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Archive for the ‘Injustice of Russia’ Category

Ukraine demands access to filmmaker imprisoned in Russia

September 29, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry is demanding that Russia allow consular access to an imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker who has been on a hunger strike since mid-May. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mariana Betsa made the demand Saturday on Twitter. Russia’s penitentiary service said Friday that an unspecified “correction” in Oleg Sentsov’s treatment had been ordered; it published a photo of him being examined with a stethoscope.

Betsa also called for allowing Ukrainian doctors to visit Sentsov. The filmmaker is an opponent of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2015 for conspiracy to conduct terror attacks.

Sentsov denies guilt and has refused to seek a pardon from President Vladimir Putin. His lawyer said this month that Sentsov’s health was irreversibly damaged. Prison officials say he is receiving a nutritional formula.

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Russia puts deep roots in Syria, warns West against meddling

September 26, 2018

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The same day that Russian diplomats struck a deal with Turkey over a demilitarized zone in Syria’s last rebel-run region, dozens of Russian businessmen were flying home from Damascus, contracts in hand for trade with a postwar Syria.

Whatever happens to the rebels in Idlib province, Russia is determined to keep Syria solidly anchored in its sphere of influence over the long term — both as a foothold in the Middle East and as a warning to the U.S. and its allies against future interference.

“Russia wants … a new Mideast security order,” said Emile Hokayem, Middle East security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. While Russia is blamed for widespread death and destruction as it supports Syrian President Bashar Assad, its forces have proven decisive in the international struggle against the Islamic State group, giving Moscow a credibility that Western powers lack. “Their intervention yielded much better returns than anyone expected,” Hokayem said.

Now the central challenge facing U.S. and other Western diplomats huddling about Syria this week at the United Nations is how to stay relevant. European Union diplomats are meeting the U.N. Syria envoy Wednesday, and France is hosting a meeting Thursday of the “Small Group” that’s trying to weigh in on Syria’s future, after years of failed efforts to back the Syrian opposition.

Russia isn’t invited to either meeting but still has the upper hand. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, is working to persuade other world powers to endorse a Russian-Turkish accord reached last week to create a buffer zone and avert an all-out battle for the last Syrian opposition stronghold in Idlib.

Even as Russia flaunts its diplomatic success, it’s also securing a military future with Syria. Russia announced Monday it’s selling S-200 missile systems to Syria. A longtime client of Russian weapons manufacturers since well before the war, Syria also was a reliable trading partner. And Moscow is furthering that relationship by rebuilding roads, pipes and skyscrapers wiped out by seven years of war — including destruction wrought by Russia’s own weapons.

A group of 38 Russian companies took part in the Damascus International Fair earlier this month. It was at least the fourth event in the past year aimed at reviving Russian trade with Syria — and Russian companies are heading back to Syria in early October for a conference on rebuilding the country.

Syria’s neighbors are similarly active, but in Russia’s case, analysts say, the economic activity is part of an influence strategy. Russia, for example, wants to rebuild Syria’s train network. “Russia built it in the first place, and wants to rebuild this and strategic economic ties,” said independent Russian analyst Vyacheslav Matuzov.

Russian companies are seeking a diverse trade base, with food, farming and energy deals, according to the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Chamber Vice President Vladimir Padalko described “the firm intention of Russian business not just to restore past trade cooperation between our countries, but also actively move forward.”

But Russia doesn’t want to foot the bill for the huge cost of reconstruction, so it is seeking Western help, notably in Lavrov’s meetings at the U.N. Hokayem said prospects of that are low, but Russia is still “in the driver’s seat” in Syria.

“Russia is always a step ahead, and has a higher tolerance level” for ups and downs in the Syria war because Putin doesn’t face serious domestic opposition. Russia’s Astana peace process with Iran and Turkey has been so successful, Hokayem said, that “the U.N. envoy has adopted (it) as his own.”

The next few weeks will be critical for Syria — and for Russia’s footprint. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura told The Associated Press this week that October is going to be “a very important month” both for Idlib and for U.N.-led efforts to move toward peace.

Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny detained again

September 24, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was released from jail on Monday at the end of a 30-day sentence for staging an unsanctioned protest — and then immediately detained again. A police officer approached him and took him away just as he came out of a detention center in Moscow at daybreak to be greeted by supporters and the media.

Navalny has been the driving force behind a recent series of anti-government rallies that were held in dozens of cities and towns across Russia’s 11 time zones. Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, said on Monday Navalny is facing charges of staging a rally that caused bodily harm to unidentified people.

Navalny’s further detention comes amid a wave of popular discontent against a hike in the retirement age, an issue that angered Russians across the political spectrum. A drop in approval ratings for President Vladimir Putin and outrage at the changes in the pension system have weighed heavily on Kremlin candidates running in regional elections in Russian regions.

Early results from run-off votes in Sunday’s gubernatorial elections in two Russian regions see opposition candidates beating Kremlin incumbents. A week earlier, an opposition candidate for governor in the Far East mounted protests following widespread reports of vote-rigging in favor of the Kremlin candidate. Several days later, election authorities canceled the results of the elections and called a new vote.

Russian rights group says over 1,000 detained at protests

September 10, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — More than 1,000 people were detained at anti-government protests across the country in what the Kremlin on Monday called a legitimate response to unauthorized rallies. The OVD-Info group, which tracks police detentions and posts the names of the detainees on its website, said that 1,018 people were detained during Sunday’s demonstrations against a government plan to increase the ages at which Russians collect their state pension.

Nearly half of those detained were rounded up in St. Petersburg, according to the OVD-Info. Russia’s second-largest city arguably saw the most robust response with riot police charging at protesters with batons. Minors and elderly people were among those arrested.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the police acted in accordance with the law in response to unauthorized protests. He added that “hooligans and provocateurs” mixed up with protesters and assailed police.

In Moscow, authorities charged two men with assailing police. On Monday, several activists tried to launch another protest in a tree-lined boulevard in central Moscow but they were quickly rounded up by police.

Sunday’s rallies, which had been called by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, were held in dozens of towns and cities across Russia. Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who is Putin’s most visible foe, had called for protests against the government’s pension proposal before he was sentenced to 30 days in jail for organizing an unsanctioned January protest over a different issue.

The government’s plan calls for the eligibility age for retirement pensions to be raised by five years, to 65 for men and 60 for women. It has irked both older Russians, who fear they won’t live long enough to collect significant benefits, and younger generations worried that keeping people in the workforce longer will limit their own employment opportunities.

The government’s proposal has dented Putin’s popularity. The president responded by offering some concessions, but argued that the age hike is necessary because rising life expectancy in Russia could exhaust pension resources if the eligibility age remains the same.

Ungodly espionage: Russian hackers targeted Orthodox clergy

August 28, 2018

LONDON (AP) — The Russian hackers indicted by the U.S. special prosecutor last month have spent years trying to steal the private correspondence of some of the world’s most senior Orthodox Christian figures, The Associated Press has found, illustrating the high stakes as Kiev and Moscow wrestle over the religious future of Ukraine.

The targets included top aides to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who often is described as the first among equals of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christian leaders. The Istanbul-based patriarch is currently mulling whether to accept a Ukrainian bid to tear that country’s church from its association with Russia, a potential split fueled by the armed conflict between Ukrainian military forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The AP’s evidence comes from a hit list of 4,700 email addresses supplied last year by Secureworks, a subsidiary of Dell Technologies. The AP has been mining the data for months, uncovering how a group of Russian hackers widely known as Fancy Bear tried to break into the emails of U.S. Democrats , defense contractors , intelligence workers , international journalists and even American military wives . In July, as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, a U.S. grand jury identified 12 Russian intelligence agents as being behind the group’s hack-and-leak assault against Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

The targeting of high-profile religious figures demonstrates the wide net cast by the cyberspies. Patriarch Bartholomew claims the exclusive right to grant a “Tomos of Autocephaly,” or full ecclesiastic independence, sought by the Ukrainians. It would be a momentous step, splitting the world’s largest Eastern Orthodox denomination and severely eroding the power and prestige of the Moscow Patriarchate, which has positioned itself as a leading player within the global Orthodox community.

Ukraine is lobbying hard for a religious divorce from Russia and some observers say the issue could be decided as soon as next month. “If something like this will take place on their doorstep, it would be a huge blow to the claims of Moscow’s transnational role,” said Vasilios Makrides, a specialist in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Erfurt in Germany. “It’s something I don’t think they will accept.”

The Kremlin is scrambling to help Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill retain his traditional role as the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and “the more they know, the better it is for them,” Makrides said.

The Russian Orthodox Church said it had no information about the hacking and declined comment. Russian officials referred the AP to previous denials by the Kremlin that it has anything to do with Fancy Bear, despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko flew to Istanbul in April in an effort to convince the patriarch to agree to a split, which he has described as “a matter of our independence and our national security.” Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill is flying to Turkey later this week in a last-ditch bid to prevent it.

Hilarion Alfeyev, Kirill’s representative abroad, has warned that granting the Tomos could lead to the biggest Christian schism since 1054, when Catholic and Orthodox believers parted ways. “If such a thing happens, Orthodox unity will be buried,” Alfeyev said.

The issue is an extraordinarily sensitive one for the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Reached by phone, spokesman Nikos-Giorgos Papachristou said: “I don’t want to be a part of this story.” Other church officials spoke to the AP about the hacking on condition of anonymity, saying they did not have authorization to speak to the media.

Bartholomew, who is 78, does not use email, those church officials told AP. But his aides do, and the Secureworks list spells out several attempts to crack their Gmail accounts. Among them were several senior church officials called metropolitans, who are roughly equivalent to archbishops in the Catholic tradition. Those include Bartholomew Samaras, a key confidante of the patriarch; Emmanuel Adamakis, an influential hierarch in the church; and Elpidophoros Lambriniadis, who heads a prestigious seminary on the Turkish island of Halki. All are involved in the Tomos issue; none returned recent AP messages seeking comment.

Spy games have long been a part of the Russian Orthodox world.

The Soviet Union slaughtered tens of thousands of priests in the 1930s, but the Communists later took what survived of the church and brought it under the sway of Russia’s secret police, the KGB, with clerics conscripted to spy on congregants and emigres.

The nexus between Russia’s intelligence and religious establishments survived the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and the KGB’s reorganization into the FSB, according to Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.

“Our church leaders are connected to the FSB and their epaulettes stick out from under their habits,” Oreshkin said. “They provide Vladimir Putin’s policy with an ideological foundation.”

That might make one target found by the AP seem curious: The Moscow Patriarch’s press secretary, Alexander Volkov.

But Orthodox theologian Cyril Hovorun said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a Russian group spying on targets close to home, saying, “they’re probably checking him out just in case.”

Volkov did not return AP emails seeking comment.

Hovorun is unusually qualified to speak on the issue. In 2012 he — like Volkov — was an official within the Moscow Patriarchate. But he resigned after someone leaked emails showing that he secretly supported independence-leaning Ukrainian clergy.

Hovorun has since been targeted by the Russian hackers, according to the data from Secureworks, which uses the name Iron Twilight to refer to the group.

Hovorun said he believes that those who published his emails six years ago weren’t related to Fancy Bear, but he noted that their modus operandi — stealing messages and then publishing them selectively — was the same.

“We’ve known about this tactic before the hacking of the Democrats,” Hovorun said, referring to the email disclosures that rocked America’s 2016 presidential campaign. “This is a familiar story for us.”

The Russian hackers’ religious dragnet also extended to the United States and went beyond Orthodox Christians, taking in Muslims, Jews and Catholics whose activities might conceivably be of interest to the Russian government.

John Jillions, the chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America, provided the AP with a June 19, 2015, phishing email that Secureworks later confirmed was sent to him by Fancy Bear.

Fancy Bear also went after Ummah, an umbrella group for Ukrainian Muslims; the papal nuncio in Kiev; and an account associated with the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, a Byzantine rite church that accepts the authority of the Vatican, the Secureworks data shows.

Also on the hit list: Yosyp Zisels, who directs Ukraine’s Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities and has frequently been quoted defending his country from charges of anti-Semitism. Zisels said he had no knowledge of the attempted hacking. Vatican officials did not return messages.

Protestants were targeted too, including three prominent Quakers operating in the Moscow area.

Hovorun said Protestants were viewed with particularly intense suspicion by the Kremlin.

“There is an opinion shared by many in the Russian establishment that all those religious groups — like Quakers, evangelicals — they are connected to the American establishment,” he said.

Secureworks’ data shows hacking attempts on religious targets that took place in 2015 and 2016, but other material obtained by the AP suggests attempts to compromise the Ecumenical Patriarchate are ongoing.

On Oct. 16, 2017, an email purporting to come from Papachristou, who was just being appointed as spokesman, arrived in the inboxes of about a dozen Orthodox figures.

“Dear Hierarchs, Fathers, Brothers and Sisters in Christ!” it began, explaining that Papachristou was stepping into his new role as director of communications. “It’s a very big joy for me to serve the Church on this position. Some suggestions on how to build up relations with the public and the press are provided in the file attached.”

The file was rigged to install surveillance software on the recipients’ computers.

The email’s actual sender remains a mystery — independent analyses of the malicious message by Secureworks and its competitor CrowdStrike yielded nothing definitive.

Church officials told the AP they were disturbed by the hacker’s command of church jargon and their inside knowledge of Papachristou’s appointment.

“The one who made this is someone who knows us,” one official said.

Priests and prelates don’t make obvious targets for cyberespionage, but the stakes for the Kremlin are high as the decision on Tomos looms.

Granting the Ukrainian church full independence “would be that devastating to Russia,” said Daniel Payne, a researcher on the board of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Texas.

“Kiev is Jerusalem for the Russian Orthodox people,” Payne said. “That’s where the sacred relics, monasteries, churches are … it’s sacred to the people, and to Russian identity.”

Francesca Ebel and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny gets month in jail

August 27, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — A Moscow court sentenced Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Monday to a month in jail for an unsanctioned protest, a move that puts President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent political rival behind bars and not in the streets for the next nationwide anti-government protest.

Navalny’s arrest Saturday outside his home came as a surprise, since police were detaining him over a protest rally held in January. Navalny has been jailed multiple times for organizing demonstrations, but that typically happens soon after the event.

Navalny has called for nationwide rallies on Sept. 9 to protest the Russian government’s plans to raise the retirement age for both men and women. The issue has created widespread outrage, uniting Russians with widely varying political views against the proposal.

After the Tverskoy district court ruled Monday to put Navalny in custody for 30 days, he urged his supporters to still take to the streets for the pension protest. In a tweet posted shortly after the ruling, Navalny said the Kremlin “shouldn’t think that my arrest changes anything.”

Navalny rose to prominence thanks to his investigations into official corruption. On Friday he published another investigation, alleging that at least $29 million had been stolen in procurement contracts for Russia’s National Guard, which is headed by Putin’s former bodyguard, Viktor Zolotov.

Russia: Thousands more fleeing eastern Ghouta via corridor

March 17, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s military says more than 11,000 people have left Syria’s besieged eastern Ghouta outside the capital Damascus in the past few hours as government forces step up an offensive on the rebel enclave.

Maj. Gen. Vladimir Zolotukhin was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that some 3,000 people have been leaving every hour Saturday through a government-run humanitarian corridor monitored by the Russian military.

Zolotukhin is spokesman for the Russian center for reconciliation of the warring parties in Syria. Airstrikes in Syria killed more than 100 people on Friday as civilians fled en masse. Under cover of allied Russian air power, Syrian government forces have been on a crushing offensive for three weeks on eastern Ghouta.

The weekslong violence has left more than 1,300 civilians dead and 5,000 wounded.

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