ON MY MIND
With all the false equivalencies out there about who is violating the Minsk agreements, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond's remarks this week were a welcome breath of fresh air. Speaking in Georgia, Hammond didn't mince words. If Russia wants sanctions lifted, it needs to fulfill its obligations under Minsk. Period. And while steps are also necessary on the Ukrainian side, "We should never equate the two. Russia is the aggressor in this conflict." Hammond's remarks send an important signal as Moscow is making a renewed push to lay the blame for Minsk's failures on Kyiv and get European Union sanctions against Russia lifted. Hopefully, other European leaders will take note.
IN THE NEWS
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Russia is "going backwards" on sanctions relief.
Russia's state-run oil company Rosneft says its profits increased by 2 percent in 2015.
Russian demining experts have reportedly arrived in Syria.
Russia has charged two businessmen with wine smuggling.
Ukraine has enacted sanctions against Russians involved in the case of military pilot Nadia Savchenko.
In Arkhangelsk, 936 kilograms of banned Polish apples have been confiscated and destroyed.
The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has opened its first place of worship in Russia. It is located in Nizhny Novgorod, just around the corner from the city's historic Russian Orthodox Church of the Merciful Savior.
WHAT I'M READING
Poking Holes In Moscow's Ukraine Narrative
A report in the German newspaper Bild has revealed that a virtual shadow government in Moscow is running the day-today affairs of the separatist-held territories of eastern Ukraine. The report contradicts Moscow's claims that it is not involved in the conflict in Donbas.
In an extensive interview with Meduza, a separatist fighter who participated in Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko's capture has poked big holes in Russia's claim that she was apprehended on Russian territory after helping kill two Russian journalists in Donbas. According to the fighter, she was taken on Ukrainian territory and was already in custody when the journalists were killed by mortar fire.
In a piece in The Moscow Times, foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov takes a look at what Russia really wants from the Savchenko case.
Putin's Mob Ties
Open Russia has a fascinating interview with journalist Vladimir Ivanidze that sheds light on Vladimir Putin's ties to organized crime groups in St. Petersburg in the 1990s.
Does Putin Have A Strategy?
Intersection Magazine has two pieces that cast doubt on the belief that Putin is pursuing a grand strategy. Andrey Devyatkov argues that Russian policy is the result of an "emotional trap."
And Anton Barbashin deconstructs the arguments of those arguing that Putin has a master plan.
UN Troops In Ukraine?
On the European Council On Foreign Relations website, Oleksiy Melnyk of the Razumkov Center and Andreas Umland of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation say it's time to move "Beyond Minsk" and call for United Nations troops in Donbas.
Atlanticism Under Siege
Peter B. Doran, vice president of Research at the Center for European Policy Analysis, gave an interview to New Eastern Europe in which he discusses Russia's information war against the West and other threats to trans-Atlanticism.
"It is now common to see the tropes of Russian disinformation and propaganda in the public discourse of the Western analytical community. That weakens the quality of the policy debate in the expert community. Often, experts do not even realize that they might be channeling an idea that originated from a node of Russian disinformation. Those ideas crop up in the strangest places," Doran says.
Reality Setting In?
In his excellent blog on the Kennan Institute's website, Maxim Trudolyubov argues that "Russia is Waking Up to the Economic Reality, Not to the Political One."
"The Crimea euphoria is starting to dissipate and the gap between perception and reality is beginning to close, albeit in a peculiar way. People are lowering their expectations, rather than trying to overcome hurdles," Trudolyubov writes.
More On The Vast Anti-Russian Media Conspiracy
In yesterday's Morning Vertical, I included a link to an article about a report by Kremlin-connected Russian Institute of Strategic Studies that ranked foreign media according to their hostility toward Moscow. Here's a link to the full report.
How Many Russian Warplanes In Syria?
And finally, Jeremy Binnie of Jane's Defense Weekly has tweeted a helpful table of Russian military aircraft in Syria.