TIME conflict

Obama and British Leader Say They Won’t Be ‘Cowed by Barbaric Killers’

"If terrorists think we will weaken in the face of their threats they could not be more wrong"

The United States and Britain will “not be cowed” by Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria who have killed two American journalists, the leaders of both nations said Thursday.

Ahead of a NATO summit in Wales that began Thursday, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron published a joint article in the Times of London saying they will “confront” the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), and calling for international action to address security threats around the world.

“If terrorists think we will weaken in the face of their threats they could not be more wrong,” they wrote. “Countries like Britain and America will not be cowed by barbaric killers. We will be more forthright in the defence of our values, not least because a world of greater freedom is a fundamental part of how we keep our own people safe.”

The NATO summit, which is formally scheduled to address the drawdown in Afghanistan and the conflict in Ukraine, comes days after the ISIS released a video depicting its beheading of a second American journalist.

Obama and Cameron also called for NATO to increase pressure on Russia, which Western officials say is meddling in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine between Kiev and pro-Russian separatists.

“With Russia trying to force a sovereign state to abandon its right to democracy and determining the course of its future at the barrel of a gun, we should support Ukraine’s right to determine its own democratic future and continue our efforts to enhance Ukrainian capabilities,” they wrote.

TIME Ukraine

Putin Says He Has a Plan for Peace in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin Attends EU Summit In Minsk With Ukrainian President
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a news conference on Aug. 26, 2014, in Minsk, Belarus Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images

But Putin's comments came on the eve of a NATO summit where top Western officials accused Russia of meddling in the conflict in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled a seven-point peace plan for eastern Ukraine on Wednesday that he jotted down in a notebook on a flight to a state visit to Mongolia.

While Putin’s proposed specifics and enforcement mechanism remain unclear, his first point called for Ukraine and the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to “end active offensive operations,” the New York Times reports. Putin spoke with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko over the phone on Wednesday, and talks between Kiev and the separatists are planned for Friday.

But Putin’s ideas dismissed by Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk as “deceptive.” They also came the night before a NATO summit in Wales, where Western leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, are gathering to discuss plans to end the conflict in Ukraine and to draw down NATO’s presence in Afghanistan. NATO says that more than 1,000 Russian soldiers were operating in eastern Ukraine.

“What counts is what is actually happening on the ground,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, according to the Associated Press. “And we are still witnessing, unfortunately, Russian involvement in destabilizing the situation in eastern Ukraine.”


TIME Ukraine

Ukraine: Russia’s Aid Convoy Is a ‘Direct Invasion’

A Russian border guard opens a gate into the Ukraine for the first trucks heading into the country from the Russian town of Donetsk, Rostov-on-Don region, Russia, Aug. 22, 2014.
A Russian border guard opens a gate into the Ukraine for the first trucks heading into the country from the Russian town of Donetsk, Rostov-on-Don region, Russia, Aug. 22, 2014. Sergei Grits—AP

But Moscow warns against interfering with the trucks' crossing

Russia sent dozens of aid trucks into eastern Ukraine on Friday without the Ukrainian government’s approval, the Associated Press reports. This show of defiance, which a Ukrainian security chief called a “a direct invasion,” has increased fears of conflict between Russian forces and the Ukrainian military.

A witness told Reuters that 70 of the 260 white trucks left a Russian convoy that had been stalled at the border for over a week. The breakaway column crossed the border and headed for the rebel-held area of Luhansk, accompanied by some Ukrainian separatist fighters.

The convoy was being held at the border while Kiev and Moscow negotiated the terms of the crossing and discussed the trucks’ contents and the role the International Committee for the Red Cross should play. Both sides had agreed the Red Cross would accompany the vehicles, but an unnamed Ukrainian official told the Interfax news agency that the 70-strong convoy traveled without ICRC escort.

Ukrainian and Western officials are worried Russia may use the convoy as an excuse for Russia to directly intervene in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. Moscow, however, has dismissed this as preposterous, saying instead that Friday’s border crossing happened after it had grown impatient with Ukrainian delays.

“All excuses to delay sending aid have been exhausted,” said Russia’s foreign ministry in a statement. “The Russian side has taken the decision to act.” The ministry further warned at any attempts to disrupt the convoy. A spokesperson for the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin has been told of the convoy’s advance.

Russia has repeatedly denied accusations that it has been sending weapons and experts to help separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. The conflict has intensified around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk recently, with fatalities rapidly rising. All told, the struggle between Ukrainian troops and rebels loyal to Russia for control of eastern Ukraine has been raging for four months. The death toll stands at over 2,000, and many residents are stranded without food, medicine or clean water.


TIME russia

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s Twitter Was Hacked

Russia's prime minister Dmitry Medvedev holds a meeting with deputy PMs at the House of the Russian Government, Aug 11, 20014.
Russia's prime minister Dmitry Medvedev holds a meeting with deputy PMs at the House of the Russian Government, Aug 11, 20014. Dmitry Astakhov—Itar-Tass/Corbis

No, he's not resigning to become a freelance photographer

The press office for Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev denied that he was stepping down Thursday after his Twitter account was apparently hacked, Bloomberg reports.

“The Twitter account of the prime minister was hacked and the recent posts about his resignation and plans to become a freelance photographer are false,” an unnamed government press official told Bloomberg.

On Thursday morning, a tweet from Medvedev’s account said: “I’m quitting. Ashamed of the government’s actions. Forgive me.”

That post, which has since been taken down along with others posted on Thursday, reflected a similar post made by Deputy Economy Minister Sergei Belyakov, who was fired last week after criticizing the government, according to Bloomberg.

Another post, according to the Moscow Times, read: “I’m going to become a freelance photographer!”

Still another took aim at Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is engaged in a showdown with the West over Ukraine and is largely seen as holding the reins of power in Russia. Using Putin’s nickname, the tweet said: “I wanted to say this long ago: Vova, you aren’t right.”


TIME Ukraine

Russian Aid Convoy Keeps on Trucking Toward Ukraine

A Russian convoy carrying humanitarian aid for residents in rebel eastern Ukrainian regions moves along a road about 30 miles from Voronezh, Russia, Aug. 14, 2014.
A Russian convoy carrying humanitarian aid for residents in rebel eastern Ukrainian regions moves along a road about 30 miles from Voronezh, Russia, Aug. 14, 2014. Yuri Kochetko—EPA

Kiev has now agreed to let the trucks enter Ukraine, but a full agreement on the crossing has yet to be reached

A Russian convoy numbering close to 300 vehicles has resumed its journey towards separatist-held areas in eastern Ukraine, laden with what Russia says is humanitarian aid supplies for the people of Ukraine.

Traveling at 50 miles per hour the aid convoy left a military base in Voronezh, Russia before dawn, the New York Times reports. The vehicles had been held there for over a day following outcry from the Ukrainian government, and as Western officials voiced suspicions they could be cover for a potential invasion.

But it now appears that the convoy will be permitted to enter Ukraine. The President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, said Wednesday the trucks could cross following inspections by officials from Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Russia says the dispatch of aid, which were dispatched early Tuesday, was intended to counter the escalating humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine. Moscow said the trucks, equipped with 649 tons of water and 340 tons of canned meat, were intended to help Ukrainians in areas like Luhansk where heavy fire has cut off water and electricity supplies. Residents are also without communication as phone lines have been hit.

Moscow and Kiev haven’t yet reached a complete agreement over the convoy’s crossing, however. If the vehicles cross at Izvarino, an eastern Ukrainian town close to Luhansk which isn’t under Ukrainian control, the existing agreement between Russia and Ukraine would need to be rewritten. Both sides had originally decided that the trucks would cross further north at a Ukrainian-held border crossing.

Poroshenko’s government authorized a similar Ukrainian aid convoy this week, in response to Moscow’s actions. Lorries loaded with supplies left Kiev, Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk Thursday bound for Starobelsk in eastern Ukraine.

The West has regarded the Russian convoy with deep suspicion. Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the UN said if Russia acted unilaterally in its humanitarian mission, it would “be viewed as an invasion.” On Monday NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Reuters that there was a “high probability” of Russia invading Ukraine, potentially “under the guise of a humanitarian operation.”

Russia meanwhile insists that it’s working with the Red Cross despite their protestations otherwise. “All this is going on in complete coordination with and under the aegis of the Red Cross,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin to reporters.

Both convoys, Ukrainian and Russian, will arrive amidst escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine. The latest figures from the UN place the death toll at 2,086 since fighting began mid-April. Over half of these fatalities occurred in the past two weeks.


TIME russia

Russia Bans Wide Array of Food Imports From the U.S., EU

Russian Premier Dmitry Medvedev announces sanctions at the Cabinet meeting in Moscow on Thursday, Aug. 7.
Russian Premier Dmitry Medvedev announces sanctions at the Cabinet meeting in Moscow on Thursday, Aug. 7. Dmitry Astakhov—AP

"The situation now requires us to take retaliatory measures."

Russia banned a wide array of food imports from Western countries Thursday in a spiraling sanction war amid the worst ties between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

A day after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the additional restrictions, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said he signed a decree banning for one year the import of foods such as meats, cheese and vegetables from the European Union, the United States, Australia, Canada and Norway, the Associated Press reports.

The measures will cut off what would have amounted to some $12 billion in imports from the EU and more than $1 billion in imports from the U.S., according to the AP. They are also likely to take a toll on the supply of higher-end food goods for Russia’s wealthier urbanites, according to the AP.

“Until the last moment, we hoped that our foreign colleagues would understand that sanctions lead to a deadlock and no one needs them,” Medvedev said, according to the AP. “But they didn’t and the situation now requires us to take retaliatory measures.”

The restrictions follow the harshest sanctions yet imposed by the West last week targeting a large swath of the Russian economy, including finance, oil and defense. Those measures were intended to squeeze the already troubled Russian economy even further, after Russia seized Crimea in March and is suspected of continuing to support pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Medvedev also said Ukrainian airliners would be banned from flying over Russian airspace. He said such measures may be extended to Western airliners, some of which currently fly over Siberia from the U.S. en route to other parts of Asia.


TIME Morning Must Reads

Morning Must Reads: July 21

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.

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

Learn how to update your browser