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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Update: March 18, 2016

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.
Suspect in Nemtsov Murder Investigation Was Nabbed on Basis of Brief Cell Phone Call
In an article yesterday March 17, the business daily Kommersant said a source informed them about how one of the suspects in 
the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was caught.

Anzor Gubashev, one of five Chechen men being held for the murder of Nemtsov on February 27, 2015 slipped up once: he used "burner" phone purchased on the black market especially for the contract murder to make a call, but inserted a sim card associated with his registered phone and inadvertently exposed 
himself, leading investigators to the other suspects.

But while investigators used this fact to capture the perpetrators, their lawyers also plan to use the topic of disposable mobile phones in their clients' defense because authorities were unable to learn how many unregistered phones the suspects possessed, and which of them were using which phone during the hit.

Kommersant learned that already by February 28, the investigation got a list of all mobile phones and sim cards in operation around the murder site on Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge steps from the Kremlin. They could do this not only because Russian law-enforcement has this capacity and routinely uses it; the murder has been reported by the Russian media as within the zone watched by the Federal Protection Service (FSO) which guards the president, other top officials and the grounds of the Kremlin.

The assassination of Nemtsov took place close to midnight, on a cold and rainy night. Therefore, the streets were fairly deserted, and it was a trivial matter to pick out the phones used in the area. First, the investigators eliminated all those whom they believed couldn't have been involved in the murder (these would include the FSB tails of Nemtsov although Kommersant doesn't mention this; they would also include a taxi driver picking up fares and Nemtsov's companion).

Investigators were then left with "several suspicious sim cards and cell phones that were sending their data on re-transmitters." These phones were in operation before Nemtsov's murder, and right up to the moment that the shots were fired -- then no more calls appeared on them. Investigators were unable to find the owners of these phones. The sim cards were bought used, and were once in the possession of intermediaries, mainly homeless people. The owners of the cards never once used them to speak to the outside world, and therefore they couldn't be traced. Searching billing records from cell phone companies went nowhere. 

But there was one call, two days after Nemtsov's murder, using one of these sim cards that had been turned off right after the murder. The call appeared on the network literally for only a few seconds -- the user made a very brief call from Moscow Region to Ingushetia.

Detectives now had something to work with, and compared the number of that anonymous sim card, with the identification number of the phone in which it was used, and found that this same mobile phone had been used earlier with a different sim card, officially registered to a native of Ingushetia, Anzor Gubashev who was living near Moscow. 

Later it was found Gubashev had used the illegal sim card because the minutes had run out on his registered phone. Studying his connections, telephone contacts and data from video surveillance cameras enabled police to rapidly find four other suspects and detain them all within a week after the murder.

The suspects were asked about their telephone conversations first and foremost, but their answers, instead of leading to key 
evidence for the investigation, confused them. 

The first to cooperate with the investigation was Zaur Dadyaev who said that he had stalked Nemtsov on the bridge, holding a 
pistol in his left hand and a cell phone already turned on in his right hand (he is left-handed). After he shot Nemtsov, Dadayev said he telephoned Anzor Gubashev, waiting nearby in a car with Beslan Shavanov, and said "Go on, drive up," i.e. meaning he wanted to be picked up immediately. They swiftly reached the bridge and all three made the getaway.

Later, Gubashev began to sing, said Kommersant. He said separately that members of his gang, who had registered telephones, also purchased "special" mobile phones, as he called him, which they nick-named "flashlights".

"We only used them when we were at work, when we were tailing [Nemtsov]," said Gubashev. But then his testimony contradicted itself. He said he had bought only two "flashlights" and said he didn't remember where, "I think at Euroset," he said, Russia's largest mobile phone retailer. 

Gubashev also said he bought two Beeline sim cards "in some underground passageway" to use with the phones. It is common for beggars and homeless people to sell gadgets or other items in the long pedestrian passageways under Moscow's broad avenues or by metro stops. Gubashev said he bought the sim cards for 200 rubles each (about $3), without showing any ID. Only he and Beslan Shavan had cash from a "contact in the conspiracy" to make the purchase.

He and Shavanov then supposedly only used the phones when they were shadowing Nemtsov, and then threw them away right before the murder. Dadayev in fact stalked his victim without any telephone, Gubashev said, and the others just slowly followed him, not waiting for any commands, before they quickly picked him up.

Kommersant learned that an investigator asked Gubashev about 10 times whether there were telephone conversations at the moment of the murder, but never got anything that confirmed Dadayev's claim.

Of course, had detectives found the "flashlights" and the sim cards that were used with them, they would have been able to clarify the conflicting testimonies. They didn't.

Then the suspects began saying they had made their confessions under torture. According to the last version of the suspects' testimony, Nemtsov's murder was organized and executed by a man who is now dead: Beslan Shavanov, a former member of the Sever Battalion in the Chechen Interior Ministry's Internal Troops,  the same battalion where Dadayev and two other suspects who later escaped Russia, Ruslan Geremeyev, deputy commander of Sever, and his driver, Ruslan Mukhutdinov also served.

When police came to Shavanov's door to arrest him a week after the murder, he either blew himself up or died trying to throw a hand grenade at police - or was eliminated by law-enforcers themselves, as some have suspected.

According to Shamsudin Tsakayev, Dadayev's lawyer, his client was in fact at home during the murder, and even actively texting actively with his girlfriend on his mobile phone. Shavanov used Anzor Gubashev as his driver to commit the hit, according to this version of the story, which his lawyer intends to use as defense in court. The fact that there is "obvious contradictory testimony" and insufficient proof from investigators about who used which mobile phone when may convince a jury to exonerate the Chechens.

It's important to remember that this leak, like many before it, is not an official statement from the Investigative Committee and may or may not be true about the findings so far and the defense plans. It shows that the easiest thing to do with this murder case -- accuse a dead man of organizing it -- may be in the works.

It may not be at all that investigators "can't find" burner phones or registered phones or sim cards -- it may be just that they won't tell everything that the Federal Security Service (FSB) which tailed Nemtsov routinely, and the FSO which guarded the area where he was murdered thoroughly, know about their surveillance methods and targets, cell phone use at the murder site abd the Kremlin zone -- or in Russia in general. 

But it does indicate that Dadayev, who has been described in the media as the key suspect and who was praised by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov -- setting up a problem for Kadyrov, whose term expires soon -- may have an alibi and may not be convicted. 

--  Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Kremlin Reprimands Trump Over Campaign Clip - But the 'Bromance' May Not Be Over

Last year when entrepreneur and US presidential candidate Donald Trump expressed admiration for Putin, reporters grilled him through many news cycles about Putin's record of responsibility for the murder of journalists in Russia.

As the Daily Beast reported in December 2015:

On Thursday, the Russian president praised the GOP frontrunner as “brilliant” and “talented,” prompting Trump to respond that it was an “honor” to be complimented by someone so “respected” around the world. On Friday, MSNBC’s Morning Joe hosts asked Trump if he still appreciates the praise in face of Putin’s violent policies.

“He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader,” Trump said, leaving the hosts stunned.

“But again, he kills journalists that don’t agree with him,” Joe Scarborough pressed.

“I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe,” Trump replied. “There’s a lot of stuff going on in the world right now, Joe. A lot of killing going on and a lot of stupidity and that’s the way it is.”

When asked to directly condemn Putin disappearing journalists with whom he disagrees, however, Trump relented, saying, “Sure.”

This broke down into a wrangle over whether it could literally be proven that Putin had given orders to assassinate journalists; of course it can't be proven by investigative journalism for the same reason that makes it possible to kill reporters in the first place. The fact is, however, that Putin is responsible at the very least for the climate of impunity for such murders, and likely more implicated than some supporters are prepared to believe.

In any event, that quarrel had just died down when there was a new incident.

Yesterday, Trump posted a campaign attack ad on Instagram meant to convey that he would handle foreign policy better than Hillary Clinton. He featured Putin doing a judo flip then laughing after another clip of Hillary Clinton barking like a dog. The first image has the caption "When it comes to facing our toughest opponents" -- and makes it clear that Putin is a classic rival of the US, but a worthy one expected to join in Trump's deriding of Clinton.

Is this what we want for a President?

Show Details... →
Mar 18, 2016 23:32 (GMT)
But the effort backfired, and when asked to comment about it, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said:

"I saw that clip. I don't know yet if Vladimir Putin saw it. We regard it negatively...In this regard, we always sincerely regret [this] and hope that all electoral processes will take place without such references to our country."

In other words, what bothered the Kremlin wasn't so much Trump, whom they've admired and didn't directly denounce, but an "enemy image" that even their favorite suffers from, the idea that Russia isn't "peaceful".

Peskov's "negative regard" was enough to spawn another media scramble.

"The Bromance Between Trump and Putin is Over," the Washington Post rushed to say. Yahoo News phrased a Newsweek headline, "Putin and Trump Are Definitely Not 'Stablemates' Anymore." "Trump Campaign Ad Clips Wings of Fledgling Putin Friendship," the Guardian sniffed.

All of these assessments reflect a belief that the Kremlin's attitude shifts as rapidly as Western politics and media coverage.

An analyst from the region, Bulgarian commentator Ivan Krastev, explained the relationship better:

Mr. Putin's predilection for Mr. Trump has nothing to do with the Kremlin's traditional preference for Republicans. It also can't be explained by the fact that had Mr. Putin -- a physically sound, aging, gun-loving and anti-gay conservative -- been an American citizen, he would have fit the profile of a Trump supporter. Nor is it a function of tactical considerations:  that the nutty billionaire would divide America and make it look ridiculous.

Rather, Mr. Putin's puzzling enthusiasm for Mr. Trump is rooted in the fact that they both live in a soap-opera world run by emotions rather than interests. Perhaps Mr. Putin trusts Mr. Trump because the American businessman reminds him of the only true friend the Russian president has had among world leaders, the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

As Krastev explains, the central contradiction of Russian propaganda is that it derides the US as a declining power, yet also ascribes every world event to its machinations, much like Trump can complain about America's humiliation in Iraq but say the US can be "great again." So some of Trump's statements fit the Kremlin agenda at various times and other times don't, but the Kremlin is not likely to drop their only other friend among Western leaders if it comes to that.

There have been several levels of confusion in this relationship, some of which the Washington Post indicated in analyzing what was described as a "translation error."

First, the Post claimed what Putin really said when he originally praised Trump last year was that he was "colorful" -- a word that has a bit of a negative connotation in Russian.  

Putin was widely reported to have said in December that Trump was “a very brilliant person, talented without any doubt.” In fact, Putin said that Trump was “colorful,” not “brilliant.”
But what Putin actually said was Trump is yarkiy, a word that means "vivid" or "bright" or "striking" but not "colorful" as in "eccentric" or "clownish." When it was translated as "brilliant," that was technically correct, but not in the meaning "smart" but rather with the sense of "vivid."

The context of the rest of Putin's statement at the time indicates he meant "bright" or "vivid" more than "colorful" because he said:

"He is a very bright person, talented, without a doubt."

Trump's PR people no doubt thought that they were enlisting Putin's "manly man" image in their effort to ridicule Hillary -- while also making it appear that America under Trump could "take on Putin as an equal" -- after all, the clip shows Putin throwing his opponent down on the mat.

If that sense had come through in the Russian media, the Kremlin may have been flattered instead of annoyed, as being taken seriously as an equal to the US is one of their hang-ups., a formerly independent and now pro-government news site, translated "When it comes time to face our toughest opponents," accurately as "When it comes time to meet face-to-face with our strongest opponents," but focused more on Peskov's condemnation as "demonization" of portraying Russia as any kind of fighting threat than the other messages - chief of which was that Putin would join along with laughing at Hillary barking like a dog. (The original context was that she was talking about a fictional dog that would bark when Republicans told untruths.)

Putin's handlers evidently didn't like the thought of him being artificially grafted into a situation they didn't orchestrate. Both state-run and independent media have been intensely watching the US elections and reporting them closely, even sending out correspondents on the campaign trail. And at a particularly juncture where Trump might seem to do less well than Hillary in primaries in some states, the Kremlin might want to hold its punches. After all, Putin might have to deal with Hillary -- who has called Putin a bully.

The incident might be forgotten by all parties by another turn in election developments but there has been a certain investment in Trump from Kremlin propagandists. As the Post noted, Dmitry Kiselev, the top state talk show host said just last weekend, "“Top Republicans usually abuse the state budget trying to scare everyone off with Russia, but Trump is trying to find a common language with Russia."

Trump likely has less in common with Putin as a personality than with the outrageous and blustering Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a truly colorful figure in Russian politics who has more air-time than ever these days. The Kremlin spinmeisters find it to their advantage to feature Zhirinovsky now to bolster patriotism and xenophobia; at another time it may not be, even if they share his sentiments. It remains to be seen what further uses either the Trump campaign or the Kremlin make of each other, but Peskov's reprimand is not necessarily the end of the relationship.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Lithuanian President Calls Putin's Russia A Terrorist State

The Interpreter's editor-in-chief Michael Weiss has interviewed Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite for the Daily Beast, and she was far more honest about the realities of Putin's rule in Russia than many world leaders:

“If a terrorist state that is engaged in open aggression against its neighbor is not stopped,” she declared in November 2014, about eight months after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, “then that aggression might spread further into Europe.”

Sometimes referred to as the Baltic Iron Lady, Grybauskaite is outspoken about NATO’s responsibility to fortify its eastern periphery and forestall any future acts of Russian military adventurism into Europe. Lithuania, she has said, is “already under attack” from Kremlin propaganda and disinformation, a targeted campaign she considers the possible curtain-raiser to an invasion of her country.

When asked by Weiss about these comments, Grybauskaite said that it was important, for the security of her nation and the world, to hold ground against both Putin's actions ad his rhetoric: 

We are not critics, we simply call Russia’s actions by their real names. The Kremlin conducts confrontational policy, violates international law, destroys the global and regional security architecture, and seeks to divide Europe and weaken trans-Atlantic structures.

For the Kremlin, silence signifies consent. We cannot be complicit or create a climate of impunity that encourages dangerous behavior. That is why speaking the truth is our obligation.

Read the entire interview here:  

The President Who Dared to Call Putin's Russia What It Is: A Terrorist State

Not many people call Russia a "terrorist state" and get away with it. But Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite refused to resort to diplomatic euphemism in describing Vladimir Putin's aggression in Ukraine. "If a terrorist state that is engaged in open aggression against its neighbor is not stopped," she declared in November 2014, about eight months after Moscow's annexation of Crimea, "then that aggression might spread further into Europe."

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Mar 18, 2016 19:49 (GMT)
-- James Miller
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
AM Headlines: Pentagon Says Russia Among Greatest Threats; Kremlin Blasts Trump's Putin 'Demonization'