TIME Ukraine

Top U.S. General Says Washington Should Consider Arming Ukraine

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill
Joshua Roberts—Reuters Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Martin Dempsey testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 3, 2015

"Putin’s ultimate objective is to fracture NATO," says General Martin Dempsey

The U.S. military’s leading general says Washington should now consider providing Ukrainian forces with lethal aid to help combat the nation’s pro-Kremlin insurgency.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey argued during a Senate hearing on Tuesday that the allegedly Russian-backed rebellion threatens to undo more than six decades of peace in Europe and could potentially splinter the NATO alliance.

“I think we should absolutely consider lethal aid and it ought to be in the context of NATO allies because Putin’s ultimate objective is to fracture NATO,” Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The general’s remarks echo similar pleas made in recent months by a plethora of top American foreign policy officials. The U.S. has already provided approximately $100 million in nonlethal aid to Ukraine, but has refrained thus far from directly arming the country.

However, experts question whether supplying Kiev with advanced weaponry would force the Kremlin to reassess its policy goals in Ukraine.

“Russia is not going to give up in Ukraine, because it is protecting its strategic interests in Ukraine,” Alexander Korolev, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, tells TIME. “Even if the costs of the conflict are very high for Russia, Russia will be willing to bear those costs.”

On Monday, the U.N. published a report claiming that an estimated 6,000 people have been killed and at least 1 million displaced since the pro-Russian uprising erupted in southeastern Ukraine last April.

“All aspects of people’s lives are being negatively affected, and the situation is increasingly untenable for the local inhabitants, especially in areas controlled by the armed groups,” said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a statement.

Representatives from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reported this week that fighting in rebel strongholds in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions appears to be waning, after a tenuous cease-fire was inked in Belarus last month.

But during a press conference in Tokyo on Tuesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said lasting peace wouldn’t be achievable until Moscow returns the Crimea peninsula, which was annexed by Russian forces last March.

“There could be no slightest way of normalizing or getting back to business in the relations between Ukraine and Russia without returning to status quo and establishing full Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea,” he said.

TIME Ukraine

U.N. Rights Office: Death Toll in Eastern Ukraine Passes 6,000

An elderly woman walks across a destroyed bridge, in an area with heavy fighting in Donetsk, Ukraine, March 1, 2015
Vadim Ghirda—AP An elderly woman walks across a destroyed bridge in an area with heavy fighting in Donetsk, Ukraine, on March 1, 2015

The conflict has led to a "merciless devastation of civilian lives and infrastructure," the U.N. says

(BERLIN) — More than 6,000 people have died in eastern Ukraine since the start of the conflict almost a year ago that has led to a “merciless devastation of civilian lives and infrastructure,” the U.N. human rights office said Monday.

Hundreds of civilians and military personnel have been killed in recent weeks alone after an upswing in fighting particularly near Donetsk airport and in the Debaltseve area, the Geneva-based body said in a report covering the period from December to February. The strategic railroad town of Debaltseve was captured from Ukrainian government forces last month by pro-Russian separatists.

While Russia denies its troops are fighting in Ukraine, the U.N. cited “credible reports (that) indicate a continuing flow of heavy weaponry and foreign fighters” from Russia.

“This has sustained and enhanced the capacity of armed groups of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ and ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ to resist Government armed forces and to launch new offensives in some areas, including around the Donetsk airport, Mariupol and Debaltseve,” it said.

U.N. rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein said many civilians stay in embattled areas “because they fear for their lives if they try to move.”

“Many others stay to protect children, other family members, or their property,” while some are forced to stay or unable to leave, he said.

The report cited “credible allegations of arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances, committed mostly by the armed groups but in some instances also by the Ukrainian law enforcement agencies.” It noted video footage appeared to support allegations of summary executions by the rebels.

The displacement of 1 million people has also increased the risk for women from sex traffickers, the report found.

Zeid called on all sides to comply with a recent accord signed in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, that foresees the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line.

TIME russia

Thousands March in Moscow to Mourn Slain Putin Foe

Moscow, Russia, Sunday, March 1, 2015. People carry a huge banner reading 'those bullets for everyone of us, heroes never die!' as they march in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov who was gunned down on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015 near the Kremlin.Thousands converged Sunday in central Moscow to mourn veteran liberal politician Boris Nemtsov, whose killing on the streets of the capital has shaken Russia’s beleaguered opposition. They carried flowers, portraits and white signs that said “I am not afraid.”
Yuri Kozyrev—Noor for TIME A woman holds a poster reading 'propaganda kills' as people march in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov near the Kremlin in Moscow on March 1, 2015.

Tens of thousands of people marched Sunday under a gray Moscow sky in honor of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition figure who was gunned down Friday night mere steps from the Kremlin. Clutching flowers, Russian flags and signs reading “Propaganda kills,” and “I am not afraid,” throngs of demonstrators walked together over the bridge where the liberal politician who served as first Deputy Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin was reportedly shot four times in the back while walking with his girlfriend — just a few hours after going on the radio to encourage people to protest the policies of President Vladimir Putin.

“It’s not just about Boris Nemtsov. We all were shot in the heart,” said Alexei Glikov, a 51-year-old advertising executive who had not planned to come to the rally originally scheduled for Sunday. “But after what happened, I had to come.”

Nemtsov’s murder has sent waves of shock and grief through an already battered Russian opposition. But for one day at least, it also seems to have galvanized them. Organizers of Sunday’s march said turnout far outstripped expectations, with Russian media reporting that more than 56,000 people passed through metal detectors set up at the start of the route in Slavic Square on the banks of the Moscow River.

“The numbers have been very, very impressive,” said Leonid Volkov, one of the organizers of the march and a member of the Party of Progress founded by embattled opposition leader and anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny. Navalny himself couldn’t attend the rally because he’s currently in jail, where he’s serving a 15-day sentence for breaking his probation by campaigning for the originally planned march. “I think this is definitely the largest rally since 2011–2012,” added Volkov, referring to the mass Bolotnaya Square protests that followed Putin’s return to the presidency.

Nemtsov, a gregarious physicist, built a reputation as a committed economic reformer while serving as governor of Nizhny Novgorod in the 1990s. Yeltsin appointed him to his government and reportedly considered Nemtsov to be his successor before instead choosing Vladimir Putin. After Putin’s rise to power, Nemtsov became one of his most vocal critics.

“We came here to honor Boris Nemtsov’s memory,” said Nadya Tolokonnikova of the punk collective Pussy Riot as she made her way through the crowd with Pyotr Pavlensky, a protest artist best known for nailing his scrotum to the ground in Red Square in 2013. Asked by TIME whether state propaganda has made Russia an unsafe place for political dissenters, Tolokonnikova said, “Of course, yes. I have felt it in my own skin.”

Over the past year, the major Russian television networks, all of which are owned or controlled by the Kremlin, have pumped out endless hours of vitriol against those who oppose Putin and his policies, saying that Nemtsov, Navalny, Tolokonnikova and others are “internal enemies,” part of a nefarious “fifth column” intent on weakening Russia. Whether or not the Kremlin had anything to do with Nemtsov’s murder, there is a wide perception among the opposition that it was made possible by the fanged patriotic fervor Putin has cultivated over the past year.

“It’s an act meant to instill fear in people,” said Lyudmila, a pensioner who said her heart had called her to the march. “They are clearing the field,” added her husband Alexander, who called Nemtsov a “brave and honest man” who “unquestionably” died because of his political beliefs.

“This was absolutely a political action,” said Irina Khakamada, a personal friend and former political ally of Nemtsov’s, as she walked across the mud-splattered boulevard. In her opinion, his murder was “not directly the action of President Putin, because this isn’t so profitable for him. But it was done by radicals as a result of the information war that’s been happening inside the country. We’re hearing all the time about the fifth column, the enemies of the state — all opposition, not just the politicians, all people with independent minds.”

As the crowd swelled in numbers, rage and frustration were palpable. Demonstrators locked arms and chanted “Russia without Putin” and “Putin is a murderer,” raising a specter of mass defiance not seen for years in the Russian capital. The Bolotnaya Square protests ended in dozens of arrests and new draconian laws limiting public demonstrations. In the years since, the Kremlin has further tightened the screws on the media and passed rigid laws curbing artistic expression. The events of the past year — the annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine and resulting Western sanctions have only boosted Putin’s approval rating, which currently stands at an unbelievable 86%, according to the latest poll by Moscow’s independent Levada Center. Some expressed hope that Nemtsov’s death could be a turning point.

“The rally today, it creates very strong political momentum for the opposition, which was in apathy and disorientation over the past year because of all the Ukrainian events,” said organizer Volkov.

Yet many people were quick to add that all of their hopes, in the end, were just that.

“I am pessimistic about the opposition movement here,” said Vera Gavrilina, a 24-year-old in a fur coat and red lipstick carrying a bouquet of white roses. “There aren’t enough people and the TV propaganda has such a strong influence. I hope this will be a turning point, but I don’t think it will be.”

TIME russia

See Russians Come Out in Droves to Mourn a Slain Putin Critic

Large crowds turned out in Moscow to march through the city in honor of Boris Nemtsov, a well-known opposition leader and critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin

TIME russia

Moscow March Honors Slain Putin Critic

Russia Opposition Leader Killed
Dmitry Lovetsky—AP People march in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov near the Kremlin in Moscow on March 1, 2015.

Immense crowds turned out in Moscow on Sunday to march through the city in honor of slain Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov.

Nemtsov — an opposition politician and frequent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin — was supposed to appear at a Sunday rally protesting Russia’s role in the fighting in Ukraine. The rally was converted into a memorial march after the 55-year-old was gunned down late Friday on a street just steps from the Kremlin.

Russians of all ages took to the streets under gray skies on Sunday, many carrying signs with a single word: “Fight” and clutching images of Nemtsov…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME russia

Why the Kremlin Is Blaming Putin Critic’s Murder on a ‘Provocation’

Anti-Putin Protest Held In Red Square
Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images Boris Nemtsov, center, and other opposition activists attend a rally at Red Square on April 8, 2012 in Moscow.

The loaded word is intended to hint at foreign enemies

On Saturday the Kremlin trotted out a favorite piece of Russian doublespeak to explain the murder of one of its most strident critics. Boris Nemtsov, a leading figure in the opposition to President Vladimir Putin, was shot dead around midnight on Friday a short walk from Red Square, and within hours the state had deemed the killing a provokatsiya, a word whose translation into English, “provocation,” does not begin to capture its ability in Russian to shift blame and manipulate suspicion.

The first one to offer this explanation was Putin, who remarked through his spokesman in the early hours of Saturday morning, as Nemtsov’s body still lay on the asphalt, that the murder “bears all the hallmarks of a provocation.” The phrase, vague as it seems, then appeared to set the tone for the subsequent coverage of the murder on state-run television and the pronouncements of Putin’s allies.

Sergei Markov, a long-time Kremlin spindoctor, wrote on his Facebook page that “Nemtsov was killed by Putin’s enemies with the aim of framing Putin for the murder.” Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the region of Chechnya, took things a step further: “There are no doubts whatsoever that Western special services organized Nemtsov’s murder,” he wrote on his Instagram account.

But to the average viewer of state-TV, Putin’s use of the term “provocation” would be enough to evoke the invisible hand of Russia’s enemies, while also hinting that the Kremlin, once provoked, could be justified in responding in unpredictable ways. Back in 1983, for instance, the Soviet Union claimed that its downing of a Korean airliner full of passengers was in fact the result of a blatant American provocation.

The term was similarly useful in redirecting blame in Nemtsov’s case, as investigators made clear in their statement on Saturday. Before they could even complete the forensic testing in the case, the sleuths at the Investigative Committee, Russia’s version of the FBI, declared that Nemtsov had likely become a “sacrificial victim” in a provocation staged by those who “want to destabilize the political situation” in Russia.

The Committee’s statement went on to offer a variety of colorful theories, suggesting that anyone from Islamic extremists to “very radical” but unspecified forces from Ukraine could be behind the murder. For good measure, they left open the possibility that Nemtsov was killed due to a personal or business dispute.

But the investigators made no mention of the people most obviously interested in silencing Nemtsov – the state officials he had for years antagonized with his campaigns against corruption. By leaving that out of their initial conclusions, the investigators in effect dismissed even the slightest possibility that the President’s supporters, not to mention his direct subordinates, could be behind the assassination of a man portrayed for years on Kremlin-run media as an enemy of the state.

Much the same has been the case after each of the violent attacks that have befallen Putin’s opponents during his 15 years in power. After every one of these crimes, state officials have suggested that the attackers were not out to kill or hurt their victims, but to tarnish Putin’s good name.

On one occasion in 2007, Putin’s adviser even lumped two of the most notorious unsolved murders together – those of the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006 and the whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko the following month – as a “well-planned provocation” against Russia. “There are strong groups that unite with each other in a constant onslaught against the President,” the adviser, Igor Shuvalov, said in explaining the murders, which seemed to have no clear connection to each other.

It never became clear what “strong groups” he was talking about, as no one was ever charged in Russia for ordering those two killings. Last fall, the Kremlin even refused to cooperate with a public inquiry into Litvinenko’s death in London, where he was poisoned in 2006 with radioactive polonium. British authorities have linked that murder to Russian security services, but have been stonewalled in response.

Given those precedents, the investigation into Nemtsov’s shooting will likely be just as murky, leaving most Russians to choose from the range of theories their leaders have already offered them, and to wonder what else to expect from a Kremlin so crudely provoked.

TIME russia

5 Disputed Numbers That Explain Geopolitics

Ukraine
Vadim Ghirda—AP Russia-backed separatist fighters stand next to self propelled 152 mm artillery pieces, part of a unit moved away from the front lines, in Yelenovka, near Donetsk, Ukraine, Feb. 26, 2015.

From Argentina’s economic woes to Iran’s nuclear timeline, statistics that are up for debate can tell us a lot about geopolitics. 

Every world leader uses data for political purposes. But some take it a step further. Here are five disputed stats where the controversy itself sheds light on a deeper political question.

1. How many Russians are in Ukraine?

Estimates of Russian troops in Ukraine differ dramatically depending on which side of the border you’re standing on. (That is, if you can find the border—Russian-backed separatists continue to take territory in southeast Ukraine). Ukrainian President Poroshenko proclaimed last month that there are more than 9,000 Russian troops and 500 tanks and armored vehicles in his country. But Russia claims it isn’t that many—zero, to be exact. According to a spokesman for Putin, “there are no Russian tanks or army in Ukraine.” Other players split the difference: in August, a separatist leader claimed that 3,000 to 4,000 Russian citizen “volunteers” provided assistance to the rebels.

(Reuters, CNN, LA Times)

2. How quickly could Iran build a nuclear weapon?

When Western leaders emphasize the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, there’s a recurring, essential question: How long would it take for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build a bomb? Iran consistently downplays the threat: an Iranian source cited the ‘breakout time’ at a minimum of 18 months. But Washington believes it’s drastically shorter: about 2-3 months. There’s also fierce debate about how long that breakout time should be. In ongoing nuclear negotiations, the Obama administration wants to ensure it would take at least a year. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to eliminate Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons altogether.

(Reuters, Institute for Science and International Security, New York Times)

3. Can China boast that its economy is #1?

Last year, the International Monetary Fund projected that China’s economy was about to overtake the United States’ when measured on a purchasing power basis (a less common way of measuring GDP that takes exchange rates into account). China became the world’s largest trading nation back in 2012. But even China is pushing back against any perception that it’s on top: the state-run news agency Xinhua ran a piece in January titled “China denies being world’s No. 1 economy.” Beijing is careful to stress that it’s still very much a developing country, not yet wealthy enough to take on a lot of global responsibilities. They have a point. Despite relentless growth—last year’s economic output topped $10 trillion, more than five times higher than a decade before—China’s output per person is still nowhere near that of the U.S.

(New York Times, Bloomberg, Xinhua, Economist)

4. Just how valuable for Americans would the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) be?

One of President Obama’s biggest foreign policy priorities before he leaves office is to ink the TPP, a trade agreement that includes a dozen countries that collectively account for 40% of world trade and roughly a third of global GDP. The administration is quick to point out the estimated economic benefits. According to John Kerry, “TPP could provide $77 billion a year in real income and support 650,000 new jobs in the U.S. alone.” But not everyone buys that jobs claim. The White House’s statistics come from a 2012 book by the Peterson Institute that didn’t provide a precise jobs estimate. The book’s author said he avoided doing so because, “like most trade economists, we don’t believe that trade agreements change the labor force in the long run.”

(Congressional Research Service, Washington Post)

5. How is Argentina’s economy doing?

Argentina’s economic troubles are common knowledge. So is the government’s tendency to cast the numbers in a rosier light. The government claimed 30% growth in GDP from 2007 to 2012 (5.3% annual average rate), but a study last year claimed that GDP only grew half that much and the size of the economy was at least 12% smaller than official government estimates. Then there’s the issue of inflation. The government estimates 21% inflation for this year—but some private economists expect a rate of nearly 40%. Furthermore, the government’s official exchange rate doesn’t reflect reality: one U.S. dollar is officially worth about 8.7 pesos, yet the informal rate is as high as 13.

(World Economics Journal, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, BNamericas, Bloomberg)

TIME russia

Kremlin Critic Gunned Down in Moscow Ahead of Anti-Putin March

Russia Opposition Leader Killed
Pavel Golovkin—AP People lay flowers at the place where Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic Russian opposition leader and sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 28, 2015.

The Russian President has pledged to oversee the investigation

The Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in Moscow around midnight on Friday as he walked within view of the Kremlin walls.

Soon after the gunshots rang out in the heart of the Russian capital, President Vladimir Putin was informed of the murder, which he characterized as a “provocation.” Through his spokesman, Putin told Russian news agencies early on Saturday morning that, “This cruel killing has all the signs of a hired hit and bears the distinctive character of a provocation.”

Though numerous Kremlin critics have been assassinated during Putin’s tenure, none have been as prominent as the 55-year-old Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister in the administration of Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. His killing will likely galvanize the opposition movement and once again test the ability and willingness of Russian authorities to investigate acts of violence against Putin’s opponents. Such crimes have tended to go unsolved since Putin took power 15 years ago.

According to police and investigators in Moscow, Nemtsov was shot several times as he crossed the bridge that leads to the southern gates of the Kremlin fortress. Police said they have launched a citywide manhunt for the assailants, who escaped the scene of the crime in a white car.

Nemtsov’s murder took place two days before he and his allies in the opposition were due to lead a massive march in Moscow on Sunday against the Putin regime. The demonstration, as well as parallel protests in more than a dozen cities across the country, is meant to condemn Putin’s handling of the ongoing conflict with the West over Ukraine and the damage it has done to Russia’s economy.

Outrage poured in from the ranks of Russia’s opposition movement as news of the murder spread. “I’m certain that this scum will pay a high price,” said Nemtsov’s close friend and ally Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Russian Prime Minister. “Right now every member of the opposition needs society’s protection,” he told the state news agency Tass.

TIME russia

Russian Opposition Leader Shot Dead

Rallies Held In Moscow Ahead of Secession Vote
Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images Russian opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov speaks during a rally against the policies and intervention in Ukraine and a possible war in Crimea, on March 15.

Boris Nemtsov served as deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin

A leading critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin was shot and killed in central Moscow on Friday.

Boris Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin, was killed by an unidentified attacker, Russia’s Interfax news agency reports.

President Barack Obama condemned Nemtsov’s murder in a statement Friday. “I admired Nemtsov’s courageous dedication to the struggle against corruption in Russia and appreciated his willingness to share his candid views with me when we met in Moscow in 2009,” he said.

Nemtsov, 55, was a prominent opposition member who was previously considered an economic reformer as governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The opposition has been planning a “Spring” rally on March 1 that aims to draw 100,000 people to the march in Moscow.

TIME russia

Putin’s Approval Rating Rises to 86% Despite Slumping Economy

Cyprus Agrees Military Deal With Russia
Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades (L) during a joint press conference in Novo Ogaryvo State Residence on February 25 in Moscow.

Despite sinking relations with the West—or maybe because of it—Putin is nearly as popular as ever at home.

Russian President Vladimir Putin saw his approval ratings tick up to 86% even as the economy reels from Western sanctions and falling oil prices.

Levada Center, a Moscow-based pollster, released a poll Thursday showing Putin’s approval ratings increased one percentage point from a month earlier.

Putin’s approval numbers have soared nearly twenty points since early 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and sent relations with the West tumbling to the lowest levels since the end of the Cold War. His ratings reached a high of 87% in August.

The high ratings come even as the Russian economy faces recession. The ruble has lost nearly half of its value in the past twelve months, and the government expects the economy to shrink 3 percent this year, the first drop since 2009.

It can be hard to tell how reliable polling numbers are in Russia, though Levada is considered the most dependable. It’s likely though that Putin’s showdown with the West has won him fresh support amid a surge in nationalism — and the Russian media’s positive spin on everything Putin may have also helped boost his popularity.

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