The defense correspondent and fierce Kremlin critic Arkady Babchenko (41) was reported shot dead, on the evening of May 29, by an unidentified killer on the doorstep of his apartment in Kyiv. The news provoked an outpouring of grief and sympathy from many journalists, friends, as well as human rights and opposition activists in Moscow. The Russian authorities were accused of being behind the attack. All sides demanded a comprehensive investigation of the alleged crime. Babchenko worked for several years as a reporter forNovaya Gazeta before leaving Russia with his family in 2017, citing threats to his life because of his journalistic work. Novaya Gazeta quickly announced it would begin an investigation into his killing. Former Duma (lower chamber of the Russian parliament) opposition deputy Ilya Ponomarev (who is also living in self-imposed exile in Kyiv, like Babchenko), wrote on his Facebook page about an apparent plot to hire former Ukrainian Donbas conflict veterans to kill Russian political émigrés residing in Ukraine: “More killings may follow,” he warned (Interfax, May 29).
Less than 24 hours later, however, it turned out the “killing” of Babchenko had been simulated as part of a sting operation by the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU). News of his death, the images of Babchenko lying face down in a pool of blood, his distressed wife—it all turned out to be theatrics. The Russian journalist faced the cameras, safe and sound and grinning, at a press briefing at SSU headquarters in Kyiv, together with Security Services chief Vasil Gritsak, Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko and the chief of the National Police, Serhiy Knyazev. According to Babchenko and Gritsak, the SSU discovered a Moscow-sponsored plan to kill up to 30 people in Ukraine, and Babchenko was apparently on the list. Allegedly, some $30,000 had been offered for the contract killing of Babchenko, with $15,000 paid in advance to a contract killer—an unnamed Donbas war veteran who became an SSU informant and obtained immunity from prosecution. According to Babchenko, the SSU covert operation to prevent the alleged killing lasted two months. The Russian defense correspondent himself was approached by the SSU a month ago and agreed to cooperate by faking his own death in order to help arrest the culprits (Interfax, May 30). The alleged mastermind behind the planned assassinations was arrested; his name was disclosed during a court arraignment in Kyiv as “Boris German” (Pravda.com.ua, May 31).
To date, the Ukrainian authorities have not revealed any concrete evidence linking the alleged attempt on Babchenko’s life to the Russian intelligence services. And it is not clear whether the elaborate sting operation that publicly faked Babchenko’s death had obtained any additional proof for a criminal case that already seemed to be under the SSU’s control. The operation involving the simulated murder was made known to only a small number of officials. President Petro Poroshenko was aware of it, but most of his cabinet, including the prime minister and foreign minister, apparently were not (Newsru.com, May 31).
Many people in Moscow are of course relieved that Babchenko is alive and well, but are distressed over the hoax. Russian authorities, while expressing relief that Babchenko is fine, began to actively push back, describing the entire event as a “provocation” and an example of the purportedly false accusations Russia has to constantly deal with. They equated the Babchenko case with the poisoning of double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England, on March 4, 2018, by a nerve agent known as “Novichok”—if one was a sting, the other could be, too. Western media and press-freedom watchdog organizations also rebuked the Ukrainian government, accusing it of misusing public trust and undermining journalistic credibility: Babchenko, a well-known professional journalist, pretended to be dead, thus helping to disseminate this news story world-wide. As critics have argued, this breached mainstream Western journalistic ethical principles. Moreover, Western officials and governments that had swiftly condemned the alleged killing now find themselves in an awkward position, while Russian officialdom is happily pointing fingers—suggesting the Babchenko case is representative of the falsehoods allegedly routinely disseminated by Kyiv’s authorities and opposition journalists (Interfax, May 30).
In Russia, the state-run propaganda machine is using the opportunity to go on the offensive and attack the Ukrainian authorities together with a large portion of the Western media. Russian opposition news outlets—nowadays mostly confined to blogs and various Internet publications that do not reach the majority of the Russian population—are, with some reservations, expressing support for Babchenko and the theatrical SSU sting operation. Georgy Satarov, a former aide to then-president Boris Yeltsin, has written on his Facebook page that he is glad Babchenko is alive and he dismisses the ethical condemnation of the sting operation. Satarov believes the truly unethical actors are German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Russian President Vladimir Putin this past month. According to Satarov, Merkel and Macron are lucky Babchenko was not killed or they would have been morally responsible by de facto giving the Putin regime Western Europe’s stamp of approval (Facebook.com, May 30).
Many opposition Russian journalists have, in fact, been killed over the past couple decades. The offices of Novaya Gazeta display a gallery of portraits of slain colleagues who had worked for the paper. Sometimes, like in the case of Anna Politkovskaya (murdered in 2006), those directly involved in the killing are convicted. Similarly, the man who stabbedEkho Moskvy radio anchor Tanya Felgenhauer (she survived), on October 23, 2017, was declared legally insane by a court and committed to a psychiatric ward (Interfax, May 11). But even when the culprits are named and brought to justice, the masterminds who ordered the attacks are not. The Kremlin always denies any connection to the killings of journalists or opposition activists. But somehow, assassins only target opposition journalists or activists, never anyone from the pro-Putin crowd. Babchenko was not actually murdered, but the hit list is almost certain to grow.
Moscow Shifts Flotilla From Caspian to Azov Sea, Giving It a New Offensive Capability
In the last two weeks of May, Moscow has quietly shifted five naval vessels from the Caspian Flotilla to the Sea of Azov, a move the Russian authorities have cast as a step needed to defend against a Ukrainian attack on occupied Crimea. But both rising tensions with Kyiv over shipping in the sea and through the Kerch Strait as well as the nature of the Russian ships that were redeployed instead suggest that this move is intended to give Moscow a new offensive capability. At a minimum, Kyiv will need to expend additional resources to protect itself against this increased Russian naval presence in the Sea of Azov. But more seriously, Moscow could choose to exploit these additional military assets to try to seize more Ukrainian territory, including to finally secure a land bridge to Crimea.
This latest Russian move not only extends the trend of Russian military activities around the Sea of Azov (see EDM, April 12, May 8, 22) but significantly expands them. Two aspects of this move make this rebasing of Russian ships especially ominous. On the one hand, the Moscow-backed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) two years ago had asked Russia to send ships to the Sea of Azov to supplement its own naval forces (Ostrov, February 29, 2016) in order to seize more of the Ukrainian coastline; but at that time it had been turned down flat. Something apparently changed in the Kremlin’s calculus at present. And on the other, Russia’s defensive needs in the area are already more than adequately met by local forces from the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Russian National Guard. So it is unclear why these extra five navy ships are needed.
In February 2016, the DPR created its own “Azov Flotilla” consisting of seven heavily armed cutters, Russian commentator Sergey Ishchenko writes (Svobodnaya Pressa, May 29). Based at Novoyazovsk, Bezymennoye and Sedovo, these were all too obviously intended for “a strike at Mariupol from the sea.” DPR commanders at that time, he continues, asked Moscow to shift several naval vessels from the Caspian to the Sea of Azov but were turned down flat. Now, however, Moscow has done what it refused to do earlier, albeit by creating its own flotilla in the Sea of Azov rather than simply backing up DPR forces.
Moscow’s decision not to help the DPR in 2016 likely reflected “foreign policy considerations,” Ishchenko argues; but clearly, the situation has now changed. Moscow moved three artillery cutters via the Volga-Don canal, from the Caspian to the Sea of Azov, and two more naval vessels via other internal river waterways. And it is obvious, the military commentator says, that there are no plans to send these ships back to the Caspian Sea anytime soon. The Caspian Flotilla is already well-supplied with newer and more advanced naval vessels, Ishchenko asserts.
Some Moscow- and Kyiv-based analysts have suggested that this is simply a response to tensions with Ukraine over the seizure of the Russian fishing boat, Nord, earlier this spring and concerns that Ukrainian special forces might try to blow up the new Kerch Bridge, Ishchenko says. But the ships that have just been introduced into the Sea of Azov are not practical for either task. They are, however, perfect for launching an attack on coastal facilities or for supporting a land-based attack on them.
FSB units, which possess their own ships, have the situation with regard to Ukrainian shipping vessels well in hand, Ishchenko says; and there is “no need” for the Russian naval vessels that were moved there. The FSB’s ships are quite capable of stopping, boarding or even seizing and impounding Ukrainian fishing vessels, as repeatedly demonstrated in the last month. And the Russian National Guard has been given both the responsibility and capacity to guard the Kerch Bridge (TASS, October 25, 2017; see EDM, February 12, 2018). In contrast to the five new navy ships Moscow has introduced into the sea, its smaller vessels and electronic monitoring devices are far better designed to protect the bridge infrastructure. The new Russian naval vessels could defend the bridge if it faced a full-scale naval attack, but that is one of the least likely threat scenarios at the present time.
Why then has Moscow taken this step at this particular time? Clearly, Moscow hopes this show of force will intimidate Ukraine and show that if Kyiv’s forces move further into Russian-occupied territory on land (UNIAN, April 16; UAWire, May 11), Moscow can counter with an attack from the sea. Ukrainian officers like Vice Admiral Igor Voronchenko have long warned of this possibility and called for building up Ukraine’s coastal defenses in response. But the ships that were supposed to be an integral part of that defense are still in Odesa, even though some of the lightest ones could quickly be moved into position on the Azov littoral—either by train or by large vehicle trailers, if such transport were available to the Ukrainian military.
If that is the more “innocent” explanation for what Moscow is doing in the Sea of Azov, there is another, darker one: Russian may be planning a broad-scale attack to try to secure a land bridge between Russian-controlled territory and Russian-occupied Crimea. And it may be thinking about doing so very soon. After all, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in the wake of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. It is entirely possible—indeed, some Russian analysts have suggested it (Sobesednik.ru, May 30)—that he will launch a new attack on Ukraine after the World Cup later this month. If so, the new Russian Azov flotilla likely will be a key part of that effort.
Kremlin’s Proxy Attacks on Last Vestiges of Russian Federalism
At the end of April, the Khural (parliament) of the Republic of Buryatia abolished the Constitutional Court of this federal subject (Kommersant, April 24). The decision was made on the initiative of the head of Buryatia, Alexei Tsydenov, who last year was appointed by the Kremlin. The authorities justified the abolition of the Constitutional Court by citing the “high cost” of continuing to run this institution. But Dorzho Dugarov, a Buryat public figure who is now a political émigré, takes another view: “Tsydenov and the Khural, controlled by him, redirected the funds that had supported the work of the Constitutional Court for their own use [that is, to run the apparatus of the head of Buryatia]. This is the main reason for the need for ‘economy.’ ” Dugarov provocatively called this decision “an act of political genocide of the Buryat people by the Kremlin through the collaborationist administration in the republic” (Afterempire.info, April 26).
Buryatia was by no means the first such case. In 2014, the regional Statutory Court of Chelyabinsk opposed a tax measure passed by the local parliament. The judiciary ruled that the new legislation undermined the social safety net statutorily mandated for local residents. In response, the oblast’s parliament abolished the statutory court itself, similarly citing funding concerns (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, February 26, 2014).
The current authorities of Buryatia argue that the rights of citizens will not be violated as a result of this decision, because Buryatians will always have the opportunity to appeal their grievances to the Constitutional Court of Russia. However, each republic within Russia has its own constitution. And if the judicial institution that enforces it is abolished, this de facto makes republican law a mere formality.
Russia, according to its constitution, is a complex federation composed of subjects with different status. The republics have their own constitutions, while oblasts, krais and federal cities have statutes (ustav) with the status of a basic regional law. Constitutional (or statutory) courts were created in the 1990s in various regions to protect their own legislative specifics. At present, only 16 such institutions remain, even though there are 83 subjects in the Russian Federation (excluding Crimea and Sevastopol). Of these, 13 are constitutional courts in various republics, while the rest are statutory courts in the city of St. Petersburg and the oblasts of Kaliningrad and Sverdlovsk. In fact, they persist only in those regions that can still claim some minimum level of difference between their own legislation compared with federal laws.
Allegations by the authorities that it is too “expensive” to maintain the regional constitutional/statutory courts begin to look particular disingenuous when compared with the institution of federal district presidential plenipotentiaries. These federal districts are not provided by the Russian constitution at all. When first elected president, in 2000, Vladimir Putin divided Russia into seven federal districts, led by his appointed plenipotentiaries. This administrative innovation was a tool to institutionalize Putin’s “vertical of power” under conditions when the regional governors were still freely elected by the population. The plenipotentiaries were tasked with controlling those governors. But even after Putin himself began to appoint governors, the institution of his federal district plenipotentiary survived and remains in effect. Thousands of government officials work at the level of the federal districts, but Russian authorities never claim this arrangement is “too expensive for the budget.”
Today, the still-existing regional constitutional and statutory courts in Russia remain as vestiges of an era of federalism marked by genuine regional self-government. But as alluded to above, it is important to note that Putin’s Kremlin has worked to dismantle Russian federalism not only by attacking local judiciaries, but also executive branch institutions. During the 1990s, the mayors of all Russian cities were freely elected by the local population. This practice was generally accepted, although it was never codified in the Russian constitution. And now, under the conditions of Putin’s “power vertical,” instead of freely elected mayors, most cities are run by so-called “city managers” appointed by governors, who, in turn, are selected by the president.
Currently, only eight regional capitals still hold free mayoral elections (Vedomosti, April 4). Until recently, there were nine of them, but this past April the post of elected mayor was liquidated in Yekaterinburg. In protest against this decision, Mayor Eugene Roizman, elected in 2013, resigned (Interfax, May 25).
The same year, 2013, opposition politician Galina Shirshina was also elected mayor of Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Republic of Karelia. But already in 2015, the Kremlin-appointed governor of Karelia, Alexander Khudilainen, forced her resignation and entirely annulled free mayoral elections in the republic’s capital (Tvrain.ru, December 25, 2015). The next Kremlin appointee to head Karelia, Artur Parfenchikov put his former colleagues from the Federal Bailiff Service into several key positions in the republic (see Commentaries, September 28, 2017).
Observers sometimes suggest that President Putin is seeking to completely eliminate the national republics in Russia. As evidence, they point to the already abolished compulsory teaching of local state languages in republican schools (see EDM, May 27, 2015; April 13, 2017). However, the Kremlin is unlikely to make such radical changes to the constitution because of the civil unrest this would, in all probability, spark in the republics. Putin operates in a different style—one can expect that the interpretation of the federal constitution will be “softly” changed. Consequently, republics will officially remain, but their real rights will be lowered to the level of oblasts.
This trend was clearly demonstrated by the latest series of governors’ resignations and presidential appointments to “temporarily” carry out their duties. At the end of May, Putin changed the heads of the Republic of Yakutia, the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, as well as the Tyumen and Magadan oblasts (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 29). All these changes were carried out according to the same scheme—the regions were assigned “temporary acting governors,” who will go through a formal election procedure on the “single voting day” (this year it will be held on September 9). Emblematic of the principle of “preventive democracy” (see EDM, November 17, 2017), these curated leadership reshuffles continue Putin’s slow-motion efforts to usher in ever tighter political centralization of Russia.
India and Kyrgyzstan Deepen Their Military Cooperation
On May 14, Indian and Kyrgyzstani alpine special forces troops began a two-week joint training exercise at Kyrgyzstan’s Military Base 20636. The exercise included both lectures and practical classes on tactical, mountain and fire training, as well as survival techniques in mountainous conditions (AKIPress, May 21). The exercise is the second joint Indian-Kyrgyzstani military drill of 2018 and the latest in a series of discrete increasing bilateral military contacts over the past seven years. A core concern of both militaries is the development of military capabilities to battle terrorist groups in mountainous regions.
The recent joint training followed in the wake of the bilateral Khanjar-V (“Blade”) exercise, the fifth iteration of joint training between the two countries’ militaries. The two-week long Khanjar-V drill began on March 16, at the Indian Army’s Counter Insurgency Jungle Warfare School, in Vairengte, Mizoram (India Blooms News Service, March 29). The scenarios included inserting airborne troops from helicopters to destroy a terrorist encampment.
The first Khanjar exercise was conducted in December 2011, in Nahan, India. The scope of the operation was extremely modest, with only 20 Kyrgyzstani service members participating (Kant.kg, March 18, 2015). Three years later, the two-week long Khanjar-II joint operation was held at Tokmok, in Kyrgyzstan, on March 10–25, 2015 (Embassyofindia.kg, accessed May 31, 2018). The exercise took place in the Shamsi Gorge region, just outside the Kyrgyz Republic’s capital city of Bishkek. The participants included members of the Kyrgyzstani “Scorpion” special forces alongside servicemen of military unit number 01525 and 50 Indian special-purpose fighters, for a total of roughly 100 service members (K-News, March 11, 2015).
Three months after the bilateral exercise in Shamsi Gorge, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Kyrgyzstan, on July 11–12, 2015, at the end of an eight-day six-country tour of Central Asia, on his way back from Russia after the BRICS/Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summits. Speaking to journalists following his talks with then-president of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev, Modi emphasized the two countries’ shared concerns about terrorism and extremism, remarking, “We both seek a peaceful and secure neighborhood at a time of challenges in our region. And, we have [a] shared interest in combating extremism and terrorism that has become a threat without borders.” Noting that bilateral defense ties were strong, he continued, “The special forces of the armed forces of the two countries held the ‘Khanjar 2015’ joint exercise in Kyrgyzstan in March, which reflected continuity in exercises held in India in 2011” (Press Trust of India, July 12, 2015).
During Modi’s 2015 visit, New Delhi and Bishkek signed four key agreements on cooperation in defense and cultural fields. Modi said that during his discussions with the Kyrgyzstani government, “We have decided to hold joint military exercises on an annual basis” (IANS, July 13, 2015).
Khanjar-III was subsequently held in March–April 2016, in Gwalior, India, which was followed eight months later by a state visit of then-president Atambayev to India. The topics under discussion pointedly included further military cooperation (Mea.gov.in, December 20, 2016).
Following the reciprocal visits by Modi and Atambayev, military cooperation between the two countries was regularized and expanded. By the end of 2016, bilateral collaboration included the construction of the Kyrgyz-Indian Mountain Training Center, in Balykchi, in Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul district. The Center’s mission is to provide instruction and training to personnel of the Armed Forces of the Kyrgyz Republic and also host joint mountain training exercises (Oneindia News, March 2, 2017). India additionally built a military hospital and IT centers at a number of Kyrgyzstani military institutions (For.kg, December 20, 2016).
The core of bilateral Indian-Kyrgyzstani military cooperation remains the annual Khanjar bilateral exercises. The 2017 Khanjar-IV two-week joint exercise began on February 19, at Kyrgyzstan’s Kok Jhangak military base, roughly 100 miles from Osh (Embassyofindia.kg, February 17, 2017).
The primary impetus for the bilateral military cooperation remains the joint training of special forces troops for operations in remote mountainous regions, a problem that both countries share: India in the Himalayas and Kyrgyzstan along its borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. A second shared underlying premise is to broaden international contacts while lessening diplomatic isolation: India is seeking to check both China and Pakistan, while Kyrgyzstan wishes to blunt the influence of its giant neighbor to the east. Both countries also have close ties to Russia, into which they might wish to let a little sunlight; India is Russia’s largest arms export market, while Kyrgyzstan is sensitive to issues with Russia regarding state sovereignty. Notably, Russia maintains bases in the country, from a naval facility on Lake Issyk-Kul to an airbase at Kant—with a third military facility apparently being planned (seeEDM, May 24, 2018).
The symbolic implications of Kyrgyzstan and India’s cooperation extend well beyond their relatively modest military commitments. Specifically, both countries are preparing to confront the vexing issues of rising Eurasian transnational terrorism, seeking, in the words of Prime Minister Modi, “a peaceful and secure neighborhood” at a time of regional “challenges.”