TIME Morning Must Reads

Morning Must Reads: July 21

Capitol
The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

In the news: The bloodiest day of this Gaza conflict so far; Malaysia Airlines flight MH17; 2016 jockeying; How Congress will reform the VA, respond to the border crisis and replenish the Highway Trust Fund

  • “Day 13 was the bloodiest so far. More than 100 Palestinians were killed in heavy bombardment and street battles in Gaza on Sunday and 13 Israeli soldiers were slain in the most intense day of fighting in Israel’s current offensive against Hamas, officials said.” [WashPost]
    • Havens Are Few, If Not Far, For Palestinians in Gaza Strip [NYT]
    • The Explosive, Inside Story of How John Kerry Built an Israel-Palestine Peace Plan—and Watched It Crumble [New Republic]
  • “Ukraine launched a military assault to break pro-Russian rebels’ hold on the eastern city of Donetsk on Monday in the first major hostilities in the area since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down last week.” [Reuters]
    • “Ukraine is ready to hand over the investigation of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 disaster to Dutch authorities, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Monday, an offer aimed at resolving a days-long standoff over access to the rebel-held crash site that came even as fighting appeared to be intensifying.” [WSJ]
    • “Russia’s behavior so far suggests that it will not stand by and watch the insurgency falter, regardless of how much evidence arises that its foot soldiers shot down that plane…It would not only mean further isolation for Russia, it would also prolong or even deepen the most dangerous phase in its conflict with Ukraine.” [TIME]
    • A Working Theory of the MH 17 Shoot-down [TIME]
  • With liberals pining for a Clinton challenger, ambitious Democrats get in position [WashPost]
    • “Hillary Clinton has earned at least $12 million in 16 months since leaving the State Department, a windfall at odds with her party’s call to shrink the gap between the rich and the poor.” [Bloomberg]
    • The Biden Agenda [New Yorker]
  • “If you’re searching for signs that a Republican politician is serious about a 2016 presidential run, watch what he or she says about Common Core.” [TIME]
  • Inside Rand Paul’s Jewish Charm Offensive [National Journal]
  • “The House and Senate are far from agreement on President Obama’s request for $3.7 billion to address the tens of thousands of children flowing from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border…the House and Senate are still trying to break a logjam over concerns about the cost of reforming the Veterans Affairs Department…The Senate also hopes to provide final passage of a House-passed bill to replenish the Highway Trust Fund before later this summer when it is projected to run out of money.” [National Journal]
    • Obama aides were warned of brewing border crisis [WashPost]
TIME Ukraine

The Strange Case of Vladimir Putin and the Ukrainian Pilot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME Ukraine

Ukraine Talks Peace, But the Fighting Rages On

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier leave the Federal Foreign Office after a joint press conference in Berlin on July 2, 2014.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier leave the Federal Foreign Office after a joint press conference in Berlin on July 2, 2014. Clemens Bilan—AFP/Getty Images

Two days after launching a military assault on pro-Russian rebels, Ukraine agrees to resume negotiations, pinning the region's hopes for peace on a feckless body called the Contact Group.

The latest peace plan for eastern Ukraine is brief enough to fit on the back of a napkin, and it took just a few hours for the top diplomats of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France to draft it on Wednesday afternoon in Berlin. When they emerged in the early evening from their talks at the German Foreign Ministry, their mood was a lot more sanguine than when they arrived, and Laurent Fabius, the Foreign Minister of France, even referred to their achievement that day as “mission accomplished.”

That seemed a little premature. At the center of the new peace plan is an ad hoc body known as the Contact Group, a forum for negotiations whose sway among the warring parties is questionable at best. During its first and only meetings last month, on June 23 and June 27, the Group even had trouble establishing who some of its members represented and whether they had a mandate to negotiate. This problem was especially clear among the pro-Russian separatists who have taken over large chunks of eastern Ukraine. Over the past few months, their ranks have split into so many disparate and often feuding clans that no single leader can claim to control all or even most of them.

Oleg Tsarev, one of the leaders of a separatist group called Novorossiya, or New Russia, took part in the first round of talks last month but skipped the second. “It was pointless,” he tells TIME by phone from Moscow, where he went to consult with Russian officials this week. “There were no negotiations as such. Only ultimatums.” The separatist rebels continued attacking the Ukrainian military, Tsarev admits, throughout the 10-day ceasefire meant to allow for the negotiations. So he was not surprised on Monday night when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called off the ceasefire and ordered his military to begin shelling rebel held areas. The body count since then has climbed into the hundreds, reportedly including numerous civilians, and the Contact Group has been widely dismissed as a failure.

But on Wednesday, the diplomats in Berlin declared that it must be revived. “The Contact Group should resume no later than July 5 with the goal of reaching an unconditional and mutually agreed sustainable cease-fire,” their declaration said. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, added that the Contact Group is now “the only mechanism” that allows for Ukraine to talk directly to the rebels. “When we’re talking about the need to agree on a ceasefire, it’s clear that this is only possible in a format that includes both opposing sides.”

That would be true if this conflict only had two opposing sides, but the picture has become far more complex. Just days ago two rebel factions reportedly waged several gun battles for control of a police building in the city of Donetsk. One of the factions is represented in the Contact Group, while the other one, led by a rogue commander who goes by the nickname Demon, has not been invited to the negotiating table. Even if the Contact Group manages to agree on a truce, it is far from clear that all the rebel factions will follow along.

Still, it is better to have some talks ongoing than no talks at all, says Nestor Shufrich, a Ukrainian lawmaker who has been part of the Contact Group from its inception. “The very fact that we created a group that can negotiate in Donetsk is a big success,” he told TIME by phone on July 3 from the hall of parliament in Kiev. The Group did manage to negotiate the release of some hostages from rebel captivity, Shufrich points out, and after Wednesday’s declaration in Berlin, talks have resumed about who will participate in the upcoming talks. “Right now it’s not clear,” he says. “It is a very ticklish question.”

Shufrich’s own involvement seems to be confusing things further. At the Group’s first meeting on June 23, Shufrich claimed to be representing the central government—a claim that the government promptly denied. That forced Shufrich to change tack, saying that he represented “people who want peace and who do not want their children and relatives to be killed.” Despite the ambiguity of his role, he remained at the negotiating table, as did other participants whose mandate was equally murky.

For President Poroshenko, these problems have all raised the political price of keeping the Contact Group alive. “Nobody believes it is possible to negotiate with terrorists,” says Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of the Institute of World Policy, a think tank in Kiev. So as the talks have faltered, Poroshenko’s electorate has come to believe that peace can be achieved “much faster through military operations than through talks,” she says.

Now Ukraine’s strategy is to do both at once. The military assault that began on June 30 will continue even as the Contact Group gets back together. Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, made that much clear after the talks in Berlin on Wednesday. “We lost a lot of time, a lot of lives, during the unilateral ceasefire of Ukrainian armed forces,” he said. “Now we need to work toward a two-sided ceasefire.”

The goal is to offer the rebel fighters a choice: either come to the negotiating table or face airstrikes and artillery fire. Some of the separatist leaders have already come around. “It’s absolutely clear that this conflict cannot be resolved by military means,” says Tsarev of the Novorossiya group. But forcing all of the rebel factions to agree will likely require a lot more time and many more casualties, including among the civilians caught up in the conflict. In the meantime the talking will go on—but so will the fighting.

TIME European Union

European Voters Likely to Show Fading Affection for E.U.

European Union Foreign Ministers Meet On Ukraine Crisis
Flags of the European Union seen in front of the headquarters of the European Commission on March 03, 2014 in Brussels, Belgium. Michael Gottschalk—Photothek/Getty Images

Elections to the European Parliament to be held May 22-25 will underscore the rifts that the financial crisis and Russia have sown inside the E.U.

The European Union has had a very rough few years. Soon after the start of the financial crisis in 2009 several member states found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy. Then there were the bailouts, the stubbornly high unemployment, the austerity measures in many countries and the massive protests against those cuts in government services. The years of crisis have made Europeans ask fundamental questions about the role of their union. How far should its influence spread? What values does it represent? And how much should it pay to uphold those values? This week, Europeans will have their first chance since 2009 to react to these questions at the ballot box. They will not only choose a new European Parliament. They will signal how willing they are to carry on with the European experiment itself.

Judging by the opinion polls, public confidence in that experiment, or at least the institutions it created, is faltering. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that a firm majority of Europeans see the E.U. as intrusive, inefficient and unresponsive to the needs of citizens. Although economic confidence has been broadly rebounding in the past year, in line with economic growth, less than 40% of Europeans believe that integration with their neighbors has improved their country’s economy. Barely half take a favorable view of the E.U. as a whole.

In the past few years, these sentiments have proven fertile ground for the rise of so-called Eurosceptic parties, which are expected to nearly double their seats in the European Parliament in these elections. That means at least a quarter of the chamber’s seats could be filled with lawmakers who claim that the chamber is itself unnecessary or outright harmful. Coming both from the far right and far left, these parties want to see power taken away from the E.U. and handed back to national governments and parliaments.

What’s driving their popularity is not merely disillusion with the dream of European prosperity through integration, but the blandness of the mainstream European parties themselves. For years, most of the E.U. parliament’s seats have gone to two centrist blocs within the chamber – the social democrats to the left and the conservatives to the right of center. But their broad agreement on most of the key issues facing Europe has eroded the sense of competition within the chamber. “You can’t put a piece of paper between them,” says Simon Hix, an expert on European politics at the London School of Economics.

That much was clear in the European debates that were held for the first time ahead of these elections, in part to highlight the differences between the four major groups of parties inside the European Parliament – the social democrats, the conservatives, the liberals and the Greens. But through the hours of discussion, expressions of mutual agreement proved far more common than the jabs and barbs that one expects from a political cage match. It all looked a bit too civilized considering the severity of the problems that Europe’s economy continues to face. So it is not surprising that voters fed up with the state of affairs on the continent have turned to parties far from the mainstream.

These range from the far-right parties like the National Front in France to the far-left groups like Syriza in Greece. Pressed on key issues like social spending, their views are as disparate as can be, but they are united in these elections by a common sense of frustration with the flow of power from national capitals to the seat of the E.U. in Brussels, a sense of frustration that voters increasingly share. By calling for the E.U. bureaucracy to be dismantled, these groups have helped turn the continent into a tapestry of doubt.

No one has watched that development with quite as much pleasure as Russia. Even before the Russian invasion of the Ukrainian region of Crimea in March, President Vladimir Putin tried to sow these divisions in Europe, favoring economic deals with individual nations, most notably Italy and Germany, rather than dealing with the bloc as a whole. By making individual members more dependent on Russia than others, such deals have weakened the E.U.’s ability to take any united stand against Russia’s meddling in Eastern Europe. Even passing sanctions to punish Putin’s elites for their country’s incursion into Ukraine have proved a struggle for the E.U., and these elections will only underscore the divisions that make such decisions so difficult.

“I’m certain that the rise of the Eurosceptics will force a change in the architecture of the European Union,” says Sergei Baburin, a nationalist politician in Russia involved in talks with Europe’s right-wing parties. “The European people are feeling a desire to defend their homes, their families, their towns and their nations from this supranational idea of Europe that has been forced upon them by the Americans.”

That desire has found champions among Europe’s fringe politicians. In March, several of them even went to Crimea to add legitimacy to the referendum that allowed Russia to annex that region of Ukraine, and their parties will become part of a strong bloc of Russian apologists within the European Parliament after these elections. One of them, the Ataka party in Bulgaria, even launched its campaign for the European Parliament in Moscow.

A vote cast for that party, or any of the other Eurosceptics, will not necessarily mean a vote for Putinism. But it will be a vote of no-confidence in the European project of integration and unity. After the last few years of hardship, this sentiment is not surprising. Europeans have indeed grown more concerned about the economic health of their countries and towns than the lofty ideals on which the E.U. was founded. Most of all, their sense of indifference to what happens in Brussels will come through in the voter turnout, which already dropped to 43% during the last elections to the European Parliament in 2009. If it falls even further this time, it will not be a win for the sceptics or the mainstream parties. It will be a sign that Europeans are turning inward and tuning out.

TIME russia

Putin Demands Ukraine Pay Ahead for Gas Supply

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with Ministy of Defence representatives at the Bocharov Ruchey State Residence on May 15, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with Ministy of Defence representatives at the Bocharov Ruchey State Residence on May 15, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that his country would only deliver crucial gas supplies to Ukraine on a pre-paid basis after June 1 since Ukraine already owes $3.5 billion in pack payments

Russia said Thursday that it would only deliver gas to Ukraine if the troubled country pays in advance, intensifying efforts to bring its neighbor back under its control, the Associated Press reports.

Ukraine has faced economic near-collapse since the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February, and has been kept afloat in part by a $3.2 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund, which has offered a total aid package of $17 billion over two years.

But on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the country’s mounting debt to Russia has reached $3.5 billion and said that after June 1 it will only deliver prepaid gas.

The threat puts the pro-Western interim government in Ukraine under added pressure amid ongoing unrest in the country’s east, where pro-Russian separatists have seized administrative buildings and entire towns after Russia annexed the southern region of Crimea.

It’s not the first time Russia has lorded its energy dominance over Ukraine and other European neighbors. Amid price disputes in 2005 and 2009, Russia cut off supplies to Ukraine and Europe.

Cutting off delivery to Ukraine in June is likely to have less of an impact on Europe than in the past, the Associated Press reports, in part because it will fall during the warmer summer months and in part because Gazprom, the state-owned Russian gas giant, has built a pipeline to Europe that bypasses Ukraine. Ukraine has called for Russia to restore discounts on the gas that were canceled after Yanukovych was removed.

[AP]

TIME Ukraine

U.S. Sanctions Push Putin Toward His Dream of A New Financial System

Russan President Vladimir Putin Visits Petrozavodsk
Russian President Vladimir Putin Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images

Although Monday's sanctions will hurt Russia in the short term, they will also force Putin to step up his efforts to weaken U.S. influence over the global economy, which so far has been "little more than wishful thinking because of the difficult reforms it would require"

A little over a year ago, in early March 2013, the Russian state energy czar Igor Sechin made his American debut at an oil summit in Houston, Texas, reportedly accompanied by armed guards equipped with a K-9 unit. The speech he gave that day at the СERAWeek conference, an annual gathering of energy titans from around the world, was part of a pit stop for Sechin. He was on his way to a more high profile event, the funeral of his old friend Hugo Chavez, the truculently anti-American President of oil-rich Venezuela. But since he was passing through the Western hemisphere anyway, Sechin clearly felt it was worthwhile to court some American investors. “I call for us to work together,” he told the audience that day, according to Russia’s Vedomosti daily, “to drive our business for mutual benefit.”

At the time, no one could have predicted that this would be Sechin’s last American visit as a welcome ambassador for big Russian oil. On Monday, the U.S. released a blacklist of seven Russian officials sanctioned in retaliation for Russia’s incursions in Ukraine. By far the most influential figure on that list is Sechin, who is not only the head of the world’s biggest oil producer, Rosneft, but an old friend and confidante to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And his response? That’s been clear since the middle of March, when Sechin first learned that he was in the U.S. Treasury Department’s crosshairs. “He who messes with us also helps us. So thank you very much,” he said. “From a business standpoint, Russian companies have plenty of places to move their activities. There is a global economy, a big world, where Europe and America haven’t been the bosses for a while now.”

Part of that answer was clearly bravado. As TIME reported last month, when the U.S. hit Russia with its first round of sanctions, the impact on the targets of the sanctions was quick, choking off access to global markets and payment systems, which are still dominated by the U.S. But Sechin also has a point. There is no way to isolate the world’s largest publicly traded oil producer from the global economy without causing the world economy to crash, and if the U.S. refuses to do business with Sechin, there are plenty of others standing in line. The global oil major BP, for instance, is already the second biggest stakeholder in Rosneft after the Russian government, and has been more than willing to offer Russia its state of the art technology.

But all of these concerns take a backseat to Putin’s larger strategy – and Sechin’s. For years, they have been calling for a new world order – or as they tend to call it, a “multipolar world” – in which the West must cede its dominance of the global economy to several regional powers, including Russia. That dream has long been little more than wishful thinking because of the difficult reforms it would require. Central banks around the world would likely have to start keeping their reserves in currencies other than the dollar and the euro. Commodities trading would have to diversify away from the hubs in New York and London. Because of the inertia of the global financial infrastructure, these changes have often been dismissed either as pipedreams or very longterm projects.

But the sanctions regime against Russia will likely only accelerate its drive to carry out these reforms. In the past month, Moscow has already begun trying to set up its own “national payment system” to challenge global players like Visa and Mastercard. It also appears to be dumping American treasury bills, one of the favored means of storing its reserves. The next stage in this strategy is expected to come in May, when Sechin is set to take the helm of a commodities exchange in St. Petersburg, his and Putin’s hometown. In the coming years, that exchange, which is known as SPIMEX, will be seeking to take a major chunk of the global trade in oil and gas, with the ruble as its main form of settlement. All of these efforts have been pushed into overdrive amid Russia’s standoff with the West over Ukraine, and to be sure, they have nudged Russia into murky economic waters. In seeking to disrupt the framework of the global economy, Russia could easily drag itself into a depression.

But Putin has been preparing for that. Over the past two years, he has urged all Russian businessmen and officials to bring their money onshore, and apart from building closer ties with China – the main challenger to the West’s economic hegemony – Russia has formed alliances with other states that would love to see that hegemony broken. Venezuela is one example. It sits on top of the largest untapped reserves of oil in the world, but it has struggled to bring that fuel to market because of its lack of partners in the West. (The U.S. has not had an ambassador in Caracas since 2010.)

All the while, Russia has gone out of its way to help. Less than three months after attending Chavez’s funeral, Sechin returned to Venezuela to sign a lucrative joint venture that was wistfully christened Petrovictoria. After the signing ceremony, he presented the Venezuelan President, Nicolas Maduro, with a gift from Putin – a bronze bust of the late Commandante Chavez that is now stored in the Presidential Palace in Caracas. It was a touching show of friendship, and a few months later, Maduro sent his own envoy to Putin with a message, “congratulating him on that important role that he plays in the process to shape the multipolar world without war, a world, which our Commandante Hugo Chavez was dreaming about.”

Any nation hit with U.S. sanctions would likely share in that dream, as it presupposes the end of the American supremacy that gives its economic sanctions force. And the more isolated Russia grows from the West, the more desperate it will become to turn that dream into reality. It already has a lot of allies on its side, not least of all China. So when the dust settles and Russia grows accustomed to the pain of Western sanctions, Putin may wind up a lot closer to the multipolar world he wants. That, at least, seems to be his strategy, and if it means staying away from the oil kings of Houston, then so be it. Beijing and Caracas will have to do.

TIME russia

Putin: The Internet Is a ‘CIA Project’

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to the journalists after a nationally televised question-and-answer session on April 17, 2014 in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to the journalists after a nationally televised question-and-answer session on April 17, 2014 in Moscow. Dmitry Azarov—Kommersant Photo/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin called for his country to "fight for its interests" on the Internet, which he believes is a CIA project. Earlier this week, Russian parliament passed a law requiring social media websites to save information about their users for at least half a year

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday at a media forum in St. Petersburg that the Internet is a “CIA project” that is “still developing as such,” the Associated Press reports.

Putin called for Russia to “fight for its interests” online amid an ongoing effort by the Kremlin to gain a larger grip on the Internet, according to the AP. A law passed by the Russian parliament earlier this week requires that social media websites keep their servers in Russia and save all information about their users for at least half a year.

Putin’s statements come days after he told former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that Russia does not intercept citizens’ data en masse during a live broadcast. Snowden, living in asylum in Russia, drew criticism for asking Putin a question some regarded as an easy set-up for Putin.

[AP]

TIME Ukraine

Ukraine Separatists Plead for Putin’s Help After Deadly Gunfight

A Pro-Russian militant walks near a checkpoint that was the scene of a gunfight overnight near the city of Slaviansk, April 20, 2014.
A Pro-Russian militant walks near a checkpoint that was the scene of a gunfight overnight near the city of Slaviansk, April 20, 2014. Gleb Garanich—Reuters

Two groups apparently made up of separatists and pro-government loyalists clashed at the checkpoint near the town of Slavyansk, with the Ukrainian government saying one person had been killed and Russian state media reporting five dead

By Sunday morning, all that was left of Ukraine’s Easter truce were two burned-out cars at a separatist checkpoint, a few handfuls of bullet casings, and a bunch of implausible theories that the Russian media swallowed whole and spit back out across the airwaves. A few hours earlier, before dawn, two groups — one apparently made up of pro-Russian separatists, the other of pro-government loyalists — had clashed at the checkpoint near the town of Slavyansk. Reports of casualties differed, the Ukrainian government saying one person had been killed and Russian state media reporting five dead.

In a statement to TIME, the self-proclaimed mayor of Slavyansk, a separatist stronghold in eastern Ukraine, said he was imposing a citywide curfew and sending more of his militants to patrol the streets after the violence. “Last night, at a time of truce and Easter prayer, and in violation of the agreed upon cease-fire, our town was attacked,” the putative mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, said in the statement transmitted through his spokeswoman on Sunday morning.

Any hope of implementing the peace accord reached on April 17 in Geneva seemed to go out of the window in the wake of the violence. That agreement, which had been negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union, had called for all militants in Ukraine to lay down their arms and leave the government buildings they have occupied. Whatever the cause of the violence that took place before dawn on Easter morning, the result was clear enough by daybreak. It gave the separatist forces of Slavyansk an excuse to ignore the peace accord, tighten their hold on the city and ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to send in a peacekeeping force.

“Vladimir Vladimirovich, ours is a small, provincial town,” Ponomaryov said in a public appeal to Putin later in the day. “And fascists are trying to conquer us. They are killing our brothers, carrying out open military actions against the people. We therefore ask that you urgently consider the question of sending a peacekeeping force to protect the civilian population.”

At about 2 a.m. on Sunday, Ponomaryov said, four cars pulled up to a checkpoint about 15 km (9 miles) from the center of the Slavyansk and began firing at the local men who were guarding it. According to the statement from Ponomaryov, the attackers were members of Right Sector, the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist group that has become the favorite bogeyman for Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists and their allies in Moscow.

“The attackers had the insignia of Right Sector and wore the red armbands inscribed with their swastikas,” Ponomaryov, who calls himself the “people’s mayor” of Slavyansk, said in the statement to TIME. (Right Sector denied having anything to do with the attack on Sunday morning.) “They were found to have night-vision goggles and excellent weaponry, and in their pockets were packs of hard currency, American dollars,” he added. “Our self-defense forces managed to fight them off, using our pistols and the other weapons God has sent us.”

Although the Kremlin has not yet replied to his request for a peacekeeping force, the Russian Foreign Ministry seemed to take the separatist account at face value. “The Easter truce has been broken,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “As a result of an armed attack by the fighters of the so-called Right Sector, completely innocent people died. Russia expresses concern over this militant provocation, which shows an unwillingness on the part of the authorities in Kiev to disband and disarm its nationalists and extremists.”

When TIME visited the scene of the fighting on Easter morning, many of the details in the separatists’ version of the story did not appear to add up. Even though the attackers allegedly unleashed a barrage of gunfire at the checkpoint, there were only a few bullet holes in its barricade of tires. Even though five people were reported killed in the shootout — three local separatists and two alleged attackers — the only traces of blood were on the inside of a camouflage cap left at the scene. But the most apparent inconsistencies were clear from the condition of the two burned-out cars that were riddled with bullets at the far side of the checkpoint leading to Slavyansk.

The separatist fighters, none of whom agreed to give their full names, could not even provide a consistent answer as to why the two main pieces of evidence of the attack had been torched at the scene. Some said the separatist fighters had “fallen into a rage” after the gunfight and decided to burn the cars as a form of emotional release. Another man in civilian clothing, who gave his name as Anton and his age as 27, said he had been guarding the checkpoint at the time of the attack and described a harrowing episode of bravery on the part of his comrades. When the attackers opened fire from their automatic weapons, Anton said, one of the unarmed defenders of the checkpoint ran toward the enemy cars with a lit Molotov cocktail and threw it inside, leading to the conflagration.

According to the separatists, the dead bodies of the two attackers were taken to the local state-security headquarters, which is under separatist control. But the gunmen guarding that building refused to allow TIME inside to see the bodies. The only footage of an alleged attacker’s body was shown on the website of Life News, a Russian channel with long-standing ties to the Russian security services. In its footage, Life News showed what looked to be a corpse with its face and torso covered with a piece of fabric. In the courtyard of the security headquarters, Life News also showed an old German machine gun that looked like it was freshly cleaned, a dozen or so hundred dollar notes scattered on the ground, as well as the alleged business card of Dmitro Yarosh, the leader of Right Sector. All of this was presented as evidence of the separatist account of the attack.

Convincing or not, the Russian state media presented this account as fact on Easter morning and gave it blanket coverage. For the separatists of Slavyansk, it was the best chance yet to convince Russia to send in its military to protect them, as they have long been asking Putin to do. But the chances of that had sharply diminished since the Geneva accord of April 17. During those talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed that all of Ukraine’s separatists must put down their arms and abandon the buildings they have occupied. In the days since then, there have been no signs of any Russian involvement in the separatist struggle in Slavyansk, and the local fighters and their supporters in Slavyansk have grown deeply anxious that no Russian help is coming.

“After Geneva, we really started to get worried,” Olga Lugavenko, whose son was guarding the checkpoint during Sunday’s violence, tells TIME at the scene. “Putin said that his soldiers had the backs of the local self-defense forces in Crimea last month, and we want them to have our backs as well. But as you can see, there are no Russians here.” The Easter attack, regardless of who orchestrated it, has given Putin a fresh excuse to put boots on the ground in Slavyansk. Now the only question is whether he will take it.

TIME Ukraine

Putin: I Would Be Justified Using Force in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned during a live televised Q&A on Thursday that he would send troops to protect the people of eastern Ukraine and that Kiev gave him just the visuals he needed to revive his faltering narrative about civilians under threat

Vladimir Putin could not have picked a better day than Thursday, April 17, to hold his annual call-in show on Russian television. Two days earlier, Ukraine’s government had sent its military to fight armed Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The result on Wednesday in the region of Donetsk was a series of clashes and confrontations between the military and the local separatists. So on Thursday, when Putin appeared live on TV, he clearly felt he had every excuse to move one step closer toward a Russian intervention.

“The people in the eastern regions have started arming themselves,” Putin said in response to a question about the Ukrainian crisis. “And instead of realizing that something isn’t right in the Ukrainian state and moving toward a dialogue, [the government in Kiev] began threatening more force and even moved in tanks and planes against the peaceful population. This is yet another very serious crime of Ukraine’s current rulers.” He then reminded viewers that the Russian parliament has given him approval to send troops into Ukraine. “I really hope that I’m won’t be forced to use that right,” he says.

But Russia has been warning for months that it would take eastern Ukraine “under its protection” if the local population came under threat of military force. The Kremlin’s television channels have meanwhile been hyping that threat with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Their narrative has been simple: Ukraine’s revolution brought fascists to power in February; those fascists are out to repress the Russian-speaking regions of southern and eastern Ukraine; salvation lies in separatism and, if needed, in Russia’s protection.

MORE: Should Vladimir Putin be on the 2014 Time 100? Vote now.

In late February, when Russia began its invasion of Crimea on the pretext of protecting its residents from Ukraine’s revolution, that story was an easy sell. The new government in Kiev was only a week old at the time, and most people in Ukraine’s outlying regions had no clear idea of the leaders who would emerge from the revolution. Many people in Crimea bought into the Russian line that nationalist thugs were on their way from Kiev to terrorize the local population.

But in the past few weeks, the Kremlin’s narrative had grown increasingly hard to maintain. The people of eastern Ukraine have had nearly two months to size up their new leaders and compare them to the fascist cabal depicted on Russian TV, and they could see that Russia’s warnings were overblown. “It’s all lies,” says Vera Oleynik, a pensioner in the city of Donetsk who said she stopped watching the news – Russian and Ukrainian – weeks ago. “It’s enough to give you heart trouble,” she says. “I only believe what I see with my own eyes.” And it has been clear enough to the locals that no nationalist thugs have come to cause havoc, while Kiev’s choice for the new governor of the Donetsk region, Serhiy Taruta, turned out last month to be a local tycoon who runs the region’s football club. Even if his constituents do not like him, they know him well enough to tell that he’s no fascist.

For the region’s pro-Russian separatists, that has been a frustrating development. The crowds that have come out to support them in eastern Ukraine have been thin, numbering a few thousand people at most, many of them idle gawkers or truant teenagers. Opinion polls suggest that there is nowhere near a majority of people in these regions would favor breaking away from Ukraine and joining Russia, as the separatists managed to do last month in Crimea.

But in the past two days, the tanks rolling into eastern Ukraine have helped Russia revive its narrative and build its case for an intervention. That effort has involved large doses of deception. In his call-in show, for instance, Putin neglected to mention what exactly these tanks were doing in eastern Ukraine. So far, they have mostly been surrendering to the local gunmen rather than firing a shot. In the village of Pchyolkino, a column of Ukrainian tanks was surrounded for hours on Wednesday by a mix of civilians and uniformed gunmen, and rather than forcing their way through, the soldiers abandoned their tanks and armored vehicles to the crowd.

Though humiliated, those soldiers most likely avoided a bloodbath at the cost of their pride and their careers. (The government in Kiev pledged on Thursday to put them on trial for “cowardice.”) But the separatists in eastern Ukraine still managed to get the gunfight they have been trying to provoke for days. On Wednesday night, a group of gunmen arrived at a military base in the south of the Donetsk region and demanded the Ukrainian soldiers surrender their weapons and “come over to the side of the people.” Though it is not clear who fired the first shot, the ensuing firefight reportedly left a dozen people wounded and as many as three dead before midnight.

The Russian state media jumped on this news immediately. The Kremlin-funded Russia Today network reported that the casualties resulted from a “confrontation between anti-government protesters and soldiers.” Its report neglected to mention that the protesters were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, which they were not shy in firing at the military servicemen. But those details are easily lost in the Kremlin’s broader picture of peaceful civilians being overrun by the Ukrainian army.

Across the Donetsk region, the increasing brazenness of the separatist attacks now seems geared to provoke that kind of violence. On Wednesday morning, for instance, a group of masked gunmen stormed city hall in the region of Donetsk. Calling themselves members of a group called Oplot – in English, Bulwark – the two dozen men walked into the building with shotguns and assault rifles and set up positions at every entrance. One of their leaders, a pudgy man in his fifties who identified himself as Igor, told TIME near the backdoor of the building that they were simply there to make sure that local officials “do their job without interference” from the central government in Kiev. And what if Kiev sends its military to interfere? “I don’t know,” Igor said, lifting his surgical mask to drag on a cigarette. “Maybe Moscow will help us.”

TIME Barack Obama

Obama: ‘We Don’t Need a War’ With Russia

President Barack Obama walks from the Oval Office to the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
President Barack Obama walks from the Oval Office to the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. Manuel Balce Ceneta—AP

President Obama downplayed the chance of a military conflict with Russia over the escalating tension in eastern Ukraine, in an interview that aired Thursday, saying it's not up to either country to decide what kind of relationships Ukraine has with its neighbors

President Barack Obama said in an interview that aired Thursday that “we don’t need a war” with Russia, downplaying the chance of military conflict between the U.S. and Russia over tensions in Ukraine.

“What we do need is a recognition that countries like Ukraine can have relationships with a whole range of their neighbors, and it is not up to anybody, whether it’s Russia or the United States or anybody else, to make decisions for them,” Obama said in an interview with CBS Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett on Thursday’s broadcast of CBS This Morning.

Obama’s comments came days after a Russian fighter jet made multiple close-range passes near a U.S. Navy ship in the Black Sea. When asked if the aircraft “buzz” represented Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to send a signal to Washington, Obama said Russia is “not interested in any kind of military confrontation with us, understanding that our conventional forces are significantly superior to the Russians.”

“As commander-in-chief, I don’t make decisions based on perceived signals. We make decision very deliberately, based on what’s required for our security and for the security of our allies,” Obama added. “And the Russians understand that.”

Putin has amassed Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border and threatened to invade amid tensions between the pro-Western government and a large ethnic Russian minority in the region, despite the threat of increased economic sanctions from the U.S. and Western European powers.

Zeke Miller contributed reporting.

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