The Ukrainian government has released recordings of alleged phone calls between pro-Russian separatists discussing the fate of Malaysian Flight MH17’s black boxes.
Ukrainian security officials released the tapes on Sunday, claiming that they proved Russia had directed the separatists to find and hide the black boxes.
The call is between Alexander Khodakovsky, leader of the Vostok (East) battalion of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine and one of his men (“Oleksiy”) at the crash site. You can listen to the conversations below:
In the first of the recordings, Khodakovsky urges Oleksiy to find MH17’s black boxes, saying,
“Do it really quick, urgently. Moscow is asking where the boxes are… [they] must be under our control”.
In a second call less than an hour later, Khodakovsky talks to another man at the crash site (“Andriy”), telling him,
“I have a request for you. It is not my request. Our friends from high above are very much interested in the fate of the black boxes. I mean people from Moscow.”
He also tells Andriy to,
“Try to take everything that you find so that it doesn’t get into somebody else’s hands.”
Around the time that the recordings were released, Reuters released footage of what appears to be the black boxes being removed from the crash site by the separatists:
Earlier this morning, the news service Interfax reported that rebel Russian separatists in Ukraine had handed over the black boxes to Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee.
Andrei Purgin is the self-proclaimed deputy prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the separatist government in the rebel-held city of Donetsk. Purgin told Interfax:
“Of course, we most likely will give them [the black boxes] to the Interstate Aviation Committee, to Moscow. High-level experts, who will be able to determine exactly the reason of the catastrophe, work there.”
So it seems that the black boxes are on their way to Moscow, if they’re not there already. This will definitely raise a lot more suspicion about Russia’s involvement in the MH17 tragedy.
But, for the sake of objectivity, it is definitely worth noting that these tapes have not been independently verified yet, and are being released by the Ukrainian government, who has every reason in the world to want Russia to be responsible for the tragedy.
That doesn’t mean I believe the tapes are fabricated- it’s just a reminder to tread carefully when trying to make sense of such a complex issue.
Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that the country has an image problem. Since the events surrounding Ukraine’s revolution and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, public sentiment on Russia has been becoming increasingly more negative across the globe.
Apparently, the Putin administration believes that a big part of this is the way in which media outlets in America have portrayed the situation. So he decided to deploy a million-dollar army of internet trolls to help mold public opinion.
Svetlana Boiko, one of the team members for the project, said this:
“Foreign media are currently actively forming a negative image of the Russian Federation in the eyes of the global community. Additionally, the discussions formed by comments to those articles are also negative in tone.”
Boiko continued by elaborating on the importance of maintaining the Russian “brand”:
“Like any brand formed by popular opinion, Russia has its supporters (‘brand advocates’) and its opponents. The main problem is that in the foreign internet community, the ratio of supporters and opponents of Russia is about 20/80 respectively.”
The project specifically targeted Fox News, Huffington Post, The Blaze, Politico, and WorldNetDaily. E-mails obtained by the enigmatic Russian hacking collective Anonymous Internet detailed exactly how these blogger-trolls would carry out their job.
The trolls were expected to make around 50 comments on news articles every day. In addition, they were expected to maintain 6 Facebook pages, posting 3 times daily about the news and discussing new developments in groups on Facebook twice daily.
On top of that, the bloggers were expected to have 500 subscribers by the end of the first month. On Twitter, they were expected to maintain 10 accounts with up to 2,000 followers each, tweeting at least 50 times daily.
E-mails hacked from the project’s leader, Igor Osadchy, reveal that the program is run by the firm Internet Research Agency. Starting in April, the firm began paying people to disseminate pro-Putin and pro-Russian content all across the web.
The Internet Research Agency leak is the first time that specific comments have been traced back to the campaign. These comments were made by Katarina Aistova, a 21-year-old former hotel receptionist on a WorldNetDaily article:
Though the Kremlin is denying the accusations and Internet Research Agency is refusing to comment, many feel that the evidence is overwhelming.
“What, you think crazy Russians all learned English en masse and went off to comment on articles?”,
said media executive and Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky, who also added rather hilariously that,
“If it looks like Kremlin shit, smells like Kremlin shit, and tastes like Kremlin shit too — then it’s Kremlin shit.”
Internet Research Agency is on pace to spend $10 million dollars this year, and half of that budget has been earmarked to be paid out in cash.
The reports have also been substantiated by two local Russian media outlets. Last week, the business paper Vedomosti claimed that the campaign was directly orchestrated by the government, citing sources close to Putin’s administration.
Then earlier this week, the Novaya Gazeta claimed that the project is being orchestrated by restauranteur Yevgeny Prigozhin, who catered Putin’s re-inauguration in 2012 and has reportedly helped run several other similar campaigns for the Kremlin over the years.
The hacked e-mails also include numerous exchanges with an accountant at the Internet Research Agency approving payments to Concord, the holding company for Mr. Prigozhin’s catering business.
The hacking group Anonymous Internet is not affiliated with the well-known American hacking group Anonymous. In an e-mail exchange with BuzzFeed, who broke the story, the hacking collective distanced themselves from your every day code-breaker:
“[We are] not hackers in the classical sense. We are trying to change reality. Reality has indeed begun to change as a result of the appearance of our information in public.”
To date, none of their leaks have been proven false.
Here’s a quick timeline of the most recent events in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis.
On Sunday (March 16), residents of Crimea voted on a referendum of whether to leave Ukraine and join Russia- the measure passed by upwards of 90%. It is important to note, however, that all signs point to a pretty illegitimate vote.
For one, the ballot didn’t even include an option to stay with Ukraine- the two options were to leave Ukraine and join Russia, or leave Ukraine and become independent.
Secondly, it’s obvious that there was plenty of intimidation involved- Russian soldiers and armed “unmarked militia” (that pretty much everyone agrees are pro-Russian forces) patrol the streets of Crimea. This blog from Jon Lee Anderson at The New Yorker describes some of the intimidation tactics he saw employed by the “thugs” in the streets of Crimea.
Lastly, some of the actual results are simply ridiculous. For example, 123% of the major Crimean city of Sevastapool cast votes on the referendum. Mykhaylo Malyshev, chair of the committee overseeing the vote, announced on the evening of the 16th that 1,250,426 people had voted, but said that figure did include Sevastopol’s electorate. Including that city, he said, 1,724,563 total people voted.
The difference between these numbers (474,137) should be the number of votes cast in Sevastapool, right? Well, last year’s census put the voting-age population of Sevastapool at 385,462…very suspicious to say the least.
The next day (March 17), Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh responded to the results of the referendum by saying,
“Crimea was, is, and will be our territory.”
When asked if Ukrainian troops would fight to defend Crimea, he replied carefully, saying,
“The armed forces will execute their tasks… Ukrainian forces will stay [in Crimea] until all their tasks have been completed.”
While Tenyukh said that Ukraine would “do everything possible to prevent war”, he noted,
“the threat of war is real…We are strengthening our defense capacity. Ukraine is ready to defend its territory.”
Then earlier today (March 18), Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a treaty which effectively annexed Crimea, making it a part of Russia.
Putin said the moves corrected a “historical injustice”, as well as saying that Crimea has “always been a part of Russia”.
Naturally, the Ukrainian foreign ministry responded, saying,
“We do not recognise and never will recognise the so-called independence or the so-called agreement on Crimea joining the Russian Federation.”
A few hours later, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced in an interview with Europe-1 radio that the other members of the G8 (a forum for the 8 leading industrialized countries) had decided to suspend Russia’s membership.
Fabius did, however, say,
“We are continuing dialogue with the Russians, despite the fact that we do not agree with them.”
BONUS: After the US announced (relatively inconsequential) sanctions against some Russian officials including the freezing of their American visas, Putin’s top aide said:
“The only things that interest me in the US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing.”
Earlier today (3/6/2014), the parliament of Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula in the Black Sea at the center of the current situation with Russia, voted to secede from Ukraine to become part of Russia.
The issue will be put to a referendum in 10 days, when the citizens of Crimea will decide whether or not to approve their parliament’s decision.
Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, immediately denounced the move as having no legal basis in Ukrainian law, saying,
“Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine.”
While European Union leaders echoed this sentiment, calling the move unconstitutional, there doesn’t seem to be anything they can do about it without provoking violence, as Crimea is currently occupied by the Russian military.
On Wednesday, Russian sailors pulled an old anti-submarine vessel out of a junkyard and sank it in the strait that connects the Black Sea to the Donuzlav Lake, preventing Ukrainian ships docked nearby from being able to go to sea.
While the European Union has presented plenty of tough rhetoric, they are hesitant to actually do anything.
Why? Well, because Russia is one of their biggest trading partners, and also provides a substantial portion of the EU’s gas and oil- putting economic sanctions on them would hurt the EU indirectly.
So despite that President Barack Obama called Russia’s intervention a “violation of international law,” and said that,
“the resolve of the United States and our allies and the international community will remain firm,”
it seems that he might actually be on his own with this one.
If you have been following the situation in Eastern Europe, you’re probably aware that some pretty crazy things have been happening the past few days. If you haven’t been following the situation here’s a quick rundown.
Shortly after the ouster of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin deployed a number of troops and tanks to the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine. Crimea is an important strategic position for Russia, which is why they have a naval base there.
Whether or not the Crimeans want Russia’s involvement is up for debate. Some sources say they don’t, others say they do. It’s difficult to really get a sense of what is true and false in this conflict, since so much of the coverage is hinged on the attitudes of the citizens involved.
Both the pro-Russian and anti-Russian factions know this and will use their media outlets to paint a picture of the situation that is most favorable to them. Also, in tense situations like this, media outlets tend to be way more concerned with being the first to cover a story than they are with actually checking the factual accuracy behind it.
Remember, news channels are businesses too, so take everything you read about this situation with multiple grains of salt, and ask yourself who stands to gain from a particular story, both from an economic standpoint (ie. making money off breaking a big story), and a geopolitical standpoint (justifying certain military/political moves based on a story).
This murkiness of truth was evidenced perfectly today. Early this morning, a report from Russia’s Interfax agency came out that Alexander Vitko, commander of Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet (which has a base in Crimea), gave the following ultimatum to Ukrainian forces in Crimea:
“If they do not surrender before 5am (3am UK time) tomorrow, a real assault will be started against units and divisions of the armed forces across Crimea.”
Naturally, the internet freaked out. Within hours, this story was plastered all over the front pages of major news outlets across the world. A few hours later, however, the very same Interfax agency quoted Russia’s Defense Minister as saying the report about the ultimatum was “total nonsense”.
Then this evening, the EU followed with it’s own deadline, giving Russia 48 hours to withdraw their troops from Crimea. William Hague, Britain’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs was a part of that meeting. He said,
“In the absence of de-escalating steps by Russia, the EU shall decide about consequences for bilateral relations between the EU and Russia and will consider further targeted measures.”
It’s assumed that these “targeted measures” will mostly be harsh economic sanctions. Russia’s economy already took a huge hit today. The Moscow stock market fell almost 11%, costing Russian business more than $60 billion dollars (the Sochi Olympics, at $50 billion, were by far the most expensive Olympics ever).
The Russian currency, the ruble, also hit record lows today as its value dropped alongside the stock market.
The only thing that is certain in this situation is that nothing is certain. The more coverage there is on a situation this complicated, the easier it is for misinformation to become very real in its consequences; this is the biggest danger of sensationalized news coverage.
Also, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about politicians over the years it’s that their biggest fear is losing face. Too many times I’ve seen a President or Prime Minister make some arbitrary “red-line” or deadline to give off the impression that he or she is strong-willed or tough on [insert issue or country here].
While some may see this as a sign of strength, I see it as a sign of foolishness. These issues are usually extremely complex, and drawing a line basically says, “I don’t plan to take into consideration anything that happens after I make this speech.”
I think most of them don’t think that the line will ever be reached or crossed, but when it is, they find themselves trapped in a self-induced political corner. Either they don’t follow through and are lambasted as being weak (even if this choice makes much better sense), or they do follow through, usually taking a step that only escalates the situation further.
Real diplomacy is dying as geopolitics becomes more of a reality show than anything else. Politicians’ number one concern is their public image, and more often than not they make decisions that will maintain their image, even if they know the decision will have a negative effect in the grand scheme of things.
We can’t know exactly what’s going on in the streets of Russia, Ukraine and Crimea. But we can use what we know about politics and the media to put the situation in perspective.
Remember, there’s always more than one side to a story…and usually, there’s hundreds.
Earlier this morning (2/21/2014), Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders signed a deal agreeing to an early presidential poll by the end of this year.
The deal also creates a national unity government, reforms the elections process and makes constitutional changes limiting the power of the president.
Here are the specifics of the deal, via BBC News:
The 2004 constitution will be restored within 48 hours, and a national unity government will be formed within 10 days
Constitutional reform balancing the powers of president, government and parliament will be started immediately and completed by September
A presidential election will be held after the new constitution is adopted but no later than December 2014 and new electoral laws will be passed
An investigation into recent acts of violence will be conducted under joint monitoring from the authorities, the opposition and the Council of Europe
The authorities will not impose a state of emergency and both the authorities and the opposition will refrain from the use of violence
Illegal weapons will be handed over to interior ministry bodies
The deal comes after by far the bloodiest day of demonstrations on Thursday. The health ministry reported 77 dead and another 577 injured, but activists suggest that these numbers are probably much higher.
Despite the agreement, a few isolated skirmishes still broke out this morning. Many of the more extreme factions of the opposition still want President Yanukovych’s resignation.
Time will tell if these this agreement has done enough to begin the Ukraine’s healing process.
This is Independence Square in the center of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine…before and after the clashes that broke out yesterday. Click the image to enlarge.
Also, according to Ukrainian Security Service head, Aleksandr Yakimenko,
“over the last day more than 1,500 firearms and 100,000 rounds of ammunition have come into the hands of criminals.”
Yakimenko also mentioned,
“the escalation of violence and a massive use of firearms by the extremist groups. In many parts of the country, public authorities, military installations and depots with munitions are being seized. Court buildings are burning, the vandals are destroying private property and killing peaceful civilians.”
Yakimenko cited all of these factors as he announced that the government would be taking counter-terrorism measures against the rioters.
For more on these announcements, read the full story from RT here.