From the northern tip of the Baltics to the southern edge of the Balkans, Russia is stepping up spying on its neighbors, according to numerous reports from the region.
The most recent notice of such activity comes from Estonia, whose intelligence service’s annual report says the “Baltic Sea area is especially vulnerable to threats from Russia.”
According to Estonia’s national intelligence service, Russia, acting through its military intelligence agency, the GRU, and its Federal Security Service, or FSB, has taken a special interest in the foreign and security policies, defense planning, armed forces, arms development, and military capabilities of its neighbors.
While Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov implies Ukraine is “undemocratic” for voicing suspicions about Russia – which not only seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in March 2014 but has backed separatists in eastern Ukraine – Kyiv has valid grounds to implicate Russia in the murder of a Russian MP who fled to Ukraine fearing for his life, and who told reporters of threats made against him.
Voronenkov was a key witness in Ukraine’s treason case against deposed President Viktor Yanukovych. In January 2017, Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko announced that Voronenkov had given testimony about two letters written by Yanukovych in February 2014, one of which was registered with the UN Security Council by Russia on behalf of Yanukovych by the late Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, in which Yanukovych requested Russian troops to put down the Maidan demonstrations.
A high-profile alliance between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leader of the Chechnya region of Russia is starting to fray. And outspoken Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, who was mysteriously gunned down in front of the Kremlin last month, reportedly knew all about it.
Critics of Putin say that over the past decade the Russian president has empowered 38-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, “to effectively create the Islamic republic that Chechen separatists had dreamed of — albeit one entirely reliant on Moscow for financial support,” The New York Times reported this week.
The Times notes that Putin has allowed Kadyrov to rule the region for eight years while “seemingly turning a blind eye to assassinations, torture and other human rights abuses.” And critics, including Nemtsov, were warning about what happens if the warlord turned strongman’s ambitions for power spin out of Putin’s control.
“I cannot understand what Putin expects when arming 20,000 Kadyrovtsy gathered today in the stadium in Grozny,” Nemtsov wrote in Facebook post in December. “What will happen next? The country is entering a crisis. There is not enough money for anything, including the support of regions.
“And the unspoken contract between Putin and Kadyrov — money in exchange for loyalty — ends. And where will 20,000 Kadyrovtsy go? What will they demand? How will they behave? When will they come to Moscow?”
It seems Nemtsov was on to something.
People initially suspected Kremlin involvement in Nemtsov’s murder, but now five Chechens have been arrested in connection with the killing, and fingers are starting to point at Kadyrov as the possible architect of the hit.
One of the suspects arrested is a former deputy commander from one of Kadyrov’s security battalions, which operate independently of federal authorities. Kadyrov praised the deputy as a “real Russian patriot” after he was arrested and implied that he wasn’t guilty of taking a hit out on Nemtsov.
Moreover, four people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg that Putin was furious when he learned about what had happened.
Putin is “dealing with a significant internal challenge: It’s extremely unlikely he ordered Nemtsov’s killing, but it was clearly an inside job,” Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, told Business Insider earlier this month. “Dealing with that is surely his top priority.”
Radio Free Europe noted that on March 16 — the day Putin reappeared from a mysterious 10-day absence from public view — a law enforcement official told Interfax that Nemtsov’s murder had been reclassified from a “contract killing” to a “hate crime.”
That designation all but squashes the investigation into who ordered the hit on Nemtsov. So while it’s possible that the Kremlin’s investigation might have ended up implicating Kadyrov in the murder, now it seems that possibility has been taken off the table.
In any case, Nemtsov supporters are now saying the investigation has “exposed a dangerous rift between the chiefs of the security services in Moscow and the brash Chechen leader,” The Times says.
‘The FSB hate Ramzan’
“The F.S.B. [the post-Soviet successor to the KGB] hate Ramzan because they are unable to control him,” Alexey Malashenko, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The Times. “He does whatever he wants, including in Moscow. Nobody can arrest members of his team if there is no agreement with Putin.”
Some experts think that Nemtsov’s murder fits this context.
“Putin had to make a choice. Either feed Kadyrov to the FSB-men, or give up the FSB to Kadyrov,” political analyst Leonid Volkov wrote on Facebook. “It’s a difficult and unpleasant choice … And he chose the one and only thing he could choose: Kadyrov.”
An unnamed source close to the Kremlin told Bloomberg of another theory about Nemtsov’s murder: that rogue FSB agents killed Nemtsov in the hopes of implicating Kadyrov, whose increasingly audacious actions have become a pain for officials in Moscow.
“Putin has become a hostage to his own policy of radicalizing supporters so they can spring to action whenever he needs them,” Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Bloomberg. “His authoritarianism is sliding into decentralized terror. His backers think he’s much more radical than he really is and are acting without clear orders.”
By giving Kadyrov the power to kill extremists in Chechnya in order to stabilize the region — as well as cover to assassinate perceived critics in the capital — Putin may have inadvertently created a monster that the Kremlin can’t contain.
Nemtsov’s supporters say Russian propaganda implicity encourages violence against Putin critics, according to Bloomberg. The Kremlin reportedly approved a rally in Moscow during which tens of thousands of people demanded that Putin’s critics be “purged.”
What happens next?
It’s unclear whether there will be ramifications for whoever ordered the hit on Nemtsov. Or how the murder is rattling the Kremlin.
While Putin was absent from public view, Kadyrov reaffirmed his undying loyalty to the leader in an Instagram post, writing: “I will always be his faithful companion, regardless of whether he is president or not. To give one’s life for such a person is an easy task.”
Radio Free Europe points out that this could have been a veiled threat: “I am loyal, Kadyrov seemed to be saying. But others may not be. And taking me down carries risks.”
If Ukraine’s east is a combustive mix of languages and loyalties, its west can be even trickier.
In Transcarpathia, many residents live within shouting distance of four EU countries. Inhabitants speak not only Russian and Ukrainian but Hungarian, Romanian, German, Slovak and Rusyn. Many of its 1.3 million inhabitants hold more than one passport.
It’s a region, in short, where loyalties don’t necessarily lie with Kyiv. So when armed violence broke out on July 11 between police and Right Sector nationalists in the Transcarpathian city of Mukacheve, it was an eerie echo of the Kremlin’s insistence that Ukraine’s problem is not outside meddling, but internal strife.
“[The Right Sector] has a thousands-strong military wing and its own command, but it does not report to the government,” the pro-government news channel Russia Today stated in its coverage of the Mukhacheve shoot-out, which left two people dead and several more wounded.
Sputnik International, a second Kremlin-backed outlet, ran articles describing Right Sector militants running amok, lowering EU flags in Lviv, hacking the Twitter account of the National Security and Defense Council , and heading en masse toward Kyiv.
Right Sector — a heavily armed militant organization branded by Russia as “neo-Nazis” and “fascists” for their ties to World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, who cooperated with German forces to fend off Soviet troops — is estimated to have as many as 10,000 members serving in volunteer battalions in the Donbas war zone and elsewhere in the country.
A sometimes uneasy ally of last year’s Maidan protesters, the group has since grown critical of the government of Petro Poroshenko, in particular for cracking down on volunteer units.
But one member, while confirming the group’s intention to protest in Kyiv, said they would not do so “with assault rifles and machine guns.”
The group has also sought to portray the weekend violence as fallout from the group’s self-described anticorruption efforts. Oleksiy Byk, a Right Sector spokesman, said police were to blame for the bloodshed.
“If we had started shooting first, there would have been many police among the victims,” Byk said during a July 12 press conference.Dmytro Yarosh
Dmytro Yarosh, the head of Right Sector, said on Facebook that his group was cooperating with the Ukrainian Security Service to stabilize the situation in Transcarpathia.
“I am asking you to ignore fake reports, which are disseminated to discredit Right Sector and provoke Ukrainians to shed blood,” he said.
Poroshenko, addressing an extraordinary meeting of the National Security Council’s military cabinet, appeared unswayed. Accusing Right Sector of undermining “real Ukrainian patriots,” the Ukrainian leader on July 13 suggested that fresh tensions in Donbas “have been mysteriously synchronized with an attempt to destabilize the situation in the rear — and not just any rear, but in a place 1,000 kilometers away from the front line.”
A KGB Favorite
Local reports suggest the Mukhacheve violence may have been the result of a business dispute. Cross-border smuggling of cigarettes and other contraband is said to be worth billions of dollars in Transcarpathia, with its easy ground access to Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland.
The region’s customs officials have been suspended in the wake of the violence, and at least one authority — parliamentary deputy Mykhaylo Lanyo, who has been accused of ties to smuggling networks — has been called in for questioning.
But it remains to be seen whether suspicions will trickle up to powerful local authorities like the so-called Baloha clan — revolving around Viktor Baloha, a former emergency situations minister and current parliamentary deputy — which is said to rule Transcarpathia with near-complete autonomy.
Some observers have suggested that the July 11 violence was little more than a battle for influence between Lan and Baloha.
Others say they suspect Russia of stirring the pot. During the Soviet era, Transcarpathia — with its mix of languages and nearby borders — was of special interest for the KGB, who used the region as a “window” to the west and the entryway for its armed invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
“The FSB has successfully picked up the baton,” he wrote. “For Russia, Transcarpathia and its surroundings remain an important region. Taking into account the blurred identity and ethnic diversity of the local population, the field of activities for these agents is quite fertile.”
The weekend unrest, with its threat of gang-style violence spilling over the EU’s eastern border, has put Ukraine’s goal of visa-free EU travel at immediate risk.
With the involvement of Right Sector, Kralyuk says, the clashes have given Russia “a wonderful gift.”
Transcarpathia, which during the 20th century was alternately ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary before being claimed by the Soviet Union, leans heavily on largesse from its western neighbors.
Budapest in particular has provided passports and special benefits to residents with proven Hungarian roots. The country’s pro-Russian prime minister, Viktor Orban, has set Ukraine on edge with professed concern for Transcarpathia’s Hungarian minority, which many see as shorthand for a Russian-style separatist conflict.
Moreover, the region has long shown an affinity for pro-Russian parties. In the 1990s, Transcarpathia was a solid supporter of the Social Democratic Party of Viktor Medvedchuk, the pro-Kremlin strategist with close personal ties to Vladimir Putin.
Before the Maidan protests, it put its weight behind Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, rather than pro-democratic “orange” candidates.
Political analyst Viktoria Podhorna says government negligence has only added to Transcarpathian exceptionalism. Poroshenko, who earned atypical support from Baloha, appears to have responded by involving himself only minimally in Transcarpathian issues.
“There’s some kind of trade-off between the central government and regional authorities, who are basically owned by local princelings,” Podhorna says. “And this is the foundation that can lead to conflicts like those in Donbas.”
Men with guns are everywhere in Grozny. They stand on street corners, hang out in hotel lobbies and swagger through shopping malls, Uzis hanging from the waist.
They are Kadyrovtsy, the fighters who became policemen after Ramzan Kadyrov, their militia leader, became head of the Chechen Republic under a deal with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
The Kadyrovtsys’ distinctive tight black uniform with a Chechen flag patch on the right arm and a Russian one on the left reflect how many Russians regard today’s Chechnya: a rival power base to parts of the Russian security state.
Tensions between Moscow and Grozny came to the fore after the murder in February of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician, for which three former Chechen security officials were arrested.
This week, after security forces from the neighbouring Stavropol region shot dead a Chechen man in Grozny, Mr Kadyrov felt compelled to remind Moscow who was boss in Chechnya.
Mr Kadyrov instructed his security officials: “If someone appears on our territory without your knowledge — no matter if a Muscovite or someone from Stavropol — I order you to shoot to kill.”
The Chechen government insists the Stavropol officials had come as paid assassins and lacked documents for a legal operation. But Mr Kadyrov’s aggressive response raises a bigger political question: his regime may have stabilised war-torn Chechnya, but could it now weaken the Russian state as a whole?
“Kadyrov has tried to build a state within the state for a long time,” says Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, a Caucasus expert at International Crisis Group. “He only listens to Putin, and nobody else.”
While other republics in the North Caucasus exchange intelligence on the Islamist insurgency with which the restive region struggles, the Chechen arm of Russia’s Federal Security Bureau, the successor to the KGB, refuses to do so.
“It shares what it feels like sharing with Moscow, and lets the centre decide what it sends back down south,” says Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services at New York University and author of a book on the Chechen wars.
Chechnya’s warlord rulers have clashed over their claim to special status with other parts of the security apparatus before. So far, they have had their way.
In 2013, Mr Putin replaced his top investigator in Chechnya after only seven months on the job following a run-in with Chechen officials.
Sergei Bobrov, a highly decorated general at the Federal Investigative Committee, had pressed on with an investigation into the murder of three women in the Chechen village of Geldagan even after his staff received threatening phone calls telling them to stop.
Two people from Geldagan said their village belonged to the area of influence of Magomed Daudov, a former fighter under Mr Kadyrov’s father and now the republic’s prime minister. “No investigator can build a case without asking him what to do,” said one of the two.
The same year Mr Bobrov was forced out, the Federal Investigative Committee released several Chechen men with links to Mr Kadyrov whom the FSB had detained on charges of extorting, kidnapping and torturing other Chechens in Moscow.
In Chechnya, some believe that Mr Kadyrov ordered Mr Nemtsov’s murder just steps from the Kremlin walls because he thought this would be a service to his political overlord.
“That man is getting really worried what will happen to him if Putin is no longer there,” said a government critic in Grozny who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “With the criticism from the west, the economic crisis and rumours about disagreements in Putin’s circle, he realised that Putin will not be there for ever. Once Putin is gone, he loses everything.”
Others see the Nemtsov murder as a result of infighting. In Grozny, speculation is rife whether Mr Daudov or Adam Delimkhanov, a Duma member and brother of the commander of interior ministry troops in Chechnya, have ambitions to replace Mr Kadyrov.
True or not, these theories point to the precarious nature and the built-in risks of Mr Putin’s solution for Chechnya. But the Russian president does not appear to share such concerns.
He considers Chechnya a model that can be applied elsewhere. Last November, he suggested to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, that Ukraine pacify its eastern Donbass region by buying it off with money and autonomy as he had done in Chechnya.
That is more than an abstract idea. Moscow is bringing other parts of the North Caucasus in line with some of Chechnya’s draconian practices. In 2013, Mr Putin replaced the head of Dagestan, who had tried to counter the creeping Islamist insurgency through dialogue with Salafi Muslims.
Since then, Dagestan has cracked down on Salafism as Chechnya has. Dagestan authorities have also started using Mr Kadyrov’s practice of punishing insurgents’ families by destroying their houses and expelling them.
Vladislav Surkov, a Kremlin adviser on Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ukraine for Mr Putin, this year negotiated treaties for a far-reaching integration of the two Georgian breakaway regions with Russia in exchange for more economic aid.
As far as Mr Kadyrov is concerned, the deal is very clear. “If you entrusted this region to me, I must ensure security [here]. If not, please be so good and fire me.”
Moscow — The Russian authorities apparently have a new enemy in their crosshairs: web tools that give users online anonymity.
On February 5, lawmaker Leonid Levin proposed blocking so-called web anonymizers including the most popular program, called Tor.
Tor — an acronym for “The Onion Router” — is encryption software that allows users to stealthily surf the Internet and bypass locally-imposed web restrictions.
Levin’s proposal won quick backing from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s state communications watchdog.
Roskomnadzor’s press secretary, Vadim Ampelonsky, derided Tor users as “ghouls” and likened the program to a hangout for criminals. He seconded the call for it to be blocked, saying it is “technically complex, but solvable.”
Internet analysts, however, are skeptical.
“It’s impossible to block Tor,” said Irina Levova, a Moscow-based Internet analyst.
Levova added that the authorities could feasibly block all encrypted Internet traffic. But such a move would wreak havoc on online banking and commerce. They could also address the problem legislatively, by banning software that bypasses web filters.