TIME

Russia’s Fear of Potential Threats Has Spawned a Real One in Ukraine

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CRISIS-POLITICS
Ukrainian troops patrol near the village of Novoselovka, some 30 kms from the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, on July 31, 2014. Genya Savilov—AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine's army was too weak to defend itself in March. Not anymore

The Ukrainian airbase at Kramatorsk, a short drive from the border with Russia, was a sorry sight just a few months ago. The road leading up to it was strewn with barricades of trash, and pro-Russian separatists liked to gather around it for little victory picnics of beer and sunflower seeds. They had blocked the main gate to the airfield in early April, and rather than forcing the separatists back, many of the Ukrainian soldiers based there from the 25th Airborne Brigade had deserted. One of the few who remained on the evening of April 19 was sulking over his army ration when two reporters came up to the base and asked about the unit’s morale. “On a scale of one to ten,” the soldier said, and raised three fingers of his left hand.

A lot has changed since then. In early July the base at Kramatorsk became the nerve center for the military operation against the separatist militias in eastern Ukraine. Every few minutes on an average morning tanks and armored vehicles now stream in and out of the gate in columns, heading for the front lines. Helicopters fly over the heads of Ukrainian snipers, and the commandos guarding the main gate would not look out of place in a remake of Rambo. Their fighting spirit seems plenty high. “You’ll see us yet in Moscow, marching in Red Square,” bragged a captain from the revitalized 25th Airborne on Wednesday morning, standing outside one of the towns they had taken back from the separatist rebels the day before.

This was not much more than empty bravado—Ukraine’s army is still a fraction the size of Russia’s—but the sentiment behind his threat is still a bad omen for Russia’s security. At least in military terms, Russia’s logic in starting the conflict in March was to strike first against a potential enemy. Its commander in chief wanted to pre-empt what he saw as a future threat to Russia’s naval base at Sevastopol, on the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine. “If we hadn’t done anything,” said President Vladimir Putin on April 17, a few weeks after annexing Crimea, “Ukraine would eventually be dragged into NATO. They’ll tell us: ‘This doesn’t concern you,’ and NATO ships will wind up in the city of Russia’s naval glory, in Sevastopol.”

This was a pretty far-fetched prospect at the time. The NATO military bloc, Russia’s enemy during the Cold War, had rebuffed Ukraine’s request for membership in 2008, and two years later, Ukraine’s parliament voted to drop all plans of joining the alliance. Putin’s generals still felt the danger of NATO appearing in Crimea was serious enough to justify a pre-emptive move, and they pulled it off. But the cost to Russian security has since been growing by the day as Ukraine’s armed forces grow stronger. In exchange for stopping the hypothetical approach of a potential enemy in Crimea, Russia has created a very real enemy all along its border with Ukraine.

Over the past few months Ukraine has rushed to revive its armed forces after two decades of mismanagement, corruption and a false sense of security which, among other things, lulled the military-industrial complex into a sort of prolonged hibernation. Now reservists are being called up to serve after years away from their bases. The Ministry of Defense has ordered idle weapons plants to renew production, including a thousand armored personnel carriers. The newly created National Guard has received tens of thousands of volunteers to fight in eastern Ukraine, and a handful of paramilitary battalions have assembled thousands more.

Perhaps most telling of all, there was no public outcry when Ukraine reinstated the military draft in May, nor when the parliament voted on July 31 to impose an extra 1.5 percent income tax across the country to help fund national defense. Ukrainians have recognized the need to have a formidable army, and they are prepared to sacrifice for its creation for the first time in their post-Soviet history.

For that they have Russia to thank—and Russia has itself to blame. In the spring, the Russian military would have faced little resistance in Ukraine if Putin had given the order to march across the border and conquer all of the country’s eastern and southern provinces. (Indeed, a top NATO commander estimated in April that Russia could accomplish this in under a week.) But now it would face a much more resilient opponent. In a nationwide survey conducted in May, 14 percent of respondents said they would volunteer for the army in case of a Russian invasion; 10 percent said they would engage in “underground or partisan activity” against Russia, meaning, in essence, guerrilla warfare.

So if Russia was hoping to steal a swift march on eastern Ukraine, it has missed its window of opportunity. A Russian invasion would result in a protracted conflict, one that could start to eat away at Putin’s popularity if Russian soldiers start coming home in body bags from an obvious war of aggression. That may be why the Kremlin seems content to keep funneling support to its proxy militias in eastern Ukraine for now. But at the current pace of its advance, the Ukrainian military will be able to rout the separatist rebels in a matter of months, if not weeks. “Then we will have to fortify our borders,” says Sergei Savitsky, a major in the Ukrainian engineer corps. “We need to seal it up tight and keep it that way.”

Sitting on the bank of the Bilenka River on a recent afternoon, Savitsky watched his fellow soldiers build a sturdy pontoon bridge, replacing the one that the rebels had blown up while retreating in early July. It seemed like a remarkable feat for an army that didn’t even have enough uniforms to clothe its soldiers in Crimea a few months ago, and it was hard not to wonder how they pulled it together that fast. “We always had the skilled men, the raw material,” Savitsky said. “We just needed something to shake it into action.” Now Russia has provided that wake up call, and whatever threat the eastward creep of NATO may have posed, it would not have advanced as suddenly or as tenaciously as Ukraine’s military revival.

TIME

Moody’s Upgrades Greece’s Credit Rating

(ATHENS, Greece) — Moody’s ratings agency has upgraded Greece’s government bond rating , predicting a gradual decline of the national debt.

The agency is also citing a commitment by the bailed out country’s conservative-led government to improve public finances.

In an announcement late Friday, the agency said it had raised the Greek rating by two notches from Caa3 to Caa1 — still below investment grade.

Greece is set to emerge from recession this year for the first time since 2008. The country was rescued from the brink of bankruptcy in 2010 by an international bailout that was eventually worth 230 billion euros ($308 billion).

But rescue creditors from other eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund forced the country to make drastic spending cuts that have seen levels of poverty and unemployment soar.

TIME Israel

Gaza’s Future Unclear After Cease-Fire Ends Just Hours After it Began

A Palestinian family from Gaza Strip's central Bureij refugee camp drives back to their district during the first hours of a failed truce on August 1, 2014.
A Palestinian family from Gaza Strip's central Bureij refugee camp drives back to their district during the first hours of a failed truce on August 1, 2014. Marco Longari—AFP/Getty Images

The future of Israel's war in Gaza is uncertain after a cease-fire ended hours after it began and an Israeli soldier was said to be captured

The optimists in this part of the world went to sleep last night feeling vaguely hopeful, or at least relieved. The pessimists woke up and said, “I told you so.”

The 72-hour cease-fire announced by the United Nations and United States around midnight Thursday local time was supposed to go into effect Friday morning at 8 a.m. About an hour and a half later, the Israeli military says, soldiers who were at work dismantling a tunnel in Khan Younis, in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, came under attack. Two Israeli Defense Forces soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber and one was captured.

Hamas, however, says the incident happened just before the cease-fire went into effect.

Israel named the soldier as 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23, of Kfar Saba, north of Tel Aviv, and soon after his name was released he became a Twitter hashtag as well as the subject of at least three Facebook pages calling for him to come home safely. It is exactly the kind of build-up that Hamas likely hopes for, as its stated goal is repeating the pattern it established when it secured the 2011 release of 1,026 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli: Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped in an June 2006 infiltration attack inside Israel.

The capture of an IDF soldier has been the event that Israel feared Hamas had been gunning for, knowing that Hamas sees soldiers as bargaining chips for more Palestinian prisoners and increased popularity. Over 5,000 Palestinians are held in Israeli jails, some having been convicted and others held as “administrative detainees.”

The brazen attack is by Israeli accounts the fourth time since this war started on July 8 that Hamas and other Palestinian militants groups in Gaza has broken or rejected a truce. The incident seems likely to open the doors for yet more intensive bombardments from the Israeli military — following the attack, the IDF pounded the area with artillery, killing 40 Palestinians.

An Israeli soldier prepares his equipment at an army deployment area, on the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, on August 1, 2014.
An Israeli soldier prepares his equipment at an army deployment area, on the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, on August 1, 2014. Jack Guez—AFP/Getty Images

The cease-fire violation and ensuing violence derailed plans for talks on a more prolonged peace, which were to be held in Cairo on Friday. But the Israeli soldier’s capture only underscores how differently the two sides see the ongoing conflict. Hamas political chief Khaled Mashal hailed the kidnapping of three Israeli teens in mid-June – even though it turns out that was executed by an independent cell of Hamas-inspired militants acting on their own. Hamas has tried capturing soldiers during other recent infiltration attacks as well — Israeli soldiers have found handcuffs, tranquilizers and syringes in captured militant tunnels.

But from Israel’s point of view, there’s little chance of an agreement to exchange prisoners for another captured soldier.

“We are in the middle of a war,” said Ephraim Kam, an expert in strategic intelligence at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, as well as a retired IDF colonel. “I assume that Israel will continue as if it had not happened. I’m doubtful that we will repeat the exchange that happened with Gilad Shalit.”

Kam added that Israeli public opinion has particularly been colored on this issue by a recent incident of recidivism: a Hamas operative who was released as part of the Shalit deal was found by Israel to be responsible for shooting and killing an off-duty police officer in April.

“As a result, it will be much more difficult than ever before,” for Hamas to get the prisoners it expects to in exchange for one live soldier, Kam says.

Gershon Baskin is among those who helped forge a backchannel between Israel and Hamas to get the two sides to negotiate over Shalit’s release. Baskin, a peace activist and the co-founder of the Israel/Palestinian Center for Research and Information, maintains contacts in the political wing of Hamas. He tells TIME he communicated to Hamas three weeks ago his belief that the group would not be able to stage a repeat of the Shalit deal because too many factors had changed.

“I told them that the idea that Israel will negotiate and agree to a ratio of 1:1,000, that time is over and it won’t happen again,” Baskin said. “The scenario in which we already have 40,000 soldiers in Gaza and another 14,000 being called up tells me Israel isn’t leaving without the soldier, dead or alive.”

Baskin predicts that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, which will meet late Friday, may decide on a total conquest of the whole southern Gaza Strip around Rafah, both in search of the missing soldier and in looking for more tunnel entrances.

“Whatever happens, Hamas will win in their definition, because they have a different kind of rationale,” Baskin said.

Smoke and flames are seen following what witnesses said were Israeli air strikes in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, August 1, 2014.
Smoke and flames are seen following what witnesses said were Israeli air strikes in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, August 1, 2014. Ibraheem Abu Mustafa—Reuters

Indeed, the Palestinian version of events is significantly different than the Israeli one. Not only did the soldier’s capture happen before the end of the cease-fire, some Palestinian leaders argue, but Hamas officials also accuse Israel of breaking the cease-fire first.

“There is no justification for Israel to violate the truce as the officer was captured and the two soldiers were killed ahead of the truce,” senior Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouq told the Anadolu News Agency, a Turkish newswire. Marzouq said the troops were only responding to “Israeli aggression.” In a press release, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Israel made the claim of Hamas violating the cease-fire to “cover up a massacre” in Rafah.

It was never clear exactly how the cease-fire agreement would stick for three days even while Israeli troops are operating in Gaza. Netanyahu said Israel would work at destroying tunnels with or without a cease-fire, and the truce indicated that Israeli forces would stay in Gaza but not attack Palestinians. Israel read this as permission to continue destroying tunnels. However, Hamas says it treats any Israelis efforts against infrastructure as an act of aggression and would, in the words of Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan speaking in Beirut, act accordingly in self-defense, according to Israeli radio.

Hamdan also said that he has no knowledge of a captured soldier, possibly pointing to an old pattern that has been noted by Hamas observers before: a gap between what the political wing says and what the military wing does.

TIME Taiwan

Gas Explosions Kill 25 in Taiwan

Evacuees began returning home Friday

A series of five underground gas explosions tore apart Taiwan’s second-largest city late Thursday, killing at least 25 people and injuring 267.

Officials said they believed the explosions that blasted cars and concrete into the air and ripped trenches through four streets in a busy district of Kaohsiung were caused by a leak of propene—a petrochemical material that is not intended for public use. The city’s Environmental Protection Bureau director told Taiwan’s Central News Agency that the propene came from a warehouse used by the petrochemical storage and transportation company China General Terminal & Distribution Corp. The gas lines that exploded belonged to the government-owned CPC Corp., which told the Associated Press the lines should no signs of trouble prior to the explosions.

“I was on my scooter just across the street, suddenly there was the explosion, a white car was blown toward me, and I saw the driver trapped in the car,” said Wong Zhen-yao,who owns a car repair shop near the site of the blasts.

At least four firefighters were among the victims of the explosions.

About 12,000 lost power due to the blasts and more than 23,000 lost gas service.

An estimated 1,200 people evacuated affected areas of the city of 2.8 million Thursday night, most of whom have since returned to their homes. Cleanup is underway as authorities try to determine the details of what happened in the disaster.

[AP]

TIME russia

Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Mocks Obama in Tweet

Tweet depicts Obama with puppy, Putin with cheetah

President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have no problem trading criticism amid escalating Cold War-like tensions.

But while their exchanges have been sober, Putin’s deputy appears to have taken to Twitter with a more light-hearted jab.

A tweet from the account of Dmitry Rogozin, deputy prime minister of Russia, ridiculed Obama by juxtaposing an image of the Russian president with a cheetah and another of his American counterpart holding a puppy.

“We have different values and allies,” the tweet read.

 

TIME

Livestream: Obama Speaks from the White House

President Barack Obama is expected to address foreign policy issues followings his phone call with Putin and the collapse of a ceasefire in Gaza.

TIME Infectious Disease

U.S. Will Evacuate 2 Americans With Ebola from West Africa

Emory Hospital in Atlanta announced on Thursday that it will treat at least one patient

The State Department announced Friday that together with the Centers for Disease Control, it is working to bring home two U.S. citizens infected with the Ebola virus in West Africa “over the coming days.”

Although the State Department did not identify the patients by name, two Americans working in Liberia— one as a physician and the other as a missionary — have been infected with the virus. Both Dr. Kent Brantly and missionary Nancy Writebol were working to fight the outbreak of the deadly virus.

CDC protocols and equipment are used for these kinds of medical evacuations, according to State Department spokesperson Marie Harf, who added:

The safety and security of U.S. citizens is our paramount concern. Every precaution is being taken to move the patients safely and securely, to provide critical care en route on a non-commercial aircraft, and to maintain strict isolation upon arrival in the United States.

Harf did not disclose where the patients would be sent in the U.S., but on Thursday Emory University Hospital said in a statement that it expects to receive one patient with Ebola in the “next several days.” it is unclear if the second patient will be treated at Emory as well.

The Ebola virus, which has infected at least 729 people in West Africa this year, only spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids. Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization, told presidents from affected countries on Friday that it is moving faster than it can be controlled. “If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socio-economic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries,” she said.

Medical personnel caring for the two patients in the U.S. will wear full-body protective suits, and the patients will remain “in strict isolation upon arrival” and while being treated on U.S. soil, according to Harf.

CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden has said he does not believe Ebola will spread in the U.S. “That’s not in the cards,” he said in a call with press on Thursday.

TIME

Obama, Putin Discuss Ukraine, Missile Treaty

(WASHINGTON) — President Barack Obama told Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday that the United States is still deeply concerned that Russia is ramping up support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. It was the first conversation between the leaders since the U.S. and Europe slapped a new round of economic sanctions on Moscow.

In a phone call, Obama also raised concerns that Russia violated a key Cold War era nuclear weapons treaty, the White House said. The Obama administration has said Russia violated a 1987 treaty that bars the possession, production or testing of certain intermediate-range cruise missiles.

In Moscow, the Kremlin said Putin had characterized the sanctions during the phone call as counterproductive, adding that they seriously damage bilateral cooperation and general global stability.

The Kremlin said both Obama and Putin underscored the urgency for bringing an end to fighting in eastern Ukraine and spoke positively about a meeting that took place the day before in Minsk, Belarus, among members of a diplomatic “contact group” pursuing an end to hostilities. That group includes representatives from Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The call came as the U.S. was poised to send an additional $27 million in military aid to Ukraine in an effort to strengthen the struggling nation’s national guard and beef up its ability to protect its border. The money comes amid increased congressional pressure on the administration to increase support for Ukraine as it battles Russian-backed separatists.

U.S. officials said the aid includes $19 million for the Ukrainian National Guard and $8 million for border security, including surveillance equipment, armored vehicles, and small boats.

At least 12,000 Russian troops are gathered close to Ukraine’s eastern border. The U.S. has complained about Moscow sending heavy military equipment across the border to support the separatists, including surface-to-air missile systems that officials say was likely used to shoot down a Malaysian Airlines flight.

Also Friday, Vice President Joe Biden called Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to announce the border assistance and to discuss the “increasing prevalence” of artillery and rocket fire into Ukraine from Russia, the White House said.

According to the White House, Poroshenko did say that access to the site of last month’s Malaysian airline crash that killed nearly 300 people had been secured despite continued fighting in the vicinity. The crash, which the West has blamed on separatists using Russian-made missiles, is the subject of an international investigation.

TIME Terrorism

Bill Clinton Said The Day Before 9/11 He Could Have Killed Bin Laden

Listen to the audio

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Chilling audio of former President Bill Clinton admitting that he turned down an opportunity to attack Osama bin Laden during his presidency was recently uncovered by Sky News Australia. The audio was recorded on September 10, 2001, one day before the 9/11 attacks which claimed nearly 3,000 lives and dramatically impacted the course of global history.

“I could have killed him, but I would have had to destroy a little town called Kandahar in Afghanistan and kill 300 innocent women and children,” Clinton said. “And then I would have been no better than him.”

Sky News obtained this footage of the former U.S. President through former Australian politician Michael Kroger.

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