A newly recruited militia unit takes an oath of allegiance to the people of Crimea.
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Russia has deployed 10,000 troops to multiple locations along the Ukraine-Russia border, deepening fears that the simmering crisis in the Crimean peninsula is about to escalate into full-scale warfare. In London on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to broker a last-minute deal with Russia's foreign minister to ratchet down the crisis, but their talks "ended inconclusively," according to the New York Times. This weekend, voters in Crimea, an autonomous region of about 2 million in southeastern Ukraine, will vote on a referendum that would give citizens the option of asserting independence from Ukraine, or becoming part of Russia. (Remaining part of Ukraine isn't an option.) The United States and European Union leaders have called the referendum illegal; Russia backs it. If Crimea votes to join Russia—which the Obama administration expects it to do—Russia could then use the results as justification for using force in the region. On Friday, Kerry said that Russia should respect the results of the referendum without proceeding with "back-door annexation," which would bring international consequences. Here's what you need to know about the current state of play. Check back frequently, since we'll update this post as events unfold.
Western leaders are furious: On Thursday,GermanChancellorAngela Merkel publicly slammed Russia's actions, warning Russian President Vladimir Putin that if he continues intervening in Ukrainian affairs, "It will cause massive damage to Russia, both economically and politically." She also accused Russia of breaking international law by deploying troops and warned that "the territorial integrity of Ukraine is not up for discussion." President Obama also warned Russia that "if it continues on the path that it is on, [not] only us but the international community, the European Union and others will be forced to apply a cost to Russia's violations of international law." This week, a US Senate panel approved legislation that would impose strict sanctions—including freezing assets and denying visas—on Russians and anyone else involved in undermining Ukraine's sovereignty. Those sanctions could be enacted as early as Monday, if Crimea chooses to secede.
.@JohnKerry: We believe this referendum violates international law and is illegal under #Ukraine's constitution.
If Crimea joins Russia, it could take Ukrainian gas and oil reserves with it: Russian exports account for about one-third of Europe's gas consumption and those pipelines run smack through Ukraine. As Mother Jones' James West points out, "Russia has long been able to use Ukraine as an energy choke point." On Thursday, Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported that authorities in Crimea have been securing offshore gas and oil in the region. Crimean parliamentary speaker Vladimir Konstantinov reportedly said: "These deposits and the platform fully become the property of the Republic of Crimea…We have guarded them. These are our fields and we will fight for them."
Putin is cracking down on Russian press: Julia Ioffe reports in The New Republic:
What began just days before the Olympics with a Kremlin attack on Dozhd, the last independent television station in Russia, has now extended to Lenta.ru, arguably the best news site in Russia. On Wednesday, the site's editor-in-chief was fired and replaced with a Kremlin loyalist, and the whole staff quit in protest. Yesterday, the Kremlin went full-China on the Internet, the holy of holies of the Russian opposition. Using some flimsy legal pretexts, it banned access to various oppositional news sites, to the website of Moscow's biggest radio station, and to the blog of Alexey Navalny, who is currently under house arrest.
Russia maintains that it's not going to invade: Earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia is not planning to annex Crimea and he would leave it up to citizens in the region to determine their future. He also said force would only be used as "a last resort." As recently as Friday, Russian officials have maintained that an invasion is still off the table:
LONDON (AP) - Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov says Russia has no plans to invade southeastern Ukraine
But Western leaders aren't optimistic that Putin will back down from annexing Crimea, after the referendum vote. According to the New York Times, "As of Friday, there had been no sign that President Vladimir V. Putin was prepared to take the 'off ramp' that the Obama administration has repeatedly offered." Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov declared on Friday that Russia and the United States "have no common vision" about the crisis.
UPDATE, March 14, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT (Dana Liebelson): ThePentagon is sending 25,000 ready-to-eat meals to Ukraine, according to the Associated Press. Two US representatives have asked President Obama to put names of Russian officials responsible for human rights abuses on the Magnitsky list, a public list of Russians created in 2012 as part of the Magnitsky Act, to punish Russian officials who have committed human rights violations. Members of the list are prohibited from entering the US or using the US banking system.
UPDATE 2, March 14, 2014, 3:35 PM EDT (Hannah Levintova): Mimicking the language used to justify their invasion of Crimea, the Russian foreign ministry has issued a warning that they reserve the right to intervene in the city of Donetsk to protect lives after a series of clashes Thursday night led to at least one death and dozens of injuries.
Donetsk is a primarily Russian-speaking city in eastern Ukraine, not far from the Russian border. The clashes began yesterday after hundreds of demonstrators chanting Pro-Russian slogans broke through a police cordon and stormed a separate group protesting Russia's invasion of Crimea and calling for "a united Ukraine."
Here's video of the incident heating up:
UPDATE 3, March 14, 2014, 8:06 PM EDT (Eric Wuestewald): Another two people were reportedly killed and five injured during clashes in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv Friday. There have been conflicting reports over who was injured and who was responsible for the attack, but many are alleging armed pro-Russian groups or the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector may have provoked the attack.
Kharkiv is Ukraine's second largest city after Kiev, and historically, was the country's first Soviet capital. Like Donetsk, it's also close to the Russian border. As a result, large pro-Russian rallies have been common, which some are predicting could become a litmus test for the future direction of the country.
Update 4, March 15, 2014, 4:15 PM EDT (Dana Liebelson): 60 Russian troops in six helicopters have crossed into Ukraine, according to Ukrainian officials, taking control of the village of Strilkove and leading to the first reports of Russian invasion outside of Crimea. The New York Timesreports that troops also seized a gas plant and "the action was Russia’s most provocative since its forces took over Crimea two weeks ago." Ukraine's acting leader Oleksander Turchinov said: "The situation is very dangerous. I'm not exaggerating. There is a real danger from threats of invasion of Ukrainian territory. We will reconvene on Monday at 10am."
Update 5, March 15, 4:45 PM EDT (Hannah Levintova): Earlier today, 50,000 people took part in a "peace march" in Moscow against Russia's intervention in Crimea. Protestors marched waving both Russian and Ukrainian flags, and then gathered on the Prospect Sakharova, where massive anti-Putin rallies took place in 2012. Some protestors chanted: "The main enemy is the Kremlin. No to fascism, no to imperialism."
Here's a Russian-language newscast showing the march:
Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who stepped down from his post in February, wrote a statement today about the situation in Ukraine on Facebook. Here's an excerpt:
Putin's recent decisions represent a giant step backwards. Tragically, we are entering a new period with some important differences, but many similarities to the Cold War. The ideological struggle between autocracy and democracy is resurgent. Protection of European countries from Russian aggression is paramount again. Shoring up vulnerable states , including first and foremost Ukraine, must become a top priority again for the US and Europe. And doing business with Russian companies will once again become politicized. Most tragically, in seeking to isolate the Russian regime, many Russians with no connection to the government will also suffer the effects of isolation. My only hope is that this dark period will not last as long as the last Cold War.
Soon gun owners in the state of Georgia may be allowed to pack heat almost anywhere—including K-12 schools, bars, churches, government buildings, and airports. The "Safe Carry Protection Act" (HB 875) would also expand Georgia's Stand Your Ground statute, the controversial law made famous by the Trayvon Martin killing, which allows armed citizens to defend themselves with deadly force if they believe they are faced with serious physical harm.
The bill could pass as soon as next week, before the current legislative session ends March 20. It is the latest effort in the battle over gun laws that continues to rage in statehouses around the country. It is perhaps also the most extreme yet. "Of all the bills pending right now in state legislatures, this is the most sweeping and most dangerous," Laura Cutiletta, a staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told PolitiFact. Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun reform advocacy group founded by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords after she was shot in the head, has deemed it the "guns everywhere" bill. For its part, the National Rifle Association recently called HB 875 "the most comprehensive pro-gun reform legislation introduced in recent state history."
In addition to overturning current state laws and dramatically rolling back concealed-carry restrictions, HB 875 would loosen other gun regulations in the state. The law would:
Remove the fingerprinting requirement for gun license renewals
Prohibit the state from keeping a gun license database
Tighten the state's preemption statute, which restricts local governments from passing gun laws that conflict with state laws
Repeal the state licensing requirement for firearms dealers (requiring only a federal firearms license)
Expand gun owner rights in a declared state of emergency by prohibiting government authorities from seizing, registering, or otherwise limiting the carrying of guns in any way permitted by law before the emergency was declared
Limit the governor's emergency powers by repealing the ability to regulate the sale of firearms during a declared state of emergency
Lower the age to obtain a concealed-carry license from 21 to 18 for active-duty military and honorably discharged veterans who've completed basic training
Prohibit detaining someone for the sole purpose of checking whether they have a gun license
The sweeping bill would also expand the state's Stand your Ground law into an "absolute" defense for the use of deadly force in self-protection. "Defense of self or others," the bills reads "shall be an absolute defense to any violation under this part." In its current wording, the bill would even allow individuals who possess a gun illegally—convicted felons, for example—to still claim a Stand Your Ground defense.
For the past week, reports of physical violence have been rolling out of Ukraine: Russian troops storming a base in Crimea, officers beating journalists, and violent brawlsat rallies. But as tensions escalate, another part of the conflict appears to be playing out in a cloudier realm: cyberspace.
On Saturday, Ukraine's top security agency—the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine—announced at a briefing that it had been hit by severe denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, "apparently aimed at hindering a response to the challenges faced by our state." This comes on the heels of a number of alleged hacks involving Russian and Ukrainian targets, including attacks on news outlets and blocking reception tothe cellphones of Ukrainian parliament members.
Security experts say the region is currently seeing an unusually high number of DDoS attacks, which aim to shut down networks, usually by overwhelming them with traffic. But many of those seem to be coming from third parties, rather than government entities. In terms of state-sponsored cyberwarfare, "we haven't seen that much," says Dmitri Alperovitch, CTO of CrowdStrike, a California-based cybersecurity firm.Alperovitch adds, though, that his firm has seen a significant amount of cyber-espionage on the part of the Russian intelligence services—including tracking the activities of Putin opponents in both Russia and Ukraine—but he would not disclose names of those being monitored.
Ukraine is situated in a region of the world known for breeding some of the most talented cyber criminals. Several Russian universities offer top-notch hacking training, and a Ukrainian hacker is suspected in December's theft of 40 million credit card numbers from Target. But Ukraine and Russia aren't on equal footing when it comes to their cyberwarfare capabilities. "Russia is a Tier 1 cyber power," says Alperovitch. "Ukraine isn't even in Tier 3." So Russia has a leg up in this arena—and, during past conflicts with former Soviet bloc countries, it has flexed its cyberwarfare muscles. In April 2007, hackers unleashed a wave of cyberattacks on Estonian government agencies, banks, businesses, newspapers, and political parties, following a spat over the removal of a Soviet war memorial in Tallin, the country's capital. (The Kremlin took only partial credit for the crippling three-week attack.) Georgia was targeted with similar attacks in 2008 in the days leading up to its invasion of the secessionist republic of South Ossetia. (Russian involvement was widelysuspected.)
Ukraine has yet be targeted with these type of widespread cyberassaults on key infrastructure—but it may not be long. "I anticipate continued escalation," says Jason Healey, director of the Atlantic Council's Cyber Statecraft Initiative and the former White House director of cyber infrastructure protection during the Bush administration. So far, the cyberskirmish is playing out differently than past attacks, Healey says. While the Estonia and Georgia attacks were strictly digital, in Ukraine's case, pro-Moscow forces have also deployed more hands-on attacks on information: "This old-school, Cold War style physical manipulation of equipment. Getting in and physically messing with the switches so Ukrainian civic leaders don't have phone service," Healey says. In Ukraine, these sorts of attacks are likely to be a bigger threat, because much of the telecommunications infrastructure was installed by Russians during the Soviet era. "Cyberattacks the way we tend to look at them—denial-of-service attacks, and so forth—you don't have to do those when you've got physical access to the guy's switch!" says Healey.
Many a theory has been offered about how the situation in Ukraine has escalated to this point. On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel wondered if Russian President Vladimir Putin was "in touch with reality." Her point was bolstered by his rambling Tuesday press conference, during which Putin implied—among other things—that this whole thing was the United States' fault and that the troops on the ground weren't Russian soldiers but well-outfitted, trained military imposters. "If I do decide to use armed forces," he said, "this will be in full compliance with international law." President Barack Obama offered his take, saying that "President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations, but I don't think that's fooling anybody." Obama added, "There is a strong belief that Russia's action is violating international law."
The thing is, Putin actually loves international law—at least, in theory. The Russian president has expressed strong support for international law many times, but, no surprise, it usually comes when he's singling out the United States as a violator. In recent months and years, Putin has repeatedly assured the public that what's happening in Crimea right now—the use of force without UN permission and potential violations of the 1994 Budapest memorandum—would never happen on his watch. So in case a reminder might be useful—as diplomatic efforts are underway to de-escalate the crisis—below is a partial timeline of Putin's many vows to abide by international law and not resort to the unilateral use of force to resolve a crisis.
1)December 19, 2013:About a month after protesters first occupied the Maidan in Kiev, Putin held his annual end-of-yearpress conference in Moscow and got several questions on Ukraine. One reporter reminded Putin of Russian interventions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and then asked, "Is a situation possible, even hypothetically, in which you will similarly protect the interests of Russian-speaking residents or Russian citizens of Crimea?…Is the deployment of Russian troops to Ukraine at all possible?"
Putin's answer was a definitive no: "None of what is happening in Crimea is like what occurred in South Ossetia and Abkhazia." He noted that Russia interfered in these other spots only because the ethnic conflicts in these regions had placed Russian citizens in the area at risk. "We care about the situation of our compatriots…But this does not mean that we're going to swing sabers and bring in troops. That is absolute nonsense. Nothing of the sort is or will be happening."
In November, Milenko Kuljic left Bileca, his rundown town in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for Sochi. He was lured by a recruiter who promised he'd make about 2,000 euros ($2,700) a month building infrastructure for Sochi's Winter Olympics.
Kuljic says he began working for a major construction company overseeing work at some of the Games' most iconic venues, where he says he never got anywhere near the amount of money he was promised. Instead over two months of working, he says he was only given the equivalent of about $1,000 for basic living expenses. living in a dormitory with pay-to-use showers, sharing four toilets with some 200 other workers. All the while, he says his employers promised to eventually pay him in full.
At the end of the two months, he was suddenly arrested, detained for a week, and then flown home with 122 other workers from the Balkans on a flight chartered by the Serbian government.
Hundreds of other guest workers from all around the world feared a similar fate, and fled Sochi without pay to avoid arrest, and the arguably worse punishment it would bring: a five-year ban on returning to Russia as a guest worker.
It was Kuljic's second time seeking work in Russia. The first time, he says no one cared about workers, like him, who lacked official work permits: "I suspect that they told the authorities about us so that they wouldn't have to pay the money they promised."
Kuljic's experience is far from unique. Of the approximately 96,000 workers who helped build Sochi's Olympic buildings, parks, and infrastructure, about 16,000 were migrant workers, according to Human Rights Watch. Most hailed from former Soviet countries, primarily Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, as well as from communities—like Kuljic's in Bosnia—where families rely on money sent by workers abroad.
For years, such workers put up with rampant xenophobia and exploitative conditions—overcrowded housing, paltry and unsavory food—in pursuit of a decent wage in Russia. But this fall, with just six months left until the games, thousands of migrants were rounded up and deported. In October alone, according to Russia's Federal Migration Service (FMS), more than 3,000 workers were expelled from the Krasnodar region, which includes Sochi.
Migrants to Russia face routine discrimination, as nationalists blame them for taking work from employable Russians. Polls have shown that two-thirds of Russians believe immigrants are prone to crime, and, whether or not they came legally or illegally, want to reduce their numbers in the country.
As non-Russian workers flooded Sochi, such anti-immigrant sentiment escalated—and was encouraged at the highest levels of government.
"It would be very easy for people of other nations to take over this land," Alexander Tkachev, the governor of the Krasnodar region, declared in August of 2012. "We have no other choice: we will squeeze them out, restore order, ask for documents…so that those who are trying to come here on illegal business understand that maybe it's better they don't come."