TIME russia

Kremlin Critic Gunned Down in Moscow Ahead of Anti-Putin March

Russia Opposition Leader Killed
Pavel Golovkin—AP People lay flowers at the place where Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic Russian opposition leader and sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 28, 2015.

The Russian President has pledged to oversee the investigation

The Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in Moscow around midnight on Friday as he walked within view of the Kremlin walls.

Soon after the gunshots rang out in the heart of the Russian capital, President Vladimir Putin was informed of the murder, which he characterized as a “provocation.” Through his spokesman, Putin told Russian news agencies early on Saturday morning that, “This cruel killing has all the signs of a hired hit and bears the distinctive character of a provocation.”

Though numerous Kremlin critics have been assassinated during Putin’s tenure, none have been as prominent as the 55-year-old Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister in the administration of Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. His killing will likely galvanize the opposition movement and once again test the ability and willingness of Russian authorities to investigate acts of violence against Putin’s opponents. Such crimes have tended to go unsolved since Putin took power 15 years ago.

According to police and investigators in Moscow, Nemtsov was shot several times as he crossed the bridge that leads to the southern gates of the Kremlin fortress. Police said they have launched a citywide manhunt for the assailants, who escaped the scene of the crime in a white car.

Nemtsov’s murder took place two days before he and his allies in the opposition were due to lead a massive march in Moscow on Sunday against the Putin regime. The demonstration, as well as parallel protests in more than a dozen cities across the country, is meant to condemn Putin’s handling of the ongoing conflict with the West over Ukraine and the damage it has done to Russia’s economy.

Outrage poured in from the ranks of Russia’s opposition movement as news of the murder spread. “I’m certain that this scum will pay a high price,” said Nemtsov’s close friend and ally Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Russian Prime Minister. “Right now every member of the opposition needs society’s protection,” he told the state news agency Tass.

TIME Ukraine

Putin Says Ukrainian Forces Should Surrender to Rebels as Violence Escalates

Fighters with separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic army sit on top of a moving armoured personnel carrier heading to the front line in the village of Nikishine, south east of Debaltseve Feb.17, 2015.
Baz Ratnee—Reuters Fighters with separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic army sit on top of a moving armoured personnel carrier heading to the front line in the village of Nikishine, south east of Debaltseve Feb.17, 2015.

Pro-Russian rebels have reportedly surrounded over 5,000 Ukrainian troops

Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Ukraine Tuesday to allow its troops to surrender to rebel forces, as fighting escalated sharply in the country’s eastern region.

“I hope that the responsible figures in the Ukrainian leadership will not hinder soldiers in the Ukrainian army from putting down their weapons,” said Putin, according to Reuters.

The pro-Russian rebels have been rapidly advancing in the southeastern town of Debaltseve, and have reportedly surrounded over 5,000 Ukrainian troops.

The fighting in Debaltseve, a railroad hub to the east of Donetsk, broke out despite a cease-fire agreement reached in Belarusian capital, Minsk, just days before.

The rebels claim the cease-fire does not apply to Debaltseve and say they have already taken control of the town and captured “hundreds” of Ukrainian soldiers. “Eighty percent of Debaltseve is already ours,” rebel leader Eduard Basurin said. “A cleanup of the town is under way.”

The Ukrainian army has refuted these statements, saying they are holding their positions and contesting the number of prisoners claimed by the rebels.

Although the U.S. has considered sending defensive weapons to aid Ukrainian forces in the conflict, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said on Tuesday that “getting into a proxy war with Russia is not anything that’s in the interest of Ukraine or in the interest of the international community.”

TIME Ukraine

Putin: Leaders Agree to Deal for Ukraine Cease-Fire

Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prepare to pose for the media during a group photo opportunity at the Ukraine crisis meeting of the so-called Normandy group, in Minsk, Belarus, Feb. 11, 2015.
Tatyana Zenkovich—EPA Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prepare to pose for the media during a group photo opportunity at the Ukraine crisis meeting of the so-called Normandy group, in Minsk, Belarus, Feb. 11, 2015.

After 15 hours of talks, an agreement has been signed

(MINSK, Belarus) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday emerged from marathon Ukraine peace talks by announcing a new cease-fire deal, but questions remained whether Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels have agreed on its terms.

Putin told reporters that the cease-fire will be effective starting from Sunday, but he added that he and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko disagreed on assessing the situation in a key flashpoint.

The government-controlled town of Debaltseve, a key transport hub between the two main rebel-controlled cities in the east, has been the focus of intense fighting in recent weeks as the rebels sought to encircle the Ukrainian troops there.

Putin said that the rebels consider the Ukrainian forces surrounded and expect them to surrender, while Ukraine disagrees with that.

He added that they agreed with Poroshenko to clarify the situation. Putin urged the warring parties to show restraint.

Poroshenko said the parties agreed to help Ukraine reclaim the control of the border with Russia.

He told reporters that heavy weaponry will be withdrawn from both sides by 50 to 70 kilometers (31-43 miles) in the next two weeks. He also said that the parties agreed to make sure Ukraine reclaims the control of all of the country’s border, some of it is now controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

Putin’s statement followed the talks brokered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, which dragged for more than 15 hours deep into a second day Thursday as the four leaders desperately sought to resolve their differences.

The Russian leader said that the peace deal they reached also determines a division line from which heavy weapons will be pulled back and contains provision for providing a special status for the rebellious regions, solving humanitarian issues and settling issues related to border control.

TIME Ukraine

China Is the Big Winner in the Conflict Between Russia and the West

President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during their joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Feb. 9, 2015.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais—AP U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during their joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Feb. 9, 2015

A split between the U.S. and the E. U. underscores why the response to Ukraine will be so challenging

On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel held a joint press conference to declare solidarity in their approach to the conflict in Ukraine. “Russian aggression has only reinforced the unity between the United States, Germany and other European allies,” intoned Obama.

Would it were so. Russian aggression in Ukraine and the ongoing debate on how to respond have put serious strain on the transatlantic alliance, a problem that’s becoming harder to hide.

At the recent Munich Security Conference, the two sides tried to downplay their divisions. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that America and Europe differ over “tactics,” not strategy. But that’s not saying much. The two sides agree that Russia is the principal aggressor in a conflict that has killed more than 5,000 people and displaced 1.5 million more. They agree that Russia should give back Crimea and stop sending soldiers and weapons into the Donbass war zone. They agree that Russia must respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and its right to join European clubs.

But Russia has no intention of accepting any of those things, which makes “tactics” the whole ballgame. How to back Vladimir Putin down? That’s the fundamental impasse between the U.S. and Europe.

The question of the moment is whether to provide weapons to Ukraine. The Obama Administration, Britain and Canada are considering it. Some in Washington, like Arizona Senator John McCain, are pushing hard for it. Germany, now the strongest voice in European foreign policy, flatly opposes the idea.

This disagreement exposes a deeper conflict. The focal point of the U.S. approach is not to defend Ukraine, but to punish Russia. Washington can shrug off the economic impact of cratering relations with Moscow: in 2013, Russia was America’s 23rd largest trading partner, accounting for just 1% of America’s total trade. But Russia accounted for nearly 10% of the E.U.’s total trade that year, making it the E.U.’s third largest trading partner. With many European countries economically dependent on Russian energy and its support for certain sectors — banking, finance, agriculture and others — to punish Russia is to punish Europe too.

Obama appears reluctant to send weapons into Ukraine, but he does want to increase pressure on Putin. He fears that negotiations alone give the Russian leader time to further destabilize and bankrupt Ukraine’s government, and that sanctions should be intensified. Europe has so far maintained existing sanctions, but there are too many European governments deeply reluctant to impose new ones. Why accept damage to their own economies when they don’t believe Putin will change course?

In reality, neither negotiations nor sanctions will back Putin down, at least not soon enough to save Kiev enormous cost and pain. But as the assault on Ukraine intensifies and demand to do something boils over, America and Europe will likely begin to pursue separate plans. That’s bad news for both.

As U.S.-E.U. solidarity on Russia tactics splinters, who is the big winner? It’s not Putin. His prize for unwavering aggression is a broken Ukraine, a broken relationship with the West and a broken economy. Instead, it’s China that stands to gain. China disagrees with the broadest Western assumption — the need for a strong international response to Russian aggression in the first place. As Russia turns East, China will drive a harder bargain in their commercial relations while taking care to ensure that relations with America and Europe continue to expand. The tactics of playing both sides will work very well for China.

And given the growing transatlantic divide, better relations with China might be more important than ever.

TIME Ukraine

Rebels, Ukrainian Forces Agree on Humanitarian Corridor

APTOPIX Ukraine
Vadim Braydov—AP A pro-Russian rebel guards a captured former Ukrainian army checkpoint outside Vuhlehirsk in eastern Ukraine on Feb. 5, 2015

Over 5,000 have died since the conflict erupted in April

(VUHLEHIRSK, Ukraine) — The pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine reached agreement with government forces on a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from the epicenter of fighting on Friday as German and French leaders prepared to bring their peace plan to Moscow.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande are set to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin a day after discussing their proposals with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

The diplomatic blitz comes amid fierce fighting that prompted Washington to consider providing the beleaguered Ukrainian military with lethal weapons, in turn sparking European fears of even wider hostilities.

Rebel leaders said they reached agreement with Ukrainian authorities to allow the evacuation of civilians from Debaltseve, a key railway hub that has become the focus of fighting in recent weeks because of its strategic location. It wasn’t immediately clear where the evacuees would go.

The cease-fire around Debaltseve held Friday as a convoy of several dozen buses drove from nearby Vuhelhirsk toward Debaltsevo, where a shrinking population has been trapped in cross-fire and left without power, heating and running water for almost two weeks. Half-way to Debaltsevo, the convoy’s movement was stopped by concrete blocks, apparently intended to block military vehicles from using the road.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine between Russia-backed separatist rebels and Ukrainian forces has intensified sharply over the past two weeks. Russia vehemently denies that it is backing the insurgency with troops and weapons, but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry rejected that denial on Thursday’s visit to Kiev.

France and Germany were hoping this time they can come up with a peace deal acceptable both to Ukraine and Russia. In a sign of the importance of the initiative, this will be Merkel’s first trip to Moscow since Ukraine’s conflict broke out last year.

More than 5,300 people have been killed since the separatist insurgency flared up in eastern Ukraine in April following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

TIME U.S.

Watch How the AK-47 Came to Be ‘Made In America’

In early 2015, a U.S.-based company got the green light to start producing what is perhaps the world's most recognizable assault rifle

TIME U.K.

Putin’s ‘Mafia State’ Under Examination in U.K. Inquest Into Spy’s Radioactive Death

BRITAIN-RUSSIA-BRITAIN-POLITICS-SPY-CRIME-FILES
Martin Hayhow—AFP/Getty Images Former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko is seen on Sept. 14, 2004.

The High Court in London opens a 10-week hearing into the 2006 death of the former Russian intelligence officer and MI6 informant Alexander Litvinenko

It took Alexander Litvinenko 23 painful days to die. It has taken another agonizing 2,987 days for the British government to open a public inquiry into his murder, a process that cannot deliver justice to the victim, his widow Marina or son Anatoly, but may at least provide an official account of events leading up to his death. As he lay dying after ingesting radioactive polonium-210, Litvinenko blamed the Kremlin. The Kremlin rejected blame. Britain for eight years dragged its heels, reluctant to push for answers that might complicate its relations with Russia.

Yet the evidence expected to unfold at the High Court in London over the next 10 weeks is likely to reveal not only an intricate web of relationships between spies and diplomats, Kremlin loyalists and dissidents, but also a startlingly simple truth. Russia, in the era of Vladimir Putin, has rarely proven susceptible to diplomacy.

That realization may finally have helped to sway Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May from her 2013 refusal to hold a public inquiry. An inquest into Litvinenko’s death had already been abandoned apparently for fear of causing a breach with Moscow. In a letter explaining her decision to block the inquiry the coroner had recommended in its place, May cited concerns over the potential impact on “international relations.” Last summer, however, May revealed a change of heart. Her announcement of a public inquiry came less than a week after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, an act Ukraine (and much of the rest of the world) attributed to pro-Russian separatists. Russia accused Ukraine. Whitehall sources told the BBC that the timing of the May’s announcement was “a coincidence.” That may be true, but Britain has substantially toughened its stance toward Russia since then, as have other Western countries including the U.S. where on Monday an alleged Russian spy was arrested in New York.

Litvinenko’s strange tale speaks to a world in which the public handshakes between country leaders count for little. In 1998 he broke ranks with his then employer, Russia’s spy service the FSB, alleging a state-sanctioned plot to assassinate the Kremlin-insider-turned-critic Boris Berezovsky (whose eventual death, last March, raised questions, attracting an open verdict). Litvinenko sought asylum in the U.K. in 2000 and forged close links with Berezovsky and other figures unpopular with the Kremlin, including the investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, slain just weeks before Litvinenko. But he also retained friendships with some of his former colleagues and during a meeting at a London hotel with two such men, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, allegedly drank tea spiked with polonium-210. Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service named the pair as suspects in the killing, respectively in 2007 and 2012. Both men deny involvement and Russia has continued to refuse their extradition.

The polonium apparently left traces that enabled the Metropolitan Police to trace its progress around London. On the first morning of the public inquiry, Robin Tam QC, counsel to the inquiry, revealed that there may have been an earlier attempt to poison Litvinenko in October 2006 that failed. The inquiry will seek to reveal many other hitherto invisible trails and connections but key parts of the evidence will also be heard in secret. Britain may be more willing to risk Kremlin anger than it used to be, but details of Litvinenko’s later work as an informant to the British foreign intelligence service MI6 will not be publicly aired, and other matters deemed diplomatically sensitive will also be considered in private.

Despite these strictures, Litvinenko’s widow Marina, who campaigned for the inquiry, told broadcaster Sky News that she hopes the process will lead to the truth. The inquiry will weigh alternative theories: might Litvinenko have died at the hand of agencies other than the Russian state, such as organized criminals, Chechen separatists, Berezovsky’s associates, the British secret services or even by his own hand? Ben Emmerson, the counsel representing Marina Litvinenko, gave an opening speech to the inquiry forcefully rejecting these scenarios. “The startling truth, which is going to be revealed in public by the evidence in this inquiry,” he said, “is that a significant part of Russian organized crime is organized directly from the offices of the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a mafia state.” Marina Litvinenko told Sky News a key part of the truth is already clear: “I know my husband was killed, I saw how it happened. It was a torture. He died a long 23 days in front of me, in front of his son, in front of his friends.”

TIME North Korea

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un May Visit Moscow, Russia Says

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers a New Year's address
KCNA—Reuters North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers a New Year's address in this January 1, 2015 photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang.

Kim hasn't made an official foreign visit before

Kim Jong Un could visit Moscow this May in his first foreign visit as North Korea’s leader, according to statements from Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

Lavrov said on Wednesday that an invitation to attend the 70th anniversary celebrations of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany received a “positive” response from North Korea, the Wall Street Journal reports.

He would not elaborate further, however, and the North Korean government has not yet commented on the proposed trip.

Kim, who had sent an envoy to Russian President Vladimir Putin in November, has not made an official foreign trip since assuming power in 2011.

[WSJ]

TIME russia

Putin Critic Protests House Arrest By Cutting Off Tracking Bracelet

RUSSIA-POLITICS-JUSTICE-NAVALNY-VERDICT
Dmitry Serebryakov—AFP/Getty Images Russian anti-Kremlin opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaks as he attends the verdict announcement of his fraud trial at a court in Moscow on December 30, 2014.

"The bracelet with some effort has been cut off with kitchen scissors"

A leading protest figure in Russia’s beleaguered opposition camp defied the terms of his house arrest on Monday, announcing that he had severed a tracking device that he was ordered to wear by a Russian court.

Alexei Navalny posted a picture of a severed bracelet on his blog, Reuters reports.

“I refuse to comply with the requirements of my illegal detention under house arrest,” Navalny wrote on the blog, which draws up to 1 million readers a month. “The bracelet with some effort has been cut off with kitchen scissors.”

Navalny was handed a suspended sentence in late December on charges of embezzling 30 million rubles from two firms. Russian authorities launched an investigation against Navalny in 2010, shortly after he exposed evidence of corruption in Russia’s state-owned corporation amounting to $4 billion in fraudulent payments.

TIME World

These Are the Top 10 Geopolitical Risks of 2015

Protesters hold a banner as they march during a demonstration against the visit of Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel on April 11, 2014 in Athens.
Milos Bicanski—Getty Images Protesters hold a banner as they march during a demonstration against the visit of Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel on April 11, 2014 in Athens.

TIME foreign affairs columnist Ian Bremmer provides a guide to the global storylines of the year, beginning with an unstable Europe

International stories rise and fall so quickly in today’s media. On Monday, it’s civil conflict in Ukraine. On Tuesday, it’s the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). By Wednesday, the headlines are on to something else. Amid the global whiplash, it’s easy to lose sight of the larger picture. So as the new year begins, it’s useful to take a broader look at where these stories are headed—and to track the next wave of market-moving surprises in international politics.

Every January Eurasia Group, the political risk consultancy I founded and oversee today, publishes Top Risks, a roundup of the geopolitical trends we consider most likely to change our world in the coming year. This ranking reflects our forecast of which global storylines are most likely to play out over the next 12 months, which will have biggest impact on the markets and politics—and where we can expect surprises.

In 2015, political conflict among the world’s great powers is in play more than at any time since the end of the Cold War. U.S. relations with Russia are now fully broken. China’s powerful President Xi Jinping is creating a new economy, and the effects will be felt across East Asia and the rest of the world. Geopolitical uncertainty has Turkey, the Gulf Arab states, Brazil and India hedging their bets.

But the year’s top risk is found in once placid Europe, where an increasingly fractured political environment is generating new sources of conflict.

1. The politics of Europe

European economics aren’t as bad as they were at the height of the eurozone crisis in 2012, but the politics of the continent are now much worse. Within key countries like Britain and Germany, anti-EU political parties continue to gain popularity, undermining the ability of governments to deliver on painful but needed reforms. Friction is growing among European states, as peripheral governments come to increasingly resent the influence of a strong Germany unchecked by weak France or absent Britain. Finally, a resentful Russia and an aggressive ISIS will add to Europe’s security worries.

2. Russia

Sanctions and lower oil prices have weakened Russia enough to infuriate President Vladimir Putin, but not enough to restrain his actions. Moscow will continue to put pressure on Ukraine, and as a result, U.S. and European sanctions will tighten. As Russia’s economy sags, Putin’s approval ratings will depend increasingly on his willingness to confront the West. Western companies and investors are likely targets—on the ground and in cyberspace.

3. The effects of China slowdown

China’s economic growth will slow in 2015, but it’s all part of Xi’s plan. His historically ambitious economic reform efforts depend on transitioning his country to a consumer-driven economic model that will demand levels of growth that are lower, but more sustainable. The continuing slowdown should have little impact inside China. But countries like Brazil, Australia, Indonesia and Thailand, whose economies have come to depend on booming trade with a commodity-hungry China, will feel the pain.

4. The weaponization of finance

For the moment, the American public has had enough of wars and occupations, but the Obama administration still wants to exert significant influence around the globe. That’s why Washington is weaponizing finance on a new scale. The U.S. is using carrots (access to capital markets) and sticks (varied types of sanctions) as tools of coercive diplomacy. The advantages are considerable, but there is a risk that this strategy will damage U.S. companies caught in the crossfire between Washington and targeted states. Transatlantic relations could suffer for the same reason.

5. ISIS, beyond Iraq and Syria

ISIS faces military setbacks in Iraq and Syria, but its ideological reach will spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2015. It will grow organically by setting up new units in Yemen, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and it will inspire other jihadist organizations to join its ranks—Ansar Bayt al Maqdas in Egypt and Islamists in Libya have already pledged allegiance to ISIS. As the militant group’s influence grows, the risk to Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt will rise.

6. Weak incumbents

Feeble political leaders, many of whom barely won reelection last year, will become a major theme in 2015. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan will each face determined opposition and formidable obstacles as they try to enact their political agendas.

7. The rise of strategic sectors

Global businesses in 2015 will increasingly depend on risk-averse governments that are more focused on political stability than on economic growth, supporting companies that operate in harmony with their political goals and punishing those that don’t. We’ll see this trend in emerging markets, where the state already plays a more significant role in the economy, as well as in rogue states searching for weapons to fight more powerful governments. But we’ll also see it in the U.S., where national security priorities have inflated the military industrial complex, which now includes technology, telecommunications and financial companies.

8. Saudi Arabia vs Iran

The rivalry between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia is the engine of conflict in the Middle East. Given the growing reluctance of Washington and other outside powers to intervene in the region, increasingly complex domestic politics within these two countries and rising anxiety about the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, we can expect Tehran and Riyadh to use proxies to fuel trouble in more Middle Eastern countries than ever in 2015.

9. Taiwan/China

Relations between China and Taiwan will deteriorate sharply in 2015 following the opposition Democratic Progressive Party’s landslide victory over the ruling Nationalist Party in local elections this past November. If China decides that its strategy of economic engagement with Taiwan has failed to advance its ultimate goal of reunification, Beijing might well backtrack on existing trade and investment deals and significantly harden its rhetoric. The move would surely provoke public hostility in Taiwan and inject even more anti-mainland sentiment into the island’s politics. Any U.S. comment on relations between China and Taiwan would quickly increase resentment between Beijing and Washington.

10. Turkey

Lower oil prices have helped, but President Erdogan has used election victories in 2014 to try to sideline his political enemies—of which there are many—while remaking the country’s political system to tighten his hold on power. But he’s unlikely to win the authority he wants this year, creating more disputes with his prime minister, weakening policy coherence and worsening political unpredictability. Given the instability near Turkey’s borders, where the war against ISIS rages, that’s bad news. Refugees from Syria and Iraq are bringing more radicalism into the country and adding to economic hardship.

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