TIME foreign affairs

The Upside of Putin’s Warmongering

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin stands in front of the 6 meters long Tsar Pushka (Tsar Cannon), one of the Russian landmarks displayed in the Kremlin in Moscow, on July 31, 2014. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV—AFP/Getty Images

Putin’s madness has created a new Sputnik moment that should spur California into investing in science and math education

Here are two words Californians should say to Vladimir Putin: thank you.

California, with its historic reliance on defense-related industries, never quite recovered from the end of the Cold War. Today, Los Angeles has fewer jobs than it did in 1990. Fortunately, Putin seems intent on giving us a new Cold War.

Let’s stipulate that Putin’s crushing of dissent at home, his seizing of the Crimea, his wars against Ukraine and Georgia, and his bullying of European neighbors are bad for the peace and security of the world. But all this Russian madness—not to mention the threatening, nationalistic expansionism of Putin’s Chinese ally President Xi Jinping—presents an opportunity for California.

The belligerence of Russia and China could boost a host of California industries. Aerospace could benefit from increasing insecurity among Russian and Chinese neighbors, since more countries will be inclined to increase their spending on defense, and to curry favor with Uncle Sam by buying American. California’s space industry could become much more important as the United States moves from collaborating with the Russians in space to competing against them—and against a growing Chinese space program. And Silicon Valley’s data security firms are already booming in part because of widespread concerns about Russian and Chinese hackers, not to mention the intrusive behavior of U.S. intelligence agencies.

The threat of Putinism also could change the politics of oil and natural gas production here—more domestic production serving as another counter to Russia’s oil-based economy. (Maybe we’ll hear politicians from the San Joaquin Valley, where development of the Monterey Shale’s natural gas could be an economic game-changer, accuse fracking opponents of being soft on Russian imperialism.) Alternative energy businesses—from wind to solar to geothermal—should also find it easier to wrap their pitches in national security terms. It’s no longer about merely ending our reliance on Mideast oil, but also about declawing the Russian bear.

California’s softer industries could prosper too. Hollywood, which has struggled to develop compelling bad guys since the end of the Cold War, can mass-produce Russian villains again. As for tourism: With headlines of downed aircraft and bombings everywhere, isn’t it tempting to stay closer to home and go to Disneyland, or check out the minions at Universal Studios?

The big question, of course, is whether our governments, our industries, and our people are still in a position to exploit this moment. The pessimistic view: Our dysfunctional governing system will keep us from seizing the moment. The optimistic: Our persistent economic struggles (at least outside Silicon Valley) and the dangerous provocations of Russia and China might spur us to action.

The promise of this moment may be greatest in the aerospace industry, which is smaller but still cutting-edge, producing drones, satellites for commercial purposes, and space start-ups like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. And there is precedent for revival. After collapsing in the post-Vietnam funk, aerospace rebounded in the ’80s, headlined by the F-117 Stealth aircraft, the B-2 bomber, and the space shuttle. Unfortunately, more recently, as defense spending increased after 9/11 and the industry expanded elsewhere, California aerospace continued its decline.

As important as stopping Putin is stopping Texas or another state from becoming the next California, the place the world turns to in its hour of need. Putin’s pronouncement that he will revive his own aerospace industry, at the same time the Chinese military continues it buildup, should rally us to offense. Putin’s madness has created a new Sputnik moment that should also spur us into investing in science and math education; California needs hundreds of thousands more technically and scientifically skilled workers, for good times and bad.

The state has established a military council and created incentives, but it should go further, and provide seed money to fund business investment and research that serve both national security and the state’s economy. How to pay for it? Why not establish an emergency “Putin tax” on certain items (liquor, cigarettes, oil, and big houses would be fitting) or a “Putin break” from regulations for priority industries?

It’s time for the governor to call a “security council” summit of California officials, business leaders, and scholars. The perfect venue would be Fort Ross State Park, in Sonoma County, site of a settlement established by the Russians in the early 19th Century, with the goal, not yet realized, of colonizing America. It’s a beautiful place, and a powerful reminder that there are few things more enduring than the need to keep Russian czars in their place.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME interactive

How the World Sees America Now

Russia's approval for the United States plummeted in 2014. So did Brazil's. China and France increased in their affection for the country. This map shows the rise and fall in esteem for the United States around the world in recent years

Russians’ disapproval for the United States has hit new lows, according to the latest figures released by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. In 2013, 51 percent of Russians said they had a favorable view of the United States–the fourth straight year that a majority of those polled gave the U.S. a thumbs up. This year, with discord rising between American and Russian leaders, Russian approval of the U.S. plummeted 28 percentage points.

The following interactive allows you to compare any two different years back to 2002 to see how global opinion has changed. Not every country was polled every year.

 

Note: Clicking on the green hyperlinks updates the interactive map in the article.

Following Barack Obama’s election in 2008, many countries saw spikes in favorability toward the United States in 2009, and in many cases those bumps in approval have since waned. Germany greeted the new White House administration with a 33 point bump in approval, for example, but has since dropped 13 points to a 51 percent favorability rating. France and China, meanwhile, has bucked the trend, with growing support for the U.S. since last year.

TIME Ukraine

Who Are the Rebels Controlling Flight MH17’s Crash Site?

Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard in front of the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Grabove, in the region of Donetsk on July 20, 2014.
Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard in front of the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Grabove, in the region of Donetsk on July 20, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

The men behind the "Donetsk People's Republic" and other separatist groups

On Monday the two black boxes from flight MH17 were finally handed over to Malaysian experts who had been petitioning for their safe recovery. The black boxes, however, weren’t returned by the Ukrainian government, but by pro-Russian separatists from the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

The handover, attended by international press, did not seem bound by diplomatic protocols. Hulking rebels dressed in camouflage loomed over the diminutive leader of the Malaysian delegation as he addressed the media.

Next to him stood their leader, Alexander Borodai, the self-styled Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, who had negotiated the black boxes’ return with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. During the talks, Borodai had also agreed to transport the bodies of the victims to Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, to be flown out to the Netherlands for identification. He later kept his word.

Self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the pro-Russian separatist "Donetsk People's Republic" Alexander Borodai gives a press conference in Donetsk, on July 19, 2014.
Self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the pro-Russian separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic” Alexander Borodai gives a press conference in Donetsk, July 19, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

But what authority did Borodai have to negotiate the terms of the agreement with a world leader? Little more than the authority of the gun. In April, a gang led by Borodai and another rebel, Igor Girkin, declared the eastern province of Donetsk a republic. Girkin, who goes by the moniker “Strelkov” meaning shooter, is Borodai’s right hand man, running the armed forces within the so-called “Republic.” Negotiations between the two prime ministers—legitimate or otherwise—may have been fraught given that Girkin reportedly boasted about shooting down the plane.

Despite their grand claim to have founded a republic, Andrew Weiss, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment, told TIME Borodai and Girkin only control shifting parts of the region, which is also populated by other separatist groups numbering about 5,000 rebels.

The separatists are far from a unified force, says James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House. “They are a series of disparate and only vaguely interconnected groups,” he says. “They’re very disorganized with no real structure or headquarters. Most of the rebels are poorly trained, ill-educated and ignorant of geopolitics.”

Borodai and Girkin however, aren’t everyday thugs like some of their rebel brethren. The pair are both Russian nationals with suspected ties to the Kremlin and experience in separatist conflicts.

Borodai, 41, is rumored to be particularly close to Moscow. In the early 1990s he wrote regularly for the far-right newspaper Zavtra and in 2011 founded the nationalist television channel Den-TV. He confirmed earlier this year that he worked as an adviser to the separatist Prime Minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov. Russia annexed Crimea in March.

Borodai claims he was invited to eastern Ukraine by Girkin, a former Russian security-service officer. Girkin, meanwhile, has alleged he was asked to head the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, though refuses to say by whom. Like Borodai, he also advised separatists in Crimea.

The Russian pair’s group may have staked their claim to the crash site—Iryna Gudyma, a spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe who is currently in the area told TIME “we’ve only encountered armed rebels from the Donetsk People’s Republic”—but other rebels are on the scene.

The Wall Street Journal has claimed Cossacks led by commander Nikolai Kozitsin control part of the area where MH17 fell. Unlike Borodai and Girkin, Kozitsin is a Ukrainian who was born in Donetsk. Like them, he has been involved in separatist conflicts in Transnistria and Georgia.

On July 18, the day after the crash, Ukrainian authorities released a transcript of a conversation in which a man they identified as Kozitsin says of MH17: “they shouldn’t be flying. There’s a war going on.” Another transcript implicates Igor Bezler, known to his men as “Bes”, or “devil.” During a call Bezler reportedly told a Russian intelligence officer his men shot down a plane. Bezler’s group currently controls the town of Horlivka in Donetsk province.

But none of the rebel leaders have any overarching authority. “The people who are leaders in east Ukraine are not playing leading roles,” says Sam Greene, director of King’s College London’s Russian Institute. “They hold the de facto power in that part of the Ukraine but that’s all. They don’t have long established electoral legitimacy.” Borodai was only allowed to speak to the Malaysian Prime Minister because his men currently control the area.

Any fleeting power the groups have is considerably bolstered by Russia’s supply of money and weapons into the region, but that may soon cease. “Moscow’s commitment to supporting the rebels is waning, particularly after MH17,” notes Greene. “The costs are becoming too high politically both in terms of sanctions and the damage to Putin’s international reputation.”

And without Russian support, the future of the Donetsk People’s Republic looks decidedly shaky.

TIME Foreign Policy

Russian Television Under Spotlight After Malaysia Airlines Crash in Ukraine

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Employees of RT prepare for a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on June 11, 2013. Yuri Kochetkov—AP

The crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 exposes the truth about RT, the Russian English-language propaganda outlet

In late 2009, the British journalist Sara Firth became a Russian propaganda mouthpiece.

The decision seemed to make sense at the time. Firth had just earned a postgraduate diploma in investigative journalism when she was offered a role as on-air-correspondent for RT, a Russian television network that is broadcast for foreign audiences in English, Spanish and Arabic. The gig came with an attractive salary, vibrant colleagues and the chance to report big stories in global hotspots. Firth had ambition, a sense of adventure, and a fascination with Russia. She took the job.

Founded in 2005, RT is billed as a counterweight to the bias of Western media outlets. In reality, the broadcast outlet is an unofficial house organ for President Vladimir Putin’s government. Under the guise of journalistic inquiry, it produces agitprop funded by the Russian state, and beams it around the world to nearly 650 million people in more than 100 countries. RT is Russia’s “propaganda bullhorn,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said recently, “deployed to promote President Putin’s fantasy about what is playing out on the ground.”

Firth was no dupe. She knew the politics of her paymasters. “We are lying every single day at RT,” she explained Monday afternoon in a phone interview from England. “There are a million different ways to lie, and I really learned that at RT.”

Since a Malaysian jetliner crashed in a wheat field in eastern Ukraine last week, RT’s pro-Putin packaging has been exposed in grim detail. In the aftermath of the tragedy, which killed all 298 souls on board, the outlet—like the rest of Russian state media—has seemed as if it were reporting on an entirely different crime. As the international media published reports indicating the plane was shot down by pro-Russian separatists, RT has suggested Ukraine was responsible, cast Moscow as a scapegoat and bemoaned the insensitivity of outlets focusing on the geopolitical consequences of the crime.

For Firth, the coverage was the last straw. She announced her resignation on July 18, as her employer broadcast a flurry of reports that read more like Kremlin press releases. She described a five-year fight to uphold the principles of journalistic integrity in a place where every reporting assignment comes with a “brief” outlining the story’s conclusion. “It’s mass information manipulation,” she says. “They have a very clear idea in their mind of what they’re trying to prove.”

RT is neither the first nor the only outlet that exists to serve the state rather than its citizens. Nearly every major country has a thriving state-sponsored media. (The U.S. funds media organizations like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia that target foreign populations through the Broadcasting Board of Governors.) In Russia, the domestic media have long been lapdogs, and reporters who bite their masters sometimes turn up dead. “The media in Russia are expected to be mouthpieces for power,” says Sarah Oates, a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland who studies the Russian media. “RT follows this model. They’ll mix a little bit of reality with a little bit of smearing, and they’ll steer the viewer into questioning things.”

RT’s motto is “Question More,” which sounds like a worthy credo. In practice, it arranges those questions to light the way to specific answers. The formula is well-honed. RT hires young, telegenic correspondents who speak fluent English and believe, as Firth does, that a flawed media ecosystem benefits when broadcasters challenge the dominant narrative. And it pays them lavishly to report from far-flung battlefields or its gleaming studios. “They want you to be on air looking young, looking sexy, looking fresh. Being a bit quirky,” says Firth. “They’re after impact. They don’t mind too much about the fact checking.”

In the aftermath of the crash last week, the RT machine kicked into overdrive, churning out a steady stream of strange reports. In an effort to implicitly assign blame on the Ukrainians, it noted the proximity of Putin’s own plane. It quoted a Russian defense ministry source asking why a Ukrainian air force jet was detected nearby. And it quoted another anonymous Russian official, who volunteered the juicy claim that a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile was operational in the vicinity at the time of the incident. This is how RT works, explains Firth: by arranging facts to fit a fantasy.

“What they do is a very smart, slick way of manipulating reality,” she says. “In Ukraine, you’re taking a very small part of a much wider story, totally omitted the context of the story, and so what you wind up with on air is outright misinformation.”

Sometimes the end result is anything but slick. In March, a group of alumni and students from the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kiev, along with associated journalists, launched a fact-checking site to chronicle false reporting about the Ukrainian crisis. The site, Stopfake.org, features a long menu of whoppers from Russian media. Among the most egregious, the group’s founder told TIME, is the case of a blond actress who has cropped up in different roles over the course of conflict. The actress, Maria Tsypko, has been interviewed on state TV and identified as separatist camp organizer in Odessa, a political refugee in Sevastopol and an election monitor in Crimea, according to the site. The only thing that never changes is her affection for Mother Russia.

These outlandish flubs are a problem for the Russian propaganda effort, which forks out millions to cloak spin as truth-telling. It’s hard to maintain the illusion when the audience can see the strings and wires behind the scenes. “It’s been a particularly effective means of propaganda, and a very effective voice for the Russian state,” says Oates. “But if you’re going to engage in propaganda, you have to do it well. They have completely embarrassed themselves.”

RT did not respond to an interview request from TIME. According to Firth, you can reliably glean management’s perspective from the opinions they allow their employees to parrot. Many, Firth says, are like herself: committed journalists who thought they could persevere and take advantage of the opportunity to report important stories, the goals of their bosses notwithstanding.

“For five years, you’re kind of fighting against this—and with your colleagues you’re rolling your eyes and making jokes,” she says. “The worst-kept secret is that RT is blatant propaganda. I’m one in a very long line of people who have left for the same reason. Everyone has their breaking point. I wish I had done it sooner. But I didn’t.”

TIME foreign affairs

Putin’s Defiance After Malaysia Airlines Crash Points to Further Isolationism

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Trinity lavra of St.Sergius
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for the Orthodox festival to honour the birthday of Venerable Sergius of Radonezh in the Trinity Lavra of St.Sergius on July 18, 2014, in Sergiyev Posad. Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images

The President has stubbornly refused to even suggest that the rebel leaders share part of the blame in the disaster.

At some point on Thursday evening, just after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 blew apart over some wheat field in eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin had a chance to take stock of his options. There were essentially two. The Russian President could stand behind the rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine, even as suspicion grew that they were responsible for shooting the airliner down, and risk implicating Russia in the tragedy and deepening the Kremlin’s conflict with Ukraine and with the West. The other option, a familiar one for Putin, would be to use the senseless loss of life as an opportunity to shift toward reconciliation.

He had taken the latter approach a few years ago, in 2010, when a plane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczyński and his entourage crashed in western Russia, killing everyone on board. To the surprise of many in Poland, Putin took that tragedy as a chance to make amends, however briefly, easing the history of mistrust between the two nations. His displays of mourning and commiseration – Putin even hugged and comforted Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk near the crash site – allowed Russians and Poles to call each other brothers for the first time in a generation.

Taking the same approach after Thursday’s catastrophe would have helped Putin on several fronts. He could have distanced himself from the increasingly erratic rebel leaders in Ukraine and their supporters in Russia, who have been goading Putin deeper into war, without looking weak or inconsistent at home. More important for his interests, he could have defused the West’s case for further sanctions against Russia, at least by working with Ukraine to investigate the tragedy and showing some remorse for his role in fueling the conflict that, ultimately, led to the downing of that plane. But Putin seems to have chosen otherwise.

Instead of the displays of empathy he showed after the crash of the Polish plane four years ago, Putin immediately began casting blame on Ukraine and shielding the rebels from criticism. Some observers have suggested that this was a kneejerk reaction rather than a well-considered choice. “The Kremlin will, for all its immediate and instinctive bluster and spin, have to definitively and overtly withdraw from arming and protecting the rebels,” wrote Mark Galleoti, a prominent Russia expert and professor at New York University. “I suspect that when the histories are written, this will be deemed the day the insurgency lost. Or at least began to lose.”

That may be true. But 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. Russian state television has already begun defending the rebels from blame, offering theories on the culpability of Ukraine’s armed forces. Once that message is chosen as the official line, the Kremlin will be wary of veering away from it. Many top officials have already locked themselves into a position, well before all the circumstances became clear. Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the Russian parliament and one of Putin’s oldest and closest allies, even accused Kiev of “criminal negligence” on Friday for allowing the Malaysia Airlines flight to pass over the region where “the Ukrainian army uses armored vehicles, heavy artillery, warplanes and launch rocket systems against their citizens.”

He made no mention of the fact that the rebels launch rockets as well, including the kind capable of taking down an airliner flying at more than 30,000 feet. Nor did Putin in his comments late on Thursday. “Obviously, the state over which this incident took place is responsible for this terrible tragedy,” Putin said.

The one-sidedness of the President’s response – his refusal even to suggest that the rebel leaders share part of the blame in the disaster – has given his critics a chance to lay the blame on him. Alexander Ryklin, a political commentator and vocal opponent of the Kremlin, wrote on Friday that “all of the political responsibility” lies on Putin’s shoulders. “He is the one who gave the orders to provide Russian technology and weapons to these mindless insurgents,” Ryklin wrote in an editorial on Friday. “And the result is clear.”

If the investigation into Thursday’s crash manages to prove that assertion in the coming weeks and months, the damage to Putin’s credibility at home and abroad would be enormous, and it is not clear what he has to gain from siding so clearly with the rebels this early in the investigation. Other than projecting a stubborn defiance in this conflict, and thus firming up his already sky-high support among hardliners in Russia, there is little obvious upside. So many Russia-watchers, particularly the investors who have a financial stake in Russia avoiding further sanctions, have held out hope that Putin will still shift to a more conciliatory line.

“Either the event will push Russia towards greater isolationism as a response to the broadly based global criticism,” said the Moscow-based investment adviser Chris Weafer, “or it will mark some sort of end, or the start of the end, of the most dangerous phase in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

Two days after the crash, that is still Putin’s choice to make. But from the signals the Kremlin is sending so far, it seems he has already made it. 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 foreign affairs

Garry Kasparov: The Price of Inaction in Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists look at passengers' belongings at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region
Pro-Russian separatists look at passengers' belongings at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 18, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters

Obama and Europe chose not to stand up to Vladimir Putin — now we're seeing the terrible toll.

There are many questions still to be answered about what happened to Malaysia Air Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. I will limit myself to what is known to a reasonable doubt based on the evidence and statements that have been provided by numerous officials in the 36 hours since the tragedy. Nearly 300 innocent lives were lost when Flight MH17 was shot out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile. The missile was launched from an area in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-supplied and Russia-supported paramilitary separatists that include at least some Russian officers and special forces. Three other planes have been shot down in the region in the last month.

Nearly 300 dead. Horribly, needlessly. We all mourn them and seek to understand how this could happen. Based on the day’s official statements and most news coverage the word blame is somehow forbidden, and I do not understand why. Establishing responsibility and exacting accountability for these murders is more important than fretting about reaching the right tone of restraint in a press release.

So who is to blame? This is not a simple question even if you know the answer. That is, of course, the person who pushed the button that launched the missile is to blame; that is the easy part. Shall we just arrest him and try him for murder? Responsibility is a greater concept than that. You have the leader who gave the order to push the button. Then the person who provided the missiles to the separatists. Then there are the officials who opened the border to allow military weaponry to cross into Ukraine and the ministers and generals in Moscow who gave those orders. Then we come to the desk where all power resides in Russia today, the desk of the man those ministers and generals obey very carefully: the desk of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Blaming Putin for these deaths is as correct and as pointless as blaming the man who pressed the button that launched the missile. Everyone has known for months that Russia arms and supports the separatists in Ukraine. Everyone has known for years that a mouse does not squeak in the Kremlin without first getting Putin’s permission. We also know very well what Putin is, a revanchist KGB thug trying to build a poor man’s USSR to replace the loss of the original he mourns so much.

But blaming Putin for invading Ukraine — for annexing Crimea, for giving advanced surface-to-air missiles to separatists — is like blaming the proverbial scorpion for stinging the frog. It is expected. It is his nature. Instead of worrying about how to change the scorpion’s nature or, even worse, how best to appease it, we must focus on how the civilized world can contain the dangerous creature before more innocents die.

Therefore let us cast our net of responsibility where it may do some good. We turn to the leaders of the free world who did nothing to bolster the Ukrainian border even after Russia annexed Crimea and made its ambitions to destabilize eastern Ukraine very clear. It will be interesting to see if the Western leaders and business groups who have been working so hard to block stronger sanctions against Russia will now see any reason to change their policy. I expect they will at least be quieter about it until the wreckage is cleared away.

Is the West to blame? Did they push the button? No. They pretended that Ukraine was far away and would not affect them. They hoped that they could safely ignore Ukraine instead of defending the territorial integrity of a European nation under attack. They were paralyzed by fear and internal squabbles. They resisted strong sanctions on Russia because they were worried about the impact on their own economies. They protected jobs but lost lives.

Would this tragedy have happened had tough sanctions against Russia been put into effect the moment Putin moved on Crimea? Would it have happened had NATO made it clear from the start they would defend the sovereignty of Ukraine with weapons and advisers on the ground? We will never know. Taking action requires courage, and there can be high costs in achieving the goal. But as we now see, in horror, there are also high costs for inaction, and the goal has not been achieved.

The argument that the only alternative to capitulation to Putin is World War III is for the simple-minded. There were, and are, a range of responses. A horrible price has been paid, but it will not be the last if even this fails to provoke a strong reaction. Financial and travel restrictions against Putin’s cronies and their families and harsh sanctions against key Russian economic sectors may also do some damage to European economies. Until yesterday, Europe could argue about how much money their principles were worth. Today they have to argue about how much money those lives are worth.

Kasparov is the chairman of the NY-based Human Rights Foundation.

TIME

Putin’s Approval Rating Reaches Record High in Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russia's President Vladimir Putin smiles while speaking with journalists in Itamaraty Palace in Brazilia, early on July 17, 2014. Alexei Nikolsky—AFP/Getty Images

Russians are also satisfied with their freedom, military and elections

Amid the conflict in Ukraine and growing discord with European neighbors and Western countries, Vladimir Putin’s approval rating among Russians has climbed to its highest level in years, according to a new Gallup poll.

Eighty-three percent of Russians approve of the job Russia’s president is doing. This ties his top rating in 2008 and marks a 29 percentage point increase from Putin’s rating in 2013.

For the first time since 2008, a majority of Russians say their country’s leadership is moving them in the right direction. In addition, 78% have confidence in their military, 64% in their national government, and 39% say that they are confident in the honesty of Russian elections.

But Russians’ positivity isn’t limited to their government. A record high of 65% of Russians said they were satisfied with their freedom in 2014. A significant group–35 %–also said they thought economic conditions were improving.

While Russians are satisfied with their own government, the poll showed they are increasingly turning away from Western countries. Both U.S. and European Union leadership had single digit approval ratings. One country Russians do approve of is China. The poll showed Russians’ approval for China soared this year to a record 42%. In recent months, the two countries have shown close economic ties, signing a $400 billion gas deal this spring.

TIME

Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: Obama Says 1 American Aboard Flight

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A piece of wreckage from the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is pictured on July 18, 2014 in Shaktarsk, Ukraine. Dominique Faget—AFP/Getty Images

At least one American citizen was on board Malaysia Airways Flight 17 when it plummeted to earth Thursday, President Barack Obama said Friday, adding that the U.S. government believes that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine.

Quinn Lucas Schansman, a dual Dutch-U.S. citizen, is believed to be the lone American killed in what Obama called “an outrage of unspeakable proportions.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said Friday at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council that the U.S. government believes the plane was shot down Thursday “by an SA-11 operated from a separatist-held location in eastern Ukraine.”

“Because of the technical complexity of the SA-11, it is unlikely that the separatists could effectively operate the system without assistance from knowledgeable personnel,” Power said. “Thus we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel in operating the systems.”

Obama called on Russia, Ukraine, and separatist groups to immediately declare a ceasefire so that an independent investigation can begin, adding that any evidence removed from the site must be turned over to investigators.

“If indeed Russian-backed separatists were behind this attack on a civilian airliner, they and their backers would have good reason to cover up evidence of their crime,” Power said. “Thus, it is extremely important that an investigation be commenced immediately.”

Describing the downing as a “global tragedy,” Obama said it was too early to know the intentions of those who shot down the plane. “The eyes of the world are on eastern Ukraine and we are going to make sure that the truth is out,” Obama said.

A day after Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukraine for the plane’s downing, Power said Russia is responsible for continuing to back Ukrainian separatists despite repeated assurances that they were working to de-escalate the situation.

“Russia says that it seeks peace in Ukraine, but we have continually provided evidence to this council of Russia’s continued support for the separatists,” Power said. “Time after time President Putin has committed to working towards dialogue and peace. Every single time he has broken that commitment.”

“This war can be ended,” Power concluded. “Russia can end this war. Russia must end this war.”

Obama said it is time for Putin to put aside propaganda. “He and the Russian government have to make a strategic decision,” Obama said, saying “It is not possible for these separatists to function the way they are functioning,” including shooting down planes, without Russia’s backing.

Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin said his government blames the Ukrainian government for the shoot-down, questioning why the plane was even there. “Why did the Ukraine aviation dispatchers send this plane over a war zone,” he said, warning against “insinuations” about the attack.


TIME russia

Ukraine Rebels Call Putin a Coward After Russian Inaction

President Vladimir Putin in Kremlin, July 4.
President Vladimir Putin in Kremlin, July 4. Alexei Nikolsky—Itar-Tasss/ZumaPress

Early promises of help from Russia go unfulfilled

The rebel commander in eastern Ukraine was sure Russia’s tanks would soon come grinding over the border to his rescue. He even had an idea of what would provoke the invasion—“130 corpses,” he told TIME. “When they see that on Russian TV, they’ll come and help us.”

That was in the middle of April, and since then the body count in eastern Ukraine has far surpassed that figure. Even the commander himself, who went by the nickname Romashka, is now among the dead, having been shot by a Ukrainian sniper in his stronghold of Slavyansk at the beginning of May. No Russian troops ever came to help him.

For the Ukrainian government that has been a saving grace, allowing its army to force the pro-Russian militants into retreat over the weekend, killing scores of them in the process. But for Russian President Vladimir Putin, this turn in the conflict presents a painful dilemma. His pledges of support for the separatists now seem like false promises to the rebel leaders—and to their many supporters in Russia—and they have begun openly accusing Putin of cowardice and betrayal. The patriotic spell that he cast on his electorate with the annexation of Crimea in March now seems to have lifted, and his sky-high approval ratings are now likely to come down to earth.

The change in tone is already evident on Russia’s propaganda channels, which still depict the rebel fighters as heroes and martyrs—but not a part of any Russian war. “No one is talking about sending in troops anymore. That conversation is over,” says Mikhail Leontiev, one of the leading spin doctors on state-controlled TV. “Now the people need to understand that if Russia falls into this military trap, it will be worst of all for the people of eastern Ukraine, even for the fighters among them,” he tells TIME.

The fighters would beg to differ. In endless missives to the Russian leadership over the past few months, they have asked with growing anger and desperation for the Kremlin to send in troops or at least provide them with advanced weaponry. “We don’t have the means to fight so many tanks,” Igor Girkin, the rebel commander in eastern Ukraine who goes by the nom de guerre Igor Strelkov, said in a video appeal to Moscow on June 19. “I’m still hoping that Moscow has enough shame to take some kind of measures.”

But instead of offering much material assistance, Putin’s allies seem to have launched a slander campaign against Girkin and his men, even accusing them of “crying like women” about a lack of firepower before abandoning the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk this weekend. “He gave up the city without any pressure from the Ukrainian side,” Sergei Kurginyan, another prominent Kremlin propagandist, said in a video denunciation of the rebels. “No one was advancing against him.”

This claim seemed out of sync with the fighting on the ground. For days before the rebels fled Slavyansk on July 5 the Ukrainian army had besieged them, bombarding their positions with heavy artillery and cutting off supplies of food, electricity and water. Indeed, in the first week of June, Kurginyan had himself campaigned for Russia to send military contractors to assist Girkin and his men.

But that was before Putin made his sudden turn toward the role of a peacemaker in Ukraine. His reasons were pragmatic. Western sanctions had already broken financial ties—and frozen bank accounts—that Kremlin elites had spent years nurturing. The next round of sanctions would likely have sent Russia’s economy into a recession, putting at risk the state programs and paychecks that feed Putin’s loyal bureaucracy. A full-scale invasion would also risk a military quagmire that would further drain the Russian budget, as Ukraine’s army has mustered a force impressive enough to put up a serious fight. So in late June, Putin asked his legislature to withdraw his permission for the use of military force in Ukraine, and he began calling for peace talks in league with Western mediators.

The rebels were not the only ones to see this as a sign of duplicity. Russian nationalists have begun to turn on him as well, posting diatribes and even music videos that seek to goad Putin into war, juxtaposing his pledges to “defend the Russian world” with images of bombed-out villages and Russian corpses in Ukraine. “We gave them hope,” Alexander Dugin, one of the leading nationalist ideologues in Russia, said during a television appearance last week. “When we said we’re a united Russian civilization, this didn’t just come from a few patriotic forces. It came from the President!”

And it will not be easy for Putin to back away from those promises. A nationwide poll taken at the end of June suggested that 40% of Russians supported military intervention in Ukraine, up from 31% only a month earlier. This segment of society is largely made up of young, poor and undereducated nationalists, as well as elderly people nostalgic for the glory of the Soviet Union, according to Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, the independent polling agency that conducted those surveys. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, the euphoria among these parts of the electorate helped push Putin’s approval ratings toward record highs of over 80% “The revival of those strong imperialist feelings, playing on the idea of a fallen nation rising up, all of that ensured the sudden upswing in support for Putin,” Gudkov said. “But I don’t think that can last, probably not even past this fall.”

The all-time peak in Putin’s popularity, Gudkov points out, came right after the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, when his approval ratings jumped to 88% before quickly getting dragged down by the effects of the global financial crisis. By the spring of 2009, they were down to 55%—propped up by what Gudkov calls the apathetic mass of civil servants and state dependents who support Putin “because there is not other choice.”

That slump is now likely to recur. The Russian economy is once again stagnating, this time from the effects of the Western sanctions, and there are already signs that consumers are suffering from the resulting slump in the value of the ruble. New car sales, for instance, fell by a remarkable 17% last month, and the estimated cost of developing Crimea—roughly $18 billion—will put further strain on the federal budget. Such bread-and-butter problems are not enough to dissuade the jingoist minority in Russia, and they are certainly not much help to rebels fighting and dying in eastern Ukraine.

But as the last few weeks have shown, Putin is not the Napoleon many of them believed him to be.

 

TIME

Fighting Engulfs Key City as Ukraine Truce Ends

DONETSK, Ukraine — Rifle shots rang out Tuesday in the streets of the largest city in eastern Ukraine and panicked residents fled gunbattles as fighting flared with new intensity after the president ended a cease-fire.

Hopes for peace in eastern Ukraine appeared to sink, as separatist rebels fought to gain further ground and badly-trained and disorganized government troops did not seem capable of crushing the mutiny.

The shaky cease-fire had given European leaders 10 days to search in vain for a peaceful settlement, and its end raised the prospect of an escalation in a conflict that has already killed more than 400 people since April.

President Petro Poroshenko had called a unilateral cease-fire to try to persuade the rebels to lay down their weapons and hold peace talks. Some of the rebels signed onto the cease-fire as tentative negotiations began, but each side accused the other of repeated violations.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin argued that substantive talks with representatives in easternUkraine had failed to start in earnest and that the cease-fire announced by Poroshenko amounted to an ultimatum to the rebels to disarm.

The Russian leader also denounced the Western threat of sanctions as blackmail, adding that Moscow wouldn’t accept “ultimatums and mentor’s tone.”

Europe mustn’t allow “any unconstitutional coups and interference into the domestic affairs of sovereign states” and should steer clear of “inciting radical and neo-Nazi forces” to avoid destabilization, Putin said.

Russia has cast February’s ouster of Ukraine’s former pro-Moscow president following massive protests as a coup conducted by radical nationalists and neo-Nazis.

In Donetsk, the capital of Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, many streets were deserted and gunfire filled the air Tuesday as rebels besieged the headquarters of the regional Interior Ministry. After a five-hour gunbattle, the rebels captured the compound, leaving the body of a plainclothes police officer outside.

In Kiev, the interior minister said Ukrainian forces had repelled the rebel attack in Donetsk, but an AP journalist on the ground saw that clearly was not the case.

Residents appeared traumatized.

“I was driving and some people appeared with automatic weapons,” said Vitaly, who said he was too fearful to give his last name. “They put me and my girlfriend on the ground and then they said: ‘Run away from here!’

“I don’t know who is fighting whom. We are standing here. We are afraid and shaking.”

It wasn’t clear what prompted the rebel attack on the Interior Ministry building that houses regional police, who have peacefully coexisted with the rebels even though they nominally remained subordinate to the central government in Kiev.

The Interfax news agency quoted Sergei Kavtaradze, a spokesman for the insurgents in Donetsk, as saying the attack was launched by militants from the neighboring Luhansk region. There was no way to immediately confirm his claim.

Poroshenko announced the end of the cease-fire late Monday and by early Tuesday the military had made artillery and air strikes against separatist positions, Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksiy Dmytrashkovsky told the Interfax news agency. He said one service member was killed and 17 wounded in the previous 24 hours, and that a military jet was damaged.

There was no comment on any casualties from the rebel side.

Near the village of Karlovka, 30 kilometers (20 miles) northwest of Donetsk, residents told The Associated Press that government forces and rebels began firing heavy weapons at each other across a bridge early Tuesday, just hours after the cease-fire expired.

“There was shooting near the water. Even the water was splattering,” said Inna Vladimirovna, who gave only her name and patronymic, fearful of being identified. “We know when they are just shooting to scare and when they are shooting to kill.”

Ukrainian troops appeared to score some success Tuesday, with Poroshenko congratulating them on dislodging the rebels from one of the three checkpoints on the border with Russia that they had seized.

European leaders have been pressing Putin to persuade the rebels to lay down their weapons. The West has accused Russia of fomenting the rebellion with troops and weapons.

Russia has rejected those claims, saying that Russians who crossed into the east to fight with the rebels were private citizens. It says its influence with the rebels is limited and urges the Ukrainian government to negotiate directly with them.

Putin warned Tuesday that by ending the cease-fire, Poroshenko had made himself politically responsible for the fighting that began months before he was inaugurated in early June.

Poroshenko held four-way phone talks for hours with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in the last two days but said the rebels’ failure to meet his conditions made it impossible to extend the cease-fire.

In Brussels, the European Union’s 28 governments decided Tuesday they were not ready to hit Russia with a new round of sanctions over Ukraine and put off a decision until Monday, according to an EU official.

That proposal would target those responsible for fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, according to a diplomat from a major EU country, and could include travel bans and asset freezes for both individuals and companies. The EU has so far sanctioned only individuals.

Both the EU official and the diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t allowed to discuss the closed-door talks publicly.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned “the persistent unlawful violence” by armed militia groups in eastern Ukraine and urged them to lay down their weapons.

“The secretary-general reiterates that a continuation of hostilities can only further exacerbate an already precarious situation,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

 

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