TIME Ukraine

Ukraine’s Parliamentary Vote Won’t Heal the Nation’s Divide

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-VOTE-CRISIS
A girl walks past booths at a polling station in Kiev on October 25, 2014, on the eve of the country's parliamentary elections. Vasili Maximov —AFP/Getty Images

By leaving millions of pro-Russian voters out of the electoral process, the ballot will only deepen the rifts that lie beneath the war in eastern Ukraine.

The lynch mob caught up with Nestor Shufrich on Sept. 30, when he was campaigning for re-election to Ukraine’s parliament. Outside the press conference he was due to give that day in the port city of Odessa, a gang of activists and right wing thugs were waiting for him with a garbage dumpster, into which they had planned to stuff the lawmaker in front of the assembled journalists. The ambush, part of a broader purge of politicians who are seen as sympathetic toward Russia, did not work out; Shufrich heard about it and cancelled the appearance. But the mob soon tracked him down inside the local government headquarters, tore his clothes off and beat him until his eyes swelled, his head concussed and blood poured from his nose.

A few weeks later, on the final stretch of the campaign, Shufrich recalled the incident like an occupational hazard. “These things come with the territory now, unfortunately,” he says on Friday, two days before the parliamentary ballot that will be held this weekend in most of the country, but not all of it. The huge parts of eastern Ukraine that are under the control of pro-Russian separatist rebels will not take part in the vote, and neither will the southern region of Crimea, which Russia invaded and annexed in March. “That means millions of our constituents will not be represented in this parliament,” Shufrich tells TIME. “How much of a national dialogue can you expect in those conditions?”

Probably not much at all. In the eight months since the revolution booted Ukraine’s Moscow-backed leaders from power, the country’s political discourse has devolved into a kind of blood sport, and Russia’s military meddling in Ukraine has only served to radicalize the political scene further in the lead up to the vote. Pro-Russian politicians from the old regime have been forced to flee the country in droves, typically to Russia, where the ousted President Viktor Yanukovych took refuge in February. The members of his party who stayed behind, such as Shufrich, have been routinely arrested and charged with separatism, attacked in the streets, beaten or thrown into dumpsters by crowds of vigilantes. An alarming number of Ukrainians seem to support the forces behind these attacks. According to the latest opinion polls, the populists set to take second place in these elections are from the aptly named Radical Party, which uses a pitchfork as its logo and treats even the vaguest relation or sympathy to Russia as a political mark of the devil.

For Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, all this makes it a lot harder to pursue the peace agenda that helped get him elected in May. His political party, the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko, is still set to get the most votes in these elections, but its ability to pursue negotiations with Russia and reconciliation with the separatists in eastern Ukraine will run up against the nationalists and militants with whom the party will have to share the legislative branch.

In an address to the nation two weeks before the vote, Poroshenko admitted that the peace process he initiated in September, including a shaky ceasefire agreed with the pro-Russian rebels, “is constantly attacked by the gung-ho patriots,” an oblique reference to nationalist groups like the Radical Party and its loudmouthed leader Oleh Lyashko. “These people are, for the most part, divorced from reality and eager to criticize,” he said. “But I nonetheless have no intention of changing my strategy.”

That will be a lot harder than he makes it sound. At the heart of his peace plan has been a series of concessions to the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, which he has allowed to elect their own separatist leaders and enjoy broad autonomy from the central government in Kiev. These acts of appeasement have been enough to slow the fighting around the conflict zones in the past month and a half, but they have also incensed the hardline political forces that want nothing short of a military victory over the separatists. The most radical among them have been the paramilitary commanders leading the fight against the rebels on the front lines and, more recently, campaigning for places in parliament.

One of them, the ultranationalist Andriy Biletsky, who leads a regiment of several thousand fighters, has called for Ukraine to scrap the ceasefire and push ahead with an all-out war. “We are negotiating [with Russia] from a position of weakness,” he told TIME in an interview last month in Kiev. “So any breather we get during this conflict will be just that, a temporary respite, and eventually the war will continue. So I don’t see the logic behind negotiating now.”

Nor do many of the activists and protestors who rose up last winter against the Yanukovych regime. In the past few weeks, as the parliamentary elections grew near, thousands of them have again begun to demonstrate in Kiev for a harder line against the separatists, at times clashing with police in scenes that have been painfully reminiscent of the revolution that brought Poroshenko to power in the first place. These protestors do not represent a part of the electorate that can be easily ignored or sidelined. In a nationwide survey released this week, 40% of respondents said they are prepared to take to the streets for a resumption of the winter uprising if Ukraine’s new leaders fail to meet the demands of the revolution.

At the heart of those demands is the drive to purge the ruling class of anyone with ties to the ousted government, and on that front Poroshenko has tried to deliver. Earlier this month, he signed the so-called “lustration” law, which would affect up to a million people who had been on the government’s payroll under the old regime. After an elaborate vetting process, these civil servants could be banned from holding any job in the state bureaucracy for a decade, thus branding a huge portion of the country as unfit for public service. It is under the vengeful spirit of this law that Shufrich and other holdouts from the Yanukovych government have been facing mob justice in the streets. “We’re like pariahs now,” he says.

In the course of a few turbulent months, the purge has helped disrupt an uneasy balance of power that had held in Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union. The electoral map of the country had been split for years roughly down the middle with a political east-west divide. Voters in the central and western parts of the country tended to favor integration with Europe, and bristled at Russia’s frequent attempts to treat Ukraine like a wayward stepchild. But to the east and south of the Dnieper River that bisects Ukraine, and especially in the industrial eastern regions where the dominant language has always been Russian, voters broadly favored the close ties with Moscow on which their economic fortunes depended. For the past two decades, both halves of Ukrainian society had ample representation in parliament. Sometimes they turned the chamber into a venue for food fights and bare-knuckle boxing, but at least all sides got to have their say.

What finally ruptured this balance was the Russian annexation of Crimea in March. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was outraged at the revolution that toppled his ally in Kiev, sent his troops to occupy the Crimean peninsula and absorb it into Russia. But he did not win many allies in Ukraine in the process. Even the regions that had previously favored closer ties with Moscow began to see a surge of ill will toward the Russian President and the country he represents. According a survey conducted in May, two months after the annexation of Crimea, 76% of respondents had a negative view of Putin, up from 40% just a year earlier.

The main exceptions to that trend were the two separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where the vast majority of people expressed support for Putin in May despite his annexation of a piece of their country. These breakaway chunks of eastern Ukraine, which are home to at least 10% of the country’s 45 million people, are now being left out of the electoral process. Instead of taking part in this weekend’s elections, the rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine will hold their own ballots next month, thus helping to formalize their split with the rest of the country. “If you count the people of Crimea, that comes to seven million Russian-speaking voters who will not be represented in the new parliament,” says Shufrich.

For the ruling government in Kiev, that might not be such a bad thing. The absence of millions of pro-Russian voters will ensure that Ukraine’s new leaders, as well as the nationalist parties, get a stronger mandate to rule at the polls, while the closest thing to a pro-Russian party running in these elections – the newfangled Opposition Bloc of Shufrich and his allies – has been so badly humiliated and demoralized by the post-revolutionary purge that it is not expected to win any seats in the parliament. This may well reflect the new anti-Russian mood in Ukraine as a whole. But it will not help heal the national divide. Instead of moving into the somewhat more civilized framework of parliamentary debate, the conflict over eastern Ukraine will still be caught up in the discourse of purges, guns and garbage dumpsters.

TIME Ukraine

Crimea’s Gay Community Moves Out as Russian Homophobia Sets In

Yegor Guskov and Bogdan Zinchenko, who owned a gay bar in Sevastopol, feared for their business — and their family

The Qbar was always an awkward fit in the nightlife of Sevastopol. It was the only place in the Ukrainian city to host the occasional drag show, and certainly the only place where the all-male waitstaff wore booty shorts beneath their aprons. In other parts of Europe, and even many cities in mainland Ukraine, the camp décor would have raised few eyebrows. But Sevastopol is a macho place. It houses the Russian Black Sea naval fleet, and its streets are studded with the homes and memorials of veterans from Russian wars going back to the 18th century. So even before Russia decided in March of this year to annex the city from Ukraine along with the rest of the Crimean peninsula, the locals, both Russian and Ukrainian, looked at the Qbar with a bit of suspicion.

“For a long time they were afraid,” says Yegor Guskov, who ran the bar along with his partner, Bogdan Zinchenko, since it opened in 2007. Mostly out of a fear of the unfamiliar, the Ukrainian officials who worked next door at City Hall were “worried at first that someone would fondle them if they came inside,” he says. “But then they realized it was safe, and the food is really good. So they started coming to eat.” By day the bar would be full of dowdy bureaucrats on their lunch breaks; by night it was packed with lithe young men and women taking Sambuca shots and dancing to Britney Spears. It filled a niche, and business prospered.

But like a lot of things about life in Sevastopol, all of that changed after the Russian annexation. In response to this year’s pro-Western revolution in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to occupy the region of Crimea, many of them fanning out from the Russian naval base in Sevastopol. The invasion quickly helped install a new set of leaders in the region, who organized a slipshod referendum to call for Crimea to secede from Ukraine. When the vote passed with an overwhelming majority – most of Crimea’s residents are ethnic Russians – Putin signed a decree absorbing the peninsula into the Russian Federation. Its two million citizens thus found themselves living under Russian law.

For the gay community in Crimea, the most worrying piece of legislation was the Russian ban on “homosexual propaganda,” which Putin signed in 2012. Although the law is billed as an effort to protect Russian children from learning about “non-traditional sexual relationships,” its critics say the law encourages homophobia, signaling to Russians that gays are somehow inferior and should not be allowed to insist on their equality in public.

Since March, the new leaders of Crimea have embraced these principles with gusto. The head of the regional government, Sergei Aksyonov, said that the West’s liberal attitude toward gay rights would be “intolerable and unacceptable” on his peninsula during a meeting with his ministers last month. “In Crimea we don’t welcome such people, we don’t need them,” he said, referring to homosexuals. If they ever try to stage a pride parade or any other public events, Aksyonov warned that the local police and paramilitary forces would “take three minutes to clarify what [sexual] orientation is right.”

That sort of discrimination began to hit home for the Qbar in April, after Moscow appointed a retired officer of the Black Sea fleet to serve as the acting head of Sevastopol. Through their patrons from City Hall, the bar’s owners learned that “someone had whispered to the new leadership that they have a gay bar sitting right underneath them,” says Guskov. A series of fire and tax inspections followed, hitting the bar with fines and official reprimands that made its managers understand they weren’t welcome anymore.

At first they tried some cosmetic remedies. They removed the Ukrainian-language sign from their door and made the waiters put on trousers instead of their trademark denim shorts. They even took the letter Q out of the name of the bar, Guskov says, because the local officials said it looked like a symbol for sodomy. “We changed the format,” he says. “We tried to make it into a normal eatery.”

But none of that made them feel safe in the city they call home. Not only are the pair among the most open of Sevastopol’s chronically closeted gays, but Guskov and Zinchenko have a two-year-old son, Timur, from a surrogate mother. The chance that some technocrat could question their custody of Timur, plus their desire to have more children, convinced them that it was time to leave Crimea behind.

In August, they joined the quiet stream of émigrés – thousands of them, even by conservative estimates – who have left the peninsula and moved to mainland Ukraine since the annexation. The largest groups have been from Crimea’s ethnic minorities, primarily Muslim Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians, who have both raised alarms over repression and discrimination since their towns and cities became a part of Russia. But the region’s gay men and women have also been moving away, as much out of protest at the annexation as out of a fear of becoming the targets of a state-backed campaign of homophobia.

Guskov believes that campaign won’t be long in coming. “When it became clear that Russia needs to prepare for isolation from Europe, it needed to smear the Europeans somehow, and the simplest is to spread this idea of perverted, decadent Gayropeans,” he says, using the derogatory term for Europeans—”Gayropeytsy”—that has entered the Russian vernacular. “So this witch hunt at home is needed as a tool to smear opponents abroad,” he says.

In Crimea, adds Zinchenko, the warning signs are easy to see. If elderly neighbors were happy before to coddle Timur and offer his parents advice on how to raise him, now the Soviet tradition of the “donos” – denouncing an acquaintance to the police – has started to return, he says. “People are writing these accusations against their neighbors just to show how patriotic they are, how loyal,” he says. “These are all signals for us. They show that we can become a target.”

That suspicion is what forced Guskov and Zinchenko to give up their business in Sevastopol, pack up their things and moved to Kiev. Along the way, the New York City-based photographer Misha Friedman joined them to document their journey, which he felt was emblematic of the transformation that Crimea, and the rest of Ukraine, have undergone since the annexation. “They just struck me as a normal happy family,” the photographer says. “They just got caught up in the politics of bigotry.” As they make their new home in the capital, they’re thinking of opening up a new Qbar, which will have to deal with a lot more competition in Kiev’s vibrant gay scene. But this seems like a minor worry compared to the risks they faced in the new Sevastopol.

Read next: What the Vatican Really Said About Homosexuality

TIME

How Putin Got His Way In Ukraine

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

By agreeing to delay the full implementation of a trade deal with Ukraine, the European Union effectively accepted Moscow’s dominance

After all the lives and territory Ukraine has lost this year, it’s easy to lose sight of the way its conflict with Russia began last winter, when Moscow tried to elbow its way into Ukraine’s economic pact with Europe. In response, thousands of ordinary Ukrainians went onto the streets to tell Russia to mind its own business, and the upheavals that followed—from the violent revolution in Kiev to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine—have all stemmed from that confrontation. But they might all have been avoided if the European Union (E.U.) had involved Russia in the process from the outset. On Friday, it finally did.

During closed-door talks in Brussels, the trade representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the E.U. quietly agreed to delay the full implementation of the trade deal that started this mess in the first place. Russia got a place at the table in deciding Ukraine’s economic future, and the E.U. in essence accepted Moscow’s pride of place in shaping its neighbor’s affairs. Later that night, the E.U.’s most senior official, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, had a difficult time defending this decision during a summit in Kiev.

The summit’s host, Ukrainian billionaire Viktor Pinchuk, pointed out how nice it would have been to make this concession to Russia before, not after, thousands of Ukrainians had been killed. “Now we are in a difficult and dangerous situation,” Pinchuk reminded Barroso. “So did we have a chance to prevent what happened with a different political strategy of the European Union or the West?” After an attempt to dodge the question—“I am not here as a commentator,” Barroso said— the visiting European official admitted that the force of Russia’s actions this year had obliged Europe to start thinking in terms of pragmatism rather than principles.

“In terms of principles, I think it’s right that the European Union respects the free will of our partners, and it does not accept a Europe divided on spheres of influence,” Barroso said. “But now, to solve the current situation it’s better to focus on what we can do now.”

This focus resulted in the Brussels compromise. Under its terms, the free trade deal between the E.U. and Ukraine will still be ratified on schedule this week, but at the insistence of Moscow, its provisions will not be fully implemented until the start of 2016. For about 15 months, Ukraine will be able to ship its goods to the E.U. without paying export tariffs, but Europeans will not be able to enjoy the same free access to the Ukrainian market. That is what Russia has long demanded.

Recently, at the end of August, when the leaders of Russia and Ukraine met for the first time in nearly three months to discuss the war raging along their border, Vladimir Putin used his time at the microphone to rant about Ukraine’s trade deal with Europe. The Russian President insisted that it would cost Russia around $3 billion if Ukraine went ahead with the agreement, which he said would disrupt the customs rules and sanitary inspections that Russia conducts at its border.

“Nobody ever talked to us about these problems,” Putin fumed. “We were simply told that it’s none of our business.” What seemed to upset him the most was the possibility that, once the trade deal takes effect, European goods would be smuggled into Russia through Ukraine without paying the right taxes. To illustrate the point, Putin even brought a picture of some Polish food mislabeled to look like it came from neighboring Belarus. “It’s written right here that the country of origin is Belarus. But peel off the sticker, and it’s Polish!” he said, waving the photo in the air. “With Ukraine this will happen ten times more. We’ll be inundated, you understand? Inundated!”

In the context of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, which had at that point killed more than 2,000 people, this may have seemed like a petty complaint for Putin to raise during that desperate round of peace talks. But from the start of the conflict this grudge has been at the core of his thinking. Russia, as the dominant power in Eastern Europe, refuses to be left out of Ukraine’s relationship with the West. As Putin said in March when he annexed Crimea, he does not want the West to “make itself at home in our backyard or in our historical territory.”

Most of the tension arose from Europe’s refusal to recognize notions like “historical territory” and geopolitical “backyards,” at least until last week. During the summit in Kiev on Friday, Barroso admitted that Russia had long been demanding a say in the trade talks between the E.U. and Ukraine. He insisted that Moscow had always been refused. “Russia has to recognize the right of Ukraine to negotiate the agreements they want. That is the point.” By allowing Russia a seat at the table in those negotiations, he said, the E.U. would have accepted “the theory of spheres of influence or a kind of limited sovereignty of a country as independent as Ukraine.”

This is roughly what the E.U. accepted with its three-sided deal on Friday, or at least that’s how it looked to many in Ukraine. The day after the Brussels compromise, Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danilo Lubkivsky tendered his resignation, saying that to delay the implementation of the trade pact with Europe “sends the wrong signal to everyone, to the aggressor, to our allies, and most importantly, to Ukrainian citizens.” He added: “You cannot delay a choice. Otherwise it’s no choice at all.”

To be sure, the choice to ally with Europe was not unanimous in Ukraine. The eastern and southern provinces would have been happy to remain in Russia’s economic orbit. But the Ukrainians who revolted demanded that their leaders move ahead with E.U. integration on all fronts and without delay, and the former government’s attempt to stall this integration is what resulted in its violent overthrow in February.

Before that, Russia had tried for years to coax and pressure Ukraine to abandon or at least delay its pact with Europe. Igor Yurgens, a former Kremlin adviser who has been directly involved in those efforts since 2008, admitted as much on Friday after the Brussels compromise was made public. “What happened today is exactly what Russia wanted to do before the crisis,” Yurgens told Barroso at the summit in Kiev. “If we did it before the crisis, probably there would be no crisis.” Yurgens added: “I’m sorry.”

That apology would be of little consolation to the families of the Ukrainians killed in this year’s conflict. As Ukraine’s leaders were eager to stress over the weekend, the Brussels compromise with Russia will at least help prevent any more bloodshed. But it will not reverse the events of the last nine months. Ukrainians will just be left to ponder the same question Pinchuk asked of Barroso. If Europe and Ukraine were going to make such concessions to Russia anyway, why didn’t they make them before Putin used force to get what he wanted? It might have saved the Ukrainian people a whole lot of heartache.

TIME Ukraine

Why Ukraine’s Peace Plan Leaves the Door Open for a Winter of Conflict

Residents Of Donetsk Have Largely Fled, As Pro-Russian Rebels Control The City
A separatist fighter stands guard on Sept. 10, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine. Spencer Platt—Getty Images

The peace process allows Russia to try a less violent means of keeping Ukraine dependent and divided — energy blackmail by shutting off its fuel supplies

The armistice in eastern Ukraine came like clockwork with the end of the summer fighting season, and both the government forces and the separatist rebels have taken it as a chance to entrench, consolidate their gains and make up for their losses. Even the separatist forces, who with the aid of Russia were on the offensive before the ceasefire took hold on Sept. 5, are playing along with the truce for now. But their leaders warn that this is only a breather between bouts.

“The situation now can best be characterized as neither war nor peace,” says Oleg Tsarev, one of the leading figures in the separatist movement. “Still, I expect there to be major upheavals for Ukraine ahead. Most importantly, how will it handle the winter, the cold, and the [economic] crisis that is now arriving in Ukraine?”

The winter weather, though ill suited to the use of tanks and infantry, will give Russia a chance to try out another tactic in Ukraine. Its goals will be the same—to pry Ukraine apart, to erode the support of its allies in the West and, ultimately, to halt or reverse the westward drift of the new government in Kiev. But when the temperature falls, Russia can pursue these aims more effectively by shutting off supplies of fuel than it can with the use of force.

It has been doing both already. As the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine was heating up in June, Russia handed Ukraine an unpaid fuel bill worth around $5 billion, demanded pre-payment for any future supplies and unceremoniously shut the tap. At the end of August, President Vladimir Putin said that talks to resume these supplies had “reached a dead end.” During the summer season, Ukraine’s reserves of natural gas have been enough to meet demand. But that may change with the onset of winter, which could force Ukraine to seek more help from the West—in the form of loans, energy supplies or both—to prevent its citizens from freezing.

Slovakia became the first this month to set its natural gas pipelines to flow backwards into Ukraine, potentially covering about a fifth of its neighbor’s demand. But practically all of Slovakia’s gas comes from Russia in the first place; now part of it is simply being shipped back to Ukraine. If other neighbors are willing to share, this bizarre arrangement may be the only way Ukraine survives the winter. But it’s not clear how generous E.U. nations can afford to be.

Europe depends on Russia for a third of its energy supplies, and roughly 80% of that gas travels through Ukrainian pipelines before getting to its destination. So the last time Russia tried to cut off the flow to Ukraine in 2009—during an especially frigid winter—millions of Europeans came up short on fuel when they needed it most.

The separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk won’t have this problem. Russia has fuel pipelines running directly into these regions, and it has already begun negotiating supply deals with their separatist leaders on preferential terms. The goal, says Tsarev, is to demonstrate that an alliance with Russia is a lot cozier than one with the West, at least when it comes to surviving the winter. “Our goal is to rebuild our economy, to establish our statehood, and to show that our model is more successful than the one that exists in Ukraine,” he tells TIME in a phone interview.

The peace deal that Ukraine’s President defended on Wednesday will allow the separatists room to pursue these ends. In a speech to his cabinet of ministers, Petro Poroshenko said the breakaway regions would be able to hold elections to choose their own leaders and lawmakers. Ukraine’s parliament, he said, must also pass a law outlining “the temporary order of self-government for certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” namely those that are still under the control of the rebel militias. But the key provision of Poroshenko’s 12-point peace plan is the one that calls for the “decentralization of power.”

This phrase seems just vague enough to satisfy all sides. It falls short of Putin’s earlier calls for the “federalization” of Ukraine, which would grant broad rights of self-determination to the breakaway provinces. But it also allows Poroshenko to play up the promise that Ukraine will remain united, with no more regions splitting off. “The protocol does not mention any federalization, any secession,” he said. “That is not up for debate.”

The separatists would beg to differ. Andrei Purgin, one of the two rebel leaders who signed Poroshenko’s peace plan on Sept. 5, declared a few days later that the region of Donetsk is “standing firm on the condition of self-determination.” How the rebels will push this demand remains unclear. Tsarev says that the idea of full independence is still very much on the table, while another official in the rebel leadership, Sergei Kavtaradze (who unlike the other two is a Russian citizen) told TIME on Wednesday that, “we are not allowed to comment right now” on the question of independence. Considering his background as a Moscow public relations expert, Kavtaradze’s reticence suggests that Russia may be urging the separatists to hold off on making any more demands for now.

But that hardly means they will not arise in the future. If Ukraine moves ahead with its integration with the European Union, Russia could easily encourage the separatists to resume their rebellion. By spring, they will likely have elected a set of leaders who can push the cause of independence with more legitimacy than their movement can claim as of now. Though Poroshenko seems to realize this, he clearly sees it as the lesser evil.

Speaking to his cabinet on Wednesday, he said Kiev will probably not be thrilled with ranks of the local lawmakers that Donetsk and Luhansk will soon be allowed to elect. But then he asked, “isn’t it better to administer policy through ballots instead of automatic gunfire…?” Most of his war-weary constituents will likely agree that it is. But nothing in Poroshenko’s peace plan obliges the rebels to give up their arsenals, and weather permitting, they will still be able to use them again with the arrival of spring.

TIME Ukraine

MH 17 Report Fumbles for Clarity Among Ransacked Wreckage

A Pro-Russian rebel looks at pieces of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 plane near village of Rozsypne, eastern Ukraine, Sept. 9, 2014.
A pro-Russian rebel looks at pieces of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near village of Rozsypne, eastern Ukraine, on Sept. 9, 2014 Sergei Grits—AP

Pieces of the downed Malaysian airliner were pillaged after the crash, contaminating the work of investigators who published their preliminary findings on Tuesday

The callous disregard for the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17 would have been clear to anyone who visited the crash site. By the time foreign investigators were able to access the scene of this crime, it had not just been contaminated; it had been picked apart like a macabre giveaway on the lawn of a foreclosed house.

Chunks of the fuselage were stacked in a pile at a separatist checkpoint near the village of Rassypnoye, just a few miles from the main crash site, seemingly intended to reinforce the rebel barricade of sandbags and concrete that stood just a few steps away. Gawkers from nearby villages climbed atop the vertical tail of the plane, which had landed in a field of wheat, and took photographs like tourists. Locals and rebel fighters were free to take souvenirs from among the wreckage or from the scattered belongings of the 298 people, most of them Dutch citizens, who died in the catastrophe. So it was little wonder on Tuesday that the preliminary report on the causes of the crash was largely inconclusive.

According to the crucial part of the report from the Dutch Safety Board, “The pattern of damage observed in the forward fuselage and cockpit section of the aircraft was consistent with the damage that would be expected from a large number of high-energy objects that penetrated the aircraft from the outside.” This could be consistent with the West’s prevailing theory of what brought down the plane, namely a BUK surface-to-air missile launched by the pro-Russian separatists over the territory they control. Some versions of the payload mounted on a BUK missile can explode on impact with the target or just before, causing pieces of shrapnel — “high-energy objects,” in the words of the report — to shred the fuselage.

But the wording of the 34-page report [in pdf format here] was also vague enough to leave room for one of the more common theories among the rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the disaster on the Ukrainian government on the night of the crash; and in the days that followed, some of the separatists claimed in interviews with TIME that a Ukrainian fighter jet had, for some reason, intercepted the airliner and sprayed it with chain-gun fire. As evidence, they pointed to the many small holes in the fuselage, suggesting that these looked like the work of a machine gun shooting another type of high-energy object — bullets.

This hypothesis, a favorite on Russian state television, does not fit well with the audio recordings taken from the cockpit of the plane. According to the Dutch Safety Board, the recording ended abruptly, with no sign that the plane was hit with gunfire or that the pilots had any warning of an approaching missile. Yet the report also makes no mention of any missiles or missile fragments found at the crash site.

That kind of solid evidence — such as a chunk of a projectile with a serial number or chemical signature that could identify its source — could easily have been removed from the crash site by the time investigators arrived. Pro-Russian rebels have had control of the area ever since the plane went down, and in late July, when forensic experts from the Netherlands, Australia and Malaysia were allowed to inspect the wreckage, it was only at the whim of the rebel commanders.

“If we can’t negotiate our entrance, we’re stuck,” the Dutch commander of the search operation, Colonel Cornelis Kuijs, told TIME on Aug. 4, at the mission’s base of operations in eastern Ukraine. “We have no freedom of movement whatsoever.” Two days later, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte suspended the search operation, citing concerns for the safety of the police officers and experts involved.

With much less gear and no police escorts, journalists around the crash site generally faced fewer roadblocks from the rebels, and a BBC investigation seems to have turned up a curious lead. In a program aired Monday on the channel’s Panorama program, a reporter interviewed an alleged witness who claimed to have spoken with one of the fighters who launched the fatal missile. The soldier’s accent, the witness told the BBC, was distinctly Russian, not Ukrainian, leading the witness to believe that the culprit may have been a Russian soldier.

But this does not seem like the kind of evidence that would hold up in a court of law, nor even the court of public opinion. Many Russian citizens have joined the separatist militias fighting in eastern Ukraine, and they are usually military veterans with various types of weapons training. So the presence of a Russian accent would not necessarily prove that a fighter was a Russian soldier. It would merely be another detail to add to the piles of evidence supporting one theory or another. But as seems clear from the pile of wreckage stacked up near that checkpoint in early August, the truth about Flight MH 17 will likely remain elusive, even after investigators publish their final report next year. If there was a smoking gun to be found at the crash site, the rebels had every opportunity to quietly snuff it out.

Tjibbe Joustra, chairman of the Dutch Safety Board, clarifies that the MH 17 report does not use the word missile.

TIME russia

Russia Is Testing NATO’s Resolve in Eastern Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin Visits Crimea
Russian President Vladimir Putin conducts a meeting with Russian ministers, members of parliament, lawmakers and other public cultural leaders in the Chekhov Museum on August 14, 2014 in Yalta, Crimea. Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin is feeling around for the gaps that have emerged in NATO's defenses, and it may take more than military spending to patch them up

A few years ago, when NATO strategists would stop to consider a possible threat from Russia, their chief concern was the possibility, however slight, that the Russian state would implode, lose control of its nuclear arsenal and allow a few warheads to fall into the wrong hands. That at least was the worry Ivo Daalder expressed in the fall of 2010, when he paid a visit to Moscow as the U.S. ambassador to NATO. But on the whole, he says he just wasn’t very concerned about Russia at the time. The alliance was too busy with that year’s troop surge in Afghanistan and with newfangled threats like cyber warfare.

“As a security concern Russia wasn’t really on the agenda in 2010,” he tells TIME by phone on Friday from Chicago. “The focus with Russia was really on cooperation.”

At that year’s NATO summit in Lisbon, Russia seemed eager to play along. The military doctrine it adopted earlier that year still listed NATO expansion as the primary threat to Russian security. But Dmitri Medvedev, who was then serving as Russia’s president while Vladimir Putin took a turn as prime minister, agreed in Lisbon to cooperate with the alliance on various issues of mutual concern, such as terrorism and drug trafficking. The brief war that Russia had fought two years earlier in neighboring Georgia, an aspiring member of NATO, was duly put aside at the Lisbon summit as a bump in the road toward Russia’s cooperation with the alliance. All the while, the defense infrastructure that NATO had maintained during the Cold War to prepare for a confrontation with Russia in Europe was falling deeper into disrepair.

“NATO had for many years failed to really invest in its infrastructure in the east,” recalls Daalder, whose term as ambassador ended a year ago. “Even the basics were just very poor to non-existent.” That included things like air bases in Eastern Europe, ports, oil pipelines and other essential gear that NATO would have needed to “flush forces into the region,” he says.

Only this spring, after Russia sent troops into another one of its European neighbors – this time Ukraine – to occupy and annex the region of Crimea, NATO finally began to consider for the first time in two decades how exposed its eastern flank had become. The agenda at the NATO summit in Wales this week was shaped by this realization. But adjusting to it will take much more than the summit’s decision on Friday to station a few thousand troops in Eastern Europe on a rotating basis. It will need to adapt to a security paradigm that Russia seems to be inventing on the fly, and wiping the dust off NATO’s Cold War playbook may not do much to help the alliance find its footing on this unfamiliar terrain.

“It’s a different ball game,” says Daalder. It still involves a distinctly Soviet bag of tricks – most importantly Putin’s reminder last month of the strength of his nuclear arsenal – but Putin’s actions in Ukraine have also displayed a new type of shape-shifting warfare, one that is far more nimble and unpredictable than anything the stodgy old men of the Politburo were able to muster.

Take, for instance, the standoff unfolding along the Russian border with Estonia, one of the NATO allies that is, by virtue of geography and demography, most susceptible to Russian meddling. Not only does it share a border with Russia that is nearly 200 miles long, but its population is roughly a quarter Russian, forming an ethnic minority whose rights Putin has promised to “protect” by any legal means. These vulnerabilities were among the reasons Barack Obama chose to visit Estonia on Wednesday in a show of solidarity. During a speech in the capital, the U.S. President pledged his military would come to Estonia’s defense if it were ever attacked or invaded. “An attack on one is an attack on all,” Obama said, echoing Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, which obliges all members to defend any ally that faces a foreign attack.

Two days later, as the summit in Wales was winding down, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves sounded the alarm over what he reportedly called an invasion of Estonian territory. He and other senior officials from his government said that unknown assailants had come from Russia and abducted an Estonian security service officer at gunpoint, allegedly using smoke bombs and jamming the radios of Estonian border guards during the Friday morning raid.

Russia made no secret of its involvement. The security service known as the FSB (the post-Soviet incarnation of the KGB) told Russian news agencies that it had the officer in custody on suspicion of spying, but claimed he had been arrested on the Russian side of the border, not in Estonia. Given the timing, some Estonian officials saw the move as a blatant Russian provocation, not only against their country but the whole of NATO.

“This is a demonstrative show for the United States and other Western countries that [Russia] does what it wants in this part of the world,” Urmas Reinsalu, an Estonian lawmaker and former minister of defense, told the Postimees newspaper. Another prominent Estonian politician, Eerik-Niiles Kross, who formerly served as the country’s intelligence chief, told local media that the kidnapping “should be filed under ‘rewriting the rules.’”

That seems like a fair term for what Russia has been doing in Ukraine all year. With its annexation of Crimea in March, Russia redrew the borders of Europe and, as Daalder puts it, “threw out the rulebook of post-Cold War security policy.” The new rules will depend primarily on the way NATO responds. So far, Obama has made clear that his “red line” is the border of the NATO alliance, and if Russia violates that border, the U.S. would respond with force. But what exactly would constitute such a breach? A full-on tank invasion or something more subtle?

It is through such ambiguities that Russia has been testing NATO’s resolve, prodding and provoking to feel out the alliance’s weak spots. And it isn’t the first time Russia’s done this. During Estonia’s noisy 2007 spat with Russia over a Soviet war memorial, Russian hackers launched a massive cyberattack against Estonia that paralyzed the websites of its government, parliament, banks and media. Estonian officials blamed the Kremlin, and questioned whether a cyberattack of this or any other magnitude could trigger Article 5 of the NATO treaty. At the Wales summit this week the allies finally affirmed that it could, even suggesting that the NATO could launch a military response to a cyber threat. This seemed to patch a key hole in the alliance’s remit.

So what about the arrest of the Estonian security official on Friday? Would that qualify as an invasion if the government proves that Russian agents crossed into Estonia and kidnapped him at gunpoint? Probably not. Even after the U.S. and NATO claimed last month that Russia had sent thousands of troops into Ukraine, Obama stopped short of calling it an invasion.

At some point Russia’s aggression may become blatant and destructive enough to trigger NATO’s allied response. But the crucial question is where that point would be, and whether it even exists. Some observers have begun to doubt it. Last month the Russian political scientist Andrei Pointkovsky proposed a thought experiment on this question involving the potential flashpoint of Estonia.

The population of the border city of Narva, he pointed out, is predominantly Russian, and the Kremlin could in theory try to stir an ethnic rebellion in Narva much as it did among the ethnic Russians in Crimea this spring. NATO would then have to consider whether such an incursion breaches Obama’s red line, but in the meantime, Putin could in theory decide to launch a “very limited” nuclear strike against a NATO city, Pointkovsky wrote. What would the West do then?

“Put yourself in the place of Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate . . . The progressive and even the reactionary American public would cry out in unison that, ‘We don’t want to die for f—ing Narva, Mr. President!,” wrote Pointkovsky.

In Pointkovsky’s assessment, it is far from clear how the U.S. would respond to this doomsday scenario, and Daalder agrees. “Do I know for certain that if the Russians would use nuclear weapons against Poland that we would retaliate? No,” says the former ambassador. The Western assumption, he says, is that Putin would not take such a gargantuan risk, that even the slight possibility of a NATO counter-strike would be enough to deter him. This logic, known among defense wonks as Mutually Assured Destruction, is what prevented the U.S. and the Soviet Union from ever starting a nuclear war.

It has been a generation since the West has really been forced to consider whether such thinking is sound. But based on the wording of its official military doctrine, which was adopted in 2010, Russia has been thinking about this all along. A senior Russian general even suggested this week that the doctrine should be revised to allow for the possibility of a “preventative” nuclear attack against the West. This issue did not come up at the NATO summit in Wales, at least not publicly, but Daalder suggests it may be time to assess Russia’s reasoning. “We haven’t thought about deterrence in a long time, and we need to do it again,” he says. The expiration date has clearly past on NATO’s infrastructure in Eastern Europe, but its mentality in standing up to Russia may also be due for an update.

TIME Ukraine

NATO Too Wary of Russian Threats to Let Ukraine Join

Petro Poroshenko
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speaks during a media conference during a NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. Virginia Mayo—AP

Despite Russia's actions in eastern Ukraine, the U.S.-led alliance is keeping Kiev at a distance

With its aggression against Ukraine, Russia achieved in just a few months what Vadim Grechaninov has been trying to do for a decade. His mission as President of the Atlantic Council of Ukraine, a lobbying organization based in Kiev, has been to convince his country’s leaders, citizens and military officers that joining NATO is Ukraine’s only path to security. He never had much success. According to a Pew Research poll taken in 2009, a majority of Ukrainians—51%—opposed NATO membership, while only 28% supported it.

That dynamic is now being reversed. The most recent nationwide survey taken in July suggested that, for the first time in their post-Soviet history, a plurality of Ukrainians—44%—would favor joining the alliance that Russia sees as a strategic threat. When the Rating Group, a Ukrainian pollster, conducted the same survey in 2012, they found only 19% of respondents in favor of NATO accession. Ukraine’s new government has likewise embraced the idea, proposing a law last week that would clear the way for NATO membership. But Grechaninov, a retired major general of the Soviet army, is no more optimistic about his country joining the alliance today than he was five years ago, especially after watching the news that came out of the NATO leaders’ summit on Thursday. “They are still bending to Moscow’s demands,” he says of the alliance.

Those demands have been very explicit. The day President Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula in March, he warned NATO not to “make itself at home in our backyard or in our historical territory.” As if that wasn’t clear enough, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov drove home the point on Thursday as the NATO summit commenced in Wales. Any attempt to draw Ukraine into the alliance, Lavrov said, would scuttle the fragile peace talks between the Ukrainian government and the separatist rebels whom Moscow has armed and supported since April. “The U.S. wants NATO to win,” Lavrov said in Moscow. “[It wants] a situation where America dictates its will to the whole world.” These ambitions, he added, “will lead to no good.”

A far more alarming message came on the eve of the summit from the Russian military. Yuri Yakubov, an influential general of the Russian army, told the Interfax news agency on Wednesday that Russia would be amending its official military doctrine this year in light of “the approach of U.S. and NATO bases right up to our borders.” He said the revisions would identify the alliance as a “likely opponent” in a future conflict, and it would make some dramatic amendments to Russia’s nuclear strategy. “It is necessary to set out the conditions in which Russia could launch a preventative strike with Russia’s strategic nuclear forces,” he said. In its current form, the doctrine only envisions using nuclear weapons in response to a strike against Russia. It does not mention the possibility of a “preventative” nuclear attack.

This kind of rhetoric was, perhaps thankfully, nowhere to be found during the first day of the NATO summit. Putin’s recent reminder that Russia is “one of the strongest nuclear powers” did not come up in any of the public comments, and neither did the warning from General Yakubov about a preventative strike. The most concrete step NATO announced in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine was the creation of a “very high readiness” force of several thousand troops that could be deployed near Russia’s borders in the course of about two days. (It took Russian forces no more than a day in late February to sweep into the capital of Crimea and help install a loyal government to prepare the annexation.)

The new rapid reaction force was meant to calm NATO members in Eastern Europe—namely Poland and the Baltic states—though it did not measure up to their demands. What the eastern allies wanted were permanent military bases to be built closer to Russia’s territory. But their allies in Western Europe, particularly Germany, shot down those requests, as they would break a pact that NATO made with Russia in 1997 not to station “permanent combat forces” near Russia’s borders. (It did not seem to matter that, with the conquest of Crimea, Russia broke the pledge it made to the U.S. and U.K. in 1994 never to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty.) Asked at a press conference on Monday whether NATO’s new force would be permanent, its Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, “Actually very few things in life are permanent.” He added: “The bottom line is you will see more visible NATO presence in the East.”

There were, however, some more encouraging signs than that of NATO unity and assertiveness. The day before the summit, France agreed to halt the scheduled delivery next month of an aircraft carrier to Russia, saying that the conditions were “not right.” It took months of pressure from the U.S. and other allies for the French to stop the weapons transfer, though it is not clear whether France will go ahead with the sale of another warship to Russia next year.

In showing support for Ukraine, the allies also tried to make President Petro Poroshenko feel like the summit’s guest of honor. The leaders of NATO’s five most powerful members—the U.S., U.K., Germany, France and Italy—met with Poroshenko to discuss his country’s conflict with Russia, and they collectively pledged to create several “trust funds” worth about $16 million—a largely symbolic sum—to help modernize the Ukrainian military. But they stopped short of promising to provide Ukraine with any weapons, and they made no commitments to let Ukraine join the alliance at any point in the future.

Speaking by phone from Kiev, Grechaninov says he is disappointed, but not surprised. If Ukraine were to join NATO, every one of its members would be treaty-bound to defend Ukraine’s in case of a foreign attack, and none of the allies have been willing to risk that kind of confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia. Grechaninov understands these fears, but he warns that the alliance is only delaying the inevitable. “Putin can only be stopped by a force greater than his,” he says. “We waited for this force from NATO, and they have it. They can stop Putin. But right now they don’t consider it,” he says, pausing to find the right word. “They don’t consider it expedient.”

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen calls on Russia to pull back from the Crimea during a speech at the NATO Summit in Wales on Sept.4, 2014.

TIME

Why Arming Ukraine Would Only Make Matters Worse

Supplied with Western weaponry, Ukraine's leaders would be tempted to walk away from peace talks win Russia and try their chances in a war they can't win

The arguments for sending weapons to Ukraine have felt convincing in part because their premises are true. Ukraine’s military has fallen back. The separatist rebels have advanced. The Russian military’s role in the conflict has become so overt that calling it anything other than an invasion has come to look like willful ignorance. The West and its leaders do look weak and feckless, as their sanctions against Russia have failed to make President Vladimir Putin back down. So there is an understandable urge in the West to grasp at something bolder, more proactive. Why not send the Ukrainians enough weapons to level the battlefield?

This solution has found some influential champions over the past week, just as the NATO alliance gathers in Wales to forge a response to the Ukrainian crisis. Wesley Clark, the retired American general who commanded NATO forces in Europe during their bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, argued over the weekend that, along with diplomacy and sanctions, NATO must give Ukraine “the military means to defeat Russia’s new war strategy.” Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, said during a trip to Ukraine on Sunday that, “We have to give the Ukrainians the fighting chance to defend themselves.” In the opinion pages of the New York Times, a recent headline urged the West to “arm Ukraine or surrender.”

But arming Ukraine does not seem like much of a strategy. It may do some good in assuaging the West’s wounded pride, but it would hardly help Ukraine find a way out of this war. The setbacks it has faced in the last two weeks have shown that the most plausible solution is through the peace talks that began, at Putin’s insistence, on Monday in the capital of Belarus. Instead of demanding full secession from Ukraine, as the rebel leaders had previously done, they came to the table asking for various forms of autonomy. Among the finer points of such an arrangement there does appear to be room for a deal, and Putin has signaled his willingness to accept one. On Wednesday he called on the rebel militias to “stop advancing” to allow the negotiations to proceed.

It is not clear what kind of compromise either side would be willing to accept. Russia wants the separatists to have enough political influence to stymie Ukraine’s integration with the West for many years to come. Ukraine, for its part, would likely draw the line at giving rebels the right to shape their economic ties with Moscow. Either outcome would be abhorrent to many Ukrainians, and with parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of next month, President Petro Poroshenko will face growing pressure to abandon the talks and resume the fighting.

The flow of Western military aid would likely make that a lot more tempting. If the negotiations stall – or prove too humiliating for Poroshenko – he may feel compelled to try his luck on the battlefield once more. Equipped with an arsenal of NATO-grade kit, Ukraine’s forces could again march on the separatist holdouts in the east, hoping to surround them and lay siege to their cities.

That is roughly where the conflict stood about two weeks ago – when the death toll in this war had already topped 2,000 – and Poroshenko had his best chance to begin negotiations on his own terms. His military had at that point taken back control of more than half of the rebel-held territory and encircled their remaining strongholds. But instead of halting the advance and initiating talks from a position of strength, Poroshenko attempted to clear out the rebels by force. Putin then made his reaction clear, says Simon Saradzhyan, a Russia expert at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. “He will not stand by and let the separatists be defeated.”

When Ukraine’s armed forces seemed at the verge of victory last month, both NATO and Kiev observed that the usual flow of Russian arms across the border turned into a surge of regular Russian troops, more than a 1000 of them, who quickly reversed the Ukrainian advance. This was a paradigm shift in the war. It showed for the first time that Putin is prepared to sacrifice his soldiers in order to keep the separatist cause alive.

There isn’t much reason to believe he would act differently in the future. If Ukraine’s forces were equipped with Western arms, it might in fact be easier for Putin to justify a broader offensive against them. His narrative at home would no longer be about the “fascist” Ukrainian military and the beleaguered freedom fighters dying for their right to speak the Russian language. It would be about Western weapons slaughtering the ethnic Russians of eastern Ukraine. That picture on Kremlin-owned TV would incite enough outrage against the West in Russia to subdue public resistance to the use of Russian troops.

In a phone call with the European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso this week, the Russian President warned that he could, if he wanted, “take Kiev in two weeks.” With Western arms thrown into the fight, it would probably take him longer. But short-term military aid won’t close the gulf between Russian and Ukrainian firepower. Russia’s defense budget is nearly 50 times greater than Ukraine’s. It has roughly eight times as many fighter jets, warships and active military personnel. And then there is the threat Putin made on Aug. 29: “I want to remind you that Russia is one of the strongest nuclear powers,” he said. “These are not words. This is reality.”

TIME

Hacker Attacks on American Banks Look More Like Fraud Than Russian Cyberwar

Cyber Crime
Philippe Brysse—Getty Images

The theft of data from JPMorgan Chase does not fit the established pattern of Russia's political cyberattacks against rival nations

Subtlety has never been the strong suit of Russia’s hacker-patriots. In 2008, during the Russian invasion of Georgia, they managed to hijack or disable all the key websites of the Georgian government, plastering one of them with images of Adolf Hitler. The year before that, during Russia’s diplomatic spat with Estonia over a Soviet war memorial, hackers targeted Estonian banks, media and government websites, paralyzing some of them for days. None of these attacks had any clear financial motive. They were meant to send a political message, and though it proved impossible to trace them back to the Kremlin, the attacks were designed to make it as easy as possible for the victim to infer their Russian origins.

That is partly why the latest reports suggesting that Russian hackers might have targeted American banks seem so different. As the Bloomberg news agency reported on Thursday, the attacks appear to have come in mid-August, just as the U.S. imposed its harshest round of sanctions to punish Russia for intervening in Ukraine. Those sanctions could indeed have been a motive for Russian hackers to hit back, as the Bloomberg report suggested, citing sources familiar with the FBI investigation of the crime. Instead of targeting the U.S. government agencies behind the sanctions — or indeed any branch of the U.S. government — the suggestion is that they might have gone after JPMorgan Chase and at least one other financial institution.

If true, this would mark a major shift in the cybercomponent of Russia’s ongoing standoff with the West. From its inception in March, when Russia annexed the region of Crimea from Ukraine, this conflict has not involved the use of hackers on any serious scale. “We were all expecting a major Russian cyberoffensive against Ukraine, something along the lines of the Estonian example,” says Andrei Soldatov, a Moscow-based expert on cyberwarfare and the Russian security services. “But none of that ever happened, which was strange. A lot of people were wondering, including in NATO, what’s the deal? Why aren’t the Russians doing what they normally do?”

Only a couple of incidents played into these expectations. The Ukrainian security service claimed in early March that Crimea was being used as a base for cyberattacks on Ukrainian cell-phone networks, though no widespread disruptions followed. Then, just before Russia formally annexed Crimea on March 18, hackers briefly took down the public websites of the NATO military alliance.

This was not the stuff of cyberwar, and neither is the reported attack on American banks this month, says Nikita Kislitsin, a cybersecurity expert in Moscow and a former editor of Russia’s Hacker Magazine. “Even if there is a political motive, it is more likely just a mask for criminal intent,” he says. The troves of data stolen from the banks’ websites could either be sold online or used to siphon money from banks’ accounts. Had the hackers wanted to send a political message, they would likely have chosen different targets and different means of attack.

The cyberattacks on Estonia and Georgia both involved one of the more primitive weapons in the hacker arsenal. Known as the distributed denial of service attack, or DDoS, it overwhelms a server with so many requests that it crashes. In the case of Estonia, a member of a Kremlin-backed youth group called Nashi admitted to organizing the DDoS attacks “to teach the Estonian regime a lesson.” In the case of Georgia, pro-Kremlin hackers posted instructions online on how to launch a DDoS attack on Georgian servers, and anyone who sympathized with the Russian cause in that war was thus invited to do their patriotic part in the cyberoffensive.

The reason no such campaign was launched against Ukraine, Soldatov suggests, is that the Nashi youth group was disbanded in 2012 and its political overseers lost their jobs in a Kremlin shake-up. “The new team that came in doesn’t seem to like working with hackers very much,” he says. “They use the Internet more for the dissemination of propaganda.”

And it is hard to see an upside in the propaganda war from attacking big Western financial institutions. If anything, the Kremlin would be interested in keeping such companies on its side, encouraging them to lobby their governments to ease the sanctions on the Russian economy. Many Western businesses have a vested interest in keeping Russia open to trade and investment. So it would not make much sense to antagonize them with a state-sponsored hacker attack. Whatever the motives and means involved in hacking American banks, they do not fit the mold of Russia’s previous cyberwars with its disobedient neighbors.

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