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Putin Picks New Paratrooper Chief With Crimea Experience

The paratroopers are an elite unit of the Russian military, with great significance in the Ukraine conflict.

Russia has appointed the man accused of presiding over operations that led to the annexation of part of Ukraine as the commander of the its infamous airborne forces (VDV), the Ministry of Defense announced on Monday.

Continue reading Putin Picks New Paratrooper Chief With Crimea Experience

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The Mafia Ruling Ukraine’s Mobs

Organized crime helped Putin grab Crimea, and may open the way for him to take more of Russian-speaking Ukraine.

DONETSK, Ukraine—I was talking to some young black-clad pro-Russian agitators at a checkpoint they’d set up on the outskirts of this city in eastern Ukraine when a shiny black Mercedes pulled up a few yards away. Some of the men from the group walked over and stuck their heads into the car. I couldn’t see who the capo was, couldn’t hear what orders he was giving, but the scene was like something from a movie about the mob. Nobody wanted to say who that was in the car. Nobody wanted to repeat what he’d said.Such scenes are increasingly common in this contested part of Ukraine near the Russian frontier. “Bosses are starting to appear on the fringes of the protests, they are middle-aged, older and better dressed than the younger men who are in the vanguard of the protests,” says Diana Berg, a 34-year-old graphic designer. The grassroots agitation in favor of Russia has become less spontaneous and more focused in recent days.Before and since Russia’s move to annex the Crimea, many who favor the pro-European government in Kiev have argued that these “bosses” might be provocateurs from Russia’s FSB intelligence service or Spetsnaz special forces infiltrated into Ukraine to orchestrate pro-Russian sentiment. But Berg, an organizer of the pro-Ukrainian rally last week where pro-Russian thugs stabbed a student to death, says there’s a different and in some ways more frightening explanation: the ominous hand of organized crime.A public prosecutor, who declined to be named in this article for reasons of personal safety, says local hoodlums are operating among the pro-Russian protests in the restive eastern Ukraine, helping to direct them on the instructions of Kremlin-linked organized crime groups. He points the finger specifically at the notorious Seilem mob, which has been closely tied over the years to ousted Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, a onetime governor of Donetsk, who is now in exile in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

“We have already seen organized crime working hand-in-hand with the Russians in Crimea,” says the prosecutor. In that breakaway Black Sea peninsula, Moscow helped install former gangland lieutenant Sergei Aksyonov as prime minister, and his background is well known. Aksyonov and his Russian separatist associates share sordid pasts that mix politics, graft and extortion in equal measure and together they helped steer Crimea into the Russian Federation. Police investigations leaked to the Ukrainian press accuse Aksyonov of past involvement in contract killings. Back in January 1996, Aksyonov was himself injured after his car overturned on the Simferopol-Moscow road during a shootout.

“Why should it surprise you,” the prosecutor in Donetsk asks, “if the same dynamic [as in Crimea] is playing out here? … Maybe there are Russian intelligence agents on the ground, but Moscow through crime networks has an army of hoodlums it can use, too.”

The international media were late to pick up on Crimea’s toxic nexus of organized crime, political corruption and politics. But across post-Soviet Ukraine the three have long been regarded as interchangeable and inseparable. And the eastern and southern parts of the country are the worst of all. “Political corruption is ingrained in eastern Ukrainian political culture,” the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, noted in a 2012 study.

The three regions most notorious for the closest relationships between gangsters, oligarchs and politicians—Crimea, Donetsk and Odessa—were the most resistant to the Euro-Maidan revolution that led last month to the ouster of Yanukovych. And now all three regions are at the forefront of the pro-Russian fight-back against the new national leaders in Kiev.

Taras Kuzio, a research associate at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta, who wrote the Jamestown report, says the internal political turmoil in Ukraine should be viewed through the lens of the hand-in-glove relationships between politicians, mobsters and the so-called “red directors,” managers-turned-businessmen who are steeped in the ways of Soviet-style public sector corruption and deal-making.

The red directors also have their protégés: men such as billionaire Dmytro Firtash, the gas-trading mogul who was arrested by Austrian police on suspicion of mob activity earlier this month following Yanukovych ‘s ouster. Nor are the ties limited to the Ukraine. Their tentacles embrace Moscow: Firtash has joint business ventures with Russian billionaire Arkady Rotenburg and his brother, Boris, close friends and judo sparring partners of President Vladimir Putin. The Rotenburg brothers, not coincidentally, are prominent on a U.S. sanctions list announced Thursday by President Barack Obama to target  Putin cronies.

The symbiosis of politics, organized crime and unscrupulousbiznesmeni developed quickly in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union in much the same way as it did in Russia. The ambitious, the greedy and the powerful lunged for the huge profits that could be made. The state was disintegrating. The big industries – energy, mining and metals – were being privatized, and may the most ruthless man win. “Individuals such as Yanukovych, Aksyonov and their Donetsk and Crimean allies literally fought their way to the top,” says Kuzio. In Donetsk, Yanukovych as governor “integrated former and existing organized criminal leaders into his Party of Regions,” says Kuzio.

In Crimea, “every level of government was criminalized,” according to Viktor Shemchuk, who served for many years as the chief public prosecutor in the region. “It was far from unusual that a parliamentary session in Crimea would start with a minute of silence honoring one of their murdered ‘brothers,’” Shemchuk recalled in a December interview with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a consortium of investigators and journalists tracking developments throughout Eastern Europe.

Donetsk was no different. A March 2006 cable from the US embassy to the National Security Council – one of several on Ukraine released by WikiLeaks—noted that Yukanovych’s Party of Regions was a “haven for Donetsk-based mobsters and oligarchs” and had commenced an “extreme makeover” with the help and advice of U.S. political consultants, including “veteran K Street political tacticians” from Washington D.C. and a onetime Ronald Reagan operative, “hired to do the nipping and tucking.”

According to the cable, Yanukovych was “tapping the deep pockets of Donetsk clan godfather Rinat Akhmetov.” Now supposedly Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarch, Akhmetov has been keeping a low profile in these early post-Yanukovych days, staying out of the limelight and issuing inoffensive statements on how important it is for everybody to get along.

Another US embassy cable from then-Ambassador William Taylor in September 2007 drilled down on how Yanukovych was centralizing Donetsk crime and political and business corruption in his party – something he would go on to do on an even larger national scale when he was subsequently elected as President in 2010. After Yanukovych became president, according to Ukrainian officials, more than $20 billion of gold reserves may have been embezzled and $37 billion in loans disappeared. In the past three years, they claim, more than $70 billion was moved to offshore accounts from Ukraine’s financial system.

The Americans have sent teams of experts to Kiev to help Ukraine’s interim leaders follow the money. “We are very interested in working with the government to support its investigations of those financial crimes,” U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt told reporters last week, “and we have already, on the ground here in Ukraine, experts from the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Department of Treasury who are working with their Ukrainian counterparts to support the Ukrainian investigation.”

Many of the financial crimes are likely to trail back to Moscow. Yanukovych confidant Firtash (the gas mogul picked up in Austria) admitted during a December 2008 meeting with then-US Ambassador Taylor that he had entered the energy business with the assistance of the notorious Russian crime boss Semyon Mogilevich, who, he said, worked with Kremlin leaders.

“Many Westerners do not understand what Ukraine was like after the break up of the Soviet Union,” Firtash told the ambassador. When a government cannot rule effectively, the country is ruled by “the laws of the streets,” he said.

That’s still the rule. The old order has much to fear from reform and change and will do all it can to preserve its wealth and power—and its best bet for that to happen is to look to Russia.

For precisely that reason, rights campaigners and reformers in Ukraine’s interim government are racing against time to uncover as much of the mob story as possible. An anti-corruption panel headed by Tetyana Chornovol, an investigative journalist who was nearly beaten to death in December for her reporting, is starting in earnest to recover billions of dollars of stolen money and piece together the financial crimes of the Yanukovych regime.

The Daily Beast learned something about these operations first hand when a team from the organized crime police raided a discreet boutique hotel in downtown Kiev where this correspondent was staying.  According to the police the hotel is owned by Eduard Stavitsky, Ukraine’s former energy minister. He is now believed to be in hiding in Russia. The police searched all the rooms looking for any Stavitsky documents and combing through financial records. As one of the investigating officers told me, “We need to move fast before the cover-ups start.”

Ex-KGB General: Russia Has Already Won

Russia has already won “the real victory”​ in Ukraine, according to a former KGB general living in the United States.

“The Crimea is now Russian, that’s very important,” Oleg Kalugin, one of the top Soviet spies in the United States during the Cold War, told National Review Online. “Southeast of Ukraine, that’s part of the general battle between the Russians and Ukrainians, but it’s not as crucial as the real victory and pride of Russia — the Crimea, I mean.”

The Thursday-morning phone interview took place in the context of media reports that Russia had invaded Ukraine, but Kalugin reiterated that he does not believe Russian president Vladimir Putin wants annex another region of the country.

“I believe they’re just trying to do their best to keep as much as they can of pro-Russian population and communities in that area; but Russia does not plan, I am sure, to take the southeastern part of Ukraine just like they did with the Crimea,”Kalugin said.

“It will certainly do it’s best to provide secure access to the Crimea through that part of Ukraine, because otherwise the Crimea can only be accessed by the Black Sea, by water, and this is not the safest way,” he added.

Kalugin said he doubts Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko’s claims that “Russian troops were brought into Ukraine.”

“For political leaders, it’s important to maintain their stance and make people feel that things are still quite dangerous while he may know well that things are going to a peaceful solution,” Kalugin said. “Russia will not move any [troops] forward while western nations are alerted” due to the risk of expanded economic sanctions.

“It’s not in the interest of Putin,” Kalugin said. “His position as of today is fairly strong in the country, in his own country, so why put it at risk by moving further?”

Although Kalugin expects the Russians to keep a “low-profile” in Ukraine, he agreed that Putin has an interest in fomenting unrest in the country by providing weaponry and perhaps special forces assistance to the separatists.

“The tactical victory would be most likely the pro-Russian forces in that part of Ukraine will eventually triumph and Russia will be satisfied,” he said. “It will not necessarily be exactly to a Russian notion of how things should be, but at least it will not be pro-NATO, pro-Western.”

The Kremlin Kids love the West

The rulers in Moscow demonize the West because of moral decay and loss of culture. But exactly where they let their sons and daughters to train and live. President Putin is the best example.

Vladimir Putin may have many bills with the West. Remains the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” for the former KGB officer. The Western democracy model considers the Kremlin rulers as a threat to his authoritarian leadership style. Reject all does not, however, want the West Russian power elite.

Especially not when it comes to their own children. Neither in Russia nor in Phantom Empire Noworossija (“New Russia”) would like Putin and his confidants send their kids to school, but in the West. Ie where Putin assumed a value decomposition, where supposedly moral decay and perish national cultures.

Putin saw the end of the Soviet Union with his family in Dresden – as a KGB agent. After returning to his hometown of St. Petersburg’s two daughters Putin visited the German-speaking elite high school Peter School.

When his father moved to Moscow to become intelligence chief, his daughters were also in the Russian capital in a German school. The elder daughter Maria Putina now lives with her Dutch boyfriend in a luxury penthouse near The Hague.

Three daughters of the elite school in Switzerland

After the launch of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17 called for the expulsion of the Dutch angry 29-year-olds. Most of the victims of the tragedy in eastern Ukraine were Dutch.

Putin’s younger daughter Ekaterina should have a permanent residence in Munich. She is married to a Korean. Meanwhile, her father repeatedly complained that the “differences between nations and cultures washed out” are.

According to the Russian website “Open Town” there is virtually no family under the Kremlin rulers that can not be educating their children in the West. Accordingly, visited three daughters of the Vice President of Parliament Sergei Schelesnjak an elite school in Switzerland.

The cost per school year were about 50,000 francs. Schelesnjak to earn the equivalent of 71,000 francs a year, according to his tax return. Two daughters of high-ranking politician apparently now live in London.

What upset me the teachings of his father?

Also the sons of the Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak see their future rather in the West. Alexei, that’s the name of the elder son, is according to the “Open Town” known as Contractors in Russia and as a partner of international companies. His younger brother worked at Credit Suisse.

Against Dmitry Kozak, the EU imposed a travel ban shortly after the annexation of Crimea in the spring. The Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov daughter studied in the United States when her father was ambassador to the UN in New York. It is unclear whether she has since returned to Moscow.

The most vocal critics of the West heard in Moscow Putin adviser and head of the Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin. He says the West is a “vulgar ethno-fascism” back into fashion.

Yakunin vehemently defended the crackdown by the Russian authorities against homosexuals and finds it outrageous that the Austrian travesty artist Conchita Wurst was chosen as the winner of the Euro Vision Song Contest.

“The ancient definition of democracy had nothing to do with bearded ladies, but democracy is the rule of the people,” grumbled Yakunin.

His children and grandchildren seem to think nothing of such teachings: A son to work as a real estate agent in Switzerland, the other had long lived in London and now work as an investor, a British company, announces “Open Town”. Jakunins grandchildren study therefore in “elite education” in England and Switzerland.

Every five Russians want to emigrate

The Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Russian President, Pavel Astakhov has 2013 banning the adoption of Russian orphans to the US prevailed after cases of abuse had become known. For Astakhov and other Russian politicians of the so-called adoption scandal was a welcome opportunity for a cheap anti-Western polemics.

But so dangerous, the West seems also not to be Astakhov: His older son studied in New York and Oxford, a child was born in a villa in Cannes to the world. It is not only Putin’s closest confidant who let their young family members benefit from the Western education system. Many parliamentarians of the Kremlin United Russia party pay large sums to accommodate their children in western elite schools.

And the children of powerful politicians who are studying in Russia, want to get away one day. The son of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said he wanted to attend a further education after graduation – in the United States.

A study conducted by the renowned Levada Center poll found that one in five Russians to emigrate. Among students, it is even half. In contrast, Putin struggles with Forbidden: Ministers and senior officials may not have accounts abroad.

The parliamentarian Vladimir Pechtin must have mandate to return after it became known that he had property worth two million dollars in US sunshine state of Florida. Pechtin was chairman of the ethics committee in the State Duma. (Tages-Anzeiger)

Russia To Test New Long-Range Nuclear Capable ICBMs Within Next 24 Months

Russian ICBM silo
A Russian service member passes by an opened SS-18 intercontinental ballistic multiple-warhead Satan missile launching silo in the town of Kartaly in Russia’s Chelyabinsky region, Aug, 16, 2002. Reuters

The Russian military was pressing ahead with the design and manufacture of new nuclear-capable heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles that were expected to be ready for testing in 18-24 months, the Russian government-backed news agency Tass reported.

The Kremlin has prioritized the modernization and strategic location of its ICBM missile fleet during the last year because of renewed hostility between Moscow and NATO over the annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s continued involvement in the Eastern Ukraine war.

“As of today, the third stage of the design and development work is underway. I believe we’ll reach the stage of tests of this heavy missile in 18-24 months,” an aide to the Strategic Missile Force Commander Igor Denisov said Tuesday.

The missile, known as Sermat, will reportedly have an operational range of 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) and be able to travel at 24,500 kilometers per hour (15,220 mph).

The missile, which can reportedly also deliver up to 15 separate warheads to independent targets, will likely be stationed in the East or West of the country to maximize its delivery range.

In recent weeks Russia has continued testing its shorter-range Iskander missile, which it was threatening to place in its Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad.

Such a move would provoke Russia’s main nuclear rivals in Washington to consider placing U.S.-made and -operated missiles back in Britain, from where it removed intermediate-range missiles at the end of the Cold War in 1991.

The move by Russia and the U.S. would be in breach of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Force Treaty, which prohibits the use of ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km (300 to 3,400 miles).

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said of such a move in June that “we have got to send a clear signal to Russia that we will not allow them to transgress our red line,” and that actually hosting the missiles in Britain “would be a decision that we would make together, if that proposition was on the table.”

EU prolongs Russia sanctions over Ukraine

The 28 EU foreign ministers have formally agreed to extend a set of punitive measures imposed against Russia over its role in the Ukraine conflict. The sanctions have been prolonged for another six months.

EU sanctions against Russia would be extended until January 31 next year, the European Union announced Monday, under efforts to force Moscow to abide by the Minsk ceasefire agreement in the Ukraine conflict.

The 28-nation bloc initially imposed travel bans and asset freezes against Russian and Ukrainian figures for their part in the Ukraine crisis. But after pro-Russian rebels allegedly shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July last year, Brussels stiffened its punitive measures.

Since then Russian banks have been cut off from financing on Western markets, and the country’s crucial energy industry has been hit by an export ban on crucial technology.

Russia has retaliated by imposing an embargo on imports of fruit and vegetables from the EU. On Monday, Moscow again condemned the Western measures, saying they were unfounded.

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that “reciprocity is the basis for our approach.” According to Russian news agency RIA, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev had ordered preparations for possible retaliatory measures following the EU decision.

Crises unresolved

In March, EU leaders agreed in principle to roll the sanctions over by linking them directly to the ceasefire brokered by France and Germany that runs to December this year.

The agreement has largely held since then, but Kyiv and the rebels regularly accuse each other breaching the pact. Earlier this month fighting flared up again, in a conflict which has claimed more than 6,400 lives so far.

Already on Friday, the European Council prolonged until June 2016 sanctions imposed to punish Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

The Council, which groups the bloc’s political leaders, said they continued to “condemn the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by the Russian Federation and remains committed to fully implement its non-recognition policy.”

Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014 following the ouster of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev, saying the peninsula had voted overwhelming in favor of returning to its Russian homeland.

The Crimea sanctions include bans on cruise ships using ports there and restrictions on exports of telecommunications and transport equipment, in addition to visa bans and asset freezes against figures said to have helped the Russian annexation.

Berlusconi and Putin: an enduring love

He kept Pope Francis waiting, and last October turned up over an hour late for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but make his long-distance best friend wait? Never.

After a 50-minute chat with the Pope on Wednesday evening, Putin dashed off to the airport, where he snatched a hug with Berlusconi before heading home.

It had been a long day for the Russian leader. He used his short trip to Italy to make his case against sanctions on Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, while insisting he was committed to a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

And who better to wind down the day with than his old pal.

They say a good friend will always have your back, and this pair have been through thick and thin together since they first crossed paths in 2001, fighting each other’s corner whenever they can.

Last year, after Russia annexed Crimea, Berlusconi leapt to his friend’s defence.

Never mind that thousands have died in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Berlusconi described his pal as a “good boy” and said it was “reckless” to ban him from the G8.

He also once called Putin, who he admires for his “macho” style of leadership, a “Godsend to Russians”.

In return, Putin has long defended the three-time Italian premier over his various scandals.

In 2013, at the height of Berlusconi’s trial over the ‘bunga bunga’ party sex scandal, Putin said people criticized him because they were “jealous”, joking that his friend would not have ended up in court if he was gay.

His exact words were: “Berlusconi faces trial for bedding women. If he was gay, no one would ever lay a finger on him.”

But it hasn’t always been politics and scandals. The pair have regularly got together over the last 14 years, whether for a holiday, late-night drink or just to play with each other’s pets.

Here are some of the best pictures of a special friendship.

The early days

Believe it or not, there was a time when Putin wanted to fully integrate Russia with the EU, and who better to help coordinate that than his newly-found friend, Berlusconi.

This photo was taken in 2002, when the friendship was still in its early days, so maybe the Russian leader wanted to play it safe by wooing Berlusconi with a tea party in Sochi, complete with traditional Russian pies.

Getting to know each other

When two hearts come together, they eagerly want to let the other know about their lives. A year after the tea party, Putin invited Berlusconi to his rural lodge, Zavidovo, outside Moscow, and presented him with a book about the place.

Happy together

It was all about books in 2002. Here the pals examine The Berlusconi Effect, a book published in Moscow that year.

Larking around

Berlusconi then returned the favour by inviting Putin to his villa in Sardinia – which later became famous for the “bunga bunga” parties. But before the holiday got underway, the pair shared a joke at a press conference in Olbia.

Meeting eachother’s (ex) wives

It was August 2005 and the two leaders had much to discuss, such as expanding cultural and humanitarian ties between their countries. And so they met at Putin’s residence in Sochi, bearing gifts for each other’s wives. Both were no doubt there for each other when they went through their divorces – Berlusconi from Veronica and Putin from Ludmilla. Both divorces were finalized in 2014.

…and their pets

During the trip to Sochi that year, Berlusconi also got to meet Putin’s dwarf horses. Putin is also well acquainted with Dudù, Berlusconi’s pet dog.

A day out on the slopes

Enjoying a day on the slopes together, and some mulled wine, at the Rosa Khutor alpine ski resort in Russia’s Krasnaya Polyana in March 2012.

But it hasn’t always been fun and games 

We’ve no idea what’s being discussed here. Perhaps Berlusconi, who was born in the fashion capital of Milan, had mocked Putin’s dress sense?

A friend in need is a friend indeed

But regardless of any differences, they’re always there to lend each other an ear.

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