Europeans, UK tell U.N. Navalny poisoning a ‘threat to international peace, security’

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny “constitutes a threat to international peace and security,” Britain, France, Germany, Estonia and Belgium wrote in a letter to the United Nations Security Council, seen by Reuters on Thursday.

“We call on the Russian Federation to disclose, urgently, fully and in a transparent manner, the circumstances of this attack and to inform the Security Council in this regard,” they said in the letter sent to the 15-member body late on Wednesday.

Navalny was flown to Berlin in August after falling ill on a Russian domestic flight. He received treatment for what Germany said was poisoning by a potentially deadly nerve agent, Novichok, before being discharged in September.

The letter to the Security Council said that on Sept. 2 the German government confirmed that tests had shown “unequivocal proof that Mr Navalny had been poisoned by a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group, which was developed by the Soviet Union and subsequently held by its successor state” Russia.

Russia has denied any involvement in the incident and said it has yet to see evidence of a crime. The Russian mission to the United Nations did not have an immediate comment on the letter.

The European members of the Security Council and Britain noted that last November the Security Council adopted a statement reaffirming that any use of chemical weapons “anywhere, at any time, by anyone, under any circumstance is unacceptable and a threat to international peace and security.”

“As such, we consider that the use of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group in the abhorrent poisoning of Mr Alexey Navalny constitutes a threat to international peace and security,” they wrote.

The letter was sent as Russia takes the monthly presidency of the Security Council for October.

The United States did not sign the letter, but on Wednesday U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “The Russian Government must provide a full accounting for the poisoning of Alexei Navalny and hold those involved responsible.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Why Ukrainian forces gave up Crimea without a fight – and NATO is alert

Vice Admiral Sergei Yeliseyev, First Deputy Commander of the Ukrainian fleet, attends joint maritime exercises with Russian Navy forces in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, Ukraine, June 22, 2013.

By Pavel Polityuk and Anton Zverev

KIEV/SEVASTOPOL, Crimea (Reuters) – The career of Sergei Yeliseyev helps to explain why Ukraine’s armed forces gave up Crimea almost without a fight – and why NATO now says it is alert to Russian attempts to undermine military loyalty in its eastern European members.

His rise to become number two in the Ukrainian navy long before Russia seized Crimea illustrates the divided loyalties that some personnel in countries that once belonged to the Soviet Union might still face.

Yeliseyev’s roots were in Russia but he ended up serving Ukraine, a different ex-Soviet republic, only to defect when put to the test. NATO military planners now believe Moscow regards people with similarly ambiguous personal links as potentially valuable, should a new confrontation break out with the West.

In 2014, Yeliseyev was first deputy commander of the Ukrainian fleet, then largely based in Crimea, when Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms took control of Kiev’s ships and military bases on the peninsula.

Instead of resisting, Yeliseyev quit and subsequently got a new job: deputy chief of Russia’s Baltic Fleet.

Yeliseyev, now aged 55, did not respond to Reuters questions sent to him via the Russian defense ministry.

In Kiev, however, there is no doubt where his loyalties lay. “When he took an oath to Ukraine, these were empty words for him. He has always been pro-Russian,” said Ihor Voronchenko, now commander of the Ukrainian navy, who once served with Yeliseyev.

In fact, the Russian soldiers were pushing at an open door in late February 2014 – Yeliseyev was just one of many to defect and almost all Ukrainian forces in Crimea failed to resist.

Russia annexed Crimea the following month, prompting a major row with the West which deepened over Moscow’s role in a rebellion in eastern Ukraine that lasts to this day.

At the time, Moscow and its allies in Crimea exploited weaknesses within Kiev’s military to undermine its ability to put up a fight, according to interviews conducted by Reuters with about a dozen people on both sides of the conflict.

The Russian defense ministry did not respond to questions on their accounts of the events in 2014 submitted by Reuters.

One NATO commander told Reuters that, in a re-run of the tactics it deployed in Crimea, Russian intelligence was trying to recruit ethnic Russians serving in the militaries of countries on its borders.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the commander said the alliance was particularly sensitive to the risk in countries with high concentrations of ethnic Russians, notably the Baltic states.

NATO had to guard against this, said the commander, though the risk should not be overstated because having Russian roots did not necessarily mean that a person’s loyalty is to Moscow.

Officials in the Baltic states, former Soviet republics which unlike Ukraine are NATO members, play down the danger.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg likewise said he trusted the armies of the Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Still, he told Reuters: “We always have to be vigilant. We always have to develop our intelligence tools and to be able to see any attempts to try to undermine the loyalty of our forces.”

 

DROPPING THE GUARD

Years before the Crimean annexation, a Ukrainian appointment panel appeared to drop its guard when it interviewed Yeliseyev for the deputy naval commander’s post.

Yeliseyev was born near Moscow, graduated from a Soviet naval school in the Russian city of Kaliningrad in 1983 and served with the Russian Pacific fleet.

So the panel asked Yeliseyev what he would do if Russia and Ukraine went to war. He replied that he would file for early retirement, according to Myroslav Mamchak, a former Ukrainian naval captain who served with Yeliseyev. Despite this response, Yeliseyev got the job in 2006.

Mamchak did not disclose to Reuters how he knew what was said in the interview room but subsequent events bear out his account.

Relations between Russia and Ukraine dived as Kiev moved closer to NATO and eight years after his appointment, with the countries on the brink of conflict over Crimea, Yeliseyev stayed true to his word by quitting.

Russia’s actions were not the only factor in the Crimean events. Ukraine’s military had suffered years of neglect, there was a power vacuum in Kiev after the government was overthrown, and many Crimean residents felt more affinity with Moscow.

Still, Ukrainian service personnel with Russian ties switched sides when the annexation began and some officers pretended to put up resistance only to avoid court-martial. Moscow also intercepted orders from Kiev so they never reached the Crimean garrison.

“There was nothing spontaneous. Everything was organized and each fiddler played his role,” said Mykhailo Koval, who at the time was deputy head of the Ukrainian border guard and is now deputy head of the Security Council in Kiev.

 

INVITATION TO DEFECT

Voronchenko, who was another deputy commander of the navy at the time of the annexation, said he had received invitations to defect to Moscow’s side soon after the Russian operation began.

These, he told Reuters, came from Sergei Aksyonov, who was then head of Crimea’s self-proclaimed pro-Russian government, as well as from the commander of Russia’s southern military district and a deputy Russian defense minister.

Asked what they offered in exchange, Voronchenko said: “Posts, an apartment … Aksyonov offered to make me defense minister of Crimea.” Neither Aksyonov nor the Russian defense ministry responded to Reuters questions about the contacts.

Voronchenko, in common with many other senior Ukrainian officers, had been in the Soviet military alongside people now serving in the Russian armed forces. He had spent years in Crimea, where Russia leased bases from Ukraine for its Black Sea fleet after the 1991 break up of the Soviet Union.

“Those generals who came to persuade me … said that we belong to the same circle, we came from the Soviet army,” he said. “But I told them I am different … I am not yours.”

Naval chief Denis Berezovsky did defect, along with several of his commanders, and was later made deputy chief of the Russian Black Sea fleet.

Many in the ranks followed suit. At one Ukrainian signals unit, service personnel were watching Russian television when President Vladimir Putin appeared on the screen.

“To my surprise, they all stood up,” said Svyatoslav Veltynsky, an engineer at the unit. “They had been waiting for this.” The majority of the unit defected to the Russian side.

 

JUST A SHOW

Even those willing to resist found themselves in a hopeless position. One member of the Ukrainian border guards told Reuters how his commander had despatched their unit’s ships to stop them falling into Russian hands, and ordered his men to train their rifles on anyone trying to enter their base.

However, the base’s military communications were not working, having been either jammed or cut by the Russians. Isolated from his own side, and outnumbered and outgunned by Russian troops outside, the commander struck a deal with the head of a Russian special forces unit.

Pro-Russian civilians were allowed to force the base’s gate without reprisals. The Ukrainians “supposedly could not do anything; you cannot shoot civilians”, the member of the unit said on condition of anonymity because he is still living in Crimea and feared repercussions.

Russian troops then followed the civilians in, taking over the base and offering the unit a chance to switch allegiance to Russia. About half agreed, although the base’s chief refused and was allowed to leave Crimea.

“The commander did not resist,” said the unit member. “On the other hand, he did what he could under the circumstances.”

Two other people involved in the annexation – a former Ukrainian serviceman now on a Russian base in Crimea, and a source close to the Russian military who was there at the time – also described witnessing similar faked confrontations.

“You have to understand that the seizure of Ukrainian military units in Crimea was just a show,” said the source close to the Russian military.

 

LESSONS LEARNED

NATO’s Baltic members differ significantly from Ukraine. Soviet-era commanders, for instance, largely left their armed forces after the countries joined the Western alliance in 2004.

Officials also point out that Russian speakers were among the seven members of Latvia’s forces to die during international deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nevertheless, lessons have been learned from Crimea. “We learned, of course, that there was not only the issue of loyalty, but also false orders were submitted and there was a blockage of communication during the Crimea operation,” said Janis Garisons, State Secretary in the Latvian defense ministry.

Latvia has changed the law so that unit commanders are obliged to resist by default. But Garisons said the simplest step was taken long before the annexation, with the introduction in 2008 of vetting by the security services for “everybody who joins the armed forces, from private to general”.

 

(Additional reporting by Margaryta Chornokondratenko in KIEV, Andrius Sytas in VILNIUS, Gederts Gelzis in RIGA, David Mardiste in TALLINN, and Robin Emmott in BRUSSELS; editing by David Stamp)

 

Estonia says Russia may put troops in Belarus to challenge NATO

FILE PHOTO: Estonia’s Defence Minister Margus Tsahkna speaks during the official ceremony welcoming the deployment of a multi-national NATO battalion in Tapa, Estonia, April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins/File Photo

By Robin Emmott

VALETTA (Reuters) – Estonia’s defense minister said on Thursday that Russia may use large-scale military exercises to move thousands of troops permanently into Belarus later this year in a warning to NATO.

Russia and Belarus aim to hold joint war games in September that some North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies believe could number more than 100,000 troops and involve nuclear weapons training, the biggest such exercise since 2013.

Defence Minister Margus Tsahkna said Estonia and other NATO governments had intelligence suggesting Moscow may leave Russian soldiers in Belarus once the so-called Zapad 2017 exercises are over, also pointing to public data of Russian railway traffic to Belarus.

Tsahkna cited plans to send 4,000 railway carriages to Belarus to transport Russian troops and gear there, possibly to set up a military outpost in its closest ally.

“For Russian troops going to Belarus, it is a one-way ticket,” Tsahkna told Reuters in an interview in Malta.

“This is not my personal opinion, we are analyzing very deeply how Russia is preparing for the Zapad exercises,” he said before a meeting of EU defense ministers.

Russia’s Defence Ministry did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment on the subject.

Moscow denies any plans to threaten NATO and says it is the U.S.-led alliance that is risking stability in eastern Europe. The Kremlin has not said how many troops will take part in Zapad 2017.

“We see what they are doing on the other side of the EU-NATO border. Troops may remain there after Zapad,” Tsahkna said, saying that Tallinn had shared its concerns with Baltic and NATO allies. He put the number of potential troops in the thousands.

Such a move could see Russian troops on the border with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia just as the U.S.-led NATO alliance stations multinational battalions in the Baltic region in response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.

“QUESTION OF TRUST”

The scale of this year’s Zapad exercises, which date from Soviet times when they were first used to test new weapon systems, is one of NATO’s most pressing concerns, as diplomats say the war games are no simple military drill.

Previous large-scale exercises in 2013 employed special forces training, longer-range missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles that were later used in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine and in its intervention in Syria, NATO diplomats said.

Russia, bridling at NATO’s expansion eastwards into its old Soviet sphere of influence, says its exercises are a response to NATO’s 4,000-strong new deterrent force in the Baltics and Poland that will begin to rotate through the region from June.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in January the scenario for the Zapad 2017 exercises would “take into account the situation linked to increased NATO activity along the borders of the Union state,” Russian media cited, in a reference to the union of Russia and Belarus.

The exercises, to be held simultaneously on military training grounds in Russia and Belarus, aim to focus on joint planning, command tactics and joint troop formations, he said.

“In the future we plan to strengthen the practical nature of such exercises, taking into account the emerging foreign policy realities,” Shoigu added, in an apparent reference to the expansion of NATO, which is soon to include Montenegro.

The U.S. Army’s top European commander has called on Russia to open its exercises to observers to calm Baltic concerns.

Asked about Moscow’s possible motives for leaving troops in Belarus, Tsahkna said it was likely about President Vladimir Putin’s image as a strong leader at home, as well as cementing ties with Belarus, which was alarmed by the Crimea annexation.

“Russia has presidential elections next year and Putin needs to show strength to the Russian people,” Tsahkna said. “It’s also a question of trust with Belarus.”

The West has sought to improve ties with Belarus over the past two years, lifting some sanctions in an overture to the country’s President Alexander Lukashenko, the man the West calls Europe’s “last dictator.”

But Belarus remains Russia’s ally and a member of Putin’s Eurasian trade bloc. Belarus Defence Minister Andrei Ravkov has echoed Russia’s position that NATO is a threat, also accusing Ukraine of raising tensions by aligning itself with the West.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Estonia, Finland say Russia entered airspace before U.S. defense pact

Picture of Russian SU-27 fighter violating Finland's airspace near Porvoo, Finland,

By Tuomas Forsell and Jussi Rosendahl

HELSINKI (Reuters) – Estonia said a Russian jet violated its airspace on Friday, hours after neighboring Finland said two similar planes passed over its territory as it prepared to sign a defense pact with the United States.

Moscow denied sending planes across anyone’s borders – but one analyst said the flights could have been staged as a reminder of Russia’s influence, as countries in the region looked to strengthen ties with the West.

Estonia’s defense ministry said a Russian fighter jet entered its airspace for less than a minute with its transponder turned off at 2.38 a.m. (7.38 p.m. ET, Thursday).

Helsinki said two different SU-27 planes crossed into its airspace on Thursday afternoon and evening, over the Gulf of Finland – the body of water that separates it from Estonia.

“We take these incidents seriously,” Finland’s defense minister, Jussi Niinisto, told reporters. “Having two suspected violations on the same day is exceptional.”

Russia’s defense ministry dismissed the reports, saying SU-27 military planes had conducted training flights on Thursday and Friday over neutral waters, Russian agencies reported.

Finland has grown increasingly worried about military activities by Russia – its former ruler with which it shares a 1,300-km (812-mile) land border – particularly since Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

In response, Finland has tightened cooperation with Sweden and fostered closer ties with NATO. On Friday it signed a defense cooperation deal with the United States, covering training and information sharing but stopping short of military assistance.

“It’s positive that United States is interested in Northern Europe’s security situation and of collaboration with the region’s countries. We see this as a stabilizing element,” Niinisto said.

He declined to speculate on whether Russia had tried to show its power before his meeting with U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defence Robert Work.

But Charly Salonius-Pasternak, analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said it was “entirely credible, that airspace violations were a reminder from Russia: ‘Hey, we are still here’.”

“It costs them nothing, and they can see that these violations have an effect on Finland,” he told public broadcaster YLE.

In April, two Russian warplanes flew simulated attack passes near a U.S. guided missile destroyer in the Baltic Sea.

(Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs and Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow, editing by Richard Balmforth)