TIME russia

Former Oil Tycoon Named Murder Suspect in Russia

Mikhail Khodorkovsky at the Polytechnic University in Kiev on March 10, 2014.
David Azia—AP Mikhail Khodorkovsky at the Polytechnic University in Kiev on March 10, 2014.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky also is a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin's government

(MOSCOW) — Russian investigators announced Tuesday they are reopening the case of the 1998 killing of a Siberian mayor and consider former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky a prime suspect.

At the time when Nefteyugansk Mayor Vladimir Petukhov was shot dead, he was involved in a conflict with Khodorkovsky’s oil company, Yukos, over the payment of taxes to the town. Khodorkovsky and his associates have denied any involvement and no one has been convicted in the killing.

The announcement that investigators were considering whether to charge Khodorkovsky with ordering the killing came as he is becoming an increasingly strong voice in Russian opposition politics.

Khodorkovsky has lived in exile in Switzerland since his 2013 release from prison, where he spent 10 years on charges of tax evasion, embezzlement and money laundering that were seen as punishment for challenging President Vladimir Putin’s power. He funds a Russian civil society organization called Open Russia.

Investigators now have information implicating Khodorkovsky directly in the killing of the mayor and other crimes, Vladimir Markin, the spokesman for the federal Investigative Committee, said in a statement. He said they intended to question Khodorkovsky, and “his absence from Russian territory would not be an insurmountable obstacle.”

Khodorkovsky’s spokeswoman Olga Pispanen said there would be no comment, the Tass news agency reported.

The Kremlin is suspicious of non-governmental organizations, especially those funded from abroad, seeing them as aimed at undermining Putin’s rule. The Russian government also is fighting a ruling made last year by an arbitration court in The Hague, Netherlands, that it must pay $50 billion to compensate the former shareholders of Yukos, which was bankrupted in the same legal onslaught that sent Khodorkovsky to prison.

TIME portfolio

Yuri Kozyrev: Photographing 15 Years of Chechnya’s Troubled History

The photographer has witnessed Chechnya's dramatic evolution

Yuri Kozyrev recalls the winter of 1999 as one of the most trying and tragic of his career as a photographer. It was the eve of Vladimir Putin’s ascent to the Russian presidency, and the height of the Russian bombardment of Chechnya, when entire towns in that breakaway republic were, as the Russians often put it, “made level with the earth.”

Kozyrev, a native of Moscow, documented both of Chechnya’s wars against Russia in the 1990s. The first one, fought between 1994 and 1996, had resulted in a humiliating defeat for Russia. But the carnage was far worse when the conflict resumed under Putin in 1999.

Arriving in Chechnya that fall, Kozyrev’s plan was to find and photograph two men amid the chaos of the Russian invasion. The first was Major General Alexander Ivanovich Otrakovsky, who was then commanding the Russian marines from his encampment near the town of Tsentaroy, a key stronghold of the Chechen separatists. The second was the general’s son, Captain Ivan Otrakovsky, who was serving on the front lines not far from the base, in one of the most hotly contested patches of territory.

The aim, says Kozyrev, was to document the two generations of Russian servicemen involved in the conflict – the elder brought up at the height of Soviet power during the Cold War, the younger in the dying years of Moscow’s empire. After weeks of negotiations, he finally managed to embed with the marines and to track down their general, a stocky man with a sly smile and a distinctive mole on the right side of his nose.

At the time, his command center was in an abandoned storage facility for crude oil, Chechnya’s most plentiful and lucrative commodity – and one of the main reasons why Russia refused to allow the region to secede. “It was incredible,” Kozyrev says of his first encounter with the general. “Here were these commanders living inside of a giant oil bunker.”

He recalls Otrakovsky as a kindly intellectual, nothing like the Russian cutthroats who would later be accused of committing atrocities in Chechnya. The general, whose troops referred to him affectionately as Dyed, or Grandpa, was willing to help Kozyrev. But he explained that reaching his son on the front lines would be extremely dangerous, as it would require passing through enemy territory around Tsentaroy.

That town was well known in Chechnya as the home of the Kadyrov clan, an extended family of rebel fighters whose patriarch, the mufti Akhmad Kadyrov, had served as the religious leader of the rebellion. During the first war for independence in the 1990s, he had even declared a state of jihad against Russia, instructing all Chechens that it was their duty to “kill as many Russians as they could.”

At the start of the second war, however, Kadyrov switched sides and agreed to help the Russians, causing a fateful split within the rebel ranks. While the more recalcitrant insurgents had turned to the tactics of terrorism and the ideology of radical Islam, Akhmad Kadyrov abandoned his previous calls for jihad and agreed to serve as Putin’s proxy leader in Chechnya in the fall of 1999.

That did not stop the fighting around his home village, as various insurgent groups continued attacking Russian and loyalist forces positioned around Tsentaroy. So none of the Russian marines were especially keen to move around the area unless they had good reason, and it took Kozyrev days to convince the Russian commander to allow him to reach the front lines. Eventually Gen. Otrakovsky consented, providing the photographer with an escort of about ten marines and two armored personnel carriers.

They set out on what Kozyrev recalls as an especially cold day, rumbling through fog or mist that made it difficult to see the surrounding terrain. As the general had feared, the group was ambushed. From multiple directions, Chechen fighters opened fire with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, forcing the convoy to retreat from Tsentaroy. One of the marines was killed in the firefight; three others were wounded.

When they returned to the base, it was clear from the glares of the troops that they all blamed Kozyrev for the fiasco, he says, and Gen. Otrakovsky advised the photographer to leave in the morning. “He said it may not be safe anymore for me to stay among his men,” Kozyrev remembers.

The trauma of that incident has lingered, weighing heaviest during his later assignments in Chechnya. Today, the region is ruled by Kadyrov’s son Ramzan, who took over after his father was assassinated in 2004. His native village of Tsentaroy has since enjoyed a generous stream of aid for redevelopment, including the construction of a beautiful mosque dedicated to Ramzan Kadyrov’s mother.

The rest of Chechnya has been rebuilt with similar largesse from Moscow, which has poured billions of dollars into the reconstruction of the cities and towns it had destroyed. When Kozyrev returned to Chechnya in 2009, nearly a decade after the end of the war, he says, “It blew my mind. The place is unrecognizable.”

The Chechen capital of Grozny – which the U.N. deemed “the most destroyed city on earth” in 2003 – is now a gleaming metropolis. Its center is packed with skyscrapers, sporting arenas, shopping plazas and an enormous mosque, the largest in Europe, dedicated to the memory of Akhmad Kadyrov.

His clan now rules the region unchallenged, having sidelined all of its local rivals with Moscow’s unflinching support. Throughout the region, portraits of Putin and the Kadyrovs are now plastered on the facades of buildings and along highways. Among the more ostentatious is a gigantic picture of Akhmad Kadyrov astride a rearing stallion, which adorns a building at the end of the city’s main drag – the Avenue of V.V. Putin.

The strangeness of the transformation, and of its architects, still seems astounding to Kozyrev, who last went on assignment to Chechnya for TIME in April. The trips always remind him of Gen. Otrakovsy, who died of a heart attack while commanding the marines in southern Chechnya, about four months after the young photographer had shown up to ask for his help. The general’s son, whom Kozyrev never did manage to find, went on to become a right-wing politician in Russia with close ties to Orthodox Christian conservative groups.

These were the men who executed the war that helped bring Putin to power. “But it was all the decision of one man to bring Chechnya back under control in ‘99. Putin decided to do that,” Kozyrev says. “And it’s incredible, when you think about it. But the men of Tsentaroy turned out to be his most loyal helpers.”

Yuri Kozyrev is a photojournalist and a TIME contract photographer. He is represented by Noor. In 2000, he received two World Press Photo photojournalism awards for his coverage of the second Chechen war in 1999.

Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s International Photo Editor.

Simon Shuster is a reporter for TIME based in Moscow.

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.

___

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

___

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

TIME Foreign Policy

Vladimir Putin Tests the Limits of Pope Francis’ Powers

The two are scheduled to meet Wednesday

Vladimir Putin is no longer welcome at the G7, thanks to his government’s continued incursions into Ukraine’s territory. But two days after the meeting of Western powers in Germany, the Russian leader has a meeting with another world leader: Pope Francis.

The Bishop of Rome may not represent the United States or Germany, but he is increasingly a superpower in his own right, and the Wednesday meeting is a diplomatic test of how Francis will use his influence.

The meeting is the second between Putin and the pontiff. When Francis first met Putin in November 2013, Russia was still five months away from annexing Crimea. Since the conflict began, some 1.2 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced, according to the United Nations humanitarian office. Russia continues to deny that it is sending troops across the border or arming Russian-backed separatists, and international pressure mounts to address the crisis. “Russian aggression” against Ukraine, Obama said this week, topped the G7’s recent agenda, and Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to meet with the Ukrainian prime minister Wednesday as well. “[Putin’s] got to make a decision: Does he continue to wreck his country’s economy and continue Russia’s isolation in pursuit of a wrong-headed desire to re-create the glories of the Soviet empire?” Obama said this week.

The Holy See, meanwhile, is working to build diplomatic relations with Russia. The two have only had full diplomatic relations for six years, and those relations took years to build after half a century during which the Soviet Union was an officially atheist state. No pope has ever visited Russia, and even when Putin first met Francis in November 2013, he did not invite Francis to become the first to do so.

Pope Francis has been working to carefully move the relationship forward, especially to advance some of the Vatican’s other diplomatic interests. He wrote to Putin when he was hosting the G-20 summit in 2013 and urged world leaders there to oppose military intervention in Syria. The Vatican has been strengthening ties with Orthodox Christian leaders via ecumenical efforts and Pope Francis’ friendship with Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the Orthodox Christian Church, whose leadership is at times at odds with the Russian Orthodox Church closely tied to Putin’s government. Russia has also been a partner for Francis’ efforts to protect Middle East Christians, especially because of the shared Orthodox Christian experience in Russia and much of the Middle East. In March, the Holy See issued a joint statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council with Russia and Lebanon, “Supporting the Human Rights of Christians and Other Communities, particularly in the Middle East.”

Francis also has interests of his flock in Ukraine to consider. Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, has urged Pope Francis to take a tougher stance against Putin. “As sons, we always expect more from the Holy Father … we respect his freedom to use the words that will help him mediate in the peace process.” Shevchuk said in February, according to the Catholic news site Crux.

Shevchuk has previously touted Francis’ own familiarity with the church in Ukraine—as a student in Buenos Aires, then-Jorge Bergoglio would go to Divine Liturgy with Ukrainian Father Stepan Chmil, Shevchuk has said, and as an archbishop, Bergoglio served as the ordinary for Eastern Christians without their own priests.

So far Pope Francis has expressed concern over the Ukraine issue, but only up to a point. When Shevchuk and other Ukranian bishops met with him in February, Francis called on all parties to “apply the agreements reached by mutual accord” and “to be respectful to the principle of international legality.” He also called the Ukranian bishops “full citizens” and assured them that “the Holy See is at your side, even in international forums, to ensure your rights, your concerns, and the just evangelical values that animate you are understood.”

What that protection looks like in practical terms is still an open question, and they and the world will be watching the Wednesday face-off. In recent months, Pope Francis has earned praise for helping broker a new relationship between the United States and Cuba, but that was a situation where both sides wanted to pursue peace.

The Russian conflict is very different. Even if Francis chooses to take a tougher line with Putin, there are limits to his influence. Putin has not been persuaded by the actions of the G7, after all, and the Vatican’s primary superpower is a moral one.

TIME TIME 100

Vladimir Putin Wins TIME 100 Reader’s Poll

He beat out pop star CL of the girl group 2NE1

Russian President Vladimir Putin is the winner of this year’s TIME 100 reader’s poll.

Putin edged out rapper-singer CL (of the South Korean girl-group 2NE1) to claim the number one spot with 6.95% of the votes in the final tally. Pop stars Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Taylor Swift rounded out the top five with 2.6%, 1.9% and 1.8% of the votes, respectively.

The TIME 100 is an annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world, spanning politics, entertainment, business, technology, science, religion and other fields. Chosen by the editors of TIME, this year’s list will be unveiled April 16. Voting for the reader’s poll closed April 10.

Besides Putin, the only non-entertainers to crack the top 10 were the Dalai Lama (1.7%), Malala Yousafzai (1.6%) and Pope Francis. (1.5%). Barack and Michelle Obama sat just outside the top 10 with 1.4% and 1.2% of the votes, respectively.

More than half of the votes — 57.38% — were cast within the United States. Canada and the United Kingdom followed with 5.54% and 4.55% respectively.

Read next: Meet the Pro-Russian ‘Partisans’ Waging a Bombing Campaign in Ukraine

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

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A World Leader and a Pop Star Are Neck-and-Neck in the TIME 100 Reader’s Poll

Voting closes April 10 at 11:59 p.m. ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Korean pop star Lee Chae-rin are tied for first place in the TIME 100 reader’s poll.

Lee Chae-rin—better known as CL—is a member of the South Korean pop group 2NE1. The group has gained popularity worldwide and is considered one of the most successful K-pop groups. CL currently has a higher percentage of votes in the poll than Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Rihanna.

Putin has been one of the world’s most controversial leaders of the past year for, among other things, Russia’s backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine. He’s ranked above other leaders like Pope Francis and President Obama. (Both Putin and Obama appeared on the 2014 list.)

The duo were within .2% of one another as of Wednesday evening, with Putin just ahead of CL, at 6%. (Click here to see who is currently winning.)

Voting in the reader’s poll closes April 10 at 11:59 p.m. ET—cast your ballot below—and the poll’s winner will be announced April 13. This year’s official TIME 100 list will be announced April 16.

TIME viral

Here’s What Too Many Cooks Would Look Like If It Were About U.S. Politics

Washington is a sitcom

If you loved Too Many Cooks, you’ll love CNN’s version of the viral internet sensation.

With a cast including everyone from Barack Obama to Vladimir Putin to Sarah Palin to Kim Jung Un, the fake ad casts U.S. politics as a bad ’80s sitcom, complete with cheesy footage of hunky cowboys and glorious bald eagles.

There’s also a terrifying demon sheep at the end that will haunt your dreams more than the image of John McCain doing the robot dance.

 

TIME russia

Putin’s Confessions on Crimea Expose Kremlin Media

Round table discussion marks 1st anniversary of reunification of Crimea with Russia
Vyacheslav Prokofyev—Itar-Tass/Corbis Dmitri Kiselyov, who runs the Kremlin’s media conglomerate, Rossiya Segodnya, attends a round table discussion dedicated to the first anniversary of the reunification of Crimea with the Russian Federation at Moscow's President Hotel, March 19, 2015.

Even as the Russian President admits deploying troops in Crimea, his chief propagandists, speaking to TIME, continue to deny it

It was an awkward test for many Russian journalists. Last spring, their President tried to mislead them—and the rest of the world—by denying that he had sent troops to conquer Crimea. Even as they witnessed Russian forces sweeping that Ukrainian peninsula, reporters on the Kremlin’s payroll were obliged to go along with Vladimir Putin’s claims.

But a year later, the President came clean. In a documentary aired last weekend, he admitted ordering his troops to seize Crimea weeks before it was annexed into Russia on March 18, 2014.

“I told all my colleagues, there were four of them, that the situation in Ukraine has forced us to start working on returning Crimea to Russia,” Putin says in the film, recounting a late-night meeting with his security chiefs in late February 2014. “We can’t leave that territory and the people who live there at the mercy of fate.”

The confession didn’t leave any good options for Russian newsmen like Dmitri Kiselyov, who runs the Kremlin’s media conglomerate Rossiya Segodnya and hosts a prime-time news and analysis show on state TV. He could either admit to misleading viewers last year and, in effect, blame Putin for the deception, or he could deny that any deception had occurred.

 

Confronted this week with the dilemma, Kiselyov stuck to denials.

“Vladimir Putin never changed his position,” he told TIME on Wednesday at the headquarters of his media corporation in Moscow. “Look, he never said that our troops aren’t there, because we always had a base there,” Kiselyov said, referring to the Russian naval base in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. Pressed on the identity of the troops who had surrounded and in some cases besieged Ukrainian military bases in Crimea last March, Kiselyov said: “The troops surrounding them were local self-defense forces, but not Russian troops.”

It was an odd position to take. Although critics of the Kremlin have often accused Russian state media of distorting facts and misleading viewers, this is the first time that such a momentous distortion has been so clearly and demonstrably false, contradicting not only the version of events presented in most independent media but also out of sync with Putin’s own statements.

In early March 2014, Putin was asked during a press conference to identify the troops who were fanning out across Crimea, driving Russian military vehicles but wearing no identifying markers on their uniforms. “Why don’t you take a look at the post-Soviet states,” Putin answered, according to a transcript on the Kremlin website. “There are many uniforms there that are similar. You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform.” The journalist persisted: Were they Russian soldiers or not? Those were local self-defense units,” Putin said.

Compare that line to his confession in the documentary—which was titled, Crimea: Homeward Bound—and it is clear that Putin did change his position. Not only does the President admit in the film to ordering his security forces to take control of Crimea last spring, but he also claims to have overseen the operation personally. “Our advantage was that I was personally dealing with it,” he says.

This came on top of Putin’s admission last April, a month after the annexation, that “Russian servicemen did back the Crimean self-defense forces,” and that in doing so, they acted in “a civil but a decisive and professional manner.” Moreover, the dramatic re-enactments of the seizure of Crimea shown in the documentary this month clearly depict the invading troops as Russian military, not local self-defense units.

Yet Kiselyov still continues to deny that Russian troops ever intervened in Crimea. “They were near by, at the base,” he tells TIME. “If there had been a conflict there, they would have intervened. But they did not intervene.”

He is not the only senior figure in the Kremlin’s media empire to take this peculiar stance. Last fall, TIME put a similar round of questions to Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of RT, the state-funded television network that broadcasts around the world in English, Spanish and Arabic. She also stuck to the claims that Putin made in March of last year about the Russian troops in Crimea being local self-defense forces. Asked about the apparent change in Putin’s story after that, she replied, “He never said that we fooled you… He did not admit that earlier statements were untrue.”

Since the annexation of Crimea, a similar debate has been raging over the role that Russian troops have played in the war in eastern Ukraine, where more than 6,000 people have been killed amid fighting between Ukrainian military forces and Russia’s proxy militias. Even as Russian and foreign journalists have documented the presence of Russian military hardware and servicemen on those battlefields, Putin has repeatedly denied sending any of his forces to fight alongside Ukrainian separatists, which the Kremlin has also referred to as local self-defense forces.

Asked on Wednesday whether Putin might be similarly deceiving the public on this question, just as he did last year with the invasion of Crimea, Kiselyov replied that he was “100% sure” that there are no Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. And what if a year from now the President admits in another documentary that he did send his forces to fight in those regions? “So far that hasn’t happened,” Kiselyov said. But if it does, Russians shouldn’t expect their fourth estate to admit to spreading falsehoods. It is apparently easier to stick to their denials.

TIME russia

Putin Puts Russia’s Northern Fleet on ‘Full Alert’ in Response to NATO Drills

Putin has finally re-emerged into the public eye after ten days

Russian President Vladimir Putin put the nation’s northern fleet on full alert in the Arctic Ocean this week, as animosity between the Kremlin and NATO continues to simmer.

The order, which was handed down early Monday, allows for the mobilization of 38,000 military personnel, 3,360 pieces of equipment, 41 ships, 15 submarines and 110 airplanes, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

“New challenges and threats of military security demand the further heightening of military capabilities of the armed forces and special attention will be paid to the state of the newly formed strategic merging [of forces] in the North,” said Shoigu, according to state media outlet Sputnik.

The mobilization of the Russian fleet appears to have been triggered by ongoing NATO-led military drills across northern and eastern European, including maritime exercises in the Black Sea.

On Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexey Meshkov accused NATO of conducting operations that were effectively undermining one of the world’s most stable regions.

“Such NATO actions lead to destabilization of the situation and increasing tensions in northeastern Europe,” Meshkov added, according to the Russia’s TASS news agency.

However, NATO has argued that Russia has continually stoked hostilities throughout the region by annexing the Crimea Peninsula in Ukraine and repeatedly violating European airspace.

NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu tells TIME that Russian snap exercises were a “serious concern” and completely out of proportion with the bloc’s drills.

By comparison, NATO only had 1,200 sailors onboard six ships in the Black Sea, she says, while ally Norway is conduting parallel national drills involving 5,000 troops.

“Russia has conducted about a dozen snap exercises over the past two years,” adds Lungescu. “Russia’s takeover of Crimea was done under the guise of a snap exercise. Russia’s snap exercises run counter to the spirit of the Vienna Document on confidence and security-building measures.”

Earlier this week, Putin admitted during a documentary broadcasted on Sunday that he considered putting the nation’s nuclear capabilities on alert to prevent outside agents from interfering with the Kremlin’s forced annexation of the Crimea peninsula last March.

Read next: Vladimir Putin Admits to Weighing Nuclear Option During Crimea Conflict

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TIME russia

Vladimir Putin Admits to Weighing Nuclear Option During Crimea Conflict

RUSSIA-UKRAINE-CRISIS-CRIMEA-DOCUMENTARY
Dmitry Serebryakov —AFP/Getty Images A woman looks at Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking as she watches an internet broadcast of the documentary Homeward Bound, on March 15, 2015 in Moscow.

"We were ready to do it"

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he considered putting the country’s vast nuclear arsenal on alert to prevent outside agents from stopping the Kremlin’s forced annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine last year.

Putin’s admission was aired during a prerecorded documentary called Homeward Bound, which was broadcast on a state-backed television network Sunday in the run-up to the first anniversary of Crimea’s annexation later this week.

In the interview, Putin claimed he began hatching plans to seize the peninsula after Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovych fled the country following months of protests. Putin also alleged he personally delivered direct orders to the country’s armed forces, as thousands of elite Russian soldiers fanned out across Crimea last March.

When asked whether Moscow’s nuclear capabilities were also on standby, Putin answered bluntly: “We were ready to do it.”

The airing of Putin’s nuclear comments comes as the Russian strongman has seemingly vanished from the public sphere only days after a prominent opposition leader was assassinated within earshot of the Kremlin.

The President was reportedly last seen on March 5, fueling rumors that the 62-year-old had fallen ill or was caught up in an internal power struggle.

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