Posts Tagged ‘Putin’

Putin’s visit to breakaway Georgian region ‘inappropriate’: U.S

August 10, 2017


AUGUST 9, 2017 / 5:51 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit this week to the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia was “inappropriate,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement on Wednesday.

Putin made the visit to Abkhazia on Tuesday and assured it of Moscow’s military support, an act of defiance to Western governments that have condemned Russia’s backing for separatists.

Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; editing by Grant McCool

Tillerson says can settle problems with Russia, avoid damaging ties

August 7, 2017


AUGUST 6, 2017 / 11:15 PM

MANILA (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday said the United States wants to work with Russia and it was pointless to cut off ties over their disagreements.

Discussing a meeting he held on Sunday with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Tillerson told reporters that Russia had indicated “some willingness” to talk and find ways to move forward on the thorny issue of the Ukraine.

He said he saw U.S.-Russia relations pragmatically and believed problems could be addressed, and stressed to Lavrov that Russia needed to understand that meddling in elections was a very serious issue.

Reporting by Karen Lema; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Michael Perry


Rex Tillerson meets for ‘lengthy’ talks with Russia’s Sergey Lavrov amid diplomatic crisis

Russia has removed some 750 American diplomats from their positions

By Emily Shugerman New York

The Independent

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says he has engaged in “lengthy” talks with the US Secretary of State, and feels the US is ready to continue dialogue with Russia.

Mr Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Manila. It was the first conversation between the two men since the US imposed sanctions on Russia last week.

Mr Lavrov said Mr Tillerson was chiefly interested in the reduction of some 750 American diplomatic positions in Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the move was a response to the US sanctions, and to former President Barack Obama’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the US earlier this year.

“I decided that it is time for us to show that we will not leave anything unanswered,” Mr Putin said in a Russian state media interview.



There has been confusion, however, over whether the US diplomats would be expelled from Russia, or simply removed from their positions.

“We provided an explanation,” Mr Lavrov said, but did not disclose details.

The US Congress overwhelmingly voted to imposed sanctions on Russia in retaliation for the country’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election.

Three US intelligence agencies have accused Moscow of releasing damaging information on Hillary Clinton and spreading false reports via social media in an attempt to bolster Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Federal investigators are also looking into whether Mr Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government in this effort.

Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare!

Mr Trump signed his country’s sanctions into law begrudgingly last week, under intense pressure from legislators. In a statement, Mr Trump called the sanctions “seriously flawed,” and said he would only sign the bill for the sake of national unity.

The President, who has repeatedly pushed for better relations with Moscow, wrote: “We hope there will be cooperation between our two countries on major global issues so that these sanctions will no longer be necessary.”

Later, Mr Trump declared US relations with Russia were at an “all-time low”.

Russia “fully shares” Trump’s view that relations are in dangerous condition after sanctions law passed, Kremlin spokesman told press today.

Mr Lavrov, recalling his discussions with Mr Tillerson, said he felt that the Americans “need to keep the dialogue open,” and added: “There’s no alternative to that.”

Mr Tillerson did not comment on the discussions.’

Mr Lavrov said the two men also discussed sending special representative Kurt Volker, the US envoy to Ukraine, on a visit to Moscow. Mr Volker travelled to Ukraine last month to assess the conflict between government forces and pro-Russian separatists. The conflict is seen as a major obstacle to improved US-Russia relations in the US.

Mr Lavrov did not specify when Mr Volker would visit.

Mr Tillerson and Mr Lavrov also reportedly discussed the nuclear situation in North Korea, and how the US and Russia could withstand attacks.

They agreed that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and US Under Secretary Thomas A Shannon would continue the discussion.

Russia: Pence Balkans Comments Expose Washington’s Cold War Ideology

August 3, 2017

MOSCOW — Accusations made by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence that Russia is working to divide the Balkans from the West are destabilizing southern Europe and expose Washington’s Cold War mentality, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.

Pence made the comments on Wednesday in Montenegro on the final leg of a tour designed to reassure Eastern Europe of Washington’s commitment to its security despite doubts sowed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s lukewarm support for NATO.

“It is regrettable to note that Washington is sliding ever deeper into the primitive ideology of the Cold War era, which is completely detached from reality,” the ministry said.

It had called on the United States to stop defaming Russia and its foreign policy, which it said was based on respect for allies and a readiness to work with international partners, the ministry said in a statement.

Trump signed into law new sanctions against Russia on Wednesday, a move Moscow said amounted to a full-scale trade war and an end to hopes for better ties with the new U.S. administration.

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Rosneft CEO: U.S. Sanctions Will Backfire, Hurt U.S. Energy Majors

August 3, 2017

NIZHNEBUREISKY, Russia — New U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia will have negative consequences for the United States and backfire on U.S. energy majors, Igor Sechin, chief executive officer of Russia’s largest oil producer Rosneft, said on Thursday.

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Igor Sechin, chief executive officer of Russia’s largest oil producer Rosneft speaking to Vladimir Putin

U.S. President Donald Trump grudgingly signed into law new sanctions against Russia on Wednesday, a move Moscow said amounted to a full-scale trade war and an end to hopes for better ties with the Trump administration.

“The sanctions are beginning to backfire on those who are introducing them, which is positive,” Sechin told reporters.

“The powers of the U.S. president are limited, and sometimes it seems to me that sanctions are imposed on him, not us.”

Sechin said in this situation he saw positive consequences for Rosneft. “As for the negative consequences, as I said, they (the U.S. sanctions) are starting to work against our American partners. As for the positive ones, you will learn about them in the next four weeks,” he said, without elaborating.

(Reporting by Polina Nikolskaya; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Maria Kiselyova)

U.S. Says ‘Grave’ Consequences if Syria’s Al Qaeda Dominates Idlib Province

August 3, 2017

AMMAN — The United States warned a takeover of rebel-held northwestern Idlib province by Syrian jihadists linked to a former al Qaeda affiliate would have grave consequences and make it difficult to dissuade Russia from renewing bombing that recently stopped.

In an online letter posted late on Wednesday, the top State Department official in charge of Syria policy, Michael Ratney, said the recent offensive by Hayat Tahrir al Sham, spearheaded by former al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front, had cemented its grip on the province and put “the future of northern Syria in big danger”.

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Civil defence team members extinguish a fire after an airstrike hit Idlib, Syria on 27 April 2017 [Bilal Baioush/Anadolu Agency]

“The north of Syria witnessed one of its biggest tragedies,” said Ratney who was behind secret talks in Amman with Moscow over the ceasefire in southwest Syria announced by U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in July. It was the first such U.S.-Russian effort under the Trump administration to end Syria’s civil war.

“In the event of the hegemony of Nusra Front on Idlib, it would be difficult for the United States to convince the international parties not to take the necessary military measures,” the top State Department diplomat said.

Mainly Islamist rebels swept through Idlib province in 2015, inflicting a string of defeats on the Syrian army until Russia stepped in to reverse the tide of the civil war in favour of President Bashar al Assad.

Idlib province, the only Syrian province that is entirely under rebel control, has been a major target of Russian and Syrian aerial strikes that caused hundreds of civilians casualties.

The agricultural region had a respite since a Russian-Turkish brokered accord reached last May approved four de-escalation zones across Syria, among them one in Idlib province.

Many locals fear the jihadists’ hold on Idlib will again make the province a target of relentless attacks by Russian and Syrian forces and turn it into another devastated Aleppo or Mosul.

More than two million people live in Idlib, which has become an overcrowded refuge for many of the displaced, including rebel fighters and their families.

Fighters from the former Jabhat al-Nusra -- since renamed and part of the group in control of Idlib -- pictured in Aleppo in 2016.


“Everyone should know that Jolani and his gang are the ones who bear responsibility for the grave consequences that will befall Idlib,” said Ratney, referring to former Nusra head Abu Mohammad al Jolani who effectively leads Hayat Tahrir al Sham.

In less than three days Jolani’s fighters overran their powerful rival, the more mainstream Ahrar al Sham group, seizing control of a strategic border strip with Turkey in some of the heaviest inter-rebel fighting since the start of the conflict.

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An emboldened Hayat Tahrir al Sham has sought to allay fears it did not seek to dominate the whole province but suspicions run high among many in the region about their ultimate goals to monopolise power.

The jihadists have linked up with Western-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) groups who continue to maintain a foothold in several towns in the province. The south of the region is still in the hands of rival groups, including Ahrar al Sham but the jihadists have been trying to extend their control.

Ratney told rebel groups, who have been forced to work with the jihadists out of expediency or for self preservation, to steer away from the group before it was “too late.”

He said Washington would consider any organisation in Idlib province that was a front for the militants a part of al Qaeda’s network.

The expanding influence of the former al Qaeda has triggered civilian protests across towns in the province with some calling for the group to leave towns and not interfere in how they are run.

Nusra and its leaders would remain a target of Washington even if they adopted new names in an attempt to deny Washington and other powers a pretext to attack them, the U.S. official said.

The jihadist sweep across Idlib province has raised concerns that the closure of some crossing points on the border with Turkey could choke off the flow of aid and essential goods.

Washington remained committed to delivering aid in channels that avoided them falling into the hands of the hardline jihadists, Ratney said echoing similar concerns by NGO’s and aid bodies after their recent gains.

The main border crossing of Bab al Hawa with Turkey which the al Qaeda fighters threatened to take over has however been re-opened with a resumption of aid and goods to the province that has relieved many people.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Andrew Hay)

Russian losses in Syria jump in 2017

August 2, 2017

By Maria Tsvetkova

AUGUST 2, 2017 / 2:08 AM


BELORECHENSK, Russia (Reuters) – Ten Russian servicemen have been killed fighting in Syria so far this year, according to statements from the Defence Ministry.

But based on accounts from families and friends of the dead and local officials, Reuters estimates the actual death toll among Russian soldiers and private contractors was at least 40.

That tally over seven months exceeds the 36 Russian armed personnel and contractors estimated by Reuters to have been killed in Syria over the previous 15 months, indicating a significant rise in the rate of battlefield losses as the country’s involvement deepens. (For a graphic on Russian casualties in Syria’s conflict click

Most of the deaths reported by Reuters have been confirmed by more than one person, including those who knew the deceased or local officials. In nine cases, Reuters corroborated a death reported in local or social media with another source.

The data may be on the conservative side, as commanders encourage the families of those killed to keep quiet, relatives and friends of several fallen soldiers, both servicemen and contractors, said on condition of anonymity.

The true level of casualties in the Syrian conflict is a sensitive subject in a country where positive coverage of the conflict features prominently in the media and ahead of a presidential election next year that incumbent Vladimir Putin is expected to win.

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A portrait of Russian private military contractor Yevgeni Chuprunov is seen at his grave in Novomoskovsk, in Tula region, Russia June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Maria Tsvetkova REUTERS

The scale of Russian military casualties in peace time has been a state secret since Putin issued a decree three months before Russia launched its operation in Syria. While Russia does not give total casualties, it does disclose some deaths.

Discrepancies in data may be explained partly by the fact that Russia does not openly acknowledge that private contractors fight alongside the army; their presence in Syria would appear to flout a legal ban on civilians fighting abroad as mercenaries.

Asked about Reuters’ latest findings, the Defence Ministry and Kremlin did not respond.

The government has previously denied understating casualty figures in Syria, where Moscow entered the conflict nearly two years ago in support of President Bashar al-Assad, one of its closest Middle East allies.

Months after soldiers die, Russia quietly acknowledges some losses, including private military contractors. Their families get state posthumous medals and local authorities sometimes name schools, which fallen soldiers attended as children, after them.

Of the 40 killed, Reuters has evidence that 21 were private contractors and 17 soldiers. The status of the remaining two people is unclear.

Mission Creep?

Little is known about the nature of operations in Syria involving Russian nationals. Russia initially focused on providing air support to Syrian forces, but the rate of casualties points to more ground intervention.

The last time Russia lost airmen in Syria was in August, 2016, and it suffered its first serious casualties on the ground this year in January, when six private military contractors died in one day.

Reuters has previously reported gaps between its casualty estimates and official figures, although the difference widened markedly this year.

Russian authorities disclosed that 23 servicemen were killed in Syria over 15 months in 2015-2016, whereas Reuters calculated the death toll at 36, a figure that included private contractors.

In It for the Money?

One private contractor whose death in Syria was not officially acknowledged was 40-year-old Alexander Promogaibo, from the southern Russian town of Belorechensk. He died in Syria on April 25, his childhood friend Artur Marobyan told Reuters.

Promogaibo had earlier fought in the Chechen war with an elite Russian paratroops unit, according to Marobyan, who was his classmate at school.

He said his dead friend had struggled to get by while working as a guard in his hometown and needed money to build a house to live with his wife and small daughter.

The grave of Russian special forces officer Maxim Sorochenko killed in Syria in November 2015, is seen at a cemetery outside Moscow, Russia, December 27, 2016. 2016.Maria Tsvetkova

Last year he decided to join private military contractors working closely with the Russian Defence ministry in Syria and was promised a monthly wage of 360,000 rubles ($6,000), about nine times higher than the average Russian salary.

According to multiple sources, Russian private military contractors are secretly deployed in Syria under command of a man nicknamed Wagner.

Private military companies officially don’t exist in Russia. Reuters was unable to get in touch with commanders of Russian private contractors in Syria through people who know them.

“I told him it was dangerous and he wouldn’t be paid the money for doing nothing, but couldn’t convince him,” Marobyan said, recalling one of his last conversations with Promogaibo.

According to Marobyan, he got the job offer at a military facility belonging to Russia’s military intelligence agency (GRU) near the village of Molkino. The agency is a part of the defense ministry and does not have its own spokesperson.

The Kremlin did not reply to requests for comment.

Promogaibo went there for physical fitness tests and failed twice. He was accepted only after showing up for the third time having losing 55 kg after seven months of training.

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“He left (Russia) in February,” said Marobyan, who only learnt that his friend had been killed in Syria when his body was delivered to his hometown in early May.

One more person who knew Promogaibo said he died in Syria.

Reuters was unable to find out where in Syria Promogaibo was killed.

Igor Strelkov, former leader of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine who stayed in touch with Russian volunteers who switched to battlefields in Syria, said in late May that military contractors from Russia recently fought near the Syrian town of Homs alongside Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Gravestones Covered Up

Fifty-one-year-old Russian Gennady Perfilyev, a lieutenant colonel, was deployed in Syria as a military adviser. He was killed in shelling during a reconnaissance trip on April 8, his former classmates at Chelyabinsk Higher Tank Command School said.

“Several grammes of metal hit his heart,” Pavel Bykov, one of his classmates, told Reuters.

One more classmate confirmed to Reuters Perfilyev was killed in Syria on a reconnaissance trip.

His name has not appeared in the Defence Ministry’s official notices of military deaths in Syria.

He was buried at a new heavily guarded military cemetery outside Moscow where visitors have to show their passports and are asked at the entrance whose grave they want to visit.

On Perfilyev’s gravestone, his name and the date of his death are covered by his portrait.

Several other servicemen killed in Syria and buried nearby also have photos obscuring their names and the dates of their death, which if visible would make it easier to trace how and where they died.

Names on other graves, of non-Syrian casualties, were visible.

Asked if this was a special secrecy measure, a cemetery official, Andrei Sosnovsky, said the names were covered up temporarily until proper monuments could be built.

Additional reporting by Natalya Shurmina in Yekaterinburg, Russia; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Mike Collett-White


How Many Russian Soldiers Have Died in Syria?

‘Officially’ only 11, but there are likely many more.

Since Russia began its bombing campaign in Syria on September 30, 2015, at least 12 Russian soldiers have been confirmed by the Russia Defense Ministry as killed, but independent journalists and bloggers have documented several more deaths and discovered reports of dozens more killed but not acknowledged by the government.

Unlike the war in Ukraine, where the Kremlin pretends it is only local separatists who die in combat despite hundreds of Russian soldiers reportedly killed there, in Syria, deaths are admitted and soldiers celebrated as heroes, given posthumous awards.

But the Kremlin is careful to describe the circumstances of their deaths as not in combat per se—since officially, there are no Russian boots on the ground. Instead, they are portrayed as heroically sacrificing their lives as they guard convoys of humanitarian aid, guide strikes by the Syrian Air Force, or “negotiate” among various factions through the Russian-created Center for the Reconciliation of Hostile Parties.

The following is a list of Russian soldiers confirmed as having died in Syria; one reported to have committed suicide, nine killed “while performing military assignments” and two in a helicopter crash.

1. Vadim Kostenko, a contractor in the 960th Close Air Support Regiment, reported to have committed suicide on the Hmeemeem air base on October 24, 2015. Officials claimed he was despondent over a break-up with a girlfriend, but his family, who talked to him frequently, including on the day he died, denied this explanation. An unnamed friend of Kostenko’s told investigative blogger Ruslan Leviev of the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT)that smoke had been seen at the base the night before Kostenko died and that up to nine other soldiers had died in the same incident.

2. In November 2015, Fyodor Zhuravlyov, a spetsnaz (Russian Special Forces) officer reported by CIT to have served in Russian military intelligence (GRU) as late as the summer of 2014, was involved in “guidance of high-precision weapons of the strategic air force,” according to a “highly-placed source in the Defense Ministry.” On March 17, 2016, President Vladimir Putin met with four soldiers’ widows; Yuliya Zhuravlyova, the widow of Fyodor was among them.

3. On November 24, Oleg Peshkov, pilot of the Su-24M shot down by a Turkish fighter jet, was killed after he ejected from the plane. His body was found riddled with 8 bullets. His widow was among those who met with Putin in March 2016.

4. That same day, Aleksandr Pozynich, a marine, was killed during the operation to rescue Peshkov’s co-pilot.

5. In February 2016, military advisor Ivan Cheremisin was wounded when a Syrian training center was attacked, and subsequently died. Video released by the Free Syrian Army at the time indicated that a gathering of uniformed personnel in the western Latakia province had been targeted with a US-made TOW missile. Cheremisin is likely to have been one of those killed in this attack.

6. In March 17, 2017, Aleksandr Prokhorenko, a spetsnaz lieutenant, was killed in the Palmyra region. Russian military officials acknowledged an officer was killed during the effort to re-take Palmyra, but at first did not report his name. Kurdish fighters said they negotiated with ISIS to return his body to the Russian military. His body was brought home to Russia April 29, 2016 and he was given honors posthumously by President Putin. Prokhorenko was said to have been surrounded by militants when he was guiding Russian air strikes near the town of Tadmor. The Defense Ministry said he directed an air strike upon himself to protect his comrades. However video of Prokhorenko’s body and equipment that was released by ISIS suggests a rather less kinetic death.

7. In April, Andrei Okladnikov was killed in a helicopter crash reportedly over rebel territory outside of Homs; Russian military officials said the helicopter was not shot down.

8. Viktor Pankov was killed in the same helicopter accident.

9. Anton Yergyn, who was accompanying vehicles from the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Hostile Parties, was wounded when the convoy came under fire by militants. He was posthumously given an award.

10. On June 15, Andrei Timoshenkov was wounded in Homs while guarding humanitarian convoy of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Hostile Parties in Syria. He subsequently died of his injuries. He was said to have prevented a suicide bomber from driving a car full of explosives into an area where civilians were receiving humanitarian aid.

11. On June 16, Mikhail Shirokopoyas, an artillerist, 35, from the village of Seryshevo was killed. Reports appeared in the local press of his death in Syria, but then were removed. Later national media reported that the Russian Defense Ministry had confirmed his death.

In addition to these 11 confirmed deaths, independent media and bloggers have found a number of others killed in Syria.

Vadim Tumakov, a contractor from Orenberg said to be from the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops died “under unknown circumstances.” Vasily Panchenkov, head of the press office of the Interior Troops said Tumakov had served in the forces as a cook and a supply officer for the Vityaz [“Knight”] spetznaz unit from 2002-2004. After serving his term, he was discharged and there is no other record of his service.

But local news site Or enday said that one Vadim Tumakov from the Sol-Ilets City District was killed in battle “liberating Syria from ISIL terrorists,” the second native of Orenberg to die there (the first was Aleksandr Prokhorenko).

In March, the St. Petersburg news site published an article on mercenaries in Russia’s Wars, claiming Russia’s losses of soldiers in Syria “numbered in the dozens.” The piece, authored by former police officer and security consultant Denis Korotkov, followed up on a number of past stories published in Fontanka on mercenaries in the Slavonic Corps, a private military contractor set up in 2013. Many Slavonic Corps fighters later joined another PMC called “Wagner,” named for the nom de guerre of a colorful figure who espoused the ideology of the Third Reich and who fought in Ukraine as well as Syria.

A number of Wagner contractors who had fought in east Ukraine transferred to Syria, Fontanka reported last year. Korotkov was able to find details for three contractors killed in Syria, although he believes there are many more.

These fighters’ deaths were not announced by the Russian Ministry of Defense because they were not formally part of the armed forces, although Korotkov discovered that some of them received medals. President Vladimir Putin had issued secret decrees to give awards posthumously to these military contractors killed in Syria in battle.

Sergei Chupov, 51, a major in the reserves whose nom de guerre was “Chub” or “Chupa” was the deputy commander for combat preparation. He was killed outside of Damascus. The CIT and the RBC news service also reported his death.

Chupov had served in Afghanistan and two wars in Chechnya in the army and was transferred to the 46th brigade of the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops, before resigning. He then came back to fight in Syria, although his widow and Kremlin spokesmen have denied that he was there.

CIT thought he had returned possibly as an officer of the Special Operations Services or a “negotiator” or was even redeployed in the Armed Forces. But Korotkov says he joined Wagner in May 2014 and moved to Rostov and then the village of Vesyoly, where Wagner had a training base to prepare Russian fighters for the war in Ukraine (the base was moved later to Molkino in Krasnodar Territory).

Chupov was killed on February 8, 2016, according to his gravestone, but there are some reports that in fact he was killed in January. A source told Korotkov that a grey-haired older man in a leather officers’ jacket, an FSB officer with at least the rank of major general, had come to Molkino to hand out medals, some of them posthumous. Fontanka said they did not believe the story at first, but then they obtained documents that confirmed the awards—posthumous award cards with Putin’s signature.

Maksim Kolganov, 38, a Don Cossack from the village of Zhigulyovskaya, was killed February 3, 2016 “while performing a combat assignment,” a local Cossacks’ Internet forum said.

Kolganov, too, was employed by Wagner, as far as Fontanka could determine, and served as a BMP (infantry fighting vehicle) gunner and operator near Latakia. His army buddies supplied photographs of him in Latakia.

Another mercenary who went by the call sign Shlang [“Hose”] who real name is not known, believed to be among Wagner fighters in a picture in Ukraine’s Donetsk region with other militants, was killed later in mid-December 2015. He and a group of 7 others were returning from a reconnaissance mission when he set off an anti-personnel mine.

Of the 93 men sent to Syria, only a third returned safe and sound in December 2015, say Korotkov’s sources. They did not come up with any other names beyond the three, however, and explained that it was difficult to document the deaths, which mainly occurred in January and February in the battles for Palmyra, because even those serving in the same platoon did not always know each others real names.

“Curiosity is not welcome,” said one source.

Thomas Grove, a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal who interviewed Korotkov, pointed out that Korotkov has been the only journalist to write on Wagner or (OSM as it is formally called); no members of Wagner itself would speak to Grove. But he also found three other sources that reported that “eight or nine” contractors from Wagner were killed in October 2015 when a mortar round hit their base in Western Syria.

One source was an official described as “close to the Russian Defense Ministry” who said Wagner had numbered 1,000 men who were supplied with T-90 tanks and howitzers. Another source was Ivan Konovalov, director of a Moscow-based security think tank and consultant to lawmakers who are trying to legalize military contractors, which currently operate in a legal grey zone. Konovalov and the official said the contractors killed were originally members of Slavonic Corps, which had previously served in Syria and was disbanded, but then returned to Syria with Wagner.

In May 2015, Putin passed a decree making it a criminal offense to divulge information about the deaths of Russian military abroad; despite a legal case filed by independent lawyers and journalists against the measure, it was upheld by the Russian Constitutional Court. Even before that, reporters, bloggers and activists who tried to track down social media reports of deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine were threatened or beaten. The soldiers’ relatives were warned they could lose death benefits if they talked to the media. These reprisals put a chill over media coverage of war casualties.

The Kremlin has been more forthcoming about deaths in Syria, but that’s because Russia’s air force presence in Syria is officially acknowledged, as is the bombing ostensibly of ISIS strongholds—which has in fact involved decimating forces in opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The deaths and posthumous award ceremonies are even part of the Kremlin’s patriotic propaganda fueling the war.

But the murky world of mercenaries cannot be acknowledged by the Russian military as long as such contractors are illegal. And Russia would likely prefer to keep it this way to have as much “plausible deniability” as possible in Syria.

Fragile Economy Restricts Putin’s Options in Stand-Off With U.S.

August 1, 2017

MOSCOW — Russian leader Vladimir Putin is unlikely to risk an escalating round of tit-for-tat sanctions with Washington because the only measures that would hurt the United States would also endanger Russia’s fragile economic recovery.

Russia last week ordered Washington to cut 755 of its 1,200 embassy and consular staff and said it was seizing two diplomatic properties, after U.S. lawmakers backed a new round of economic sanctions on Moscow.

Though an eye-catching gesture, Russia’s response does not pack the same punch as the U.S. penalties, which target Russian energy projects, make it harder for U.S. President Donald Trump to ease earlier sanctions, and could further restrict lending to Russia.

That partly reflects the fact that Russia has relatively few ways of hurting the United States, whose economy is around 14 times larger than Russia’s.

It also reflects worries in the Kremlin about the health of the economy ahead of a presidential election in March.

In 2014, when the United States and European Union imposed an earlier round of sanctions over Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine, the Kremlin’s main response was to limit Western food imports, a comparatively soft measure.

“It was a case of the head overruling the heart and I expect exactly the same response this time,” said Chris Weafer, senior partner at Macro-Advisory consultancy in Moscow. “Something which will cause some discomfort for the U.S. but which will not derail the Kremlin’s efforts to attract international investors and grow the economy.”

Weafer said Putin would probably take further retaliatory steps against Washington after Trump signs the new sanctions into law but he did not think the Kremlin would target U.S. firms with close ties to Russia.

Putin has not said whether he will fun for a fourth presidential term in 2018, but officials expect him to do so.

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Whereas Putin oversaw several years of growth above 5 percent in his early presidential terms, the Russian economy contracted in 2015 and 2016 and is seen growing only 1.4 percent this year.

Putin needs a strong economy if he is to win a convincing mandate, and the Kremlin has tried to show that Russia is open for foreign business despite tensions with the West.

Domestic Russian investors have only cautiously increased investment as the economy has recovered from recession, making foreign inflows more important.

An adviser to Putin, ex-finance minister Alexei Kudrin, told Reuters last week that domestic investors needed certainty that sanctions would not continue to be ratcheted up, otherwise the economic outlook would be weak.


Putin said in an interview aired on state TV on Sunday that Russia could restrict cooperation with Washington in “areas which would be sensitive to the American side” but he did not think that was yet necessary.

“That would not only hurt Russian-American relations, it would also inflict some damage on us,” Putin said.

Analysts cite energy and aviation as two sectors where Russia and the United States work closely and where Russian penalties could affect U.S. firms.

U.S. energy giant ExxonMobil is a partner of Russian oil firm Rosneft in the Sakhalin 1 project off Russia’s far east coast and has agreed to team up with Rosneft in North America and Mozambique.

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Russia’s VSMPO-Avisma, the world’s largest titanium producer, supplies up to 40 percent of U.S. planemaker Boeing’s titanium under long-term contracts, and the two firms have a joint venture in Russia.

In both cases, however, Putin is unlikely to bow to pressure from hawks in his administration and sever business ties.

Russia wants access to the technological know-how of firms like Exxon to help it maintain production of oil, its chief export, close to post-Soviet highs. It is also trying to revive its domestic aviation industry, which Boeing can help.

“What foreign investment does is that it not only brings money, it brings intangible benefits in terms of better management, knowledge, transfers of technology and that helps to raise productivity and living standards,” said William Jackson, senior emerging market economist at Capital Economics.

Putin, who built his high approval ratings on the rapid rise in Russians’ living standards during his first two terms, will be conscious of this when deciding on any further retaliation.

“So far Putin has been a lot more measured in his response than the demands of the nationalists,” Weafer said.

For all his power, Putin “sleeps with one eye on the voters”, Weafer added.

(Additional reporting by Natalia Shurmina and Elena Fabrichnaya; editing by Giles Elgood)

China, Russia Demonstrate Global Military Might

August 1, 2017

 The huge display of military hardware also featured 12,000 troops. Photo: Xinhua

Russia expulsions won’t deter US ‘commitment to allies’: Pence

July 31, 2017


© GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File | US Vice President Mike Pence (right) has reassured the Baltic states of America’s commitment to its allies

TALLINN (AFP) – US Vice President Mike Pence said Monday Moscow’s demand that Washington cut 755 American diplomatic staff in Russia will not lessen the US commitment to its allies.

“We hope for better days, for better relations with Russia but recent diplomatic action taken by Moscow will not deter the commitment of the United States of America to our security, the security of our allies and the security of freedom loving nations around the world,” Pence said in Estonia after meeting with the leaders of the three Baltic states.

At a news conference, Pence said he had passed on a “simple message” from President Donald Trump to the three countries: “We are with you.”

President Vladimir Putin on Sunday said the United States would have to cut 755 diplomatic staff in Russia and warned of a prolonged gridlock in its ties after the US Congress backed new sanctions against the Kremlin.

Putin added bluntly that Russia was able to raise the stakes with America even further, although he hoped this would be unnecessary.

Estonia, where Pence had on Sunday raised the possibility of deploying the Patriot anti-missile defence system, is the first stop of his European tour which will also take him to Georgia and Montenegro.

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Patriot anti-missile defence system

The aim of the trip is to reassure America’s allies who say they are worried by Russian expansionism.

“We stand with the people and nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and we always will,” Pence said.

A “strong and united NATO” was important, as Russia continued “trying to redraw borders”, he said.

“The US will check any attempt to use force,” Pence said.

The US government hoped for a better relationship with Russia, but stood by the NATO treaty’s article 5 on collective defence. “An attack on one of us is an attack on us all,” he said.

Pence also said that exports of US liquid natural gas to the Baltic states, which have already started, “will contribute to prosperity and security” in the three countries which are still heavily dependent on Russian gas.

Pence is scheduled to address NATO troops deployed in Estonia before travelling on to Tbilisi.

Pence Holds Talks With 3 Baltic Presidents — Discussion of Patriot missiles amid Russian Saber rattling — Putin’s naval parades spanned across 9 time zones

July 31, 2017

TALLINN, Estonia — U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is visiting Estonia to meet the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to underscore America’s commitment to NATO and convey Washington’s support to the Baltic nations.

Pence will hold discussions Monday with Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia, Raimonds Vejonis of Latvia and Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania on the second day of a European tour that also takes him to Georgia and Montenegro.

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Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas (L) shakes hands with US Vice President Mike Pence prior talks in Tallinn on July 30, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

He will also meet NATO troops from Britain, France and the United States stationed in Estonia. The alliance has deployed some 4,000 troops and military hardware in the three Baltic states and Poland to counter Russia’s presence in the Baltic Sea region.

Washington’s pledge to commit to NATO’s mutual defense is a vital issue for the three small former Soviet republics that border Russia.


Estonia’s prime minister says he has held talks with US Vice President Mike Pence over the possible deployment by Washington of the Patriot missile system to the Baltic state amid rising tensions between NATO states and Russia.

Following a Sunday meeting with Pence in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, Juri Ratas said Washington is considering deploying Patriot surface-to-air missiles in Estonia.

“We spoke about it today, but we didn’t talk about a date or time,” the premier told state broadcaster ERR.

“We talked about … [Russian] military maneuvers near the Estonian border… and how Estonia, the United States and NATO should monitor them,” Ratas added.

For his part, Pence reiterated US support for its East European and Baltic allies.

“Our allies in Eastern Europe can be confident that the United States of America stands with them,” he said.

Estonia was the first destination in Pence’s European tour, which will also take him to Georgia and Montenegro.

Moscow-Tallinn ties soured in 1991, when Estonia separated from the ex-Soviet Union and later joined both the EU and NATO in 2004.

Ahead of Pence’s visit, the Georgian army began a two-week military exercise with the United States along with a group of mainly NATO states, including Britain, Germany, Turkey, Ukraine, Slovenia and Armenia on Sunday.

The US official plans to address the military drill participants on Tuesday.

Relations between Russia and the NATO military alliance started to deteriorate in 2014 over the crisis in eastern Ukraine, where Kiev’s army is engaged in deadly fighting with pro-Moscow forces.

Russia sees NATO’s military expansion near its borders as a security threat.

Russia marks Navy Day with drills

As the Georgia-US wargames kicked off, Russia launched its own military maneuvers to mark national Navy Day.

The naval parades spanned across 9 time zones within the country, as well as in the port of Tartus in Syria, where Russian forces are fighting Daesh terrorists.

This photo released by Sputnik shows the sea-borne landing on BTR-80 armored vehicle during naval parade in Vladivostok, July 30, 2017.

More than 100 military vessels as well as some 1,500 naval forces took part in the drills.

This photo released by Sputnik on July 30, 2017, shows Russian Navy ships during a parade to mark Navy Day in Kronshtadt.

Six Russian vessels and the newest diesel submarine from the Black Sea Fleet ‘Krasnodar’ paraded the waters of Tartus. Russian fighter aircraft from the Khmeimim airbase supported the sea maneuvers from the air.

This photo released by Sputnik on July 30, 2017, Russia President Vladimir Putin inspecting ships lined up in the Neva waters for the Main Naval Parade marking Navy Day, St. Petersburg.

President Vladimir Putin attended the parade in St. Petersburg, where he announced that 30 new vessels would join the Russian Navy fleet this year.

The Russian head of state has accused NATO of trying to embroil Moscow in a military confrontation by constant provocative actions.