TIME diplomacy

Pope Francis Urges Putin to Make ‘Sincere’ Peace Efforts in Ukraine

Vatican Pope Russia putin
Gregorio Borgia—AP Pope Francis walks next to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the occasion of a private audience at the Vatican, June 10, 2015.

The private talk concentrated on the Ukraine conflict and the Middle East

(VATICAN CITY) — Pope Francis met privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Vatican on Wednesday, using the talks to call for a sincere effort aimed at bringing peace to Ukraine.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said their talks concentrated on the Ukraine conflict and the Middle East, where the Holy See is worried about the fate of the Christian minority.

Putin earlier Wednesday met Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Milan and arrived an hour late to the meeting at the Vatican — his second with Francis since he became pope in 2013.

Lombardi said Francis stressed the need “to commit oneself in a sincere and great effort to bring” peace to Ukraine, through dialogue and implementation of the Minsk accords.

Francis also urged access for humanitarian aid.

The United States, using diplomatic channels, had encouraged the Vatican to use the private papal audience as an occasion to join the West in condemning Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

On Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Kenneth Hackett, said the U.S. would like to see the Vatican increase its concern about what is happening in Ukraine during the pope’s meeting with Putin.

“We think they could say something more about concern of territorial integrity, those types of issues,” Hackett told reporters. “It does seem that Russia is supporting the insurgents. And it does seem that there are Russian troops inside Ukraine. This is a very serious situation.”

Earlier Wednesday, however, Putin won lavish praise from Renzi as a crucial player in international anti-terrorism efforts, as Renzi sought the Russian president’s help in ending the conflict in Libya that has fueled the Mediterranean migrant crisis.

Renzi greeted Putin as Russia’s “dear” president and didn’t voice any criticism against the country’s actions in Ukraine, saying simply that they both agreed there must be full implementation of the Minsk peace accord.

Renzi met Putin after a tour of Russia’s pavilion at Milan’s Expo.

At a brief Russian-Italian news conference in Milan, Putin stressed the price Italian businesses are paying for the economic sanctions lodged by the European Union against Russia, which annexed Crimea from Ukraine during the conflict.

Putin noted how several infrastructure projects, won in bidding by Italian companies, were stalled because of sanctions against some Russian financial institutions. Likewise, sanctions forced the cancellation of some contracts in the military sphere, costing 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in earnings for Italian companies, Putin said.

The leaders of the world’s industrialized democracies for a second year in a row refused to let Putin join their G-7 summit, which ended earlier this week. They said sanctions against Russia won’t be lifted until Moscow fully implements its part of the Ukraine peace accord, and could be increased if needed.

Russia accuses Ukraine of failing to launch political dialogue with the rebellious east and of keeping its economic blockade of areas controlled by pro-Russian rebels. Kiev, the United States, NATO and European leaders have blamed Moscow for supplying rebels with manpower, training and weapons. Russia denies the claims.

Both Putin and Renzi spoke confidently of moving forward after the eventual full implementation of the Minsk peace accords.

Renzi praised Russia for being “in the front row in facing the global threats we are all facing.”

Citing Russia’s role as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, he said Italy “needs Russia’s help on the Libyan question.” Renzi didn’t give specifics on what he hoped Russia might do on Libya.

People-smugglers have been flourishing in Libya amid the confusion, violence and chaos that followed the demise of Moammar Gadhafi’s dictatorship in 2011. Rival Libyan governments and tribal and militia fighting so far have combined to thwart Italy’s calls for reconciliation and pacification in Libya as a way to combat the smuggling.

While the pope has deplored the loss of life in Ukraine and called for all sides to respect the cease-fire, he has not publicly placed any blame on Russia in an apparent bid to not upset Vatican relations with the Orthodox Church and in hopes of engaging Russia’s help to confront the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

Hackett, the U.S. ambassador, noted that Putin had spoken about the plight of Christians and that that was clearly an area of concern for the Vatican.

“I’d like to see if he’s got a proposal,” he said of Putin.

A cease-fire agreement for Ukraine has been shaky. The heaviest fighting in months broke out in recent days between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces.

After meeting with the pope, Putin was expected to spend time later Wednesday with his old friend, ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi.

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(This story has been corrected to show Hackett spoke Wednesday, not Tuesday.)

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Winfield reported from Rome. Vladimir Isachenkov contributed from Moscow and Frances D’Emilio contributed from Rome.

TIME Ukraine

Eastern Ukraine Remains Tense After Outbreak of Fighting

A Ukrainian service man holds a gun during fightings in the Ukrainian city of Mariinka, in the region of Donetsk on June 4, 2015.
Oleksandr Ratushniak—AFP/Getty Images A Ukrainian service man holds a gun during fightings in the Ukrainian city of Mariinka, in the region of Donetsk on June 4, 2015.

Rebels and government troops clashed in a battle on Wednesday

(DONETSK, Ukraine) — Separatist and government troops in east Ukraine stood nervously poised hundreds of meters apart Thursday in the wake of bloody battle that has threatened to demolish what remains of the brittle cease-fire there.

Underscoring anxieties in the Ukrainian capital, President Petro Poroshenko warned of a possible large-scale offensive by separatist forces following the violence on the western fringe of the rebel citadel, Donetsk.

But the mood among rebel combatants huddled in a wooded base just beyond the Donetsk suburb of Marinka, where Wednesday’s fighting was centered, suggested only frustration at the lack of a clear battle plan.

“We can’t just sit here in trenches. I think we should only go forward, forward and forward,” one separatist fighter, who identified himself by his nom de guerre Abaza, told The Associated Press.

In the dug-out where Abaza stood, flies clustered over a pool of blood where a wounded militiaman was given emergency treatment the day before.

Rebels in Donetsk now appear to be standing down following the clash.

An AP reporter who visited Marinka briefly Thursday observed that it appeared to be under the control of Ukrainian government troops, who said they were performing mop-up operations.

Even the official tally of fighters killed attests to the battle for Marinka being the biggest that east Ukraine has seen since February, when an internationally brokered armistice was signed.

Ukraine says five of its servicemen died in combat Wednesday, four of them in or around Marinka. Eduard Basurin, a separatist spokesman, said 14 rebel fighters and five civilians were killed by Ukrainian fire during the day, but provided no details.

Rebel fighters admit privately, however, that they likely lost dozens of men. Ukrainian military spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko claimed about 80 rebels were killed.

The task of monitoring what is looking like an increasingly hollow cease-fire lies with a mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe. A special report hastily compiled by the OSCE after Wednesday’s fighting strongly suggests the violence was the result of a rebel initiative.

Observers saw at least multiple armored vehicles moving west through Donetsk on the eve of the battle. OSCE reported hearing around 100 outgoing artillery rounds fired at daybreak from a location within separatist-held territory. More heavy fire followed throughout the day.

Rebels are sticking to their story, however, and insist they were acting solely in defense against a Ukrainian assault. Their foray into Marinka and their temporary capture of several buildings, including the local hospital, was merely a counterattack, they said.

“We pushed them as far as we could, then we held our positions, then we retreated,” said a rebel commander, who identified himself by the call-sign Dikiy. “There was a violent fight, a heavy fight, from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m.”

OSCE mission spokesman Michael Bociurkiw urged all sides in the conflict to “exercise maximum restraint.”

Bociurkiw also told reporters that observers in recent days had found that some heavy weapons which had been pulled back by both sides were missing from the areas where they were being stored.

“This suggests non-compliance” with the cease-fire accord, which requires both sides to pull back large weapons in order to create a buffer zone, Bociurkiw said.

An Associated Press reporter on Thursday saw two Grad missile launchers driving toward the government-controlled town of Artemivsk. Under the cease-fire accord, such weapons were to be withdrawn from that area.

The Ukrainian military freely admits that it used heavy arms in its effort to retain Marinka, but said it was left with no choice.

A part of their firepower landed a direct strike on the base from which rebel infantry mounted their offensive. The converted stables set in a copse just within the limits of Donetsk were still smoldering Thursday afternoon.

Several of the fighters — many among them from Russia — complained wearily that their travel documents were among the personal possessions consumed in the blaze.

Russia has strongly denied sending weapons or troops to back the rebels, despite a broad array of evidence indicating otherwise.

Asked if President Vladimir Putin could again seek the parliament’s permission for using Russian troops abroad as he did early in the Ukrainian crisis, his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Putin has the right, but emphasized the need to fulfill the cease-fire agreement and avoid steps aimed at escalation of tensions.

Despite fears of a possible full-blown resumption of combat, offensives reverted Thursday to the sporadic shelling that has become a hallmark of the Ukrainian conflict, which has claimed more than 6,400 lives since April 2014.

Vyacheslav Abroskin, the police chief for the government-controlled part of the Donetsk region, said in a Facebook statement that rebels shelled the town of Avdiivka just north of the city of Donetsk. He said an unspecified number of civilians were wounded.

The violence has elicited an international chorus of concern. While Moscow pins the blame on Ukraine, the West has been united in its criticism of the rebels and, by extension, Russia.

“This escalation followed the movement of a large amount of heavy weapons towards the contact line by the Russia-backed separatists,” EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic. “Renewed intense fighting risks unleashing a new spiral of violence and human suffering.”

The U.N. Security Council scheduled an open meeting Friday morning on the latest developments at the request of Lithuania, a strong supporter of the Ukrainian government.

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Yevgeny Maloletka in Marinka, Dmitry Vlasov in Kiev, Lorne Cooke in Brussels, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, contributed to this report.

TIME Ukraine

Russian Missile Maker: MH17 Shot Down by Ukrainian Missile

Yan Novikov, chief executive of Russian missile manufacturer Almaz-Antey, attends a news conference in Moscow
Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters Yan Novikov, chief executive of Russian missile manufacturer Almaz-Antey, attends a news conference in Moscow on June 2, 2015

Each of the Buk subtypes has its warhead rigged with shrapnel of a specific shape

(MOSCOW) — The Russian maker of the Buk air defense missile system said Tuesday that it has concluded that Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was downed by an older version of the missile, which isn’t in service with the Russian military but is in Ukrainian arsenals.

Controversy continues over who shot down the plane last summer over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard. Ukraine and the West suspect it was destroyed by a Russian surface-to-air missile fired by Russian soldiers or Russia-backed separatist rebels fighting in the area. Russia denies that.

Mikhail Malyshevsky, an adviser to the director general of the missile maker, state-controlled Almaz-Antei consortium, said at a news conference Tuesday that its analysis was based on photographs of the wreckage available to the public. He said the holes in the plane’s parts were consistent with a specific type of Buk missile and its warhead.

Each of the Buk subtypes has its warhead rigged with shrapnel of a specific shape. This variation of the missile is in the Ukrainian military arsenals, but not in the Russian, said Almaz-Antei director Yan Novikov.

Novikov said that in 2005 when Ukraine contacted the consortium regarding the maintenance of its Buk systems, it had 991 such missiles.

Rebels have staunchly denied even possessing a functioning Buk missile launcher at the time that MH17 was brought down, although one was seen in separatist-controlled Snizhne by AP reporters a few hours before the plane crashed.

Russian officials and state media have previously said they suspect the airline was shot down by a Ukrainian warplane.

“First they said it wasn’t a Buk missile. Now, suddenly, they’re saying it is but it wasn’t them. So I just think the credibility is not 100 percent here on that,” said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf in Washington.

Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznev was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying Tuesday that photos and video materials at the time documented the presence of a Buk on the rebel-held territory.

Novikov and Malyshevsky said that the company’s analysis of shrapnel impact on the plane’s fragments allowed it to pinpoint the location of the missile launcher, which they said was placed near the town of Zaroshenske. A missile launched from Snizhne would have incurred different damage, they said.

The Almaz-Antei officials stopped short of directly blaming Ukraine for shooting down the plane, but their statements hinted at that.

A spokesman for the Dutch Safety Board, which is investigating the crash, declined to comment on the consortium’s statement. The Dutch report is expected in October.

TIME Ukraine

Why Chechens Are Fighting Chechens in Ukraine’s Civil War

Muslim Chechen men, who fight alongside Pro-Russian rebels, pray near a checkpoint in the town of Zugres, Eastern Ukraine, on Jan. 11, 2015.
Mstyslav Chernov—AP Muslim Chechen men, who fight alongside pro-Russian rebels, pray near a checkpoint in the town of Zugres, Eastern Ukraine, on Jan. 11, 2015.

The conflict has given exiled Chechens a chance to revive an old battle against their Moscow-backed kinsmen

The Chechens arrived at about the same time on both sides of the war in eastern Ukraine. On the side of the Russians, they came last spring with no insignia on their uniforms, crossing the border into the rebel-held territory of Ukraine and taking up positions around the city of Donetsk. General Isa Munaev, by contrast, arrived on the opposite side of the front lines with a suitcase full of insignia – military berets, pins and flags bearing the symbol of Chechen independence: a wolf in repose above nine stars, each representing one of the major clans, or teips, of Chechnya.

His arrival opened one of the odder dimensions of the conflict in Ukraine. This sovereign country, which has more than enough of its own internal divisions and rivalries, has become host to a foreign conflict of Chechens versus Chechens that has been simmering elsewhere for more than a decade.

Adam Osmayev, the commander of a battalion of Chechens fighting against Russia-backed rebels, is in the town of Lysychansk, Ukraine on March 2, 2015.
Olya Engalycheva—APAdam Osmaev, the commander of a battalion of Chechens fighting against Russia-backed rebels, in Lysychansk, Ukraine on March 2, 2015.

Regardless of the peace process now easing the broader war in Ukraine, this narrow struggle is likely to continue as long as the opposing sides from Chechnya have the chance to meet each other in an active conflict zone. “It’s like a blood feud,” says Adam Osmaev, one of the key Chechen commanders participating in the war. “Politics can’t stop it.”

The feud that split Chechnya, a tiny nation of highlanders who mostly adhere to a moderate strand of Sunni Islam, began around the year 2000, when they were fighting their most recent war for independence from Russia. Under the command of President Vladimir Putin, the Russian air force systematically bombed the rebellious province into submission that year, and with no air defenses to fight back, Chechnya’s rebel leadership was broadly divided between those who grudgingly accepted Russian rule and those who kept up a guerrilla-style insurgency.

Gen. Munaev was among the latter. By his own account, he remained in Chechnya for more than five years after the war’s official end, actively participating in the resistance even as his fellow fighters turned to the use of assassinations, sabotage and terrorism in their attacks on Russian and loyalist forces. All too often, civilians were caught in the conflict, especially as Chechen rebels turned to the use of suicide bombings and took innocent hostages. In 2006, during a counter-insurgency strike in Chechnya, Munaev was gravely injured – sustaining, as he later recalled, 36 shrapnel wounds. His comrades then smuggled him through Ukraine to Europe to seek treatment, and he received political asylum in Denmark soon after.

By that point, Chechnya was firmly under the control of a young warlord named Ramzan Kadyrov, whom Putin had entrusted in 2004 to stamp out what remained of the local insurgency. The result was a vicious internecine struggle. A brawny boxing fan with a private zoo full of carnivores, Kadyrov oversaw the hunt for rebel leaders in the mountains of Chechnya and allowed no resistance to Russian rule, often referring to Putin as a kind of surrogate father. Even in exile, Kadyrov’s enemies would often wind up dead – some assassinated in Europe, others in Turkey or Dubai – even though Kadyrov denied personally ordering their murders.

The exiled Munaev seemed undeterred. Having recovered from his injuries in Denmark, he set up a political activist group to campaign for Chechen independence, and he stubbornly renounced any Chechen who agreed to talk of reconciliation with Kadyrov or his representatives. “This war never ended for us,” says his close friend and associate in Denmark, the exiled Chechen statesman Ilyas Musayev. “The thought of any contact with those who have betrayed Chechnya, who have killed their own tribesmen, causes a Chechen terrible pain,” Musayev told TIME during an interview at his apartment near Copenhagen in late 2009.

He conceded, however, that little could be done from exile to change the situation in Chechnya, and as time past, their old insurgency died down. Russia felt secure enough in 2010 to abolish martial law in the region, and a sense of normalcy returned to Chechnya as its bombed-out cities were rebuilt with money from Moscow.

The war in eastern Ukraine, which broke out last spring, provided the exiled Chechens with their first chance in years to take up arms against Russia again. Munaev didn’t miss the opportunity. Weeks after Russia set off the conflict by invading and annexing the region of Crimea, Munaev arrived in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, with his suitcase of Chechen flags and patches.

Forty-eight years old at the time, he must have seemed a strange volunteer to the Ukrainian military officers who received him. But in their desperate search for experienced fighters – Ukraine’s armed forces were hopelessly unprepared for a war with Russia – Munaev was a valuable paramilitary asset. So Ukraine’s military provided him with a cache of small arms, and he was quickly allowed to form a unit called the Dudaev Battalion, which began serving alongside the Ukrainian army last spring. (The unit was named after the late Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudaev, a former Soviet air force general who ruled Chechnya during its years of de facto independence from 1991 until 1996, when he was killed in a Russian airstrike.)

At a press conference in October, Munaev made clear his motives for coming to fight in Ukraine: “If Ukraine loses, Chechnya will lose,” he said, his voice seeming to falter with emotion. “Fighting here in the defense of Ukrainian freedom, we are defending our own freedom, our own statehood.” By that logic, he urged all Chechen exiles to take up the call to arms as a revival of their bygone war against Russia, and dozens of them have.

According to the battalion’s officers, about a quarter of their roughly 200 fighters are Chechens who have mostly come from their exiles in Turkey and various parts of Europe. Half of them are Ukrainian, while the rest are a mixed bag of former Soviet military veterans, mostly from Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Over the past year, they have participated in some of Ukraine’s fiercest battles against pro-Russian separatist forces, often doing the dangerous work of reconnaissance behind enemy lines. But Munaev’s role as their commander did not last long. In February, during a vicious battle for control of the strategic railroad juncture of Debaltseve, he was killed in action while on a reconnaissance mission with a handful of his men. His deputy commander Osmaev, a far younger and less experienced fighter from Chechnya, then took over command of the unit.

Back in their homeland, Kadyrov was elated at the news, taking it as his chance to tell all Chechens not to follow in Munaev’s footsteps. “Stop immediately!” he wrote on his Instagram account. “This is not your war. Go home now. This is your chance to stay alive.”

It seemed an ironic piece of advice for Kadyrov to offer. At least since May, dozens of his loyal fighters from Chechnya have gone to aid the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, and he has repeatedly warned the government in Kiev that he would send more of them to arrest Ukrainian politicians or help the separatists carry the fight. He has even offered to join the war himself if Putin gives him leave.

During a visit to Chechnya in April, TIME interviewed one officer of the region’s Interior Ministry forces who says he served a brief tour in eastern Ukraine last year. Before the deployment, he says he and the other men in his unit went on leave from active duty, allowing their commanders in Russia and Chechnya to deny having sent them. “It was a formality,” he says on condition of anonymity. “That’s the way of this war.”

Though he never met a fellow Chechen on the other side of the front lines, he didn’t seem troubled by the fact that it was possible. So deep is the split within this nation that one Chechen fighter might go covertly to Ukraine from Russia, another might travel from his exile in Europe, and neither would seem bothered by the fact that, meeting on the field of battle, they would share the bonds of faith, language and kinship that have defined their identities for hundreds of years.

Driving around in his armored car in the front-line town of Lysychansk, the current commander of the Dudaev Battalion says he can’t even bring himself to call the other side Chechens anymore. “These are people who serve the historical enemy of their nation, who kill their own kin,” Osmaev tells TIME. “These aren’t Chechens. At best they’re Chechen-speaking Russians.” He doesn’t seem to care that the scorn is mutual.

TIME Ukraine

On Patrol With One of Russia’s Most Wanted in the Battle for Ukraine

TIME embedded with the Dudaev Battalion led by commander Adam Osmaev, who is wanted in Russia on terrorism charges

Last year, the people of Ukraine realized that they had, in effect, no army to defend them. Their military had been too depleted by corruption and mismanagement to mount a defense when Russia sent troops to seize the region of Crimea in February 2014. Through the following spring, armed forces mostly stood by as Russia went on to fuel a separatist rebellion in Ukraine’s eastern regions, seizing effective control of more territory and large portions of the border with Ukraine. The so-called “volunteer battalions”—poorly trained but highly motivated militias—arose to fill the holes in Ukraine’s defenses.

Over the past year, dozens of these paramilitary groups have appeared on Ukraine’s battlefields, often bearing the brunt of the fighting against Russian-backed separatist forces. They consist of anywhere from a few dozen to a few thousand troops, and their more successful commanders often enjoy the status of national celebrities. But their place in the military hierarchy of Ukraine tends to be murky. Though they get much of their heavy weaponry from government stockpiles, they mostly operate in a legal grey zone, closer to guerrillas than national guards.

Earlier this year, TIME embedded with one of the more controversial of these groups—the Dudaev Battalion—which has been carrying out reconnaissance and sabotage behind enemy lines since the war began. About half of its troops are from foreign countries, meaning that, legally, they do not have the right to serve in Ukraine’s armed forces. But their commander Adam Osmaev, who is wanted in Russia on terrorism charges, now wants to merge his force with Ukraine’s defense ministry or national police—a move that would give him access to more weapons, he says, as well as a chance to get some Western military aid.

TIME On Our Radar

Magnum Photographer Jerome Sessini Wins Olivier Rebbot Award

Crash Malaysian airways uvraine
Jerome Sessini—Magnum The remains of a passenger on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that was shot over eastern Ukraine, July 17, 2014.

From "Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: ‘Unreal’ Scenes from Photographer Jerome Sessini"

The prestigious Overseas Press Club Awards recognizes the best international journalism

Last July, Magnum photographer Jerome Sessini was in eastern Ukraine when he heard that a plane had been brought down by a surface-to-air missile.

The French photographer was one of the first journalists on the scene. His heart-wrenching images showed how a field of sunflowers in the village of Torez had been transformed into the horrific resting place for 298 passengers.

For his coverage of the macabre landscape, published in TIME, the Overseas Press Club of America has awarded Sessini the Olivier Rebbot Award.

“I am pleasantly surprised,” the photographer told TIME ahead of today’s ceremony in New York. “I’m pleased for two reasons: one, because it’s a prestigious award and, two, because Gilles Peress is one of the former recipients of that prize, and he’s always been a model for me. He’s covered conflicts with a real analytical depth, which makes all the difference.”

Sessini spent most of 2014 in Ukraine, documenting the violent protests on Maidan Square in Kiev, the MH-17 plane crash, the unrecognized rebel-led referendum in Donetsk and the impact of war on local populations in eastern Ukraine.

“My process sounds a bit contradictory,” he said. “I start by covering a breaking news event and at some point, something happens in me and I have to cover that story in the long term. The two are indissociable. I need the urgency before I can change rhythm and take the necessary distance to the subject to produce a deeper body of work.”

Sessini was particularly attracted to the story in Ukraine because it visually stimulated him while holding a historical importance. “I’ll admit it, it was a mix of egoism and altruism,” he says. “The reason I decided to do long-term work in eastern Ukraine is because I felt the local population was the biggest loser of this war. They find themselves in the middle. They’ve been ostracized by the central government of Ukraine, and they are seen as the bad guys because Russia supports them.”

Sessini will be going back to eastern Ukraine in May.

The Overseas Press Club of America has also awarded photographers Bulent Kilic of Agence France-Presse and Rodrigo Abd of Associated Press with the John Faber Award and the Feature Photograph Award, respectively.

Kilic was named TIME’s 2014 Wire Photographer of the Year.

TIME viral

Watch This Fox Actually Make His Own Sandwich

Who needs opposable thumbs when you have teeth?

Foxes are known for being clever mammals, but this fox in Chernobyl, Ukraine can assemble his own lunch.

Watch as the animal adroitly stacks bread and deli meats atop one another in a five-layered epic sandwich worthy of a professional kitchen. Aside from the food-hygiene aspect, of course.

TIME Aviation

Germany Failed to Pass on Warnings Before Plane Was Shot Down Over Ukraine

The catastrophe killed 298 people

German authorities knew of the danger of flying over eastern Ukraine before flight Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down last July but failed to pass on the warning.

Two days before the Malaysia Airlines flight was brought down, the German government was alerted that the situation had become “very worrying,” the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports, citing the downing of a Ukrainian air force plane at a height of about 20,000 feet on July 14.

The German foreign ministry cables noted the plane’s height and its vulnerability as a “new development” to the conflict. Targets including civilian aircraft would also have been endangered at that height.

Flight 17 was destroyed three days later on July 17, killing 298 people, a catastrophe that might have been averted had Malaysia Airlines known of the dangers.

Three Lufthansa planes flew over the area on the day of the disaster. “If the government had warned our companies of this ‘new development,’ Lufthansa would surely not have flown planes over eastern Ukraine,” a Lufthansa insider told the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

A Dutch-led investigation says it is likely that the plane was shot down by a Russian-made missile launcher.

[Süddeutsche Zeitung]

TIME viral

Watch an Unbelievable Dust Storm Turn Belarus Into Tatooine

This is terrifying

An incredible video has surfaced of a bizarre weather phenomenon that, within a matter of minutes, transformed day into night in the Belarus city of Soligorsk on Monday.

Thankfully, while property damage was reported in the region, nobody was injured during the storm, says the Russian news outlet RT.

A cold front near the border with Ukraine created the epic dust storm called a “haboob,” which is rare in the region at this time of year. What’s more, the storm also included heavy rain.

It appears Mother Nature reminded us that science fiction may not be so outlandish after all.

Read next: How a Dust Storm Inspired a Mass Exodus and a Great Novel

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Ukraine

Ukrainian Ally of Ousted President Found Dead

Oleg Kalashnikov in Kiev, Ukraine in 2013.
Vladimir Donsov—AP Oleg Kalashnikov in Kiev in 2013.

Eight other allies of Viktor Yanukovich have had sudden deaths in the last year

A former member of the Ukrainian parliament who opposed the popular movement that ousted President Viktor Yanukovich was found dead with gunshot wounds in Kiev.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said in a statement that the body of Oleg Kalashnikov, 52, was discovered Wednesday evening.

Kalashnikov was involved in the “anti-Maidan” protests in support of Yanukovych, who fled in February 2014. According to the BBC, at least eight Yanukovych allies have died in the last three months; most of the deaths have been deemed suicides.

[Reuters]

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