TIME A Year In Space

Liftoff! A Year in Space Begins

Scott Kelly and his crewmates take off for the International Space Station

You’d think you’d have trouble deciding how to spend your last day on Earth if you were about to leave it for a year. But the fact is, you’d have nothing to decide at all. Every bit of it would be planned for you—literally second by second—as it was today for cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko and astronaut Scott Kelly, in advance of their liftoff at 1:42:57 AM local time. Kornienko and Kelly are set to be aboard the International Space Station for the full year; Padalko will be there for six months.

The three men were instructed to nap until nine hours before launch, or precisely 4:42:57 PM in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, where the Russian launch facilities are located. They left their quarters exactly one hour later, at 5:52:57 PM, settled into the space center ready-rooms and began their pre-flight preparations at 6:52:57. And on the day would tick.

For the families, all those hours were a much more ambling business—time they had to contrive to fill on their own. As Kelly was getting his final hours of mandated terrestrial sleep, his daughters, Samantha and Charlotte, 20 and 11, his partner Amiko Kauderer and his twin brother Mark—a retired astronaut—visited Baikonur’s outdoor market in a hunt for spices Kauderer and the girls wanted to take home. Mark, who had arrived in Baikonur yesterday still wearing his characteristic mustache—the only thing that allows most people to distinguish between him and Scott—had shaved it off this morning.

“Do I look like my brother now?” he asked, and then added mischievously, “Maybe I am…”

Kauderer, who works as a NASA public affairs officer and has witnessed her share of launches as well as her share of spouses steeling themselves—at least outwardly—for the experience, carried herself with the same apparent calm. So did the girls, who have seen their father fly off to space three times before. As for what Scott himself was feeling, Mark was reasonably sure it was nothing terribly special.

“He’s been through this routine four times already,” he said. “Actually, when you count the times you don’t launch, it’s probably six or seven.”

MORE: Watch the Trailer for TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

That routine pressed on today regardless of what Scott might or might not have been feeling. At 7:52 PM, the crew, still clad in Earth-appropriate jumpsuits, left the ready-rooms for the 100-yard walk to the buses that would take them to the suit-up building. A rousing Russian song played over loudspeakers, while crowds were kept behind rope lines, both to prevent a crush and protect the astronauts who, though walking without surgical masks, were still under medical quarantine.

Once they were sealed inside their bus, however, the lines collapsed and the crowd surged forward. A child was lifted to touch the window. Padalko pressed both of his hands on the glass while a woman reached up and pressed hers opposite. In Russia—if not in the U.S.—cosmonauts are every bit the cultural phenomena they were half a century ago.

No one outside of flight technicians saw the crew again for another two hours—until they had been suited up and the families were brought in for a final goodbye—the men leaving the Earth on one side of a glass and the loved ones staying behind on the other, communicating via microphones. “Poka, poka”—Russian for “bye-bye”—Padalko’s daughters called to him again and again.

Mark, who made two visits to the space station on his shuttle flights, was less sentimental in bidding farewell to his brother. “I left some old T-shirts up in the gym,” he said. “Want to bring them down for me?”

“You look good without that mustache,” Scott answered.

“Yeah, I’ll probably grow it back on the flight home. I miss it already.”

Scott’s exchanges with Amiko, Charlotte and Samantha were less playful, more tender, and afterwards, when Roscosmos officials declared the five minutes allotted for the visit over, Amiko gathered the girls in a hug. “We have to hold it together,” she says. “That’s our job, to hold it together and to help him.”

Finally, family, media and space officials left the suit-up building and walked to the parking lot just outside. The crew emerged a few minutes later to a fusillade of camera flashes and walked to three designated spots painted on the asphalt. American, Russian and Kazakh flags fluttered behind them and Roscosmos officials stood before them, bidding them a final goodbye. Padalko, the commander, stood in the middle during the little ceremony, and he occupies the middle seat in the spacecraft as well. A Soyuz veteran, he has joked that he could fly the craft with nothing but a pair of cabbages in the seats on either side of him.

Maybe. But if he meant that in the months and years he was training for this flight, there was no sign of it on the night he left. The crew, who would depend on one another for their lives tonight, boarded their bus, drove to the pad and climbed into their spacecraft. Two and a half hours later, at the designated second, their Soyuz rocket’s 20 engines lit and they left Kazakhstan—and the planet—behind them.

TIME will be covering Kelly’s mission in the new series, A Year In Space. Watch the trailer here.

TIME A Year In Space

How—and Why—Russian Rockets Get Blessed

A Russian orthodox priest blesses the Soyuz Rocket, staff and members of the media two days before its launch.  The Rocket will carry American Astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka to the International Space Station.
Philip Scott Andrews for TIME A Russian orthodox priest blesses the Soyuz Rocket, staff and members of the media two days before its launch. The Rocket will carry American Astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka to the International Space Station.

A ritual unheard of in the Soviet days precedes the launch of a one-year space station mission

God didn’t have much role in rocketry during the days of the old Soviet Union. The officially atheist state was a creature of economics, politics, industry, ideology. But religion? Not so much.

The barricades to faith fell along with the Berlin Wall and religion now thrives in Russia and the cities and nations of the old empire. That includes Baikonur, where cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko and astronaut Scott Kelly will take off in the early hours of March 28 for a long-duration stay aboard the International Space Station—and where less than 37 hours before launch, three Russian Orthodox priests arrived to perform a blessing of the Soyuz rocket that will carry the men.

It was sunny at the launch pad and, at 37° F (2.7° C), far more comfortable than the 18° F (-7.7° C) of the pre-dawn rollout of the Soyuz the day before. The priests arrived along with a large entourage of officials from Energiya, the company that built the rocket. The holy men chanted prayers for the rocket and the lead priest splashed the Energiya group with holy water. Then he did the same to the small crowd of gathered media. He took two questions from the Russian press, and within 20 minutes, the ceremony was over.

The priests looked small next to the 15-story tower of machinery they were blessing, and minds of different faiths—or of no faith at all—can differ about whether the ceremony offers any divine protection. But within sight of the Soyuz pad is the Soviets’ one-time lunar pad, where, on July 3, 1969, the massive N1 rocket that was supposed to take cosmonauts to the moon, erupted in the largest non-nuclear blast in history, spelling the end of Soviet lunar ambitions.

Terrible things can happen when people dare to fly to space. It’s in the nature of human beings to make such presumptuous journeys anyway. And it’s in our nature too to seek a little safety and comfort before we do.

Read next: A Year in Orbit Starts in Kazakhstan

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TIME space

Rocket Bound for Space Station Rolls Out in the Kazakh Steppes

The Russian Soyuz that will carry Scott Kelly to space for a year has its coming-out party in the frigid pre-dawn

All activity stops in the vicinity of a Soyuz rocket after the dog walks. The dog will walk on a lot of occasions, but especially the day the rocket rolls out to the pad. The two kilometer (1.25 mi.) trip takes more than two hours to complete, with the rocket lying on a flat-bed rail car and the train chugging no faster than 5 km/h, (3 mph) making multiple stops along the way.

MORE: Watch the Trailer for TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

At one point en route, the rail line crosses a road, and even on the locked-down, sealed-off grounds of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, that calls for special security—a bomb-sniffing dog to check the crossing when the train is still at least half a kilometer away. If you’re on the wrong side of the track after that, you’re out of luck. Nothing at all moves until the rocket crawls past, making its exceedingly slow way to the pad—preparatory to making its exceedingly fast way to space a couple of days later.

Like everything else in the Russian space program, the rollout proceeds according to ritual—determined by the needs of both the very breakable machines and the very superstitious people who build and fly them. Before dawn on March 25, the Soyuz set to carry astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonauts Gennady Pedalka and Mikhail Kornienko to the International Space Station—with Kelly and Kornienko scheduled to spend a year aloft—emerged slowly from its hangar.

Factoring in the wind chill, it was 18º F (-8º C) in the Kazakh steppe, with the engine pulling the Soyuz the only thing anywhere emitting any heat—and not much at that. The Soyuz emerges business end first, which is to say bottom end first, and that’s a good way to meet it. It takes 20 engines bundled in five clusters to produce the thrust the rocket will need to muscle itself off the ground. The top of the rocket where the crew rides ride is the prettier end—painted white and decorated with a Russian flag and the Roscosmos logo—but the men will never get to space in the first place without the fire the engines provide.

The route to the launch pad is lined by technicians, security officers and other personnel, including a Russian Orthodox priest, who will bless the rocket and the crew the following day. Amiko Kauderer, Kelly’s significant other, is here as well and while she’s plenty inured to the idea of space flight—this will be Kelly’s fourth time aloft—she is as struck by the sheer physicality of the rocket as anyone else.

“Isn’t it gorgeous?” she says. “My guy’s got a hot ride.”

The most prominent people not in attendance are the crewmen themselves, and that’s not only because they’re in pre-flight medical quarantine. “It’s T-minus 64 hours,” says astronaut Mike Fincke, who has himself launched twice from Baikonur and today is serving the traditional role of astronaut escort to a fellow astronaut’s family—in this case Kauderer and Kelly’s two daughters, Samantha, 20, and Charlotte, 11. “The crew has a lot of other things to do, but it’s also part of the tradition and superstition for them to stay away. It’s like not seeing the bride before the wedding.”

When the Soyuz reaches the pad, it still must be stood upright, a process that was once called its erection, until everyone just got tired of the jokes—especially after the Americans began flying out of the old Soviet space port. Now the term is “verticalizing.”

Whatever it’s called, it’s a slow exercise and even with the sun up, the air is bitter. “Someone text Uncle Mark and tell him to bring some hand warmers,” says Charlotte. Uncle Mark, of course, is Kelly’s twin brother, also an astronaut, also with four missions on his manifest—though all of his were made from the decidedly more temperate Cape Canaveral.

It’s only when the rocket is finally raised, briefly standing alone on the pad before it’s caged in its gantry, that the thrill—and the brazenness—of what it will do in 64 hours seems real. Cosmonauts and astronauts have been flying into space since Yuri Gagarin took off from the very same pad on April 12, 1961, and it has never been less than a hellishly dangerous business—putting human beings inside a massive machine filled with explosive fuel and, effectively, lighting a match. The fact that things have gone right far more often than they’ve gone wrong does not make every new attempt any easier or more certain.

“I have lots of mixed emotions, when you realize he’s going to be on top of that,” says Kauderer. “To quote Scott, ‘It’s about to get real.'”

TIME space

A Year in Orbit Starts in Kazakhstan

Scott Kelly waters the tree planted in his name in Baikonur, Kazhakstan on Saturday, March 21.
Jonathan D. Woods—TIME Scott Kelly waters the tree planted in his name in Baikonur, Kazhakstan on Saturday, March 21.

The great rituals of space travel play out on the Kazakh steppes

It’s easy to roll your eyes at PR—and easier still when you’re talking about space PR. Space has always been an industry built as much on imagery as engineering.

The Russians tended to go big. Their Yuri Gagarins and Alexei Leonovs became titans of iconography—figures of bronze and steel, their faces cast on coins and their heroic forms raised on pedestals in parks. The Americans went folksy—with reporters and photographers invited into astronauts’ homes while the family ate staged meals or played staged board games, the better to frame the man in the silver pressure suit as just a guy who worked hard and made it big.

MORE: Watch the Trailer for TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

Similar semiotics were on display this weekend at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where reporters were invited for a final series of press availabilities as cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka, and astronaut Scott Kelly prepare for a March 28 launch to the International Space Station—a mission that will include a marathon one-year stay for Kelly and Kornienko. If you came to Baikonur to watch the show—the faux scenes of faux training that played out while cameras fired and reporters tossed puffball questions—it was easy to wonder why the entire kabuki business wasn’t abandoned decades ago. But the kabuki business is a deeply important—even poignant—one, and the job of spacefaring would be much the poorer without it.

MORE: Meet the Twins Unlocking the Secrets of Space

Baikonur looks like what it is, which is to say a company town, albeit it one built for a very particular employer at a very particular time in its history. Much the same is true of the space coast of Florida and the communities around the Johnson Space Center in Houston—but much is different, too. The developers in Houston and Canaveral gave their neighborhoods names like Timber Cove and Cocoa Beach, and built ranch homes and beach houses in a ramble of neighborhoods and along strips of sand. If you worked there and lived there and ever tired of life there, you could always up sticks and move into the private sector.

Baikonur is known as, well, just Baikonur, a development of Soviet-era bleached-cream housing blocks built along paved-over promenades for families working in the service of the space center. Here too, you were always free to walk out of town, but once you did you’d find yourself in the Kazakh steppes, and there was no work to be had anywhere else, so best to stay where you were.

Today, Baikonur is the same—only older. The bleak Soviet housing is now bleak and flaking Soviet housing, and while there is a new hotel near the space center that, graded on a Kazakh curve, has a certain glitter to it, the space program as a whole is a much-reduced thing. Gone are the Mir and Salyut space stations. Gone are the unmanned missions to the moon and the planets. All that survives are the Soyuz rockets launching three-person crews to the space station, with seats going for north of $70 million each—a fat revenue stream for the modern Russian state, but one which will be choked off in 2017, when new manned spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing start flying.

But Baikonur is more than a space-age theme park. Much like the rest of the old Soviet Union, it’s a city where space has always been something of a secular faith. There are sacred spaces—the massive replica of a Soyuz rocket in the center of town, where, on an overcast day this weekend, a bride and groom danced at the center of a circle of twirling children. There is the alley of cosmonauts on the space center grounds, where every man or woman who has launched from here has planted a poplar tree before leaving Earth, beginning with Gagarin’s—the tallest and, at 54 years old, the oldest.

And into all this history this week, stepped Kelly and Kornienko and Padalka, still on the Earth but already disengaging from it. The press crowded in as the men were put on display, but they approached no closer than three meters, and no one could come even that close without clearing a medical screening and donning a surgical gown and mask, lest they pass on a cold or flu.

The three crewmen and three backup crewmen posed with a flight director and pretended to review procedural manuals, then worked at computer screens and pretended to run a docking drill, while the cameras flashed and flashed. They played at playing, too—10 minutes of ping pong and pool and badminton staged for the cameras. They’re boys, after all, and they work hard and play hard and the rough camaraderie and competitiveness that comes from that is just what they’ll need in space.

Kelly, who’s making his fourth flight, knows the drill well. “Misha, rematch!” he said to Kornienko as they approached the pool table, as if they do this every day. He knows too to poke gentle fun at the drill. “I wonder if they’ll notice if I pedal backwards,” he said to nobody in particular as he worked a stationary bike for a gym photo op.

And it all could have seemed too much, it all could have seemed too silly. But then, at the end of the day, the six crewmen came to visit cosmonaut alley. They walked past Gagarin’s tree first, and they walked past many others too—like the one planted by Leonov, the first man to walk in space, or Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. But they also walked past those of the three men of Soyuz 11, who planted their poplars in 1971 and then flew off to space and never touched ground again—or at least never touched it alive because their spacecraft depressurized during reentry and they thumped down on the same Kazakh steppe dead from asphyxiation, cold and silent when the rescue team opened the hatch.

All three prime crewmen for the upcoming mission have flown from Baikonur before, and all three thus already have trees, so they simply watered them for the photo op. Kelly’s is still little more than a twig, and he gave it only about half of the bucket of water he’d been provided. “I don’t want to drown him,” he said.

The pronoun, the him, was playful, but it was something more too. Kelly has two daughters—very much a pair of hers—and he’s spending a year in a place from which some people do not return. He knows that he’s leaving his girls and his friends and his family and his tree, that he’ll be gone till this time next year and would very much like to come home and see them all again.

The magical rituals—the wedding dance and the tree planting and yes, the staged press op where reporters are told to stand at a respectful distance and take the pictures they’re offered because the men and women who are the subjects of your shots are going into space and, let’s be honest, you’re not—have been part of the space fabric for a long time. Baikonur is a place built on such things, and the fact is, after half a century, far more cosmonauts have come home to see their trees than haven’t. The old ways, for better or worse, seem to work.

TIME russia

Putin’s Confessions on Crimea Expose Kremlin Media

Round table discussion marks 1st anniversary of reunification of Crimea with Russia
Vyacheslav Prokofyev—Itar-Tass/Corbis Dmitri Kiselyov, who runs the Kremlin’s media conglomerate, Rossiya Segodnya, attends a round table discussion dedicated to the first anniversary of the reunification of Crimea with the Russian Federation at Moscow's President Hotel, March 19, 2015.

Even as the Russian President admits deploying troops in Crimea, his chief propagandists, speaking to TIME, continue to deny it

It was an awkward test for many Russian journalists. Last spring, their President tried to mislead them—and the rest of the world—by denying that he had sent troops to conquer Crimea. Even as they witnessed Russian forces sweeping that Ukrainian peninsula, reporters on the Kremlin’s payroll were obliged to go along with Vladimir Putin’s claims.

But a year later, the President came clean. In a documentary aired last weekend, he admitted ordering his troops to seize Crimea weeks before it was annexed into Russia on March 18, 2014.

“I told all my colleagues, there were four of them, that the situation in Ukraine has forced us to start working on returning Crimea to Russia,” Putin says in the film, recounting a late-night meeting with his security chiefs in late February 2014. “We can’t leave that territory and the people who live there at the mercy of fate.”

The confession didn’t leave any good options for Russian newsmen like Dmitri Kiselyov, who runs the Kremlin’s media conglomerate Rossiya Segodnya and hosts a prime-time news and analysis show on state TV. He could either admit to misleading viewers last year and, in effect, blame Putin for the deception, or he could deny that any deception had occurred.

 

Confronted this week with the dilemma, Kiselyov stuck to denials.

“Vladimir Putin never changed his position,” he told TIME on Wednesday at the headquarters of his media corporation in Moscow. “Look, he never said that our troops aren’t there, because we always had a base there,” Kiselyov said, referring to the Russian naval base in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. Pressed on the identity of the troops who had surrounded and in some cases besieged Ukrainian military bases in Crimea last March, Kiselyov said: “The troops surrounding them were local self-defense forces, but not Russian troops.”

It was an odd position to take. Although critics of the Kremlin have often accused Russian state media of distorting facts and misleading viewers, this is the first time that such a momentous distortion has been so clearly and demonstrably false, contradicting not only the version of events presented in most independent media but also out of sync with Putin’s own statements.

In early March 2014, Putin was asked during a press conference to identify the troops who were fanning out across Crimea, driving Russian military vehicles but wearing no identifying markers on their uniforms. “Why don’t you take a look at the post-Soviet states,” Putin answered, according to a transcript on the Kremlin website. “There are many uniforms there that are similar. You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform.” The journalist persisted: Were they Russian soldiers or not? Those were local self-defense units,” Putin said.

Compare that line to his confession in the documentary—which was titled, Crimea: Homeward Bound—and it is clear that Putin did change his position. Not only does the President admit in the film to ordering his security forces to take control of Crimea last spring, but he also claims to have overseen the operation personally. “Our advantage was that I was personally dealing with it,” he says.

This came on top of Putin’s admission last April, a month after the annexation, that “Russian servicemen did back the Crimean self-defense forces,” and that in doing so, they acted in “a civil but a decisive and professional manner.” Moreover, the dramatic re-enactments of the seizure of Crimea shown in the documentary this month clearly depict the invading troops as Russian military, not local self-defense units.

Yet Kiselyov still continues to deny that Russian troops ever intervened in Crimea. “They were near by, at the base,” he tells TIME. “If there had been a conflict there, they would have intervened. But they did not intervene.”

He is not the only senior figure in the Kremlin’s media empire to take this peculiar stance. Last fall, TIME put a similar round of questions to Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of RT, the state-funded television network that broadcasts around the world in English, Spanish and Arabic. She also stuck to the claims that Putin made in March of last year about the Russian troops in Crimea being local self-defense forces. Asked about the apparent change in Putin’s story after that, she replied, “He never said that we fooled you… He did not admit that earlier statements were untrue.”

Since the annexation of Crimea, a similar debate has been raging over the role that Russian troops have played in the war in eastern Ukraine, where more than 6,000 people have been killed amid fighting between Ukrainian military forces and Russia’s proxy militias. Even as Russian and foreign journalists have documented the presence of Russian military hardware and servicemen on those battlefields, Putin has repeatedly denied sending any of his forces to fight alongside Ukrainian separatists, which the Kremlin has also referred to as local self-defense forces.

Asked on Wednesday whether Putin might be similarly deceiving the public on this question, just as he did last year with the invasion of Crimea, Kiselyov replied that he was “100% sure” that there are no Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. And what if a year from now the President admits in another documentary that he did send his forces to fight in those regions? “So far that hasn’t happened,” Kiselyov said. But if it does, Russians shouldn’t expect their fourth estate to admit to spreading falsehoods. It is apparently easier to stick to their denials.

TIME russia

Crimea Celebrates Its First Anniversary Of Annexation By Russia

The international community has piled sanctions on Russia in the 12 months since it annexed Crimea — but the people of Sevastopol don't seem to mind as they mark the day

TIME space

Why the First-Ever Spacewalk Was Kept Secret

leonov cover
Cover Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS The Mar. 26, 1965, cover of TIME

It took place on March 18, 1965

When the first man walked in space, almost nobody knew that it was happening.

Cautious about counting their cosmonaut before he was through the hatch, Soviet space officials kept the plan quiet until after success had been achieved. Aleksei Leonov had already safely returned to the Voskhod II spacecraft — 50 years ago today, on March 18, 1965 — before the Soviet space agency announced that he had left the ship and released photos and video of what had happened. (These days, the English spelling of the cosmonaut’s first name is more frequently “Alexei”; in 1965, however, this magazine spelled it with a “ks.”) The shots showed Leonov emerging from the craft’s hatch before turning a few somersaults to begin his 20 minutes in the nothingness.

The news wasn’t a complete surprise for the rest of the world, however. As TIME explained, U.S. radars had been following the Voskhod II and noticed, via a change in reflectivity, that a hole had opened in the craft. They also knew that Soviet ships were big enough and sturdy enough to accommodate several cosmonauts and the necessary equipment and airlock for a spacewalk. (American spaceships of the time had to be lighter, as the U.S. had not developed booster technology to lift spacecraft as heavy as the Soviets’.) The exact technology used by Leonov remained a mystery for the time being — for example, was the cord that tethered him to the ship a mere leash, or an “umbilical” connection for air or communications?

Still, even the USSR’s Cold-War enemies couldn’t help but admire the feat. As TIME reported, the following week, it was a momentous occasion for all humankind:

Tied to a capsule by a 16-ft. tether, the first human satellite whirled through the vacuum of space at 18,000 m.p.h.

For ten minutes Soviet Cosmonaut Aleksei Arkhipovich Leonov drifted and spun through dreamlike gyrations while he followed the spaceship Voskhod II in its swift, elliptical path around the distant earth. Then, as easily and efficiently as he had emerged from his ship, Leonov climbed back inside. After 15 more orbits, he and his comrade, Colonel Pavel Ivanovich Belyayev, began the long flight home.

With that brief solo excursion into hostile emptiness last week, Lieut. Colonel Leonov took man’s first tentative step down the long and dangerous track that he must travel before he truly conquers space. Circling the earth in a sealed and well-provisioned capsule has been demonstrated to be well within human capabilities, but the moon will never be explored, to say nothing of Mars and the other planets, unless fragile men learn to function in the outside vacuum where no earthborn organisms are naturally equipped to live.

Leonov’s short “stroll” into personal orbit was one of the most remarkable achievements of the remarkable age of space.

Read the full story, here in the TIME Vault: Adventure into Emptiness

TIME Ukraine

Tensions Escalate Between Kiev and Moscow Over ‘Special Status’ Bill

Ukrainian President Poroshenko addresses news conference following talks in Berlin
Axel Schmidt —Reuters Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko addresses a news conference following talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on March 16, 2015

“These actions by the Kiev authorities are yet another evidence of its policy of undermining the Minsk process”

Ukrainian legislators approved revisions to a law offering limited self-rule to pro-Russian insurgents in the country’s southeast on Tuesday, angering both rebels and the Kremlin alike who say the move undermines a fragile cease-fire agreement inked last month.

The legislation, which was first passed last September, grants “special status” and greater political autonomy to swaths of territory controlled by armed separatists. However, thanks to the newly introduced amendments, the law will only go into effect after internationally monitored elections are conducted in the rebel-held areas.

Moscow had already lambasted the revisions backed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and accused his administration of sabotaging the Minsk Protocol.

“These actions by the Kiev authorities are yet another evidence of its policy of undermining the Minsk process, which is already manifested in its appeals to the West to step up weapon deliveries to the Ukrainian military,” wrote Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the eve of the revisions’ passing.

However, proponents of the amendment appeared to pay little heed to the Kremlin’s concerns. “We are adopting these laws not for Putin or the occupiers,” said Andriy Parubiy, the parliament’s deputy speaker, according to Reuters.

Sporadic fighting between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian insurgents continues to flare on occasion in the country’s eastern Donbas region. However, observers say the latest truce continues to hold and has led to a dramatic reduction in hostilities over the last month.

TIME russia

Putin Puts Russia’s Northern Fleet on ‘Full Alert’ in Response to NATO Drills

Putin has finally re-emerged into the public eye after ten days

Russian President Vladimir Putin put the nation’s northern fleet on full alert in the Arctic Ocean this week, as animosity between the Kremlin and NATO continues to simmer.

The order, which was handed down early Monday, allows for the mobilization of 38,000 military personnel, 3,360 pieces of equipment, 41 ships, 15 submarines and 110 airplanes, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

“New challenges and threats of military security demand the further heightening of military capabilities of the armed forces and special attention will be paid to the state of the newly formed strategic merging [of forces] in the North,” said Shoigu, according to state media outlet Sputnik.

The mobilization of the Russian fleet appears to have been triggered by ongoing NATO-led military drills across northern and eastern European, including maritime exercises in the Black Sea.

On Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexey Meshkov accused NATO of conducting operations that were effectively undermining one of the world’s most stable regions.

“Such NATO actions lead to destabilization of the situation and increasing tensions in northeastern Europe,” Meshkov added, according to the Russia’s TASS news agency.

However, NATO has argued that Russia has continually stoked hostilities throughout the region by annexing the Crimea Peninsula in Ukraine and repeatedly violating European airspace.

NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu tells TIME that Russian snap exercises were a “serious concern” and completely out of proportion with the bloc’s drills.

By comparison, NATO only had 1,200 sailors onboard six ships in the Black Sea, she says, while ally Norway is conduting parallel national drills involving 5,000 troops.

“Russia has conducted about a dozen snap exercises over the past two years,” adds Lungescu. “Russia’s takeover of Crimea was done under the guise of a snap exercise. Russia’s snap exercises run counter to the spirit of the Vienna Document on confidence and security-building measures.”

Earlier this week, Putin admitted during a documentary broadcasted on Sunday that he considered putting the nation’s nuclear capabilities on alert to prevent outside agents from interfering with the Kremlin’s forced annexation of the Crimea peninsula last March.

Read next: Vladimir Putin Admits to Weighing Nuclear Option During Crimea Conflict

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TIME russia

Putin Reappears After 10-day Absence, Looks Healthy

Putin's decision to abruptly postpone a trip fueled speculation he was unwell

(ST. PETERSBURG, Russia) — Russian President Vladimir Putin resurfaced Monday, smiling and looking his normal self after a 10-day absence from public view that fueled a wave of rumors about his health.

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, who met with Putin in St. Petersburg’s ornate Konstantin Palace on Monday, referred to the swirling speculation about Putin by noting that the Russian leader was in good shape. He said Putin drove him around the palace’s park before the talks, adding that “the president of Russia not only walks, but speeds around.”

“It would be dull without gossip,” Putin retorted with a smile.

The 62-year-old Russian leader was last seen in public on March 5, when he hosted Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The Kremlin insisted that he continued holding official meetings after that, and released photos and video of Putin at meetings on national television, but Russian media suggested the images had actually been shot much earlier.

Putin’s decision to abruptly postpone a trip to Kazakhstan planned for last week fueled speculation that he was unwell or isolated by a palace coup. A Swiss newspaper claimed that Putin had traveled to Switzerland, where it said his reported girlfriend — former Olympic gold-winning gymnast Alina Kabayeva — had given birth to their baby. The Kremlin has denied all those allegations.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov greeted reporters Monday with sarcastic remarks: “So, have you seen the president paralyzed and seized by the generals? He has just come back from Switzerland, where he attended the delivery.”

Asked if Putin’s condition required treatment by an osteopath, the spokesman retorted: “Yes, the osteopath was with the generals.”

The sarcastic comments appeared to reflect the Kremlin’s dismay with the rumors and its inability to stop them. On a more serious note, Peskov added that the Kremlin has grown tired of refuting speculation about Putin’s condition.

“The more we talk about it, the more intense (the speculation) becomes,” he said.

Putin’s sudden disappearance from the public eye coincided with a moment of high tension in Russia’s domestic politics. Many Putin foes held him responsible for the Feb. 27 killing of top opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, even as the Russian leader described Nemtsov’s slaying on a bridge in Moscow as a “disgrace” and a “provocation.”

Some observers speculated the arrest of five ethnic Chechens, including a senior police officer, suspected of involvement in Nemtsov’s killing signaled a fierce turf battle between Chechnya’s Moscow-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, and top Russian officials from federal law-enforcement agencies who resent the feisty strongman.

Read next: Vladimir Putin Admits to Weighing Nuclear Option During Crimea Conflict

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