked, staring blankly ahead as the buses pulled out, seemingly unable to process news of a tragedy apparently caused by a conflict so far away. Dutch reporters who arrived at the scene early said there were scenes of confusion when the first relatives arrived, unsure of where to go and asking passers-by for help.

Airport officials were also initially at a loss to direct the television crews and journalists who came from all over the world, with a press conference delayed by hours. When a Malaysia Airlines executive and an airport official finally appeared to talk to the media, they offered words of comfort for relatives, but little information about the cause of a crash deep in a conflict zone in Ukraine.

“Our main priority is to look after people who are suffering at the moment,” said Huib Gorter, senior vice president for Europe for Malaysia Airlines. “You cannot imagine what has happened to these people … All our manpower is dedicated to helping them.”

A full passenger list of the 298 people aboard the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was not released, but a gasp went up from the Dutch press when Gorter announced that 154 people from the Netherlands were on board. There were also 27 from Australia, 43 from Malaysia (including crew and two infants), 12 from Indonesia (including another infant) and others from Europe, the Philippines and Canada, according to a statement posted Thursday by Malaysia Airlines.

For those relatives who wish to travel closer to the site of the tragedy, a flight will be provided to Kiev, possibly departing tomorrow. But Gorter also spoke about the difficulty in reaching the crash site, which is about seven or eight hours by road from the Ukrainian capital. Asked if it was safe for the plane to be flying over a war zone, he said: “It is classified as a safe area to fly over, otherwise in our industry we would not be able to file a flight plan over an area that is dangerous.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs set up a helpline for friends and relatives, while the Dutch airliner KLM – which was on a code-share agreement with the Kuala Lumpur–bound flights – announced they were suspending flights over Ukraine “as a precautionary measure.” Air France and Lufthansa have also both suspended flights through Ukrainian air space.

Joss Wibisono, an Indonesian journalist and author based in Amsterdam, says his aunt, Jane Adi Soetjipto, 73, was among the passengers who died aboard flight MH17. “Every year Aunt Jane visited the Netherlands to see her mom” and other family members, says Wibisono.

Wibisono and his extended family are Indonesian immigrants who have lived in the Netherlands for decades. On Wednesday morning, the family took Soetjipto and her friend to Schiphol Airport: “She flew back to her home country [Indonesia] with her close friend, Aunt Gerda Lahenda,” Wibisono says, adding his aunt’s seat was 14A and her friend’s 14C. Both women had been in the Netherlands since April.

In the late afternoon when Wibisono was preparing to watch Tour de France, he saw a news announcement on TV about the Malaysia Airlines plane that had been downed in eastern Ukraine. “I immediately knew it was Aunt Jane’s flight,” he tells TIME. He contacted her family in Jakarta and also called Soetjipto’s sister who lives in a small town in southeast Holland. “They didn’t know, and became hysterical,” Wibisono says. “I am very shocked. I couldn’t sleep.”

The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, flew back from a European Union summit in Brussels, saying he was “deeply shocked by the dramatic reports on the crash.” His Justice and Security Minister, Ivo Opstelten, said there were “victims from many countries.” On Friday morning, Rutte called for an investigation into the crash that killed mostly Dutch passengers. “The next of kin of the 154 Dutch victims and all the other nationalities have the right to know what happened,” Rutte said, according to the Associated Press.

“The images that you and I have seen are of course terrible,” he was quoted as saying by Dutch newspaper Volkskrant. “I am aware that this investigation cannot go fast enough, but everyone at this time is doing everything possible to inform family and friends.”

Germany has called for an independent investigation into the cause of the crash. “The separatists must immediately grant emergency and security services access to the crash site and an independent, international investigation must commence immediately,” Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. “I’m horrified … with hundreds of completely innocent people having died in this terrible way, words fail you.”

— With reporting by Yenni Kwok

TIME E.U.

Skepticism Prevails as Europe Prepares to Go to the Polls

FRANCE-EU-VOTE
Martin Schulz, left, President of the European Parliament Jean-Sebastien Evrard—AFP/Getty Images

An election that was supposed to get Europeans more excited about their continental government, which holds a round of voting to decide which lawmakers sit in European Parliament every five years, has fallen prey to familiar divisions

Before the leading candidates for the European Union’s most powerful position took to the stage for their first televised debate late last month, the moderator looked confidently into the camera and declared: “History is being made.” For the first time, the moderator assured viewers, “you have a say in choosing the European Commission President.”

That may yet prove to be wishful thinking. Until now, national leaders of the European member states would disappear behind closed doors to pick a suitable candidate to lead the main E.U. body, which proposes and upholds laws and guides the day-to-day administration of the 28-country bloc. Giving voters a say in who gets Europe’s top job is meant to make this process more transparent and enthuse the continent’s notoriously apathetic electorate. But the alliance is facing a familiar problem: Not all national governments think it’s a good idea, and a system aimed at boosting the E.U.’s democratic credentials threatens to do the exact opposite.

Here’s the background: Every five years, citizens across the E.U. are given a chance to elect lawmakers to sit in the European Parliament, with the next vote taking place May 22-25. This assembly works along with the 28 governments and the European Commission to formulate, debate and pass laws. Soon after parliamentary elections, the new Commission President is appointed, and becomes the public face of the E.U.

This year, for the first time, the various political groups in the European Parliament have been have been asked to put forward a candidate for the post. The idea is that having personalities fighting a U.S.-style campaign will reenergize voters and help boost turnout, which has dropped from 62% in the inaugural election of 1979, to 43% in 2009. Another motivating factor is dwindling trust in the E.U., with Pew last year finding that only 45% of respondents viewed the E.U. favorably, down from 60% in 2012. This is partly because of the devastating impact of the eurozone crisis, which has sent unemployment soaring and sparked austerity programs which will have an impact for years to come.

The habit of E.U. leaders making decisions behind closed doors with little public scrutiny has also dented the democratic credentials of the alliance. And so, the political group that wins most of the 751 seats in parliament this month will be asked to nominate the next European Commission President.

In theory, this is meant to make the process more transparent.

The European Parliament’s two largest political groups have embraced the plan, with Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, representing the center-right European People’s Party, which is currently forecast to win the most seats. Martin Schulz, the current European Parliament president, is leading the Socialists & Democrats. Both have embarked on E.U.-wide bus tours, also taking part in televised debates to convince voters that they are the best candidates for the top job.

But there is one key problem: The 28 national leaders in Europe have the option of simply ignoring candidate put forward by the largest political group in parliament. This is because the language in the E.U. treaty is unclear. The national leaders are free to put forward their own choice for Commission President, with the treaty only obliging them to take the election results “into account.” In other words, despite the push for more transparency, they could reject the nominee put forward by the political group that wins the upcoming election. Were such a scenario to unfold, IMF head Christine Lagarde, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny are all being touted as potential nominees.

Parliament would still have the option of refusing to approve a candidate selected by the heads of state—but that could lead to a prolonged political stand-off which would be disastrous for the bloc’s image. “If you do get to that situation it’s only going to taint the image of the EU – it’s another institutional argument that is arcane and just looks like its on another planet to what people really care about,” says Stephen Booth, Research Director at the Open Europe think tank in London.

The possibility that national leaders might chose their own candidate has already led to divisions between the seven different political groups in the European Parliament. Five are treating the election as a vote for the next Commission President. The remaining two groups want the 28 heads of state to decide who holds the top job, arguing that national leaders are elected with greater turnout and therefore have more democratic legitimacy. They also want the Commission President to remain politically neutral.

These divisions reflect soul-searching across the EU over the best way for the alliance to move forward after the battering of the eurozone crisis. Figures like Juncker and Schulz are enthusiastic cheerleaders for the single currency and a more unified Europe. For them, giving voters a say in the appointment of the next Commission President is a way of solidifying “project Europe.”

Increasing numbers of voters, however, are moving in the opposite direction. Anti-EU parties from the extreme left and right are expected to do well, reflecting dwindling trust in a more unified Europe after the economic crisis.

National leaders like David Cameron in Britain and Mark Rutte in The Netherlands are also advocating less power for the EU and returning more decision-making to national parliaments. They are both cautious about an elected European Commission President, as is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a powerful voice in the alliance.

Right now the best weapon for the sceptics is the lack of interest. Most of the 400 million eligible voters have probably never heard of Juncker and Schulz, and mainstream televisions stations have not been airing the debates. But Simon Hix, who is monitoring the polls for the London School of Economics, says interest is picking up in France and Germany. “It’s going to be very difficult for the governments to simply impose somebody,” he tells TIME. “If they do impose somebody, they are gong to have to launch a whole campaign to explain why this is justified.”

During April’s debate, the Liberal candidate Guy Verhofstadt looked straight into the camera and said it would be “the end of the European democracy” if national leaders simply chose their own candidate for Commission President. Those politicians planning to close the doors on the public once again can can only hope that no one was watching.

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