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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Update: January 23, 2015

Publication: Russia Update
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
NSA Obtained Proof that Litvinenko Was Poisoned with Radioactive Material: Telegraph

The Telegraph has published an extraordinary story about how the National Security Agency (NSA) has obtained communications between key individuals in London and Moscow that prove that former intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko was the victim of a "Russian-backed 'state execution":

The disclosure comes ahead of the start of the public inquiry into Litvinenko's death in 2006, which will see hearings, many of which will be held in secret, carried out over a nine-week period in the High Court from Tuesday.

The existence of the American intelligence material offers the first proof that the Russian state was involved in the murder of the dissident and explains why senior British politicians have been so confident in publicly blaming the Kremlin for the murder.

It is revealed as part of a Telegraph investigation which also unearthed an audio recording appearing to capture Litvinenko giving a detailed account of his investigations into links between Vladimir Putin and one of the world’s most dangerous criminals.

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Gubarev Kidnapped by Chechens - and Released; Fighters from Caucasus Take Over Krasnodon

So many other things happened in the last week in the Donbass -- the fall of the Donetsk airport and the killing of the "Cyborgs," the Ukrainian soldiers who defended the airport for 240 days; the shelling of another bus, killing 13 people and wounding dozens; the fall of Krasny Partizan; more civilians dying in Debaltsevo and elsewhere in the crossfire -- that some may have missed the kidnapping of "People's Governor" Pavel Gubarev by Chechens.

Yes, Chechens. The story sheds light on a stronghold of Chechens loyal to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in the Donbass.

It seems that Gubarev, who appears to have mainly recovered from an assassination attempt late last year in which he suffered traumatic brain injury, was perceived as having insulted Chechens. Apparently a fake article was put out which falsely claimed that Gubarev had insulted Kadyrov.

As Gubarev explains on his Facebook page, at 16:00 on January 19, 12-14 Chechens came to Gubarev's office and put him in a car and drove him away. He could tell from their conversations they were upset about a belief he had accused Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov of the terrorist attack in Paris.

When they arrived at their base in Zugress, a town in Donetsk Region, Gubarev explained to them that the story was fake and that "our enemies do this in order to make us quarrel amongst ourselves."

Gubarev published a picture of himself from a May video on Facebook and, a news site on the Caucasus, in camouflage, with a rifle, sporting a St. George ribbon, and with pictures on the wall of Putin and the late Hugo Chavez.


He linked to an article in which he said "We must learn from our brothers, the Chechens."

"In Ramzan I see the traditional rod which the Russian people have lost in themselves," he said.  had a question for him (translated by The Interpreter):

When you say that Ramzan Kadyrov will help you in "the military sense," what do you mean?

First of all, that he is not hindering those people who want to come and defend us with weapons in their hands. Here the interests of Russia are being defended. Everyone has that understanding, including Ramzan.

The artists' protest group gruppa-voina explained this as follows:

Translation: Here Donetsk has finally turned into this post-modernist Islamo-Russian Orthodox Somalia. Thanks to Putin's strategies. had another pertinent question:

There is a very popular video on the Internet where the commander of an international armed group nicknamed "Diky" ("Wild") recounts how a Chechen was murdered in Donetsk, and they are now investigating this incident and are expecting that the authorities will turn over whomever is responsible for this murder. And that supposedly, if the authorities leave this without attention, they will take measures themselves. What is this story about? Do you know about this?

I didn't see that video and it's hard for me to imagine what it's about. I can say that with such a number of armed people in the republic and not all these armed groups are within the framework of a centralized command --  some guys who act on their own do remain -- then facts of such contradictions, quarrels and clashes on those grounds of course can take place.

But I'm hearing about this situation for the first time from you. Perhaps it's because I have not followed events closely for two days. I have to read a lot and work on the drafting of a concept for the development of our territory for a long period ahead.

The controversial Russian-language blogger Anatoly Shary, who left Ukraine and now lives in Europe, posted an interview with Diky in December 2014:

Translation: Interview with representatives of a group that isn't the largest but is one of the most dangerous operating on the territory of the Donbass.

Diky indicates that he and his 50 men, from Armenia, Georgia, Abkhazia, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan,and other regions of the former Soviet Union have taken over the strategically-important Ukrainian town of Krasnodon near the border with Russia, ended the lawlessness, kicked out the criminals and drunks and are "restoring order". They claim to have rescued desperate families and orphans without jobs or food.

In the video, some of the townspeople are shown as welcoming such rough justice, while in the Twitter discussion, some people express dismay about their new overlords. Others say that Diky is helping to restore the kind of life they knew under the Soviet Union, complete with "friendship of nations."

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Are Putin's Oligarch Pals Chilling on Him? And Will It Help Stop the War in Ukraine?

Bloomberg has an interesting article showing evidence for a "fallout" between President Vladimir Putin and his main oligarch cronies.

The theory behind Western sanctions has been that they will put pressure will on Russia's tycoons, upon whom Putin relies for projects from the overly-expensive $50 billion Sochi Olympics to construction of the Kerch Straits Bridge to the forcibly-annexed Crimea.

Then -- so the hypothesis goes -- as these oligarchs experience economic hardship and losses, they will place pressure on Putin to stop the war in Ukraine and renew cooperation with the West, which is good for business.

So far, the theory hasn't quite worked, as if anything, the oligarchs have only drawn closer to Putin and circled the wagons against a hostile West, as Putin promises to make up their losses from Western sanctions with lucrative domestic contracts (like the Kerch Straits Bridge for Rotenberg). Chief among those supporting Putin has been Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft, upon whom Putin in turn relies for negotiations with China and the Strength of Siberia pipeline which is supposed to be Russia's bulwark against the West.

That deal has been described as less than meets the eye and not as advantageous to Russia as it first seemed, and has even led to an oped in the New York Times by Frank Jacobs saying China Will Reclaim Siberia (and its counterpoint by pro-Moscow blogger Vineyard of the Saker).

Bloomberg finds some evidence of influential figures in Russia cooling on Putin, however:

Yevgeny Primakov, a former premier, foreign minister and spymaster, said Russia must avoid “self-isolation” over Ukraine and keep the door open to cooperation with the U.S. and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“We lose our country as a great power” without such collaboration, Primakov said in an article published last week in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the state newspaper. Primakov, who was born in Kiev in 1929, said that while Crimea is non-negotiable, Putin should now respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and avoid sending troops to support pro-Russia militias.

Another longtime Putin ally, Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister who sits on the president’s Economic Council, an advisory body, said last month that Russia faces a “full-fledged” economic crisis if it doesn’t repair ties with the U.S. and Europe.

Such comments show “a very high level of concern among a fairly wide circle of people,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst in Moscow who advised the Kremlin during Putin’s first two terms as president.

“There is a group of people in the upper echelons trying to protect themselves from losses,” Pavlovsky said. “They are critical of Putin but they can’t challenge him because he can easily crush them. That makes them even more unhappy.”

These unnamed people may be influential, but they are not oligarchs. Do they matter?

Bloomberg mentions Gennady Timchenko, who managed to sell his shares in Gunvor before sanctions were placed on him by the US over Russia's war against Ukraine.

Timchenko is quoted as saying earlier "he was 'suffering' for the president and his policies" although he continued to support him. Yet he declined to comment for Bloomberg's current article. No evidence for any pressure he might be putting on the president has been presented.

The brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, Putin's childhood friends and judo sparring partners, are also mentioned as sanctioned by the US and EU -- which even seized their luxury properties in Italy worth $28 million. But the article  doesn't say that now they are complaining or putting any pressure on Putin. There's no evidence that they are.

Arkady Rotenberg’s spokesman, Andrei Baturin, even said "it would be untrue to suggest Rotenberg is critical of the president’s policies," reports Bloomberg.

The only evidence for possible pressure comes from some anonymous sources about anonymous people:

Businessmen close to Putin realize their debt to the president and will avoid publicly criticizing him, but they don’t want his personal ambitions to destroy their fortunes, one of the two people familiar with the matter said.

Bloomberg cites an interesting development with Putin's cronies in St. Petersburg, where he went to law school and served on the city council with Mayor Anatoly Sobchak in the 1990s. Putin fired Vladimir Kozhin, described as a "close confidante" who has run the Kremlin's powerful property department since Putin came to power.

This department is often overlooked as a seat of power, but to give an idea of its importance, we can recall what happened to the official who held this position under Gorbachev -- he committed suicide after the coup was defeated.

Kozhin hasn't defenestrated, but he has been demoted to aide for military cooperation, which means he's a "nobody" according to Bloomberg's source -- and that makes sense in the current sanctions climate. Kozhin was replaced by Alexander Kolpakov, a department head in Russia’s presidential security service -- yet another example of the personalization of former state institutions to bring them under Putin's personal control, a la Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

When he gave an influential speech at the Mercury Club last week, former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov appeared critical of the war in Ukraine.

Bloomberg's summary of Primakov's speech indicated that he believed that while return of the Crimea was non-negotiable, "Putin should now respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and avoid sending troops to support pro-Russia militias.

Translation: @a_torshin: Mercury Club. Yesterday.

Yet it's worth seeing exactly what Primakov said so that we understand the very real limits on this seemingly "anti-war" position (translation by The Interpreter):

Thus, can we as before speak of a Russian interest in having the southeast remain a part of Ukraine? I reply: I believe that it is necessary. Only on such a basis can the settlement of the Ukrainian crisis be regulated. Another question: should we include in the number of "concessions" to the USA and their allies in Europe a renunciation of the reunification of the Crimea and Sevastopol with Russia? I reply: no, this should not be a bargaining chip in negotiations.

The next question: under conditions where the Minsk agreements are not observed, can Russia in an extreme situation send its regular army units to help the militia? I answer: categorically no. If such a thing were to happen, it would be advantageous to the US, which would exploit such a situation to keep Europe under itself for an entire age. Meanwhile, such a position on our part does not mean a refusal to support the militia which is seeking a recognition of the special features of the southeast of Ukraine within the structure of the Ukrainian state.

That sounds like something shy of full-fledged regular army support and a vague kind of political support but leaves unquestioned what's really going on: supply by Russia of tanks, troops, and armaments to the separatists and thinly-veiled Russian military involvement as "contract soldiers" or "volunteers."

Putin's recent moves don't appear as if he is addressing pressure from a putative oligarch lobby angry at sanctions, so much as appeasing lobbies even more conservative or nationalist than he is. This week Putin appointed a conservative deputy, Aleksandr Torshin, as chair of the Bank of Russia although he has not been involved in economic issues for years. Putin also tacitly blessed the creation of Anti-Maidan -- a mob of titushki -- as the thugs who provide the muscle against the opposition were called in Kiev.

Yet last month, Putin did renege on the prosecution of Yevgeny Yevtushenkov, head of Sistema, who was placed under house arrest in September and accused of fraud in the acquisition of Bashneft, a state oil company of Bashkortostan. Bashneft was seized and nationalized, but Yevtushenkov was ultimately freed from house arrest in December. Putin said an investigation found that he was not guilty of money-laundering.


-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Yakutsk, Russia the Coldest City in the World
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russian Duma Ratifies Treaty With Breakaway Province Of Abkhazia; Georgia Says It's Illegal

RFE/RL reports that the Russian State Duma has ratified a treaty with Abkhazia, the breakaway province of Georgia, in a move which many say effectively annexes the province. Georgia is strongly objecting to the move, calling it illegal:

The agreement puts Russian and Abkhaz forces under a joint command and provides for the joint patrolling of borders and territorial boundaries.

Giorgi Volsky, the parliamentary faction leader of the ruling Georgian Dream alliance, said the agreement has "no legal force" and "complicates" Russia's position internationally.

He said ratification is a step by Moscow toward the "annexation" of Georgian territory.

International Business Times notes that the treaty was agreed to by the Kremlin and Abkhazian leaders in November, and Russian troops have been in the breakaway province since their invasion in 2008, but now the ratification of it means that Russian and Abkhazian troops will be guarding their mutual border:

Putin and Abkhazia President Raul Khadzhimba signed the agreement during a Nov. 24 meeting in Sochi, Russia. Aside from its military stipulations, the arrangement also paves the way for Abkhazia’s assimilation into the Eurasian Economic Union, Russia’s economic alliance with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia. Georgian leaders vowed to appeal the treaty to the United Nations and various other international governing bodies, the New York Times reported.

Georgian foreign minister Tamar Beruchashvili denounced the agreement as Russia’s attempt to counteract Georgia’s rapidly improving political and economic relations with the European Union. “The signature of the so-called treaty constitutes a deliberate move by Russia in reaction to Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” Beruchashvili said in a statement.

The Associated Press adds an important detail -- the Russian and Abkhazian troops which will now patrol the border will be under joint command.

-- James Miller