Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Putin Loses Handle On Military Inspection

Russia President Vladimir Putin looks on, bemused, as the handle on the door of the armored SUV comes off in the hand of General Aleksandr Shevchenko, while the chief of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, looks on, appalled.

Mike Eckel

As presidential inspections of Russian military equipment go, this was not a good one.
President Vladimir Putin traveled to the Black Sea city of Sochi on May 12, where he met with military officials and weapons suppliers eager to show off some of Russia's latest technology and equipment.
According to Russian news reports, the man who served as Putin’s tour guide -- General Aleksandr Shevchenko, the director of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Main Armored Directorate -- was eager to show Putin the specially built armored model of an SUV built by the Russian automotive giant UAZ.

With television cameras rolling, the entourage -- which included the chief of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov -- walked to the front passenger-side door and Putin tried to open the door. An officer appearing to be Shevchenko went to help him, pulling on the door handle -- until he pulled it off.

As Putin appeared to smirk, and with Gerasimov visibly appalled, video broadcast by the Kremlin-friendly TV channel LifeNews showed Shevchenko tossing the broken handle through the open window onto the passenger seat, and then reaching in and struggling to open the door from the inside. 

“Well done,” Putin was quoted as saying by Vedomosti.

After failing to open the front door, Shevchenko then goes to the rear passenger door and opens it, though it’s unclear from the video whether Putin ended up climbing in.

The incident wasn’t the first time that Putin has found himself at the mercy of malfunctioning machinery.
Five years ago, he was treated to a test drive of a new- model Lada, whose manufacturer has a less-than-stellar reputation for quality. Putin took the wheel in front of the cameras but had a hard time getting the car to start. 

There have been other smirk-worthy equipment malfunctions in recent years, too.

In 2015, during the Victory Day parade in Red Square-- where Russian and Soviet weaponry has been shown off for decades -- a next generation T-14 Armata tank stalled and had to be towed away by another vehicle.

During the same event, in the procession leading up to Red Square, a Buk M-1 antiaircraft missile launcher appeared to catch fire, spewing smoke across the thousands of parade watchers. Firefighters ultimately showed up to extinguish the blaze.

Stalin Statue's A Bust So Far For Slovak Collector

The online advert for Milan's Stalin statue.

Kristyna Foltynova

Two years after Milan M. put his statue of the late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin up for sale, the enterprising collector from northwestern Slovakia acknowledges he's had no takers.

Milan says he might be willing to lower his 45,000-euro asking price on a Slovak online shop for the 3.5-meter-high bronze figure.

But for now, Stalin stands alone up high on his plinth in the collector's garden in Povazska Bystrica. 

Milan's statue was cast in 1953 at a Czechoslovak factory called Zukov, one of the biggest sculpture workshops at that time. It was originally placed in a park in the city of Litomerice but was removed under subsequent de-Stalinization policies. Decades later, in 2010, Litomerice officials decided to sell it and use the proceeds for a new sculpture -- this time of Czech romantic poet Karel Hynek Macha. 

Milan is the statue's second private owner, and possibly its last. 

Because whether or not you regard his and other seemingly perfunctory tributes to late Soviet leaders as "art," it is difficult to make a case for "unique."

Tribute statues of Stalin once filled public squares across the Soviet bloc, at least until the de-Stalinization that Nikita Khrushchev announced three years after Stalin's death in 1953. Those that somehow remained were in many cases melted down or discreetly scrapped after the fall of the U.S.S.R. But some of the statues still turn up among public monuments to World War II, and others have become glib public mementos or garden decorations for wealthy collectors in the West.

Within the former Soviet Union, their place in the eyes of the public has proved complex. 

In Stalin's birthplace in current-day Georgia, statues of the man whose policies resulted in millions of Soviet deaths continue to divide communities.

In Ukraine, removing monuments to Soviet life and renaming public places related to Soviet historical figures -- particularly ones from Russia, which seized Crimea and is backing a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine -- is reaching its peak.

Every once in a while, public tussles over Stalin statues or busts erupt in places like Kazakhstan.

In Russia, meanwhile, Stalin remains among the country's most popular historical figures. He's even back in Moscow's subway system. And various efforts have been afoot to rehabilitate the image of the man blamed by most historians for millions of unnecessary deaths, whether through forced collectivization and manmade famine or politically motivated persecution.

They have included attemps to whitewash the tragic legacy of the GULAG, an elaborate prison system that was used to punish perceived "enemies of society," as well as exhibitions to highlight Stalin's roles in the "restoration of the Russian Orthodox Church" and his "contribution to victory" and "role in evacuating Soviet industry" during what Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War.

But if you're still not in the market for a massive token to Stalin's tyranny, Milan has also got a 2-meter-high steel likeness of communist revolutionary V. I. Lenin he's willing to sell.

BBC Accuses British, Russian Media Of Skewing MH17 Reporting

Armed Russia-backed militants walk past wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 debris in July 2014.

Carl Schreck

The BBC has issued a rare defense of an upcoming documentary about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, accusing British media of distorting its report about a tragedy that killed 298 passengers and crew in July 2014.

A report by Britain's Sunday Express tabloid "misrepresented" the BBC program, which offers a "balanced" look at competing theories, the broadcaster said.

Experts interviewed for the film describe as "unlikely" a theory put forward by Moscow and pro-Kremlin media -- and rejected by Dutch investigators -- that blames Ukrainian military aircraft for the crash, the BBC said.News of the documentary -- titled Who Shot Down MH17? -- rippled through Russia on April 24 after the Sunday Express published a story about the film on its website that said the program "will present new evidence that a Ukrainian fighter jet may have shot down the aircraft." 

Kremlin loyalists have long pushed this theory in public, although investigators from the Dutch Safety Board concluded in their official report in October 2015 that the plane was brought down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile fired from an area that was mostly controlled by Russian-backed separatists at the time.

While the hourlong documentary is only slated to air on May 3, it ignited an online maelstrom, with Kremlin critics accusing the BBC of providing a platform for Russian conspiracy theories aimed at muddying the waters about Russia's alleged role in the downing of the plane.

The midsummer tragedy was met with shock among the European public and contributed to the political climate for further sanctions against Russia's government over its seizure of Crimea and alleged fueling of armed separatism in eastern Ukraine.

Pro-Kremlin media outlets framed the BBC film as a straightforward rejection of the version of events broadly accepted by Western governments: that Russia-backed separatists shot the passenger jet down, mostly likely thinking it was a Ukrainian military plane.

A headline in Russia's national Komsomolskaya Pravda daily read, "BBC Film: Malaysian Boeing Shot Down By Ukrainian Jets."

Aleksei Pushkov, head of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an April 24 tweet that the film could "bring the truth about the downed Boeing closer.""The false masks are starting to come off," wrote Pushkov, a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party. 

Pushkov's hopes for the film, however, may be misplaced.

"Contrary to their headline, experts in fact tell the program it was unlikely a Ukrainian fighter jet could have shot down MH17, as they cannot fly at such high altitudes," the BBC said in its April 25 statement."This impartial documentary takes a balanced view in reporting the competing theories surrounding the fate of MH17, including evidence for and against those involving Russia, Ukraine, and the CIA," it added. 

Purported evidence of CIA involvement in the incident includes an alleged "intercepted" phone call between two men that Komsomolskaya Pravda identified as "CIA agents" and which drew widespread ridicule for being an obvious ruse. 

The BBC said in its statement that the film, part of a series titled The Conspiracy Files, "also examines in detail the findings of the official Dutch inquiry into the incident, which provide compelling evidence that the plane was brought down by a powerful ground-to-air missile."The network's defense did not appease all critics of the program, including former world chess champion and current Kremlin foe Garry Kasparov. 

Russia Hews Closer To Zhirinovsky's Wacky Vision Than You Might Have Expected

Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky speaks to the State Duma in Moscow in February.


Russian firebrand politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky made his name with crackpot, bellicose, and often offensive statements. But are his ideas really so eccentric in the current Russian context?

Since the early 1990s, the man dubbed the "clown prince" of Russian politics has gained a solid reputation for flying trial balloons on the Kremlin's behalf. Here are some of Zhirinovsky's seemingly outrageous proposals that have since become remarkably close to Russian reality.

The Baltic states have long been one of Zhirinovsky's favorite targets. He has urged Russia to build giant fans to blow radioactive waste over the Baltics, called for a Russian invasion, and last year suggested conducting local referendums on the return of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to the Russian fold. He voiced confidence that Balts would opt for joining Russia, arguing that Moscow had "abandoned" the three countries by recognizing their sovereignty in 1991. "They never wanted to live in independent states; they were and wanted to remain citizens of the U.S.S.R.," he said.

His tirades took a more ominous tinge when the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office, at the request of a lawmaker from the ruling party, subsequently examined the legality of the U.S.S.R. State Council's recognition of the sovereignty of the Baltic states and came to the conclusion that it was "defective."

Zhirinovsky has since predicted that Russian flags will fly over Kyiv, Riga, Vilnius, and Tallinn as soon as 2016.

Against that backdrop, Russia in 2015 sentenced Estonian security officer Eston Kohver to 15 years in jail on charges of espionage and illegally crossing the border. Tallinn has insisted Kohver was abducted in his home country and dragged into Russia (and an initial joint investigation hinted at the same). After protracted negotiations, Kohver was eventually exchanged for jailed Russian spy Aleksei Dressen.

And earlier this month, Russian jets buzzed a U.S. destroyer conducting military exercises within international waters in the Baltic Sea in what Washington described as a "simulated attack."

In April 2014, soon after an armed conflict pitting Ukrainian forces against Russia-backed separatists erupted in eastern Ukraine, Zhirinovsky addressed the State Duma in military fatigues and denounced the new Western-leaning government in Kyiv as a "junta." Four months later, he urged Putin to take resolute action in eastern Ukraine and "wipe out" Poland and the Baltic states if the West retaliated.

Although Russia has denied sending troops into eastern Ukraine (while acknowledging well after the fact that it deployed the "little green men" who occupied Crimea ahead of the peninsula's forced annexation), NATO has repeatedly accused Moscow of training, arming, and fighting alongside the separatists.

According to the United Nations, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 9,100 people and injured some 21,000 others.

Zhirinovsky once said that he dreamed of a day when Russian soldiers could "wash their boots in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean." His dream is now one step closer to becoming reality. In March, Russia's Pacific Fleet sent a naval group on an unofficial visit to five different countries, effectively restoring long-distance naval voyages. The fleet's spokesman, Roman Martov, said the purpose of the mission was to "ensure naval presence and demonstrate the flag in the Pacific and Indian Oceans."

As a candidate in the 2008 presidential election, Zhirinovsky pledged to shut Russia's borders as soon as he became head of state. "If you think that these are the actions of a police state, be my guest," he roared. "I promise that I will take these actions."

While at the time the remarks were dismissed as another of his eccentric rants, his pledge can now be seen as a troubling harbinger of Russia's current isolationist drive. Russia has since banned Western food imports, barred holidaymakers from booking package tours to Turkey -- one of the most popular tourist destinations among Russian tourists -- and prohibited Federal Security Service (FSB) employees, debtors, police officers, firefighters, and other categories of citizen from leaving the country.

Last fall, a prominent lawmaker announced that Russia was considering reintroducing Soviet-style exit visas for all Russians wishing to travel abroad. The lawmaker quickly retracted his statements, saying he had been misunderstood. But rumors continue to swirl that the authorities are mulling ways to control the ability of Russians to travel.

When bird flu spread around the planet in 2006, sparking worldwide panic, Zhirinovsky came up with a simple solution to end the epidemic: Send troops "from Sochi to Crimea" to shoot all the birds dead. "This little song of theirs has to be broken," he said, adding, "This is not a joke!" Eight years later, Moscow did indeed dispatch soldiers to Crimea. Their agenda, however, did not include birds. The Ukrainian peninsula was forcibly seized by Russia and a deepening crackdown is under way to silence critics in Crimea denouncing their peninsula's illegal takeover.

Tags:Vladimir Zhirinovsky

A Man Of Modest Means? Putin Says He Made Just $133,000 In 2015

Carl Schreck

Kremlin opponents and Western officials have long accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of using his power to accrue massive wealth and lavish real estate, including a sprawling Black Sea estate widely referred to as "Putin's Palace."
Officially, of course, the Russian leader’s pockets are considerably shallower, as evidenced by his income disclosures released by the Kremlin on April 15 showing that he earned 8.9 million rubles ($133,900) in 2015, up from the 7.6 million rubles ($115,000) he reported last year.  
There was no mention of the Baroque-style seaside mansion allegedly built for him in the southern city of Gelendzhik, to which the Kremlin has denied any link. Instead, Putin declared ownership only of a 77-square-meter apartment, a 1,500-square-meter plot of land, and an 18-square-meter garage. The declaration also showed that he uses a 153-square-meter apartment.
Nor did Putin declare any expensive foreign cars favored by Russia’s political and financial elite. His disclosure shows that he owns two rare Soviet-made automobiles, a Russian-made Lada Niva off-road vehicle, and a boat trailer. But no sign that he owns a boat -- although a 2012 report co-authored by opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead near the Kremlin last year, said Putin has access to a fleet of four yachts, including one with a waterfall and a wine cellar.

The new disclosure echoes similarly modest income declarations by Putin in previous years. But its release comes amid heightened scrutiny of Putin’s wealth, including the leak of a trove of financial and legal documents detailing the offshore financial dealings of his close associates.
Investigative reports based on the documents, known as the Panama Papers, show that his close friend, the cellist Sergei Roldugin, owned secretive offshore firms through which some $2 billion moved.
Putin was not named in the documents, but Kremlin critics allege that Putin may be an ultimate beneficiary of this and other offshore cash -- suggestions he and the Kremlin vigorously reject.
The U.S. Treasury Department has said that Putin “has investments” in Gunvor, a company formerly owned by his associate Gennady Timchenko, a Russian billionaire, and “may have access to Gunvor funds.” Gunvor and the Kremlin deny these claims.
Adam Szubin, the Treasury’s acting secretary for terrorism and financial crimes, told the BBC in January that Putin has been amassing wealth outside the public view.
"He supposedly draws a state salary of something like $110,000 a year," Szubin said. "That is not an accurate statement of the man's wealth, and he has longtime training and practices in terms of how to mask his actual wealth."
Putin’s 2015 income declaration shows he fared worse financially last year than other Russian officials, including his own spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
Peskov over the past year has come under withering criticism for pricey accoutrements -- most notably a wristwatch allegedly worth some $600,000 -- luxury real estate, and vacations that Kremlin foes say are far beyond the means of a civil servant.
Peskov earned 36.7 million rubles ($552,500) in 2015, according to his declaration, up nearly fourfold from the 9.2 million he reported last year. His wife, 2006 Olympic ice dancing champion Tatiana Navka, earned 89 million rubles, according to the declaration.
However modest Putin’s official wealth may be, he does appear to have extremely rich relatives. The Russian version of Forbes magazine reported this week that Kirill Shamalov, widely reported to be Putin’s son-in-law, has become Russia’s youngest billionaire at the age of 34.
Based on his official income, Putin also has a way to go to match the up to $2 billion that the Panama Papers tied to offshore companies held by Roldugin, reportedly a godfather to one of Putin’s daughters.
“He needs 17,000 years to earn as much as the cellist Roldugin did by busking in pedestrian underpasses,” Russian Twitter user Sergei Guryanov quipped. 

Sunday Road Rage? Video Shows Defrocked Russian Priest Brutally Assaulting Another Driver

The news website Gazeta.ru said the priest was named Aleksandr Cherneikin, who had been thrown out of the priesthood last year for unspecified commercial activities and calling for a schism in the church.


Never cross a priest in Novosibirsk, particularly a defrocked one.

Police in the Siberian city say they are investigating an apparent road-rage incident that was caught on video and appears to show a former priest brutally beating another driver.

The 42-second video, shot on the evening of April 10, circulated initially on the Russian social-networking site VKontakte, before being republished by the local affiliate of the state-run national broadcaster Vesti and other news sites.

In it, a man is shown bent over a waist-high fence, pinned from behind by two bearded men, one wearing a suit, the other wearing a large cross around his neck and black robes common to Russian Orthodox priests.

The video doesn't show what preceded the attack.

The priest, whom Vesti said had been defrocked about a year ago, uses his fists to pound the man's face and head.

"Who gave you permission to beat up a person?" the priest yells. "I will break your glasses. I will break everything, you bastard. We'll see who beat whom.

"I'll rip off your ears and shove them up your [expletive]," he says.

The news website Gazeta.ru said the priest was named Aleksandr Cherneikin, who had been thrown out of the priesthood last year for unspecified commercial activities and calling for a schism in the church.

The other attacker, who wears a business suit, was identified as the brother of the former priest.

The video was shot outside a major shopping center by a bystander who appears to call out "let him go, let him go" repeatedly.

According to Gazeta, the victim was a businessman named Vadim Maltsev who claimed the incident began when the car the former priest and his brother were in blocked a section of road and refused to move for what he said was several minutes.

Maltsev said he got out, knocked on the other car's window and, he said, politely asked them to move, but he was cursed at.

Maltsev was quoted as saying that he then took a screwdriver out of his pocket and threatened to puncture the tires of the other car, but the driver of the car -- the brother of the former priest -- got out of his car "using a few choice words that referred to my mother. I very much wanted him to apologize."

Maltsev then said he took the other driver's hat, threw it on the ground, and removed his glasses, grabbed the driver's ponytail and told him, "You have a cesspool for a mouth." At that point, Cherneikin got out of the car and began to attack him.

Maltsev said Cherneikin used his cross to beat him as well, though the bystander's video doesn't show that moment.

For his part, Cherneikin told the Novosibirsk website NGS Novosti that he was afraid his brother would be hurt by Maltsev wielding the screwdriver as a weapon.

"So to calm him down, I grabbed his collar, twisted his hands around, and pushed him onto the fence," Cherneikin was quoted as saying.

The Novosibirsk police told NGS Novosti that they took statements from all three men, and would be investigating.

There was no word if anyone was badly injured.

According to Gazeta, Cherneikin was thrown out of the Orthodox priesthood after being reprimanded for buying and selling jewelry and for calling for the establishment of a new Orthodox church in Novosibirsk independent of the national church.

Video Nagorno-Karabakh Witnesses Debut Of 'Kamikaze Drone'

Possible Israeli-Made 'Kamikaze' Drone Spotted Over Nagorno-Karabakhi
April 06, 2016
An RFE/RL camera in Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh captured what could be the first use of an Israeli-made "kamikaze" drone in combat on April 4. (RFE/RL Armenian Service cameraman Karen Chilingaryan)
WATCH: An RFE/RL camera in Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh captured what could be the first use of an Israeli-made "kamikaze" drone in combat on April 4.
Mike Eckel

For a glimpse into the future of drone warfare, look no further than the battlefields of the South Caucasus.

Formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles, drone technology has catapulted forward in recent years as countries see their versatility in everything from surveillance to precision strikes.

In the United States, President Barack Obama's administration has made the use of drones central to its campaign to target Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

And though U.S. drones are some of the better known in the world today -- think of the models known as the Reaper or Predator -- countries like Israel, Russia, and many others have also pushed hard into developing drones, both for their own military use and for export markets.

For drones geared for an offensive mission, most are outfitted with air-to-surface missiles, such as the U.S.-made Hellfire.

Earlier this week, over the battlefields over Nagorno-Karabakh, where an unresolved territorial dispute flared into open fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces, the newest advance in drone weaponry appears to have been deployed: The kamikaze drone.

Video footage by  Karen Chilingaryan of RFE/RL's Armenian Service on April 4 in the mountainous enclave captured the flight of a drone that military observers say is likely an Israeli-made Harop model. 

The footage shows the craft flying through the air, with a distinctive whine heard from many drones, and then diving behind the crest of a hill.

The Armenian Defense Ministry later announced that seven people were killed in what it said was an Azerbaijani drone attack on a bus carrying volunteers to the disputed region.

According to IHS Jane's Defense Weekly, the Harop is packed with a 15-kilogram explosive warhead and specifically designed for kamikaze missions.

Last year, Harop's manufacturer, Israel Aerospace Industries, announced it was flight-testing the model for an undisclosed customer. IHS Jane's said in a report posted on April 6 that that customer now appeared to be Azerbaijan.

A call to Israel Aerospace Industries' North American offices, in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., was not immediately returned on April 6.

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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