TIME russia

In Russia, Crime Without Punishment

Vladimir Putin backs the rebels suspected of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Why each new crisis makes him stronger

The scene was almost too horrible to take in, and yet in a world of bristling threats no scene has been more revealing: under the baking July sun of eastern Ukraine, hundreds of bodies lay rotting as pro-Russian militiamen, some of them apparently drunk, brandished their weapons to keep European observers away. A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 bearing 298 souls–AIDS researchers, young lovers, eager children–had been blown out of the sky, apparently by a Russian-made missile, and the dead fell in a gruesome storm. One voice, and one voice only, could put an end to this indecent standoff over the innocent victims. But Vladimir Putin merely shrugged and pointed a finger at the Ukrainian government and, by extension, its Western allies. “Without a doubt,” Putin told a meeting of his economic aides on the night of the disaster, “the state over whose territory this happened bears the responsibility for this frightful tragedy.”

Had Putin finally gone too far? As the days passed and the stench rose, the coldly calculating Russian President got his answer: apparently not. While state-controlled media at home buried Russia’s role in the disaster under an avalanche of anti-Western propaganda, leaders in Europe and the U.S. found themselves stymied once again by Putin’s brazenness. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose nation lost 193 citizens in the attack (one of them a U.S.-passport holder) called pitifully on Putin to do “what is expected of him” in helping recover the bodies. U.S. President Barack Obama struck a similar tone on July 21 after the victims’ remains had been packed into refrigerated train cars out of reach of foreign investigators: “Given its direct influence over the separatists, Russia and President Putin in particular has direct responsibility to compel them to cooperate with the investigation. That is the least that they can do.”

That was the crisis in a nutshell: the least Putin could do was the most Obama could ask for. The American President announced no deadlines, drew no red lines and made no threats. Even as U.S. intelligence sources asserted with growing confidence that Russian weapons and Russian allies were behind the missile attack, U.S. diplomats were met with roadblocks as they tried to rally Europe to stiffen sanctions against Putin. Obama and Rutte spoke as leaders without leverage, for their voters aren’t interested in military conflict with Russia or its puppets. A generation of Westerners has grown up in the happy belief that the Cold War ended long ago and peace is Europe’s fated future. They are slow to rally to the chore of once again containing Russia’s ambitions.

So Putin presses ahead. His increasingly overt goal is to splinter Europe, rip up the NATO umbrella and restore Russian influence around the world. As if to put an exclamation point on that manifesto, the pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine apparently resumed their antiaircraft attacks less than a week after the destruction of Flight 17. On July 23, two military aircraft belonging to the pro-Western Ukrainian government were shot down just a few miles away from the airliner’s crash site.

And Putin evidently will keep going as long as each new crisis only makes him stronger. The 21st century czar has mastered the dark art of stirring up problems that only he can solve, so that Western leaders find themselves scolding him one minute while pleading with him the next. The crisis in Syria last year is a perfect example. He supplied weapons and training for the armies of President Bashar Assad, propping up the tyrant while Western statesmen demanded Assad’s ouster. Yet when Assad crossed the “red line” drawn by Obama and used chemical weapons against his own people, Putin stepped in to broker the solution. At the urging of the Russian President, Assad gave up his stockpile of chemical weapons. In turn, the U.S. backed away from air strikes in Syria. And guess who still reigns in Damascus? Putin’s ally Assad.

Other world leaders try to avoid crises; Putin feasts on them. When a pro-Western government came to power in Ukraine, Putin dashed in to annex the region of Crimea–an act that redrew the borders of Europe and snatched away Ukraine’s territorial jewel. Within a month, Western diplomats began stuffing the issue into the past. Why? Because by then, Russia had stolen a march on eastern Ukraine, giving the West another crisis to deal with–and another problem that only Putin could reconcile. He made a show of pulling Russian troops back a short distance from the border with Ukraine, but Russian arms and trainers kept the separatists supplied for the fight. And when the fighting produced the macabre spectacle of the rotting corpses, once again the instigator was in the driver’s seat.

“Mr. Putin, send my children home,” pleaded a heartbroken Dutch mother named Silene Fredriksz-Hogzand, whose son Bryce, along with his girlfriend Daisy Oehlers, were among the victims of Flight 17. And he did send them home–but only after the crash site had been so thoroughly looted and trampled that investigators may never be able to prove exactly what happened.

Divided We Stand

Can the West stop a figure who is determined to uphold the dreary habits of czars and Soviet leaders while projecting Russian exceptionalism and power? Putin doesn’t have a lot to worry about when he looks at the forces aligned against him. Obama, as the leader of a war-weary nation, has ruled out all military options, including the provision of weapons to Ukraine. Europe is both too divided and too dependent on Russian energy supplies to provoke any lasting rupture in relations. The only option would seem to be the steady ratcheting up of sanctions.

That’s harder than it sounds. Putin has allies in the heart of Europe–notably Italy, which now holds the rotating presidency of the E.U.–and it has lobbied against the sort of sanctions that could do serious damage to Russia’s economy. Cutting off trade, the Italians say (and they speak for others), would only reverse the current, inflicting substantial pain on European corporations that benefit from it. “The Europeans are in a panic over the U.S. line on sanctions,” says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political consultant who traveled to Europe in mid-July to rally support among pundits and politicians there. “As soon as the E.U. gets the slightest chance to turn away from Washington on the issue of Ukraine, they will take it.”

Even if Europe does begin to match Washington’s tough stance on sanctions, there is scant evidence to suggest that they will work. They did not, for example, dissuade Russia from allegedly giving the separatists sophisticated SA-11 missiles, one of which U.S. intelligence officials say was probably used to shoot down MH 17. Imposing sanctions may simply make Putin lash out more. “It’s like poking a bear in the paw with a needle,” says Andrei Illarionov, who served as Putin’s top economic adviser in the early 2000s. “Will it prevent him from ransacking your cooler? Probably not.”

In fact, the first three rounds of U.S. sanctions–targeting Russian officials, oligarchs and state-run companies–have done little to stop the bleeding of Ukraine. If anything, as the world turned its attention away from the conflict in the former Soviet republic in the past several weeks, the fighting there has worsened. The top NATO commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, says Russian weapons and paramilitary fighters have continued flowing through the holes at the border. Russian troops massed in western Russia have kept up the threat of a full-scale invasion. “Everything that Putin has done has shown that he is absolutely all in on this issue,” says Ian Bremmer, head of the New York City–based Eurasia Group consultancy. “The Russians do not back down.”

Crackdowns and Conspiracy Theories

Instead of chastening the Russian President, the prospect of isolation has only seemed to harden his resolve. Nor is there any sign that Moscow’s ruling class–a section of Russian society that constitutes a key pillar of support for the President–has flinched in the face of Western threats and sanctions. Putin’s public-approval rating is the envy of every Western leader, standing at 86% as of late June, 20 points higher than when the Ukraine crisis began last winter, according to the independent Levada-Center polling agency.

But even if more-meaningful sanctions were somehow enacted, there is no guarantee they would help shove Putin off his pedestal. The Russian President thrives in crisis because he so effectively controls the narrative in the motherland. Russia’s pro-Kremlin TV networks–both state-controlled and private–are the main source of information for 90% of Russians. This TV propaganda machine helps keep Putin secure in an era when other strongmen have been toppled in revolutions driven in part by social media. Apart from a state-backed crackdown this year on independent news websites, the Kremlin’s supporters have proved adept at drowning out online dissent and flooding the Russian-language web with Putinthink.

His media networks have cast the conflict in eastern Ukraine as a righteous struggle, pitting a resurgent Russia against the conniving West. The pro-Putin talking heads on these channels hit reliably similar themes, championing Russian dignity, Orthodox Christian values, the survival of the Russian-speaking world and the fall of the American menace. Now MH 17 is being crammed into this narrative. After a brief wait for Putin to set the tone, a tide of conspiracy theories flooded the Russian media, all of them blaming Ukraine or its ally, the U.S., for shooting down the plane. With feelings toward the U.S. at an all-time low in Levada’s surveys, this wasn’t a difficult sell for a populace weaned on the dogmas of the Cold War. “It goes without saying that everything bad that happens to us is initiated by the United States,” says Mikhail Zygar, editor in chief of Russia’s only independent news channel. “That’s something many Russian politicians or just ordinary Russians get with their mother’s milk.”

Putin’s designs, meanwhile, are far grander than Ukraine. He hopes the conflict on Russia’s western flank will create divisions within Europe that shrink American influence. His vision–which he referred to on April 17, at the peak of Russia’s euphoria over the conquest of Crimea–is the creation of a “greater Europe” that would stretch from Portugal to Russia’s Pacific Coast, with Moscow as one of its centers of influence. By creating problems like Ukraine that only he can solve, he puts himself in the center of European politics. Russia’s vast oil and gas resources–on which Europe relies–only add to his influence.

The U.S., in this scenario, becomes a rival rather than an ally of Europe. “The United States is a major global player, and at a certain point it seemed to think that it was the only leader and a unipolar system was established. Now we can see that is not the case,” Putin said at the end of his appearance on a call-in show that day in April. “If they try to punish someone like misbehaving children or to stand them in the corner on a sack of peas or do something to hurt them, eventually they will bite the hand that feeds them. Sooner or later, they will realize this.”

A Case of Russian Pride

What happens in the aftermath of the MH 17 disaster will test Putin’s assessment of declining American power. The coming days will determine whether the U.S. and Europe can form a united front against a country that virtually the entire world believes handed a loaded weapon to an unregulated militia. “We can’t do this unilaterally,” says a senior official in the Obama Administration. “We’ve got to work with the Europeans on a strategy to help contain Russia.”

So far there’s not much unity on show. Four days after the downing of the airliner, when the bodies of the victims were still stuck in rebel territory, French President François Hollande said France would go ahead with the sale of at least one warship to Russia, the helicopter carrier Mistral, against the direct objections of the U.S. and U.K. “The symbolism is terrible,” the Administration official tells Time on condition of anonymity.

The symbolism was not much better when E.U. Foreign Ministers met on July 22 to discuss ways to isolate Russia further. Even with emotions still raw over the downing of MH 17, the ministers did not bring European sanctions into line with those of the U.S., choosing instead to add a few names to their blacklist of rebel leaders and Russian technocrats. They pledged to draft a list of harsher punishments later in the week, possibly including an arms embargo. Even the Dutch, who lost so many, do not yet seem keen to take the lead. “In the near term, much will depend on the Dutch and where European opinion settles,” says the Administration official. “The Europeans had already been moving forward–slowly, but forward.”

Certainly, the Dutch-led investigation into the shoot-down isn’t likely to trouble Putin soon. British experts are analyzing the plane’s flight recorders. Forensic experts are examining the wreckage that was scattered across an area of several square miles. The investigation could take years, and it will be complicated by the fact that the people likely responsible for the disaster–the rebel fighters–had several days to remove evidence of their culpability.

There is always the chance of a quick and unexpected breakthrough–a missile fragment with a chemical signature or a serial number identifying its source. One of the trigger pullers could break his silence and confess to the crime. That could lead to an arrest, extradition, a trial and conviction years down the road. But these are chances Putin seems willing to take. “Maybe he can still apologize,” says Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as National Security Adviser under President Jimmy Carter. “But he would have to swallow a lot of mendacity.”

Besides, for now, Vladimir Putin answers to virtually no one. His command of the Russian airwaves will help him manage any blowback at home, spinning even the most damning evidence as part of an ancient American conspiracy. The more the world picks on him and Russia, the more it feeds a Russian will to push back, out of a sense of pride and victimhood. Isolation will still be the West’s only means of attack, and if Europe has lacked the will to impose it after Syria, after Crimea and even amid the global outrage over MH 17, it is unlikely to take action once the shock of the crash subsides. Putin has played this game before. He need only bide his time for the West’s own inaction to clear him.

–WITH REPORTING BY MICHAEL CROWLEY, ZEKE MILLER, JAY NEWTON-SMALL AND MARK THOMPSON/WASHINGTON; MIRREN GIDDA/LONDON; AND CHARLY WILDER/MOSCOW

TIME Ukraine

Ukraine Rebels Haul Away Victims of Malaysia Airlines Crash

Emergency Workers carry a body at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region July 19, 2014.
Emergency workers carry a body at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 19, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters

Victims' families have been forced to wait and wonder as pro-Russian separatists load bodies of the dead onto trucks

The engine of the old Zil military truck sputtered as the rebel fighter put the gearbox in reverse, mixing the smell of exhaust fumes with the sickening stench of death already hanging in the air. Behind him on the side of a country road in eastern Ukraine was a row of corpses, roughly two dozen in all, concealed in black body bags. They were some of the victims of the Malaysia Airlines crash that took nearly 300 lives on Thursday, and as the driver moved his makeshift hearse into position alongside them, he came within a couple feet of driving over one of the bodies before a few of his buddies yelled for him to stop.

Whatever hopes remained of a thorough and professional investigation of the crash ebbed away on Saturday evening as the workers began to lift the bodies into the bed of the truck, stacking them on top of one another. They all refused to say where the victims were being taken. They refused to say whether the flight recorders had been found among the debris, which was scattered over an area several kilometers in diameter. “Just let us work!” one of them snapped at a TIME reporter. “We’ve been here for three days, sleeping three hours a night in the fields with the corpses all around us.”

But that hardship probably pales in comparison to the suffering the victims’ relatives are experiencing. So far no relatives of the victims have been to the crash site, which lies inside the region of eastern Ukraine that is controlled by pro-Russian separatist militias. Their fighters, who are widely suspected of shooting down the plane in the first place, possibly by mistake, have refused even to allow a group of European observers to fully inspect the crash site.

“Unfortunately the task was made very difficult,” said Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, which sent a delegation on Thursday to monitor the wreckage and the condition of the victims’ remains. “Upon arrival at the site,” he added during a press conference on Friday, “we encountered armed personnel who acted in a very impolite and unprofessional manner. Some of them even looked slightly intoxicated.” One of the gunmen fired shots into the air, Bociurkiw said, and the observer mission left after about an hour.

The OSCE observers’ access was not much better on Saturday, when the local workers – who were dressed in the uniforms of emergency personnel – waited until the foreign observers were gone before they began loading the dead into the trucks. Outrage over the apparent disrespect for the dead, the obvious contamination of the crime scene, and the lack of access for relatives, has poured in from around the world. But it seems to make little difference to the rebel commanders, who turned two regions of eastern Ukraine into lawless breakaway republics about three months ago. Every arm of the Ukrainian government – from traffic police to coroners – have effectively abandoned these territories to the rebels.

Even accessing the site on Saturday from the nearby city of Donetsk required passing through at least four rebel checkpoints, where haggard and stone-faced gunmen peered into the passing cars, checked the documents of their passengers and sometimes rummaged through the trunks and cabins in search of weapons. Many of the fighters are poorly trained and mishandle their weapons, switching off the safety switches on their Kalashnikovs and holding their fingers on the triggers as they interrogate motorists and passersby.

Numerous cases of kidnapping and violence have occurred at the rebel checkpoints over the past few months, so the Ukrainian government has discouraged the victims’ relatives to pass through these regions. “Our efforts to arrange the procedures [at the crash site] in a proper way are being impeded by the terrorists,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry said in a statement to the victims’ families on Friday. The ministry offered to put the relatives up at hotels in nearby cities outside of rebel control, where they would have to endure the agony of waiting to see the victims’ bodies.

It is impossible to say with certainty how long that wait would be, but with every day that passes, the rebel fighters who control the crash site have more time to tamper with the evidence of what actually happened over the skies of eastern Ukraine on Thursday afternoon. Unless their commanders are forced, pressured or convinced to allow outside investigators to access the wreckage and the remains of the victims, there may never be closure in the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

TIME Ukraine

Rebels Control the Crash Site Of Downed Malaysia Plane

The site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash is seen near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014.
The site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash is seen near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters

MH17 crashed in territory controlled by the rebels. They're looking for the flight recorders and say they'll send them to Moscow

The Malaysia Airlines flight apparently shot down on Thursday over eastern Ukraine crashed in a kind of no man’s land. The central government withdrew from that patch of territory months ago, leaving it to the bands of separatist fighters who now represent the only figures of authority around the crash site. One of their first orders of business, their leaders say, will be to recover the flight recorders from flight MH17 and hand them over to their allies in Moscow. “High-class experts work there,” Andrei Purgin, one of the top rebel commanders, told local media hours after the crash. “They will be able to establish the cause of the catastrophe for sure.”

But that plan may not sit well with the families of the passengers – nearly 300 of them are feared dead – nor with the foreign governments whose citizens have perished in the crash. Since the armed rebellion began in eastern Ukraine this spring, Moscow has been accused of aiding the rebel fighters, providing them with weapons, volunteers and political cover, while the Russian media has cast them as heroes and Russian patriots. The crash of flight MH17 has left the rebel leaders scrambling to deny all involvement in shooting it down, and now they may be in control of important sources of evidence that might help determine the cause of the disaster. Without the permission of the rebels, it would be impossible for any outsiders even to recover the remains of the victims.

So far the militants claim to be guarding the site. But Sergei Kavtaradze, a spokesman for the self-proclaimed separatist government, said that the wreckage could be bombed from the air at any moment. “We have received intelligence that an explosive rocket strike could hit the crash site very soon in order to alter the scene and destroy clues,” he told Russia’s leading news agency, RIA Novosti. “We call on the international community to help pressure the Ukrainian side, so that all military actions around the fallen plane stop.”

The Ukrainian government, for its part, has condemned the downing of the plane as a “terrorist attack” and called for an urgent investigation, with President Petro Poroshenko urging the International Civil Aviation Organization and foreign governments to send delegations to help. “All possible search and rescue operations are being carried out,” he said in a statement on his website.

But it is not clear what operations he meant. The town of Torez, where flight MH17 reportedly fell, is deep in the heart of rebel territory, and the Ukrainian authorities cannot even reach it without first forcing the separatist fighters to retreat from the area. At the recent pace of fighting, that could take days if not weeks, allowing the rebel commanders plenty of time to remove the flight recorders and otherwise manipulate the crash site.

The simplest solution, like so much about the conflict in eastern Ukraine, would seem to wind through Moscow, which could encourage the separatist leaders to allow investigators to access the scene. But until then, it will remain under the control of the very people who may have caused the tragedy in the first place.

TIME Ukraine

Exclusive: Separatist Leader Says Rebels Did Not Shoot Down Flight MH17

Rebels in eastern Ukraine tell TIME's Simon Shuster they lack the firepower to have shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Their recent record of surface-to-air attacks suggests otherwise

The pro-Russia separatist leader was not in a mood to discuss the downing of a passenger plane over eastern Ukraine on Thursday. He had heard about it on the news – 280 passengers and 15 crew on a Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur – possibly shot out of the sky with a missile or some other projectile over the war-ravaged region of Donetsk.

Ukrainian officials had already laid the blame on the separatist rebels in that region. So who was responsible? Oleg Tsarev, one of the leaders of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, said the rebels did not shoot the plane down. “We don’t have weapons that can take down a plane from that altitude,” he told TIME, minutes after news of the crash broke.

But only three weeks ago they had plenty of those weapons. At the end of June, the Russian state media had congratulated the rebels on their latest military acquisition – a set of Russian-made BUK missile launchers seized from a Ukrainian air force base. “The Donetsk resistance fighters have captured an anti-aircraft military station,” declared the Kremlin’s main television network Vesti, which has been cheering on the rebel fighters since the war in eastern Ukraine began this spring. “The skies above Donetsk will now be protected by the BUK surface-to-air missile complex,” said the headline on the channel’s website.

The rebels quickly seemed to put their new rockets to work. The downing of Ukrainian military aircraft has become almost commonplace in recent days. An AN-26 military transport plane was shot down on Monday over eastern Ukraine, and the rebel leaders confirmed the same day that they had taken its four crew members hostage after they had ejected to safety. In the two days that followed, another two Ukrainian military aircraft, both of them SU-25 fighter jets, were reportedly shot down by the rebels. And Russian media trumpeted another rebel strike late on Thursday afternoon, claiming that a Ukrainian AN-24 had gone down over the town of Torez.

That was just a few hours before reports first emerged in the Russian media that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 had been shot down over the town of Torez, just near the Russian border with Ukraine. The Ukrainian government and the rebel leaders immediately began trading blame. But the separatists’ claims that they lacked the firepower to shoot down that plane rang hollow. Asked about the BUK missiles that the rebels acquired in June – and apparently used successfully since then against the Ukrainian military – Tsarev said, “I have no more information for you,” and hung up the phone.

 

TIME Ukraine

The Strange Case of Vladimir Putin and the Ukrainian Pilot

Ukrainian activists demanding the release of Ukrainian officer Nadiya Savchenko from Russian prison in Kiev, Ukraine, July 11.
Ukrainian activists demanding the release of Ukrainian officer Nadiya Savchenko from Russian prison in Kiev, Ukraine, July 11. Roman Pilipey—EPA

Just when Russia seemed to be backing away from the conflict in eastern Ukraine, it finds a new means of supporting the rebel fighters – through its justice system

There is no shortage of gaps in the bizarre story of Nadiya Savchenko, the Ukrainian military pilot who wound up in a Russian jail last week on charges of complicity in murder. It isn’t clear exactly how she even got to Russia from the war zones of eastern Ukraine, where she had been fighting the pro-Russian separatists. It isn’t clear how Russia intends to prove its claim that she was involved in the deaths of two Russian journalists. But one of the bigger mysteries in the case is why Russia would even choose to pursue it so publicly and defiantly.

Doing so comes with plenty of risks. Imprisoning a Ukrainian officer, who disappeared while on duty last month in the battleground region of Luhansk, will make it hard for Russia to maintain its claim that it is not in league with the separatist rebels. According to the Ukrainian government, the rebels captured Savchenko in June and illegally smuggled her across the border into Russia, where authorities not only arrested her but took her hundreds of miles to the city of Voronezh, a provincial capital in the heartland of western Russia. Diplomats and top officials in Ukraine, as well as their U.S. allies, have already cited the case as among the clearest pieces of evidence so far that Russian security services are working in concert with the rebel fighters. That means the case is sure to bolster the Western argument for another round of sanctions against Russia this month.

To counter that, Russia has come up with a story of its own. Its investigators claimed this week that Savchenko—who served in the Ukrainian mission to Iraq in 2004-2005 as part of the U.S.-led coalition – had chosen to abandon her unit in the middle of its offensive in eastern Ukraine and cross the border into Russia as a refugee. While checking her documents, authorities in Russia discovered that “Savchenko is a suspect in the criminal case related to the murder of Russian journalists,” said Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Investigative Committee, Russia’s version of the FBI.

That was a reference to the deaths of correspondent Igor Kornelyuk and sound engineer Anton Voloshin, who were covering the conflict in eastern Ukraine for Russia’s state-run television network when they were hit with mortar fire on June 17 and killed. Ukraine insists that their deaths were a tragic accident, as they were caught in the crossfire when Ukrainian forces fired on rebel positions. Russian authorities now claim that Savchenko purposely informed her fellow servicemen of the journalists’ location, allowing them to target the reporters with artillery.

Her subsequent arrest on those charges, which a Russian judge extended on Thursday until the end of August, has made Savchenko a symbol of valor to her fellow soldiers and to the broader public in Ukraine. She was already a minor celebrity before the recent conflict with separatist rebels; her service as an air force lieutenant—she is one of the few women in to hold such a position in the Ukrainian military —was the subject of a 2011 documentary broadcast across the country. The charges against her in Russia have now made her a household name. “Moscow seems to be going out of its way to create martyrs in Ukraine, and to rally the Ukrainian nation behind a unity agenda,” noted Timothy Ash, head of research for eastern Europe and other emerging markets at Standard Bank in London. “Russia has consistently misjudged Ukrainian national sentiment.”

But observers suspect that Russia has bigger plans for Savchenko, both domestically and internationally. Andrei Illarionov, a former adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, points out that the pilot was formally charged in Russia just one day after Moscow accused the U.S. of “kidnapping” a Russian citizen. In a case unrelated to the crisis in Ukraine, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced on Monday that it had arrested Roman Seleznev on charges of hacking into American computer systems to steal the credit card information of American citizens.

The suspect turned out to be the son of a Russian lawmaker, Valery Seleznev, and his arrest elicited a livid response from Moscow. The Russian Foreign Ministry was particularly outraged that U.S. authorities had apparently arrested Seleznev in the Maldives, outside of U.S. jurisdiction, before transporting him to the island of Guam to face charges. “We are treating this as a clear-cut case of kidnapping of a Russian citizen,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian media on Wednesday.

So the charges brought against the Ukrainian pilot the following day seemed suspiciously like an act of retaliation, and a means of potentially securing the alleged hacker’s release from U.S. custody, says Illarionov, who served as Putin’s top economic adviser in the early 2000s. “It is an asset for potential exchange,” he tells TIME, referring to Savchenko.

The pilot is also an asset in Russia’s domestic propaganda efforts, which have been faltering in recent weeks. Polls suggest that up to 40% of the Russian population support a military intervention in eastern Ukraine, and Russian nationalists have started accusing Putin of cowardice for not doing enough to support the pro-Russian rebels in that region. So far the threat of Western sanctions, combined with the risk of becoming embroiled in a military quagmire, seem to have dissuaded Putin from launching an intervention or even providing the rebels with advanced weaponry.

But to appease the hawkish wing of his electorate, he still needs to stay involved in the conflict, and Savchenko seems like a clever way to do just that, says Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. “It is a way for Russia to indirectly cooperate with the rebels, to take their side, and to admit its continued involvement in their struggle,” Lipman says. “After all, it is now the Russian government, the Russian justice system, that is judging an officer captured by the rebel fighters.”

In that sense Savchenko’s arrest is just the latest example of the delicate line Russia has been treading in this conflict. Putin cannot intervene directly on behalf of the rebels without triggering the kinds of sanctions that could cripple the Russian economy. Nor can he abandon the rebels entirely without alienating the hardliners who have rallied behind him in Russia. Up to now this balancing act has seen Russia provide various forms of covert support to the rebels—from arms and volunteers to diplomatic cover—all while staying at a distance safe enough to deny any direct involvement in the war. Savchenko’s arrest has opened up a new form of support through the Russian judicial system. Now it is up Western leaders to decide whether that is invasive enough to warrant another round of sanctions.

TIME espionage

U.S. Spy Scandal in Germany Is Music to Putin’s Ears

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, July 8, 2014. Pool/Reuters

The rift in relations between Western allies could not have come at a better time for the Russian President

The American habit of spying on its European allies turned out to be one of the more memorable topics to come up in April when Vladimir Putin held his annual call-in show on Russian television. Toward the end of the four-hour marathon of questions for the Russian President, Putin was asked about the tone of his conversations with European leaders. He gave a wry response. “It’s hard to talk to people who speak in whispers to each other even when they’re at home, because they’re scared the Americans are eavesdropping,” Putin said, causing a wave of laughter spread across the studio audience. “Listen, I’m being serious,” he deadpanned. “I’m not kidding.”

But it must have been hard for him not to smile at the latest U.S. spying scandal this week. Germany on Thursday asked the resident spy chief at the American embassy in Berlin to leave the country after German authorities uncovered two spies in the course of a week, both of them allegedly selling secrets to the U.S. from inside the German intelligence service.

The depth of the outrage left no one laughing in the German capital, though there was no doubt something comical in the whole affair. As Thomas de Maiziere, the German Minister of Interior, put it in a statement on Thursday: “The information reaped by this suspected espionage is laughable.” He did not say exactly what the information was, but German media have reported that it pertained to a parliamentary investigation into past allegations of American spying in Berlin.

“That’s so stupid that one can only cry at the foolishness of it,” the influential German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said, adding in televised comments that Chancellor Angela Merkel is “not amused” by the latest scandal.

Neither is the diplomatic corps in Washington. With the West locked in its worst dispute with Russia since the Cold War, the U.S. and Europe need to form a united front against the Kremlin more now than at any point in a generation. That much was clear on Wednesday when Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, went before the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee to discuss the standoff with Russia.

The Senators demanded to know why the U.S. had not moved ahead with another round of sanctions to punish Russia for its military incursions in Ukraine, instead only making what Bob Corker, the committee’s ranking Republican, called “hollow threats.” Looking down at Nuland from his desk, Corker added, “It has to be very frustrating to continue to wake up in the mornings and look in the mirror and practice talking tough, but know that nothing’s going to happen.” The diplomat replied that the White House did not want to move against Russia alone and was waiting for the Europeans to come on board. “As the President has said, these sanctions will be more effective, they will be stronger, if the U.S. and Europe work together,” Nuland said.

But the following day, it became much harder for that cooperation to move ahead when Germany asked the top U.S. intelligence official in Berlin to get out. Making the case for another round of Western sanctions against Russia requires a great deal of intelligence sharing between the U.S. and its European allies. Their spy agencies need to provide each other with evidence of Russian meddling in eastern Ukraine, evidence that is often obtained through espionage. So however laughable the substance of U.S. spying in Germany may have seemed to officials in Berlin, their response has severed a key channel for exactly that kind of confidential communication with Washington.

For Russia, that is fantastic news. The state-run media in Moscow splashed the latest blow to U.S.-German ties across their headlines on Thursday evening, and as Putin has long made clear, he would love for the Europeans to reconsider their transatlantic alliances. “The modern world, and especially the Western world, is very monopolized,” Putin said during his call-in show in April. “Many Western countries, however unpleasant this may be for them to hear, they have willingly given up a significant part of their sovereignty. In part this is the result of the policy of forming blocs.”

The blocs Putin was referring to were the European Union and NATO, the military alliance that Russia sees as a strategic threat to its security. Over the years Putin has made no secret of his desire to see NATO downsized if not dismantled, and amid his recent standoff with the West over Ukraine, he has made a point to sew discord within that bloc of Western nations, most recently and publicly during his call-in show this spring. Just after his joke about European leaders whispering in their kitchens, the hosts of the tightly choreographed program took a call from Berlin, where a Hungarian political commentator named Gabor Stier asked Putin a somewhat leading question: “Aren’t you afraid that the U.S. will spoil Russia’s relations with Europe for a long time to come?”

Putin’s response was winding, but it ended with an anecdote meant to embarrass the current Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Years ago, when Rasmussen was still serving as the Prime Minister of Denmark, he asked for a private meeting with Putin, who said he was glad to oblige. “It turns out he took a tape recorder with him, secretly recorded our conversation and then published it in the press,” Putin claimed. “What kind of trust could there be after such incidents?”

NATO dismissed the allegations as “complete nonsense” and claimed Putin was simply trying to “divert attention” away from Russia’s meddling in Ukraine. But that probably wasn’t the aim of the anecdote. Putin’s more likely goal was to make the members of the NATO alliance suspect each other of spying and, ultimately, to erode the trust on which that alliance is based. Already the fallout from Germany’s latest spy scandal with the U.S. seems to have achieved something close to that very outcome, and if it leads to a rupture in their relationship, Putin will surely be able to allow himself a mischievous smile.

TIME russia

Ukraine Rebels Call Putin a Coward After Russian Inaction

President Vladimir Putin in Kremlin, July 4.
President Vladimir Putin in Kremlin, July 4. Alexei Nikolsky—Itar-Tasss/ZumaPress

Early promises of help from Russia go unfulfilled

The rebel commander in eastern Ukraine was sure Russia’s tanks would soon come grinding over the border to his rescue. He even had an idea of what would provoke the invasion—“130 corpses,” he told TIME. “When they see that on Russian TV, they’ll come and help us.”

That was in the middle of April, and since then the body count in eastern Ukraine has far surpassed that figure. Even the commander himself, who went by the nickname Romashka, is now among the dead, having been shot by a Ukrainian sniper in his stronghold of Slavyansk at the beginning of May. No Russian troops ever came to help him.

For the Ukrainian government that has been a saving grace, allowing its army to force the pro-Russian militants into retreat over the weekend, killing scores of them in the process. But for Russian President Vladimir Putin, this turn in the conflict presents a painful dilemma. His pledges of support for the separatists now seem like false promises to the rebel leaders—and to their many supporters in Russia—and they have begun openly accusing Putin of cowardice and betrayal. The patriotic spell that he cast on his electorate with the annexation of Crimea in March now seems to have lifted, and his sky-high approval ratings are now likely to come down to earth.

The change in tone is already evident on Russia’s propaganda channels, which still depict the rebel fighters as heroes and martyrs—but not a part of any Russian war. “No one is talking about sending in troops anymore. That conversation is over,” says Mikhail Leontiev, one of the leading spin doctors on state-controlled TV. “Now the people need to understand that if Russia falls into this military trap, it will be worst of all for the people of eastern Ukraine, even for the fighters among them,” he tells TIME.

The fighters would beg to differ. In endless missives to the Russian leadership over the past few months, they have asked with growing anger and desperation for the Kremlin to send in troops or at least provide them with advanced weaponry. “We don’t have the means to fight so many tanks,” Igor Girkin, the rebel commander in eastern Ukraine who goes by the nom de guerre Igor Strelkov, said in a video appeal to Moscow on June 19. “I’m still hoping that Moscow has enough shame to take some kind of measures.”

But instead of offering much material assistance, Putin’s allies seem to have launched a slander campaign against Girkin and his men, even accusing them of “crying like women” about a lack of firepower before abandoning the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk this weekend. “He gave up the city without any pressure from the Ukrainian side,” Sergei Kurginyan, another prominent Kremlin propagandist, said in a video denunciation of the rebels. “No one was advancing against him.”

This claim seemed out of sync with the fighting on the ground. For days before the rebels fled Slavyansk on July 5 the Ukrainian army had besieged them, bombarding their positions with heavy artillery and cutting off supplies of food, electricity and water. Indeed, in the first week of June, Kurginyan had himself campaigned for Russia to send military contractors to assist Girkin and his men.

But that was before Putin made his sudden turn toward the role of a peacemaker in Ukraine. His reasons were pragmatic. Western sanctions had already broken financial ties—and frozen bank accounts—that Kremlin elites had spent years nurturing. The next round of sanctions would likely have sent Russia’s economy into a recession, putting at risk the state programs and paychecks that feed Putin’s loyal bureaucracy. A full-scale invasion would also risk a military quagmire that would further drain the Russian budget, as Ukraine’s army has mustered a force impressive enough to put up a serious fight. So in late June, Putin asked his legislature to withdraw his permission for the use of military force in Ukraine, and he began calling for peace talks in league with Western mediators.

The rebels were not the only ones to see this as a sign of duplicity. Russian nationalists have begun to turn on him as well, posting diatribes and even music videos that seek to goad Putin into war, juxtaposing his pledges to “defend the Russian world” with images of bombed-out villages and Russian corpses in Ukraine. “We gave them hope,” Alexander Dugin, one of the leading nationalist ideologues in Russia, said during a television appearance last week. “When we said we’re a united Russian civilization, this didn’t just come from a few patriotic forces. It came from the President!”

And it will not be easy for Putin to back away from those promises. A nationwide poll taken at the end of June suggested that 40% of Russians supported military intervention in Ukraine, up from 31% only a month earlier. This segment of society is largely made up of young, poor and undereducated nationalists, as well as elderly people nostalgic for the glory of the Soviet Union, according to Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, the independent polling agency that conducted those surveys. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, the euphoria among these parts of the electorate helped push Putin’s approval ratings toward record highs of over 80% “The revival of those strong imperialist feelings, playing on the idea of a fallen nation rising up, all of that ensured the sudden upswing in support for Putin,” Gudkov said. “But I don’t think that can last, probably not even past this fall.”

The all-time peak in Putin’s popularity, Gudkov points out, came right after the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, when his approval ratings jumped to 88% before quickly getting dragged down by the effects of the global financial crisis. By the spring of 2009, they were down to 55%—propped up by what Gudkov calls the apathetic mass of civil servants and state dependents who support Putin “because there is not other choice.”

That slump is now likely to recur. The Russian economy is once again stagnating, this time from the effects of the Western sanctions, and there are already signs that consumers are suffering from the resulting slump in the value of the ruble. New car sales, for instance, fell by a remarkable 17% last month, and the estimated cost of developing Crimea—roughly $18 billion—will put further strain on the federal budget. Such bread-and-butter problems are not enough to dissuade the jingoist minority in Russia, and they are certainly not much help to rebels fighting and dying in eastern Ukraine.

But as the last few weeks have shown, Putin is not the Napoleon many of them believed him to be.

 

TIME intelligence

German Mistrust of the U.S. Deepens Amid Latest Spy Scandals

Angela, Merkel, German chancellor
German Chancellor Angela Merkel Ute Grabowsky—Photothek/Getty Images

Just as the outrage over U.S. surveillance in Germany was starting to die down, a fresh set of allegations sends their relations into another tailspin

The annual Fourth of July party this year did not go quite as the U.S. embassy in Berlin had planned. The event still gave the German political elites a chance to mingle with American diplomats, sample a hotdog and take home a box of donuts. But even as the band played the Star-Spangled Banner, some of the guests couldn’t stop grumbling about the spying habits of their hosts.

Just before presiding over the party on Friday, U.S. Ambassador John Emerson was called into the Foreign Office in Berlin to explain the latest case of alleged U.S. espionage against the German government. It wasn’t the first time. Since last fall, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel learned that the U.S. had been tapping her cell phone for years, U.S spying allegations have eroded decades of trust between Berlin and Washington. But the mess just keeps getting worse.

Last week alone saw two separate scandals involving U.S. espionage in Germany. The first one broke on Thursday, when German media reported that the U.S. National Security Agency, or NSA, has been spying on a German privacy advocate who works to protect Internet users from the snooping of … the NSA. The following day, July 4, a second scandal broke in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and other media, which reported that an employee of Germany’s foreign-intelligence service, the BND, had confessed to selling secrets to the U.S. government. New details of that case continued to emerge on Monday, with Reuters reporting that the CIA was involved in the spying operation that led to the man’s recruitment. But German officials have confirmed little about the investigation, saying only that a 31-year-old man was arrested July 2 on suspicion of spying for a foreign government.

So Chancellor Merkel, who is on a trip to China this week, was cautious when asked about the case on Monday. “If this is true, then I believe we are dealing with a very serious development,” she told a news conference in Beijing. “I would see this as a clear contradiction to what I understand as trusting cooperation of intelligence services as well as of partners.”

Not everyone in the German leadership has been so diplomatic. After their long experience living under the watch of their own secret police — first the Nazi gestapo and then the East German Stasi — the German public is particularly sensitive to issues of individual privacy. So they were especially alarmed last year when Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower, revealed how millions of German citizens, including Chancellor Merkel, had been caught up in the NSA’s dragnet surveillance programs.

William Binney, another NSA whistle-blower, testified last week before the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the Snowden leaks in Germany, and his characterization of U.S. spying practices as “totalitarian” and “senseless” made headlines across the country. The latest set of spying allegations came out against this background, and the public reaction was summed up nicely over the weekend by German President Joachim Gauck, who said if the allegations are true, “It’s really time to say, ‘Enough already!’”

What makes the most recent scandal particularly galling is not the scale of the spying so much as its apparent clumsiness, says Sylke Tempel, the editor of a leading foreign-affairs journal in Berlin, Internationale Politik. The suspected double agent at the BND was apparently not even providing the U.S. any groundbreaking intelligence. According to the German media reports, he approached the U.S. embassy in Berlin offering a small stash of secret files, some of which were related to the German Parliament’s probe into the Snowden leaks. “They could have gotten that same information just from talking to German lawmakers,” says Tempel. Instead, the U.S. reportedly paid the man about $34,000 for his secrets.

Asked to respond to these accusations on Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. would “work with the Germans to resolve the situation appropriately.” But he declined to say whether any of the claims were true. “What I can say, more generally, though, is the relationship that the United States has with Germany is incredibly important,” Earnest said.

But if the U.S. had wanted to repair some of the damage to that relationship, it could have informed the BND that one of its employees was hawking secrets, says Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, a think tank focusing on U.S.-German ties. “That would have been a huge help in rebuilding trust,” she says. “So I don’t know what our American friends were thinking. This is just awful incompetence.”

So far, the scandal doesn’t seem likely to cause any sudden rupture in relations, but the broader lack of trust is sure to eat away at Germany’s willingness to help the U.S. on a variety of issues. By the end of this year, the U.S. is hoping to sign a free-trade and investment deal with the E.U., where Germany has a decisive vote. In the Western standoff with Russia over Ukraine, the U.S. also needs to maintain solidarity across the Atlantic, and it could find support dwindling for new sanctions against Moscow if Germany turns away. “The spying just adds to the feeling of exasperation, disillusionment, fatigue with America,” says Tempel. “It becomes so much harder to defend the transatlantic relationship.”

That issue becomes more important — especially for younger German voters — as each new spying scandal breaks, and that has made it costlier for a German politician to tout the U.S. as a trusted friend and ally. “This is indicative of larger trust issues,” says Stelzenmüller of the German Marshall Fund. “This isn’t something that just blows over.” Yet when the U.S. ambassador arrived on Friday to address the Fourth of July party, he made no mention of the scandals that all his guests were talking about. “We are a nation of forests and fields and farmlands,” Emerson assured them from the stage before the band began to play. “Of mountains high and deserts wide.” But to a growing part of the German electorate, the U.S. has come to feel a bit like a nation of spies.

TIME Ukraine

Ukraine’s Lawless War Zones Recede as Rebel Fighters Fall Back

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-POLITICS-CRISIS-SLAVYANSK
Ukrainian service members walk in the center of Slavyansk, Ukraine on July 6, 2014. Genya Savilov—AFP/Getty Images

A sense of order and accountability begins its return to some of the war-torn areas of eastern Ukraine as pro-Russian rebels flee the towns that served for months as their chaotic bastions

Only a few of the residents of the city of Slavyansk had the misfortune of going down into the basement of the local security headquarters, but most people in eastern Ukraine had heard of its existence. It was underneath the redbrick building on Karl Marx Street where the Russian rebels had set up their command center. Since Slavyansk became the rebel citadel in April, the basement has housed a variety of prisoners inside its rank and moldy walls, from journalists and local politicians to unlucky locals. Over the weekend the last of them were finally released as the separatist fighters retreated from Slavyansk, leaving the basement behind as a symbol of the nightmare from which this city now seems to be awakening.

Many aspects of the fighting in this town of 120,000 made life unendurable over the last few months, which is why up to half of its residents have fled. There were food shortages, power cuts and rebel-enforced curfews, not to mention the weeks of almost indiscriminate shelling by the Ukrainian army. But even before the government forces encircled the city in May, a sense of fear and frustration hung over it. It was usually expressed in one word that locals grumbled to themselves as the war ground on: bespredel, which means lawlessness or mayhem, and it has taken on a peculiar meaning in Ukraine this year.

In the sense of a total absence of government authority, the word first applied to life in Ukraine for a few days near the end of February, when a revolution chased the ruling government from power and all branches of the state collapsed overnight. Within a week, the lawlessness in Kiev subsided as the revolutionaries formed a new government. But it quickly resurfaced in the region of Crimea as pro-Russian separatists took power with the backing of the Russian military, and then it spread across the country’s eastern regions as a Russian backlash to the revolution took hold.

Only then did the mayhem take on its most lasting and grotesque quality. If the presence of Russian troops in Crimea gave that peninsula a semblance of military order during the Russian occupation, there was no such thing around Slavyansk and other towns in the eastern regions of Ukraine. They were abandoned throughout April and most of May to the separatist fighters, who established weird little fiefdoms across the region. Most were Russian volunteers who seemed to treat the conquest of Ukrainian land like a righteous crusade, driving around in commandeered vehicles and ransacking government buildings. Others were local criminals who reveled in their sudden impunity, hassling motorists at roadblocks made of trash and tires, and generally doing as they pleased.

Some of them, to be sure, were driven by a brand of Russian nationalism, the ideology that claims eastern Ukraine as the rightful dominion of Moscow, with the sincere desire to break Donetsk and Luhansk away from the rule of Ukraine’s new government and offer these territories up to Russia. But when the Kremlin refused to send in its tanks to conquer eastern Ukraine as it did with Crimea, the rebels grew increasingly erratic and authoritarian.

Locals would be detained and thrown into the basement on Karl Marx Street almost on a whim. Anyone the rebels perceived as disloyal to the separatist cause became targets, journalists included. My closest run-in with the rebel fighters of Slavyansk took me as far as the stairwell leading down into their basement, where they put a bag over my head and interrogated me about being a Western spy, releasing me only to avoid what one of their commanders called “international scandal.” Other captives were not so lucky. Simon Ostrovsky, an American reporter for Vice News, spent three days in that basement. Irma Krat, a journalist and activist from Kiev, spent more than two months down there, sleeping with only a rotting mat between her and the concrete floor.

There were no courts or higher powers to appeal to for their release. Russia has denied having control over the separatist forces, and it has only used its influence among them sparingly to win the release of hostages, usually military observers from Europe. For most of the time the only authority in Slavyansk was the whim of the rebel commanders. The most recent of these was Russian military veteran Igor Girkin, whose chambers were just above the basement prison in Slavyansk. His authority derived from the column of military vehicles that stood outside their headquarters, and from the cache of weapons his rebels had stored inside.

But in the past few weeks, their hold over the town began to erode under the hail of Ukrainian artillery fire, and it finally collapsed on Saturday, when Girkin ordered all of his men to quit their positions in Slavyansk and the neighboring towns. Before dawn they withdrew toward the regional capital of Donetsk, where they have pledged to continue their war. But the pervasive command they held over Slavyansk cannot be enforced in Donetsk. It is just too large – with a population of nearly a million – and there is no basement big enough to hold all the locals who want nothing to do with the separatists.

That does not mean the rebels have been defeated. The neighboring region of Luhansk is still dotted with their strongholds, close to the supply lines that run across the porous border with Russia. So the fighting there is sure to continue, as are the hardships of the local residents in the towns abandoned by the retreating separatists. The airstrikes and artillery fire from the Ukrainian army has caused massive damage to these towns, reportedly killing or wounding numerous civilians. As government forces retake control, many of the locals may be detained or charged for collaborating with the separatist fighters. But at least they no longer face the risk of being thrown into that dungeon. The lawlessness, at least in and around Slavyansk, is finally receding.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser